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The Underrated Executives

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ underrated series by looking at which executives had their efforts fall under the radar this season.

Matt John

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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.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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