It may seem like it, but, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA world never truly stopped turning, even Bodog Canada is still running.
Yes, in a time of some much-needed, sports-related distraction, the play has been put on hold. But the Association has continued to chug along as the draft and free agency still loom large.
At this point, a resumed season and or expedited postseason would seem more likely than not. But, if the remainder of the 2019-20 season is forgone, players and teams must continue to prepare for that worst-case scenario. And that’s exactly what they’ve done, albeit under awkward circumstances given recent living and travel constraints; players have had to get creative with workouts, while teams have been forced to adopt a much more film-centric approach to the draft.
With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has continued to work as well. In recent days, we’ve looked at several players, spanning the Northwest, Central, Atlantic and Pacific divisions, that could hit the open market once the world gets back on track. Today, we’ll look at the Southeast Division.
It may not be the cream of the free-agent crop, but there are plenty of players coming out of the Southeast that should garner serious interest and that could make a serious impact next season, either with their current team or elsewhere.
Best of the Bunch
Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards — Unrestricted — $7,000,000
While he wasn’t moved, Bertans was a hotly contested commodity at the trade deadline. That won’t change come free agency.
The 6-foot-10 Latvian is the new “normal” for the NBA power forward — a long-armed sharpshooter that can open up the paint rather than bog it down. And, in a league where frontcourt spacing is at a premium, Bertans is set to earn a nice new deal as one of the best shooters, regardless of position.
In 54 games with the Wizards, Bertans shot a blistering 42.4 percent from beyond the arc on nearly nine attempts per game. He set career marks in points (15.4), rebounds (4.5), three-pointers made (3.7) and attempted (8.7) per game, among other stats.
Those numbers are impressive in their own right and should need no qualifier. But, just to drive the point home, Bertans is just one of five in NBA history to play at least 50 games and shoot at least 40 percent on eight or more three-point attempts per game. He would also be the only player on that list to spend the majority of his time at the four-spot.
Even among a “sexier” group of free agents, Bertans’ skillset and potential fit with a variety of different contenders would have him at or near the top of plenty of free agent lists. So, in a relatively weak class, expect his camp to try and break the bank.
And don’t expect it to take very long. Washington may push hard to keep him to appease Bradley Beal, but the sheer amount of potential interest could leave the Wizards out in the cold.
Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic — Player Option — $17,150,000
After six seasons, 2020 may be the year Fournier and the Magic part ways.
Fournier has been on Orlando’s chopping block for what seems like forever; going back to 2016, the Magic have just never seemed committed to the Frenchman. Staring at a second-consecutive eighth-place finish in the East and an inevitable shake-up coming this summer, why would that attitude change now?
Likewise, for Fournier, the Magic have struggled to sustain success during his tenure. In the midst of a career year, a career-high 18.8 points per game to go along with strong shooting and competent defense, a contract comparable to his $17,150,000 option shouldn’t be out of the question, nor should Fournier lack for suitors; why wouldn’t he test the waters?
So, what exactly does a potential team get in Fournier? A talented offensive guard and arguably the best available (pending DeMar DeRozan’s player option) in this free-agent class.
Fournier isn’t going to carry an offense, but any interested teams should already have an established star to pair him with. Think of him as a potential Khris Middleton to Team X’s Giannis Antentokounmpo; a talented player in his own right, but one that would buttress a team’s top option rather than shoulder the load himself (something he has been tasked with in Orlando).
Should he indeed look to leave the Sunshine State, the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors could prove perfect candidates for Fournier’s services. Likewise, any aspiring up-and-coming squads that are looking to add a veteran while keeping the roster relatively young could do worse than the 27-year-old.
Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $19,217,900
At 33-years-old, 2020 is probably Dragic’s last chance to earn a sizable, long(ish)-term contract. And, with rumors that the HEAT only plan to offer a one-year (albeit bloated) deal, it may come with a team other than Miami.
Regardless of the team, Dragic should continue to provide above-average offense next season and, amid a resurgence after an injury-riddled 2019, he should earn a pretty penny doing so. Even with a move to the bench, Dragic has continued to produce. In 54 games (53 off the bench) he averaged 16.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists to go along with a 37.7 three-point percentage, his best clip since 2016.
Whatever his decision, Dragic would likely emphasize winning as he’s made the postseason just three times in his 14-year career. Even on a one-year deal, Miami may be his best bet in that regard, though teams with prior interest — the Dallas Mavericks, mainly — could serve to lure him away.
That said, should an up-and-coming roster offer him a starting opportunity (a la Ricky Rubio and the Phoenix Suns a season ago) along with a large enough salary or more in terms of long-term security, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dragic jump at it.
Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks — Unrestricted — $19,000,000
A Teague addition isn’t going to inspire much confidence in any fanbase. Nor is he going to move the needle much toward title contention.
But at 31, Teague is still capable of solid production from the point guard spot, especially as a passer. In 59 games split between the Hawks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, Teague averaged 10.9 points, 5.2 assists and shot 43.6 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three. A season ago, while he was limited to just 42 games, Teague averaged more than eight assists.
So, while he may not “wow” many teams, it’s clear there’s some potential there. Ideally, Teague would slot into a reserve role on a contender, an assist man and outside shot coming off the bench, but could also serve as a nice stopgap or bridge option for a team assessing their future at the position — think the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, etc. Likewise, Teague is a quality leader and role model that almost any team would benefit from bringing in.
It just probably won’t be in Atlanta.
Of course, with Vince Carter expected to retire, the Hawks could always elect to bring Teague back to maintain that veteran presence in the locker room. But, with Trae Young locked in as Atlanta’s starter amidst a bevy of other talented young guards on the roster, the fit is just a bit too awkward.
Jae Crowder, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $7,815,533
Meyers Leonard, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $11,286,515
Kelly Olynyk, Miami HEAT — Player Option — $12,667,885
Crowder has bounced around the NBA, having played for six teams in his eight seasons. But, at every stop, he’s proven at least a capable contributor and, more importantly, to have a team-first attitude.
His stats don’t jump out of the boxscore — 10.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 steals across 58 games between the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami — but Crowder is without a doubt a crucial building block. He may not win you the Larry O’Brien trophy, but the energy and passion that he can bring to the table go a long way in competing for one. Better yet, Crowder should make that impact for little in terms of compensation.
As for Leonard, any team priced out of the Bertans bidding should look to make him a top target. Aside from the fact that he’ll cost next to nothing in comparison, Leonard has proven a capable marksman in his own right; a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter, Leonard shot 42.9 percent from deep on 2.4 across 49 games with Miami. Like Crowder, Leonard is also a we-before-me personality and could prove a capable leader in a locker room in need of one.
He’s capable enough on the defensive end that he won’t kill you on a regular basis and athletic enough that, when his confidence is there, he can make a serious impact on offense. Should Leonard get lost in the shuffle as the HEAT look to pair a third star with Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, expect another team to scoop him up quickly.
Now, should a team swing-and-miss on Bertans and Leonard, Olynyk may have what they’re looking for
Like Leonard, Olynyk can knock it down from distance and should prove a capable reserve wherever he may find himself next season. Unlike Leonard, however, Olynyk has a player option for next season, one that he may not be able to pass up. If a team is interested enough, they’ll need to convince him to pass on more than $13 million next season. It’s not unthinkable, should an interested party promise Olynyk more than the 18 minutes per game he averaged with the HEAT this season, but they would need to strike the right balance between pay and play.
The Unlikely Reclamation Project
Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets — Player Option — $25,565,217
Let’s just get this out of the way: Batum is probably spending one more season in Charlotte.
Through two seasons, the Batum-Hornets relationship looked promising, as the forward averaged 15 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a steal per game. After that… you know the rest. A combination of coaching changes, injury and just general poor play has turned the formerly productive Batum into the world’s highest-paid cheerleader.
With more than $27 million left on the table, it would be hard to fault Batum for sticking out the last year of his deal. He won’t — or at least he shouldn’t — find anything close to that number on the open market, even more reason to opt-in.
That said, should he catch wind of a potential opportunity, would Batum be willing to walk away? While an opt-out may be out of the question, it wouldn’t be a total shock to see Batum opt-in, force Charlotte into a buyout and jump at a fresh start.
This isn’t last summer; the free-agent frenzy won’t be nearly as exciting. That said, and most fans would agree, any basketball action would be welcome right about now — a scratch for that incessant itch that has lingered since the NBA put the season on pause. While we hope that play can resume as quickly and safely as possible, we at Basketball Insiders also hope that, in the meantime, our continued coverage can serve as a nice reprieve to everyone.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
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.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
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.
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.
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.
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.