Last week, Basketball Insiders ranked who was the best of the best of each position in the NBA, including executives. This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at who are among the most underrated executives in the NBA.
What makes an executive underrated? It’s actually a pretty loaded question. Their work may have led to a much better team than we all anticipated. Maybe their team isn’t that good, but they’ve made some brilliant moves to make the most of a bad situation. Maybe they have a more promising future than people give them credit for.
Take the Chicago Bulls front office, for example. Gar Forman has brought in some nice young talent, they have productive vets and showed some progress last year. If the Bulls were any good this season, he’d be on this list. Lo and behold, they stink, and he’s no longer running things. Even worse, one of the primary factors as to why they stink is keeping Jim Boylen as their head coach when many are pointing to him being the driving factor. They’re making the efforts to get past their turmoil, but until they get past it, they won’t make an appearance.
To answer who the most underrated executives in the game are, we’re going to approach this as if you asked this executive why they were labeled underrated, this would be their answer. Also, this based on their performance this season, not on their reputation.
“You didn’t think we’d be this good. Nobody did, really.”
Zach Kleiman, Memphis Grizzlies
Full disclosure: Kleiman was the toughest omission from the top executives list from last week. He’s done a perfect job rebuilding the Grizzlies because, in just a year’s time, it looks like the future is already here for them. The reason he was off the list was that, even though they’ve tremendously defied all odds from pretty much the very start, they’re a merely average team and not much else. The other executives on the list run teams that are all firmly at least one level ahead of Memphis.
Because Memphis has been leaps and bounds better than we all thought they would be, albeit still a fringe playoff team at the end, Kleiman gets the nod as the most underrated executive in the league.
He’s drafted both his franchise big and his franchise point guard. He’s surrounded them with complementary personnel. He even managed to acquire more young talent for pennies on the dollar. Can someone explain how he came away with Justise Winslow after the Andre Iguodala saga? Or how Josh Jackson was just a throw-in when Memphis originally acquired him? Following the anticlimactic end of Grit-and-Grind, so much is going right so soon for the Grizzlies, with a lot of it having to do with Kleiman’s work.
It could be a very different story this time next year. For all we know, the Grizzlies could be right back on top of the West. Should they find themselves there, Kleiman would absolutely deserve a spot among the best executives in the game. Last year, this writer talked about how hard it is to rebuild a winner after blowing up a glorious era for small markets like Memphis. Kleiman has done everything to prove that notion wrong.
“I did everything I should have done. It just hasn’t paid off yet.”
David Griffin, New Orleans Pelicans
If Zion Williamson had been playing the whole season, Griffin wouldn’t show up here. Because New Orleans has been frost-bitten by the injury bug for what feels like the millionth time, their *technically* below-average record has made the work that Griffin’s done fall under the radar.
When you have a potential all-timer just starting out his career as a pro, it’s imperative that you build around him the right way. No one knows this better than New Orleans. That’s because they’ve seen firsthand what happens when you don’t do that. With Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, the Hornets/Pelicans built some good teams around those guys, but not on a consistent basis. We all know what happened with both of them after that. When they got the first overall pick last year, they knew they had to avoid the same fate with Zion at any cost.
Griffin has done a phenomenal job with that. He’s acquired Zion’s All-Star running mate and certified No. 2 in Brandon Ingram, a young talent who’s seemingly quite complementary with Zion in Lonzo Ball, as well as stingy veterans — JJ Redick and Derrick Favors — and they all were brought on to a team that already had Jrue Holiday, among others.
Things started picking up when Zion made its entrance. That should give you a good idea of how good this team could have been if it had a clean slate of health the whole season. It should also tell you how scary they should be for years to come. As long as they don’t see a repeat of this past year’s string of bad injury luck, New Orleans should be well in the thick of the playoff picture. If their progress continues to trend upward, Zion will more-likely-than-not stick around. Griffin deserves a fair amount of the credit if and when that happens.
“We made the most of a really bad situation. Even if it won’t lead to much.”
Neil Olshey, Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers’ struggles this year should fit under the “surprised, but not surprised” file. They are coming off of an impressive Western Conference Finals trip, but they lost their starting center and their best perimeter defenders this offseason. To add insult to injury literally, they then lost one of their rotation players on top of all that midseason. Guys like Jusuf Nurkic, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Rodney Hood are not easily replaceable. That didn’t stop Olshey from trying.
He didn’t take any of the Trail Blazers’ losses personnel-wise lying down. When Portland needed a starting center, Olshey brought in Hassan Whiteside. When Portland needed another scorer, Olshey brought in Carmelo Anthony. When Portland needed perimeter defense, Olshey brought in Trevor Ariza. None of those guys have been the missing piece that magically turned Portland’s fortunes around, but Portland would be in much worse shape if Olshey hadn’t acquired them.
An executive earns the label of good by doing everything he can to help further his team. That includes making the necessary adjustments during a down year. Olshey did just that. It didn’t get the results that everyone in Portland wanted, but he made the conscious effort to do everything in his power to make the Trail Blazers a winning team.
It’s a shame that in the end, Damian Lillard’s best season is more-likely-than-not going to waste. No one should be blamed for what’s happened to Portland this season, but if there is, none of it should be placed on Olshey.
Tommy Sheppard, Washington Wizards
It’s been brought up before that Sheppard will probably be on the hot seat since the Wizards are out of the playoff picture, for one, and Bradley Beal is losing his patience in addition. That is the nature of the business. When the team is in a funk that they can’t get out of, everyone looks to the executive to resolve their issues.
Sheppard didn’t create this mess, but you can definitely tell he’s doing everything to clean it up. For what it’s worth — and sadly, it’s not really worth much at all — Sheppard has been doing a pretty darn good job. He stole Davis Bertans from San Antonio. He stole Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga from Los Angeles. He signed Thomas Bryant and Ish Smith to bargain deals. He drafted the very exciting Rui Hachimura. And you know what else? Bringing in Isaiah Thomas was a fun, albeit ineffective, experiment!
All of this has culminated in another porous season that still leaves more questions than answers. How is Washington going to get better? What are they going to do about John Wall? How will they appease Bradley Beal?
Sheppard’s got much bigger fish to fry both this summer, but he’s shown thus far that he’s a competent executive capable of making a good move when it’s available to him. He’s got his work cut out for him, but he’s done enough to encourage Washington to keep him around.
“We’re not good right now, but our youth movement is more promising than people think.”
Mitch Kupchak, Charlotte Hornets
Make no mistake. The Hornets are as unremarkable as they’ve ever been. They’re 23-42. They have the fourth-lowest net rating in the league — minus-7.0 — and their cap flexibility is still limited by the money they owe to the role players they overpaid. It’s not like things were great before, but they were certainly better then than now.
Even if this season is going to be the worst Charlotte’s been through since the Lance Stephenson experiment, there is a glass-half-full side of things. This is the most athletic team we’ve seen in Charlotte in quite some time. P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges have given Charlotte a little extra bounce that they haven’t seen in years. Dubbing either as stars would be jumping the gun, but man are they a fun watch.
We’ve also seen a fair amount of progress among Charlotte’s younger players. Bridges, Devonte’ Graham, and Malik Monk have all played remarkably better this season compared to last. Terry Rozier hasn’t lit the world on fire, but he has given the Hornets his all with the role that they’ve given him. And who knows what the Martin twins could do in the long-term?
Kupchak has assembled a team with the label “not good, but fun.” The Hornets have a long way to go because the holes they had even before Kemba Walker left still need to be filled. The state of the team is definitely not good, but it’s not as hopeless as it may look on paper. With another lottery pick, and Nic Batum approaching a contract year, Charlotte may take a much bigger step next season. Don’t expect a lot from them, but because of Kupchak, you shouldn’t sleep on these guys either.
“Players influenced why we’re great, but that doesn’t mean we had nothing to do with it!”
Rob Pelinka, Los Angeles Lakers
Pat Riley, Miami HEAT
Last week, this writer talked about how certain executives couldn’t be ranked as the best at their positions if their team’s newfound success came primarily from their newly acquired stars who were swayed to go there by their teammates’ influence. Luckily, what can make an executive qualify for the underrated label is if he is responsible for other players that he brought in playing their part in their team’s success. Hence, both Pelinka and Riley deserve to be named here.
It’s definitely weird to link Pat Riley with underrated because just about everyone who pays attention to the NBA knows who he is and what he’s done. He may not have been the one who convinced Jimmy Butler to sign with Miami, but he put in the framework to get a deal done to both get Butler onboard and expand Bam Adebayo’s role by trading the mercurial Hassan Whiteside. Work like that shows an executive that knows exactly how to get things done.
The same credit can be applied to Pelinka. He may not have been the one to convince Anthony Davis to come to LA, but he made the necessary deals to get The Brow there. The Lakers had to finesse their salary cap situation to make room for Davis this past summer, and that’s exactly what Pelinka did. He put in the necessary work to make the dream duo become a reality.
Those aren’t the only reasons why the work from these two are underrated.
Riley has brought in a very exciting youth movement with Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, among others, to round out the edges. Butler might be the reason why the HEAT are a top-four team in the Eastern Conference, but without the aforementioned players, how much better would his team be than the last ones he had in Chicago? Again, the credit goes to Riley there.
Pelinka has done basically the same just with castoff veterans. Dwight Howard has finally embraced his role as a second-string center (took him long enough!) and Avery Bradley has been having his most effective season since his days in Boston. We haven’t seen too much to say anything definitive yet, but the returns on Markieff Morris and Dion Waiters are promising. Pelinka’s work put a good roster around LeBron and Davis.
These two might wind up second-guessing some of the moves they made. Riley traded the young Justise Winslow for the older Andre Iguodala. Pelinka traded a lot of assets for Davis whose long-term status with the Lakers is up in the air. Still, they played their part in creating winners. They shouldn’t be written off.
As you can see, much like players and coaches, there are so many different ways in which an executive’s work can be underrated. It doesn’t honestly take much to earn that label. It also doesn’t take much to lose that label, too. Take Jerry Krause.
Krause’s work with the Bulls during the Michael Jordan era is, in fact, underrated because when we discuss Chicago’s reign in the 1990s, many love to praise Jordan for being the greatest player of all time, Scottie Pippen for being the perfect sidekick or Phil Jackson for running an excellent system during their heyday. Not many stop to think that it was Krause who got the whole gang together. Usually, he’s the last one to get the recognition. In fact, it seems as though Krause is better known for his issues with everyone on that team than his work in getting them there.
If you’ve been watching The Last Dance, you’d know how much that bothered Krause. It bothered him so much so that he elected to blow up the team piece-by-piece rather than keep it together for another run. By doing that, he arguably may have screwed Chicago out of another title, and after getting rid of everyone on that team, they never came anywhere close to what they were ever again under Krause.
This is all brought up not to take a swing at the former Bulls executive — RIP Mr. Krause — but to show that an executive’s effort can go from underappreciated to much-disparaged in an instant.
The work that these executives have done this season deserves more appreciation, but their work can be undone. If it is, it may not matter how much good they’ve done. They could still wind up being as collectively hated, arguably undeservedly, as one Jerry Krause.
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.