It is no secret that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the best basketball player on the planet. It’s also not exactly private knowledge that the supporting cast they’ve given him is far from championship-caliber.
But it’s not just that James is single-handedly trying to will his team to another NBA Finals. It’s that he is doing this at a level of play we may very well have never seen before in the history of the sport.
For starters, James is averaging 33.7 points, nine rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game in these playoffs. The only player in NBA history to match those figures in the postseason was Russell Westbrook last year; the kicker here is that Westbrook’s Thunder were bounced by the Rockets in five games in the first round of the playoffs. We have never seen a player produce this consistently over a full playoff run, but the raw production numbers are not the only sign of James’ historic greatness.
Because while some players have been insanely prolific scorers, passers, and rebounders throughout NBA playoff history, no player has ever done all three of these and combined them with ruthless efficiency.
There have been two postseasons in NBA history in which a player has owned a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 33 or greater and player in at least ten playoff games. LeBron James is the owner of both of them (NOTE: PER was not tracked until the 1988-89 season). Not Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone, John Stockton, et al. Just LeBron James. Just the greatest player of our generation. Just the greatest player of all-time.
The Cavaliers, though, are in a similar position to where they have been in the previous two playoff series. They’re playing a Boston Celtics unit that, as a whole, is probably better than they are. The same statement could be made about the Indiana Pacers, who pushed Cleveland to the wall in the first round and outscored the Cavs by 40 points over seven games. The Toronto Raptors could, theoretically, have given the Cavaliers a series, but they blew a 14-point lead in the first half of Game 1 and, on account of them being the Toronto Raptors, lost the next three games and even had ESPN announcers saying that they hailed from “LeBronto”. Now that is rock bottom.
The Celtics, though, are the best team Cleveland has faced to this point in the playoffs. In spite of losing their two best players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, to season-ending injuries, Boston has the best defense in the league and an ensemble cast that has carried them past the Bucks and 76ers to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, they depend on getting much of their offense from rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown, and 2015 first-round pick Terry Rozier. The only experienced veterans currently playing for the Celtics are Al Horford and Marcus Morris, and while Horford made the All-Star team this year, he isn’t nearly the type of player James is and the Celtics depend just as much on their young players for production. It’s fair to wonder whether or not these three men can regain their mojo as the series returns to Boston for a critical Game 5. The reason this is brought up now is because the Celtics have just one road win in these playoffs, and it came in overtime against the 76ers in a game that nearly ended with a Philadelphia victory in regulation.
The Celtics obviously have a better supporting cast, but against a player like James, will it matter?
My belief is that if Cleveland gets good enough contributions from the likes of Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love, the answer to the question above will be no. You go into this game assuming that James will take what is his, and even if he has a bad night from the field, he’ll still set his teammates up with good looks. Cleveland shot 25-57 (.439) from three in two games at Quicken Loans Arena as opposed to 14-57 (.246) in two games at TD Garden. There may be some regression from Game 4 to Game 5, but if the Cavs continue to get open looks, at least some of them are bound to go in.
The other factor here is the Celtics’ ineptitude on the road. Even though they don’t need to win a road game to win this series, they are only forcing LeBron and company to take one game in Boston assuming their home/road trends continue. Remember, this is the same building in which LeBron dunked Jason Terry into next week and scored 45 in an Eastern Conference Finals elimination game. If tempting fate is your thing, the Boston Celtics are the team for you.
But no matter what happens, we should sincerely appreciate what we are watching on the court on a nightly basis. The greatest player in the history of basketball has been given one of the worst secondary units in the league, and despite that, he may lead this group make to their fourth straight NBA Finals and his eighth in a row. And if you think your profession is miserable, just remember that mine pays a guy $5.5 million per year to go on television, troll LeBron, and tweet out dumb things about him every time he does something good, which is very often.
The greatest basketball player of our generation and the greatest player of all-time has brought the Eastern Conference Finals to a tie at two games apiece against a collective unit that is evidently far better than his. He doesn’t have a very good supporting cast and the odds are that he can’t singlehandedly drag his team to another NBA Finals.
But who needs favorable odds when LeBron James is on your team? The Cavaliers haven’t before, and they certainly don’t now.
Wow. If you think there’s a lot to digest here, you’re right. Let’s start with the trade’s headliners (Thomas and Irving) and then branch out from there.
Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas entered the league at the exact same time; in fact, Irving was the first pick in the 2011 Draft while Thomas was the last. This trade marks the first time in NBA history that the first pick in a draft has been swapped for the last pick in that same draft. Because they have played for the same amount of time, we can conveniently and easily compare their careers to this point.
Possibly the best NBA stat to encapsulate a player’s full value is VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). Since the 2011-12 season, Irving has a slightly higher VORP than Thomas (16.2 to 14.9). Thomas, though, started his career with the Sacramento Kings and was traded to the Celtics at the 2015 trade deadline after a brief layover in Phoenix. Starting with Thomas’ first full season in Boston, though, he has a far higher VORP than Irving (8.2 to 4.4). Thomas, in fact, finished fifth in NBA MVP voting last season and was incredibly valuable to the Celtics in their, at times, seemingly improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Where Thomas is docked by critics, and rightfully so, is for his defense. Among those who played at least 1,500 minutes last season, Thomas was tied for third-to-worst in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), coming in ahead of only Shabazz Muhammad and Nick Young. DBPM measures a player’s contribution to his team in points per 100 possessions, and Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM) does the same thing on the other end of the floor. Part of the problem is that, in case you haven’t heard, Thomas is all of 5’9″ and is the shortest point guard in the league. There are very few matchups, if any, that Thomas can possibly win at the defensive end with his height. What some may not tell you, though, is that Irving, standing at 6’3″, isn’t significantly better at the defensive end. Despite his six-inch height advantage, Irving finished just one point better in DBPM last season, which tied him for fourteenth-worst in the league. Offensively, both players have been pretty much even since coming into the league, with Thomas having a slight advantage in Offensive Box Plus/Minus. If this trade were simply player-for-player, I’d probably call it about even with (maybe) a very slight advantage for the Cavaliers.
The issue for the Celtics, though, is that they didn’t just give up Isaiah Thomas in the trade. Let’s move on from Thomas and Irving and look at the other cool toys the Celtics forked over to get Kyrie.
Crowder is an enticing sixth-year player and the advanced metrics are largely split on how good he actually is. While VORP has him as a slightly above average player, win shares (which is exactly what it sounds like) is very high on him. That statistic rates his value very highly and says that he contributed fourteen wins for the Celtics over the past two seasons, a number slightly better than Irving’s win shares (13.9) over the same period. Another figure that casts Crowder in a very positive light is True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account all of a player’s field goal and free throw attempts. Crowder pulled in the top 20 in TS% (61.3) last season, and both he and Thomas finished in the top 20 and ahead of, wait for it, Kyrie Irving.
While Crowder’s exact value seems to be kind of hard to peg, his presence gives the Cavaliers plenty of lineup opportunities. If the team wishes to go small to try to directly mirror a lineup like the Warriors’, they could start Crowder at small forward, LeBron James at power forward, and then have a choice between Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson as the team’s starting center. The other option for the Cavs is to leave their starting lineup as is, with both Love and Thompson starting, and have Crowder come off the bench to spell James. This choice may be more likely, as James played over 42 minutes per game in last year’s NBA Finals. Either way, the Cavaliers and coach Tyronn Lue have no shortage of options for using their new wing.
And don’t forget that the Celtics also included Croatian big man Ante Zizic in this deal. While Zizic probably isn’t NBA-ready just yet, he is an interesting big man who averaged a double-double per 36 minutes in the Turkish Euroleague last season. When he declared for the 2016 NBA Draft, I compared him to Nikola Vucevic and noted his 25.7 PER in the Adriatic League, a league that features teams from several countries, most notably those comprising the former Yugoslavia. Zizic could be an interesting piece for the Cavs’ future, and even though he struggled at times in the Summer League, he could be a fascinating component of the Cavaliers’ haul for Kyrie Irving. He’s expected to play in the United States this year and will likely spend most of his time in the G-League, formerly known as the NBA’s Developmental League.
Last, but most certainly not least, the Cavaliers received the Celtics’ all-important and unprotected 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets were the worst team in the league a season ago and the Celtics received their first-round pick in the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade, otherwise known as the gift that keeps on giving the whole year round. The Nets are showing very few signs of improvement for next year, and if the team again has the worst record in the league, then the Cavaliers will have the best chance at acquiring the #1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. Assuming owner Dan Gilbert and his son, Nick, can work their almost biennial draftlotteryvoodoo, the Cavs will have very good odds at reeling in the first pick.
While we’re likely a little ahead of ourselves with this one, if the Cavs have the first pick, they could choose from Missouri’s Michael Porter, Jr., Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, and a host of other intriguing prospects. Even if they don’t have the first selection, they could still get a very good player in the first few picks. This is all assuming that the Nets don’t somehow make a run to the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which seems extremely unlikely with the state of their current roster.
Of course, this trade will lose value after next year if James leaves for greener pastures in free agency next summer; Thomas is also a free agent next year and may look to relocate if James leaves. Still, a superstar, a proven starter, a potentially solid international big man, and a potential #1 pick is just about as well as the Cavaliers could have possibly done.
The Cavs’ front office deserves all of the credit they could possibly get for pulling off this deal. When Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge, many assumed that Cleveland would get less than market value for him because Irving would be desperate to leave and the front office would be desperate to move him. Instead, the Cavs actually got above market value for him and the assets they received in the trade could appreciate over time. It is surprising, though, that Celtics GM Danny Ainge decided to pull the trigger on this move when he could have let the Cavaliers trade Irving elsewhere and take his chances going against a Cavs team likely led by James and Kevin Love. That being said, the Celtics still have a lot of assets in tow and Irving will give them valuable and significant contributions. But hats off to new and, until yesterday, relatively unproven Cavs GM Koby Altman for getting as much as he could for his disgruntled star point guard. And while this move probably isn’t enough to close the gap between Cleveland and the Warriors, it looks like the Cavs may have gotten better with yesterday’s trade.
The Cavaliers were in a situation with Kyrie Irving that could best be described as impossible. And yet, somehow, someway, they came out on top when they decided to deal him.
The former Utah Jazz forward will sign with the Celtics on a 4-year, $128 million deal, with the fourth year being a player option. Hayward is the asset Celtics GM Danny Ainge had wanted all along, and he didn’t have to give up any of his precious assets to get the best free agent on the market. This, ultimately, was Boston’s endgame; save the team’s stockpile of draft picks and most of its key pieces to acquire Hayward, who just last year was a 10-win player for the Jazz and a top-15 player in the league, having earned career highs in points and rebounds.
One would figure that Hayward’s decision would significantly change the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. If this is your opinion, you may want to seriously rethink it.
In order to make room for Hayward on their roster, the Celtics are expected to trade any one of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, or Marcus Smart; rumors are that the front office is looking to jettison one of the three players to Utah in a sign-and-trade to acquire Hayward. The most likely scenario is that Crowder is traded, as he would likely be cast as an undersized power forward in Boston’s new offense. However, his loss would be a bitter pill to swallow; Crowder ranked second on the team in win shares (6.7) last season and third in value over replacement player. While he probably wouldn’t be as productive if he stayed in Boston, don’t think that the Celtics are losing nothing if they trade him. Advanced statistics are not as friendly to Bradley or Smart, but the former was Boston’s second-leading scorer a season ago and the latter was the team’s sixth man. If it were up to me, I’d trade Marcus Smart; he only shot 36% from the field last season and just over 28% from deep. Smart, though, is one of the best defensive players on the team (tied for first in defensive win shares) and his departure would likely force Terry Rozier to step in as the Celtics’ backup point guard. While acquiring Hayward is definitely worth it for the Celtics, the team will likely be faced with non-trivial losses after his signing becomes official.
While the Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago, their Pythagorean win-loss record says that Boston should have been 48-34 based on last season’s point differential of +216, or +2.6 points per game. Let’s say that the Celtics send Crowder to Utah in the sign-and-trade. In terms of win shares, the Celtics are getting a +3.7 net change, but if you take that number and add it to their expected win-loss record and not their real one (53-29), the team would finish at 52-30. Granted, this does not take the overall fit of either player into account, but it does provide a starting point to figuring out just how much better Boston is with Hayward’s addition. Personally, I’d say that the Celtics are about three wins better than they were last season if they don’t trade Crowder. If they do, they’re probably right back where they were a season ago, even though their roster is more talented and, simply put, better. The team is due for a market correction after essentially stealing an extra five wins last season, but Hayward will help them once he gets acclimated to his new surroundings.
Remember when I told you that Hayward was worth just over ten wins for the Jazz last season? Well, that isn’t the important thing when considering his move. The main question to ask yourself is this: is Gordon Hayward worth an extra three wins in late May?
That’s the amount of wins the Celtics would have needed to get past the Great Wall of LeBron in last year’s playoffs. Even with one of the luckiest and most surprising wins in NBA playoff history, Boston was absolutely no match for the James-led Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Does the acquisition of a player like Hayward push the Celtics over the edge and past the Cavaliers? My guess, at least for next year, is that it doesn’t. It does make things more interesting, but it’s unlikely that Hayward instantly makes the Celtics the best team in the Eastern Conference; after all, the Celtics were immolated to the tune of a -100 point differential in last year’s Conference Finals, one that lasted just five games.
Now, Hayward’s signing is not solely a play towards 2018. The Celtics, assuming Ainge can re-sign star point guard Isaiah Thomas next year, are squarely in position to ascend to the Eastern Conference throne should James begin to decline (he turns 33 in late December) or leave the Cavaliers after next season. From that point of view, the acquisition is very smart; Boston gets a star player while giving up relatively few assets to do so. However, those picking the Celtics to win the East next year are probably at least a year ahead of themselves.
Of course, Hayward’s move isn’t the only significant development in this year’s free agency window. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the Western Conference, shall we?
In my view, the most significant move out west was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ draft day acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Chicago, for reasons passing understanding, only took Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkanen) from Chicago for a player who ranked in the top fifteen in both offensive and defensive win shares last season. Then, Minnesota signed Indiana Pacers (more on them later) point guard Jeff Teague and dealt Ricky Rubio to Utah. While the two are similar players, Teague is a slightly better shooter and, by extension, a slightly better floor-spacer for an offense that will likely run more isolation sets for Butler. Also, the addition of Butler should help budding stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, both of whom are just 21 years old. Butler’s arrival should be beneficial to Wiggins, in particular, as he struggled mightily on defense last season. For added measure, the team later signed power forward Taj Gibson to play alongside Towns in the paint.
Here’s the catch, though: the most transformative acquisition of the past two weeks came to a team that finished 31-51 last season. While their Pythagorean win percentage says they should have won seven more games than they did, the Timberwolves have a ways to go before becoming a serious championship contender. While the Celtics can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel with the Cavs’ dominance, there still exists a gulf between Minnesota and the Golden State Warriors. And Golden State doesn’t have aging superstars who are likely to leave the team anytime soon. So while Butler makes the Timberwolves a lot better than they were, he shouldn’t be enough to make the difference between them and the Warriors.
Another huge trade in the West was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s acquisition of Pacers forward Paul George. George announced shortly before the deal that he had absolutely no intention of re-signing with Indiana when he becomes a free agent in 2018. This left team president Kevin Pritchard between a rock and a hard place; trade George and receive less than he should in return or keep George for one more year and let him walk, likely to the Los Angeles Lakers, next summer. Pritchard decided to cut his losses and deal George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. George is a legitimate star in today’s NBA, and his numbers would suggest that the Pacers should get far more than they did in the trade. However, his preemptive decision left Pritchard with no good alternatives, so trading him for far less than market value was probably his only move to get himself out of check with his superstar. While many observers have chided the Pacers for getting fleeced in the deal, they had very few good options in this situation. They should be let off the hook just for getting anything at all for George’s services.
George, by all standards, is a very good player. He had a career year last year and has averaged over 20 points per game in each of the last three full seasons he has played. Where he has struggled recently is with his defense, as he accrued a negative defensive box plus/minus rating last season. This year, though, he’ll be playing with Russell Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP. Chances are that he won’t be carrying all of the offensive load like he did with Indiana last season, thus giving him more energy to spend on defense. The two should have a symbiotic relationship next season, and while Westbrook probably won’t be averaging a triple-double next season, the addition of a player like George will take some of the burden from both players.
That being said, the Thunder won just 47 games a season ago. They were the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and were bounced in an exciting but anticlimactic five games by the Houston Rockets in the first round last season. While the Thunder will try to keep George after next season, the Lakers are still the favorites to reel him in next summer. And even with him, the Thunder are likely not good enough to make a serious run at a championship this season. While George is an objectively excellent player, he shouldn’t move the needle enough to push the Thunder past the Warriors.
The one team that can claim to have a fighting chance at winning the West next season is the Houston Rockets. The team acquired star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in a monster trade that included the Rockets sending seven players back to L.A. The numbers, though, suggest that the hefty price Houston paid (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, others) is more than worth it; Paul contributed just under 11 wins to the Clippers last year in all of 61 games. Even at 32, Paul is still one of the best point guards in the league, and his addition could very well make the Rockets the second best team in the Western Conference. While some have made the argument that Paul and superstar James Harden will struggle to coexist because, as they say, there is only one basketball, the Rockets now have two of the best guards in the game. Somehow, I’m inclined to think they’ll make it work.
But, again, can they beat the Warriors? Paul has never been to the Conference Finals and the Rockets couldn’t even get past the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in Game 6 of the conference semis last year. In a vacuum, this move would likely make the Rockets the title favorite next season. Instead, Houston will have to contend with the monolith that is the most talented basketball team ever assembled.
And also, the Warriors will be even more absurd than they were just last year. In free agency, the team has added shooters Omri Casspi and Nick Young (yes, that Nick Young) to their already-loaded bench. Meanwhile, they have also managed to keep all of their core pieces intact while making their roster even better than it already was. If a team is going to catch the Warriors for the NBA title next season, I haven’t found it yet. While CP3 makes the Rockets significantly better, Houston would need several things to go right for them to get past Golden State.
Many important moves have been made in NBA free agency and trades in the last few days. Several teams have gotten better this month, such as the Thunder, Celtics, Timberwolves, and Rockets. We haven’t even gotten to mention the Denver Nuggets, who will be a ton of fun next year after signing power forward Paul Millsap to a 3-year, $90 million deal. Also, the Sacramento Kings are pushing toward playoff contention (don’t laugh) with the signings of George Hill and Zach Randolph, as well as the drafting of Kentucky’s DeAaron Fox with the fifth overall pick in the draft.
Many NBA teams have gotten better over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately for them, the moves made this June and July likely won’t make much of a difference come next May and June.
On May 3, 2013, the current state of the Boston Celtics would have seemed unimaginable to even the team’s most ardent fans.
That night, the Celtics lost Game 6 of their first-round series against the New York Knicks and were eliminated from the playoffs. Two-thirds of Boston’s so-called “Big Three” (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) were still with the organization while the other member (Ray Allen) had left before the start of the season to join the Miami Heat. Pierce was under contract for one more year while Garnett was locked up for another two; however, with the team’s decline from championship contender to fringe playoff team, Celtics’ GM and President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge would have a decision to make: ride out the length of their contracts or deal them to a team crazy enough to give up key assets for their services. At the same time, the front office needed to figure out what to do with coach Doc Rivers, who would have been less than willing to endure a rebuild and wanted more organizational influence; Boston later responded by dealing Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for a 2015 protected first round pick. Still, the situation remained with Pierce and Garnett.
As it turns out, the Brooklyn Nets were willing to help out the Celtics with their dilemma.
On June 28 of that year, the Nets acquired Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry in exchange for several role players, the most notable of whom being Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace. Here’s the kicker: the Nets also sent their first-round picks for 2014, 2016, and 2018 to Boston, as well as the right to swap picks this year, something the Celtics are going to take advantage of in the draft lottery. However, both sides were happy: the Celtics got a truckload of draft picks while the Nets got three additional pieces they thought could help them win a championship; Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov proclaimed shortly after the trade that “the basketball gods smiled on the Nets”. Little did he know just how wrong he would be; Pierce and Garnett played just one season together in Brooklyn before the former signed with the Wizards in the summer of 2014 and the latter was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the 2015 trade deadline. Terry left the Nets and signed with the Rockets the next year.
The C’s predictably struggled in the 2013-14 season, winning just 25 games under first-time NBA head coach Brad Stevens. With just 23 games gone by in the next season and with the team sitting at 9-14, Ainge decided to trade star point guard Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks for three players, including Jae Crowder. Crowder is currently a significant contributor to the Celtics’ success, as he has started all of the team’s playoff games in the last two seasons. At the time, the deal looked like a classic sell move from a team looking to slowly work back towards contention. In hindsight, it looks like a steal for Boston; Rondo played just 46 games in a Maverick uniform before signing with the Kings after the end of the season.
The move, though, didn’t pay off right away: the Celtics slumped to a 20-31 mark at the All-Star break and did not appear to be in playoff contention heading into the trade deadline. One team that was looking at self-improvement for a playoff push was the Phoenix Suns; the Suns had already dealt guard Goran Dragic to the Miami Heat after he demanded a trade because of disagreements with the front office and then-head coach Jeff Hornacek. The Dragic deal necessitated the team’s acquisition of Bucks shooting guard Brandon Knight. With Knight’s acquisition, Phoenix and general manager Ryan McDonough looked to remedy the team’s crowded backcourt situation, as the Suns had played with three starting-caliber guards in the rotation for the first half of the year. That led the organization to ship Isaiah Thomas to Boston in a three-team deal that spawned the Suns….. Marcus Thornton and Boston’s 2016 first round draft pick. Whoops.
The rest is more or less history; the Celtics went 20-11 to close out that season and went to the playoffs where they were quickly dispatched by the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games. You may remember that series for this play but not much else. Ainge laid low over the summer of 2015 and over the remainder of the next season, as Boston’s most significant transaction was acquiring forward Amir Johnson in free agency. The Celtics continued to improve, and Thomas took over as the team’s starting point guard and undisputed face of the franchise. While the C’s lost in six games to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, the team was clearly ahead of schedule in their rebuilding process.
Last summer, Ainge and the Celtics front office made their biggest splash yet, signing star center Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million contract; Horford was part of the Atlanta team that defeated Boston the year prior. With Horford in the fold and the rest of the core together for another year, the Celtics took another leap, finishing with 53 wins and, in a down year for the Eastern Conference, the number one seed in the playoffs. While some posited that they were the worst one-seed the league has ever seen (wonder who that could be), the accomplishment was still noteworthy for a team that looked to be locked in a long-term rebuild at this same time just three years ago.
Now, the Boston Celtics find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals after defeating the Washington Wizards in a deciding game 7. Kelly Olynyk, a forgotten piece of the Celtics’ resurgence, went for a playoff-career-high 26 points, Thomas went for 29, and the Celtics moved on after a series in which the home team won every single game. This comes on the heels of Boston being down two games to none to the Rajon Rondo-led Chicago Bulls (yes, him again). Rondo missed the last four games of that series, all of which went to the Celtics.
It’s fair to argue that the Boston Celtics had lots and lots of luck in getting to this point. The Thomas trade, the Nets giving them most of their draft picks for half of a decade, the Bulls losing Rondo, etc. But it is impressive that Ainge and the Boston front office was able to rebuild the roster so quickly after having very little to work from not long ago.
Also, consider this: the Celtics could get the number one overall pick in tonight’s NBA draft lottery. Because the Nets (very dumbly) allowed Boston to swap picks this year and the Nets had the worst record in the NBA, the Celtics have a one-in-four chance to earn the top pick. And, because they have the most ping-pong balls in the lottery, Boston cannot pick any lower than fourth overall. Then, think about how loaded this year’s draft is; with the Celtics’ standing, they could end up with any one of Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, DeAaron Fox, Malik Monk, or Jayson Tatum, all of whom could help the team from day one. And if they want to make a run at a championship for next year, they could draft any one of those players and trade him to a rebuilding team for a more established player or players, such as the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler or the Pacers’ Paul George. I’m not suggesting this would definitely happen, but it should be on the table when Boston makes their selection.
Also, this is not meant to suggest that Boston will defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Cleveland has shown itself to be the far superior team over the course of the season and so far in these playoffs, so it would be a major shock to see Boston come out on top in the series.
Nevertheless, it is an incredibly impressive achievement for a team that will earn a top-four pick in the draft tonight and open the Eastern Conference Finals at home tomorrow.
Through two games of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics have looked less like the best team in the Eastern Conference and more like a seventh or eighth seed. That’s good, because they’ve been easily handled on their home floor by a team that was a self-implodingcaricatureofitself during the regular season and only got into the Playoffs because the Brooklyn Nets rested all of their semi-decent players in their last game of the season (by plus-minus, the best player on the floor for Brooklyn against Chicago last Wednesday was Spencer Dinwiddie).
But through two games of their first-round series, they have easily handled the top-seeded Celtics, dominated the rebound battle, and looked like the far superior team of the two. The Celtics are just the second one seed in NBA history to lose the first two games of their first-round series; the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns dropped their first two games to the Los Angeles Lakers before winning the last three in what was then a five-game series. The Suns later went to the Finals last year and Charles Barkley proclaimed that the team had a very famous fan on their journey. The rest is history.
But, while the Suns made the NBA Finals after such an inauspicious start to their Postseason, the Celtics don’t look as though they’ll have the same fate; after all, they are in the same conference as LeBron James. But, there is a bigger question to be asked:
Are the Boston Celtics the weakest one seed the NBA has ever laid eyes upon?
This discussion will be limited to teams who have secured the honor in the modern NBA Playoff format of sixteen teams, an arrangement that began with the 1984 Playoffs. We will also exclude the lockout shortened 1998-99 and 2011-12 seasons, as both seasons saw significant chunks of time knocked off the regular season.
Including and since 1984 but excluding this past regular season, a total of 20 teams have obtained the number one seed in their conference without getting to 60 wins; that number is generally regarded as the threshold for safely earning a one seed. Out of those 20, every single one won at least one Playoff series, and 19 reached at least the Conference Finals. Additionally, 12 of the original 20 reached the NBA Finals with three (the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers, and 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers) winning the championship. History has shown that stumbling to a top seed and going far in the Playoffs are not mutually exclusive things.
In the modern Playoff era, just five eight seeds have defeated one seeds in the first round. They are:
1999: New York Knicks (27-23) def. Miami Heat (33-17) (3-2)
2007: Golden State Warriors (42-40) def. Dallas Mavericks (67-15) (4-2)
2011: Memphis Grizzlies (46-36) def. San Antonio Spurs (61-21) (4-2)
2012: Philadelphia 76ers (35-31) def. Chicago Bulls (50-16) (4-2)
*note: until 2003, the first round of the NBA Playoffs was a five-game series
Of the five one seeds that lost to eight seeds, the worst by win percentage was the 1999 Heat; their season, like all others that year, was abbreviated by the lockout and did not commence until February 5, 1999. If their win percentage was converted to a full season, they would have gone 54-28, just one win better than this year’s Celtics squad. However, with so short of a regular season, only six wins separated them and the eighth-seeded Knicks. It’s also important to remember that the ’99 Knicks went to the NBA Finals before losing to the Spurs, and the Heat put up the best fight of any team in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. In fact, it took this miraculous shot from Allan Houston to eliminate Miami:
The Heat, therefore, are exempt from this discussion; they obviously played an underachieving Knicks team that later went on a run to the NBA Finals. And in a lockout-shortened year, one had to expect some degree of craziness in the Playoffs. That also means that the 2011-12 Chicago Bulls are exempt from this discussion; they also lost defending MVP Derrick Rose in the first game of their series against Philadelphia and very likely would have moved on with a healthy Rose.
We then move to the 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics, who won 63 games in the regular season but fell prey to the Dikembe Mutombo-led Denver Nuggets in the Playoffs. By the SRS (simple rating system), Seattle ranked number one in the league that season and were the favorite of many pundits to advance far in the Postseason and possibly even win an NBA title in the first season after Michael Jordan’s first retirement from basketball. Alas, they fell flat in April, but calling them a weak one seed would be a gross mischaracterization. While they disappointed in the Playoffs, they may have been the best team in the regular season.
Moving chronologically, the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks were very similar to Seattle. They were second in SRS and while metrics say they overachieved by roughly six wins that year, they were still one of the best teams in the league. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the “We Believe” Warriors and were dispatched in six games. But with 67 regular season wins, the Mavericks were actually one of the strongest one seeds of all time. However, they turned in an incredibly lackluster Playoff performance.
The other one seed to exit in the first round was the 2010-11 San Antonio Spurs, who were ousted in six games by the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s worth noting that after beating San Antonio, Memphis took the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games in the Conference Semifinals, clearly cementing their status as better than your average eight seed. The Spurs probably weren’t as good as the 61-21 record, but they hardly stood on shaky ground. If anything, they were actually beaten by a better team.
That leads us to the 2016-17 Boston Celtics. I’ve used the Simple Rating System for a couple of other teams in this article, so why not use it again: Boston ranked eighth in the league in SRS this year, behind teams such as the Jazz and the Raptors. At 53-29, they were a one seed in name only, and their expected win-loss record (48-34) suggests that they were really a middle-of-the-pack team.
Part of their failure against Chicago can also be attributed to their matchup deficiencies against the Bulls. While Chicago is a top-five rebounding team, the Celtics ranked 27th in the league in the same category this past year. The Bulls have exploited the Celtics’ weaknesses on the glass to the tune of a +22 rebound advantage over the first two games of the series. That doesn’t seem like a very advanced winning method; after all, everyone could have seen that coming, right?
No, we didn’t. Not one ESPN expert picked Chicago. I picked the Celtics in a quick and easy five games. Like many others, I saw the Bulls as a hapless, bickering misadventure of a basketball team with big names but not enough cohesion and, frankly, pure basketball skill to take out Boston. Like everyone else, I’ve been proven wrong by the Bulls’ tenacity and winning combination of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Robin Lopez, and the National TV version of Rajon Rondo.
The metrics and the results agree: this is the worst and weakest one seed in the modern era of professional basketball. The Celtics couldn’t hide forever, and now that they’ve reached the Playoffs, their fraudulent identity has come to the surface.
We should have probably seen something like this coming, but we didn’t. We were wrong. I was wrong. And we’re all sorry. We saw the Bulls as a team that couldn’t compete with the Celtics, and we saw Boston as something they’re clearly not:
Worthy of being the one seed in the Eastern Conference.
I’m sure you probably forgot about it with the NBA Finals going to seven games, but the NBA Draft is this Thursday in Brooklyn. This draft promises to be interesting on a number of levels, with a deep international pool and can’t-miss prospects at the top of the class.
I’ll start things off with my big board; it consists of 54 players, most if not all of which will be drafted Thursday night. Here it is, followed by an explanation of a couple of rankings that might jump out at you:
Wade Baldwin IV
Gary Payton II
A couple of things to explain here. Number one, I put Brandon Ingram at #1 on my board, and I did this for a variety of reasons. The obvious one is that he’s a far, far better shooter than Simmons. Simmons will have to get a jump shot if he wants to be successful in the NBA, at least offensively. While he often looks to get his teammates involved, a la LeBron James or Magic Johnson, his shot needs an awful lot of work. I also really like Ingram as a defender, and I think this makes his value as a wing skyrocket.
Another thing I should really address is Buddy Hield’s presence at #3. While this sounds hyperbolic (and maybe it is), Hield is the best shooter the draft has seen since Steph Curry came out of Davidson in 2009. Hield’s career progression kind of reminds you of Curry’s; he was a four-year student-athlete at Oklahoma and wasn’t recruited by more basketball-rich schools because of his lack of athletic ability. Sound familiar? Yeah, I think Hield is going to be really good in the NBA; his work ethic enables him to continue to improve, even at 22, and he should be able to contribute right away to whichever team takes him.
With all of that being said, it’s time for our first-round mock draft. If this tweet is any indicator, I should be getting about two of thirty of these picks right:
Text from a scout on unpredictability of this draft: “Mock drafts are about to go up in flames.”
So that’s nice. In any event, let’s give it a shot. Here’s my 2016 mock draft. Let’s hope it doesn’t go up in flames.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
The pick: Ben Simmons
The only other logical pick for the 76ers here would be Brandon Ingram. Simmons and Ingram are the two best players in this draft, and it’s a pretty big gap between two and three.
The most impressive part of Simmons’ game, other than his athleticism, is his passing ability. Watch this play against Florida in January. Pay close attention to how he looks off the defender and whips the pass into the paint for a shot under the basket:
In watching that play, it’s easy to see why the comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson have rolled in. However, he’s not nearly a perfect player; as previously stated, he actually cannot shoot. He’s probably not even shooting with the correct hand, so maybe a Tristan Thompson-esque change from his left hand to his right is forthcoming.
Also, if he is to have any other weakness, it’s that he’s not that great in the post. His post game will need to become more advanced if he is to play the three or four in the NBA. Other than that, he’s a really good passer and rebounder, one who could and probably will be highly productive at the next level.
Philly needs literally everything in the draft and free agency, so getting Simmons at 1 is a very good start.
Simmons Comparison: LAMAR ODOM/BLAKE GRIFFIN
2. Los Angeles Lakers
The pick: Brandon Ingram
Another very easy call here. If the 76ers by chance pick Ingram over Simmons, then the Lakers would take Simmons at 2.
Ingram is another very interesting player at the top of the draft. He’s kind of a prototypical NBA wing, and as you can see from this highlight reel, he can really do a little bit of everything.
Personally, I like Ingram a little more than Simmons because his skill set better fits the NBA game. He’s a good shooter (41% from three last season) and his shot should improve with time and repetition. He also has lots of potential defensively and can become elite when he adds more strength.
The obvious knock on Ingram is that he’s thin as a rail. That he is (6’9″, 190 lb.), and he will initially have trouble guarding stronger players in the post. He’s also very raw and could become a far better finisher, especially in traffic. Ingram has stated that he wants to eat lots of calories in order to bulk up, and he will have to fill out his frame in order to flourish in the NBA.
However, history has shown that he can still be on the thin side and succeed. In watching him play, he reminds me of Kevin Durant, and I mean every word of that statement.
The Lakers will get Ingram or Simmons here. Not a bad consolation prize at all.
Ingram Comparison: KEVIN DURANT
3. Boston Celtics
The pick: Dragan Bender
F/C/Croatia (last played for Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli BSL)
This is where I could see the draft getting very crazy. The Celtics could do any number of things with this pick (including trade it) and there are several players they could take at 3.
The guy I have them taking is Dragan Bender, the slightly mysterious, physically imposing big man from overseas who is projected to go in the top-5. Sound familiar? Yeah, Bender is this year’s Kristaps Porzingis, for better or worse.
Bender’s game is a little bit of an enigma; he is a decent shooter who has shown that he can step out to the three-point line every once in a while. He’s also a very good passer, particularly out of the post, which should help him against over-aggressive defenses.
But there are some apparent weaknesses: he’s not a great defender and his fundamentals are very poor. His shot is also very inconsistent and he only shot 25% from three for Maccabi Tel Aviv last season.
Nonetheless, he projects as a solid NBA player. Maybe he’ll be a solid unicorn as well.
Bender Comparison: VLADE DIVAC
4. Phoenix Suns
The pick: Jaylen Brown
Jaylen Brown is one of the most intriguing players in this draft. Brown is extremely athletic, the type of player who should be able to strive in Phoenix’s up-and-down system.
You can see the apparent athletic gifts Brown has in this dunk against UCLA:
Brown is an athletic specimen, but he doesn’t have that much more to offer other than his athletic ability and his defensive game; the two have a symbiotic relationship. He doesn’t have very many advanced dribble moves and is only really a straight-line driver in the half court. He also doesn’t have much of a jumper at this stage in his development, so going to a system that doesn’t require very much of him offensively will be very important.
Brown is incredibly raw, but he won’t be 20 until the season begins. If he goes to the right place, he could develop into a really good player. He has one of the highest upsides in the draft and he should be able to improve once he gets to the NBA.
Pheonix might be the place for him to do that.
Brown Comparison: METTA WORLD PEACE
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
The pick: Buddy Hield
Buddy Hield may not be the best player in the NBA Draft but he was the best player in college basketball last season. That has to count for something, right?
Hield has no limits to his shooting range and, just as importantly, possesses a very quick trigger. Watch how quickly he gets this shot out against Kansas in February:
Hield was the best shooter in the game, and he got that way because of his insane work ethic. Just listen to this account from ESPN’s Dana O’Neil:
Hield […] tries to get between 300 and 500 shots a day outside of practice. And that’s on the days he’s feeling good about himself. When he feels like he’s off, he’ll push himself into the 500 to 700 range.
500 to 700 shots per day. That’s absurd, but it at least partially explains why Hield has gotten so good. The other part is sheer, natural talent, which he has a lot of.
His athleticism is what hindered him going into college and it will again in the NBA. But if his work ethic is any indication, Hield can make himself into one of the best players in this draft and one of the best shooters in the league.
And the Timberwolves will reap the benefits at 5. That is unless they deal the pick, of course.
6. New Orleans Pelicans
The pick: Kris Dunn
Kris Dunn is one of the few locks in this draft; at 22, he’s also one of its oldest players. This kind of eats away at his upside, but it’s abundantly clear that Dunn is the best point guard in this year’s class. It isn’t that close, either.
As for his fit in New Orleans, it would probably be a really great place for him to go. He would step in immediately as the team’s starting point guard, but that’s not the best part of a potential Dunn-Pelicans union. New Orleans started four different point guards over the course of last season; Dunn would solidify the position and, at worst, give the team another option.
There’s also the appeal of what Dunn brings to the table. He’s one of the most athletic players in this draft and this helps him on both ends of the floor. He isn’t as good of a decision-maker as you would think and his jump shot isn’t that great, but these things could still improve with time.
In the meantime, he’s an already solid defender who should get even better in the NBA. Also, his athleticism and his ability to pass should help him acquiesce with star big man Anthony Davis; needless to say, prepare for a poor man’s version of Lob City in the French Quarter.
Dunn is the perfect fit for the Pelicans, and he’s one of the few sureties of this draft. He may be a little overrated, but he’ll still have himself a solid career in the NBA.
Dunn Comparison: VICTOR OLADIPO
7. Denver Nuggets
The pick: Jamal Murray
Jamal Murray is one of the best pure shooters in this year’s draft class. Watch him shoot this three from deep against Louisville early in the year:
Murray is a certified scorer, having put up 20 per game on an offensively stacked Kentucky squad. He’s also a good decision-maker and a solid passer. His greatest gift, though, is not on the offensive end.
Murray is one of the best defenders in this year’s draft, and even though his lack of athleticism will hurt him at the next level, his effort and energy will help him compensate for this weakness. Even though he’s not big enough to guard wings, he should be able to have success against guards, which is critical for a Nuggets team that allowed 105 points per game last season. Denver also ranked 26th in three-point percentage (33.8%) last year, so Murray is basically the epitome of everything they need right now.
He’s far from a perfect player, but Jamal Murray is a player you would want on your team; he makes effort plays that help his team win games. Hopefully for the Nuggets, drafting him will help them improve from their 33-win mark of a season ago.
Murray Comparison: WESLEY MATTHEWS
8. Sacramento Kings
The pick: Marquese Chriss
This is where the draft starts to turn a little bit upside down. I have the Kings taking the riskiest player in this draft at 8: Marquese Chriss.
Chriss is only 18 years old and won’t turn 19 until next month. If you watch him play long enough, his age and inexperience show. He doesn’t bring very much to the table offensively, although he does have a pretty good jump shot. Also, his defensive game needs quite a bit of work, and his effort is questionable at times. He will have to prove that he’s mature enough for the NBA, and I’m not convinced that he is right now.
The selling point for Chriss is his extraordinary upside. He may be the most athletic player in the draft and his quickness could help him become a good defender if he works at it. He’ll have to do that in addition to proving that he’s mature beyond his years. My guess is that he’ll be headed to the D-League to start his career.
Someone will take a risk on him in the top 10, and I think the Kings will be that team.
Chriss Comparison: JOSH SMITH
9. Toronto Raptors
The pick: Deyonta Davis
Davis is a very solid defender and could become a very good NBA rim protector in his development. The NBA is chomping at the bit to have another one of those, as SB Nation’s Kevin O’Connor writes:
Davis wasn’t expected to be a one-and-done prospect but he rose quickly in college. At this point of the draft process he’s a likely lottery pick. But NBA teams are drooling for more bigs that can protect the rim, switch screens, and rebound, so Davis could surge up the charts as the draft approaches. Just like he always has.
Davis has risen in the draft process, as his athleticism and rim protection make him appealing to teams looking for a little more punch defensively. The Raptors are going to need that punch in the future, as sudden playoff hero Bismack Biyombo is due for a massive raise from his $2.81 million salary of a season ago. He’ll get that raise, but it may not be from the Raptors.
Davis is not much of a jump shooter at this stage of his development; he does have the potential to step out from midrange eventually. He’s kind of an inconsistent player, but he’s also still a teenager learning the fundamentals of the game. He should be able to improve as he learns how to play basketball, and he could become one of the best players in this draft.
His upside is abundant, which should appeal to the Raptors, who are looking to dethrone the Cavs in the Eastern Conference. That may not happen, but drafting Davis with the 9th pick would be a prudent decision for them.
Davis Comparison: JORDAN HILL
10. Milwaukee Bucks
The pick: Furkan Korkmaz
F/Turkey (last played for Anadolu Efes of the Turkish League)
Furkan Korkmaz is one of the unknown players in this year’s class. His skill set, though, allows him to translate in the NBA right away.
I’ll admit this: I wasn’t able to see quite as much of him as I might have liked. What I did see of him grabbed my attention, to say the least.
For example, Korkmaz is a very solid shooter with exceptional form. When watching him play, you immediately hearken to watching someone like Klay Thompson, a shooter with perfect form and a very quick release. Even though Korkmaz may be more of a forward in the NBA, he’ll be playing the type of game that Thompson does now. His shooting could help several teams; that’s where the Milwaukee Bucks come in.
The Bucks shot just 34.5% from deep a season ago and have struggled in three-point shooting for the past several years. The team made an effort to resolve this problem by drafting UNLV sharpshooter Rashad Vaughn a season ago; Vaughn shot threes at a 29% clip last season.
Drafting Korkmaz could go a long way toward fixing this problem. He has told teams that he’ll be coming over right away and he could provide immediate shooting help for a Bucks team that could use it.
The Bucks are close to contention; taking someone who could help address their biggest flaw can’t hurt.
Korkmaz Comparison: KLAY THOMPSON
11. Orlando Magic
The pick: Henry Ellenson
Marquette’s Henry Ellenson has recently drawn some comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki. When he plays, it’s easy to see why; they possess very similar sets of skills and body types.
Ellenson’s abilities are very diverse: he’s an improving shooter and can mix it up in the post as well. He can also shoot off the dribble, as this play from the Big East Tournament shows:
Ellenson can do many different things offensively. His major weakness, however, is his defense. The main reason why he struggles so much defensively is his athleticism, which is another similarity he shares with Dirk. Ellenson is simply a slow player, but the Magic could use his skill set to their advantage.
Consider this: new head coach Frank Vogel seems to really like big men. He cultivated the careers of Roy Hibbert and Myles Turner in Indiana, and he doesn’t really like to play at a very fast pace. That style of play will be perfect for Ellenson, as the team will only rely on his shot-making ability and offensive game.
Even if he isn’t the next Dirk, Ellenson will still be able to help many teams. The Magic are definitely one of them.
Ellenson Comparison: DIRK NOWITZKI
12. Atlanta Hawks
The pick: Dejounte Murray
Just like his Washington teammate, Marquese Chriss, Dejounte Murray is a potentially high-risk, high-reward player. The Hawks probably were not in the market for backcourt help before this week. However, they are now, as Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports:
Atlanta is sending guard Jeff Teague to Indiana as part of a three-way deal, league sources tell @TheVertical.
The Hawks could definitely use another guard in their system. Murray is that guy.
He is one of the better scorers in the draft; the problem comes in his efficiency, or lack thereof. He consistently forces up bad shots and will need to improve his shot selection at the next level. His defense is also lacking somewhat, but he can improve this skill.
The Hawks probably wouldn’t be asking very much out of Murray, at least to start. Why they are drafting him has everything to do with his offensive ability, as he could give the Hawks a diverse set of talents. Atlanta needs to be willing to wait for them to develop, though, as Murray is very raw and needs time to realize his potential.
Even if he goes to the D-League to start his career, Murray may be able to help Atlanta offensively for years to come. Just don’t expect it anytime soon.
Murray Comparison: ALEC BURKS/JAMAL CRAWFORD
13. Pheonix Suns
The pick: Skal Labissiere
At this time a year ago, Skal Labissiere was regarded as one of the top players in this draft. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Labissiere’s 2015-16 collegiate season at Kentucky was one of the most singularly disappointing campaigns in recent memory. It wasn’t all his fault; he didn’t receive a ton of playing time and didn’t get the repetitions needed to improve his overall game. He needs to improve exponentially, but you can see why teams are excited about him.
For example, his height and exceptional reach potentially make him one of the best rim protectors in this year’s class. This play against LSU in early March shows a glimpse of his potential:
At 7’0″, Labissiere could reasonably play center in the NBA. That being said, he still has a long way to go in many areas; he has little to no offensive game and would probably be off to the D-League to start his career.
While that is true, some teams are salivating over him because of his upside. At just 20 years old, he does not possess the competitive experience of his peers. Having grown up in Haiti and lived through the 2010 earthquake, Skal has been through a lot. Luckily for him, he’s about to realize his NBA dream.
I would be willing to take a chance on Labissiere near the end of the lottery, and I think the Suns would as well.
Labissiere Comparison: HASSAN WHITESIDE
14. Chicago Bulls
The pick: Jakob Poeltl
I will be very honest with you: Jakob Poeltl does not thrill me. I’ve wanted to like him throughout this process, and I don’t think he’s going to be a bad player in the NBA.
But having watched him several times during the season and in the NCAA Tournament, I wasn’t blown away by him. He’s a very true center and really doesn’t possess any ability to play the 4. Also, he doesn’t have great athletic ability or an advanced offensive game to make up for it. This lack of offensive prowess hurt him in his NCAA Tournament matchup against Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis; if you don’t want to see the highlights, Poeltl got destroyed.
Nevertheless, the Bulls might need a center this summer. Joakim Noah is a free agent and a shell of his former self. While the team is trading point guard Derrick Rose to the Knicks, the lack of a true center is their biggest need right now.
So even though I see several issues with Poeltl’s game, I think he’d be a solid pickup for Chicago. He’s not overwhelmingly good like some scouts think, but he’ll be a solid choice for the Bulls at 14.
And really, solid is all Chicago can ask for.
Poeltl Comparison: ANDREW BOGUT
15. Denver Nuggets
The pick: Denzel Valentine
The Nuggets’ second pick of the first round is a little bit more simple. They’ll likely take the best player available here: Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine.
Valentine should probably be a lottery choice. The reason he would be available here is because of concerns about a knee injury, as reported by BasketballInsiders:
Word is Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine may have a fairly significant knee issue, so much so that one team sort of compared him to former Indiana Pacers All-Star Danny Granger, who came into the league with a degenerative knee condition and struggled every year to play 82 games. League sources said it’s still likely he will get drafted in the first round, but his stock looks to be a tough one to lock in with so many teams believing his knee will be a problem.
I’d say that’s an issue. But if Valentine can stay healthy, he’ll be one of the most effective players this draft has to offer. As a very good passer and shooter, he could immediately step into the point forward role that many have talked about Ben Simmons assuming.
With the Nuggets, taking Valentine should be the obvious choice. Given all of Danilo Gallinari’s injury concerns, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have his replacement ready in case they flare up again? This is the pick they should make.
Hopefully, Valentine proves to be more like Jared Sullinger than Danny Granger.
Valentine Comparison: GORDON HAYWARD
16. Boston Celtics
The pick: Ante Zizic
C/Croatia (last played for Cibona Zagreb of the Croatian League)
If the Celtics are serious about being players in free agency for Kevin Durant and others, then their best option is to pick a draft-and-stash international player. Enter Ante Zizic, a center from Croatia.
Zizic is an interesting player and one of the best rebounders in the draft. He likely will not be coming to the States this year, so the Celtics won’t be paying him. They will retain his rights, though.
At just 19 years old, Zizic was exceptionally productive in Croatia; he posted a 25.7 PER in just one season in the league. Zizic’s productivity should mean that he’ll fare well in the NBA. He won’t be here this year, but his rebounding, defensive, and scoring ability should have him in demand on draft night.
And with the Celtics looking to save all the money they possibly can, they’ll be willing to wait for his skill set to make its way across the Atlantic.
Zizic Comparison: NIKOLA VUCEVIC
17. Memphis Grizzlies
The pick: Malachi Richardson
Perhaps no player in the first round of this draft helped his stock through the draft process more than Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson. Richardson had one of the best performances at the Draft Combine in mid-May, which undoubtedly led him to keep his name in this year’s class.
The reason the Grizzlies are taking him here is because… they said so. Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress and The Vertical reports the following:
The Grizzlies are enamored with the Syracuse wing, and he could be a fit here. They could really use the perimeter shooting he offers and has some upside.
The Grizzlies have essentially promised Richardson he will be taken here if he isn’t before then. Richardson would offer the Grizzlies a bevy of skills, from his outside shooting to his athletic ability. He’s a pure scorer, and that has precluded him somewhat from becoming a better passer and decision-maker.
Richardson really needs to improve his shot selection to stick in the NBA. He has a tendency to take poor shots, particularly early in the shot clock. If he can curb this habit and become a better passer, he’ll become a good player in the NBA.
But for now, he’s good enough to get a promise from Memphis at 17.
Richardson Comparison: PAUL PIERCE/MANU GINOBILI
18. Detroit Pistons
The pick: Domantas Sabonis
Domantas Sabonis is a very interesting player. As a pure power forward, he doesn’t possess very much athletic ability or a consistent three-pointer at this phase. However, he can give a team a legitimate offensive threat off the bench, one who could step out to midrange or put it on the floor and get to the basket.
As I said earlier, Sabonis absolutely slaughtered Jakob Poeltl in their second round NCAA Tournament game. Go to around 0:42 of the video if you want a true sense of Sabonis’ offensive expertise and dominance of the Utah center on that particular night:
Sabonis’ stock is somewhat difficult to pin down. While I could completely see him being taken in the lottery, I could also see him falling out of it. He doesn’t have a ton of upside and his biggest progression in the NBA will be his improving perimeter jumper. He’s not that fast and not really athletic.
But he makes hustle plays, ones that win games and keep him in demand. Also, his father, Arvydas, played in the NBA for seven seasons, all of which came after his 30th birthday. His dad was a very intelligent player, and Domantas is too.
Detroit has been looking for a talented backup big man since their deadline deal for Houston’s Donatas Motiejunas fell through. Stan Van Gundy will get what he wants in Sabonis.
Sabonis Comparison: DREW GOODEN
19. Denver Nuggets
The pick: Wade Baldwin IV
Wade Baldwin has been shooting up NBA Draft boards with comparisons to Russell Westbrook. Yes, that Russell Westbrook.
Baldwin has also shot up big boards because of his performance in interviews. He’s said all of the right things in the draft process and teams don’t really seem to care if he himself actually believes them.
Baldwin’s biggest calling card at the NBA level will be his athleticism. Watch him get away with a travel and get up for the dunk at the Maui Invitational in late November:
Needless to say, Baldwin’s athletic ability will help him bring a lot to the table for NBA teams. He could become a good defender if he wants to be; that’s a big if, but it could be a major asset in his game. He’s also a dangerous shooter from deep, having shot 42.2% in two years at Vanderbilt. His jumper is somewhat inconsistent, but it’s easy to see why some teams are absolutely drooling over him.
For the Nuggets, Baldwin is another guard in a crowded backcourt that includes Gary Harris and Emmanuel Mudiay. There’s always the possibility that Mudiay doesn’t work out as the team’s starting point guard (he ranked 375th in the NBA in PER last season), so Baldwin should make for a solid insurance policy.
Hopefully for him, he can rise even higher than this before Thursday night.
20. Indiana Pacers
The pick: Brice Johnson
So, Larry Bird, you want to play a little faster? Okay, you have your guy.
Johnson is really athletic. Like, so athletic that his max vertical is 38 inches. In watching dunks like these, I’m convinced that figure should be even higher:
Johnson would be the perfect fit for new coach Nate McMillan’s (and Bird’s) system. He would be ideal as a rim runner and a finisher who could throw down putback dunks. He wouldn’t be asked to do very much and has a legitimate dunk contest future.
If the Pacers get that Brice Johnson, they should be more than happy.
Johnson Comparison: BRANDAN WRIGHT
21. Utah Jazz
The pick: Timothe Luwawu
F/France (last played for Mega Leks of the Serbian Basketball League)
Some mock drafts see Timothe Luwawu landing in the lottery. Mine does not, as I don’t see very many teams that need help at the wing.
Luwawu is a good player, one who almost entered the draft a season ago. His most translatable NBA skill is his jump shot, as he is a very good jump shooter for a small forward. His other impressive skill is his defense, as he is one of the best defenders in the draft, even if his consistency lags behind.
Luwawu has not been playing competitive basketball for a very long time, and he still has room for improvement. He is 21 years old, but he still has some upside left.
The Jazz seem to like defensively-inclined, athletic players. Luwawu will give that to them, and while he isn’t quite ready to assume a larger role right now, he should become a very good player in the NBA. The one issue with Utah’s current construction is that Gordon Hayward could very well be traded; Luwawu could go a long way toward replacing him.
The Jazz trade down and get their man, regardless of whether or not Hayward stays.
Luwawu Comparison: P.J. TUCKER
22. Charlotte Hornets
The pick: Malik Beasley
Malik Beasley is one of my favorite players in this draft. He makes his teammates better. He’s unselfish. He goes after loose balls with reckless abandon. He gives 100% at all times.
And then there are the obvious tools be brings to the table. His athleticism is off the charts and he is able to finish dunks with authority both in transition and the halfcourt. As a defender, he is very solid, and his athleticism and development will definitely help him improve on that end.
The Hornets may be in the market for a backup point guard. Jeremy Lin has a player option for next season and figures to demand more than the $2.1 million he made this year. Beasley would be a cheaper solution, one who could give the Hornets some minutes behind Kemba Walker.
Beasley would be a backup plan for Charlotte, but he’d be a very good one. He would give an effort and energy that would be infectious. He’d also give the Hornets good defense, and he’s only getting better on that end.
This would be a home run for the Hornets if they could land Beasley. It might even be the biggest steal of the draft if it happens. I totally believe that.
Beasley Comparison: ZACH LAVINE
23. Boston Celtics
The pick: Rade Zagorac
F/Serbia (last played for Mega Leks of the Serbian Basketball League)
The Celtics have another pick, and the common sense solution is another draft-and-stash player: Rade Zagorac.
Zagorac is a player with good size for a wing (6’9″) and noteworthy athletic ability. At just 20 years old, he’s still got a lot of room to improve, and staying to play in Serbia for at least another year or two should be beneficial to his development.
I know it sounds crazy that the Celtics would take three international players in the first round. It probably is; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the C’s deal at least one of their first-round selections. They have eight in total, so there will be plenty of other opportunities to improve their team. I could definitely see them trading one or more of these picks to acquire assets to help them win now.
If they keep the pick, I have them taking Zagorac. That is a very big if.
Zagorac Comparison: TRAVIS OUTLAW
24. Philadelphia 76ers
The pick: Demetrius Jackson
I may have said this earlier, but the 76ers have a ton of needs. The biggest one is probably the point guard position, and even though they’re going to take Simmons with the first pick, they could use some serious guard help.
So it would only make sense that they take the best guard available in Demetrius Jackson. Jackson would be able to help the Sixers almost immediately as a passer, finisher, and shooter. His offensive game is generally undeveloped but he should be able to step in and contribute right away.
However, this is another situation where the team could deal its late-first round draft pick. The Sixers have been in “active discussions” with other teams about trading the pick and it would make complete sense if they did. Philly could use some shooting to surround Simmons and could include this pick in a package with one of their many, many, many big men.
So if Philly holds on to the 24th pick, they’ll take Jackson. My guess is that they won’t.
Jackson Comparison: ERIC BLEDSOE
25. Los Angeles Clippers
The pick: Patrick McCaw
You’ll never believe this, but the Los Angeles Clippers have a first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Even better, they haven’t traded it away. Yet.
Team President Doc Rivers has made some questionable decisions during his tenure that have seriously sabotaged head coach Doc Rivers. Late first round draft picks have not been among them, but Rivers has a questionable history when it comes to personnel decisions.
And, let’s face it, the Clippers could be on the verge of blowing up their roster in a nuclear manner. In deciding what to do about many of the team’s soon-to-expire contracts, Rivers will have to decide who to keep and who to get rid of; he’ll have to decide on the futures of players such as Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and J.J. Redick rather soon.
Patrick McCaw might be a part of the Clippers’ (soon-to-be-revamped?) roster. McCaw is an intriguing player best known for his athleticism and finishing ability. He struggles defensively and with his shot but he has the potential to stick in the league.
The Clippers need to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s not every year that you get to have a first-round draft pick. Well, not for them, anyway.
McCaw Comparison: KEVIN MARTIN
26. Philadelphia 76ers
The pick: Taurean Prince
This is another pick that the 76ers will likely trade. I really can’t see any way the team keeps the pick unless it drafts an international player. What I can do is tell you a little about Taurean Prince.
Prince grew up in San Antonio and his parents separated early in his life. Long story short, he bounced from home to home without finding a permanent one. He went back and forth between both of his parents and wasn’t able to find full-time shelter until going to college at Long Island University, only to transfer to Baylor. CSN Philly has his full story if you’re interested in reading it; you really should give it a look.
That puts things in some good perspective and it shows that Prince won’t be fazed at all by playing in the NBA. As a player, Prince is a very good athlete who excels at the defensive end. He’s not a great offensive player but he has some potential left to improve. He does have NBA range from deep and could become this draft’s “three-and-D” player. But the most important thing he’s about to become is an NBA draft pick, fulfilling his dream of being in the league.
If he does nothing else in basketball, he will have gotten much farther than anyone could have expected when he was going from house to house as a child.
Prince Comparison: DEMARRE CARROLL
27. Toronto Raptors
The pick: DeAndre’ Bembry
DeAndre’ Bembry is probably the best offensive player left at this point in the draft. The Raptors could use a little offense, even if it comes at the end of the first round.
Bembry is capable of throwing down in transition and has a good body for a guard. He’s also a very good ball-handler who is able to make advanced dribble moves to get to this shot. He is a certified scorer, having averaged nearly 18 points per game over the past two seasons.
However, his weakness is his jump shot and how it has regressed since his freshman year at St. Joe’s. Inexplicably, Bembry’s three-point percentage dipped from 34.6% in his freshman year to 32.7% in his sophomore year and finally to 26.6% this past season. Bembry will have to fix his shot if he’s going to have a successful NBA career.
The Raptors will take the best available player here and take a chance on DeAndre’ Bembry.
Bembry Comparison: JAE CROWDER
28. Phoenix Suns
The pick: Thon Maker
C/Sudan (last played for Canada’s Athlete Institute)
This is the ultimate low-risk, potentially high-reward pick. Actually, there’s little to norisk in taking Thon Maker with the 28th pick in the first round.
Maker is a rarity in today’s NBA Draft: a player who came straight out of high school into the draft. Maker was able to do this because he actually graduated high school in 2015, the same year Simmons, Ingram, and every other one-and-done player did. However, Maker decided to stay in high school as a post-graduate student, therefore fulfilling the minimum age and schooling requirements (one year out of high school) for entry into the NBA Draft. Maker is poised to become the first player to be drafted into the NBA straight out of high school since 2005, the last year of the league’s old eligibility rules.
As a player, Maker is incredibly raw; he never played college basketball and has very little competitive experience. His best skill is his rebounding ability, a talent crafted from his effort and elite size (7’1″, 220 lb.). He is also a good defender and could become a rim protector with time. The other clear upside with him is that he’s 19 years old and could get a lot better with NBA coaching.
There’s a reason why picking Maker is a perceived risk; teams won’t know what they’re getting until the Summer League (Maker did not play in any 5-on-5 games at the Draft Combine). However, there is something to be said for the possibility that he could be the player with the highest upside in this draft. Maybe, at the end of the first round, a team will take a minimal risk on Maker.
C/Bosnia and Herzegovina (last played for Mega Leks of the Serbian League)
You’re probably keenly aware of the San Antonio Spurs’ history of digging out international talent. From Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili to Fabricio Oberto to international hero Boban Marjanovic, the team has been brilliant at finding good international players and developing them into solid NBA players. This pick will be no different.
Ivica Zubac is a very talented player who would fit perfectly into the Spurs’ system. He’s a great passer, particularly for a center, and he has a very good, balanced skill set offensively. He reminds me an awful lot of Marc Gasol; unfortunately, he reminds me of Gasol in some negative ways, too.
The two have a lot of things in common, but their biggest similarity is their shared foot problems. Zubac plays fairly low to the ground and his broken foot, suffered in 2014, is the reason why. Add that on to a knee injury suffered last year and you get a picture of a somewhat crippled big man whose injury problems may get worse before they get better.
It’s the ultimate Spurs pick, though. R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich have done a great job with international picks; they even have a couple stashed away in other countries. They would be more than receptive to taking Zubac or another international player at 29, so don’t be surprised if and when they do.
And don’t be surprised if their pick becomes a future all-star, either.
Zubac Comparison: MARC GASOL
30. Golden State Warriors
The pick: Cheick Diallo
Let’s face it; the Warriors really can’t make their team better through the draft. They have the reigning unanimous MVP (Steph Curry) and two other stars (Draymond Green and Klay Thompson) on the payroll. They’re doing pretty well for themselves.
And, according to Chris Broussard and his sources, they’re trying to make another splash in free agency:
That would shake up the NBA, to say the least. You could basically pencil in the Cavaliers and the Warriors for next year’s Finals if this happens. I think that would surprise just about everyone. Anyway…
A logical and interesting choice here would be Kansas’ Cheick Diallo. Diallo showed flashes of being a solid player last year at Kansas but played very limited minutes. He made a name for himself at the Draft Combine and left his name in the draft off the heels of his performance there. He’s extremely raw on both ends of the floor and would need extensive time in the D-League before coming to the NBA. Going to the right situation is crucial to his development.
Golden State is that perfect situation. I think they might take a risk on him at the end of round one.
Diallo Comparison: TRISTAN THOMPSON
What did I get right and wrong? Leave a comment below or tweet me!
Discussion: The Hawks easily dispatch of and sweep the Nets like they have in the regular season. The Raptors defeat the Wizards in a series of two fairly evenly matched teams. The Celtics take a game (most likely game 1) from the Cavs, a team greatly lacking in playoff experience who will come out flat and nervous. But don’t expect the upset here. Finally, the Bucks outperform expectations but eventually succumb to the superior Bulls.
West First Round
(1)Warriors vs. (8)Pelicans: Warriors in 5
(4)Trail Blazers vs. (5)Grizzlies: Grizzlies in 6
(2)Rockets vs. (7)Mavericks: Rockets in 7
(3)Clippers vs. (6)Spurs: Spurs in 6
Discussion: The Pelicans, fresh off their first playoff berth since 2011, take a game from the Warriors but cannot hang in the series. In a series of complete attrition, the Grizzlies survive the Trial Blazers; both teams are suffering from critical injuries. The Rockets-Mavericks series is a toss-up, but the advantage goes to the team with home court. Finally, the Spurs defeat the Clippers and set up a second-round date with Houston.
(1)Hawks vs. (4)Raptors: Hawks in 6
(2)Cavaliers vs. (3)Bulls: Cavaliers in 7
Discussion: The Hawks defeat the Raptors in 6. The Hawks have not been to a Conference Finals since 1970. The Cavaliers defeat the Bulls in what could arguably end up as the best series in the playoffs, as both teams are profusely talented and evenly matched.
(1)Warriors vs. (5)Grizzlies: Warriors in 6
(2)Rockets vs. (6)Spurs: Spurs in 6
Discussion: The Warriors dispose of a Grizzlies team that will likely be without starting PG Mike Conley for the playoffs. The Spurs defeat the Rockets. Crazy guess: the Spurs employ either a Hack-a-Smith strategy (Josh Smith: 49% Free-throw shooter) or play Hack-a-Howard (53% Free-throw shooter).
(1)Hawks vs. (2)Cavaliers: Cavaliers in 6
(1)Warriors vs. (6)Spurs: Spurs in 6
Discussion: Both road teams prevail here. The Cavaliers overwhelming talent overtakes the Hawks teamwork and discipline. The Spurs defeat the Warriors in a battle of the New Guard vs. the Old Guard in the NBA. This sets up the LeBron vs. the Spurs rematch for a third straight year.
Cavaliers vs. Spurs: Cavaliers in 7
Cleveland finally gets its title. This Cavs team is obviously far better than last year’s Cavs team and the play of Kyrie Irving at the point will be the difference. Bold prediction: Kyrie will win Finals MVP. The Cavs win this series by the slimmest of margins, in 7 games.