The Indiana Pacers were a middle-of-the-road team in the Eastern Conference last season that changed coaches and about a third of its lineup. Larry Bird wanted an on-court product that runs more, plays smaller and scores more often, and acquiring Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young this offseason should help that. Hiring Nate McMillan as Frank Vogel’s replacement, however, is a little more of a head-scratcher.
Either way, the consensus is that Indiana made a bevy of strong moves this offseason and could very easily make some vertical movement in a wide-open Eastern Conference this year.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Indiana Pacers.
FIVE GUYS THINK
I like that the Pacers went out and added impact veterans in Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson. I don’t like that they let go of Frank Vogel – a top notch defensive coach – to implement a more up-tempo offense. I don’t disagree with wanting to increase the tempo, but if that was the goal, I don’t understand why they replaced Vogel with Nate McMillan. McMillan runs a methodical, generally slow offense like Vogel. Unless McMillan is completely committed to picking up the pace on offense, this hire simply doesn’t make much sense. Nevertheless, the Pacers added impact players to complement Paul George, who played out of his mind last season. The Pacers should be a top-level team in the wide open Eastern Conference this upcoming season.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
There are half a million puff pieces out there praising the work Indiana’s front office did this summer in overhauling the roster, and there’s a very good reason for that. They really did get markedly better, and they really did walk away from just about every single one of their offseason transactions better than when they started. They already had an elite two-way player on the roster in Paul George, but they actually upgraded in loads of places by adding Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson. Myles Turner was one of the league’s top rookies last year, and his improvement should help this team along too. Cleveland is still king in this division and this conference, but Indiana now is in the conversation for second-best. The Eastern Conference Finals are definitely in play for these guys.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Joel Brigham
I really liked the Pacers’ offseason and I honestly believe they could emerge as one of the top-three teams in the Eastern Conference. Paul George was a monster last season and he should be even better this year now that his confidence is back to 100 percent and the supporting cast around him has improved. I had the chance to interview Jeff Teague in early July and Myles Turner in early August, and I think both of those guys are poised for huge seasons. Teague is loving the change of scenery since he’s back home, surrounded by weapons and no longer looking over his shoulder at Dennis Schroder. Turner is coming off of a great finish to his rookie campaign and I think he could emerge as one of the better young big men in the league during this upcoming season (he’s certainly saying all of the right things). The East is wide open after the Cavaliers; I think Toronto, Boston and Indiana can occupy that second tier right below the defending champs if all goes as planned for each of those teams.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
Fed up with the Pacers’ plodding and visually unappealing offensive style, team president Larry Bird shifted gears this summer in an attempt to spark an immediate turnaround. Bird relieved Frank Vogel of head coaching duties shortly after the season and then made a series of moves aimed at bringing more offensive firepower to Indiana. The additions of veterans Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young – three proven double-digit scorers – provides more offense next to All-Star Paul George in the lineup and will alleviate some of his burden on a nightly basis. But the Pacers sacrificed defense for more scoring, so the question is whether the club can create a defensive identity? If they can, another trip to the playoffs awaits. If the Pacers can’t, they’ll be more fun to watch, but probably sitting home watching the playoffs come April.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
After the Pacers were able to sign Al Jefferson to what seems to be a great value contract, I was fairly certain that they had cemented themselves as the second-best team in the conference – at least on paper. Paul George is quietly coming off of what could be argued as his finest season yet and the Pacers upgraded their point guard position tremendously by adding Jeff Teague. Myles Turner came in ready to contribute from day one and, without singularly listing each player on their roster, I think the Pacers can go 10 deep. The wildcard in the equation is Nate McMillan. I have a lot of respect for McMillan and the work he did with the Portland Trail Blazers and was told by a source, years ago, that Carmelo Anthony supported him as the successor to Mike D’Antoni in New York. Obviously, that never panned out, but it’s good to see McMillan back as a head coach. I think he will have success with pulling all the potential out of these Pacers and having them ready to play from the beginning. They are a fair mix of veterans and players whose best days are ahead of them, so I think I may be higher on them than most. I think they will have a legitimate shot of pushing for the conference’s second seed.
2nd Place — Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Paul George
After missing all but six games in 2014-2015 following a leg injury that has to be one of the top five stomach-turning things any modern NBA fan has ever witnessed watching a basketball game (somewhere in between Shaun Livingston’s blown knee and Joakim Noah’s jumpshot), George came back last season with a vengeance. Not only did he post career-highs in points per game, games played, free throws attempted and three-pointers, but he also spent a good portion of the season in talks for MVP consideration. He didn’t have much of a shot at actually winning it with everything Stephen Curry accomplished, but his versatility, athleticism and all-around devastation placed him squarely back among the league’s elite. Not only is he the best offensive player on this team, he’s also one of the best offensive players in the league.
Top Defensive Player: Paul George
He’s one of the best defensive players in the league too, for that matter. The only time in the last four seasons that George hasn’t made either the All-Defensive First or Second Teams was the year he had the broken leg. Additionally, his nearly two steals per game last season showed he quickly returned to being one of the league’s elite perimeter defenders. He’s got long arms, huge hands and quick feet that help him recover from almost any offensive move. On and off the ball, he’s elite, and he’ll anchor this Indy defense yet again this season.
Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague
It’s been a couple of years since Teague was named an Eastern Conference All-Star, but he has shown in the past that when he is let off the chain he can put the ball in the basket in a handful of truly devastating ways. He’s an upgrade over George Hill in that he’s faster and craftier in carving out his own shot, which could work wonders for the Pacers’ offense. Assuming Nate McMillan lets Teague play his type of game and doesn’t try to slow him down, he could be the second option on offense Indiana hoped they were getting in Monta Ellis last season. Teague keeps defenses honest and is a much better fit at point guard this season than George Hill has been. Hill was no slouch, but Teague should be an upgrade.
Top Clutch Player: Paul George
This is one of those teams with a clear alpha dog, and that means when the game is on the line, George will be the one with the ball is hands. He’s creative enough offensively to make magic happen in crunch time, and he already has had more than his fair share of game winners. Others may touch the ball in a tight game’s waning moments, but it will be shocking if George isn’t the one actually taking the big shots.
The Unheralded Player: C.J. Miles
While Miles isn’t necessarily an irreplaceable guy in terms of his talent, he is a guy who really holds the locker room together and is a ton of fun for the rest of the team to play with. He averaged just shy of 12 PPG last year, which is more or less par for the course over Miles’ last six NBA seasons. He also is capable of starting for the Pacers, having done so in 24 contests last season. He has an occasional big game, but his impact on the locker room is immense. He’ll help make all the new guys feel at home and smooth things over in a locker room that features a lot of new faces.
Top New Addition: Thaddeus Young
While the Pacers added plenty of talented players this summer, none came at a better price than Young, who only cost Indiana the 20th overall selection in what amounted to a pretty weak draft. Caris LeVert could be a perfectly good player for Brooklyn before everything’s all said and done, but Young already has established himself as a hard-nosed, versatile forward with playoff experience. There’s a 100 percent chance that Young will provide more this season than anybody selected at pick No. 20 would have, so while Teague could easily be considered the “best new addition,” in terms of what the Pacers gave up, Young was by far the better value.
– Joel Brigham
WHO WE LIKE
- Myles Turner
In some ways, the Pacers’ success this upcoming season will be determined by how effective Myles Turner can be, which of course is asking a lot of him. Still, in his rookie season Turner proved to have the ability to both protect the rim and shoot from all over the floor. His 3.3 blocks per game led the NBA in the first round of this past spring’s playoffs. As soon as the calendar rolled over to 2016 last season, Turner pushed himself into the starting lineup after averaging 18 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game during a huge six-game stretch in January – including one game where he scored 31 points and pulled in eight rebounds. His skillset is perfect for a team that wants to play smaller and faster, and if he takes a big leap forward this season, so too will the Pacers.
- Al Jefferson
As the only Pacers player other than Turner over 6’10, Jefferson injects some size into the lineup as a projected member of the Indiana bench. He doesn’t in any way fit the profile of a player that works in an uptempo offense, but his low post scoring can still be an asset as an anchor to the reserve unit, and his $10-million-per-year contract makes him a steal even as he approaches the back nine of his career. He’ll be a strong veteran presence in the locker room and a nice safety blanket for the second unit.
- Aaron Brooks
Essentially the “Lite” version of Jeff Teague, Brooks is a budget backup that should help Indiana’s bench unit continue humming along even when the starting point guard is getting a breather. Brooks is quick and loves to push the pace, which fits well with what Larry Bird would like to see happen with this group, but he also can create and score well despite his diminutive nature. He’s a perfect backup for Teague and perennially one of the league’s more underappreciated players.
- Thaddeus Young
The likely starter at the four, Young is the sort of guy who can score like a swingman but defend a number of positions, including some of the bigger, stronger fours. They’ve wanted a stretchier player at that position for a couple of years now, and Young will fit the bill. He was only one of three players in the NBA to average at least 15 points, nine rebounds and 1.5 steals last year, and those are qualities the Pacers absolutely are going to appreciate in him throughout the 2016-2017 campaign.
- Paul George
In the first round of last year’s playoffs, George led his team in points, rebounds and assists. Things weren’t all that different in the regular season where he led all Pacers players in points, steals, minutes and almost topped the rebound category, as well. He does everything well, and he’s coming off a gold medal where he surely learned a lot about winning at an elite level. He’s a top-ten player in the entire league. How could anybody not love him?
– Joel Brigham
SALARY CAP 101
The Pacers are still under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with as much as $4.3 million in remaining room. That’s enough to restructure and extend Paul George’s contract, should he be interested when eligible (as of Sep. 25). Indiana has 16 guaranteed players, so someone has to go before the start of the season. The Dallas Mavericks paid the Pacers $3.2 million to take on the $1.2 million contract of Jeremy Evans, who could be the odd-man out. Even if Evans is cut, that doesn’t open up roster space for camp invites Julyan Stone, Alex Poythress or Nick Zeisloft.
Next summer, the Pacers could have roughly $27 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale option on Myles Turner before the end of October (an easy decision). It also presumes the team decline’s Lavoy Allen’s team option, and that that both Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles opt out of their contracts. Indiana’s spending power in 2017 might shrink by about $4 million, should George restructures his deal this season.
– Eric Pincus
Under Frank Vogel, one of the team’s biggest strengths was defense as they finished last year eighth in the league in opponents points per game, sixth in opponents field goal percentage and third in opponents three-point field goal percentage. While there certainly is a real possibility that Indiana takes a hit with so much turnover both on the court and on the sidelines, players like Paul George and Myles Turner should keep them somewhere toward the front of the Eastern Conference in terms of defensive efficiency.
– Joel Brigham
Consistent scoring has been a problem for the Pacers for years, and while it’s nice to think that the addition of Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young will solve that problem, many thought the same thing about Monta Ellis a year ago. How good Indiana is offensively depends entirely on how quickly McMillan can get his players to push the ball. If he can’t do that, it could be another year in the bottom half of the league in terms of points scored and scoring efficiency.
– Joel Brigham
THE BURNING QUESTION
Was Nate McMillan the right coaching hire for a team that wants to speed up the offense?
When the Pacers decided to let Frank Vogel walk, the search for a new coach was supposed to end with putting someone in charge that would play smaller and push the pace. There were, of course, plenty of options in hiring someone like that, but the team instead stayed in-house and hired Vogel’s lead assistant, Nate McMillian. Oddly, as a head coach McMillan has only ever finished inside the top 20 teams in the league in terms of pace a single time, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for a major change in offensive philosophy this year.
The team downgraded a bit defensively with their personnel changes this offseason, so for the team to be at its best they’re absolutely going to have to play fast and lively. The players Bird has brought in are meant to get out and run, so despite McMillan’s reputation he’s going to have to figure out how to pick up the pace in a very literal sense. He almost certainly swore up and down in his interview with Bird this past summer that he could do it, but we’ll have to wait and see if that’s actually true.
– Joel Brigham
NBA Daily: The Conference Final Losers’ Outlook
After being ousted over the weekend, Matt John takes a look at what went what Boston and Denver have to think about as they enter this offseason.
First off, let’s take a minute to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami HEAT for making the NBA Finals. It’s funny how this was a matchup everyone had dreamed of circa 2010 and, ironically, we finally have it – but LeBron James is on the opposite side this time! Also, it is certainly cool that this year two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year managed to work all the way up to the championships. We’ve seen NBA finalists who missed the playoffs the year prior, but we’ve never seen both sides do just that.
There will be plenty of in-depth analysis leading up to when the finals begin tonight, and you can find it anywhere easily. That won’t be found here. Here, we’re going to discuss the teams that came the closest to the final round, and some of the uncertainty they are going to face heading into next season.
Getting to the conference finals can be a big deal depending on where your team is at. For Boston and Denver, even though both are pretty young, getting to the conference finals has different gravity to both of them. Let’s explain.
Boston – So Close, Yet So Far
Should we be impressed or have cause for concern that Boston has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals? They’ve been able to do that with very differently constructed teams between all three of their appearances since 2017, but not getting over that hump after that many tries makes it less and less of a milestone.
The first two were defensible. In 2017, they were firmly in the “Just happy to be there!” camp, and, unless LeBron had all four of his limbs severed, there was no way that team was beating Cleveland. Those LeBron/Kyrie Cleveland teams were superteams overshadowed by the super-duper Warriors. With or without a healthy Isaiah Thomas, that Cavaliers team was going to roll all over them.
They definitely had a better shot the following year. The East was substantially weaker with Kyrie out of Cleveland, and Boston overachieved, but they were relying on a pair of young wings to take them not only to the finals, but to beat the best player of this generation too. The Cavaliers were definitely vulnerable, but not much can be done when inexperience is going up against arguably the most dominant version of LeBron James we’ve ever seen.
This time feels different though. Miami definitely had fewer holes – if not, none at all – that could be exploited on their roster. Even so, Boston, it seemed, had the more talented team. This was a much closer series than the final outcome made it look. It all simply came down to late-game execution. You’d think Boston’s more upfront talent would have given them the edge in that department, but the HEAT were the ones who made the big shots when it mattered.
That’s why this time, it doesn’t feel like a moral victory. This time, they are left with questions. Like, why did it take them until Game 3 to run plays through Jaylen Brown? Why is Marcus Smart taking the second-most shots in the most crucial game of the season? Should they keep their five best players if they haven’t shown they can play together? If they are serious about winning a championship, how are they going to make sure their opponents take as little advantage of Kemba’s defensive inadequacies as possible?
As disappointing as the season ended for them, Boston still has to feel good knowing that they have the league’s most talented young wing combo in the entire league and has built an excellent core around them. They could chalk up losing the conference finals to bad luck more than anything. The Bubble deprived them of playing in front of their fans. Gordon Hayward’s absence forced the team to have to exert a lot more for the majority of the playoffs than they expected to. Not to mention he clearly wasn’t 100 percent physically when he came back. Still, this was a golden opportunity to take another step forward and they blew it.
Among the multitude of reasons for why they fell short, this series also served as a subtle reminder that even in a smaller league, you can only get away with a lack of size for so long. The Celtics ran the center by committee approach about as well as they could have reasonably expected, but it was clear as day that the Celtics lacked a reliable big behind Daniel Theis. Enes Kanter and the Williams bros. all had their moments, but Brad Stevens never really trusted any of them over the long haul. They got away with that before facing Miami because Joel Embiid consistently ran out of gas, and Toronto’s frontcourt was designed more to stop elite size than to take advantage of a lack of it. Bam Adebayo killed Boston all series long on both ends of the floor (minus Game 5), and we’re only seeing the start of his potential superstar career.
With Jayson Tatum taking the leap and Jaylen Brown emerging as an elite two-way wing, the Celtics are no longer playing with house money and firmly entering the win-now phase. If their progress continues to stagnate, then some changes may be in order.
Denver – The Beginning or a Fluke?
They built this small market team from the ground up as opposed to having superstar players join forces to form a contender. There’s nothing wrong with that considering the players that do that just want a winning legacy, but seeing a team build a contender from scratch just feels purer when they make it to the top. That’s also why seeing a team like Milwaukee fail miserably in the playoffs is pretty heartbreaking.
On the surface, the Nuggets have all the ingredients in play to create both a dynasty and their most successful run as a franchise. We know that as long as they have Nikola Jokic, who has solidified himself as the best center in the league, Denver should always be near or at the very top of the Western Conference for the next decade. Although, being a top seed in the conference and being a contender can be two mutually exclusive terms.
The Nuggets’ progress has been far more encouraging than discouraging since last season. They were within inches of making the Western Conference Finals, and were a Mason Plumlee brain fart from potentially being up 2-1 on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray finally found his consistency. Outside of some ill-advised comments about his coach, there’s a lot to like about Michael Porter Jr. Jerami Grant’s going to get a nice paycheck this offseason. Gary Harris changed the entire landscape of Denver’s defense. Monte Morris and Paul Millsap were actually pretty reliable in the roles they were given. Oh, and they competed to the very end without one of their most important players, Will Barton.
Really, the concerns with Denver don’t pertain to them but more specifically to their surroundings. Everyone outside of presumably Oklahoma City is going to try to make the playoffs next year out West. Golden State will have a clean slate of health. As will Portland. In Year 3 of Luka, Dallas’ ceiling will only get higher. Pretty much every team that didn’t make the playoffs has room to grow, and the ones that did aren’t going to just give away their spot.
Still though, there are loose threads in Mile High City. We won’t know if Murray’s play was a young stud taking his next step into superstardom or if it was a facade from someone catching lightning in a bottle inside the Bubble. MPJ’s returns are extraordinary, but let’s see if his body can hold up long-term. What exactly are they going to do with Bol Bol?
Now that their offseason has arrived, they have to decide if they should run it back or make changes to strike while the iron is hot. History suggests that there’s no right or wrong answer. Miami did the latter mid-season, and now they’re in the finals. The Los Angeles Clippers also did the latter mid-season, and they’re sitting at home. Boston did the former, and you can argue both sides for them. Not having enough bench help hurt them, and yet a healthy Gordon Hayward could have put them in the finals.
Denver’s come along nicely since the start of the Nikola Jokic era, and they still haven’t hit their ceiling yet. What matters most is that they do everything to get to their ceiling. How they do that is the real question.
Making the conference finals is a massive stepping stone for young teams. For Boston, this was an all too familiar territory. For Denver, this was monumental. What both need to focus on is how they’re going to take it one step further next season. Or, at the very least, make sure they don’t take a step back.
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.