The 2023 NBA Finals are in full swing, and the draft is less than two weeks away. Does it get any better than this? With the offseason also just around the corner, we’ll touch on a little bit of everything today. Here are a few observations on Denver Nuggets–Miami Heat, Chris Paul, Victor Wembanyama, and maybe the biggest riser in the draft.
1. What’s next for Chris Paul?
Just a few hours before Game 3, the NBA world was rocked by the news that the Phoenix Suns might move on from point guard Chris Paul this offseason; he might get waived, stretched, or traded. If the Suns do move Paul, sources around the NBA are whispering about three potential destinations: the Clippers, the Lakers, and the Spurs.
Russell Westbrook’s success with the Clippers showed the formula for having a ball-dominant point guard set up Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, so a Lob City reunion for CP3 would make the most sense for basketball reasons. Though it’d be pretty strange to see him return.
Going to the Lakers would make Paul teammates with LeBron James for the first time in their long careers, alleviating the burden of shot creation for both. But is taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands a good thing? Paul would also add another injury-prone player to an already flaky situation.
San Antonio would be a fascinating fit, and it’s probably my favorite one overall. Paul could make life easier on offense for Wembanyama and serve as a mentor who can teach him the ways of the pick-and-roll. Paul was immensely beneficial for Deandre Ayton, instructing him how to set screens at certain angles and read the defense. But Wembanyama could be even more of a sponge. Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, and Jeremy Sochan would also benefit from Paul’s creation, so with CP3, plus some other moves, the Spurs could compete for the playoffs.
Paul’s preference appears to be staying on the West Coast, though. But Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix says the Celtics, Heat, and Grizzlies could also pursue him.
While I haven’t heard whether they’re interested yet, the Bucks and Sixers (if James Harden leaves) would also have to consider calling. Milwaukee (and Boston, for that matter) would likely need to sign Paul after he’s bought out, not acquire him via a trade, because his $30.8 million contract complicates salary matching. Of these East contenders, Philadelphia is the most interesting destination for Paul, though only as a Harden replacement.
Depending on how the next few weeks unfold, we could witness a game of point guard musical chairs. We’ll see where the Point God lands.
2. Where will the Phoenix Suns go without Chris Paul?
After the news about Paul broke on Wednesday, both ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that there’s no guarantee the Suns will get rid of Paul. In fact, both Wojnarowski and Charania reported that the Suns could waive Paul and then re-sign him to the league minimum. This would save money for the Suns, giving them more cap flexibility to make other moves.
However, the two reporters also confirmed that the Suns could trade Paul or even stretch his contract, which would mean that he’d count for $3.2 million against Phoenix’s salary cap over the next five seasons. Woj said that the Suns “would like to find a way to financially keep” him. So maybe this will result in nothing. But what’s clear is that the Suns are reviewing all options on the table and will go for an upgrade if it’s available.
Could the Suns be targeting Harden or Kyrie Irving? Flipping Irving for Paul probably wouldn’t interest the Mavericks since Paul is so ball dominant. But maybe Dallas would want Ayton, whom Woj says will also be shopped this summer.
Ayton’s future is intriguing since he’s by far the best player the Suns could move. The franchise depleted its assets to acquire Kevin Durant at the trade deadline. But new Suns head coach Frank Vogel raved about Ayton during his introductory presser.
“I think he can be one of the best centers in the league. When we played him in the playoffs a couple years back, he shot about 80 percent from the field and deterred every drive, every cut, every effort to attack the basket,” Vogel said. “There’s still areas that he can grow offensively. But I’m intent on really connecting with him and restoring him to an All-Star-level player.”
Should we buy Vogel’s message? To an extent, sure. Ayton is one of only eight Suns players with a guaranteed contract. But will Durant and Devin Booker share Vogel’s feelings after dealing with Ayton’s antics? Ayton hasn’t looked like the player he was when Vogel was coaching the Lakers. He hasn’t had the same fire since getting paid, and while keeping him another season should be on the table, so should moving him.
Without Ayton, free-agent centers like Naz Reid, Christian Wood, and Nikola Vucevic would make sense for the Suns. None of them offer the type of defense that Ayton can provide, but all of them offer passable defense with a far more dynamic offensive game.
If Paul or Ayton were dealt in a move for a sign-and-trade player, then the deal would hard cap the Suns. Depending on the salary of the incoming player, though, they’d still have the midlevel ($12.2 million), biannual ($4.5 million), and league minimum exceptions to fill out their roster.
It’s still early in the process. But clearly, the Suns are trying to figure out how to improve their championship odds around Durant and Booker, even if that might mean sacrificing the aging point guard and young center who helped put them in contention.
3. What is Damian Lillard waiting for?
For roughly the 100th offseason in a row, Lillard has reiterated his loyalty to the Portland Trail Blazers while also expressing his desire to compete for a championship.
“I want to have an opportunity to win in Portland. We got an opportunity, asset-wise, to build a team that can compete,” Lillard said during his appearance on Showtime’s The Last Stand. “If we can’t do that, then this is a separate conversation that we would have to have.”
I hate to tell ya, Dame, but Portland isn’t close to a title, and the franchise is clearly prioritizing the future if it doesn’t move the third pick in this draft. If Shaedon Sharpe isn’t dealt, Dame might as well just ask out.
My league sources say that Portland’s interest in building around Lillard is genuine. The front office is exploring deals for the no. 3 pick, and it’s also open to moving Anfernee Simons. Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam, or Mikal Bridges would make sense as potential targets via trade, but it’s unclear what level of appetite the Blazers have for that kind of trade. Come draft night, they might just pick.
If it comes to that, then the Blazers would probably try to do right by Dame and send him to a contender of his choice. “They would consult with Dame,” Chris Haynes said this week on The Dan Patrick Show. “He’s been there 10 years, he’s been a model citizen, represented that city and organization with class. I think they would try to get him where he wants to go in the East.”
The East, huh? Lillard was asked about hypothetical trade scenarios on a podcast, and he responded by identifying the Heat and the Nets as his two preferred landing spots. “Miami, obviously,” Lillard said. “Bam [Adebayo] is my dawg. Bam is my dawg for real. Brooklyn is another obvious one because Mikal Bridges is my dawg too. I mean, both have capable rosters.”
Following the best individual season of Lillard’s career, though, who knows who could jump into the sweepstakes. Would the Raptors go all in? What if the Grizzlies decide to flip Ja Morant? Could a team with a ton of picks, like the Pelicans, Rockets, or Spurs, try to cash in? Haynes says it’s “pretty safe to say” Dame wouldn’t accept a trade to Boston, but some of those other teams could give him a chance to contend without totally depleting what makes them appealing landing spots in the first place.
There’s more talk now than ever about Lillard changing teams, and he’s the one fueling the conversation. Staying loyal and spending his entire career in Portland is a respectable choice, but it certainly doesn’t offer him the best chance to win a championship. The Blazers can go all in on winning with Dame, tear it down, or try to follow two timelines like the Warriors (good luck with that). Trading Dame to a contender and rebuilding, though, might be the best choice for everyone.
4. How the Denver Nuggets contained Jimmy Butler.
On Wednesday night, we saw the Nuggets take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. One of the keys to victory was their defense of Butler, which is also the main story line to watch in Friday night’s Game 4.
Though Butler had 28 points, it came on 24 shots and he had only four assists after having seven and nine, respectively, in the previous matchups. The big difference in Game 3 was the amount of help the Nuggets sent at Butler.
“We were just over-helping,” Aaron Gordon said when asked how Denver’s strategy changed from Game 2 to Game 3. “[Butler] was getting under the basket and we were overreacting, and when we would overreact, he would spread the ball out to shooters. Just got to stay home and give the reasonable, respectable amount of help.”
In the Game 2 clips above, all five Nuggets players on the floor are looking at Butler as he dribbles underneath the rim. All game, Butler made a habit of finding the open shooter as the Nuggets helped hard to prevent him from getting to the basket.
Game 3 was a much different story, though. Gordon defended Butler fewer times than he did in the previous two games since the Heat were hunting mismatches against smaller defenders, such as Jamal Murray. But despite the switches, Denver stood pat and just didn’t help as hard:
This type of defense was consistent throughout Game 3. The Nuggets would occasionally have a second defender stab at the ball, but no one fell way out of position.
The difference showed in the numbers. In Game 2, Butler passed out of 11 of his 19 drives to the rim. In Game 3, he passed just eight out of 24 times, according to Second Spectrum. Though it resulted in him scoring more points (21) than he had all series, the Nuggets can live with the results, especially when Butler’s Heat teammates aren’t getting open shots.
“They look at film. They definitely watched the game plan,” Butler said after Game 3. “The biggest thing for us is watch film and see how we can get Max [Strus] open again.”
Strus attempted a series-low four shots from behind the arc Wednesday. The Heat, as a whole, had little room to breathe. Second Spectrum says the Nuggets forced the Heat to take more tightly contested 3s in Game 3 than in any other game this season. Tracking cameras can’t account for all the nuances of a defender’s positioning, but both the eye test and the numbers show that to be true.
After Game 2, the talk was about how the Heat turned Nikola Jokic into a scorer after he had just four assists in the Nuggets’ loss. In Game 3, the Heat got a taste of their own medicine. Now it’s on them to respond to even the series.
5. Michael Porter Jr. is really, really due.
The Nuggets are up in the Finals, but Porter is amid one of the worst shooting stretches of his career, going 3-for-19 from 3-point range. And it’s not like he’s exclusively taking heavily contested shots, either. At times, the Heat are leaving him completely open—but he’s still bricking.
Can Porter snap out of his funk? He usually doesn’t stay ice-cold for long. But going back to Game 4 against the Lakers, he was just 3-for-10, which makes this four consecutive games in which he’s struggled. Porter has shot 30 percent or worse in as many games just five times in his career, per Stathead.
On three of those five occasions—twice during his rookie season and once when he broke out in his second season—Porter broke out of the slump and caught fire. But the last time MPJ was this cold? It happened in the four games before he missed 13 straight with a heel issue. And the time before that? The six games before he missed the entire 2021-22 season because of a back surgery.
Those two anecdotes are alarming, and Porter certainly hasn’t made up for it on defense in this series, largely struggling in help situations. Perhaps the pace of Miami’s offense is just harder for him to read. But his production is undeniably down across the board.
With that said, history is in Porter’s favor. Unless there’s a physical issue that we don’t know about, he is certainly due. And that’s a terrifying thing for the Heat, who need to worry about Jokic and Murray, and a potentially massive boon for the Nuggets.
6. Victor Wembanyama in the “other” finals.
There’s another basketball championship happening across the pond. On Saturday, the French LNB Pro A finals, featuring the prodigious talent Wembanyama, tip off as his Mets 92 face off against Monaco.
Though Wembanyama will be the first pick in the 2023 NBA draft no matter what happens, this is an opportunity for him to make improvements to his game after Monaco forced him into his worst game of the season back in April.
You probably know about the game, even if you don’t realize it. Remember when Wemby took a stepback 3-pointer, then dunked his own miss? Seriously, how can you not? It was one of the greatest basketball moments of the year:
Here’s a Victor Wembanyama putback dunk off his own missed stepback 3 pic.twitter.com/1Vgcm9vPCM— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) April 2, 2023
Stunning, yes. But this game was statistically Wemby’s worst of the season, ending with just eight points, 14 rebounds, and three assists. It was his only game of the season in which he was held to single-digit points.
Monaco’s defensive strategy against Wembanyama might provide a blueprint for what he could routinely face with the Spurs. Monaco used scram switching, blitzing, and even zone, strategies akin to those of NBA defenses:
In the clip above, Wembanyama sets a hard screen for point guard Tremont Waters to force a switch onto point guard Elie Okobo. But as he cuts into the paint, Okobo switches off him in favor of a third defender, John Brown (no. 00), who is better equipped to handle his size. NBA teams frequently use this defense to counter mismatches.
And in the clip below, Waters screens for Wemby, leading to a switch again, but Monaco immediately swaps Okobo for Brown again:
Monaco features several former NBA players, most notably Donatas Motiejunas and Mike James, who both had long stretches in the league. They led a team that was 26-8 this season, the best record in the league, ahead of Wemby’s 23-11 squad.
Part of their success was due to their ability to play different coverages, which was apparent against Wembanyama in the second half:
Blitzing pick-and-rolls involving Wemby forced him to make plays out of the short roll, as in the clip above, in which he spins and kicks the ball out to his teammate Bilal Coulibaly, who misses a pull-up jumper.
After Mets 92 lost both games to Monaco during the regular season, they’ll need Wembanyama to be the best he’s ever been to defeat the stiffest challenge of his career. After that, it’s off to San Antonio.
7. The 2023 draft’s biggest riser?
Wembanyama’s teammate Coulibaly was expected to be a potential lottery pick in the 2024 draft, but Hugo Besson’s midseason injury opened the door for Coulibaly to establish himself more quickly. After dominating with the junior team to start the season, Coulibaly initially carved out a limited role as a 3-and-D-style player. But as the season progressed, he produced in bigger games, making himself a potential lottery pick in this draft.
Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman recently reported that Coulibaly received a promise in the lottery this year. While I have not heard the same, Wembanyama’s teammate is certainly in the conversation now.
By now, everyone knows he deserves to be top 10. But not enough realize he deserves to be top 5 https://t.co/xmBexcuQgc— Wemby (@vicw_32) June 4, 2023
Wembanyama is biased, but perhaps his assessment is fair in this draft class, which has so many question marks after him.
Coulibaly has an enormous wingspan and broad frame and displays a competitive spirit on defense. At just 18 years old, he is also incredibly bright at reading the floor and making proper rotations. Whether he’s contesting on closeouts, intercepting passes, or soaring in as a shot blocker, his dedication and feel on the defensive end give him a foundation for a long pro career, especially in the modern era, which values versatility.
Offensively, Coulibaly plays within his capabilities since he’s a limited ball handler and has a shaky pull-up game. He focuses on keeping the ball moving and finding opportunities to cut to the basket. He’s primarily an explosive at-rim finisher but also mixes in changes of pace and crafty moves. Given his athleticism, an imaginative NBA offense could use him effectively as a screener. He can open paths to the basket or pick-and-pops since his 3-point shooting off the catch is nearing a 40 percent clip.
There’s room for growth. But Coulibaly’s rise as a draft prospect reflects his potential. We could see his stock rise even further as we approach draft night.