Set against the backdrop of Kobe Bryant’s final NBA appearance, an event that more closely resembled a circus than a basketball game, the ending to another Utah Jazz season felt extremely surreal. It wasn’t just the hysterics of the moment, though watching a legend cap off a splendid career with a whirlwind come-from-behind performance as players, fans and referees alike temporarily forgot the traditional framework of basketball only heightened the strangeness. There was something more, though, a sense of abruptness most close to this team are unaccustomed to in recent years.
The players were informed just before tip that a Houston Rockets win had sealed their elimination, a fact that made subsequent events possible (sorry, Lakers fans, but that game goes a lot differently if the Jazz are playing for anything). At the same time, it put a sudden stop to a playoff chase that not even a week prior had seemed like nearly a sure thing.
Utah’s outside-looking-in finish naturally inspired disappointment, and with reason. This team had higher goals entering the season. A few costly missteps down the stretch could have meant the difference between playoff games and an early vacation.
However, little has changed in the team’s long-term outlook. Their future fortunes never hinged on a few games here or there within a single season. A thorough front office has already begun the process of looking back, assessing and finally moving forward; let’s do the same from an outside standpoint.
“It’s hard to say we’re disappointed when your point differential is better, your record is better,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said. “To a man, all of our players improved individually.”
Lindsey went on to say that everyone with the team really was disappointed in the final result – it may have seemed contradictory, but really just represents his approach. One can bemoan falling short of a particular benchmark without crushing the underlying process, and that’s what’s happening here.
A series of badly timed injuries are a good lens through which to view this line of thought. That the Jazz improved in defensive efficiency from 12th overall last year to seventh this year is good on the surface, but feels much more impressive when considering that their three most important defensive players from last season (Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Dante Exum) each missed significant time, with Exum sitting out the entire campaign. Evolved sixth man Alec Burks also missed three months. By way of final tally, four of Utah’s projected top six rotation players as of a year ago today missed a quarter of the season or more, with overlap in certain cases that only exacerbated things.
To whatever degree these bits of bad luck contributed to the team’s final standing, the time for that analysis has already passed. What’s done is done. The process-driven side, though, can pick positive nuggets from even the worst of situations.
Utah eked out roughly a league average offense for the second consecutive year. That won’t be enough for their eventual aspirations, but given all context involved it seems like a small win. The Jazz started a foreign rookie at point guard for most of the year, and endured periods where their frontcourt rotation was comprised of Jeff Withey, Trevor Booker and another rookie in Trey Lyles. Depth was a major concern, but was never quite able to fully submarine the team’s attack.
Lyles might be the clearest silver lining, another on a quickly growing list of young players who rapidly improved under Quin Snyder. Lost on both ends in November as a rookie who didn’t even play the same position in college, Lyles was thrust into a larger role than expected as Favors and Gobert missed overlapped time in December and January, coming out the other side with a more refined game than virtually anyone could have predicted. He finished the year as a 38 percent three-point shooter, and even more importantly developed a pump-and-go driving game to supplement it.
Lyles is already looking like a future key for this team, with a versatile skill set that could allow them to flip between “big” and “small” identities instantly, and he’ll create a talent overload in the frontcourt in a hurry if his development maintains this pace.
Fellow rookie Raul Neto was another clear success, handling the starting job at the point admirably for the first chunk of the season before continuing to succeed in a backup role after Shelvin Mack was acquired at the trade deadline. Neto quickly bucked a non-shooter reputation from overseas, finishing just decimals behind Burks as the team’s most accurate three-point shooter on a steady diet of catch-and-shoot looks, and was a consistent and engaged defender despite being undersized. His penchant for canning ridiculous, high-difficulty looks became the stuff of Jazz Twitter legend by midseason.
Mack’s addition and relative success lessened Neto’s role, but an assumption that Mack is permanently ahead on the depth chart is premature heading into the summer with Exum returning. Both will get a chance to compete for minutes behind or even alongside the Aussie.
Other bits of progress were clearly evident as the year wore on, particularly the team defense; the Jazz were third for league-wide defensive efficiency after the All-Star break, and second in this category from the moment both Favors and Gobert returned from their respective injuries in late January. Sophomore Rodney Hood had ups and downs, but put lingering foot issues behind him to play 79 games on the year and establish himself as a go-to offensive option. Star Gordon Hayward may not have made any big leap numbers wise, but he showed a noticeable defensive improvement without lowering the nightly burden he carried on the other end.
So many areas are incomplete, but tracking real progress made is easy. Snyder is still learning himself, something he frequently alluded to, and falling just short of the postseason will instill a greater sense of urgency in all parties involved next year.
Regardless of their final spot in the standings, a few major issues persisted throughout the season and stand in the way of the heights this team hopes to reach. A look at a few of the most relevant:
- Crunch time play
The Jazz’s point differential was more in line with a 46-win team than the 40 we saw, and the chief culprit for the gap was a season-long struggle to close big games. Utah was outscored by a gross 17.8 points per-100-possessions during the final five minutes of regulation or overtime with the score within five (NBA.com’s most-used definition for “crunch time”), worse than any team in the league other than sad sacks Philadelphia and Phoenix. Team defensive rebounding, normally a strength, was likewise 28th during these high-leverage minutes, which contributed in large part to a massive gap between the team’s standard defensive expectation and the reality during crunch time. Much of it tied back to a team-wide lack of readiness for the way the game changes in these big moments.
“The way the game is played at the end of a game is different. It’s a lot more physical,” Snyder said. “There [are] screens that sometimes aren’t legal in the first quarter that become more legal in the fourth quarter. Hopefully [we can] help our players understand that the game has shifted, that there’s a point in the game where it is unique, and for us to raise our concentration, our physicality and our competitiveness to respond to that. I don’t think we were able to do that on the level that we liked.”
Snyder’s year was fascinating on the whole from a rotation and game management standpoint, and nowhere is that more crystallized than in his decisions down the stretch of close games. The injuries obviously threw things out of whack to a large degree, but a careful eye could spot some interesting trends even during healthy periods – particularly pertaining to the “frontcourt of the future” in Gobert and Favors.
The Jazz have embraced a big identity spurred by those two even as the league around them goes in the other direction, but Snyder’s seeming lack of confidence in the pairing to close tight games could throw this somewhat into question. Gobert played in barely half the team’s crunch minutes following the All-Star break, and Favors wasn’t too far ahead of him as Snyder appeared to prefer one of Lyles or Booker alongside a revolving Gobert-Favors door.
The decision is made more curious by the realization that, from a relative standpoint, the duo did a perfectly good job when they did see the court together down the stretch. Data from Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow using slightly different time and score thresholds (final six minutes, score within 10 at any point to more closely match typical rotational patterns) reveals that the two were nearly neutral on a per-possession basis. That’s a huge step up from the atrocious figure the Jazz posted as a team, and a mark that would have seen them easily make the playoffs if it were applied across the balance of their crunch time minutes on the year.
It’s not that simple, of course, but the issue certainly casts light on what could be a big personnel situation down the line. Even if there are times where it was the right move, Snyder’s reluctance to stick with the team’s stated identity raises questions; he often directly referenced matching up to smaller opponents while explaining the decisions. If at least one of the team’s three best players simply can’t be on the floor during many of their biggest moments, is that identity flawed? Is that really the best allocation of team resources in the long term?
The Jazz aren’t panicking in this or any other regard, but it’s worth monitoring – and, if one sees continued issues on the horizon, quietly considering options to assess the situation. In any case, their play down the stretch is a top, stated priority in the offseason.
The various injuries really exposed this one, but it would have been an issue regardless. Exum’s ACL tear in July left Utah thin at the point for the entire year, and while each of Mack, Neto and Trey Burke had their moments, the position was a consistent source of weakness relative to competition.
The same things happened on the wings and in the frontcourt, though to lesser and more temporary degrees. Burks’ absence forced real minutes onto Joe Ingles and Chris Johnson, the former of whom is a solid situational veteran and the latter of whom isn’t currently an NBA rotation player. One could certainly question whether upgrades on at least Johnson were possible at some point along the line, whether earlier in the year or at trade deadline or buyout season. Guys like Jeff Withey and Lyles did well in expanded roles while Favors and Gobert were down.
Lindsey was frank in his end-of-season media availability, noting that improving depth was another top priority.
The Jazz coughed the ball up at the fourth-highest rate in the league, a number that only got worse with Mack’s arrival at the break. A simple lack of ball-handling talent contributed in a big way, and it seems fair to assume that Snyder’s relatively simplistic offensive scheme deserves some blame as well. Decision-making probably covered the rest – on too many occasions, Jazzmen inflicted their own wounds with poor judgement and a tendency to dig themselves into a hole by doing too much (or too little) with the ball.
As both Snyder and Lindsey noted postmortem, the effects here weren’t only felt on the offensive side of the ball – Utah’s defense suffered as a result of all the transition opportunities they gave up through killer live-ball turnovers, and could have been even better than seventh in the league otherwise.
- Transition Play
If defensive transition as a result of turnovers was a warning light, the team’s own ability to generate these sorts of free points was a huge neon sign. Masked slightly to the casual fan by their slow pace and middling opponent turnover numbers, Utah’s unwillingness to push in transition extended well beyond reasonable excuses and was likely their largest tactical issue this season.
A good proxy for measuring a team’s “aggression” on the break is looking at the percentage of shots they attempt within five to seven seconds directly following a forced turnover or a defensive rebound – easily the two most common preceding events to fast breaks. Per Nylon Calculus data, the average NBA team in 2015-16 attempted a shot within seven seconds about 43 percent of the time following a defensive rebound.
The Jazz, though? They weren’t even at 25 percent as of the final week of the season, far and away the lowest in the NBA. The next-lowest team in this regard was Dallas, who still pushed the ball nearly 33 percent of the time. Simply attempting and making these shots at league average rates would have added nearly half a point to Utah’s season-long per-100-possession offensive rating.
It was much of the same following turnovers, where the Jazz were 23rd in aggression by this same metric. Per inpredictable.com, only the Spurs averaged longer possessions following opposing cough-ups than Utah. The theme is clear: The Jazz were incredibly hesitant to push advantages in transition.
Even when they did muster up the courage, the execution was frequently lacking. Timing seemed to be a big issue, with a two-on-one or three-on-one break blown by elementary level decision-making seemingly every night. Bad three-point shooters peeled away from layups for low-percentage prayers from beyond the arc; many Jazz players simply seemed confused about which lanes to run in. Guys made fancy plays when simplicity would do. Hayward, easily the wing on this team who’s most capable of absorbing a physical style, developed a maddening tendency to eschew even minor contact at the rim in favor of tougher mid-range pullups.
For a team lacking offensive punch in the halfcourt for obvious reasons, this simply isn’t acceptable. The Jazz badly need these easy points, particularly if they stick to their big, defensive identity moving forward. Execution on chances taken is one fixable element, but convincing guys to be aggressive and pursue the opportunities in the first place needs to be a big emphasis for Snyder.
The Jazz now move into the next stage of their multi-year project. An unprecedented cap environment is the backdrop for the most pivotal summer for the franchise in at least a half-decade, after which a season with the highest expectations since the Jerry Sloan days will be upon them.
Team brass is open to all potential summer avenues, and will be aggressive from the start. Utah’s first-round pick, presumed 12th again barring some major lottery luck, would be on the table for the right deal along with all three of their second-rounders. The Jazz’s outlook on team-building is a shorter one now; with the grunt work of assembling a core mostly finished, the details and margins come into focus.
A common concern in some circles is the displacement of current pieces. Upgrading talent naturally means reducing or eliminating someone else’s role, and some struggle with this idea for a Jazz team with a young, talented starting five all ostensibly in place already.
The NBA is cyclical, though, and it’s easy to forget that the team has dealt with significant re-shuffling as recently as this season, and mostly come through it unscathed. Utah added four new names from last season’s squad in Neto, Lyles, Withey and Mack, and all four played real on-court roles at one point or another. The Jazz value the continuity they’ve fostered with this core, but won’t let fear of the future – whether in the form of role changes or eventual money concerns – stop them from addressing the now.
Lindsey’s admission last week that two larger moves featuring multiple draft picks and a “major salary slot” were agreed upon but never consummated (for reasons unknown) at the deadline is reflective of his group’s attitude here. Competition for roles is never a bad thing, so long as everyone is on board with the group’s mission. The Jazz won’t hesitate to pull the trigger this summer for the right piece.
Salary considerations are in play as well, particularly for Gobert. The Stifle Tower is eligible to begin negotiations with the Jazz for his rookie extension, and could ink a deal that wouldn’t kick in until the beginning of the 2017-18 season if both sides were to reach an agreement before October 31.
How they choose to approach things here will be interesting, especially under this exploding cap. Gobert’s cap hold (a figure that counts against a team’s cap number as a placeholder even once a player’s contract has expired, unless the team renounces his rights) in the summer of 2017 is a measly $5.3 million, meaning he won’t clog up their books to any large degree if they wait on an extension. It’s a risk, but if the Jazz were fully convinced Rudy was on board and willing to play ball, they could table things this year and save his extension for next summer, allowing them to spend up to the ludicrous $107 million (projected) cap before signing Gobert over the top of that using Bird rights.
All signs to this point indicate that Gobert is all-in with the team, but risks remain. A leap next season could see his asking price rise, and the Jazz could end up wishing they’d locked him up to a more team-friendly deal when they had the chance. Leaving him with any chance at all of hitting the open market could create a situation similar to Gordon Hayward’s a few years ago with Charlotte – the Jazz lost a year of team control on Gordon’s deal due to a poison pill Charlotte included in their offer sheet, and similar things could happen with Gobert. His worth in a vacuum is another topic altogether, and where any real or rumored deals place him relative to his peers will be interesting to track.
Burke is also eligible to begin rookie extension conversations, but these seem far less likely to produce a deal. Burke was relegated to third point guard duties and barely played following Mack’s acquisition, and it’s been clear for some time that he desires a larger role. Burke has handled a tough situation with nothing but class and professionalism, and some of the negative insinuations made against both him and his representation are simply flat-out false. He’s also become a better basketball player, though whether he has any positive trade value at this point is uncertain. Regardless, it looks as though his time in Utah is drawing to a close. It would be a surprise if he played another game in a Jazz uniform.
In between the draft and these negotiation deadlines lies another summer of international play, with multiple Jazzmen once again potentially involved. Neto is presumed set to play for his home country of Brazil, something he’s done in the past, and while Hayward is a big long shot to make the U.S. team for the Rio Olympics, he’d certainly play if he was included. Lyles would likely play for Canada if they qualified, but that’s under a 50 percent proposition currently.
Gobert and Exum are more interesting cases, the latter in particular. It’s not lost on anyone that Dante’s major injury came during a friendly for the Australian national team, and while blaming them in any way is obviously silly, there are real concerns to allowing his first competitive basketball since then to come outside a Jazz environment. Gobert’s is an issue more of long-term fatigue than anything else, something Lindsey addressed at length. Rudy has indicated he’d like to play in Rio if France qualifies, but that he’ll likely sit out of the qualification itself. Le Bleu will need to win a bit of a strangely-organized tournament with six teams involved, and will be favorites as long as they bring most of their typical roster outside Gobert – though that’s no guarantee. Canada is also involved in this six-team tournament, meaning only one of Gobert or Lyles, at most (and possibly neither), will end up playing in Rio.
There are specific rules for these FIBA-NBA interactions, and the Jazz cannot legally block any player with an independent bill of health who chooses to play for his country. Lindsey and his team would never put back-channel pressure on guys to sit, something it’s fair to assume a few other teams might consider.
At the same time, though, they know that these players’ development comes from the Jazz, and only the Jazz. Exum in particular isn’t gaining a whole lot by standing in the corner watching other guys run the point, his typical role under Australian coach Andrej Lemanis in the past. Gobert came to camp exhausted last year after a rigorous summer with the French team, and while the Rio timetable is friendlier, the Jazz are fully aware he’s had precious little time to rest his body in the last couple years. No one within the organization would do anything to stop them from playing if they’re healthy and willing, but no one is spilling any tears if their next competitive basketball comes during preseason play with Utah.
With a unique year in the rear view, a vital time for the Utah Jazz franchise approaches. The next 16 months will go a long way to determining the fate of the team’s current iteration, and of management’s long developmental view. No pressure, guys.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old