At nearly the quarter pole of the NBA season, the sample of games has become just about large enough to begin making some semi-concrete conclusions about teams. We always knew certain obvious bits here – the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are good, the The Philadelphia 76ers are not – but the available information, both on screen and on paper, allows us to find more detailed context in between.
When we ranked the Northwest Division before the season began, the general expectation was a three-tiered situation: the Oklahoma City Thunder running away with things as long as they were healthy, the Utah Jazz solidly in second and the trio of the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets grouped together as non-playoff contenders. Wouldn’t you know it, we got that one mostly right – though the details certainly haven’t been exactly as expected. Let’s take a look back at the division through nearly 25 percent of the year and see where things stand.
- Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets came out of the gate strong with a win over the Houston Rockets and an above-.500 record through the season’s first week, but have sharply come back to earth since. They had lost eight straight before a close win in Toronto on Thursday, and have careened back to the bottom of the division record-wise.
They’re only a game or two behind the rest of the group, but some more descriptive metrics place them a solid tier below Minnesota and Portland at this point. Denver is 26th in the league for per-possession net rating, and aren’t a whole lot better for adjusted net rating (accounts for opponent quality) at 25th. They’ve got a bottom-10 defense and a bottom-10 offense (both 25th as of Friday), a deadly combo.
This year was never really about wins and losses for the Nuggets, though, and while Wilson Chandler’s season-ending injury is a heart-breaker after he signed a new extension in the offseason, a few other pieces have shown promise. Emmanuel Mudiay is predictably struggling at times as a 19-year-old running the starting point for an NBA team, but is making many of the “right” mistakes and seems a shoo-in to be a quality player at the very least down the road. They’ve had good contributions from Will Barton and Nikola Jokic, and youngster Joffrey Lauvergne has recently returned and played very well. They’re still awaiting Jusuf Nurkic’s return to the fold, at which point Mike Malone will have his full complement (minus Chandler) with which to tinker and figure out what the team has for the future.
- Portland Trail Blazers
Separating Portland and Minnesota could honestly come down to the flip of a coin. Both have had flashes of real competence along with periods of yucky play, and while both still figure to be on the outside looking in come playoff time, both are perhaps a hair better overall than many had projected coming into the year.
Minnesota gets the nod ahead for now, fair or not, because their future promise viewed through the current team is so much more exciting. That said, though, the Blazers have some fun things happening as well, even as they sit several games under .500. C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard have quickly become one of the most lethal shooting backcourts in the league this side of Golden State, with McCollum in particular impressing compared with expectations and making a case for Most Improved Player. Mason Plumlee has been a positive in a sizable role, and while Al-Farouq Aminu has cooled off after a hot start to the year from deep, he’s still giving Portland over 31 valuable two-way minutes a night on a good contract.
The Blazers are actually just a hair below positive numbers for per-possession rating, and even have an argument as part of a secondary Western Conference group that may send a couple teams to the playoffs if groups like Houston and the New Orleans Pelicans continue to struggle. Portland is probably at the bottom end of this grouping, if they’re even in it, but even this is a step up from what most had expected.
- Minnesota Timberwolves
All positives in Minnesota this year have to start here: Karl-Anthony Towns is even better than most of us anticipated. This sounds a little insane for one of the more highly-touted top overall picks in recent years, but it’s absolutely true. Towns is putting up a 20.5 PER, absolute lunacy for a rookie who turned 20 just two weeks into his first NBA season. He’s doing it despite long stretches where it’s obvious to the naked eye that he’s still figuring out the details of the NBA game on the fly – he’s simply so physically talented that it often hasn’t mattered. He hasn’t even gotten comfortable behind the NBA three-point line, either, a fact that has to terrify the rest of the league.
Towns hasn’t been the only positive for the Wolves, of course. They’re virtually break-even per-possession to this point, a huge win for a team whose best two players are under 21. They’ve been able to weather the usual bevy of early injuries to Ricky Rubio, and have looked like a truly competitive team for bursts when Rubio has been in the lineup. Andrew Wiggins has been full speed ahead after winning the Rookie of the Year award last season, dramatically increasing his on-court usage while simultaneously upping his efficiency all over the floor.
The Wolves still go stretches where their age shows, but most expected this to be a more frequent event. Their experiment with Zach LaVine at point guard continues to be a disaster, but he’s looked good when playing at the two-spot. Minnesota is almost certainly held back to some degree by Sam Mitchell’s insistence upon playing an offense that ends up emphasizing midrange jumpers instead of threes, something that could be a concern in the future once the team is ready to fully contend. But they’re a great story for now regardless, and this core remains the scariest young group in the NBA.
- Utah Jazz
On the surface, it may seem as though Utah has actually fallen back into a grouping alongside the previous three teams (or at least the previous two). They’re just one spot ahead of Minnesota and Portland, respectively, for per-possession rating, and similarly close in the actual standings.
This is a bit of a context-absent point of view, though. The Jazz have faced the sixth-hardest schedule in the league to this point, per basketball-reference.com’s strength-of-schedule metric, and played eight of their first 10 games on the road. They’re a tier ahead of the Wolves and Blazers as far as adjusted net rating goes, showcasing the level to which their opposition has dragged some of their more basic metrics down.
There are still a few concerns in Salt Lake City, the most immediate of which is a Grade II MCL sprain for Rudy Gobert that should keep him out through the new year. The Jazz altered their defense on the fly without the Stifle Tower against the Orlando Magic Thursday night, and looked out of place for much of the game defensively as a result. The onus is firmly on coach Quin Snyder to help his young group adjust on the fly, something he’s been more than capable of in the past.
They’ll need strong play from their other top guys to keep the group afloat with Gobert sidelined, which seems likely to happen. Derrick Favors has been playing like an All-Star all year and is easily Utah’s best and most consistent player to this point – his role will be in the spotlight minus his usual frontcourt partner. Gordon Hayward had a rough start to the year, particularly shooting the ball, but has come on in the last week or two and looks ready to carry this group like he did much of last season. If the Jazz can survive this stretch minus Gobert and enter the new year sitting in a playoff spot, they could make a charge up the ladder.
- Oklahoma City Thunder
Things haven’t been perfect early on, but it’s fairly clear no one will be touching the Thunder in the Northwest barring another major injury. The talent gap is just too large when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are firing on all cylinders.
And firing they are. Both guys are posting PERs that would rank among the top 20 individual seasons of all time, an insane fact that would be drawing even more attention if it weren’t for Stephen Curry threatening to smash the record here into pieces. They’re just overwhelming in every sense – Russ with his sheer force and ability to literally control long periods of games, KD with the same ruthless efficiency and ability to get his from anywhere on the court that’s made him one of the most unique offensive players ever. If these two remain on the floor all season, the division title and a top-three seed in the West should be a walk in the park for this group.
They want more, though, and whether they’re truly in a higher tier with teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland and perhaps even Golden State is another question. They do sit fourth for adjusted net rating as of Friday, but are well behind the Spurs and Warriors in the West here. Their defense has been suspect at times, sitting roughly league average to this point but climbing from a rough start.
One does get the feeling that some elements around the margins could be their downfall when all the chips are on the table. KD and Russ are enough to overcome the majority of teams on their own most nights, but we know the way the game can constrict come playoff time, and their top competition has a healthy dose of star power as well. Serge Ibaka has produced perhaps a bit less than expected so far – there have been a few games where he’s been invisible, a strange thing for a one-time All-Star candidate. And beyond him, depth could end up being a real question for the Thunder.
Enes Kanter has done well offensively in his role off the bench, but continues to torpedo the team’s defense while he plays. Steven Adams has been fine, and Dion Waiters has had his moments, but especially in the latter case, many are too scarred from the past to trust this in high-leverage moments.
Maybe most importantly, the coaching change from Scott Brooks to Billy Donovan hasn’t had as much of an effect as many assumed. There’s concern that, like Brooks, Donovan has had issues getting through to the team’s stars – one league executive told Basketball Insiders as much while suggesting that it often takes at least a year for big personalities like these to fully mesh with a new bench boss, a time period that could be too late for Donovan if KD makes the wrong decision this summer.
Some of this was to be expected given these personalities, though, and Donovan also hasn’t really done much in some of his more controllable areas to separate himself from his predecessor. Like Brooks, he’s seemed allergic to staggering his stars’ substitution patterns, leaving the Thunder with stretches every game where none of Durant, Westbrook or Ibaka is on the floor – periods where OKC gets destroyed consistently. Through Friday, they’d played 156 such minutes over 19 contests, per nbawowy.com, over eight minutes a game. There’s really no excuse for this when simple numerical evidence strongly suggests leaving at least one on the floor at all times is much more effective. Donovan also hasn’t done much to change up the vanilla style they play offensively, though this was always going to be a tall ask for any new coach.
It remains to be seen whether the Thunder have the chops to truly challenge for the West and a shot at the title, but the time for wondering whether they’re the class of the Northwest was likely over before the season even began. They should cruise to a division title and a home series in the first round, at which point the real challenges will begin.
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
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