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Charlotte Hornets 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Charlotte Hornets.

Basketball Insiders

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As splashier offseasons from some of their Eastern Conference competitors stole most of the summer headlines, the Charlotte Hornets quietly went about their business.

They replaced outgoing Jeremy Lin with understated veteran Ramon Sessions at a much lower price tag, plus grabbed one of the standouts of NBA Summer League in high-upside big man Christian Wood on a team-friendly deal. They fleeced the rest of the market in re-signing two incumbent unrestricted free agents, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, who now check in at moderately and comically underpaid, respectively. To cap it off, they used some of the extra space from Williams’ bargain deal to nab forgotten rim protector Roy Hibbert on a cheap deal, replacing outgoing Al Jefferson with a more defensive-minded anchor.

Much like their on-court product the last couple seasons, the moves predictably fell mostly under the radar as other contenders flashed their expensive feathers. Those who did give the Hornets a second look focused more on offseason departures like Lin, Jefferson and Courtney Lee, all of who were nice pieces but were nonetheless a bit overrated as drivers of Charlotte’s success. Lin and Lee both saw the team perform better when they sat than when they played, and Jefferson’s fit in the modern NBA grows worse and worse by the year. Smart additions to fill whatever holes were left, plus the return of plus-minus star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from a season mostly lost to injury, make worries surrounding outgoing players a bit overdone.

A group that technically finished third in the conference last year in a four-way tie is commonly being picked at the back of the East’s playoff picture or even out of it altogether. Have their competitors behind Cleveland – including teams the Hornets were clearly better than last season with the same core group – truly distanced themselves that much in such short order, or is Charlotte being shortchanged?

Basketball Insiders previews the Charlotte Hornets’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Hornets had a sneaky good (though not perfect) offseason. Retaining Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams were big wins considering how important they are to the team’s overall success. Batum’s playmaking skills complement Kemba Walker’s well and allow him to play off the ball at times. Also, the additions of Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert help to, at least partially, offset the losses of Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson. I will say that I wasn’t a fan of the Hornets trading the 22nd pick in this year’s draft to the Sacramento Kings for swingman Marco Belinelli. Belinelli has been very inefficient since leaving the San Antonio Spurs and that was a steep price to pay for a player who has been a net negative on the court recently. Having said all of that, the biggest change next season for the Hornets will be the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Though shooting has never been a strength for Kidd-Gilchrist, his relentless perimeter defense, versatility and slashing ability makes him one of the Hornets’ most important players. Charlotte is simply a much better team when Kidd-Gilchrist is on the court, so hopefully he can avoid the injury bug this upcoming season.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

While the Hornets didn’t do a lot to drastically improve this offseason, they are plenty talented enough to win a weak Southeast with essentially the same group that made such a big step forward last season. Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson are out, but Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert are in. Not to mention, getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back healthy is obviously big too. Kemba Walker is really, really close to being an All-Star, and Nic Batum and Marvin Williams are proven commodities at this point. With this lineup and Steve Clifford at the helm, the Hornets look poised for a strong year.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

This past summer, the Hornets lost Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin. The three were important pieces of their team, and some might say the team will take a step back. Of course, they could, but if there is one thing that the Portland Trail Blazers taught us last season, it’s that there are exceptions to the rule. Those departures will create more minutes for the likes of Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can return to being the player he was prior to his injury, then the additions of Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions will actually count for something. It’s pretty well documented that I’m a big believer in Kemba Walker. I first met him the night he was drafted and quickly became convinced of his potential as a professional. I think he is realizing it. He and Steve Clifford have a great relationship and, based on their performance and experience last year, I think the best is ahead. I wouldn’t be shocked if they walked away with the division this year, but on paper, I’d still favor the Wizards because of their superior talent and improved coaching.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

Steve Clifford is a fantastic coach and there is a lot to be excited about for the Hornets. The return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is huge for this team, and their offseason additions were solid (although I would’ve liked to see them re-sign Courtney Lee). While I have the Atlanta Hawks winning the Southeast Division, I believe Charlotte will take a step forward this year and win a lot of games during the regular season. Whether they’re ready to make any noise in the playoffs remains to be seen, but I do think the Hornets are poised for a strong season and are heading in the right direction.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Hornets reached the playoffs in 2014, but then crashed back down to earth and missed out on the festivities in 2015. Then, Charlotte managed to return to the postseason in 2016. Do you see a pattern here? The Hornets lost three productive veterans in free agency this summer with Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee headed to new destinations. Charlotte managed to address their backcourt by bringing in veterans such as Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions, while also introducing former All-Star center Roy Hibbert into their frontcourt. The East has improved, but there’s enough uncertainty going on in the conference that Charlotte should be able to break free from their recent trend and reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker

Walker is the unquestioned offensive captain for this team, fresh off a career year in which he easily led the Hornets in usage percentage and attempted nearly 500 more shots than second-place Nicolas Batum. His playmaking-to-turnovers ratio is the best in the NBA among volume guards, as noted previously in this space. Major progression with his open jump-shooting allowed for a big leap in his three-point percentage last season, one that feels at least mostly sustainable if the quality of his looks maintains.

A big part of this is Batum, whose presence or absence next to Walker last season came with a pretty noticeable swing in Kemba’s production – especially as a shooter. Walker shot over 41 percent from deep on a diet of mostly open looks while he and Batum shared the court, a figure that dropped precipitously to just over 28 percent when Batum sat and took his gravity with him. Space on the floor for Walker disappeared without the French marksman, a fact hammered home by Kemba’s increased turnover numbers during these minutes and nearly a five point reduction in his overall field-goal percentage. Any significant absence for either player is probably the biggest realistic worry for this team, and perhaps the only occurrence that should really threaten their playoff hopes.

With both healthy, though, Walker is primed to again approach All-Star level. He’s an underrated headache for defenders, running them enough to affect their performance on the other end of the floor. Now squarely in his physical prime, Walker should be in for a very nice year once again.

Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

If one of the elite offensive wings in the NBA, a recent top-three draft pick, had missed all but seven games with a non-career-threatening injury in his age-22 season, the summer preceding his return would likely be filled with ravings about his recovery and potential impact, right? Guys that age are often still improving, particularly if they’ve lost a year of development, and the expected added value for his team could be massive after they got so little production the year before.

Why, then, is Kidd-Gilchrist’s slated return drawing so little relative buzz?

Maybe some of it is a collectively faulty memory. It’s easy to forget how devastating a defender MKG was in his last healthy year – a 2014-15 season in which he trailed only two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus among small forwards. (Not to mention, he was among the top 15 most impactful overall defenders in the league here, despite DRPM generally favoring big men). He has the quicks and length (a seven-foot wingspan) to check point guards as well as the strength to bang with many power forwards, and he’s arguably the strongest non-Leonard option in the league against stars at the shooting guard and small forward positions in between.

Critics point to his offensive game, a legitimate concern that nonetheless hasn’t had nearly the effect one might expect on his on-court impact. Kidd-Gilchrist’s presence or absence has consistently produced the sort of gap in team efficiency typically reserved for borderline star-level players at his position, and brief appearances last year were no exception. And if he’s this impactful as one of the worst offensive rotation wings in the league, what happens if he does what many talented 22-year-old NBA players do and improves even slightly on that end?

Health remains by far his largest concern after missing time in each of his first four seasons, but folks are sleeping on Kidd-Gilchrist if he can log 70-plus games. Along with incoming free agent Hibbert, he markedly raises the defensive ceiling of a team that was already in the league’s top 10 last year.

Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum

Batum is the catalyst who allows Walker and the rest of the scheme to operate at peak levels. He’s the perfect Kemba complement: Not in Walker’s stratosphere as a ball-handler, but a strong shooter and off-ball cutter who slices into the high-leverage areas of the floor and doubles as an underrated passer. Batum actually assisted on a higher percentage of Charlotte baskets while on the floor than Walker last season, with the two combined accounting for over 45 percent of the team’s dimes overall. Walker initiates more plays, but it’s Batum who often finds the incisive pass after moving the defense around with his gravity.

Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker

This pick reflects the likely reality, but perhaps it’s not actually the optimal approach. Walker attempted nearly double the shots of any other Hornet during crunch time last year, but did so in a mostly fruitless manner – he shot under 40 percent from the field and under 27 percent from deep. He spent the entire year (and much of his career) as a relatively ineffective isolation option, per Synergy Sports, so it’s no surprise he had issues during iso-heavy clutch minutes. At the same time, the approach seemed to work: The Hornets were the league’s fifth-best per-possession team in the final five minutes of close games, though some of this certainly speaks to their defense.

Not a lot has happened with this roster to suggest big changes here, but perhaps coach Steve Clifford should consider some minor tweaks. Batum was even worse from the field than Walker down the stretch last season, but certain members of the supporting cast (Williams in particular) were actually really effective – suggesting the possibility that a more team-oriented approach might be even more useful. This can be tougher in practice than in theory, of course, and there will be times where they simply have to rely on Walker or Batum to make things happen themselves.

The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams

Williams has finally found his perfect niche under Coach Clifford: a stretchy power forward who does just enough defensively and is a huge spacing asset for a team with shooting imbalances in strange places. He was the team’s best high-volume spot-up shooter outside of Walker, and the fact that over 90 percent of his looks from three were classified as “Open” or “Wide Open” by SportVU data indicates just how often he was used as a safety valve when teams collapsed on the likes of Walker and Batum. The only major risk for Williams’ productivity is the chance that his body begins to break down in the power forward role as he crosses age 30, but he’s been very durable the past few years and doesn’t have to shoulder any huge offensive burden that might tax him further. He remains a vital complementary piece on a fantastic new contract.

Top New Addition: Roy Hibbert

It’s tempting to include Kidd-Gilchrist here after he played just 205 minutes last year, but Hibbert’s under-the-radar signing is more organic. Not even 18 months removed from a time when many still considered him among the league’s elite interior defenders, Hibbert has seen his reputation slide into the gutter after a year in the NBA’s worst defensive culture. Are we really already prepared to write him off after one throwaway season under Byron Scott with nothing to play for? This feels premature. It’s possible Hibbert’s best days are behind him at 29 years old, but with real defensive players and a real defensive scheme around him once again, this is a guy primed for a resurgent year. He’ll work well with a floor spacer like Frank Kaminsky in second units that can both stretch the court and protect the rim, and could even enter crunch time lineups to help protect leads when necessary.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Cody Zeller

Zeller will turn 24 years old in a couple weeks and is mostly a finished product at this point in his career, though he’s made solid improvements around the margins in recent years (lowering his turnovers, improving his scoring efficiency). He’s settled in as an above-average defensive center who makes up for a negative wingspan with strong instincts and good lateral mobility. He’s a very effective dive man in pick-and-roll sets, shooting nearly 60 percent on these plays and drawing a boatload of fouls as Charlotte’s most prolific rim runner. His 1.22 points scored per roll-man possession ranked fifth in the league last year among guys with at least 100 attempts, per Synergy. He’ll continue to serve as Walker’s most reliable screener and a solid, more-versatile-than-you-think defender.

  1. Steve Clifford

Clifford has quietly been one of the most productive systems coaches in the league since arriving in Charlotte. His schemes have gotten the most out of Walker, Williams and others offensively while simultaneously covering career-long defensive warts for someone like Jefferson. His Hornets teams have been in the league’s top 10 for defensive efficiency each year he’s been in town, and he preaches a ball control-centric offense that’s posted the lowest turnover rate in the NBA for those same three years running. Charlotte doesn’t give the opponent anything easy, and the system really started to hum when Williams and Batum came aboard and opened up the floor for Walker. The Hornets were one of just five teams to finish in the NBA’s top 10 for both offensive and defensive efficiency last year, typically a mark of a contender. They should be in the same neighborhood this year.

  1. Ramon Sessions

Those looking past the Hornets this year are doing so in part due to concerns regarding Jeremy Lin’s departure, but are perhaps a step or two ahead of themselves. Sessions was a more efficient offensive player in Washington last season despite arguably a worse supporting cast during his minutes, and he comes at a much cheaper price tag (signing Hibbert almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible if the Hornets had retained Lin at his eventual Brooklyn contract figure). He’s a downgrade on Lin defensively, to be sure, but additions like Hibbert and Kidd-Gilchrist should help cancel this out. Sessions is a perfectly acceptable backup point guard who can function mostly as a caretaker while Walker rests, and the need for two-point-guard lineups that featured Lin last year is greatly diminished with MKG’s return.

  1. Frank Kaminsky

Year two will be a big one for Frank the Tank, who had mostly a negative on-court impact as a rookie, but has several skills that could be vital for bench units now that Jefferson isn’t around to eat his share of possessions on the block. A slight uptick in Kaminsky’s three-point shooting could allow him to pair with Hibbert for a strong two-way lineup; defensive strides could allow Kaminsky himself to play center more often to juice spacing and bits of improvement in the post could make him more of a stand-alone option when Walker is off the floor. Kaminsky won’t check all these boxes at once, of course, but if he can nail one or two and stay healthy, he’ll be an asset. If not, he could lose minutes to Spencer Hawes, Hibbert or even youngster Wood.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Hornets went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to acquire Marco Belinelli, Roy Hibbert and Ramon Sessions, before re-signing Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. Now over the cap, Charlotte still has their $2.9 million Room Exception. The team has 13 guaranteed players, with five players fighting for two available roster spots (Aaron Harrison, Mike Tobey, Treveon Graham, Rasheed Sulaimon and Andrew Andrews).

Next summer, the Hornets could have $21 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up Frank Kaminsky’s rookie-scale option before November. It also presumes Spencer Hawes opts out before next season, and that the team declines options on both Christian Wood and Sessions.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Hornets under Clifford are built on discipline, smart systems and maximization of talent. Guys know their roles or they don’t play. This is most likely to show through on the defensive end this year, where Kidd-Gilchrist and Hibbert raise the ceiling significantly. The former in particular almost certainly gives Clifford his largest collection of defensive talent since taking over in Charlotte. The Hornets were also the best defensive rebounding team in the league last year despite starting a small lineup and not employing anyone with a reputation as a monster on the glass, which is another tribute to Clifford’s demand of attention to detail.

They should remain solid if not spectacular offensively barring key injuries, with shooting as a crux point. There’s certainly a chance guys like Walker or Williams see slight negative regression, but it’s also far from out of the question that Kaminsky or Kidd-Gilchrist improves some. Even Batum has been a shade below his career averages the last couple years – he’s not too old to creep back up toward the mean. Belinelli’s addition should also help (another candidate for a moderate resurgence in a productive culture), and there’s enough here for another borderline top-10 finish.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Things get a bit dicey offensively if Walker or Batum misses any time, and overall margin for error in that regard is relatively thin in Charlotte. Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t been very durable in his four NBA seasons. Depth and shot creation could quickly become a concern if a couple guys go down or heavily disappoint, and this is where Lin or Jefferson could be missed. The Hornets punt the offensive glass as much as virtually any team in the league, a tactic that shouldn’t change with Williams entrenched at starting power forward. If there’s an area truly poised for regression with this team, it’s their surprisingly strong showing in crunch time minutes last year.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Charlotte carry over their quiet success with improvements elsewhere in the East?

It’s a tough question, and for many the natural inclination is to look at larger surface changes to the Hornets’ competition and assume they’ve fallen behind.

Continuity doesn’t always mean stagnation in this league, though, particularly not with a strong coach and culture. Concerns regarding departures could be overstated, as we’ve discussed, especially if Kidd-Gilchrist has an impact anything like his age-21 season. A group that clearly has chemistry and a desire to win together – enough to get Batum and Williams back to a small-ish market for a bargain, at least – runs it back with a bit more talent in certain areas and another year of familiarity. They weren’t far at all from the East’s elite last season, so there’s no reason to believe they can’t at least come close again.

– Ben Dowsett

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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NBA

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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