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Cleveland Cavaliers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Basketball Insiders

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The Cleveland Cavaliers ended their city’s 52-year championship drought in remarkable fashion, overcoming a 3-1 deficit against the star-studded Golden State Warriors to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.

LeBron James was incredible in the NBA Finals, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting 49.4 percent from field and 37.1 percent from three-point range. James led all Finals players in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks – becoming the first player in NBA history to do that in any playoff series. He also made a number of signature plays that will show up in highlight reels for years, such as this insanely clutch chase-down block against Andre Iguodala.

Kyrie Irving was also excellent against the Warriors, averaging 27.1 points, 3.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals while shooting 46.8 percent from the field, 40.5 percent from three-point range and 93.9 percent from the free throw line. He also turned over the ball just 2.6 times per game despite being asked to create on offense quite a bit. Irving outperformed unanimous league MVP Stephen Curry, who averaged 22.6 points, 3.7 assists and 4.3 turnovers and shot just 40.3 percent from the field in the series. Irving also came up huge down the stretch, hitting a crucial three over Curry in the final minute of Game 7.

Now, Cleveland brings back largely the same roster in an attempt to defend their title. The Warriors won the offseason by adding Kevin Durant, but the Cavaliers are hoping they have enough to take down Golden State should we see the two juggernauts face off for a third straight time in the NBA Finals.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

FIVE GUYS THINK

“The champ is here!” The Cavaliers pulled off the unbelievable by surviving a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Finals and rallying to win the title with three consecutive clutch victories. What makes Cleveland’s triumph even more impressive is the fact the Golden State Warriors had just pulled off a historic NBA regular season and were being led by the first unanimous MVP in league history. The unfathomable Finals win proved All-Star forward LeBron James is still the best player on the planet despite getting deeper into his 30s. Expect more of the same this season, as the Cavaliers should be competing for another title next June for the third straight season.

1st Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

As long as LeBron James is still reasonably healthy and employed by the Cavaliers, they’re going to be the best team in the Eastern Conference, regardless of whatever else is going on. The fact that in this case, “whatever else is going on” includes having Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and arguably the league’s best offensive rebounder in Tristan Thompson around him means the Cavs have as good a shot at toppling the Golden State Warriors this year as anyone. We’ll have to see if the defending champs are able to re-sign J.R. Smith, but it’s not like there’s a market for the guy outside of Cleveland. Assuming he’s back, the Cavs look primed for another big year, but that might mean scaling back LeBron’s regular season minutes a bit. This season is the Cavs’ victory lap, which they earned, but they’re going to have to work even harder if they want to earn a second straight title.

1st Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

There’s the Cavaliers, and there’s everyone else in the Eastern Conference. So long as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are alive and kicking, the Cavaliers will be head and shoulders above every other contender in East. Instead of asking yourselves who will win the Central Division, ask yourself which team will earn the right to challenge the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals? Also, ask yourself what kind of accomplishment would it be for LeBron James to compete in seven consecutive NBA Finals? Barring an unforeseen injury, that’s obviously where this is all headed, no?

1st Place – Central Division

– Moke Hamilton

As I’ve stated in some of our other team previews, I think there’s a large gap between the Cavaliers and every other team in the Eastern Conference. Teams like the Celtics and Raptors are very talented, but I’d be surprised to see any team other than Cleveland representing the East in the NBA Finals this year. The Cavs are ridiculously talented and, even though they weren’t very active this offseason, that’s probably for the best because chemistry and continuity are important in the NBA. Ty Lue will continue to get better as a head coach as he gains experience and this group will only improve as they become more and more familiar with each other. Many NBA fans don’t want to hear this, but I’m predicting round three of Cavaliers versus Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals.

1st Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Cavaliers pulled off an incredible comeback in the NBA Finals last season. LeBron James was incredible and Kyrie Irving came up clutch when his team needed him most. The Cavaliers are bringing back roughly the same roster as last season and have a direct path to returning to the Finals this season. There are other Eastern Conference teams such as the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics who could make things interesting, but the Cavaliers are the clear favorites at this point. However, assuming the Cavaliers return to the Finals, they will likely have to face the Golden State Warriors, who added Kevin Durant this offseason. The Cavaliers will have to maximize their talent, hope that James, Irving and Love are healthy and find a way to slow down perhaps the most talented team on paper in in NBA history. Beating Golden State last season was tough enough, but doing so again with Durant now wearing a Warriors uniform will be the toughest challenge in James’ career.

1st Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

LeBron James could obviously be listed here as well, and he actually led Cleveland in scoring last year with 25.3 points per game. However, James will get plenty of love throughout this preview and Irving deserves credit for his impressive offensive contributions. Irving is the better shooter and ball-handler of the two players, and he excels at creating his own shot.

During the postseason, Irving showed why he is such a terrific offensive weapon for Cleveland when he averaged 25.2 points and hit 44 percent of his three-point attempts. And, as previously mentioned, his 27.1 points per game during the NBA Finals were absolutely huge for the Cavs. The one-two punch of James and Irving is incredibly hard to stop, especially since the two players complement each other so well. Perhaps the scariest thing about Irving is that he’s still just 24 years old, so his best basketball is very likely still ahead of him.

Top Defensive Player: LeBron James

James’ defense may not be as dominant as it was several years ago (when he made five straight All-Defensive First Teams), but he’s still very, very good. We’ve seen that he can flip a switch and become a defensive monster when needed. Anyone who can average 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks during the NBA Finals and lead all players in rebounds, blocks and steals is a freak of nature. James makes his presence felt all over the court on defense and continues to be a match-up nightmare with his size, strength, speed and skills.

Last season, James ranked first among all NBA players in Real Plus-Minus (9.79), 11th in Defensive Plus-Minus (3.30) and 12th in Defensive Win Shares. Also, during the postseason, James averaged three deflections per game, which ranked seventh among all players. It is worth noting that James will turn 32 years old in December (with a lot of miles on his odometer), so who knows how long he can continue to be an elite defender? But for now, he gets the nod in this category.

Top Playmaker: LeBron James

James is a terrific point forward who is at his best when he’s running the offense and facilitating for his teammates. His court vision and basketball IQ are incredible, and good things typically happen when the ball is in his hands. Not only did James lead the Cavaliers in assists per game (6.8) last year, he ranked eighth in the NBA. James also finished 11th among all players in assist percentage (36 percent), and he was the only non-guard to finish in the top 20. There’s no question that James is one of the best playmakers in the league and that isn’t going to change anytime soon, especially since he’s surrounded by talented scorers.

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

Again, Irving and James are both clutch and deserve to be mentioned here. James’ chase-down block was a jaw-dropping play and we’ve seen him take over in many late-game situations. However, Irving gets the top billing here because of that amazing three-pointer over Steph Curry in the final minute of Game 7 and the fact that he hit the exact same shot late in Team USA’s August victory over Australia in Rio. No moment is too big for the 24-year-old Irving, and he has proven that time and time again.

The Unheralded Player: Channing Frye

Acquiring Frye from the Orlando Magic last year was a very underrated move, and the stretch-four ended up helping Cleveland on and off the court. He gave the Cavs some more frontcourt depth and spaced the floor with his shooting. He hit 37.7 percent of his three-point attempts during the regular season, and then hit a ridiculous 56.5 percent of his threes during the playoffs. Also, Frye is a terrific glue guy. In talking to people in and around the organization, he brought the team together after landing in Cleveland. He’s very inclusive and loves to bond with all of his teammates, so he was responsible for getting rid of some of the cliques that had developed behind the scenes. Suddenly, the whole team was hanging out and enjoying each other’s company, which helped them on the floor. Not to mention, Frye is a consummate pro who works extremely hard, brings a smile to work every day and exudes optimism. On a star-studded team like the Cavs, he doesn’t get much attention, but there’s no question that he was an integral part of this group’s success. Oh, and he’s on a great contract that will pay him $7,806,971 this year and $7,420,912 next year.

Top New Addition: Mike Dunleavy Jr.

The Cavaliers weren’t really active this offseason, choosing instead to re-sign their own free agents and prioritize continuity over marquee moves. The team did add 38-year-old big man Chris Andersen, who will provide interior defense, and 5’9 rookie point guard Kay Felder, who could eventually emerge as a spark off of the bench. However, Dunleavy Jr. will likely make the biggest impact this upcoming season with his ability to space the floor and make the right basketball play more times than not. Dunleavy Jr. was a full-time starter for the Chicago Bulls over the last two years, but now he’ll be a quality reserve for Cleveland. Last year, he averaged 7.2 points and hit 39.4 percent of his three-point attempts. He battled some injuries over the last two years, but Cleveland hopes he can stay healthy and contribute in a more limited role. Cleveland’s roster is full of savvy veterans, and the 36-year-old Dunleavy Jr. is another.

– Alex Kennedy

WHO WE LIKE

Ty Lue

There have been plenty of jokes about how LeBron James is the head coach of the Cavaliers, and that always bothers me. Lue did a fantastic job as the team’s sideline general and deserves credit for his hard work. Lue was an upgrade over former head coach David Blatt because he held his stars accountable, utilized his players better and motivated the group. When Lue took over, there was plenty of drama behind the scenes and he had a ton of pressure on him since he would’ve been blamed had things gone wrong. However, he did a fantastic job and helped lead Cleveland to the title. When his team was down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, he kept them believing and made adjustments to climb out of that hole (which was unprecedented). As he continues to gain experience on the sideline, Lue will only get better as a head coach and I believe Cleveland is in very good hands with him at the helm. Yes, it’s always easier as a head coach when you have studs like James and Irving on your side, but let’s not take away from Lue’s success. It’s also worth noting that coaching so many stars means one must manage egos and get their players to sacrifice, which Lue also did in Cleveland.

David Griffin

Like Lue, Griffin doesn’t get enough love for the job that he’s done as general manager of the Cavs. James obviously played a role in recruiting and attracts players to Cleveland, but Griffin has done a very good job of assembling this team as well. When he took over the job, he was expecting this to be a rebuilding effort. Then, when James joined the Cavs, he had to shift into win-now mode and did a terrific job transitioning to that approach. He has acquired pieces like Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, Mo Williams, Channing Frye and Mike Dunleavly Jr. to give this squad an impressive supporting cast that works well together. He also did a great job of re-signing his own free agents – from Irving to James to Love to Tristan Thompson (and Smith is likely next, at some point). People on Twitter like to joke about LeBron running this organization from top to bottom, but Lue and Griffin are very good at what they do and shouldn’t be overlooked.

J.R. Smith

It may seem strange to have Smith listed here, since he’s currently an unrestricted free agent. However, the general consensus is that the veteran shooting guard will be back with Cleveland next season. The two sides continue to discuss a deal, and it seems like only a matter of time until Smith is back with the team. Smith is listed here because he played some of the best basketball of his career with the Cavs last year. He averaged 12.4 points as the team’s starting shooting guard and shot 40 percent from the three-point line. He also drastically improved as a defender, which was very important for Cleveland on the perimeter. In the playoffs, Smith averaged 11.5 points and shot 43 percent from three. He became an important part of Cleveland’s supporting cast and it’s hard to imagine the Cavs letting him go, especially since they’d have a very difficult time replacing his production given their cap situation.

– Alex Kennedy

SALARY CAP 101

The Cavaliers did not dip below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, instead using a portion of their Mid-Level Exception to re-sign Richard Jefferson, without triggering a hard cap at $117.3 million.  Instead, the Cavaliers are free to spend, albeit with a potentially hefty luxury tax bill to come.  The team currently has 12 guaranteed players, with a spot open for the yet-to-be-re-signed J.R. Smith.  The presumption is that Smith and the Cavaliers eventually agree to terms, but that has yet to happen and training camp is here.

If Smith signs for $10 million for the coming season, and the Cavaliers keep two minimum-salaried players, the team would be looking at nearly $25 million in luxury taxes.  At $15 million, Smith would push Cleveland’s tax bill to about $40 million.  With Smith, the Cavaliers have two available roster spots for DeAndre Liggins, Jordan McRae, Cory Jefferson, Markel Brown and Eric Moreland.  Looking ahead to next season, the Cavaliers do not project to have any space under a $102 million salary cap.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Cleveland’s star power is their biggest strength, as some teams just don’t have the talent to match-up against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and company. There will be nights when a rebuilding team simply won’t have a chance against the Cavs because they just aren’t ready to seriously compete with a juggernaut that can dominate on both ends of the court. On offense and defense, Cleveland is effective and efficient. Last season, the Cavs had the NBA’s fourth-best offense (scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions) and 10th-best defense (allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions). They also ranked third in rebound rate (52 percent) and third in effective field goal percentage (52.4 percent). In addition to stars, Cleveland has an experienced supporting cast of veterans who fill their roles perfectly and know what it takes to win (especially now that all of last year’s players now have a title on their resume).

– Alex Kennedy

WEAKNESSES

A number of Cleveland’s players are somewhat injury prone, including key cogs Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Injuries and general decline are also a concern because the team has a ton of veterans. Eight of the Cavaliers’ players are at least 31 years old – and some are significantly older such as Chris Andersen (38), Mike Dunleavy Jr. (36), Richard Jefferson (36), James Jones (35), Channing Frye (33) and Mo Williams (33) among others. Head coach Ty Lue is around the same age as a number of players; he’s just one year and two months older than Andersen, for example. One other weakness is the wear and tear on this team. Not only are they defending champions, many of these players have been to the NBA Finals for several years straight, which can run guys down. Managing minutes will be very important, especially since Cleveland can likely coast through the regular season and still win the East if all goes as expected.

– Alex Kennedy

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Cavaliers repeat as champions?

When you have a payroll that may be as high as $116,494,181, it’s championship or bust. Winning back-to-back titles is extremely difficult, but it’s even tougher when the team you just beat in the Finals adds an MVP-caliber player who makes them one of the scariest teams on paper in NBA history. Cleveland has shot to repeat as champs, but it certainly won’t be easy. Still, that’s the only goal for the Cavs entering this season. The curse has been lifted, and now Cleveland wants to add to their trophy case.

– Alex Kennedy

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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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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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