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Orlando Magic 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Orlando Magic are basically returning the same core that won 42 games last year and posted impressive improvement throughout the season. But can the Magic take another step forward? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Orlando Magic in this 2019-20 NBA season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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After earning the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs — all behind the strong play of Nikola Vucevic — the Orlando Magic should have the optimism to improve during the 2019-20 season. The Magic were able to maintain stability within their ranks entering this year, keeping a large part of their core roster from last year. The biggest move the Magic made was to re-sign their aforementioned All-Star center to a four-year, $100 million deal ensuring that he finishes his prime playing years in Orlando.

The Magic added some intriguing new players to their roster with Markelle Fultz and Al-Farouq Aminu, players that could be difference-makers throughout the campaign. Aminu is a hard-working low post role player that will provide efficient scoring while contributing on the defensive end. Fultz will, hopefully, come back from his various shoulder injuries and display the promise upon, at long last. The Magic lack depth at the point guard position and Fultz can challenge a 31-year-old D.J. Augustin for the starting position. Look for the Magic to earn another playoff appearance again this season, with the goal of earning a higher seed and winning their first series since 2010.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Magic are the second-best team in the Southeast Division, but that shouldn’t conjure up too much excitement in Orlando. The Magic still lack direction pertaining to their ongoing rebuild – which feels like it’s been underway for a decade. They are still in dire need of a point guard, but instead, they continue to collect big men. They should be active in the trade market this year in pursuing a point guard if one becomes available. And, in exchange, they have incredible depth upfront, but not enough playing time to go around. There is the recently re-signed Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba, as well as Jonathan Isaac and 2019 free agent-signee Al-Farouq Aminu.

And to make matters worse, the Magic went back to the well and drafted 6-foot-8 Chuma Okeke this past June. Even if they don’t make a move, the Magic will still end the year around .500 and probably qualify for the playoffs again. But they won’t progress far forward until they find a point guard around whom they can build.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

Steve Clifford’s first go-round as head coach of the Magic went better than some had expected. He got the best out of Nikola Vucevic in a career year, utilized the size of Jonathan Isaac on the defensive end and put Terrence Ross in the perfect situation to succeed as the leader of the second unit. Coming into this campaign, Orlando hadn’t lost any core pieces and actually gained a vastly underrated one in Al-Farouq Aminu. The conundrum will be finding ample playing time for the plethora of forwards on their roster while lacking a star point guard necessary to take the next step. It’s asking a lot out of D.J. Augustin to repeat what he did in one of his best seasons as a pro. And as far as Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon are concerned, the status quo may be good – but in this league, good isn’t good enough. Improvements must be made. With that said, they should be in playoff contention — but how far they can go remains to be seen.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Magic took a big step last season when they finished with a winning record and made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They even managed to steal Game 1 of the first round from the eventual champions in Toronto. Aaron Gordon has taken a big leap forward and has emerged as a borderline All-Star talent. The Magic also have some intriguing young players in Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and, yes, Markelle Fultz, whom they just picked up the contract option on. The real test for Orlando though is going to be to prove that last season wasn’t a one-year wonder and that this team is ready to be a perennial playoff contender. They even appeared to be the top team in their division until the HEAT acquired Jimmy Butler this summertime. Even though it’s the Eastern Conference, it might be a little difficult for them to replicate last season’s success. They’re going to need some real growth from their young guys to show they actually are headed in the right direction.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Magic may be the biggest “what if” team in the East. What if Markell Fultz can be the guy he was championed to be in the draft? What if Aaron Gordon takes the next step to All-Star status? What if Jonathan Issac can be the future star he looks to be? What if Mo Bamba can play valuable minutes all season? The great thing for Orlando is that if any of those things happen, then they should be better than the 42 wins they had last season. If two of them happen, they could be scary good; but if three happen, they could have home court. The downsize is the Magic still don’t have the franchise guy they coveted and desperately need to be considered a real contender. So if the “ifs” don’t pan out, the Magic do have lots of attractive trade chip if that star becomes available in trade. Overall, the Magic should be better. They found a solid identity down the stretch last year and have kept the core together, which should help them pick up where they left off.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

Orlando is a team I just can’t quite figure out, which may explain why the Magic will be one of the non-California teams I will be keeping a close eye on this upcoming season. Aaron Gordon keeps improving and could be set for a big season. I don’t know what to make of the collective power forward-center combination of Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu, Nikola Vucevic and Mohamed Bamba but if either Isaac or Bamba takes a leap, things could get very interesting. And that doesn’t even include what this team can become if Markelle Fultz overcomes the issues that have plagued him early in his chaotic career. Orlando didn’t make any out of the box or completely unexpected moves this offseason, but did what was necessary to move forward with what is becoming an increasingly competitive team in the Eastern Conference. The team still has a ways to go to become a true contender, but there are some interesting parts in Orlando and I would not be surprised if the Magic exceed expectations this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Magic remains the only team yet to sign their 2019 first-round draft pick as Chuma Okeke (16th) recovers from an ACL tear, reports are he may red-shirt in the G-League.

Orlando is close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold, with $129.7 million in guaranteed salary. Okeke would earn at least $2.1 million as a rookie (80 percent of scale, when the norm is 120 percent), which might explain the delay. Look for the Magic to explore a cost-cutting trade at some point throughout the season if they do end up above the tax line.

The team has a hard cap at $138.9 million, after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Al-Farouq Aminu. The team isn’t especially close to that limit but still may not use its Bi-Annual Exception of $3.6 million, with tax concerns. (edited)

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Nikola Vucevic

Nikola Vucevic earned his first NBA All-Star selection this past season as he averaged a career-high 20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. Vucevic has always shown strong offensive capabilities during his career but he took it to a new level during the 2018-19 season. Vucevic also dominated from behind the arc last year as his percentage on two-point attempts, 54.9 percent, was the highest of his career. He also converted on 84 total three-pointers, averaged 36.4 percent from three-point range and earned a 51.8 field goal percentage

As the centerpiece of Steve Clifford’s offense last season, Vucevic was the first option and often had pick and rolls or post-up plays go through him, but it was his improved passing that helped the team’s perimeter game. Vucevic averaged a career-high in assists last year with 3.8 per game.

Vucevic draws a lot of attention because of his ability to score on the block but he scored just 0.93 points per possession on post-ups. Despite being one of the most-frequent post players in the league, Vucevic may need to improve points per possession in the post to become a more dangerous threat. Regardless, Vucevic will continue to be the focal point of the offense and has shown tremendous growth in the position last year.

Top Defensive Player: Jonathan Isaac

During the 2017 NBA Draft, Jonathan Isaac was a solidified lottery pick after one season at Florida State University, where he was seen a project player. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and good lateral mobility, he has an incredible defensive upside. Isaac struggled through injuries in his rookie season but is back on track after a solid sophomore season that saw him improve defensively as the season progressed.

Up until the All-Star break, Isaac’s opponents shot 45.5 percent and 39 percent from three-point range. After the break, Isaac’s opponents shot just 42.8 percent from the field, 32 percent from behind the arc and held the third-highest defensive win-shares on the roster.

Despite Isaac’s slender frame, he has become a more versatile defender both on the perimeter and in the paint. Isaac finished 20th in the league in blocks last season and 17th in Block Percentage. Moreover, the talented rotation piece finished the season with a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.02 this season, well above average for his position. He was even more impressive in the limited sample size of his rookie season, ranking 14th among 83 qualified power forwards with a DRPM of 1.78.

Top Playmaker: Terrence Ross

Last season, the Magic — and their overall shooting prowesses — relied heavily on the first guy off the bench, Terrence Ross. His reputation for reckless shot selection hasn’t materialized during his time in Orlando. Ross attempted seven three-pointers per contest, even averaging a three-pointer every 3.5 minutes he was in the game. He made 38.3 percent of those attempts and they accounted for over 55 percent of his total shot distribution. No player has ever made as many threes in a season while playing exclusively in a bench role as he did — and he finished with 217 made three-pointers.

In 2019-20, he delivered the best and most consistent season of his career. He was a clear-cut candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, averaged 15.1 points per game and made 38.3 percent of his three-pointers. As part of the Magic bench, he was the guy they ran almost all their offense through.

Ross has always been considered streaky in his scoring and has not had reliable output. Ross’ ability has never been questioned, especially after scoring 51 points in a game during the 2014-2015 season. But Ross can go extremely cold when it matters, like, for example, when he averaged 13.2 points per game and shot just 37 percent from the field during last season’s playoffs. Look for Ross to work on consistency, an aspect he improved tremendously through the season last year.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

During the fourth quarter (or overtime), with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points — aka known as “Clutch Time” — the Magic have consistently relied on Evan Fournier. In the 2018-19 season, Fournier led the team with 32 points in 29 games played during these pressure-filled moments, converting on 11 out of his 20 shots and three of the nine attempts from three-point range.

Over the past three years, Fournier has scored 83 points in 74 clutch games, making 27 of 53 shots (50.9 percent) and 10 of 27 three-pointers (37 percent). Terrence Ross may be a secondary option for these clutch situations with 22 points on 7-for-20 shooting (35 percent), but he only hit three of his 12 three-pointers in those instances last season. Fournier has exhibited a knack for performing in these moments and will be the primary option going into the 2019-20 season.

Unheralded Player: D.J. Augustin

Acting as the only spark of offense in the playoffs last season, D.J. Augustin scored 19 of his 25 points in the first half of Game 1 in the first round against the Raptors, thus forcing head coach Nick Nurse to adjust his defense. By acquiring Markelle Fultz last season, the Magic have made it apparent that Augustin is only a short-term solution until they can develop the younger version to take over the offense.

Throughout the prior season, Augustin notched 11.7 points per game and 5.3 assists per game with a 56.6 percent effective field goal percentage. Augustin rarely turned the ball over and that composure helped the Magic through some tough games. By providing a steady hand and consistency, Augustine will be seen as a stabilizing force for the inexperienced team and an unheralded part of the Magic this season.

Best New Addition: Al-Farouq Aminu

With first-round pick Chuma Okeke expected to red-shirt the season in the G-League, Al-Farouq Aminu gets the nod as the best new addition.

Aminu has been seen as a wing that can shoot at an efficient level while defending against some of the best scorers in the league. Better, Aminu has shown versatility on the defensive side of the court by playing center and stretching the floor as a power forward on offense.

The Magic offered Aminu a three-year, $29.2 million deal despite having a “log-jam” at the power forward position. Aminu, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac all have incredible, athletic upsides that have not been fully developed and, in turn, make their skillsets slightly repetitive. Each are lengthy wings that lack some technical skills and shooting ability, but each provides value in different ways.

The Magic already had the eighth-most efficient defense in the league last year. so Aminu will only contribute to the strong defense as he has ranked as a top-15 power forward in RPM over the past four years. What Aminu provides in the present is security for the team, a way to shore up the defense and provide depth to the frontcourt that has talent but little consistency. Aminu has only missed 35 games over the past four years, making his durability and stability an insurance policy for Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba.

– David Weissman

WHO WE LIKE

1. Keeping The Gang Around

Orlando’s president of basketball operations, Jeff Weltman, repeatedly said the team wanted to bring back Vucevic. The Magic re-signed Vucevic to a four-year, $100 million deal even though they could have offered him as much as a five-year, $189.7 million contract. Vucevic also had other options as another franchise was willing to offer him a four-year, $140.6 million deal.

The Magic also signed Khem Birch to a two-year, $6 million contract to add to the depth behind Vucevic. When Bamba went down with a season-ending leg injury last year, Birch helped the Magic earn a defensive rating of 102.7 when he was on the court during the regular season, making him the perfect insurance policy should Vucevic or Bamba fall victim to injury. Best of all, Birch is currently considered the best defender of the three.

One primary focus the Orlando Magic honed on this summer was bringing Terrence Ross back. They accomplished their goal by signing Ross to a four-year, $54 million contract, thus continuing the great fit with the added bonus of his veteran leadership. Last season, Ross averaged 38.3 percent from deep and became the first player in league history to make over 200 three-pointers without ever starting a game.

2. The Young Core

The Magic fielded the youngest starting line up in the playoffs last seasons with six of the players in rotation under the age of 25. With Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz all considered possible starters for the upcoming season, the Magic are sending up signals that their focus is on the future. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Magic have one of the most dynamic young cores in the league.

Using the CARMELO projection system and WAR figure, each of which evaluates a multi-season future forecast based on a player’s history and determines the number of wins above replacement over the next five seasons for every player on each team’s roster, the Orlando Magic rank 11th-best in the league. Aaron Gordon ranked highest with a 16.2 rating, but the rest of the young core looks more unpredictable, despite the hope that they will develop into starters on a playoff team.

Issac and Gordon have proven to be capable of starting on the Magic, but have not shown the dominance and game-changing play that made them both lottery picks. Fultz and Bamba have not played a lot, but are looking for a fresh start this season.

3. Magic Players In The FIBA Basketball World Cup

With the closing of 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, the United States disappointed fans by finishing in seventh place — theIR worst showing in Team USA history. That is due, in part, to the newfound distribution of basketball talent at the global level. The Magic saw four players represent their national teams, with some of them even using their NBA experience to help bring down Team USA.

Evan Fournier captured his third bronze medal with the French national team, by defeating Australia in the third-place game. The 26-year-old averaged 19.8 points per game throughout the tournament, fourth-best among current NBA players. Fournier also helped France break the Team USA’s streak of 58 straight wins in international tournaments and was named to FIBA’s All-Tournament team.

Nikola Vucevic represented Montenegro in his first-ever FIBA World Cup. Vucevic was solid for his country, despite only winning one of the five games during the competition, and averaged 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.

Nigeria finished the 2019 FIBA World Cup as the highest-ranking African team and will go onto play in its third consecutive Olympics. Al-Farouq Aminu was arguably Nigeria’s most-stifling defender and was often his team’s secondary or tertiary playmaker. Despite only scoring 8.2 points per game, his experience in the NBA translated to his play in the tournament, thus helping Nigeria win three of five games.

With a large amount of their talented Canadians sitting out the FIBA World Cup, Khem Birch was able to have a prominent role with the team. Birch averaged 11.6 points on nearly 58 percent shooting from the field and seven rebounds per game. Despite his performance, however, Canada was not able to make it out of the first round.

It is clear that the Magic provided the world with a bevy of talent, especially Fournier. After the impressive showings that these players had during the FIBA World Cup, the Magic will hope that their international players continue to grow heading into the 2019-20 season.

4. Solidifying The Center Position

The whole offseason for the Orlando Magic revolved around Nikola Vucevic. The Magic had two options this offseason: (1) resign Vucevic, focus on re-signing Terrence Ross and retaining the same core of their roster; or (2) let Vucevic walk, leaving the team to find a way to fill the center position, but staying competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Magic, rightfully, went with option one.

Despite his overwhelming potential, Bamba still has a lot of growing to do, especially adding weight and developing strength. Experience will come with time, but taking the starting role from Vucevic will be a difficult task. After signing Vucevic to a four-year deal, it is clear that Orlando feels as Bamba’s development will take a few years. The team will look to Bamba to become a future starter but, for now, there is no pressure for him to be that guy.

– David Weissman

STRENGTHS

With the acquisition of Al-Farouq Aminu and the drafting of Chuma Okeke, many Magic fans felt confused by the number of frontcourt players that the team currently has on the roster. Pundits call the power forward situation a “log-jam,” but that take appears overblown.

Aminu will be the perimeter player with defensive versatility, similar to the sets that both Gordon and Isaac possesses. With Okeke set to spend all season in the G League, that rotation becomes a little bit leaner. Despite the notion that there may be a “log-jam,” the Magic can keep a versatile defender at power forward at all times while maintaining the ability to switch up to the small forward position.

The Magic played that way most of the year, with Isaac playing small forward and Gordon at power forward. That pairing raised some questions before the season began, but when both shared the floor last year, the Magic had a +1.7 net rating (108.3 offensive rating and 106.6 defensive rating).

– David Weissman

WEAKNESSES

During the playoffs, the Magic tried to work through Nikola Vucevic — but the hard-nosed Raptors were able to swarm the center, close off his usual passing lanes and stymied his flow on offense. Then and there, the team’s biggest weakness was apparent. The Magic had no one who could break the Raptors’ defense down off the dribble.

The Orlando Magic have lacked that type of talent since the departure of Victor Oladipo, but they may look to Markelle Fultz to fill that role. Despite past injuries, he has already recorded a triple-double and is still an effective scorer off the dribble. Gordon and Isaac both have shown glimpses of perimeter penetration skill and can be alternatives to Fultz this season. Because the Magic lack perimeter playmaking last year, the team’s shooting was also negatively impacted.

Furthermore, Clifford must create an offense to cover up their shooting woes at the forward position. Shooting is still a major flaw for all three players there as Aminu shot 34.3 percent from beyond the arc last year, Isaac went for 32.3 percent and Gordon made just 34.9 percent.

Overall, the Magic shot 35.6 percent from beyond the arc, the 11th-best mark in the league last season, so there are signs of life there.

-David Weissman

THE BURNING QUESTION

What will Markelle Fultz become this year?

D.J. Augustin was a solid point guard for the Magic last year and will continue to provide stability as, ideally, the Fultz Era begins in earnest. As a steady veteran, Augustin was able to pace the team and provide perimeter offense creation. He was effective getting the team into its sets and working the pick and roll with Nikola Vucevic. He was a game manager, playing over 28 minutes a game with only 1.6 turnovers.

The Magic once had a strong playmaker with Victor Olidipo but, unfortunately for the Magic, he became an All-Star only after he left town. The Magic then acquired Elfrid Payton to fill Olidipo’s offensive production, but he did not live up to expectations. During this transition in point guards, the Magic relied on Augustin to maintain the offense, while also never considering him as a long-term solution.

Fultz now has the NBA world thinking that he may become the biggest bust since Anthony Bennett was drafted No. 1 overall in 2013. Fultz will be with the Magic for at least two seasons as they picked up his fourth-year option for the 2020-2021 season.

Even in a draft that produced Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma, Fultz was seen as a tremendous athlete whose speed is rare even by NBA standards. The mere chance to add that kind of talent, even in a compromised state, was enough for the Magic to take on the financial risk. Fultz has played only 33 NBA games in two years for reasons that aren’t clear. He was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last season, but that is a vague diagnosis that is made largely through the process of elimination. Many have attributed his struggles to the yips, a situation that the Magic can help resolve.

But if Fultz is even half of what he came advertised as, Orlando could take their biggest step as a budding franchise yet.

-David Weissman

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NBA

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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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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