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When Is The Sample Size Big Enough?

A couple of weeks into the season, Matt John looks into some of the surprises so far and asks how long will it take until these unforeseen wrinkles can be considered more than just flukes.

Matt John

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*Small sample size

That’s always the disclaimer we media folk have to include when we take offer opinions or analysis early on in the season. The reason is justifiable. A lot can change between now and when the season comes down the homestretch that we can’t say that the success or lack thereof surrounding either a team or a player will continue in the long-run.

But there comes a time when the “small sample size” is no longer a factor in how the NBA season has turned out. At that point, the early subplots that no one saw coming can be considered something more than just a fluke. Now that the 2019-2020 season has entered the double-digit mark, we’re starting to see things take shape a bit, and the excuse “small sample size” is beginning to fade.

For now, it’s still too early to come to any drastic conclusions, but, for some of these early-season surprises, we need to ask: how long do they need to keep doing this until they’re taken seriously? Some probably will take longer than others, but the end result is still the same. That being said, let’s begin.

How long until Boston is considered an elite team?

The cliche answer has been “When they upgrade their frontcourt.” However, that’s going to be very difficult for them to do with their salary situation and they currently have the league’s best record in spite of a supposedly weak big rotation.

Boston hasn’t lost a game since falling in their season opener to Philadelphia and are currently on a nine-game winning streak. According to ESPN’s Relative Percentage Index, they’ve had the 18th-toughest schedule so far, so they haven’t exactly been facing the top teams on a nightly basis. However, in that time, they’ve beaten some of their toughest competitors in the East, such as Milwaukee and Toronto, as well as blown out other quality teams like San Antonio on the road.

They currently have the best offensive rating in the entire league, scoring 114.3 points per 100 possessions. Before they gave up 133 points to Washington the other night, they also had the seventh-best defensive rating, giving up 102.1 points per 100 possessions. Those 133 points they gave up can be alluded to them not having their two best defensive bigs – Daniel Theis and Robert Williams III – and Gordon Hayward.

At some point, the Celtics are going to lose again. At some other point, they’re going to go through a slump. For now, all they’re doing is proving that they shouldn’t be counted out. At full-health, they may have the most well-rounded offense headed by Hayward, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They’ve maintained a solid defense without Al Horford and Aron Baynes – sans against the Wizards – because of how they’ve managed their center rotation of Theis, Williams, Enes Kanter and, at times, Grant Williams.

If that isn’t enough, their 9-1 start is the best they’ve had since 2007-08, the last season they won the NBA title. Boston hasn’t established itself as the team to beat like their predecessor did at that time, but they have exceeded expectations enough that they shouldn’t be written off against the likes of Milwaukee or Philadelphia.

There was some temptation to ask the same question about the reigning champions, but instead, more focus should be put on their unquestioned, newly-appointed alpha dog.

How long until Pascal Siakam is in the running for MVP?

This writer already dove into how Siakam has proven himself to be a superstar in the early parts of the season. A week or so later, nothing has changed. Instead of starting with him, let’s start with Toronto.

Coming into the season, the Raptors already had enough personnel on the defensive side of the ball that even without Kawhi, they still should have been a great, possibly even elite team on that end. Offensively, there was supposed to be a significant dropoff with Leonard gone. So far, there has been some decline on that end, but not nearly as significant as originally feared. Defensively, they’ve been even better when you compare their defensive rating to last season, which has in part sparked their 8-3 start.

Let’s not kid ourselves here. Pascal Siakam’s evolution into a lead guy has kept Toronto among the best in the league. If you don’t believe that, look at his net-rating. The Raptors are plus-19.3 with him on the floor, and that’s not skewed because of how good he’s been one side. On both sides, he has been Toronto’s most effective player.

The Raptors are plus-12.5 offensively and minus-6.8 defensively when Siakam is on the floor. Offensively, he tops everyone on the roster while defensively, he’s third behind Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, neither of whom play close to the number of minutes that Pascal does.

Siakam’s numbers have come down a bit since his hot start – surprising no one – but they’re still about as fantastic as Toronto could have hoped for. He’s scoring 27.2 points a game on 49/37/82 splits as well as averaging 9.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists. If that doesn’t scream out “elite all-around player,” then what does? More importantly, those numbers are getting the Raptors’ positive results.

Think of it this way. If Toronto had the same Pascal Siakam from last year, they’d probably be somewhere between average and good right now. They’ve started this season firmly in the elite tier because of their fourth-year man taking another step in his career. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and James Harden are probably going to garner the most MVP buzz, but Pascal’s impact should not be slept on.

How long until we realize that Cleveland’s not blowing it up?

Spencer Davies already wrote about how Cleveland has been a fundamentally solid team thus far this season on Wednesday. If you want a more thoroughly detailed look on why the Cavaliers are not as bad as people may have thought coming in, take a look.

It’s amazing how much different a team can look when their circumstances change for the better. Their best player has a clean bill of health. They have a head coach who knows how to run the ship. Their young guys are one year older and wiser too. A lot of their guys are on expiring deals, which means they’ll be playing their hearts out all season.

All of those factors have added up into the Cavaliers being a little more competitive than we may have anticipated. The Cavaliers are 4-7 because Kevin Love is playing more like his old self, Collin Sexton has taken some great strides this year, and Tristan Thompson is having a career year. With John Beilein running the show, we’re seeing not a greater, but a grittier team in “The Land.”

So why are outlets still putting Kevin Love in trade scenarios? Why are they labeling Tristan Thompson as a buyout candidate? Why are they still saying Cleveland’s best option is to start over?

There’s no need to tear apart something that, at the present moment, is proving itself to be promising. Haven’t we seen from Boston, Brooklyn and Utah over the last few years that if you have something good in the works, you should see where it takes you?

By no means are the Cavaliers a great team. They definitely have room for improvement on both ends of the floor. They’re mediocre, but *mediocre* is still better than *bad*, and this roster has the potential to improve in significant ways.

What’s getting overlooked is that they have both expiring deals and draft assets that can be used to acquire someone really good value on the trade market. Good character guys like Marcus Morris could probably be had, and who knows what stars could become available?

Cleveland could blow it up, but what are the odds that they get someone as good as Kevin Love in a trade? What are the odds that they’ll not only win the lottery but also get a franchise cornerstone there too? We’ve seen Cleveland possibly be the luckiest team ever with the ping pong balls, but the only superstar they grabbed in that time was Kyrie Irving.

The Cavaliers are nowhere near the team they were when LeBron was around, but they have the building blocks for a new era of good basketball. For now, they don’t have to go anywhere near the reset button.

How long until Andrew Wiggins is pegged as a “future star” again?

Have we ever seen something like this happen in the history of professional basketball? Or even professional sports?

Two years ago, Andrew Wiggins was supposed to be a franchise player in waiting. Less than a month ago, he was a bust. Since the start of November, he’s played some of the best all-around basketball of his career. Because of that, it seems that hope for Wiggins’ future is slowly being restored.

Many believed the Minnesota Timberwolves consisted of Karl-Anthony Towns and not much else coming into the season, but not if Maple Jordan had anything to say about it. Following a decent start to the season, Wiggins has torn it up so far in November. In seven games, Wiggins has put up 29.1 points on 50/43/69 splits. To add to that, he’s shown improved playmaking abilities, averaging 5.1 assists in that span. For more details, read Douglas Farmer’s piece on Wiggins.

The hot shooting will die down a bit, but there’s more to Wiggins’ progress than just hitting more shots. Offensively, he’s been a lot smarter. He’s cutting down his mid-range jumpers. He’s evolved as a playmaker. He’s turned his three-ball into more of a weapon. To summarize, he’s looking more like the Andrew Wiggins we thought the Timberwolves were getting when he first arrived. It’s the best stretch of his career, and it’s played a part in Minnesota starting out better than we thought they would.

No one knows why exactly this is happening now and not before. Maybe we expected too much from him early on. Maybe he experienced some fatigue after playing under Tom Thibodeau for over two seasons. Maybe the Jimmy Butler experience damaged his psyche a bit. Whatever the case may have been, Wiggins’ career now looks like it’s on an upward trajectory again.

In fact, if things keep going this way, there might not be any need to put “future” in “future star” for Wiggins when the All-Star break comes around.

As encouraging as some of these surprises have been, time will tell whether these questions will be worth looking into further. It may take a month, a week, or even just a game to make any of them look offbase.

For the record, there were plenty of other early-season surprises that were worth talking about. How long until Phoenix proves that they’re for real? How long until San Antonio realizes it is better off without DeMar DeRozan? How long until the top of the Eastern Conference is comparable to the top of the Western Conference?

These questions, as of now, arguably aren’t worth looking into because of the small sample size, but time will tell.

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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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