The fans in Philadelphia are hoping that their beloved 76ers have finally graduated from the rebuilding phase to a competitive “win-now” stage of their development.
For the first time in a very long time, Sixers faithful have reason to be optimistic and excited about the present, as opposed to just focused on the future. There is hope that the seedlings Sam Hinkie patiently planted in years past will finally begin to show fruit. Of course, plenty of question marks remain, but the foundation appears to be set and that alone is quite promising.
Basketball Insiders previews the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
It’s nice to see the 76ers starting a season in which they’ll actually be given the opportunity to be good at basketball, because it’s been a long time since they were anything but the tank-focused league laughing stock with zero chance at winning 25+ games in any given season. This year, though, there’s such a massive influx of young talent that it’s hard not to get at least a little excited about what’s to come. Those that “Trusted the Process” are about to see their patience rewarded in the form of rookies Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, as well as pseudo-rookie Joel Embiid. They still don’t have a point guard, and they still need to figure out how they’re going to return some measure of value for Jahlil Okafor in trade, but things are finally trending in the right direction for this squad. Plus, they may not actually be the worst team in the NBA. Progress!
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
The Sixers are headed for another sub .400 campaign, but let’s be clear unlike the past few seasons there is plenty of talent in Philadelphia these days. The team’s youth movement in the frontcourt will be their strength with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric all competing for minutes in the nightly rotation. This will create somewhat of a logjam, but it’s a good problem to have for the previously talent starved Sixers. However the team’s overall success could hinge on how much production they can realistically count on from its backcourt. The team signed veteran guards Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez for stability over the summer and all three will have the chance to challenge for 20-plus minutes per night. While the playoffs are still a very far cry away for the Sixers, the talent level is enough for them to move up in the Atlantic Division. Not sexy, we know, but definitely progress.
4th place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson among others give the Sixers a new look, as the team attempts to escape from the doldrums of the Eastern Conference. At the very least, it does appear that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but with the Raptors and Celtics clearly being the cream of the division and the Knicks having enough talent to compete, the Sixers will be battling the Nets to avoid the dubious distinction of being the doormat of the Atlantic.
One interesting thing to keep in mind as it relates to the Sixers, though, is that they are still more than $10 million beneath the salary floor and have more than $20 million worth of cap space. The Sixers still have the means to improve their team and could absorb a contract or two under the right circumstances. Barring something along those lines, though, I won’t bet on them escaping the cellar of the Atlantic. Not this season, anyway.
5th Place — Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
It’ll be very interesting to see how the 76ers manage their frontcourt pieces this season. Adding Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric to the mix when they already have Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor will likely only lead to more trade rumors coming out of Philly. I’m excited to see what Simmons can do at the NBA level after hearing so much hype about him for years, and he has some talented pieces around him (which is important since he’s a facilitator who needs offensive weapons to be at his best). I don’t expect the Sixers to make a ton of progress this year since they are still relying on a very young, inexperienced core. With that said, hopefully Embiid is healthy, Saric impresses and Simmons lives up to the hype. If those things happen, this team looks like one of the better up-and-coming squads in the East.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
The 76ers enter the 2016-17 NBA season with a lot of reason for optimism. After tanking for the last few seasons, the 76ers are loaded with young talent, including players like Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric and even Nik Stauskas. With Jerry Colangelo and Bryan Colangelo running the show, the team is now dedicated toward turning the fruits of the franchise’s suffering into something meaningful. In order to facilitate this transition, the front office added some veterans like Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez to bring stability to the team. While this team won’t be competing for a championship this season, it will be fun to watch the franchise find out who the cornerstone pieces are, who can be traded and how good guys like Simmons, Embiid and Saric can be. If things start coming together nicely in Philadelphia, let’s remember that it was Sam Hinkie who laid the foundation for their future success.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Jahlil Okafor
Okafor had a roller-coaster rookie campaign. He had a number of issues off the court, and struggled mightily on the defensive end of the floor. However, Okafor was arguably even better than advertised offensively. In fact, Okafor became just the sixth under-21 player in NBA history to average at least 17 points and seven rebounds while shooting above 50 percent from the floor. Per BasketballReference.com, the other five members of that exclusive club are Magic Johnson, Adrian Dantley, Chris Webber, Shaquille O’Neal, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Okafor can score in a number of ways. He has great touch around the basket, an impressive post-up game and can also step out and knock down 15-footers. Okafor has the potential to develop into one of the NBA’s truly elite low-post scorers.
Top Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel
Noel is already one of the most versatile and athletic defensive-minded big men in the NBA. In 2014-15, he became the first rookie in NBA history to average at least 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals per game. He was back at it again last season, patrolling the paint in Philadelphia, leading the 76ers in defensive rebounds and steals, while finishing second on the team in blocks.
Top Playmaker: Sergio Rodriguez
The Sixers plucked Rodriguez from Spain this summer with a one-year, $8 million deal. Sergio has some NBA experience; he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the 27th pick in the 2006 draft and was later traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, spending three seasons with them. He also had short stints with the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks before returning to Spain. Rodriguez developed significantly during his time playing in the competitive Spanish league. Last season, he led Real Madrid to a league championship, and led the league in assists for the second time in his career. The Sixers have had issues at point guard since trading away Michael Carter-Williams and are hoping Rodriguez can successfully facilitate the offense in his second go-around in America.
Top Clutch Player: Jahlil Okafor
This is a very difficult choice and should probably simply be left as “TBD: To Be Determined.” Because they are such a young team, no player has established themselves as a true “team leader.” Thus, it’s hard to predict who will get the ball in important, late-game situations. Will they dump the ball down low to Okafor in the post? Will Philly run a play to get experienced veteran shooting guard Gerald Henderson a good look? The other issue is the Sixers haven’t played many close games, so we haven’t had a chance to see them operate much in the clutch. By this time next year, we should have a better read on this situation.
The Unheralded Player: Dario Saric
No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons will (deservedly) draw plenty of attention. Ditto for Joel Embiid, as he (hopefully) makes his way back to the court. As a result, one rookie that may fly under the radar in Philadelphia is Croatian sensation Dario Saric. He has played for Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Basketball Super League since 2014, and averaged 11 points and six rebounds this past season. Still, as we know with young, international players, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Just 22 years of age, the 6’10 Saric is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. As he showcased in the Olympics, he is not intimidated by anybody and plays with an aggressive edge that will surely win over plenty of fans in the City of Brotherly Love.
Best New Addition: Ben Simmons
There are some flaws in Simmons game, such as the lack of a reliable jumper, but there is also plenty for Sixers fans to get supremely excited about. Simmons is a rare athlete who can dominate the game in a multitude of ways. He has a great handle and is a terrific playmaker for someone who stands 6’10. There is even talk of Simmons playing some point guard next season. In fact, when we create this list again next season, Simmons may be listed as the team’s best playmaker. He impressed during his first showing in a Sixers uniform, when he averaged 12.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists over his four games in the Las Vegas Summer League. Simmons has a good chance to join Allen Iverson and Michael Carter-Williams as the third player in franchise history to take home the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Brett Brown
Brown has been a head coach for three seasons and, amazingly, has yet to win 20 games in a single season. In total, his career record stands at a putrid 47-199 (.191 winning percentage). However, we know that judging Brown solely by his record would be unjust, because he has had so little talent to work with. The first three years of Brown’s coaching tenure have been about ripping apart the roster in an effort to rebuild the franchise. And, to his credit, Brown has kept a sturdy chin and taken the beating. He has always said the right thing and made sure his teams played hard, even if they were obviously out-manned and bereft of talent. The Sixers rewarded him with a two-year contract extension. The 2016-17 campaign will be the first opportunity Brown has to coach a team that will make winning games immediately the top priority, which means he’ll finally have the opportunity to enter each game with a legit chance to win.
2. Joel Embiid
The skepticism surrounding Embiid is obviously understandable, considering he hasn’t played a single minute in the NBA since being drafted back in 2014. However, the upside remains as enticing as ever. He was hailed by some as arguably the best center prospect in a decade when the Sixers snagged him with the No. 3 overall pick. He’s been beset by injuries ever since, but he recently claimed he was 100 percent and ready to finally get his NBA career off the ground. Based on footage from recent workouts, he looks like he’s in great shape.
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) July 24, 2016
If he can ever stay healthy, it will be extremely exciting to watch him unleash his rare combination of size and athleticism on the league…
3. Robert Covington
Covington has carved out his niche as an under-the-radar contributor in Philadelphia the last two seasons. Undrafted out of Tennessee State three years ago, he’s proven he belongs in the league. Last season, he averaged 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while posting a respectable 13.2 PER. Impressively, Covington shoots above 36 percent from three-point territory for his career. He has also impacted the game on the defensive end of the floor as well.
4. Jerami Grant
A former second-round pick, Grant earned a spot in Coach Brown’s rotation last season. Grant started 52 games for the 2015-16 Sixers, averaging 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in those 52 contests. With Saric, Simmons and Embiid entering the mix, it may be difficult for Grant get the same opportunities, so it will be interesting to see if he can continue his growth as a player in Philly.
SALARY CAP 101
The Sixers have changed over their management from Sam Hinkie to Bryan Colangelo, but the franchise’s financial position hasn’t changed significantly. The team is still carrying minimal payroll, with only $65.2 million in committed salaries. That’s roughly $29 million under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, giving Philadelphia tremendous flexibility in trade. Only 11 of the franchise’s 19 players heading into training camp have guaranteed contracts. The Sixers are well below the $84.7 million that teams are required to spend this season. If they don’t reach that mark, they’ll need to cut a check at the end of the year to their rostered players.
The 76ers need to decide on the rookie-scale options for Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas before November. Assuming the team takes all three options, Philadelphia projects to have in the neighborhood of $47 million in cap room next summer. Some of that could be committed to Nerlens Noel, whose extension deadline is Oct. 31.
The Sixers’ roster is stacked to the brim with young, talented athletes with tantalizing upside. Nerlens Noel is 22 years old. Jahlil Okafor is only 20. Joel Embiid is 22. Ben Simmons was 19 on draft day. Dario Saric is also just 22. The Sixers have only three players on their entire roster born in the 1980s. All the rest were born in the 1990s. There will obviously be growing pains with this inexperienced group, but Coach Brown should be able to tap into all that youthful energy on a nightly basis and use that to the Sixers’ advantage. Philadelphia obviously isn’t a title contender, and won’t be for a while, but they are moving in the right direction.
The Sixers were the worst offense in the NBA last season. They were the only team in the entire league to score fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions. In fact, Philly has posted the worst Offensive Rating (below 99.0 each year) three seasons in a row. The hope is that the arrival of Simmons as the facilitator and Embiid as a finisher, along with the continued development of Okafor, will allow the Sixers to score more efficiently and effectively starting this season. Philadelphia also finished last season with the fewest rebounds in the league. They will need to address/improve that deficiency next season.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Philadelphia trade away a forward/center to address their lack of depth in the backcourt?
Trading a “big” for a “small” isn’t always advisable in the NBA, but it may make sense considering the Sixers’ glut of big men and need for guards. Philly’s hand may be forced and they will have to make a difficult decision sooner rather later, especially if Embiid stays healthy through camp and the early part of the season. Noel may be a free agent next summer, and with the salary cap set to spike to north of $100 million, he would receive a bevy of lucrative offers. Will Philadelphia commit major money to Noel long-term? If they do, what happens with Okafor, Embiid and Saric? There are simply not enough minutes to go around up front. When you also consider the Sixers’ lack of quality guards (their projected starting point guard and shooting guard didn’t start a single NBA game last season), trading away from their glut of big men might be the best allocation of their resources. It is likely Philadelphia will be very active on the trade market in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline in February. In fact, it would be somewhat surprising if both Noel and Okafor are on the roster in March.
– Tommy Beer
NBA Daily: The Conference Final Losers’ Outlook
After being ousted over the weekend, Matt John takes a look at what went what Boston and Denver have to think about as they enter this offseason.
First off, let’s take a minute to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami HEAT for making the NBA Finals. It’s funny how this was a matchup everyone had dreamed of circa 2010 and, ironically, we finally have it – but LeBron James is on the opposite side this time! Also, it is certainly cool that this year two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year managed to work all the way up to the championships. We’ve seen NBA finalists who missed the playoffs the year prior, but we’ve never seen both sides do just that.
There will be plenty of in-depth analysis leading up to when the finals begin tonight, and you can find it anywhere easily. That won’t be found here. Here, we’re going to discuss the teams that came the closest to the final round, and some of the uncertainty they are going to face heading into next season.
Getting to the conference finals can be a big deal depending on where your team is at. For Boston and Denver, even though both are pretty young, getting to the conference finals has different gravity to both of them. Let’s explain.
Boston – So Close, Yet So Far
Should we be impressed or have cause for concern that Boston has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals? They’ve been able to do that with very differently constructed teams between all three of their appearances since 2017, but not getting over that hump after that many tries makes it less and less of a milestone.
The first two were defensible. In 2017, they were firmly in the “Just happy to be there!” camp, and, unless LeBron had all four of his limbs severed, there was no way that team was beating Cleveland. Those LeBron/Kyrie Cleveland teams were superteams overshadowed by the super-duper Warriors. With or without a healthy Isaiah Thomas, that Cavaliers team was going to roll all over them.
They definitely had a better shot the following year. The East was substantially weaker with Kyrie out of Cleveland, and Boston overachieved, but they were relying on a pair of young wings to take them not only to the finals, but to beat the best player of this generation too. The Cavaliers were definitely vulnerable, but not much can be done when inexperience is going up against arguably the most dominant version of LeBron James we’ve ever seen.
This time feels different though. Miami definitely had fewer holes – if not, none at all – that could be exploited on their roster. Even so, Boston, it seemed, had the more talented team. This was a much closer series than the final outcome made it look. It all simply came down to late-game execution. You’d think Boston’s more upfront talent would have given them the edge in that department, but the HEAT were the ones who made the big shots when it mattered.
That’s why this time, it doesn’t feel like a moral victory. This time, they are left with questions. Like, why did it take them until Game 3 to run plays through Jaylen Brown? Why is Marcus Smart taking the second-most shots in the most crucial game of the season? Should they keep their five best players if they haven’t shown they can play together? If they are serious about winning a championship, how are they going to make sure their opponents take as little advantage of Kemba’s defensive inadequacies as possible?
As disappointing as the season ended for them, Boston still has to feel good knowing that they have the league’s most talented young wing combo in the entire league and has built an excellent core around them. They could chalk up losing the conference finals to bad luck more than anything. The Bubble deprived them of playing in front of their fans. Gordon Hayward’s absence forced the team to have to exert a lot more for the majority of the playoffs than they expected to. Not to mention he clearly wasn’t 100 percent physically when he came back. Still, this was a golden opportunity to take another step forward and they blew it.
Among the multitude of reasons for why they fell short, this series also served as a subtle reminder that even in a smaller league, you can only get away with a lack of size for so long. The Celtics ran the center by committee approach about as well as they could have reasonably expected, but it was clear as day that the Celtics lacked a reliable big behind Daniel Theis. Enes Kanter and the Williams bros. all had their moments, but Brad Stevens never really trusted any of them over the long haul. They got away with that before facing Miami because Joel Embiid consistently ran out of gas, and Toronto’s frontcourt was designed more to stop elite size than to take advantage of a lack of it. Bam Adebayo killed Boston all series long on both ends of the floor (minus Game 5), and we’re only seeing the start of his potential superstar career.
With Jayson Tatum taking the leap and Jaylen Brown emerging as an elite two-way wing, the Celtics are no longer playing with house money and firmly entering the win-now phase. If their progress continues to stagnate, then some changes may be in order.
Denver – The Beginning or a Fluke?
They built this small market team from the ground up as opposed to having superstar players join forces to form a contender. There’s nothing wrong with that considering the players that do that just want a winning legacy, but seeing a team build a contender from scratch just feels purer when they make it to the top. That’s also why seeing a team like Milwaukee fail miserably in the playoffs is pretty heartbreaking.
On the surface, the Nuggets have all the ingredients in play to create both a dynasty and their most successful run as a franchise. We know that as long as they have Nikola Jokic, who has solidified himself as the best center in the league, Denver should always be near or at the very top of the Western Conference for the next decade. Although, being a top seed in the conference and being a contender can be two mutually exclusive terms.
The Nuggets’ progress has been far more encouraging than discouraging since last season. They were within inches of making the Western Conference Finals, and were a Mason Plumlee brain fart from potentially being up 2-1 on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray finally found his consistency. Outside of some ill-advised comments about his coach, there’s a lot to like about Michael Porter Jr. Jerami Grant’s going to get a nice paycheck this offseason. Gary Harris changed the entire landscape of Denver’s defense. Monte Morris and Paul Millsap were actually pretty reliable in the roles they were given. Oh, and they competed to the very end without one of their most important players, Will Barton.
Really, the concerns with Denver don’t pertain to them but more specifically to their surroundings. Everyone outside of presumably Oklahoma City is going to try to make the playoffs next year out West. Golden State will have a clean slate of health. As will Portland. In Year 3 of Luka, Dallas’ ceiling will only get higher. Pretty much every team that didn’t make the playoffs has room to grow, and the ones that did aren’t going to just give away their spot.
Still though, there are loose threads in Mile High City. We won’t know if Murray’s play was a young stud taking his next step into superstardom or if it was a facade from someone catching lightning in a bottle inside the Bubble. MPJ’s returns are extraordinary, but let’s see if his body can hold up long-term. What exactly are they going to do with Bol Bol?
Now that their offseason has arrived, they have to decide if they should run it back or make changes to strike while the iron is hot. History suggests that there’s no right or wrong answer. Miami did the latter mid-season, and now they’re in the finals. The Los Angeles Clippers also did the latter mid-season, and they’re sitting at home. Boston did the former, and you can argue both sides for them. Not having enough bench help hurt them, and yet a healthy Gordon Hayward could have put them in the finals.
Denver’s come along nicely since the start of the Nikola Jokic era, and they still haven’t hit their ceiling yet. What matters most is that they do everything to get to their ceiling. How they do that is the real question.
Making the conference finals is a massive stepping stone for young teams. For Boston, this was an all too familiar territory. For Denver, this was monumental. What both need to focus on is how they’re going to take it one step further next season. Or, at the very least, make sure they don’t take a step back.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.