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Three Things That Must Go Right For The Nets To Succeed

The Nets made major upgrades this past offseason, but it won’t be as simple as plugging in new pieces and playing their way to a championship. Basketball Insiders’ Drew Maresca explores three things the Nets need to go right in order to succeed in 2019-20.

Drew Maresca

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The Brooklyn Nets are coming off a wildly successful season, relative to the season prior. They increased their win total by an impressive 14 games, eclipsing .500  and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

But instead of seeing an organic rebuild through, the Nets identified an opportunity to put their rebuild into hyper speed. And they took it – signing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to max contracts. And while it’s become incredibly commonplace for stars to change teams and pair up, the Nets are in the unusual situation of being without one of their new stars – Durant – for what will probably be the entire 2019-20 season.

While the Nets still have more than enough talent to improve on their 2018-19 win-total without Durant, the increased expectations and extra hoopla that goes along with playing in Brooklyn may result in those within the organization feeling added pressure to achieve success sooner than later. So what do the Nets need to happen for 2019-20 to be considered a success?

Before we dive into the keys to success, it’s worth noting that while — as said in the Nets’ 2019-20 Season Preview — this year should be viewed as an opportunity to build a foundation. We can assume that the Nets will instead be judged harshly almost immediately — and even more so when they inevitably struggle. Therefore, the Nets will need a lot to break their way to receive praise from outside the locker room.

So what, pray tell, do the Nets need to go right in order for 2019-20 to be deemed a success? The following is a list of three things that could greatly improve the Nets’ in 2019-20 – none of which are moonshots, but none are guarantees, either.

Uncle Drew Stays Injury-Free

The first thing that must be in place is a healthy Irving. Irving’s impact on the game is obvious. He can score from almost anywhere on the floor, breakdown defenses off-the-dribble regardless of who’s defending him and create for teammates like few others can.

But in order to affect the game, he must remain healthy. Irving hasn’t played in 70 or more games since 2016-17. In fact, Irving has only played 70 or more games in three of his eight professional seasons. And he’s played in less 60 games in three separate seasons, too.

Irving has suffered from numerous ailments throughout his NBA career (and even before). including an injured toe/foot in college and a concussion early in career. He also sprained his shoulder, strained his hip (twice) and broke his hand, finger and  jaw –  just to name a few. He was also famously shut down following Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals (broken knee cap) and for most of the second-half part of the 2017-18 season (knee soreness resulting in surgery) –  the latter also caused him to also miss the entire 2018 NBA Playoffs.

To say that Irving is injury prone may be a stretch, but there is a clear history – especially with his knees. And what’s more concerning, Irving already suffered an injury in his first season with the Nets – before the calendar even turned to October; he suffered a facial fracture – which is nowhere near serious enough to force him to miss time, but it will force him to wear a mask. So as much as the Nets’ roster, organization and coaching staff will look to Irving to lead the way on-the-court, he must be available to do so. And staying healthy is a big part of that equation.

Kyrie Irving Takes Charge

The second thing the Nets must have break their way to reach their full potential in 2019-20 is for Irving to grow into a leadership role. Historically, Irving’s leadership style has left much to be desired. He seems to disengage from teammates and rub them the wrong way when he’s needed most.

To his credit, Irving owned up to his past transgressions at the Nets 2019-20 media day.

“A lot of those battles I thought I could battle through (in Boston’s) team environment, I wasn’t ready for,” Irving said. “And I failed those guys. I didn’t give them everything I could have during that season. In terms of me being a leader and bringing everyone together, I’ve failed.”

While it’s nice to see Irving taking responsibility, a plan to improve is equally important. Irving also alluded to not taking the “necessary steps to get counseling or therapy” in past seasons, and specifically while dealing with various stressors in Boston.

Irving also said that he didn’t let others (teammates) close because, “a lot of the joy I had from basketball was sucked away from me.”

Irving is a smart and savvy individual, and he understands that interacting with the media is all about sincerity. Hopefully for Irving and the Nets, Irving’s statements were entirely genuine – and there is no reason to suspect otherwise. But more importantly, he’s hopefully put a support network around him – especially if he recognizes that professional situations have become overwhelming in the past. The Nets badly need an engaged and team-centric Irving to set the tone for their roster in 2019-20. And it’s pretty clear that – at least at times – Irving is the only guy capable of slowing himself down.

Caris LeVert’s Time To Shine

The final key to the Nets short-term success is Caris LeVert understanding his role now and in the future. LeVert appeared to be on track for his first All-Star appearance last season, but a foot injury limited him to 40 games in 2018-19. No one is questioning if LeVert is capable of stepping into the side kick role alongside Irving. After all, LeVert has experience playing alongside a high-usage point guard. In fact, the best comparison to what this season might be like for LeVert is probably the end of last season after he returned from injury.

Upon LeVert’s return, teammate D’Angelo Russell had blossomed into something of a star. Russell posted a usage rate of 33.6 in the 2019 playoffs, whereas Irving’s was only 29.8 through the same span (albeit in two series vs. the Nets one). And while head coach Kenny Atkinson was clearly more cautious with a recently healed LeVert than he will be this season, LeVert still averaged 16 points and 4.3 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and 45 percent on three-pointers through the first-round series against Philadelphia — not bad. And after a summer of conditioning and body work, we should only expect more.

But the bigger challenge for LeVert will be the mental side of blocking out the noise about a possible Durant return this season, controlling only what he can, and then taking a backseat to Durant upon his return.

On paper, that shouldn’t be a problem. LeVert is a scorer and slasher who plays well on-and-off the ball and converts effectively from multiple spots on the court – LeVert shot 33.3 percent from three-point land, 40.4 percent from 10-16 feet from the basket, 40.3 percent from 3-10 feet and 59.4 percent at the rim (he surprisingly shot 26.7 percent from 16 feet to the perimeter, which was probably a point of emphasis for him in the offseason).

But the game isn’t played on paper. LeVert is only 25 years-old and might feel he’s ready to take on a bigger role. He may also struggle with shifting to a role that’s predicted on playing off-the-ball even more – especially if he’s forced to do so midway through the season without time to prepare in practices, training camp and preseason exhibitions.

Optimistic Nets’ fans will point out that the third-fiddle role worked out well for Klay Thompson in Golden State playing alongside Steph Curry and Durant. But Thompson’s game is uniquely crafted to complement traditional scorers – remember when Thompson famously scored 43 points on the Knicks last season while dribbling the ball only four times? Very few players have that skillset or the freedom to play that style. And with Durant and Irving (rightfully) dominating much of the ball – and without a motion-heavy offense like Kerr’s to keep the ball and players moving – LeVert may struggle to get touches.

Atkinson will have his hands full in keeping all of his scorers happy, and LeVert could be the odd man out. If LeVert begins looking too far ahead, it could negatively affect both the present and the future equally. However, if he remains in the moment and capitalizes on the opportunities with which he’s presented, the Nets could have an even bigger big three next season than they think they do at the moment.

The Nets are primed for success in 2019-20 and beyond, but their unique situation with Durant and his rehabilitation process means they need additional output from a select few players – namely Irving and LeVert. The team needs Irving to remain healthy and grow into a locker room leader, and Brooklyn needs LeVert to block out rumors about Durant returning this season – which will inevitably swirl in a market like New York – while remaining flexible upon Durant’s return, whenever that may be.

If all of those things happen as prescribed, the Nets could find themselves ahead of schedule and ready to contend as soon as this season.

But if any of the above go awry, the Nets’ dynasty could be over before it begins.

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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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NBA

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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