Addition by Subtraction
One of the stories that has appeared all over the NBA media landscape over the past couple of weeks has been regarding the friction between the Washington Wizards and their injured star point guard, John Wall.
Wall, and by extension, the Wizards, struggled for the first half or so of the season. The team was 21-16 in games that Wall played in, and just 26-22 overall through 48 games. A year after coming within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Wizards were falling short of expectations, especially when it came to putting away some the league’s worst teams.
When the team started accumulating losses, they held a players-only meeting to settle things, but that planned backfired and the team’s chemistry seemed to be in absolute shambles. The fact that the team went 6-2 in Wall’s absence thus far (about two weeks into a six-to-eight week spell on the sidelines) did not alleviate the tension in any way.
After one of those six wins, Gortat appeared to call out Wall for not being a team player. The point guard responded by declaring on ESPN that Gortat got “the most spoon-fed baskets ever”. Fans and analysts around the country have begun to wonder if maybe Washington is better without their franchise player, and the atmosphere in the nation’s capital right now is even uglier than normal.
However, there are two big positives to be drawn from Washington’s strong run before the all-star break. Let’s get one thing clear right away: If the Wizards have any hope of accomplishing anything this season, they absolutely need John Wall. Not the John Wall that we saw for 37 games this season, but the player we saw last year. The guy who shredded defenses with his rare combination of speed, strength, and vision.
Now, back to what this injury means. First, the bench has been forced to step up in Wall’s absence, and the trio of Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Mike Scott have filled in admirably over the past eight games. In particular, Satoransky, who had seen limited playing time over his first season and a half in the league, has played exceptionally well, most recently dropping 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting in a win over the Bulls. The experience he is gaining now will be invaluable come playoff time, as the Wizards suffered through long dry spells in last year’s postseason when Wall was taking a break. Backup point guard has been a gaping hole for Washington for the better part of Wall’s career with the franchise. Perhaps Satoransky is the solution to that problem.
Similarly, Otto Porter and Markieff Morris have been forced into being more aggressive when looking for their own shots, and both have had their best prolonged stretches of the season recently.
Beyond helping the other players find their footing, Washington’s success over the past two weeks could allow Wall to really take his time in rehabilitation and return to the court when he is fully healthy. Too often in his career, Wall has rushed back from injuries prior to reaching 100%, which just puts him more at risk for a more significant future injury. That seems to be what happened this season, as Wall never appeared to be as explosive as last year, and he missed sporadic games with knee soreness. Eventually, he had to opt for surgery and an extended run on the sidelines.
If Washington can keep up the strong play, it will have a roster full of players more prepared to carry the load and a fully refreshed Wall running the show. It must be hard for Wall to watch the team move the ball and play better defense without him, but the truth is that he wasn’t good enough, whether due to injury or otherwise, when he suited up this season. If he can come back and get Washington’s offense to click how it did at times last season, the team still has slight chance to make some noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
A Risky Rebuild
By extending the red-hot Lou Williams’ contract and not jettisoning DeAndre Jordan out of town, the Los Angeles Clippers decided against launching into a full-scale rebuild. When they were forced into a Chris Paul trade, which yielded them a collection of solid role players (Williams included), the Clippers expected to stay in the chase for the Western Conference playoffs. They still had a star in Blake Griffin, and the rest of the roster seemed deep enough to provide him with adequate support.
A spate of injuries and a run of poor play consigned Los Angeles to the outside looking in of the playoff picture. Griffin himself, who had signed an enormous five-year extension this summer, got hurt twice and the front office probably feared that they had paid an injury-prone 28-year old too much. Hovering around .500 and sitting ninth in the conference, the Clippers shipped Griffin off to Detroit about a week prior to the trade deadline.
That move led many to believe that Jerry West was ready to complete blow up the roster and start from scratch. Jordan and Williams, who were reportedly on the block even before anybody thought Griffin was going to be dealt, were said to be the next out the door. Instead, both will remain in the fold at least until the end of this season.
The Clippers are clearly in rebuild mode. Over the past six months, they have parted ways with their two best players, both of whom have been in LA for at least six seasons. With Griffin and Paul, the Clippers reached the postseason six times, but never once made it past the second round.
However, this is not a team that is ready to throw in the towel for the season and keep one eye on June’s draft. They sit just a half game back of the suddenly DeMarcus Cousins-less New Orleans Pelicans for the conference’s final playoff spot.
The Clippers seem to want to rebuild on the fly. By trading Griffin, they not only got back a few solid pieces, but they also freed up significant cap space in order to chase a big-name free agent this summer. If they were land one of these stars, the squad looks like it would instantly be good enough to be in the mix.
The team has a bevy of guards who each play a distinct role, with Milos Teodosic serving as a playmaker, Lou Williams as the scoring spark plug off the bench and Patrick Beverley as a shutdown defender. Austin Rivers is solid all-around is a very good option as a fourth guard. Avery Bradley, acquired from Detroit, is another elite perimeter stopper, but it appears unlikely that the former Celtic will remain in Los Angeles beyond this season.
In the front court, the Clippers can now field a versatile forward combination of Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris, both are whom are tall and rangy, but are more natural fits on the perimeter on offense. That means that when they are on the court together, they can both either play the three or the four, and they can seamlessly switch men on the defensive end. Both are confident scorers who shoot the three at a high rate, but can also get buckets from the other two levels.
DeAndre Jordan is a defensive anchor and one of the best rim runners in the game. He is an impending free agent who will likely have a lot of suitors, but reports suggest he is looking for a contract extension although the two sides are not yet near an agreement.
This collection of solid secondary players might be enough to entice someone to sign there. If that offseason strategy doesn’t work out, the Clippers front office will find itself in a tough predicament. Either they will have to run it back with a team that is destined to win about half of its games each season, in hopes that they could land someone in the summer of 2019. Alternatively, they would have to part ways with much of their current roster and revamp on a larger-scale, a move that would likely take them out of the running for star free agents.
Los Angeles chose a middle ground in their rebuild, hoping that they can grab a spot in the playoffs, and then be bigger players in the offseason market. However, if they strike out this summer, the Clippers will find themselves in a situation that no one wants to be in.
In the opposite conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing a similar game. With rumors running rampant that LeBron James is heading out, Cleveland had to make a move at the trade deadline. It isn’t easy to make moves that help both current and future prospects for a franchise, but Koby Altman pulled just that off on Thursday.
Cleveland was built to win now and only now, yet they weren’t winning enough. The team was old and slow. Much of the roster couldn’t shoot or didn’t play defense. Not only were they being written off as championship contenders, but many didn’t believe that the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions were even the favorites on their own side of the bracket.
Now, Cleveland might have found its way back into the driver’s seat. They flipped the aging group of Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, and Iman Shumpert for Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and George Hill, while managing to hold onto their best asset, Brooklyn’s pick in the upcoming draft.
In a series of three separate moves, Cleveland instantly become, younger, faster, and more athletic. The move also puts them on track to fit in today’s NBA, with more shooting coming in on offense on more switchability arriving on the less glamorous end of the court. Cleveland will still be hard-pressed to beat Golden State or even Houston in a best-of-seven series. However, they did not refreshed and re-energized by this move. It not only gives them a better shot at reinvigorating LeBron and perhaps keeping him past this season, the moves also more importantly give them a stronger core if LeBron does choose to flee Cleveland for the second time in the past decade.
Wade, Thomas, and Rose were never going to be useful players to rebuild around. They are all too old and too broken down. However, a team led by Love, and surrounded by Hood, Clarkson, Nance and whoever they pick in June is at least competent enough to win some games while keeping the team in the running for the future if they ever do land another star to replace James.
Much like the Clippers, this revolution could backfire. Had LeBron left this current roster, it would have been easier to blow up. Now, it’s likely that Cleveland wants their trio of 25 year olds to be aboard for the long run. That has the potential to be a recipe for mediocrity.
Both the Clippers and Cavaliers are engaging in risky rebuilds, hoping that they strike lucky, and already in position to take advantage of the situation if they ever do. Only time will tell if they made a wise decision.
Empty at the Top
This upcoming NBA draft class has been lauded as one of the most stacked in recent memory. Yet, the excitement for the draft, at least in my eyes, pales in comparison to recent installments of the event. Ever since 2013, the draft has been extremely exciting. Why? Because the teams drafted at the top were exciting, for a variety of reasons.
In 2014, Cleveland drafted Andrew Wiggins. At the time, it appeared that he would be the third number one overall pick on the roster. Instead, the Cavaliers shockingly brought LeBron James back home and Wiggins was promptly dealt to Minnesota as part of a package to land Kevin Love, a player who complied far better with Cleveland’s win-now timeline.
In 2015, Minnesota itself landed the number one pick, meaning that they could pair two of the league’s best young prospects, Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns together, giving a desperate fanbase a certain level of hope for the future.
In 2016, the Philadelphia 76ers, who had made tanking for top draft picks trendy, landed number one overall pick and were able to copy Minnesota by combining that year’s top pick, Ben Simmons, with Joel Embiid, one of the league’s most exciting players, and the number three pick from a year prior. Also that year, two of the league’s most storied franchises had top three picks, and Boston and the Lakers got two more very intriguing players in Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram, respectively.
This past year, the same three teams held the top three picks in the same order. That meant that Boston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, three of the country’s best NBA markets, along with the aforementioned Timberwolves had at least two young players who could grow together for years to come. The narratives around all four drafts were both intriguing and enticing.
Not so much.
Tanking has become a phenomenon in the NBA and this year has as many poor teams as any season I can remember. The 76ers and Lakers are progressing nicely and currently project to pick in the lower half of the lottery (or just outside of it in Philly’s case), while the Celtics and Timberwolves are both among the best teams currently, and have strong potential for the future.
That means that the teas projected to pick at the top of the draft are bad. Really bad. They have neither a solid current core nor a group of young players around whom to build. They are either teams that were competitive in the recent past and blew it up (meaning that they haven’t had the chance to get any young guys), or they are teams that have been terrible for years and have swung on and missed on draft pick after draft pick (looking at you, Orlando and Sacramento).
If the season ended today, the teams with the seven worst records would be, from worst to best: Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, Sacramento, Phoenix, Chicago, Memphis. None of those teams, save for maybe Phoenix, have a star or a clear up-and-coming star on their roster. The rest of Phoenix’s roster is so weak, that having Devin Booker doesn’t even mean all that much.
The only two exciting teams on track to pick in the top 10 are Cleveland (via a trade with Brooklyn) and the 76ers (via a trade with the Lakers), but they are currently poised to miss out on this draft class’ most exciting prospects.
DeAndre Ayton has interminable potential as a big man who can run the floor, protect the rim, and score from anywhere on the court, including beyond the arc. He has the chance to be a version of Andre Drummond with a jump shot.
Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter figure to be NBA ready scorers from the outset, with the potential to develop into even scarier players. Bagley has demonstrated that ability to find the basket at Duke, while Porter figured to be the top pick before getting injured in his collegiate debut. Despite missing most of his only season in college, Porter will still be among the first names called in June.
Luka Doncic is still not a completely known quantity but reports over the summer pegged him as one of the most exciting international prospects in history, and mock drafts have him landing anywhere ranging from first to fifth.
Trae Young is one of the most electrifying college freshman of the past decade, and looks like the first player to have patterned his game entirely after Steph Curry. Although some may scare away from drafting a small scoring guard so early in the draft, but Young’s production alone should guarantee him a spot somewhere in the top five.
Mohamed Bamba also figures to be a high pick and has the potential to be a game changing rim protector at the next level. All of these have, at some point or another over the past six months, been mentioned as a possible number one overall picks. Unfortunately, unless a dramatic change takes place in the standings, they will be headed to teams with little to no prospects for the present or the future.