For good reason, a select few NBA teams have dominated the headlines this offseason.
In the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers received a lot of attention after committing a whopping sum of money to retain their core. LeBron James, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova were all re-signed earlier in the summer, and Tristan Thompson recently agreed to a deal that will pay him in excess of $80 million over the next five years.
Out West, it is the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs that have turned the most heads. The Clippers have seemingly fortified their core by adding Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith to their roster, while the Spurs managed to come away with LaMarcus Aldridge, David West and a re-signed Kawhi Leonard.
The Clippers and Spurs join the Golden State Warriors as the teams to fear in the West, while the Cavaliers maintain their status as the East’s frontrunners “on paper.” The Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards expect to make a deep run, as well, but the truth is that these teams are flying under the radar a bit. It’s very possible that Chicago or Washington is closer to contending than most realize.
Still, at least they’re in the conversation. Here’s a look at six teams that could really surprise people throughout the course of the 2015-16 NBA season.
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There’s no doubt that losing LeBron James to the Cavaliers set the HEAT back significantly, but with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem still around, the HEAT still have championship DNA. What’s more important to realize about the team from South Beach is that they had a wildly productive offseason, which was a resounding success thanks to the re-signing of Goran Dragic and the drafting of Justise Winslow. With Hassan Whiteside’s continued progression and Luol Deng back with a year of experience under head coach Erik Spoelstra, the HEAT look more formidable than last year’s 37 wins indicate.
The acquisition of Amar’e Stoudemire wasn’t discussed heavily, but with his newfound dedication to playing with his back to the basket and his ability to finish at the rim still apparent, running with Dragic and Wade could make him a valuable addition to the HEAT, especially since Whiteside should be able to help protect him on the defensive side of the ball. Gerald Green gives the team some more depth on the wing as well.
Of course, everything rides on the health of Wade and Bosh, but if those two can give the HEAT 70 high-caliber performances, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see these guys walk away with the Southeast Division title.
Okay, so we admit it, the Grizzlies seem to be the modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks — a mediocre bunch that can’t seem to fully get over the hump. However, where the Grizzlies differ from those Hawks is in their dedication to defense. Despite being coached by the somewhat inexperienced Dave Joerger, the Grizzlies still have the same identity that they maintained under Lionel Hollins and are being led by Mike Conley and Marc Gasol—two of the better players at their position in the entire league. The Grizzlies may have been undone by the Warriors in last season’s playoffs, but a team that is dedicated to defense and plays team ball will always have an opportunity to win in the NBA.
The addition of Matt Barnes gives the Grizzlies another solid two-way wing player who will make life even tougher for some of the better perimeter scoring threats in the Western Conference. Brandan Wright was an underrated addition as well. The deck may be stacked against the Grizzlies in the West, but they may legitimately be one more piece away from rising up and scaring every other contender. And as the season rolls along, there will certainly be an impact player or two that finds themselves on the market.
Oklahoma City Thunder
While we admit that we are not 100 percent certain of what to expect from Kevin Durant, the irrefutable truth is that Russell Westbrook took his game to another level last season. Over the course of the 2014-15 campaign, Westbrook showed an improved ability to control the game and create opportunities for his teammates.
With the drafting of Cameron Payne, the Thunder have fortified one of the few weak spots on their roster by finding themselves a young floor general with tremendous upside. How steep the learning curve turns out being for him could make a ton of difference for the ball club. Still, in it all, Enes Kanter may ultimately prove to be what was missing in Oklahoma City.
For as long as we can remember, the Thunder have often struggled to score easy baskets. The team relies heavily on Durant and Westbrook to create plays off the dribble for them, and recall that the Thunder made a full-fledged effort to sign Pau Gasol last summer before losing him to the Chicago Bulls. General manager Sam Presti knew that his team needed a low-post threat to pair with Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams in the front court, and the thrifty Thunder opting to match the four-year, $70 million offer sheet that the Portland Trail Blazers signed Kanter to underscores their belief in him.
Then, of course, there’s Durant. If he is anywhere near 100 percent, the Thunder could very well end up being the rarest of rare—a team that goes from the lottery to the championship podium in one year.
While the Hornets haven’t necessarily done enough to start including them in the conversation with East contenders like the Cavaliers or Bulls, they are a team that has been completely forgotten about entering this season. Few projections have Charlotte in the postseason, even though this team is just one year removed from a playoff appearance. We are not reading into their 7-1 preseason record too much, but it could be a good sign.
We should remind you that one year ago, these Hornets were coming off of a 43-39 regular season and were believed to be taking a major step forward after having acquired the services of Lance Stephenson. Obviously, that failed experiment contributed to the derailment of their 2014-15 campaign, but so did the injuries to Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The trio missed 24, 20 and 30 games, respectively.
Heading into this season, Kidd-Gilchrist is already expected to be sidelined for the gross majority of the regular season, but it is with respect to the supporting cast that the Hornets have improved tremendously.
Frank Kaminsky is a big man who most scouts feel can contribute immediately. In Charlotte, he will have an opportunity to prove just that, and he will serve as a good insurance policy in the event that Jefferson goes down again. Meanwhile, Nicolas Batum was a huge pick up and he should help to fortify the talent base of Michael Jordan’s team. The Frenchman has long been considered one of the more underrated small forwards in the game. As a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, Batum made a name for himself by showing flashes of brilliance in a wide array of areas. With Tyler Hansbrough, Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes and Marvin Williams surrounding Batum, Steve Clifford has a deep rotation full of quality NBA players.
Since Masai Ujiri took over the helm in Toronto in May 2013, the team has made steady and marked improvement. In each of their past two seasons, the team has set single-season franchise records by winning 47 games in 2013-14 and 48 games in 2014-15.
In such a short amount of time, the Raptors have come such a long way since entering the 2013-14 season with thoughts of tanking for Andrew Wiggins on everyone’s minds.
Under Dwane Casey, the Raptors have developed the identity of a team that plays hard-nosed, gritty basketball and one that plays for each other.
While it is totally fair to point out that the Raptors have only advanced out of the first round once in their franchise’s history (and that was way back in 2001, mind you), it also should be acknowledged that Ujiri has added some pieces to the core of the team that should help them continue to maintain their status atop the Atlantic Division. Although Luis Scola’s best days are behind him, he can still contribute and still has a soft touch in the post.
With Cory Joseph, the Raptors have added a young point guard who has championship DNA and experience and once whose true potential has also been scratched. And, of course, with Anthony Bennett signed in Toronto, the first overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft gets to return home to try to fulfill the potential that helped the Cavaliers decide on drafting him.
To top it all off was the unexpected signing of DeMarre Carroll. In short, Carroll is a true difference maker. He competes hard every night, contributes on both ends of the floor, and has proven to be a plus-contributor over the course of an entire season. He is the type of player who helps a team get to the next level. He proved it in Atlanta and will likely have a similar effect on the Raptors.
With Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan each showing marked improvement over the past few years, the Raptors will enter the 2015-16 season thinking “Why not us?”
That happens to be a question for which we do not have a good answer.
It seems that the Kings have an interesting social experiment brewing.
George Karl has never been a coach to accept anything less than what he has wanted from his players, while Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins do not have reputations for being model citizens. That trio has already given us some interesting material, and we will certainly be watching to see how they develop over the course of the season.
What cannot be denied, though, is the caliber of the core that Vlade Divac, Karl and the rest of their staff have at their disposal. Rondo and Cousins are two of the better players at their positions, while Rudy Gay, at least in spurts last season, showed an ability to move the basketball and be a tad more efficient than in years past.
Kosta Koufos, Marco Belinelli and Caron Butler each represent quality NBA pieces and, of course, Willie Cauley-Stein should make a difference from day one.
The Kings may not look like a contender in the Western Conference, but of things break right this season, they will certainly cease being a doormat in the Pacific Division.
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Whether any of the aforementioned teams can crash the party that will be the battle for the conference title remains to be seen. Certainly, toppling the Cavaliers out East or the Warriors out West will be a formidable task, no matter the team.
Of all teams entering the 2015-16 season with grandiose expectations, though, these are a few who actually have a puncher’s chance of surprising the masses. Consider yourself warned.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
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
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