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NBA PM: End-of-Career Team Changes

Paul Pierce’s end-of-career team changes worked out well, but other NBA stars haven’t been so lucky.

Joel Brigham

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End-of-Career Team Changes

Most people love the idea of Paul Pierce playing with the Los Angeles Clippers this season, mostly because he’ll be reunited with Doc Rivers following a fun playoff run during which he showed he still has plenty of gas left in the tank.

With that said, it’s still weird to think of Pierce wearing Brooklyn black or Washington red, white and blue. It’ll be equally strange to see him in those silly-looking new jerseys the Clippers will wear next year. He’ll always be a Celtic to most fans, but he certainly isn’t the first great player to have a change or scenery or two in the last few years of his career.

Other stars, many of whom are now Hall-of-Famers, were not blessed with the same kinds of positive opportunities at the end of their careers. The following list is comprised of the most unfortunate late-career situations for great players. Old, washed up, but not yet ready to quit the game or give up on a hefty yearly NBA salary, these players ended up with the most depressing end-of-career team switches:

#5 – Allen Iverson, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies – It was kind of weird seeing A.I. in a Nuggets jersey, but we got used to it. The same can be said of him in a Pistons uniform. Those three games for the Grizzlies, however, never really resonated, which might be why he left the team after so short a tenure. He didn’t like his life as a bench player, so he quit. There was a bit of redemption later in 2009 as he found his way back to Philadelphia, where at least the fans were happy to see him. He never really re-gained his form, but it put those odd seasons in Detroit and Memphis in the rear-view mirror.

#4 – Moses Malone, San Antonio Spurs – San Antonio thought they’d get some bargain frontcourt help by signing a 40-year-old Malone in 1994, but he ruptured a tendon in his leg early in the season and missed all but 17 games. A solid season the year before in Philadelphia told him he still had something left to give. Seventeen games at 2.9 points per contest proved otherwise.

#3 – Hakeem Olajuwon, Toronto Raptors – In 2001, Olajuwon was unable to negotiate a new contract with the Houston Rockets because the championship years were clearly over for them at that point and Steve Francis had just won Rookie of the Year the previous season. It was time to rebuild, but The Dream wasn’t ready to quit basketball. He ended up getting a reasonable deal to play one final season in Canada, where he averaged career-lows of 7.1 points and six rebounds for the Raptors.

#2 – Bob Cousy, Cincinnati Royals– Cousy couldn’t have asked for a better send-out to his NBA career, retiring at age 35 after having won six NBA championships and an MVP trophy as a member of the Boston Celtics. Six years later, however, he was offered a job to coach the Cincinnati Royals, and as a ruse to boost ticket sales, Cousy hit the court once again at age 41. He barely played, but ticket sales jumped 77 percent. He undoubtedly made some great money in those final games in Ohio, but the price paid was a couple sacks of dignity. But if we can pretend like Michael Jordan’s Washington stint never happened, we can surely strike this Cousy stuff from the record too, right?

#1 – Patrick Ewing, Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic – In making a pretty atrocious trade that returned the New York Knicks Glen Rice, Luc Longley and a bunch of garbage, the Knicks gave up on a roster centered around Ewing by sending him to Seattle. A year later, the Sonics decided they didn’t really need Ewing, either, so he finished his career with the Magic, wearing No. 6 (Grant Hill had No. 33 at the time) and stinking up the joint. He ended up averaging career lows of six points and four rebounds that season and started only four out of the 65 games he played.

What makes this the worst is that nobody wanted or needed one of the best centers of his era at his age. In other situations, the guys were given a shot by a team who still really believed there was gas in the tank, and often the veteran star knew what his new role on the team will be. Ewing never really had that after leaving New York and Seattle, which is part of what made it so sad. At least he’s been able to see some success as a coach, though he’s still waiting for his first opportunity for a head gig.

Honorable Mention:

Dominique Wilkins, Orlando Magic – After the 1994-95 season, the market for ‘Nique was so bad that he actually had to take his talents to Greece and later Italy. His last playing season, however, was with the NBA’s Magic, where he played in only 27 games and averaged a meager five points and 2.6 rebounds per game. At least he got to play that final season with his brother, Gerald.

Dave Bing, Washington Bullets and Boston Celtics – An all-time favorite in the minds of long-time Pistons fans, Bing spent his last three seasons split between the Bullets and Celtics. His scoring and assist numbers dropped considerably those last couple of seasons, but Bing was still a respectable role player.

Tiny Archibald, Milwaukee Bucks – After his Celtics were swept in the playoffs by the Bucks in 1983, that’s who Archibald decided to sign his final NBA contract with. He played 46 games with Milwaukee that season, averaging single-digit scoring numbers for the first and only time of his career before retiring mid-season.

Dave Cowens, Milwaukee Bucks – After retiring from the Boston Celtics in 1980, Cowens took a couple of years off before being goaded by buddy Don Nelson into returning for one more run, this time with the Bucks. He played in only 40 games that season, putting up the worst numbers of his professional life. With that said, he did manage to sweep Boston out of the postseason. After getting bumped in the next round, Cowens retired for good.

George Gervin, Chicago Bulls – The Iceman came to the NBA with the rest of the ABA studs in 1976 and saw a ton of success (particularly scoring the ball—few have ever done it with as much ease as Gervin) with the San Antonio Spurs. His final year in the NBA, however, was with the Chicago Bulls, who were grooming reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Jordan at the time. Luckily for Gervin (but not for Jordan), MJ broke his foot that season and missed all but 18 games, giving The Iceman the opportunity to still be productive. Had Jordan played all year, who knows how frustrating that final season would have been for Gervin? After that final year in the NBA, he played four more seasons in Europe and did quite well on the court, even if some issues with substance abuse plagued him during his time in Italy.

Karl Malone, L.A. Lakers – The man wanted a ring before he retired, and he gave it a good shot. He really did. But if he wasn’t going to win a championship, it would’ve been nice if he could’ve retired ringless in Salt Lake City.

Robert Parish, Chicago Bulls – Brought in to give Michael Jordan’s 1997 Bulls a little extra size off the bench, a 43-year-old Parish hardly played but did earn himself the unique distinction of having played on championship teams with both Jordan and Larry Bird. He did get his fourth ring out of the deal; he just looked as though he’d snap in half like a dusty twig any time he got into the game. In and of itself, a little depressing, but there was certainly more good than harm done in The Chief’s last go-round as a professional basketball player.

For some players, these end-of-career team changes go well and they have a lot of success. For others, it’s a part of their biography they wish they could remove.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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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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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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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.

Honorable Mentions:

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.

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NBA

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.

Matt John

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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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