This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at the league’s most underrated players division-by-division. Drew Maresca took a look at the Atlantic Division. Then, Benny Nadeau kept up the momentum with the Northwest Division. Today we’re taking a look at the Southeast Division.
In recent years, the Southeast Division has been often critiqued for being one of, if not, the weakest division in the entire league. Last year, it really wasn’t pretty. Only one team made it to the playoffs that season – the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic – and they ousted pretty easily by Toronto. The year before that, there were two – Miami and Washington – but they were two of the three lower seeds who had a similar fate in the postseason.
When you stop to think about it, it’s been a downward trajectory for the whole division since the HEAT disbanded in 2014.
Things have been better, but not by leaps and bounds. Miami’s having its best season since LeBron James left, although they look like a team that’s a piece or two away from being a contender. Orlando was more-likely-than-not making the playoffs. Still, they have more-or-less remained the same as where they were last year: League average – and that might be giving them too much credit.
As for the rest of the division, it’s not pretty. Washington and Charlotte are pegged right at below-average currently. They’re definitely not the worst teams in the league, but pending any late-season miracles, they’re not making the playoffs. Oddly enough, the worst team in the division, Atlanta, happens to be the one team everyone’s most excited about long-term.
When you put all of that into consideration, it may seem hard to find underrated players in a division when the majority of it isn’t really that good. However, good individual performances can get overshadowed because not much team success has come from it.
Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT
When analysts discuss Miami’s major steps forward this season, they talk about Jimmy Butler’s acclamation as the team’s top dog. Bam Adebayo’s evolution into one of the league’s best young centers. Their suddenly-exciting rookie class spearheaded by Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. The one plot thread that doesn’t get enough credit is Goran Dragic’s seamless transition from starting point guard to sixth man.
Being mere weeks from turning 34, it’s clear Dragic doesn’t have the same footwork he did when he bent defenses to his will in his heyday. With him on the downside of his career, some adjustments had to be made on his part. Unlike his role in past years, he had to learn to lead the second unit.
It’s true that Dragic had that role back in his early days in Phoenix, but a lot has changed for him since then. Having to relearn a modified role such as this is much easier said than done. But in doing so, Dragic has actually had quite a resilient year compared to his injury-plagued 2018-19 season. In fewer minutes than he’s used to, Dragic has averaged 16 points and five assists on 44/38/77 splits, and it’s led to Miami owning one of the more offensively potent benches in the league.
When the Sixth Man of the Year discussion comes up, the first names that come to mind are Lou Williams, Montrezl Harell, or Dennis Schroder. Dragic’s case is simple: He thrived when confronted with the task of going from lead dog to bench spark on a team that won’t be messing around in the playoffs. For that, he deserves consideration and to be on this list.
Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards
Over the past several years, we’ve come to see JJ Redick and Kyle Korver prove how potent they can be in an offense if they are used to the fullest of their capabilities. If you have somebody so consistently money from three that the other team must gameplan to ensure that he won’t have a sliver of daylight, you’ve got a weapon at your behest.
Not that we didn’t know he could stroke it from deep before, but now, we have our newest iteration of the sharpshooter – Davis Bertans. There hasn’t been much to cheer about in regards to the basketball team that resides in the nation’s capital, but Bertans’ ascent into a three-point flamethrower has certainly been a sight to behold.
Bertans’ floor-stretching abilities have breathed new life into the Wizards’ offense. When he’s on the court, their offensive rating is 113.6, which matches the Los Angeles Clippers’ third-rated offensive rating. 77 percent of his shots have been from distance this season, which has led to him having his best season yet as a professional. His scoring numbers have nearly doubled, and he has the second-highest net rating among Wizards who have played at least 1,000 minutes.
Another reason why Bertans gets a mention here: Most of the sharpshooters in the league are either guards, wings, or a hybrid of both. Bertans is a big. He’s mainly a power forward, but Washington played him at center for 16 percent of his minutes. There are other stretch bigs in the league who share around the same three-point percentage as Bertans – Kelly Olynyk at 43.2 and Nemanja Bjelica at 42.4. The difference is, they’ve attempted eight more threes than Bertans combined. That’s how you know how dangerous Bertans is compared to them at the three-point line.
There was a reason why the price for Bertans at the trade deadline – even on an expiring contract – was two first-round picks. If Washington really is committed to getting back to what they were three years ago or even better, having Bertans stick around should absolutely be a priority.
Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic
12.1 points. 5.2 assists. 3.3 rebounds. 47/25/72 splits. 28.3 minutes a game. For any starting point guard in the NBA, those should be seen as pedestrian numbers. For Markelle Fultz, these numbers should be seen as a step in the right direction.
Fultz’s hurdles, both mental and physical, have been well-documented since he entered the league. Now that he seemingly has gotten past them, he’s making leaps toward reaching his potential as a prospect. He’s still got a long, long way to go, but at least he’s consistently on the court.
At 21 years old, Fultz is at least shown both aggression and vision when taking the court. He has good touch around the basket – shooting 65 percent from inside zero to three feet – and he played well enough to usurp DJ Augustin as the team’s starting point guard. That’s… something! Sadly, he hasn’t been getting a whole lot of attention because Orlando is a mid-tier team that may have peaked with the squad they have. Still, they should be encouraged by Fultz’s progress in his first full year with the team.
There’s still plenty of time for Fultz to improve his mechanics. In Orlando, he’s had some breathing room and, so far, he hasn’t taken the league by storm, but he has shown that he still breeds intrigue.
At the end of the day, Fultz’s numbers won’t blow you away when you factor in him getting picked number one in his draft, but we can still look at it and wonder if the best is yet to come.
Michael Carter-Williams, Orlando Magic
Speaking of players whose careers could have been in jeopardy, it’s so nice to see that Michael Carter-Williams may have found a home in Orlando. The guy was a late-season pickup last year after Houston barely used him. Now, he’s a rotation player on a playoff team.
There’s a lot about Williams that would turn teams off. That pretty much starts and ends with his jumper. It’s not ugly by any means, it’s just not very reliable. His percentages throughout his career from pretty much everywhere have been bad. Before this season, you could look anywhere he’s shot from the court outside of zero to three feet and would not come to any conclusion beyond saying uh-oh.
Yet there’s so much to like about him. He’s a 6-foot-5 point guard with long limbs, decent passing vision and the ability to be a menace defensively. Carter-Williams has picked up his efficiency from around the floor – 43/29/83 splits is a definite win for him – and has, for the most part, stuck to what he’s good at.
The only problem is, again, Orlando’s not really making much headway. No matter what direction they decide to go in, at least Carter-Williams can rest easy knowing he proves that he belongs in the NBA. Even if his stats aren’t nearly as good as they were early on in his career, Carter-Williams has found his niche.
Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets
OK, fair, we know what you might be thinking, but wait: Rozier’s performance for the Hornets is underrated for several reasons.
1. Charlotte hasn’t been good this season, that was something we all were anticipating. The difference between this year and last is that there seems to be some semblance of promise in this team. Devonte Graham, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington and even Malik Monk seems to have made some nice progress.
Their record doesn’t necessarily reflect an improvement from last season, but their ability to stay at the same production after losing Kemba Walker is impressive. Rozier has had a lot to do with both the youth movement and Charlotte’s perseverance.
2. He’s been outshined by Graham. Graham has come back to earth after an electrifying start, but his unexpected jump overshadowed that this has been Rozier’s best season as a professional.
3. He’s given Charlotte their money’s worth, unlike somebody like Nicolas Batum, Rozier has at least given the Hornets good production for the contract they gave him. 18 points and 4.1 assists on 42/41/87 splits is strong at $19 million a year is, ultimately, not a deal-breaker. Especially when you compare him to some of their other poor contracts.
Rozier hasn’t necessarily surpassed expectations, but he hasn’t been a disappointment when many thought that he would do just that. Many have dismissed Charlotte for their front office’s mishandlings over the last several years. Perhaps the fact that Rozier has turned out better than most of their recent additions could signal a turning point.
Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks
We had to include Carter on this list, we just had to. A player with his reputation and his impact on the game of basketball deserves a shoutout as he rides off into the sunset.
We don’t have to dive into his stats because they don’t accurately reflect on what he’s done. In case it’s not clear, Carter didn’t have to choose this path to end his career. He could have ridden on James or Curry’s coattails to a ring and nobody would have blamed him. Is there a feeling more rewarding than winning a championship to finish your career? To end it all on a high note?
As it turns out, yes. Carter didn’t want his legacy at the end of his time to be defined by if he won or not. He wanted it to be defined by how he influenced the NBA of tomorrow. We know his impact on the Sacramento Kings. Not too long from now, we’ll see the kind of effect it’ll have on the Atlanta Hawks. They may not be good now, but we know the sort of ceiling they have on their hands with Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and the aforementioned Collins.
If they reach it, don’t be shocked if they give credit to Carter for how they did.
Many NBA legends have talked about the veterans who influenced them when they were young – Vince Carter believed that was what was most important. In short, making sure that these young players are on the right path from the start and not take anything for granted. Carter made a lasting impact on the NBA, and that impact should last for generations.
This list goes to show that there’s no correct way to be underrated. You can be underrated because you embraced a new lesser role. You can be underrated because you thrived in a bigger role and didn’t get noticed. You can be underrated because you made progress that no one saw coming. You can be underrated because your impact in the locker room greatly exceeds that on the court. And so on and so forth. . .
We’re still some ways from seeing this NBA season resolve, if at all, but, when it does, we’ll see these underrated players continue to shine.
Aamir Simms Readying Himself for His Opportunity
Clemson’s Aamir Simms is a versatile big man built for the modern NBA. Drew Maresca spoke with Simms about the draft process, Clemson’s success last season and how he thinks he fits in the league.
Clemson has produced some very good NBA players – including Elden Campbell, Dale Davis and Horace Grant – but not too many of late. The most recent Clemson Tiger who was selected in the NBA Draft was Jason Blossomgame in 2017. Before that, K.J McDaniels in 2014, Trevor Booker in 2010 and Will Soloman in 2001. Aamir Simms hopes to be the first in a while – and he hopes to stick in the league.
Statistically, Simms has everything you’d want in a prospect. He’s a 6’8” big who can defend multiple positions and shoot it from deep. He averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 2020-21, shooting 40 percent on three-point attempts and 82.5 percent from the free throw line.
Simms was also named to the second-team All-ACC this season, after being named to the third-team All-ACC last season.
But the NBA Draft is a crapshoot with hundreds of players competing for just 60 spots. Complicating matters is the fact that Simms was a four-year player – and age is not an asset in the NBA Draft.
But Simms proved a lot in his time at Clemson, and he feels that his ability and willingness to do whatever a team needs is an asset.
“My original position was the four,” Simms recently told Basketball Insiders. “But I’m comfortable playing small ball five (too). And later in my career, I want to work toward playing some three, too, like Jeff Green.”
Green, who played a major role in the Brooklyn Nets’ success this season, is among the players who inspire Simms. He obviously values what LeBron James and Kevin Durant do, but he sees the utility of players like Green, and he understands that mimicking players like this will be key in his success.
“Being a versatile four like Jae Crowder (would be ideal), Simms said. “Being able to defend guys his size. Having the mid-range and the face-up like Al Horford or Paul Milsap. The craftiness and versatility of Tobias Harris. And especially Jeff Green. He does a good job of shooting the ball, playing the post, guarding one through five.”
“And that’s something I’m excited to showcase in this combine, in workouts and even through summer league.”
Achieving that success requires serious skill and versatility, but Simms believes he’s already on his way. If you’re thinking “but there isn’t evidence that he can do that,” you’re not wrong. But it’s not uncommon for players to sacrifice their own success for the greater good of a college program – and that’s exactly what Simms did.
“My perimeter defense is something I am really ready to showcase,” Simms said. “At school, I was an undersized five, so I didn’t switch much for the sake of the team,’ Simms said.
But he can – and he knows it.
Clemson’s entire roster had only three players taller than Simms. Two of the three were Freshmen and the other – Jonathan Baehre – started just 10 games. Clearly, Clemson coach Brad Brownell had a vision for his team, which included Simms as an undersized center. And considering their entry into the NCAA tournament after the media predicted they finish 10th in the ACC in a pre-season poll, it’s fair to say it worked.
“I think there’s a lot of things that teams look at (in the draft process): winners, individual growth, changes in your stats, and consistency,” Simms said. “I think I’ve shown all those areas throughout this season.”
“Just the way I led my team, (along) with other guys on the team, I got us back to the tournament – because people didn’t really expect us to. We got ranked pretty highly. My shooting and numbers improved, especially my field goal percentage. I was a little streaky with rebounds, but I think I showed improvements in areas that would progress me in the prospect rankings.”
With Simms, shooting will initiate interest. As mentioned above, Simms shot better than 40 percent on three-point over the past two seasons – but he wasn’t a knock-down shooter early in his Clemson career.
As a Freshmen, Simms shot a pedestrian 32.6 percent on three-point attempts. But credit Simms for identifying the problem and working to fix it
“The reason why I shot so low as a freshman was that my form was coming across the left side of my face, so when I released the ball I couldn’t see as much,” Simms explained. “From the middle of my freshmen year to Senior year, I worked with (assistant) coach Smith before he went to Florida State, as well as (assistant) coach Dean and (director of player development) Terrell Mcintyre.”
“And those guys helped me improve my form and stick with it. And then, it was just spending my summers getting up hundreds of shots – 500 every morning and 500 every night to get that muscle memory down.”
But there’s more to Simms game than just shooting, and that’s what he hopes to prove throughout the draft process – beginning on Sunday, June 20 at the G-League Elite camp.
The G League Elite camp is an opportunity for 40 players to showcase their abilities in front of NBA and G League scouts, as well as coaches and front-office executives. The camp will consist of five-on-five scrimmages, as well as strength and agility drills. Top performers will earn an invite to the 2021 NBA Draft combine, meaning the camp can catapult players into very real consideration by NBA clubs. And Simms understands the opportunity at hand.
“Getting invited to the combine (is the goal),” Simms said. “That’s where the best of the best goes. I belong, but I’m fortunate to get the invite because there are other good guys who didn’t get an invite.”
This season, Simms faced off against at least two lottery prospects in Scottie Barnes (Florida State) and Jalen Johnson (Duke). Both will probably be used as measuring sticks of Simms’ potential; but considering defensive schemes, all matchups aren’t equal.
Simms underperformed against Florida State, scoring just 5 points on one-for-three shooting. But Florida State eliminates post opportunities and is known for its swarming defense.
“Florida State gets up in you, (they) switch one through five. They sit on you and take you out from catching the ball deep in the post,” Simms said. “I understood I wasn’t going to be as involved as I wanted entering it.”
But regardless of how you view Simms’ performance against Florida State, he demonstrated a big heart in coming back and playing well against Duke just one week later. While Clemson lost by 26 points, Simms performed well in a head-to-head matchup with another high-profile forward, scoring 19 points on seven-for-thirteen shooting.
“I have shown since my junior year that your ranking doesn’t matter,” Simms explained. “You play lottery picks a few times every year. That one was more of a bounce back after Florida State. That’s another one where we weren’t together, but the individual performance was what it was. It was in a losing effort so I didn’t focus on it, but it shows that I can play with anyone. I don’t care if you’re top 10 in the draft or wherever. I always feel I perform at a high level against highly projected players, and that was an opportunity to remind people who I am.”
Having to prove oneself self after four seasons at a big-time program would probably bother a lot of prospects, but it doesn’t bother Simms. On the contrary, Simms uses it as motivation.
“I am just thankful to be in the position I am because a lot of guys work for it and don’t get the opportunity,” Simms said. “It can be frustrating to be asked to prove yourself over and over, but the majority of great guys in the game have to do that at some point, too, so that’s fine.”
“I (already) have a chip on my shoulder,” Simms continued. “I come from the worst situations you can imagine, so being asked to keep showing my game and my progression is easy. Being able to put the ball in the basket and play hard isn’t something I stress over.”
“I’ve been through way darker times,” Simms continued. “Playing basketball is fun. I’ll have to show it over and over, but at least I’m doing what I love. Passion takes care of all of that. My faith pushes me through, God pushes me through. So if they ask me to do it 100 times, I’ll do it 101. I belong in the league. I believe I’m NBA-ready. If they want me to do it this week and another week after that, I’m ready.”
Simms is focused on getting the right opportunity with the right team. He’s spoken to his friends in the NBA including Mamadi Diakite (Milwaukee Bucks) and Nic Claxton (Brooklyn Nets), both of whom speak about the mental toll of going from being “the guy” to getting DNPs. But they’re not bitter. They emphasize the importance of getting into a good situation with a patient team and how it enables players to build confidence away from the pressure of the NBA game.
Still, you never know when your number will be called and rookies have to be perpetually ready. They also have to understand a team’s needs and the system that’s run. But Simms isn’t worried about that aspect. As the 2021 “Skip” Prosser Award winner, emblematic of the top scholar-athlete in men’s college basketball, he’s always been one to hit the books – and he intends on approaching an NBA opportunity the same way.
“If I am lucky enough to get drafted, I am going to spend that time starting the first night to get a feel for the team,” Simms said. “Learn the roster, who’s the primary and secondary guys and seeing where I fit.”
“No matter what, one thing you can do is rebound and defend. So that’s something I am going to do from the jump, (as well as) doing what coach asks of me. I’ve always been very coachable.”
Getting drafted is obviously the goal. But Simms understands that there is an opportunity beyond the draft. And conversely, he knows that getting drafted doesn’t guarantee success.
“Too many guys get caught up with their name being called, and that can land them in a bad situation,” Simms said. “It takes a lot of maturity to understand that it’s OK if you’re not drafted. A lot of guys who aren’t drafted or are taken late second-round are standing out (currently). Look around the league, guys come from the G League or overseas… if you can get over the idea of getting drafted and just focus on getting your foot in the door, that’s most important. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Simms has spent at least the last four years preparing himself for this moment – now it’s time to prove that he belongs. His mix of athleticism, size and skill will get him noticed, but his patience and cerebral approach are real differentiators. Even if Simms’ name isn’t called on July 29th at the draft, this writer believes he’ll find his way onto an NBA roster for the 2021-22 season, one way or another.
Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers
From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.
It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.
Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games.
Neil Olshey: “This first-round loss was not a product of the roster.”
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) June 7, 2021
He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.
“For anyone (prospective coaches) to advance in the process they’re going to have to prove they can do that (improve defensively) without a ton of roster changes.” -Olshey
— Danny Marang (@DannyMarang) June 7, 2021
To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.
There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.
However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.
Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.
As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.
The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”
As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.
Now What? – Golden State Warriors
The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.
For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.
Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.
The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.
Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.
Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.
A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.
Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.
Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.
Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.
Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.
One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.
Steve Kerr said it was the rebounding that cost the Warriors tonight:
"This is the modern NBA. Guys don't box out. It's just the way it is. Players let guys come in from the weak side. It's a disease that's rampant in the NBA."
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) April 30, 2021
Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.
Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.
The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.
The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.
Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.
Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.
Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.
While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.
Watch this Klay Thompson defense against Kyrie Irving. Sheesh pic.twitter.com/1ZmRU1VLAu
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) March 27, 2020
One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.
The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.
Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.
A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.