Examining the Western Conference All-Star Landscape
The starters for the 2015 All-Star game were announced on Thursday evening, and this morning Lang Greene discussed how the fans did voting for the Eastern Conference starters, and what that now means for the East reserves to be selected soon by the league’s 30 head coaches.
That of course leads to a conversation about the Western Conference All-Stars, which already has proven to be very interesting with Kobe Bryant in the starting lineup (for now) and Kevin Durant out of it.
Did the Fans Get the All-Star Voting Right for the West?
As is typical every year, the All-Star voters put together an interesting mix of highly-intelligent voting and borderline silly omission, with this year’s most egregious error coming in the form of 36-year-old Kobe Bryant.
Bryant, selected to start in the backcourt alongside MVP candidate Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, is not having his finest season by a longshot. The Lakers, for starters, are among the worst teams in the NBA, and the statistics show that they’re actually a more efficient team when Bryant is off the floor than when he is on it. Their offensive efficiency is 4.1 points lower when Kobe’s on the floor, while their defensive efficiency is actually 9.8 points better when he’s on the bench. Bryant is 74th in the league in PER and 361st in win shares.
In short, he’s not having a landmark season, but Rockets shooting guard James Harden is. Harden is currently leading the league in points per game and win shares, is second in PER and third in real plus-minus. By nearly every advanced metric, he’s a candidate for MVP of the entire league, so fans failing to vote him in as one of the five best players in his conference seems a little ridiculous. He should have started alongside Curry rather than Bryant, without question.
This, of course, is what will likely happen now that Bryant is reportedly out for the rest of the season due to his torn rotator cuff. The Lakers haven’t announced that Bryant will undergo surgery, but multiple reports have indicated that he will and his 2014-15 campaign is over. Harden seems like the no-brainer replacement for Bryant. Even still, it’s just odd that the same millions of fans who acknowledged Curry’s MVP-caliber season by making him the leading vote getter overall also failed to acknowledge Harden’s MVP-caliber season with at least enough votes to top Bryant.
As far as the frontcourt is concerned, it’s hard to argue with Blake Griffin, Marc Gasol and Anthony Davis rounding out the starting lineup. All three guys earned their votes. Although it’ll be interesting to see who has to play some small forward since all three are big men.
Who Are the Likely Reserves?
Who else will get onto the Western Conference team as a reserve? Here’s a look at the likely choices:
It’s interesting that Bryant was popular enough through a down season to earn a starting nod, but Durant, the reigning MVP and easily one of the league’s most beloved and marketable superstars, was not. While it’s true that Durant only has 19 games under his belt, those 19 games have been played at an MVP level and the fans could have easily voted him in.
The question now is whether the coaches will think Durant has put in enough work to make the 2015 All-Star team. Back in December, Basketball Insiders staff did not unanimously include him among their picks for reserves; only three of the five voters put him among the final seven spots on the Western Conference squad.
Since late December, however, Durant has gotten his minutes back up and looks like the dominant guy he’s been his entire career. Chances are pretty good he gets a nod as a reserve, even with so few games under his belt this season. He’s a cornerstone of the sport, so to exclude him would make the event feel empty somehow, especially with the momentum he’s built for himself the last few weeks.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
For all of the reasons listed above, Harden is a shoe-in. The fans didn’t vote him in, but the coaches absolutely will.
DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
Clearly in the midst of a breakout season, Cousins is averaging career-highs with 24 PPG, 12,7 RPG and 1.7 BPG. That puts him fourth in the league in scoring, third in the league in rebounding and 11th in the league in blocks. There’s no way this kid doesn’t make his first All-Star appearance this winter.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers are having an outstanding year, leading the Northwest Division by a wide margin, and with LaMarcus Aldridge now sidelined for six-to-eight weeks with an injured thumb, Lillard is the obvious choice to represent them in the All-Star game. He’s having an All-Star season anyway, averaging 22.1 PPG (10th in the NBA) and 6.2 APG (15th in the NBA), so while it seems like there are half a million elite point guards in the West, Lillard has been good enough this season to stand out among them.
Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers
Still one of the best point guards in the NBA, Paul is third in the league in assists (9.8 APG) and has a way of making All-Star games incredibly fun. For the sake of the game, let’s hope he gets in over an amazing crop of Western Conference point guards this year. Guys like Mike Conley and Tony Parker are plenty deserving, but Paul has done nothing to rescind his perennial All-Star crown to either of those guys.
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
The honorary aged veteran spot could just as easily go to Dirk Nowitzki, who’s helping lead an awesome resurgence in Dallas, but the ageless Duncan gets a slight nod for no particular reason. He is averaging 14.7 PPG and 10.0 RPG (his highest average in five years), but flip a coin. It could be either guy here, especially considering Dallas is having the better season.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
The last wild card spot is nearly impossible to fill considering the remaining players who could all reasonably put in that spot, but based on the Warriors’ success and the incredible breakout season by Thompson, who is averaging career-highs essentially across the board, he’s the big winner over some undeniably deserving competition. What a tough vote in the West this year. So many good players aren’t going to make it in simply because of math.
Who Are the Likely Snubs for the Western Conference?
And, as always, there are deserving players left off of the team. It’s worth noting that two of these players could be added to the team as injury replacements (select by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver) for Kobe Bryant and LaMarcus Aldridge. Here are the nastiest snubs should the aforementioned players end up being the ones voted in by coaches:
LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers
Speaking of Aldridge, there’s actually a chance that he gets voted in over Duncan based on merit, despite the fact that he won’t actually play in the game and Duncan will likely take his spot eventually anyway. He’s sixth in scoring and 11th in rebounding for a killer Portland team, so the only way he doesn’t make it in is if the coaches consider the injury. Hopefully he’ll get the honor, even though he’ll likely have to miss the game due to the injury.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Some point guard has to lose out here, and while Westbrook is doing all the same stuff he always has, Oklahoma City just isn’t getting two guys in this year with all the talent involved, particularly not two guys that have each failed to play at least 30 games to this point. The reigning MVP Durant will probably be the Thunder player representing OKC this winter, which leaves Westbrook out in the cold.
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
It’s such a shame because Conley is having an unbelievable individual season for a good Memphis team, but like Westbrook, he may not make it because there are just too many good point guards in the mix this year. Throw Tony Parker and Monta Ellis into this category, too. So many good players with just no shot at making it in.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
If Duncan’s out, Nowitzki’s likely in, but we’ll be talking about one of these guys as a snub once the reserves are announced. Like Duncan, Dirk keeps getting older but still remains relevant. It will be interesting to see which player starts to slow down first (if they ever do – it’s possible these guys are robots).
Who do you expect to make the Western Conference team as reserves? Hit up the comments section or keep the conversation alive on Twitter. The actual reserves will be announced on Jan. 29.
Seattle Mayor Thinks Team Isn’t Coming Any Time Soon
The annual storyline of Seattle getting an NBA team back somehow is a beacon of hope for those living in the Great Northwest, but according to Seattle mayor Ed Murray, it doesn’t sound as though this particular beacon should remain lit, at least not for the next few years.
“[The NBA’s] official line, and I think they’re being straightforward with me, is a city grabbing a team or a new [expansion] franchise at this point is not, in their mind, something they see happening,’’ Murray told the Seattle Times following a meeting with NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Monday. “They actually expressed to me that they felt expectations in Seattle had been raised that weren’t consistent with what they had been sharing about a path to get there within the next few years.’’
That’s not great news for Seattle since the Chris Hansen ownership group has a memorandum of understanding with the city to help fund a new arena that could potentially run out by the time some team does look ready to relocate.
“I worry that it may not happen,’’ Murray said. “I worry that both councils will not go the full way toward approving this [arena] if there is no team. If it’s two or three years away, this will run out in 2017 and the whole thing will have to start over again.’’
That doesn’t necessarily mean that basketball will never return to Seattle, but it does appear as though Silver isn’t under the impression any team will be moving to Washington state in the near future. Also, it doesn’t look like Silver is interested in going the expansion route either, as it’s very unlikely the current 30 owners would enjoy splitting revenue with another team or two.
In short, the Seattle think isn’t on the horizon at the moment, and it might be a few more years before it is.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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