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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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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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