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NBA AM: 5 Rookies Thriving in the Preseason

Which rookies have been thriving in their first few preseason games? Alex Kennedy shares his analysis.

Alex Kennedy

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5 Rookies Thriving in the Preseason

With the 2015-16 NBA preseason underway, rookies from around the league are getting their first taste of the professional basketball. While it’s incredibly early and it’s not wise overreact to preseason results, these exhibition games do give us an opportunity to see the top picks in action, judge how comfortable they are thus far and find out what they’re learning as they start to adjust from college to the NBA.

Here’s a look at some notable rookies who have impressed thus far.

Karl-Anthony Towns Showing He’s a Perfectionist

Towns, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, has gotten off to an excellent start with the Minnesota Timberwolves. In his preseason debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the young center had 18 points (on a remarkable 8-12 shooting from the field) as well as five rebounds in 28 minutes.

However, rather than being satisfied with his play, he was kicking himself after the game, according to reporters. The 19-year-old was upset that he turned the ball over three times and bit on some pump fakes while on defense. He was also frustrated that he missed four shots, rather than celebrating the fact that he shot an incredible 66.7 percent from the field.

“For the first game, [I was] just getting my feet wet,” Towns told Timberwolves.com. “It was okay… I strive to hit 100 percent [of my shots] every game.”

In Towns’ second game against the Chicago Bulls, Towns played well again, contributing 13 points, 10 rebounds, one block and one steal. He was 4-9 from the field, and he’s perfect from the free throw line through two preseason games (hitting 7-7 attempts so far).

It’s nice to see Towns playing so well this early, especially since he was picked largely off of his potential rather than his NBA-readiness. If he’s looking this good now, it makes you wonder what the future holds for him (especially since he has the luxury of learning from excellent veterans, such as Kevin Garnett).

While everyone in Minnesota has to be excited about Towns’ play, it’s a good sign that he’s being so hard on himself and striving for perfection. Sometimes, that’s what separates the good players from the great ones. He seems determined to reach his full potential and lead the Timberwolves’ talented young core for years to come.

Jahlil Okafor Making Life Easier for His Teammates

In Okafor’s preseason debut for the Philadelphia 76ers, he had 12 points in 17 minutes (hitting 6-10 shots from the field) against the Washington Wizards.

“I think that he had good numbers against good playoff bigs,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said of Okafor after his debut against the Wizards. “[Washington] lost in the Conference Semifinals in a tough series with Atlanta. I thought with limited minutes, you could see [Jahlil] has the ability to score. I thought he showed that quite well in that little bit of time that he had.”

In his second game, he recorded 12 points once again versus the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Perhaps most impressive is that Okafor has hit 4-5 of his free throw attempts in the preseason (an excellent 80 percent from the line). That is huge since free throw shooting was considered one of Okafor’s weaknesses entering the NBA after he shot 51 percent from the charity stripe last year at Duke. If he continues to shoot that well (or even relatively close to it) from the line, Okafor would be an even scarier offensive weapon for the Sixers.

“I had confidence going out on the floor,” Okafor said after his debut. “I was able to relax, even though I thought I would be nervous. My teammates were able to really relax me so I was able to get more comfortable before I got out on the floor.

“I think I got comfortable within the offense at certain points within the game. I saw our ability to compete at a high level, stay engaged and focused. It was a learning experience.”

Okafor’s success has made life much easier for his Philadelphia teammates. He attracts so much attention from defenders and is a reliable No. 1 option who can get easy points in the paint. Nerlens Noel, who has been playing alongside Okafor at power forward, raved about his new teammate.

“It was so different, in a great way,” Noel said of playing with Okafor. “Jahlil brings such a presence. Last year, I was always going up against the five and having to do a lot. I think Jahlil brings a presence that is more at ease and the offense flows. It was really good.

“I like where I’m at now, being a four-man and being able to guard guys that aren’t able to shoot the ball and still being able to freelance a little bit and help guys out on blocks.”

In the Sixers’ first preseason game, Noel had 13 points (on 4-8 shooting from the field), five rebounds, three assists, one block and one steal in just 22 minutes. In the second game, Noel was even better, contributing 10 points, 15 rebounds and three steals. It’s clear that Okafor and Noel complement each other well and this will be a one-two punch to keep an eye on throughout this season and beyond.

Stanley Johnson is Going Off

Those who haven’t been paying attention to the early preseason games have missed some incredible performances from Detroit Pistons small forward Stanley Johnson. The No. 8 overall pick in the draft has been filling the stat sheet and making his presence felt on both ends of the floor.

In Johnson’s preseason debut against the Indiana Pacers, he had 26 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals, while shooting 8-17 from the field (including 3-6 from three-point range). He followed up that game with a 12-point, seven-rebound, two-assist, two-block, two-steal performance against the Brooklyn Nets, while shooting 5-11 from the field (and 2-3 from long range). Then, in his third outing, Johnson had 15 points, six rebounds and two assists against the Milwaukee Bucks (hitting 5-12 shots from the field, including 2-3 from three-point range).

He’s shooting the ball well, knocking down 45 percent from the field, 58.3 percent from beyond the arc and 83.3 percent from the free throw line (all of which are higher than his percentages last year as a freshman at Arizona).

While it is just the preseason, it is impressive that Johnson currently leads all rookies in points per game. He actually ranks 14th in preseason scoring among all NBA players, finding himself ahead of superstars like James Harden, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Chris Bosh among others (but mainly because he’s playing more minutes).

Still, even though it’s only exhibition play, this success has to be a great confidence booster for Johnson. Not to mention, Pistons head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy been extremely impressed with his draft pick’s poise and abilities.

“It doesn’t faze him,” Van Gundy said of Johnson, per Pistons.com. “In fact, when I told Jodie [Meeks] to handle the ball, Johnson was like, ‘I got this.’ He’s got a great toughness and confidence about him and I think that showed. So with him, we’re working from a pretty good foundation. He’s got a lot to learn, but you’re working with a very, very good foundation.”

The rookie’s versatility has also been on display early on. Due to injuries, Van Gundy actually had Johnson playing some point guard and running the offense at times for the Pistons. He’s been all over the court through three games, playing all but one position so far in the preseason.

“In his first week – because of the injuries – we used him at four positions,” Van Gundy said. “And he’s only been in here a week. … I saw a real competitor. That’s the main thing. We will keep working, but I thought his will was so strong. He is a tough guy and that [shows] through.

“I don’t see him playing the point [often], but as an emergency thing – our best minutes of the game were when he was at the point… He’s sort of a find-a-way-to-get-it-done type of guy.”

Johnson is proving that he can make an impact no matter where he’s put or what he’s asked to do on the court. During the recent game when he had to play some minutes at point guard and run the offense, he we defending Indiana’s Paul George on defense. He did well with the assignment, taking some lessons from the experience and increasing his confidence since he was able to hold his own against George.

“I think anytime you get on the court and get in a NBA game, it’s always a positive,” Johnson said. “Playing against a superstar in Paul George and seeing what that’s like is always positive. I think knowledge is power and your best teacher is experience. The more experience I get, the faster I learn and the faster I can be great.”

If Johnson’s preseason play (and his Summer League play as well) are any indication, it seems like a realistic possibility that he could become a great, cornerstone player for Detroit.

Bobby Portis Continuing to Look Like a Steal

Through Portis’ first three preseason games with the Chicago Bulls, the 20-year-old is averaging 10 points and 12.7 rebounds despite playing just 24 minutes per game. His per-36-minutes averages are 15 points and 19 rebounds, showing just how productive he is playing in his limited time on the court.

At the moment, Portis’ 12.7 boards per game ranks third among all NBA players (currently putting him above great rebounders like DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard among others).

It remains to be seen how much Portis will play during the regular season since Chicago has a logjam at power forward (with key contributors like Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic also at the position), but he’s certainly making the most of his minutes so far. There have been rumors that the Bulls could look to make a trade involving one of their power forwards at some point during the campaign, which could create some more playing time for Portis (assuming he’s not the one who is dealt), but there’s no guarantee that such a move will occur.

While Portis needs to get better at finishing around the basket – he’s hitting just 29.4 percent of his attempts from the field – his effort and intensity have been extremely impressive. In Chicago, his role will mainly consist of grabbing rebounds, making hustle plays and providing solid defense, and that’s exactly what he has been doing lately.

He had an eight-point, 14-rebound game in his preseason debut against the Milwaukee Bucks. Then, he had a 10-point, 16-rebound outing in his second game against the Denver Nuggets. Most recently, he had a 12-point, eight-rebound performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

After watching Portis play so well in the preseason (in addition to seeing him thrive during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, averaging 14.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 28.2 minutes per game), it seems crazy that the big man was somehow on the board for Chicago at the 22nd overall pick. Portis looks more and more like the draft’s top steal each time he steps on the court.

He also has the perfect attitude for a rookie on a contending team. He knows his role and he has been saying all of the right things as he begins his NBA career.

“I feel I played as hard as I could and I’m always going to do that,” Portis told Bulls.com. “I’m not a guy who backs down or gets timid; that rookie stuff is way overblown for me. People say because you are a rookie you can’t do [certain] things, but I don’t believe in that. I believe in doing the things I do, playing my style of basketball out there. I’m a dog out there; I’m not someone who is going to let someone [intimidate] me.”

Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has been very impressed with the rookie big man as well.

“I thought Bobby Portis was phenomenal on the glass,” Coach Hoiberg told Bulls.com after the first preseason game. “He struggled finishing, but just his energy [was impressive]. You go out there that first time as a rookie and you’re usually a little intimidated, a little scared. But there was none of that with Bobby Portis tonight.”

Portis seems like he’ll be one of those players that may be hated by opposing players and fans, but his teammates will adore him and he’ll be a fan favorite in Chicago. He’s also a very entertaining individual, who openly describes himself as “crazy” and has stated that he’s not looking to make any friends with the opposition when he’s on the court (opting instead to be a pest who gets under their skin).

While it’s still incredibly early to judge what kind of player Portis will be in the NBA, you have to love his effort and mindset. Based on the early results, it seems Portis has a long NBA career ahead of him.

Kristaps Porzingis Making His Presence Felt

When the Knicks selected Porzingis with the fourth overall pick, he was immediately booed in New York. The frustration was understandable, as the fans want to win sooner than later, but Porzingis is viewed as a project that needs time to develop before making a significant impact. Even Carmelo Anthony was reportedly unhappy with the selection initially.

However, Porzingis has been a pleasant surprise during this preseason and seems much more NBA-ready than anyone gave him credit for during the pre-draft process.

Through two games, the 20-year-old has averaged eight points, six rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks in just 21.5 minutes a night. Most impressive has been his three-point shot, as he’s 3-5 from long range (60 percent).

The 7’2 big man has even played so well that Knicks assistant coach Kurt Rambis, who is working to develop the Latvian rookie, compared him to a hybrid of Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol.

“He might be a combination of both of them,” Rambis said, according to the New York Post. “He can do so many things. You guys haven’t seen it yet. And some of it won’t come out for three, four, five years, either. He’s got to grow up, mature, develop, get stronger and [get] used to the NBA game. He already understands basketball and knows what to do, and he’s an unselfish player. He makes really good decisions. It wasn’t like he was a blank slate coming here. … He’s got three-point range. Like, effortless three-point range, too. It’s not even hard for him to shoot for distance.”

Head coach Derek Fisher tempered expectations a bit, but did make it clear that he believes Porzingis can be a factor for New York.

“For Kris, it is just about not being afraid and taking advantage of every opportunity he gets to make a play,” Coach Fisher said. “He has all the skills necessary to shoot the ball from the perimeter and to post up. What we like about him the most is that he shoots the basketball and challenges shots at the rim. He rebounded the ball well. Those are all the plays that we need him to make.”

Porzingis has also impressed his teammates, including forwards Derrick Williams and Carmelo Anthony.

“With Porzingis, he’s 7’2 and he can shoot the ball, man,” Williams said. “Not too many people his size and his length can shoot it [like that]. It just takes games and experience and him getting out there on the court. He’s going to have the perfect opportunity to do that on this team and learn on the fly while being out there on the court.”

“Y’all are going to keep asking me this the whole year, so I’m going to keep saying the same thing: He’s a very confident person, that’s one thing he doesn’t lack,” Anthony said. “I don’t think he’s going be lacking it anytime soon.”

Porzingis admits that he must adjust to the competition level and physicality of the NBA, but that’s expected.

“It is the next level – this is the NBA,” Porzingis said. “Things were very physical and I have to get used to it. This is the place that I want to be.”

Porzingis’ ceiling is incredible, which is why so many teams were drawn to him in this year’s draft, but we’ll see if he can make more of an immediate impact as well once this 2015-16 campaign kicks off.

Random Rookie Notes

These players didn’t make the list above because they haven’t quite thrived like their peers, but they do warrant a mention. Here are some notes about a few other rookies from around the league.

  • Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Tyus Jones struggled in his preseason debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder, finishing with zero points on 0-5 shooting from the field (although he did have four assists). But in his second game against the Chicago Bulls, he bounced back in a big way with 18 points (on 5-9 shooting from the field, including 3-3 from long range) and nine assists in 25 minutes. Jones’ 6.5 assists per game is the highest average among rookies and currently is sixth-best among all NBA players. Not a bad start for the 24th overall pick.
  • Denver Nuggets point guard Emmanuel Mudiay has shown some flashes of excellence in his first three preseason games, averaging 12.3 points, five assists, 2.7 rebounds and one steal. However, he must protect the ball better, as he has turned it over 17 times (!) through those first three contests. His shot has also been off; he’s shooting just 32.5 percent from the field. The 19-year-old is very raw, but with time it’s easy to imagine him thriving in Mike Malone’s up-tempo offense. He still has a lot of developing to do, but he is the first person to admit that and says he will “be a basketball junkie off the court” until he improves. Fortunately, he’s in a good situation since Denver can be patient with him and it also helps that he’s surrounded by strong veteran leaders who can help him with his transition to the NBA (particularly 12-year NBA vet Jameer Nelson, who has taken Mudiay under his wing).
  • Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein has been in the news a lot lately – making some negative headlines and then some positive ones. First, there was a report from James Ham of CSN saying that the No. 6 overall pick was so out of shape that he couldn’t even run up and down the court twice in a row and that he was pulling himself out of drills, which would be a huge problem for a defender so reliant on his mobility. However, through four preseason games, Cauley-Stein’s averages have been decent: 6.3 points, seven rebounds, 1.5 blocks and one steal in 24.3 minutes. Then, most recently, Kings head coach George Karl indicated that he is leaning toward starting Cauley-Stein with DeMarcus Cousins, because Kosta Koufos “fits the bench better,” according to Sactown Royalty. It remains to be seen how Cauley-Stein will be used or how effective he’ll be, but it’s strange so much conflicting information surrounds him.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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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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