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Chicago Bulls 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Chicago Bulls.

Basketball Insiders

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The Chicago Bulls made significant changes this offseason by trading Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks (in exchange for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant) and letting Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol leave as free agents. After making some other moves to clear cap space, the Bulls then signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to supplement Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler. The result of all these moves is a roster filled with talent that doesn’t fit together perfectly. Figuring out how to maximize the team’s talent will fall on the shoulders of second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg, who struggled to get his team to buy in to his system last season, resulting in a disappoint 42-40 campaign and their first time missing the postseason seven seasons.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Chicago Bulls.

FIVE GUYS THINK

As previously constructed, the Bulls weren’t going anywhere in the postseason anytime soon, which apparently is why they made wholesale changes this past offseason, shipping off Derrick Rose and bidding adieu to Joakim Noah. In their place the team welcomes Rajon Rondo and Robin Lopez, which actually isn’t too big a downgrade considering injury histories and current production. Of course, what really matters in Chicago this year is the arrival of Dwyane Wade, which should at its best be a ton of fun and at its worst another signing of a former star free agent brought in past his prime (Did he really have to choose Ben Wallace’s old uniform number?). The Bulls are probably better than everybody’s giving them credit for, but they’re not any closer to winning a championship than they were a season ago. The makeup is different, but the outcome looks destined to remain unchanged.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

The Bulls were having a bit of a rough summer, losing Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah in free agency, before securing signatures from Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade on new deals. Rondo and Wade have since publicly stated that the Bulls are All-Star guard Jimmy Butler’s team to nip any potential confusion in the bud, but the unit still has plenty of questions. Can a lineup featuring Butler, Rondo and Wade effectively create enough offensive spacing? Can Nikola Mirotic find consistency and take the next step in a larger role? Is head coach Fred Hoiberg the man for the job and how is his relationship with Butler? The Bulls are a hard squad to peg, but you can count on them being competitive on most nights.

4th Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

Fred Hoiberg, who is entering his second season as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, likes to run a high paced offense that can spread the court with shooting. However, Hoiberg may have to adapt his preferred style of play after the Bulls went out and signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade this offseason. Let me be clear – Rondo and Wade are two of the more talented guards in the league and can help the Bulls this upcoming season. But adding two ball-dominant guards to a team that already features Jimmy Butler may be problematic. These three players may find the right balance of sharing the ball handling duties, but that alone won’t solve the fact that Wade has shot 28.4 percent from the three-point line and Rondo has shot just 28.9 percent from distance over their respective careers. The Bulls have ways to offset these issues with versatile players like Nikola Mirotic on the roster, but this will be a challenging season for Hoiberg.

5th Place – Central Division

–  Jesse Blancarte

The marriage between Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade will be interesting to observe. Wade thrived with LeBron James and is certainly a team-first player. Butler, though, lacks the court vision and overall game impact that James does, so I am very interested in observing their dynamic. Rajon Rondo has always been an interesting case, and since he has never met a coach who he liked taking directives from, I’m inclined to think there will be a fair amount of fireworks in Chicago this season. Like the New York Knicks, this thing can thrive nicely or it can blow up right in Fred Hoiberg’s face. I’m willing to bet on the former, though. Without question, the Central Division will be the toughest in the Eastern Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers will win the day and I expect the Indiana Pacers to place second. After that, I think that Hoiberg, Wade, Rondo and Butler will find a way to work things out and with a supporting cast that features some nice young players, there’s reason to be optimistic. Bobby Portis has emerged as a figure of interest and you can’t ignore the potential of Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and the already productive Nikola Mirotic. The Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks will both have their fair share of wins this season, but I think I like the Bulls to place higher than them – assuming Dwyane Wade stays healthy.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Moke Hamilton

When I look at this Bulls team, I just have trouble figuring out how all of their pieces will fit together. As much as I like Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, they don’t really complement each other well on the floor and their supporting cast isn’t great either. I’m not a big fan of Rajon Rondo and I scratched my head when they made that move. Looking at the Central Division, I have Cleveland, Indiana and Detroit remaining in the playoffs and Milwaukee making significant strides this year. It seems strange to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bulls finished this year fifth in the division. The Central is just that tough, so adjusting to new focal points, dealing with injuries and having other issues surface could sink an otherwise talented team relatively quickly.

5th Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jimmy Butler

Both Butler and Dwyane Wade should average somewhere in the neighborhood of 18-21 PPG this season, but considering Butler’s age and relative health, there’s a much better chance that he ends up scoring more total points this season than anybody else on the team. What Chicago does on offense this year has been discussed at length this offseason, but whatever discord there may be among three alpha dogs that can’t shoot threes, Butler’s offensive strengths are still the type of skills any team would kill to have. Butler attacks the rim with precision, draws fouls and knocks down a number of tough midrange shots with ease, even when they’re contested. He’s the most athletic and well-rounded scorer on the team, which is a big reason why he’s made two All-Star teams in a row.

Top Defensive Player: Jimmy Butler

As a member of the All-Defensive Second Team last year (and the two years before that), Butler also is the uncontested best defensive player on the team this year. While his 1.6 SPG weren’t necessarily elite, his smothering defense on the perimeter, even on forwards much bigger and stronger than him, remains his calling card on that end of the floor.  He’s incredibly intelligent on defense and uses every pound of his muscle and will to shut down opposing players. His on-ball defense is the kind of thing that can save games, and while he has slipped a little on D the last couple of years as he’s ramped up his offensive game, he’s still the best all-around defender the Bulls have.

Top Playmaker: Rajon Rondo

Even though he played for a really bad Sacramento Kings last year, Rondo still managed to lead the league in assists. Now he brings that court vision to a Chicago team that, in theory, has more offensive weapons around him to keep those assist numbers high. He’s not the athlete he used to be, but he’s still a smart, crafty player that can carve into defenses and create for his teammates. If players like Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Denzel Valentine can knock down their fair share of three-pointers this year and keep defenses honest, there’s no reason Rondo shouldn’t be as effective as he always has been at making things happen on the offensive end of the floor.

Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade

With Miami, Wade almost always has been the guy to take the final shots in games, and that shouldn’t change in Chicago. In the final minute of regular season games in Miami last season, Wade had a usage rate of 50.8 percent, and in the 15 games that were decided by three points or fewer in that final minute, Wade shot 8-for-18 from the floor, 5-for-5 from the free-throw line and had zero turnovers. He does this heavily guarded, undersized, and with time winding down. He’s used to having the ball in his hands late in games and loves the big moment. That won’t change in Chicago.

The Unheralded Player: Taj Gibson

At 31 years old, Gibson is completely off the career arc of Chicago’s young core, which has to exist in life after Wade and Rondo, and that means there’s a really good chance that Gibson’s name will show up in more trade rumors than anybody in the Eastern Conference this year. Despite that, in 55 starts last season he averaged 9.2 PPG and 7.3 RPG, and he’s an incredible pain in the rear end for opponents because of how hard he plays and how tough he makes it for his opposition to score. He no longer has the upside he once did, but he’s still a grinder. Those trade rumors will exist because there will be teams legitimately asking about his availability all season long.

Top New Addition: Dwyane Wade

While Wade will turn 35 years old this year and clearly is past his prime in terms of athleticism and health, the Bulls are still adding a 12-time All-Star and 3-time NBA champion to their roster who just so happens to hail from Chicago. Maybe his high usage muddies up an already crowded backcourt, but his positive locker room presence and clear desire to help the city as a whole make him a really fun addition to a team that very well could have been staring a rebuilding project in the face had he not decided to play in the Windy City. There’s no telling how this all will play out, but at the very least Wade has kept Chicago both relevant and interesting. That, frankly, is more than Derrick Rose had done the last few years there.

– Joel Brigham

WHO WE LIKE

1. Robin Lopez

Bulls fans are going to miss Joakim Noah, but Robin Lopez, who actually kind of looks like Noah if you really squint your eyes, could actually be considered an upgrade, at least compared to the version of Noah we saw last season. Lopez is a strong rim protector and one of the game’s best offensive rebounders, and his goofy little hook-shot actually is one of the more effective post moves in the game. Only Nikola Vucevic took and made more hooks than Lopez last season, and he’s showing no signs of retiring the move. Even better, Lopez is a fun guy to have around and should help rejuvenate a locker room that was a graveyard last season. Benny the Bull’s replacement in Chicago already is quivering in fear of the dreaded Mascot Hunter.

2. Nikola Mirotic

It’s easy to forget, but just two seasons ago Mirotic finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, so while he had a frustrating sophomore campaign it’s not as if the guy is completely without skill. The problem last season was that the league wised up to his patented pump-fake, and when defenders stopped biting it changed Mirotic’s ability to be effective offensively. One has to believe he worked on that over the offseason, and as the projected starter at the four in Chicago’s revamped lineup, he’s sure to get more than his fair share of open shots with Butler, Wade and Rondo collapsing defenses with their penetration. Rose tended to miss Mirotic on offense, and Pau Gasol’s defensive shortcomings tended to highlight Mirotic’s. Rondo and Lopez will change things drastically for Mirotic on both ends of the floor, which means he could very well be in for a huge 2016-2017 campaign.

3. Jerian Grant

Right now the former Notre Dame stud is just a backup to Rondo, but as a pick-and-roll specialist in a Fred Hoiberg offense he’s going to have every opportunity to be successful this season given the opportunity. For an offense that wants to get out and run, Grant will be much more effective than he was in New York’s Bermuda Triangle last year. He might not get All-Star votes right away, but Chicago’s a much better fit for the player who looks set to take over starting point guard duties the minute Rondo moves on from Chicago in a year or two. Plus, he’s Horace Grant’s nephew. That’s enough for Chicago to love the kid all by itself.

4. Jimmy Butler

He’s Chicago’s best all-around player and a two-time All-Star with loads of talent and charisma. While he’s not getting the leadership role he would have had in a world without Wade and Rondo, he is being given the opportunity to continue playing for a competitive playoff team, which appears to be more valuable to him given how hard he recruited the aforementioned veteran guards this past summer. Despite the influx of new backcourt talent, he still seems like a shoe-in for another All-Star selection, and at age 26 the best is yet to come.

5. Dwyane Wade

It’s not often teams are able to pry away sure-thing Hall-of-Famers in free agency, but that’s exactly what Chicago managed in stealing Wade away from Miami this offseason. The former NBA Finals MVP isn’t as valuable as he once was, but he showed in the 2016 postseason how much gas he really does still have left in the tank. Chicago may give him the Tim Duncan treatment this year in terms of regular season playing time and saving him for the postseason, but he’s going to have a huge impact on a team that could use some veteran leadership with both Gasol and Noah gone to greener pastures. There’s a very good chance that announcer Tommy Edwards announces Wade “from Chicago!” during the starting lineups, just like he use to do with Rose, and there’s also a very good chance that fans are going to eat that up like wedding appetizers. Wade should make this a fun season for Bulls fans, no matter the final record.

– Joel Brigham

SALARY CAP 101

After trading Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks, the Bulls went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Including the non-guaranteed salaries of Spencer Dinwiddie and Cristiano Felicio, the Bulls are at $96.4 million in salary with 15 players. The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception.

Looking ahead, the Bulls could have sizable spending power next summer, with a projected salary cap of $102 million. Provided Wade opts out of his $23.8 million option for 2017-18, and the team cuts Rondo’s $13.4 million (which is $3 million guaranteed), Chicago could have as much as $55 million in space next July. That assumes the team takes rookie-scale options on Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and Jerian Grant before November. Tony Snell is eligible for an extension by the end of October.  Nikola Mirotic is likely to be a restricted free agent next summer.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The offense is going to be better this year, particularly from the wing, where Wade and Butler could easily combine for 35-40 points per game. Too many people are writing off the value of star power in the NBA, and Chicago actually has quite a bit of it.

Also, while it is a different team, the Bulls were third in the NBA in rebounding last season, and that’s with Joakim Noah having missed significant time. With more minutes Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis could be strong rebounders, and Lopez should help buoy those numbers, too. Plus, Taj Gibson is still on the team, all of which means that Chicago should be just fine on the glass again this season.

– Joel Brigham

WEAKNESSES

Obviously the Bulls’ three best players can’t knock down three-pointers, with Rondo of all people sporting the highest deep-ball shooting percentage of the trio last season. Spacing could very well be a problem, though it’s not a foregone conclusion considering the Bulls do in fact have some respectable three-point shooters on the roster to spread things out. In fact, the Bulls were third in the NBA last season in team three-point shooting at .370.

Without Pau Gasol, low-post scoring is going to be a concern this year, too, and since the team was 22nd in team field goal percentage last year, there’s a very good chance that the offense won’t be as efficient as Hoiberg would like. The Bulls stalled on that end of the floor last year, and while the front office worked to remedy that this offseason, there’s no guarantee this won’t still be a disjointed group again this year, especially with so much roster turnover.

– Joel Brigham

THE BURNING QUESTION

How, exactly, will “The Three Alphas” share the ball in this offense?

If only there were an answer to this question. What we know is that not a single one of these guys is any good at shooting three-pointers, which has become sort of a necessary skill in today’s NBA. To put it into perspective, Butler has been playing pro ball for five years and needs to make another 150 three-pointers just to match what Stephen Curry made last season alone. We know what kind of success the deep ball brings to a team, and it just doesn’t look like any of the Bulls’ best players are going to have any success with it. The high-percentage midrange jumper is not only boring by today’s NBA standards, but it doesn’t make the most of points per possession either.

Chances are very good that defenses will box up on the Bulls and try to keep these guys from doing what they do best. To survive, Chicago’s going to need their three-point shooters to get open and make defenses pay for playing off the three-point line. If guys like Mirotic and McDermott can step up in big ways this year, the spacing concerns might not be as bad as we think.

By that same token, it could also be exactly as bad as we think.

– Joel Brigham

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

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

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

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

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

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

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

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

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

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

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

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

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

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

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

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

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

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

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

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

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

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

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

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

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

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

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

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

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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