Archive for the ‘Basketball’ Category

A few weeks ago, the biggest NBA storylines were: “Are the Cavs Toast?”; “Are the Magic For Real?”; and “How Are the Grizzlies Still Good?” None of those subplots had much staying power. The Cavs won their ninth straight game tonight, moving to 14-7 for the season. LeBron James is having one of his greatest seasons, and the rest doesn’t really matter. They’re a force. The Magic, meanwhile, are who we thought they’d be. They raced to an 8-4 start thanks largely to unsustainable three point shooting and have promptly lost nine games in a row since then. And the Grizzlies are the most extreme example. Before the season, most people thought they’d be a fringe playoff team — I had them on the outside looking in. But they started the year 5-1 with two wins over the Rockets and one over the Warriors, and all of a sudden they were a miracle team set to challenge for a top four seed in the Western Conference. Roughly three weeks later, they’re 7-12 and just fired well-regarded coach David Fizdale. This is just an annual reminder to take very little from the first handful of games of the season. The NBA regular season’s now roughly a quarter of the way done. It’s important to note that the sample size is still relatively small, but it’s big enough now to begin making broader conclusions about players and the season as a whole. I’m going to dive into the NBA’s most interesting rookies, starting with some hits.
Note: I’m not talking about all of the best rookies. Ben Simmons isn’t here because we all know he’s very good. Jayson Tatum’s not here because he’s boring, and I may write about him soon anyway.

Steals:

Kyle Kuzma: I’ll admit that I was wary about getting super excited for Kyle Kuzma when everyone was hyping him up following his strong summer league and preseason. Kuzma was a good player at Utah, but there’s a reason he stayed there for three years and wasn’t drafted until the end of the first round. His shooting in college was suspect (30% from three, 63% from the line). Pair that with lackluster defensive numbers and tweener build (6’9″, 220 pounds) and you have the prototype of a good college player who doesn’t have quite enough game to make it against more athletic defenders. A quarter of the way through the season, I’m now convinced that he was a steal at #27. He’s averaging 16.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game and shooting 50%/38%/77%. I’m not sure he can keep up those shooting numbers, but he’s athletic enough to keep finishing at the rim at a 66% clip. With all of that said, there’s still a lot of evidence that he’s very overrated, at least at this point. He’s neither a prolific rebounder (10.4% rebound rate, just six boards per game despite playing PF) nor creator (7.8% assist rate, 1.6 assists per game). He’s also somewhere between bad and atrocious defensively. He ranks 433rd among 440 players in DRPM (per ESPN) and last among power forwards. The Lakers have been eight points per 100 possessions better on offense with Kuzma, but they’ve also been eight points per 100 possessions worse on defense. Kuzma’s averaging .4 steals and .1 blocks per game. None of this seems fluky, which is why it’s very premature to call Kuzma a future all-star. I’m still labeling him a steal because, as long as he keeps shooting at least respectably from beyond the arc, he’ll be an offensive weapon good for 20-25 minutes off the bench on a solid team. That’s pretty darn good ROI on the 27th pick, and best player of all-time caliber compared to Lonzo Ball.

John Collins: I loved John Collins last year at Wake Forest. I loved him before the draft. And I love him now. It’s hard not to. He’s shooting 58%, easily tops among qualified rookies (Ben Simmons is second at 51%). Sure, most of those shots come near the basket, but not many young players shoot 69% at the rim. Per Cleaning the Glass, that puts him in the 59th percentile among all big men, a nice place to start. Collins is an explosive athlete who’s liable to put opponents on posters. He’s also a great rebounder, as he’s averaging 7.1 boards per game in just under 23 minutes per contest. He’s averaging 18/11/.9 STL/1.3 BLK per 36 minutes, which is a pretty solid place to be as a rookie on an awful team. His net rating is -4, which seems bad but is actually better than the net rating of any of the other six players playing 20+ minutes for the Hawks. The team is actually slightly worse on both ends when he’s off the court. There are, of course, a few things he needs to iron out. He’s fouling on 6.2% of defensive possessions and 3.7 times per game, which prorates out to 5.8 times per 36 minutes. And while he’s a terrific offensive rebounder, his team has actually been much worse on the defensive glass when he’s been on the court. Per Cleaning the Glass, he’s in the 95th percentile among big men in offensive rebounding rate but in the 29th in defensive rebounding. He’s also got no jumper. He hasn’t attempted a three all year and is just 12/42 (29%) on midrange shots. As long as he’s not a threat from outside the paint, his offensive upside will be limited. Limited but existent. Collins is an ideal role player in today’s NBA. He has shown the range and upside to switch onto multiple positions and is very springy and dangerous around the rim. His 76% free throw shooting suggests that he has untapped offensive upside. It’ll be fun to watch him grow, even on the rebuilding (tanking) Atlanta Hawks.

OG Anunoby: It’s fair to temper offensive expectations for OG. He has a weird looking shot and shot just 37% from three and (more importantly) 52% from the line in college. So let’s say his 40% three point shooting is a fluke (because it probably is) and that his shooting falls more in line with his 62% free throw shooting. Even if OG is Andre Roberson offensively, he’s going to be in the NBA for a long time simply because he can be Andre Roberson defensively. He’s 6’8″ with a 7’3″ wingspan and has the potential to be an absolute defensive menace. He’s not quite there yet, but he flashes potential every time he goes up against an elite offensive player. Anunoby’s really raw, which the Raptors knew when they drafted him with the 23rd pick. He also suffered a serious knee injury in his sophomore year, cutting short what would have been his breakout season. That’s what makes his rookie season so remarkable. Anunoby’s stats — 6.7 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, .8 steals in 18.7 minutes per game — aren’t great, but he’s been much more impactful than those numbers indicate. His Real Plus Minus — an ESPN stat I don’t fully get but seems useful — is second highest among all rookies, behind only Ben Simmons. His net rating is +12.6, which is first among rookies and also 5.2 points per 100 better than the Raptors’ average. And it goes beyond that. His shot profile is great — he’s attempted just four midrange shots all year, as the vast majority of his shots have come at the rim (45%) and from three (51%). His assist rate is low, but he still has easily the best AST:TO rate among rookies simply because he doesn’t turn the ball over — his 6.3% turnover rate is in the 92nd percentile of forwards, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s not a super impactful offensive player simply because his usage rate is so low and he’s not much of a playmaker, but he’s already helping his team on offense, something that could never have been said about Roberson. All of this speaks to Anunoby’s potential as a rare true “3-and-D” guy. The way the raw 20-year-old has played in his rookie year — coming off of serious injury — suggests that he’s likely to become a true steal once he unlocks more of that defensive potential.

Not Good Yet, But Clear Upside:

Dennis Smith Jr.: Shock of the century: Dennis Smith Jr. has not been an efficient rookie. He’s shooting 39% from the field, 30% from three (32% when you remove end-of-quarter heaves), and 66% from the line. His year so far has gone exactly as expected. His usage rate is sky high — in the 97th percentile among combo guards. He’s getting to the rim at an elite rate but is struggling to finish when he gets there — he’s finishing at just a 54% clip at the rim. The Mavericks have been way, way better when he’s been off the court. They’re -13.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court — that’d rank 29th in basketball — and +1.3 when he’s off it — that’d rank 13th. The improvement comes almost entirely on the defensive end of the court, where Smith has been abysmal. Some of it just seems to be bad luck — opposing teams are just shooting a lot better when he’s off the court — but some of it is that Smith falls asleep on defense, doesn’t have great instincts, and sometimes take ill-advised gambles. All of this was to be expected, and it’s unlikely that the Mavericks were looking for an elite two-way player when they drafted Smith. That’s ok, because most star lead guards are stars only on the offensive end. And Smith has the potential to be a star on the offensive end. He has Russell Westbrook-type offensive upside. He can already get to the rim, and it may only be a matter of time before he’s smart, strong, and experienced enough to finish at a much higher rate. His shooting numbers will only go up, and he’s already shown a knack to get others involved — his assist rate is behind only Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball, and Frank Mason among rookies. This is going to be a lost year for the Mavericks, but I’ve already seen enough to convince me that they got one of the highest-upside players in the draft.

Donovan Mitchell: The best thing I’ve heard about Donovan Mitchell recently came in this article by Zach Lowe. Lowe dropped a great nugget:

Show him something he missed on film — a pass to the corner, an opening for a floater — and Mitchell goes out of his way to execute it the next game, almost to a comical degree, coaches say. He dished seven dimes against Chicago last week, two days after a 6-of-19 clanker against Philly.

It seems so simple, but I love this because it’s reinforced by what I’ve seen on the court. Donovan Mitchell is an uber competitive player, one who seems destined for a long career as a good player. I’ve probably put Mitchell in the wrong category, because I don’t actually think he has super high upside. He has too much of a combo guard feel — not a good enough creator to be a pure point guard, too short (6’3″) to be a true shooting guard. His shot selection stinks right now, and he’s shooting 38% from the floor and 34% from three. He’s being asked to shoulder a heavy load on a Jazz team without much offensive oomph, and he’s clearly not yet good enough to shoulder said load. But I love him anyway. Mitchell’s athletic, fast, and explosive. He can create for himself off the dribble, and, better, he wants to create for himself off the dribble. He already has elite steal and block rates for his position, and he’s a solid rebounder. He will wreak havoc on defense for years to come. He’s a strong negative on offense right now, but a lot of that is the fact that he has very little talent around him. He’s already a good defender, and when you pair that with his offensive tools and his work ethic you’ll likely get a very good player. Just not an elite one.

Will Wait to See More Before Writing:
Lauri Markkanen
Jonathan Isaac
Frank Ntilikina
Josh Jackson
Markelle Fultz
De’Aaron Fox

I’ve been keeping an eye on all of these lottery picks but want to wait a little longer before writing about them. I will say that I expected offensive struggles from Isaac, Ntilikina, and Jackson, but the struggles have perhaps been more severe than I thought they’d be. Still taking a wait and see approach. Obviously, Fultz belongs in a category of his own.

Worried:

Lonzo Ball: It’s impossible to imagine Lonzo remaining this bad, but there’s ample evidence to suggest that rookies who play historically bad basketball for a large portion of the season generally don’t end up becoming All-Stars. This is really simplistic to say, but most players who end up being good are either good in their rookie year (compared to other rookies, at least) or don’t play enough to showcase their talent early on. Ball’s playing almost 33 minutes per game, and he’s been really, really bad. The shooting numbers are just abysmal: 31% from the field, 25% from three, 43% from the line. He’s shooting 43% at the rim, which is really bad. I will say that there have been some positives. Lonzo’s a legitimately good rebounder, and his defensive numbers are better than I expected. His steal and block numbers are good, and the Lakers have been better defensively when he’s been on the court. He has a positive DRPM, and all of his other individual defensive metrics are pretty good. He also has very good court vision, although his assist numbers are arguably being padded. His 28.7% assist rate, though, puts him in “just” the 59th percentile among point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. Solid, but nowhere near good enough to make up for the shooting. It always has to come back to the fact that Lonzo can neither shoot nor dribble. He’s tentative on offense, and the shot that worked so well for him in college has become the biggest embarrassment in the NBA. It’s not getting better, either: he’s shooting 29/22/37% this month. Stats aside, there’s a lot to be worried about. The fact that he hasn’t made much of an impact in transition — where he flourished at UCLA — is weird. And all of my pre-draft worries about him — why I doubted that he’d be worth the #2 pick — are still there. He’s too tentative, almost always passing out of the pick-and-roll. He doesn’t draw fouls, as he’s attempting just 1.4 free throws per game. And he’s just not an explosive athlete, at least as far as the NBA is concerned. Those were all concerns before the draft, but they were muted by the fact that Lonzo was a 40%+ college three point shooter. I guess there’s still a chance he gets back there, but 20 NBA games is a pretty large sample size, and 20 games say it’ll take a hell of a jump for him to get anywhere near 40% anytime soon. Lonzo is still likely to be a fun player, and he’ll settle in at some point. But it seems unlikely that he’ll ever live up to his billing as a generational player, a guy some called the next Jason Kidd. Kidd, by the way, shot 39/27/70% as a rookie, more evidence that players do in fact get much better over time. This may be wrong, but it seems a lot more worrying that Lonzo’s missing his shots because of the way his shot looks. It was all fine and dandy when he was draining deep threes in college, but you have to wonder if his mechanics have gotten into his head in the NBA. Something definitely has, and he’d better get it out of his head quickly.

Malik Monk: I thought Malik Monk would be able to provide instant offense for whatever team drafted him starting in his rookie year. It turns out I may have been a bit too bullish. Monk, the 11th pick in the draft, has played a total of 21 minutes in the last five games for a mediocre Hornets team. He’s shooting 35% from the field and 33% from three (35% if you ignore heaves) this season. Here’s why I’m worried about Monk: when you’re a 6’3″ shooting guard with a 6’4″ wingspan who doesn’t play good defense and who is an average distributor, you’d better be a darn good scorer. I was confident that Monk would become a great scorer, and I ranked him eighth among draft-eligible players heading into the draft. There’s still a good chance he’ll end up being everything he was advertised to be and everything he showed in college — in his lone season at Kentucky, he shot 40% from three and averaged 20 points per game. But again, a quarter of a rookie season is a real data point, and it hasn’t been a good one for Monk. This is the type of player who can be out of the league within two or three years. I don’t think that’ll happen to Malik. He has to get to the rim more, because he’s actually a pretty good finisher when he gets there — the only problem is that he only shoots from around the basket 11% of the time. Another positive sign is that it took similar players a while to make an impact in the NBA. Lou Williams barely played in his rookie year, while Jamal Crawford shot just 35% from the floor. Perhaps it was inevitable that Monk would struggle this year and perhaps my worry comes from a place of unfair expectations. But I wanted and hoped — and still want and hope — Monk to be a rich man’s version of Williams and Crawford, a guy who could do what they do but do it good enough to make a few all-star teams, which neither ever has. I’ll call this first quarter a step in the wrong direction. The Hornets are -12.7 points per 100 when he’s on the court and +6.5 when he’s off it with significant improvements on both sides of the court, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more than a few more DNP-CDs in Monk’s future.

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Every NBA team has now played between 11 (the Bulls) and 15 (the Suns) games. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s a good portion of the season. It’s important not to glean too much from the 15-ish% of the season we’ve seen, but it’s also important to realize that a lot of what’s happened is both interesting and potentially sustainable. There are 50 different five-man lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together, and because 50 minutes seems like a good sample size and because I like that symmetry, I’m going to write about some of those lineups! All of the usual warnings about small sample sizes apply, but here goes. I’m breaking these up into a few different groups, starting with…

No Duh, These Lineups are Good:

Rockets Starters (James Harden/Eric Gordon/Trevor Ariza/Ryan Anderson/Clint Capela): These five have played 151 minutes together and have a net rating of +25.7, third-best among the 50 lineups. They know how to play together — their 274 minutes together last year made them the Rockets’ second most used lineup. And the lineup is good for the exact reason you’d think a lineup with James Harden, three shooters, and Clint Capela would be good — offense. They’re scoring 126.6 points per 100 possessions, the best among the 50 lineups by more than five points. 53.7% of their shots have come from beyond the arc. They are who we thought they’d be. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Chris Paul gets back.

Wiz Starters With a Twist (John Wall/Bradley Beal/Otto Porter/Kelly Oubre/Marcin Gortat): Last year, the Wizards’ starters played more minutes together than any other unit in the NBA, and it wasn’t particularly close. And that’s because they played very well together, which makes sense. This is what I wrote 55 games into last season about the lineup:

Washington’s starting lineup makes a whole lot of sense, and it’s also worked (unlike many lineups that make sense on paper). Put two lethal shooters on the wings in Beal and Porter, add a power forward who can create his own shot and shoot from beyond the arc in Morris, add a rim-runner in Gortat and top it off with a point guard who will take advantage of any space he’s given in Wall and you have a well-oiled offensive machine. The lineup has played 965 minutes together this season and has a +13 net rating in those minutes.

You may notice that there’s a different member of the group I’ve labeled the starters. Because Markieff Morris was injured to start the year, Kelly Oubre began the season in the starting lineup and played very well. Morris is back and starting now, but Oubre is still playing slightly more. That’ll likely change going forward, but it doesn’t matter whether Markieff or Kelly is the fifth starter, because the lineup’s going to be good either way. The five have posted a +23.6 net rating, fourth out of 50, in 147 minutes together. They’re holding opponents to 42% shooting and 29% from three. The lineup with Morris instead of Oubre has been better offensively, but the addition of Oubre to the lineup has transformed the defense into one of the better ones in the league.

Warriors Starters (Steph Curry/Klay Thompson/Kevin Durant/Draymond Green/Zaza Pachulia): The biggest “no duh” of all. This lineup has played 144 minutes together and has a +19.2 net rating, fifth among the 50 lineups. Yeah, any lineup with those first four guys in it is going to be pretty good. Their assist rate is 77.5%, which is absurd. I don’t need to say much more about this monster.

Honorable mention to the Blazers’ starters — especially with Noah Vonleh in the lineup instead of Al-Farouq Aminu. Also, any lineup that has all three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon is going to be productive. It’ll be interesting to see how Eric Bledsoe fits in there.

Wait, What? How is this lineup so good?

Sixers Starters (Ben Simmons/J.J. Redick/Robert Covington/Dario Saric/Joel Embiid): Early on in the season, the Sixers shuffled their starting lineup, replacing Jerryd Bayless with Dario Saric. The starting five had already been pretty successful, but this one has been downright dominant. In 68 minutes together, these five have posted a +29.6 net rating, best of the 50 lineups by a good margin. On the surface, it’s strange that this lineup works together. First of all, it’s strange when any Sixers lineup works given the recent history of the franchise. Second of all, Saric is a weird fit next to Simmons. He likes having the ball in his hands and rebounding the ball and pushing it, but that’s Simmons’s job, so Dario has been relegated to spot-up shooting duties. But it’s worked. It’s worked because Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are really, really good. It’s worked because Robert Covington is shooting the lights out and because J.J. Redick is such a feared shooter that he opens things up for everyone else even when he’s not at his best. But the real strength of this lineup has been its rebounding and defense. Any lineup with Simmons at the point is going to have a head start rebounding-wise, because he’s a 6’10” point guard with outstanding rebounding instincts. Redick is the only one under 6’9″, and this lineup has gobbled up 60.8% of available rebounds, first among these 50 lineups. That includes 89.2% of available defensive rebounds, which helps explain why the lineup has been so good defensively. Also, Simmons has been better than expected defensively, and Covington and Embiid are both excellent defensive players. This lineup won’t keep being this good, because Covington isn’t going to shoot 50% from three and Saric probably won’t keep up his 38% shooting from three. But I see no reason to believe it won’t be one of the better lineups in basketball. By the way, the lineup also has a 73% assist rate, third among the 50 lineups. This all says a lot about Ben Simmons.

Magic Starters (Evan Fournier/Terrence Ross/Aaron Gordon/Nikola Vucevic + Payton or DJ): I’m cheating a little here, because D.J. Augustin and Elfird Payton have each started about half of Orlando’s games. But pair either of them with the other four and you have a terrific lineup (+25.9 net rating with Augustin in 66 minutes, +11.7 with Payton in 62 minutes). Obviously, this goes hand in hand with Orlando’s all-around success so far this year. I certainly am surprised by their 8-6 start. Both lineups have cut down on turnovers — they rank first and third in assist to turnover ratio at 3.0 (with Payton) and 2.3 (with Augustin). They both have collected more than 20% of available offensive rebounds. They’ve played at a super fast pace (second and fourth most possessions per game). It’s been exciting to watch, but I don’t think it’s going to last. They don’t get to the line very much, and they rank eighth in the league in frequency of midrange shots and next-to-last in shots at the rim (per Ben Falk, Cleaning The Glass). Historically, those frequencies have been more predictive than accuracy numbers are, so it’s probably safe to say that the Magic are going to remain reliant on the least productive shots in basketball. They’re also getting unsustainable shooting performances. Aaron Gordon is somehow shooting 52% from three, this after shooting below 30% in each of his first three seasons. Meanwhile, his free throw percentage is about in line with previous seasons. It’s likely that he’s gotten better, but not this much better. Nikola Vucevic, meanwhile, had hit 30 threes in 101 attempts before this season. He’s already knocked down 25 triples in 62 attempts this year. Again, he’s probably better, and he’s definitely going to keep shooting more, but he’s not this much better. Vucevic and Gordon are probably Orlando’s two best players, and they should keep powering a decent starting unit, but the net rating is going to go way down. They aren’t going to keep shooting 40% from three.

Hornets Starters (Kemba Walker/Jeremy Lamb/Marvin Williams/Dwight Howard + MKG or Bacon): The first four guys mentioned have started all 12 games, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dwayne Bacon have started six apiece. Overall, the two lineups have played 187 minutes and have been very successful, posting +12.4 (with Bacon) and +9.2 (with MKG) net ratings. This is slightly less surprising than the other two, both because they haven’t been as unbelievable as the two other units and because their first unit was supposed to perform well. They’ve both rebounded very well, and they’ve conceded the second fewest shots at the rim. Both of those facts cast Dwight Howard in a very positive light, so credit to Dwight Howard for playing really well despite playing for his fifth team in seven years. But the real stars of these lineups are the backcourt players. Lamb, the shooting guard, is having a breakout season. The 2012 lottery pick traded to Oklahoma City in the James Harden trade has found consistent playing time in Charlotte over the last few years but never averaged double-digit points. At least until this year, that is. He’s scoring 16.7 points per game on 46% shooting from three. He’s a clear candidate for regression, but it always amazed me that a guy with a reputation for being a good shooter couldn’t break 33%. If this really is his breakout season, the Hornets will be in good shape. Then there’s Kemba Walker, the best player on this team and one of the better point guards in the Eastern Conference. Walker is again averaging upwards of 20 points per game, but he’s also averaging a career high 6.6 assists. I don’t think these lineups are anything special, but consider them to be a poor man’s Washington. They have a star creator at the point, a pure shooter at the 2, a good two-way player at the 3 (ok, I may be stretching it there with MKG and the rookie Bacon), a solid cog at the 4, and a physical presence who can finish at the rim at the 5. No, it’s nowhere near as good as Washington’s starting lineup, but it should be good enough to keep putting up positive net ratings.

Some other surprisingly productive lineups:
Chicago’s young Jerian Grant/Justin Holiday/David Nwaba/Lauri Markkanen/Robin Lopez: They aren’t going to keep it up, but it’s worth noting that this lineup has a +14.3 net rating through 67 minutes. Replace Nwaba with Paul Zipser and you get a lineup that has played 93 minutes and has a -18.2 net rating, evidence that these numbers can be misleading this early in the season.

Memphis’s bench lineup (Mario Chalmers/Tyreke Evans/Chandler Parsons/Dillon Brooks/Brandan Wright): This lineup has played 71 minutes together and has a +11.9 net rating. It’s also the most Memphis lineup of all-time. There are three reclamation projects. Chalmers is coming off of a torn Achilles’, Evans has played 65 games over the past two years as he’s been sidelined by injuries and coaches decisions, and Parsons has been drastically slowed by a knee injury that made him almost unusable last season. Somehow, those three have all been productive, with ‘Reke leading the way with 18.5 points per game on ridiculous 52/45/85 shooting. Dillon Brooks was a second round pick who has played almost 30 minutes per game, and Wright is the classic backup big who is in and out of the rotation before finally finding regular playing time. It’s been a joy to watch, and I hope they can keep it up.

Surprisingly Bad Lineups:
Among the worst of these 50 lineups are three Sacramento lineups, a Dallas lineup, a Chicago lineup, and a Phoenix lineup. Duh. But there are two teams in particular with lineups that have been shockingly bad.

Jazz starters (Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood/Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert): When Hood has been healthy, the lineup has a -11.2 net rating in 108 minutes. When he’s been hurt or on the bench and Mitchell’s played, it has a -26.2 net rating in 60 minutes, which is better only than a Dallas lineup that’s giving up 130.8 points per 100 possessions. On the one hand, it makes sense that the Jazz have struggled to score without Gordon Hayward, especially when Hood is also out — the lineup without Hood has been the worst offensive lineup of the 50 mentioned. But I can’t believe both of these lineups have been so terrible offensively and sub-par defensively. Quin Snyder has a good reputation, and it would have been reasonable to expect at least a mediocre offense. But that’s never going to happen when your three key guards and shooting sub-40%. Ingles and Gobert are good offensive role players who know what they’re doing, but this team needs someone who can get his own bucket. That should be Hood, but it hasn’t been yet. At the very least, I expect these lineups to improve defensively. The Jazz are a middle-of-the-road defense so far, but that should change when opponents stop hitting 40% of their three point shots against Utah. Past opposing three point percentage is one of the least predictive measures for future success because it’s largely luck. Unfortunately, we won’t see either of these lineups any time soon, because Gobert is out with a knee injury for at least a month. That’s bad news for a team that’s probably going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time.

Cavs starters (DRose/Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Jae Crowder, Kevin Love): I’m talking particularly about the two lineups that have played more than 50 minutes, but this is really a whole team problem. Unsurprisingly, both of these lineups have been horrid defensively. Overall, the Cavs rank 30th in the league in defensive rating (111.1 points per 100 possessions allowed) and 29th in opposing effective field goal % when you remove garbage time (56.1%, Minnesota is last). It’s always going to be surprising to see a team with LeBron James struggle so much, but there’s no denying the fact that this team just isn’t going to be good defensively, especially during the regular season. Love, Rose, Smith, and Crowder all have net ratings at or below -6.9, while LeBron’s is -2.4. That’s just unheard of for LBJ.

Other Interesting Tidbits:

  • Minnesota’s starters have played by far the most minutes together of any unit, which is not at all surprising given that Tom Thibodeau is their head coach. They’ve played 275 minutes together, 77 more than Denver’s starting five, which ranks second. Even more shocking? The fact that they’ve done it in 11 games because Jimmy Butler missed a couple early on. That’s 25 minutes per game together, which is not ideal given the lack of depth this team has. Rotate more, Tom! It’ll make your team better!
  • You know how Detroit has gotten off to a shocking 10-3 start? Well, that has nothing to do with their starting lineup. Last year, the Pistons’ starting five played really poorly together, which is a big reason that they missed the playoffs. This year, the lineup of Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond has played 155 minutes together in 10 games and has a -9.1 net rating. It’s unbelievable that they’ve been so good despite that, but that’s one reason to predict some regression record-wise.
  • OKC’s star-studded starting lineup has a positive net rating, but not by much. The struggles have come on the offensive end of the court. I think it’s just a matter of time before it turns into a dominant unit.
  • It’s really a shame that the Clippers have so many injury-prone players, because there’s evidence to suggest that a lineup including Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan would be a hit. Those four plus Austin Rivers are +8.3 per 100 possessions in 147 minutes but have played just eight games together. All of the preseason talk about the Clippers moving the ball better seems to have been for naught, though, because even that lineup has just a 49.5% assist rate. It’s also the lineup that’s played at the slowest pace of the 50.
  • 27 teams have at least one lineup that’s played 50+ minutes. The three exceptions are Atlanta, Miami, and Brooklyn.

Eastern Conference Preview

Posted: 10/23/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

I previewed the Western Conference last week, so it’s now time for the much less intriguing Eastern Conference. There’s already been a wrench thrown into the playoff race: Gordon Hayward’s horrific leg/ankle injury. It’s the type of injury that’s excruciating to even watch, and yet it’s hard to take your eyes off it. That’s a special pantheon of injuries — recently, it’s a list that includes Hayward, Paul George, and Kevin Ware. Going back a little, Shaun Livingston obviously has to vault near the top of that list. It happened five minutes in Hayward’s Boston career. Poor guy. Anyway, I don’t think the Celtics were going to beat the Cavs anyway, but this opens up a two seed (or potentially a one seed if the Cavs don’t try) for the Wizards or Raptors (or even the Bucks?). Boy is this a weak conference.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25): I’m relatively bullish on the Cavs this year. They won 51 games last season and tied with the Raptors for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, proving definitively that LeBron James and company don’t care at all about the regular season. I’m betting that they’ll care slightly more this year for a number of reasons. First of all, there have been all sorts of rumors about LeBron potentially leaving after this season. LeBron has very noticeably refused to shoot down said rumors. And if LeBron’s going to leave, he’s going to want it to be in a much better way than he did last time (see: The Decision, the terrible series against Boston, etc.), when he became the most hated athlete in Ohio. That’s going to entail a great regular season and at least another trip to the Finals. Second of all, I’m pretty sure LeBron wants to win another MVP. He’s won four, but his last one came in the 2012-13 season, as he’s been penalized for taking it easy during the regular season (plus, voter fatigue). He’s stuck on four MVPs. Guess how many Michael Jordan won? Five. LeBron’s 33 now, so I’m going to assume that he wants to win the fifth sooner rather than later. So combine reasons one and two and you have a very incentivized LeBron James. That’s good for Cleveland’s record.

Also good: the Kyrie Irving trade should make things easier during the regular season. Kyrie is a great weapon to have, but I’d argue that he didn’t actually add that much during the regular season. When he comes back from his hip injury, Isaiah Thomas should be able to replace his regular season production. Even if he doesn’t, the Cavs have other guys who can score without feeling that they deserve to be mentioned in the same stratosphere as LeBron. This is unequivocally good for Kevin Love. Jae Crowder is a solid player who will give the team good minutes. The ceiling may be lower, but I think this team is going to mesh better in the regular season than recent Cleveland teams have.

2. Washington Wizards (52-30): This is going to be a good team, health permitting. Markieff Morris is already hurt, but he’s scheduled to come back fairly soon. When he does, the starting lineup is going to be really good. How do I know this? Because we saw it last year! Last year, the Wall-Beal-Porter-Morris-Gortat lineup had a net rating of +8.1. And it makes sense. Wall’s the focal point, a guy who can always get his own bucket, is devastating in the fast break, and has underrated court vision. He’s one of the most dynamic players in the NBA. Beal is the sweet-shooting secondary ball-handler who seems destined to have a breakout season after he averaged 25 points per game in the playoffs. Porter’s a perfect third option. He can hit spot-up threes or dip in and be a proficient midrange shooter. Morris is a solid all-around power forward, and Gortat’s the huge, tough center who does the dirty work, is a tremendous rebounder, and sets thunderous (and often illegal?) screens. It’s a good starting five. The problem is that there’s nobody we can really trust on the bench. That’s why Kelly Oubre is so important. If Oubre, who’s now in his third season, can take a big step up this year and become a solid sixth man, the Wizards can be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and win 50+ games for the first time in a long, long time. I’m pretty confident that it’s going to happen as long as Wall and Beal can play 70+ games a piece. I’m nervous, though, because Beal has a long injury history and Wall has some injuries in his past and plays a style that could lead to more pain. Fingers crossed.

3. Toronto Raptors (50-32): The Raptors are slightly worse on paper than they were last year, when they went 51-31 and had one of the best regular season offenses in the NBA. Their team, of course, then cratered in the playoffs, as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan continued to struggle to put the ball in the net in the postseason. It’s hard for me to get excited about this team. I’ve made that mistake before. And before that. So I’m going to keep this short. This is still a good regular season team. P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson are gone. So is Terrence Ross. But the Raptors managed to bring C.J. Miles in to add some shooting, and losing Ross may be addition by subtraction, both because Ross isn’t very good and because this will mean more Norm Powell, and I really likely Norm Powell. Plus, they were able to hold onto Serge Ibaka, which is good. Lowry and DeRozan are still the focal points, and they’ll lead this team to a top-four seed. But what everyone wants to see is if the offense can finally translate to the playoffs. They’re trying to move away from the isolation ball that has made the Raptors the Raptors, but can that last when you have such a prominent isolation scorer in DeRozan and a lug at center in Jonas Valanciunas? We’ll see.

4. Boston Celtics (47-35): The Celtics obviously won’t be as good without Gordon Hayward as they would have been this year. They also won’t be as good as they were last season, because they have nowhere near the depth they had last year. There are obviously a few major reasons to be concerned. First of all, this team has had and will continue to have rebounding problems. They’ve tried and succeeded to build a team around a bunch of interchangeable 6’6″-6’8″ wings. The upside of that is obvious. The downside is, well, also obvious. The Celtics have nobody taller than 6’10”. Their tallest players are Al Horford, a very skilled big who is a notably poor defensive rebounder, and Aron Baynes, who’s strong, tough, and a brute. Marcus Morris, who’s missed the first three games of the year, will definitely help when he returns. But rebounding is certainly an issue. Second of all, while I think both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are solid young players with potential to be better, I don’t believe that they’ll be particularly helpful this year. Actually, Brown may be, because he can play defense and already has a year of experience under his belt. But the fact is that the Celtics tried hard to get both Gordon Hayward and Paul George on their roster because they knew they needed more wing talent. They barely missed on George, are now without Hayward, and had to move Jae Crowder — made expendable because of the Hayward signing — to get Kyrie Irving. You know what that means? 30+ minutes per game for both Brown and Tatum! Look, Jayson Tatum’s a polished player for a rookie, but he’s not going to be an efficient scorer. Neither is Brown, whose shot needs a lot of work. Marcus Smart is erratic, and Horford should be no more than a third scorer on a good team. You know what all of this means? It’s Kyrie Irving hero-ball time! Brad Stevens probably isn’t happy about it, but Irving’s going to get what he wanted: a huge, star role on a solid team. I like Kyrie and was not one of the people who criticized him for asking for a trade (the opposite, actually). But having a one-dimensional offense around a shoot-first point guard isn’t a recipe for 50+ wins. Just ask Oklahoma City. Now, you may say that the Celtics were exactly that last year, but that’s not true. They had Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, two solid complementary scorers, last year. And more importantly, they got a magical, career year out of Isaiah Thomas. Thomas was better last year than Irving has ever been. It was an anomalous year. Can Kyrie do the same this season? It’s possible, but I’m not betting on it. Instead, I’ll bet that the Celtics will be a decent team that has some dry stretches offensively and sometimes can’t buy a defensive board.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (45-37): I’m not all that high on the Milwaukee Bucks. Even after a headline-grabbing 2-1 start, I’m predicting that they’ll fall short of their preseason over/under line of 46.5 wins. But they’re the five seed by default. Their best player is better than any player on any of the teams below them, and it isn’t particularly close when you account for Joel Embiid’s injury problems. Giannis Antetokounmpo is very, very good. He put up a 23/9/5/1.6 steal/1.9 block line last season. He’s a freak (a Greek Freak even) with ginormous hands and the ability to run the point at 6’11”. Scarier than all that, though, is how quickly he’s progressed. When he was drafted, the skinny teenager was supposed to be years away from contributing in the NBA. By his second season, he was a regular starter. The next season, he was Milwaukee’s best player. Then came last year. What’s coming now? well, it could be an MVP season. It’s probably not going to be that far off. Giannis still can’t really shoot threes, but he’s still impossible to stop and (crucially) can shoot free throws at a 75%+ clip. The supporting cast is fine, and will obviously be a lot better when Jabari Parker returns much later in the season. I’m a big Khris Middleton fan and think he’s a really good Giannis sidekick. Malcolm Brogdon’s a good player, although I’d prefer him as a sixth man than as the starting point guard. Thon Maker, who’s (wink wink) still 20-years-old, came on strong at the end of last season. Tony Snell can shoot, and Greg Monroe can still score off the bench, even if his game is out of place in today’s NBA. I’m not inspired by the team outside of Giannis. But it’s ok, and (Giannis + ok) x Eastern Conference = five seed.

6. Charlotte Hornets (43-39): Odds are that a sixth and maybe even seventh team will go over 43 wins. But I couldn’t bring myself to giving the Hornets or anyone below them more than 43. I’m lower on Charlotte than most people seem to be. People think they can be a top-four seed! I don’t. I will say this: I understand the love, and I think this is a well designed team. It’s almost certainly a better roster than Miami’s (my seven seed, spoiler alert), because it’s just as deep and in Kemba Walker has a real go-to scorer. However… there’s the Dwight Howard factor. I buy the Dwight Howard is a locker room problem theory, largely because there’s a lot of evidence to support it. One of the funniest reports from a busy offseason came from Zach Lowe of ESPN, who said that, upon hearing news of the trade, multiple Hawks players “screamed with jubilation.” How great is that? More to the point, how telling is that? The other reason I hated this trade for the Hornets is that it sends Cody Zeller to the bench, because Cody Zeller and Dwight Howard can’t play together and OF COURSE Dwight has to start because he’s a total superstar. Believe it or not, Zeller was a key player on this team last year. On a 36-win team with a net +.3 rating (yep, it was an unlucky team), his net rating was +5.4. That was the best mark on the team, well ahead of #2 Kemba Walker. I wrote about Zeller last season. That guy’s going to be on the bench? I’m not usually a big team chemistry guy, but I can’t see how adding Howard made this team a whole lot better. I do think they’ll be a solid team, because Kemba is good and they have a lot of young players (Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb, and rookies Dwayne Bacon and Malik Monk, both of whom have Sixth Man of the Year potential) who can put the ball in the net. But I don’t see 50 wins and a three seed.

7. Miami Heat (42-40): There’s a lot to like about the Heat. They’re deep, with a lot of useful pieces. They have eight players playing 24+ minutes per game, and there’s a lot to like about those eight players. They’re all very good at what they do. Hassan Whiteside is very good at dunking, getting rebounds, and blocking shots. Goran Dragic is very good at finishing at the rim and he shot 40.5% from three last year. Dion Waiters is a great gunner and microwave. Need a shot? He’ll take it. And if he gets hot, watch out. Josh Richardson is a good wing defender with the potential to be a great 3-and-D role player. James Johnson is GREAT at dunking (yes, better than Hassan). He’s also quietly good as a passer and playmaker from the power forward position, especially when he’s playing with the second unit. Tyler Johnson is a good shooter. I very much dislike Kelly Olynyk, but he’s a skilled (ish) power forward who fits nicely next to Whiteside. And Justice Winslow, once a high-profile college basketball player who helped (with Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones and a freshman Grayson Allen, for those of us who want to remember previous Duke successes) lead Duke to the title. Ok, there’s not much I can say about him, because he’s shaping up to be a bust. But maybe Miami can trade him for someone who can help their team? Anyway, the point is that this team has depth. The problem: what’s their go-to play? Where do they go when they need a bucket? It’s probably a Dragic-Whiteside pick-and-roll, but, meh. It’s hard for a team without a go-to crunch-time scorer to be all that successful. 42-40 it is.

8. Philadelphia 76ers (40-42): I’m not panicking about the 0-3 start for a few reasons. First of all, the losses came against the Celtics, Wizards, and Raptors, three top-four seeds. The Sixers don’t need to be as good as those teams to make the playoffs. Second of all, they were close to winning each of their first games and really should have come away with a win. Third of all, they’re a young team with a lot of players who have never played together. It would have been crazy to expect Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to immediately mesh, for example. The problem is that expectations were sky high before the year, and people expected the Sixers to be good straight away. Guess what? They’re going to take their lumps this year. They just are. And they aren’t that good. The game against the Raptors shows that they’re still heavily dependent on Joel Embiid. But as long as Embiid stays relatively healthy, this is a playoff team. He’s just that good. Remember, this was a team that was a net positive when Embiid played last year. And the supporting cast is a lot better this season. Simmons is already a dynamic player. He’s not anywhere near as good as he’ll end up being, but he’s scoring more off the bat than I expected. J.J. Redick is one of the best shooters in the NBA and is a perfect fit next to Simmons and Embiid. Robert Covington, perennially underrated, is much more confident in his shot and has developed into a lockdown defender. Jerryd Bayless, injured for all but a few games last year, brings more shooting, although he’s a sieve defensively. Dario Saric can do some stuff off the bench. This is a team that’s going to score a lot of points once Simmons and Embiid have a little more chemistry. The defense has been bad so far, and it’ll continue to be bad when Embiid’s off the court, but Joel showed last year that he can make up for a lot of lackluster defense elsewhere. I’m predicting a sub-.500 record, but it’s the same record that I would have predicted three games ago. In terms of the team’s long-term prognosis, I must say that I am worried about Markelle Fultz, because he has no idea how to shoot a basketball. This is bizarre, and I don’t think it’s because of a shoulder injury. If Fultz were hurt, the Sixers would already be sitting him and letting him rehab. This is a mental block, and I think it’ll only get worse if Philly keeps throwing him out there and he keeps embarrassing himself at the line. They need to take him out of the lineup until he remembers how to shoot. It’s that simple.

9. Detroit Pistons (37-45): The Pistons get this spot by default. I don’t like this roster. In fact, I would say I dislike it. How’s that for a bold statement. The Pistons can make all the excuses in the world for Reggie Jackson, but I think he’s a bad point guard and will continue to say that until proven otherwise. I don’t think Andre Drummond helps the team win. Same with Tobias Harris, who scores a lot of empty points. Stanley Johnson hasn’t developed in the way the Pistons had hoped. The only guy I’m high on in their lineup is Avery Bradley, who’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and who’s a great shooter and secondary ball-handler. But… No.

10. Orlando Magic (36-46): New year, same Magic. Actually, the Magic only won 29 games last year, so this would be a significant improvement. In fact, they’ve only cracked 30 wins once since the 2011-12 season. For a team that’s been so bad for so long, it’s incredible how few blue chippers (or even any chippers) they have. Who’re the keepers on this team? Aaron Gordon? Sure, he’s intriguing, but maybe a bit overrated due to his dunking acumen. Evan Fournier? He’s fine, but nothing more than a solid shooting guard. Jonathan Isaac? Maybe, but they just drafted him so it’s way too early to tell. This is not a good team. Nikola Vucevic is a gifted offensive player, but he gives most of that back on the defensive end. For some reason, the Magic gave $17 million a year to Bismack Biyombo, who can’t play with Vucevic and who is playing 14 minutes per game. The only reason I’m predicting that they’ll win this many games is that someone has to.

11. Indiana Pacers (33-49)
12. Brooklyn Nets (30-52): I’m grouping these two teams together because I consider them to be the two bad but not hopeless teams right above the three hopeless teams. The big difference between these two and the next three is that I don’t think these two are trying to lose, while the next three certainly are. The Nets certainly aren’t tanking, because they owe their pick to Cleveland (via Boston). And the Pacers have shown a reticence to tanking in the past, and I have no reason to believe that’ll change. Also, both teams have sneaky “can bother better teams” potential. The Nets showcased that potential down the stretch last year. Even without Jeremy Lin, who ruptured his patella tendon (ouch), they have three guards who can do some things in D’Angelo Russell (look for 20+ points per game), Allen Crabbe (great shooter), and Caris LeVert (I loved him coming out of his draft, and he’s now healthy and producing). Outside of that? Ok, this team sucks. But they’ll win some (?) games. The Pacers are clearly better. Myles Turner is a good young player. Huge contract aside, Victor Oladipo is solid. Thaddeus Young is pretty good. Darren Collison and Cory Joseph are playable point guards. Yeah, this team is going nowhere. But they’re the team I’d pick out of the bottom five to make a run at the eight seed.

13. Atlanta Hawks (26-56)
14. New York Knicks (26-56)
15. Chicago Bulls (23-59): All you need to know about the Bulls is that, right before the season, Bobby Portis punched Nikola Mirotic, breaking his jaw and concussing him. Portis was suspended for eight games. Also, the Bulls’ surprisingly long playoff streak is about to come to an end. They lost Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo, all three thirds of their ill-fated experiment last season. Their starting backcourt is Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday. Their best player is… Robin Lopez? The Hawks lost Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. One of their bright young players, DeAndre Bembry, broke his wrist. They’re handing the keys to Dennis Schroder. This isn’t going to end well, except it is, because they’re going to get a nice pick.
The Knicks are also going young. They have Kristaps Porzingis, who’s way better than any other player on one of these three teams, but their starting point guard is Ramon Sessions right now. Ron Baker is playing 20 minutes per game. I rest my case. I’m probably being optimistic about these teams, and originally had them pegged for 24, 22, and 19 wins, but I had to even out my total wins and losses.

Bottom half of the Western Conference

Posted: 10/18/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

I wrote about the teams I expect to finish in playoff positions in the Western Conference yesterday. Today, I’m going to hit the rest of the Western Conference.

9. Utah Jazz (42-40): I was very, very close to picking the Jazz to finish ahead of the Blazers. You have to love the defense. This team was very stingy defensively last season, allowing the third-fewest points per possession. They used that to power them to a 51-31 season and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. Believe it or not, their defense may be even better this year. They replaced point guard George Hill, an average defender, with Ricky Rubio, one of the best (and peskiest) point guard defenders in the league. They also drafted athletic Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell in the first round. Mitchell was one of the best defenders in college basketball last season and has the length and talent to immediately be a solid NBA defender. And really, any team with Rudy Gobert anchoring a defense is going to be just fine. Gobert may not be the best defender in the league, but he’s right up there with Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. Utah’s defense is going to be a force. The problem: how are they going to score? They were a pretty good offense last year — 12th in offensive efficiency — but lost their two leading scorers. It’s asking a lot to expect the talented but injury prone Rodney Hood to seamlessly replace Gordon Hayward’s (by the way, poor Gordon Hayward) scoring. And even if Hood does become a 20 point per game scorer, which is unlikely, who will be the secondary scorers that George Hill and Hood were last year? It’s not going to be Rubio. Gobert is who he is, which is not a tremendously refined offensive player. Joe Johnson still has his moments, but he won’t be a consistent scorer at his age. Everyone loves Joe Ingles now, because he hit 44% from three last year and because he’s going to replace Hayward in the starting lineup. But Ingles almost exclusively shoots from beyond the arc, and he’s never going to be a guy who can get a bucket himself. Mitchell? He’s impressed so far, but he’s a rookie who’s going to have a lot of rough patches. This is why I think Derrick Favors, the forgotten man, is so important. He’s one of the only players on the team — heck, besides the 36-year-old Johnson he may be the only one — who has shown the ability to score consistently. He averaged 16 points per game twice in a row before falling off a cliff in an injury-marred 2016-17 season. The problem is that Favors and Gobert may not be able to play effectively together on either end of the court. There’s a reason that Favors has been the subject of trade talk. Plus, Favors, like Hood, is coming off a season in which he played fewer than 60 games (50 for Favors, 59 for Hood). It’s just tough to consider a team with such offensive weakness as a playoff team in this loaded Western Conference. I do love coach Quin Snyder and the defense, though.

10. Memphis Grizzlies (39-43): As long as the Grizzlies have a healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, they’re going to be pretty good. They’ve had a positive net rating with those two on the court together forever. And it makes sense. Both of those players are really good! But there are a few holes in the “Conley and Gasol are going to lead the Grizzlies to the playoffs for the eighth straight year” argument. First of all, being “pretty good” has been enough to get the Grizzlies 42-43 wins and a seven seed twice in a row. That may not be enough in the brutal 2017-18 Western Conference, which has not just elite teams but also much improved middle-of-the-pack teams. Second of all, Gasol has missed 40 games and Conley 39 over the past two seasons. They’re now both on the wrong side of 30-years-old. For a team with little margin of error, it’s not a good sign that those two have missed a substantial amount of time over these last few years. Third of all, any margin of error the Grizz had over the last few years is now gone, because their supporting cast just got a whole lot worse. Memphis lost Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, the two guys who encapsulated the Grizzlies’ grit-and-grind mantra. They lost Vince Carter, who at 40 is still remarkably effective. They also just cut 2016 first round pick Wade Baldwin, which, well, that’s not good. They lost Troy Daniels, a role player who was one of their best three point shooters. And their only major addition was Tyreke Evans, who has quickly transitioned from “empty stats guy” to “injury prone no stats guy.” The Grizzlies now have both Evans and Chandler Parsons, two players with a lot of talent who haven’t been good or healthy in a long time. And look at the starting lineup outside of Conley and Gasol: James Ennis, JaMychal Green, Brandan Wright. Not good. 39 wins may be high, but I have a lot of respect for Conley and Gasol.

11. New Orleans Pelicans (37-45): I’m granting the Pelicans 37 wins because they have Anthony Davis, one of the best players in the NBA. But this lineup makes zero sense. I don’t think it’s impossible to build a good team around Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. But I know that the Pelicans did about as bad a job as possible to put the right pieces around Boogie and Brow. They have almost no shooting! They were forced to give injury prone point guard Jrue Holiday a huge extension largely because he’s one of the only players on the team who can shoot. This team finished 19th in the NBA in three point percentage last year, then added Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen, two guys who can’t shoot. Solomon Hill, one of the only players on the team who can shoot, tore his hamstring and may miss the whole season. And the few players — outside of Holiday — who can shoot (I’m talking about Jordan Crawford and E’Twuan Moore and maybe Ian Clark) can’t play a lick of defense. Davis and Cousins could work together, but you have to put the right pieces around them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cousins is dealt again at the deadline. The Pelicans have to do something to make their generational talent happy.

12. Sacramento Kings (32-50)
13. Dallas Mavericks (30-52)
14. Los Angeles Lakers (28-54)
15. Phoenix Suns (26-56)

I’m sorry, but none of these teams is particularly interesting. I don’t think any of them are Bulls or Pacers level terrible, but none of them are anywhere near good enough to compete in the Western Conference. I expect these four to be pretty close together at the bottom of the conference for most of the season. The Lakers are getting the most hype of these four teams, because of course they are. But guess what? They kind of stink! Lonzo Ball might be good, but he’s not Magic Johnson! Kentavius Caldwell-Pope is meh, and only is in LA because he shares an agent with LeBron and the Lakers are already courting LeBron (shoot me now). I still think Brandon Ingram’s going to be good, but he’s not a plus player yet. Julius Randle is a classic empty stats guy. When’s the last time Brook Lopez has been a big contributor for a good team? Jordan Clarkson… please. If Kyle Kuzma leads this team to a playoff spot… I don’t even know what I’d do. It’s not going to happen. Same story for Sac-town, Dallas, and Phoenix. I think Sacramento may be the most fun team of the bunch. They signed George Hill and Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. All of those guys are fun veterans. They have Buddy Hield, a fun young player, and drafted De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson, both of whom have huge “fun young player” potential. I always forget which of their young Kentucky big men — Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein — is good, but I swear one of them might be good. It’s a nice mix of youth and experience. It’d be nicer if their young players and/or experienced players were better at basketball, but they’re good enough to be better than these other three teams. Dallas will be interesting to watch purely because they have Dennis Smith Jr., and Dennis Smith has the potential to shatter rookie usage rate records. They’re going to hand him the keys to the offense right away and let him lead them to a high pick. Phoenix is going to make a few trades, as I expect them to shop Eric Bledsoe, Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, and any other veteran another team may want. I think Devin Booker’s good, but I’m not as high on him as an all-around basketball player as some people are. On the other hand, I really like Josh Jackson, so that’s a reason to watch this team. By the way, Brandon Knight’s ACL tear sends the Suns back into a tie with the Kings for most active Kentucky players (3). Phoenix’s UK players are guards — Booker, Tyler Ulis, Bledsoe, Knight — while Sacramento replaced Cousins, who they traded, with Fox, their first round pick.

The NBA season is starting tonight, which is a few weeks earlier than usual. The games tonight are Boston-Cleveland and Houston-Golden State, which also happen to be the most likely Eastern Conference Finals and Western Conference Finals. I’m going to start my season preview by going over the stacked Western Conference. The biggest quibble that I have with conventional narrative this season is that I think the notion of the West having a “Big Four” is very misleading. Are the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder the four best teams in the conference? Probably. But should those four teams be grouped together? No way. The Warriors are obviously in a class of their own, and the other three are much, much closer to the rest of the conference than they are to Golden State. Let me put it this way: assuming health, I think it’s more likely that the Spurs miss the playoffs than that they finish ahead of Golden State. Quite obviously, this conference is a lot deeper and more talented than the Eastern Conference. I think there are 10 legitimately good teams in the conference, and that doesn’t even include the Pelicans, who have Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. The fight for the bottom few playoff seeds is going to be brutal. Here’s how I see things playing out, starting today with my projected playoff teams:

1. Golden State Warriors (72-10): It’s hard to say much about the Warriors that hasn’t already been said. They won 67 games last year, and that was while Kevin Durant was still ironing out the kinks (and then missing months due to injury). Now, KD is coming off of an incredible Finals performance, and he should have an added chip on his shoulder after the burner account saga (no, I don’t actually think that’ll have an impact, but it has to be in any conversation about KD at this point). To make matters worse for the rest of the conference, the Warriors actually got better this offseason. Not only did they hang onto Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, but they also added Nick Young and Omri Casspi in free agency and stole Jordan Bell in the draft with a pick they bought from the Bulls. The scariest thing about this team is that, in addition to their four stars, the Warriors also have a ton of depth. Iguodala, Young, Casspi, Kawhi-slayer Zaza Pachulia, an improved Pat McCaw in his second season (the guy showed some real glimpses in the Finals), wily veteran David West, sparkplug Bell, etc… This team has no flaws. 72-10 may be pessimistic assuming relative health.

2. Houston Rockets (55-27): I’ve surprised myself by picking the Rockets to finish second, because I’m genuinely not sure if the Chris Paul-James Harden dynamic is going to work. Plus, I think it’s important to realize that Houston’s formula to win last season was unique and successful due almost entirely to Harden’s unbelievable season as the chief playmaker and ball-handler. If they had just rolled things back again, I would have predicted more wins. But the Paul move was the right one in terms of championship potential, which is all Kevin McHale cares about. Now, the Rockets can keep either Paul or Harden on the court at all times, and each playmaker should make the other’s life easier. Harden will obviously have to play off the ball more often, but he’s proven to be a terrific spot-up shooter in the past. And Paul is surprisingly one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the NBA; he just hasn’t had a lot of those opportunities in the past. That should change this year. I’m interested to see whether the Rockets will change Paul’s game more or vice versa. Paul shoots from midrange more often and better than almost any NBA player; he finished 11th in the NBA in shots per game from 15-19 feet (3.8 per game) and was one of only three players out of 33 who hit more than one shot per game from that range who shot better than 50% from 15-19. As a team, the Rockets shot fewer than six shots from 15-19 feet per game, led by Harden at 1.1 (for those keeping score at home, that’s about 3.5 times fewer shots from that range than Paul). Houston’s 2016-17 strategy was to take a boatload of threes and as many shots at the rim as possible. While analytically sound, it arguably came back to bite them in the playoffs, when they went cold against a team that shot the most midrange shots in the NBA (the Spurs). I think adding Paul is a calculated attempt by the Rockets to vary not just their offensive weapons but also their strategy in close games. I think Paul and the Rockets can mesh, but it will take time. The reason I have Houston at #2 in the Western Conference is that they have more depth than the Thunder. Eric Gordon was the Sixth Man of the Year last year and can erupt for 30+ on any given night. Trevor Ariza remains a suitable small forward. Clint Capela should take a step forward this season, while P.J. Tucker should give the Rockets a 3-and-D guy off the bench. The team’s lack of a backup point guard, which was such a glaring weakness last year, has now been rendered moot because Harden or Paul will be the point guard for all 48 minutes. It’s definitely a very good team, but if forced to choose, I’d take the under on their over/under win total (56, per Bovada).

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (53-29): I really, really like OKC’s potential crunch-time five of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams. I wrote about the Thunder after the Carmelo Anthony trade, and everything I wrote there remains true now. I want to underline again that I think the new Big 3 will actually function very well together, largely because Westbrook will be happy to cut his usage rate down following his unprecedented MVP season. His usage rate was 40.8% last year, easily a career high. He can cut that down to 30-ish% — more in line with his career averages — and open up a ton of extra shots. That’s what I think people are missing: Westbrook’s usage was so astronomical last season that he doesn’t really have to take a backseat in order to get George and Anthony involved; he just needs to fall back from out of control to normal shoot-first point guard. George, I think, is the perfect yang to Westbrook’s yin. He’s a tremendous all-around player who shoots well off the catch, can defend the opponent’s best player, and doesn’t need too much of the ball. Anthony is the clear #3 option, but I think he’ll accept that, and he’s such a gifted scorer that he’ll still score plenty of points. I actually think this team probably has a rosier playoff outlook than Houston does, but because of their lack of depth (only six true reliable rotation players), I’m going to pick them to win fewer games.

4. San Antonio Spurs (51-31): I know people have been saying this for years, but I haven’t, and I’m saying it now: this could be the year that the Spurs really fall off. I’m predicting a significant drop-off from the 61 games they won last year to 50. It’s not a significantly different team than the one that won 61 games last season, which is kind of the problem. As the teams below them improved, they swung and missed in free agency. They thought they had a chance at Chris Paul, only to see him go to their chief competition in their division. They tried to trade LaMarcus Aldridge for players who would better fit their team, only to be forced to keep him and reluctantly give him an extension because he’s their second most talented player. They lost Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon, two effective and important role players. The only important player they added was Rudy Gay, who is the king of the empty stat-lines and is coming off of a torn Achilles’. In Aldridge and Gay, the Spurs now have two very un-Spurs players. Plus, Tony Parker is still rehabbing from a quad injury and is now 35. Manu Ginobili is 40. Danny Green has had two straight sub-40% shooting seasons from three after clearing 40% four straight times. Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray are both exciting guards, but neither has the potential to be a good starter, at least not yet in the case of Murray. And Pau Gasol is borderline unplayable against good teams who spread the floor. More and more, it looks like the Spurs are more reliant on Kawhi Leonard than any other team is on a single player. Kawhi Leonard is a heck of a player and a leading MVP candidate, but there are already some injury concerns. The Spurs absolutely cannot afford to lose Leonard for any significant period of time. With a healthy Kawhi, this is still a very good team and in the conversation for second-best in the conference. They also are the only team in the Western Conference who have caused problems for the Warriors over the past few years. With Kawhi, the floor is still high-40s and the ceiling is mid-50s. I’m going to assume some missed games from Leonard because he’s already banged up.

5. Denver Nuggets (47-35): I’m very bullish on this Nuggets team. I just think they have a chance to have a really efficient offense. Remember, this team finished fifth in offensive efficiency last season, thanks in large part to a breakout season from Nikola Jokic. They’re going to be even better this year. Offensively, Paul Millsap is a perfect fit next to Jokic. He’s another extremely skilled big, and the Nuggets now own the best ball-handling and passing 4-5 combination in the league (except when the Warriors go small, of course). Millsap can also stretch the floor. He’s not a particularly good three point shooter, but he’s a competent one, and he’s better from midrange. The best way to build around Millsap and Jokic is to have a team full of shooters and cutters. There’s a reason the Nuggets just gave underrated shooting guard Gary Harris a huge extension; he’s a tremendous three point shooter (42% last year) and one of the best cutters in the league. He and Jokic have tremendous chemistry. Will Barton, the sixth man, is another good shooter who can also create for himself. Jamal Murray hasn’t yet found his three point stroke (33%), but it’s only a matter of time before he establishes himself as a good shooter from range. And Wilson Chandler should capably fill the void left by the departure of the oft-injured and very skilled Danilo Gallinari. I even like the team’s backups. Mason Plumlee, an athletic big who can play above the rim, is the perfect backup behind the less athletic Millsap and Jokic. Malik Beasley, a first round pick last year, has looked good. Kenneth Faried is a great role player and is also good trade bait should the Nuggets look to solve their hole at point guard. That, really, is the biggest complaint people have about this team: Jameer Nelson and Emmanuel Mudiay are their only pure point guards, and that’s, well, not good. But I’m not freaked out about that, because the offense can run through the bigs and because Murray should be able to grow into more of a ball-handling role. The defense is going to be a real problem, one that keeps them a tier below the three teams above them (and many tiers below the Warriors). But this is a bet on continued improvement from Jokic, who at 22 is already a marquee player. It’s a bet on Millsap being a seamless fit at the four. And it’s a bet on the shooting of the guards.

6. Los Angeles Clippers (45-37): Even after losing Chris Paul, this team has legitimate 50-win potential. There’s a chance it’s going to be a really fun team, perhaps partly because they’ll be freed of the stress of playing with the Point God. The offense got stagnant over the last few years of the CP3 era, which is largely the fault of the coaching staff. Doc Rivers is still there, and I still don’t have much confidence in him, but I do think this roster will be able to move the ball better than any recent Clipper team. This team has a lot of depth — Paul’s gone, but Pat Beverley, Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Sam Dekker, and Milos Teodosic, perhaps the best point guard in Europe over the last few seasons, have really strengthened the team. The team is build around Blake Griffin, which I’m really excited about. Blake has showed flashes of his potential as a focal point in the half-court, but what can he do as a full-time point forward? Remember down the stretch in the 2014-15 season, when he averaged 7.4 assists in the first round of the playoffs after averaging 5+ dimes in each of the final five months of the regular season? At that point, Blake was considered a top-10 player in the league, and those playoffs were supposed to be his springboard into the top-5. That obviously never happened, partly due to injury and partly because Chris Paul always had the keys to the offense. But Blake is healthy now (for now), and the keys to the offense are his. This team has the potential to be very, very fun offensively. Gallinari and Griffin are two guys who could score 20+ per game, DeAndre Jordan is a great rim-runner, Lou Williams is one of the best sixth men in recent memory, and Beverley is quietly a 38% shooter from three for his career. And any team with Pat Bev and Austin Rivers harassing ball-handlers and Jordan protecting the rim has the potential to be good defensively. This team has better all-around potential than the Nuggets. The only question is: can they stay healthy? The answer, unfortunately, may well be no. Their two best offensive players, Griffin and Gallinari, have well documented injury histories. Griffin’s season ended early last year due to a toe injury in the playoffs against the Jazz, and he’s missed 83 regular season games over the last three seasons. We know some of his athleticism has been sapped, but we also know that he’s plenty skilled to make up for that. He has to stay on the court, though. Gallinari, meanwhile, is already banged up with a foot injury of his own. He should be good to go in the season opener, but his 63 games last year were the second most in his career. All told, he’s missed an average of 23.5 games per year over the last six seasons. That’s no bueno. I’m hoping that Gallo and Griffin stay healthy, because this team could be really fun if they do. I think they’re a surefire playoff team if they get even 65 games from both, but the bottom could quickly fall out if they suffer serious injuries.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves (44-38): I’m obviously a lot lower on Minnesota than a lot of people and projection models are. Bovada has set Minny’s over/under total at 48.5. I just think that’s asking for too much from a team that went 31-51 last year. There’s no question that the Twolves were a better team than their record indicated last year, and there’s also no question that they got better this year. It’s also very likely that their young players will be markedly better defensively this season than they were last, largely because it would be hard for them to be worse. I’m taking all of that into account in forecasting a 13 win jump. Karl-Anthony Towns is already one of the best bigs in the NBA. He averaged 25 and 12 last year on 54/37/83 shooting. Post All-Star break, he put up 28 and 13 on 60/43/84 shooting. That’s absolutely ridiculous, and KAT is already an offensive linchpin. The T-Wolves went from averaging 109.9 points per 100 possessions with KAT on the court to 102.2 without him. The problem was — and these splits are similar to those of Andrew Wiggins — that the defensive numbers nearly mirrored the offensive ones — 110.8 points per 100 with KAT on the court, 103.6 without him. The Wolves were a net negative team with Towns on the court, just as they were with Wiggins. That shouldn’t be the case this year, but it takes more than one offseason to cure all of those defensive struggles. Jimmy Butler will obviously help with that. Much like George (because those two haven’t been compared enough already, right?), he’s a good defensive fit for his new team. Hopefully, he’ll take Wiggins under his wing and transform Minny’s defense. I’m somewhat worried about Butler’s offensive fit, because he’s a ball-dominant wing who joins another ball-dominant wing on a team that has a center who should always be involved. But they should figure it out offensively and be better defensively than they were last year, both because of personnel (see: Butler, Jimmy and Gibson, Taj) and because Tom Thibodeau has had more time to imprint his defensive mindset on his young stars. Remember, though, that this team was 26th in defensive efficiency last year, so there’s a long way to go (it’s worth noting that the Nuggets were 29th, but I think their offense is better than Minnesota’s). Another concern I have about this team: the depth, or lack thereof. When you overpay Jeff Teague, an average starting point guard who’s making $19 million per year, and Taj Gibson, a fine power forward who’s banking $14 million this year, you don’t have much money to address the rest of the roster. If there’s something later in your career than over the hill, that’s where Jamal Crawford is (sorry, Jamal). I don’t really see a suitable backup point guard unless Dukie Tyus Jones takes a big step forward. The wing depth is very sparse — Shabazz Muhammad is the only backup on the roster, so Wiggins and Butler had better be ready to play big minutes. Remember when Butler played 40+ minutes per game under Thibodeau in Chicago? That might be coming again. That’s the real difference between the T-Wolves and the Nuggets in my mind. Denver has a bunch of intriguing players they can throw into games in order to give their star players a spell. The Timberwolves, well, don’t, and it’s hard to be consistently good throughout an 82 game season without that depth. Still, 44 wins should be considered a success for a team that’s been bad for so long.

8. Portland Trailblazers (43-39): So I have to pick between Portland, Utah and Memphis for the eighth seed. That’s really, really tough. And in a nail-biter, I’m going to go with the Blazers over the Jazz. Portland’s obviously a very flawed team. They spent way too much on Evan Turner, who’s a terrible fit for the team. They have a bunch of young big men, many of whom have potential but only one of whom is a proven NBA player. That’s Jusuf Nurkic, who the Blazers got via trade with the Nuggets. Just 23-years-old, Nurkic is a perfect fit. In 20 games with Portland, he averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. He had a +9.6 net rating, which would have ranked second in the NBA behind the Warriors. Maurice Harkless had the second-best net rating on the team had +3.4. Portland needs one of the other big men to pan out. They have three who are 22 or younger and are former first round picks: Noah Vonleh, Zach Collins, and Caleb Swanigan. The latter two were drafted in the first round this past season, and the Blazers actually traded up to #10 to select Collins. Both looked raw this preseason, and Swanigan’s never going to be more than a role player. Collins has potential, but he’s unlikely to play all that much this season. Anyway, I’ve really buried the lede here. As long as the Blazers have a healthy Nurkic and a healthy backcourt, they’ll be fine. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are also known as one of the only backcourts in the NBA who can score as much as Golden State’s. They combined to average 50 points per game last year, and they both did it efficiently. Dame averaged 27 points per game on just 19.8 shots, as he hit 6.5 free throws per game (hitting at a 90% clip) and shot 37% on 7.7 threes per game. McCollum has become my favorite shooting guard to watch in the NBA. He has a crafty and old-school game and can always find his spots. He shot 48% from the field, 42% from three, and 91% from the line. That’s unbelievable efficiency. These are two elite offensive players, and it’s both a crime and a testament to the West’s supremacy that neither has made the All-Star team over the last two years. I have a lot of confidence in Lillard, McCollum, and now Nurkic. Throw in some solid minutes from Harkless and perhaps a bounce-back shooting season from Al Farouq Aminu along with some contribution from rookie big Collins and you get an eighth seed in the loaded Western Conference.

This is why it’s dangerous to underestimate Sam Presti. Today, the Oklahoma City Thunder mercifully ended the multi-year long Carmelo Anthony saga. They got him for almost nothing. The Knicks, having dangled Anthony in the trade market for two years, had zero leverage. In the midst of a rebuild, they threatened to buy Anthony out this offseason, another clear sign that he was no longer in their plans. To make matters worse, ‘Melo has a full no trade clause and, although he clearly wanted out, limited his list of new teams to Houston, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and perhaps Portland. So it’s no surprise that it took just Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second round pick to get Anthony. But it’s worth reiterating how bad that return is. Kanter is a skilled center who can’t play defense and who gets played off the court by good teams. He played nine minutes per game in the playoffs last season and 18 in the year before. He’s also guaranteed nearly $37 million over the next two years and was included in the trade to make it work salary-wise. McDermott is a one-dimensional player. That dimension — three point shooting — is the most sought-after skill in basketball, and McBuckets will have a niche in the NBA as long as he shoots nearly 40% from beyond the arc. But he’s no more than a role player. And a second round pick is a second round pick.

This is clearly a win for the Thunder, and it wasn’t their first of the offseason. They came out of nowhere to win the Paul George sweepstakes, and had to give up just Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to do so. It was another example of Presti taking advantage of the depressed value of a star player — the price was so low because George is expected to sign with the Lakers when he hits free agency after this year. George is a better player than Anthony, but the premise is the same. Sam Presti has rolled the dice, going all in this season. I assume part of that is an attempt to convince Russell Westbrook to re-up longterm, but the fact is that a lot of teams with more assets than OKC wanted Anthony and especially George, and the Thunder somehow ended up with both.

The third big addition Presti made this offseason has garnered much less attention. The Thunder signed Patrick Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million contract. It was one of the steals of free agency. Patterson has been one of the kings of net rating over the past few years. Last season, the Raptors were +10.9 points per 100 possessions when Patterson was on the floor, six points better than their +4.9 overall. The year before, his +9.3 was five points better than their overall +4.3. Before that, his +5.3 was significantly better than the team’s +3.1. Patterson doesn’t put up gaudy stats, and he doesn’t have any elite skills, but there’s a reason he consistently plays about 25 minutes per game. He’s just a solid and versatile all-around player, and one who will be needed with bigs Sabonis and Kanter gone. His minutes may tick down a few notches this season, but make no mistake about it: Patterson is an important piece for a team with clear championship aspirations.

The Thunder went 47-35 last year because Russell Westbrook had an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime type season. They just managed to turn four role players — two with albatross contracts — into one of the NBA’s best two-way players and one of its best bucket-getters. Then they added a cheap role player who is arguably better than any of the four they just moved. How good are they going to be? I’m going to go out on a limb and say very good. I’m of the opinion that it’s impossible to win consistently with a player with Westbrook’s 2016-17 usage rate, but I also believe that Westbrook played the way he did last year not because he wanted to but because he had to. He no longer has to. I heard someone describe George as the very best second option in the league, and I think that’s the perfect way to describe him. He’s never been the best or most efficient isolation player, and I think it would be very difficult to win a championship with him as your first offensive option. But he’s a great defender, a 37% career three point shooter and shot 43.6% off the catch last season while finishing third in catch-and-shoot points per game. And he’s a good enough playmaker and passer to be a suitable floor general for short stretches of time. That last part is important, because last season the Thunder completely fell apart when Westbrook was off the court. In the regular season, they were +3.3 per 100 possessions when he was on the court, -8.9 when he was off of it. In the playoffs, the Thunder were +4.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court… and still lost in five games. That’s because they were a stunning -51.3 points per 100 possessions in the 46 minutes he rested. It’s clear that Westbrook needed help, and boy did he get it.

Anthony, like George, is labeled a small forward, but that means next to nothing in today’s NBA. The important thing is that both players are wings and will be able to fit nicely side by side. If George is a perfect complement to Westbrook, it may take longer for Anthony to adjust. He’s been his team’s primary option for his entire career, and he’s averaged upwards of 20 points per game in each season in his 14-year career. But there are a few reasons I’m not that worried about Anthony’s fit with OKC. First of all, you need at least two guys who can get their own bucket on the court at all times in order to compete at the highest level. Now, the Thunder have three. Second of all, Billy Donovan should be able to stagger Anthony’s minutes during the regular season so that he has plenty of opportunities to be the focal point of the offense. Third of all, Anthony has showed time and time again during his stints with Team USA that he thrives when he’s playing with other star players. Even if his scoring drops into the high teens (which it may not, by the way), Anthony should be more efficient than he’s been in years. The bottom line is that Carmelo Anthony is still an exceptionally talented offensive player who will add a lot to this team. He’s a defensive liability, but that won’t matter as much on a team with Paul George, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams.

I shouldn’t neglect to mention Roberson, who re-upped with a three-year, $30 million deal this offseason. That seems like a lot of money for one of the biggest offensive liabilities in the NBA — yes, I know that Roberson averaged 11.6 points per game in five playoff games and shot 41.6% from three, but I’ll side with four seasons worth of 26% shooting from three and 49% from the line — but the additions of George and Anthony will also help Roberson. Last year, Andre was just one of many useless offensive players playing with Russell Westbrook. Now, the team is well-suited to let Roberson do what he does best, which is completely shut down the opponent’s best player. That’s why the Thunder had to re-sign Roberson and why their roster looks even scarier.

I expect the Thunder to start Westbrook, Roberson, George, Anthony, and Adams, a tremendous rim-runner and defensive center who is the perfect 5 for this team. That’s a balanced, talented, and potentially dominant lineup. Then they have Patterson, who has terrific sixth man bonafides. Jerami Grant is an athletic wing who has improved his three point shot. Raymond Felton is a better backup point guard than anyone they had last year. But really, it’s all about the first six.

Of course, in today’s NBA everything goes back to one essential question: can this team beat the Warriors? And the answer is: probably not, unless something goes wrong with the Warriors. But a lot of things can go wrong, from injuries to chemistry issues. And at the very least, the Thunder are better than any competition the Warriors had in the Western Conference last year. Of course, the Rockets probably are too, and the Spurs are still the Spurs. That’s what makes the Western Conference so tough. But Oklahoma City’s tremendous offseason should make them as strong a candidate as any to knock off Golden State. Will it be enough to convince Westbrook and George to re-sign? That’s another question altogether.

It seems that there now really is no basketball offseason. Weeks after the hectic part of the offseason — the draft, trades of star players, free agent signings, firings of GMs — ended, the only thing that seemingly still had to happen for the offseason to be complete was a trade of Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks’ divisive superstar. And while a trade of Melo will be a big deal whenever it happens, the fact that it’s been expected for so long will lessen the talk and excitement around it. But just as the offseason was winding down, down came the bombshell from Cleveland whisperer Brian Windhorst of ESPN: Kyrie Irving wants to be traded.

Originally, everyone assumed that Kyrie’s request was the final nail in the coffin for LeBron in Cleveland. Surely Kyrie knew that James was going to leave and wanted to escape too, right? Why else would Irving want to leave the Cavaliers? But those initial assumptions were wrong. The truth, in fact, is the opposite: shockingly enough, Kyrie Irving wants to leave Cleveland in order to get away from LeBron James. The reactions to this were mixed, but a lot of people immediately panned the decision as stupid. LeBron is the perfect player for Kyrie to play with, they said. Where does he have a better chance to win than in Cleveland?

While I initially didn’t really understand this take, I realized that this response is indicative of the shift in the NBA landscape this decade. Ever since LeBron’s move to the Heat, it seems like everything has been about gravitating toward a few teams and winning for star players. We saw that most obviously with Kevin Durant. We just saw it with Chris Paul, who chose to take a one year qualifying offer instead of a boatload of money so he could play for Houston, a team with much better prospects than the Clippers. We saw it with Pau Gasol, who put up 19 and 17 points per game in the two seasons before sacrificing money and playing time to sign with the Spurs. Likewise with Gordon Hayward, who left money behind in Utah partially because Boston gives him a better chance to win. Ten years ago, players like Anthony and Paul George may have been content making more money for their average teams. Now, George asked for a trade (and was granted one to a better OKC team), while Anthony wants to be traded to either the Cavs or the Rockets, par for the course for the modern NBA star. It seems like Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the next guys to spurn their average teams for something bigger and better. Everyone seems to want to move to the handful teams — Cleveland, Boston, Golden State, San Antonio, Houston — with legitimate chances of making and winning the Finals (although I’d argue that, providing health, only one team has a real chance of winning the Finals next year). And fans and analysts alike have been conditioned to expect players to care first and foremost about winning championships. That’s what happens when the very best players in the league — LeBron, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry — seem to care first and foremost about winning championships. So when Kyrie Irving, the second best player on the Cavs and obviously an irreplaceable player for the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champs, asks to leave, people are surprised. When’s the last time a superstar player left or asked to be traded from a team with a clear path to a championship (Durant doesn’t count, considering where he moved)? I can’t even remember. But it’s ok — in the longterm, probably even beneficial — for guys like Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook to care about things other than putting themselves in a position where they can quickly win.

According to Windhorst’s reporting, Irving “wants to be in a position where he can be more of a focal point.” And guess what?? That makes sense!! He didn’t choose to play with James, after all. He signed a five-year extension 10 days before James decided to come home. He’s a 25-year-old at the height of his powers, and he’s overshadowed. Heck, I didn’t even know how good he was last year until the last few days. He averaged 25 points and six assists per game on 47/40/91 shooting! I had no idea! It’s telling that, when ranking the best point guards, people get six or seven (seventh was most common among the rankings I looked at) or eight names deep before mentioning Kyrie Irving. I know it’s a deep position, and I don’t even know where I’d rank Kyrie (it might be sixth or seventh), but that’s kind of the point. Kyrie Irving is a famously confident guy. Think about it from his perspective — if I’m Kyrie, I’m wondering what the heck I can do to get the respect I deserve. Win a championship? Check. Play exceptionally well in the playoffs? Check. Put up 25 points per game? Check. Wow people with my finishing ability? Check. Become one of the most efficient scorers in the league? Check. And after all that, I’m still not a top-five point guard??? Yeah, maybe I’d want to leave, too.

According to reports, Kyrie mentioned four specific teams that he’d like to play for: San Antonio, Minnesota, New York, and Miami. I believe that the T-Wolves are on there because Irving is good friends with Jimmy Butler and would like to play with his buddy. If Butler were still on the Bulls, Minnesota would be off the list and Chicago would be on it. The Knicks and Heat make a whole lot of sense, too, because both places would give Irving the chance to shine as the unquestioned superstar in a big media market and a great place for a 25-year-old to live. I must say that the addition of the Spurs puzzles me a little bit, but I can see the argument. Because Kawhi Leonard is so quiet and wary of the media, Irving would immediately become the leader of the team, if not in the locker room than certainly outside of it. He’d get the chance to take over from Tony Parker as the next great Spurs point guard.

Of course, that list of four teams means diddly squat. Unlike Melo, Irving doesn’t have a no-trade clause, so the Cavs can trade him to whichever team gives them the best package. But Irving’s list of teams certainly clues us in to the type of atmosphere and situation he wants.

Coming from someone who is far from a Warriors hater and who hasn’t said one critical word about Kevin Durant’s decision, it’s not good for the league to have all of its talent concentrated on two or three teams. Yes, the Warriors play beautiful basketball, but there are a good 20 fanbases who go into every season knowing they can’t win a title and another five or six who are probably just delusional. And guess what? Golden State kept everyone and got even better this offseason. That trend has to reverse at some point, and I think Kyrie might help make that happen. I didn’t criticize KD because I think that guys who work as hard as NBA stars do to get into the positions that they do have earned the right to play for whomever they want, wherever they want. I’m sure as heck not going to criticize Kyrie Irving for wanting to take on a bigger role as a franchise player in a city other than Cleveland. Instead, I’m going to praise him, because I think it’s a decision that makes sense career-wise and one that could help the NBA in the long run.