The Orlando Magic posted another dreadful season last season, but that resulted in another high-level draft pick and a change at head coach. The Magic had talent last year and underachieved on every level. Coming into the 2015-16 NBA season, the Magic look like a team with all the pieces to compete. The question is can the Magic achieve on the court to their talent level or better yet, overachieve as new head coach Skiles’ teams have done every year he’s taken over a team?
Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Orlando Magic.
At some point, a team has to quit stockpiling draft picks and start progressing and at some point, a young team needs to grow up and begin to mature. The 2015-16 season should be that year for the Orlando Magic. Scott Skiles is a no nonsense coach pushed his players in Milwaukee and Chicago and wasn’t renowned as someone who made many new friends. In all honesty, though, I think that is exactly what this Magic team needs. Nikola Vucevic is perhaps the most underrated player in the entire league and Victor Oladipo, in my opinion, has already proven himself to be a special, special talent. Tobias Harris being re-signed was a bit surprising to me, only because the Magic already seemed to have so many talented, young pieces, but clearly, they must have high expectations for him. Elfrid Payton seemed to progress beautifully over the course of last season and rookie Mario Hezonja should help make a difference from day one. Without naming each and every player on the roster, I will simply say that I expect the Magic to progress under Skiles and become a good basketball team. Unfortunately for them, they are seemingly putting things together at a time when the conference is getting tougher. Barring injuries, there is no chance that the Magic will be better than the HEAT, Hawks or Wizards in the Southeast Division, and if I were a betting man, I would probably take the Hornets to finish better than them as well. In the long run, I believe this is the year the Magic cease being a sure win on anyone’s schedule, but I still believe they are a year or two away from being ready to dance with the top dogs out East.
5th Place — Southeast Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Magic enter this season with playoff aspirations, as point guard Elfrid Payton recently reiterated on the Basketball Insiders’ podcast. While I believe that the Magic will make progress this season and show that they have one of the best up-and-coming cores in the NBA, I think they’re still a year away from making the playoffs in the improved Eastern Conference. With that said, I think that Scott Skiles will do an excellent job improving the team’s defense and building a winning culture. I also expect a breakout season from Victor Oladipo, who finished the 2014-15 season on a very strong note, and a solid year from Nikola Vucevic. Finally, I expect Payton and Aaron Gordon to shine in their sophomore seasons. This will be an exciting team to watch and they’ll be better this year.
5th Place — Southeast Division
– Alex Kennedy
It’s hard not to love the talent that Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan has put together, with players like Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris leading the charge for what is sure to be a very exciting Magic team this year. That said, it’s still hard to avoid putting them anywhere but at the bottom of the Southeast Division, due primarily to their lack of experience. Outside of Channing Frye and C.J. Watson, there aren’t a lot of guys on this roster with any sort of playoff experience. It’s a roster constructed of good youth, but it’s youth all the same. One of these years they’ll break on through; I’m just not sure this is the year.
5th Place — Southeast Division
– Joel Brigham
The Orlando Magic have assembled an intriguing batch of young players with a good level of upside, but the franchise is still seeking a star in order to seriously make a run for the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo are solid building blocks, but none of those guys are ready to carry a team into playoff contention. The Magic will continue to improve, but in order to reach that next level the team’s front office will have to pull the trigger and land a difference maker. Until then, the Magic will be on the outside looking in at the playoffs come April.
5th Place — Southeast Division
– Lang Greene
The Magic are an intriguing team to watch in the Eastern Conference, where there is room for newcomers in the playoffs. While they finished last in the Southeast Division last season with only 25 wins, they have a high ceiling of potential. The Magic boast one of the most underrated big men in the NBA. Nikola Vucevic averaged 19.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game last season, which got overshadowed by the team’s record. Tobias Harris, a proven contributor, returns after inking a mega contract this summer. The Magic also feature an emerging backcourt of Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. Aaron Gordon, who battled injuries last season, and rookie Mario Hezonja further boost their young talent. The Magic have the pieces in place to grow this season and in the future.
4th Place — Southeast Division
– Jessica Camerato
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: Nikola Vucevic
It was seven-foot big man Nikola Vucevic that emerged as the Magic’s top scorer last season. Vucevic paced the Magic with 19.3 points per game on 52 percent shooting from the field. His 19.3 points per game average was good for sixth-best among all players in the Eastern Conference last season. He’s been a double-double machine for the Magic as he recorded 45 double-doubles in 74 games played last season.
His biggest strength on the floor has become his jump shot. Vucevic attempted the bulk of his shots within five feet of the rim (451 attempts), but the midrange was his next favorite spot on the floor. He knocked down 47.4 percent of his shots (304 attempts) between 15-19 feet from the rim. His jumper can spread the floor a bit for the guards as Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo will often kick the ball out to him after penetrating into the paint. New head coach Scott Skiles will likely want Vucevic to continue to be a big part of the offense.
Top Defensive Player: Elfrid Payton
While we like Elfrid Payton here, we could have also gone with backup center Dewayne Dedmon. He’s emerged as the Magic’s best defensive player in the post, and as a result, led the team in blocks. He held opponents to 57.4 percent shooting less than five feet from the rim and 37.2 percent shooting between five and nine feet from the rim. But, because he’s unlikely to crack the starting lineup, we like Payton as the best defensive option on the team since he’ll be on the court for longer stretches.
After just one season in the league, Payton has emerged as a great perimeter defender and someone that just doesn’t wear down on defense. Payton recently told our own Alex Kennedy on a recent Insiders Podcast episode that he feels comfortable guarding just about every point guard in the league. He did mention that Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker was one of the toughest matchups he faced due to Walker’s speed and athleticism. As a rookie, Payton averaged 8.9 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. His 1.7 steals per game was good for fifth-best in the Eastern Conference, and after the All-Star break, he increased that number to 2.1 steals per game. Payton stands to benefit perhaps the most with Skiles taking over as head coach. Skiles has always had great defensive teams, which makes it likely that a player like Payton could continue to improve.
Top Playmaker: Victor Oladipo
Many are expecting Victor Oladipo to come out this season right where he left off last season. It was after the All-Star break that Oladipo caught fire, and averaged 20.3 points per game. During this time, we saw Oladipo turn in a career-high 38-point performance against the Phoenix Suns. There was also a stretch of five games in which only Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook averaged more points per game than he did.
It’s becoming clear that Oladipo has become one of the leaders on the team after just two seasons in the league. During this time, he’s played at both guard positions and can be the team’s primary ball handler and can also play off of the ball as well. Whether it’s creating fast break opportunities off of steals, finding the open man on offense or his ability to drive in the lane for an easy basket, Oladipo has solidified his place on the team as best playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: Tobias Harris
During his two and half season stay in Orlando, it’s clear that Tobias Harris has become the Magic’s most clutch player. Since arriving in Orlando at the trade deadline in 2013, Harris has hit three game-winning shots, which is more than any Magic player in the past two decades. Last season, the entire league saw 39 total game-winning shots during the regular season and Harris had two of them.
His first game-winner came on a last-second dunk against the Oklahoma City Thunder two seasons ago, and his two last season came against the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks. Harris shot 50 percent (20-of-40) from the field last season in the final five minutes of games when the Magic were either ahead by five points or behind by five points, per NBA Stats. He finished the year by shooting 2-of-4 in situations where the Magic were trailing by one possession or were tied. Great players are often defined as those that want the ball in late-game situations and are not afraid to take the last-second shot and Harris has already demonstrated that. Look for Harris to get the ball down the stretch for the Magic next season.
The Unheralded Player: Dewayne Dedmon
Dewayne Dedmon is perhaps the best player on the Magic that no one is talking about. He’s a player that works as hard as anyone on the team and is a guy that brings intense energy onto the court. He’s often one of the first players you see on the court in pre-game warm-ups and often the player that’s out there the longest. He’s much more than his averages of 3.7 points and five rebounds might indicate.
As mentioned earlier, he’s the Magic’s best defensive player in the post as he’s allowing opponents to shoot 57.4 percent less than five feet from the rim (better than DeAndre Jordan) and just 37.2 percent between five and nine feet of the rim. He’s shown spurts at times of what he might give you in an increased role as he recorded an 11-point, 16-rebound and two-block performance against the Boston Celtics on March 8. In 11 starts, he raised his averages to five points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. As one of the better defensive guys on the team, Dedmon could see an increased role under Skiles this season.
Best New Addition: Mario Hezonja
Although he’s yet to play in a single NBA game, it would seem that Mario Hezonja has the most swagger on the team. He’s been known as an extremely confident player during his time playing professionally overseas, and we’ve already started to see that translate during his short time with the Magic so far.
If Hezonja’s play during Summer League is any indication as to what we’ll see from him during his rookie campaign, then we should be in for a treat this season. He’s demonstrated that he can shoot the three-point shot, he can find open teammates with great passing and he can also put the ball on the floor and drive. We also saw Hezonja throw down a number of highlight-reel dunks. His teammates are all raving about what they’ve seen from him so far and are all excited to see what he can do this season.
– Cody Taylor
Who We Like
1. Evan Fournier
Injuries limited Evan Fournier to just 58 games played last season, but he became a key contributor in the offense in his first season in Orlando. Fournier joined the Magic last year on draft day after the Magic traded Arron Afflalo and a second-round pick to the Denver Nuggets. Fournier averaged just 8.4 points per game the season before joining Orlando and many were questioning what type of player the Magic would receive. But, it’s become clear that the Magic like Fournier and what he brings to the team. He averaged a career-high 12 points per game last season and shot 37.8 percent from three-point range, which was second on the team behind Channing Frye’s 39 percent. Shooting and floor-spacing have become an integral part in today’s NBA, which is what Fournier provides for Orlando. Fournier has solidified himself as Oladipo’s backup at shooting guard as he is an exceptional ball handler, can shoot the ball and can penetrate into the paint. Fournier’s ability to stay healthy this season will play a large part in how successful the Magic can be.
2. Scott Skiles
The hiring of Scott Skiles signaled to everyone that the Magic want to begin winning, and now. Skiles was perhaps the most-established head coaching candidate available and the team ultimately chose experience over youth. Of course, it’s been widely publicized by now that Skiles comes in as a tough-minded coach that is going to demand a lot out of his players. His attitude comes from his playing days, which has a lot of the players on the team excited for what he’ll bring to the locker room. The team will gain a coach known to be a defensive guru as none of his teams have finished below 17th in the league in defensive efficiency during his 13 years as a head coach. It seems as though the Magic will stand to benefit greatly on defense as they’ve yet to finish higher than 17 in defensive efficiency since trading away Dwight Howard three years ago. Skiles’ teams have historically performed well during his first year as head coach, which could help the Magic’s chances of returning to the playoffs this season.
3. Aaron Gordon
Looking back at last year’s draft class, a lot of players ended up suffering injuries and thus turned in incomplete rookie seasons. Aaron Gordon was among those that missed part of the season with an injury, as a bone fracture in his left foot kept the fourth overall pick out for 32 games early in the season. He showed during his rookie campaign that he’s going to be a player that will provide a ton of energy on the floor and has the tools to be a great defensive player. He showed that he can defend both forward positions and even held his own against some of the bigger forwards in the league. His performances in the Orlando Summer League have many excited to see him in his sophomore year. He spent much of the summer working to improve his shot and that work seemed to pay off during the Summer League. He converted on just 27 percent of his three-point shots last season, but converted on 50 percent (6-of-12) of those shots in Summer League. He finished second at the Orlando Summer League among all scorers after averaging 21.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals in three outings. Summer League performances are often taken with a grain of salt, but his performances this summer has many excited for what he can do this season.
4. C.J. Watson
The Magic were interested in bringing in a proven veteran to play behind Elfrid Payton and opted to bring in Watson through free agency. The team was said to have been interested in Watson for a while now, and were finally able to sign him. Watson is an eight-year veteran that will come in and be asked to run the second unit. He won’t be asked to do too much, but has been around for a long time and knows what his role will be. He has plenty of playoff experience after stops with Chicago, Brooklyn and Indiana, and can be a guy that will help mentor the team’s young core. Watson said at his introductory press conference that most of his new teammates reached out to welcome him to the team once news broke that he’d be heading to Orlando, so it seems like he’ll fit in great with the culture the team is building.
5. Rob Hennigan
It finally seems like general manager Rob Hennigan has the Magic poised for an improved year. It’s been three years since Hennigan was hired to rebuild the Magic after the Dwight Howard era ended. Along the way, Hennigan has collected a lot of assets and young players to make up the team as it is today. While it’s fair to say that his job of building the roster is far from complete, his work to this point to give the Magic one of the league’s best up-and-coming rosters hasn’t gone unnoticed. The team’s youth believe in Hennigan and the job he’s done to this point, so it appears as though everyone has bought into the new culture.
– Cody Taylor
If you haven’t noticed, the team’s biggest strength is its defense. It’s been talked about in nearly every step up until this point, and it’s going to continue to be talked about. The team has a number of defensive-minded players in Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Dewayne Dedmon to name a few, and with incoming head coach Scott Skiles specializing in defense, it should come as no surprise that the defense should see the biggest improvement right away. The team finished 25th in defensive efficiency last season, and should see a healthy bump up in Skiles’ first year.
– Cody Taylor
Put simply, if the Magic want to see improvement, the offense must be better. That seems like a fairly obvious statement, but the team’s offense has been really bad during their rebuilding effort. The offense has finished near the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency during the past three seasons after finishing 27th, 29th and 27th, respectively. After a couple of drafts of focusing on drafting defensive-minded players, the team addressed the offense this summer and drafted offensive-minded players in Mario Hezonja and Tyler Harvey (although he’s yet to sign his deal). Hezonja seems like a great fit with the Magic’s current system and will be a player that can score in a variety of ways. Meanwhile, Harvey led all scorers last season in Division I at Eastern Washington.
– Cody Taylor
The Burning Question
Can the Magic return to the playoffs under new head coach Scott Skiles?
After looking at this team on paper, it would certainly seem like the Magic can be in contention for a playoff berth. The race for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference seems to have six teams locked in, with the final two spots up for grabs. The problem for the Magic is there could be as many as six teams fighting for the last two playoff spots so the room for error will be extremely tight. The Magic still have a lot of young players on the team who are bound to make mistakes, which could make them one of the teams on the outside looking in for the playoffs. But Skiles has historically performed very well in his first year as head coach, so his presence and impact could be just what Orlando needs to return to the playoff picture.
– Cody Taylor
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.