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New Orleans Pelicans 2019-20 Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans may have had the busiest offseason in the NBA by trading away Anthony Davis, drafting the top overall pick in Zion Williamson and remaking the front office into a world-class operation. Will that be enough to matter this season? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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No team in the NBA has remade themselves quite like the New Orleans Pelicans. After a drama-filled season last year that saw franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis ask for — and ultimately receive — a trade, the Pelicans pulled off an offseason no one could have expected a year ago.

The Pelicans tapped long-time NBA executive David Griffin to run the team and he wasted no time to put his own stamp on the franchise. The Pelicans landed the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, which became Duke big man Zion Williamson. Then New Orleans earned an absolute windfall from the Lakers in the Davis trade, thus giving Griffin a rebuild-on-the-fly that could set the franchise up for a very bright future.

Let’s take a look the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Talk about a quick rebuild! The Pelicans are now one of the most interesting teams in the league — and not only because of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. New Orleans now features incredible depth and versatility in Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Josh Hart and Jaxson Hayes. They will be incredibly fun to watch, and they could even compete for the final seed in the Western Conference.

They’re still really young and that will probably cost them a few too many games. Williamson’s ability to stay on the court will be put to the test immediately. Remember, very few non-centers have played at 285 pounds or above, so the shape in which Williamson enters the season could play a major role in his durability. But the Pelicans really streamlined their rebuild and look better off now than they were prior to trading Anthony Davis, which says a whole lot about their immediate and long-term future.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Pelicans officially hit the reset button when they traded Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. But they managed to get a really good haul for him, bringing in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and drafting Jaxson Hayes with the Lakers lottery pick. Not to mention the basketball gods smiled upon them with the No. 1 pick and Zion Williamson. They also pulled off a draft-day trade for Nickeil Alexander-Walker. This team is oozing with young talent, you couldn’t have asked for a better rebuilding situation. Playoffs are probably out of the question this season, but this will be a very entertaining team to watch.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

What hasn’t been said about the Pelicans’ busy offseason? We’ve been treated to the new-look squad in NOLA all over social media. Former Lakers such as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart are going to be a key part of this re-tooling, but it’s the addition of Zion Williamson that is drawing the hype train. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes put their potential on display in Las Vegas. Smartly, David Griffin went out to get veteran presences in both Derrick Favors and JJ Redick to ensure the team would hit the ground running. Jrue Holiday is going to show the world just how good he really and he’ll bring the rest of the crew along with him. Talking playoffs isn’t too far off with Alvin Gentry’s resilient squad.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

While the upcoming season is still over a month away, I still believe Griffin has already put himself in the running for the 2019-20 NBA Executive of the Year Award. That may sound hyperbolic but when you consider where the Pelicans were last season when Anthony Davis demanded he be traded, the moves Griffin made in response to this situation and where the team currently stands, it seems clear to me that Griffin is already a leading candidate for this award. There is a wide range of opinions on the young players the Pelicans acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers for Davis, but each player has serious talent and is worth investing in.

Griffin also managed to shed Solomon Hill’s contract and sign JJ Redick to a very reasonable deal. The savvy-front office expert also added Favors, whom the team can re-sign after this season using his full Bird rights. And Griffin drafted some promising young prospects in this year’s draft who will grow alongside Zion Williamson. Landing the No. 1 pick and drafting Williamson was a lucky outcome so we aren’t crediting Griffin with that necessarily. But the roster he has structured around Williamson can credibly compete on a nightly basis this upcoming season and is loaded with young talent. This is a great overall outcome for the Pelicans and Griffin deserves a lot of praise for it.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It is hard not to look at the Pelicans offseason in awe. Few franchises survive the exodus of a mega-star player without needing to hit the bottom to get another one, but not only did the Pelicans get an epic return for Anthony Davis from the Lakers, but they also landed the future face of the franchise in Zion Williamson — all without having to part with Jrue Holiday. On paper, the Pelicans might be a better all-around team than they were with Davis, mainly because of his extensive injury history and the upside of the guys coming in from the Lakers. We’ll see if the Pelicans can come together fast enough to matter, but the roster work was impressive.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Pelicans were one of the most active teams over the offseason, rebuilding the team under the leadership of new executive vice president David Griffin. The franchise went under the salary cap to bring in veterans like Derrick Favors and JJ Redick, supplementing the bounty they got from the Los Angeles Lakers for Anthony Davis. One big question is the future of Brandon Ingram, who can sign a contract extension before the start of the season.

New Orleans also needs to pick up the team option on Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball before November. With Darius Miller out with a torn Achilles, the Pelicans will probably ask the league for a disabled player exception that would give the team another $3.6 million to acquire a player (with one year left on their deal), either via free agency, trader or off waivers. The Pelicans have two players on partially guaranteed deals in Jahlil Okafor and Kenrich Williams. If both stick, they round out the roster at 15 (not including two-way players).

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jrue Holiday

It’s amazing what one year can change. Last year at this time, Anthony Davis could have been considered the top player in almost all of the following categories. He was the best player on the team, so, obviously, the franchise was gutted when he demanded a trade prior to the All-Star break.

This made things even worse for the second-best player, Jrue Holiday. He had recently signed a big extension with the franchise and received his money, but once Davis wanted out, he was hung out to dry. Certain reports even said the Pelicans were calling teams to gauge interest in Holiday, just in case they wanted to trade him.

Things changed dramatically for the franchise come lottery time. Not only did they receive a nice haul of young talent from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Davis, but they were also blessed with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft.

With Zion coming to the team, all hope was not lost. And moving forward – at least in the immediate future – this is Jrue Holiday’s team.

Last season, Holiday averaged career-highs in points, steals, blocks and rebounds. As the best offensive player, let’s highlight the specific stats that point to that designation.

His 21.2 points per game were best for third on the team last season behind Julius Randle and Davis. Both of those players have moved to different teams, and none of the players brought in as replacements averaged more than 18.3 points per game. Williamson could eventually become a bigger scoring threat than Holiday, but we need to see him play some serious NBA minutes first.

Holiday had career-highs in both free throws made and free throw attempted — still, even after all these years, he is getting better at drawing fouls and getting to the line.

He averaged 7.7 assists to only 3.1 turnovers — cementing that he is both a capable ballhandler as well as a legitimate scoring threat.

His one glaring weakness on offense is his three-point shot. It’s not horrible, but it has dramatically gotten worse throughout his career. There is almost a direct correlation in his shot attempts increasing with the percentage decreasing. In fact, last season he put up a career-high 5.4 three-point attempts per game but made a career-low 32.5 percent of them.

Top Defensive Player: Derrick Favors

Many fans don’t quite understand the caliber of player that Favors has become. He’s more-or-less been in the shadow of Rudy Gobert the last few seasons but — as one of the most humble guys in the NBA — you haven’t heard any complaints. Utah – reluctantly – had to trade Favors in order to make room for their new free-agent acquisitions, so New Orleans was the team lucky enough to pick up the last year of his team-option contract.

Favors is one of just 11 players in the last five seasons to average at least 13.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Take away guys that played more than 30 minutes per game and guess how many that leaves on the list? Just one: Favors.

What’s more, he has only averaged 27.6 minutes per game over the last five seasons. Imagine what he can do with a full load of starting five-caliber minutes.

He’s a monster in the paint, easily a top-5 rim protector in the NBA, and strong enough to guard the most powerful post players. He isn’t elite at switching onto forwards but has the ability to make a decent impact when it’s necessary.

Jrue Holiday has a case for the best defensive player, but he won’t have near the impact as Favors does in stopping opponents from scoring. New Orleans will be more than pleased with their new starting center.

Top Playmaker: Lonzo Ball

The inevitable finally occurred for the Ball family. Ever since Davis requested his trade, Lonzo was considered to be a centerpiece in the trade talks. Much to the dismay of LaVar, the baby Ball found himself out of Hollywood and down in the Big Easy.

Ball was third in assist percentage last season in Los Angeles behind LeBron James and Rajon Rondo – two elite passers. He was second in assist-to-turnover ratio behind, again, only Rondo.

While he has continued to struggle with his shooting, his court vision has only gotten better since college. He is one of the true young talents when it comes to playmaking in the NBA and, considering his age, could likely become the best in the league within a couple of years. He has to be considered the best passer in the league aged 21 or younger — and the only person currently on New Orleans’ roster who could give him a run for his money is Holiday. But Holiday has transitioned into more of a scoring role, so his ability to dish the ball has taken a backseat.

Ball is still waiting for his breakout season and, with a bigger role in New Orleans, it might be his time. Watch for his playmaking to improve even more now that he has more room to function.

Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram

This will most likely be a tough box to check during the season. Most players on the roster either didn’t play much in the clutch last season or performed poorly when they did. As a remember, clutch situations occur when there is a five or less point differential with five minutes remaining in the game.

Holiday played plenty of clutch minutes but shot horrendously from the field when he did. Favors’ scoring was incredibly efficient, but he only played 11 games in clutch situations and put up less than one field goal per game.

Ingram performed best in the clutch last season, although he still wasn’t a killer by any means. He averaged 1.4 points per game in the clutch, shot 44 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. His unique ability to get to the basket certainly helps in late-game situations when most players are gassed.

Ingram, although young and not mistake-prone, is athletic, knows his handle well and can beat defenders either to the rim or to certain spots where he likes to shoot. He has an elite length for his position and this really comes in handy when his team needs a bucket. He wasn’t the Lakers’ go-to guy last year for late-game shots – for obvious reasons – but he’ll have the ability to be that guy on an inferior starting-five for the Pelicans.

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

Seriously, by the end of the season, you will have a much better idea of who Favors is. It’s really hard to point out exactly what it is that Favors does so well, likely because he does many things on the court at a high-level.

As previously mentioned, he is an elite rim protector. Favors is also an incredible rebounder on both ends of the floor. He is superb at finishing at the rim but has quite a solid midrange game, too. The veteran’s offensive efficiency is up there with the best players in the league, to boot.

But his best attribute of all has to be his effort. Favors is a workhorse on both ends of the court and will give you his all regardless of how many minutes he plays. Not once during his almost nine-year tenure with Utah was his effort ever called in to question and not a single time did you hear him complain about losing minutes to Gobert or declining touches on offense.

Even better, Favors rarely has an off night. He’s outrageously consistent, supremely humble and, overall, just a dude you want in your locker room and on the court every night. Pelicans fans may not have known how to react when they got him via trade, but they’ll be very pleased with the results he brings at the end of the season.

Best New Addition: Zion Williamson

Okay, I know you were waiting for this one. Probably the most hyped player to come out of the draft since LeBron James, Zion brings a certain buzz of excitement to the league that hasn’t been felt since the aforementioned Davis entered. His mix of size, athleticism and basketball IQ at such a young age are perhaps better than even James’ at the time of his draft.

It almost looks extraterrestrial to see his massive frame jump off the ground as high as he does. He has the weight and strength of an NBA center, the height of a small forward and the handles and touch of a guard. At the collegiate level, he was unbelievable in the open court when running fast breaks.

Williamson’s defensive skills are ahead of his time. He can guard just about every position with ease and can elevate to levels above the rim that almost seem impossible for his height.

He finished his college campaign with a 20 box plus-minus which is the best on record for a college player, finishing in front of players like Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns and Victor Oladipo.

It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint what position and situation will allow him to have the biggest impact in the NBA, but his success is almost a sure-fire thing. It is unfathomable to assume his floor is any lower than a solid starter for many years. His ceiling could go as high as the greatest player of all time. We won’t get ahead of ourselves here, but the intangibles are all there. Now, it just comes down to whether or not he can put them all together.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jrue Holiday

Until Zion proves otherwise, this is his team. He remained as second-fiddle to Anthony Davis for quite some time, so this could truly be his breakout year. We got a taste of it last season post-All-Star break when Davis played severely shallow minutes, but Holiday’s game has really grown to an All-Star-caliber level. He defends at an elite level and can score quite well, too.

He still needs to improve his finishing, as often his scoring comes as a result of poor efficiency, but downplaying the ability to get points in the NBA, regardless of percentages, is a poor move. Holiday is continually improving his offensive arsenal — and his defense is already at one of the top positions in the league — so he will be a major face to the franchise for at least this season, likely for many to come.

2. David Griffin

Give it to the big man upstairs for constructing this talented roster when all seemed lost. It was expected that they’d get quite the haul for Davis, which they did, but getting Derrick Favors, and JJ Redick, in addition, was huge. Also, drafting both Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker using draft picks from the trade, look to be enormous pickups as well. Both of those young guys played incredibly well during the NBA Summer League.

Seriously, things appeared pretty dismal for the Pelicans after the Davis news originally broke. The fact that they are even minutely mentioned in the playoff race six months later in the deep Western Conference is pretty miraculous.

3. JJ Redick

Redick – at age 34 – is coming off his highest-scoring season ever. On a roster that included Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid that is surely saying something. He finished the season with 18.1 points per game and did so shooting an effective field goal percentage of 55.7 percent.

It is still quite puzzling that the 76ers just let him go, especially for a team that sorely needs three-point shooting. Redick will be an instant boost on offense for the Pelicans and will absolutely help spread the floor.

He has the ability to consistently knock down shots at multiple levels, which will allow his teammates to move around more freely, as defenses will always need to keep an eye on the veteran’s location. He may not do what he did last season points-wise, but Redick isn’t anywhere near a decline at this point in his career.

4. Zion Williamson

What’s not to like? He’s big, strong and fast. For PR junkies, he has a nice smile and always seems to know what to say for a player at his age. He dunks with authority, has a motor that most have never seen and clearly loves the game of basketball. The list goes on and on and on.

What else can be said about this guy? His weight could be a factor down the road as far as the health of his knees is concerned, but something like that is such a small concern for the amount of upside at this time. Plus, it’s not that difficult to lose weight. And Williamson’s weight isn’t all that unhealthy. NBA trainers will get him looking like less of a football player and more of a basketball player in no time.

He will likely be in the starting lineup day one, so look for him to make a hyper-quick impact in the NBA. Fans everywhere will be holding their breath for his first earth-shattering dunk. Especially due to the fact that his play was so limited in the Las Vegas Summer League. Ladies and gentlemen, the Zion Era is almost upon us.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

This team’s biggest strengths are that there are no glaring weaknesses. They have pretty solid talent at multiple levels and don’t really lack anything on either side of the ball.

Their starting unit will consist of five players that would start for just about any team — and the fact that one of Ball, Ingram or Redick will likely start the season coming off the bench is telling about the level of top-end talent they possess.

The roster was pretty heavily rebuilt during the offseason, so we’ve yet to see what it will look like on the court, but there is plenty of talent there. Holiday, Favors and Ball can hold things down on defense, while players like Redick, Ingram and Williamson will be able to generate good looks on offense.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

On the flip side, however, their biggest weakness is that they have no outlying strengths. While everything on the court looks solid on paper, nothing really sticks out as an outright strength. The team is still incredibly young — there’s a lot to like about their roster, but what is one supposed to like the most?

Obviously Williamson will be fun, there’s no denying that. But calling him a strength without seeing any minutes against actual NBA talent would be a stretch. There’s no doubt he’ll get there, and maybe relatively quickly, but it’s still a question mark for now.

Until we see the finished product on the court working as a cohesive unit, you can’t really point to any major strengths. Will they make the playoffs? Maybe. But what will it be that gets them there? Only time will tell.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Pelicans make the playoffs?

It would be so fun to say yes here. The team is young, hungry, rebuilt and, in some cases, ready for revenge. What was the Lakers’ young core likely feels like used goods and is ready to show the NBA why they shouldn’t have been traded for Davis. Williamson is ready to make his stamp on the NBA, Favors is ready to blossom post-Jazz-life and Redick is out to prove why the 76ers should have paid him instead of others.

Unfortunately, the conference is just too deep. There are at least eight teams better than New Orleans and at least three teams that are arguably just as talented — to wit, to this writer: the Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings Oklahoma City Thunder.

It’s certainly not impossible. There is for sure a path that ends with New Orleans in the playoffs at the end of this season. But they are at least a year out before it becomes a determined, expected reality. They are too young, don’t have enough time together and still need to find out what their identity is. The Pelicans weren’t exactly a powerhouse with Anthony Davis, so they still have a long ways to go.

But they just might have the talent to eventually get them there.

– Jordan Hicks

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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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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