Today, we’ll start a new series called The Shop, where Jabari Davis and Lang Greene debate a few topics in a somewhat less formal style than what you may be accustomed to from us. Consider it an ongoing ‘virtual barbershop’ conversation, if you will. Both writers cover the entire league, but Davis is based out of the Los Angeles area while Greene is in Atlanta.
Davis: Alright, Lang, let’s kick things off with death, taxes and the freaking San Antonio Spurs since Gregg Popovich’s soldiers absolutely ran the Golden State Warriors ragged in their home opener, no less. We won’t overreact to one game, but two things were very evident: the Warriors’ adjustment period will be tougher than some of us may have anticipated and the Spurs truly don’t give a d*** about our narratives or preconceived notions about the season ahead.
From Golden State’s side of things, obviously the addition of a player the caliber of Kevin Durant didn’t cause such an extreme drop-off as we saw in the opener. The total impact of all the roster changes, however, definitely seemed to make a difference with the overall connectivity this group had enjoyed these past few years. Guys like Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes and even Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights may not have gotten a ton of the credit along the way, but each seemed to play a vital role in contributing to the chemistry and perhaps even the culture that led to their success. Lang, how long before they get that second unit together and how long before Golden State’s staff gets that interior defense in order?
Greene: Listen, man: It is going to be fun this season to observe how the class bully (Golden State) acts after returning school after finally getting a beatdown by an underdog (Cleveland, Finals). Quick question … remember when Mike Tyson was considered “The Baddest Man on the Planet” before James “Buster” Douglass starched him in Tokyo? After that, Tyson still showed up to arenas with a can … but do you remember how his opponents stepped to him after he was KO’d? He was still a bad man, but the fear factor was gone. I liken it to when Rocky cut Ivan Drago (Rocky IV) and his corner yelled out “He’s just a man!”
Anyway, back to basketball. Make no mistake, Golden State is still going to run roughshod on the league, but teams are going to step to them differently because the mystique was dimmed by their Finals collapse.
How many championships would guys like Shaq and Kobe have without dudes like Ron Harper and Rick Fox? How many would MJ and Pippen have without guys like Steve Kerr, Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong? Role players are key. Not even just on the court, but off the floor as well. Guys like Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights, Brandon Rush and Festus Ezeli were BIG parts of the team’s chemistry. I’ve said it before … this isn’t NBA 2K; chemistry and trust matter in real life.
Davis: Without a doubt. We like throwing those cliches out at times like “championships are actually won during the summer.” That sounds nice and they are certainly ‘prepared’ for during the summer months, but there’s a difference between being a paper champ and actually doing it on the court. I think Golden State eventually puts it together, but the transition is never going to be easy when you have that much roster turnover.
And from San Antonio’s angle: If Kawhi Leonard takes another step offensively (as it certainly appears he has), then we need to have a serious conversation about whether he is the league’s best player not named LeBron James. His overall impact is just absurd. Also, where in the world did Jonathon Simmons come from and does Popovich basically have a huge cauldron of basketball greatness that he just churns these players out of?
Greene: Kawhi Leonard is just ridiculous. I know a lot of people feel he is a system offensive player and not a true go-to scorer or offensive dynamo. But the man was rumbling on opening night in Golden State. My goodness, he was eating whenever he wanted and took all of the Warriors’ lunch money. I can’t take the leap and say he is the best player in the league … but he IS the best two-way player right now.
In regards to Simmons, systems matter. How many times have we witnessed young player A struggle in one situation and then blossom in the next? In San Antonio, there is a system in place and guys have a clearly defined role. The problem with a lot of young guys is getting into situations that are chaotic. Just look at the difference between Hassan Whiteside in Sacramento and him in Miami. Now I know Hassan matured a great deal, but are you telling me NO ONE in Sacramento saw that raw talent? But yes, Popovich, Pat Riley and even Mike Budenholzer seem to get these young guys ready, pronto. Simmons could be next up.
Davis: It’s WAY early to even have this thought, but it does make me wonder about Danny Green’s future role and standing with the team if Simmons is able to continue to flourish in that system. I’d imagine a team in the playoff race near the deadline might consider giving up a decent pick or asset to have a guy like Green in their rotation.
Greene: Oh for sure, there would be teams lining up quick to bring in Danny – a guy who plays his role without complaining or creating drama … which is exactly the reason why Popovich and R.C. Buford won’t trade him. San Antonio does a great job monitoring playing time so I’m sure once Danny gets back, they’ll handle this seamlessly – as usual. Death, taxes and the Spurs, bro.
Davis: Moving on, I’m really intrigued by all of the youth movements currently taking place around the league. After several years of focusing on tanking for top picks (whether they admitted it or not), it’s great to see the fruits of such labors actually coming to fruition in the form of Joel AKA “The Process” Embiid in Philly, D’Angelo Russell and a whole slew of young, talented guys in Los Angeles, Devin Booker and his trio of young (lottery pick) big men as well as a nice, promising group in Denver. Minnesota, Boston and Utah are sometimes lumped in with these groups, but I feel like those squads are ahead of the curve when it comes to this discussion, so let’s focus on those first three. If Embiid stays healthy, that young man is going to be a problem. To be honest, while watching that opener against OKC, I actually had a moment where I said, “Oh yeah, they do still have Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.” Some of the grief many of us gave this squad is legitimate and I refuse to allow revisionist history to completely erase the reality, but if Embiid truly develops into the monster we always heard he could be, none of that will matter. Essentially, you really only need one of those guys to end up being incredible as long as the others are at least serviceable.
Same deal with the Lakers, as even though some of his antics rub folks the wrong way, it definitely appears that D’Angelo Russell is going to be special. Thing is, while Lakers fans were in agony over these past few seasons as the rest of the league (and Twitter) enjoyed, the front office went to work and appears to have stockpiled a nice crew to officially (finally) start their rebuild. I’ve been on record about it several times, but I also really like what Phoenix is putting together and I think Denver might be nice if they can continue to develop under Mike Malone. I know everything is about the Warriors, Cavs and Spurs (and the quasi-contending pack behind them), but geek out with me for a moment about the “next generation” teams that might be ready to go by the time we reach the 2017-18 season.
Greene: The NBA is in great shape, man. The money is flowing and the young talent is deep, marketable and on the rise, which means the revenue will continue pouring in. Before I dive into the three squads you asked about, don’t you feel a little bad for Anthony Davis in New Orleans? While all of these young prospects are surrounded by talented guys alongside them, the Brow is all alone in New Orleans from a youth core standpoint. Such is life.
Honestly, I had the same thought watching Joel Embiid on opening night. Did you feel the electricity through the TV every time he touched the rock? Then, I looked over and saw Jahlil Okafor and it seems like there is no comparison in the upside department. I mean, Okafor is no slouch but it’s starting to look silly there was a debate on whether he or Karl-Anthony Towns should have been selected first overall last year. Now, after just one game, I am latching on the Embiid train and believe Okafor is a supporting cast member. Crazy.
We talked over the summer, about the D’Angelo Russell and Devin Booker comparison. I think Russell has a chance to be a goodie monster. We already see Devin out in Phoenix putting veterans on the bench (sorry B. Knight). But Russell has more of a BOOM-or-BUST dynamic to him. He could become an All-NBA performer or he could become an All-Hollywood media scapegoat if he doesn’t mature quickly enough. Right now, I am on the All-NBA train.
I like what the Lakers built, stockpiling young talent and then spending money on vets this past summer. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov aren’t sexy additions, but they have won at a high level in the league and the Lakers need that. Phoenix and Denver have loads of young talent and are about three seasons away from making serious noise. Right now, Minnesota’s young core is deserving of the hype. I won’t join their playoff express train this season, but it should arrive at the station next season.
Davis: Oh, I’m right there with you on Davis. In fact, I will no longer get irritated by the #FreeTheBrow when it scrolls across my Twitter timeline (Shameless plug alert: @JabariDavisNBA and @LangGreene). He’s one of the league’s best players when healthy and you just hope they can continue to put pieces around him. It’s still early, but you just don’t want to end up seeing him frustrated and wanting to leave if the struggle continues beyond this season.
When it comes to the vets the Lakers added, part of that reaction was on the organization for not appropriately managing expectations (they’ve literally thrown gasoline on the fire at times), but part of that is because you know folks love to clown when you’ve been on top for a long time and then stumble. The reality is, if you’re truly embracing a youth movement, then you want to have guys like Mozgov and Deng because they can contribute in several ways and don’t threaten the further development of the young players. I’ll say it flat-out, the tone in the locker room is about as loose and comfortable as it has ever been over the five years I’ve had the fortune of covering the team and league. That isn’t a knock on the old regime or anyone no longer in the room (as needlessly harping on that seems pointless to me); that’s just a fact.
We can fully anticipate a ton of ups and downs over the next few years as each of these teams continue their ascent in the standings, but it sure is nice to see several young teams with so much promise and so many things to look forward to for those fan bases.
We’ll end this week’s introductory discussion at this point, but we can assure you the conversation will be ongoing throughout the season. It will expand and include topics from around the league and maybe even include a surprise appearance or two here and there. Whether you cover the NBA for a living or simply live to watch NBA basketball, we are ALL fans of this game; and these discussions will specifically permit you to enjoy or simply laugh at us for “fan-boying” just like everyone else.
If you have specific topics you’d like us to discuss or have general feedback on the previous conversation, remember to use #TheShop and tag us on Twitter and we’ll work as many of your recommendations in throughout the season.
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
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.