Last week, Basketball Insiders dove into NBA nostalgia by looking back at previous NBA drafts of recent memory, starting from 2014 all the way to 2017. Over the next two weeks, we’re going to be changing the formula up a tad. Instead of looking at entire drafts, we’re looking at the individual picks – starting from number one to number 14 – and how they have fared over the last 11 years.
In this new series, we’ll be going over which particular selections over the last ten years were hits, which were misses, which were square in the middle between the previously mentioned two terms, and who were the role players. Today, we’re starting at the top – the first overall pick.
The number one pick in the draft is the golden ticket. There aren’t a whole lot of better fortunes that a team can receive than winning the draft lottery. It can alter your fortunes on the flip of a dime. It doesn’t always happen, but for obvious reasons, a team’s future prospects usually get better the day when they pick first in the NBA draft. Speaking of obvious, most number one picks are hits because they were selected number one for a reason. Over the last 10 years, that’s been the case although there have been a few odd instances since 2009.
In order for a player who was picked number one to be deemed a hit, he has to meet one or two of the following criteria.
1. Has he been the best player – or at least one of the best players – in his draft?
2. Has (or had) his team’s fortunes changed for the better because of him?
Blake Griffin – Los Angeles Clippers – 2009
Not many players in NBA history have gone through the ups and downs that Blake’s had to since being drafted by the Clippers 11 years ago.
In that time, the following has happened to him.
1. He missed his first season because of a preseason knee injury
2. He became the NBA’s most entertaining highlight reel as a rookie
3. He evolved his game towards becoming an MVP candidate by the age of 25
4. He was the poster boy for one of the biggest underachieving teams in NBA history
5. He injured himself so many times that he fell off everyone’s radar
6. He had a redeem season in his first full year in Detroit
7. He now is regarded as an awful contract as injuries have continued to keep him off the court
Craziest of all, he just turned 31.
All in all, Blake has absolutely been a hit as the number one overall pick in his draft. He’s more often been either the best player or one of the best players on the floor when he’s playing. Fellow 2009 draftees Stephen Curry and James Harden have made more substantial impacts on the league, but Griffin has done everything in his power to live up to the hype.
The only question that remains is where he goes from here. The more surgeries he gets, the less likely we are to see prime Blake come back. Even before his most recent surgeries, Blake was no longer the freak athlete during his heyday in LA. That’s why he deserves more recognition for accommodating his game to make up for his lost athleticism. If Blake loses even more of his natural abilities, let’s cross our fingers that he has a career much akin to Grant Hill’s when Hill faced a similar impediment in his 30’s.
John Wall – Washington Wizards – 2010
Not a lot of point guards have come into the NBA with the same amount of hype that John Wall did back in 2010. He was fast. He could jump. He had great vision. He had all the makings of a franchise floor general. For Washington, a team that was fresh off a locker room scandal the year before, any sort of youthful infusion was a welcome one, and they got one in Wall. Ten years later, the verdict on the Kentucky alum as of now is satisfactory.
Wall’s averaged a career 19/9.2/4.3 on 43/32/78 splits over his nine-year career, and had it not been for ongoing injuries over the last few years, those numbers could have been even higher and the Wizards could have had deeper playoff runs.
Wall has been a 5-time All-Star, he’s been borderline unstoppable when he’s at the top of his game and he’s led the Wizards to the most success they’ve had since the days of Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Paul George has had a better overall career, but those accolades alone are indisputable and certify him both as a hit and as one of the draft’s best players.
When he comes back, Wall’s got a lot of hurdles to clear to prove he’s still got it. Coming off season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs from his left heel is one thing. To then tear your Achilles by the flukiest of circumstances is a whole different realm and not to mention, unlucky. The worst part is, in his own words, Wall opted for the surgery in hopes of avoiding tearing his Achilles. Well, the worst will hopefully have passed when he returns next season (whenever that starts), and then, Wall, even though he’s shown himself as a star already, will have something to prove.
Kyrie Irving – Cleveland Cavaliers – 2011
Irving’s career arc is a little odd. His first three years in the league, he was putting up impressive numbers on Cleveland teams that went absolutely nowhere. Then, he became the perfect second-in-command to LeBron James when he returned to the Cavaliers for the next three years. He even won a championship in that time. Irving then decided he was tired of being the second banana and opted to become the guy in Boston. He soon grew sick of that too and went back to being a partner-in-crime when he decided to team up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn.
Even if he’s now paired with his best friend and playing for his hometown team, no one really knows what Kyrie wants except Kyrie. Off the court, he embodies being an enigma. On the court, there’s no denying that he is one of the league’s best scorers.
Putting the ball in the bucket has never been an issue for Kyrie. For his career, he’s averaged 22.4 points on 46/39/88 splits. He already has plenty of playoff success to his name, and, should he and KD avoid the injury bug, there should be more to come. “Should” being the operative word.
Kyrie may never be the first option on a championship team, but he has definitely proven himself both as a winner and as an unguardable scorer. That makes him well worth the billing of a number one pick, even if he too has not shown himself to be the best player from his respective draft.
Anthony Davis – New Orleans Pelicans – 2012
We’ve discussed how previous players mentioned have proven themselves to be hits even if they haven’t been the best players in the draft. With Davis, he’s been a hit because he improved the fortunes of his team (at least as well as he could have) and he is the best player from the 2012 draft.
Davis has a once-in-a-generation physique that gives both him and his team so many advantages on the floor. His long-limbed body combined with his body control makes him incredibly hard to stop on the offensive end and impossible to avoid on the defensive end. Not many bigs can say that they averaged over 20/10 as well as two blocks at least one steal a game for his entire career, but Davis can.
Things didn’t work out as well as they should have in New Orleans, but AD did the best he could for them. He also probably could have handled his exit from the Pelicans better, but both sides are better off in the end. Now that he’s in Los Angeles, his efforts are going to really good use for a change. The Lakers have taken a huge jump this year, and Davis deserves much of the credit for that.
There doesn’t really need to be much more explaining as to why Davis is a hit. He’s an all-time talent who should finally taste some playoff success when the season resumes. Although, much like Irving, we haven’t seen if he can be the number one guy on a title team. Time will tell if we even get the chance.
Karl-Anthony Towns – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2015
See this is where things get a little muddled. Since entering the league, Towns has demonstrated that he may very well be the best player from his draft. In regards to if he’s made his team better, well that’s a loaded question. Towns is an offensive phenomenon. He can score from pretty much anywhere on the court. He’s also a talented passer and can get after the ball on the boards. Yet somehow, Minnesota has been one of the worst teams in the league throughout most of his tenure.
Basketball is most certainly a team game, so there’s accountability to go around for everyone, but Towns’ shortcomings on the defensive side are certainly worth noting, especially since he has the makings of a rim protector. Yet for some reason, he just isn’t one. As the Timberwolves’ leading man, he has to prove himself on that end if they are to go anywhere.
Even so, Towns was the sensible pick at No. 1 for Minnesota, and he’s still a wonder on the offensive end. In a lot of ways, he’s the perfect center for the modern NBA. With the growing emphasis on stretch bigs, many teams like having one who is efficient. Towns, in spite of whatever is ailing him on the defensive end, has become incredibly efficient as a shooter.
Not many players can boast that they are in the 50/40/90 club. For his career, Towns has a 53/40/83 for his career splits. There’s so much that Towns does right that it’s painful to see it not translate into anything. Minnesota’s future overall remains murky, but Towns’ brilliant future is certainly not.
Ben Simmons – Philadelphia 76ers – 2016
Simmons is quite a divisive prospect. What he’s good at, he is absolutely incredible. What he’s bad at, he’s just flat-out awful. Luckily for Philly, the good definitely outweighs the bad overall. That does not cancel out the bad. Simmons is already on a superstar-like level with the positives he brings to the court, but the weaknesses to his game limit his ceiling as a player.
Simmons came into the league with great physical advantages. Even for how tall he is, Simmons runs like a gazelle and has excellent vision. As an oversized point guard, he brings so many mismatches. Contrary to what his skeptics will tell you, he has actually improved in some areas since entering the league. The one aspect of his game that actually has come along pretty nicely is his overall defense. With hit footwork and statute, he’s evolved into one of the league’s better defenders. Is there anyone questioning if he’s going to make an All-Defense team?
It’s just the shooting that’s the problem. We can’t even say he’s a bad shooter because bad shooters at least attempt to shoot jumpers. That’s something Simmons flat-out refuses to do. He can do pretty much everything else on the court on offense except that. In the modern NBA, superstars can’t get away with that.
As of now, he is atop of his fellow 2016 draftees – which makes him a hit – but if nothing improves in the shooting department, then how much better will be than them when he hangs it up?
Zion Williamson – New Orleans Pelicans – 2019
There’s not really much to say about Zion because he only played in 19 games this season. In those 19 games, he’s looked not only like the insanely-hyped prospect we believed he would be going in, but he also might be the most dominant rookie big we’ve seen since Shaquille O’Neal.
His massive physique and his ultra-athletic body makes him a cannonball in the open floor. He’s already intimidating defenses and as long as he doesn’t get hurt again, he should be a force of nature. New Orleans previously had a force of nature just the year before. The difference this time is that it looks like they’ve built around their young superstar the right way.
The future is bright again in the Big Easy, and Zion is at the center of it.
Anthony Bennett – Cleveland Cavaliers – 2013
When NBA bust came into people’s minds, the first names were Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic and Greg Oden. That was until the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the masses when they took Bennett first overall.
In their one single solitary defense – and it’s not a good one – the 2013 draft did not have a good crop of talent upfront coming in. Outside of Victor Oladipo and CJ McCollum, no one from the draft’s top 10 has panned out to be anything more than a complementary player. Amazingly, pretty much everyone else who came to the NBA after being drafted has had a better career than Anthony Bennett.
At least the likes of Brown, Milicic and Oden actually did something when they played. Bennett showed us absolutely nothing outside of the occasional electrifying dunk. Those guys at least played a fair amount of time in the league. That’s something Bennett didn’t do as he hasn’t played in the league since 2017. For that, he has earned the title as the biggest bust in NBA history.
The Middle of the Road
Andrew Wiggins – Cleveland Cavaliers – 2014
Wiggins may have played his first NBA game with the Timberwolves, but for the first month of his NBA career, he technically was on the Cavs. Anyway, it’s difficult to label how Wiggins has fared as the first overall pick. He’s been able to put up pretty gaudy numbers since coming into the league, but his best numbers have never contributed to any sort of success.
Outside of the lone year they had Jimmy Butler, the Wolves hve remained among the NBA’s worst teams with many pinning the blame on Wiggins’ failure to evolve into a star. Even though Wiggins has shown improvements as a playmaker this season, the results have still remained the same to the point where Minnesota had to trade a first-rounder to unload him to Golden State for D’Angelo Russell. Lucky for him, this new situation gives Wiggins to prove he can be what many don’t think he is – an effective contributor.
It’s probably too late for Wiggins to be deemed a hit because he’s never been a star and his teams as a whole have almost never won with him at the forefront, but now that he’s with the Warriors, he does have the chance to prove he can help a winner. That might just be the perfect role for him.
Deandre Ayton – Phoenix Suns – 2018
It’s a little harsh to not deem Ayton a hit, but thus far, he hasn’t exactly shown enough to prove he’s going to be a game-changer. Compare him to the likes of Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Those two look like they are going to important fixtures in the league for years to come. Ayton has yet to prove he’s on their level. In his defense, it’s only been two years.
Besides, in those two years, Ayton has shown promise. In his second year, he’s averaging 19/12 on a cool efficiency of 55 percent shooting from the field. The problem is that it hasn’t led to much. The 25-game suspension early on this season didn’t help. The Suns playing arguably their best basketball of the season during that suspension doesn’t either. Now, the Suns are out of the playoff picture which means Ayton will need another year to prove he was worth picking number one.
Again, it’s only been two years, and it’s not his fault other young juggernauts from his draft have exploded onto the league so quickly. For now, we can’t call him a hit until we see results that justify that classification.
The Role Players
Markelle Fultz – Philadelphia 76ers – 2017
So Fultz was most definitely a bust in Philly. He did pretty much nothing for them and they knew it too. We all know that, in spite of his issues, there’s still plenty of time for him to figure it out and get his career back on track. This season was a step in the right direction even if it wasn’t
Fultz has not been spectacular in Orlando – definitely not good enough to justify being picked number one – but he has been a rotation player on a playoff team. That counts for something. At least he’s proven that he should be in the NBA. That was something that very much remained cloudy when this season started.
This is either going to be the first step towards Fultz reaching his potential or it just might be the first sign of what he is – a starting-caliber point guard. Either way, it’s nice to see that whatever was keeping him out of the league has been resolved now. He can play basketball again, and that’s what’s important.
As we can see, the first overall pick definitely makes a large impact whether it’s negative or positive. If he’s a franchise talent, that changes a team’s outlook for years to come. If he’s a bust, then the team has to look elsewhere following a likely wasted season. If it’s somewhere in between, then the future, while not necessarily golden, is still exciting.
Stay tuned as Basketball Insiders continues to dive into who were the best from each selection over the past 11 years.
Aamir Simms Readying Himself for His Opportunity
Clemon’s Aamir Simms is a versatile big man built for the modern NBA. Drew Maresca spoke with Simms about the draft process, Clemson’s success last season and how he thinks he fits in the league.
Clemson has produced some very good NBA players – including Elden Campbell, Dale Davis and Horace Grant – but not too many of late. The most recent Clemson Tiger who was selected in the NBA Draft was Jason Blossomgame in 2017. Before that, K.J McDaniels in 2014, Trevor Booker in 2010 and Will Soloman in 2001. Aamir Simms hopes to be the first in a while – and he hopes to stick in the league.
Statistically, Simms has everything you’d want in a prospect. He’s a 6’8” big who can defend multiple positions and shoot it from deep. He averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 2020-21, shooting 40 percent on three-point attempts and 82.5 percent from the free throw line.
Simms was also named to the second-team All-ACC this season, after being named to the third-team All-ACC last season.
But the NBA Draft is a crapshoot with hundreds of players competing for just 60 spots. Complicating matters is the fact that Simms was a four-year player – and age is not an asset in the NBA Draft.
But Simms proved a lot in his time at Clemson, and he feels that his ability and willingness to do whatever a team needs is an asset.
“My original position was the four,” Simms recently told Basketball Insiders. “But I’m comfortable playing small ball five (too). And later in my career, I want to work toward playing some three, too, like Jeff Green.”
Green, who played a major role in the Brooklyn Nets’ success this season, is among the players who inspire Simms. He obviously values what LeBron James and Kevin Durant do, but he sees the utility of players like Green, and he understands that mimicking players like this will be key in his success.
“Being a versatile four like Jae Crowder (would be ideal), Simms said. “Being able to defend guys his size. Having the mid-range and the face-up like Al Horford or Paul Milsap. The craftiness and versatility of Tobias Harris. And especially Jeff Green. He does a good job of shooting the ball, playing the post, guarding one through five.”
“And that’s something I’m excited to showcase in this combine, in workouts and even through summer league.”
Achieving that success requires serious skill and versatility, but Simms believes he’s already on his way. If you’re thinking “but there isn’t evidence that he can do that,” you’re not wrong. But it’s not uncommon for players to sacrifice their own success for the greater good of a college program – and that’s exactly what Simms did.
“My perimeter defense is something I am really ready to showcase,” Simms said. “At school, I was an undersized five, so I didn’t switch much for the sake of the team,’ Simms said.
But he can – and he knows it.
Clemson’s entire roster had only three players taller than Simms. Two of the three were Freshmen and the other – Jonathan Baehre – started just 10 games. Clearly, Clemson coach Brad Brownell had a vision for his team, which included Simms as an undersized center. And considering their entry into the NCAA tournament after the media predicted they finish 10th in the ACC in a pre-season poll, it’s fair to say it worked.
“I think there’s a lot of things that teams look at (in the draft process): winners, individual growth, changes in your stats, and consistency,” Simms said. “I think I’ve shown all those areas throughout this season.”
“Just the way I led my team, (along) with other guys on the team, I got us back to the tournament – because people didn’t really expect us to. We got ranked pretty highly. My shooting and numbers improved, especially my field goal percentage. I was a little streaky with rebounds, but I think I showed improvements in areas that would progress me in the prospect rankings.”
With Simms, shooting will initiate interest. As mentioned above, Simms shot better than 40 percent on three-point over the past two seasons – but he wasn’t a knock-down shooter early in his Clemson career.
As a Freshmen, Simms shot a pedestrian 32.6 percent on three-point attempts. But credit Simms for identifying the problem and working to fix it
“The reason why I shot so low as a freshman was that my form was coming across the left side of my face, so when I released the ball I couldn’t see as much,” Simms explained. “From the middle of my freshmen year to Senior year, I worked with (assistant) coach Smith before he went to Florida State, as well as (assistant) coach Dean and (director of player development) Terrell Mcintyre.”
“And those guys helped me improve my form and stick with it. And then, it was just spending my summers getting up hundreds of shots – 500 every morning and 500 every night to get that muscle memory down.”
But there’s more to Simms game than just shooting, and that’s what he hopes to prove throughout the draft process – beginning on Sunday, June 20 at the G-League Elite camp.
The G League Elite camp is an opportunity for 40 players to showcase their abilities in front of NBA and G League scouts, as well as coaches and front-office executives. The camp will consist of five-on-five scrimmages, as well as strength and agility drills. Top performers will earn an invite to the 2021 NBA Draft combine, meaning the camp can catapult players into very real consideration by NBA clubs. And Simms understands the opportunity at hand.
“Getting invited to the combine (is the goal),” Simms said. “That’s where the best of the best goes. I belong, but I’m fortunate to get the invite because there are other good guys who didn’t get an invite.”
This season, Simms faced off against at least two lottery prospects in Scottie Barnes (Florida State) and Jalen Johnson (Duke). Both will probably be used as measuring sticks of Simms’ potential; but considering defensive schemes, all matchups aren’t equal.
Simms underperformed against Florida State, scoring just 5 points on one-for-three shooting. But Florida State eliminates post opportunities and is known for its swarming defense.
“Florida State gets up in you, (they) switch one through five. They sit on you and take you out from catching the ball deep in the post,” Simms said. “I understood I wasn’t going to be as involved as I wanted entering it.”
But regardless of how you view Simms’ performance against Florida State, he demonstrated a big heart in coming back and playing well against Duke just one week later. While Clemson lost by 26 points, Simms performed well in a head-to-head matchup with another high-profile forward, scoring 19 points on seven-for-thirteen shooting.
“I have shown since my junior year that your ranking doesn’t matter,” Simms explained. “You play lottery picks a few times every year. That one was more of a bounce back after Florida State. That’s another one where we weren’t together, but the individual performance was what it was. It was in a losing effort so I didn’t focus on it, but it shows that I can play with anyone. I don’t care if you’re top 10 in the draft or wherever. I always feel I perform at a high level against highly projected players, and that was an opportunity to remind people who I am.”
Having to prove oneself self after four seasons at a big-time program would probably bother a lot of prospects, but it doesn’t bother Simms. On the contrary, Simms uses it as motivation.
“I am just thankful to be in the position I am because a lot of guys work for it and don’t get the opportunity,” Simms said. “It can be frustrating to be asked to prove yourself over and over, but the majority of great guys in the game have to do that at some point, too, so that’s fine.”
“I (already) have a chip on my shoulder,” Simms continued. “I come from the worst situations you can imagine, so being asked to keep showing my game and my progression is easy. Being able to put the ball in the basket and play hard isn’t something I stress over.”
“I’ve been through way darker times,” Simms continued. “Playing basketball is fun. I’ll have to show it over and over, but at least I’m doing what I love. Passion takes care of all of that. My faith pushes me through, God pushes me through. So if they ask me to do it 100 times, I’ll do it 101. I belong in the league. I believe I’m NBA-ready. If they want me to do it this week and another week after that, I’m ready.”
Simms is focused on getting the right opportunity with the right team. He’s spoken to his friends in the NBA including Mamadi Diakite (Milwaukee Bucks) and Nic Claxton (Brooklyn Nets), both of whom speak about the mental toll of going from being “the guy” to getting DNPs. But they’re not bitter. They emphasize the importance of getting into a good situation with a patient team and how it enables players to build confidence away from the pressure of the NBA game.
Still, you never know when your number will be called and rookies have to be perpetually ready. They also have to understand a team’s needs and the system that’s run. But Simms isn’t worried about that aspect. As the 2021 “Skip” Prosser Award winner, emblematic of the top scholar-athlete in men’s college basketball, he’s always been one to hit the books – and he intends on approaching an NBA opportunity the same way.
“If I am lucky enough to get drafted, I am going to spend that time starting the first night to get a feel for the team,” Simms said. “Learn the roster, who’s the primary and secondary guys and seeing where I fit.”
“No matter what, one thing you can do is rebound and defend. So that’s something I am going to do from the jump, (as well as) doing what coach asks of me. I’ve always been very coachable.”
Getting drafted is obviously the goal. But Simms understands that there is an opportunity beyond the draft. And conversely, he knows that getting drafted doesn’t guarantee success.
“Too many guys get caught up with their name being called, and that can land them in a bad situation,” Simms said. “It takes a lot of maturity to understand that it’s OK if you’re not drafted. A lot of guys who aren’t drafted or are taken late second-round are standing out (currently). Look around the league, guys come from the G League or overseas… if you can get over the idea of getting drafted and just focus on getting your foot in the door, that’s most important. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Simms has spent at least the last four years preparing himself for this moment – now it’s time to prove that he belongs. His mix of athleticism, size and skill will get him noticed, but his patience and cerebral approach are real differentiators. Even if Simms’ name isn’t called on July 29th at the draft, this writer believes he’ll find his way onto an NBA roster for the 2021-22 season, one way or another.
Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers
From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.
It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.
Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games.
Neil Olshey: “This first-round loss was not a product of the roster.”
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) June 7, 2021
He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.
“For anyone (prospective coaches) to advance in the process they’re going to have to prove they can do that (improve defensively) without a ton of roster changes.” -Olshey
— Danny Marang (@DannyMarang) June 7, 2021
To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.
There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.
However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.
Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.
As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.
The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”
As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.
Now What? – Golden State Warriors
The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.
For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.
Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.
The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.
Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.
Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.
A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.
Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.
Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.
Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.
Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.
One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.
Steve Kerr said it was the rebounding that cost the Warriors tonight:
"This is the modern NBA. Guys don't box out. It's just the way it is. Players let guys come in from the weak side. It's a disease that's rampant in the NBA."
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) April 30, 2021
Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.
Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.
The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.
The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.
Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.
Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.
Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.
While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.
Watch this Klay Thompson defense against Kyrie Irving. Sheesh pic.twitter.com/1ZmRU1VLAu
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) March 27, 2020
One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.
The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.
Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.
A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.