For a long time, the narrative about the Eastern Conference has been that it’s quite weak compared to the Western Conference. Judging by our Power Rankings, there may be some merit to that, as seven of our top 10 and four of the top five are Western Conference teams.
One thing the East has a lot of, though, is parity. A mere 1.5 games separate the third from 10th seed, and if we’re lucky, the trend will continue as the season progresses. Could you imagine a team losing three of their final five games of the season and go from having homecourt advantage in the first round to being in the draft lottery? Talk about suspense! As five different teams in the conference enter play on December 16 with 12 losses, we must say, every single game counts.
In this week’s rankings, the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks are rising. Meanwhile, we’re hoping that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Charlotte Hornets get their acts together.
Proof that record isn’t everything: The Mavs and Sixers are each 6-19, but one franchise seems to have bright days ahead while the other might as well begin scouting in earnest. We’re fairly certain you know which one is which.
The only thing better than the Sixers turning the corner is the fact that they may be entitled to the Lakers’ draft pick this season. By virtue of the Michael Carter-Williams trade, the pick is due to the Sixers if it falls outside of the top three. Two more lottery picks in Philly? Imagine the possibilities.
The Nets may have lost each of their games in San Antonio and Houston, but with Jermey Lin returning against his former club, the squad had a real opportunity to steal a victory. They didn’t, but with Lin returning after missing 17 games, the Nets will have a chance to win some games.
If there was one game Tom Thibodeau probably wanted to win, it would have been Tuesday’s matchup at the Bulls. The T-Wolves pulled out the 99-94 victory, but what we loved most about it was that Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns each took more shots than Andrew Wiggins. Wiggy being more efficient and less trigger happy would go a long way toward helping Minny.
The Suns were able to overcome Kristaps Porzingis’ career game on Tuesday night, but not Kawhi Leonard’s 18-point, 10-rebound double-double in Thursday night’s 107-92 loss to the Spurs. Even though New York was missing Derrick Rose, the Suns showed something in beating the Knicks. That’s more than can be said for some of the others.
It took 27 games, but Jrue Holiday finally turned in a double-double in a 16-point, 14-assist effort in Thursday night’s 102-95 win over the Pacers. It took as long for Buddy Hield to turn in a 20-point effort as well. Making up 11 games in the Western Conference is going to be difficult, but if those contributions become normal, it could happen.
The HEAT have begun their six-game home stand by winning their first two and if Hassan Whiteside comes anywhere near the 26 points and 22 rebounds he gave his team in Wednesday’s 95-89 win over the Pacers, the HEAT could find themselves playing for something. They’re just four games out of eighth.
Unfortunately, Sunday’s 118-112 loss to the Knicks meant the Lakers carried a six-game losing streak with them on their SEVEN-game road trip, which has begun with losses to the King and Nets. After the road trip, eight of their following nine will be at home – but until then, things might get even uglier.
The last time the Kings beat a team with a winning record was way back on November 23, when they defeated the Thunder. Since then, the Kings have gone 0-6 against teams with winning records, and that’s a fairly good indicator of where they are as a team.
After finishing up their six-game road trip at 2-4, the Nuggets dropped 132 points on the Blazers (whom they defeated). Even more impressive, Denver had EIGHT players score in double figures. Still, in this league, you need an alpha-male and we’re still not sure who that guy is in Denver.
Elfrid Payton had just one 20-point game all season long prior to being sent to the bench for the team’s November 27 contest against the Bucks. Since then, he’s had two, including in Wednesday’s 131-120 victory over the Hawks—their only win in their last five, unfortunately.
The Wiz have won three of four and, very quietly, only trail the third seed in the conference by two games in the loss column. Fortunately, in the Eastern Conference, it only takes one winning streak to find yourself right back in the thick of things, huh?
The good vibrations from Tuesday’s whooping of the Thunder (and ending their four-game losing streak) were short lived, as the Blazers got shellacked by the Nuggets on Thursday, 132-120. They have now lost four of five and are two games under .500 for the first time this season. They need a shot in the arm.
Maybe we’re jumping the gun, but with the Pacers a game under .500 at this point in the season, we are a tad concerned with Nate McMillan and the prospect of him keeping the gig long-term. He’s planning on moving Monta Ellis to the bench. We’ll see if that can ignite the squad.
With all due respect to the Magic, we wouldn’t have bet they could score 131 points in an empty gym, much less against the Hawks, but it happened on Tuesday night. The Hawks have given up at least 100 points in eight of their last nine. We’re still not sure what’s become of these guys.
Losers of four of their last five, the Celtics suddenly find themselves just one game over .500, which is an unpleasant surprise. It’s no coincidence that the team hasn’t had success without Isaiah Thomas in the lineup due to a groin injury. The floor general’s return is imminent, though. With Thomas, Al Horford and Jae Crowder together and healthy, maybe they can turn things around.
In Thursday’s 108-97 loss to the Bucks, somehow, Dwyane Wade managed to turn in a plus/minus rating of minus-28! Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Robin Lopez were each minus-8, so Wade, apparently, was worse than all three of them? Maybe not. But the Bulls’ 1-2 week was very unimpressive.
The Bucks handled the Bulls on Thursday night. The win broke a three-game losing streak, but perhaps more interestingly, was the first of six games wherein the Bucks play three different teams in a home-and-home: Chicago, Cleveland and Washington. On the floor, effort seems to be improving, though, so we’re happy with their progress.
Charlotte dropped the first three contests of their five-game road trip. We can’t be mad at Saturday’s loss at the Cavs, but given how poorly the Pacers and Wizards have fared this season, we would have expected the Hornets to win at least one of those. They didn’t.
The Pistons are 8-4 over their last 12, but somehow got beat up by the Sixers on Sunday, 97-79. They managed just 12 points in the first quarter and never led the entire game. It only counts as one loss, but we think it should count as three. Even still, it’s hard to argue with their on-court improvements. Plus, the aforementioned eight wins helps a lot in the suddenly jumbled East.
The Knicks have backed into a top-10 ranking. After winning the first two games of their five-game road trip (against the Kings and Lakers), their losses to the Suns and Dubs are excusable since they were without a healthy Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose. Tied with the third-best record out East, it’s time to put some respect on Jeff Hornacek’s name. Still, it’ll all come crashing down dramatically if ‘Melo and Rose don’t get healthy, and fast.
Three games in a row with no triple-double for Russell Westbrook, so we’re a tad disappointed, especially since the Thunder went 1-3 over the past week. They’ve taken a step back, but that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Seven of their next 11 will be played on the road, so if Westbrook (currently averaging 30.6 points, 10.6 assists and 10.5 rebounds) doesn’t get his act together, things could continue to slip.
After going 9-2 over their past 11, the secret is out: Utah is for real. So long as they continue to play dominant defense (they rank third in defensive efficiency across the league), they’ll have an opportunity to beat anybody. They also lead the league in points allowed at 95.2 per game.
The Grizz have scored victories over the Clippers, Warriors AND Cavs, and they’re the only team in the league that can boast that. The Cavs win comes with an asterisk, but even without Mike Conley, they’ve been getting good minutes with rookie Andrew Harrison and spirited play from Marc Gasol.
With four wins in a row, the Raptors are getting great production from Kyle Lowry, who happens to be shooting about 58 percent from the field over his last 10 games. Clearly the second-best team in the conference, the next measuring-stick game doesn’t come until they visit the Warriors on December 28. Between now and then, they’ll only play one team with a winning record.
The Clips are 5-2 since since their three-game losing streak, and the next three (at Miami, at Washington, home vs. Denver) seem winnable. The next litmus test will come next Thursday against the Spurs. Who had the Clips locked in a dead heat with the Rockets at this point? Yet, here we are.
With eight wins in a row, the Rockets are currently carrying the longest winning streak in the association. What makes their immediate outlook even more promising? Seven of their next 11 will be played at home. Of those 11, only five will be contested against winning teams. They don’t play the Clippers until December 30. Safe to say we’re looking forward to that one.
We’ve gotta take the champs to task for leaving LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love at home when they traveled to Memphis to complete their home-and-home with the Grizzlies. No surprise, they lost without their big guns, ending their five-game win streak. So long as they remain healthy, the sky isn’t falling in Cleveland.
While everyone was paying attention to what Phil Jackson said about Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook eating triple-doubles like they were cheeseburgers, the Spurs were busy going 15-2 over their past 17 games. Six of their next nine also happen to be against opponents less than .500, so the Warriors won’t be putting much distance between the two teams… Yet.
The Dubs took care of their business on Thursday night, beating up on the depleted Knicks by a final of 103-90. What makes them scariest (and unstoppable) is how they share the ball. On Thursday night, they had 41 assists on 45 field goals. For them, having an assist rate of 80 percent or better is quite routine. It’s also amazing.
The way things have gone over the first six weeks of the NBA season, it would appear that the Warriors, Spurs and Cavs are separating themselves from the pack. As we look ahead to Christmas Day, we can’t help but be a tad excited about seeing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant make their first visit to Cleveland as teammates. Stay tuned, and be sure to check back next Friday to see where your team stands.
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.