The New York Knicks had big aspirations last season, only to fall incredibly short. After posting one of the franchise’s worst season in its storied history, the Knicks landed a couple of promising talents in the 2015 NBA Draft and re-stocked the roster with some interesting complementary players. The Knicks’ free agency was far from star-studded, but the players the Knicks added might end up being better fitting long-term pieces than many expected when the floor fell out from under the team last season. If everything works out as expected, the Knicks could find themselves in the hunt again.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 New York Knicks.
I’m in a no-win situation as it relates to the New York Knicks. If I give them a prediction that some deem overly optimistic, I will be accused of being a “homer” by some of my fellow scribes. If I am too harsh on them, rowdy and unruly fans that I encounter will give me an earful. What can I do other than speak the truth, then? Here it goes: Phil Jackson wasn’t brought to New York City to sign guys like Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo. Glen Grunwald could have done that and I’m pretty sure Donnie Walsh could have as well. Phil Jackson was brought to New York to get guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe or Draymond Green to buy into and thrive in the triangle. So let’s just be honest here and say that the caliber of the individual pieces that Jackson brought in this summer was “underwhelming,” to say the least. Still, though, that doesn’t mean that the Knicks will be worse off for it. Traditionally, if there is one thing that has haunted this franchise, it has been their propensity to swing for the fences rather than hit a single, bunt a guy to second base and drive him home on another hit. This summer, Jackson and general manager Steve Mills hit a few singles and are hoping for the grand slam next summer. This season will be about restoring the team to respectability, qualifying for the playoffs and beginning to assemble a team and a cast of characters that actually has a chance to compete for something meaningful in the NBA. At the end of the day, whether or not they are successful will depend on Carmelo Anthony and how he has recovered from his ailments. Even if Anthony is less than 100 percent, though, it is difficult to imagine the Knicks winning less than 20 games. And, if things break right—if Kristaps Porzingis is the real deal and if Derrick Williams can find his mojo—I think somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 wins is realistic. It’s difficult to imagine the Knicks making the playoffs this coming season, but even more difficult imagining the Philadelphia 76ers topping them in the Atlantic Division again, so I’ll put the Knicks in at four.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
This was a tough summer for New York since they missed on all of the marquee free agents that they were pursuing. With that said, they did add some veterans such as Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Kyle O’Quinn, Derrick Williams, Sasha Vujacic and Kevin Seraphin along with drafting talented prospects Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant. Getting Carmelo Anthony back at full strength should really help them as well. There’s no question that this team is more talented than last year’s Knicks squad and they will almost certainly improve their win total. But as far as making a huge leap and becoming a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, I just can’t see it happening. The East has a lot of talented teams this year and I don’t think New York can finish in the top eight. I’m excited to see what Porzingis can do and I really loved that draft pick because I think he has star potential, but it’s going to take time for him to become a difference maker since he’s very raw. I think this will be another down year for the Knicks, although I am expecting them to show progress from last year’s awful campaign.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
Must give credit where it’s due. Knicks team president Phil Jackson had a very respectable summer increasing the talent level in New York. The addition of Arron Afflalo, Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn and Kristaps Porzingis is definitely an upgrade over last year’s supporting cast. But the Knicks’ hopes of leaving the Eastern Conference basement and making a legitimate playoff run rests on the health of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who hobbled through 40 games last season. The playoffs are not out of question for this group, but it’s far from a certainty. The team will need several favorable turns in the road to get there, but for Knicks fans at least there’s the hope of potentially being in the mix at season’s end.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
It probably isn’t a good thing that Knicks fans are talking more about their chances at landing Kevin Durant next summer than they are the actual upcoming season, but that’s a testament to a really cruddy, hangover-inducing 2014-15 season that left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths. The team absolutely is better this season, however, thanks in large part to underrated free agency acquisitions like Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez, and Carmelo Anthony will be healthy too, which of course is the biggest reason for hope in New York this year. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis was a controversial selection that probably won’t pay immediate dividends but shows real promise long-term, and other additions like Jerian Grant, Kyle O’Quinn and Derrick Williams round out an obviously improved roster that should contend for the playoffs again in 2016.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
The return of a healthy Carmelo Anthony could help dig the Knicks out of the division hole they fell into last season. The addition of first round pick Kristaps Porzingis will give the team more options and versatility. The rookie can spread the floor and also gained weight over the summer to fight for position. After a disappointing 17-win season, there is nowhere for the Knicks to go but up. They could surpass the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers in the divisional standings.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Jessica Camerato
Top of The List
Top Offensive Player: Carmelo Anthony
Not merely the best offensive player on the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony is arguably one of the best offensive players on the planet when healthy. Durability will obviously be a major concern heading into this season, as his 2014-15 campaign was cut short by a major knee survey. However, ‘Melo is already back in the gym practicing, so there is optimism he should be ready to roll by the start of the regular season. Because of the injury and recent struggles by his Knicks, we may forget just how dominant Anthony is when at the top of his game. The all-around, individual numbers Melo posted in 2013-14 were incredibly impressive. Anthony became the first player in over a decade to average at least 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game throughout a full NBA season. He was also remarkably efficient on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, he became just the fourth player in NBA history to average over 27 points a night while shooting above 45 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 82 percent from the free-throw stripe. The other three members of that incredibly exclusive club are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.
Top Defensive Player: Robin Lopez
Improving on the defensive end of the floor was clearly a priority for Phil Jackson this summer. The Knicks handed Lopez a $54 million contract in July, making him the second-highest paid player on the team. Not much of an offensive threat, New York is paying Lopez to clog the paint and protect the rim. During his two years in Portland, his defense at the rim was stellar (in 2013-14, only Roy Hibbert held opponents to a lower field goal percentage on shots attempted within three feet of the basket). The Knicks ranked second-to-last in rebounding last season, so they will rely on Lopez to clean up on the defensive backboards as well. Lopez is known for his aggressive box-outs and physical play, which have been sorely lacking in New York.
Top Playmaker: Jerian Grant
Phil Jackson assumed he had adequately addressed the Knicks’ need at point guard in his first major move as team president, when he traded Tyson Chandler to Dallas and got back Jose Calderon. However, Calderon struggled mightily last season (due in large part to nagging injuries) and his numbers – including his assist totals – dipped significantly. This past June, the Knicks traded back into the first round in order to acquire Jerian Grant out of Notre Dame. Grant is a big (6’4 with a 6’7.5 wingspan) and athletic guard that should be able to contribute immediately on both sides of the ball. In addition to being a solid scorer, Grant is also a gifted passer with impressive court vision. Grant spent a five years in college and dished out a total of 690 assists during his Notre Dame career, which was more NCAA assists than the first 15 picks in the 2015 draft combined. Asking him to play heavy minutes early on may be asking too much too soon, but if Calderon can’t return to form, New York will have to rely on Grant to effectively facilitate the offense.
Top Clutch Player: Carmelo Anthony
Excluding games ‘Melo missed due to injury, one would be hard-pressed to find a single ‘clutch’ FG attempted by a Knicks player other than Carmelo Anthony since the day he arrived in New York. Throughout most of his career, Anthony had been one of the NBA’s better clutch scorers. And during his first couple of seasons as a Knick, Anthony knocked down a number of game-winners. However, Melo was remarkably ineffective in big spots in 2013-14 (he was 0-for-8 on shots with 10 seconds or less in the fourth quarter or overtime when trailing by one possession or tied) and misfired late in games last season as well. It was commonly believed that Anthony was worn down by the massive minutes he was forced to play, and had little left in his legs in fourth quarters. The hope is that fewer minutes and more creative offensive sets will allow ‘Melo to regain his reputation as one of the NBA’s best closers.
The Unheralded Player: Kyle O’Quinn
The signing of O’Quinn didn’t garner much buzz in NYC, but the under-the-radar acquisition could pay dividends in both the short- and long-term. A native New Yorker (born and raised in Queens), O’Quinn was a second-round pick by the Orlando Magic in 2012. Coming out of Norfolk State, he played sporadically over his first three NBA seasons in Orlando, but performed relatively well when given extended minutes. O’Quinn’s career per-36 minute averages (13 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks) suggest he has a chance to be a valuable rotation player. He is versatile enough to give the Knicks minutes at both the power forward and center spots. He possesses limited athleticism in his bulky frame, but has a high-intensity motor and brings relentless energy on a nightly basis.
Best New Addition: Kristaps Porzingis
The Knicks hadn’t had a draft pick inside the top-five since they selected Kenny “Sky” Walker in 1986. And with next year’s draft pick already traded away, the Knicks simply had to hit on their 2015 lottery pick. While the selection of Porzingis is undeniably risky due to the scary downside inherent in taking a skinny, unproven, foreign-born player, the vast upside is also irrefutable. Porzingis possesses an incredibly rare skill set for someone his size. He moves remarkably well and fluidly from baseline-to-baseline. This is noteworthy because lateral quickness is imperative for big men hoping to survive defensively in today’s pick-and-roll heavy NBA. Offensively, he dunks forcefully, yet makes it seems effortless. Still, the most impressive skill Porzingis brings to the table is his feathery touch from the perimeter. Kristaps has a flawless form that would be impressive from a shooting guard, let alone a guy measuring in at 7’1. At his size, he’ll be able to effortlessly launch uncontested jumpers from all over the floor. At just 19 years old, he hasn’t yet even scratched the surface of his vast potential. If the Knicks are going to return to respectability at some point in the future, it will be because Porzingis develops into a star.
– Tommy Beer
Who We Like:
1. Phil Jackson – Jackson’s first year on the job was a disaster. The Chandler/Calderon trade backfired and the Knicks’ 2014-15 campaign was epically, historically awful, as the Knicks lost a franchise record 65 games. However, Phil bounced back with a solid offseason this past summer. He avoided chasing a “quick fix” approach and seems to be content to patiently and prudently re-build the roster. He didn’t land a stud free-agent, but he also didn’t clog the Knicks’ cap, allowing the franchise to remain flexible going forward.
2. Kevin Seraphin – Like Robin Lopez, Seraphin will supply the Knicks with some needed rim-protection. Seraphin also possesses a promising offensive arsenal. In today’s changing NBA, he’s one of the NBA’s rare big men who look to score on the low block with his back to the basket. Like Kyle O’Quinn, Seraphin has posted impressive per-minute averages in his brief NBA career. Over his last two seasons, Seraphin averaged 15.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per-36 minutes. He’s still a bit raw, and a propensity to foul too frequently has been a hindrance, but the upside is promising.
3. Lance Thomas/ Lou Amundson – Very little went right for the Knicks last season, but Jackson and coach Derek Fisher were very happy with the effort and attitude that these two journeymen brought to the team when they were added to the roster in February. Fisher and Jackson have emphasized the importance of changing the culture within the organization. Amundson and Thomas both obviously made a very positive impression on the Knicks’ coach and front office, as both were re-signed and brought back into the fold. These two role players may not see much playing time during the regular season, but they can still certainly have a positive impact on the team by the way they practice and prepare on a daily basis. With an infusion of youth on the roster, it is important to surround those youngsters with veterans who can teach rookies how to be pros.
4. Kyle O’Quinn – The Knicks’ best value signing of the summer will likely end up being O’Quinn. The best aspect of the deal from a New York perspective is that the Knicks were able to lock-up O’Quinn for the next four seasons. With the salary cap set to spike upwards of $90 million by next season, being able to sign quality contributors to affordable contracts that extend four years into the future is how smart teams maximize value. This will likely be viewed as a smart gamble by Phil Jackson, as there is potentially a terrific payoff, yet very little risk involved. Consider this: In 2017-18, when the salary cap will purportedly jump up to $108 million, O’Quinn (who will then be 27 years old) will account for just 3.7 percent of the Knicks total cap space. If O’Quinn becomes even a decent role player in New York, that contract will return astonishing value.
– Tommy Beer
It’s hard to find a substantial strength on a team that went 17-65 last year. The good news is the team should be significantly better next season. Hopefully, Carmelo Anthony, the face of their franchise, will return at full strength. And, as noted above, Jackson did a solid job of rounding out the roster by bringing in an exciting and promising mix of young talent and proven commodities. This summer, New York added four players who are 25 or younger and measure in at least 6’8. The Knicks didn’t have any such young bigs on their roster last season. It may take some time for the team to mesh and for chemistry to develop, but if ‘Melo can play to his capabilities and the new pieces perform up to expectations, New York has the talent to at least stay in the playoff race for most of the season.
– Tommy Beer
There are obviously major issues on both sides of the ball that need to be addressed. The Knicks were at or near the bottom of the barrel in a wide variety of statistical categories last season. New York finished 29th in the league in Offensive Efficiency (they scored the fewest points in the league) and 28th in Defensive Efficiency. They were also 29th in rebound rate. And while the lack of talent was certainly the primary culprit, Derek Fisher appeared in over his head at times during his first season as coach. This year he’ll have to prove he can develop into a quality NBA head coach.
– Tommy Beer
The Burning Question:
Can the Knicks compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference?
Despite having upwards of $28 million to spend on free agents this past summer, Phil Jackson and the Knicks failed to lure a superstar to NYC. Yet, due to the salary cap spiking next year, the Knicks will once again have plenty of cap space for Phil to spend in order to secure a superstar. Eventually, signing role players will only get the organization so far. In order to take that next step, they need to bring in max-level talent. And in order to greatly improve their chances of convincing an elite superstar to sign, the Knicks have to show they are on the cusp of turning the corner. Would a significant step forward in 2015-16 entice a top-tier FA to come to NYC?
On the flip side of the coin, if the Knicks struggle mightily again in this upcoming campaign, might Jackson and company consider committing to a full and complete rebuild, which would involve trading Carmelo Anthony at the February trade deadline or the following offseason? This upcoming season could determine which direction the franchise ultimately heads in going forward.
– Tommy Beer
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
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.
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.