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NBA PM: Correcting Draft Mistakes

Teams make draft mistakes (like passing on Skal Labissiere 27 times), but we’re righting Thursday’s biggest wrongs.

Joel Brigham

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It never fails. Every NBA draft, there are a handful of moments that make the people watching shake their heads in disbelief, but this year it seemed as though there were more questionable draft picks than usual. Those surprises are obviously a big reason why this particular NBA event is so entertaining to watch, but thanks to what many considered to be a pretty flat class of potential draftees after the top couple of tiers, as well as the recent success of international stud Kristaps Porzingis, teams felt the need to gamble on a lot of international players in spots that didn’t always make a whole lot of sense.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and anybody who’s ever done a live fantasy basketball or football draft with their friends knows how easy it is to get caught up in the moment and just flat-out pick the wrong guy. Going back over the draft results not 10 minutes after the thing ends, we have zero issues finding holes in our draft results. It’s a whole lot of, “I can’t believe I did that when I could have done this.”

But that’s what we’re doing here, looking at some of the most surprising and questionable picks of the 2016 NBA Draft and making a serious attempt at giving the offending teams a better shot at making the right choice.

These picks may turn out just fine and be more valuable than the experts expect, and the guys we think would have been the better players may turn out to be huge disappointments. We don’t know, but the general hoops fandom does understand how their favorite teams can minimize risk without sacrificing ceiling. The following corrected draft picks do exactly that for the teams that made the most shocking picks on draft night.

#10 Milwaukee Bucks

What they did: Draft Thon Maker

What they should have done: Draft Skal Labissiere

It’s pretty clear that the Milwaukee Bucks have a draft philosophy that involves taking the longest, most athletic player possible with the hope that they will turn into something as special as Giannis Antetokounmpo has become. That’s where the 7’1 Maker fits into the Bucks’ plan moving forward, but that doesn’t mean this pick wasn’t a massive risk anyway. In fact, in my last mock draft before the real thing on Thursday, I predicted that the Bucks would draft Skal Labissiere in their apparent effort to snag an athletic, long big with sky-high potential. I would contend that Labissiere, while still a gamble, would have been a safer one than Maker, even though both fit the same general profile.

For one, there are questions about Maker’s actual age (is he 19, or closer to 23?), but more importantly, Labissiere is only about seven months removed from being projected among the players considered for the top overall pick in this draft. His first season at Kentucky was beyond disappointing, but there may have been reasons for that. It is much too early to give up on his talent, especially considering his age, as John Calipari isn’t always the easiest guy to play for. Jason Kidd would have been much better for him, and Skal would have been much safer for Milwaukee.

Maker’s an easy guy to get excited about, but Labissiere would have been even more so, especially that high in the draft.

#13 Sacramento Kings

What they did: Draft Georgios Papagiannis

What they should have done: Draft Wade Baldwin.

The trade to move down wasn’t a bad deal. There’s a chance that Sacramento could lose their first-round pick next year, and getting Bogdan Bogdanovic for 2017-2018 would sort of be like getting a lottery-level rookie for that season regardless of what else happens. Marquese Chriss was the “best” player on the board at #8, but he’s a huge risk and trading down to make the most of Phoenix’s adoration of him actually was a pretty savvy move considering everything they got back for that selection.

Picking Papagiannis at #13, though, was the wrong way to go, not because the 7’2 Greek superhuman isn’t talented, but because the Kings had a lot of other needs beyond their frontcourt that they still haven’t solved. Further frustrating DeMarcus Cousins, who tweeted, “Lord, give me the strength” following that draft pick, makes the Papagiannis reach an even more frustrating selection. Whatever we can do to make Boogie even angrier, right?

Nabbing Labissiere at No. 28 was a steal regardless of what else happens as a result of this trade, but at No. 13 the Kings could have selected a much-needed point guard. It just so happens there was a really good one in Wade Baldwin sitting right there for them to snag, and in my last mock, I actually had the Kings taking Baldwin at No. 8, a bit of a reach but a testament to how good I think he is and how much he would have helped Sacramento. Taking a center when they already have the best big man in the league and another center in Willie Cauley-Stein that they drafted last year with a top-six selection is flat-out ridiculous, and that was a good window for a kid as talented as Baldwin.

#16 Boston Celtics

What they did: Draft Geurschon Yabusele

What they should have done: Draft Henry Ellenson

Fran Fraschilla called Yabusele the “French Larry Johnson” on the ESPN broadcast of the draft on Thursday, which is great and everything, but we’ve seen European versions of other superstars drafted in the past that more often than not didn’t come anywhere close to their comparisons. (Remember Sofoklis “Baby Shaq” Schortsanitis?) The Celtics obviously were not going to roster three first-rounders next season, so one of them inevitably was going to be a draft-and-stash. But with the talent on the board at pick No. 16, they could have taken a win-now kid and used No. 23 to pick among the remaining available international kids. Furkan Korkmaz, for example, was still there.

So while Yabusele may end up being just fine whenever the Celtics do eventually bring him over, using this pick on Henry Ellenson, who unexpectedly dropped out of the lottery, would have been a much better use of the selection. While Boston already boasts a pretty loaded frontcourt, Ellenson does the sorts of things out of the four spot that Brad Stephens loves, making the Marquette product a pretty good fit with the Celtics that could even allow them to more easily trade other frontcourt players like Jared Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk should someone like Jimmy Butler eventually become available. Danny Ainge has developed a reputation for taking some wild risks in the draft the last few years, but this one is perhaps the wildest, especially considering the high-level talent that was still on the board when he made this pick.

#26 Philadelphia 76ers

What they did: Draft Furkan Korkmaz

What they should have done: Draft Tyler Ulis

Nothing against Korkmaz, who frankly was value this late in the first round, but his selection was the most Sam Hinkie thing ever—odd, considering the organization literally just fired Hinkie for making too many moves exactly like this one. Korkmaz isn’t expected to play in the NBA this year, making him an odd draft-and-stash for a team that ostensibly looks prepared to turn a corner and start competing more seriously this season.

Adding a real point guard would have helped them do that, and Ulis at this spot would have been a slick pick for a team looking to start winning some games. While he is undersized, smaller guards certainly have seen success in the NBA before and Ulis is a winner who deserved a first-round slot. Going into the season with Ulis and Timothe Luwawu to complement Ben Simmons would have been a tremendous haul, and if any team was going to bring in three first-round picks to actually play this season, Philly would be the organization to accommodate the youth movement. Are they afraid there won’t be enough roster spots to accommodate a constant stream of D-Leaguers if they bring in too many rookies?

#27 Toronto Raptors

What they did: Draft Pascal Siakam

What they should have done: Draft Deyonta Davis

For those that know nothing about Siakam, he’s a rebounder, which along with the Jakob Poeltl pick proves just how little the Toronto front office believes they’ll be retaining Bismack Biyombo this offseason. Still, the Raptors could have bolstered their frontcourt in a much more substantial way by selecting Davis, a one-and-done freshman out of Michigan State that looks like he was custom made in a lab to play the four in today’s NBA.

Offensively Davis is still a bit of a project, but he’s a defensive monster and has the potential to develop into something special someday. Perhaps that’s why a whole lot of mock drafts had him projected as a lottery pick. That he slipped to the second round is still a bit of a shock and a shame when so many less-touted talents like Siakam went ahead of him. While this may not be Bruno Caboclo all over again, it brought just as big a gasp of “Huh? Who?” from the Toronto fandom, and considering how well that other pick has worked out so far, one would think Masai Ujiri would have learned to play things a little safer.

The Raptors could have stuck with a philosophy to draft a big in taking Davis, who would appear to have a significantly higher ceiling than just about anybody left in the draft at this point. Skal Labissiere would have been a perfectly appropriate selection here, as well. And, while he isn’t a big, no Raps fan would have complained about Dejounte Murray either.

***

It’s impossible for every team to get everything right on draft night. Otherwise we’d never get to read those endlessly entertaining “Re-Draft” articles that put players on different teams in order of their eventual success.

Still, it’s easy for fans of certain teams to get frustrated about the way things played out when so many things could have gone differently. All there is to do now is keep your fingers crossed and hope all these gambles work out the way these front offices hoped they would.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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