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Top of the Class: General Managers

Cody Taylor ranks the NBA’s top general managers. Did your favorite team’s GM make the list?

Cody Taylor

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Over the years, we’ve seen how a great front office can be critical to a team’s success. Oftentimes, a great front office can be overlooked since much of the attention goes to the franchise’s star players or head coach. But in reality, it’s the front office that puts together all of the pieces to make a team great.

One of the first teams that come to mind when discussing sustained success in the NBA is the San Antonio Spurs. They have a great organization from top to bottom. It’s no surprise then, that they have had very little change over the years. Teams look to model their success after the Spurs and hope to be as successful as they’ve become.

We continue our ‘Top of the Class’ series today with a look at the league’s best general managers. These candidates have all demonstrated some sort of success to this point and look to continue to build off of that.

6. David Griffin – Cleveland Cavaliers:

Griffin has done a lot since taking over full-time GM duties last year. He came into the job after spending years as one of the most respected executives in the league before finally becoming general manager. Before becoming the GM, he was viewed as one of the best non-GM executives in the NBA, so it should be no surprise that the team has had a very successful first year with Griffin in charge.

Of course, it helps that LeBron James decided to come back home, but to put together the roster he has is impressive. He brought in Kevin Love in exchange for Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins and a first-round pick Cleveland acquired from Miami. Then, the Cavs acquired Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the New York Knicks by basically just giving up Dion Waiters in a three-team deal earlier last season. They also acquired Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets for draft picks. Shumpert, Smith and Mozgov proved to be crucial parts of the Cavs’ run last season.

Both Kyrie Irving and Love would eventually sign long-term deals to give the team a “Big Three” of their own with Irving, Love and James. The team found a gem in Matthew Dellavedova and brought him back for another year on a very cap-friendly $1,147,276 contract. The team also re-signed Iman Shumpert, and they’re expected to re-sign Tristan Thompson, which will keep their core intact for several years to come. Veterans Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson were also added to the team. While James is not officially signed long-term, he’s expected to keep signing one-year deals with Cleveland to take advantage of the growing salary cap. Had it not been for injuries last season, the Cavs may have won its first championship. With their recent moves and the team getting healthy, that seems to be well within reach now.

5. Neil Olshey – Portland Trail Blazers:

It would be easy to label the Trail Blazers one of the “losers” of the offseason, but Olshey and his team have rebounded nicely after losing many key players. The team lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo, but managed to add quality pieces. They brought in Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Gerald Henderson, Maurice Harkless, Pat Connaughton and Phil Pressey among others.

While they lost one of the top players in the league in Aldridge, they locked up Damian Lillard on a five-year contract that will keep him in Portland through 2020. Lillard was the first player Olshey drafted for Portland back in 2012 and by keeping him, it ensures the Blazers will remain competitive for the foreseeable future. Lillard, Aminu and Davis are all under contract for at least the next three seasons, which gives the team a solid young foundation they can build around. With so many new pieces, it seems as though head coach Terry Stotts will have his work cut out for him in integrating the new players together, but the Blazers should be back sooner than later.

4. Daryl Morey – Houston Rockets:

Morey has always been known as a general manager looking to make the league’s next big deal. He’s transformed the Rockets into a championship contender after several swing-for-the-fence moves. Of course, he orchestrated the trade to acquire James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder, signed free agents Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Patrick Beverley among others, and most recently acquired Ty Lawson from the Denver Nuggets.

The Rockets have been in the playoffs five of the eight seasons in which Morey has been in charge, and are coming off of an appearance in the Western Conference Finals. Given the attractive core of players they have, they’ve been in the running to land some of the league’s notable recent top free agents in Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge. While they didn’t ultimately sign those players, they’ve become a destination many free agents are now considering since Morey took over. With the arrival of Lawson this summer, many believe the Rockets can be a serious contender to come out of the West next season since their team is as deep as ever.

3. Pat Riley – Miami HEAT:

Much like the situation in Los Angeles with the Clippers, the HEAT are in a similar position. While it’s Andy Elisburg that handles the day-to-day general manager duties, it’s Riley that ultimately makes the final roster decisions. The HEAT have had perhaps the best run of their history under Riley. They’ve made the playoffs in 16 of the 20 seasons that Riley has been in charge. They landed LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010, pairing them with Dwyane Wade to form one of the best “Big Three” groups we’ve seen in recent memory. Riley was named the Executive of the Year after that season, despite losing in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. During that run in the playoffs, they made four-straight Finals appearances and ultimately won the championship in two of those years.

Riley has done an excellent job with the HEAT in the post-LeBron era. After losing a player of his caliber, it would have been easy to see the team fall out of contention, but the HEAT remained in the playoff hunt all season long. Had it not been for a freak blood-clot injury to Bosh, the team likely would have made the playoffs. Riley added Josh McRoberts and Luol Deng last summer, and then executed a trade for Goran Dragic at last season’s trade deadline. One of the biggest signings in recent years was adding Hassan Whiteside last November, as he quickly became one of the best young players in the league and is a key member of their core.

To further add to his recent luck, the team was handed a gift in the draft when Justise Winslow fell to the 10th pick. Winslow was considered by some to be a top-five pick, but ultimately landed in Miami at No. 10. Then, they re-signed Wade and Dragic this summer and added Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green on minimum contracts to bolster its second unit. Just one year after losing James, Riley has the HEAT back in the mix and ready to seriously compete in the Eastern Conference.

2. Bob Myers – Golden State Warriors:

The Warriors have become the best team in the league, and it took just three years for Myers and his group to put it all together. Prior to taking over in 2012, the Warriors had missed the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, but have now made the postseason three years in a row and are coming off of their first championship since 1975. For his efforts, Myers was named the 2014-15 Executive of the Year. Of course, inheriting a roster with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson helped, but Myers is responsible for taking the team to the next level.

Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli were all drafted under Myers’ watch, and all figure to be part of the team’s long-term plans. Re-signing Green this summer was perhaps the most important objective Myers had to do, and by retaining him it means the team’s core will remain intact for at least another season. They felt strongly about their championship roster and elected to only make a few minor moves after trading David Lee, adding Jason Thompson and drafting Kevon Looney. Myers will surely have his work cut out for him next summer as the team will only have six players under contract and he’ll be forced to make decisions on several players, including Shaun Livingston, Barnes, Marreese Speights and Ezeli. But by then, we could be talking about how the Warriors just won back-to-back championships.

1. R.C. Buford – San Antonio Spurs:

There should be no question as to which general manager is the best in the league. Buford and the Spurs just landed arguably the top free agent of the summer in LaMarcus Aldridge, and re-signed several key players to the team. They re-signed Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to long-term deals and brought back Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for at least one more season as well. Given their successful summer, some have labeled them as the favorites to win the Western Conference this year.

The Spurs organization is one of the best in the league (and all of professional sports). They have made the playoffs 18 years in a row, and have only missed the playoffs seven times since 1980. They’ve had some of the best players in NBA history with David Robinson, Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker, and have one of the best coaches of all time in Gregg Popovich. There’s a reason they’re described as the model sports franchise. This team is one of the best destinations each year for free agents given its rich history and championship-caliber rosters. The Spurs have won four out of their five championships under Buford and are potentially looking at a sixth next year. It almost seems too easy for Buford at this point.

Honorable Mention:

Danny Ainge – Boston Celtics:

Ainge has been with the Celtics since 2003 and has guided them to a very successful run. They’ve missed the playoffs in just three seasons since Ainge took over and won the championship in 2008. Following the “Big Three” era with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Ainge has done a masterful job of acquiring young players and assets. It seems if there’s a trade happening involving assets, the Celtics are somehow involved. It’s paid off for the Celtics and the team seems poised for big things. They have a really young core in Jared Sullinger, Marcus Smart, Tyler Zeller, Isaiah Thomas, James Young and Jae Crowder, and have added veteran pieces in David Lee and Amir Johnson. It remains to be seen if Ainge is done piecing together the roster, but he’s put them in a great position to achieve success.

Sam Presti – Oklahoma City Thunder:

Presti has been key behind the Thunder transitioning from a new franchise to championship contender. It started with his ability to draft well. Presti drafted players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams and Mitch McGary among others. While some of those players are no longer on the team, he acquired future assets in return, which have helped shape the team as it is today.

The Thunder figure to return completely healthy next season and should easily be in the playoff hunt this season after missing the playoffs last year. Presti added Enes Kanter at the trade deadline last season and opted to match a max four-year, $70 million deal for him this summer. Cameron Payne was drafted with the 14th pick in the draft and is a player who can contribute immediately, which further adds to the Thunder’s depth. It’s clear that Presti will greatly need the Thunder to do well this season in hopes to persuade Durant to re-sign in Oklahoma City next summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. If he can get Durant to re-sign, he could become one of the most important people in Thunder history.

Dennis Lindsey – Utah Jazz:

The Jazz have one of the best up-and-coming cores in the league and have a real shot at returning to the playoffs next season. They’ve acquired young players at every position and stockpiled valuable assets under Lindsey, and they’re beginning to see those moves pay off. Perhaps one of the best moves Lindsey made was acquiring Rudy Gobert from the Denver Nuggets. Last year’s move to hire Quin Snyder seems to be really paying off as well, since the Jazz achieved great second-half success last season. They played some of their best basketball toward the end of the season and figure to keep it going heading into next season.

Doc Rivers (President) – Los Angeles Clippers:

Dave Wohl holds the title of general manager for the Clippers, but it’s Rivers who has the final say on personnel moves so we’re evaluating him instead of Wohl (who does the day-to-day work). Rivers had a redeeming summer in which he proved instrumental in the team retaining DeAndre Jordan and signing Paul Pierce. He’s made some questionable moves in the past like trading away draft picks, parting ways with players after only a season on the team and drafting players that didn’t pan out.

It seems as though this is the first year he’s finally turning things around. The Clippers went from having one of the worst offseasons (after it was thought Jordan was leaving) to one of the best. While the additions of Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith appear to be great on paper, both players bring a lot of baggage and could ultimately not work out. However, if Stephenson and Smith fit well into the system and can contribute well enough, the moves could pay off and make Rivers look great.

Rob Hennigan – Orlando Magic:

Hennigan certainly hasn’t accomplished as much as the other names on this list, but he seems to be an executive on the rise. He inherited a team full of uncertainty with a disgruntled Dwight Howard and a number of pricey contracts. He began shuffling things around and has since acquired a number of draft picks and assets. In three seasons, he has put together a young core full of talented players in Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja and Evan Fournier among others. After hiring a new head coach in Scott Skiles, this next season could be the one in which the team takes the next step in their development.

Who did we leave out? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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NBA

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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NBA

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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