Remember when the Jazz were supposed to be rebuilding? Neither do we.
It’s truly astonishing that in the two years after Gordon Hayward deserted Salt Lake for Beantown, Utah has not only kept the wheels turning, but they are projected to be in a better spot now than they ever were with Hayward on the team.
They say when a door closes, a window opens. In Utah’s case, the window that they have opened in 2017 now has a championship in its view. Let’s not mince words. On paper, this is the best team Utah has constructed since the days of Jerry Sloan. Last year, the Jazz were regarded as a sleeper team, but now, nobody is sleeping on what this team can do.
Utah should be one of the best teams in the league this season, but they’ll have plenty of competitors to square off against. What separates Utah from its competition is that they don’t have nearly as many question marks tied to their roster. They may have some new faces, but these new faces are adding to an already great team as opposed to being added to make a great team.
With that, let’s take a look at the 2019-2019 Utah Jazz.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Jazz had a sneaky good offseason, which would have received far more media attention in years prior but, in 2019, adding Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay to an already loaded roster doesn’t move the needle quite like adding a top-three player. The Jazz are deeper than most other teams in the league. Losing Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder will hurt on the defensive end, but the Jazz still have Dante Exum and Royce O’Neale who can play similarly versatile roles. And Conley is a huge upgrade from Rubio on both sides of the floor. So while the Jazz play in one of the toughest divisions in basketball, expect them to walk with the Northwest Division crown over the Nuggets and Blazers.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
If the Clippers were the winners of the offseason out West, then the Jazz were the team right behind them. It cannot be stressed enough how important the addition of Mike Conley was. Donovan Mitchell does not have to be the primary ball-handler and does not have worry about having to create for everyone else on the team as well. That’s Conley’s job now. Not only that, but they struck gold in free agency with Ed Davis, Bojan Bogdanovic, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jeff Green. They’ll all fit well with the core of Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Joe Ingles. They are going to miss Derrick Favors though. He was a very good defensive player and efficient scorer in the paint. They also need to decide what to do with Dante Exum. He’s oozing with talent, but he’s been hampered by injuries and hasn’t shown himself to be worthy of the top five pick the Jazz used on him. Exum becoming a decent contributor would be huge for the Jazz. It’s probably too late to ever justify him as being a top five pick, but all they need out of him is someone they can rely on for a few minutes off the bench and play both guard positions. Thankfully for them, if he doesn’t pan out, they have other options they can play.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Western Conference is absolutely loaded with championship contenders. It might be safe to say the Jazz could be one of them. Realizing improvements had to be made to bolster his roster, Dennis Lindsey hit a home run by acquiring Mike Conley Jr. to be Utah’s new floor general. He also brought in Bojan Bogdanovic to help boost the offensive side of the ball when the team needs a bucket. We’ve seen what Donovan Mitchell is capable of. Now he won’t have to be depended on to drop 30 on a game-by-game basis for Quin Snyder’s group to win games. Joe Ingles returns as the jack-of-all-trades player he is. Derrick Favors had to be moved, but Jeff Green and Ed Davis should be able to suffice in replacing the veteran big man. Look for these Jazz to be a real player.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Jazz may have had the most underrated offseason in the NBA, the addition of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović were master moves for a team that was pretty respectable before the deals. Add in the returning guy’s internal growth and Donovan Mitchell looked amazing for Team USA and it’s clear this is a team on the rise. Rudy Gobert is maybe the top defender on the planet. The Jazz seems like they have everything they need to really compete for something this year. If the Jazz stay health, home court and a deep playoff run isn’t out of the question, in fact it should almost be expected.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
A lot of the focus of the offseason centered on the Lakers trading for Anthony Davis, the Nets landing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and the Clippers making a massive trade to acquire Paul George in order to secure a deal with Kawhi Leonard. Lost in the mix is the fact that the Utah Jazz made some aggressive moves to bolster its already talented roster and now enters the upcoming season as a true threat to just about any team, including those that landed star players. Through an array of moves, the Jazz added Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay and Ed Davis to their roster, which is still anchored by Donovon Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Utah is talented, deep, experienced, well-coached and primed to be a top-level contender in the Western Conference this upcoming season.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Jazz went under the cap this past summer to trade for Mike Conley and sign free Bojan Bogdanovic. The team used its Room Exception to add Ed Davis, leaving the team with just minimum contracts to add to the roster. Utah has just 12 guaranteed players, with six coming to camp with hopes of earning the three final spots.
Before November, the Jazz need to pick up team options on Donovan Mitchell and Tony Bradley. Looking ahead, Mike Conley has a $34.5 million early termination option for the 2020-21 season. If he decides to leave as an unrestricted free agent, Utah could near $30 million in cap space. With Conley, the Jazz will be over the cap next offseason.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Donovan Mitchell
Of all “top” players on this list, Mitchell’s listing as the Jazz’ top offensive player would be the most obvious choice of all them. Besides, you know, Utah’s top defensive player, but the point remains the same. Donovan Mitchell is the offensive alpha dog on a team that is hungry for its first championship.
The results weren’t always pretty, but Mitchell definitely stepped up his game after a sensational rookie year. After Utah got through the worst of their schedule at the start of the season, and after his understandable sophomore slump for the first two months of the season, Mitchell went on a tear around the time 2019 started.
From January 5th to the season’s end, Mitchell averaged almost 27 points, 4.8 assists, and 4.6 rebounds on 45/41/81 splits. It was a little late for him to make an All-Star bid, but should he continue to build off of that – playing for Team USA could take him a long way – then there’s no reason why he can’t make his first All-Star team.
The only question left is if he can keep his efficiency when it really counts. We’ll get to that later on.
Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert
This isn’t just the obvious choice as far as top choices for the Jazz. This might be the most obvious top choice out of anyone in the entire league. For two consecutive years now, Gobert has taken home the Defensive Player of the Year Award, which was well-earned on his part.
The proof is in the pudding. Gobert is the captain of Utah’s lockdown defense, which has been one of the best in the league ever since his rise to prominence in 2015. Just look at Utah’s defensive rating and where that placed them among their peers in that time.
2018-2019: 105.7 (2nd)
2017-2018: 103.9 (2nd)
2016-2017: 105.3 (3rd)
2015-2016: 103.9 (7th)
2014-2015: 104.1 (14th)*
*Note – when he became full-time starter after they traded Enes Kanter, their defensive rating was 97.6, good for first in the league in that span by far.
When the term “franchise player” gets thrown around, it’s usually based off of a player’s presence on the offensive end. Gobert has given us an alternate take on what makes a franchise player. The Jazz have some excellent pieces on defense, but it would all fall part if Gobert were to be out for any extended period of time. That’s not to take a shot at anyone else on the Jazz roster. “The Stifle Tower” is that good.
Gobert is the quintessential example of what would make a defense-first player a franchise player.
Top Playmaker: Mike Conley Jr.
With Donovan Mitchell expected to grow even more this season, it may not be long before he usurps Conley in this category. For now, Conley gets the nod as the team’s top playmaker for his efficiency in that department compared to his new Jazz teammates. Conley’s 6.4 assist average tops anyone currently on the Jazz roster from last season. There’s more to it than that though.
Conley had an assist percentage of 32.7 percent, which is more than six percent higher than anyone currently on the Jazz roster from last season. He also had an assist-turnover ratio of 3.45, which is also much better than anyone who played in Utah last season. Taking care of the ball has never been an issue for Conley. Considering that the team tied for fourth in turnovers a game last season – 15.1 – they should see an improvement on that front because of him.
Putting all stats aside, Conley’s presence should open up so much for the Jazz offensively. Both his passing and shooting will do many favors for Mitchell and Gobert that they’ve never had since pairing up together on that end. At worst, he’s a step up from Ricky Rubio, which is something that shouldn’t be taken too lightly. At best, he’s an exemplary second-command.
Top Clutch Player: Donovan Mitchell
The Jazz weren’t exactly the best team in the clutch. Last season, they went 15-18 in games that were deemed clutch, good for 21st in the league. There definitely needs to be some improvement there for a team that has a considerably higher ceiling.
Mitchell’s individual stats in the clutch are sort of diappointing. In three minutes a game, he scores 3.1 points while shooting 25 percent from three and 35.7 percent overall in situations considered clutch. It’s not all bad though. The Jazz are plus-6.3 with Mitchell on the court in the clutch, and now, the Spida should have better weaponry around him if they were to play in a game that is considered clutch this upcoming season.
This also revolves around expectations. Part of being a superstar is being the man when it matters the most. There won’t be many players who will have as much or even more pressure than Donovan will this season. In his first two years, he’s taken the league by storm somewhat unexpectedly.
Now, everyone will be watching his every move.
The Unheralded Player: Dante Exum
A year ago at this time, a lot of spotlight was put on Exum. More spotlight than he’d seen since being drafted fifth overall by the Jazz in 2014. He was coming off an encouraging playoff performance against the Rockets, got a sizable raise because of it and the Jazz were in dire need of as much help as possible now that they had started a new era with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert at the helm.
Sadly, Exum went through yet another inconsistent and injury-ravaged season. His story last season ended usually like it always does. Just as he was turning it around for the better, another injury cut his year short.
Now that the Jazz have revamped the roster, Exum has fallen under the radar… again. With a clean slate of health, and the bar set higher for the team, Exum’s skillset could for the umpteenth year give the Jazz another dimension — a 6’6’’ point guard who is both an elite and versatile defender with a raw offensive game. Unfortunately, that was what many people thought he’d be last year. With the personnel that the Jazz have brought in, his skillset is now more of a secret weapon for Utah.
Then again, that’s what Exum’s always been since he’s been with the Jazz.
Best New Addition: Mike Conley Jr.
When deciding who exactly the best addition was for any team, it comes down to two specific criteria-
1. The best player that was added
2. The player that fills the most holes.
That’s why it was so hard to not make this a tie between Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. From his elite three-point shooting alone, Bogdanovic fills so many holes for the Jazz. He can also play multiple positions and the team wouldn’t miss a beat. But for a team like Utah, who’s rarely ever been able to acquire all-star caliber players in their prime, Mike Conley Jr. is undoubtedly their best addition.
A player who’s always had the label of “Best player that’s never made an all-star team” would usually contend for best addition. Unless a surefire superstar was added around the same time, an excellent player like Conley is the obvious choice. Conley’s a 20-point scorer, a smart passer, a frisky defender, and he’s even got a reliable jumper. Best of all, he’s a playoff-tested veteran now on a team projected to go on the most extended playoff run it’s had in over a decade.
Utah needed a star who could bring another dimension to their team. They’ve never exactly been an attractive destination for stars in free agency. So, to get someone like Conley, who’s still in his prime, he was about as ideal as they could have hoped for.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Newly found Depth/Versatility on the wing
Just because he technically wasn’t their best addition does not mean that we can’t talk about how impactful Bojan Bogdanovic should be.
Bogdanovic was 10th in the league in three-point shooting, putting up an elite percentage of 42.5 from downtown. Of the nine players that ranked ahead, he had a much more important role in the offense than the likes of Joe Harris, Danny Green, Seth Curry, Davis Bertans. And, unlike Stephen Curry, Danilo Gallinari, Buddy Hield, and Malcolm Brogdon, Bojan did not have much offensive help by his side after Victor Oladipo went down.
Coming off of the best all-around numbers of his career, Bogey’s the best wing Utah’s had since Gordon Hayward. While his presence isn’t as commanding as Hayward’s was in his prime, Bogdanovic’s passing, rebounding and defense have all gotten better on top of his elite shooting. He should be the perfect third banana in Utah’s offense.
He won’t be alone. Last time we checked, Joe Ingles is still a member of this Utah team. Jingles has turned himself into Utah’s swiss army knife, averaging 12.1 points, 5.7 assists, and four rebounds, all while establishing himself as one of the league’s smarter defenders.
The playoffs proved that he definitely has his limits, but now that there’s more upfront talent on this squad, he may thrive even more now that the Jazz will be asking less of him than they did before.
Let’s not forget about Royce O’Neale. O’Neale’s followed a story much similar to Joe Ingles. Going from an unknown to a 3&D rotation guard, O’Neale’s given Utah their money’s worth. What’s most encouraging is that he was one of the few bright spots in what was overall a miserable postseason outing for the Jazz, averaging 10.6 points on 47/35/75 splits.
This is the deepest and most versatile Utah’s wings have been since 2017, back in the days with Hayward and Joe Johnson. We haven’t even started talking about the other productive wing that the Jazz added this summer. And hey, speaking of which!
2. Jeff Green
Uncle Jeff’s legacy in the NBA will always be the guy whose highlights you watch and wonder, how was this guy not an all-star? Lucky for him, the days of him expected to be either a star or the last piece of a title team are over and have been over for quite some time.
Over the last two years, Jeff’s found his niche playing in a lesser role for the teams he played for. First, as a rotation player for the Cavaliers, he played a surprisingly monumental role in helping them get to their fourth consecutive finals when he filled in for an injured Kevin Love. Then last year, Green put up some of the most efficient shooting numbers he’s had in years – 47/35/89 splits – as the 7th man for an irrelevant Wizards team.
Now he finds himself in a similar position with what may be the most well-rounded roster he’s ever played with. For where the Jazz have him in his rotation, this couldn’t be a more perfect situation for Green. If Utah pans out as well as they’re hoping to, Green’s days as a journeyman may be numbered.
3. Quin Snyder
Over the last three years, the Jazz’ moderate success with Snyder at the helm has put the league on notice. In that time, Snyder’s developed a good reputation for getting the most out of his roster despite *technically* not having a star on it.
The jury’s out on whether he’ll objectively have a starless roster by season’s end, but now that he has a contender on his hands, all eyes will be on Snyder to see if his magic will continue on a team that is expected to be good. That’s the difference between the Jazz now, and the Jazz of the last two years.
This is eerily similar to the test that Brad Stevens had with the Celtics when they got Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. He could get the most out of a roster with low expectations. When he had higher expectations and more egos to deal with, Brad’s magic halted.
As of now, Quin has no big egos to manage, and Utah has a roster that isn’t overstocked with talent and just enough for there to be a good balance. This season, as long as nobody gets hurt, we’re going to see Snyder’s true colors. If his success from the last two seasons prove to not be a fluke, we’re in for a treat.
4. Ed Davis
Getting rid of Derrick Favors to make room for someone who fits the team’s needs better was an elephant the Jazz had to confront sooner or later. Once he was traded, they needed a replacement, and they got the best one they could find for cheap value in Ed Davis. An energy rebounder/defender, there may not have been a better backup for Rudy Gobert than Ed.
Unlike Favors, a player with his skillset won’t be too good to have coming off the bench. That’s the role Davis has always thrived in. Favors is the better talent, but Davis makes more sense as the backup 5 than Favors did as the starting 4. By making this switch, Utah no longer has any awkward fits in the frontcourt.
Most remarkably, Davis needs Utah just as much as Utah needs Davis. Davis has always left a good impression for every team he’s played for. It seems that every stop he makes, his team is better off having him around- which makes you wonder why he hasn’t been on a team longer than three years. This season, his services will be used on a contender where they rightfully belong.
Defense wins championships as they say. For the last several years, with a healthy Rudy Gobert, the Jazz have boasted a championship-level defense. This season, it should be more of the same. Unless Gobert gets hurt for an extended period of time, Utah should have arguably the league’s best D at its arsenal yet again. Hardly anyone on this roster can be bullied on the defensive end, which can take a team very far in the playoffs.
In fact, now that he won’t be relied nearly as much to carry the offense, don’t be too shocked if Donovan Mitchell emerges as a two-way threat. The Spida has never been a slouch on that end, but he’d had to exert so much running the offense that his individual defense suffered because of it. Mitchell was well-regarded for his defense coming out of college, so him showing that in the NBA would be another step towards superstardom. Not to mention, it would make Utah’s specialty all the more, well, special.
Saying the Jazz have an elite defense would blow the mind as much as saying the sky is blue does at this point. We all know how good they are in that department. What could finally become a strength is their new and improved offense. For the last two seasons, Utah’s offense has been quite pedestrian in spite of Mitchel’s best efforts.
In 2017-2018, they scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions, good for 16th in the league. Last year, that went up to 110.9, which put them at 15th. Now that there is more playmaking and floor spacing to go around, that number is sure to go up. When you think about it, there may not be much that Utah can’t do.
As long as everyone can stay on the floor, this Utah Jazz team should be a well-oiled machine.
What’s so strange is that the Jazz’ greatest strength may stem from the fact that they don’t have a lot of weaknesses, if any. At least on paper. After the summer they’ve had, they took care of two of their biggest weaknesses in secondary playmaking and shooting when they added Conley and Bogdanovic among others. More impressively, they did this without compromising their excellent defense. In fact, by trading Kyle Korver, their defense now has one less hole to cover.
For now, their weaknesses are more hypothetical than anything else. Conley has an injury history, so there’s always the risk of him going out. The bench doesn’t exactly provide much scoring support, but between Mitchell, Conley, and Bogdanovic, that’s enough offensive firepower between the three of them to support the second unit. There is one potential weakness that’s more than just a possibility. What’s worse is that it could make all the difference in the Jazz’ title hoops – Donovan Mitchell’s jumper.
Donovan’s definitely on the path to becoming a superstar, but his shooting deficiencies can’t be overlooked, especially in the playoffs. Houston essentially dared him to beat them as a shooter. As a result, he put field goal percentages of 25.6 percent from three and 36.2 percent overall. No matter how much you may like Mitchell, those are unacceptable numbers for a leader.
For the Jazz to take that next step, Mitchell has to show that he’s improved all-around from that department. The new additions will make his life easier, but the pressure will be on him to show that he’s dependable shooting-wise from anywhere in the half-court. If he doesn’t, that’s a problem. With this team, Utah can weather that storm more than they could last year, but failing to improve on his one weakness could trip the team up at the finish line.
THE BURNING QUESTION
How long will this window last?
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are both in their 20’s. As long as they stay in Utah, the Jazz will be in the playoff conversation. What we’ve learned over these last two seasons is that those two are good enough to put the Jazz in the playoff race, but also that, alone, they are not enough.
Luckily Dennis Lindsey and the Jazz ownership were smart enough to know that their supporting cast was in dire need of some upgrades. So, that’s exactly what they got them. Mike Conley Jr., Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, and Emmanuel Mudiay gives Mitchell and Gobert the best reinforcements they could have realistically imagined. In fact, for a small market team, this was as perfect as the Jazz could have expected. With all of these guys aboard, the Jazz getting their first NBA title is no longer a fantasy.
“Let the good times roll” as legendary musician Rick Ocasek would say, but how long will these good times roll? Conley will be 32 when the season starts, as will Ingles. Bogdanovic will be 31 when the playoffs start. All three are very much in their primes, but for how much longer will they be at the top of their games? And when they start to fall out of their primes, how will the Jazz compensate?
This isn’t a problem Utah has to think about now. It is something they should keep in the back of their minds as the 2020’s arrive.
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
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
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.
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.