It wasn’t long ago that only diehard NBA fans knew the name Kent Bazemore.
When he first entered the NBA, he was known as the guy who played sparingly for the Golden State Warriors, but always rooted on his teammates with entertaining bench celebrations. In fact, these became so popular that highlight reels were made and Bazemore’s moves were even added to NBA 2K. He was a fan favorite – the undrafted kid who always had a smile on his face and seemed thrilled to be living out his dream of being in the NBA.
Then, in February of 2014, the Warriors traded Bazemore the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Steve Blake. Suddenly, the swingman had an opportunity to take on a larger role. He took full advantage, averaging 13.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals in 28 minutes. As entertaining as Bazemore was on the sideline with the Warriors, his stint with the Lakers made it clear that he belonged on the court.
However, Bazemore’s success with the Lakers was over the course of just 23 games, so some decision-makers around the NBA chalked up his production to a small sample size. However, the Atlanta Hawks believed in the charismatic Bazemore when he hit free agency following his time in Los Angeles, inking him to a two-year deal worth $4 million.
He continued to play at a very high level and made the Hawks look very smart. Last season, stepping in for the departed DeMarre Carroll, the 27-year-old averaged 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals. He shot 44.1 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three-point range (on 4.1 attempts per game). He emerged as a talented two-way player and an integral part of Atlanta’s balanced attack, filling the 3-and-D role that’s so valuable in today’s NBA.
In the playoffs, Bazemore averaged 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals in the Hawks’ 10 games. During the team’s first-round series against the Boston Celtics, he had two outings in which he scored at least 20 points and he also did a very good job rebounding and defending. His best statistical performance of the playoffs came in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers when he had 16 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals.
These days, he’s filling the stat sheet as opposed to just waving a towel. But don’t get it twisted: Bazemore is still the teammate whom everyone loves.
“He’s a great basketball player, but an even better person,” said Indiana Pacers point guard Jeff Teague, who played with Bazemore in Atlanta. “He’s probably my favorite teammate that I’ve played with.”
“Kent was a great teammate in Atlanta,” said Phoenix Suns guard John Jenkins, who played with Bazemore in Atlanta. “He has a very lively personality that is contagious and perfect for a locker room. He has God-given tools that allow him to be a tough defender, but now you have to respect him on the offensive end of the floor too. He has a great story for a guy that went undrafted.”
What Bazemore brings to Atlanta – both on the court and as a great locker-room presence – can’t always be quantified with traditional stats. However, a deeper look at some of his advanced numbers does give an indication of how effective he was last season. According to Basketball Reference, Bazemore ranked 13th among qualified NBA players in Defensive Rating (100) and 16th among players in Defensive Win Shares (3.8). He averaged 2.6 deflections per game in the postseason, which ranked 15th among all individuals in the playoffs. Opponents who were being guarded by Bazemore shot 41.6 percent from the field, as opposed to shooting an average of 44.5 percent on the season when guarded by someone else.
A big reason for the Hawks’ success was their defense, and Bazemore was a crucial part of that (the only Hawk with a higher Defensive Rating was forward Paul Millsap). When teams played against Atlanta, their field goal percentage would drop by an average of 1.8 percent, which ranked first in the NBA. Also, the Hawks were second in the NBA in Defensive Rating (allowing only 98.8 points per 100 possessions, which trailed only the San Antonio Spurs).
Because Bazemore had a career year and displayed his expanded game, he received a nice raise this summer. He was a highly coveted free agent on July 1. In fact, the Houston Rockets met him as soon as free agency got underway, bringing owner Les Alexander, superstar James Harden and legends like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to their pitch meeting as they tried to persuade him to leave Atlanta. However, even with the Rockets rolling out the red carpet, Bazemore ultimately decided to re-sign with the Hawks on a four-year deal worth $70 million. Oh, and July 1 (when he agreed to the contract terms with Atlanta) is his birthday, as if he needed any more reason to celebrate!
According to our salary cap guru Eric Pincus, Bazemore made $5,262,476 during the first four years of his NBA career combined. Next season alone he will triple that number, set to earn $15,730,338 (making him the third-highest-paid player on the Hawks’ roster). In the 2017-18 season, he’ll make $16,910,113. The following year, he’ll earn $18,089,887. He has a player option for the 2019-20 campaign, but he could make $19,269,662.
It’s safe to say that the days of Bazemore being undervalued and overlooked are in the past.
This was evident when it came time for the media to select their annual award winners. Bazemore received three All-Defensive Team votes as well as two votes in the NBA’s Most Improved Player race.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Bazemore to discuss his free agency decision, his meeting with the Rockets, the huge strides he made in recent years, his expectations for next season, the Hawks’ addition of Dwight Howard and more:
Alex Kennedy: You decided to re-sign with the Atlanta Hawks after receiving interest from several teams. What factored in to that decision?
Kent Bazemore: “I had made it clear all season that I wanted to return. Once you go through a season like this last one, a career year where you’re with the organization and coach and team for a second straight year, it’s hard to leave. My ceiling is super high here because I’m comfortable. I think being comfortable in your surroundings is important to becoming the best person and player that you can be. That weighed heavily in my decision. My fiancée loves it here too. Happy wife, happy life, right? (laughs) With other teams, there were a lot of uncertainties. For example, some were in the rebuilding stage. I didn’t want to leave a situation that I know a lot about for a situation with uncertainties. This is the place where I feel like I can grow the most, be close to home and develop my brand. I think having a brand in this league is really important because it helps catapult you in certain situations. The city of Atlanta has really embraced me. It’s been a perfect fit from the get-go.”
Kennedy: Just a few years ago, you were more known for your bench antics with the Golden State Warriors than your on-court contributions. Now, you’re one of the better two-way players in the NBA and you have an organization like the Houston Rockets bringing out owner Les Alexander, James Harden, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and others to pitch to you. Is it a bit surreal how much has changed in just a few years?
Bazemore: “It is surreal. You walk into the room and there’s Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, James Harden, the owner and the assistant GM. It was a lot. They gave me this iPad with the presentation, and it was a very strong presentation. They did it in my backyard, so I was still home, still in my element, still in Atlanta. I made up my mind that I wanted to stay here with the Hawks. They tried to persuade me otherwise by breaking through that wall and trying to change my mind. And they almost did, I have to give them credit. Their presentation was impressive, with the moves they want to make. Also, I had already played under [head coach] Mike D’Antoni, so that played a factor as well. But at the end of the day, there were a lot of uncertainties. I would’ve been leaving a solid situation to go to Houston and play with James Harden, who is a great player, but one thing I want to do more this year is play with the ball in my hands. I understand that the Rockets are James’ team, so I thought the best thing for me was to stay here, where I can blossom. Not that I couldn’t have done it there, but I just think I have a better chance to do it here.”
Kennedy: That leads to my next question. In your opinion, how much more room to you have to grow? How much untapped potential do you feel you still have?
Bazemore: “Oh man, a ton. There’s not anyone on this planet who criticizes me more than myself. I think this contract has definitely motivated me to be a lot better. There are still levels to go – be an All-Star, be a superstar, MVP talk. That may seem farfetched, but I think at this rate, anything that I say can very well happen. Looking at how far I’ve come over the last few years, I think anything is obtainable. I know a lot of guys get a pay check and then relax, but I’m not going to be that guy. I’ve just been so motivated since signing a few weeks ago. I’m ready to get back out there and play. I know what I have to do to reach my projections and be where I want to be when I leave this game.”
Kennedy: The Hawks have made some significant changes this summer. You added Dwight Howard to the roster, but also lost players like Al Horford and Jeff Teague. What are your thoughts on the offseason as a whole?
Bazemore: “I think obviously losing Al and Jeff – two All-Stars – is a blow, but from an organization standpoint, I know they were looking to head in a new direction. Jeff and I had been here the longest out of everybody on the team, but they felt it was time to make a change. They’re going with a younger point guard, Dennis Schroder, who is defensive-oriented. They brought in Dwight Howard, who is one of the most dominant centers of all-time and poised for a breakout year. He seems super hungry. I’ve chatted with him a few times and he seems like he’s ready to get after it. It’s a situation for him where, unlike in L.A. and unlike in Houston, this is going to be his team. We’ll work off of him. We understand that he’s been to the NBA Finals and played on some great teams. We’re looking for him to be a leader for us, and I think he can do it. Him coming back home and being comfortable here, I think that makes a world of a difference. Then, of course, we have Paul Millsap, who is really special and does what he does on a nightly basis. He’s so consistent. We have some rookies who I’m really excited about; Taurean Prince is a big body and DeAndre Bembry is a play-maker with some good size. Then we have guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and, of course, Jarrett Jack, who is one of the most vocal leaders in the entire league. He’s someone who I learned a lot of my leadership skills from back when we played together in Golden State. I could go on and on about this team. We have a good team all around – a solid mix of young guys and veterans – so it’s going to be a good year.”
Kennedy: Last year, most people felt that the Eastern Conference was pretty wide open after the Cleveland Cavaliers. Do you think you guys have a shot at being one of those top teams in the East?
Bazemore: “Yeah, definitely. Cleveland is a great team and what they did last year was amazing, beating a team that many people thought would walk away with the regular season and the postseason. You have to give a ton of credit to them because they’ve done a great job putting themselves in position to win and be successful. I think we took notes from losing to them eight straight games in the postseason. There’s definitely a fire lit under us for next season and we want to come back better than ever – individually and collectively as well. We’re taking steps in the right direction, adding Dwight Howard, adding Jarrett Jack, re-signing Kris Humphries and things like that. I think we’re moving in the right direction this year and that we’re poised to do some damage this season.”
Kennedy: What aspects of your games are you working on this offseason?
Bazemore: “I’m working on my body a ton. For me, getting stronger is super important. I’m just as athletic as any player in the league, but strength is important over an 82-game season. I’ve been working on my body a lot. I’m always expanding my knowledge of the game, watching a ton of film and understanding the game of basketball better. It’s one thing to just go out there to play, but it’s another to know exactly what you’re doing. It’s a game of chess, and I’m working on setting up players, setting up plays, making sure I’m in the right position on defense and those kind of small details. I’m always fine tuning those things. I think that will make me a much more solid player, and that way I’m not out of position on defense or gambling or things like that. I think I took a step in the right direction last year in terms of being solid, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m continuing to work on my jump shot too. I made a minor change at the beginning of the summer, so I think you should see my percentages go up next season. I’m also working on some more stuff off the dribble. It’s going to be a good year for me. With Dwight rolling to rim, I think our pick-and-roll is going to be really special and I’m looking forward to that as well.”
Kennedy: You’re very active in the community and have a lot of things going on right now with your foundation. What are some of the initiatives you are working on at the moment?
Bazemore: “I have three areas that I’m targeting right now. First is back home where I grew up in Bertie County, NC. Then, I have some things in Norfolk, VA, where I went to college. And here in Atlanta, I’m starting to plant some seeds and my foundation’s home base will be here in Atlanta. It’s a very saturated area with a ton of opportunities to do things. It’ll run out of Atlanta and trickle down to everywhere else. Ultimately, I want to start an academy, so right now I’m doing things in education like working with Boys and Girls Clubs, working with foster homes, working with basketball camps and things like that. We have a lot on our plate and some really big goals for the foundation. It’s something that I want to continue to do long after I retire, so I’m going to be involved in this for a very long time. I always wanted to get into philanthropy and I think this is a great start with my foundation. I want to turn this into something that’s very special.”
Kennedy: This question was submitted on Twitter by @HollywoodHeat. Kent, you have a lot of friends around the NBA and you’re obviously a charismatic guy. It’s well documented that you played a role in Stephen Curry joining Under Armour, so you clearly have some recruiting talent. Do you envision yourself being a recruiter of free agents for Atlanta moving forward?
Bazemore: “Oh yeah, most definitely. I think next summer, I’ll be sitting in every meeting. I think it’s a strong gesture when a team brings one of their leaders to a meeting because they can weigh in and tell the player how they can fit. In my Rockets meeting, having James Harden there really meant a lot and helped a lot.
“With Kevin Durant, you had all of the top Warriors players there recruiting him and answering questions. Damian Lillard [was involved] in recruiting this summer, and I think Damian is one of the most underappreciated players in the league on and off the court. He deserves more credit for everything he does. Young players should look up to him, with the way he approaches the game, how team-oriented he is and how he is always focused on a greater cause than himself. He’s definitely a guy who I’ve been eyeing and watching what he does to learn from him.
“For some reason, certain guys have a lot of pride or a big ego so they don’t want to show up to a free-agent meeting to recruit a guy to come play with them. But that just creates animosity. As soon as we signed Dwight Howard and Jarrett Jack, I sent them a text because I wanted to talk to them and start our relationship out on the right foot. That way when we’re in training camp or see each other in the gym, we’ve already talked and it’s not our first conversation. I’ll definitely be a recruiter in the future. I think I have a natural connection with people.”
For more exclusive interviews by Alex Kennedy (with players such as Indiana’s Jeff Teague, New York’s Courtney Lee, Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo, Sacramento’ Garrett Temple, Portland’s Moe Harkless and more), click here.
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.