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The Underrated Players: Northwest Division

In stop No. 2, Ben Nadeau examines the most underrated players in the Northwest Division.

Ben Nadeau

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To grasp how one can be underrated, the definition for rated must be first observed, obviously.

Taking a page out of the apathetic/lazy/Jeff Winger best man speech how-to guide and textbook, Webster’s Dictionary states that rate (and its many tenses) is to “assign a standard or value to (something) according to a particular scale.” In which case, such an understanding makes rating a list of basketball players – perhaps the best 330 or so in the entire world, give or take – even harder.

What are the criteria to determine what is or isn’t properly rated? Would it be to find the best value compared to their draft position? To their current contract? To their existing or nonexistent league-wide popularity? To a team’s successes? As examples, look no further than ESPN’s The Last Dance to find how subjective and varied the question of being underrated can really become.

Scottie Pippen, universally hailed as one of the greatest players of all-time, was criminally underpaid compared to his statistical output during the Chicago Bulls’ six championship-winning seasons. In that sense, Pippen was underrated, but as a seven-time All-Star and Hall of Famer, can that label really be applied to him?

Or for Dennis Rodman, who wasn’t drafted until the second round in 1986, a rebounding machine and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, does an underrated tag belong on him too? And, as the second and third ponies alongside Jordan, the greatest of all-time for most, does that make them underrated even more?

In the cases of Pippen and Rodman, two extreme resumes, admittedly, the answer would be a resolute and resounding no.

So if there’s no true, foolproof way to determine eligibility for underratedness, then anything becomes fair game. Too often, the NBA’s biggest and brightest stars are viewed through a single, frustrating lens: Count the rinnnnnnnnnnnnngs, baby! And if you don’t have any championships, too bad, you might be a loser. Or worse, gasp, overrated. Yet, in 2020 and with so many wonderful vantage points, numbers and angles to pitch a story, almost anybody can be underrated if you put your mind to it.

With that in mind, here’s the Northeast Division’s most underrated contributors, all in their own particularly unique way.

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers

With Anthony, that first rule of thumb comes into play immediately: Forget the statistics.

Forget the numbers, percentages and whatever fancy-pants metrics support the inane task of taking down a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Carmelo Anthony, today, is underrated.

Sure, he probably won’t hoist a trophy before he bids farewell, but so what? Hell, the chances of him even reaching the NBA Finals at this point appear to be a lost dream. But these recent (and strange) seasons have done years of irreversible damage to Anthony’s status in basketball history, for reasons that are often difficult to understand.

Anthony is a 10-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA team member, national champion, three-time Olympic gold medalist and likely would have finished the 2019-20 season as the 14th-highest scorer in NBA history. For 14 seasons in a row, Anthony tallied more than 20 points per game, topping out at a whopping 28.7 in 2012-13. Ultimately, his status as a basketball legend is not up for debate, yet many wonder if he should even make the Hall of Fame at all.

He’s slowed down today, of course, but Anthony remains underrated in the long-time NBA canon and will be lionized correctly years after his career ends, almost undoubtedly. So why wait?

Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and other superstars got emotional farewell tours, so where is Anthony’s? Those who fail to appreciate greatness while they still have it will be the first to unironically post a highlight reel with the smoke-from-nostril emoji on Twitter in 2030 asking for retweets to prove how underrated Anthony truly was.

Don’t be that person: Anthony is ready to be loved right here and now.

Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz

For all of his big-time shotmaking, out-of-nowhere explosions and general cold-bloodedness, where has that gotten Bojan Bogdanovic in terms of popularity? Honestly, outside of Brooklyn, Indiana and Utah, the answer is sadly very little.

Bogdanovic, a winner of championships in both Turkey and Croatia, came over to the NBA in 2014 and fast became a reliable source of buckets for the Nets. Although streaky, watching a red-hot Bogdanovic is an absolute treat, a flamethrower with reckless abandon and supreme confidence.

In 2016, the Croatian dropped 44 on the Philadelphia 76ers, a number that equaled the one on Drazen Petrovic’s jersey – the oft-go-to inspiration for many international basketball players. Three years later, in 2019-20, Bogdanovic was sporting a career-best 20.2 points and 4.1 rebounds, plus a ridiculous 3.0 three-pointers on 41.4 percent.

His defense comes up short in crucial moments, but when has that ever stopped a player from growing wildly in popularity? Perhaps always hidden in smaller markets or behind a bigger star, he has always played second fiddle. And at 31, his chance to ascend has come and gone – but the true ones know: Bojan Bogdanovic is one of the most underrated scorers in the NBA today.

Underappreciated, too, was Bogdanovic’s measure of self-worth and inherent ability to stay off the hellscape called Twitter for three consecutive seasons. On Mar. 27, the sharpshooter sent out a simple message: “I just realized I have Twitter account” and accompanied it with a playful emoji.

Gosh, the world would be a better place if we all had that kind of control.

Will Barton, Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic this. Jamal Murray that. (Sometimes) Gary Harris in between. But Will? Poor Barton is an afterthought in most conversations about the Nuggets’ team-wide and team-first spectacle. But with 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 45 percent shooting, Barton is playing better than ever before.

And at $12.7 million in 2019-20, he’s also a steal too.

He averages more points than Harrison Barnes ($24 million), Aaron Gordon ($19.8) and Al Horford ($28), while coming in just under Terry Rozier ($19.9), Goran Dragic ($19.2) and Tim Hardaway Jr. ($18.1). That’s value. Moreover, Barton leads Denver in minutes at 33 and brings down the second-most rebounds per game at just 6-foot-5. When Barton knocked down three or more attempts from deep this year, the Nuggets went 11-4.

With the added bonus of underrated nicknames aside – of note, the rhyming nickname scheme rules and collective sports society got worse when we moved onto ‘cooler’ processes like the uber-unique first initial + last initial + number method – Will ‘The Thrill’ fits most of our aforementioned criteria.

D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves

Thus far, we’ve tackled the sentiment of being underrated via overall career resume (Anthony), popularity (Bogdanovic) or even on his own roster (Barton) – so, next, how about underrated in the category of underappreciation?

All those years ago, Russell was a can’t-miss prospect. But after an improved sophomore season, he was pawned off so the Lakers could draft Lonzo Ball. Then, following his first-ever All-Star-worthy berth that pushed Brooklyn back into the playoffs for the first time in four years, he was jettisoned for Kyrie Irving. And when the Warriors acquired Russell in a sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant last July, the young sharpshooter lasted just half a season – one without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for most of it – before Golden State shuffled him off for an Andrew Wiggins-sized lotto ticket.

So, for the love of all that is holy in our sport, the question is this: What must D’Angelo Russell do to earn your respect?

At 23, Russell has seen the world around and then some, bouncing between franchise cornerstone and trade chip so fast it would give onlookers second-hand whiplash. Through 12 games with Minnesota, his potential forever home, Russell was averaging 21.7 points and 6.6 assists on 41.2 percent from the floor. Adjusting to Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves’ No. 1 asset and Russell’s No. 1 BFFL, shouldn’t be difficult – but with his ceiling, it’s insane that such a talented player is on his fourth team already.

When the NBA flashes its cruel, business-sided approach to feelings, it’s hard not to ache for the player caught in the crosshairs. And through five years, Russell has been on the losing end of that deal three times already. Healthy and confident, the talented up-and-comer won’t be shopped again soon – hopefully, then, being properly rated is just around the corner for Russell as well.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

Rounding out the bunch is our annual Mr. Underrated In His Own Draft Class, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

In 2018, Gilgeous-Alexander was taken with the No. 11 overall pick and promptly swapped for Miles Bridges. Coming out of an illustrious Kentucky program wasn’t enough as he fell behind the well-deserved hype for Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Deandre Ayton and Trae Young. Most of the draft class chatter remains loudest about a couple of those previously named – but sooner rather than later, Gilgeous-Alexander will own as big of a star.

After a promising rookie season, the guard was reluctantly included in the trade that landed Paul George (and, subsequently, Kawhi Leonard) and he’s since flourished with the Thunder. As a 21-year-old, Gilgeous-Alexander has doubled his points (19.3) and rebounds (6.1) while starting 63 games next to Chris Paul, the absolute perfect veteran to study. The once-All-Rookie First Team member finished 5,798,243 tallies behind Doncic in All-Star voting in 2019-20 – but was the gap really that large between the two second-year cornerstones?

Gilgeous-Alexander has caught the eye of writers everywhere and everybody is fawning over his electric potential, both as a scorer and a playmaker. In the end, he appears to be a more than formidable choice to take over as the franchise crown jewel from Russell Westbrook, which might say more about Gilgeous-Alexander than anything else in these paragraphs.

When the fearless court general scored 25 or more this year, Oklahoma City was a ridiculous 9-1, a record that includes wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz. For the Thunder, the budding star ranked first in minutes (35.1), first in points, fourth in field goal percentage (47.3 percent), second in rebounds, third in assists (3.3) and second in steals (1.1).

And if that weren’t enough, Gilgeous-Alexander had his new squad in fifth place in the Western Conference, a game out of fourth and in a dogfight with James Harden, Donovan Mitchell and the aforementioned Doncic for homecourt advantage in the first round. Not bad for a former No. 11 overall pick, and one that is leading a team that was supposed to tank out and rebuild six months ago.

Today, class, we’ve learned that the notion of being underrated is not a definitive, singular point of view – as it can often refer to one’s popularity amongst peers, legends, fellow draftees and even teammates. In Russell’s case, the classic bridesmaid-but-never-the-bride adage kicks in and it’s easy to imagine how the All-Star point guard might still be considered underrated as well.

While Basketball Insiders’ series continues on, keep putting these players through different frames of reference – you never know, it may just change everything.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: The Conference Final Losers’ Outlook

After being ousted over the weekend, Matt John takes a look at what went what Boston and Denver have to think about as they enter this offseason.

Matt John

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First off, let’s take a minute to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami HEAT for making the NBA Finals. It’s funny how this was a matchup everyone had dreamed of circa 2010 and, ironically, we finally have it – but LeBron James is on the opposite side this time! Also, it is certainly cool that this year two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year managed to work all the way up to the championships. We’ve seen NBA finalists who missed the playoffs the year prior, but we’ve never seen both sides do just that.

There will be plenty of in-depth analysis leading up to when the finals begin tonight, and you can find it anywhere easily. That won’t be found here. Here, we’re going to discuss the teams that came the closest to the final round, and some of the uncertainty they are going to face heading into next season.

Getting to the conference finals can be a big deal depending on where your team is at. For Boston and Denver, even though both are pretty young, getting to the conference finals has different gravity to both of them. Let’s explain.

Boston – So Close, Yet So Far

Should we be impressed or have cause for concern that Boston has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals? They’ve been able to do that with very differently constructed teams between all three of their appearances since 2017, but not getting over that hump after that many tries makes it less and less of a milestone.

The first two were defensible. In 2017, they were firmly in the “Just happy to be there!” camp, and, unless LeBron had all four of his limbs severed, there was no way that team was beating Cleveland. Those LeBron/Kyrie Cleveland teams were superteams overshadowed by the super-duper Warriors. With or without a healthy Isaiah Thomas, that Cavaliers team was going to roll all over them.

They definitely had a better shot the following year. The East was substantially weaker with Kyrie out of Cleveland, and Boston overachieved, but they were relying on a pair of young wings to take them not only to the finals, but to beat the best player of this generation too. The Cavaliers were definitely vulnerable, but not much can be done when inexperience is going up against arguably the most dominant version of LeBron James we’ve ever seen.

This time feels different though. Miami definitely had fewer holes – if not, none at all – that could be exploited on their roster. Even so, Boston, it seemed, had the more talented team. This was a much closer series than the final outcome made it look. It all simply came down to late-game execution. You’d think Boston’s more upfront talent would have given them the edge in that department, but the HEAT were the ones who made the big shots when it mattered.

That’s why this time, it doesn’t feel like a moral victory. This time, they are left with questions. Like, why did it take them until Game 3 to run plays through Jaylen Brown? Why is Marcus Smart taking the second-most shots in the most crucial game of the season? Should they keep their five best players if they haven’t shown they can play together? If they are serious about winning a championship, how are they going to make sure their opponents take as little advantage of Kemba’s defensive inadequacies as possible?

As disappointing as the season ended for them, Boston still has to feel good knowing that they have the league’s most talented young wing combo in the entire league and has built an excellent core around them. They could chalk up losing the conference finals to bad luck more than anything. The Bubble deprived them of playing in front of their fans. Gordon Hayward’s absence forced the team to have to exert a lot more for the majority of the playoffs than they expected to. Not to mention he clearly wasn’t 100 percent physically when he came back. Still, this was a golden opportunity to take another step forward and they blew it.

Among the multitude of reasons for why they fell short, this series also served as a subtle reminder that even in a smaller league, you can only get away with a lack of size for so long. The Celtics ran the center by committee approach about as well as they could have reasonably expected, but it was clear as day that the Celtics lacked a reliable big behind Daniel Theis. Enes Kanter and the Williams bros. all had their moments, but Brad Stevens never really trusted any of them over the long haul. They got away with that before facing Miami because Joel Embiid consistently ran out of gas, and Toronto’s frontcourt was designed more to stop elite size than to take advantage of a lack of it. Bam Adebayo killed Boston all series long on both ends of the floor (minus Game 5), and we’re only seeing the start of his potential superstar career.

With Jayson Tatum taking the leap and Jaylen Brown emerging as an elite two-way wing, the Celtics are no longer playing with house money and firmly entering the win-now phase. If their progress continues to stagnate, then some changes may be in order.

Denver – The Beginning or a Fluke?

They built this small market team from the ground up as opposed to having superstar players join forces to form a contender. There’s nothing wrong with that considering the players that do that just want a winning legacy, but seeing a team build a contender from scratch just feels purer when they make it to the top. That’s also why seeing a team like Milwaukee fail miserably in the playoffs is pretty heartbreaking.

On the surface, the Nuggets have all the ingredients in play to create both a dynasty and their most successful run as a franchise. We know that as long as they have Nikola Jokic, who has solidified himself as the best center in the league, Denver should always be near or at the very top of the Western Conference for the next decade. Although, being a top seed in the conference and being a contender can be two mutually exclusive terms.

The Nuggets’ progress has been far more encouraging than discouraging since last season. They were within inches of making the Western Conference Finals last year, and were a Mason Plumlee brain fart from potentially being up 2-1 on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray finally found his consistency. Outside of some ill-advised comments about his coach, there’s a lot to like about Michael Porter Jr. Jerami Grant’s going to get a nice paycheck this offseason. Gary Harris changed the entire landscape of Denver’s defense. Monte Morris and Paul Millsap were actually pretty reliable in the roles they were given. Oh, and they competed to the very end without one of their most important players, Will Barton.

Really, the concerns with Denver don’t pertain to them but more specifically to their surroundings. Everyone outside of presumably Oklahoma City is going to try to make the playoffs next year out West. Golden State will have a clean slate of health. As will Portland. In Year 3 of Luka, Dallas’ ceiling will only get higher. Pretty much every team that didn’t make the playoffs has room to grow, and the ones that did aren’t going to just give away their spot.

Still though, there are loose threads in Mile High City. We won’t know if Murray’s play was a young stud taking his next step into superstardom or if it was a facade from someone catching lightning in a bottle inside the Bubble. MPJ’s returns are extraordinary, but let’s see if his body can hold up long-term. What exactly are they going to do with Bol Bol?

Now that their offseason has arrived, they have to decide if they should run it back or make changes to strike while the iron is hot. History suggests that there’s no right or wrong answer. Miami did the latter mid-season, and now they’re in the finals. The Los Angeles Clippers also did the latter mid-season, and they’re sitting at home. Boston did the former, and you can argue both sides for them. Not having enough bench help hurt them, and yet a healthy Gordon Hayward could have put them in the finals.

Denver’s come along nicely since the start of the Nikola Jokic era, and they still haven’t hit their ceiling yet. What matters most is that they do everything to get to their ceiling. How they do that is the real question.

Making the conference finals is a massive stepping stone for young teams. For Boston, this was an all too familiar territory. For Denver, this was monumental. What both need to focus on is how they’re going to take it one step further next season. Or, at the very least, make sure they don’t take a step back.

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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