This is a strange year when it comes to the NBA’s end-of-season player awards.
Typically, there is a lot of debate over who deserves each honor. There are 129 sportswriters and broadcasters who make up the voting panel, and they receive their ballots two weeks before the regular season ends. Some years, voters will wait until the absolute final moment (after the final regular season game) to cast their ballot because the competition is that intense and they want to have as much information as possible before making up their mind.
However, this season’s award races will be relatively anti-climactic because the results seem rather obvious. Stephen Curry will be Most Valuable Player, Karl-Anthony Towns seems poised to be Rookie of the Year, C.J. McCollum will likely be Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year seems like it’ll once again come down to Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green.
There doesn’t seem to be many wide-open award races this year. That is, except for Sixth Man of the Year. The award is obviously given to the most productive reserve and, in order to be eligible, a player must come off of the bench in more games than he starts.
The top two vote-getters from last season are currently ineligible, so it’ll be interesting to see who the media turns to now. Last year, Lou Williams and Isaiah Thomas finished first and second in the voting, but both players used their successful 2014-15 campaign as a springboard to an increased role.
The veterans who are typically mentioned as possible Sixth Man candidates, such San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, Houston Rockets guard Jason Terry and Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, seem like long shots now. Each of these players have seen their production dip significantly as they’ve gotten older and all three are averaging single-digit points.
The only “usual suspect” left in the race is Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who is competing with a host of new candidates such as Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter, Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton, Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin and New Orleans Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson among others.
But while it seems there isn’t a clear-cut frontrunner, NBA players see the Sixth Man of the Year race very differently. Basketball Insiders talked to a long list of NBA players and almost every single one said that Crawford deserves the award.
Obviously Crawford’s teammates were quick to campaign for him, but players from all around the NBA voiced their support for the 36-year-old guard as well.
If Crawford is named this season’s Sixth Man of the Year, he’ll become the first player in NBA history to win the award three times. He also earned the honor in 2010 (with the Atlanta Hawks) and 2014 (with the Clippers), joining Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf as the only two-time winners.
“When you win games, those individual honors have a way of working themselves out,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “You can’t be in the conversation for any of those things if you’re not winning. To be recognized again would be a great honor! But obviously winning is the most important thing, especially this season. We revamped our team to start the season and then lost our big gun, Blake Griffin, for a while. No one thought we would be in this position now – fourth in the Western Conference – but here we are. It’s taken a collective effort from the coaches and players to get here. And we’re not satisfied with where we are because we still have a long way to go. There’s so much more work to be done.”
This season, Crawford is averaging 14 points in 26.8 minutes off the bench. He stepped up significantly once the Clippers lost Griffin due to injury. Since Dec. 25 (the last time that Griffin played), Crawford has increased his average to 15.5 points per game and he has scored 15 or more points in 27 contests, which is the most of any bench player during that span. He has scored in double figures in 54 games this season. Many players who felt Crawford deserved the award mentioned how he’s helped keep the Clippers’ offense performing at it’s usual high level in Griffin’s absence. L.A. currently has the NBA’s sixth-best offense, scoring 106 points per 100 possessions.
Crawford has also played well when his team needs him most: in the fourth quarter. This season, he leads the Clippers in total points scored in the fourth quarter with 319. He may not start games for Los Angeles, but he often finishes them and makes an impact in the final period.
The fact that Crawford is putting up these numbers on a legitimate contender helps his case for the award too. In the past 20 seasons, every Sixth Man of the Year winner came from a playoff team. Crawford is the leading reserve scorer among all postseason-bound teams.
But perhaps the biggest reason Crawford is so universally respected among opposing players is his ability to create his own shot. He ranks seventh in the league in isolation points (223) behind only stars James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Durant.
Crawford does some amazing things with the ball in his hands, and he’s excellent in one-on-one situations. Even the best defenders in the NBA admit that they hate guarding Crawford because he has so many different weapons in his offensive arsenal and he’s completely unpredictable. Fouling him is pointless too since he is ranked first in the NBA in free throw percentage this season, hitting 90.9 percent of his shots from the charity stripe.
Crawford certainly doesn’t look like a 36-year-old on the court. In fact, as SLAM recently noted, he’s the first NBA player in history to average over 13 points while playing fewer than 27 minutes per game in at least his 16th NBA season. Crawford found that stat amusing. He also laughed when he learned that he’s averaging 18.5 points per-36-minutes this year, which is actually higher than his per-36-minutes scoring average from over a decade ago when he was in his prime with the New York Knicks.
On many teams, Crawford would be starting. However, he has embraced the sixth-man role and enjoys leading the second unit. Still, if asked to start, Crawford will rise to the occasion. In his three starts this season for the Clippers, he averaged 28 points, five assists and four rebounds while shooting 45.2 percent from the field, 43.5 percent from three-point range and 94.7 percent from the free throw line.
Crawford has had a number of signature performances this season too.
He had 37 points, eight assists and six rebounds in a November win over the Detroit Pistons (numbers that only Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook have matched this season). Crawford had 32 points (including 6-9 three-pointers) and five assists to beat the Orlando Magic in December. Later that month, he led the Clippers to a win over the Washington Wizards by scoring an efficient 21 points on 9-12 shooting from the field. In January, the veteran guard contributed 26 points (on 11-15 shooting from the field) and three assists to defeat the Chicago Bulls. Last month, Crawford had 26 points in 25 minutes – hitting 10-17 shots, including 3-4 three-pointers – to beat the Brooklyn Nets.
For an example of Crawford getting hot and helping lead L.A. to a victory, look no further than last night’s 25-point performance against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Some NBA decision-makers also believe Crawford is the obvious choice for the award.
“Jamal is worthy of the award almost every year, but he has to get it this year,” said one rival Western Conference executive who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “Without Jamal, they’d have been sunk by the Blake Griffin injury. He is definitely one of the elite sixth men in the league and somehow he still remains underrated. He not only comes off the bench and scores, he does it in a way that helps them win games.”
“Jamal has been amazing; he provides the type of spark off the bench that can be the difference between a team having an early exit in the postseason and making a deep playoff run,” said an NBA assistant coach, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “His instant offense really comes up big in games where game plans are thwarted early and you simply need to get buckets. In my opinion, he deserves Sixth Man of the Year honors.”
It’s clear that there’s an overwhelming number of NBA players who are adamant that Crawford is the NBA’s best sixth man. Many players – young and old, short and tall, East and West – all have a lot of respect for Crawford. Here’s what players told Basketball Insiders:
Sacramento Kings forward Caron Butler: “He’s the greatest sixth man in NBA history. He should win the award this year, and that would solidify him as the best sixth man ever. He was a great teammate [on the Clippers] and an even better person. I’m happy to call him a friend. He has the respect of all of his peers. As athletes, that’s what we all shoot for: winning, being respected and having a solid legacy.”
Indiana Pacers point guard Ty Lawson: “[Winning three Sixth Man awards] has never been done. It would be a big honor for him to win that award three times because he’s one of the best players to have ever come off a bench. You never know what he’s going to do. He might come down and just pull up for a three, or he might give you a hesitation move (which he normally does right before he pulls up for a three) or he just blows by you. It’s so hard to guard him. Even in the lane, he knows how to throw up floaters and he always seems to make them.”
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin: “Jamal is not only a huge part of our bench, but also our team. I’ve never seen a guy be able to come off the bench and consistently score and carry a second unit the way he does while accepting his role. As good as he is on the court, he’s even better off of it. He’s a terrific locker room guy. He should win Sixth Man of the Year this season. And I think he should have won the award two more times than he already has, in my opinion.”
Five-time All-Star Chauncey Billups: “Of course Jamal should be the Sixth Man of the Year this season – again! He’s a guy who deserves a tremendous amount of credit for accepting a reserve role while knowing that he could be a top-five scorer in the league if put in that position. He’s extremely valuable to the Clippers. They depend on his production every night. He’s the best in the league at what he does.”
Two-time All-Star Baron Davis: “I love Jamal Crawford. He is one of my favorite players to watch. He has always been stellar and consistent. He is a player that every team wishes they had coming off the bench. I think he is a key to the Clippers making a run this year. He deserves Sixth Man of the Year because of the impact he has on the team.”
Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton: “He deserves to win Sixth Man of the Year. He’s so important to that team because he’s instant offense off of the bench. He’s somebody who can come in and bring energy and get the crowd into the game. Also, when it comes to closing games, he’s someone who can create his own shot, so he’s very important to the Clippers. He’s tough to guard because he is so good at making tough shots. No shot is a bad shot for him. I remember watching him when I was younger – four-point play after four-point play.”
Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas: “He’s in the conversation every year. He does for his team what other guys try to do and can’t. And it happens to be year 16 in his NBA career! It says a lot about the type of player he is. He could easily start around the league, but he’s a guy who doesn’t care about that and cares about doing what’s best for the team. It’s a blessing to play against Jamal because he is a big brother to me and I’ve known him for so long. Going against him is like playing in his pro-am in the summers; we battle and have fun at the same time. He’s very important to the Clippers. I watch all of their games when I’m not playing and it seems like if Jamal doesn’t play well, then they don’t play well. He’s a big part of their team and when he plays well, they usually win. I believe he should be high up in the conversation about another Sixth Man of the Year award. He deserves it, and his team is winning.”
Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard: “He’s a game-changer for them. They could be having a bad night and he can take over. He makes big shots, tough shots, and draws fouls if you’re too physical.”
Washington Wizards forward Jared Dudley: “Jamal Crawford is one of the most unique players in the NBA. His shot-making ability off the dribble and his uncanny way to get to the free throw line makes him dangerous. He’s the Benjamin Button of the NBA. He’s simply not aging at all.”
Seven-time All-Star Grant Hill: “Aside from his impressive shot-making ability and his vast array of illusory skills, what’s impressed me most about Jamal is his longevity and durability. To be able to dominate off the bench in now his 16th year in the league is quite remarkable.”
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert: “He is, for sure, one of the frontrunners. You know he can go off anytime, so you cannot relax against him.”
Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick: “Jamal is one of a kind – both as a player and a person. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him and playing with him the past three seasons. He’s the epitome of what a sixth man should be: someone who instantly changes the flow and dynamic of the game with his skill set. For Jamal, that is scoring the basketball. There are few players, if any, like him.”
Nine-year NBA veteran Mo Evans: “Jamal Crawford is a prolific scorer with a high basketball IQ and a knack for hitting big shots. He did this for our Atlanta Hawks team over and over again in 2010, when he won his first Sixth Man of the Year award. His game is proving to be timeless. He is still equally impactful at 36 years old as he was in his younger years. He has heavily contributed to the Clippers’ success this year, especially with Blake Griffin out of the line-up. He’s a big reason L.A. is fourth in the Western Conference. All things considered, I believe he deserves a historic third Sixth Man of the Year award.”
Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum: “Jamal is one of the toughest covers in the league. His ability to shoot off the dribble and manipulate ball screens makes him a unique guard. [He] also gives the Clippers a secondary ball handler. … Jamal could potentially win [the Sixth Man award] every year.”
Miami HEAT center Hassan Whiteside: “When he has the ball, you never know what he is going to do with it. [Until this interview], I didn’t know he was 36 years old. Wow. That’s crazy.”
Brooklyn Nets point guard Shane Larkin: “I think Jamal Crawford has a good chance at winning Sixth Man of the Year because he is crucial to the Clippers’ success. He comes into the game for J.J. [Redick] most of the time and immediately makes them more dangerous because he can do everything with the ball offensively and pretty much carries the second unit for them. Whenever you’re playing against him, you have to respect his jumper but he also keeps you on your heels because at any moment he can cross you over and make a mid-range pull-up or get all the way to the bucket. He is the one guy on their second unit who consistently gives other teams problems and produces starter-like numbers. For a team that has been without their leading scorer in Blake Griffin for a long time, he has been huge for them. He finishes a lot of ball games for the them alongside of Chris Paul and it is very difficult to guard them both in multiple pick-and-roll actions with DeAndre [Jordan] rolling to the rim. I think JC has a good chance of winning the award for the third time and it would be pretty cool to see it happen.”
New York Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn: “It would be nice for him to make history by winning his third Sixth Man award. Not only does he deserve it, that will separate him as the best sixth man ever, which he is. Every time people talk about sixth men, his name comes up and people compare themselves to him. He means a lot to the Clippers. He’s that spark that could really push the lead against teams. And honestly, he’s scouted more than a lot of starters.”
Brooklyn Nets center Willie Reed: “I definitely think Jamal deserves to be Sixth Man of the Year. What he’s done in the absence of Blake [Griffin] to help the Clippers keep rolling has been amazing. Playing against him, you definitely have to shrink your defense. He can shoot the ball and draw contact to get to the line, where he shoots over 90 percent. Also, he has the handles to get wherever he wants on the floor. He’s so difficult to defend.”
Former NBA player and current Providence assistant coach God Shammgod: “I think he should win the award every year, and there’s no doubt that he’s the best sixth man ever. He would start on most teams. As an assistant at Providence, I’ve worked with guards like Kris Dunn and Bryce Cotton and I make sure they study Jamal’s game. They study everything from how he breaks defenses down to his pull-up jumper. Every guard can learn from him.”
Portland Trail Blazers forward Ed Davis: “He is super important for that team. He’s a guy who you have to game plan for, otherwise he’ll beat you. He can produce instant offense. He’s the kind of player who can easily go for 16 points in a single quarter.”
Cleveland Cavaliers D-League affiliate player Quinn Cook: “Did Jamal influence my game growing up? Hell yes! I’ve watched every single video of his and I still watch them to this day. He should be Sixth Man of the Year. He’s the primary scorer for their second unit and he’s in the game when it matters. He’s more important to his team than any other sixth man in the league.”
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