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NBA PM: Which Non-Playoff Teams Can Make the Jump to the Playoffs?

Cody Taylor breaks down which non-playoff teams from last season may have better luck this upcoming season.

Cody Taylor

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Each NBA season there seems to always be at least one team that shows significant improvement. Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks got off to a great start, led by new head coach Jason Kidd. The Bucks went 15-67 during the 2013-14 season, but improved last season to 41-41, which earned them the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers also saw a huge increase in wins last season after LeBron James returned home to join forces with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Cavaliers went 33-49 two seasons ago and are now coming off an NBA Finals appearance against the Golden State Warriors. The New Orleans Pelicans and Boston Celtics were also teams that made the jump from being a non-playoff team in 2013-14, to qualifying for the playoffs last season.

Now that the bulk of the free agency moves are behind us, we’re beginning to see how teams are shaping up. There are still some minor moves to be made with teams filling in their open bench slots and training camp rosters, but the majority of teams are done making moves. With teams beginning to show a new identity, we can now consider which non-playoff teams from last season can make the leap to being a playoff team next season.

Here are the non-playoff teams from each conference and their playoff outlook for next season (ranked from having the worst chance to having the best chance):

Eastern Conference – 

Philadelphia 76ers (18-64), 14th:

The team may have hit a home run in the draft after Jahlil Okafor fell to the third spot, but this team is still at least a few seasons away from competing for a playoff spot. It’s clear that Okafor could possibly be one of the best players from the draft in the years to come, but he’s still some time away from leading the team into contention. The 76ers have a ton of young talent on the roster they’re still developing and represent one of best up-and-coming rosters in the league, but are still a little ways off from a playoff berth.

New York Knicks (17-65), 15th:

The Knicks made a lot of moves this summer, and they appear to be headed in the right direction. They brought in Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant through the draft, and brought in several players through free agency that can contribute. We’ve seen the Knicks in the past try to go for home run signings and offer a lot of money for one or two players, but the team seemed to be going for value this summer after signing Robin Lopez, Derrick Williams, Arron Afflalo, Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin. Porzingis is a project big man, and may not be able to contribute significantly right away, but his presence will help the team improve, especially down the road. The Knicks appear to be primed for an improved 2015-16 campaign, but that won’t translate into a playoff berth next season with the bottom of the East improving.

Detroit Pistons (32-50), 12th:

The Pistons are coming off of their best season in six years as they won the most games in a single season since the 2008-09 campaign, which is also the last time they made the playoffs. They averaged just 28 wins over the last six seasons and appear to be heading in the right direction. It seems as though there will be some starting positions up for grabs, so the 2015-16 season might be spent trying to lay a foundation for the future, with the development of Stanley Johnson as a key priority.

Charlotte Hornets (33-49), 11th:

The Hornets were quick to make changes to the team this summer and decided to bring in Nicolas Batum from Portland and sign free agent Jeremy Lin. They drafted Frank Kaminsky, acquired Jeremy Lamb from Oklahoma City and added Spencer Hawes in the Lance Stephenson deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. Adapting all of these pieces together could take some time as each of these players figure to see significant roles next season. Finding minutes for those players and settling them into their roles could be a tough task for head coach Steve Clifford. The playoffs don’t seem to be in their future next year, but that could change depending on how quickly everything comes together.

Orlando Magic (25-57), 13th:

While the playoffs may be at least another season away, the Magic are poised to return to the postseason in the next couple of seasons. The team feels their defense can take the next step in development with new head coach Scott Skiles coming in. They upgraded the offense by drafting offensive-minded players in Mario Hezonja and Tyler Harvey. With core players in Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton taking the next step in their development, the team should be in for an improved season. An improvement of at least 10 wins will likely be needed to be in the playoff hunt, and that doesn’t seem that far off.

Indiana Pacers (38-44), 9th:

Few people imagined the Pacers would in the playoff hunt last season without Paul George. Nevertheless, despite not having George, the Pacers were in the playoff hunt until the final day of the regular season. With George returning to 100 percent, the Pacers should be in the hunt all season and could be the first team we’ve covered to have a legitimate chance at returning to the postseason. The Pacers will need at least one team to fall out of the mix from last season, and everyone seems to believe that team could be the Nets. Indiana added Monta Ellis to help the offense, and to incorporate a new up-tempo offense. Draft pick Myles Turner seems to be in for a big rookie campaign, and his addition could help the Pacers finish in the top eight next season.

Miami HEAT (37-45), 10th:

The HEAT figure to have the best chance from this list to make the playoffs next season. They finished just a game back of the Nets last season, despite being at less than 100 percent. Key players like Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Chris Bosh all missed several games at different points of the season for various reasons, which resulted in an up-and-down year. With the team returning Dwyane Wade, Dragic, Bosh and Luol Deng (player option), the HEAT seem poised for a big season, if they can remain healthy. We’re not quite sure how many games Wade will play or how effective Bosh will be, but if they can have a consistent season, they’re likely to reach the playoffs.

Western Conference –

Minnesota Timberwolves (16-66), 15th:

There is no question that the Timberwolves will have a much better season than last year. The Timberwolves added the first overall pick in Karl-Anthony Towns, they have the reigning Rookie of the Year in Andrew Wiggins, and have young talent in Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne and Gorgui Deng. Plus they still have a former No. 1 pick in Anthony Bennett, who has failed to live up to expectations, but could turn things around. Given that the West is so competitive, it seems as though the Timberwolves are still a few seasons away from competing, but make no mistake about it – this team is better, and will make the playoffs in the next few seasons. Once their players really begin to develop, it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if the Wolves emerged as a playoff contender for many years to come.

Sacramento Kings (29-53), 13th:

After the summer that the Kings have had, there’s no possible way that they make the playoffs, is there? Stability within an organization is generally a good starting place to judge how well a team will do, and it seems as though the Kings’ front office is anything but organized. As recent as just a few years ago, the Kings seems poised to really challenge in the West. But that was two head coaches ago, and before the franchise went through turmoil in the front office. Looking at the Kings on paper might suggest a playoff team, but looking at their up-and-down summer suggests otherwise. Seeing how this team comes together on the court this season will be a big indicator on where they stand. Based on what we know so far, the playoffs may not be the end result this season.

Los Angeles Lakers (21-61), 14th:

Just how much the Lakers can improve this season remains to be seen. There seems to be a lot of questions with the current Lakers roster heading into next season. They shocked everyone by selecting D’Angelo Russell with the second pick in the draft and passing on Jahlil Okafor in the process. Russell certainly has the tools to become an All-Star type of point guard in the future, but he’s yet to play in a real NBA game and struggled in the Las Vegas Summer League. The Lakers added Roy Hibbert from the Pacers, and questions will remain with Hibbert until he can return to the type of player we saw a few seasons ago. Of course, the biggest question is how many games will Kobe Bryant play? He looked great, at times, when he did play last season, but his year ended prematurely due to injury. Father Time is undefeated, and Bryant does not seem to be an exception to that. The Lakers have depth in front court after adding Brandon Bass, but Julius Randle has yet to really play after suffering a season-ending injury in his first NBA game last season. There are more questions than answers for the Lakers this season, which doesn’t suggest this team is in position to make a playoff appearance.

Denver Nuggets (30-52), 12th:

The Nuggets will be ushering in a new era this season, with the addition of head coach Mike Malone and Emmanuel Mudiay. The Nuggets should be in for an improved season with a new leader, but like the Lakers, there are questions heading into the season. How will the group respond to a new head coach? Will Kenneth Faried remain on the roster all season or will he be traded? The veteran presence alone on the team should keep the Nuggets around the 30-35 win mark, but that won’t be nearly good enough to get into the playoffs.

Utah Jazz (38-44), 11th:

There could be as many as 11 teams that can compete for a playoff berth next season and that list includes the Jazz. The Jazz have been one of the most hyped teams all summer as we saw their young core of players take the next step in their development during the second half of last season. It was during this time that the Jazz earned the best defensive rating in the league, which is an impressive feat considering they’re going up against some of the best teams in the league in the West. Given how competitive the conference is, the key for the Jazz and some of these other teams trying to make it back into the playoffs is other teams dropping out of playoff race from last year. The case can be made for some teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and even the Dallas Mavericks to fall out of the race, which will open up two spots. The Jazz certainly have an opportunity to claim one of those spots should they open up.

Phoenix Suns (39-43), 10th:

It was just two years ago that the Suns had the worst record in the Western Conference, but they’ve improved in each season since. They finished six games out of the playoff race last year, but part of that was due to the team trading away Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline. By making those trades, the team sacrificed their short-term success in order to improve in the long-term. They signed Brandon Knight to a long-term deal, who they also acquired at the trade deadline, and also signed Tyson Chandler in free agency. The addition of Chandler figures to solidify their front-court and will give the locker room a proven veteran presence. The team may still need to add a few more players to the bench, but they should be among those competing for a playoff spot next season.

Oklahoma City Thunder (45-37), 9th:

The Thunder were another team that was in the playoff hunt last season, even though they suffered from multiple injuries. Kevin Durant played in only 27 games after battling a foot injury, and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka also missed time throughout the season. Health will be key for the Thunder this upcoming season. With better luck on the health front, they should easily return to the playoffs given their talented core of players. The team has one of the best starting lineups in the league with Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Durant, Ibaka and Enes Kanter. An appearance in the playoffs will be vital in trying to convince Durant to re-sign next summer, so the Thunder should be a team on a mission.

What do you think about our predictions? Would you change them? Let us know in the comments below!

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NBA

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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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

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

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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