The Houston Rockets had an interesting 2014-15 season. They were seriously depleted throughout the season, but still managed to nab a high playoff spot and advance to the Western Conference Finals.
This summer, the Rockets improved in two ways. One, they pounced on Ty Lawson when his relationship with the Denver Nuggets had soured, picking up the speedy point guard without giving up much. But perhaps more importantly, they got healthy. I mean, a 37-year-old Jason Terry was their starting point guard in the postseason once Patrick Beverley went down last season.
Now, they are back at full strength with Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas back. Motiejunas missed the final 11 games of the regular season and the entire playoffs. Jones was injured five games into the season, missed almost three months and thencame back, but was injured a few other times throughout the year. Beverley missed several games early in the season, but then was out for the rest of the year starting in late March with a wrist injury. Superstar Dwight Howard also missed a huge chunk of the year with an injury.
This team seems on the precipice of greatness. They have two superstars in James Harden (an MVP candidate last year) and Howard, and they have good role players and young developing talent. This could be their year if everything breaks right.
Even if the Rockets hadn’t have traded for Ty Lawson, they still would’ve been considered among the favorites in the West this upcoming season. But finally getting that much-needed point guard is only going to open things for up this team even more. Guarding James Harden just got a lot more difficult with Lawson in the backcourt, and spreading the court out only means good things for Trevor Ariza’s three-point volume. Dwight Howard shouldn’t be any less effective than he was a year ago, and the power forward rotation (Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Montrezl Harrell) is one of the best in the NBA. This team is going to be insanely entertaining, but more importantly they’re also going to be insanely good.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Joel Brigham
The Rockets snapped their first-round elimination streak by reaching the Western Conference Finals last season. Once there, though, the Golden State Warriors took the series, 4-1. The Rockets have proven they can win consistently over 82 games; now, the challenge is becoming a team that could win a title. The team gets Patrick Beverley, who missed the postseason due to injury, back while looking to fill the void of Josh Smith, who left for the Los Angeles Clippers. One of the more significant changes is the addition of Ty Lawson. Any time a team brings in a new point guard, especially one who has had troubles with previous teams, there could be a transition period on the floor. Given their talent, the Rockets should still be a lock for the playoffs.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
The Houston Rockets have posted back to back 50-plus win campaigns and last season reached the Western Conference Finals. The Dwight Howard and James Harden era has gotten off to a solid start. But more will be expected of this unit during the 2015-16 campaign. The low-risk, high-reward addition of Ty Lawson could help push the team over the hump, if the veteran floor general is focused on basketball. Harden is a perennial MVP candidate and although showing signs of decline, Howard remains a force on the interior. Another 50-win campaign is a near certainty, but this team will ultimately be judged on their playoff success.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
This is obviously a talented team and I like the addition of Ty Lawson since they didn’t have to give up much and he agreed to make the final year of his contract non-guaranteed. However, when I look at Houston, I still think they’re a tier below the top teams in the Western Conference like the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. They may prove me wrong, but I have them finishing as the fifth-seed at best this year, and I can’t see them representing the West in the Finals.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
I have a lot of respect for the Rockets and what they accomplished last season. After losing so many of their pieces from the 2012-13 season, there were some who wondered if they would even be a playoff team last year. Josh Smith became an important player for them and Pablo Prigioni gave them good minutes as well, so I think their losses will hurt. I am on the fence as to how I feel about Ty Lawson. His talent is undeniable but he is going to take touches and shots away from James Harden and it’s natural to wonder if that’s a good thing considering the success they had last year. I still think the Rockets are one player away from being a serious contender out West, but I was proven wrong last year. Let’s recall that they were one James Harden buzzer-beater away from being locked into a 2-2 series against the Warriors. I’d be surprised if the Spurs aren’t the top team in the Southwest but I doubt the Rockets will be far behind.
2nd Place — Southwest Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: James Harden
“The Beard” is the only person who could fill this slot for the Rockets. He is a scoring machine. He gets to the free throw line with ease, his Euro-step is legendary and his shot is deadly. His offensive prowess can never be doubted.
With his high-usage as the team’s number one offensive option, especially once injuries forced him to carry the team, it’s impressive that Harden shot 44 percent overall and 37.5 percent from deep last year. Also, as the player who attempted by far, the most free throws, he sure made the most of them, shooting nearly 87 percent from the charity stripe. Seriously, in 2014-15 he attempted 170 more free throws over the course of the season than the next closest player (Russell Westbrook’s 654), and 283 more than the third player on the list (DeMarcus Cousins’ 541). Both Westbrook and Cousins missed significant time last year, but it still goes to illustrate Harden’s amazing offensive ability to get to the line.
Top Defensive Player: Dwight Howard
While Patrick Beverley deserves credit for his tough defense too, it’s clear that the 29-year-old Howard (who won Defensive Player of the Year three times in a row from 2009-2011) should receive this spot. Howard has been hobbled a bit by injuries, but when healthy, he’s still got it.
Not only does he block shots (as he does in spectacular fashion, at a rate of 1.3 per game), more importantly he changes shots in the lane and discourages opponents from taking many attempts near the hoop when he is patrolling the paint. That’s all in help defense, but Howard also guards his man well and finishes the play by securing a ton of rebounds to the tune of 10.5 a game in 2014-15. If healthy, Howard could challenge for Defensive Player of the Year honors again.
Top Playmaker: Ty Lawson
Of course, resolving Lawson’s documented off-court issues with alcohol will be a priority for him and the team, but if he can get on the court, he will really help the Rockets get over the hump. If Lawson plays to his full potential and fits with Houston, he helps them in their quest for a title. The 27-year-old averaged 9.6 assists last year, which put him third in the league, only behind Chris Paul and John Wall. If he’s starting or coming off the bench, Lawson will jump-start the offense, getting everyone involved and taking the ball to the hoop if the situation calls for it.
Best Clutch Player: James Harden
This category has to belong to The Beard. With the game on the line, he’s going to have the ball in his hands. He can get to the hoop and finish in the lane if they do a high pick-and-roll, he is one of the best isolation players in the NBA, he can shoot it from deep if you need a three and he can draw a foul and then be money from the line. He’s easily the number one option in crunch time for Houston.
Unheralded Player: Donatas Motiejunas
Motiejunas has been unheralded since he came into the league three years ago. That’s all going to change this year. He is somewhat less physically gifted than starting power forward Terrence Jones, but is more skilled. Motiejunas is a seven-footer, who can shoot and has an arsenal of post moves. In that sense, he is comparable to former Houston mainstay Luis Scola, but is five inches taller, can shoot from deep and is much more agile.
It isn’t far fetched to think by the end of the year, Motiejunas will have surpassed Jones on the depth chart and be in the conversation for the Most Improved Player award. The only question for him is his health. The talent and opportunity are already there for him.
Best New Addition: Ty Lawson
Lawson has to be the best addition to the Rockets. They drafted a couple guys in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, but Lawson is obviously the biggest addition. He was Daryl Morey’s splashy move that could put Houston over the top if all goes as planned.
He is fast. Really fast. Lawson can handle the ball, meaning that the offense won’t stall if Harden doesn’t have it. Harden will usually have the ball and initiate the offense, but now he won’t have to. Lawson can run the break and defend his position (not as well as Beverley, but he brings a lot more to offense) and he should take some of the load off of Harden.
Who We Like
Trevor Ariza: He is a good all-around player. He can do pretty much everything well, but nothing at an elite level. With defenses focusing all their attention on Harden on the perimeter and on Howard in the paint, Ariza will fill it up as a catch-and-shoot guy. He’s a good 3-and-D player to have in the starting lineup around superstars, and he makes up for the deficiencies of the other players in the starting five. For example, Houston can switch the defensive assignments of Harden and Ariza so Harden doesn’t get torched and so he can save his energy for offense.
Terrence Jones: As of now, Jones is the starting power forward for the Rockets. He is an energy guy for sure, but he’s more than just that. He has some definite skill. While he doesn’t shoot much from deep, last year he converted on a little over 35 percent of his three-point attempts, which is quite good for someone his size. He may lose his starting spot to Motiejunas as the season progresses, but possibly not if he can consistently hit the deep ball with more volume, spacing the floor to help out Howard and Harden.
Patrick Beverley: Depending on the status of Lawson, Beverley could be starting alongside Harden like last year or be an absolute lockdown defender on the second unit. There is something to be said for a team being able to lockdown their opponents’ “spark off the bench.” If the opposing team’s bench can’t get anything going offensively, their starters have to come back in earlier than usual, causing them to be more tired at the end of the game. If Beverley is coming off the bench, he’ll need to work on his playmaking as he won’t be able to rely on Harden to initiate the offense. It’s also possible we’ll see Lawson and Beverley alternate as starters depending on matchups.
Corey Brewer: Brewer is like that energy guy in pickup basketball that plays intense defense on one end and is also somehow the first guy to leak out for the easy “almost cherry-picking bucket.” The 29-year-old journeyman can hit the occasional three-pointer, but doesn’t have a great percentage from behind the line. He is that spark (in every facet of the game) for the Rockets and always give them a chance to get back in the contest with his smart hustle plays.
Sam Dekker: Dekker, along with Montrezl Harrell, were great additions to Houston’s depth acquired through the draft. Dekker will probably play more than Harrell because he is a bit more polished and can stretch the floor with his three-ball. There aren’t too many minutes available for Dekker or Harrell, but regardless, they could make an impact for the Rockets, especially if there’s an injury.
Clint Capela: Right now, Clint Capela is the only backup center to Dwight Howard, although Motiejunas can play center in a pinch if called upon. The 21-year-old from Switzerland hasn’t played much, but there certainly is potential there. The Rockets could be in a bind if Howard gets hurt, because Capela is so raw, but the young center will be able to learn from Howard, continue his development and potentially make an impact in his reserve role.
You can certainly see Daryl Morey’s fingerprints on this team’s offensive philosophy, as they focused on threes a lot last year. The Rockets were first in three-pointers attempted and made last season, while they were dead last in two-pointers attempted. They also excel at playing fast, as they had the second-fastest pace in the league.
Led by Harden and Ariza, the Rockets ended up third in the league in steals with 777 on the season, which ends up being just under 9.5 steals per game as a team. To further illustrate this point, Houston forced their opponent into a turnover 14.6 percent of the time, which was fifth-best in the league. Also, last season, the Rockets were great at causing poor shots from deep. Houston ranked first in opponents’ three-point percentage in 2014-15.
Many players on the Rockets can’t shoot free throws. They were second in free throws attempted and fifth in free throws made, due to the Hack-a-Howard strategy some Rockets’ opponents employed and Harden’s knack for getting to the line. All of Houston’s big man rotation from last year (Howard, Jones, Motiejunas, etc.) shot free throws basically right at 60 percent or worse, bringing down the team’s average to 71 percent, making them the fourth-worst free throw shooting team in the NBA.
While the Rockets are the seventh-best offensive rebounding team, they are horrible rebounders on the defensive end. They grab the defensive rebound 72.9 percent of the time, which is third-worst in the NBA.
The Rockets are a turnover and foul prone team. They committed 16.7 turnovers per game, which puts them as the third-worst team in that category. They were also the fourth-worst team in terms of committing fouls with 22 per game.
The Burning Question
Will the Rockets be able to stay healthy enough to reach their full potential?
Really, health is the biggest question with this team. They clearly have the talent (in superstars and quality role players). They have a good coach in Kevin McHale. They have continuity and chemistry within the team, aside from adding a talented piece in Lawson over the summer. The only obstacle is can this team stay healthy enough throughout the season to make the playoffs (almost certainly) and will they be at full strength for a Finals run? The answer to that question will largely determine just how well this season goes for Houston.
NBA Daily: The Conference Final Losers’ Outlook
After being ousted over the weekend, Matt John takes a look at what went what Boston and Denver have to think about as they enter this offseason.
First off, let’s take a minute to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami HEAT for making the NBA Finals. It’s funny how this was a matchup everyone had dreamed of circa 2010 and, ironically, we finally have it – but LeBron James is on the opposite side this time! Also, it is certainly cool that this year two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year managed to work all the way up to the championships. We’ve seen NBA finalists who missed the playoffs the year prior, but we’ve never seen both sides do just that.
There will be plenty of in-depth analysis leading up to when the finals begin tonight, and you can find it anywhere easily. That won’t be found here. Here, we’re going to discuss the teams that came the closest to the final round, and some of the uncertainty they are going to face heading into next season.
Getting to the conference finals can be a big deal depending on where your team is at. For Boston and Denver, even though both are pretty young, getting to the conference finals has different gravity to both of them. Let’s explain.
Boston – So Close, Yet So Far
Should we be impressed or have cause for concern that Boston has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals? They’ve been able to do that with very differently constructed teams between all three of their appearances since 2017, but not getting over that hump after that many tries makes it less and less of a milestone.
The first two were defensible. In 2017, they were firmly in the “Just happy to be there!” camp, and, unless LeBron had all four of his limbs severed, there was no way that team was beating Cleveland. Those LeBron/Kyrie Cleveland teams were superteams overshadowed by the super-duper Warriors. With or without a healthy Isaiah Thomas, that Cavaliers team was going to roll all over them.
They definitely had a better shot the following year. The East was substantially weaker with Kyrie out of Cleveland, and Boston overachieved, but they were relying on a pair of young wings to take them not only to the finals, but to beat the best player of this generation too. The Cavaliers were definitely vulnerable, but not much can be done when inexperience is going up against arguably the most dominant version of LeBron James we’ve ever seen.
This time feels different though. Miami definitely had fewer holes – if not, none at all – that could be exploited on their roster. Even so, Boston, it seemed, had the more talented team. This was a much closer series than the final outcome made it look. It all simply came down to late-game execution. You’d think Boston’s more upfront talent would have given them the edge in that department, but the HEAT were the ones who made the big shots when it mattered.
That’s why this time, it doesn’t feel like a moral victory. This time, they are left with questions. Like, why did it take them until Game 3 to run plays through Jaylen Brown? Why is Marcus Smart taking the second-most shots in the most crucial game of the season? Should they keep their five best players if they haven’t shown they can play together? If they are serious about winning a championship, how are they going to make sure their opponents take as little advantage of Kemba’s defensive inadequacies as possible?
As disappointing as the season ended for them, Boston still has to feel good knowing that they have the league’s most talented young wing combo in the entire league and has built an excellent core around them. They could chalk up losing the conference finals to bad luck more than anything. The Bubble deprived them of playing in front of their fans. Gordon Hayward’s absence forced the team to have to exert a lot more for the majority of the playoffs than they expected to. Not to mention he clearly wasn’t 100 percent physically when he came back. Still, this was a golden opportunity to take another step forward and they blew it.
Among the multitude of reasons for why they fell short, this series also served as a subtle reminder that even in a smaller league, you can only get away with a lack of size for so long. The Celtics ran the center by committee approach about as well as they could have reasonably expected, but it was clear as day that the Celtics lacked a reliable big behind Daniel Theis. Enes Kanter and the Williams bros. all had their moments, but Brad Stevens never really trusted any of them over the long haul. They got away with that before facing Miami because Joel Embiid consistently ran out of gas, and Toronto’s frontcourt was designed more to stop elite size than to take advantage of a lack of it. Bam Adebayo killed Boston all series long on both ends of the floor (minus Game 5), and we’re only seeing the start of his potential superstar career.
With Jayson Tatum taking the leap and Jaylen Brown emerging as an elite two-way wing, the Celtics are no longer playing with house money and firmly entering the win-now phase. If their progress continues to stagnate, then some changes may be in order.
Denver – The Beginning or a Fluke?
They built this small market team from the ground up as opposed to having superstar players join forces to form a contender. There’s nothing wrong with that considering the players that do that just want a winning legacy, but seeing a team build a contender from scratch just feels purer when they make it to the top. That’s also why seeing a team like Milwaukee fail miserably in the playoffs is pretty heartbreaking.
On the surface, the Nuggets have all the ingredients in play to create both a dynasty and their most successful run as a franchise. We know that as long as they have Nikola Jokic, who has solidified himself as the best center in the league, Denver should always be near or at the very top of the Western Conference for the next decade. Although, being a top seed in the conference and being a contender can be two mutually exclusive terms.
The Nuggets’ progress has been far more encouraging than discouraging since last season. They were within inches of making the Western Conference Finals, and were a Mason Plumlee brain fart from potentially being up 2-1 on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray finally found his consistency. Outside of some ill-advised comments about his coach, there’s a lot to like about Michael Porter Jr. Jerami Grant’s going to get a nice paycheck this offseason. Gary Harris changed the entire landscape of Denver’s defense. Monte Morris and Paul Millsap were actually pretty reliable in the roles they were given. Oh, and they competed to the very end without one of their most important players, Will Barton.
Really, the concerns with Denver don’t pertain to them but more specifically to their surroundings. Everyone outside of presumably Oklahoma City is going to try to make the playoffs next year out West. Golden State will have a clean slate of health. As will Portland. In Year 3 of Luka, Dallas’ ceiling will only get higher. Pretty much every team that didn’t make the playoffs has room to grow, and the ones that did aren’t going to just give away their spot.
Still though, there are loose threads in Mile High City. We won’t know if Murray’s play was a young stud taking his next step into superstardom or if it was a facade from someone catching lightning in a bottle inside the Bubble. MPJ’s returns are extraordinary, but let’s see if his body can hold up long-term. What exactly are they going to do with Bol Bol?
Now that their offseason has arrived, they have to decide if they should run it back or make changes to strike while the iron is hot. History suggests that there’s no right or wrong answer. Miami did the latter mid-season, and now they’re in the finals. The Los Angeles Clippers also did the latter mid-season, and they’re sitting at home. Boston did the former, and you can argue both sides for them. Not having enough bench help hurt them, and yet a healthy Gordon Hayward could have put them in the finals.
Denver’s come along nicely since the start of the Nikola Jokic era, and they still haven’t hit their ceiling yet. What matters most is that they do everything to get to their ceiling. How they do that is the real question.
Making the conference finals is a massive stepping stone for young teams. For Boston, this was an all too familiar territory. For Denver, this was monumental. What both need to focus on is how they’re going to take it one step further next season. Or, at the very least, make sure they don’t take a step back.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
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.