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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 6 Picks

Jesse Blancarte checks out a decade’s worth of No. 6 overall picks in the NBA Draft to find the hits, misses and and in-betweens.

Jesse Blancarte

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Basketball Insiders continues to revisit the last decade of NBA drafts by taking a look back at which players were selected sixth overall. The sixth pick has been a mixed bag over the last decade, with superstar guard Damian Lillard headlining the group. There are certainly a couple of picks teams would love to have back, especially considering that many of the league’s current star players were left on the board beyond the sixth pick over the last decade. With that said, let’s take a look at the last decade of the sixth overall pick.

The Hits

Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers – 2012

There is no real debate here. Damian Lillard is the best player to be drafted sixth overall in any draft over the last decade. Lillard was an absolute steal for the Portland Trail Blazers, who acquired the right to select Lillard sixth overall in 2012 by trading Gerald Wallace to the Brooklyn Nets as part of a larger deal that proved costly for Brooklyn.

Lillard is arguably the best overall point guard in the league right now (as long as you don’t count players like James Harden or LeBron James as point guards), at least until Stephen Curry shows he is fully recovered from the hand injury he suffered earlier this season and shakes off any lingering rust. Through 58 games this season, Lillard is averaging 28.9 points, 7.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and one steal per game, while shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three-point range…on 9.9 three-point attempts per game!

Lillard has placed the struggling Trail Blazers on his back this season and has kept them in striking range of the eighth seed.

Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics – 2014

Marcus Smart has always been a defensive ace and has improved his offensive game throughout his six seasons in the NBA. Smart has the size, strength and tenacity to guard the league’s most explosive guards, dynamic wings and physical big men. Smart isn’t going to be tasked with guarding Joel Embiid in the post but, in an emergency situation, he probably has as good of a shot at stopping Embiid as any guard in the league.

Through 53 games this season, Smart is averaging 13.5 points, 4.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. Smart’s value to Boston cannot be accurately captured in traditional or even advanced metrics, but he is truly a game-changing player for the Celtics.

Buddy Hield – New Orleans Pelicans – 2016

The 2016 draft featured several quality players who are each working their way up the NBA’s totem pole. Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray, Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, Pascal Siakam and Malcolm Brogdon are some of the most prominent players to come out of this draft, along with Buddy Hield.

Hield played four years of college ball, so there was concern that he had limited upside. However, Hield proved himself to be a lethal shooter and big-time performer in college and entered the NBA with high expectations. Hield did not last long with the New Orleans Pelicans, as he was a featured piece in the trade that landed DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans in 2017. Hield has performed well for the Sacramento Kings, though he has faced some tough stretches at times. He will never be a lockdown defender, but when he is in rhythm, he can be one of the most explosive scorers in the league. Through 64 games this season, Hield is averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range (on 9.7 three-point attempts per game).

The Misses

Jonny Flynn – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2009

Here is the thing about Jonny Flynn: He was drafted sixth overall in the 2009 draft, ahead of other players like Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Darren Collison, Taj Gibson, DeMarre Carroll, Wayne Ellington and so on. Here’s the other thing: Flynn was drafted sixth overall by the Timberwolves right after they had drafted Ricky Rubio, another point guard, with the fifth overall pick in the draft. There were issues regarding when Rubio would leave Spain and come play in the NBA, so drafting another point guard wasn’t a crazy idea, but passing on Curry in favor of Flynn was questionable at the time and turned out to be a historically disastrous decision.

To be fair to Flynn, he was a highly rated prospect as we approached the 2009 draft and it’s not his fault the Timberwolves decided to take him — even after selecting Rubio one pick ahead of him. It’s also not his fault Curry was drafted after him and turned into one of the best point guards of all time. Flynn would only play in 163 total NBA games in his career and just 18 in the 2011-12 season. Injuries derailed Flynn’s career unfortunately, and the rest is history. Were it not for injuries, Flynn could have developed into a solid point guard. But between the injuries, the early end to his career and with several players drafted after him (Curry most notably) putting together excellent careers, Flynn definitely has to be considered a “miss” in this series.

Ekpe Udoh – Golden State Warriors – 2010

If you gave the Golden State Warriors the chance to go back and do the 2010 draft over, they would probably pass so as to not risk changing history. When you have a dominant run with a historically great group of players, there’s little reason to look back a decade and worry about a missed draft pick. However, if you take away the dynastic run, then Golden State would definitely take the chance to go back and take someone other than Ekpe Udoh with the sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft.

The players the Warriors passed on include: Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Eric Bledsoe, Ed Davis, Avery Bradley, Greg Monroe and so on. George and Hayward are the obvious missed opportunities here, but, as we said, Golden State isn’t losing sleep over how things worked out. Notably, Udoh never put up major stats, but he was in the league as recently as the 2018-19 season with the Utah Jazz and proved to be a fringe role player at times throughout his career. That’s not what you’re looking for with the sixth overall pick, but Udoh didn’t completely flame out.

Jan Vesely – Washington Wizards – 2011

Jan Vesely’s NBA career didn’t pan out the way he or many analysts expected. But it wasn’t for lack of confidence. Before coming to the NBA, Vesely was compared to Blake Griffin because of his athleticism and highlight-worthy dunks. When asked about being called the “European Blake Griffin” during an interview, Vesely responded “I don’t know. I think Blake Griffin is the American Jan Vesely.”

Again, Vesely never lacked confidence. Unfortunately, that confidence and his overall skillset never translated into much production in his short stint in the NBA. Over three seasons (162 total games), Vesely averaged 3.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 15.2 minutes per game. Vesely signed a contract with Turkish club Fenerbahçe in 2014 and signed a three-year extension with the same club last year. He has found more success since leaving the NBA, including winning 2018-19 Euroleague MVP.

The Middle of the Road

Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic – 2017

Jonathan Isaac hasn’t necessarily become a household name in his time in the NBA, but he was having somewhat of a breakout season until injuries sidelined him earlier this year. Most of Isaac’s per-game averages were up but more importantly, he was becoming a major difference-maker on the defensive end. Through 32 games, Isaac averaged 12 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.4 blocks per game.

At 6-foot-11, Isaac has the length, speed and athleticism to guard smaller players on the perimeter, bigger players in the post and act as an effective weakside shot blocker. Isaac has been contributing all over the court the Magic, a team that features several other lengthy and athletic forwards and big men. As Isaac continues to develop and carve out a more defined role on the Magic, it is likely he will continue to climb his way up the NBA totem pole and establish himself as a unique big man who can cause havoc on the defensive end.

Jarrett Culver – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2019

Culver is in the middle of his rookie season, which is currently on hiatus. So the jury is still out on Culver but, for the time being, we are putting him in the “Middle of the Road” category. Culver has shown some defensive ability in his rookie season, but it is clear his offensive game is a work in progress.

Culver is shooting 40.4 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three-point range (on 3.5 attempts per game) this season. While Culver is a capable passer and playmaker in the pick-and-roll, he has often been hesitant this season and made unforced errors. However, this is Culver’s rookie season and he’s only played in 63 NBA games overall so far, so it’s too early to come to any long-term assessments of the young prospect.

Mohamed Bamba – Orlando Magic – 2018

Mo Bamba has the size, length and developing skill set to one day be an impact player in the NBA. He likely won’t punish teams in the post on a nightly basis, but he has skill around the basket and can shoot from three-point range. However, if Bamba is ever to be a major difference-maker, it will likely be on the defensive end.

Bamba wasn’t the obvious pick for the Magic on draft night, especially since Orlando already had Jonathan Isaac on the roster. Bamba and Isaac aren’t completely duplicative players, but they overlap in some key areas and aren’t a great fit (at least so far) on the court. But if Bamba and Isaac develop more chemistry and come anywhere close to reaching their respective potential, they could make for a dynamic frontcourt duo.

Notably, in picking Bamba, the Magic left players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the board. To be fair, however, Gilgeous-Alexander was not projected to be picked so early in the draft and had made his desire to go to the Los Angeles Clippers known. The jury is still out for most of the other notable players selected after Bamba, so it’s not as if the Magic made an obvious mistake in selecting Bamba. This is especially true considering that Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young were off the board by the time Orlando was up to pick.

In 60 games this season, Bamba averaged 5.5 points, five rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three-point range.

The Role Players

Nerlens Noel – New Orleans Pelicans – 2013

Nerlens Noel was drafted sixth overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, who traded Noel on draft night, along with a 2014 first-round draft pick, to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Jrue Holiday. Holiday has been a fixture for the Pelicans ever since, so the deal certainly worked out well for New Orleans. Noel spent several seasons with the 76ers, struggling with injuries and eventually being nudged out by a logjam of centers, including Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.

It’s not great when you are one of the 14 players drafted ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that hasn’t really been held against Nerlens Noel during his NBA career. However, Noel’s inability to live up to expectations and his off-court issues have been. Though it seems that Noel has been in the NBA for a long time, he’s still just 26 years old and has plenty of time to stabilize his career and try to recoup some of the money he lost when he turned down a four-year, $70 million contract from the Dallas Mavericks and opted instead for a one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer.

When Noel is healthy and focused, he is a mobile big man who can guard wings on the perimeter, switch effectively and serve as a solid rim protector. Noel’s offensive game is limited but he generally takes high percentage shots and doesn’t demand to be a focal point on offense. In 55 games this season, Noel is averaging 7.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, one assist and 1.5 blocks in 18.4 minutes per game.

Willie Cauley-Stein – Sacramento Kings – 2015

Leading up to the 2015 NBA Draft, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and, to a lesser extent, Kristaps Porzingis, were the prized prospects that many believed would have star potential. After that, it was a mixed bag of players who had talent but it was unclear who was the best of the rest. To drive home this point, after those four players came off the board, the next five picks were Mario Hezonja, Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson and Frank Kaminsky. So it’s not as if the Sacramento Kings left an obvious future star on the board when they picked Cauley-Stein (unless you are one of the people that knew Devin Booker was destined to become a star).

While Cauley-Stein has not developed into a top-level center, he has had some pretty explosive performances in his career and is a nice option as a backup. Like Noel, Cauley-Stein has solid athleticism and the ability to be a difference-maker defensively when he is healthy, focused and put in a position to succeed. Cauley-Stein will probably never live up to early expectations but he can be a quality rotation player on a good team.

The last decade has provided us with a wide range of outcomes with the sixth overall pick. We have a superstar in Lillard, an elite defender in Smart, intriguing prospects like Isaac and Bamba and busts like Flynn and Vesely. Sometimes bad picks are made to look even worse when future star players are still on the board, with arguably no greater example than the case of Jonny Flynn. But the draft is tough to get right, even with a pick as high as the sixth overall pick.

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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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