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Anticipating The Return Of Playoff Rondo

A lot’s been going the Lakers way over the last few months. Should things go exactly the way they hoped for this summer, there’s one advantage that isn’t getting looked at enough- the Playoff version of Rajon Rondo.

Matt John

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When it was announced that LeBron James was planning on joining the Los Angeles Lakers last year, many thought that he was taking the circus with him.

Any team with LeBron on it usually has a media circus from his brand alone, but the other Lakers additions that came with him were laughed at. Lance Stephenson? Michael Beasley? Javale McGee? Was LeBron trying to start Team “Shaqtin’ a Fool?”

But there was one signing that made a lot of sense – the addition of Rajon Rondo. At least, from LeBron’s point of view, this made a ton of sense.

Rondo may not have had any long-term security since his days as a Celtic, and his reputation as an enigma would make him a good fit among the other who the players brought in that summer. Nonetheless, LeBron has seen firsthand what your team gets when they bring the Rajon Rondo experience. It’s not always pretty, but it gets results.

LeBron would know this because he’s seen Rondo’s efforts firsthand as his opponent. During James’ earlier days with both the Cavaliers and the HEAT, he’s seen Rondo almost single-handedly swing the momentum of a playoff series – first when the Cavaliers and the Celtics squared off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2010.

Then, he traded blows with Rondo in what had to be the finest performance of his career when the Celtics and the HEAT battled in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012.

He’s even seen Rondo beat him in a playoff game with just one functional arm (Warning: This video shows Rondo hyperextending his arm. It’s quite graphic).

You know how players get criticized for shrinking on the game’s biggest stage? Rajon Rondo is the complete opposite. When he was in his prime, Rondo always saved his best for when it mattered the most. In fact, when he and the Celtics went to war against LeBron and whichever team he was on back in the early 2010’s, there didn’t appear to be much of a drop-off between those two when they shared the floor as rivals.

Of course, that sounds weird now seeing how Rondo’s production has taken a dive following his unfortunate ACL injury back in 2013. Rajon hasn’t garnered nearly as much All-Star recognition since then. Plus, before re-signing with the Lakers this summer, the last time Rondo stayed on a team for more than one season was with the Celtics. That dates all the way back to 2015.

He’s 33 right now, and he’ll be 34 when and if the Lakers – who are presumed to be among the league’s best teams – make the playoffs this season. Not much was made about when he came back to the Lakers for relatively cheap value. With that in mind, we may come to regret sleeping on him. Because Prime Rondo may be gone, but Playoff Rondo has shown himself to be alive and well in the past few years.

Before we start, there will be no mention of the fallout he had with Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks in that infamous 2015 disaster. Any Dallas fan will probably tell you that they’ve never heard of Rajon Rondo. Honestly, it might be better that way, so let’s begin with Rondo’s tenure with the Bulls.

When Rondo made his pilgrimage to Windy City, no one had much of a problem with it. He was coming off of a productive season with the Sacramento Kings, so in his case, it couldn’t have hurt to put him on a team that had Jimmy Butler, Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic.

But when the team signed Dwyane Wade shortly after that, the public laughed in Chicago’s face. There was no way that Rondo and Wade, two guys who even in their prime were not renowned for their shooting, were going to work well together. That did not stop Chicago from believing that their talent would overcome their clunky fit together.

Narrator: It did not. The Bulls were dysfunctional the entire season. They weren’t an awful team, but with the talent they had on their roster, they badly underachieved. Yet at the same time, just about everyone knew this was coming.

The Bulls somehow still made the playoffs even though their roster makeup proved to make absolutely no sense. When facing the Celtics as an eighth seed, many thought Chicago wasn’t even interested in playing in the postseason, so this would be an easy sweep.

But that wasn’t what happened. Not only did Chicago show up ready to roll, it took the first two games against the Celtics in Boston. At the center of it was Rajon Rondo. Rondo’s stats were as good as you could expect from him, as he averaged a near triple-double with 11.5 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds.

His impact on the court was undeniable. In his two playoff games, Chicago was plus-29.4 with him on the court. With him in the game, the Bulls dominated on both sides of the floor. He played every bit like the floor general he had always played. His stats may not have looked as good as they did when he was a Celtic, but Rondo still looked like the best player on the floor.

It’s not a coincidence that after a thumb injury took him out of the series, the Bulls crashed and burned. With Rondo, they had an offensive rating of 114.2 and a defensive rating of 104.7. With him gone, the offensive rating plummeted to 98.1 and the defensive rating rose to 113.5. With Playoff Rondo, the Bulls looked more like the team they had hoped for in the beginning. Without Playoff Rondo, they looked more like the team everyone thought they would be.

From there on out, Chicago thought the best course of action was to rebuild, so Rondo was left to find a new team. Enter New Orleans.

When Rondo signed for dirt cheap with the Pelicans, the response was pretty neutral. It wasn’t hated. It wasn’t loved. It was a “what could it hurt” type deal.

Much like in his lone regular season with the Bulls, his stats were pretty pedestrian. Averaging 8.3 points, 8.2 assists and four rebounds were merely okay numbers for being the other guard in the Pelicans’ starting lineup.

Yet again, when the playoffs rolled around, Rondo gave the New Orleans its money’s worth. Remember when the Pelicans shook the entire league when it not only beat the third-seeded Trail Blazers, but swept them with ease? Rondo wasn’t the one leading the way, but he did his fair share of the damage.

In that series alone, he averaged 11.3 points, 13.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds, and that included performances in which he dished out 17 and 16 assists in two separate games. Yet again, Playoff Rondo had shown himself.

He didn’t have the same output against the Warriors, but he did leave all he could on the floor. New Orleans lost to the Golden State juggernaut, but Rondo managed to put up a career-high in assists in a playoff game (21) in the lone win the Pelicans had over the Warriors. When you’re talking about Rajon Rondo – whose calling card as a basketball player is his passing abilities – that is impressive.

Rondo may not have been as dominant as he was in his previous year with the Bulls, but he didn’t have to be. He was excellent in the role that New Orleans gave him. The Pelicans were plus-9.7 with him on the floor, which was fourth behind Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and Holiday. For a guy who was getting paid $3.3 million, Rajon was more than worth every penny.

Rondo’s productivity in his two most recent outings in the playoffs – even with all the setbacks he’s had to endure – is probably why both LeBron and the Lakers have had such a keen interest in him for the past two summers. Sadly, we didn’t get to see LeBron and Playoff Rondo play together in this most recent postseason for various reasons.

Team dysfunction rose from a lack of continuity and endless trade rumors involving Anthony Davis. Now that all of that is behind them, the Lakers have a lot to look forward to, with one of the plot lines that’s fallen under the radar being the expected arrival of Playoff Rondo.

Rondo won’t be counted on to be the same player that went toe-to-toe against the likes of LeBron, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard in his prime. Then again, he won’t have to.

He has two magnificent toys to play with beside him with both LeBron and Anthony Davis. They will shoulder most of the load on both sides of the court. Rondo’s experience and leadership should give LA a better edge than people think.

Not to go all 2008 on you, but if the Rajon Rondo that we’ve seen comes through for his team in the playoffs just like he’s almost always done, then the NBA just might get “Rondo’d.”

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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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

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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