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Knicks Shouldn’t Splurge During 2016 Free Agency Frenzy

The Knicks won’t win a title with Carmelo Anthony as their best player. Phil Jackson should act accordingly.

Tommy Beer

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It’s been five years and five days since the Knicks consummated the franchise-altering trade that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York. During the half-decade Anthony has spent in New York, the Knicks have tallied a regular season record of 182-216. The Knickerbockers are 7-14 in the postseason over that stretch. They have won just one playoff series. The current 2015-16 campaign will very likely be the third consecutive season in which ‘Melo’s Knicks fail to even qualify for the postseason.

It should be noted that the Knicks were actually even worse in the years preceding Anthony’s arrival (145-238 in the five seasons before ‘Melo landed in NYC), so New York’s dismal record with Carmelo is not, in and of itself, a direct indictment of the trade. Furthermore, Anthony is but one player on a 15-man roster. It would be unfair to pin the franchise’s continuing disappointments solely on his shoulders. Despite what some overly optimistic Knicks fan may have hoped, Anthony is not one of the rare NBA superstars who is capable of carrying a team by himself.

That said, Phil Jackson, Steve Mills and the rest of the Knicks’ decision makers need to acknowledge an irrefutable reality: Making Anthony the focus of the organization has resulted in an alarming lack of success. Thus, there needs to be a dramatic shift in philosophy within the front office going forward.

If Anthony in his prime, at age 26 through 31, was unable to lead the Knicks deep into the postseason, or even into the playoffs, it would be foolish to assume that Anthony (while dealing with a serious, nagging knee injury) can carry his team to the Promised Land during his age 32-35 seasons. Consequently, Phil Jackson and company must adjust their approach to crafting a competitive roster. The first step is acknowledging that team is not going to compete for a championship in the immediate future. The Knicks have lost 100 of the 141 games they’ve played since the start of last season. Yes, 59 games below .500. New York is light years away from competing with the Warriors, Spurs and Cavaliers of the NBA universe.

This realization should impact the way the Knicks approach free agency this summer. It’s not as if New York is just “one piece away.” Even if they upgrade their roster this July, incremental improvements would likely only push them into the back end of the playoffs, the dreaded “six-to-eight seed” territory in the conference standings. No team wants to fall into the middle of the pack; not good enough to win a playoff series, yet not bad enough to land a stud with a high lottery pick.

The presence of Anthony may tempt the Knicks to patch up the roster with immediate upgrades in an effort to “win now” and maximize what’s left of ‘Melo’s prime. However, the smarter, shrewder move is to think long-term.

The Knicks are not going to win a title with Anthony as their best player. The goal should not be sneaking into the playoffs next season. The objective should be competing for a championship. Fortunately for the Knicks, there is hope on the horizon. Kristaps Porzingis has been so impressive over the first four months of his NBA career, that it’s not inconceivable to think he could be a key cog on a title contender.

Although Knicks fans won’t like the idea of suffering through another down year, the 2016-17 campaign should be used a stepping-stone season. Assuming Kevin Durant is unwilling to sign with the Knicks this summer, there is not another franchise-caliber superstar worth spending max money on. Consequently, Phil Jackson should protect his cap space and save for the summer of 2017. Again, this will be a tough pill to swallow for New Yorkers who haven’t been able to enjoy a consistently successful squad since Bill Clinton was in office. Yet, taking a couple steps back will put the Knicks in position to potentially take a few major steps forward the following season.

It is common knowledge that the Knicks desperately need to upgrade at the point guard position. The only upper-echelon PG to hit the open market this summer will be Mike Conley. However, Conley is going to demand a maximum contract and, due to the spiking salary cap that will have many teams flush with cap space, he’ll get his wish. Based on a cap projection of $92 million, here is the annual salary breakdown of the max contract offer Mike Conley would be eligible to receive from the Knicks:

2016-17: $25.9 million
2017-18: $27.1 million
2018-19: $28.3 million
2019-20: $29.6 million
Sum total of $110.9 million over four NBA seasons

Keep in mind, Conley would have to leave money on the table from the Memphis Grizzlies to sign with New York, as the Grizz would be able to offer five years and larger annual raises.

Adding Conley sounds good in theory because he is an extremely talented point guard, but is he the “difference maker” that the Knicks would need him to be? Remember, Carmelo will earn $24.6 million next season and $26.3 million in 2017-18. That means that Conley and Anthony would make a combined $53.4 million in 2017-18. Even with the cap set to spike to a purported $108 million that season, that’s still nearly 50 percent of the Knicks’ entire cap going to two borderline All-Star players who would both be on the wrong side of 30. The Knicks would undoubtedly be much better with Conley on their team next season, and for years thereafter, but that’s likely not the best use of the team’s limited resources, especially considering signing Conley in 2016 would preclude them pursuing a true superstar point guard in 2017.

As I detailed earlier this month, the 2017 free agent crop will be arguably the greatest class of free agent point guards the NBA has ever seen. Russell Westbrook (who has already been rumored to be interested in New York), Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, Jarrett Jack and George Hill will all likely hit unrestricted free agency together in July of 2017.

In years past, it would be foolish to believe the Knicks would be able to convince an elite game-changing, All-NBA player to consider New York, but it now seems far more reasonable, as the thought of running with a maturing Porzingis in his prime would be enticing to the NBA’s elite.

All things considered, the best decision for the Knicks may be to scrounge for value contracts in 2016, or sign players to one-year deals (or take on an expiring contract or two – the Blazers recently used conserved cap space to absorb Anderson Varejao’s contract and received a future first-round draft pick in the process). New York could patiently plot a course that enables them to make a major splash in the summer of 2017.

Another reason to spend next season regrouping and laying the groundwork for a massive, instant rebuild is that the Knicks own the rights to their 2017 first-round pick. So even if the Knicks struggle mightily next season, they will reap the rewards of a high lottery pick.

In this scenario, 2016-17 will be viewed as a transition year, which would allow Knicks coaches and management to figure out what they have on the roster. Continue to bring Porzingis along slowly, limiting his minutes in the process. Throw Jerian Grant into the deep end of the pool and see if he sinks or swims. The Knicks, currently 11 games under .500, are out of the playoff picture yet Sasha Vujacic, who will be out of the NBA next season, is averaging 10 minutes a night since Kurt Rambis took over as head coach. Vujacic has gone scoreless in 38 minutes over his last four games, while Grant collects DNP-CD’s on a nightly basis. This is inexcusable. Grant, 23, is also older than your typical rookie and spent five years playing high-level DI basketball at Notre Dame. We know what Vujacic and Jose Calderon are; Phil Jackson needs to find out whether Jerian Grant is an NBA-caliber point guard.

The Knicks can also bring over Willy Hernangomez, their second-round pick from the 2015 draft. Hernangomez played in Seville with Porzingis in 2014-15 and has impressed international scouts with his post play and interior defense this season. Play the 6’10 Willy in the frontcourt alongside his buddy Kristaps and find out if he’s worthy of a roster spot going forward.

The Knicks have wasted enough money and time chasing quick fixes. It’s time New York starts thinking big picture. To use a football analogy, Phil Jackson could choose to punt in 2016 and play the “field position game,” setting up the franchise to finally reach pay dirt the following summer.

Going back to Carmelo Anthony, he can still be a valuable contributor on a revamped NY roster. For the most part, he’s been a great all-around performer this season. ‘Melo has shown a willingness to expand his game to compensate for his diminishing athleticism, and has also competed more consistently on the defensive end. He currently leads the Knicks in scoring, rebounding and assists; the only player in the league to lead his team in all three categories. In addition, due to the spiking salary cap, his contract is not quite as onerous as it was at the time he inked the deal. So, if Melo (who has consistently professed his desire to stay in NYC) is willing to patiently wait for the Knicks to rebuild the right way, he (even at age 34) could be an important piece of the puzzle as a second or third offensive option on a well-balanced team. However, if Anthony has an issue with the Knicks taking a gradual, measured approach to the future, he can certainly waive his no-trade clause, which would allow Phil Jackson to determine if he could improve the Knicks roster by flipping ‘Melo for players(s)/picks more in alignment with New York’s modified timeline. In all honestly, that’s probably the best course of action for both parties at this stage of the game.

Would waiting for 2017 be a risky and possibly unpopular play by Phil Jackson? Yes. Considering Phil has already turned 70, and ‘Melo will be 32 in two months, it may not seem like time is on the Knicks’ side. However, if/when the Knicks become a truly great NBA team, neither man will be the face of the franchise at that point. As a result, the Knicks have to sacrifice incremental progress in the short-term, in order to put the organization in the best position to significantly succeed in the future.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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