Each season, a number of players “break out.” For some, that means making the transition from good to great. For others, they go from not playing to becoming a significant contributor on their team. At the end of the day, breaking out is when a player clearly takes their game to the next level.
Last season, Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum was perhaps the best example of a breakout player. He went from averaging 6.8 points in 2014-15 to 20.8 points last season. His point total increased by 305 percent, and he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award after helping Portland surprisingly make the playoffs and advance to the second round.
Which players could be poised for a breakout campaign in the 2016-17 season?
We asked a number of our Basketball Insiders writers to pick a player they believe will have a breakout season and explain why. Check out the picks below and add your thoughts in the comment section:
Alex Kennedy: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner got better and better throughout his rookie year with the Indiana Pacers, culminating in his excellent first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. In seven games, the 20-year-old center averaged 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 28.1 minutes.
I expect him to pick up right where he left off when his sophomore campaign begins. Turner recently shined as a member of USA Basketball’s Select Team, an experience that allowed him to receive instruction from Gregg Popovich, learn from some of the best players in the NBA and – most importantly – increase his confidence. I recently interviewed Turner and he predicted that he’d make big strides next season, and I completely agree with him.
(By the way, I was tempted to go with Angry Russell Westbrook here since we all expect him to have a monster year following the departure of Kevin Durant. But I figured we’re focusing more on younger guys who have yet to really emerge so I went with Turner. Still, it’s fair to say that Angry Westbrook is going to break out since he will almost certainly take his game to another level. And I can’t freakin’ wait).
Ben Dowsett: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Jokic may already have broken out on some level in his rookie season, but he flew mostly under the radar for a Denver team not good enough to challenge for the playoffs but not bad enough to inspire much attention.
At just 20 years old most of the year, Jokic already showcased many of the skills needed for an offensive fulcrum in the frontcourt: the shooting chops to keep defenders honest, the height to see the floor and the sort of passing touch rarely seen in guys his size. He became one of just four rookies in league history listed at 6’10 or taller to assist on at least 18 percent of team baskets while on the floor, joining only Blake Griffin, Tony Kukoc and Lamar Odom on that prestigious list.
With a three-point stroke that should improve along with the margins of his game and his overall strength, Jokic is primed to bust out and gain national recognition as one of the top young bigs in the game.
Eric Pincus: D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers
D’Angelo Russell should have a big year with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’ll have a lot more freedom playing for head coach Luke Walton than he did under Byron Scott last year. Russell has clearly grown as a player over the past year. His first Summer League was a disaster, but in Las Vegas this past month, Russell was one of the better players on the court. With the gravity of Kobe Bryant off the court, Russell will make big strides this season.
Oliver Maroney: Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker’s breakout may have already started if we count his showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 26 points, 6.5 assists and five rebounds. Booker is clearly feeling very confident and this could be an indication of what’s to come in his sophomore season.
Mid-way through last season, Booker moved from the bench to the starting lineup on the Suns and he performed extremely well. Everyone around the Suns organization has positive things to say about Booker, who possesses incredible physical tools as well as a great work ethic.
“[He doesn’t seem] like a 19-year-old,” said Irving Roland, one of his player development coaches from last season. “I see him being an All-Star in the next few years. Definitely going to be one of the best two-guards in this league for a while.”
As a rookie, Booker averaged 13.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists and he’ll be looking to improve those numbers this season. With his maturity, skill set and desire to be great, Booker seems to have star potential.
Moke Hamilton: Justise Winslow, Miami HEAT
Without Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng, the Miami HEAT have likely gone from Eastern Conference contender to lottery team. In it all, though, there will be immense opportunity for many of the team’s younger pieces and players. Mainly, all eyes should be on Justise Winslow.
Selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Winslow was believed by many to be the latest prize stolen by Pat Riley. Last season, with the aforementioned veterans above him on the depth chart and in terms of touchs, Winslow’s numbers belied the intangibles that he brought to the game. In May, Winslow was quoted as saying that he wanted the HEAT to eventually be “his” team and now, as the expected starter at small forward, he will lead the youth movement that is unfolding in Miami. With Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Tyler Johnson and Hassan Whiteside, Winslow has been working meticulously during the offseason with the goal of emerging as Erik Spoelstra’s new rock.
Based on what we have seen, it’s easy to imagine that Winslow will improve upon his pedestrian output from his rookie season. In 28.6 minutes, he scored 6.4 points, grabbed 5.2 rebounds and dished out 1.5 assists. In all likelihood, the minutes and production will increase dramatically this coming season and he is certainly a player who appears in line for a breakout campaign.
Jabari Davis: Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
Rodney Hood had a spectacular second year with the Utah Jazz. The 23rd pick in the 2014 NBA Draft almost doubled his scoring total from his rookie campaign, jumping from 8.7 points to 14.5 points per game – while improving his field goal percentage.
Hood’s big emergence came after the All-Star break, when he scored 20 or more points seven times. But it’s not just his scoring that makes Hood so impressive. Rodney’s ability to drive and create off the dribble is also underrated. While his defense needs improving, his creativity and vision are solid.
The Jazz need Hood to continue his development and produce on the perimeter if they’re going to make the playoffs next season. Hood has obviously been impressive as he’s progressed in each of the first two years, but I think he still has another level he can reach.
A breakout campaign from Hood would be excellent for Utah, not only because they hope to make the playoffs next year but also because the team has big decisions to make next summer. With Gordon Hayward, George Hill and Shelvin Mack all becoming free agents after this upcoming season, Hood improving would show the Jazz that they can rely on him more if one or more of those players decide to leave.
Lang Greene: Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls
The third season will be the charm for Mirotic with the Bulls. The frontcourt was a crowded place for big men in Chicago last season, but the departures of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol in free agency this summer will undoubtedly open up minutes for Mirotic.
The forward improved his three-point accuracy from 32 percent as a rookie to 39 percent last season. The addition of slashing guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade in free agency should lead to even more opportunities on the perimeter for Mirotic to thrive, especially now that the logjam has been cleared up.
Jesse Blancarte: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Hornets
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was taken with the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and has established himself as one of the NBA’s best wing-defenders. Unfortunately, injuries have limited Kidd-Gilchrist to just 62 total games over the last two seasons.
If Kidd-Gilchrist is close to 100 percent healthy entering the upcoming season and has worked out some of the kinks in his jump shot, I expect him to have his best season yet. He is already a strong slasher, finishes well around the rim and, of course, is a monster on defense. With some added range and experience, Kidd-Gilchrist has the chance to be this year’s breakout player.
Tommy Beer: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Amazingly, the Greek Freak is still just 21 years old and has only started to scratch the surface of his vast potential. In the second half of last season, when Milwaukee began to lean on him heavily, Giannis posted some incredibly impressive numbers.
Over the final 29 games he played in, Antetokounmpo averaged 18.7 points (while shooting over 50 percent from the floor), 8.8 rebounds and seven assists per game. He also chipped in 1.4 steals and 1.9 blocks per game during the season-closing stretch. Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has said Giannis will handle point guard duties for Milwaukee next season, and the sky is the limit for this kid.
Cody Taylor: Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks
With Jeff Teague out of the picture, Schroder becomes the man tasked with running the Atlanta Hawks’ offense. The writing had been on the wall now for some time for Teague, and Schroder will finally get his chance to prove himself as a starter. Schroder started just six games last season for the Hawks during the regular season, but still averaged a career-high 11 points, 4.4 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game. Now that he’ll become the full-time starter, those numbers figure to climb even higher. The timing couldn’t be better for Schroder, as he’s set to become a restricted free agent next summer.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
With Orlando parting ways with Scott Skiles and adding Frank Vogel, Gordon could have a big year. Vogel has talked about using Gordon more and putting him in situations to succeed in the open court.
His athletic ability and versatile skill set make him very intriguing. His outside shooting, fundamentals and decision-making must continue to improve, but he’s an incredible athlete who can make plays on both ends of the court. Last season, Gordon averaged 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game as a rookie. In his 37 games as a starter, those numbers increased to 11.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
It’ll be interesting to see what Gordon can do in his third season, especially since Orlando has added Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green to their front court. Still, at 20 years old and with so much talent, Gordon has to be mentioned when discussing potential breakout players.
Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Capela is undeniably going to see more time on the floor with Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones no longer in Houston. Capela has progressed in many ways since entering the league in 2014.
Last season, the 22-year-old’s progression was on display as he averaged seven points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 19.1 minutes per game. This year, he has a chance to become a starter and take his game to the next level.
NBA Daily: The Conference Final Losers’ Outlook
After being ousted over the weekend, Matt John takes a look at what went what Boston and Denver have to think about as they enter this offseason.
First off, let’s take a minute to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami HEAT for making the NBA Finals. It’s funny how this was a matchup everyone had dreamed of circa 2010 and, ironically, we finally have it – but LeBron James is on the opposite side this time! Also, it is certainly cool that this year two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year managed to work all the way up to the championships. We’ve seen NBA finalists who missed the playoffs the year prior, but we’ve never seen both sides do just that.
There will be plenty of in-depth analysis leading up to when the finals begin tonight, and you can find it anywhere easily. That won’t be found here. Here, we’re going to discuss the teams that came the closest to the final round, and some of the uncertainty they are going to face heading into next season.
Getting to the conference finals can be a big deal depending on where your team is at. For Boston and Denver, even though both are pretty young, getting to the conference finals has different gravity to both of them. Let’s explain.
Boston – So Close, Yet So Far
Should we be impressed or have cause for concern that Boston has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals? They’ve been able to do that with very differently constructed teams between all three of their appearances since 2017, but not getting over that hump after that many tries makes it less and less of a milestone.
The first two were defensible. In 2017, they were firmly in the “Just happy to be there!” camp, and, unless LeBron had all four of his limbs severed, there was no way that team was beating Cleveland. Those LeBron/Kyrie Cleveland teams were superteams overshadowed by the super-duper Warriors. With or without a healthy Isaiah Thomas, that Cavaliers team was going to roll all over them.
They definitely had a better shot the following year. The East was substantially weaker with Kyrie out of Cleveland, and Boston overachieved, but they were relying on a pair of young wings to take them not only to the finals, but to beat the best player of this generation too. The Cavaliers were definitely vulnerable, but not much can be done when inexperience is going up against arguably the most dominant version of LeBron James we’ve ever seen.
This time feels different though. Miami definitely had fewer holes – if not, none at all – that could be exploited on their roster. Even so, Boston, it seemed, had the more talented team. This was a much closer series than the final outcome made it look. It all simply came down to late-game execution. You’d think Boston’s more upfront talent would have given them the edge in that department, but the HEAT were the ones who made the big shots when it mattered.
That’s why this time, it doesn’t feel like a moral victory. This time, they are left with questions. Like, why did it take them until Game 3 to run plays through Jaylen Brown? Why is Marcus Smart taking the second-most shots in the most crucial game of the season? Should they keep their five best players if they haven’t shown they can play together? If they are serious about winning a championship, how are they going to make sure their opponents take as little advantage of Kemba’s defensive inadequacies as possible?
As disappointing as the season ended for them, Boston still has to feel good knowing that they have the league’s most talented young wing combo in the entire league and has built an excellent core around them. They could chalk up losing the conference finals to bad luck more than anything. The Bubble deprived them of playing in front of their fans. Gordon Hayward’s absence forced the team to have to exert a lot more for the majority of the playoffs than they expected to. Not to mention he clearly wasn’t 100 percent physically when he came back. Still, this was a golden opportunity to take another step forward and they blew it.
Among the multitude of reasons for why they fell short, this series also served as a subtle reminder that even in a smaller league, you can only get away with a lack of size for so long. The Celtics ran the center by committee approach about as well as they could have reasonably expected, but it was clear as day that the Celtics lacked a reliable big behind Daniel Theis. Enes Kanter and the Williams bros. all had their moments, but Brad Stevens never really trusted any of them over the long haul. They got away with that before facing Miami because Joel Embiid consistently ran out of gas, and Toronto’s frontcourt was designed more to stop elite size than to take advantage of a lack of it. Bam Adebayo killed Boston all series long on both ends of the floor (minus Game 5), and we’re only seeing the start of his potential superstar career.
With Jayson Tatum taking the leap and Jaylen Brown emerging as an elite two-way wing, the Celtics are no longer playing with house money and firmly entering the win-now phase. If their progress continues to stagnate, then some changes may be in order.
Denver – The Beginning or a Fluke?
They built this small market team from the ground up as opposed to having superstar players join forces to form a contender. There’s nothing wrong with that considering the players that do that just want a winning legacy, but seeing a team build a contender from scratch just feels purer when they make it to the top. That’s also why seeing a team like Milwaukee fail miserably in the playoffs is pretty heartbreaking.
On the surface, the Nuggets have all the ingredients in play to create both a dynasty and their most successful run as a franchise. We know that as long as they have Nikola Jokic, who has solidified himself as the best center in the league, Denver should always be near or at the very top of the Western Conference for the next decade. Although, being a top seed in the conference and being a contender can be two mutually exclusive terms.
The Nuggets’ progress has been far more encouraging than discouraging since last season. They were within inches of making the Western Conference Finals last year, and were a Mason Plumlee brain fart from potentially being up 2-1 on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray finally found his consistency. Outside of some ill-advised comments about his coach, there’s a lot to like about Michael Porter Jr. Jerami Grant’s going to get a nice paycheck this offseason. Gary Harris changed the entire landscape of Denver’s defense. Monte Morris and Paul Millsap were actually pretty reliable in the roles they were given. Oh, and they competed to the very end without one of their most important players, Will Barton.
Really, the concerns with Denver don’t pertain to them but more specifically to their surroundings. Everyone outside of presumably Oklahoma City is going to try to make the playoffs next year out West. Golden State will have a clean slate of health. As will Portland. In Year 3 of Luka, Dallas’ ceiling will only get higher. Pretty much every team that didn’t make the playoffs has room to grow, and the ones that did aren’t going to just give away their spot.
Still though, there are loose threads in Mile High City. We won’t know if Murray’s play was a young stud taking his next step into superstardom or if it was a facade from someone catching lightning in a bottle inside the Bubble. MPJ’s returns are extraordinary, but let’s see if his body can hold up long-term. What exactly are they going to do with Bol Bol?
Now that their offseason has arrived, they have to decide if they should run it back or make changes to strike while the iron is hot. History suggests that there’s no right or wrong answer. Miami did the latter mid-season, and now they’re in the finals. The Los Angeles Clippers also did the latter mid-season, and they’re sitting at home. Boston did the former, and you can argue both sides for them. Not having enough bench help hurt them, and yet a healthy Gordon Hayward could have put them in the finals.
Denver’s come along nicely since the start of the Nikola Jokic era, and they still haven’t hit their ceiling yet. What matters most is that they do everything to get to their ceiling. How they do that is the real question.
Making the conference finals is a massive stepping stone for young teams. For Boston, this was an all too familiar territory. For Denver, this was monumental. What both need to focus on is how they’re going to take it one step further next season. Or, at the very least, make sure they don’t take a step back.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.