8 Young Players Poised for a Bigger Role
It’s August and that means NBA teams are for the most part finished making major offseason moves. By now, each team has a good idea of what their roster will look like this year.
One thing that’s becoming clear is that a number of relatively young players seem poised to take on an increased role in the upcoming season. Today, we take a look at eight young players (age 25 or younger) who will be asked to do significantly more for their respective team in the 2015-16 campaign.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers – Yes, Lillard has been a huge contributor for the Blazers since entering the NBA in 2012. He has improved in each of his first three seasons and received accolades every year of his career – from Rookie of the Year to an All-NBA selection to two All-Star appearances.
However, this season he’ll be asked to take on many more responsibilities (on and off the court) since veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo are no longer in Portland. After all of the changes to the Blazers’ roster this summer, it’s clear that Lillard will be the top option on offense as well as the leader of this young team.
“We went full board with guys on the same career arc as Damian Lillard,” Blazers general manager Neil Olshey told Basketball Insiders during the Las Vegas Summer League. “Damian is our best player right now. He’s a two-time All-Star and we are going to bring in players that complement [his] skill set.”
This summer, Portland added a number of young players who fit that description. They acquired Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Gerald Henderson and Maurice Harkless among others because they believe those players can grow alongside Lillard going forward.
All eyes will be on Lillard to see how he responds to shouldering a bigger load and adjusting to the new supporting cast. There’s no question that he’s the Blazers’ centerpiece and his play will in large part determine what happens next for the franchise.
Fortunately for Portland, their 25-year-old floor general has a terrific work ethic and maturity well beyond his years, not to mention the tremendous skills that allowed him to become one of the NBA’s best point guards in recent years. If Lillard’s 2014-15 averages (21 points, 6.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals) are any indication, he’s ready for this increased role and may deliver a monster 2015-16 campaign.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons – Around this time last year, all signs pointed to Drummond having a breakout 2014-15 season. New head coach Stan Van Gundy wanted to make him a focal point and surround him with shooters (similar to how he used Dwight Howard when they were in Orlando). Also, Drummond was coming off of a sophomore campaign in which he averaged 13.5 points (on 62.3 percent shooting from the field), 13.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals. In the final month of his second season, he averaged 18.4 points (on 64.2 shooting percent from the field) and 17.4 rebounds.
Pistons fans were understandably excited and expected Drummond to be one of the best centers in the NBA in his third season. However, the big man didn’t show as much progress as they hoped. While his numbers were still very solid – 13.8 points (on 51.4 percent from the field), 13.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks – they weren’t the jaw-dropping stats some anticipated.
However, it’s important to note that Drummond is still just 21 years old so he still has a ton of potential and room for growth. And with Greg Monroe and Josh Smith no longer in Detroit’s frontcourt, Drummond should take on a bigger load and get more touches. That already started this past season, as he attempted a career-high 11.7 shots per game (and 13.3 attempts per game after the All-Star break).
Van Gundy has also added a number of players who complement Drummond well. The biggest addition is stretch-four Ersan Ilyasova, who Detroit acquired from Milwaukee in exchange for Caron Butler and Shawne Williams. The 28-year-old power forward has shot 37 percent from three-point range for his career and he should create additional space for Drummond (similar to how Van Gundy used Ryan Anderson alongside Howard in Orlando). In addition to Ilyasova, Detroit also acquired shooters like Reggie Bullock, Marcus Morris and Steve Blake this summer.
Once again, Drummond seems poised to take that next step in his development. Adjusting to a new coach and system can be difficult and take some time, especially for a young player, which may explain why he didn’t have a breakout campaign last year. Now, with some internal growth and Van Gundy putting him in position to succeed in a big way, this could be the year Drummond takes a step toward becoming one of the NBA’s top big men.
Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks made one of the biggest additions of the summer when they signed Monroe to a three-year, $50 million deal. Monroe was a highly coveted free agent who spurned a number of big-market teams to join Milwaukee – a move that was initially shocking, but one that makes a lot of sense from a basketball standpoint when you consider Monroe’s game and the Bucks’ roster.
Milwaukee has assembled a team of long, versatile, defensive-minded players. They had the second-best defense in the NBA last season, behind only the Golden State Warriors, as they allowed just 99.3 points per 100 possessions.
But while they’re excellent on defense, they struggle on the other end of the floor. The Bucks finished last season ranked 25th in the NBA in offense (scoring just 100.5 points per 100 possessions) and they really lacked a player who could create their own shot, especially once Jabari Parker tore his ACL. Monroe is a perfect fit for Milwaukee because he’s a skilled big man who can score the ball. They are bringing back all of their terrific young defenders and adding a 25-year-old big man who has averaged at least 15 points in each of the last four seasons. By the way, Monroe’s 15 points per game would’ve led the Bucks last year since Michael Carter-Williams was their top scorer at 14.1 PPG. Consider how well Milwaukee fared last year with Zaza Pachulia (a decent veteran) as their starting center; now, throw in Monroe at the five (where he prefers to play) and you can expect them to make a significant jump in the Eastern Conference standings.
Had the Bucks not made any notable offseason moves, they still likely would’ve shown improvement since they will get Parker back from the torn ACL that caused him to miss all but 25 games last year and they expect internal growth from their young core of Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson among others. But rather than stand pat, the Bucks added a franchise-changing big man in Monroe as well as veterans like Greivis Vasquez and Chris Copeland along with their first-round pick Rashad Vaughn.
Monroe leaves behind a Pistons team where he wasn’t a great fit alongside Andre Drummond (and previously Josh Smith) for a Bucks supporting cast that is perfect for him. Expect Monroe to have a career-year and be one of Milwaukee’s top options on the offensive end. It’s also very possible that Monroe will make his postseason debut this season since it’s hard to imagine the Bucks dropping out of the East’s top eight.
Otto Porter, Washington Wizards – In recent years, Porter hasn’t had to take on a big role with the Washington Wizards since they had very talented veteran small forwards like Trevor Ariza and Paul Pierce on the roster. However, Pierce bolted to the Los Angeles Clippers this offseason, which opens up the starting job for the 22-year-old Porter.
The Wizards have taken things very slowly since drafting Porter with the third overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. They eased him into a significant role, playing him just 8.6 minutes per game as a rookie and then 19.4 minutes a night as a sophomore.
Now, entering his third season, he has an opportunity to be a real difference-maker for Washington. Last year, Porter averaged six points, three rebounds and .6 steals in his limited minutes while shooting 45 percent from the field and 33.7 percent from three-point range.
However, he did show glimpses of brilliance on both ends of the floor throughout the campaign. In his eight games as the Wizards’ starting small forward last year, he averaged 12.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range. Also, Porter really elevated his game in the postseason, averaging 10 points, eight rebounds and 1.2 steals in the 10 playoff games he appeared in.
Washington did add some veteran wings this summer in Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson, but Porter will likely start and have a much more significant role. Learning from Ariza and Pierce seems to have really helped him and his strong play in the postseason was good for his confidence. Now, after two years of limited action compared to the other top picks in his class, it’s time for the Wizards to unleash Porter and see what he can do.
Brandon Knight, Phoenix Suns – The Suns clearly value Knight a lot, as evidenced by the fact that they dealt Tyler Ennis, Miles Plumlee and the Los Angeles Lakers’ protected 2015 first-round pick for him at last year’s trade deadline. That Lakers’ top-five protected pick was a huge asset, yet the Suns decided to go all in on Knight after parting ways with Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. This summer, Phoenix locked Knight up on a five-year deal worth $70 million, which is the exact same deal that Eric Bledsoe signed with the Suns last offseason. As is the case with Bledsoe, Knight now must live up to that deal and continue to expand his game.
Not only does he have a big contract, he has a key role as the point guard in head coach Jeff Hornacek’s system. He’s an extremely important part of this team’s attack and Phoenix needs him to play at a high level in order for them to reach their full potential.
Last year, Knight only appeared in 11 games (nine starts) for the Suns due to an ankle injury. Prior to the trade, he was playing the best basketball of his career with the Bucks. In the first half of last season, Knight averaged 17.8 points (on 43.5 percent from the field), 5.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Phoenix is betting on the 23-year-old and hoping that he can produce at that same level, or better, in their backcourt alongside Bledsoe.
One area where Knight must improve is his shooting; he shot just 35.7 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from three-point range in his 11 games with Phoenix – both of which were career-lows. He is a career 41.7 percent shooter – a number he could certainly stand to improve, especially now that he has other weapons around him and isn’t forcing shots like he sometimes had to do earlier in his career.
Knight has never been to the playoffs and this is really the first time he has entered a season with realistic postseason aspirations. The Suns are hoping to climb into the Western Conference’s top eight and they made a number of win-now moves this summer such as adding veterans like Tyson Chandler (32 years old), Sonny Weems (29), Mirza Teletovic (29) and Ronnie Price (32). Phoenix will need Knight to step up and form a powerful one-two punch with Bledsoe if they want to achieve that goal. Knight, who played for three teams in his first four NBA seasons, has found a home and will have every opportunity to succeed in Phoenix’s guard-oriented attack.
Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic – A number of Magic players could’ve made this list. It could have been Victor Oladipo, who played very well toward the end of last season (averaging 20.3 points, 4.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals after the All-Star break). It could have been Nikola Vucevic, who led Orlando in points (19.3) and rebounds (10.9) last year while finishing fifth in the NBA in double-doubles (45).
However, Oladipo and Vucevic already played a huge role for the Magic last season and will be asked to do much of the same this year. The player who seems poised to take on a significantly bigger role is Harris. After inking a four-year deal worth $64 million, the 24-year-old is now the highest-paid player on the Magic roster (by a lot), and he does exactly what Orlando desperately needs: puts up points and creates his own shot.
Orlando lacks shooters in their starting lineup. Their backcourt of Oladipo and Elfrid Payton is outstanding on defense and insanely athletic, but both players have a jump-shot that is very much a work in progress. The same can be said for fellow lottery pick Aaron Gordon, who will likely get more playing time in his sophomore season.
This is why Harris may be asked to do more this season. The Magic need someone who can knock down shots; they ranked 27th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions last year. Sure, they dump the ball down to Vucevic in the paint quite a bit, but having a perimeter scorer who can create their own shot is important. In Harris’ 63 games as a starter last season, he averaged 17.6 points while shooting 47.4 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from three-point range.
Orlando would love to see Harris take smarter shots, be a bit more unselfish and improve on the defensive end, but he’s still developing. It’s easy to forget that Harris just turned 23 years old in July. New head coach Scott Skiles will stress those things and try to help Harris reach his full potential (and, for the record, both men insist they’re on good terms even though Harris barely played under Skiles in Milwaukee). There’s a belief that a number of Magic players weren’t used 100 percent correctly under former head coach Jacque Vaughn (and then interim coach James Borrego), so it’ll be very interesting to see how the team’s core performs this year. Harris is entering his fifth season in the NBA and, if everything goes right, this could be a breakout campaign for the forward.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers – At 25 years old, George’s résumé already includes two All-Star appearances, two All-NBA selections and an All-Defensive First Team nod. He has emerged as one of the game’s best two-way perimeter players, filling up the stat sheet on a nightly basis, so it may seem strange to see him on this list.
However, this season, the Pacers will be asking George to carry the team more than ever before. He is their best player on both ends of the floor, and it’s not particularly close. Whether he’s playing small forward or some power forward (as Larry Bird and Frank Vogel have said), Indiana will only go as far as George takes them.
Indiana has reconstructed their team this summer. After keeping the same core intact in recent years, the Pacers enter the 2015-16 season without key starters Roy Hibbert and David West. George Hill is Indiana’s only other returning starter (aside from George). Replacing Hibbert and West’s on-court production will be tough enough, but George will also have to step up off the court. West, in particular, was considered the heart and soul of the Pacers and he was a terrific leader and locker room presence. Now, as the team’s superstar, George will have to fill those shoes.
Last year, George’s ascent to superstardom came to a brief halt due to the gruesome right leg fracture that caused him to miss 76 games (and the Pacers missed the playoffs, showing just how important he is to the team). Fellow players have said that George has looked outstanding in his offseason workouts out in Los Angeles, which is a great sign. He’s expected to be back to 100 percent by the start of the season.
Without Hibbert, West and Scola in the frontcourt, it’s understandable why Bird and Vogel want to experiment with some small-ball lineups. The Pacers did make some additions, including Monta Ellis, Myles Turner, Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger. But George is clearly the key to Indiana returning to contention and he’ll be doing more heavy lifting than in the past.
Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder – Kanter’s max deal with the Thunder was one of the more surprising contracts of the summer. Portland extended the four-year, $70 million deal to the 23-year-old big man and Oklahoma City matched. As has been discussed quite a bit, the Thunder felt they had to re-sign Kanter since they’re going all in on this season and must send the right message to Kevin Durant before he hits free agency next summer. They may have overpaid the big man because their hand was forced, but now it’s on Kanter to play up to his max deal and prove the Thunder made the right decision. He’s going to be a very important piece for this team and his play could be a huge factor in determining just how far Oklahoma City goes this season.
Oklahoma City acquired Kanter from Utah at last year’s trade deadline and he posted impressive numbers in his 26 games with the Thunder. He started every game and averaged career-highs in points (18.7), field goal percentage (56.6 percent), rebounds (11), blocks (.5) and steals (.5).
At first glance, it may seem like a no-brainer to give a big contract to a 23-year-old center with those stats and offensive skills. However, Kanter’s issues have always been on the other end of the floor. Last year, Kanter was ranked 469th out of 474 NBA players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (-3.87). He finished the season as the worst defensive center in the NBA (including reserves) based on DRPM. Utah became the best defensive team in the NBA after parting ways with Kanter. Starting Rudy Gobert (who I considered for this list but ultimately left off since he took on a huge role last year) obviously affected those numbers, but there’s no question Kanter had been a liability on that end.
Kanter admitted to not giving maximum effort at times with the Jazz (which likely affected his defensive production) and there were red flags about his attitude too. These kind of things are concerning to hear about a player, especially one who just got a max deal. Now that he got paid, will he continue to work as hard and produce like he did in the second half of last season?
Oklahoma City is hoping that Kanter will be more focused than ever now that he’s on a contender rather than a perennial lottery team. They’re also betting on Kanter’s offensive talent making up for his defensive struggles, and that putting Serge Ibaka alongside him in the frontcourt can help hide his deficiencies a bit. It remains to be seen how this will all work out, but there’s no question that Kanter will have an increased role (on a much bigger stage) than in previous years since he’s now one of the highest-paid players on one of the league’s best teams.
New Episode of the Basketball Insiders Podcast
If you missed it, a new episode of the Basketball Insiders podcast dropped last night. Alex Kennedy and Jesse Blancarte discuss which NBA teams enter next season with the highest sense of urgency, the state of the Los Angeles Clippers, and answer your #InsidersPodcast questions.
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.
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