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NBA Sunday: Better Off Without DeAndre?

In the long run, Mark Cuban shouldn’t worry too much about losing out on DeAndre Jordan, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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It was a mere 48 hours since DeAndre Jordan had spurned his Dallas Mavericks and did an about-face by re-signing with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Mark Cuban—who was no stranger to the limelight—found himself with the cameras on him and the recorders rolling.

“I pick my nose at the table,” Cuban said to the crowd that had appeared around him in an impromptu media session at Cox Pavilion during the 2015 NBA Summer League.

“I don’t give a [f***] about etiquette,” he said.

“Etiquette” was the word that was used during a discussion that focused—albeit for only a few minutes—on DeAndre Jordan.

With a shrug of his shoulders and with his typically nonchalant, tell it like it is tone, Cuban offered a two-word phrase to end the discussion.

“[Sh**] happens,” he said. “This is business. It’s the real world. … You move on.”

That, he has.

As it relates to the Mavericks, “etiquette” might be an appropriate word to come up in that context, as Jordan did violate one of the industry’s long-held practices and unwritten rules.

He wasn’t the first, though, and he won’t be the last. Cuban, a businessman to his core, understands this quite well.

“Selfish” would have been equally appropriate, but if there’s one word I would use to describe what many consider to be one of the low moments for the Mavericks since Cuban became the team’s majority owner in 2000, it would be “fortunate,” because in the long run, the Mavericks are better off having not committed $80 million to Jordan.

* * * * *

Anyone who knows me or reads my work even semi-regularly is probably aware of my affinity for Chris Paul’s basketball talent. This past spring’s 3-1 debacle aside, I once took heat for arguing that Paul’s on-court talent and contributions, to me, put him in the same “category” as an in-prime Jason Kidd. There’s no question in my mind that if Paul played with another superstar of his caliber, he would be held in much higher esteem than he currently is because he would have experienced much more team success to this point in his career.

Still, that’s a different argument for a different day.

What routinely gets overlooked as it relates to excellent floor generals, like Paul, is the impact that they have on the other players around them. One of the greatest gifts that Rajon Rondo prominently and regularly displayed was the ability to not only deliver the ball to his teammates, but to actually know his teammates. Rondo knew where his teammates hot spots were, what their tendencies were, where they were most effective and how, amazingly, to find them at the right moment—right when they were ready to score.

Kidd, unquestionably one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game, is the best player I have ever seen in that regard. As a member of both the Phoenix Suns and especially the New Jersey Nets, Kidd helped players like Clifford Robinson, Rodney Rogers, Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles find levels of productivity that they struggled to match without him.

Even as Kidd ripened and had one foot out the door as a member of the New York Knicks, although a step slower, he still had his amazing court vision and awareness and ability to impact the game simply because he knew how, where and when to find his teammates. It’s no surprise that the Knicks were a 50-win team with Kidd and just a 37-win team the year after he left.

Steve Nash is among the greats, as well, and Amar’e Stoudemire, Raja Bell and Quentin Richardson would all agree.

All of this relates back to Paul because of one simple question that many of us are not brave enough to ask or perhaps intuitive enough to even ponder: Where would Jordan be without Paul?

Would he have led the entire league in shooting percentage over the past three seasons without Paul? Could he have converted 71 percent of his field goal attempts last season without Paul? Would he be as highly regarded across the league had he not spent the last four seasons playing with Paul?

The answer to each of those questions is easy: absolutely not. Of course, though answered factually and assertively, that’s merely an opinion that Jordan was eager to prove wrong.

It is wanting to prove those of us that believe that Jordan’s success, at least on the offensive end, is due in very large part to Paul that drove Jordan to agree to terms with the Mavericks in the first place.

Fortunately, for both parties, Jordan came back to his senses.

Typically, men who are seven feet tall have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time. Jordan’s nimbleness, athleticism and agility are gifts in and of themselves. On the offensive end, he is one of the game’s best pick-and-roll readers and reactors and as a center with explosive finishing ability, that makes him an asset—so long as he is playing with a ball handler who can consistently find him.

More than anything else, what Jordan needs to excel in the NBA is a point guard who can create for him. Although he does possess what I believe to be is a better back-to-the-basket game than most of us realize, the simple fact is that Jordan is still most effective as a finisher at or near the rim. Playing with a legion of offensive threats and three other players who are capable of pressuring opposing defenses by having the ability to create their own shot, the last thing Jordan ever needs to worry about as a member of the Clippers is being the primary object of another team’s scouting assignment.

Defensively, his timing and instincts are nothing short of amazing. Despite his atrocious free-throw shooting, he will certainly impact the game on the defensive end. He is a game-changer, I’m just not sure that he would have been worth the kind of commitment that the Mavericks were prepared to make to him.

The very real question as it relates to Jordan is whether he is more Shaquille O’Neal than he is Tyson Chandler. But before you formulate an answer, just recall that Chandler averaged a career-best 11.8 points per game during the 2007-08 season—when he played with Chris Paul.

It was Paul’s job to make Chandler look good then as much as it is his job to make Jordan look good now, and of that, he had done a damn good job.

In fact, Jordan is a specialist whose skills and talents are perfectly suited to the situation in which he finds himself in Los Angeles. Without Rondo or Monta Ellis in Dallas and being paid $20 million per year, Jordan would have been expected to shoulder a burden that he probably would not have been able to manage. If you want an example of what that can do to a player’s psyche or morale, look no further than the man that effectively replaced Jordan in Dallas—Deron Williams.

And yes, while the cap may increase dramatically over the next few years, paying a specialist as much as 20 percent of your cap is no recipe for success. The key to winning in the NBA, whether the cap is $50 million, $60 million or $100 million is return on investment, and as great as Jordan has been for the Clippers, he would not have been able to emerge into a $20 million per year player for the Mavericks.

So, on this day in Las Vegas, if you wondered why Cuban seemed so nonchalant and passive about the entire situation, it’s because, deep down inside, he probably realized that.

Best believe, if there is one thing Cuban knows a thing or two about, it’s success. And that is exactly why his Mavericks, even without Jordan, will rise again.

* * * * *

In the aftermath of Jordan recommitting to Doc Rivers and ensuring the continuance of the Clippers as a contender in the Western Conference, Cuban has done his best to not only dispose of the cap space that was earmarked for Jordan—but to make wise and prudent decisions with the durations and dollars that he is committing in new contracts.

Yes, the Mavericks have moved on, but they now do so with spare parts instead of fresh, new tires. In the end, the moves that they have made look good on paper but will most likely result in a lateral move, at best.

The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Clippers should be the top teams in the Western Conference. The Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder are all easily better, as well. That puts the Mavericks at seventh (at best), but also does not consider that the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz all have major upside that could result in a surprisingly productive season.

So now, after Rondo, Ellis and Chandler have each defected, the Mavericks again find themselves as a team that’s on a journey to nowhere. The NBA is a business and you have to field a team and compete, even when you know that you’re not contending for a championship. That is exactly where Cuban and his team is. As the sun sets on Dirk Nowitzki’s career, Cuban is aimlessly searching for the superstar that can lead his franchise into tomorrow.

Jordan is not that guy.

So yes, without him, Cuban and Donnie Nelson continue to lead their franchise on a journey to a destination, only they are not sure how they will get there. They do not have a GPS or a map, but what they do have, in Cuban and Nelson, are capable navigators.

If there is one thing that we have learned from the Summer of 2015—the summer where the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers each failed to attract a marquee free agent—it is that the contemporary NBA superstar values a winning culture more than he does a big market.

Gone are the days where a player needs to be in a city with bright lights in order to become an international superstar. With Twitter, NBA League Pass and the growing popularity of international basketball, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Monroe—the biggest free agents to switch teams this summer—opted for basketball culture over bright lights.

That is exactly why anytime there is a free agent out there that thinks he needs a change of scenery, he will be listening to Cuban. Amongst NBA players, Cuban has the reputation of being a “player’s owner” and of someone who not only runs a first class organization, but someone who is amazingly transparent in all facets of his business.

And believe me, in the NBA, that is difficult to find.

With his track record of success since taking over the Mavericks 15 years ago and his championship trophy from the 2011 NBA Finals, Cuban will never have a problem generating interest in his club. Had he become aware of Jordan’s intention to re-sign with the Clippers on, say, July 2, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have ended up with either Roy Hibbert or David Lee, because players simply want to play for an owner like Cuban.

I don’t know if Kevin Durant is going to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder next summer, but I do know that if he decides to consider the idea and visit a short list of teams, the Mavericks will be one of them.

Amongst the league’s front offices and scores of its player personnel, Cuban has something that Jordan would not have been able to buy, not even with the $80 million he left on the table in Dallas—respect.

In the end, that will go much further for Cuban and the Mavericks than Jordan would have.

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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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