Welcome back to another edition of “Grading the Offseason.” So far we’ve evaluated those whose seasons ended collectively on April 10. Today we’re changing it up a bit and looking at those who managed to make it into the playoffs. First off, we’re heading up to Motown to take a look at the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons might just be the most strictly average team in the league right now. They have one of the most talented frontcourt duos in Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, and there are worse starting point guards then Reggie Jackson – but outside of those three, their roster is paper-thin.
What makes it worse is that – despite the moves they’ve made leading up to this past season – the Pistons have remained roughly the same since 2015. Was there anything different about this past season, and did this summer make their outlook brighter?
If you technically improved record-wise and made the playoffs, does that mean your season was a success? Ask the Detroit Pistons.
Detroit improved its win total from the previous season by two and made the playoffs for the first time in three years. The Pistons didn’t have much time to celebrate their playoff berth, as the Bucks swept them not too long after that. A 41-41 record and a quick out in the postseason is as far from remarkable as it can get.
For the Pistons, there was more to it than that. Blake Griffin was getting his first full season with the team. Reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey was getting a fresh start in Detroit. Reggie Jackson was coming back fully healthy. The roster wasn’t exactly boasting much talent, but the Pistons had higher expectations on their hands.
Even though their record was as average as average can get, they never had a full month where they played like an average team. The Pistons were pretty hot and cold throughout the entire season. If that sounds weird, check out their monthly totals.
They never seemed to capitalize on their good stretches, but never let their bad stretches get them down either. It’d be hard to come up with a better word to describe those totals than inconsistent. However, among all fluctuating results that came about, there was one consistency throughout the season: Blake Griffin’s return to prominence.
Rampant injuries and declining athleticism have made Blake Griffin’s stock decline a tad over the past few years. Detroit gave up a respectable haul for Blake last year, but they didn’t exactly give up the farm for him. Many thought Blake was in the twilight of his career. When the season was over, he proved that he was far from it.
Griffin averaged 24.5 points on 46/36/75 splits this season, with a special emphasis put on the 36 percent from distance. Now Blake is not the leaper he was during his younger days, but he compensated for it with an improved three-point shot. While he has taken a fair amount of threes over his career, he’s never taken them at the volume he did this past season. Blake has shot 1112 threes since entering the league. 522 of them came from this season alone.
The fact that he shot his best percentage from there (36.2) since 2015 made him that much more of an all-around threat, as the Pistons’ offense was plus-6.9 with him on the court. Griffin’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as he made both the All-Star team and an All-NBA team for the first time since 2015.
Outside of him though, there’s not much else to say about the Pistons. Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson were fine given what was expected of them, but those are just two guys. Beyond them, there wasn’t a whole lot that stood out from their players individually.
The most intriguing player besides them this past season was the play of sophomore Luke Kennard. Detroit is going to hear it from everyone about taking Kennard over Donovan Mitchell in the 2017 draft. The skeptics are probably going to be right seeing what Mitchell has been able to do compared to Kennard. Even so, Detroit has something good in the 23-year-old.
The season started a little slow for Luke. Detroit didn’t give him much time right off the bat. Then, on December 10, Luke’s fortunes changed. The Duke alum had a breakout performance against Philadelphia, putting up 28 points on 61/62/50 splits. There were a few more growing pains along the way, but by the 28th of that same month, Kennard was firmly in the rotation.
From there on out, Luke proved himself valuable. He averaged almost 11 points on 45/41/85 splits, which are promising numbers for a young guard. Those only got better when the playoffs, as he scored 15 points on 48/45/62 splits. Those statistics would be a lot more encouraging if they didn’t occur in four consecutive blowouts.
Other than Kennard’s progression, not much else of note happened. The Pistons traded Reggie Bullock for Svi Mykhailiuk, who did nothing. They also traded Stanley Johnson for Thon Maker, who did next to nothing. After making those trades, they brought in Wayne Ellington, who much like Drummond and Jackson, was fine. That’s better than nothing…?
Overall, the Detroit Pistons were sufficient. Not good. Not bad. Just passable. The real question is whether they could do better next season. That starts with what they would do in the summertime.
Now, there have been teams that just got so much better this summer just as much as there have been teams that just got so much worse. When you look at Detroit, you can’t help but shrug.
Props to them for going for the long-term project in Sekou Doumbouya. The Guinean native has a raw skill set that has garnered comparisons to Pascal Siakam. Given his raw age, don’t expect him to get much playing time right away. If the Pistons play the long-term game with Sekou, they should be optimistic about his future.
Not be a broken record here, but outside of the draft, the Pistons did fine this offseason. They added some nice players when you look at how much they paid for them. They didn’t get any world-beaters, but none of their moves would be classified as dumb.
First, they traded Jon Leuer for Tony Snell. A solid move. Leuer wasn’t doing much besides taking up space in the cap, and it wasn’t too long ago that Snell was valued rotation player on the Bucks. He’s overpaid, but he does have a solid track record and was forced out of Milwaukee’s rotation because they had guys who were better than him. Now that he’s on the Pistons, it’s feasible that he returns to the player he was in 2017.
Then there’s Derrick Rose. Rose was fantastic in the sixth man role he played in Minnesota and doesn’t have big shoes to fill since he’s replacing Ish Smith. His newly-minted three-pointer should give the league’s 21st-rated offense another potent option. For $7.5 million a year, the 2011 MVP is a good value addition.
Then there’s Markieff Morris, who for all intents and purposes should be a good third big to put behind Blake and Andre. Tim Frazier is an adequate fifth guard. Christian Wood is someone who could be turning heads should he be given the opportunity.
All in all, they could have done a lot worse, but they haven’t really done a whole lot to improve on where they are.
PLAYERS IN: Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, Tony Snell, Tim Frazier, Sekou Doumbouya, Deividas Sirvydis, Jordan Bone (two-way), Louis King (two-way), Christian Wood
PLAYERS OUT: Wayne Ellington, Ish Smith, Glenn Robinson III, Jon Leuer, Jose Calderon, Zaza Pachulia
The word fine has been mentioned a lot in this article because frankly, that’s what the Pistons are. Just fine. Ironically, being just fine in the NBA is not fine. Basketball Purgatory is the worst possible situation to be in. You’re not going anywhere near the championship, and you’re most likely not getting a franchise cornerstone in the draft following a merely okay season.
Following what was one of his best seasons as a pro, it’s clear that the remainder of Blake Griffin’s prime should not be wasted. Hence, the pressure’s on the Pistons to choose between building the best possible core around Blake or trade him while his value is at its absolute highest. They can’t be just in the playoff hunt year-in and year-out with this squad.
The one upside is that Detroit will have plenty of cap space next summer. The downside? It’s one of the weakest free agent classes we’ve seen in quite some time. DeMar DeRozan and Paul Millsap would make things better, but how much better?
The fact remains that the Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in over a decade. They could roll with this core and get over that hump, but if that’s all they accomplish, then it wouldn’t really be worth it.
If the NBA is to see some real “DEE-TROIIIIIIT BASKETBALL!” in the near future, then more changes should definitely be in order.
OFFSEASON GRADE: C+
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
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