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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 3 Picks

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Looking Back” series by looking at who among the third overall picks since 2009 have been hits, misses and in-between.

Matt John

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ “Looking Back” series!

We’ve already gone over how the first and second overall pick have fared since 2009, so naturally, the next pick up is the third overall pick. Like with the first two, we categorize these players by if they are hits, misses, in the middle, or role players. We’ve also laid down the criteria for what defines a player as a “hit”.

On paper, if you had a choice between having the second overall pick and the third overall pick in the draft, you’d pick second, right? By doing simple math, it gives you higher odds of getting a franchise-changing talent, or it should. But, if you look at the history of the third overall picks and compare them to the second overall picks since 2009, you’ll see that the third overall pick has not only brought more star players into the league, but the quality of star players have been better from pick No. 3 than from No. 2.

That may sound like a hot take, but if you take a look at who falls under what category for those taken third and compare them to those taken second, you might see a difference.

The Hits

James Harden – Oklahoma City Thunder – 2009

When you’re one of the top candidates for MVP for five out of the last six years, it’s pretty safe to say that you’re a hit. Harden’s game may not be too fun to watch for other fanbases, but there’s no denying that the man controls the game when he’s got the ball in his hands.

Harden is one of the very few players in the league that will find a way to score by the most ridiculous of means. He’s also one of the very few players who has to be watched every single second he is on the floor — because the second he gets any semblance of daylight, he is gone. Watching Harden take free throws can bore the mind, but a man who does everything to get points on the board deserves respect and should be appreciated.

Harden has done so much that there isn’t much left for him to prove. Well, except getting that one monkey off his back: winning a championship. Harden’s had his chances over the last several years, and they’ve slipped through his fingers. With the Golden State Warriors down for the count, and should this season resume, this is a golden chance for him to finally guide his team to the promised land. Harden has had some unremarkable playoff performances over the past few years. This is his chance to put that behind him.

Lastly, stop making fun of his defense. Harden has low-key become a stout defender since the Houston Rockets’ ceiling took another jump. If you’re still giving him grief over that, then you haven’t been watching.

Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards – 2012

John Wall recovering from two consecutive serious injuries has been the pits for the Washington Wizards, but at least there’s been an upside to all of it this season — Bradley Beal’s ascension, or better yet, further ascension: 30.5 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.5 rebounds are phenomenal numbers no matter what team you’re on. Wall being out obviously, and sadly, brings more downsides. Case in point — because the Wizards are a tick below average at best, it didn’t get Beal an All-Star nod.

We already knew Beal was a hit since pretty much the year he entered the league. What we didn’t know was just how good he could be. Again, the Wizards aren’t good, which can build up the argument that his numbers are a classic case of good stats/bad team syndrome. Whether it is or isn’t, Beal has at least proven that he’s more than just a sharpshooter.

The scoring abilities are impressive, but the playmaking abilities might be the most surprising wrinkle. Playing next to a floor general as good as Wall probably did prevent Beal from showing how good of a passer he is, but now that he’s running the show, he is putting up assist numbers we didn’t think he could. Not to mention he’s doing that with a worse crew than Wall had when the Wizards were an Eastern Conference powerhouse.

Beal was definitely worth the pick when Washington took him. We know from these last two seasons that he was a bigger hit than we could have dreamed of.

Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers – 2014

This writer already wrote about why Embiid’s a gem. Come on guys, who didn’t know that?

Instead of repeating what’s already been said, let’s go over a fun NBA what-if that no one seems to talk about: What if Joel Embiid hadn’t gotten hurt during his pre-draft workout? Before the 2014 draft, Embiid was believed to be the consensus number one pick. Suffering a stress fracture before the draft combined with his illustrious history of injuries scared teams away from taking Embiid.

But say that never happens. The Cleveland Cavaliers had the number one pick that year. Do they trade the pick plus Anthony Bennett for Kevin Love knowing that LeBron James was on his way back? If they do, how do the Minnesota Timberwolves fare with Embiid? How good would they have been with Embiid instead of Andrew Wiggins? More importantly, do they take Karl-Anthony Towns the next year if they still had the first pick in 2015?

Even crazier, what if the Milwaukee Bucks had taken Embiid? Granted that wasn’t going to happen since the team had extended Larry Sanders the year before, but imagine if it did! The combination of the Greek Freak and Embiid would be an amazing combo on paper, but how well it would work would depend on how Milwaukee would compensate for the porous floor spacing between the two.

Now as we all know, Embiid went to Philly and has embraced himself as the poster boy of “The Process.” Reminiscing on what could have been is pointless, but man it’s fun. The fact that the league’s outlook could be seismically different had he landed elsewhere only serves as more evidence of just how amazing Embiid is.

Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics – 2016

The Celtics were heavily booed when it was announced that they had used the third pick on California alum Jaylen Brown. Part of that was because fans wanted them to trade the pick in hopes of getting a star no matter what. Part of it was that no one really knew what to expect from Brown since the 2016 draft was viewed as a crapshoot outside of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. Four years later, it’s pretty clear the Celtics nailed the pick.

Outside of that period last year where he looked flat-out lost on the court, Brown has gradually improved his game every year he’s been in Boston. This year has easily been his best year at the pro. His tighter handle, higher IQ and more refined scoring abilities gave him a lot of All-Star consideration. So much so that he had a case for being the biggest snub.

Add that to him already being a reliable shooter, an airtight defender, and of course, his outstanding hops, and it has made him one of the league’s most promising wings. The NBA values guys who can stretch the floor as well as defend multiple positions. Brown’s skill set brings those qualities to the table. His scoring prowess along with those things should put him in All-Star consideration for the next several years. We still don’t even know if he’s hit his peak yet either.

His ceiling is not on the level of a superstar, but more like a capable second or third option on a championship-caliber team. Lucky for Boston, they don’t need him to be because that guy came the next year at the exact same spot.

Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics – 2017

Remember when everyone thought Boston was crazy for trading Markelle Fultz to their division rival for Tatum? Let that be a reminder folks: NBA teams know more than we do. Of course, nobody knew what was going to happen to Fultz, but that’s neither here nor there.

Tatum is the new face of Celtics basketball. We already believed that when we saw him put up one of the most impressive individual playoff campaigns by a rookie. Sure, the next season was not as pretty as we thought it would be, but the future superstar many believed Tatum could be has finally arrived.

Having an incredibly lanky body on top of excellent body control would make anyone a difficult cover on the floor. In Tatum’s case, his shooting abilities, especially one-on-one, make him that much tougher of a cover all-around. Boston knew that if they were going to take that next step towards contention, Tatum’s evolution would be what would get them there. Before the season was halted, Tatum’s evolution was most definitely imminent.

Oh, and his offensive evolution has completely overshadowed that his defense has also come along quite nicely this season. For years now, the infamous Celtics-Nets trade from 2013 has been talked about as one of the most lopsided trades ever agreed to. “The Jays” have made that more apparent than ever.

Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks – 2018

Usually when your franchise loses the best player it ever had, it should take a fair amount of time to get it back to where it was when he was in his prime. Usually. Especially when that player was one of the best 20-30 players to ever play the game of basketball. For the Mavericks, it’s taken literally no time at all. That’s because from the ashes that were the Dirk Nowitzki era came the new and very bright Luka era.

The Slovenian Wonder took no time putting the league on notice. Look at his shooting percentages from anywhere inside the three-point line. He can score from just about anywhere in that parameter and can take over a game at any point. Luka’s averaging a cool 29/9/9, and he’s only 21. His rookie year was no fluke. Luka Doncic is a superstar in the making.

It also usually takes time for a young player’s talent to translate into team success. Not Luka, though. Dallas has been in the playoff race from day one of this season, and we all know the best is yet to come from both him and the rest of the Mavericks squad.

Watching Luka, it seems unbelievable that two teams would actually pass up on him, but it should be pointed out Luka’s unimpressive athleticism made him be viewed as largely a boom-or-bust prospect. Two years later, he has proven himself to be very much a boom, and it may not be long before the rest of the league becomes a barren wasteland because of it.

The Misses

Jahlil Okafor – Philadelphia 76ers – 2015

Poor Jahlil. It’s not his fault that he came into the NBA just as guys like him were starting to get phased out of the league. It’s also not his fault that he was drafted by a team that had no intention of developing him unless all other plans fell through. As fun as it is to see the league become as fun and entertaining as it currently is, it’s disheartening to see Okafor, a player once deemed a superstar prospect just half a decade ago, barely hanging on to stay in the NBA.

What’s happened to Okafor since he’s had a national audience is something we may never see again. Back in 2014, he was slated as a franchise player. The league’s next great big man. He is now barely a rotation player on a fringe playoff team.

Some highly-touted prospects disappoint in the way of turning into journeymen, but usually, that’s either because they didn’t have the work ethic and/or the talent to live up to their potential. Okafor’s guilty of having some major holes in his game, but unlike say, Anthony Bennett, you can clearly see that he has NBA-caliber skills to his game. When those skills aren’t as valued anymore — compounded with his noticeable defensive shortcomings — the harsh reality is that he’s never going to live up to the expectations once placed on him.

Even with all that’s happened to him, Okafor’s fought his way to keep a place in the league. That is nice to see, but former third overall picks shouldn’t be fighting just to stay in the NBA in their fifth NBA season. If they do, they’re undoubtedly a bust.

The Middle of the Road

RJ Barrett – New York Knicks – 2019

There hasn’t been much to look forward to in New York for quite some time. This season has been more of the same. The brightest spot among others is the promising play of RJ Barrett. Before Zion Williamson and Ja Morant lit up the world, Barrett was the slated top prospect in his class for a reason, and he honestly has looked like a building block on the court.

He hasn’t lit the world on fire in his first season in New York, but he has shown that he has a bag of tricks on the offensive end. Averaging a cool 14/5/2.5 his first season in the league is impressive enough. It’s better than what Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina did their first year in the league, or really any year they’ve been in the league in general. There is room to grow, too. He’ll need to improve his deep ball if he wants opponents to take him seriously as an all-around scorer.

He has the time to develop into something more, and he should get more scoring opportunities over the next couple of years. Time will tell if this he’ll be a hit or if he’ll be a role player. Now, please, New York, don’t screw this up as you did with the last good prospect you had.

The Role Players

Derrick Favors – New Jersey Nets – 2010

Favors may go down as the most underrated player of the 2010s. After a brief stint playing with the Nets, Favors was traded to the Utah Jazz, where he was outshined by the likes of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. After those two bolted, Favors was soon outshined by Rudy Gobert. Had he just played on a team where he wasn’t behind a big man better than him, Favors may have had a better reputation around the league.

Favors has never been one to put up incredible statistics, but he’s been a well-liked teammates and can pick up the slack if a more prominent big on the team goes down — watch the Clippers-Jazz series from 2017 for reference — and he sticks to what he’s good at.

He’s an excellent defender, can gobble up the boards – he’s averaging almost 10 boards this season, a career-high – and he’s even capable of the highlight dunk. If there’s one player whose career deserves a do-over, it’s Fave. He came into the NBA oozing with raw potential. He hasn’t disappointed entirely, but maybe he could have done more had he played for a team that asked more from him.

Enes Kanter – Utah Jazz – 2011

It’s funny how earlier we talked about how guys like Jahlil Okafor are virtually extinct in the NBA because offensively-dominant post players with defensive issues have proven to be of little use in the league’s current climate. Kanter is pretty much in the same ballpark as Okafor, so why does Kanter get regarded as a role player while Okafor gets the bust label? Because one is a dominant rebounder, and the other is far from it.

That seems like a pretty oversimplified generalization, but it’s true. Kanter has been somewhat of a disappointment seeing how his defense is so bad that one of his coaches infamously said, “can’t play Kanter” during the playoffs because of it. Still, on top of his offensive finesse, he’s been one of the league’s most dominant rebounders when he’s in the game.

Even with his flaws, what Kanter is good at makes him a nuisance. He has a knack for getting offensive rebounds and putting the ball back in. His toughness on the inside also draws a lot of and-ones, too. The laughable defense, most obviously in the pick and roll, does limit how impactful he can be on the floor, but Kanter all in all carries his weight.

Just don’t play him against the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Otto Porter Jr. – Washington Wizards – 2013

Even though Porter became a high-end complementary at best, calling him a role player, which would make him fail in comparison to some of the other guys on here, sells him kind of short. Would it sound better if it was said that Porter was the third-best player picked in the top 10 in the 2013 draft? Let it be known that 2013 had one of the worst classes ever, and Porter had very little to do with it.

When he’s on the floor, Porter is one of the better three-and-D wings in the league. His length can be bothersome for opponents on the floor because he’s tough to get by as much as his shot is tough to block. He’s also been a valuable contributor for good teams, much like he was Washington before the team slowly disintegrated. Is he overpaid? Of course he is, but he certainly hasn’t been one of those players who takes his money and runs.

Asking if Porter will get $27 million in the open market again is pretty laughable. He’s a fantastic player especially with what the NBA asks from its complementary players, but he’s not a star. All things considered, he’s an ideal third/fourth option on a team with title aspirations. That’s far from bad for a third overall pick.

As you can see, the third pick has brought forth plenty of good young talent. When you compare how the third overall picks have done to the second picks since 2009, it really does feel like No. 3 has outclassed No. 2. This hasn’t been a recent development if you look even further.

Deron Williams definitely had a better career than Marvin Williams. Carmelo Anthony badly outclassed Darko Milicic. Chauncey Billups did a lot more than Keith Van Horn did. We could keep going but it would take a while.

It’s like they say: Three is a magic number.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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