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2015-16 Miami HEAT Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Miami HEAT’s 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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Last year, the Miami HEAT never quite reached their full potential due to injuries and roster changes. The team ultimately finished the season at 37-45, which put them outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. This year, the team is looking to not only return to the postseason but be one of the East’s top squads. Their team looks great with Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire among others. But can they stay healthy and play to their full potential?

Basketball Insiders previews the Miami HEAT’s 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

The Miami HEAT could make one of the largest jumps in the standings of any team in the East. Last season they were hampered by injuries, most significantly losing Chris Bosh mid-season due to blood clots. A healthy Bosh and Dwyane Wade give them an automatic boost in production. Then, throw in a full season with Goran Dragic and add the selection of Justise Winslow in the draft and the HEAT should have no problem surpassing their 37-win total from last season. Keep an eye on Hassan Whiteside, who is coming off of a breakout season and will try to continue to improve after establishing himself as an NBA player. The HEAT missed out on the playoffs after falling out of contention late in the season, but this time around they should be able to stay in the race the entire time if healthy.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Jessica Camerato

Miami quietly had a fantastic summer. They were able to keep all of their veterans (Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, etc.), steal Justise Winslow on draft night and then sign Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire to bargain minimum contracts. This is a team that has a ton of talent on paper and could be elite if they stay healthy. I expect Chris Bosh to return at 100 percent after he was limited by a blood clot last season, I think Dragic will be better in his first full season with Miami and I believe Hassan Whiteside will prove that his success last season wasn’t a fluke. I’m excited to see what this HEAT team can do this season, since we didn’t get to see them at full strength at any point last year. Not only do I have Miami returning to the postseason this year, I think it’s possible they could go on a deep playoff run if they play as well as they’re capable of and everything goes their way.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

It certainly didn’t take long for the world to fall out of love with the Miami HEAT. Apparently all it took was for King James to leave his throne for everything to fall apart in South Beach, but 2015-16 is a new year full of promise for Miami, especially with Chris Bosh coming back healthy following his blood clot scare last season. We assume that Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng are going to be healthy as well, but what’s really exciting is finally getting the opportunity to see how Goran Dragic and Bosh will play together now that they finally have a shot to jell properly. Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow bring some exciting youth to the squad, and Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire were nice budget buys in free agency. This is a team back on pace to contend in the Eastern Conference. Maybe we’ll all fall back in love with the HEAT this year.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

Miami will head into training camp in much better shape than last year, which was their first season without LeBron James. The HEAT stayed in the playoff mix most of last season before injuries derailed the team’s progress. All-Stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade missed a combined 58 regular season games. Veterans Luol Deng and Chris Andersen missed 32 games. Meanwhile in-season acquisitions Goran Dragic (26 games played) and Hassan Whiteside (48 games played) didn’t appear in many contests with the franchise either. The addition of rookie Justise Winslow should provide the team with lineup flexibility and newcomers Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green add much needed scoring and depth. There’s no reason why Miami shouldn’t be among the top eight in the Eastern Conference at season’s end.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

I think, along with the Indiana Pacers, it is incredibily difficult to figure out what the Miami HEAT are going to be this coming season. There is no arguing that Hassan Whiteside has incredible upside, that Goran Dragic can be a difference maker and that Justise Winslow was widely regarded as being the steal of the first round in this year’s draft. With LeBron James gone and Chris Bosh injured last year, Dwyane Wade proved to me that he still has a lot left in his tank and Erik Spoelstra, in my opinion, is one of the best coaches in the league. If things break right and if they are fortunate with regard to the health of both Wade and Bosh, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the HEAT end the regular season as high as the second seed. If, however, either Bosh or Wade struggle with the day-to-day rigors of the season, then I could just as easily see them facing the second seed in the first round (of course, as the seventh seed). I’m looking forward to seeing Amar’e Stoudemire posertize a few guys off of some pick-and-roll action with Dragic and let’s not forget that Luol Deng is still kicking as well. I see big things for the HEAT this year, even if they finish as low as third in their division. But I’ll put them in at second.

2nd Place — Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Dwyane Wade

There’s no question that when healthy, Wade remains the team’s top offensive weapon. Aside from LeBron James for a brief stretch, Wade has led the HEAT in scoring since his second season in the league in 2004-05. During that time, Wade has averaged 24.8 points per game. As he is set to enter his 13th season in the league, health concerns will continue to linger until he hangs it up. He has nearly two extra seasons on his legs from postseason time alone and has suffered numerous injuries over the years.

Despite the concerns, Wade turned in a great 2014-15 campaign. He averaged 21.5 points, 4.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game in 62 contests. His 21.5 points per game was good for third-best in the Eastern Conference and his PER of 21.44 was 10th-best in the East. It’ll be interesting to see how head coach Erik Spoelstra handles his minutes this season as he’s coming off of a career-low 31.8 minutes per game last season. Given the uncertainty with how Chris Bosh will return from his health scare last season, Wade should be a top contender to lead the HEAT in scoring once again.

Top Defensive Player: Hassan Whiteside

We’re all familiar with the impressive season Whiteside had last year. He blew up with the HEAT and completely dominated at times after bouncing around between overseas and the D-League. Had Whiteside started his dominance at the beginning of the season (instead of when he joined the team around January), then we very well could be talking about Whiteside as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. But since Whiteside only played in 48 games, we’re left to wonder what could have been.

During the time in which he did play, he averaged 11.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. His 2.6 blocks per game was second-best in the league, behind only Anthony Davis. It’s become clear that Whiteside has established himself as an elite shot blocker for the HEAT. He held opponents to 55.7 percent shooting less than five feet of the rim and 38.5 percent shooting between five and nine feet of the rim. His numbers less than five feet of the rim are in the same range as Draymond Green (54.8 percent), Tim Duncan (54.9 percent) and Joakim Noah (55.7 percent). Because Whiteside was able to alter shots and control the paint, the HEAT were a much-improved team defensively when Whiteside was on the court. The team posted a 105.6 defensive rating when he was on the court, compared to a 113 defensive rating when he was off of the court. If Whiteside can stay healthy this season, the HEAT should be one of the better defensive teams in the league.

Top Playmaker: Goran Dragic

Wade received consideration here, but Dragic earned this label instead. Retaining Dragic this offseason was perhaps one of the most important things for the HEAT. Now with Dragic re-signed for at least four more years, they’ll have a go-to playmaker on any given possession. Dragic has shown a great ability to be able to run an offense and create opportunities for his teammates. Since becoming a full-time starter three seasons ago, he’s averaged 17.1 points, 5.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game.

He only played in 26 games for the HEAT after joining the team at the trade deadline, but left many excited about the impact he can have going forward. While he put up good numbers in a limited sample, the argument can be made that he will be even better now that he’s in his first full season with Miami. He had little time to learn the playbook and adjust to playing with new teammates when he joined Miami midseason last year, so a full summer learning plays and getting to know his squad should put Dragic in a great situation to be successful this season.

Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade

It’s clear that Wade is the go-to player during crunch time. Given his long history in the league, he’s established himself as one of the best players when it comes down to hitting big-time shots. Wade finished inside of the top 20 last season in total points scored within the last five minutes games when the HEAT were either ahead or trailing by five points. Over the years, Wade has shown that he can be clutch in a number of different ways – the most obvious of which is hitting jumpers and layups. He’s also gotten the job done of the defensive end in late-game situations as he’s had a number of had game-saving steals and blocks.

The Unheralded Player: Luol Deng

Deng arrived in Miami last season as one of the most-established players at his position. He signed a two-year deal with a player option for the second year, which he utilized earlier this summer. Last season, much of the hype was put on Whiteside after his incredible start. Players like Wade and Bosh also stole the headlines as well, leaving Deng completely out of the picture. But Deng turned in a quiet season and was the team’s fourth-leading scorer with an average of 14 points per game.

As he prepares to enter his 12th season in the league, Deng is still a proven defender and a player that can spark the team when needed. His experience will prove to be beneficial for rookie Justise Winslow. Now that Deng opted in for this season, Winslow will be able to learn from Deng and he won’t face the pressure that comes with starting in the NBA. Deng has had long-term success in the NBA and his knowledge of the game will surely help some of the younger players on the team. While he may not go out and drop 20 points every night, he still deserves a ton of praise for what he adds to this team.

Best New Addition: Gerald Green

Winslow is the best addition for the team’s long-term plans, but Gerald Green gets the nod here because of the impact he’ll have right away. Green was one of just a couple players that the HEAT opted to bring in over the summer. The team mainly worked on retaining Wade and Dragic, but did add Amar’e Stoudemire and Green through free agency (and draft picks Winslow and Josh Richardson). While Winslow seems like he’ll receive plenty of playing time during his rookie campaign, adding Green will help the HEAT solve an immediate need: three-point shooting.

The HEAT finished 24th in the league last season in three-point shooting and didn’t have one player average more than two three-point baskets per game. Green is a career 37 percent shooter from long distance, and is just two years removed from knocking down a career-high 40 percent from three-point range. He figures to be Wade’s primary backup at shooting guard, and could even start on select nights in place of Wade. During a time in the league in which three-point shooting is extremely valuable, Green will be counted on to help the team improve its shooting.

– Cody Taylor

Who We Like

1. Chris Bosh

Everyone in the NBA community collectively breathed a sigh of relief once it became known that Bosh’s health scare last season wasn’t too serious. He’s now said to be healthy and very eager to return to the court. He’s been putting in some work in the weight room as well, as he’s added a lot of muscle to his 6’11 frame. He’s been one of the most productive big men in the league throughout his career and seems poised to continue at that level. While he was viewed mainly as the third option when LeBron James was on the team, he’s now become one of the top scoring options behind Wade. In fact, last season without James on the team, Bosh’s scoring went from 16.2 points per game in 2013-14 to 21.1 points per game. Having a healthy Bosh back next season is going to be a huge boost for the team’s expected playoff run.

2. Justise Winslow

Somehow Pat Riley and the HEAT managed to get lucky again. Miami got perhaps one of the biggest steals of the draft when Winslow fell to No. 10. His addition to the team already seems like a great fit. And as mentioned above, Winslow will be able to come in and learn from a proven veteran in Deng. He’ll be Deng’s primary backup and won’t face the pressure that comes with starting in the NBA. He’ll have the benefit of just coming into the game and playing his style. He was viewed as one of the most complete players in the draft and will be able to step onto the court this season and help contribute immediately (but without the lofty expectations that would’ve come with being a higher pick). During his time at Duke, he showed that he can drive to the basket and initiate contact in order to get a foul. He’s also excelled on the defensive end with his ability to lock up players and he figures to benefit with Whiteside patrolling the paint behind him. He may not ultimately get enough playing time to be a legitimate contender for Rookie of the Year, but he could prove to be one of the more productive members of this draft class.

3. Erik Spoelstra

HEAT head coach Erik Spoelstra has become one of the best coaches in the league. He has one of the best minds in the game when it comes to drawing up plays and getting the most out of his players. It’s obviously helped that he’s coached players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but last year’s HEAT squad represents arguably one of Spoelstra’s best performances. When you look at the up-and-down year that the HEAT had, it’s amazing to think that they narrowly missed the playoffs by just one game. Bosh played in just 44 games, Whiteside played in just 48, Dragic joined the team at the trade deadline, newly-signed power forward Josh McRoberts missed all but 17 games with a knee injury and Luol Deng and Chris Andersen combined to miss 32 games. This left the team relying on three different players from the D-League: Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Henry Walker. It should be noted that all three players were significant contributors in one way or another. With so much uncertainty that surrounded the team throughout the year, it’s an accomplishment that the team was still alive in the playoff hunt until the final day of the regular season. It’s shocking that Spoelstra didn’t place inside the top 15 in Coach of the Year voting.

4. Pat Riley

The HEAT re-signed Wade and Dragic, added Stoudemire and Green and drafted Winslow and Richardson. That was pretty much the team’s offseason summed up in one sentence, and even still the HEAT have been mentioned by some as winners of the summer. Other teams in the league earned that label by signing top-tier free agents to max deals, but Riley didn’t make any splashy moves. Instead, he recognized that retaining their players was the best possible move. They recognized that their projected starting five of Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh and Whiteside could be among the Eastern Conference’s best and opted to keep it intact. Who knew just one year after losing LeBron James that the HEAT could once again become a serious contender in the East?

– Cody Taylor

Strengths

Looking at this HEAT team on paper, it’s obvious that the biggest strength is their experience. They have plenty of veterans such as Wade, Bosh, Deng, Stoudemire, McRoberts, Green, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers, all of whom have been in the league for at least seven years. Many of those players were key contributors on those HEAT Finals runs in recent years. In fact, the HEAT are tied with the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs for the second-highest average team age in the league. For that reason, the team’s window to compete is getting smaller and smaller. But, given the amount of veterans on the team with championship experience, the HEAT should among the favorites in the East this season.

– Cody Taylor

Weaknesses

Given that the HEAT have one of the oldest teams in the league, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one potential weakness is going to be the team’s overall health. Wade represents one of the biggest question marks on the team, as he’s missed time over the last several seasons with various injuries. Bosh is said to be completely healthy and ready to go this season, but we’re still not quite sure how he’ll return once he steps back out onto the court. McRoberts is coming off of a season in which he missed all but 17 games with a knee injury. Stoudemire has played in just 278 games out of a possible 394 games since 2010. Additionally, Andersen has missed time as well. If healthy, the HEAT could be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but that will hinge largely on how healthy they can ultimately be. In terms of on-court weaknesses, as previously mentioned, Miami was 24th in the league in three-point shooting last season and that needs to improve.

– Cody Taylor

The Burning Question

Can the HEAT seriously challenge for one of the top seeds in the East?

There’s no question that Pat Riley and the HEAT are preparing for a long season. They feel their team, as currently constructed, can compete with the best teams in the East and make a deep run in the playoffs. You’d be hard-pressed to disagree with them given the amount of established players on this team, but health concerns will ultimately be there all season long. How many games will Wade play? Can Bosh return to the level of play that we saw out of him last season? Can Whiteside pick up where he left off last year? How will young players like Winslow and Tyler Johnson fit in? There seems to be a lot of questions surrounding this team, but there’s no doubting that the HEAT can be among the best in the conference if they can stay healthy. Don’t sleep on Miami this year.

– Cody Taylor

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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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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 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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