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2015-16 Phoenix Suns Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Phoenix Suns’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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This year, it’s possible that the Phoenix Suns could be a playoff team. Apart from the Markieff Morris situation that must be dealt with, there is optimism in Phoenix.

In the brutally tough Western Conference, there may be at least one spot up for grabs if the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks drop out of the playoff picture (and the Oklahoma City Thunder climb in, as expected).

The only teams that could conceivably rise to be the eighth-best team in the conference would be the Suns, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings. The Kings might have the talent, but there are a whole lot of new pieces and drama surround the team. The Jazz will be without sophomore guard Dante Exum for the season, but even so they are the Suns’ top competition for the final playoff spot in the West. Can Phoenix take the next step and crack the top eight?

Basketball Insiders previews the Phoenix Suns’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

The Suns nearly won the offseason by signing LaMarcus Aldridge. At the end of the day, Aldridge’s decision came down to Phoenix and the San Antonio Spurs, with the free agent power forward admitting that it was a very tough call. He obviously went to the Spurs, but the Suns still did add some veteran reinforcements over the offseason such as Tyson Chandler, Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems (in addition to drafting rookie Devin Booker). I’m excited to see how Brandon Knight does alongside Eric Bledsoe, since Knight was sidelined and limited for much of his time with the Suns last season after joining Phoenix via trade. I’m also curious to see how the addition of Chandler impacts this team. I believe the Suns will compete for the eighth seed in the Western Conference this season, but as of the right now, I have the Utah Jazz sneaking in instead of them. With that said, it’ll be a tough battle for that final seed and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Suns get in if they play to their full potential.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

On the one hand, getting Tyson Chandler to bolt Dallas was a coup. That was one of the better pickups of the offseason, mostly because this talented Suns roster needed some hard-nosed veteran leadership to help them take things to the next level. Of course, that was when it looked like they were still seriously in the hunt for LaMarcus Aldridge, and that obviously didn’t happen. Now, even Markieff Morris is unhappy with his brother having been shipped off to Detroit, and the Brandon Knight/Eric Bledsoe backcourt combination isn’t one guaranteed to dominate. There are plenty of kids on this roster to like, but it feels like an odd mix. The Pacific is a rough division this year with the Lakers and Kings improving this offseason, so Phoenix could slip a little. If they didn’t make the playoffs the last two years, they certainly aren’t going to do it this season.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

Phoenix hovered around .500 last season, but in a stacked Western Conference those type of results won’t raise many eyebrows, if any at all. The team unexpectedly changed pace at the trade deadline shipping guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas out of town. The team netted guard Brandon Knight, who was recently locked into a long-term deal with the franchise. On the interior, the Suns signed aging center Tyson Chandler, who will provide a defensive presence. Although there has been plenty of changes in Phoenix, don’t expect too much fluctuation in one direction. Stagnant would be a word that comes to mind when evaluating the 2015-16 Phoenix Suns.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

If you thought there was drama with the Sacramento Kings, the Phoenix Suns are right there with them. Markieff Morris has made his displeasure with the organization abundantly clear following the trade of his twin, Marcus, to the Detroit Pistons. The outlook of the Suns’ season depends on how this situation plays out. A disgruntled top player doesn’t lead to wins, it leads to turmoil in the locker room and on the court. A trade could garner new talent, though Morris’ public display of unhappiness doesn’t give them much leverage. Where the Suns do have dependability is in the backcourt with guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. They also added Devin Booker in the draft. If Morris cannot contribute as he has in the past, the offseason signing of Tyson Chandler gives the Suns a veteran big man presence regardless. Just as the Kings have gone through ups and downs with DeMarcus Cousins, the Suns could find themselves in a similar situation if this continues this season, which could hinder their improvement.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

-Jessica Camerato

Anyone who has spent time around Jeff Hornacek would attest to his spirit and presence. There’s something about him that simultaneously puts his players at ease, but still garners their respect. Entering this season, the two questions I have for them revolve around Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler. First, Bledsoe quietly put together what could be regarded as the best season of his career last year. He played 81 games after missing 39 games of the 2013-14 season. Without Goran Dragic, Bledsoe will have to carry more weight for the Suns, as Brandon Knight will clearly be regarded as his secondary. Tyson Chandler’s spirit and work ethic will have a positive effect on the youngsters he will be surrounded by, and in the end, I’d expect the Suns to continue to overachieve behind Hornacek and have a shot at a playoff berth. Along with the Mavericks, Jazz and maybe the Kings, the Suns will probably hang around the eighth seed until the final week of the season, though they are still a notch below the powers in the Pacific. I’ll pencil the Kings in above them, but I do so reluctantly.

4th Place — Pacific Division

-Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Best Offensive Player: Eric Bledsoe

This is Eric Bledsoe’s team. While Brandon Knight is his running mate in the dual point guard attack, everything stems from Bledsoe’s driving penetration, blazing speed and Hulk-like strength and toughness finishing in the lane. It’s his time to be the Suns’ alpha dog. Seemingly, Bledsoe is taking a larger leadership role going into the season and becoming more vocal. It may his time to take the league by storm, and it seems he is primed for a big season. The Suns will only go as far as Bledsoe takes them.

Best Defensive Player: P.J. Tucker

Tyson Chandler could’ve gotten the nod here, but we’ll focus on him more later and decided to go with Tucker instead since he is the heart and soul of this Suns team. Tucker is the king of fourth-quarter clutch rebounds, and he is a great defender. He is also versatile, guarding multiple positions. Additionally, he has what every coach looks for in a player: an intense work ethic and team-first attitude. Every year, Tucker adds something to his game, typically on the offensive side of the ball. We’ll see what new wrinkles to his game he comes to camp with this year, but expect him to continue being a lockdown defender.

Top Playmaker: Brandon Knight

It’ll be nice to see Knight actually flourish in a Suns uniform this year after being limited by injuries toward the end of last season. Last year was a disaster for Phoenix in many ways. They were beaten on a ridiculous amount of improbable buzzer beaters, were kind of forced to trade away a third of their roster at the trade deadline and dealt with some nagging injuries. This year (especially once the Markieff Morris fiasco gets sorted out), everything is looking up for the Suns in general and for Brandon Knight. Healthy and comfortable in the system, Knight may be able to produce at the level he did in the first half of last year with Milwaukee.

Best Clutch Player: Markieff Morris

Morris was far and away the most consistently clutch player for Phoenix last year and near the top of the league as well. The chance that he’ll be on the Suns by the beginning of the season is quite low, and it’s even less likely he’s on the team following the February trade deadline. But he remains with the team right now, so he’s eligible for this distinction. If he does stay in Phoenix and everything gets resolved, he’s the go-to option down the stretch in a close game.

Best New Addition: Tyson Chandler

This is such a great (and underrated) pickup for the Suns. While he is past his prime, Chandler brings exactly what the Suns need. He brings stability to the center position (the budding Alex Len tends to get banged up with small “inconsequential” injuries). He brings spectacular interior defense as well as communication, leadership and accountability on that end, which the Suns have basically never had in the history of their franchise. He also sets great picks, which Phoenix has been recently pretty poor at and will benefit Bledsoe and Knight greatly.

-Eric Saar

Who We Like

Alex Len: Len is a cornerstone piece for the Suns. He is a legit center with a smooth touch on his shot. He has length, explosiveness and athleticism. While still learning the game, for a 22-year-old he shows flashes of greatness. He is a bit injury-prone, but not in a major way. He’s had a broken nose here, bruised something there, but nothing major since his early ankle/foot issues. He gets to be mentored by Tyson Chandler and gets to play against backup centers (even though he started last year and is starting-caliber). He’s going to feast on backup centers all year. He has the whole package. It’s coming along slowly, but the improvement is there. Look for a big season from him this year or next.

Archie Goodwin: Goodwin is just fun to watch. He seemingly has boundless energy and a knack for disrupting the opposition. He’s a spark. His season will be very intriguing to track. He isn’t a “gimmick” player (i.e. dunk contest winner Jeremy Evens, who hasn’t done much else), but he also hasn’t proven that he can have consistent production across a season. His shot was unreliable to say the least, but as is evident from summer league, he seems to have reworked it and his release is quicker and cleaner, and his shot looks smoother. He will be competing with sharpshooter rookie Devin Booker for backup shooting guard duties and probably has the upper hand right now due to experience, but if he can’t have a consistent jumper in his back pocket, he could end up buried on the depth chart.

T.J. Warren: Toward the end of last season and even during this year’s summer league (where Warren took home first-team honors), he looked like a breakout candidate for his sophomore season. He has a beautiful arsenal of floaters and unconventional shots around the basket that he can pull out at any time. His floater even extends further, rivalling the rest of the NBA. His off-ball cutting is superb as well. His jumper is just okay, but not great, and he hasn’t quite extended it to three-point range yet. That, as well as upping his defense from barely below average to average defender, will take him to the next level. But he really has an amazing knack for scoring. He just gets the ball in the hoop.

Devin Booker: Booker is a flat out pure shooter. Just being drafted, he instantly became the best three-point shooter on the Suns. He’s a rookie and depending on how the competition between he and Goodwin goes, he could spend some time over in Bakersfield playing for the Suns’ D-League affiliate. His shot release is quick and so, so, smooth. It’ll be nice for Phoenix to have a knockdown shooter from deep again. He will help space the defense for the likes of Bledsoe and Knight to drive into the lane.

Mirza Teletovic: It never hurts to have a guy on your team who cares so much that he says he’d die for basketball, right? That really is the embodiment of the phrase “ball is life.” Teletovic is a stretch-four, who missed a bunch of last season when he played for the Brooklyn Nets and developed a blood clot in his lung. Depending on how the Markieff Morris situation plays out, Teletovic could have a bigger role on the Suns than initially expected when he was first acquired.

Sonny Weems: A relative unknown to casual NBA fans, he started his NBA career with the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors but has been playing overseas in Lithuania and Russia in recent years. Now, Weems will be a veteran presence on the young squad. The 29-year old will be a spark off the bench. He shouldn’t be relied on to initiate the offense, but he can get out in transition, he works well off the ball and he can shoot pretty well (including from three, especially after expanding his shot while overseas). He has a long wingspan, great athleticism and plays good defense. We’ll see how he fares against NBA competition once again, seeing as he hasn’t faced opponents of that caliber in a while. He has a high IQ and a high motor and could thrive in a bench role for Phoenix this year.

-Eric Saar

Strengths

One strength for Phoenix is their depth. They have one of the better benches in the league, especially with the addition of Chandler moving Len back to the bench, Warren’s emergence and the drafting of Booker. This Suns team has always loved getting out in transition and that shouldn’t change this year. They prefer that style and are very good at running that up-tempo system. Their bigs like to run, along with their point guards. They also have a solid mix of youth and experience, which is what teams want.

-Eric Saar

Weaknesses

In contrast to their depth, probably the biggest problem Phoenix has had (since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire left) is the lack of a superstar. They have a lot of good players, but no great ones (yet).

Phoenix also has a problem winning close games. They won a few last year, but lost even more, including some brutal buzzer-beaters. They had issues getting technical fouls at all the wrong times, which may be helped by moving Marcus Morris and the seemingly imminent departure of Markieff Morris, but Bledsoe and Tucker were also part of this problem. Tyson Chandler will help in this aspect for sure.

Booker (and to a lesser extent Weems) will help with Phoenix’s three-point shooting woes, but it will probably still not be a strength for them. The same goes for Chandler and Phoenix’s rebounding.

-Eric Saar

The Burning Question

What will happen with Markieff Morris?

This is obviously the big question with the Suns. By making it clear that he wants to leave, this hurt the leverage the Suns have in trade talks, which may actually decrease the chance of Morris getting dealt.

However, Morris insists that he doesn’t have a future with the Suns, so it’s very possible he’ll be moved anyway despite Phoenix’s lack of leverage. Markieff is an above-average player, but is by no means a star who can try to demand anything from his team. He also can’t threaten to leave since he has several years left on his contract. Morris hasn’t handled things very professionally, publicly demanding a trade (which resulted in a fine) and overreacting to the trade of his brother. He also had an offseason assault charge that really hurt his trade value.

Morris is probably gone by opening night, unless they can’t get his trade value up, in which case he’s almost certainly gone by the February trade deadline. He’s not a bad player and will probably still improve, but he isn’t a player worth this recent trouble.

-Eric Saar

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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