The Portland Trail Blazers’ sustained success since LaMarcus Aldridge left town in the summer of 2015 has hinged on continuity as much as anything else. Portland’s core pieces remain intact for now and the foreseeable future, but in wake of a surprise trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Blazers shuffled the deck around Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
The Blazers, finally, have reason to believe – even if it’s partially superficial – that they are one of a handful of teams capable of raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end. But after moving on from Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless on the wing and rebuilding its bench yet again, Portland has many questions to answer before living up to those long-awaited expectations.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Blazers were fairly active this offseason and it resulted in them improving their team – at least on paper. They re-signed Rodney Hood, swapped Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore, snatched up Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja, plus a trade of Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for Hassan Whiteside. The Blazers are poised to run out a starting five of Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Zach Collins and Whiteside with Bazemore, Hezonja, Tolliver and Anfernee Simons as bench support. In a post-Kevin Durant-Golden State Warriors world, that roster could be quite scary. And if Lillard and McCollum can continue their stellar play from the 2018 playoffs – or at least the first two rounds – then the Blazers could be a top-four seed and contend for the Western Conference crown. But they’ll need exceptional performances on most nights. The conference will both be extremely tough — and the Northwest Division will be decided by two or so games — unfortunately, I expect the Blazers to be on the wrong side of that equation.
3rd Place-Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Blazers got all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season before their inevitable defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. That alone, however, is a big step for this team. The conference has no shortage of talented teams, but why couldn’t the Blazers advance one round further and make it to the Finals this time around? An injury here or there to another team and, with the right breaks, it’s not inconceivable. The upcoming hierarchy is wide open and the Blazers have as good a chance as any to come out of the conference. They have a star-studded backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. They may be without Jusuf Nurkic for a while, but they brought in Hassan Whiteside. They’re going to have to replace some of their depth they lost this offseason, so they’ll need to get some solid development from Zach Collins, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons, two of which were not in the rotation last season. But if all goes right, it’s not surprising to think the Blazers could be the conference representative in the NBA Finals.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The last look we had of Portland was a sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, but the lasting image was Damian Lillard’s 40-foot buzzer-beater to send the OKC Thunder packing just weeks earlier. Whoever thought the mighty backcourt of Lillard and McCollum were splitting up anytime soon was quite mistaken. Neil Olshey addressed areas of need by acquiring Hassan Whiteside as a stopgap big man that can protect the rim and snagged Kent Bazemore as a proven veteran who provides plenty of depth. It’ll be crucial for youngsters like Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons to step up. Still, any year we’ve doubted the Trail Blazers, Terry Stotts and company have proved us wrong. Make it seven straight playoff appearances for Rip City in a close competition at the top of the Northwest Division.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Portland Trail Blazers look like a team more balanced and structured to compete for a championship — the problem, however, is that they are one of six or seven teams in the conference poised to make serious noise. The fact the Blazers have a superstar in Lillard and a complementary second star in McCollum make them a favorite to get out of the gate faster than most. Ultimately, that can be the difference between a top seed or the fifth. The only weak point of concern is head coach Terry Stotts. While a quality head coach in the NBA, the question is this: Does he have enough to push a Blazers team he’s been coaching since 2012 into the elite status? Portland has the players, but time will tell if they have the coach.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Trail Blazers are one of the handful of teams who saw several talented players depart this offseason in free agency of through trades. However, the Blazers did bring in a nice group of veterans as well, including Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja. Age is an issue for players like Gasol and Tolliver, but each one of these players can be a contributor in some meaningful way. Nassir Little is also a nice pickup from this year’s draft. The issue for this team is that it doesn’t have the overall talent of some of the other contenders in the Western Conference and need several things to break right in the postseason for there to be any realistic hope of advancing deep into the playoffs. If players like Whiteside, Hezonja or perhaps Zach Collins have unexpectedly strong seasons, that could change the dynamic for Portland. Also, it is unwise to count out any team that is led by the dyanmic duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, as currently constructed, I think Portland will struggle to overcome some of the other contenders in the Western Conference this upcoming season.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Blazers are heavily invested in the 2019-20 season with over $145 million promised in guaranteed salaries. Barring a midseason trade to shed contracts, Portland will be on the hook for at least $22 million in luxury taxes. With that in mind, both Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore have sizeable expiring contracts, but the team just acquired the pair over the offseason.
Before November, the Blazers need to decide on options for Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons. Skal Labissiere is eligible for a contract extension prior to the season. With patience, Portland may be able to get under the luxury tax for the 2020-21 season, just with contracts coming off their books, but they aren’t likely to be a significant spender under a projected $116 million salary cap.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard
Unlike in 2018-19, Lillard backed up another ridiculous regular season by reaching that rare level of performance in the playoffs. His game-winning, walk-off 37-footer over the outstretched arms of Paul George to eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder is already the stuff of legends. Further, he deserves credit for helping the Blazers get out to multiple double-digit halftime leads in the Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Lillard, it’s clear by now, is the type of lead ball-handler that can lift an offense toward the top of the league without an elite-level supporting cast. Portland finished third in offensive rating last season and scored nearly 12 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the bench. He’s the most dangerous pull-up shooter in basketball other than Stephen Curry and James Harden, but that reality almost takes away from the subtle strides Lillard has made as a passer and finisher in recent years to become one of the most well-rounded offensive players in the league.
The Blazers’ championship hopes are longer than many fans and those within the organization like to believe. But with an offensive engine and culture-setter like Lillard around, it would be foolish to suggest they aren’t at least somewhat realistic.
Top Defensive Player: Zach Collins
Collins will spend most of his time in 2019-20 playing out of his ideal position at power forward, at least until Portland makes a big splash around the trade deadline. But it speaks to his rare and ultra-valuable defensive versatility that the Blazers feel comfortable entering their most hopeful season in years with Collins on that task.
Rim-protection has been the 21-year-old’s calling card since he entered the league in 2017-18, and that continued last season. He has natural timing as a shot-blocker and has already perfected the art of meeting attackers in the air with verticality. Collins won’t be confined to the paint nearly as often this season, though, which is why his nascent ability to keep up with ball handlers on the perimeter looms so large to Portland’s prospects defensively.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard
Lillard wasn’t born with the nuanced-playmaking ingenuity of Trae Young and lacks the size necessary to make cross-court passes that are a staple of James Harden’s game. But through years of serving as the Blazers’ primary ball-handler and after countless hours of film study, he’s worked himself into one of the most effective table-setters in basketball.
Lillard — and by proxy Portland’s offense at large — was neutered in the first round of the 2018 playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans putting two on the ball defensively in pick-and-roll action. He killed the Thunder when they tried a similar approach last spring, routinely creating extra space by stringing out his dribble, hitting the roll man or weak-side shooters with perfect timing and pinpoint accuracy — that is, if he wasn’t turning the corner or splitting defenders to get a shot for himself. Lillard showed a far better sense last season of creating scoring opportunities for his teammates while penetrating, too, upping both his pass percentage and assist percentage on drives to easy career-high levels, per NBA.com.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard
Portland’s 115.3 offensive rating in the clutch last season ranked third in the league, and it’s not hard to see why. Offense inevitably reverts mostly back to one-on-one play in crunch time, an ideal setting for Lillard and McCollum to flex their muscles as two of the game’s best shot-makers from all over the floor. It was McCollum, remember, who played the hero in Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets last May when Lillard was noticeably fatigued.
Lillard’s shooting numbers in the clutch are worse than his late-game reputation suggests, and significantly lower than McCollum’s, too. Still, any suggestion that he isn’t the Blazers’ top crunch-time player ignores both the fear he instills in opposing defenses with the ball in his hands when it matters most as well as his career-long flair for the dramatic.
There have been less than 10 walk-off buzzer-beaters in NBA playoff history and Lillard owns two of them. The only other player with multiple such game-winners? Michael Jordan.
The Unheralded Player: Jusuf Nurkic
All but one of the 15 players with the league’s best net ratings last season played for the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors or Golden State Warriors, per NBA.com. The lone exception? Nurkic, who was coming into his own as one of the game’s most useful two-way centers before suffering a devastating lower left leg injury in late March.
Nurkic’s success is largely dependent on the limited scope of his responsibilities within Portland’s schemes. He isn’t a three-point shooter despite rare touch for a player his size; plus, Nurkic can still struggle to finish over length even though he’s made obvious progress in that regard recently. The Blazers don’t ask him to leave the paint defensively, either, a strategy Terry Stotts has long preferred and one that best suits the center’s physical profile, but nevertheless leaves Portland susceptible to elite pull-up shooters.
But Nurkic, who’s graded among basketball’s best rim-protectors each of the last two seasons, is the rare traditional big man who makes a consistently positive impact on both sides of the ball regardless. Here’s hoping the growth he made last season, especially on offense as a finisher on rolls to the rim and high-post passer, hasn’t been forever wasted by an injury that will sideline him until the All-Star break at the earliest.
At 25, Nurkic’s best days should still be ahead of him.
Best New Addition: Kent Bazemore
Bazemore isn’t a panacea on the wing. He faded as a long-range shooter last season after connecting on a career-best 39.4 percent in 2018-19, and, perhaps more importantly, isn’t quite as versatile on the other end as his reputation suggests. Bazemore is a dogged, physical one-on-one defender with a freakish wingspan, but is far better suited to check star guards than forwards. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, he’s just not big enough to make life hard on the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, even though he’ll be their primary defender when the Blazers face the Los Angeles-based Lakers and Clippers.
Still, Aminu and Harkless, effective as they were at times, were never true stoppers of oversized playmakers and Bazemore offers far more offensively than either. He can capably run a second side ball screen and attack aggressive close-outs by stepping into mid-range jumpers. Bazemore shot just 32.0 percent from deep in 2018-19, but that number was deflated by a larger share of pull-ups, attempts he’ll only take in a pinch with Portland.
Most potential contenders still have more on the wing than the Blazers. But with Bazemore, as long as his jumper reverts back to recent norms, Portland finally has a defense-first wing who won’t be easily schemed off the floor due to his broad offensive limitations.
– Jack Winter
WHO WE LIKE
1. The Hassan Whiteside Trade
The 2019-20 season could very well be the best opportunity for the Blazers to win a championship during Lillard and McCollum’s prime. Whiteside’s presence addresses that likelihood twofold: first as a worthy replacement for Nurkic, and second as a human trade exception should Portland opt to swing for the fences come mid-February.
Whiteside is a perfect fit for what Stotts asks of his centers defensively and, though he leaves much to be desired as a screener and dribble hand-off partner, gives Lillard and McCollum the lob threat they’ve never had with the Blazers. But the veteran’s greater utility could come courtesy of the $27 million he’s owed this season on an expiring contract, affording Portland major flexibility at the trade deadline it normally lacks.
The most intriguing possible trade target? Kevin Love, who grew up roughly 20 minutes from Moda Center and would surely rather spend his extended prime playing for titles with the Blazers than lottery balls with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
2. Anfernee Simons
Neil Olshey has every incentive to pump up Simons ahead of 2019-20. He’s not only next up in Portland’s long, successful history of promoting deep reserves to major rotation roles, but also this team’s most valuable trade chip.
A live-wire athlete with deep range on his pull-up jumper and the ability to get wherever he wants with the ball, Simons figures to be the Blazers’ third guard this season. Playing most, if not all, of his minutes next to either Lillard or McCollum is the ideal scenario for the 20-year-old to get his first taste of sustained playing time in the NBA.
Simons no doubt possesses the raw talent needed to make an impact; Olshey said in June that he has as much “natural, god-given basketball ability as anyone” he’s ever drafted. Of course, he almost certainly won’t live up to that status this season, but Simons could be the difference between home-court advantage and fighting for a playoff spot should he flash it on a game-by-game basis.
3. Anthony Tolliver
Tolliver may not be in Stotts’ rotation to begin the season. He’s certainly not starting, and it would be in the Blazers’ best interest, both this season and long-term, if Mario Hezonja and rookie Nassir Little were ahead of him in the pecking order.
Either way, there will come a time when Tolliver’s number will be called, and he’s likely to deliver. The 34-year-old is limited athletically, but makes up for it on defense by constantly talking, staying scheme sound and playing with unrelenting energy every time he steps on the floor. Tolliver’s bigger influence will come on the other end, where he’s a willing, deadeye three-point shooter that has worked tirelessly to extend his range far behind the arc.
It would be disappointing if Hezonja didn’t carve out a consistent role, and Portland would be best served by Little – who has the raw physical tools of an impact multi-positional defender – finding his niche early. But in whatever role he takes on, Tolliver will be ready.
4. Pau Gasol
Gasol appeared in only three games last season after signing with the Milwaukee Bucks in March, beset by the same nagging pain in his right foot that previously caused him to miss 28 straight games with the San Antonio Spurs. Even with a clean bill of health heading into 2019-20, there’s no guarantee the 39-year-old is up to the task of playing a more minor role off the bench – especially after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured navicular bone in his left foot, a dreaded injury for big men.
Still, Gasol brings three attributes to the table that will help ease the pain of Nurkic’s absence in the season’s early going: Rim-protection, three-point shooting and perimeter playmaking. Mobility was Gasol’s greatest weakness even before his surgery, but that deficiency matters far less in the Blazers’ defense, where he’ll very rarely leave the paint, instead using his 7-foot-5 wingspan as an obstacle between penetrators and the rim.
The margins matter for teams with title aspirations. Gasol won’t be a cog for Portland, and there’s an outside chance that injuries and age have left him almost unplayable. But if he’s indeed a part of the Blazers’ rotation, Gasol could be very useful in a low-minute bench role – especially if Whiteside is actually dealt at the trade deadline.
– Jack Winter
The Blazers’ trump card is self-evident: No team in basketball, with the possible exception of the revamped Clippers, boasts a better pair of shot-makers than Lillard and McCollum. Simons, in a perfect world, will provide the type of dynamic offense from the bench they’ve lacked for years and Stotts won’t hesitate to go small with Rodney Hood at power forward when necessary. Portland, second in offensive rebounding last season, could be even more dominant on the glass while starting a pair of seven-footers.
It would be something close to shocking if the Blazers’ offense wasn’t again among the league’s best. But their greatest strength is, and long has been, the unwavering sense of culture instilled by Stotts and Lillard. Portland is among the league’s most well-coached teams, consistently outperforming preseason forecasts despite annual churn in the middle and bottom half of the rotation.
For well over a decade, the San Antonio Spurs were the league’s gold standard of chemistry, culture and the ideal that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Now, it’s the Blazers who have earned and own that distinction.
– Jack Winter
Portland finished 16th in defensive rating last season and lost its two most flexible defenders without replacing them with like-sized wings. Whiteside just isn’t as reliable on the backline as Nurkic, that goes without saying. But slotting Collins, a more personnel-dependent switching option, at power forward for major minutes will undoubtedly leave the Blazers subject to more frequent defensive rotations. Bazemore is undersized; Rodney Hood, better engaged on that side of the ball after signing with Portland last season, still doesn’t hang his hat on defense.
The Blazers feature several impact defenders, both on the perimeter and interior, and will fight like hell. The lack of wing depth on this roster will be a huge problem against specific opponents, though, while its holes and redundancies overall could lead to struggles defensively that few are anticipating.
– Jack Winter
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Blazers real contenders in a stacked Western Conference?
The Clippers stand alone in the conference as the team just as likely to win the conference’s top playoff seed as they are to reach the NBA Finals. The Lakers, like all LeBron-led teams, are bound to reach another gear in the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz will rack up regular season wins with ease, and have clear championship ceilings by virtue of internal growth and star-level summer additions.
Where does that leave Portland? Everyone within the organization insists it belongs with that group above, a belief indeed rooted in more than wide-eyed hope. But the Blazers simply possess less overall talent than other teams with championship dreams. Moreover, the Conference Finals appearance that’s made them more believable than ever come with asterisks of favorable matchups on the way there and a sweep at the hands of the Warriors.
Bottom line: It’s easier to envision Portland missing the playoffs altogether than hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come mid-June. Yet writing the Blazers out of the championship picture entirely, as they’ve proven time and again over the past few years by defying expectations, would still be remiss.
– Jack Winter
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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