There are several ways in which a team can experience a season from hell.
The most common one being among the worst teams in the league. Losing pretty much night in and night out for 82 games a season is never a fun ride for anyone. The one solace to all of that? If you lose that many games in a season, it’s probably because you weren’t expected to win coming into the season. You can’t really disappoint when not much was expected of you to begin with. That’s the one solace to take for New York Knicks fans.
Another interpretation is when the injury bug ruins the season. It’s tough to watch a team that had the potential to be something special only to be ruined by battle wounds. There is a solace to all of that as well. As bad as things may be, the one comfort is that with past success, things were supposed to be better but, through no one’s wrongdoing, it just hasn’t. That’s the one upside to being a Portland Trail Blazers fan.
However, the worst variation of the season from hell is when a team that came into the season swimming in championship aspirations don’t look one bit like the team they were supposed to be. Why is this one the worst? Because there is no upside. Disappointment may have been a possibility, but the odds were very low, and even if it was in play, it wasn’t supposed to be to that degree. Maybe some injuries have come along, but even when the team’s healthy, it’s not making much of a difference regardless.
It isn’t a pleasant experience, and it makes the season seem much longer than it is. The worst part is that the potential was there. They just couldn’t reach it. Several teams over this past decade alone have endured through their own season from hell. The 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. The 2015-16 Houston Rockets. The 2017-18 Washington Wizards. The 2018-19 Boston Celtics. It’s rare to see one team go through something like this in a season.
In the 2019-20 season, we have two: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz.
The Sixers and the Jazz have nearly identical records — but Utah has one less loss at 37-22. They are both in the thick of the playoff race in both of their respective conferences. Moreover, both had two players from their roster representing the franchise during the All-Star Game in Chicago, as they should have. Yet, there seems to not be much surrounding either team besides pure melancholy.
How did this happen? For Philly, it’s a little explainable because the warning signs were there. JJ Redick alone did so much because of the spacing he provided, but he departed for New Orleans. Jimmy Butler gave the 76ers a cushion with his go-to scoring when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons didn’t have it going and, he too, left.
The prevailing theory was that Philadelphia still had Embiid and Simmons – two of the league’s best players 25 and under – so, even with those departures, as long as they had the right support system around them, the team would only continue to grow. Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford among others are stellar supporting options as well.
And that’s the problem. They’re just not the right ones. The pieces just don’t fit together. Both Harris and Richardson have been productive in their roles, but they haven’t been able to replicate the same outputs they had with their previous teams. Horford has been a flat-out disaster as the fit with Embiid has not been good — much of that attributed to the former’s physical decline. The two have a net rating of minus-1.1 when they share the court – so the handsomely-paid Horford has been relegated to a bench role.
The idea that the 76ers might be better off trading one of Embiid or Simmons has picked up a fair amount of steam. Their two-man net rating isn’t exactly great – sharing a net rating os plus-0.9 – and with the floor spacing not as good as it once was – Philadelphia is 19th in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage – teams are exploiting the lack of shooting that Embiid and Simmons provide.
What baffles is that the 76ers have the look of a contender at home, having gone 28-2 – a better home record than the Milwaukee Bucks – while simultaneously looking awful on the road, winning only nine of 30 games.
It hasn’t been all bad. Matisse Thybulle has been as good as advertised defensively while proving himself to be a much better shooter than we thought, hitting on 36 percent from distance. Furkan Korkmaz has also come alive as a floor spacer. Even Simmons, who still has yet to prove that he can actually shoot a basketball, has improved his individual defense enough that he is very much in the running for a spot on an All-Defense roster.
But that shouldn’t be the biggest positives coming out of Philadelphia. This was supposed to be the year they took the next step. Instead, they’re on a 50-win pace. That wouldn’t be so bad seeing how they won 51 games last year, but staying the same when you were supposed to be in the title conversation is not a good sign.
The same can be said about the Jazz.
They too were expected to take a bigger leap this season, which, in all fairness is harder in the Western Conference, but they’re on pace to win 50 as well — a total that would match their wins mark from last season.
For the Jazz, it’s a little stranger to see this result from them. It’s true that they lost some key culture-forming pieces like Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder, but it was clear that the team’s ceiling with those guys next to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert was limited — especially on the offensive end.
More importantly, they replaced them with excellently-perceived locker room guys that should’ve upgraded the roster as far as talent went. No one took issue with them bringing in Mike Conley Jr., Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis among others. In fact, the common belief was that the Jazz would be a sleeper in the conference because their roster makeup had little holes.
But alas, it hasn’t been that way. Not at all.
Utah’s offense certainly has improved – they rank 10th in offensive rating scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions – but the airtight defense that Salt Lake once prided themselves on has fallen out of the top ten. They currently rank 12th in defensive rating by allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions.
The improvement on the offensive end stems unsurprisingly from Mitchell’s growth – 24.7 points on 46/36/86 splits – and the vastly improved three-point shooting, topping the league in percentage at 38.2. Not to mention, Jordan Clarkson has been freaking awesome for them – where would they be right now if they hadn’t traded for him? Still, they remain the same because defensively, they’ve taken a step back.
Bogdanovic has not helped Utah’s cause on that side of the ball, and because the Davis signing has flopped so badly, Utah’s interior defense suffers when Gobert goes out despite Tony Bradley’s best efforts. It might be safe to say that enough credit wasn’t given to Rubio, Favors and Crowder for what they did on that end. Just as it might be safe to say with his struggles and all, Utah acquired Conley at the wrong time.
It’s made Utah not as enjoyable to watch, too, and that’s why their season from hell has been so odd. This Jazz team competed in the conference for the last two years because they rose above their collective talent. The cohesion and sense of togetherness made them both fun to watch and easy to root for. Now, it’s not just that their progress has stagnated. The body language looks… different.
— Thisguy (@cheehooMF) February 25, 2020
Of course, that’s just one instance — but that chip on their shoulder just doesn’t seem to be there anymore. The Jazz will still make the playoffs pending any serious injury to Mitchell or Gobert, alas, their hopes of going on a long playoff run are fizzling as fast as the 76ers’ have.
If this really is where both seasons are headed, they then have to think about what their next move might be when it all ends. After 2013, the Lakers spent a lot of time picking up the pieces post-Dwight Howard. Following 2016, the Rockets re-tooled and built a better core around James Harden.
They say it’s not over until the fat lady sings and although she hasn’t done that for Philadelphia or Utah quite yet — she sure has been whistling for a bit now.
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.