Anthony Bennett and the NBA Lottery’s biggest draft busts of the last decade

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Every day, fans of Aleksej “Poku” Pokusevski, Josh Green, or James Wiseman swear next year is the year their favorite players are not the bums the rest of the NBA thinks they are. I went through the last decade, from 2013-2023, and highlighted the 10 players who are on track to be the biggest busts during that stretch. Some of these players still have time to develop into a semblance of the player who earned their high Lottery selection. But for now, I’ve gathered the guys around the league who were selected between Nos. 1-10 in the last decade who are on track to bustville.

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Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

Pick: No. 1

Draft class: 2013

Bennett is the only No. 1 pick on this list, and is definitely the worst first pick of the last 10 years, especially now that Markelle Fultz and Andrew Wiggins have revitalized their careers on new teams. Bennett was out of the NBA by his fourth season and fourth team, lasting only a season in Cleveland and never averaging more than 16 minutes per game and 5.2 points per game. Bennett was supposed to be part of the rebuilding bridge between LeBron James’ first and second tenures with the Cavs, who had the brilliant stroke of luck of winning three No. 1 picks between 2011 and 2014. Bennett was an odd choice, as, by 2013, the league had evolved past the post-play of slow, vertically challenged bigs. And while the 2013 Draft was the worst of the last decade, the Cavs would have been better off picking any other player that was taken top 10.

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Team: New York Knicks

Pick: No. 9

Draft class: 2018

This season, under the anonymity of Detroit, Knox began to revive his career. Up until this season, he had been an unmitigated bust. He has never looked like a Lottery pick, especially considering who was taken after him, including notable names like Mikal Bridges, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Michael Porter Jr. Knox had the build and abilities to be the offensive perimeter weapon the Knicks were hungry for. But it was evident on his Draft Day suit, featuring Fortnite stitched into the inside of his jacket, he was not mentally mature for the task at hand. The Knicks fanbase is not known for its patience. Knox’s softness on defense and passivity on offense kept him out of the rotations of multiple head coaches on the Knicks, most notably Tom Thibodeau, who was in charge when Knox was traded to Atlanta.

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Team: Orlando Magic

Pick: No. 5

Draft class: 2021

This one hurts, as it’s still so soon in Suggs’s young career. An explosive, dynamic lead guard on a Gonzaga team that made the 2021 NCAA Tournament Final, it was expected Suggs would be the Magic’s unstoppable point-of-attack. The Magic already had a ton of talented two-way wings and saw 2020 first-round pick Cole Anthony as more of a backup, leading the way for Suggs to take over as the starter. But Suggs has fallen to the third-string point guard behind Anthony and Fultz. In his rookie year, his defense was atrocious and he was limited by first a hand injury and then ankle issues. Suggs finished his sophomore season with averages of 9.9 points, 2.9 assists, and three rebounds per game while appearing in more games (53) than he had in his rookie season (48). But there were some signs of life. He shot 32.7 percent from three on the year, a marked improvement from the 21.4 percent of his rookie season, and his defense improved, especially on steals. He also improved his impact on the starting line-up, showing opportunities for him to partially live up to his potential, finishing the season with a +11.3 net rating (113.7/102.4 split) in 58 minutes with the starting lineup.

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Team: Sacramento Kings

Pick: No. 8

Draft class: 2014

While Canada is making a claim as the second-best basketball country in the world, it’s not because of the Canadian-born Staukas, who has been in and out of the NBA since he was drafted in 2014. It’s rare to see a Lottery pick bounce around the Association and in minor leagues around the world like Stauskas. He’s tried a few times to mount comeback stories with the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, and Boston Celtics. What makes the Stauskas pick more painful are the players who were chosen after him, including multi-time All-Star Zach LaVine and back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokić. After a storied college career with the Michigan Wolverines, Stauskas was never able to carve out a role with any of the seven teams he has played for.

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Team: New York Knicks

Pick: No. 8

Draft class: 2017

Ah, “Frankie Smokes,” Knicks fans hardly knew ya. The Knicks had two shots at Lottery point guards in this draft, taking Ntilikina in 2017 and then trading for Dennis Smith Jr. in 2019, who went ninth in the same draft. Unfortunately for them, neither worked out for the Knicks. Ntilikina was never the planking lead guard he was projected as, instead, he fits more as a defensive-minded wing with a streaky shooting ability. He is currently part of the role-playing supporting cast around Luka Dončić in Dallas. He is a free agent this summer and might be on his way out of the league due to his poor shooting from the perimeter.

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Team: Sacramento Kings

Pick: No. 2

Draft class: 2018

Of all the players on the list, Bagley is having the best current career, currently playing for the Detroit Pistons as a part-time starter, averaging 12 PPG (shooting 53 percent on field goals), and 6.4 RPG. While Bagley has eased into a role-player role with Detroit, he is far from the offensive heavyweight projections that influenced the Sacramento Kings to select him second overall in 2018. It’s not just that he was selected second, but he was selected before Dončić (third), Jaren Jackson Jr. (fourth), and Trae Young (fifth). He will always be remembered as the player taken before Dončić, but that’s not his fault, but former Kings exec Vlade Divac’s. Bagley is still waiting for his three-point shot to come around after five seasons (29 percent career average). But he has maintained a solid career average of 13.3 PPG. If Bagley can become a threat from long distance, he could slot in as the future of the power forward position for Detroit and pair with fellow potential Lottery bust Wiseman in a frontcourt revival.

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Team: Philadelphia 76ers

Pick: No. 3

Draft class: 2015 

When the 76ers took Okafor in 2015, he was supposed to pair with Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel to form a dynamic and powerful frontcourt trio. Okafor was dominant in his time at Duke, shooting up to Lottery status with an array of back-to-the-basket post-game and rebounding prowess. But Okafor’s old-school post-game was being phased out of the modern pace and space game. He only lasted three seasons in Philly after a scorching rookie season where he averaged 17.5 PPG, 7 RPG, and 1.2 BPG. Knee issues hindered his development, and he was forced out of Philly during a strange disinformation campaign by then GM Bryan Colangelo involving the exec’s burner Twitter account. He would play four more seasons but only an average of 35 games per season. He left the league in 2021 after playing for the Nets, Pelicans, and Pistons.

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Team: Phoenix Suns

Pick: No. 4

Draft class: 2016

While Dončić has changed the dialogue around the toughness and superstar potential of European players, Bender was the blueprint for the kind of in-and-out league tenure overhyped Euros had in the 2000s. Bender was named as the best international player in the 2016 Draft. And he came with much hullabaloo around his potential, as he was the highest-drafted-ever Croatian and the Suns’ highest-selected draft pick since Armen Gilliam was taken second by the team overall in 1987. So the pressure cooker was already there and boiled up when he only averaged 3.4 PPG and 2.4 RPG in his rookie season. He only lasted three seasons in Phoenix and four seasons in the NBA, he was part of three different teams, including the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks, averaging 5.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game. He is most known for a particular fan using Bender’s jersey as a refurbished Kevin Durant jersey, as the two both wore number No. 25.

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Team: Phoenix Suns

Pick: No. 4

Draft class: 2017

Jackson only lasted five seasons in the league, Jackson spent two seasons with the Suns before being traded to Memphis in a four-player deal following the 2018-19 season, during which he played 22 games. After becoming a free agent, he signed with his hometown team, the Detroit Pistons, where he remained for a season and a half. Eventually, he concluded his career in the 2021-22 season with the Sacramento Kings. Before he was drafted, ESPN rated him as the nation’s second-highest-ranked player in the class of 2016. Throughout his tenure with the Kansas Jayhawks, he averaged 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, shooting an impressive 51.3 percent from the field. That potential never manifested itself in the league, shooting 41.6 percent from the field for his career and out of the NBA by the time he was 25.

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Team: Phoenix Suns (traded to Minnesota Timberwolves)

Pick: No. 6

Draft class: 2019

This one is still fresh, as Culver played his last game in the NBA this season after being waived by the Atlanta Hawks in January and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the G League acquiring him via trade from the College Park Skyhawks. Culver was supposed to be the athletic complement to Karl-Anthony Towns’ shooting ability. Culver had a minimal impact rookie season. In his second year, the SG/SF experienced a drop in nearly half in all of his major stats, including points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and even minutes. His three-point percentage dropped from an already below-average 30 percent to an unacceptable 25 percent.

The Kyrie Irving to LA, Damian Lillard to Boston rumors will dominate the NBA offseason

Brian Windhorst is saying Kyrie Irving could end up a Laker

At the risk of being a hypocrite and drowning Denver in a flood of Los Angeles Lakers’ developments, the departure from the postseason has stirred up the underbelly of latent Kyrie Irving free agency rumor-mongering. Even in defeat, the superstar carousel never ends in Los Angeles — or Boston for that matter. Even on the verge of being swept, the Lakers’ perpetual superstar replenishment program was already planning its next free-agent spree. ESPN’s longtime resident LeBron whisperer Brian Windhorst is already dousing the airwaves with scuttlebutt regarding the Lakers’ renewed interest in acquiring Irving in a sign-and-trade this summer.

How much of the speculation is based in reality or a pipedream is irrelevant. Windhorst’s belief conflicts with Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus reporting that Irving has had a handshake agreement in place with the Dallas Mavericks for a four-year extension since they traded for him from Brooklyn at the trade deadline. Pincus also shared that Irving wouldn’t have “said yes to anything less than the max,” which doesn’t bode well for the Lakers who would be hard-pressed to offer the max and sign Irving without suffering significant losses elsewhere on the roster.

Of course, two things can be true. The Lakers can be in pursuit of Irving, while getting rebuffed by him due to their reluctance to commit to him for long-term. On the other hand, Irving’s word to Mark Cuban is as good as the contract it’s enshrined on and handshakes aren’t legally binding.

This is how the Lakers’ machine works. There’s always a Kyrie or Kawhi or Paul George-type to assuage their disappointing end to a season. The Lakers are the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” franchise. In the midst of the worst stretch of D’Angelo Russell’s season, purported insiders are dusting off months-old Irving rumors.

In order to acquire Irving for a near-max deal, the Lakers would have to sacrifice their second D’Angelo Russell contract. Three months ago, Russell’s homecoming was a significant moment for the Lakers and he played great in the final quarter of the regular season. Irving is undoubtedly a better individual talent, but he struggled to synchronize with teammates, coaches, and even ownership. One second he’s all in and the next he’s not just a basketball player, he’s a human who needs a few weeks off to reconcile that existential crisis.

Adding one of the most creative ball handlers in NBA history to the Lakers would bolster the offense at the expense of the depth Rob Pelinka created at the trade deadline. There’s also the added question of how realistic this interest actually is.

Dame Time in Beantown?

Meanwhile, Celtics wish casters like Kendrick Perkins have begun loudly proposing interrupting Boston’s continuity with a Jaylen Brown and Damian Lillard swap. Breaking up the Brown-Tatum duo is the prescribed fix that will inundate the media this summer and Lillard is the obvious third party to include. In contrast to Irving, Lillard is more palatable on its surface. Lillard is a reliable professional. Lillard, who will be 33 this summer may be closer to his twilight than Irving, 32, but not by much. Besides, his durability makes him a better gamble than Irving in L.A. alongside two other fragile superstars.

Lillard could be exactly what Boston needs at this point. Marcus Smart’s feistiness, and craftiness have been a crucial aspect of Boston’s success, but a playmaker of Lillard’s caliber, who can stretch out the defense for Tatum could take them to the next level with him in a diminished offensive role. Of course, simply discussing this after Jaylen Brown endured being floated in the Kevin Durant trade discussions last summer only increases the odds that he heads for the exits in 2024.

Boston has been interested in Lillard

There’s nothing tangible there yet, but Boston’s interest in Lillard can be traced back at least two years. Brown and Tatum achieved on-court harmony after Ime Udoka took over, but Brown’s shortcomings in the Eastern Conference Finals have reinforced the notion that he will always be an interloper in Boston. Portland trading Lillard frees them to draft Scoot Henderson and pair him alongside Anfernee Simons and finally frees them to lean in on a rebuild replete with young players on the same timeline.

What Brown and Russell both have in common are their expiring contracts and postseason struggles. In Games 1-3 Russell shot like he was blindfolded. Brown is shooting 37 percent from the field, 10 percent from 3-point range, and committed more turnovers than assists.

Interestingly, the Heat and Nuggets are taking an inverted route to the Finals with a smattering of journeymen or fringe stars that defy the player empowerment age mantras. The marquee franchises pushing for more All-Star mercenaries comes at the expense of continuity. The Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat are defying that compulsion by building title finalists without tanking or chasing max-contract free agents. But in today’s instant gratification age, few teams have time for the long game. Especially the title-starved Celtics and a Lakers organization on the clock to salvage what’s left of the LeBron James era as he ponders retirement.

Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex

James Harden wants to escape the NBA title rat race

James Harden is opting out

In his prime, James Harden was the star of the show. His ball dominance was unparalleled. Harden’s expression of basketball is a sublime experience. His ball handling and passing artistry are one of a kind. During his penultimate season in Houston, Harden’s 40.3 usage rate in 2018-19 nearly set an NBA record.

Harden’s desire to return to that style of play and escape the league MVP’s shadow may reportedly drive him out of Philly. According to Bleacher Report’s NBA scuttlebutt, Harden will only entertain suitors that “present a competitive roster and the basketball freedom for the star to be himself.”Once he opts into free agency, teams can offer Harden a max of four years, $201 million.

Harden is done living by anyone else’s standards. He tried being the third wheel in Oklahoma City and discovered the gratification that comes from being “the man” in Houston. For nearly a decade, all eyes were on him when he walked into every arena, every strip club, night club, or after-party. Being Embiid’s second fiddle was clearly not ideal either.

He was at his unhappiest when he compromised to be the top option on a contender. His experiment with Dwight Howard is remembered as a failure, but they reached the Western Conference Finals and were prosperous on the floor together, despite friction between the duo. However, both harbored dreams of being the man. Harden got shipped out, Kevin McHale was fired and Harden discovered his Shangri-La as the offensive deus ex machina in Mike D’Antoni’s offensive attack.

The problem was that it didn’t win games as his teams advanced deeper into the postseason.

In the regular season though, all that dancing with rock was majestic. Defenses in the postseason are too locked in to fall for Harden’s tricks. He’s no longer able to snake into the lane and rattle his way to the cup or the free throw stripe, or draw fouls as easily. The market isn’t exactly bustling to throw a long-term deal at a barrel-chested, ball-dominant shooting guard who lost so much burst, he only recorded one dunk in the regular season. In his first 11 seasons, Harden averaged upwards of 30 dunks a season.

James Harden demanded a trade to Philly, now he wants out

Even coming up a CP3 hamstring short of the Finals in 2018 wouldn’t appease him. Harden thought he could settle in as a third wheel between Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but that wasn’t cutting it, so he demanded a trade to Philadelphia for a reunion with the architect of his Rockets teams. He arrived out of shape and sluggish. Once it became apparent that Harden’s star power had dimmed, the Sixers brought him back on a two-year deal with an opt-out that would allow him to prove he deserved a four-year commitment. Instead, Harden did what he always does. He shrunk under pressure while maintaining his delusions of grandeur.

Earlier this season, he told SLAM, “I’m a master of this game. This is year 14 for me — I adjust to how teams are guarding us, and I pick and choose where to facilitate. My role on the Sixers is different from 2017. So yes, the approach is different, but I’m still the same player as 2017, my role just changed slightly.”

For year 15, he apparently prefers to be the big man in a small pond elsewhere. Reports have circulated for months that he prefers a Houston reunion. This prodigal son returning is unlikely though. Houston is in the midst of a youth movement. New coach Ime Udoka preaches accountability, somewhat ironically considering he was running around the Celtics organization Eric Beneting himself out of a job. But defensively, Udoka demanded effort and discipline, habits Harden can’t be a role model for a group that needs positive influences.

Offensively, Udoka implored Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to share the ball and make the extra pass. Harden’s ball dominance is even harder to stomach as his athletic decline snowballs into an avalanche.

Harden wants the basketball equivalent of a Vegas residency. No more new hits. This is the stage of his career where he wants to collect checks and offer a daily supply of nostalgia with Mike D’Antoni iso-ball. Harden wanting to live out his golden basketball years just running the same broken basketball isos that made him a regular-season offensive gawd is extremely on-brand. I’d be disappointed if he did chase a title. Philly fans wanted more though. They wanted a Type A Jimmy Butler-caliber playoff leader.

Harden’s broken free from the constraints of the sports talk debate disease that’s infected modern NBA stars with the belief that their careers were useless without a ring. Harden isn’t ring-chasing for our approval. Unfortunately, most teams aren’t paying top dollar for a Harlem Globetrotter show though.

Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex

Boston Celtics are consistently inconsistent

Jayson Tatum went an entire quarter without attempting a field goal

The Boston Celtics are going to Celtic from time to time. The problem has reared its ugly head for a third consecutive series, and there appears to be no stopping it. After about 77 minutes of well-played basketball, they were due for a head-scratcher. It arrived in the second half of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals in their 123-116 loss to the Miami Heat at home — the Celtics’ fourth loss at TD Garden in these playoffs.

Kyle Lowry’s 13 points and three 3-pointers in the second quarter most certainly helped prevent the Celtics from running out to a humongous lead to end the first half. In the third quarter, the Heat then went laying out on South Beach with no umbrella hot from the field, scoring 46 points on 65.4 percent shooting from the field.

Still, the Heat were able to hold onto that double-digit lead for a total of 25 seconds of game time. Their shooting went cold in the fourth quarter and the home team had every opportunity to deliver a gut-punching Game 1 loss to the visitors. The Celtics shot 53.3 percent from the field in the fourth quarter while the Heat shot 38.9. However, the Heat only committed two turnovers in the final period, while the Celtics gave the ball up six times.

Kevin Harlan can compare Jimmy Butler to Xavien Howard and Jalen Ramsey all he wants, but Butler playing shutdown corner was not the source of the Celtics’ problems. His interceptions on consecutive passes were the result of Jayson Tatum and Al Horford finding themselves in desperate situations on the floor and flinging wild passes. That is how the Heat went nearly three minutes without scoring late in the fourth quarter with only a five-point lead and still won the game.

We’ve seen this before from Boston

The Celtics lost Game 1 to the Philadelphia 76ers in a game that they had every opportunity to win. Yes, James Harden hit one of the biggest shots of his career but the Celtics turned the ball over four times in that fourth quarter. In Game 4 on the road, the Celtics were up by five points with less than two minutes remaining in the final period. Their failure to secure defensive rebounds helped lead to an overtime loss in that game.

Even against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, the Celtics blew an opportunity to close out that series at home in five games. Trae Young got hot and went for 16 points in the fourth quarter. That was accompanied by five Celtics turnovers in a 119-117 Hawks’ victory.

Sloppy fourth-quarter play has forced the Celtics into situations that should not befall championship teams. Even last postseason — after sweeping Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Brooklyn Nets in the first round — the Celtics dropped a lot of games at home.

This season, with an influx of talent accompanied by a franchise-shaking head coaching change, the Celtics won six more regular-season games than they did last season. They don’t even have to play the No. 1 seed these playoffs, and yet here they are still holding onto wins like a greased pig.

The Celtics were a championship favorite at the start of this season. They will still probably fend off the eighth-seeded Heat, but at this point, their lingering inconsistency has C’s primed for a second-consecutive NBA Finals defeat.

Is Victor Wembanyama’s size a gift or a curse? Let’s debate

How tall is he really?

The following conversation is based on real-life arguments and was conducted by two professionals. Please, don’t attempt to replicate any discussion as takes of these temperatures should be handled with gloves and safety glasses and under the care and supervision of adults. Today’s social experiment revolves around Victor Wembayama, his health, and how much the San Antonio Spurs’ organization should worry about it. Enjoy.

Sean Beckwith: At the risk of zagging just for the clicks, I want to start off by complimenting Victor Wembanyama. He’s clearly a generational prospect that will likely impact the NBA’s championship race for the next decade-plus. All the hyperbole is justified, and I would’ve Ronnie Lott-ed a pinky for my squad to sneak into the first pick.

Instead, the San Antonio Spurs won, and I texted the most asshole friend on my group text, who happens to be a Spurs fan, that I fucking hate him no fewer than 300 times. So, I don’t really feel bad about airing my concern about Wemby, and that is the guy is 8-foot-2. Regardless of how thicc he is, multiple other alphas are going to try to break him in half at the bucket. (Please, get healthy soon, Zion Williamson.) There’s not a long history of people that size playing two decades of healthy basketball, and he’d also be my first choice in a draft of players most likely to have an injury described as “debilitating.”

I’ll now cede the floor to my partner for this exercise, DJ Dunson, who’s probably eager to jump on the part of my argument that hinges on a healthy Zion.

DJ Dunson: Wembanyama is worth taking the risk on. So was Zion. The difference is that Zion walks like a penguin, gained 100 pounds between the ages of 16 and 19, and generates too much strain on his knees as an explosive leaper. It’s not just about size, it’s what you do with it that matters. (Get your mind out of the gutter.) Wemby has a smooth gait that’s more reminiscent of Kevin Durant or Kareem than a laboring big man like Zion. Wemby is agile and fluid. Lower body injuries will always be a concern, but I’m not concerned with his build like I was with Chet “The Closet Hanger” Holmgren. He’s not skin and bones like Holmgren, who had the legs of a ’90s ANTM model contestant. There’s a layer of muscle there. I think you’re letting your Blazers fandom interfere here. This guy ain’t Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, or Greg Oden (or Brandon Roy).

SB: I agree that Wemby is a no-brainer though I’d buck back at the greatest prospect ever. (That’s LeBron James.) Regardless of being created in 2K, there are 10 Odens and Chets for every KD and Kareem. The expectation is Wemby will have a Bill Russell-like hold over the NBA for as long as he’s active, but for whatever reason it’s been hard for big-men-centric teams to consistently dominate in the playoffs in today’s perimeter-oriented NBA. The last center to win Finals MVP was Tim Duncan in 2005. (And before you say, what about Giannis Antetokuonmpo? He’s a power forward, and his latest playoff exit only further drives home my point.)

I know Vic is fluid enough to tip-dunk his own missed three, yet are we sure big men are the path to the title? They are, but for the sake of argument, and to spite the Spurs fans who’ve been watching Wembanyama highlights with heavy Pornhub energy, Vic is James Wiseman waiting to happen. The Spurs and Hornets would be better off taking Scoot Henderson and Brandon Miller.

DJ: I understand the skepticism over whether Wemby is a solid hooper with an evolutionary advantage (or disadvantage if he isn’t built for the 82-game grind) or a supernatural prospect with 30th-century size (if you buy the theory that humans are growing taller every century) and a preternatural skillset. We don’t even know Wemby’s official measurements. 7-foot-2, 7-foot-5? I don’t know. He stands at 7-foot-a thousand and he has the wingspan to match, but to me, he passes the “Would He Still Be An NBA Player If He Were 6 Inches Shorter” Test. I’ll go six inches shorter for this thought experiment. If Wemby was 6-foot-6, he’d be a top-10 pick. Guys that long aren’t supposed to be that skilled. Anthony Davis had a quick growth spurt. Wemby seems like he gradually grew into his body so maybe that will aid his health.

French players and Europeans in general get knocked for being soft. Wemby can fall in love with that off-the-dribble triple and isn’t an especially accurate shooter beyond the arc despite the KD hyperbole tossed around. He’ll need to work on his outside game. We’ll see if he coasts like AD or has a killer instinct, but I’ll take a taller, passive AD over Scoot or Brandon Miller. At the very least, he’ll be the best defensive big man in a more spaced-out, 3-point shooting league.

SB: Clearly, I’m conditioned to not have nice things, and my glass is always half full even when it’s overflowing. A blind Anthony Davis finds a ring every now and then, and there could be worse outcomes for the draft lottery than the Spurs winning it. I’m glad he’s going to a smart organization that’s never mishandled an injury to its best player.

Gregg Popovich is 74 years old, and will turn senile before Wemby’s career is even halfway over. Yes, I’m talking about anything other than Wembanyama because there’s not a lot to critique, and I’ve already emptied the takes from my brain. So, DJ, you’re not wrong, but you’ll never get me to say you’re right.

DJ: I’m going to put on my Sean hat for a bit and play devil’s advocate….

I just read that Wemby needs to sleep 10 hours a day. The only adults I know who should sleep that long are high the other half of the day. Then again, I probably just described Kevin Durant. That’s time he could spend working on his game. Wemby spends so much time preparing his body for 25, 30, 35 minutes of action every night and eating five meals a day, he won’t have time to make 10,000 shots a day. What happens to his body or performance when he starts dating or has kids and he’s got to cut his sleep cycle down to nine hours a day to fit the fam in for an hour a day?

He’s got size 21 feet with arches, which means his landing zone on jump shots is basically two feet. The orthotics in his shoes better be military grade and the team of biomechanics experts studying Wembanyama when he gets drafted will rival The Manhattan Project’s collection of scientific minds. That’s how important he is. The Spurs being run with military precision for the past three decades and the construction of a new $500 million training facility actually affirms my original point that San Antonio was the best possible future for this unique phenom. Then again, the Spurs revolutionized load management, and that backfired with Kawhi Leonard. Forget science, I’d be better off asking a tarot card reader what the future holds for Wemby. I tried my best at being as negative as Sean and I’m back at square one. This was a valiant effort though.

LeBron James vs. Nikola Jokić, and the other Lakers-Nuggets Western Conference Finals storylines

It will be a showdown between two former multiple-time MVPs

We did not get Kevin Durant vs. Stephen Curry in the Western Conference Finals. Instead, the participants in the series are the best teams in the conference — the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers.

With LeBron James back in the conference finals for the first time the series is at its proper spot on the sports calendar since 2018, many sports fans are about to be introduced to Nikola Jokić. The 2021 and 2022 MVP is a recognizable name, but far from one of the faces of professional sports. Not only does he play in Denver, but most of his local fans can’t even watch him play due to a disagreement in the thriving industry of cable television.

Playing against James, I hope Jokić is aware that after this series his face is about to become significantly more recognizable not only in America but across the entire world.

This is arguably the most intriguing matchup of the 2023 NBA postseason, and also a recent conference finals rematch with the main characters still in the same jersey. So let’s go over some of the most important storylines.

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He is a much better player in 2023 than he was in 2020. Specifically, he is two MVP trophies better. Losing to the Lakers in 2020 was expected by the public, and not viewed by much of it with an airborne disease coating the world. Also, those Western Conference Finals were played in October instead of May.

Image for article titled LeBron James vs. Nikola Jokić, and the other Lakers-Nuggets Western Conference Finals storylines

This time around his team finished the regular season as the No. 1 seed in the West. He, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. still make up the rest of the Nuggets’ top three. On top of that, the roster around that nucleus has not only improved, but become a force.

The Lakers are better than both of the Nuggets’ 2023 postseason opponents even though they’re a No. 7 seed. These Western Conference Finals are the biggest test of Jokić’s career. And this time the NBA is riding 20-plus year highs in television ratings. He has been by far the best player this postseason. We’ll see if that continues for the next two weeks. 

Image for article titled LeBron James vs. Nikola Jokić, and the other Lakers-Nuggets Western Conference Finals storylines

He has been the best player on the floor in two consecutive series, and that includes one against Stephen Curry. As impressive as he was guarding the most lethal long-range shooter in NBA history, it’s time for him to go up against someone his own size.

Jokić’s strength is going to test Davis, as well as that pick-and-roll action with Jamal Murray. Davis is going to have to be able to alternate from using all his might to gain positioning in the post to scrambling to stop the best two-man game in the sport.

Then on the other side of the floor, he needs to put Jokić to work on defense. A tall task for a tall man.

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The Nuggets strengthened their bench during the offseason, while the Lakers fortified theirs during the offseason. Doing so greatly changed the fortunes of both franchises.

It’s the playoffs so starters and stars will play the biggest roles, but a few players must be dependable coming off of the bench. Rui Hachimura, Lonnie Walker IV (pictured above, right), and whoever doesn’t start between Jarred Vanderbilt and Dennis Schröder, or Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, and Christian Braun — choose your fighters.

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There have been questions about Darvin Ham (pictured) throughout this season, but if nothing else he held the Lakers together during their darkest hours — that 2-10 start. Through injuries and a thin roster, the Lakers still remained viable in the postseason hunt. Then as soon as they got reinforcements they went on a roll and ended the regular season with 43 wins.

When DeMarcus Cousins spoke highly about Michael Malone, that should have been a dead giveaway the Sacramento Kings never should have fired him. Their loss has been the Nuggets’ gain as Malone has used Jokić’s unique talent to rain points upon the NBA. Also, that team winning 48 games last season was a Herculean feat.

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He took it upon himself to close out the Warriors. At some point that James will show up against the Nuggets, but what about the other moments?

While he can’t go Super Saiyan for four nights, he still has to be the Lakers’ second-best player. James has to run the offense and is going to have to be a factor in defending the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll that comes with a side of the 6-foot-10 Porter always lurking behind that 3-point line. The Lakers don’t need MVP LeBron, but they do need an all-star more nights than not.

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There is always a possibility of a key player getting injured, thereby shattering the series. With the Nuggets and Lakers though, the chances are a bit higher. I’m going to be a bit superstitious here and not names. I am very much looking forward to this series and don’t want to speak anything into existence.

However, NBA fans know the players in this series who make them uneasy when gimpy for even a slight moment.

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There is a reason that every time the Nuggets have a good team they have one of the best home records in the NBA. That reason is spelled out in their free-throw arc — 5,280.

That number is the elevation that the Lakers will be playing at for a potential four road games. Southern California is mountainous, but not at the site of Lakers’ home stadium in LA Live or their practice facility in the South Bay. Lungs both young and old are going to have to acclimate to Denver quickly.

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It has been worse, but it has also definitely been better. Mike Greenberg and Stephen A. Smith at the desk shows how seriously ESPN takes its NBA product, but putting well-known people on camera is not a surefire way to make a good program.

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Too often the studio show turns into a five-minute sports-talk radio segment. Combine that with the game not tipping off until at least 15 minutes after the scheduled time and pregame introductions not being televised, there is no ramp-up leading into the action on the floor.

Maybe with only one game per broadcast tip-off will arrive more quickly, but I would much rather watch the player intros than Stephen A. being maximum Stephen A. That is a dish best served in the daytime.

The idea of Kevin Durant was always better than the real Kevin Durant

KD was supposed to help Phoenix win a title

Whenever someone talks about Kevin Durant, they bring up what he is capable of doing a lot more than they bring up what he actually does. I could retire if I had a dollar for every time Stephen A. Smith has said “6-foot-11, can pull up from 30.” But he doesn’t actually get the job done very often.

People constantly overstate how good Durant is both in terms of today’s NBA and their rankings of the best players of all time because he’s a great scorer and shooter… that is also tall.

As you’re probably well aware, both of his championships came after joining a team that went 73-9, eliminated his own team from the playoffs, and was one year removed from winning a championship. Since leaving the Warriors, Durant has been teammates with Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Chris Paul, and Devin Booker. No other player has come close to having that amount of talented teammates in the past three years.

KD lacks a signature playoff moment

Apart from that one long-distance dagger against the Cavs in the finals, he doesn’t have any signature playoff moments that come to mind. Scoring is obviously the most important skill an NBA player can have with the way the rules favor offense, but that ability causes people to overlook his drawbacks. He shows flashes of good defense at times but by and large, isn’t great. He’s not a particularly good rebounder for a 7-footer. He doesn’t create that many shots for others. And a lot of times he’s pretty inefficient.

To be fair, players that are expected to take a lot of shots can’t really sustain efficient shooting numbers for long. And you’re not really expected to be a great defender when you’re also the team’s first option on offense.

That being said, it was Durant’s offense that failed him in their series loss against the Nuggets. It took him 23.2 shots per game to score 29.5 points per game.

Revisionist history

There’s a crazy revisionist history about him. When he was traded to the Suns earlier this season, it was unilaterally declared a super team and the favorite to win the title. Now some are saying that they need to build around Durant with more “defense and role players.”

He joined a team with two other all-stars and a recent No. 1 pick. When is he finally going to get some help? Durant made six three-pointers in the entire series. He needs to start helping himself.

Since leaving the Warriors, he’s been on two super teams that have failed to even reach the conference finals, let alone win a championship. He was not the best player on those Warriors championship teams even if he won finals MVP both times.

About a year ago, Draymond Green said that Steph Curry was double-teamed seven times as much as Durant during the 2017 and 2018 finals. The ever-defensive Durant said this was “100 percent false.” I mean, I guess he’s technically right. It wasn’t seven times as much, but Curry was doubled more. Even then head coach of the Cavaliers has since said that was his plan.

Curry has won a championship before Durant arrived in Golden State and after he left, but some people still insist that he needed Durant. And although the Warriors are currently trailing the Lakers 3-2 in their series, there’s a chance they could come back and advance further in the playoffs than the Suns.

Yes, Kevin Durant is a great player, but not as great as many people say because they’re grading him on a curve. The argument as to why Durant is better than Curry pretty much begins and ends with “he’s taller.” The fact that he COULD shoot over anybody and carry a team, doesn’t mean he actually does it. No other superstar gets that level of benefit of the doubt. At no point in time was the taller Khris Middleton the best player in the world.

Jamal Murray has been instrumental in Nikola Jokić’s playoff transcendence

When these two form Voltron, it’s pretty much over.

Nikola Jokić’s first two MVP seasons were snapped short by title contenders with heavier artillery in the lineup. A year ago, Golden State broke their spirits by targeting Jokić defensively. In 2021, a shorthanded Nuggets team got trounced in a four-game sweep by the Phoenix Suns.

Over the last 12 months, Jokić has lost an MVP race but risen to new heights in the postseason. He doubled his nightly assist total from the 2022 playoffs, and in Denver’s Game 3 loss, poured in a Wilt-like 50. For Game 5, Jokić put up a stat line right out of the Book of Chamberlain, with his 10th career triple-double, eclipsing Wilt for the most by a center in playoff history.

After scoring 53 and chipping in 11 assists in a Game 4 loss, Jokić’s omnipotent 31 points and 12 assists on Tuesday night fueled Denver’s Game 5 rout. Ayton is one of the few defenders with the strength to contend with Jokić in the post, so throughout this series, he’s gotten open by roaming the floor, diving into the paint, operating out of the high-post, and on more prototypical post-ups. All night, Jokić put the Phoenix defense in a blender from several different spots on the floor. More importantly, he’d got Jamal Murray as his partner in crime offensively.

This isn’t the Jokić who got his ass handed to him by the Lakers in the bubble, nor the one-man army who spent two postseasons waiting for Murray’s injured knee to heal. At 28, he’s tapped into a higher plane of playoff superstardom thanks in part to the Nuggets’ newfound two-man game. Murray put on a show in the bubble with his hot shooting, but it’s his synergy with Jokić that’s been the story of Murray’s first postseason since 2020.

Michael Porter Jr. knocking down shots and Aaron Gordon’s two-way ability have been vital to Denver’s success, but Jokić’s rapport with Murray is what makes Denver click. Jokić is Denver’s supreme playmaker, but Murray’s distribution has eased Jokić into better scoring positions. Surprisingly, among all passer-to-scorer duos, Murray-to-Jokić is eight more than any pair have accumulated in the two-man game according to PBPStats. In the final five minutes, their connection was on display when Murray drove the lane off a Jokić pick-and-roll, drew a crowd, then delivered his signature behind-the-back pocket pass to Jokić instead of flicking up a contested floater.

That’s become a favorite out of the Jokić-Murray collection. In the first round against Minnesota, Murray executed the same pass out of the PNR to Jokić, and it’s been seen in various forms over the years. Not even a supercharged combination of Devin Booker and Kevin Durant has been able to throw a wrench into the gears of the Jokić-Murray connection.

In the 2021 edition, Jokić was slowed by DeAndre Ayton. Ayton has regressed defensively, or at least stagnated, while Jokić’s game has graduated to a higher plane.

Guarding Jokić is a quandary Phoenix hasn’t been equipped to solve. When he wants to, Jokić faces up, and scores as if Ayson isn’t even there. It’s one thing if he’d put in an effort, but he has been practically invisible throughout this series.

The Suns have found more success with backup center Jock Landale. In 32 minutes, Ayton was a minus-21, and his plus-minus through five games is a minus-59 through 148 minutes. But if Landale is their only hope, Phoenix is in bigger trouble than we thought. Ayton’s backup has a plus-27 in 74 and Jokić’s shooting percentage dips from 59.3 percent to 50 percent when he’s guarded by Landale.

Last year, it was Draymond Green bothering Jokić, but no matter who guards Jokić, there’s no stopping him when Murray is helping him get open for nifty floaters like this.

Jokić’s brilliance is spellbinding, but he’s not a one-man show. With Murray, he’s on the verge of returning to the Western Conference Finals. While the rest of the NBA discourse revolves around the AD-LeBron and Embid-Harden duos, Murray, and Jokić should have something to say about the neglect they’ve received nationally.

Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex

Shohei Ohtani is a unicorn, Chapter 502

Better than the Great Bambino

It’s easy to connect Shohei Ohtani to Babe Ruth, because Ruth is the only figure that we think even compares to Ohtani. Baseball hasn’t had a dominant two-way player since the Great Bambino, so that’s what the numbers have to be compared to. It used to be that Ruth’s pitching exploits were kind of a factoid tacked onto any study of his hitting prowess, in a kind of, “Oh he could also do this OK kind of thing.” So when Ohtani passes Ruth in career strikeouts, as he did last night in the Angels’ 3-1 loss to the Astros, Ruth’s pitching becomes more than just a factoid, simply because we have nothing else to give it context.

But here’s the thing. Ruth was never a two-way player. Not really.

Ruth was only a full-time starter for three seasons in Boston when he first came up. The Sox occasionally used him as a pinch-hitter, but his hitting was restricted to the days he pitched. In 1915-1917, Ruth never had more than 150 plate appearances while starting 32, 44, and 41 games in those seasons. It was only in 1918, something of a poignant year in Red Sox history, that they figured out that he could hit a little bit and started punting him to the outfield on days he didn’t pitch. 1919 was the first season he started more than 100 games in the outfield, and then when he was sold to New York, the Yankees started their 84-year stretch of outsmarting the Sox by ever preventing him from taking the mound again. So Ruth never combined both at the same time.

Sure, Ruth didn’t have a DH spot to land in as Ohtani does, but then Ruth doesn’t face 93 MPH sliders and never tossed them himself as Ohtani does. Ohtani is now on his fourth season of starting full-time and hitting full-time, while also having a couple of seasons of just being a hitter when his elbow turned to putty. So this is unprecedented, and we only connect him to Ruth because it’s the only thing in the zipcode to try and give us any sort of comparison.

But Ohtani isn’t Ruth. He’s more than that. Which is truly the remarkable thing, because to be more than Ruth is to be more than something that’s gone on to be more than a legend. It’s like saying he’s more than Ares or something.

It’s not just Ohtani and Trout

Speaking of Anaheim, who knew anyone in Orange County had a sense of humor?

Boston Celtics lay an egg in Game 5

Have to hand it to the Garden crowd last night, who went from booing the Celtics to trying to stir and then accompanying a brief rally back to booing the Cs in the span of about 10 game minutes last night. It must be hard to have to live up to the standards of being so miserable while also having to do what a crowd usually does and cheer good things. God knows what would happen if Boston fans missed a chance to boo.

The series with the Sixers is obviously far from over, but laying an egg at home in a Game 5 isn’t a very good look. One wonders if the Cs aren’t on the precipice of something bad should they eat it to Philadelphia. The entire Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown journey has been shrouded in the questions of if they can actually play together on a championship team and if they could would they be enough. They were awfully close last spring, and only Steph Curry being something celestial got in their way. But then maybe it takes celestial wing play to rise to the level of a trophy.

A second-round loss after a trip to the Final would make a lot of people in Boston itchy, especially after the Bruins flameout. There’s always been a feeling that the Cs were living with Tatum and Brown because it’s the best they could do, which has never stopped them from dangling at least the latter in trade talks when it came to Kevin Durant at times. At other times that’s felt like fuel for the Cs, to prove that this iteration could and would work.

Still, if Boston doesn’t win both of the remaining games against the Sixers, those questions will come back. It’s been a while now. There’s been an element of making the best of what’s on hand with Boston. They may decide they have to find more than just what’s around.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

Lakers-Warriors Game 4 doubled as a West Coast DJ set

Whoever was in charge of the music during this one *chef’s kiss*

It is a shame that TNT has the Eastern Conference Finals this season. I have enjoyed New Edition at halftime during the Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers second-round matchup, and once the Miami Heat finish off the New York Knicks I do want to hear all of the Slip and Slide and Rick Ross catalogs. That being said, TNT needs to publish the playlist from this second-round series between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, because the song selections from those games can carry a July cookout.

Game 4 of Warriors vs. Lakers had a lot to live up to after the basketball excellence that was displayed in Phoenix on Sunday. Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokić, and even Landry Shamet made shots at every angle on the protractor in Game 4.

That game was great, but it was the music from Game 4 of Warriors and Lakers that had me vibing in my apartment. For all of that basketball excellence from Sunday night, Alice Cooper and one member from Earth Wind, and Fire are not going to hit the same as the entire catalog of music stretching from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. When TNT broke out DJ Quik’s “Dollaz and Sense” in the second quarter, Twitter noticed that while Game 4 in LA was an important NBA Playoff game, it was also a party.

Even the song that the network played going back to the studio for halftime was perfect. The Warriors and Lakers were separated by only three points at the break, so the production crew came out of the commercial break with “California” by Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, E-40, and Too $hort.

The hits just kept on coming in the second half with the always pleasant and problematic “Ain’t No Fun.” “Cutie Pie,” may be a song from a group in Detroit — One Way — but the song is on the South Central soundtrack. If it’s good enough for O.G. Bobby Johnson then it was just fine to keep the vibes rolling on Monday night.

I could use the soundtrack of the most highly-anticipated series in the second round as further evidence of ESPN continuing to refuse to make a fun NBA product. The games don’t start anywhere near the scheduled time, and the studio show is a mashup of First Take and Pardon the Interruption, along with a Brinks truck of commercials and promos.

Instead of wallowing in decades-old complaints, I will search for West Coast hip-hop playlists until the 76ers and Celtics tip off on Tuesday evening. I might have even have to fire up A Thin Line Between Love and Hate on the T.V. after hearing LBC Crew’s “Beware of My Crew.”

I hope you East Coast folks were able to hang on after your bedtimes on Monday night. For those who didn’t, you missed all of the fun, from Lonnie Walker IV to Dr. Dre. Hopefully the Warriors can run off a couple of wins so the party can keep on going.