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NBA PM: This is Isaiah Thomas’ Time to Shine

Isaiah Thomas is arguably the Celtics’ best player and is finally in the spotlight after being underrated for years.

Alex Kennedy

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The 2014-15 NBA season featured quite a few trades prior to the February deadline. Oftentimes, there are plenty of rumors, but only a few notable deals that actually occur. But last year, there were transactions involving Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Green, Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith and Michael Carter-Williams among others.

Perhaps that’s why the Boston Celtics’ move to acquire Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Marcus Thornton and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-round pick flew under the radar a bit. After all, it wasn’t even the biggest trade that Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made that afternoon since he also dealt Dragic and acquired Knight in two other deals.

However, it was a huge trade for the Celtics. Since putting on that green and white jersey, Thomas has been remarkably productive and emerged as Boston’s best player. That may seem like a strange statement considering Thomas hasn’t started a single game for Boston, but he was fantastic after the change of scenery and the fact that he produced at such a high level as a reserve makes his stats even more impressive.

IsaiahThomas_CelticsInside3Coming off of the bench in his 21 regular season games with Boston, Thomas averaged 19 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 26 minutes a night. He played a huge role in Boston’s late-season playoff push and helped them land the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with 40 wins – all while he was still getting acclimated to his new teammates, city, coaching staff and more.

Thomas even made history last season, becoming the first NBA player ever to average at least 16 points and four assists despite playing fewer than 26 minutes per game.

Once the playoffs started, Thomas continued to play well in the Celtics’ series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even though it was his first time competing in the postseason, Thomas averaged 17.5 points, seven assists and three rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game. He had a 22-point, 10-assist, five-rebound performance in Game 1 as well as a 21-point, nine-assist, five-rebound outing in Game 4. The Celtics were swept by Cleveland, but it was a good learning experience for their young squad.

“The playoffs were huge for us, even though we got swept by a great Cavaliers team,” Thomas said. “It was a confidence builder for us because nobody expected us to be there and nobody expected us to compete against them the way that we did. As a young team, that helps our confidence a lot. It also lets us see where we are as a team [compared to one of the NBA’s top contenders].”

After a strong offseason in which the Celtics added David Lee, Amir Johnson, Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter among others, Thomas is confident Boston can be even better.

“This year, our goal is to make the playoffs at least and then build from there,” Thomas said. “We want to go even further than we did last year, winning a couple of games and hopefully winning at least one playoff series. We just want to continue getting better and we’re trying to build on last year.

“We added a few nice pieces and I definitely think that’s going to help us, especially playing in the Eastern Conference. David Lee is a former All-Star and an NBA champion who can help us as a veteran since he’s been one of the best power forwards in the game when given the opportunity. With Amir Johnson, every time someone brings up his name I only hear great things about him. He’s someone who brings a lot to the table and can help any team he’s on. We need that type of leadership and those kind of experienced veterans, so I liked the additions. And the young guys, the rookies we drafted, are very talented too. If given the opportunity, I definitely think they can help us out.”

Thomas ended up finishing the 2014-15 campaign as Boston’s leading scorer in the regular season and in the playoffs – topping all of the team’s starters. He has become a fan favorite and he admits that he has trouble walking around the city without being stopped a lot, which is new to him since he usually just blended in earlier in his career thanks to his 5’9 height. He appreciates that he’s being acknowledged as one of the Celtics’ best players; however, he says he won’t be satisfied until he’s acknowledged as one of the NBA’s best players.

“It’s nice – it’s pretty cool – but I want it to get to the point where everyone respects me that way and everyone looks at me as that guy,” Thomas said of being widely regarded as Boston’s best player. “I want to be that guy. I’m going to do whatever it takes to [be a star] and work tremendously hard until I’m that guy. I like having that kind of pressure on me and having everything on my shoulders. That’s what I work for: to be one of the best players in the NBA, one of the best players in the world. I want to be a guy who can carry a team. That’s what everyone wants growing up – you want to be that guy. I’ll do whatever it takes to be that. If that’s my role and what the [coaches] want me to do and what this organization sees out of me, then so be it and I’ll take full advantage of that.

“I still feel underrated, no doubt about it. I’ve always felt that way, but I’m going to earn my respect no matter what. I work extremely hard and I don’t want to be given anything. I want to earn it and get that respect from people. When you work hard on your craft – when you work as hard as the stars do – that’s how you earn people’s respect. Winning obviously takes care of everything too, and I think I did gain more respect from being on a playoff team. I just want to build on that and show the world that I’m one of the best players in the NBA.”

Thomas certainly emerged as one of Boston’s most important players last year after the trade, which becomes evident when taking a deeper look at some of his advanced statistics.

When Thomas was on the court, Boston had a remarkable 109.2 offensive rating. When he was off the court? Their offensive rating dropped to 98.8. A player’s offensive rating is the number of points their team scores per 100 possessions when they’re on the floor. Thomas’ on-court offensive rating was by far the highest of any Celtic player. Putting those numbers into perspective, a 109.2 offensive rating would’ve ranked third in the NBA last season (behind only the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors). Meanwhile, a 98.8 offensive rating would’ve ranked 27th in the NBA (ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets).

IsaiahThomas_InsideCeltics1Offensive box plus/minus is another stat that shows Thomas’ effectiveness, as it tracks how a player fared offensively per 100 possessions relative to league average. With Boston, Thomas’ OBPM was 6.4. Only four players finished with a higher OBPM last season (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden). Now Thomas’ Boston sample size is obviously smaller than those players, but his full-season OBPM of 4.6 still ranked eighth in the league.

Not to mention, Thomas was incredibly efficient last year. His player efficiency rating for the entire 2014-15 season was 20.6, ranking 32nd in the NBA and first among all reserves. He finished with a higher PER than some All-Stars, such as John Wall, Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant among others. Looking solely at his time in Boston, his PER was an even better 22.3. That would’ve ranked 15th in the NBA and fourth among all points guards (behind only Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul).

Boston relied heavily on Thomas – and understandably so – as evidenced by his 32.1 usage percentage. Only four players were involved more than Thomas: Westbrook (38.4), Dwyane Wade (34.7), DeMarcus Cousins (34.1) and LeBron James (just barely at 32.3).

Put simply, Thomas was a tremendous deadline addition for the Celtics. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thomas’ success was that he didn’t have any chemistry with his teammates or know head coach Brad Stevens’ system, so he was oftentimes just free-styling. Now that he’s comfortable with his teammates, coaches and plays, he expects to be even more productive in this upcoming season.

“Last season, after I got traded, everything I was doing [with the Celtics] was on the fly,” Thomas said. “It was basically like we were playing open gym. We had a lot of plays that Coach Stevens couldn’t put in because everything was happening so fast. They helped me figure some things out and let me just go out there and play. Having a full offseason to learn everything really helps me, and I think I should be even better because I’m more comfortable. I’ve learned the plays, I know the system and I have more familiarity with my teammates and the coaching staff. I’m looking forward to this season and hopefully it’s a good one.”

Thomas and Stevens have developed a solid bond and were in contact with one another quite a bit over the offseason.

“We have a good relationship,” Thomas said. “We’ve texted back and forth throughout the summer; sometimes he’ll just reach out to check in on me. We actually just went to dinner together last week – I went to his house for dinner with my family and it was really nice. We’re building our relationship, and we want to get as close as we possibly can and always be on the same page because the point guard is an extension of the head coach.”

Speaking of being a coach on the floor, one of Thomas’ goals for this season is to be a better leader for Boston. It’s difficult to join a team midseason and take on a significant leadership role, but now that he’s entering his first full season with the Celtics, he is hoping he can be a strong veteran presence.

“I’ve always been a leader ever since I was a little boy, so that comes second nature to me and I want to be a leader for this team,” Thomas said. “I’d love to be a team captain and one of those guys who everyone on the team can turn to when times are hard. I want to be looked at as a leader and someone who people can turn to at all times. Hopefully the coaching staff and organization chooses me to be one of those guys because I’d embrace being in that position.”

Throughout Thomas’ four-year career, he has been one of the most underrated players in the NBA. When given minutes, he has thrived and he has career averages of 15.6 points, 4.7 assists, 2.4 rebounds and a steal in 28.3 minutes per game. For a guy who was the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, with no guarantee he’d even make the Kings’ roster, he has exceeded all expectations and then some.

And it’s not like Thomas can only succeed as a sixth man. While he does do well as a spark plug off of the bench, he has also shown that he can be a very effective starter. In the 2013-14 season – his final campaign with the Kings and the last year he was used as a starter – he averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor in the 54 games he started. That year, his 20.5 PER was fourth among point guards (trailing only Paul, Westbrook and Curry) and his 21.2 PPG was also fourth among point guards (trailing only Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard).

Whether he starts this season for Boston remains to be seen. The numbers show that good things happen when Thomas is on the floor, so starting him seems like the best option. However, the team hasn’t said whether Thomas will surpass Marcus Smart on the depth chart. Danny Ainge did recently acknowledge that he and head coach Brad Stevens have discussed the possibility of putting Thomas in the starting five, but no decision has been made. For his part, Thomas has said all of the right things, saying that he’s fine with any role given to him and that he just wants to do what’s best for the team.

Thomas has constantly been doubted due to his 5’9, 185-pound frame; that’s the main reason he slipped so far on draft night. There have also been some concerns about his shoot-first mentality, but that’s extremely common among point guards in today’s NBA. Even though he has had so much success, he continues to use the fact that he’s often overlooked and doubted as motivation. Quite frankly, it’s odd that a player so productive has bounced around so much. The Kings could’ve kept Thomas last summer since he was a restricted free agent, but they chose to let him walk. Then, the Suns quickly traded him in a move that blindsided Thomas, as he had just gotten situated in Phoenix when he was uprooted. Now, since he has thrived with the Celtics and Ainge is a big fan of his game, it seems he may have found a home. Still, Thomas has learned never to assume he’s completely safe from being moved.

“It’s nice, but I always tell myself that you can never get too comfortable; in this business, in this league, you never know what’s going to happen,” Thomas said. “You can be here [with your team] today and then gone tomorrow. I’ve been through that. Last year, I definitely thought I was staying in Phoenix and then they traded me. You can never get too comfortable. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities given to you in your current situation. That’s what I’m doing here, and I’m hoping I can be here for a really long time.”

In addition to his production, another reason for Boston to keep Thomas long-term is that his contract is a bargain. His salary decreases each year, so he’ll make $6,912,869 this season, $6,587,132 in 2016-17, and $6,261,395 in 2017-18 (which will be excellent value over the final two years since the cap is about to skyrocket). Getting star-level production for that price is every executive’s wish.

And Thomas may not be done developing. He has only been in the league for four years, and he spent this summer working extremely hard in hopes of expanding his game and reaching his full potential. This offseason, he worked on his three-point shooting as well as his ability to finish at the basket.

“Mainly, I’ve been working on extending my range – being able to pull-up from anywhere – so that I’m a more consistent long-range shooter,” Thomas said. “I’ve also been working on a lot of one-foot shots, a la Steve Nash. I liked some of those shots he used to do. Those were my main [priorities] this summer, extending my range and working on different types of finishing moves around the basket. I’ve also been working on my mid-range game, and I have a one-foot three-pointer that I’m going to show off this season. I’m just trying to add different things to my game and become an even more complete player.”

For years, Thomas has been trying to prove himself and solidify himself as a quality NBA player. Now, he’s being viewed as a star and it’s his time to show what he can do with the spotlight pointed directly at him.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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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 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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