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Phoenix Suns 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

After an off-season that featured the top overall pick, a new coaching staff and litany of roster moves the Phoenix Suns look to be one of the rising young teams in the West, Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the Phoenix Suns.

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The Phoenix Suns had quite the offseason, to say the least. After winning just 21 games last season, the Suns landed the top overall pick in this year’s draft and selected Deandre Ayton. Phoenix also named Igor Kokoškov as the team’s new head coach, made a draft day trade for Mikal Bridges (Zhaire Smith (16th pick) and a Miami HEAT 2021 first-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers for the rights to Bridges (10th pick)), drafted Elie Okobo 31st overall, signed veteran forward Trevor Ariza to a one-year, $15 million contract, came to terms with Devin Booker on a five-year, $158 million extension, traded Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight to the Houston Rockets for De’Anthony Melton and Ryan Anderson, traded Jared Dudley and a protected 2021 second-rounder to the Brooklyn Nets for Darrell Arthur and traded $1 million to the 76ers for Richaun Holmes. Notable players not returning from last season’s roster include Alex Len, Elfrid Payton and Tyler Ulis, as well as the aforementioned Chriss, Knight and Dudley.

The Suns were clearly one of the busier teams this offseason, but it’s not exactly clear that all of their activity fit within a well-reasoned vision of the future. With the Western Conference as talented and deep as ever, Phoenix could have invested all of its resources in young talent with an eye toward the future when some of the Western Conference powerhouse teams are on the downswing. Instead, the front office bolstered its young core while also pursuing veteran talent to compete this upcoming season. Only time will tell whether Phoenix’s offseason strategy will prove successful both in the short and long term.

With all of this in mind, let’s take an early look at what will be in store for Phoenix this upcoming season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Phoenix hasn’t won more than 24 games in a single season since the 2014-15 campaign, so it’s no wonder the team is aching to become competitive again. While I am not sure bringing in Trevor Ariza on a one-year, $15 million contract makes a ton of sense, I do think he can be a good mentor for younger forwards like Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges and T.J. Warren. I also like that Phoenix overpaid Ariza on a one-year deal rather than committing to him for several season at a lower annual rate.

Bringing in De’Anthony Melton in the trade for Anderson is a nice addition. As of now, Phoenix projects to enter the season without a clear option at the starting point guard position. Booker could slide into that role but it’s not certain he could handle the lead guard position consistently the way James Harden and other non-traditional point guards have in the past. I would not be surprised to see Phoenix aggressively pursue a more established point guard while looking to Melton and Okobo to develop into starting-quality point guards in the near future.

Big picture: Phoenix did well long-term in adding young talent in Ayton, Bridges, Okobo and Melton but may regret investing so much of its resources into trying to be competitive this season in the stacked Western Conference.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

If the goal was to take a step forward, then mission accomplished for Phoenix, I guess? The Suns certainly kept themselves busy since their season ended, adding plenty of dependable and/or promising wings and bigs. The one snag is that the overabundance of wings and bigs on the roster came at the expense of their guard depth. Phoenix doesn’t have many guards to complement Devin Booker with all they lost. If the roster stands as is, then the Suns may rely on positionless basketball, which could make them more fun to watch. Improvement is on the horizon, but for now, its baby steps for the Suns.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Matt John

Even in a loaded Western Conference, it seems the Suns are looking to become a bit more relevant on the court for the first time in several years. Signing a veteran like Trevor Ariza on a big one-year deal, then making a move for Ryan Anderson from Houston to round out a sneakily strong group of shooters, signaled aspirations of at least something more than what we’ve seen over the last few seasons. Moving Brandon Knight out in that same Anderson deal would seem to be an indication that the Suns are leaning toward putting the ball in Devin Booker’s hands as the lead handler from the get-go, and Phoenix will be banking on some new life injected into their youth by new head coach Igor Kokoskov – Booker first and foremost. If Kokoskov can continue to hone his young star’s already-potent offensive game while perhaps refining his play on the defensive side, the Suns will have the foundational piece they’ve committed gigantic money to for the next several years. Whether they’re able to threaten for a playoff spot this year or not, it’s clear the Suns are looking to turn the culture around moving forward.

4th Place – Pacific Division

-Ben Dowsett

For the first time in three years, it feels like the Suns are going to create an identity. There is a youth movement across the board from the players all the way to the coaching staff. It’s not going to all come together in the first year under Igor Kokoskov, but Devin Booker’s on the rise and Josh Jackson is coming into his own. On top of that, having top overall pick Deandre Ayton and fellow first-rounder Mikal Bridges learning under wily veterans like Tyson Chandler and Trevor Ariza should kickstart things in the desert.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

If the Phoenix Suns were in any other division, it would be easier to see them climbing out of the basement into the playoff discussion, but in the Pacific, they are still the basement, but with a much better forward-looking future. The draft yielded a ton. The new coaching staff should install a fun brand of basketball and the Suns’ future should be on full display every night. They may not win more than 25-30 games, but they look to be in a much better place than they were this time last season.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Devin Booker

At age-21, Booker already has the complete package on offense. He is a pure shooter who can knock down shots off the dribble, out of catch-and-shoot situations and while flying off of screens. Booker is also a solid playmaker and effective operator out of the pick-and-roll. He doesn’t have elite athleticism but he has a nice feel for the game and uses his change of pace to create space and attack the rim effectively. Coach Kokoškov is sure to build his offense around Booker and put his young star guard in a position to fully utilize his dynamic offensive skill set. Phoenix’s offense will go as Booker goes, especially until the team acquires an established starter at point guard.

Also, in case there is any doubt about Booker’s offensive talent, let’s not forget he scored 70 points against the Celtics in Boston on March 24, 2017.

Last season, Booker averaged 24.9 points and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 43.2 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three-point range.

Top Defensive Player: Trevor Ariza

Let’s be clear, Ariza is not the defensive player he was earlier in his career. However, at age-33, Ariza is still an effective defender on the wing and against bigger forwards in the post. Additionally, Ariza comes to Phoenix after being part of Houston’s elite defense, which ranked sixth overall last season in defensive rating. Ariza was a key part of Houston’s switch-heavy schemes, which managed to slow down the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals and put Houston in striking distance of the NBA Finals.

Ariza isn’t going to lockdown opposing team’s star guards and forwards on a nightly basis, but he will hold his own and work within the team’s defensive schemes. Ariza could also act as a mentor to Phoenix’s young forwards, including Warren, Jackson and Bridges and could help them develop good habits and improve as defenders as well.

Top Playmaker: Devin Booker

Without a starting caliber point guard currently on the roster, Booker takes the nod as the team’s best playmaker. Booker has good vision, is an underrated passer and if often methodical while probing opposing defenses. His offensive abilities often cause defenses to scheme towards stopping him from scoring as a top priority, which can lead to easy scoring opportunities for his teammates. With more talent around him this season, Booker needs to make a more concerted effort to be a consistent playmaker and facilitator for his teammates. If he manages to do so, his offensive impact will hit another level, even if his per game scoring average takes a slight dip from last season.

Top Clutch Player: Devin Booker

In year’s past, players like Eric Bledsoe or Goran Dragic could have made a claim as being Phoenix’s top clutch player. However, Booker has hit some big time shots in clutch situations over his young NBA career and is the most capable scorer and playmaker Phoenix has at this point. Booker hasn’t always been the most efficient scorer in clutch situations, but there is little doubt that he is the most capable offensive player Phoenix has and the person who should have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line.

The Unheralded Player: De’Anthony Melton

When the Suns traded Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, most of the attention fell on everyone but Melton. Melton is a talented combo guard who was sidelined all of last season at USC because of a federal investigation into the NCAA. Had Melton not been sidelined, he would have had more of an opportunity to show NBA teams that he was arguably worthy of a first-round pick in this year’s draft. Instead, Melton dropped on draft night and was selected 46th overall by the Houston Rockets.

Melton participated in the Las Vegas Summer League with the Rockets and had some standout performances. At Summer League, Melton averaged 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and four assists and demonstrated a nice feel for the pace and tempo of the game.

Melton will compete with Elie Okobo, Shaquille Harrison and Isaiah Canaan for playing time at the point guard position.

Best New Addition: Deandre Ayton

There are some skeptics who don’t believe Ayton has the skill set or drive to be a star player at the NBA level. However, the majority of scouts and other player evaluators had Ayton as the consensus top pick in this year’s draft – a conclusion Phoenix clearly agreed with.

Ayton stands at 7-foot-0 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He has a big, muscular frame but still has plenty of room to continue developing his body. Ayton is also extremely athletic, coordinated and nimble for a player his size. If Ayton can become a more consistent weak side defender, improve his consistency in making the correct defensive rotations and improve on his rebounding fundamentals, he could possibly become a Rudy Gobert level defensive anchor someday. No one should expect Ayton to reach Gobert’s level but it’s a possibility and that alone was reason enough to take him with the first overall pick.

Ayton also has a surprisingly diverse offensive skill set but he isn’t great at any particular thing yet on that end of the court. However, Ayton is a big-time threat as a rim-roller and should get plenty of opportunities to finish lobs from teammates over the course of the season.

Ayton may not be ready to contribute at a high level in his rookie season, but he has star potential and that alone makes him the team’s best new addition.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Devin Booker

For all of the reasons we have already discussed above.

2. Deandre Ayton

In Ayton, Phoenix finally has a second young prospect with star potential. There is no guarantee that Ayton ever becomes anything more than a starting quality center but between his physical gifts and improving skill set, it’s possible he could become an All-Star caliber player in the near future. Additionally, if Ayton reaches his defensive potential, he could become the defensive anchor that Phoenix needs as Tyson Chandler is no longer the defensive ace he once was and is only under contract for this season.

After seemingly missing the mark by using top picks on big men like Alex Len, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, Phoenix is hoping that Ayton’s game will translate to the modern NBA. If it does, Ayton could become part of a formidable duo with Booker.

3. Mikal Bridges

Phoenix traded a promising player in Zhaire Smith and a valuable Miami 2021 first-round pick for Bridges, which is a somewhat steep price to pay. But it’s not hard to understand why Phoenix was willing to pay this price for Bridges. He is a prototypical 3-and-D prospect with the potential to develop into a capable playmaker. When I think about Bridges, I think of Kris Middleton. I don’t know whether Bridges will ever develop into the kind of player Middleton has become, but he has deep range on his jumper, is a confident shooter and looked comfortable getting his shot off quickly at the Las Vegas Summer League.

Depending on how Bridges and Smith develop over the next few seasons and what becomes of that Miami draft pick, Phoenix may come to regret making this deal. But Bridges is a quality prospect that should make a lasting impact in Phoenix.

4. T.J. Warren

Warren is now entering his fifth NBA season and while he has shown some flashes of his unique offensive skills, he has yet to establish himself as a reliable starter at the forward position. Injuries have limited Warren, who has never played in more than 66 games in a season. However, this could be the year where Warren starts to fully and consistently utilize all of his offensive skills, including his ability to score off the dribble, in the midrange and at the rim. Warren is a poor shooter from three-point range but his brand of offense keeps opponents off balance, making him a tough matchup for many players who are used to running players off the three-point line and trailing them to the rim rather than guarding them in the midrange and in the post.

STRENGTHS

Young talent. The Suns feature one of the better young cores in the NBA and are now guided by a promising head coach in Igor Kokoškov. While the Suns brought in Ariza and Anderson to add veteran experience and depth to the roster, it’s unlikely they alone will be able to help the Suns maintain pace in the Western Conference playoff picture this season. However, if Ariza, Anderson and Chandler can help mentor the younger players and build a strong team culture, this team could conceivably outperform expectations. But even in the best case scenario, the playoffs don’t seem like a realistic goal for Phoenix this season considering how many young players the team is relying on to play heavy minutes and how stacked the Western Conference is.

If the Suns see meaningful development from their young core players, this season should be seen as a success even if Phoenix misses the postseason.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Point guard. As previously discussed, the Suns are projected to enter the upcoming season without an established starter at point guard. Booker could slide into the lead guard position but there is no guarantee he is ready to take on that taxing role. Phoenix has promising prospects in Okobo and Melton, but neither player is likely ready to take on the starting position and perform at a league average level consistently. Phoenix is rumored to be seeking out a quality point guard but until such a deal has been agreed to and finalized, point guard play is likely going to be an area of concern for the Suns.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Phoenix regret investing significant resources into veterans like Trevor Ariza?

Phoenix wasn’t a team that was one or two quality veterans away from becoming a contender, which is why some people in and around the league have questioned the wisdom of Phoenix’s signing of Ariza and trade for Anderson. Notably, Ariza’s contract is only for this season and Anderson’s deal will become more movable after this season. Additionally, Phoenix could flip either player for assets midseason if a team feels either player would help them move into contention or separate themselves from the other contenders. However, Phoenix could also end up winning more games than they would without veterans like Ariza, which could hurt them in next year’s Lottery. Is winning a few more games this season worth potentially ending up with a lower draft pick?

– Jesse Blancarte

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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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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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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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