With 4.2 seconds left in a tied Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Marc Gasol inbounded the ball to Kawhi Leonard. Leonard caught the ball at the top key and was promptly met by Ben Simmons, who shadowed Leonard as he made a move to his right and headed toward the wing. When Leonard arrived at the wing, Joel Embiid greeted him and took over the defensive responsibility.
Embiid mirrored Leonard as he made a beeline towards the corner, keeping the star forward between himself and the basket. When Leonard realized he would be unable to turn and get closer to the rim, he hit the brakes and squared his shoulders to the basket. Embiid, realizing what was about to happen, came to a jump stop as well and made sure to position himself to not commit a foul. As Leonard rose to fire the last shot of regulation, Embiid rose with him and extended every inch of his 7-foot-2 frame to contest.
The ball hit the front of the rim and went straight up, every set of eyes in the arena now fixated on its trajectory. It hit the same side of the rim again, then the other side of the rim twice for good measure, before dropping through the net. The Philadelphia 76ers season was over.
Embiid’s hands went to his head, his expression resting somewhere between total disbelief and total deflation. The most important game of his career up to this point had ended in crushing defeat.
About a month later, the Raptors won the NBA title, and the Sixers went into the offseason with hope. They had pushed the eventual champions to the brink and came closer to defeating them than any other team. Their starting lineup post-Tobias Harris trade was the best in the league by net rating. If they could bring everyone back, perhaps an upgrade at backup center would be all that is needed to push them over the top.
This hope of a re-do swiftly vanished when JJ Redick accepted a two-year deal in New Orleans, and Jimmy Butler made it known that he would like to play in Miami. General manager Elton Brand had a Plan B, however, as he was able to orchestrate a sign-and-trade with the HEAT, receiving Josh Richardson as consolation for the Butler departure. The Sixers were able to re-sign Tobias Harris to a five-year deal and used most of their remaining cap space to sign veteran Al Horford to a four-year contract.
A new starting lineup was set, and the team enters the 2019-20 season still projected to compete for a championship. This year, an even bigger microscope will be on the homegrown stars – Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Their improvement or lack thereof could determine the team’s fate.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The 76ers had a productive offseason. Jimmy Butler fled Philadelphia for Miami, but he was replaced by Al Horford. And while many might look at the addition of Horford as redundant, it is unarguable that he’s a supremely skilled, versatile and super high-IQ player. Unfortunately for the 76ers, JJ Redick also left Philly, but they added Josh Richardson in the sign-and-trade that sent Butler to the HEAT. Speaking of Richardson, he projects to be the 76ers shortest starting player at 6-foot-6. With Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Horford and Joel Embiid, the 76ers project to be among the best rebounding teams in basketball. And they also feature a good deal of depth with Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, James Ennis III, Kyle O’Quinn and rookie Matisse Thybulle. And with Kawhi Leonard heading to the Clippers, the Eastern Conference has become less competitive at its top – giving the 76ers a clear path to the Atlantic Division crown…and maybe more.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Drew Maresca
Seems like it was just yesterday that we were “Trusting The Process” and watching the Sixers win 15 games a season. Gone are those days, however, and now The Process has led to having a true NBA Finals contending team. Yeah, they may have lost Jimmy Butler, but they re-signed Tobias Harris and added some quality players. Josh Richardson came over in the Butler sign-and-trade. They were one of the biggest winners in free agency with Al Horford. Kyle O’Quinn and Trey Burke provide veteran depth. But if the Sixers are to really achieve their goal of making it to the NBA Finals, that’s all going to depend upon the improvement of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Process gifted the Sixers their two franchise building blocks; now it’s time for them to continue to grow and prove that they’re capable of leading the Sixers to the promised land. A conference finals appearance at least should be the goal in the City of Brotherly Love.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– David Yapkowitz
There’s been a seismic shift in power in the Atlantic Division. No longer do the defending champion Raptors have their ace, nor do the Celtics have two All-Star pieces. The Nets obviously hit the jackpot with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, but the latter is out for the foreseeable future. The Sixers have a chance to really make a jump this season. While they also lost a key veteran and All-Star, they’ve retooled. Josh Richardson and Al Horford are being added to the mix of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. It’s a change in direction with more length on the defensive end, while also bringing a chance to young upstarts like Zhaire Smith, Shake Milton and rookie Matisse Thybulle off the bench. How the rotations will shake out remains to be seen. The talent speaks for itself, though, and it should lead to Philadelphia’s first division title since the 2000-01 campaign.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
The 76ers looked to be loaded and way more balanced than a season ago. Under general manager Elton Brand, the Sixers spent a ton of money this summer, but locked into a core that should not only be good enough to win the division, but if healthy, contend for the Eastern Conference crown. Now here is the pessimistic point of view: Are the 76ers mentally tough enough and mature enough to handle the next level? They say you have to learn how to win in the postseason of the NBA, how to string together a process to endure the unrelenting pressure of the big stage. The 76ers young stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have come up short two years in a row. Al Horford should help in this department, but the 76ers look like a team poised to win a ton of regular-season games, it’s the postseason that still haunts the franchise.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
I cannot think of another team that is quite as unique at the Philadelphia 76ers. With the addition of Al Horford, this team is now absolutely massive. With starting lineup of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid, the 76ers have the size and physicality to match up with any team and be a menace defensively. Brett Brown may have one of the tougher jobs of any head coach this season as he will have to figure out how to get these players to fit well with one another and will have to experiment with his lineups to optimize the talent he has available to him. The loss of Jimmy Butler stings a little bit, especially in crunch time situations, but that leaves room for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris to stepup and take more responsibility in high-pressure situations. There are some reasons to be concerned about how this team will play together but I am excited to see how Coach Brown manages his team throughout the season.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Sixers went under the salary cap to sign Al Horford. They also used their Room Exception on Mike Scott, leaving the franchise with just the minimum to offer if they want to add to the roster. Assuming Trey Burke makes the team, Philadelphia will have a full 15 and a payroll near but under the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold.
The team needs to decide on Zhaire Smith’s rookie-scale option before November. Beyond this season, the 76ers are well over next year’s projected $116 million salary cap (likely a taxpayer). If the roster performs successfully this season, the team may be willing to foot that bill, but if the end result is unfavorable, Philadelphia could change course and look to move some players.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Best Offensive Player: Joel Embiid
Since he entered the league, Joel Embiid has been the highest-usage center in the NBA. The Sixers’ offense will once again be powered by the Cameroonian behemoth, and his efficiency -despite the large load he’s been asked to carry – makes him the team’s first and best offensive option.
The Sixers’ offense scored about seven more points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court than with him off last season, per Cleaning The Glass. The 7-foot-2 center attracts attention from multiple defenders and acts as a safety valve if the Sixers can’t find another opening for a basket.
Embiid was third in the league in post ups last season, behind only LaMarcus Aldridge and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Sixers scored 1.05 points per possession on those post ups, which was the highest mark in the league among players with at least three post-ups per game, per NBA.com.
Joel Embiid’s ability to pass out of double teams and his propensity for turnovers have been his most glaring flaws offensively. His turnover percentage has decreased steadily since his rookie year, and him continuing that trend will be a key subplot for the Sixers’ offense.
Embiid makes up for his turnover issues with an uncanny ability to draw fouls. He led the league in both personal foul percentage and shooting foul percentage out of post ups last season, per NBA.com. His large frame and nimble feet make him nearly impossible to guard without fouling for the league’s less defensively-inclined centers.
If Embiid continues to work on his fluidity with his moves and his passing out of double teams, he could be impossible to guard for the rest of the league as well.
Best Defensive Player: Joel Embiid
Embiid’s impact may be even more pronounced defensively, where he represents the difference between the Sixers being elite or dreadful on that end. His impressive foot speed for his size allows him to switch onto smaller players when necessary, and his high defensive IQ has him reading the opponent and knowing where to help at a moment’s notice. These tools combined make him one of the league’s premier defenders, earning All-Defensive second team honors in each of the last two seasons.
Not only does Embiid limit his opponent’s efficiency, he also limits their second chances. His defensive rebounding rate rose to 28.6 percent last season, putting him in the 95th percentile for his position, per Cleaning The Glass.
The Sixers’ defense experienced a strange decline last season compared to the 2017-18 campaign. This can be attributed partially to a scheme change that took some adjustment and constant roster turnover. With a new lineup now full of defensive pedigree, Embiid’s impact could be even more devastating.
Best Playmaker: Ben Simmons
With Jimmy Butler suiting up in Miami, the playmaking duties for this Sixers team will rely more than ever on the capable hands of Ben Simmons. The 6-foot-10 point guard is a virtuoso passer, and his assist percentage has been near the top of the league in each of his first two seasons.
Simmons is most effective in transition, where he can use his elite speed to create fastbreak opportunities and find teammates who have either spotted up or filled the lane for wide open looks. One of Simmons’ patented moves is to grab a rebound, race the defense to the other end before stopping abruptly at the foul line. Here, he creates a pseudo-post up where his teammates cut and move around him in transition. The ensuing confusion usually leads to a wide open three or layup for the Sixers.
Simmons’ playmaking ability is, of course, limited in the half court, and many question how much value he can even provide in a set play when the defense does not have to respect him outside of 10 feet. While this is certainly an issue, Simmons still is adept at finding cutters out of the post and can be weaponized as a screener a la Draymond Green in Golden State.
Best Clutch Player: Al Horford
Over the last few seasons, Al Horford has been one of the more underrated clutch players in the NBA. While he doesn’t always take the clutch shots for his team – and therefore has a low volume on these attempts – his efficiency in the clutch has been consistently near the top of the league.
Just last season, Al Horford shot 64 percent from the field in clutch minutes, per NBA.com. He also shot 50 percent from three in clutch minutes, albeit on a very low number of attempts.
Like his role with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford could fill in as a second option for the Sixers late in games when defenses are focused on Embiid. It’s easy to picture a scenario where Horford is left open after setting a screen or simply left alone outside the three-point line. Horford has shown ability to knock down those looks when it matters.
The Unheralded Player: Tobias Harris
After joining the Sixers last season, Tobias Harris was primarily used as a floor spacer and occasional post-up threat in a stacked Sixers lineup. The main options on offense, particularly in the playoffs, were Jimmy Butler pick-and-rolls and JJ Redick-Joel Embiid dribble handoffs. Due to the lack of touches, Harris has seemingly gone under the radar as a potential offensive centerpiece this season.
Before the trade to Philadelphia, Harris was the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. He regularly ran the pick-and-roll and showed an ability to score in isolation. Now, with Redick and Butler off to different teams, Harris could once again flash his full skill set.
Harris possesses a smooth pull-up jumper and is able to get where he wants coming off a screen to create a basket. Expect Harris to take on a larger offensive role this season, and if he can improve his passing, he could be a primary option when the Sixers need a basket.
Best New Addition: Al Horford
By acquiring Al Horford this offseason, the Sixers accomplished two things. First, they found a floor-spacing power forward that doubles as a very capable defender to slot in next to Embiid. Second, they brought in someone who can also fill in as a backup center when Embiid is on the bench or taking the night off.
Last postseason, the Sixers’ center rotation was exposed behind Embiid. Against the Raptors, the Sixers plus-minus while Embiid was on the court compared to him off was astronomical. Now, Horford will provide strong center play while Embiid is off the court, and his ability to stretch the floor should fit in perfectly with Ben Simmons.
Horford also should be a perfect fit sharing the court with Embiid and could help this group reach a new level defensively. Last season, the Celtics had a defensive rating of 99.2 when Horford was lined up next to Aron Baynes as a power forward. This placed in the 99th percentile among all NBA lineups, per Cleaning The Glass.
Horford also brings intangibles and a valuable locker room presence. His quiet demeanor should be the perfect foil to Joel Embiid’s bravado. If his production stays consistent, the on-court fit will be ideal as well.
– Quinn Davis
WHO WE LIKE
1. Matisse Thybulle
The Sixers traded up to nab the forward from Washington in this year’s draft, and his defensive potential has many intrigued. Thybulle has an impressive seven-foot wingspan on a 6-foot-5 frame, which allowed him to be a pest in the passing lanes in college.
Thybulle set a school record at Washington with 101 steals in a single season and was subsequently named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts. In a video taken in the Sixers’ facilities of Matisse Thybulle meeting Brett Brown, the coach looked at his new player and said tersely: “You guard. You’re good people.” That about sums it up.
2. Mike Scott
Scott came to Philadelphia as a part of the Tobias Harris trade in February and has endeared himself to the Sixers faithful ever since. From a basketball standpoint, Scott is a valuable bench piece, as he is around a 40 percent three-point shooter who can adequately guard threes and fours. He notably hit a huge three from the corner in Game 4 of the Sixers’ playoff matchup against the Nets, giving the team a 3-1 lead and control of the series.
Scott has also never shied away from a scuffle, whether it be on the court or in the parking lot of an Eagles game. His fire and energy can potentially galvanize a contending team that may find themselves in a rut during the regular season drudgery.
3. Ime Udoka
After spending seven years as an assistant under Greg Popovich in San Antonio, the Sixers hired Udoka to be Brett Brown’s right-hand man and defensive coordinator. Udoka brings strong experience from a Spurs team that has been consistently solid defensively outside of a decline last season.
Last season, the Sixers installed a new defensive scheme under assistant coach Billy Lange. The scheme had mixed results and certainly played a role in their defensive downturn. With the new look roster, Udoka will have plenty of tools to use to build this defense back up to an elite outfit.
4. Josh Richardson
Coming over from Miami in the Butler sign-and-trade, Richardson will bring feisty perimeter defense, solid three-point shooting and even some playmaking potential to the Sixers’ starting lineup.
Last season, Richardson spent a lot of time handling the ball for a depleted HEAT team and gained valuable reps running dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls. He will not be asked to do as much in Philadelphia, but with his full focus on the defensive end, and his ability to hit open threes, he could be a huge part of the team’s success.
The fifth-year guard is also still young and improving and is under contract for the next two seasons at only 10 million dollars per year.
– Quinn Davis
The Sixers will have one of, if not the biggest, starting five in the league next season. Josh Richardson will be the shortest among them, standing at 6-foot-6. With all of this size, the team certainly projects to be strong on the glass. They were already strong on this front last season, finishing fourth in the league in total rebounding percentage, per NBA.com.
If the whole equals or exceeds the sum of its parts, the Sixers also project to be an elite defensive team. As mentioned briefly above, both Horford and Richardson are strong defenders, and teams have typically defended very well with Horford playing power forward. With those two in fold, the lineup now boasts four elite defenders who should combine to make for a frightening unit.
– Quinn Davis
While the new starting five is rife with defensive potential, there is some reasonable concern with the lack of offensive shot creation. Jimmy Butler was of particular import in the 2019 playoffs, where he acted as the team’s point guard down the stretch against Toronto.
The Sixers will need internal improvement from Ben Simmons, as well as help from Richardson and Harris to create shots around the perimeter this season. The Sixers’ offense may stagnate when they play more adept defenses, and this issue could be a thorn in the team’s side in the 2020 postseason.
– Quinn Davis
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Ben Simmons develop/use his jump shot?
Most discussions about the Sixers’ championship viability for this season and beyond hinge on whether their star point guard can turn himself into an average or even slightly below-average shooter. For two straight playoff runs, the fatal flaw on the otherwise inimitable Simmons has stuck out like a sore thumb, leaving fans and pundits to go as far as thinking he should be traded.
If Simmons was playing for a different team, maybe this wouldn’t be as dire of an issue. There are teams in the league that could surround him with four other shooters, and perhaps unleash his true potential as 6-foot-10 version of Jason Kidd. He will not have that liberty if he shares the court with Joel Embiid. The superstar center commands touches in the post and requires space to operate, space which Simmons cannot currently provide.
There are multiple schools of thought on Simmons’ shooting woes. Some think he doesn’t work hard enough at it, and others think he is shooting with the wrong hand. Some think the form is less of the concern and it is just an issue of finding confidence and a willingness to let it fly. Wherever you fall, it is certainly agreed upon that Simmons’ ceiling is significantly lowered without the development of his outside shooting.
The quandary of Simmons jump shot can you lead down a path to more unanswerable questions. If Simmons made a similar percentage of mid-range shots as say, Russell Westbrook did last season, would this be a good thing for the Sixers’ offense? Is simply taking the shots really going to be enough open things up,? And relatedly, is taking these shots despite the likely inefficiency a necessary evil to build the foundation for future years?
While it remains to be seen how much Simmons can improve in one offseason, hope for Sixers fans did arrive this summer in the form of minute-long, meticulously edited footage from pickup games featuring the guard taking and making stepbacks, fadeaways and even pull-up threes. Whether or not this footage translates from the LA Fitness gym to an NBA arena could define this Sixers season and beyond.
– Quinn Davis
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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