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How Charlotte Became Cleveland’s Biggest Eastern Obstacle

With an improving Kemba Walker and versatile defenders, the Hornets are the Cavaliers’ main challengers out East.

Ben Dowsett

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As debates rage around the league regarding which team in the Eastern Conference’s rising middle will claim the second seed, the more practical way of framing the question is really this: Which squad has the best chance of beating Cleveland in a seven-game series?

To whatever degree there’s really a valid response here – and there may not be – the answer might surprise you. Hype trains are running at full steam in Boston and Atlanta, and have combined with passionate noise from north of the border after a franchise-best season last year for Toronto. Together they’ve drowned out a group that could stand above them all, and more importantly could test the defending champs in ways the East hasn’t seen against a LeBron-led team in years.

The Charlotte Hornets aren’t sexy; Michael Jordan’s brand doesn’t seem to extend to the ownership suite. They were really bad for a number of years, eventually digging out of that hole through a combination of solid-but-not-flashy drafting and low-key savvy personnel moves.

They didn’t even draw that much attention last year, with arguably the franchise’s best season this millennium relegated to the runt end of a four-way tie for the third through six seeds and a wild first-round loss to Miami. Make no mistake though – this team was good, bordering on great.

At ninth in both cases, the Hornets were one of five teams to post top-10 marks on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, a common benchmark for elite teams – the others were Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and the L.A. Clippers. That balance was evident elsewhere: Nine Hornets saw at least 1,000 minutes on the year and five of these used at least 20 percent of team possessions while on the floor. Head coach Steve Clifford put guys like Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams in the best situations of their careers, plus got solid performances out of young guys.

Charlotte’s 2016 offseason has been productive and understated. What looked like a dangerous summer with several major contributors hitting a historically lucrative open market turned into a significant positive.

A draft-day trade for Marco Belinelli was a bit strange, but it preceded multiple A+ moves. GM Rich Cho cashed in on a modest 2015 offseason gamble, re-signing Nicolas Batum to a long term deal after betting on the franchise’s ability to retain the Frenchman after just one season in town. He inked Ramon Sessions to a team-friendly deal to back up Walker in place of departed Jeremy Lin and nabbed Summer League standout and high-ceiling big man Christian Wood.

His biggest coup, though, was re-signing Williams. Not only did Cho get a huge discount for a guy coming off a career year in a perfect role, but the Hornets were able to fit Williams in using his Early Bird rights – allowing them to exceed the cap while signing him and in turn leaving room for a flier on one-time Defensive Player of the Year candidate Roy Hibbert on a prove-it deal. This sort of savvy maneuvering can separate mid-market franchises from the pack.

The result is a team that’s at least 10 deep, with insurance on the roster for injuries or rough stretches and the versatility to throw a number of looks on the floor. Clifford’s base alignment likely remains Williams at the four and Zeller at the five, a spaced-out unit that poured in buckets regardless which wing played alongside Walker and Batum last year, but he can shift big in a hurry with Hibbert on the back line when Frank Kaminsky plays alongside him. The Hornets can throw a ton of length at opponents without sacrificing much shooting.

Walker is the spark plug, now heavily underpaid coming off a career year that looks more like his realistic output alongside well-fitting NBA talent than an outlier. The biggest test here will be his shooting from three, which jumped to 37 percent after hovering in the low 30s most of the rest of his career. Though there is reason to be skeptical of his higher three-point percentage, the optics are good: Kemba shot way more open and wide open threes last year than in previous seasons, per SportVU data,and his comfort level shooting was clear within a well-spaced attack.

The rest is already there if the jumper stays consistent. Walker is now on two consecutive years setting the league-wide standard for low-turnover creation among volume guards, posting an assist percentage/turnover percentage combo unmatched in the NBA both last year and the one before. Clifford’s scheme is meant to emphasize ball control, and it has clearly sunk in; there are few guards on earth who make you more comfortable with the ball in their hands.

Walker also quietly made big strides defensively, leaping from a bottom-third rating in ESPN’s Defensive RPM two seasons ago to a top-third rating last year, a difference of nearly two points per-100-possessions after accounting for team and opponent context. His limited stature caps his ceiling here, but he’s proven to be a smart positional defender who can do some pick-slithering and keep guys in front of him in the two-man game. Kemba easily could have been an All-Star last year, and continuation plus a few smart additions around him are all positive signs for him staying at that level.

Creation could be an issue when Walker sits, or especially if he misses any time, but Clifford has shown the smarts to make due. Batum is a crafty passer who exploits gravity extremely well to help cover only modest ball skills, and both Sessions and presumed third point guard Brian Roberts are capable initiators. Zeller and especially Kaminsky could be ready for more touches on the block next year, especially with bench units while Kemba sits down.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will return from an injury-plagued fourth season, and this is where the greatest of Hornets optimists will get their primary fix leading into the season. The Hornets absolutely destroyed teams during MKG’s brief court appearances last season, with per-possession advantages nearly one-and-a-half times the season-long marks of historically great teams in Golden State and San Antonio. This includes a nine-point win over the full-strength Cavaliers in which MKG played his personal season-high of 36 minutes.

The sample (just 205 minutes) obviously begets a healthy grain of salt with these numbers, but this looks and feels like much more than some hot-shooting outlier. Kidd-Gilchrist is among the game’s premier three-position defenders, and he’s a terror in a lineup with four other above-average offensive players: The Walker-MKG-Batum-Williams-Zeller unit, this year’s presumed starting five, more than doubled those Spurs and Warriors’ per-possession domination last season.

His limited shooting hurts much less in units like these, and Clifford now has many more options available to deploy similar lineups that mask MKG’s weaknesses and emphasize his elite skills.  Kidd-Gilchrist can play virtually 100 percent of his minutes with at least three long-range threats, and Clifford could even juice things to the max by sliding him up to power forward and running Kaminsky at center.

As Jonathan Tjarks suggested on a recent Basketball Insiders podcast, these kinds of lineups could emulate Billy Donovan’s usage of Andre Roberson as a roll-man in Oklahoma City last year – MKG is a good finisher at the rim with enough passing instincts to survive, and a Walker-MKG pick-and-roll with gravity-inducing shooters dotting the perimeter could throw even good defenses out of whack. And of course, at just 22 years old with a lost season behind him, Kidd-Gilchrist may not have reached his offensive ceiling yet.

With MKG back in the fold, the outline of a tough out for the Cavaliers begins to take shape.

Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist are two of the conference’s best-suited LeBron defenders (to whatever degree such a thing even exists), and having both presents a fascinating option against Cleveland’s bread-and-butter James-Irving two-man game: Put MKG on Kyrie. He should be fully past any injury residuals come playoff time, and has enough athleticism to stay with Irving when he’s 100 percent.

Meanwhile, Charlotte’s resulting ability to switch Irving-James actions and negate the instant mismatches that carried the Cavaliers to a title last year could be a really big deal. This leaves Walker on J.R. Smith, an iffy option to be sure, but there are no perfect scores against the defending champs defensively. The Hornets have the personnel to funnel things differently than nearly any other Eastern Conference challenger.

Speaking of funneling, no big man in the NBA has had more success against a downhill-rolling LeBron than Hibbert over the last several years. Maybe this isn’t 2013 Indiana Hibbert anymore, but those willing to write the 29-year-old off completely after a year in NBA defender’s purgatory under Byron Scott are jumping the gun. Hibbert was still an elite rim protector during his last season under a competent coach; his effect on James in their playoff matchups was real, and he alone offers more of a challenge at the rim than all three of Cleveland’s Eastern opponents in last year’s postseason combined.

It may not be enough to topple the Cavs, but the Hornets match up with Cleveland in a unique way that might give them more problems than anyone else in the conference. Walker will make Irving work on the defensive end, just as Batum will with James; Clifford has both the personnel and the chops to play the matchup game if Tyronn Lue tries to hide either of these guys elsewhere.

Williams is a strong foil for Kevin Love, a shooter who can stretch Love out on one end and do just enough against him down low on the other. MKG can check either of Cleveland’s stars, and one of he or Batum can be on the floor for 100 percent of LeBron’s minutes in a given series. Guys like Zeller and Kaminsky have the foot speed to do better than previous challengers against the Channing Frye bench units that smashed the East last May.

The Hornets were already better than you thought they were, and they’ve only improved after one of the best offseasons in the league. They’re primed to compete for the two seed in the East, and could stand above starrier names as the greatest challengers to the conference’s dominant defending champion.

 

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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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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