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Phoenix Suns 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Phoenix Suns had a busy off-season, not only hiring a proven leader at head coach but re-making the roster into what looks like a team poised to win some games. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Phoenix Suns in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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The Phoenix Suns have had a bad go of it.

In five years, the Suns have managed just 126 wins, tied with the Knicks for the fewest in the NBA over that span. With the exit of Steve Nash in 2012, the team found themselves in a pit that they have yet to dig themselves out of. There was hope in 2014 – the Suns won 48 games but just narrowly missed the postseason – but they have since spiraled and have yet to recover from it.

Fortunately, for the franchise and their fans, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

The Suns have wallowed in misery for nearly a decade, their young core having been thrown to the wolves and unable to fend for themselves. But now, after an active offseason, the Suns have decided to bolster their future with several well-traveled veterans.

The rebuild may not be over but, for the first time in a long time, the Suns appear to be on the up. At the very least, they look to be turning a corner, a sight for the sore eyes of any and every NBA fan.

FIVE GUYS THINK

It’ll be a pleasure to see Monty Williams back in the big chair again. Having Devin Booker as his go-to guy should make it rather easy to implement an offense that scores consistently. Deandre Ayton hanging around down low will certainly help the rebounding battle on both ends as well. If there’s a position Phoenix has lacked in recent years, it’s point guard. The organization addressed that this summer with the addition of Ricky Rubio, who can run an offense with his playmaking ability. Defense should take priority first and foremost, a notorious area of struggle for many years. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges will provide the brunt of the physicality on opposing wings to force turnovers. The Valley Boyz certainly had a swagger about them to close last year as well. Still, they’re amongst a stacked group of four other clubs, so don’t expect more than a fifth-place finish.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

The name of the game for the Suns in 2019-20 is development. The team boasts some nice pieces. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton anchor the team, and we should expect to see continued development from them. They also boast strong role players in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric and an accomplished floor general in free agent signee-Ricky Rubio. Unfortunately, the Suns missed an opportunity to add Jarret Culver to their roster when they traded back in the draft to clear cap space. New Head Coach Monty Williams certainly has his work cut out for him given their dismal 2018-19 season. But fortunately for Williams, expectations shouldn’t be too high. The Western Conference will be brutally competitive this season, and Phoenix simply doesn’t have the talent to compete with the elite teams out West.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Drew Maresca

The Suns biggest need heading into the offseason was point guard. They’ve perhaps solved that issue temporarily with the free-agent signing of Ricky Rubio. Rubio has been one of the better playmakers in the league throughout his career, and players like Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton should benefit from playing alongside him. Speaking of Booker and Ayton, the two quietly put up monster seasons this past year. Booker continued his ascent as one of the league’s top wing scorers, and Ayton had a Rookie of the Year type season, only he didn’t get the same national hype as others did. It is concerning that the Suns are on their fifth head coach in as many years, but they have some quality young pieces in place. It’s time to start showing some real progress. Unfortunately for them, the other teams in the Pacific are that much better than them at this point.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– David Yapkowitz

It’s really hard to say what the Phoenix Suns’ strategy was going into this offseason. A rational approach would have been to focus on adding shooters to surround Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton while adding a point guard to give Booker some time off the ball. The Suns could have addressed the point guard issue by drafting Coby White, who projects to be a very solid lead guard in the future and who would have been on a team-friendly contract for several years. Instead, Phoenix decided to move salary off their books (throwing in two second-round draft picks to do so) in order to sign Ricky Rubio to a three-year, $51 million contract. This move was questionable (to say the least) in a vacuum and is even worse when you consider that Phoenix originally had the sixth overall pick and White went seventh to the Chicago Bulls. Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned that the Suns used the 11th overall pick on Cameron Johnson, who was not projected to go anywhere close to this high on anyone’s draft board. Johnson is a good shooter but his skill set is something that could have been addressed in free agency. There are too many issues to cover in this short section, so I will wrap it up by simply saying there was little rhyme or reason to most of what Phoenix did this offseason.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It is hard not to look at the Suns as a perpetual NBA dumpster fire. Ownership continues to make bad decision after bad decision and the results have been the same – disappointment. This year, things at least on the surface look better. Monty Williams brings instant credibility to the revolving door at the head coaching position. James Jones as full-time leader of the franchise has made some good roster additions, which begs the question of whether this might actually be the year things turn in Phoenix? On the surface, maybe. Devin Booker could be an MVP candidate if he continues his progression. Former top pick DeAndre Ayton has the tools to be elite, and the roster seems better suited to winning games more so than at any time in the last five years. If all things play out as they look on paper, the Suns should be significantly better. That doesn’t mean they are playoff contenders, but progress is better than no progress.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

With Ricky Rubio inked to a three-year, $51 million contract, Devin Booker on a maximum contract and the re-signing of Kelly Oubre at two years, $30 million, the Suns are relatively invested in their developing core. Add in DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, whose team options for the 2020-21 season are sure to be picked up before November, and the Suns do not project to have enough cap space to sign a max player next summer (perhaps up to $25 million).

Phoenix is still midway through the rebuilding process, perhaps overpaying Rubio will prove worthwhile with a steady point guard. Meanwhile, the team owns all of its own first-round picks and has decent expiring contracts in Tyler Johnson ($19.2 million), Aron Baynes ($5.5 million) and Dario Saric ($3.5 million), should a trade opportunity present itself before the deadline in February. Saric is eligible for an extension prior to the start of the season.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Devin Booker

Does this need any explanation?

Devin Booker is one of the best young offensive weapons in the game, certainly the best in Phoenix. Last season, the guard averaged 26.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and shot 46.7 percent from the field while he led the team in points and assists.

Booker saw his three-point percentage dip to 32.6 percent, but he has averaged 35.4 percent for his career so some positive regression should be expected.

Booker has been good, great even, thus far into his career. But the 23-year-old should be even better next season. With the best supporting cast of his young career, it would be a surprise if Booker didn’t take a step forward in almost every facet of his game.

Enough said.

Top Defensive Player: Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr.

It was hard to decide between Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre for this spot, so I didn’t.

Both players are long, twitchy and have the size and speed to defend multiple positions. Both averaged more than a steal per game with the Suns last season (Oubre also played 29 games with the Wizards) while Oubre managed a block per game as well. Both hustle and give everything they have every time they step onto the court.

Case-in-point: the Suns have a pair of spectacular defenders that they can deploy anywhere and everywhere.

The presence of Booker and Deandre Ayton could put a strain on any defense, but the Bridges-Oubre combo should make up for what those two lack on that end of the floor. If nothing else, the two should prove invaluable assets to Phoenix in what has seemed like a never-ending rebuild.

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio

It isn’t a stretch to say that Rubio is far and away the Suns’ best point guard since the team traded Eric Bledsoe to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2017.

In fact, while Bledsoe is certainly more athletic, one could argue that Rubio is the best point guard Phoenix has rostered since Goran Dragić before him, or even Nash before him. If nothing else, he’s certainly the point guard they have needed these last few seasons — a primary playmaker that can take on a secondary scoring role.

Alongside Donovan Mitchell – a player, despite their height difference, not too dissimilar to Booker – Rubio averaged 12.1 points, 6.1 assists and shot over 40 percent from the field last season. For his career, the Spaniard has averaged 7.7 assists, which would register as the Suns’ highest mark since Nash posted 10.7 per game in 2012.

To take their next step, Phoenix desperately needed a playmaker alongside Booker, not only to take on some playmaking responsibility but to displace some defensive attention as well. Rubio could do just that for them next season.

Top Clutch Player: Devin Booker

Booker was born with the clutch gene. With the amount of losing the Suns have done in the last few seasons he hasn’t been able to put it to much use, but Booker can clearly turn up the heat when under pressure.

In his four seasons, Booker has hit shot, after shot, after shot (you get the point) to either take the lead or win the game outright for Phoenix. Last season, in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and the score within five points, Booker had 35 field goals, good for 16th in the NBA and far and away most on the Suns.

He only managed to shoot 40.2 percent (87 attempts) in those situations, but that fact may be a double-edged sword. Yes, Booker was inconsistent, but the Suns trust him in those moments and should continue to do so.

The team’s newest additions should only serve to draw defensive heat away from Booker, not only in the clutch but throughout the game, so don’t be surprised to see Booker’s efficiency take a jump.

The Unheralded Player: Deandre Ayton

Overshadowed by Rookie of the Year Luka Dončić, Ayton managed to have perhaps the quietest yet dominant season from a rookie in recent memory. In 71 games, the rookie out of Arizona averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 58.5 percent on the season.

Ayton is the only rookie ever to average 16, 10 and shoot at least 58 percent from the field.

Ayton also finished second in win shares among rookies, yet, somehow, the center earned a meager 66 points in Rookie of the Year voting and not a single first or second place tally. Both Dončić and the second-place Trae Young posted exceptional rookie seasons, but it would seem as if the NBA just passed Ayton by for some reason or another.

But the Suns (to an extent) know what they have in Ayton (or at least one would hope); there’s a reason they took him with the top selection over Dončić in 2018. If they can push him to be his best, Ayton may not only prove those that have doubted him wrong, but he could become the star Phoenix has long searched for.

Best New Addition: Dario Šarić

The Minnesota Timberwolves sent Šarić to Phoenix when they moved up from 11 to six in the 2019 NBA Draft. Šarić showed promise in his first two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers but, in a lesser role, took a step back in Minnesota.

Now, the Suns have the opportunity to capitalize on the Croatian forward.

In just 25 minutes split over 81 games in Philadelphia and Minnesota, Šarić averaged just 10.6 points and 5.6 rebounds. He also saw a dip in his field goal percentage and three-point percentage. But there is plenty of talent there; Šarić averaged 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists in the season prior, and had the look for a future star.

Whether a starter or reserve, Šarić is more talented than what he put on display last season. If the Suns can recapture the spark that was his 2017 mini-breakout, they could add a star-caliber piece to their already impressive young core.

– Shane Rhodes

WHO WE LIKE

1. Aron Baynes

The Suns acquired Baynes from the Boston Celtics in a July trade and, while it seemed questionable at the time, there is some logic in the acquisition of a 32-year-old backup.

Baynes, along with some of the other new Suns, should provide a capable, steady veteran to man the second unit. In a similar vein, he should also prove a strong locker room presence for a young team that is going to need a leader.

Likewise, Baynes is a stout defender – during his short time in Boston, he was a key cog in one of the league’s best defenses – and he should prove a competent mentor on that side of the ball for the second-year Ayton.

2. Ricky Rubio

Another veteran addition, Rubio wasn’t the sexiest pickup. But, he could prove vital in the Suns’ quest to return to relevancy in the Western Conference.

He isn’t going to lead the team in scoring, nor will he dominate the ball. But Rubio should vastly improve the flow of the offense without taking too much away from Booker.

But, and perhaps most importantly, Rubio has been there before; maybe not to the extent of the Suns in recent years, but he wallowed in losses with the Timberwolves. In his six years in Minnesota, the team never won more than 40 games, and Rubio can likely empathize with how hard that can be to deal with on a competitive level.

And, after back-to-back postseason appearances with the Utah Jazz, Rubio should now also understand what it can take to reach the top of the Western Conference. Hopefully, he can impart some of that wisdom upon Phoenix next season.

3. Mikal Bridges

On paper, Bridges’ rookie season doesn’t look like much. But, when the Suns allowed him to do so, the wing flashed and he flashed brightly.

We’ve already discussed the fact that Bridges can be an impact defender, but there is room for some major offensive growth in his game. The 23-year-old shot 33.5 percent from three-point range, good for fifth among rookies with at least 200 attempts and fifth among the other Phoenix youngsters.

While his assist totals were low, Bridges also, on occasion, showed excellent court vision and passing ability.

Bridges is talented, and he’s exactly what the best NBA teams are built on– a long, versatile wing that can shoot and play great defense. With a full offseason under his belt and an understanding of the season-long NBA process, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him make a jump in year two.

4. Ty Jerome

Despite his age, Ty Jerome is another piece that could go a long way in the Suns’ hopeful turnaround.

The Virginia product is one of the few players with some winning experience. Fresh off a National Championship win, he is set to join the few already on the Suns’ roster with a championship pedigree.

Jerome should also prove a serviceable reserve in his rookie year; in his last season at Virginia, he averaged 13.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists 1.5 steals and shot 43.5 percent from the field. Jerome was also a sharpshooter, as he knocked down three-point shots at a 39.9 percent clip.

– Shane Rhodes

Strengths

There is a reason the Suns have sat near the bottom of the NBA for so long. They don’t have many strengths as a team, and that is partly the fault of the personnel, partly the fault of management.

But, Phoenix does have one thing on their side: youth.

The Suns brought in plenty of veteran talent to oversee their operation this season, but their youth is what can drive them into the NBA stratosphere. Ayton, Booker, Bridges, Jerome, Oubre, Saric are, on paper, one of the best young cores in the league and, perhaps more importantly, they are under contract for the foreseeable future.

The Suns may or may not capitalize on the talent they have; players sometimes just don’t “get it,” others can be mismanaged or fall out of favor. But, youth is something that can give Phoenix and their fans hope and, going into next season, it’s one of the few things they have going for them.

– Shane Rhodes

Weaknesses

If it wasn’t already clear, the Suns have been bad, and they’ve been bad for a very long time. A losing culture has been ingrained into the fabric of the franchise.

That type of atmosphere can be hard to overcome, even if a team has all the talent in the world; heavy is the head that wears the crown, but even heavier is the head under the crown’s boot. If Phoenix is ever to find their way out of the NBA’s basement, a monumental effort is going to be required of everyone, players, coaches and executives alike.

– Shane Rhodes

The Burning Question

Can the Suns Finally Take a Step Forward?

The Suns have shown so much promise before, only to trip and land flat on their face. It would be foolish to say they could make a push for the postseason, even more so in the Western Conference, but the roster is clearly on the up; can the franchise push them to the next level? Thus far, they’ve been unable, but with new management in the fold – Jeff Bower, James Jones, Monty Williams, etc. – it could almost be like a fresh start for the Suns next season.

– Shane Rhodes

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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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