The Rise of the Three-pointer and Subsequent Evolution of Seven-Footers
The NBA introduced a potentially revolutionary rule change at the start of the 1979-80 season: shots made from a certain distance (ranging from 22 feet in the corners to 23.75 feet at the top of the key) would be worth three points.
The new rule didn’t have much of an impact initially and many fans and pundits didn’t think it would last.
In those early years, many teams essentially ignored the newly painted lines on the court and rarely attempted shots from downtown – other than the occasional half-court heave to close out a quarter.
For instance, the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship in 1981-82 and, over the course of the entire 82-game regular season, attempted a grand total of 94 three-pointers. They made just 13 of them attempts, or 13.8 percent. Magic Johnson led the team with six makes. They made just two more during their entire postseason run.
And it wasn’t as if the Lakers were an anomaly. Only one team in the entire league (the Indiana Pacers) made more than 100 three-pointers over the 82-game regular season in 1981-82.
Even a decade after its introduction, the three-point shot wasn’t a major difference-maker. Still, eventually, the shot started to catch on for certain teams and certain players. There were typically a few guards on each team that would be classified as ‘three-point specialists.’
Let’s fast-forward 25-plus years, shall we?
Simply put, the three-point shot has revolutionized the way today’s game is played. Consider the story of the 2016-17 Houston Rockets. At 22-8, they possess the fourth-best record in the entire league and have been one of the season’s most pleasant surprises. On a related note, they are on pace to shatter every team-related three-point record known to man.
At this time last month, no NBA team had ever attempted more than 49 threes in a single regular-season game. (The Dallas Mavericks launched 49 treys in a win over the New Jersey Nets back in March of 1996 and that record remained for more than 20 years).
Then, last month, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Rockets broke that long-standing record by attempting 50 three-pointers in a win over the Sacramento Kings. But the Rockets were just getting warmed up. Last Friday night, they broke their own newly-minted, all-time record by launching 61 three-point attempts against the New Orleans Pelicans. The next night in Minnesota, the Rockets attempted 51 triples.
Yes, in the nearly 40 years and over 45,000 games played since the NBA introduced the three-pointer, no team had ever attempted 50 treys in a single game. Then, here come the Rockets, who have now done it three times in less than a month.
It is important to note that the Rockets are not some abnormal outlier either. Many teams in today’s NBA are incredibly reliant on long-distance shooting, including many of the league’s elite contenders. The two teams that led the NBA in made three-pointers during the 2015-16 regular season were the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers – the two teams that ultimately ended up squaring off in the NBA Finals.
During that 1981-82 season discussed earlier, the league-leader in made three-pointers was a point guard named Mike Bratz. He made a total of 57 treys, tops in the NBA. Last season, 145 players made at least 60 three-pointers, including Steph Curry, who made 402.
It isn’t simply the attempts that have skyrocketed, it’s also the efficiency. In 1981-82, 21 of the 23 teams in the league shot less than 30 percent from behind-the-arc. The Pacers led the NBA in three-point percentage at 32.6 percent that season.
In 2016-17, all 30 teams are shooting above 30 percent from downtown and 29 of the 30 are shooting above 32.6 percent.
While the entire league is obviously more three-point happy than it has ever been, arguably the greatest surge can be seen in the evolution of the league’s big men.
For most of the last three decades, three-point territory remained a foreign and impenetrable land for NBA bigs. Lumbering centers and burly power forwards were instructed to run down low and camp out in the post. According to Basketball-Reference.com, over the first nine seasons of the NBA’s three-point era, from 1979-80 through 1987-88, no player listed at seven-feet or taller made more than three three-pointers in any season.
In 1988-89, Manute Bol made 20 three-pointers. Bol holds the record among seven-footers for most made three-balls in the 1980s with those 20 threes. Next on the list is Ralph Sampson, who made a grand total of eight.
Well, we now live in a different world.
The 2016-17 season is less than two months old and most teams have yet to play even 30 games; already, 10 different seven-footers have made at least 15 three-pointers at this early stage of the season.
Looking back, the evolution began in the mid-90s, as the European influences began to make their way overseas. The first seven-footer to make more than 20 three-pointers in a season was Vlade Divac of the Lakers in 1993. Then, in 1996, Portland’s Arvydas Sabonis set a new record with 49 triples.
The game continued to expand at the dawn of this century. Wang Zhizhi, by way of China, made 48 threes for the Mavs in 2003. Yi Jianlian also made 48 for the Lakers in 2009. Andrea Bargnani of Italy knocked down 100 three-pointers as a rookie in Toronto in 2007. Per Basketball-Reference, Spencer Hawes became the first American-born seven-footer to make 40 three-pointers in a single season as a Sacramento King in 2009.
Still, the true game-changer was Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, who forever revolutionized the way we view the league’s taller players. Dirk, the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history, has made 1,707 threes in his storied career, which is by far the most among all seven-footers (Bargnani is currently second with 627).
The Next Step in the Evolution
Nowitzki has averaged 95 made three-pointers per season over his 19-year career and has made more triples than any player seven feet or taller each season this decade. However, that streak will be snapped this year. Nowitzki is dealing with a nagging Achilles injury that has limited him to just five games this season.
The current leader in made three-pointers among bigs is actually a player who measures in at 7’3.
New York’s Kristaps Porzingis has knocked down 60 three-pointers this season. Memphis’ Marc Gasol ranks second (46) and Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez is third (44).
Porzingis and his contemporaries, such as Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid, represent the most recent stages of the ever-evolving big man in the NBA. They are giant sharp-shooters who are athletic and nimble enough to put the ball on the floor and create scoring opportunities for themselves and others, yet long and strong enough to guard the rim and protect the paint on the defensive end of the floor.
Porzingis played his 100th career game on Tuesday night, a victory over the Pacers at MSG. The NBA has been around for 70 years now, but we have never quite seen a player start their career the way Porzingis has. His all-around versatility separates him from the pack.
Prior to Porzingis, no player in NBA history had ever made more than 120 three-pointers and blocked more than 110 shots over the first 100 games of his career. Well, KP has obliterated that record, having already knocked down 141 three-pointers and blocked 185 shots.
Porzingis is up to 60 made three-pointers this season, which means he has more threes than noted marksmen such as Kevin Durant, Kyle Korver and his own teammate Carmelo Anthony.
He also has more blocks (51) than DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard.
Per NBA.com, Porzingis’ DFG% (what opponents are shooting at the rim when being defended by him) currently stands at 40.6 percent, which ranks first in the league among qualified players – ahead of such defensive monsters as Rudy Gobert (41.7 percent) and Hassan Whiteside (45.8).
Porzingis is averaging over two made three-pointers per game and is shooting over 39 percent from downtown. That’s a higher three-pointer percentage than James Harden, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard.
Porzingis has grabbed 213 rebounds this season, which is more boards than LeBron James, Robin Lopez and Marc Gasol.
You get the idea.
Oh, by the way, Porzingis doesn’t turn 22 years old until next August.
The New CBA Will Help Teams Re-sign Talented Bigs
Let’s continue to use Porzingis as an example. New Yorkers are obviously hopeful that they will be able to continue watching Porzingis grow and develop in as a member of the Knicks. Earlier this month, they got encouraging news.
The NBA’s new, soon-to-be ratified collective bargaining agreement is great news for Porzingis and other up-and-coming stars because it will make him a whole lot of money. But it’s also good for the Knicks, and their KP-loving fanbase, because it greatly increases the likelihood of Porzingis spending the vast majority of his career in New York.
The first impact Porzingis will see is an immediate raise, which kicks in next season. As part of the new CBA, current rookie-scale contracts get significant increases. For KP, his initial contract was set to pay him $4.5 million in 2017-18 and $5.6 million in 2018-19. Instead, he will now likely make north of $5 million next season and $7.2 million in 2018-19.
Also, Porzingis is now in line to sign a massive extension. In the summer of 2019, once he has completed four years of NBA service, he will be eligible to sign a huge extension that may be worth close to $200 million.
Star players staying with the team that drafted them through the first two contracts of their career is fairly common today, even under the current CBA, due to the financial benefits of doing so. However, what will change under the new CBA is that elite, superstar players will be highly incentivized to stay with their current team on their third contracts as well.
After seeing top-tier players such as LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and, most recently, Kevin Durant switch teams in the heart of their respective primes, the league and the players’ union set out to create a major “home-court advantage” that would entice superstars to stay put. Thus, under the new CBA, teams looking to re-sign a player will be able to offer significantly more money (not only contracts longer in length, but also a far greater percentage of the salary cap starting the very first season) than competing franchises.
The qualifications for this new designated player exception are extremely difficult to reach. As reported by our Eric Pincus, to qualify a player must be entering their eighth or ninth season and have remained with the team that drafted them. They also need to be named to any of the three All-NBA teams or as Defensive Player of the Year in either the season preceding the extension or two of the three prior seasons. It will also apply to the league’s Most Valuable Player in any of the three seasons before the extension.
This means that superstars will have every incentive to stay with their original team through their third contract and avoid testing free agency at any point in their prime.
Obviously, we are looking very far down the road, but if Porzingis does develop into the kind of All-NBA caliber player that Phil Jackson and the Knicks believe he is destined to be, the odds are now greatly increased that he will stay in New York through 2030.
Teams can now watch their seven-footers evolve and dominate in new ways without constantly worrying that their talented big man will leave as soon as free agency comes around.
NBA Daily: The Conference Final Losers’ Outlook
After being ousted over the weekend, Matt John takes a look at what went what Boston and Denver have to think about as they enter this offseason.
First off, let’s take a minute to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami HEAT for making the NBA Finals. It’s funny how this was a matchup everyone had dreamed of circa 2010 and, ironically, we finally have it – but LeBron James is on the opposite side this time! Also, it is certainly cool that this year two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year managed to work all the way up to the championships. We’ve seen NBA finalists who missed the playoffs the year prior, but we’ve never seen both sides do just that.
There will be plenty of in-depth analysis leading up to when the finals begin tonight, and you can find it anywhere easily. That won’t be found here. Here, we’re going to discuss the teams that came the closest to the final round, and some of the uncertainty they are going to face heading into next season.
Getting to the conference finals can be a big deal depending on where your team is at. For Boston and Denver, even though both are pretty young, getting to the conference finals has different gravity to both of them. Let’s explain.
Boston – So Close, Yet So Far
Should we be impressed or have cause for concern that Boston has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals? They’ve been able to do that with very differently constructed teams between all three of their appearances since 2017, but not getting over that hump after that many tries makes it less and less of a milestone.
The first two were defensible. In 2017, they were firmly in the “Just happy to be there!” camp, and, unless LeBron had all four of his limbs severed, there was no way that team was beating Cleveland. Those LeBron/Kyrie Cleveland teams were superteams overshadowed by the super-duper Warriors. With or without a healthy Isaiah Thomas, that Cavaliers team was going to roll all over them.
They definitely had a better shot the following year. The East was substantially weaker with Kyrie out of Cleveland, and Boston overachieved, but they were relying on a pair of young wings to take them not only to the finals, but to beat the best player of this generation too. The Cavaliers were definitely vulnerable, but not much can be done when inexperience is going up against arguably the most dominant version of LeBron James we’ve ever seen.
This time feels different though. Miami definitely had fewer holes – if not, none at all – that could be exploited on their roster. Even so, Boston, it seemed, had the more talented team. This was a much closer series than the final outcome made it look. It all simply came down to late-game execution. You’d think Boston’s more upfront talent would have given them the edge in that department, but the HEAT were the ones who made the big shots when it mattered.
That’s why this time, it doesn’t feel like a moral victory. This time, they are left with questions. Like, why did it take them until Game 3 to run plays through Jaylen Brown? Why is Marcus Smart taking the second-most shots in the most crucial game of the season? Should they keep their five best players if they haven’t shown they can play together? If they are serious about winning a championship, how are they going to make sure their opponents take as little advantage of Kemba’s defensive inadequacies as possible?
As disappointing as the season ended for them, Boston still has to feel good knowing that they have the league’s most talented young wing combo in the entire league and has built an excellent core around them. They could chalk up losing the conference finals to bad luck more than anything. The Bubble deprived them of playing in front of their fans. Gordon Hayward’s absence forced the team to have to exert a lot more for the majority of the playoffs than they expected to. Not to mention he clearly wasn’t 100 percent physically when he came back. Still, this was a golden opportunity to take another step forward and they blew it.
Among the multitude of reasons for why they fell short, this series also served as a subtle reminder that even in a smaller league, you can only get away with a lack of size for so long. The Celtics ran the center by committee approach about as well as they could have reasonably expected, but it was clear as day that the Celtics lacked a reliable big behind Daniel Theis. Enes Kanter and the Williams bros. all had their moments, but Brad Stevens never really trusted any of them over the long haul. They got away with that before facing Miami because Joel Embiid consistently ran out of gas, and Toronto’s frontcourt was designed more to stop elite size than to take advantage of a lack of it. Bam Adebayo killed Boston all series long on both ends of the floor (minus Game 5), and we’re only seeing the start of his potential superstar career.
With Jayson Tatum taking the leap and Jaylen Brown emerging as an elite two-way wing, the Celtics are no longer playing with house money and firmly entering the win-now phase. If their progress continues to stagnate, then some changes may be in order.
Denver – The Beginning or a Fluke?
They built this small market team from the ground up as opposed to having superstar players join forces to form a contender. There’s nothing wrong with that considering the players that do that just want a winning legacy, but seeing a team build a contender from scratch just feels purer when they make it to the top. That’s also why seeing a team like Milwaukee fail miserably in the playoffs is pretty heartbreaking.
On the surface, the Nuggets have all the ingredients in play to create both a dynasty and their most successful run as a franchise. We know that as long as they have Nikola Jokic, who has solidified himself as the best center in the league, Denver should always be near or at the very top of the Western Conference for the next decade. Although, being a top seed in the conference and being a contender can be two mutually exclusive terms.
The Nuggets’ progress has been far more encouraging than discouraging since last season. They were within inches of making the Western Conference Finals last year, and were a Mason Plumlee brain fart from potentially being up 2-1 on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray finally found his consistency. Outside of some ill-advised comments about his coach, there’s a lot to like about Michael Porter Jr. Jerami Grant’s going to get a nice paycheck this offseason. Gary Harris changed the entire landscape of Denver’s defense. Monte Morris and Paul Millsap were actually pretty reliable in the roles they were given. Oh, and they competed to the very end without one of their most important players, Will Barton.
Really, the concerns with Denver don’t pertain to them but more specifically to their surroundings. Everyone outside of presumably Oklahoma City is going to try to make the playoffs next year out West. Golden State will have a clean slate of health. As will Portland. In Year 3 of Luka, Dallas’ ceiling will only get higher. Pretty much every team that didn’t make the playoffs has room to grow, and the ones that did aren’t going to just give away their spot.
Still though, there are loose threads in Mile High City. We won’t know if Murray’s play was a young stud taking his next step into superstardom or if it was a facade from someone catching lightning in a bottle inside the Bubble. MPJ’s returns are extraordinary, but let’s see if his body can hold up long-term. What exactly are they going to do with Bol Bol?
Now that their offseason has arrived, they have to decide if they should run it back or make changes to strike while the iron is hot. History suggests that there’s no right or wrong answer. Miami did the latter mid-season, and now they’re in the finals. The Los Angeles Clippers also did the latter mid-season, and they’re sitting at home. Boston did the former, and you can argue both sides for them. Not having enough bench help hurt them, and yet a healthy Gordon Hayward could have put them in the finals.
Denver’s come along nicely since the start of the Nikola Jokic era, and they still haven’t hit their ceiling yet. What matters most is that they do everything to get to their ceiling. How they do that is the real question.
Making the conference finals is a massive stepping stone for young teams. For Boston, this was an all too familiar territory. For Denver, this was monumental. What both need to focus on is how they’re going to take it one step further next season. Or, at the very least, make sure they don’t take a step back.
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.