In an ongoing attempt to continue to get you your basketball fix, Basketball Insiders is taking a look back at recent draft classes and assessing them relative to the expectations that were in place as of their respect NBA Drafts.
We are grading according to the following criteria:
The Hits – the players that panned out
The Misses – the players that did not pan out
The Sleepers – the players that exceeded minimal expectations
The Jury Is Out – those that have shown flashes
Matt John did a fantastic job assessing the 2014 NBA Draft. Ben Nadeau and Spencer Davies did an equally impressive job reviewing the 2015 and 2016 draft classes, respectively. Up next, we’ll dive into the controversial 2017 NBA Draft class.
The 2017 NBA Draft appeared to be as stocked with high-end talent as any of the other recent draft. But for those of us who needed a refresher on the old “everything that glimmers isn’t gold” adage, 2017 served that purpose. No one anticipated the struggles that Markelle Fultz would face due to a shoulder ailment and a case of the yips; Fultz is probably the highest-profile “bust” since Greg Oden.
And while Fultz has at least gained some traction in Orlando since his challenging time with Philly, there are plenty of other interesting storylines from the 2017 draft. It was seen as the year of the point guard, but its best players don’t exactly fit that bill. Now with all of that being said, let’s jump in.
Jayson Tatum, No. 3
Tatum was special in his lone season at Duke. No one thought he’d be this special, though. Tatum fits perfectly in the modern NBA. He’s as smooth as they come offensively, and his length and mobility make him an above-average defender and rebounder. He’s a dead-eye shooter and he’s one of the best tough-shot makers in the league. Tatum is the rare talent who can put a team on his back for extremely long stretches. Oh, and he also plays nice with others. No one expected Tatum to be THIS good.
De’Aaron Fox, No. 5
Fox was viewed as the steal of the draft before the draft was even over. He was a boom-or-bust prospect whose style fit the league perfectly. He’s a lightning-quick lead guard who wants all of the smoke. Despite being ranked as a lesser prospect, he took it to Lonzo Ball in just about every matchup they’d had in college. And he’s continued to impress in the NBA. Fox is the kind of player around whom you build your franchise. While that’s always been thought of as his ceiling, it’s rare to see players live up to their potential to the degree in which Fox has.
Jonathan Isaac, No. 6
Entering the draft, Isaac was seen as the prototypical stretch-four. He took time to develop – averaging only 5.4 points per game in his rookie season. But he blossomed in his third season in the league. Isaac supplanted Aaron Gordon as the Magic’s best defender, and his defensive versatility gives the Magic options they’d only dreamed of prior to this season. He’s also a pretty efficient offensive player who poster a better than 50% effective field goal percentage. Isaac still has to prove he can play at a high level with consistency, but he made major strides this year – living up to his draft position, and then some.
Donovan Mitchell, No. 13
Mitchell is the major surprise of the 2017 NBA Draft. The Louisville standout was seen as too small to succeed in the NBA. But that way of thinking was quickly debunked as Mitchell proceeded to average more than 20 points per game as a rookie – and he hasn’t looked back since.
Mitchell since established himself as the cornerstone of the Utah Jazz, and he’ll probably hold that title for the next decade or so – if he wants it. Mitchell easily outperformed pre-draft expectations. Phil Jackson, then president of the Knicks, saw potential in Mitchell. Few others did with the exception of the Jazz. And now they’re reaping the rewards.
Bam Adebayo, No. 14
2019-20 was Adebayo’s coming out party. Prior to this season, Adebayo was a reserve. Still, his per-36 numbers projected an effective and versatile big man. This season, he delivered, averaging 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Adebayo affects the game in every way possible. And considering his relatively low profile entering the draft – Adebayo was projected to be drafted 17th overall by NBADraft.net and was called “raw” and an “energy big” by various outlets– he turned out to be a steal in the late lottery.
Markelle Fultz, No. 1
Fultz got all of the hype you’d expect a first overall pick would receive. Despite missing the NCAA tournament in his lone season at Washington, he was a generational athlete who shot it well from deep and possessed game-changing size and physicality for a point guard.
But Fultz’s rookie season was derailed thanks to shoulder issues. He was (probably) mismanaged by the Philadelphia 76ers and allowed to play too early, leading to a loss in confidence and – ultimately – his departure from Philadelphia. Fultz contributed far more consistently in Orlando in 2019-20, but he still underperformed for his draft position. And he’s still not anywhere near as good as pundits felt he’d be prior to the 2017 NBA Draft. It’s a sad story, but it’s not over yet. At least he’s righted the ship.
Josh Jackson, No. 4
Fultz might provide more interesting – albeit premature – headlines, but Jackson’s path been more painful to watch – mostly because his setbacks are mostly his own fault. Jackson entered the 2017 NBA Draft as the Swiss Army knife of the bunch. He was seen as a do-it-all wing whose game fits the modern NBA’s as perfect as any prospect. Instead of hitting the ground running, Jackson had multiple run-ins with the law, resulting in suspensions and a trade from the Phoenix Suns. But Jackson flourished in the G-League after being dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies, and he continued to play efficiently after being called back up.
Jackson could still easily turn his career around. But the setbacks he’s undergone make his first three years a major disappointment.
Dennis Smith Jr., No. 8
Smith Jr. was one of the more celebrated prospects in 2017. And based on his rookie season, his profile seemed justified. But then Luka Doncic shook up the NBA – and Smith Jr.’s effectiveness waned.
Still, Smith Jr. has shown signs as recently as the end of 2018-19. He was traded to New York as part of the deal that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. He averaged 20 points and 5 assists in March 2019. And while he might not have looked like a cornerstone, that was more than the Knicks had at point guard in some time. He struggled with personal loss and a back injury early on this season and he never recovered. And while he possesses the athleticism and ability to be a borderline All-Star, he’ll need to prove it on the court before this writer is comfortable calling him anything less than a miss relative to expectations.
John Collins, No. 19
Collins has progressed pretty much exactly how teams like their young stars to do so. His scoring average, minutes per game and PER have all shot up in the last three seasons: 10.5 points in 24.3 minutes per game with an 18.3 PER in 2017-18; 19.5 points in 30 minutes per game with a 21.8 PER in 2018-19; and 21.6 points in 33.2 minutes per game with a 23.5 PER in 2019-20. Further, he’s an excellent three-point shooter (40.1% in 2019-20) and extremely active around the rim.
Collins is not THE centerpiece of a contending NBA team, but he’s got all the right attributes to be a starter and a third option. And at 22-years-old, Collins could get even better. Not bad value at all for the late-middle of the first round.
Jarrett Allen, No. 22
Despite the fact that Allen’s status on his own team is in question, he’s still an elite defender who’s an above-average lob-catcher and screener. He’s versatile enough to switch on to ball-handlers in screen-and-rolls, and he’s already built an impressive highlight reel of blocked shots that includes LeBron James and Giannis Antetokunmpo.
Yes, Allen was an integral part of a playoff team as recently as two months ago. But expectations were nowhere near that high for him. And while there is some uncertainty ahead for Allen, his talent and work ethic will win out. While he’ll probably never develop a consistent jump shot, his motor and defensive gifts render him a starter in the NBA for years to come
OG Anunoby, No. 23
Anunoby was pegged as a breakout player for 2018-19. But Pascal Siakam stole his thunder. While Siakam delivered again this season, Anunoby would not be ignored in two straight seasons.
But rewind a bit and you’ll read about a risky prospect projected to fall into the second round. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Masai Ujiri and his staff saw the potential of Anunoby, and he’s rewarded them for their faith. He came into his own in 2019-20, establishing himself as a legitimate starter in the NBA. Who knows what he’ll look like next season.
Kyle Kuzma, No. 27
Kuzma quickly proved his worth, averaging 16.1 points per game as a rookie. His scoring average jumped in his sophomore season (18.7); but his production took a fairly big hit in 2019-20 after his good friend Lonzo Ball was sent to New Orleans alongside Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and numerous draft considerations in exchange for Anthony Davis.
But Kuzma is still viewed very favorably around the league. His fit alongside the win-now Lakers might not be ideal, but he’s still seen as an extremely valuable building block for most teams – especially ones in the middle of a rebuild. Kuzma was selected late in the first-round, and he’s already outperformed even the highest of expectations for the 27th pick of virtually any draft. In the right situation, he could put up All-Star-caliber numbers. And the Lakers are running low on trade chips. This writer wouldn’t be surprised to see Kuzma playing elsewhere as soon as next season – whenever that is.
Derrick White, No. 29
Thomas Bryant, No. 42
Dillion Brooks, No. 45
Monte Morris, No. 51
Jury Is Still Out
Lonzo Ball, No. 2
Ball entered the NBA with tremendous fanfare thanks, in part, to his father’s loud endorsements. LaVar Ball wasn’t entirely wrong about his son, though; It’s just that Lonzo hasn’t translated as well as his dad predicted.
But Ball’s quickness, court vision and defense render him a huge net positive. His shot, on the other hand, has hurt his ability to stretch the defense and be a scoring threat at all times when on offense – even though it did look significantly better in 2019-20 than in years’ past. Ball isn’t the first player who’s experienced relative success in the league while also undershooting expectations, and he won’t be the last. He could still grow into an All-Star, but he’s not the transcendent talent we were led to believe he’d be.
Lauri Markkanen, No. 7
By the parameters of this series, Markkanen looked way more like a hit entering 2019-20. But then this season happened. Markkanen was used as more of a spot-up shooter than he’d been in the previous two seasons. His minutes dropped slightly, as did his scoring (18.7 to 14.7 per game), rebounding (9.0 to 6.3) and his three-point percentage (36.1% to 34.4%). And his field goal attempts were down considerably from inside the three point line all the way to three feet from the basket.
But Markkanen doesn’t qualify as a bust, either. He still averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in less than 28 minutes per game. He’s a seven-footer who is still an above-average marksman given his size and position, and he’s still just 22. Markkanen might end up as a multi-time All-Star, so no need for too much alarm. And expectations weren’t too high on him as of 2017. But he’s hasn’t established himself as much as the “hits” featured above.
Frank Ntilikina, No. 8
The Knicks were dead set on a point guard in 2017. They were reportedly down to Ntilikina and Smith Jr. – ironically, they now employ both. But where Smith Jr. started off strongly and tapered off, Ntilikina took time to ramp up. In fact, he’s still ramping. Ntilikina is a sneaky good defender whose offensive prowess continues to grow. He’s a high-IQ player who will require more polished offensive talent around him if he’s going to start on a contender. But ultimately, the jury is still out. Ntilikina hasn’t been nearly consistent enough to be deemed anything but an unfinished product. He flashes the ability to oversee the offense, remain aggressive on offense, create for others and (obviously) defend multiple positions at a very high level. He just hasn’t done it regularly. He’s still only 21, so there is still ample time for Ntilikina to fulfill all of his potential and then some.
Every draft class is interesting with its share of hits and misses. While analyzing how well players perform relative to past expectations feels unnecessary, it’s also really fun. And doing so with the 2017 draft class is no different – and it provides even more opportunity than most to examine the draft order really closely and embrace the “what ifs.”
2017 might not have brought us any new entries into the GOAT debate, but it certainly left us with plenty of other items to discuss.
Aamir Simms Readying Himself for His Opportunity
Clemon’s Aamir Simms is a versatile big man built for the modern NBA. Drew Maresca spoke with Simms about the draft process, Clemson’s success last season and how he thinks he fits in the league.
Clemson has produced some very good NBA players – including Elden Campbell, Dale Davis and Horace Grant – but not too many of late. The most recent Clemson Tiger who was selected in the NBA Draft was Jason Blossomgame in 2017. Before that, K.J McDaniels in 2014, Trevor Booker in 2010 and Will Soloman in 2001. Aamir Simms hopes to be the first in a while – and he hopes to stick in the league.
Statistically, Simms has everything you’d want in a prospect. He’s a 6’8” big who can defend multiple positions and shoot it from deep. He averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 2020-21, shooting 40 percent on three-point attempts and 82.5 percent from the free throw line.
Simms was also named to the second-team All-ACC this season, after being named to the third-team All-ACC last season.
But the NBA Draft is a crapshoot with hundreds of players competing for just 60 spots. Complicating matters is the fact that Simms was a four-year player – and age is not an asset in the NBA Draft.
But Simms proved a lot in his time at Clemson, and he feels that his ability and willingness to do whatever a team needs is an asset.
“My original position was the four,” Simms recently told Basketball Insiders. “But I’m comfortable playing small ball five (too). And later in my career, I want to work toward playing some three, too, like Jeff Green.”
Green, who played a major role in the Brooklyn Nets’ success this season, is among the players who inspire Simms. He obviously values what LeBron James and Kevin Durant do, but he sees the utility of players like Green, and he understands that mimicking players like this will be key in his success.
“Being a versatile four like Jae Crowder (would be ideal), Simms said. “Being able to defend guys his size. Having the mid-range and the face-up like Al Horford or Paul Milsap. The craftiness and versatility of Tobias Harris. And especially Jeff Green. He does a good job of shooting the ball, playing the post, guarding one through five.”
“And that’s something I’m excited to showcase in this combine, in workouts and even through summer league.”
Achieving that success requires serious skill and versatility, but Simms believes he’s already on his way. If you’re thinking “but there isn’t evidence that he can do that,” you’re not wrong. But it’s not uncommon for players to sacrifice their own success for the greater good of a college program – and that’s exactly what Simms did.
“My perimeter defense is something I am really ready to showcase,” Simms said. “At school, I was an undersized five, so I didn’t switch much for the sake of the team,’ Simms said.
But he can – and he knows it.
Clemson’s entire roster had only three players taller than Simms. Two of the three were Freshmen and the other – Jonathan Baehre – started just 10 games. Clearly, Clemson coach Brad Brownell had a vision for his team, which included Simms as an undersized center. And considering their entry into the NCAA tournament after the media predicted they finish 10th in the ACC in a pre-season poll, it’s fair to say it worked.
“I think there’s a lot of things that teams look at (in the draft process): winners, individual growth, changes in your stats, and consistency,” Simms said. “I think I’ve shown all those areas throughout this season.”
“Just the way I led my team, (along) with other guys on the team, I got us back to the tournament – because people didn’t really expect us to. We got ranked pretty highly. My shooting and numbers improved, especially my field goal percentage. I was a little streaky with rebounds, but I think I showed improvements in areas that would progress me in the prospect rankings.”
With Simms, shooting will initiate interest. As mentioned above, Simms shot better than 40 percent on three-point over the past two seasons – but he wasn’t a knock-down shooter early in his Clemson career.
As a Freshmen, Simms shot a pedestrian 32.6 percent on three-point attempts. But credit Simms for identifying the problem and working to fix it
“The reason why I shot so low as a freshman was that my form was coming across the left side of my face, so when I released the ball I couldn’t see as much,” Simms explained. “From the middle of my freshmen year to Senior year, I worked with (assistant) coach Smith before he went to Florida State, as well as (assistant) coach Dean and (director of player development) Terrell Mcintyre.”
“And those guys helped me improve my form and stick with it. And then, it was just spending my summers getting up hundreds of shots – 500 every morning and 500 every night to get that muscle memory down.”
But there’s more to Simms game than just shooting, and that’s what he hopes to prove throughout the draft process – beginning on Sunday, June 20 at the G-League Elite camp.
The G League Elite camp is an opportunity for 40 players to showcase their abilities in front of NBA and G League scouts, as well as coaches and front-office executives. The camp will consist of five-on-five scrimmages, as well as strength and agility drills. Top performers will earn an invite to the 2021 NBA Draft combine, meaning the camp can catapult players into very real consideration by NBA clubs. And Simms understands the opportunity at hand.
“Getting invited to the combine (is the goal),” Simms said. “That’s where the best of the best goes. I belong, but I’m fortunate to get the invite because there are other good guys who didn’t get an invite.”
This season, Simms faced off against at least two lottery prospects in Scottie Barnes (Florida State) and Jalen Johnson (Duke). Both will probably be used as measuring sticks of Simms’ potential; but considering defensive schemes, all matchups aren’t equal.
Simms underperformed against Florida State, scoring just 5 points on one-for-three shooting. But Florida State eliminates post opportunities and is known for its swarming defense.
“Florida State gets up in you, (they) switch one through five. They sit on you and take you out from catching the ball deep in the post,” Simms said. “I understood I wasn’t going to be as involved as I wanted entering it.”
But regardless of how you view Simms’ performance against Florida State, he demonstrated a big heart in coming back and playing well against Duke just one week later. While Clemson lost by 26 points, Simms performed well in a head-to-head matchup with another high-profile forward, scoring 19 points on seven-for-thirteen shooting.
“I have shown since my junior year that your ranking doesn’t matter,” Simms explained. “You play lottery picks a few times every year. That one was more of a bounce back after Florida State. That’s another one where we weren’t together, but the individual performance was what it was. It was in a losing effort so I didn’t focus on it, but it shows that I can play with anyone. I don’t care if you’re top 10 in the draft or wherever. I always feel I perform at a high level against highly projected players, and that was an opportunity to remind people who I am.”
Having to prove oneself self after four seasons at a big-time program would probably bother a lot of prospects, but it doesn’t bother Simms. On the contrary, Simms uses it as motivation.
“I am just thankful to be in the position I am because a lot of guys work for it and don’t get the opportunity,” Simms said. “It can be frustrating to be asked to prove yourself over and over, but the majority of great guys in the game have to do that at some point, too, so that’s fine.”
“I (already) have a chip on my shoulder,” Simms continued. “I come from the worst situations you can imagine, so being asked to keep showing my game and my progression is easy. Being able to put the ball in the basket and play hard isn’t something I stress over.”
“I’ve been through way darker times,” Simms continued. “Playing basketball is fun. I’ll have to show it over and over, but at least I’m doing what I love. Passion takes care of all of that. My faith pushes me through, God pushes me through. So if they ask me to do it 100 times, I’ll do it 101. I belong in the league. I believe I’m NBA-ready. If they want me to do it this week and another week after that, I’m ready.”
Simms is focused on getting the right opportunity with the right team. He’s spoken to his friends in the NBA including Mamadi Diakite (Milwaukee Bucks) and Nic Claxton (Brooklyn Nets), both of whom speak about the mental toll of going from being “the guy” to getting DNPs. But they’re not bitter. They emphasize the importance of getting into a good situation with a patient team and how it enables players to build confidence away from the pressure of the NBA game.
Still, you never know when your number will be called and rookies have to be perpetually ready. They also have to understand a team’s needs and the system that’s run. But Simms isn’t worried about that aspect. As the 2021 “Skip” Prosser Award winner, emblematic of the top scholar-athlete in men’s college basketball, he’s always been one to hit the books – and he intends on approaching an NBA opportunity the same way.
“If I am lucky enough to get drafted, I am going to spend that time starting the first night to get a feel for the team,” Simms said. “Learn the roster, who’s the primary and secondary guys and seeing where I fit.”
“No matter what, one thing you can do is rebound and defend. So that’s something I am going to do from the jump, (as well as) doing what coach asks of me. I’ve always been very coachable.”
Getting drafted is obviously the goal. But Simms understands that there is an opportunity beyond the draft. And conversely, he knows that getting drafted doesn’t guarantee success.
“Too many guys get caught up with their name being called, and that can land them in a bad situation,” Simms said. “It takes a lot of maturity to understand that it’s OK if you’re not drafted. A lot of guys who aren’t drafted or are taken late second-round are standing out (currently). Look around the league, guys come from the G League or overseas… if you can get over the idea of getting drafted and just focus on getting your foot in the door, that’s most important. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Simms has spent at least the last four years preparing himself for this moment – now it’s time to prove that he belongs. His mix of athleticism, size and skill will get him noticed, but his patience and cerebral approach are real differentiators. Even if Simms’ name isn’t called on July 29th at the draft, this writer believes he’ll find his way onto an NBA roster for the 2021-22 season, one way or another.
Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers
From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.
It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.
Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games.
Neil Olshey: “This first-round loss was not a product of the roster.”
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) June 7, 2021
He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.
“For anyone (prospective coaches) to advance in the process they’re going to have to prove they can do that (improve defensively) without a ton of roster changes.” -Olshey
— Danny Marang (@DannyMarang) June 7, 2021
To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.
There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.
However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.
Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.
As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.
The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”
As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.
Now What? – Golden State Warriors
The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.
For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.
Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.
The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.
Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.
Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.
A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.
Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.
Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.
Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.
Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.
One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.
Steve Kerr said it was the rebounding that cost the Warriors tonight:
"This is the modern NBA. Guys don't box out. It's just the way it is. Players let guys come in from the weak side. It's a disease that's rampant in the NBA."
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) April 30, 2021
Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.
Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.
The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.
The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.
Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.
Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.
Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.
While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.
Watch this Klay Thompson defense against Kyrie Irving. Sheesh pic.twitter.com/1ZmRU1VLAu
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) March 27, 2020
One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.
The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.
Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.
A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.