The Atlanta Hawks changed the team’s identity over the offseason, trading away a former All-Star point guard, swapping All-Star centers and re-signing an undrafted swingman – once ranked as the league’s 499th best player by ESPN – to a four-year, $70 million deal.
After winning 60 games and being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, the Hawks took a step back last season, winning 48 games before being swept again by the Cavaliers during the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
It was time for a change in Atlanta after being swept in back-to-back playoff series by the Cavaliers.
The first domino to fall was a three-team deal that saw Atlanta send Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers, George Hill went to the Utah Jazz and the No. 12 pick in the 2016 draft (Taurean Prince) went to the Hawks.
The Hawks then turned to a hometown hero once free agency started by signing eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard, who replaced four-time All-Star Al Horford at center.
Finally, Atlanta decided to retain its own free agent: Kent Bazemore. Several teams, including the Bucks, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Nets, Pelicans, Rockets and Magic, coveted the former two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year and 2011 Lefty Driesell award winner from Old Dominion. However, Bazemore decided to remain with the Hawks.
“I’ve always echoed you can be the greatest person you can be if you’re comfortable and I’m super comfortable in Atlanta,” Bazemore told Basketball Insiders. “My fiancé loves it and we’re starting to plant some roots there, my network is growing there, and it’s just a city of opportunity. It’s up and coming, and it’s a place I can see myself actually growing with, more so than going to other places where they may be too far behind or way ahead of the curve. This is a place where I can see myself being for the next 10 years maybe.”
Bazemore’s ARMS foundation has helped him plant roots in Atlanta by developing and operating programs, activities and facilities to increase the health status for underprivileged, less fortunate or distressed children and younger adults. In August, Bazemore hosted a bowling, golf and UNO tournament.
For Bazemore, positively affecting the community and earning a $70 million contract was unfathomable after earning the 15th roster spot on the Golden State Warriors and starting a combined 25 games prior to his breakout campaign last season.
“It’s still unreal,” Bazemore said. “When you put it into perspective, what I’ve done, it’s a thing of the past for me and I think about it here and there to kind of humble myself. I want more, I’m a relentless worker. For me, seeing that I’ve come this far, who’s to say I can’t go even farther, twice as far, three times as far? It’s definitely a piece that gives me tremendous belief and faith. But there’s still more to go for me.”
While Bazemore believes there’s more to go for himself, he also believes the addition of Howard – playing alongside three-time consecutive All-Star Paul Millsap – in the frontcourt will help Atlanta challenge the Cavaliers.
“Dwight is such a big presence and last year, with Cleveland for example, they were able to put Tristan Thompson on Paul and put Kevin Love on Al,” Bazemore said. “So, with Dwight down there, you can’t really do that anymore. He’s able to be guarded by true power forwards and able to use his quickness and speed against bigger defenders, so they’re such a perfect duo, I think, because Paul can move out a little bit and give Dwight his space and Al was kind of a pick-and-pop big. He started shooting a lot of threes last year, so it’s good to have a true center down there, somebody that can rebound the ball. We went from like 29th to like second or third. That within itself has changed the total dynamic of our team.”
When asked about the different dynamic Howard has brought to the Hawks so far this season, head coach Mike Budenholzer praised the big man.
“Dwight is very unique,” Budenholzer said. “His physical gifts and attributes give our whole group a greater physicality. We’re rebounding the ball a lot better. I think we’ve been a very good defensive team and he allows us to maintain that and hopefully maybe even be better. Offensively, I think the group is adjusting to him and what he can do and what he can create kind of with that same physical presence on the offensive end.”
After making eight consecutive All-Star appearances, Howard has failed to make the All-Star team over the past two seasons. Therefore, after being regarded as the league’s best center during his prime, did Howard return to his hometown team with something to prove?
“People are always going to have something to say,” Howard said. “But for myself, I know what I can do for a team and I know what kind of problems I can present for opposing teams every night. It’s always about opportunities and systems. I don’t think I had the right opportunity or right system the last two places I was in and where I could be the most effective. I think with this system right here, I get an opportunity to be effective on both ends of the floor and I still have a lot left in the tank.”
Howard and Millsap have averaged a combined 32 points, 21 rebounds and three blocks per game. Howard has shot 60 percent from the field, including 65 percent from within five feet of the basket. Millsap is shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc. Millsap has provided Howard adequate spacing needed to operate down low on post-up plays and diving on pick-and-rolls.
While Howard and Millsap have formed a cohesive frontcourt, he and new starting point guard Dennis Schroder are continuing to develop chemistry.
“So far he’s been playing pretty good,” Howard said of Schroder. “He still has a lot to learn. I think it’s tough coming in as the starting point guard after being a sixth man for a couple of years and now being asked to lead the team. It’s super tough. It’s one thing where you have to be patient and you have to allow him to go through that growing process and just stick with him through the process. There are going to be some good days, great days and some days he won’t have it, but we’ve got to continue to put our trust and faith in him that he will overcome all those little battles in his mind and he’ll be the point guard that we need.”
“He’s a good guy,” Schroder said regarding Howard. “He did a lot of amazing things in his career and now he’s home. He’s tried to prove to everybody too that he’s like the top center in the league and we’re on a mission with the team. Everybody is counting us out, but we like it and we just try to get better every game so when the playoffs start, then we’ll be prepared for that.”
A major key to Atlanta’s success going forward will be the pick-and-roll chemistry of Howard and Schroder.
“When [Howard] dives, he puts a lot of pressure on the rim,” Schroder said. “It’s good for us. People from the weak side shift and we’ve got Kyle [Korver] and Kent Bazemore wide open in the corner.”
Similar to Bazemore, Schroder spent the first three seasons of his career coming off the bench before earning a full-time starting role with the Hawks.
“I think he’s done well,” Bazemore said of Schroder. “He got his extension, so the pressures of playing in a contract season are diminished. He’s just out there trying to win ball games and he’s one of the most fearless guys I’ve met to date. That’s what you need with a young point guard and he’s a defensive-oriented guy so regardless of how he’s doing offensively, he’s going to impact the game, whether it be with a steal or disrupting the timing of an offense. He’s good to have out there at the point of attack and he’s been great for us.”
As Bazemore flourished in his first season as a full-time starter, Schroder is prepared to do the same as the team’s floor general.
“Coach and the organization trusted me and gave me the keys to the team,” Schroder said. “I worked a lot the last three years, and yeah, they trust me. I got the keys and it means a lot to me, and I can’t be more thankful.”
With Howard anchoring the paint on both sides of the court, Schroder pushing the pace as the floor general, Bazemore locking up opponents’ top scoring perimeter players and core players like Millsap and Korver returning, Coach Budenholzer believes it can all come together for a more prosperous postseason run.
“Well there’s still a long ways to go, [but] I think the thing we’ve been talking about since the first day of camp is we brought back 10 or 11 guys too, so I think it’s been a great balance of continuity with some significant change,” Budenholzer said. “When you have 10 or 11 guys that have played together for a couple years, and have had some success, and understand what we want to do and what’s important to us, I think you can integrate some changes, including a point guard and Dwight. Maybe it just made it a little more possible for us to hopefully [go further] with the results we’re having so far.”
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