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2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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The Los Angeles Lakers have been pretty bad for the last few years. And last season, with their top draft pick Julius Randle sustaining a season-ending leg injury in the first game and their cornerstone Kobe Bryant missing a bunch of time, their games weren’t even that exciting. To make matters worse, many of their contests were on national television.

Coming into this 2015-16 season, the script is totally flipped. Bryant and Randle are healthy, they have a slew of veteran contributors joining the team such as Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass, and this summer they drafted dynamic point guard D’Angelo Russell second overall.

There are real, legitimate reasons for Laker Nation to be excited for the first time in quite awhile, despite the unlikeliness of this squad solidifying a playoff berth in the competitive Western Conference (even though it is admittedly less deep than in recent seasons).

Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers.

Five Thoughts

The only thing I find myself wondering as the Lakers get set to tip off their 2015-16 season is whether we have already seen the last of Kobe Bryant. Bryant has missed 123 games over the past two seasons and just recently celebrated his 37th birthday. He has played 1,280 career games and another 220 playoff games, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the end is near. Fortunately for the Lakers, with the ping pong balls landing in their favor, they walked away from the 2015 NBA Draft with D’Angelo Russell—a surefire talent who general manager Mitch Kupchak believes will carry the torch for the franchise after Bryant is officially gone. Russell will join Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson as the pieces that the team will attempt to secure for the long haul, while Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, Nick Young and Roy Hibbert simply hope to give Byron Scott’s team a chance to qualify for the playoffs. In the end, without the acquisition of any game-changing free agent, the Lakers will end up as just another team in the Western Conference attempting to escape the doldrums. And unfortunately, they won’t be successful, at least not this season. Due to some recent trades, the Lakers will have to send out two first round picks over the next few years, but their 2016 first round pick is protected so long as it lands in the top three. I think it is fairly likely that the Lakers end up clocking in as one of the worst teams in the Western Conference this season, though they should have an opportunity to edge out the Sacramento Kings out in the Pacific Division.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

I’m not sure what the Lakers are doing, to be honest. On one hand, they’re assembling an impressive young core that features talented prospects like D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. among others. Then, on the other hand, they’re bringing in veterans like Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass who will take playing time away from those young guys. It seems to me that the Lakers aren’t sure if they should embrace a rebuild or continue to add quick-fix veterans. It seems like after missing on marquee free agents this summer, they just added those veterans to save face, act like they’re competing this year and appease Kobe Bryant. I think their best course of action would be embracing the youth movement, since there’s no way that this Lakers team can make the playoffs as currently constructed in the brutal Western Conference. By adding those veterans this offseason, L.A. may have taken minutes away from their young players and hurt their chances of getting a better pick in the 2016 NBA Draft since those veterans will provide marginal improvement (but not enough to actually matter). The worst place to be as an NBA franchise is in the middle of the pack. If you aren’t a contender, it’s better to be a bottom feeder because then at least you can potentially land a star with a top draft pick and develop your young players. Right now, the Lakers find themselves in the middle of the pack and I don’t understand their long-term plan.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

Los Angeles Lakers fans have been in the unusual position of salivating over the potential of their drafted lottery picks the last two years. Now the team’s faithful wants to get back to their winning ways of yesteryear, however, this may require a bit more patience. Sure there were solid pieces added over the summer such as D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams and Roy Hibbert. The team will also benefit from the healthy return of Julius Randle, who missed all but one game last season. But ultimately the health and effectiveness of future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant will be the determining factor of this team’s ceiling. Optimists believe Bryant is ready to go out with a loud bang. Skeptics point to the fact Bryant has been unable to finish the last three seasons due to injury and the fact that his body can no longer shoulder the load solo. We’ll side with the latter.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

The Lakers did what they could to salvage an offseason where they unfortunately did not land them any of the tastier fish. While adding Roy Hibbert and Lou Williams for most teams would be a reasonable haul, those guys ended up just feeling like sad consolation prizes in a truly disappointing summer. Getting the second overall pick and using it on D’Angelo Russell was a good deal, though he might not be as immediately dominant as Lakers fans hope. Having Julius Randle and Kobe Bryant back healthy are good things, as well. Good enough to make the playoffs, though? That might be asking a lot. Bryant is golfing his final hole, Hibbert is painfully inconsistent and both Randle and Russell are completely unproven. In an increasingly tough Pacific Division, it’s still tough to see them squeezing into the playoff picture, marginally improved though they may be.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

Between the returns of Kobe Bryant and Julius Randle, along with the debut of D’Angelo Russell, there will be no shortage of buzz on the Lakers this season. How it all comes together on the court remains to be seen. The Lakers should be better than their 21-win struggle last season. The additions of Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass bolsters their veteran experience and gives them players that can contribute immediately. As always, the potential of the team depends on health.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Jessica Camerato

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Kobe Bryant

Barring a near impossible addition of a select number of NBA stars, Kobe will be the best player on the Lakers until he retires. With his jumper, array of post moves and ball fakes that juke his defenders out of their shoes and make up for his waning athleticism, along with his veteran savvy and killer instinct, Kobe is the quintessential, prototypical offensive superstar. A healthy Kobe is the best offensive player on the team. Any game, anywhere, he can drop 50 points.

Top Defensive Player: Roy Hibbert

While he isn’t in his All-Star form from his early days in Indiana, Hibbert and his 7’2 frame instantly becomes the best defensive big man in a Lakers’ uniform. The “King of Verticality” will patrol the paint for Los Angeles and would hypothetically close the book on the Lakers’ reputation as basically five Spanish Matadors that invite the opposing team to drive to the hoop. No more “Olé!”

Top Playmaker: Jordan Clarkson

Obviously Kobe could fill up most of these categories, but we’ll put a young, emerging player here. The youthful Clarkson can fill it up himself, but also can get his teammates involved. His long wingspan and hops help him get deflections and initiate the fast-break for the rest of his team. It is going to be really interesting to see how the 23-year-old Clarkson will build off of his strong rookie year. He has more experience, but the point guard battle between Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell will be quite intriguing. Who is going to start between the two of them? Will they play significant minutes together? Which one will finish games beside Kobe in the backcourt?

Top Clutch Player: Kobe Bryant

How could the most clutch player on the Lakers not be Kobe? With the game on the line, who else on their team would you want shooting the ball? The Black Mamba, and it’s not even really close. Kobe is a transcendent talent that we are lucky to have been able to watch. All NBA fans should just want him to be healthy all year and have some flashes of his prime years over the course of the season. We don’t know how many years of Kobe we have left, so we have to relish and cherish him while he is still playing.

Top Unheralded Player: Julius Randle

There was a significant amount of hype for Julius Randle before last year. Then he broke his leg in his NBA debut, which sure tempered the crazy expectations. Now all the hype is on second overall draft pick D’Angelo Russell, Clarkson and the incoming veterans. Randle shouldn’t be left out of the conversation. The Lakers now have a talented guard rotation and as a big man, a healthy Randle will be able to show off his tremendous skills and make an impact in the post this season.

Top New Addition: D’Angelo Russell

Russell is going to be electric for the Lakers. They haven’t had this talented of a point guard since… maybe Derek Fisher in his prime (we can’t count Steve Nash since he was never really healthy). Russell seems to have embraced what it means to be a Laker and looks primed to have a great rookie season (as he recently told our Alex Kennedy). He beats out the veteran acquisitions (Hibbert, Williams and Bass) mostly based on his superstar potential. Russell is the future of the Lakers. Once Kobe retires (and not until then), Russell will be the face of the franchise. He is dynamic and will certainly contribute to the uptick in the number of Lakers wins this upcoming season.

– Eric Saar

Who We Like:

1. Lou Williams: Williams is a better version of Nick “Swaggy P” Young. He can be that awesome spark off the bench and gives the Lakers some long-range shooting, which they lacked last year (if Coach Byron Scott lets him shoot from deep with enough volume to make a difference).

2. Brandon Bass: Bass will really help the Lakers as a free agent addition. He is a blue-collar guy who works hard, sets screens, rebounds well and defends his position. He’s a little better than just that, but those characteristics in a player who also has some offensive ability and versatility, along with his experience, will be an asset to Los Angeles.

3. Nick Young: Swaggy P isn’t a bad NBA player, but the problem is he has been forced into a bigger role than he should really fill on a team. With the addition of Lou Williams, the drafting of Russell, along with Bryant and Randle’s improved health, the Lakers won’t have to rely so much on Young and he should flourish this upcoming season as a result. He does have some playmaking ability, he can certainly shoot and is definitely a great “bad shot” maker.

4. Ryan Kelly: Sort of in the same vein as Nick Young, Kelly has been thrust into a larger role than he’s suited for. The 24-year-old stretch-four is perfectly suited to be one of the last bigs off the bench, not a starter or key contributor. With the addition of Hibbert and Bass, as well as a healthy Randle, Kelly gets moved down the depth chart and can pick his spots, flourishing in a suitable role. His shooting will certainly help, as he is by far the best shooter in the Lakers’ frontcourt.

5. Larry Nance Jr: Nance Jr. will be another youthful addition to this diverse Lakers squad. Since being drafted, he has worked on his shot. Nance Jr. impressed during the Las Vegas Summer League with his athletic blocks and dunks, so he should be exciting to watch in the paint. For more on Nance Jr., check out Alex Kennedy’s wide-ranging interview with him from earlier this year.

– Eric Saar

Strengths

Los Angeles finally has some shooting and playmaking ability on its roster. The Lakers need it, as they were 26th in the NBA in effective field goal percentage last season.

The Lakers actually have some solid guards now. With Bryant, Russell, Clarkson, Williams and even Young, it’s a pretty decent rotation. They’ve improved their shooting by adding Williams and Russell over last year, and of course a healthy Kobe helps in that area as well. All these playmakers mean one of them should “go off” every game, giving the Lakers an offensive boost.

– Eric Saar

Weaknesses

Even with the addition of Hibbert, this defense is still going to be pretty bad. Last year they ranked second to last in the NBA in opponents’ effective field goal percentage. Just adding Hibbert and a handful of negative to average defenders won’t sway that too much.

While good near the basket, Hibbert is still really slow. Bass is around league-average and Robert Sacre, Randle, Kelly and Tarik Black are young and unproven defensively. With Hibbert and Bass, their rebounding should improve, but it still won’t be great.

– Eric Saar

The Burning Question

Will the Lakers surprise everyone and make the playoffs?

Doubtful. Even though there are a couple spots open in the West with Dallas and Portland getting significantly worse, the Lakers would still have to leapfrog teams like the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings, which is unlikely. However, there is finally (a realistic) reason for optimism and excitement in Lakerland again – a reason to watch all those nationally televised games: all of the young talent and a bright future.

There are no guarantees, but in a year or two there is a solid chance that the men in purple and gold can make the playoffs. The Grizzlies will likely be worse (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol aren’t getting younger). The Thunder may be broken up (who knows where Kevin Durant decides to go, although he may decide to stay in Oklahoma City). It remains to be seen what will happen to the Rockets too, as some key players (including Dwight Howard) approach free agency.

The Lakers are probably still a few seasons away from meaningful contention, but with a growing core of young players, the future is brighter than it has been in recent years.

– Eric Saar

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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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