The Utah Jazz aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year. A strong close to the 2014-15 season, headlined by a historically great defense from the All-Star break forward, put Utah firmly on everyone’s radar out West, where they’re making a push to get back in the playoffs after a couple years out. The Jazz return a trio of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert as their primary pieces, flanked on the wing by impressive rookie Rodney Hood and returning Alec Burks following shoulder surgery. The Jazz have significant depth at every position but point guard, and their 54-win pace post-All-Star-break last year came with the worst play at the one in the league, so there’s evidence they can survive another year until Dante Exum returns. The group stayed basically intact this summer and is in their second year under detail-oriented coach Quin Snyder. Expecting improvements elsewhere, particularly more comfort offensively, is reasonable. The Jazz are ready to make noise with a handpicked core, and no one is looking past them on the schedule.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Utah Jazz season:
I love this Jazz team. Rudy Gobert is a monster, who will only continue to improve as he continues to gain experience and further his development. Derrick Favors has developed into a very talented big man who can make an impact on both ends of the floor. Gordon Hayward has made huge strides – as a player and as a leader. The injury to Dante Exum is extremely unfortunate, but I still believe Utah can sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They became a defensive juggernaut in the second half of last season and I think they can continue to cause a lot of problems on that end this year, especially since the team should be more comfortable under Quin Snyder in his second year as the team’s head coach. I’m really looking forward to watching this talented young core develop, and I think they’ll get some valuable playoff experience this season (and be very good in a few years).
2nd Place – Northwest Division
The Jazz showed promise as a young team on the rise last season. Gordon Hayward established himself as a near 20-point player, both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors averaged near double-doubles, and the Jazz drafted Dante Exum and Rodney Hood as key members of their future. They finished third in the Northwest Division after having one of the best winning percentages in the league after the All-Star Break. Now they look to carry the momentum into this season. They will have to do it without Exum, who suffered a torn ACL during international play for Australia. But while the defending champion Golden State Warriors and other contenders steal the spotlight in the Western Conference, expect the Jazz to continue quietly improving and flying under the radar with a core of young talent who could be the newest team to snag the eighth seed sooner rather than later.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
The Jazz just feel like a team ready to make a big leap. We’ve all been touting their fascinating young core for a couple of years now, but at some point the team has to stop being all about potential and start winning games. Losing Dante Exum for the year hurts, but Gordon Hayward looked every bit the max player he was paid to be last year and Rudy Gobert is transforming into one of the league’s more dominant defensive presences. Derrick Favors needs to emerge as a consistent star, and we’ll need to see quick development from guys like Rodney Hood and Trey Lyles, but this is a slick little team that could very well surprise some people. The Northwest is a division in rough shape, anyway, so Utah actually has a chance to do a little damage there this year.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
There are a couple of things that will aid Utah’s ascent in the Northwest. The current rebuilding projects of Denver and Portland should serve to help elevate the Jazz in the final standings. The club also will benefit from the return of shooting guard Alec Burks and the continued development of interior force Rudy Gobert. The loss of guard Dante Exum stings, but make no mistake this is Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors’ team at the end of the day. The Jazz, despite having some financial flexibility, didn’t make any big splashes over the summer, preferring to allow their young core to grow together. Ultimately, that may be the reason the team falls short of a playoff berth.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
Over their final 24 games of last season, the Jazz went 15-9 and we saw Rudy Gobert emerge as the most talked about big man in the league, at least for a few weeks. Clearly then, Jazz fans are among the most optimistic heading into this season. At least that was the case before Dante Exum’s ACL injury. A lot will immediately fall on the shoulders of Trey Burke, but this team needs Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors to continue to earn their keep. As much as I like many of the pieces out there in Salt Lake City, it is difficult to imagine the Jazz getting into the playoffs. A team like the Mavericks, in my opinion, are still better and I have the Jazz clocking in outside of the playoff picture. Still, like the Orlando Magic, I think the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming brighter and that things are taking shape for Utah. Give them two more years.
2nd Place — Northwest Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Derrick Favors
Full disclosure: Gordon Hayward has a very good case here, and definitely is Utah’s most important offensive player (they just die without his creation), but Hayward is even more impossible to leave out of a couple areas. Favors is likely the most well-rounded Jazz player overall, and a varied offensive game is part of it.
Favors can do a little bit of everything after last season, when he finally expanded his shooting range to become a threat from the deeper midrange areas and particularly on rolling free-throw line jumpers in the two-man game. He’s long been a feared presence when the Jazz can get him the ball with momentum toward the hoop – no player in the NBA finished more plays via cuts to the hoop than Favors last season, per Synergy Sports. He’s among the game’s best finishers near the rim. He’s also a smart and underrated passer when teams crowd him on the catch, combining with Rudy Gobert to form a mostly unheralded frontcourt passing duo. Favors is a post option in a pinch as well, with a sneaky first step and effective push shots over both shoulders. Such a well-rounded game is welcome for the Jazz in certain units, and allows them to keep opponents off balance.
Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert
Not a whole lot of debate here. The Stifle Tower burst onto the scene last year, more than quadrupling his rookie minute total and serving as the driving force for the team’s defensive turnaround in just a couple short months. The big question this year is whether teams are able to more effectively scheme for Gobert’s presence. He’s no longer an out-of-nowhere guy anymore, and he’ll be at the top of scouting reports for opposing offenses. Teams started to get a bit more adventurous near the end of last season, downsizing to smaller lineups and forcing one of Gobert or Favors to guard a wing player – they might take these sorts of themes to a much more extreme point to attempt to get the big Frenchman out of his comfort zone.
There might not be a more powerful defensive force in the league, though. Gobert has far and away the widest shot blocking range in the NBA, altering teams’ entire game plan the moment he steps on the court. Easy looks at the rim simply cease to exist. And unlike many ground-bound rim protectors, Gobert has lateral speed – he can defend pick-and-roll attacks with a combination of mobility and ridiculous length, and even holds his own when switched onto the perimeter. If he stays healthy and continues to refine the edges of his game, he’ll be one of the league’s top defenders for a decade.
Top Playmaker: Gordon Hayward
Even when Dante Exum was healthy last season, this title unquestionably belonged to Hayward. He’s the team’s nucleus offensively, the only consistent option last season as a primary ball-handler until Rodney Hood made a late charge. He should get some further help with Alec Burks’ return from injury, but Burks is much more of a score-first option. Hayward led the Jazz in assist chances per game last season, per SportVU data, and is a very safe bet to do so again. Hood could lighten the load some for Gordon, but also didn’t showcase nearly as much as a passer and was generally only capable of generating his own looks. Unless incoming point guard Raul Neto exceeds expectations and can play 30 minutes a night (quite unlikely), Hayward is the guy.
Top Clutch Player: Gordon Hayward
More than any individual who is shooting the ball in clutch situations, the Jazz need Trey Burke to be the one who isn’t. Burke somehow took only six fewer shots than Hayward last season with the score within five and the clock under five minutes in regulation – Hayward scored 93 points on his 59 attempts, Burke a paltry 47 points on his 53 tries. If the Jazz’s coaching staff can get Burke to tone things down a bit, Hayward will lead the team in attempts and overall touches down the stretch by a large margin. He’s their most capable isolation player and best overall ball-handler, proving his chops on a big stage early last season with a game-winner as time expired to lift the Jazz over LeBron James and the Cavs. When Hayward doesn’t have the ball in his hands, look for Rodney Hood, Alec Burks or Derrick Favors to step up.
The Unheralded Player: Rodney Hood
Hood’s rookie year was marred early on by a series of injuries that kept him off the court and unable to develop any sort of rhythm with his teammates as they learned Quin Snyder’s new scheme. Once he saw the court and got into the swing of things, though, he was quietly one of Utah’s most impressive players. Hood shot 42 percent from three following the All-Star break on nearly four attempts per game, establishing himself as a knockdown guy both off the dribble and spotting up. He showcased a pick-and-roll game few rookies are capable of – incredible patience with his dribble and an ability to shield opponents on his back while he takes his time and finds the right option. His in-between floater already looks like a veteran’s, and he was much more impressive defensively than anyone had expected early on. Hood has work still to do as a distributor, but don’t bet against him making some strides early this season after all the jumps he made in just 50 total games last year. He’s already an absolute steal with the 23rd pick and could be one of Utah’s primary wing assets with another strong year.
Best New Addition: Alec Burks
Burks isn’t a newcomer by the most technical definition, but Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey has been consistent in half-ironically referring to Alec as the team’s “biggest offseason acquisition.” It fits if you think about it – the Jazz ushered in a new era of modern basketball when they hired Quin Snyder, and to a man the roster members have noted how it took several months for the group to collectively pick up Snyder’s complex scheme.
Unfortunately for Burks, shoulder surgery just 27 games into the season meant he wasn’t even on the floor when the team started to grasp things. He’ll have a steeper learning curve than most of his teammates, and a big part of his overall effectiveness will be determined by how quickly he learns on the fly. His slashing style is perfect for Snyder’s motion scheme, but Burks will need to tone down the me-first aspect of his game there to a degree. Defensively, he has major work to do away from the ball, where he’s been bad about spacing out and losing his man. But Burks was a breakout player in his last full season, a speedy penetrator who can get to the rack against anyone, and he’ll be yet another valuable wing asset for Utah if he picks things up.
– Ben Dowsett
Who We Like
Quin Snyder – Were it not for a few early-season injuries and Utah’s young core needing more time than anticipated to adjust to his approach (and had Enes Kanter perhaps been traded a bit earlier in the season), Snyder would have been a fringe candidate for Coach of the Year in his first campaign at the helm. What he did for a Jazz defense that ranked dead last in the NBA the year before his arrival was remarkable – it’s tempting to simply chalk it all up to Rudy Gobert, but the Jazz still had the league’s best defense by a mile after the All-Star break even when Rudy sat down (it was basically the same whether or not he played). The test for Snyder this year is on the other end of the floor. He’s repeated often that the offensive side of his scheme will take longer to come along than the defensive side; how quickly it does so – and just how effective it can be when things start to fully click – could determine Utah’s ceiling for the season.
Bryce Cotton/Raul Neto – Presumed initially to be fighting Burke for backup point guard minutes, Cotton and Neto have been thrust into more of a spotlight with Exum’s injury. At least one will have to play backup minutes, and maybe more if Burke can’t right his ship. Neto is an ACB transplant known for his passing and feisty defense, while Cotton played 15 games with the Jazz near the end of last season. Cotton is the best shooter among Utah’s healthy point guards but is also quite undersized (5’11 or so), while Neto is the right size but had a spotty jumper at a lower level. The Jazz could use a breakout performance from at least one.
Trevor Booker – Booker is Utah’s glue guy, and a team veteran at just 27 years old. He sets the emotional tone for the team even as a bench piece, working his butt off every day and quickly becoming a favorite among a fan base that identifies with these sorts of traits. He’s also a sneaky good NBA player – he shot a better percentage from three than Draymond Green last year, his first in the league with a license to fire away from deep. He’s a solid defender, a great rebounder for his undersized nature and a more versatile offensive piece than he’s given credit for. Booker is a legitimate third big who can offer some spacing and a change of pace from Gobert and Favors up front.
Tibor Pleiss – Possibly spending a number of his minutes with Booker will be Pleiss, Utah’s second foreign offseason addition. The 7’3 former Barcelona center backed up European superstar Ante Tomic last season, then was featured alongside Dirk Nowitzki in the frontcourt for the German national team with impressive results. The Jazz see a legitimate shooter in Pleiss despite a nearly nonexistent track record here in Europe – if they’re correct, he’ll be a major asset behind Gobert at center. In a perfect world, Pleiss and Booker combine for a spacing-overload lineup where both bigs on the floor are threats from deep. If he doesn’t pan out, his contract is cheap.
– Ben Dowsett
Utah’s defense is the foundation of their identity. They’ve got length for days and the best rim protection duo in the league in the paint, and became better and better as last season wore on at funneling opposing ball-handlers to the places that allowed Gobert and Favors to operate optimally. Even lineups with some of their weaker defensive pieces were strangling teams after awhile. They’re also one of the top rebounding teams in the league on both ends.
The Jazz should have more depth to complement things as well. Pleiss and incoming 12th overall pick Trey Lyles should see minutes in the frontcourt, and Burks’ return will push the Jazz to five deep on the wing, all guys who have shown they’re capable rotation players or better at this level (Hayward, Burks, Hood, Joe Ingles and Elijah Millsap).
Finally, the team’s continuity under Snyder should play a role this season. His is a system that takes real time to master and a cohesive group to maintain, and keeping the primary pieces so similar to last season was an intentional move.
– Ben Dowsett
Point guard play is the biggest concern. Brief late-season surges from Cotton and Burke aside, none of the three guys on Utah’s current roster have any track record as even average at the position in this league. Burke is in his third year as a lottery pick, and this may be his last chance. If he’s not up to it and the other two aren’t any better, it could be a long year at the one-spot while the team waits for Exum to return next season.
The Jazz will also likely be thin on spacing, especially if guys like Pleiss, Lyles and Booker aren’t threats there from the frontcourt. They’re similarly thin as far as primary creators, particularly if anything happens to Burks, Hood or especially Hayward.
– Ben Dowsett
The Burning Question
Can their defense remain elite over a full season, and can their offense catch up?
It’s really two questions, but the interplay between them could define the season for the Jazz. There could be a few simple tweaks available to goose Utah’s league-average offense from last season, but some of them – an emphasis on pushing in transition and the introduction of more small-ball, for instance – could potentially harm their airtight defensive culture.
Can Snyder toe the line here and find improvements on one end without a sacrifice on the other? The Jazz could still be the league’s best defense even if they fell off a bit from their post-All-Star-break pace last season. Put a borderline top-10 offense next to that, and you have the makings of a true contender.
It will be a struggle at times. Favors and Gobert are a devastating combo, but there are periods where the Jazz have to sweat for every bucket while they share the floor. A larger regression defensively isn’t entirely out of the question either, and this group has their work cut out for them if that happens.
It’s hard to find a team with a better defensive foundation, though. They’ll be better around the margins this year, and that alone will make them a fascinating team to watch.
– Ben Dowsett
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.
Headlines2 weeks ago
Report: Gordon Hayward to Return to NBA Campus, Not Expected to Play ‘anytime soon’
NBA2 weeks ago
NBA Daily: Down But Not Out, Kemba Walker Must Seize His Moment
NBA2 weeks ago
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
NBA1 week ago
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards