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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 10 Picks

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ looking back series by examining the last decade’s worth of 10th overall picks.

Matt John

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As Basketball Insiders has continued its “Looking Back” series, it was only a matter of time until we crossed the double digits. Now that time has come. Today we are taking a look at how all of the tenth overall picks since 2009 have fared in the NBA.

As you probably know, as the lottery picks go down further and further, the prospects’ ceilings aren’t nearly as high. At the same time, the 10-14 range is usually reserved for teams that actually had no intention of being in the lottery to begin with. It’s usually around this point in the draft where if you got someone good with this selection, you got a steal. No questions asked.

The tenth overall selections since 2009 have overall done okay for where they were picked. As a group, they’ve done better than some of the other selections that were higher than them

The Hits

Paul George – Indiana Pacers – 2010

This should be a given. It only took three years for George to prove he was a household name. By that time, he had taken Indiana the furthest they had gone since the Reggie Miller/Jermaine O’Neal days and usurped Danny Granger as the team’s best player. Since then, George has routinely made both the All-Star team and an All-NBA team – save the one year he was recovering from one of the most gruesome leg injuries ever – while establishing himself as one of the league’s best two-way wings.

George has been a top-12 player for the duration of his career, which is impressive enough as it is. We knew he was a fantastic player. We just didn’t know he was an elite one until last year. Before a crippling shoulder injury stopped him in his tracks, George was a man possessed, averaging 28.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He maintained his efficiencies even while increasing his usage, which upped him from perennial All-Star to MVP candidate.

Since migrating to his hometown Los Angeles Clippers, we haven’t seen the same production from George. Some of that comes from the shoulder injury among others that he’s endured this season. Some of that comes from playing next to Kawhi Leonard. Even so, George is not to be underestimated as a right-hand man on a title team.

We’re going to see what PG-13 is truly made of when the Clippers go on their playoff run this year. We know that Kawhi will be on his A-Game when the playoffs start. George’s expectations are a little more uncertain. He’s received some flak in recent years for his inability to step up in the clutch as well as his somewhat lackluster playoff performances.

Although going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the conference finals in back-to-back years would certainly certify him as a playoff performer, here’s a fact that’s fallen under the radar: George hasn’t made it out of the first round since 2014. As far as hits go, George has been a home run, and he could still prove to be a grand slam.

Most hilariously of all, there have only been two tenth overall picks in NBA history who have rivaled the production of Paul George — Paul Pierce and Paul Westphal. If another Paul gets taken No. 10 in the NBA draft, the bar for him should be set at Hall of Fame. At minimum.

CJ McCollum – Portland Trail Blazers – 2013

What McCollum has done should be appreciated more. Without him, Portland may not have been able to steady the boat as well as they did when they were pretty much gutted in the summer of 2015. Without him, Portland definitely would not have made the Western Conference Finals last season. We’re not taking anything away from Damian Lillard here. It’s just that if McCollum hadn’t been there, how far would Dame and the Blazers have gone?

The resume is pretty good for McCollum. He’s been one of the league’s premier scorers for five years now. He is half of one of the league’s top-scoring tandems. He’s been one of the few excellent players from one of the worst drafts of all time. Playing in the jam-packed Western Conference will probably prevent him from making an All-Star team, but he’s never not been in consideration.

There were better players taken after McCollum — Giannis Antetokoumnpo and Rudy Gobert — but Portland still nailed the selection when you consider only one guy that was taken ahead of him has been on his level (Victor Oladipo), and when you factor inconsistency, McCollum has a case over Oladipo.

The Trail Blazers are going to face more questions next season with the Western Conference still remaining a bloodbath and Lillard and McCollum entering the peak of their careers. No matter what happens, McCollum came into this league renowned for getting buckets. He may not have hit the ground running, but once he took off, he lived up to the hype.

The Misses

Jimmer Fredette – Sacramento Kings – 2011

Guys, can you believe “Jimmer Mania” was almost a decade ago? It seems like just yesterday we were all watching him shoot the lights out from just about everywhere on an NCAA basketball court. Yet, somehow, it feels like forever ago since he was last in the NBA.

Jimmer’s ultimately forgettable NBA tenure is really strange when you consider what the league is like now. He came in as an elite shooter above all else. Even if his scoring prowess from BYU wouldn’t have translated to the big leagues, his jumper should have made him a valued commodity. It somehow never was.

You can blame it on him starting his career in Sacramento if you’d like. He only played there for two-and-a half years. He played for organizations that were run much better at that time like the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. He still never found his footing. His time in the NBA should teach us a lesson. We get plenty of sharpshooting guards who dominate the college game as snipers, but for every Stephen Curry, there’s always a Jimmer Fredette.

Years later, it’s good to see that Jimmer went on to establish himself as a household name. Even if that wasn’t in the NBA.

Thon Maker – Milwaukee Bucks – 2016

On paper, Thon should have been a perfect fit for the modern NBA. A rare combination of length, mobility and shooting would have made him the perfect floor-stretching five in the modern NBA. Early mixtapes of him before he was drafted hyped him up to be such a player. That hype soon died down to the point where once the Bucks took him tenth overall — picking him over Domantas Sabonis will eat at them for years — we were all pretty quick to call it a reach.

Outside of the rare occasional outbursts, which manifested in the playoffs of all places, Maker’s never really found himself in the league. For his size, he’s not a good rebounder and only an okay shot-blocker. For someone who shoots threes, he’s also a subpar three-point shooter. He’s managed to be a rotation player in Detroit, but he plays a tick under 13 minutes a game for one of the worst teams in the league.

His physical makeup will probably make for some interested suitors in a “low-risk/unknown-reward” scenario. It’s not his fault the Bucks swung for the fences when they took him, but because they did, he’s a bust.

Middle of the Road

Brandon Jennings – Milwaukee Bucks – 2009

There may not be a better player that exemplifies “Middle of the Road” better than Brandon Jennings. Talent-wise, he should be a hit. Career-wise, he should be a role player at best overall. He only played in the NBA for nine seasons. When he was at the top of his game, he was an excellent ballplayer.

Jennings at first made us all think he was a cornerstone in the making his first month in the league, which was highlighted by a 55-point rampage he hung on rookie Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. He fizzled after that, but even so, he was averaging between 15-19 points a game while putting up five to seven assists in that time too.

His prime was cut short by an Achilles tear mid-season in 2015 — which was a shame at the time because he was playing the best basketball of his career at the time — and he was never the same after that. After some brief stints in Orlando, New York, Washington and Milwaukee again, Jennings had been phased out of the league in 2018.

Jennings does not deserve to be labeled as a miss because a cruel twist of fate ruined everything. Unfortunately, his short-lived career prevents him from being labeled a hit.

Justise Winslow – Miami HEAT – 2015

When an executive is willing to trade four first-round picks to take you ninth overall in the draft, that puts a fair amount of spotlight on you when you first enter the league. Justise Winslow already came into the NBA a winner, having won an NCAA championship. He was supposed to be an added bonus of youth and pizzazz to a Miami team that was locked and loaded upon first drafting him.

Five years later, Winslow has been… fine? The injuries have piled on for Winslow since entering the league, but when he’s on the court, he’s proven himself to be a finesse player. That title alone prevents him from being called a role player. At the same time, finesse players aren’t exactly stars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Winslow has been as good as advertised defensively and has come along quite nicely as a playmaker and a rebounder. His shooting has been inconsistent and he hasn’t evolved into the scorer many thought he could be. A man of his skillset is incredibly useful, but there seems to be this feeling that begs the question, “Wasn’t he supposed to be better than this?”

Even while evolving into a Swiss army knife swingman, it’s a little disconcerting that Miami practically gave him away to Memphis for an aging Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder on an expiring contract. Many would proclaim that a steal for Memphis, but Winslow hasn’t exactly proven he’s good enough to be warranted as a steal both in the draft or in a trade.

Seeing as Memphis suddenly has a very promising future, let’s see how Winslow does now that he’s on a team that fits his timeline.

Zach Collins – Portland Trail Blazers – 2017

A shoulder injury early on interrupted what should have been Collins taking his next step as a pro. Into what is up in the air, but the returns on Collins since he started his career have been promising. He’s got some bounce in his game. He’s shown that he has good awareness on the court. He can stretch the floor, although he hasn’t proven to be entirely reliable. When last season’s playoff run ended, he was on the up-and-up.

Alas, that darn shoulder injury messed everything up. Jusuf Nurkic will be back next season, but he’ll need time to get his game in full swing. Hassan Whiteside will more than likely be gone. Factoring all of that, Collins will get another shot next year to show what he’s got.

As his role expands in Portland, we’re going to see who the real Zach Collins is.

Cam Reddish – Atlanta Hawks – 2019

The third amigo from the 2019 Duke Blue Devils, Reddish’s start in the league was pretty awful. That happens when your efficiencies in 2019 are 32 percent from the field and 26 percent from the three. 2020 has been a different story. His shooting percentage from the field has been 44 percent while his three-point percentage has bumped up to almost 40 percent.

A lot of rookies have uneven seasons during their first go-round. Atlanta as a team stinks as a whole, but as time goes on they should get better. In that time, Reddish should be able to demonstrate what kind of player he is. Let’s hope the 2020 Reddish is more indicative of who he is, because players who average more turnovers than assists definitely need to grow.

Role Players

Austin Rivers – New Orleans Pelicans – 2012

Can we stop giving Austin Rivers grief now? Yes, he was a bust in New Orleans. Yes, he’s Doc’s son. Yes, he rubs some players very much the wrong way. Rivers’ slow start in the league and family ties make him an easy target for critics, and it’s overshadowed that he has rebounded quite nicely after, well, a disastrous first tenure in New Orleans.

Rivers played some of the best basketball of his career under his father in LA. Rivers molded into a respectable scorer in their rotation by putting up some of his career bests, averaging 15 points and 4 assists. Although, one can argue that those were inflated numbers on a strictly average Clippers team.

In Houston, he’s found a more suitable role as a hybrid scorer/three-and-D type guard off their bench. 8.5 points off 42 percent shooting from the field including 36 percent from the field are good numbers for a team that centers its strategy around shooting threes. Rivers definitely deserves criticism after being selected No. 10 — Evan Fournier probably would have been the better guard to pick — but not for what he does these days.

Elfrid Payton – Orlando Magic – 2014

Unlike Rivers, Payton didn’t struggle out of the gate. He just never really took a big leap after a promising rookie season. He’s always proven himself to be a playmaker – he has a 6.6 career assist average in just 29 minutes, but his lack of shooting — a career 29 percent shooter from three — has kept him from making any meaningful progress.

Unless they have some of the most unreal athleticism or craftiness that we’ve ever seen, non-shooting point guards don’t make too big of a difference in the NBA. Payton hasn’t been a bust by any means. He’s been productive everywhere he’s gone. It’s just abundantly clear that where his career is right now is where he’ll be production-wise for the duration.

The shame of it all is, Payton’s never played for a playoff team. Orlando traded him to Phoenix just before they made the playoffs. He then signed with New Orleans just before the Anthony Davis fallout. Now, he’s in New York. Being a rotation a player on a good team is something he still hasn’t proven yet.

Can we please see that someday?

Mikal Bridges – Phoenix Suns – 2018

Over the last couple of years, Phoenix has had a string of failed draft picks over the last couple of years — Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson — so any fruitful draft pick from the lottery, whether they’re a star or not, would be a welcome change of pace. Enter Mikal Bridges.

Bridges has been a half-decent two-way swingman for the Suns over his first two years. He’s not much of a pure scorer, but that’s not why Phoenix drafted him. He’s been more of the defensive specialist that the Suns have desperately needed since they launched their rebuild back in 2016 as well as an underrated floor-spacer.

His shooting efficiencies thus far in his career — 46/34/82 splits over his first two years — as well as his solid rebounding numbers as a wing (3.6 per game) show that he is already a solid role player on a team that’s been looking for the right supporting cast members.

So does Bridges meet the criteria stated earlier? Honest answer: They could have had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but, good enough.

As previously stated, the tenth pick in the draft doesn’t boast a whole lot of star power, but it’s not designed to. Paul George panning out into a full-fledged superstar is more luck than anything else. This group has overall met expectations. Only two guys didn’t live up to being the tenth pick. The others have done, at the very least, what their teams have asked of them.

If you compare them to say, the eighth pick, you’d be even more impressed.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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