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2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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By now, everyone knows the Portland Trail Blazers had a rough summer. Veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo and Steve Blake are gone. Youngsters like Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis among others were brought in. Portland will likely fall out of the top eight in the brutal Western Conference, but they’ve assembled an intriguing young core that complements (and can grow alongside) Damian Lillard, who is clearly the franchise player and cornerstone of this franchise. How long will it take for the Blazers to return to relevance? What should we expect from the team in this upcoming campaign?

Basketball Insiders previews the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

There’s no way to construe the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency as a good thing, so this Blazers team that has won 50+ games in two consecutive years can go ahead and plan to take a step backward in 2015-16. Portland actually lost most of their starting lineup to free agency or trade over the summer, with Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum all suiting up for different teams this year. Damian Lillard is all that remains, and that means plenty of big minutes for younger players on the rise, like Mo Harkless, C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh. The Blazers want to rebuild with players on the same career arc as Lillard, but that means loads of youth and loads of new faces. That kind of core needs time to grow and adjust, but they can still compete decently in a relatively weak Northwest Division.

3rd Place — Northwest Division

-Joel Brigham

This summer was basically the worst-case scenario for the Blazers, but I like the way they bounced back from losing so many of their veterans. Rather than signing some quick-fix veterans who may have allowed Portland to compete for the eighth seed in the West, general manager Neil Olshey embraced a youth movement and brought in players who can complement two-time All-Star Damian Lillard for years to come. I love the additions of Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis and Moe Harkless among others. The Blazers will take a step back in the short-term, but I think rebuilding rather than retooling was the right long-term move for the franchise. Now, they have one of the better young cores in the NBA and should be back in contention in several years if all goes as planned. I have them finishing third in the Northwest Division, but the final three teams in the division are a toss-up since Denver, Minnesota and Portland are all sort of in the same rebuilding boat. My advice for fans in Portland: Be patient, and enjoy a monster season from Lillard.

3rd Place — Northwest Division

-Alex Kennedy

You don’t have to be a genius to figure that the Blazers are going to take a few steps back this season. Without LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum and Arron Afflalo, they immediately go from being a team that seemed to be one piece away from contending for it all to a team that is a major piece away from even being competitive in the conference. Sounds a bit harsh, I know, but let’s not spend too much time discussing whether or not I’m down on the Blazers. Instead, let’s ask ourselves the most important question: who’s going to be dead last in the Northwest Division? As I see it, the Thunder should cakewalk to the division title while the others will be fighting to remain relevant come Christmas time. Obviously, Damian Lillard is one of the top point guards the league has to offer, and to the front office’s credit, they have retooled their roster with a lot of young pieces that will grow with Lillard over the years. As a top flight organization and with a good front office, I expect the Blazers to once again rise toward the top of the Western Conference, but it’ll likely take them at least two to three years. At least. Godspeed to all my friends out in Rip City.

4th Place — Northwest Division

-Moke Hamilton

A before and after photo of the Trail Blazers’ roster from last season will be drastically different. Star players LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews left the team in free agency. Now, Damian Lillard, 25, and Meyers Leonard, 23, are the team’s veteran leaders. During Summer League Leonard said he was looking forward to building a new squad with Lillard. The Trail Blazers were early movers in free agency, quickly signing Al-Farouq Aminu. They also focused on their frontcourt by acquiring Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh. Watch for Vonleh, who noticeably added muscle to his frame at Summer League, to improve from his rookie season. The acquisition of Mike Miller gives the young team a championship-winning voice in the locker room who can still knock down shots. This season will be a rebuilding one for the Trail Blazers after losing two of its top contributors.

2nd Place — Northwest Division

-Jessica Camerato

Brace yourselves, Blazers fans. Portland is in the process of descending from being a 50 win unit to a rebuilding franchise looking for a new identity. Gone are LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Incoming talent includes Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Mike Miller and Maurice Harkless. That’s an awful lot of firepower to lose, so Blazers fans shouldn’t anticipate the team making a playoff run this season. However, on the bright side, we will get to see how All-Star guard Damian Lillard handles the pressure of being the man.

4th Place – Northwest Division

-Lang Greene

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard

This is a no-brainer, as Lillard is one of the best offensive players in the entire NBA. Last season, he averaged 21 points, which ranked 13th-best among all NBA players and fourth-best among point guards. He finished the season fifth in total points (1,720), as he managed to play in all 82 games for the third consecutive year (meaning he hasn’t missed a contest since entering the NBA). The 25-year-old point guard can score from all over the floor and seemingly has unlimited range. In fact, last season Lillard set the NBA record for most three-pointers made through the first three seasons of a player’s career with 599 makes – beating out the previous mark of 545 held by Klay Thompson. The advanced numbers also show what an offensive force Lillard was last year, as he finished fifth in the NBA in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (5.0) and seventh in the NBA in Value Over Replacement player (5.2). Keep in mind, all of these numbers were posted last season while being Portland’s second option on offense behind LaMarcus Aldridge, who attempted 3.2 more shots per game than Lillard. Expect Lillard’s offensive numbers to further increase now that he’ll get more touches with Aldridge gone.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

With Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez gone, this was a tough category since we have no idea what to expect from these new-look Blazers on defense. However, Aminu gets the nod here because of the impressive numbers he put up last year with the Dallas Mavericks. The last time we saw Aminu, he was playing the best basketball of his career in the first round of the playoffs against the Houston Rockets. In that series, he averaged 11.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, two steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from three-point range – despite coming off of the bench in three of the five playoff games. As you can see, Aminu can impact a game with his rebounds, steals and blocks. He’s versatile and disruptive on the defensive end. Over the course of the entire 2014-15 campaign, he averaged nine rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks per-36 minutes. He also had the highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus of anyone on Portland’s roster (2.93), ranking 25th in the NBA last year. And at just 24 years old, it’s possible Aminu will continue to improve, especially since he’s expected to take on a much bigger role in Portland than he’s had in the past.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

Once again, this one isn’t particularly hard to figure out. The Blazers will only go as far as Lillard takes them, and there’s no question he’s the best playmaker on the squad. Last year, he averaged 6.2 assists per game and finished 12th in the NBA in total assists (507). This year will be a bit of a challenge for Lillard, especially as a playmaker, since he’ll no longer be surrounded by the talented veterans who made his life as a point guard easier. The assists may not be as easy to come by since his supporting cast isn’t as reliable. Instead, he’ll be tasked with helping this young core improve and putting them in situations to succeed. But Lillard should still excel since he’s one of the game’s best floor generals, who makes everyone around him better.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

We try not to continually bring up the same player in these previews, but Lillard is just so important to this team and he has to get the nod here. Not only is Lillard the top clutch player on the Blazers, he has arguably become the best crunch-time player in the NBA in recent years. Rather than writing about all of his outstanding game-winning or game-tying shots, just watch this video:

The Unheralded Player: Moe Harkless

In covering the league out of Orlando, I’ve spent a lot of time around Harkless and I can’t wait to see what he does with the Blazers. With the Magic, he was never used correctly by Jacque Vaughn and eventually just fell out of the former head coach’s rotation (without giving any clear-cut reason to Harkless or the media). This change of scenery is exactly what Harkless needs, and I believe he can develop into a contributor for Portland. He’s still just 22 years old and I believe he’ll fit in well with the Blazers’ young core. He needs to be a bit more assertive, but I think that will come with more playing time and increased confidence. The fact that the Blazers gave up literally nothing (a late second-round pick that will never be conveyed) to land Harkless from the Magic shows just how unheralded he is.

Best New Addition: Noah Vonleh

This label could’ve went to a number of players since the Blazers embraced a youth movement this summer, bringing in Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless among others. While I think Aminu may have the biggest impact in the 2015-16 season, I believe Vonleh is the best new addition because he has the highest ceiling of all the players acquired. Remember, just last year he had scouts drooling over his game and he was the ninth overall pick in the draft. He still has a ridiculous amount of potential (he just turned 20 years old yesterday) and all of the physical tools to be a very special player in the NBA. His rookie season was underwhelming due to injuries and a limited role, but he’ll have every opportunity to succeed in Portland.

-Alex Kennedy

Who We Like

C.J. McCollum: No player benefits more from this summer’s roster shake-up than McCollum, who will now be thrust into a huge role and may even emerge as the team’s second-leading scorer behind Lillard. The 24-year-old played very well during the final month of the regular season last year, and then lit up the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs (scoring 77 points in the series’ final three games). This could be a breakout year for McCollum, and he knows it. He recently spoke to Basketball Insiders about how he’s preparing for his increased role by watching a ton of film and working hard in the gym every day.

Neil Olshey: As previously mentioned, I like the route that Olshey took this summer. Embracing a youth movement was smart and he did a good job stockpiling young players who complement Damian Lillard and will develop on the same career trajectory as the Blazers’ All-Star. Some of the trades he pulled off were impressive too, like getting Moe Harkless – the 15th overall pick in 2012 – for literally nothing. It’s hard for any general manager to bounce back from losing a star like Aldridge and four out of five starters, but Olshey did a great job bouncing back and making nice moves. The team will take a step back in the short-term, but Olshey has set the franchise up nicely for the future.

Meyers Leonard: Like McCollum, the departure of so many key players gives Leonard the chance to shine. Last year, he played well, averaging 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 15.4 minutes per game. And, like McCollum, he elevated his play in the postseason, averaging 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 66.7 percent from the field and 76.9 percent from three-point range (on 2.6 attempts per game). Leonard will have to compete for minutes with newcomers like Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis in the frontcourt, but he could have a big year for the Blazers. And keep in mind, he’s still just 23 years old so his best basketball is obviously still ahead of him.

Ed Davis: Speaking of Davis, he may be one of the more underrated players in the NBA. Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers somehow landed Davis on a minimum contract and he overplayed his deal by averaging 8.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 assists in 23.3 minutes per game, while shooting 60.1 percent from the field. He was one of the few bright spots on a terrible Lakers team last season. Fortunately for Davis, he finally received the type of contract he deserves this summer, inking a three-year, $20 million deal with Portland. Much like in Los Angeles, Davis will play whatever role is asked of him, do the dirty work in the paint and put up quietly impressive numbers. Basketball Insiders chatted with Davis about joining the Blazers earlier this summer and he has said he’d love to finish his career in Portland, so it’s clear the relationship between player and team is off to a great start.

-Alex Kennedy

Strengths

In most of these previews, we’ll talk about a team’s 2014-15 stats, but those simply aren’t applicable for the Blazers. You can throw the numbers out, because this team is completely different than last year’s squad. Without seeing this specific group play a game together yet, the two strengths that immediately jump out are point guard play and their youth.

Having Lillard is huge for this team, since this is the golden age of point guards in the NBA and it’s a whole lot easier to compete when you have a great one. Lillard has been fantastic in his first three NBA seasons, and he should only get better in his fourth year as he steps into a more prominent role with the Blazers.

Another strength for this team is their flexibility. They have just $47,879,873 in guaranteed commitments for this year and $36,169,518 in guaranteed commitments for next season. That means they’ll have a ton of cap room to work with. They can use this to sign players or to pick up assets through trades. Portland did this earlier this offseason, when they agreed to take Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller off the Cleveland Cavaliers’ hands, and picked up two second-round picks for facilitating the deal. The picks help Portland, and the deal helped the Cavaliers because they got a traded-player exception for Haywood (which they have one year to use in a trade before it expires) and were able to dump Miller’s contract. The Philadelphia 76ers have been very successful in using their flexibility to pick up assets in trades, and Portland can do the same thing as their young team develops.

-Alex Kennedy

Weaknesses

The team’s biggest weakness is going to be their inexperience. As I’ve said, I like that they went young rather than trying to go for the quick fix and finish eighth or ninth in the West. But expecting this young group to win a lot of games just isn’t realistic. The Blazers have 14 players who are 25 years old or younger on the roster, which is third-most in the NBA behind only the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers. Those young players give the team a core to develop as well as flexibility going forward, but these players are inexperienced and many will be asked to step into much larger roles than they’ve played in the past. Lillard is the only sure thing on the team, which is somewhat scary. But it also means there’s plenty of opportunity for young players to step up and establish themselves in Portland.

-Alex Kennedy

The Burning Question

How quickly will the Blazers be able to turn things around?

It’s going to take some time for Portland to be a playoff team again, especially in the brutal Western Conference. As previously mentioned, the Blazers have a ton of young guys on this team. They will need to develop those players and have them reach their full potential before we’re talking about Portland competing at a high level again. However, the Blazers do have something that a lot of young, up-and-coming teams don’t and that’s a superstar. Damian Lillard could significantly accelerate their rebuild and it’ll be exciting to see what he can do as the main attraction in Portland. With all of the young talent on the roster (and some top picks likely coming in the next few years), this could be a team that is very good a few years down the road when all of their young guns are hitting their stride at the same time.

-Alex Kennedy

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

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

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

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

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

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

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

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

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

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

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

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

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

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

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

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

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

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

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

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

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

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

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

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

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

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

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

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

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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