On Friday night, the Los Angeles Clippers’ season came to an end. They fell just short in Game 6, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers on the road. The team was severely undermanned after losing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to season-ending injuries, along with J.J. Redick playing through a bruised heel and Austin Rivers suffering an elbow to the face in Game 6 that required stitches.
Now the Clippers are focused on the future, which is more in question than it has been in some time. It may seem overly dramatic to ask whether a team with two top-level big men and one of the best overall point guards in the league should be broken up, especially when the team was ranked sixth in offensive and defensive efficiency this season. However, before the season started, Clippers president of operations and head coach Doc Rivers admitted that this question had to be asked if the team fell short in the postseason.
“We’re right on the borderline,” Rivers told Zach Lowe of ESPN before the 2015-16 season started. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it.”
To be fair, any team that loses its two best players and has several other players hobbled by nagging injuries is going to be vulnerable in the postseason, including the Golden State Warriors. Once Paul and Griffin went down, the Clippers’ season was effectively over – it was just a question of how long they could hold off the inevitable. To their credit, the team fought until the very end, pushing the Blazers in Games 5 and 6, falling just short in each game.
Still, as Rivers pointed out before the season started, a team can become stale after repeated failures. The Clippers just ended their fifth year with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as the team’s Big Three and they still haven’t reached the Western Conference Finals. In addition, Griffin and Paul have player options for the 2017-18 season and Redick’s contract only runs through next year, meaning next season could be their last with the Clippers. However, Jordan has a player option in 2018-19, so there is no urgency with his contract situation.
Current cap projections provided by Basketball Insiders’ salary cap guru Eric Pincus have the Clippers with just $10.5 million in potential cap space this offseason (in their best-case scenario), which is the lowest figure in the league. As a result, the Clippers will not be able to make a major free agent acquisition, which means if they give this roster another run, it will be largely the same with small changes around the edges.
With all of this in mind, the Clippers’ front office needs to determine whether to push forward with this same group knowing that Paul, Griffin and Redick are all likely to be free agents after next season, or cash in their chips and start over.
Rivers isn’t the most equipped coach to handle a rebuild. In fact, when the Boston Celtics went into fire sale mode in 2013, Rivers took off to Los Angeles to lead a potential contender rather than oversee Boston’s rebuild.
Danny Ainge traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Piece, Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Brooklyn Nets for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, three unprotected first-round draft picks (2014, 2016 and 2018), with the right to swap first-round picks in 2017. The Nets went nowhere with the talent they traded for, while the Celtics assembled a young, talented and scrappy roster that plays disciplined basketball under top-notch head coach Brad Stevens. The Celtics remained competitive since the trade and now have more assets than just about any team as well as the flexibility to add more talent through free agency and major trades.
Teams learned from the Nets’ mistakes and will be more hesitant to offer the same compensation in future mega-deals. However, Ainge hasn’t made it a secret that he’s looking to cash in some of his assets for a young star player. He has pursued Kevin Love in the past, so a player like Griffin would certainly grab his attention if he were made available. The question is what might Ainge be willing to give up in exchange for Griffin.
Griffin could be traded straight up for a package of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, along with potential draft considerations. The Celtics have enough young, affordable players that this basic scenario can be adjusted to take out a player like Smart in exchange for Jared Sullinger or Terry Rozier, among several other variations. The point is, the Celtics have the young players and draft assets to make a move for a player like Griffin. This would give the Clippers young, developing talent that will be under team control for many years, while potentially replenishing their depleted draft assets.
Then imagine a scenario where the Cleveland Cavaliers fall short this postseason, and LeBron James demands the team trade for Chris Paul as a condition to re-signing. It wouldn’t be difficult for these two teams to structure a deal that essentially swaps Paul for Irving, giving the Cavaliers perhaps a better chance at a championship next season and the Clippers a younger point guard to grow alongside the revamped roster.
The Clippers’ starting lineup would look something like Irving-Redick-Crowder-Sullinger-Jordan. The team would have more young talent locked up, with more draft assets to bolster the team moving forward. With some luck, the Clippers would follow the Celtics’ path of remaining competitive while maintaining better cap flexibility and roster versatility.
Another added benefit with this route is the Clippers push the clock back on their possible window of contention. By the time the revamped roster is ready to truly contend for a championship, dominant teams like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers could be regressing.
If this approach seems too optimistic, just consider the circumstances that recently surrounded the team that just dispatched the Clippers. The Blazers lost Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo (who they traded Will Barton and other plays for no less) and, of course, LaMarcus Aldridge to free agency. They received no compensation for these valuable players. They did trade Nicolas Batum for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. Henderson and Vonleh aren’t top-notch talents, but Henderson is a serviceable wing and Vonleh still has significant room to improve his game as a stretch-four. The Blazers also traded a future second-round pick (that will never be conveyed) to the Orlando Magic for Moe Harkless, who was a major factor in Portland’s first-round victory over the Clippers.
Blazers general manager Neil Olshey didn’t wait to rebuild his team. He saw the writing on the wall and acted aggressively. He acquired young talent like Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee to grow and develop alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Just about everyone doubted this team’s ability to compete this season, but now they have a shot to upset a banged up Warriors squad in the second-round and a bright future as a result of their cap flexibility.
The Blazers managed to do this without having two top-15 players to use as trade chips. The point is that if the Clippers decide that this roster’s window is closed, they can rebuild on the fly, acquiring young, diverse talent while replenishing their draft assets. There are a countless number of ways for the Clippers to go about a rebuild, but if done effectively, they could come out in a better long-term position, like the Celtics did two seasons ago.
However, this isn’t an obvious path to take. It’s not often that a team has a roster that can contend, so giving up on it prematurely isn’t something that should be done recklessly. Look at the Dallas Mavericks for example. They weren’t championship favorites in 2011, but they pushed forward with their roster and upset the Miami HEAT in the Finals. The Clippers may find the same fortunate circumstances if they keep this roster together.
As we have seen in this year’s playoffs, injuries can happen to anyone at any time. Again, the Blazers have a chance to upset the Warriors if Stephen Curry’s knee injury keeps him on the sideline, or limits him in any significant way when he returns. That would give the winner of the Spurs-Thunder series a much easier path to the Finals.
When talking to Lowe before the start of the season, Redick said that he though the Clippers still have a few years to contend in the West.
“The championship window in the West is so narrow,” Redick said. “Ours might only be open another couple of years. But you need some breaks. Golden State was the best team in the league, but they also had everything go right for them. They didn’t have one bad break. I don’t have any doubt about the DNA of our team.”
The injuries to Paul and Griffin derailed the team’s championship hopes. Before their injuries, the Clippers had a clear path to face the Warriors in the second-round. The Blazers weren’t going to roll over, but they barely managed their last two victories against a depleted Clippers squad. With a little bit of luck, the Clippers could have upset the Warriors, with the Spurs or Thunder waiting for them in the Western Conference Finals.
It could be equally argued that even with a healthy squad, the Clippers still would be severe underdogs against the Warriors, Thunder or Spurs and the Cavaliers, who are the favorites to represent the East in the Finals. Bringing this team back next season may not change that dynamic considering that each of those squads are likely to bring back those same rosters (though Kevin Durant’s free agency could change that quickly for the Thunder), so there is arguably no point in trying again with this same Clippers roster. Especially when they have little free agent spending power and their biggest acquisitions would likely be re-signing Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Green.
Considering Doc’s record of trusting and relying on veterans, recently avoiding Boston’s rebuild and his willingness to move draft assets for slight roster upgrades (and sometimes even just cap flexibility), it’s likely that he gives this roster another shot next season. Like the Mavericks in 2011, that may work out for him. But if things fall apart again in the postseason, the Clippers will enter 2017 free agency with the prospect of losing Paul, Griffin and Redick for no compensation and just a few draft assets to rebuild with.
This isn’t an easy choice for Doc and the Clippers’ front office. The best approach to this offseason is probably to test out the trade value of everyone aside from Jordan and see if a successful on-the-fly rebuild is possible. If not, then they can move forward for possibly one more run with their existing core and some fringe moves around the edges. After five years of bad luck, injuries and costly mistakes, perhaps next season could be the one where everything goes right.
The Clippers are out of the spotlight now that they have been eliminated from the playoffs, but they will be one of the most interesting teams to keep an eye on during the summer. We possibly saw the last of these Clippers on Friday night, which is a shame when you consider how many opportunities have passed them by over the last few seasons.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old