Real Deal Basketball Report: October/November recap

We’re a month and a half in and things have been really exciting, and I got a column done on time! Let’s dive right in.

 

WHO’S HOT

SACRAMENTO

Nobody got a hotter start to the season than the Kings, and that’s mostly because nobody got a hotter start than DeMarcus Cousins. The guy has been putting together an absolute beast of a season so far – easily his best yet and the third best in the league behind only James Harden and LeBron James. This team is good…but is it really 21-1 good? Maybe not. Despite owning the best record in the league and playing in a weak Pacific division, the Kings have only scored the sixth most points in the league. They’re a lot closer in terms of points to teams like the Knicks, Bulls and Raptors than they are to the top three teams in scoring so far: the Pelicans, Mavs and Hornets. Sacramento is easily a top team as long as Boogie keeps producing, and Bradley Beal taking yet another big step forward is great news. As with many of the teams we’re used to calling elite in this league, though, depth might be a concern. After Beal, the talent drops off considerably. Barton, Wade, Gay and Mike James are all contributing at decent clips, but I wouldn’t call any of their situations stable. McBuckets has improved as a basketball player, but it’s not translating to fantasy. And Chriss has actually regressed. It will be difficult for the Kings to improve through trade using only their bench assets, but this team could get a lot better in a hurry if they’re willing to part with one of their three likely lottery picks over the next two years. The Kings could go in a lot of different directions, but with Cousins and Beal having their best seasons yet, they should roll the dice and see how far they can go.

PORTLAND

My word, has this team looked good. The Blazers would still have a perfect record if it weren’t for a roster violation a few weeks ago. And that’s with DeAndre Jordan and Jimmy Butler taking a step back. Damian Lillard is having an MVP type season, but the real reason for this team’s success is its depth. With six players averaging 30 or more points a game, Portland is one of our league’s deepest squads. If Ibaka starts putting up better numbers, this team looks absolutely deadly. Losing Beverley for the season is a real bummer, but the Blazers had six players better than him anyway, so it’s not a colossal loss. Lillard, DJ and Butler remain the core here, but Portland owes much of its success to a breakout season from Tim Hardaway Jr., he of the much-maligned contract. In New York, THJ has basically become an offense unto himself, essentially by default. With the Knicks playing better than expected, I don’t anticipate Hardaway slowing down at all this year. JJ Redick is having his best season yet. Thad Young has come back to life yet again. The Blazers do have some disappointing pieces on the bench – namely the Cavs duo of Jae Crowder and JR Smith – but this team is still looking like one of the very best.

NEW YORK

I have to admit it: I was dead wrong about this team. Granted, I made my predictions about them before the Dwight Howard trade, but still, I was wrong. At almost 33 years old, LeBron James is somehow having his best season ever. And that really is saying something. Dwight has been doing Dwight things. He continues to be much maligned, and he’s not Superman anymore, but the dude is just flat out useful in fantasy. And of course Porzingis has unleashed full unicorn mode this season. With Melo out, Kristaps has taken a monumental step forward in his development and is a sure top-15 player in the league. There is still room for improvement here, as the Knicks are barely above division rivals Toronto and sub-.500 Brooklyn in the scoring standings, but New York has to be pleased with the production it’s gotten from guys like Ulis, Chalmers and Moore. Toronto has its first ever challenger for the Atlantic crown, and it’ll likely be a two-man race over the course of the rest of the season.

DALLAS

Is it possible to have a quiet 20-2 start? If it is, Dallas has done it. With injuries to the Pelicans and Spurs, the Mavs have stormed out to grab this division by the throat in the early goings. After starting the summer off with a bang by (relatively easily) acquiring early MVP frontrunner James Harden, Dallas continued improving by adding players who have had breakout seasons, like Lee, Collison and especially Victor Oladipo, who has become a borderline elite fantasy option. The Mavs finished with the sixth-worst record last year and are now the second-best team in the league in terms of scoring. Talk about a transformation. This has been a masterful turnaround, especially considering how quickly it was done, and it’s leaving teams like New Orleans and San Antonio pretty nervous – especially with their mounting injuries. This team is a title contender.

WHO’S COLD

Surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly), a lot of teams. This is really the first year where there are a lot of truly bad teams. In the past, there were always three or four bottom feeders, but so far there are five teams who have yet to hit the 5-win mark and three more who are just above that mark. As the years progress, the teams are slowly migrating into three categories: the elite, the .500 teams and the teams all the way at the bottom. Usually it’s pretty rare in this league for a lot of teams to go around .500, but so far we’ve got 10 teams hovering around that mark. It seems to be the natural order of things. The good teams have become a lot better and there are several bona fide super teams this season. The bad teams have gotten worse. So the rest of us really have no other course of action than to suck up the wins from the teams on decline, but still get crushed by the giants of the league. It’s a race to the bottom for anywhere from six to eight teams for one of those sweet high lottery picks. In looking at next year’s draft class, it kind of seems like there’s a clear top five of elite prospects and the talent kind of really falls off after that. My feeling is things are going to get really ugly for some of these teams soon. Godspeed.

WHO’S MAKIN’ MOVES

ATLANTA

After auctioning off almost everyone from last year’s record-setting 71-win team for picks, the Hawks just as quickly turned it right back around and began selling off the picks (and injured players) to fill out the roster in an attempt to come back from a 1-10 start. So far it’s worked. They’ve gone 8-3 since. But did they wait too long? And did they get enough value back? The Hawks effectively turned Oladipo, Millsap, Ariza, Reggie Jackson, Tyler Johnson, Lou Williams, Rondo, Redick and Dwight into Thon Maker, Evan Fournier, Draymond Green, Robin Lopez, Derrick Favors, DJ Augustin and KCP – and only two first round picks remain. Nevertheless, it was a bold and admirable decision by Atlanta to defy the tradition of tanking and put up a good fight. The Hawks are now the likeliest candidate to grab one of the East’s last two playoff spots, but they went through a lot of changes to get here. Let’s see how the strategy pans out.

THE EAST’S MIDDLE OF THE PACK

In the Eastern Conference, there are six clear playoff teams: Indiana, Charlotte, Chicago, New York, Toronto and Milwaukee. There are another seven that will be fighting for those last two playoff spots: Atlanta, Miami, Washington, Detroit, Brooklyn, Orlando and Philadelphia. That’s right. We’re a month and a half into the season and only two teams in the East are definitely out of the playoff picture: Boston and Cleveland. I don’t think we’ve ever had that happen before. The playoff picture, especially in the East, has always been pretty open and shut pretty much right out of the gate. But this season? Intrigue! There’s so much to dissect here. So now I’ll break off of this segment and rank these seven teams by their likeliness to make the playoffs.
1. ATLANTA
After their in-season quick fix turnaround, the Hawks clearly have the best roster of these teams. No one else in this conversation can really match the output Atlanta will be getting from guys like Green, Fournier and KCP for the rest of the season as presently constructed. I wouldn’t say any team is a lock to make the postseason, but Atlanta is closest.
2. MIAMI
The Heat should definitely have been a sure playoff team, but they’ve been seriously let down by some new acquisitions like Tyler Johnson, Cody Zeller and the always injured Danilo Gallinari. Mainstays like Valanciunas have been extremely disappointing, as well. I believe Miami still should make the postseason, but it’ll be hard to get there when the team is relying on Goran Dragic and Harrison Barnes to get it done.
3. WASHINGTON
I really think Washington would be a shoe-in if Wall was still around, but alas. This team still has so much young talent that is performing way above expectations, chiefly Sabonis and Kuzma. Jrue Holiday has returned to form this season and whether or not he sticks around could determine if the Wizards make the playoffs this year. With some not-yet-totally-developed prospects like Skal, Kennard and even Julius Randle still, along with four first round picks, the Wizards have options.
4. BROOKLYN
I would have ranked myself higher if I still had Fournier, but it’s not likely that I’m getting to the playoffs this year with Steven Adams as my best player. Fultz’s injury and Derrick Rose’s disappearing act have kind of sunk the ship, and it’s already too late for me to get a good pick in the summer. Oh well. At least Ingram is looking good. And hey! Gordon Hayward next year!
5. PHILADELPHIA
This team has become a major sleeper and could skyrocket with some more moves. LaMarcus Aldridge has somehow miraculously become a great player again. Will he keep it up when Kawhi comes back? I dunno. But it’s encouraging. Melo might be having his last useful season in fantasy, but he’s still good for now. CP3 is doing the thing where he refuses to try and score, but he’s still great and, from a non-scoring perspective, is having one of the best pure point guard seasons of all time. Seriously, that assist-turnover ratio is insane. But after those three the production falls off a cliff. Brogdon and Crabbe have been decent, but almost everyone else on the roster is scoring in the teens or worse. Philly can get there, but as of now, they’re on the outside looking in.
6. DETROIT
I don’t think Detroit can quite get there, but if they do, it’ll be because of Lou Williams, and yes, I know that is a truly crazy thing to say. But when other guys are injured like they are on the Clippers, Lou goes nuts. Look at his scoring over the past week or so. This is an official advertisement on behalf of the Pistons to trade Lou for some really nice prize. Detroit has a lot of things laying in wait, chief among them Jahlil Okafor. We’ve all heard the song a million times. He’s really good at a couple of things but can’t get any time with Embiid there and he’d average 20 and 10 on the Bulls and bla bla. The good news for Detroit is that most of their players – Hield, the Portland power forwards, Okafor, Nance, Hernangomez – are looking at an upward trajectory. Not this year, but maybe next year.
7. ORLANDO
The Magic seem to be a bit mired in mediocrity, and there is no depth to speak of. Tyreke Evans is having a great season and Reggie Jackson is back-ish…but that’s pretty much it. Ross, Monroe, Ariza…those guys are all fine, but they’re probably never going to give you more than they’re doing right now. Where does Orlando go from here? They could sell off Evans and Jackson, or they could see what’s out there for Bender if they want to make a playoff run. Could go either way.
And that’s it for this month! Let me know what you think about how this season is going so far.

Real Deal Basketball Report: 2017 Offseason Recap

REAL DEAL BASKETBALL REPORT: OFFSEASON RECAP

ATLANTA HAWKS

I guess the question here is…WHY?! The Hawks won 71 games last year – the most in the history of the league – and then inexplicably blew the roster to smithereens. I just don’t get it. Sure, picks are nice. But isn’t winning nicer? Maybe the Hawks felt like their success was unsustainable, but I don’t know. That team had been very good since the beginning. It was built for present and long-term success. There weren’t cap issues. I just…don’t get it. Looking at the Hawks roster, it’s clear that the team is trying to lose as many games as possible this year. The guard and flex spots have intentionally been left empty. There is only one player on the bench, and it’s Kevon Looney. Atlanta has been trying like mad to move Dwight Howard (he’s available for a future first-round pick, in case you haven’t heard). And there’s really not much more to be said about this team. They’re racing to the bottom. That being said, they did manage to win just about all of the trades they made this summer. And there’s no denying they’re set up for the future. But still. They won 71 games last year!

 

Key additions: Derrick Favors

Key subtractions: An entire 71-win roster

 

BOSTON CELTICS

 

What we thought was going to become the D’Angelo Russell/Justise Winslow team has suddenly become the Jusuf Nurkic team. If he can keep up any semblance of what he showed in limited time in Portland this spring, the Celtics have themselves a stud. This team, formerly one of the league’s very worst, is slowly getting better. De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo will be awesome, but maybe not right away. Two of my favorite guys in this year’s draft, but they’re blocked by George Hill (probably just for this season) and Hassan Whiteside (admittedly a much bigger mountain to climb). We’ll see if Russell can turn his career around as the de facto primary scorer/playmaker in Brooklyn. Winslow should continue to develop and become a key cog in Miami. Montrezl Harrell landed in a perfect spot for a bigger role with the Clippers. The team is still devoid of quality depth, but the slow and steady progress here among the youngsters is definitely worth noting.

 

Key additions: De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo

Key subtractions: none

 

BROOKLYN NETS

Three years ago, this was a team that had a chance to draft Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but instead ended up with Noah Vonleh and PJ Hairston. This was the team of Deron Williams, of Thomas Robinson, of Ed Davis and John Jenkins. It was an absolute dog. So when I took it over, I traded every single player I could. Steven Adams is the only remainder from that old regime. I picked up three top-ten picks in 2015 and whiffed on all of them, although Willie Cauley-Stein looked awesome to close out the season last spring and maybe he’ll keep it up with Boogie gone for good. As a result, the team was so bad that I got the #2 pick in 2016, landing Brandon Ingram, who was also terrible. Each of the last two years were about two things: 1. Acquiring as many assets for the future as possible, and 2. Making a ton of small moves to claw my way back up from the wasteland this team has been mired in since the inception of the league. For years, it was about planting seeds (WCS, Ingram, maybe Stanley Johnson, maybe Cedi Osman) and carefully plucking unwanted role players away from other teams using cash and picks (Patty Mills, Richaun Holmes, even Derrick Rose) in the hopes that I would someday land a crown jewel to put on top of the pile of garbage. That day finally came when Markelle Fultz fell to the second pick (and don’t get me wrong, I love Lonzo Ball, but Fultz has all the makings of a franchise talent). Finally! It has been and continues to be a very slow rebuild, but one can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel here. The full lineup, for the first time, actually looks promising and it could even be decent. These Nets will be one of many teams competing for the final playoff seed in the Rast and the right to get smoked by Indiana and lose out on being in the lottery. I would bet on this team to finish in second place in the division. And that’s the point where I need to stop writing because otherwise I’ll end up putting some evil jinx on my team.

 

Key additions: Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose, Caris LeVert

Key subtractions: Tristan Thompson

 

CHARLOTTE HORNETS

No one is happier about the Atlanta implosion than the Hornets, who are now poised for a nice division-winning cash prize.

Charlotte has been a good team for a while now with no real path to the division title. But with the Hawks evaporating themselves, the Hornets are primed and ready to win the title – it’ll be between them and Miami. The key thing for this team is depth. This is a DEEP team with four quality players riding the pine and Harry Giles in waiting to add to that eventually (hopefully). Kemba Walker is obviously the main man here. He just continues to get better and better. I’m excited to see what he can do with not one, but two true pick-and-roll centers in Dwight (if they can finally get him to do it) and Cody Zeller. Bazemore and Bradley are poised for their biggest seasons yet because of the sheer lack of talent around them. I think Porter and Warren both take another step forward this year and we’ll be looking at both of them as major contributors to this team’s success. Clint Capela is going to go nuts playing with CP3 – think of the lobs! – and Kanter will continue to eat second-string bigs off the bench for the Knicks (unless they are stupid enough to start him). Overall, this is just a very solid, well-composed team. They might be the third best team in the East behind Indiana and our next team…

 

Key additions: Harry Giles

Key subtractions: Ian Clark

 

CHICAGO BULLS

 

Will this finally be the year for Chicago? Each year, it seems like something has gone terribly wrong and they underperformed. Most recently it was the Kevin Durant injury. Missing 20 games last year really hurt this team. But at full force, and somehow under the salary cap, the Bulls are contenders. Whiteside, in the final year of his absurd contract, is no longer a novelty player and is now legitimately probably the best fantasy center in the league outside of KAT and Boogie. Wiggins’ scoring might take a hit with Butler in town, but I think he’s much more suited to being the third banana and having some of that pressure lifted off of him will improve his game overall. Rubio really improved last year and is entering his prime. Being in Utah could be really good for him. To really reach the pinnacle, the Bulls are going to need Aaron Gordon and Tobias Harris to realize their potential. They’ve skirted by on potential promise for a while now; it’s time for them to show what they’re really made of. But even if they don’t this team has depth in spades. Juancho, Livingston, Abrines, Pondexter and White should be useful this year. Anything Chicago gets from Stephenson and Parsons is just gravy. This team is poised for big success this season. But…we’ve got to talk about the cap situation. It’s precarious at best. The Bulls picked up $19 million in cap space through pick swaps and the Derrick Rose salary dump and are still only $2 million clear of the limit. Parsons, at $3 million, is going to need to come off IR soon, which will immediately put them over. Add Abrines and White from the minors and Pondexter, whenever he’s clear, and the team is now about $7 million over. Abrines can only stay in the minors for 14 more games, but white can hang for more than half the season. Chicago is going to have to get creative to get back under. It definitely makes the Tyler Zeller contract a head-scratcher.

 

Key additions: A whole chunk of cash

Key subtractions: Derrick Rose

 

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Thinkin’ ’bout where’d all my teammates go

This is one case where the rebuild was definitely called for. The team had two aging stars in LeBron and Melo, and beyond Draymond Green and Markieff Morris, not a ton else. Morris and Green are still young enough and on friendly contracts to be part of the tail end of a rebuild, so there wan’t a huge need to trade them away. The Cavs turned LeBron and Melo into four first round picks, which in turn turned into Dennis Smith Jr., Jayson Tatum and Zach Collins. Those are three tremendously talented prospects and well worth the return for Cleveland, considering where they’re at right now. Smith is the best athlete to enter the NBA in a long time. His one mistake was going to NC State and playing for the worst college basketball coach of all time. Mysteriously, the same “where’s the defense? he can’t win” dum-dum arguments that Markelle Fultz mostly avoided in Washington buried Smith, which was unfair and resulted in him falling all the way to the Mavs with the ninth pick, where he is almost sure to take the torch from Dirk as Dallas’ next lovable franchise player. He’s a favorite to win Rookie of the Year and my personal favorite from this year’s draft. I would have taken him at #2 if Fultz weren’t there. Tatum and Collins are buried on their team’s depth charts, but both are excellent long-term bets. And I don’t think it’ll take long for Tatum to prove he’s better than Jaylen Brown. The rest of this roster is not very noteworthy. I think Joe Ingles will have an awesome year and will be an enticing trade asset on an expiring contract. Cleveland is definitely preparing for the future here.

 

Key additions: Dennis Smith Jr., Jayson Tatum, Zach Collins

Key subtractions: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony

 

DALLAS MAVERICKS

 

Clearly through with being a lottery team, Dallas shocked the league by acquiring James Harden in one of the final superstar trades we might be seeing for a little while. Best of all, the Mavs didn’t have to pay a king’s ransom to get him. Pair him with the magical Nikola Jokic and suddenly you’ve got a playoff contender. This team has a really interesting “Island of Misfit Toys” quality to it, but I think it works for them. There are a lot of nontraditional but still really useful players here. Oladipo will be option 1B for a terrible Pacers team, which means he’ll probably score 20 PPG. Ilyasova is one of the few people on the Hawks who’s played professional basketball for a living before. The Other Curry should flourish (update: never mind :() in a more off-ball role this season under Carlisle, the guard whisperer. Hernangomez the Younger, #CallWillieUp and Kuzminskas are sneaky-useful players for a playoff team. And Tony Allen might start at small forward for the Pelicans! This is an exciting team and definitely one to watch.

 

Key additions: James Harden, Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova

Key subtractions: Nikola Mirotic

 

DENVER NUGGETS

 

I really think this team just needed some TLC over the past couple of years. I mean, seriously, why were Josh Smith and Danny Granger on this roster for so long? The new Nuggets owner has gotten off to a nice start, starting to clear out some of the cobwebs and skeletons from this team. You look at the top four on this roster – Marcus Smart, Devin Booker, Gary Harris and Jaylen Brown – and you think, hey, that’s a really nice young team. But it kind of falls off from there. Booker looks like a star in the making, and Harris remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA – he might be the best young two-way shooting guard in the league outside of Klay Thompson (who still counts as young I suppose). Flipping CJ McCollum for him and Ntilikina was a nice move. Frank is a highly interesting prospect and worth taking a shot on. Markkanen fell in the draft and was a nice scoop. Add all that to their weird mix of big men – Olynyk, Arthur, Faried and Muscala – and you have a really interesting, really weird team. It’s definitely not bad. I think with some more tweaks it could even challenge for a playoff spot. This is a team I’m going to be keeping a close eye on this season and if the rookies turn out well (they’re both getting a lot of playing time, to be sure), this could be a bit of a dark horse team. Stay tuned.

 

Key additions: Gary Harris, Frank Ntilikina, Lauri Markkanen

Key subtractions: CJ McCollum

 

DETROIT PISTONS

 

Detroit is another interesting team, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. There are a lot of players to like here. James Johnson is the MMA Renaissance man who had his best season ever at age 30 after almost being out of the league. Jahlil Okafor is a redemption story waiting to happen. He’s still a damn good scorer. Just needs a better situation. Ish Smith could very well continue to outperform Reggie Jackson. Willy Hernangomez is a bright spot on a Knicks team going all in on its youth. Lou Williams is a sixth man of the year candidate. All of these players are extremely useful. But it’s pretty obvious what this team is missing: star power. There’s really no hope of anyone on the roster becoming a star or anything above a good starter, which you obviously need to win in this league. By no means is this a bad team – it’s just not particularly great, either.  With some smart trades and picks, this team is looking noticeably better than a year ago. It’s possible they could make a playoff run if everything breaks right, but this team is kind of looking like it’ll be stuck in purgatory this season.

 

Key additions: Rajon Rondo, Lou Williams, Caleb Swanigan

Key subtractions: Doug McDermott

 

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

 

Ho hum. Another year, another run to the Finals for Golden State. It’s hard to write an offseason recap for this team because they did precisely zero this summer, which was by no means a bad idea. This is a roster that’s still built to win and win for a long time. Curry, Klay, Lopez, Middleton – all still great players. And Turner will be better than ever as the Pacers’ main man. The Warriors will again be one of the toughest teams in the West. It’s worth pointing out that a bit more quality depth would be nice (JJ Barea doesn’t belong in the starting lineup for a championship contender), but I suppose that would just be nitpicking. Look for the Warriors to win a top seed in the West and advance far in the playoffs again this season.

 

Key additions: none

Key subtractions: none

 

HOUSTON ROCKETS

Look at aaaaallllllllllllll these picks

Houston started the offseason with a bang by slamming the biggest fist in the world on the reset button, dealing James Harden, the second-highest scorer in the league for the past two seasons (I think?) for picks 6 and 8, Nikola Mirotic, Pat McCaw and Lavoy Allen. Kind of an underwhelming return, no? And on the first day of the offseason? Yes, it would have been underwhelming if the dealing had ended there. But we know Pedro better than that. The #6 pick turned into the #9 pick, the #34 pick and a future first from a team that will be in the lottery next year. The #8 pick turned into the #10 pick and ANOTHER future first from ANOTHER team that will be in the lottery next year. And then the #9 pick turned into the #18 pick and YET ANOTHER future first. Now THAT is how you trade down, folks. A masterclass draft day performance, to be sure. Sure, the roster looks a bit depressing now, but don’t be too surprised if Houston is rolling out Michael Porter, Marvin Bagley AND Luka Doncic this time next year. But for now, this roster is bad. Outside of Wes Mathews, Marvin Williams, Mirotic, Tristan Thompson and the brilliant Donovan Mitchell (a major steal at pick 10), this roster looks more like the second page of the waiver wire than it does an NBA team. The Rockets will be bottom feeders this season, but it might not take them long at all to turn it back around.

 

Key additions: Donovan Mitchell, Tony Parker, Tristan Thompson, Nikola Mirotic, P I C K S

Key subtractions: James Harden, Evan Fournier

 

INDIANA PACERS

 

The Pacers are favorites to repeat and win another title this season, but I won’t say that they are the prohibitive favorites. They have the best top eight of any team in the league, and it’s not close. But there are enough dings against this team that I’m not ready to crown them just yet. The first is that there’s no way Westbrook is as good as he was last season. Paul George and Melo will have to eat into his scoring and rebounding. He’s another year older and smarter, and with an MVP trophy on his mantle, the chip on his shoulder that has defined his career so far has filled in a bit. Paul George moves from Indy to OKC, and in so doing becomes the #2 or maybe even #3 option on offense. Dennis Schroeder has become the Atlanta Hawks’ only NBA basketball player, but he’s already gotten himself into trouble. He may miss time, he may not, but the distraction could impact his on-court performance. And right after signing a fat max contract! Blake Griffin will finally have a chance to step out of CP3’s shadow. He’s excelled without CP3 before and he could very well do it again. Remember a few years ago when he finished third in MVP voting? That player is still in there, somewhere. But the injury concerns and questions about his declining athleticism are worrying. But the bottom line is that all the players I’ve just named are elite, and that’s basically the end of the story: This is a damn good team. The best in the league. And whoever wants to win the title will likely have to go through them.

 

Key additions: CJ McCollum

Key subtractions: Gary Harris

 

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

 

The Clippers remain fully in wait-and-see mode with an armada of “maybe, but probaby not” players like Jerian Grant, Rashad Vaughn, Isaiah Whitehad, Deyonta Davis, Wade Baldwin, etc. We simply don’t know if any of those guys will be useful yet. So the only real analysis to do here is to take a look at their draft picks from this summer. LA had five late-first, early-second round picks, and in order for the dumpings of Blake and CP3 to yield any value whatsoever, the Clips need for one or more of these picks to be a home run. And to be completely honest, while none of these picks strike me as really swinging for the fences, I cannot argue with any of them. LA did a really terrific job of selecting players that are likely to strick around in the league for a while as role players. Josh Hart. Sindarius Thornwell. Jordan Bell. Those are guys you know are going to have 15+-year careers. Semi Ojeleye is a 3-and-D guy who isn’t actually good at 3 or D, but I still think he was a tremendous value pick in the second round. And Jawun Evans was one of the big steals here. Give that guy an extra few inches and he instantly becomes a lottery talent. Terrific passer, good scorer and can really lead a team. A true “floor general” type. Reminds of a mini Chris Paul, which would be an extremely fitting turnout for this team – if that is how it turns out. Nik Stauskas was an interesting signing. Maybe it will have impact, maybe it won’t. For a team with nothing to fight for for a couple more years, it was at least worth a shot. And Dario Saric looked tremendous down the stretch, but that was when he was basically the only power forward on the roster. With Ben Simmons ready to go and the 76ers inexplicably signing big man after big man, his minutes might be going down drastically. The Clippers are starting to get back on the right track. And at least they’ve got their own pick this year.

 

Key additions: Nik Stauskas

Key subtractions: none

 

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

My dad is crazy and now I am a millionaire.

Sometimes the stars just align. Such was the case for these Lakers, who ended up with franchise star-in-the-making Lonzo Ball. Look, we know about all the hype; and his crazy dad; and how his brothers are way worse at basketball than him, and how that’s going to be a storyline for the next 5-7 years; and his weird jumpshot; and his dumb thing with the sneakers; and all the Summer League hype, how bad he was in the first game, how good he was in all the others, the triple doubles, the chemistry with the other dudes, the throwing the ball all over the court, how he was the Summer League MVP; how he’s the next great Laker, and move over Kobe Bryant, here comes LeBron James next summer and Westbrook and Paul George too; and all of that nonsense. Is Lonzo a good basketball player? Yes. Is he a good fantasy player? Well, maybe. Assists and rebounds will be there. Steals and blocks, too. But will he score enough to warrant being taken first overall? We’ll see. Either way, I don’t think he’ll be a bust at all. I like prospects with one skill that they’re already really, really good at. De’Aaron Fox has his elite speed. Luke Kennard has his jumper. Dennis Smith Jr. can jump out the gym. And Lonzo? Lonzo enters the league and immediately becomes one of the NBA’s five best passers. It’s an elite skill, and it’s something he can definitely build his game around it. His teammates will love him for it, and Luke Walton will know how to use him. Maybe that’s too much about Lonzo Ball, but this is the only exciting player on the roster. I love Isaac as much as the next guy, but again, I don’t know if he’s ever going to be an elite fantasy player. I hope so though because he is fun as hell to watch and it’s about time one of the Magic picks panned out (yes, I am still bitter about Hezonja). Lopez, Green and Belinelli will be serviceable guys and should be easily flipped for picks or prospects. Glenn Robinson is a good candidate for a big jump in production. (Update: never mind.) Apart from that? Not much to talk about. But LA got themselves a good one in Lonzo Ball. The future of the franchise, much like in real life, is on his shoulders.

 

Key additions: Lonzo Ball, Jonathan Isaac

Key subtractions: none

 

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

 

The fate of the Memphis Grizzlies, in real life and in this league, rests on the shoulders of its two stars: Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Injuries to those two was enough to knock Memphis out of the playoffs last year, but this is a team that can bounce back with some more tinkering. Gordon, Green and Prince are going to be key, but none are good enough to emerge as major support for the two big guys on the top of this roster. This team has loaded up on picks and prospects, which gives them room to play and flexibility for however their season goes. With the window closing for Conley and Gasol, though, it might be time to make a decision. Can the youth and picks be used as leverage to build a more competitive team? Or will Memphis decide that Conley and Gasol’s time is up and send them away to build for the future? The Grizzlies are a team that could make the playoffs, or end up with a top 10 pick. It’s a wide range of outcomes and it makes this team interesting and worth paying attention to. We’ll see how it shakes out – but personally, I’m inclined to believe this team is more likely to get better than get worse.

 

Key additions: none

Key subtractions: none

 

MIAMI HEAT

 

Miami made some nice moves this summer, bringing in some dependable veteran presence. Johnson and Zeller are guys that will be two of the best bench players in the NBA this season. Pau Gasol, somehow, is still quite good (at least for fantasy purposes). All of them are nice additions to the usual crew that includes Goran Dragic, Jonas Valanciunas and Harrison Barnes. Miami is a lot like their division rival Hornets: Lots of good players here, but none that you think will explode and kill you during a weekly scoring period. There is absolutely nothing to dislike about this squad, but there is a limit to how great they can be until Valanciunas, Barnes and Zeller take that next step forward. There are a lot of nice little players on the bench, too, that can be swapped in in a pinch, like Crawford, Speights and Kuzminskas. Even Joakim Noah might be OK? Feels weird to say, but he wasn’t completely useless in fantasy last season (just in real life). Miami will be a playoff team this season, likely grabbing a middle seed.

 

Key additions: Tyler Johnson, Cody Zeller, Danilo Galinari, Pau Gasol

Key subtractions: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Darren Collison

 

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

 

Milwaukee has a really nice, really young foundation in Rodney Hood, Elfrid Payton and the man many think is a future MVP in Giannis Antetokuonmpo. The Bucks rode a hot streak from Payton into the playoffs last season, but this year things could be a bit different. Ibaka and Young are gone, replaced with younger players in Hood and Mo Harkless. Robert Covington is a player I think is tremendous and very underrated, but he could see a decline in production this year with all the influx of talent and bodies in Philly. Knowing how their seasons usually go, though, I wouldn’t bet against him. Delon Wright and Bebe Nogueira are two guys getting ready to step up for the Raptors, and how well they do will make a big difference for this Milwaukee team. Felicio could be a nice player with the mass exodus out of Chicago. All of this adds up to a decent team. Not a world beater. An OK chance to make the playoffs. The East is weaker and that will make it easier for them to get in. But I get the feeling that this roster could change as the season goes on.

 

Key additions: Rodney Hood

Key subtractions: Serge Ibaka, Thad Young

 

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Pictured: Kevin Love trying to levitate his way out of Minnesota again.

The Wolves have been on the decline for a couple of years now, but with a good draft, they could bounce back quickly. Jackson and Collins are both capable of putting up big numbers right away. But of course the biggest key for Minnesota is Kevin Love, who will probably see a big increase in production this season with Kyrie gone and IT on the shelf. Sprinkle in some role players like Kelly Oubre and Norman Powell and you’ve got the start of something interesting. The rest of the roster, though, is made up mostly of players that could be found on the waiver wire. That’s not to say that they’re all bad – I actually like most of them. But we just haven’t seen the production out of any of them that makes me confident that the Wolves will be a great team this year. Minnesota will be on the outside looking in this season, but they’re lurking.

 

Key additions: Josh Jackson, John Collins

Key subtractions: none

 

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

 

Surprisingly, I don’t really have a lot of new things to say about this team. Obviously, it’s brimming with talent. AD. Kyrie. IT. Embiid. Bledsoe. Simmons. If it all comes together, this team’s potential is through the roof, and if all goes right, this is the best team in the league. The problem with the Pelicans, though, is injuries. Last year, we finally got to see what this team looked like at almost full health. Simmons missed the entire year and Bledsoe crapped out at the end, but AD and Kyrie stayed healthy all year and Thomas came in late and continued to kill. We finally got some sprinklings of Embiid, and he looked like a superstar. I look up and down this roster, and for almost every single guy, I say to myself, “Ooh, this guy’s good!” followed immediately by “…if he can stay healthy.” Kyrie famously missed pretty much his entire college year and has never played more than 72 games in a season (last year). Davis had never reached 70 games until last year. Dirk is a nice addition, but he’s ancient and only played 54 games last year. I don’t think Embiid will ever play more than 60 games in a full season, even if he’s fully healthy the entire time, because of the way the Sixers have managed him. We’ve yet to see Simmons play an NBA game, and IT and Batum are ALREADY out for significant portions of the season. Look, I don’t mean to crap on this team. It’s good. REALLY good. They won 67 games last season and were the second-highest scoring team in the league, only about 50 points behind the Hawks. There are five guys on this squad that have a chance to finish among the top 50 players. But this team is going to need to get a lucky break here or there to repeat that kind of success.

 

Key additions: Dirk Nowitzki, Nic Batum, Ben Simmons

Key subtractions: Jrue Holiday, LaMarcus Aldridge

 

NEW YORK KNICKS

When building a team, LeBron James and Kristaps Porzingis are two very good places to start. But when your third-best player is Solomon Hill, and he’s out for half the season, does it really matter? (OK, maybe Malik Monk will be the third-best player, but still.) The rest of this roster is barren. The remainder of the Knicks fit into three categories: interesting, high-potential youngsters (Maker, Bogdanovic), a collection of misfits (Chalmers, Beasley) and very young outcasts with an outside shot of becoming useful NBA players (McDermott, Ennis, Ellenson, Jackson, Harrison and so on). I can understand swapping a high lottery pick for a superstar, but when that superstar is turning 33 this year and his running mate is a full decade younger, one has to wonder what purpose it serves having him on board. And then one thinks about it for a few seconds and realizes it serves two purposes. The Knicks are going to win some games this year solely by virtue of Mr. James, which will 1. Be very annoying to a lot of other teams (good) and 2. Cost New York dearly in what might be the final year of the lottery standings as we know them and cause them to miss out on a franchise-altering player to pair with Porzingis for the long haul, much in the way that that opportunity was passed over by acquiring LeBron in the first place (less good). The Knicks had a ton of picks and went ham in free agency, and right now they’ll have to cut at least four players before Oct. 17. This is a weird team, folks. I’m really not sure if they’re better than any other team in the Atlantic, even with LeBron. The depth is just nonexistent. The Knicks are sort of chasing two ends of the same stick: Win now with LeBron, and stock up on rookies and young guys, hoping a few pan out. This team is hard to predict, but I don’t think they’ll be very good this season. But at the same time, it’s hard to hate too much on a team with a top two that can square off against anyone else’s top two in the league. We’ll see.

 

Key additions: LeBron James, Malik Monk

Key subtractions: none

 

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

 

This team keeps trading away its picks. At least this time they got LaMarcus Aldridge…but he’s 32 and quickly becoming a shell of himself. But, you know, with the way some other teams are already throwing their seasons into the incinerator, the Thunder might actually not be the worst team in the league this season for the first time since year one. There are some bona fide, promising NBA players and prospects here. Tyler Ulis was a magician when he finally got some playing time, and we all know Bledsoe is either on his way out soon or likely to get injured. Alan Williams is something and was a ton of fun to watch late last year. (Update: never mind.) Teodosic will be fun, but he’s 30 and that contract is hideous. Dedmon will probably start for the Hawks, at least for a bit. Bayless might play? Eh. Maybe I was getting a bit ahead of myself. But still, there is some progress to be noticed here. It’s not total doom and gloom anymore.

 

Key additions: LaMarcus Aldridge, Milos Teodosic

Key subtractions: none

 

ORLANDO MAGIC

 

This team is looking a lot better than a year ago, when they played themselves into a top 5 pick. The additions of Millsap, Jackson and Ariza are much welcomed and should vault the Magic into the playoffs conversation, especially because there is a huge vacuum for wins that’s opened up with the Hawks coming apart. Millsap is exactly the type of guy who seems like he’ll have his best season at age 32, and it helps that he’s playing in what’s likely to be the league’s #2 offense. There is a good amount of nice players here, but Orlando is another team that is missing a star and won’t be able to get to the next level without one. The big X factor here is Tyreke Evans, who is probably on his last chance to actually become a good NBA player. If it works, Orlando could make the postseason. If not? Then I don’t think this team does very well. It’s a risk, but one worth hanging your hat on if you’re the Magic. With the Cavs and Hawks bowing out, there are only five sure-thing playoff teams in the East. The Magic could be one of the ones competing for a spot.

 

Key additions: Paul Millsap, Trevor Ariza, Reggie Jackson

Key subtractions: Derrick Favors

 

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

 

To me, this team is a lot like the Knicks. One aging star and a bunch of questions. Melo, now in OKC, will be the third scoring option as opposed to the leading man. The Melo trade was as difficult to understand as the LeBron one. It cost them two first-round picks, one of which turned into Donovan Mitchell, and the only thing it will do for the 76ers is put them further away from a top pick in 2018. In fairness, the rest of the roster shakes out a little better than New York’s. This team will not be taking the division crown from Toronto, but it could sneak into second place by default. This is a roster that is unlikely to make the playoffs, but there are some useful players here. Malcolm Brogdon is certainly one of them, but at nearly 25, he’s probably already close to his ceiling. Crabbe, Kaminsky, Simmons and Boban are nice guys to have as depth, but obviously none are world beaters. Maybe Marquese Chriss makes big strides this year, but he is still extremely raw. He’s a nice lottery ticket. Jarrett Allen has nice potential and will get a lot of minutes off the bat. Cheick Diallo is a guy I really like; his offense looked much improved in Summer League and he should be the first big off the bench for the Pelicans. Beyond that, things get ugly. Mudiay, Hezonja, and Young are all certified busts. I doubt Malachi Richardson, Bruno Caboclo or any one of Philly’s second-round picks pan out. It’s a confusing team. I’m not sure which direction it’s heading it. The 76ers could finish anywhere from second to fifth in the division and I wouldn’t be surprised.

 

Key additions: Carmelo Anthony

Key subtractions: none

 

PHOENIX SUNS

Ah…you can smell the potential from here.

Not much to say about Phoenix as they enter their first full rebuilding season. LaVine, Parker and Noel give them a terrific starting foundation, assuming the first two can bounce back to full strength off of ACL tears and Noel can be smart enough to keep himself on the court. Jamal Murray might be the most exciting prospect of all. The dude can flat out score the rock and Denver views him as untouchable, which is an encouraging sign. Kris Dunn…well, who knows. He was horrible last year as a 23-year-old rookie. But let’s see what the Bulls do with him. I think he can at least be good on defense. Kay Felder and Brandon Paul are worth taking shots on. One of the best things going for this team is that they still have a lot of useful veterans, which gives them flexibility. If things go better than expected with the injury rehabs and development of the young guys, those vets help them get back to being good a lot sooner. And if things don’t go according to plan, there are eight useful depth players that can be flipped for picks. As far as rebuilds go, the Suns have the tools and assets to make it a good one.

 

Key additions: none

Key subtractions: none

 

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

 

The West remains brutally difficult at the top, and Portland is a team that can hang with any competitor. Much improved last season, the Blazers made it all the way to the Conference Finals and will look to get back there next spring. Every acquisition Portland has made over the last two seasons – Jordan, Crowder, Beverley, Hardaway Jr. and now Ibaka and Young – has been a great one. Ibaka should be back to his old self as a comfortable third option in Toronto with two ball-dominant players like he was in OKC. Jimmy Butler finally has some good teammates. I’m not sure Jordan remains as effective without CP3, but between Griffin and Teodosic there’ll be enough lobs to keep him going. Crowder and Beverley are perfect fits on their new teams, and Hardaway Jr. should see a big boost being the primary backcourt scorer in New York. Thad Young is still somehow just 29 and always finds a way to be effective. Like a lot of the upper-echelon teams, depth might be a problem. The bench is empty beyond Afflalo and McConnell. But this team is still one of the best in the West.

 

Key additions: Serge Ibaka, Thad Young

Key subtractions: Rodney Hood

 

SACRAMENTO KINGS

 

I’m excited to see what this team can do with a full season with Chris Paul. That Boogie-CP3 duo is the best one-two punch in this league, outside of maybe Harden and Jokic. But beyond those two? It’s actually more shaky that you might think. If everything goes right, this is a certain top-three team in the West. If not? Things could get a bit sour. Bradley Beal is a fine third player, but there are always going to be injury concerns. Dwyane Wade? The Cavs roster is looking for Frankenstein than Super Team each day, and Wade is perhaps the worst fit out of anyone on the team. But he’s still D Wade, I guess. Rudy Gay in San Antonio is really interesting. He totally does not fit there, but maybe Pop can turn his game around. Still, much of Gay’s value comes from his scoring, which figures to take a massive hit with the Spurs. Will Barton and Dellavedova are both solid, but again, their roles are shrinking. This team is quite good. That duo is going to win them a lot of games. But there some moves to be made here to make this team a title contender.

 

Key additions: none

Key subtractions: none

 

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

 

Same as it ever was. This team has Towns, Kawhi and Drummond. Game over for most opponents. The depth behind those three stars got a lot better last year, and some key additions/developments have them looking good again. Kilpatrick’s contract is a bit pricey, but he’s an electric scorer and is playing on a team that is trying super hard not to tank. Even with Crabbe, LeVert, Russell and Lin ahead of him, Kilpatrick is going to find ways to be effective. Wilson Chandler is about as steady as they come, when healthy, and he’s finally on a good team again that will get him plenty of looks on a top offense. Gorgui Dieng is secretly perhaps the biggest key to success for Minnesota – his defense is so important to that team. If he can hold Taj Gibson off for enough time, he’s going to be good. Booker’s role is diminishing, but he’s still an important energy/rebounds guy off the bench. Evan Turner will always find a way to get stats. Lin looked awesome when he played last year, but now he’s missing his favorite pick-and-roll/pop buddy with Lopez gone. I still think he’ll have a good year and could lead the Nets in scoring. There are even some intriguing young guys here. Dejounte Murray, with Parker out, could see himself as the starting point guard for the Spurs. Dakari Johnson, well-seasoned from his years in the D-League, could be the backup center in OKC with Kanter gone. This team is very good and will likely be fighting tooth and nail with New Orleans in the Southwest again, with Dallas sure to be close, as well.

 

Key additions: none

Key subtractions: none

 

TORONTO RAPTORS

 

It was a pretty quiet offseason for the Raptors, which is fine because they’re one of the few teams in the league that can pretty much set an alarm for the spring and sleep through the regular season because they’re a lock to make the playoffs in this division. Lowry and DeRozan continue to be the key for this team. Dion Waiters has finally found a home. Gortat still has a year or two left of automatic double-doubles. Teague had his best year every last season, but he’s now effectively the fourth option on his new team and I think Jimmy Butler will be touching the basketball a lot more than he will. And rounding out this team is some quality depth, if a bit boring. But for this team, I think that’s great. I have to give this team a shout out for the small offseason moves they made. Buying Kennedy Meeks for cash. Bringing in Mbah a Moute for pocket change. The signings of Dudley, McDaniels and Asik. None of those guys are great players, obviously, but they provide cheap, quality, proven depth. It’s the little things like that that keep a team going. Toronto is still comfortably ahead of the rest of the division and a sure playoff team for the fourth straight year.

 

Key additions: none

Key subtractions: none

 

UTAH

 

Utah is another one of those good teams that didn’t do much in the offseason that I don’t have much to say about. I like the Holiday-Batum swap for Utah; point guard was a position of weakness and addressing it was a big priority. Batum is in decline and Holiday, while missing out on some assists thanks to pass hog (is that even a thing?) Rondo, but I think he’ll flourish as the Pelicans’ only wing player who can score. This team still needs some depth and could use a couple more forwards, but that top eight is nothing to be messed with. The Jazz are a certain playoff team again this year, but I think Portland has finally pulled ahead of them as the best team in that division. A lot of this team’s success is going to depend on how Hayward adjust from Boston, moving from a Utah role where he was maybe the only good scorer and de facto second point guard to a Celtics one where he’ll be playing with one of the most selfish point guards in the NBA. KCP was a terrific pickup and didn’t cost them much. I do worry about depth here, and about the redundancy of having three Celtics forwards in the starting eight. But overall, this team is still rock solid.

 

Key additions: Jrue Holiday

Key subtractions: Nic Batum

 

WASHINGTON

Despite winning the championship in year one, and despite having John Wall, this team is reeling and in danger of serious regression. One of the few middle-of-the-road teams last season, the Wizards might be left in the dust as other teams around them continue to improve. Don’t get me wrong: Despite that, there is actually a lot to like about this team. Wall is a top-ten player. Skal and Yogi were diamonds in the rough and awesome finds last season. Kennard is the best shooter from this year’s draft, supremely underrated athletically and will be a steal from the middle of the first round. We’ve all heard the Julius “in the best shape of his life” Randle stories, and I’m optimistic about him, too. Sabonis, though still a pretty bad NBA player, will be given plenty of room to play in Indiana. Tyson Chandler is still the only real center in Phoenix (OK, never mind, Len just signed his deal, but still). Kuzma. Oh mama does he look good. Where did this guy come from? Is it just Summer League/preseason hype? Or is he actually a good prospect? We’ll see…but damn he’s looked good. But what the team truly lacks is that “oomph” behind Wall. All of the above guys mentioned here are really nice, but not going to move the needle in the arms-race nature of this league. The difficulty in assessing this team lies in the question, “OK, so there are pieces here, but the team is not a contender. What do you do to improve the situation?” And the answer, I think, might just be to stand pat and wait. And that’s fine. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past two-plus years now. Give the Wizards a bit and they just might win another title. In the meantime, they could even make the playoffs now in the weakened East.

 

Key additions: Luke Kennard

Key subtractions: none

 

 

I think I also usually do playoff predictions each year, so here we go:

 

EAST

  1. Indiana
  2. Chicago
  3. Charlotte
  4. Miami
  5. Toronto
  6. Milwaukee
  7. Orlando
  8. Washington

 

WEST

  1. San Antonio
  2. New Orleans
  3. Golden State
  4. Portland
  5. Utah
  6. Sacramento
  7. Dallas
  8. Memphis

 

 

(Jeez, the West was tougher than I thought. It feels like 1-7 is a pick ’em.)

 

Let me know your playoff predictions!

Real Deal Basketball Report: The Finals

NBA FINALS

INDIANA VS GOLDEN STATE

A rematch? Seriously?! BORING!
OK, maybe not that boring. The Warriors won comfortably last year against a 7 seed that went on a run to the finals. But this year’s Pacers are different and this is shaping up to be a really great matchup. We’ve got Steph vs. Westbrook!
Seriously, I don’t really know how anybody else is supposed to win the title for the next three years. If Westbrook keeps getting the greenest light, the longest leash, the highest usage of all time and total compliance from his teammates to pad his stats (see below), there’s no stopping Indiana for the foreseeable future. Blake Griffin. Rudy Gobert. Paul George. Seriously, Paul freaking George is this team’s fourth best player. They’ve been on a tear since the big trades. And Indy still has a lottery pick. Ugh.

But anyway. Let’s do something I did two years ago in the finals when it was too close to call and break down the individual matchups.
POINT GUARD: Steph Curry vs. Dennis Schroeder. Curry takes this one. Two-time MVP. Been on fire with KD out.
SHOOTING GUARD: Klay Thompson vs. Gary Harris. No contest. I love Harris’ game and how he’s developed this year but Thompson is just better and somehow manages to score 20 points a game even when he plays like trash.
GUARD: JJ Barea vs. Russell Westbrook. Moving right along.
SMALL FORWARD: Khris Middleton vs. Paul George. This one is actually interesting. George would be the obvious pick here, but Middleton has been terrific since coming back from injury and especially lately. PG13’s production is just overall better, though, so he gets the nod here.
POWER FORWARD: Myles Turner vs. Blake Griffin. Both great players. But we all know it’s Griffin.
FORWARD: Andre Iguodala vs. David Lee. Two very different players, but Lee is a bit player in San Antonio and Iggy is filling in for Kevin Durant. Advantage Iggy.
CENTER: Brook Lopez vs. Rudy Gobert. Lopez has been really good this season, starring as The Only Player On Rhe Nets Who Can Play Basketball, but Rudy Gobert’s ascension this season especially has been monumental. The guy’s a monster. Advantage Indy.
FLEX: Bojan Bogdanovic vs. David Nwaba. Yikes. David Who?
So that gives each team four advantages a piece. Buuuuuut Westbrook is playing four games this week. That’s a bonus 75 points right there, and that’s probably enough to give INDIANA the win and its first Real Deal NBA championship. Congrats to the two finalists.
Let me just take this moment to say again that I think this was our best year yet. Lots of intrigue this season, lots of action on the trade market and I think our participation was close to 100% this time. Thanks for a great year, everyone, and thanks for reading.

POST-MORTEMS

MIAMI

Miami did something we’ve never seen before and might not see again for a long time in taking down a #1 seed as the bottom seed in the playoffs. That’s awesome. But in round 2, they lost to the team that scored the second-worst point total by over 100 points. The Heat are a team that, each year, seems like they’re still fighting for a playoff position at the end of the season – but they’ve made it in consistently. We haven’t seen them take that next step, but at the same time, this is a team that finished 20 games above .500 this season. It’s a good team. The path to greatness isn’t particularly difficult to see. There are only two contracts on the roster worth more than $7.5 million a year, Chris Bosh and Joakim Noah, and they’re both amnesty candidates, opening up even more cap room. Miami has both of its first round picks over the next two seasons, and most of its important players are either still quite young (Harrison Barnes, KCP, Jonas Valanciunas) or still in their prime (Goran Dragic, Marcus Morris). As presently constituted, this is a pretty run-of-the-mill low-seed playoff team. But things in the East are shifting. Atlanta is not as infallible as previously perceived. Chicago is facing tough contract/cap situations (more on that later). With some smart moves, Miami can easily pass the likes of Milwaukee, Cleveland and Toronto and pull even with a team like Charlotte. The path is there, even if it’s a bit shrouded.
Expiring contracts: Marcus Morris, Austin Rivers, Brandan Wright, Raul Neto
Picks: #23

CHICAGO

This team is going to have major cap trouble next year, even after jettisoning the Jordan Clarkson contract. Whiteside is still on the books at $46.5 million for one more year, eating up nearly half of the cap, and the Bulls will owe costly extensions to Wiggins and Gordon if they want to keep them. Still, this is a team that is still built to win now. Assuming the Bulls find a way to keep at least Wiggins and Gordon, they should be a top three team in the East again next year. Having Durant out for the playoffs was a massive blow, and I wonder how things would have played out if he were in the lineup. With Indiana’s resurgence, Chicago has won its last division title for a while, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still an elite team. Whiteside, however expensive, is still terrific. Ricky Rubio looks amazing under Thibs. Even Derrick Rose was a fairly reliable contributor (as long as you weren’t actually watching the games), and youngsters like Tobias Harris (yeah, he’s still only 24 somehow) can continue to grow. The most interesting thing about Chicago for me this offseason – besides the contract situations – is what they do with Lance Stephenson and Chandler Parsons. Do the Bulls hold onto them and hope they bounce back? Or do they trade them to another team that thinks they will?
Expiring contracts: Andrew Wiggins, Aaron Gordon, Tony Snell, Alex Len, Reggie Williams
Picks: #24

SAN ANTONIO

With all of the injuries they had this year, the Spurs were kind of like the West’s version of the Cavs (three stars and little help elsewhere), except they’re way more sustainable and projectable. Despite scoring the most points during the regular season, this team really begins and ends with the big three of Kawhi Leonard, Karl Towns and Andre Drummond. The Spurs had a mixed experience with good luck and bad this season. Wilson Chandler and Trevor Booker both had career years, but Jeremy Lin and Evan Turner missed big chunks of the season out injured. Kawhi looks like an MVP and KAT made the next step forward, but Drummond regressed. It’s really a shame everything didn’t click at the same time for this team, but at the same time it’s kind of hard to feel bad for them when they started things off with Kawhi and fell into the #1 pick, which happened to turn into a generational big man. Make no mistake: this team will be back with a vengeance next season. With no meaningful expiring contracts and healthy cap space, I’m expecting this team to do some minor re-tooling and remain a top 3 seed in the West.

Expiring contracts: Kosta Koufos, Tyler Ennis, Nicola Laprovittola
Picks: none

NEW ORLEANS

For a long time, the Pelicans were a sleeping giant. I complained about them constantly, pointing out all of the assets they had that they could be using to be a contender. After two mediocre years, the beast finally stirred as New Orleans claimed the West’s top seed. Finally, the team with Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving made the freaking playoffs already. This has very much been a work in progress: over the past two seasons, star after star was brought in. LaMarcus Aldridge and Eric Bledsoe last year. Isaiah Thomas and Jrue Holiday this year. Joel Embiid became a living meme, but also a really good basketball player in the 12 minutes he played this season. MKG and Taj Gibson are terrific role players for this team. And Ben Simmons will play (lol, maybe) next season. The scariest part about this team? They’re still so freaking young. AD is 24. Kyrie just turned 25. Embiid just turned 23. Simmons will be 21 at the start of next season. Even Bledsoe and Thomas are still in their prime at 27 and 28, respectively. Like their rival Spurs, New Orleans fell victim to some poorly-timed injuries. They could have won it all this year. But they’ll be back next season.
Expiring contracts: Joel Embiid, Reggie Bullock
Picks: none

MILWAUKEE

The Bucks defied my expectations all year long. I ranked them as a borderline playoff team in my preseason rankings, but they were a good 5th seed and made it all the way to the conference finals. I’ve trashed this team’s strength of schedule enough; it’s time to give credit where credit is due. I did not expect Giannis to be this good this quickly. And the dude is still only 22. Elfrid Payton transformed from a can’t-shoot, can’t-actually-really-do-anything point guard into someone who has nearly averaged a triple double over the last month (?!?!?!?!?!). Serge Ibaka is still good, and so is Thad Young, kinda. Delon Wright looks legit. It’s a shame Lord Bob missed most of the playoffs – that guy is for real. Bebe Nogueira’s development has been encouraging. The Bucks will return with a solid core next season, but a lack of picks and fairly modest cap room will limit how much better this team can get. Ultimately, though, the sky’s the limit when you’ve got Giannis. This is a team to keep an eye on after an improbably, really fun to watch conference finals run. They were just no match for Indiana.
Expiring contracts: Elfird Payton, Solomon Hill, Semaj Christon, Treveon Graham, Michael Gbinije
Picks: none

PORTLAND

Hell of a year for the Blazers, due majorly in part to some majorly beneficial trades. This team went from selling off LaMarcus Aldridge for picks to reaching the conference finals. Well done. Utah was my pick to win the division before the season, and Portland started off by trading Porzingis for DeAndre Jordan, so my expectations weren’t extremely high for this team. The Blazers started off red hot, fell behind Utah for a stretch, and roared back at the end of the year to win the title and ride a hot streak to the finals. Damian Lillard has fallen out of favor a bit in some circles but was still dominant this season. Jimmy Butler was phenomenal and the Blazers will be keeping an eye on where he goes this summer. Jordan was an upgrade over Porzingis, at least for this year. I worried about this team’s depth at the start of the year, but now it’s one of the deeper squads in the league. Terrence Ross, Meyers Leonard and two picks turned into Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki. Then Pau Gasol and a pick turned into Jae Crowder, Tim Hardaway and Pat Beverley. Portland is probably the team that improved the most over the course of the season (except Indiana), evidenced by their thrilling playoffs run. The Blazers won’t have to do much this offseason; they’ll come into next year with three 50 PPG players, a solid supporting cast and developing youngsters like Rodney Hood, Mo Harkless and Hardaway.
Expiring contracts: Rodney Hood, Nik Stauskas
Picks: #28

Conference Finals predictions and Post-Mortems for round 1 exits

CONFERENCE FINALS

EAST

2 INDIANA VS 5 MILWAUKEE

If you had told me at the start of the playoffs that the Bucks would be in the Conference Finals, I would have had a difficult time just adjusting to the humanity of that statement. But here we are. Milwaukee surprised me all throughout the season and twice now in the playoffs. I don’t want to say it’s been an easy road for the Bucks, but they’ve faced the teams that had the second-lowest (Toronto) and lowest (Miami) scores in rounds 1 and 2, respectively. They would have lost against any other team in the Conference Semifinals. Facing Indiana, the highest scoring team of round 1 and the second highest scoring team of round 2, will be a rude awakening to say the least. Elfrid Payton has been amazing lately, but Indiana’s starting PG is Russell Westbrook. Ibaka is another really good player, but Indiana has Blake Griffin at PF. Robert Covington has done some really impressive stuff in the past few weeks, but Indiana’s got Paul George on the wing. You see where I’m going with this. And I haven’t even mentioned Rudy Gobert and the 63 PPG he’s averaging over the past two weeks. The pick is INDIANA.

WEST

3 GOLDEN STATE VS 4 PORTLAND

The Warriors survive a late push from the Spurs to face a red hot Portland team that absolutely shalacked the top-seeded Pelicans. I am afraid to face the Blazers at this point. After their big end-of-season trade, this team has been nuts. They were four points away from cracking 1,000 in round 1 and beat the top seed by multiple hundreds of points. Pretty damn scary. Lillard, Butler and Jordan have all been playing great ball as of late and the boosts provided by new additions Jae Crowder, Tim Hardaway and Pat Beverley are making a big difference. Even Dirk is playing well! Golden State has looked really good, as well, obviously, taking down the Kings and Spurs. Everyone on this team that you would expect to play well has really done so. Iguodala and Plumlee were letdowns last week, but the Warriors do have options on the bench and can certainly tinker more than most teams left in the playoffs. I think how Golden State sets its lineup could be the deciding factor. These two teams have had really difficult paths to the Conference Finals and this week is going to be a true bloodbath. Whoever wins this matchup will truly deserve to win the title. Will it be a rematch of last year? Golden State vs. Indiana? Could be. But I’m picking PORTLAND to win.

POST-MORTEMS

PHOENIX

We all know where this team is going. Or do we? After a pretty dominant start to the season, things got a bit rickety as other teams in the West got better and the Suns stayed the same. Then the Westbrook trade happened and Phoenix’s fate was sealed. They would still make the playoffs – that much was clear – but whatever else happened for the remainder of the year was a writeoff. That theme rang true again when Isiah Thomas was traded. Now, the Suns have a crop of legitimate young talent (Kris Dunn stinks like abandoned turds and does not count as a member of this group). Nerlens Noel looks like the Mavs’ center of present and future. Jamal Murray has been coming along very nicely and Mudiay is toast. Parker and LaVine, the ACL twins, were great this season before being injured. I do have concerns about them. For Parker, it’s his second ACL tear in three seasons. Not pretty. And LaVine’s game relies so much on his explosion and athleticism. Does the injury change him? There are some decent role players on this team, too, like Swaggy P and Etwaun Moore. Do the Suns make it back to the playoffs next year? I really don’t think so. I’d pick Memphis or Dallas (or Denver if they get a new owner) to take their spot. But when it comes to rebuilding, there are certainly worse starting spots than what the Suns are currently working with.
Draft picks: None
Expiring contracts: Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine, Ed Davis, Leandro Barbosa, Marshall Plumlee

HOUSTON

Time may be running out for this team to put together a good squad around James Harden. The Rockets were the best team in the league two seasons ago, a decent playoff team last year and pretty damn mediocre this season. They would have missed the playoffs comfortably if they were in the East. Aside from Hardens’ MVP type season, this team was really nothing special. Trading Harrison Barnes was a questionable move, at least for the long term. Marvin Williams and Evan Fournier are fine for a short-term playoff run, but the former is at his peak and over 30 and the latter plays in Orlando, where his role can change completely at any given second. Barnes is the type of player this team should be looking to keep: young, controllable and unquestionably the #1 option on his team. This team is aging quickly in the starting lineup and lacking in quality on the bench. Things have been on a steady decline and, unless the makeup of this team changes, it’s looking like the Rockets could be a .500 team or worse next season. Without any 1st round picks, Houston will really have to be aggressive in free agency this summer. Harden will be 28 next season, right in the height of his prime. Clock’s ticking.
Draft picks: None
Expiring contracts: Marvin Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Seraphin

CLEVELAND

The song remains the same for the Cavs. Three very good players, one Markieff Morris and the rest is negligible. Cleveland can probably count on those first four to wiggle them into at least one more postseason, but after that, who knows? Next season might finally be the year that Carmelo gets traded, or flat out just refuses to play for the Knicks, or maybe they just flat out refuse to play him. Who knows. You can count on LeBron and Green for the foreseeable future. Morris, I don’t know. Part of me just does not trust that dude as far as I could throw him (maybe like 2.5 feet?), but the other part of me thinks his role as a scorer/rebounder for Washington is slowly growing. One thing’s for sure: Cleveland needs to stop trading draft picks so that they can replenish the talent around their stars. No one else on the team is really worth two turds, save maybe Zaza. The Cavs have two more seasons on the contracts of their big four. Will they be able to put together a decent team around them? Time will tell.
Draft picks: None
Expiring contracts: Zaza Pachulia, DJ Augustin, Devin Harris, Randy Foye

SACRAMENTO

Sacramento arrived at a crossroads midseason and managed to turn things around quite well. They’re looking at another playoff season next year with a core of Cousins, CP3, Bradley Beal and Rudy Gay. My two big worries about this team are 1. Dwyane Wade and 2. cap space. Wade was so up and down this season, ending with a broken elbow. He will probably opt out of Chicago this offseason. Where does he go from there? Would some team really give him $25 million to be a #1 option like he probably wants? I seriously doubt it. Does he take less money to join a playoff team? Perhaps the Clippers if Redick leaves in the summer? Look, we all know we’ve seen the best of DWade and it’s only downhill from here. But the dropoff from this season to next could be drastic. And the cap space situation: when Wade and Gay come off IR, the Kings will be over cap by a couple million. They can get back under by letting Matt Barnes walk, and maybe Meyers Leonard is an amnesty candidate. Still, this leaves the team with little options to improve outside of the trade market. This team is damn lucky that Boogie is on such a cheap contract. Even if nothing changes at all, the Kings are probably still top 6 in the West next year.
Picks: None
Expiring contracts: Matthew Dellavedova, Matt Barnes, Kyle O’Quinn, Jordan Crawford

CHARLOTTE

This is a team in need of a star, and their lack of one showed in the playoffs. There’s really no need to pick apart this team: it’s solid. Even with Bazemore disappointing, this is a solid team 1-8. Charlotte’s going to be fine no matter what they do, but trading for a ringer could be a strategy they pursue. Unfortunately for them, the market for available superstars kind of oversaturated and evaporated during this season. Still, though, even if they do nothing, this is a really good young team. Kemba, Bradley, Porter, Capela, Warren and Kanter are all terrific young players that this team can sit back and watch grow. The big question is who gets amnestied this summer between Andrew Bogut and Jarnell Stokes.
Picks: #19
Expiring contracts: TJ Warren, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ian Clark, Joel Bolomboy, Rakeem Christmas

TORONTO

The Raptors will be psyched to get Lowry back next season and they’ll hope he and DeRozan will be just as great as they were this year. A few questions linger for the real-life Raptors, mainly centered around Serge Ibaka. Will he re-sign? And if so, how will be gel with Lowry? Fortunately for the Real Deal Raps, I don’t think it matters much. Last time Ibaka was third fiddle to two ball dominators, he turned into a complete ghost, but KD and Westbrook still got theirs. Jeff Teague was a great add and just had his best season ever. With Waiters playing out of his mind, Toronto looks like it might have the best backcourt in the East. Down low, however, there are questions. Unlike the real NBA, bigs matter a ton in this league. Guards don’t get double-doubles, but centers do. While he was still very effective this year, Zach Randolph moved to the bench for Memphis and will be 36 next season. Gortat had one of his best seasons this year, but again, he’s 33 and sometimes it really feels like Scott Brooks looks for excuses not to play him. Expect Toronto to be in the market for a big during the summer. For Toronto, there’s no need to be concerned. They’re still a lock for the Atlantic Division title for at least one more year.
Expiring contracts: Troy Daniels, Derrick Jones, Larry Sanders
Picks: None

UTAH

Utah has four players who average 40 or more PPG and still lost in the first round. Yeah. That’s how tough the top of the West is. I really don’t have much to say about this team except, “Better luck next time.” Utah won’t have to change much to be competitive again next year. They’ll have an open roster spot or two, depending on what they do with Plumlee, so I think the Jazz are a prime candidate to go all-out on the best player in free agency this summer, whoever that is. The Jazz are sort of like the Western version of Atlanta: really deep, but no true superstar (though maybe Hayward can become that guy).
Expiring contracts: Alexis Ajinca
Picks: None

ATLANTA

What can you say about your team if you go 71-11, setting the league record for most wins in a season, and go out in round 1 of the playoffs? Beyond campaigning as hard as possible for daily lineups, not much. In breaking down the upset loss, it’s easy to point to last-minute injuries and a games played disadvantage. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that Atlanta was down in minutes to Miami by 50 total minutes over the entire week. If the minutes were even, would Atlanta have won? Yes. The Hawks lost by less than 60 points. It would’ve been close, but it probably would have been a win. But hold on a minute – shouldn’t a 1 seed be able to take care of an 8 seed, even if they’re at a slight minutes disadvantage? Therein lies Atlanta’s fatal flaw. The Hawks have built a roster of 15 very good players. But could you really call any of them stars? Can you count on any of them to get you 120 points in a given week in the playoffs? For years, we’ve been studying how important depth is vs. having just a couple of stars. And until now, the depth truthers have looked like they have the more compelling argument. Now, it looks like the Hawks might need to sacrifice some of their healthy depth for a star. It’s a tall order, but we’ve seen that it can prevent them from reaching the next level. Regardless, the Hawks will be a contender out of the East next season.
Expiring contracts: Lou Williams, Tony Allen
Picks: None

Real Deal Basketball Report: Conference Semifinals Predictions and Post-Mortems

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

EAST

8 MIAMI VS. 5 MILWAUKEE

KA-BOOOOM! TWO UPSETS IN THE EAST! OK, one was a real upset, the other not so much. Miami has done the impossible by taking down a 1 seed as a lowly 8 seed. Blame the lack of daily lineups? Sure. But the Heat gave a hell of a performance. So did Milwaukee. In fact, the two were separated by a measly 2 points in round 1 scoring. So, yeah, I expect this to be a tight one. The Bucks are a team that continues to perplex. Sure, they’ve got Giannis. But the supporting cast is so weird. Elfrid Payton. He gets triple doubles on the regular now? What?! Robert Covington is still playing hero ball? Hmm. The production from those three has been unreal. Serge Ibaka and Thad Young, however, have disappointed over the past few weeks. This team has suddenly become top-heavy, at least in the short term. Miami, meanwhile…I’m just not sold on them. How far can you really go when your best player is Goran Dragic? A lot of their players have struggled lately. In the last two weeks, only two players besides Dragic are scoring 30 PPG or more: Harrison Barnes and Jonas Valanciunas. Miami got by because of those three, a minutes advantage over Atlanta and a couple of Hawks guys sitting out. I don’t know if they’ll get as lucky this time. I’m going with MILWAUKEE to make it to the conference finals.

2 INDIANA VS. 3 CHICAGO

No one can stop Indy, as far as I’m concerned. They got healthy competition from the Cavs last week and still trounced them, scoring the most points of the week by a wide margin. Westbrook is Westbrook. Blake is slipping a bit as of late, but Gobert has been an absolute monster recently. Nobody is happier about Atlanta going down than Indy, because it basically punches their ticket for a second consecutive trip to the finals. Last year, they did it as an underdog. This year they’re the favorites. Getting past Chicago is not exactly a walk in the park, especially with how well Whiteside and Ricky Rubio have been playing lately, but the Pacers are just too good right now to pick against. To sum up: my pick is INDIANA.

WEST

1 NEW ORLEANS VS. 4 PORTLAND

Terrific showing by the Blazers in Round 1. Bad luck for Utah. #VoteDailyLineups. We always knew it was gonna be a close one, and of course Portland came from behind on the final day to take the win and send a division rival packing. The Blazers have got to be confident heading into the semifinals: their opponent, the No. 1 Pelicans, scored almost 300 points fewer in Round 1. New Orleans, meanwhile, should be concerned after putting up the third-lowest point total in the opening week of the postseason. They’re lucky they got that 1 seed; they would have lost to Houston handily, and anyone else in the West apart from Phoenix. They’ll have Jrue Holiday in the starting lineup this week, but will that really be enough to overcome the deficit of points they’ve been missing elsewhere? Bledsoe has been shut down for the rest of the year, making Holiday more of a stopgap than a net addition for the playoffs. In Round 1, all of their players gave at- or near-average performances. In the playoffs, you need more. The same was true for Portland, too, actually, but they’ve got more options they can go to on the bench this week. Hardaway, McConnell, and Afflalo have been playing well lately. And Archie Goodwin signed with Brooklyn out of nowhere, so maybe that turns into something. My pick for this round is still NEW ORLEANS because their talent is more evenly distributed. But I don’t feel particularly good about it.

2 SAN ANTONIO VS. 3 GOLDEN STATE

Last round shows how bad I am at predictions. The Warriors went down by over 100 points on day 2 and had a not insignificant minutes deficit to Sacramento. Not only did they come back to win, they scored the second most points of the week. San Antonio did well enough and fended off a late push from Houston, but it was obvious there were some holes in the lineup. Chandler didn’t play and Jennings, Booker and Dieng underperformed. Evan Turner is back, which should provide a nice boost. The Warriors, meanwhile, are red hot and have no holes. More than half of their starters scored over 40 PPG last week. And their bench looks pretty healthy, too. Screw what I said last week about the Warriors riding Curry to a title last year; this team is damn good. San Antonio is going to need monster performances from their big three in order to win. I don’t think their stars have enough help. I’m picking GOLDEN STATE to make it to the conference finals.

POST-MORTEMS

This is a new feature I’m rolling out. NBA writer Tim Bontemps has been doing these for a couple of seasons. Basically, he breaks down what went wrong with teams as they are eliminated from playoff contention. But there’s no way I would have bothered to calculate exactly who went out when during the season, so I waited until the actual start of the playoffs to do these.

This week I’m just focusing on the teams who missed the playoffs – there would be way too much to write otherwise. I’ll have the eight losers from Round 1 next week.

I’m also going to take a bit more of an optimistic view. Instead of harping on about why these teams fell short, I’ll focus on what they should do in the offseason. Basketball is all about feeling good.

 

OKLAHOMA CITY


Another terrible year, though I do have to point out the Thunder got six times the amount of wins this year as last year, so there was some improvement (I guess). More than enough has been said about this team’s dire situation. This team is still an incredibly long way away from getting back into the playoffs, but there are at least a couple of bright spots here. OKC scrimped together some assets to grab a couple of late picks last offseason, and some may bear fruit. Tyler Ulis has looked awesome now that the Suns are in full tank mode and Bledsoe is being held out. He’s had a 20-point game, a 13 and 13 game and a 17 and 11 game in March. Like I’ve said about this kid in the past, he has a great on his tiny shoulders and he can straight up ball. Hopefully he’s playing himself into a role for the Suns in the future. If there was any coach that would give him a shot, it’s Earl Watson. Furkan Korkmaz remains a mystery but I believe in his upside. The rest of the picks look like busts, unfortunately. But the Thunder have traditionally done well with free agency – they rode Hassan Whiteside to the playoffs two seasons ago – and they’ve got two good ones again in Dewayne Dedmon and Alan Williams. Dedmon’s contract is a bit expensive but he’s always been underrated and is a perfect Spurs guy. Williams is a bit more iffy given his size and physical limitations (read: he’s a fat fatty), but you can’t deny that he’s performed well this season. If OKC can manage more of that – playing it smart in free agency and finding a couple of decent guys in the draft – they’ll be back on the right track.

Expiring contracts: Korkmaz, AJ Hammons, Sheldon McClellan, Sergio Llull, Nicolas Brussino
Draft picks: None

 

ORLANDO

Talk about another “how the mighty have fallen” team. The number 1 seed two years ago, the Magic really fell off a cliff this year when all of their players either got old or became free agents. This roster is a bizarre combination of ancients, misfits and weird rookies. Nene, RJ and Jet are all way too old to consider holding onto. Wilcox and Huestis are not NBA players. The rookie crop – Bender, Zubac, Williams, Ndour, Jackson and Ochefu – are all worthless, minus the two big Euros. The rest? Greg Monroe remains in no man’s land, lost in time as a big guy who can’t play D or shoot from long range (AKA the Jurassic Era). Derrick Favors – what the hell happened to that guy? Tyreke Evans – who the hell knows with that guy at any given circumstance? Ross has some promise in Orlando but Frank Vogel’s rotations are so completely fucked that even that’s not a given. The good news? It means that no one should be considered untouchable in Orlando. Now is the perfect time to make some moves. Some guys should be flipped for any perceivable asset, and some others could fetch a legitimate prize. It’s less about “blowing it up” and more about wiping a bunch of snot and poo off of the mirror so you can take a look at yourself and figure out what to do next. Having two picks in the top four certainly helps. Uncertain times in Orlando – but after a 14-win season, that’s a good thing.

Expiring contracts: Richard Jefferson, Demetrius Jackson, Maurice Ndour, Troy Williams, Daniel Ochefu
Draft picks: #2 (projected), #4 (projected) via NYK

 

BROOKLYN

I will never forgive the guy who owned this team before me, traded the team for picks 2 and 3 in the 2014 draft, and then skipped the draft. I could’ve had Wiggins and Embiid! But I’m really not so bitter about it anymore. I don’t trust myself with draft picks anyway. After more or less whiffing on four top 10 picks (Ingram, Johnson, Hezonja and Cauley-Stein), it’s hard to get excited about having even a high lottery pick again. This was the year that I decided the rebuild can’t take another five years. I swapped picks and prospects for proven talent. It was finally time for me to admit to myself that the likes of Vonleh, Jerian Grant, Rashad Vaughn and a bunch of late first round picks are probably never going to amount to anything. I scrimped together pretty unappealing assets and turned them into OK players. Not ones who will win me a title, but OK ones. Suddenly, I’ve ended up with a lot more players scoring in the 20s and 30s than in the 10s and 20s. Thompson is a keeper. Patty Mills is a free agent, and even if he comes back to the Spurs, he could be the starting PG. Richaun Holmes is a real NBA player, damn it, and I hope he stays on my squad for his whole career. Courtney Lee had a great year and Hollis-Jefferson can definitely reach MKG levels. My one regret? Trading Tyler Johnson for a pick. Oh well. I finished the year on an 8-6 run. Again, not amazing, but I was no longer losing every game by a million points. My hopes for next season? Eight seed. Playoffs. The Atlantic will remain weak, with Boston, New York and Philly trending down or staying the same (I finished with more points scored than Boston and New York, despite the worse record). I’m not sure if I can get to .500, which is the bare minimum of what you’ll need to make the playoffs in the East, but if guys like Hezonja, Stan Johnson and Ingram take a step forward in development, it could happen. Maybe Osman and Zagorac will come over and be decent. I’ll consider whatever I get from my picks to be a bonus. This has been an excruciatingly discouraging rebuild, but I’m finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just a little.

Expiring contracts: Tyler Zeller
Draft picks: #3 (projected), #15 (from Phoenix)

 

NEW YORK

Under new ownership, the Knicks went from their just-below-mediocre plateau to downright terrible this year. But oddly, that’s a good thing. Move no. 1 was also the team’s best move this year, getting Kristaps Porzingis and giving the franchise some direction for the first time. Unlike the real Knicks, New York is doing the right thing by putting the team’s future in his big Latvian hands. The team has a preposterous seven rookies, and some of them have decent promise. Caris LeVert is looking like a nice player – a good scorer and passer with great size. Thon Maker remains mysterious and interesting and is worth waiting on. The rest? Jake Layman? Henry Ellenson? Georges Niang? Arguably not NBA players. (The jury is out on Brice Johnson because Doc Rivers is a maniac.) The good news is that New York has five first round picks over the next two years, even if three of them will be in the late 20s. Porzingis is only 21, so the clock is ticking very slowly, but it still would be nice to see some real talent developing around him. This is looking like it’s going to be a long rebuild, but at least there’s some intent by the ownership of this team for the first time. Keep an eye out for this team in free agency, too: they’ll have about $70 million to spend, depending on who gets re-signed.

Expiring contracts: Joe Harris, KJ McDaniels, Salah Mejri, Tiago Splitter, Brice Johnson, Georges Niang, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rakeem Christmas
Picks: #22 (from Atlanta) and another in the late 20s from San Antonio

 

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Trading a superstar is never fun or easy. It helps when you have two top 10 picks, but I gotta say, the more I look at this draft, the more it looks like there will really only be one, two or three stars in the lottery. The rest look like really, really solid players, but I only see a couple in this draft that are likely franchise-changers. The good news for the Lakers is they have the best shot at the #1 pick. After trading Durant, LA predictably went into a tailspin. Still, there are a few good players on this roster. Clarkson, despite his ludicrous contract, is a decent young guy to have. He should be in the league for a long time. Robin Lopez is as solid, if boring, as ever. Belinelli and Danny Green are decent bench guys to have, but maybe not for a rebuilding team. The Lakers have essentially zero on the roster in terms of young prospects (no, Ron Baker does not count). This means it could be an interesting offseason in Hollywood. They could trade pretty much any player on the roster for a pick or prospect and it would be a good move. So the possibilities are limitless here. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to amass a morass of youngsters and picks and see what sticks a couple of years down the road. First thing’s first, though: OKC has to win the lottery and the Lakers have to nail the pick for this to be a rebuild of any promise.

Expiring contracts: Marco Belinelli, Ron Baker, Chasson Randle
Picks: #1 (projected) from OKC, #6 (projected) from LAC

 

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

A mass exodus of superstars from Los Angeles seems like a weird thing, but here we are. We’ve all talked enough about the trades. So what’s left in Clippertown? Dario Saric has looked awesome – I mean really freaking good – in the last month or so. But how much of that production is going to stick around next season when Simmons and Embiid are back? Depending on how the draft goes for Philly, Saric might be the #5 option offensively for the Sixers. The talent is certainly there, but the opportunity remains shrouded. LA has six other rookies. Do any of them have any promise? Don’t talk to me about Whitehead. TLC could be a nice 3 and D guy, but Justin Anderson really cramps his style and Korkmaz might be coming soon. Wade Baldwin can’t get ahead of a Harrison brother on the depth chart, so that’s all you need to know about him. Deyonta Davis is by far the most promising of the bunch. But, again, will he ever get the opportunity? Josh Richardson is a keeper. But is anyone else? Next year is basically already a lost year for the Clippers since they don’t have their pick, but that’s a good thing for them. It gives them essentially a free year to wait on guys like Davis, Baldwin and Brooklyn castoffs Jerian Grant and Rashad Vaughn to develop. David West, Norris Cole, Aron Baynes and Spencer Hawes should be sent with cash for any conceivable 2nd round pick. The goal for LA now is just to take as many shots as possible and hope that some stick. This is a long-term rebuild, but there’s only one way to go from here, and that’s up.

Expiring contracts: Dario Saric, Isaiah Whitehead, Chinanu Onuaku
Picks: Two in the 20s from Milwaukee and Indiana (potentially #30). It was a potentially fatal mistake getting Indy’s pick and not Philly’s.

 

DALLAS

Nikola Jokic. Nikola. Jokic. NIIIIII. KOOOO. LAAAAA. JOKIC. If Dallas is going to do anything of note in the near future, it’l be because of Nikola Jokic. He’s been the 13th best player in Real Deal over the last two months and he’s a center who gets triple-doubles. From a fantasy perspective, the sky’s the limit for this guy. The rest of the roster is a total mystery. Jae Crowder and Pat Beverley are gone, and now Pau Gasol is here. Nikola Mirotic is looking more and more like a lost cause. Jamal Murray and Nerlens Noel were traded away for a pick. On the other hand, Juancho Hernangomez looks like a real solid player and Seth Curry has flourished under Rick Carlisle. The Mavs love to reward those types of players. Is this team rebuilding or not? They looked like a surefire bottom-three team for most of the season, but Jokic may have messed that up a bit by playing so well down the stretch. Nevertheless, Dallas has two top-seven picks in what everyone is saying is a loaded draft. If the team can nail both selections, they’ll have two studs to partner up with Jokic, and this team could get dangerous quick. I’m keeping my eye on this team in free agency this summer, too, where they’ve been very successful (see: Jokic, Curry).

Expiring contracts: Kyle Anderson, Malcolm Delaney
Picks: #5 (projected) from LAL, #7 (projected)

 

BOSTON

Another bad year for the Celtics, but at least this time we can say they’ve got some real promising players. D’Angelo Russell has become criminally underrated and is one of the most irrationally hated/disrespected players I think I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the kid can play. There’s definitely a lot he can do to get better – his shooting, scoring and passing all need to improve – but you can see the talent. And Jusuf Nurkic has been a monster since being freed from Denver. Remember when he had 28 and 20 with 8 assists? Yeah. The rest of the roster I have little to no confidence in, apart from Justise Winslow. Justin Holiday, Luke Babbitt, Brandon Rush and several others all seem like end-of-the-bench players for contenders, not starters for a rebuilding team. This makes them prime trade candidates. I’d look for Boston to be active on the trade market in a search for young prospects. Picking as low as they’re projected to, you can no longer count on grabbing a star, even in this draft.

Expiring contracts: Jusuf Nurkic, DeAndre Liggins, CJ Watson, Brandon Rush, Malik Beasley
Picks: #8 (projected), #17 (from Houston)

 

MINNESOTA

Kevin Love on the Minnesota Timberwolves is starting to look a lot like Kevin Love on the Minnesota Timberwolves. He remains a very useful player to have, but where’s the talent around him? Aside from maybe Norman Powell and Kelly Oubre, who can you count on to be a part of this team’s future? The Wolves are in dire need of a reboot, and I’m not sure how they’re going to achieve it. One could do a bit of a salesman job in pitching the likes of Omri Casspi, Mike Beasley and Garrett Temple in trades. Whatever picks or prospects they can get for those guys would be a step in the right direction. This could also be a rare case of when trading a superstar might be a good move, if Minnesota can manage to get a good return on him. The team has been adamant in keeping him in the past, but perhaps a second poor season and the departure of Jeff Teague could signal a change of heart. Either way, I’d keep an eye on Minnesota to be making some changes this offseason.

Expiring contracts: Fred VanVleet, Cat Barber
Picks: #9 (projected), #19 (from Sacramento)

 

DETROIT

Detroit is loading up on picks, prospects and reclamation projects, which to me is exactly the move to make after trading Andre Drummond last season. Picking up the likes of Willy Hernangomez, Larry Nance and Sean Kilpatrick were the types of shrewd moves that the Pistons need to continue making. Other youngsters like Buddy Hield, Terry Rozier and Malachi Richardson have shown flashes. This team, to me, is very much in the “wait and see” phase. They’ve done the job of getting younger, and now they just have to see who develops and who doesn’t. I think their one true mistake this season was not selling high on James Johnson – he’s having an unreal season and probably will never match that production again. The first course of action for Detroit is to start scouting some late round picks. But they’re on the right track.

Expiring contracts: Doug McDermott, Spencer Dinwiddie, Noah Vonleh, Malachi Richardson, Thomas Robinson
Picks: Three in the 20s and beyond (maybe) from Toronto, Utah and New Orleans

 

PHILADELPHIA

The new ownership in Philadelphia brings a certain – I think boldness is the correct word – to the 76ers. Despite an overwhelming lack of talent, this is a team that never counted itself out and coasted past a bunch of tankers to a second place finish in the Atlantic. There are some interesting guys here, but none to build a franchise around. Mudiay is looking more and more like a bust. Frank Kaminsky is just a role player. The most interesting parts of this roster are the Detroit pick, followed by Marquese Chriss in a distant second. There are a lot of players in Philly that don’t need to be there, which means a big overhaul could and probably should be in play this summer. The Sixers should also focus on getting more picks, if they can. Dumping Jrue Holiday for a top-10 pick was a great move. Also, Malcolm Brogdon for president.

Expiring contracts: Malcolm Brogdon, Dante Cunningham, Dorian Finney-Smith, Bruno Caboclo
Picks: #10 (projected) from Detroit

 

MEMPHIS

Tradtionally a pretty good team, Memphis was set back this year by big injuries to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the two Grizzlies kingpins. Props to them for keeping the crew together despite a bad year, and props to them for being one of the few teams left with their two original franchise guys (mine are looooooong gone). Despite career years for Eric Gordon, JaMychal Green and Wayne Ellington, Memphis didn’t stand a chance in the West. In addition to injuries, the Grizzlies have had the misfortune of dealing with the sudden collapse of two players they got a lot of compliments for drafting three years ago in DeMarre Carroll, who looks broken beyond repair, and Jared Sullinger, who is now so fat and bad that even the Suns didn’t want him. With a good offseason, Memphis could be right back in the thick of things, though. Gasol and Conley obviously give them a good place to start. Gordon seems to have finally found his fit in Houston. Recent developments involving Taurean Prince are encouraging. Ante Zizic is apparently beasting in Europe. And Tim Frazier is a legit NBA player (?!?!?!). There’s a lot of dead weight on the roster, but the Grizzlies already have the foundation of a contender. Could be a quick fix.

Expiring contracts: Hollis Thompson, Paul Zipser, Ante Zizic
Picks: #12 (projected)

 

DENVER

Another year, another ho-hum season for Denver. After an exciting end of the first season that saw the team sneak into the playoffs, not much has happened for the Nuggets, despite some really exciting development from the likes of CJ McCollum and Devin Booker. It’s a real shame. With a little attention, this could be a special team. A core of McCollum, Booker, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown is really damn special, but they’re not going to do anything without some help. Brian Roberts is your starting point guard? Really? Josh SMITH is still on the roster? Really?! This team needs to figure out what’s up, and quickly. They’re not good enough to be a contender. They’re not bad enough to consider a total rebuild or get a high pick. Things can change quickly with a little tinkering. But if the Nuggets continue to stagnate, well, expect more of the same.

Expiring contracts: Marcus Smart, Brian Roberts, Guerschon Yabusele, Petr Cornelie
Picks: #13 (projected)

 

WASHINGTON

The Wizards rode an unbelievable hot streak to a title two years ago and have been on a steady decline ever since, going .500 and missing out on the playoffs this season. John Wall is comfortably a top-10 player, and the supporting cast has some really interesting pieces. So why the lack of success? Too many players scoring in the 10s in the starting lineup. Julius Randle and Tyson Chandler can be good pieces on a contender. Washington struck gold twice, it seems, in Skal Labissiere and Yogi Ferrell. I remember before the start of last season, some people had Skal ahead of Ben Simmons. I’m not saying they were right, but it just goes to show you can’t trust John Calipari with making NBA prospects look good (see also: Devin Booker, Jamal Murray). Sabonis Junior has been atrocious this year but there’s no way a kid that smart is a total dud forever. Mike Scott is the easiest amnesty candidate of all time. So there is a lot of promise here: the roster can get a lot better very quickly. Add in three picks and you’re looking OK. Get the rookies in and let deadweights Jeff Green, Wesley Johnson and Luis Scola take a walk. Washington could easily be back in the playoffs next year, even as the East gets better and better.

Expiring contracts: Julius Randle, Jameer Nelson, Wesley Johnson, Shabazz Napier, Diamond Stone
Picks: #14 (projected), #17 (from Cleveland), one pick in the late 20s (from Golden State)

 

Real Deal Basketball Report: All-Star 2017 Recap

After a pretty quiet December, many teams in this league experienced significant changes in fortune during the first month and a half of 2017. If 2016 was a fairly dull year for the league as a whole, it’s looking like 2017 is shaping up to be quite an interesting one. Let’s take a closer look.

 

THE CLIPPERS FINALLY BEGIN THE REBUILD

The LA Clippers have had a rough go of it from the inception of the league. Armed with two superstars in Chris Paul (a top three point guard of all time in this humble reporter’s opinion) and Blake Griffin (a mega-talented but oft-injured unicorn who finished third in MVP voting a few years ago), the Clips were somehow never able to build a good team around them. For a while, their third best player was Kyle Korver. Much like the real Clippers, LA never put it all together to achieve any real success.

At nearly 30 games under .500 in a top-heavy Pacific Division with no playoff appearances in three years and with precisely two good players and no promising ones (OK fine, maybe Josh Richardson), blowing this team up and starting from scratch was probably the correct move. And so Blake and CP3 were gone. Let’s dive deep on these trades.

LAC receives: Dario Saric, Deyonta Davis and the Pacers’ 1st round pick
IND receives: Blake Griffin

I hated this trade at first and can guarantee you that the Clippers had at least one better offer than this. But the more I think about it, the less atrocious it seems. Look, a 50-point player is extremely rare and make no mistake: the return here should have been greater. But you can understand why the Clippers liked what they got.

Saric is putting together a really nice rookie season and will only get better once Ilyasova clears out. He looks like an important piece for the future of the Sixers and will have lots of opportunity to do some good things in a lineup featuring Embiid, Simmons and whatever point guard Philly drafts this summer. He’s a guy I can see averaging something like 15-17 points, 6-8 rebounds and 4-5 assists in his prime.

Deyonta Davis was probably a lottery-level talent in this rookie class (granted, it’s looking like the weakest draft in at least a decade) but fell to the second round because he’s so unpolished. He’s definitely a prospect, but he’s noted more for his defense than anything, which doesn’t often translate into fantasy relevance. And the Grizzlies aren’t exactly known for throwing young players into the mix right away – or even within the first like five years. He’s buried behind ZBo, JaMychal Green and Jarell Martin, though Green is a free agent this summer and Memphis won’t be able to afford a new contract for him, so there’s that.

The Indy pick will be like #25 at best because the Pacers got so much better because of this trade. Picks are always nice, but the talent in this draft falls off monumentally after like the 15th pick, and Indy ain’t finishing in the lottery.

So basically this trade amounts to Griffin for Saric and two mumbled prayers. I’m shocked that this trade happened without the Philly pick. Or without any of the Pacers’ million other young prospects with actual promise. No Exum? No Lyles? No Garry Harris? Just Deyonta Davis?

I’ll refrain for now from talking any more about how this affects the Clippers and instead talk about how this affects Indiana and the East, because that’s more interesting.

The Pacers instantly just became the second-best team in the East. Atlanta has to be nervous. And the rest of the contenders in the East are now focusing on the #3 seed, because that’s as high as any of them will get. The Pacers have just acquired their best player mid-season, which is alarming to say the least for all competitors. This team now has a four-headed monster of Griffin, George, Gobert and Westbrook (more on that later) that rivals the top-heavy Spurs and Pelicans, but the Pacers also enjoy decent depth about 10 players deep. Their strategy must now be to trade Dunn for a player who can help now and Exum for whatever they can get.

This spells trouble for Chicago, who should have been the favorites to win the Central. That roster, even with Kevin Durant, just has too many holes to keep pace (pun intended) with Indiana. And somehow they’re even behind the Bucks now. Time to re-jigger.

Atlanta has just been so good so far that their spot atop the East probably remains safe. But can they really beat Indy in the Eastern finals? It’ll be a hell of a matchup. Both teams need to stay healthy.

And now the other trade:

LAC receives: Isaiah Whitehead, Wade Baldwin IV and the Bucks’ 1st round pick
SAC receives: Chris Paul

As a commissioner in this league I do feel obligated to censor myself here. Enough has been said about this trade. The only things left to say are 1. Congrats, Kings and 2. We’ll all be keeping a close eye on how many All-Star games Whitehead plays in.

 

NEW LEADER IN THE WILD WILD WEST

For forever, it seemed like the Spurs would lock down the Southwest Division with New Orleans just behind. But the Pelicans have been getting hotter and hotter thanks in large part to Joel Embiid, the Living Meme, and the Spurs have fallen off just a little bit and actually look just a little bit thin, especially with recent injuries.

Over the past month, New Orleans has five players averaging 40 points or more per game. The trio of Davis, Embiid (when healthy) and Bledsoe alone give you almost 170 points a night. And the team just got even better by acquiring Nerlens Noel and Jamal Murray for a pick. Sure, let’s just give this team every single young and talented player in the NBA. AND Ben Simmons hasn’t even played yet – and for all we know he could become the best player on this team. AND they’re $30 million under the cap. AND they have a lottery pick this year, and two more next year. Jesus. The more I look at this roster the more I just want to quit because this team will be one of the two or three best teams in the league for at least the next 10 years. The one worry right now, of course, is centered on the health of Embiid’s knee. How much longer will he be out?

So what happened to the Spurs? Well, it’s really not that anything happened to them, per se – it’s more that good things happened to the teams around them. The Spurs have been very quiet in the trade market this year, and why wouldn’t you be when you have Kawhi, Drummond and Towns? But the problem for the Spurs is depth. Wilson Chandler isn’t good enough to be your fourth-best player if you want to win a championship. Teams like the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Warriors have added more pieces to build up some depth while the Spurs have remained stagnant. San Antonio has a strong top eight, but if one or two of their stars isn’t playing more than one game in a given period, this team is beatable. With Lin out there is no bench to speak of here. They’re still in prime position in the West to advance to the conference finals, but a real danger exists that New Orleans will leave them in the dust, or that another playoff team with a big three like Portland or Utah could surprise them early.

 

INDIANA: BACK WITH A VENGEANCE

There will be no Finals loss hangover for the Pacers, it appears, as the team has reloaded with Griffin and Russell Westbrook, who is currently putting together one of the best statistical seasons of the past 25 years. Let’s examine this trade because I’ve already gushed enough about this Indy team. (OK, one more: I’ve never seen a team add two absolute ringers like this before, ever.)

IND receives: Westbrook, Brandon Knight and (somehow also?!) Phoenix’s 2018 1st round pick
PHX receives: Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker and Kris Dunn

I think the one thing we’ve learned (or really I guess we still haven’t) is that you should never, ever trade a superstar. There’s a reason it doesn’t happen in the real NBA. The return is almost never anything close to equal value and is almost always done because the player says he wants to leave town – but our players don’t get a choice in free agency. We saw what happened when OKC traded Durant and Westbrook. We saw the Durant trade earlier this year. We saw the Clippers trades. And now this.

I will say that this trade is the closest to equal value for a superstar that we’ve seen so far, but Indiana still wins this by a mile. Westbrook scores over 70 PPG. End of story. If I’m trading Westbrook, it means I’m rebuilding, and there’s no way I’m including pot sweeteners like Knight and my own pick next year, which, for Phoenix, looks like it could be in the lottery. Still, the return pieces are actually worthwhile. Parker played at an All-Star level this season, but one wonders how he’ll bounce back from a second torn ACL in three seasons. The reports are that he’s looking at a 12-month rehab period, so not only is he done for the rest of this season, but also for the majority of next season, as well. LaVine is another ACL tear victim, and was putting together a great campaign in his own right. He’s another question mark in terms of how he’ll play post-surgery: his game is so dependent on his explosiveness and athleticism, and some guys are never the same after a serious knee injury. For Dunn, I’ll just say this: the jury is basically still out on him, but in my opinion he’s looked like basically the worst player in the NBA this season and his lack of polish for a soon-to-be 23-year-old who spent three years in college hoops is kind of shocking.

 

PLAYOFF SEEDS SETTLING

It’s pretty much all but settled at this point which teams are in. Let’s take a look at the current order:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

  1. New Orleans
  2. San Antonio
  3. Golden State
  4. Utah
  5. Portland
  6. Sacramento
  7. Houston
  8. Phoenix

EASTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Atlanta
  2. Indiana
  3. Toronto
  4. Milwaukee
  5. Charlotte
  6. Chicago
  7. Miami
  8. Cleveland

I wrote “In the hunt” for both conferences but then there were no teams to put there. These are your 16 playoff teams, folks. Lock it up and prepare accordingly. See the rest of you (or whoever owns your picks) in the lottery.

 

ALL-STAR SELECTIONS

All-Star Weekend is almost here! Let’s get hype and pick the Real Deal All-Star team for the 2016-17 season. (To decide these lists I just looked at who’s scored the most points. Nice and easy.)

EAST

STARTERS

G: Russell Westbrook, IND
G: John Wall, WAS
F: Kevin Durant, CHI
F: Giannis Antetokuonmpo, MIL
F: LeBron James, CLE

RESERVES

Hassan Whiteside, CHI; Kyle Lowry, TOR; Rudy Gobert, IND; Kemba Walker, CHA; Carmelo Anthony, CLE; Draymond Green, CLE; Paul Millsap, ATL

A few interesting notes here: 1. Cleveland, a bottom seed in the playoffs, has three All-Stars. Atlanta, comfortably the best team in the league, barely has one. See, people, depth is important! There is also only one All-Star from a non-playoff team (Wall) and only two teams besides Cleveland have more than one All-Star (Chicago and Indiana).

WEST

STARTERS

G: James Harden, HOU
G: Stephen Curry, GS
F: DeMarcus Cousins, SAC
F: Anthony Davis, NO
F: Karl-Anthony Towns, SA

RESERVES

Andre Drummond, SA; Isaiah Thomas, PHO; Eric Bledsoe, NO; Jimmy Butler, POR; DeAndre Jordan, POR; Marc Gasol, MEM; Kawhi Leonard, SA

Seven of the 12 All-Stars belong to just three teams: New Orleans, San Antonio and Portland. Utah is the only playoff team without an All-Star. And Marc Gasol is the only All-Star not on a playoff team.

Real Deal Basketball Report: December 2016 Recap

December was a fairly quiet month. A few notable trades, a few minor changes in the standings, but no major excitement. Let’s take a look at the biggest stories from this month.

ORLANDO GIVES IN

Not that it was entirely their choice given how thin their roster was and how poorly they started, but the Magic are officially out of it this season after trading Vucevic and Gasol, two cornerstones of the team that was the best in the East in the league’s inaugural season two years ago. Let’s break down the two biggest trade of the month, both centered around the Orlando rebuild.

ORL receives: Derrick Favors and Utah’s 2018 1st round pick
UTAH receives: Nikola Vucevic and Orlando’s 2018 2nd round pick

This deal was essentially Vuc for Favors and a 1st round pick, making Orlando the clear long-term winner in this trade.

Vucevic’s role in the disastrously confusing Magic rotation is becoming more and more mysterious by the day, and he may not even end the season on the Magic roster (although that might be a good thing). He’s still a very productive player in this league because he averages a double-double (barely), but it’s worth noting that he’s scoring 5 or 6 fewer points per game than each of the last two seasons and is playing under 30 minutes a night for the first time since his rookie year. Still, again, he averages over 40 PPG so there can’t really be many complaints about this acquisition.

None of this, of course, is to say that Favors is any better. In fact, he’s been horrific this season and has missed a ton of games, and I’m sure Utah is glad to wash his hands of this player and not have to worry about wondering if he can ever put together a full good season. His minutes have been cut by about a third this year and there are questions if he can play PF next to Rudy Gobert, who, along with Gordon Hayward, is Utah’s most important player. This has forced him to occupy a backup role behind Gobert while Boris Diaw and the younger Trey Lyles, who fits the profile of a modern 4 much better than Favors does with his floor spacing ability. Still, Favors is just 25 and is on a very friendly contract. He’s one of the most inconsistent players in the NBA, but when he’s on, he’s on.

ORL receives: Terrence Ross, Demetrius Jackson, New York’s 2017 1st round pick
POR receives: Pau Gasol

This is a trade that makes sense for both sides, although Portland will miss Ross as a depth option. In Gasol, the Blazers get an aging and expensive star whose production is at its lowest ever.

However, they also get a significant talent upgrade. Gasol still gets double-doubles regularly and is unquestionably an upgrade in the starting eight over Ross. This was a good trade for the surging Blazers in their race for a top playoff seed, but one has to wonder if there were better options out there.

Orlando, on the other hand, gets a nice haul for a player they might have considered amnestying in the offseason. Ross remains an overall disappointment, but this year Dwayne Casey has found a very nice role for him. He’s playing fewer minutes but scoring more, and he’s finally shooting over 40% from three. Demetrius Jackson probably doesn’t amount to much more than a throw-in, but there was a point before the draft when many scouts projected he’d go in the lottery. He has talent but he’s in a terrible roster situation in Boston. Someone to keep an eye on and a nice lotto ticket for the Magic. The main piece here is the Knicks’ pick, which is almost guaranteed to be in the lottery, and this is possibly the most stacked draft class since 2003.

Overall, Orlando probably wins both trades. In the long run, Vuc for Favors might end up being a total wash, so Orlando wins because they get a pick out of it. Gasol only has a few years left at best and all three pieces the Magic got back for him have interesting potential. However, both Portland and Utah get significantly better this season because of these trades, and now they’re tied for first place in the Northwest with neither showing signs of slowing down. The drama!

 

PLAYOFF SPOTS SOLIDIFYING

We’re only two months in, but most of the playoff spots look to be locked down.

Especially in the West. There are exactly eight teams – San Antonio, New Orleans, Golden State, Portland, Utah, Houston, Phoenix and Sacramento – with winning records, and the rest are 10 games under .500 or worse.

So it’s basically a race for seeding at this point, with the Spurs remaining the favorites to end up on top – although they’ve been slipping a bit lately and the Pelicans are just one game behind. Man, what a race: Towns, Kawhi and Drummond vs. Davis, Kyrie and Embiid with Aldridge and Bledsoe playing major supporting roles for New Orleans. Whatever the order, they will likely end up 1 and 2.

Odds are Golden State will win the division and lock up the #3 spot, with Portland and Utah battling it out for the Northwest and ending up at 4 and 5.

That leaves the Kings, Suns and Rockets to duke it out for the last three spots. Sacramento in particular seems like they’re one or two good players away, now that Dirk is back, from challenging Golden State and surpassing the rest, including the Northwest duo.

In the East, things are a bit trickier (but not by much). There are nine teams with winning records, and all have decent arguments to make the postseason.

Let’s start with the locks. Toronto is in by default. Indiana, Chicago and Milwaukee (leading the division out of nowhere) are all too talented to miss, as are Atlanta and Charlotte.

That leaves two spots for Miami, Cleveland and Washington. All three of these teams are tough to project; all three could be a lot better with some TLC.

Cleveland has three amazing players in LeBron, Melo and Draymond – but, as I’ve been harping on them for for a year now, there is literally no other interesting player on the roster besides Morris.

Washington is in a similar situation, but only John Wall is playing at an elite level right now with Randle producing fairly nicely, as well. Things are extremely bad when you’re in the playoff hunt and Andre Roberson is your third best player.

Miami’s squad is by far the deepest, but one has to wonder how much success you can really achieve when Goran Dragic is your clear best player.

If I had to pick right now, I’d say Washington is the odd man out.

The rest of the inter-conference and inter-division races are way too close to call, especially Atlanta vs. Charlotte and the three-headed monster in the Central.

 

WISH LISTS

I think I did a new year’s resolution for each team last year or the year before, so why not make it an annual thing? Except a lot of teams are in a position where they don’t really need to actively change anything, so this year we’re getting holiday wish lists instead.

ATLANTA: Redick and Jackson have to get better for the Hawks to remain a title contender. They’re each struggling for very different reasons.
BOSTON: Nurkic gets traded away from the Nuggets and becomes a 10-10 starter.
BROOKLYN: The three dud top-10 picks from last year – Johnson, Hezonja and Cauley-Stein – get their damn acts together and earn some playing time.
CHARLOTTE: Atlanta gets bit by the injury bug.
CHICAGO: Aaron Gordon stops playing small forward 🙁
CLEVELAND: LeBron starts playing 48 minutes a game.
DALLAS: NERLENS NOEL GETS TRADED LITERALLY ANYWHERE
DENVER: A five-man bench mysteriously appears
DETROIT: JAHLIL OKAFOR GETS TRADED LITERALLY ANYWHERE
GOLDEN STATE: Barea gets healthy and returns to his regular mischief.
HOUSTON: Get transferred to the Atlantic.
INDIANA: Philly tanks.
LA CLIPPERS: Blake Griffin is unaffected by the surgery.
LA LAKERS: Blake Griffin is never the same after the surgery.
MEMPHIS: Flip Frazier, Gordon and Carroll for better long-term assets.
MIAMI: Dragic doesn’t get traded.
MILWAUKEE: Ibaka’s latest surge is not a fluke and he becomes an elite two-way player again.
MINNESOTA: Get massive hauls for Teague and Love.
NEW ORLEANS: The entire team makes it through the season with no injuries.
NEW YORK: Flip prospects and picks for win-now players and make a surprise playoff push.
OKLAHOMA CITY: Find out which prospects are worth keeping. Trade the rest and get into the 2017 draft in any capacity.
ORLANDO: Trade Nene, Tucker, etc. for literally anything.
PHILADELPHIA: Mudiay gets his act together.
PHOENIX: Knight gets traded, Westbrook averages a quintuple-double.
PORTLAND: The one or two more necessary trades are made and a title contender is confirmed.
SACRAMENTO: Dirk and Burks return to form.
SAN ANTONIO: Lin gets healthy for good and Chandler doesn’t get traded.
TORONTO: A move is made that simultaneously cuts salary and enables Beasley and Casspi to sit.
UTAH: Cody Zeller starts rebounding.
WASHINGTON: Everyone besides Wall and Randle move on and new youth comes in.

Real Deal Basketball Report: November 2016 Recap

One month in and this season has already been a doozy. We’ve had blockbuster trades, surprise teams and it’s actually looking like the playoff races in both conferences are going to be tight right down until the end.

 

TOP HEAVY…

There are three players that stand head and shoulders above the rest in Real Deal this season: Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Anthony Davis.

Westbrook is averaging an absolutely ridiculous 75.5 PPG. Hey, getting a triple-double every night will do that for you in this league. Westbrook’s silly usage rate of over 38% is the highest ever – EVER! – since the 2005-06 Kobe Bryant season. OKC has literally no other options offensively so I suppose it makes sense. Funnily enough, Russ’ blatant stat-padding is hurting his real-life team while helping out the Real Deal Suns in a major way. Aside from Westbrook, IT and Taj Gibson (yeah, that guy still), the Suns have little else to speak of in terms of production this year. The loss of a surprisingly resurgent Nick Young for the next few weeks will surely have Phoenix thinking of making a move to stay afloat in the Pacific, which is a bloodbath of a three-team race (sorry, LA teams). The Suns have scored the fifth-most points so far this season, but they lag behind in the overall standings, where they’re in 11th place (fifth in the West) and trail the Warriors by a couple of games.

Anthony Davis has been one of the many reasons that the Pelicans have surged from fringe playoff team to championship contender, averaging a cool 71 PPG. If he keeps up his averages – 32 PPG and 11 RPG – he’ll be the first NBA player to have a 30-point, 10-rebound season since Karl Malone in 1989-90. That’s pretty damn cool. The Pelicans – in a neck-and-neck race for the Southwest crown with San Antonio’s three-headed monster Kawhi, Drummond and Towns, are all healthy for the first time since the inception of the league and are accordingly firing on all cylinders. Davis is leading a behemoth of a team also comprised of Kyrie Irving, Eric Bledsoe and the Resplendent African Meme known as Joel Embiid, all averaging over 40 PPG. A second tier led by Aldridge and MKG are helping New Orleans to the third-highest point total thus far.

Harden, however, might not be enough to save the sinking ship that is the Rockets, despite averaging just under 70 PPG all on his own. It’s been a slow descent into mediocrity for Houston, who had the best record in the league two seasons ago, were the fifth seed in the West last year and are now fighting to get into the postseason this year. As things stand, the Rockets sit at 16th place – bang average – in the league and 8th in the West. Is it possible that Harden’s 28 PPG, 12 APG and 7 RPG won’t be enough for the playoffs? Aside from Harrison Barnes, the least efficient 20 PPG scorer in NBA history (needs citation), the rest of the team has been a disappointment.

 

…BOTTOM HEAVY

There are some teams that truly stink in this league, even if it was expected.

I’ll start with my own team. It stinks. Every single one of my sophomore players (Richaun Holmes excluded) have fallen on their faces and might never be good. None of my rookies are being given a shot, either. And the only players on my team who don’t fall into either category are Steven Adams, Noah Vonleh, Tyler Zeller and two Euro stash guys. Oy. This rebuild is going to take longer than I thought.

Such is the same in OKC, where the Thunder are still in for a hell of a fight to dig this team out of the trenches sometime this decade. There’s not much else to say, unfortunately: OKC is in dead last in every possible measurement and haven’t even scored half as many points this season as the 29th-place Nets. No one on this roster plays more than 14 minutes per game, and, to add insult to injury (or is that the other way around?), Jerryd Bayless got banged up just three games in.

Dallas has only won three games all year, but they have had to deal with the league’s fifth-toughest schedule. The Mavs became a lot younger this offseason than I think most people realized, and that’s probably part of why they’re struggling. Pair that with disappointing output from Mirotic, Crowder, Jokic and Noel’s injury, take away the draft pick and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

What the hell happened to Orlando? This team won the East easily in the inaugural season of Real Deal and now they’re 3-19. In some ways, this was sort of The Roster That Time Forgot. And by that I mean that their only good players at the end of last season were Vucevic and Pau Gasol, and no pieces of consequence were added. Greg Monroe was the #1 overall pick in the Real Deal expansion draft and now he has evaporated into thin air. Tyreke is still hurt (surprise surprise). Bender and Zubac are too young. And the rest of the team is made up of the ghosts of Jason Terry, Nene and a bunch of nobodies. It’s a good thing the Magic kept their pick this year as visions of Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson and Harry Giles dance in their dreams like sad sugarplum fairies.

 

PORTLAND RISING

It took a while, but the Blazers are finally as good as they should have been in the first place. They lead the division fairly comfortably and sit at third in the West, a big jump from the first two seasons of Real Deal. The Porzingis-for-DeAndre trade still doesn’t make a ton of sense long-term, but it’s pretty much a wash at this point, especially with how good the rest of the team has been. Dame continues to be a bona fide superstar (good thing defense doesn’t count), and Jimmy Butler is carefully building his case as an MVP candidate. We’re still waiting on certain guys (Rodney Hood) to make that next step, and are close to giving up on several more (Terrence Ross, Meyers Leonard, Sauce Castillo). Portland is off to a rip-roaring start, but they might notice some teams catching up quickly if they don’t fill out the rest of this roster with players getting at least 30 PPG. Roy Hibbert and his 16 PPG aren’t good enough to start for a team that wants to compete for a title.

 

KD TO CHICAGO AND ITS IMPACT ON THE EAST

In the biggest blockbuster since year one of Real Deal, Kevin Durant was shipped off to the Windy City to help the Bulls rise to the top of the Central, Real Deal’s most competitive division this year, and ultimately knock off Atlanta and Charlotte for top spot in the conference.

To fully appreciate the significance of this trade, we need to rewind two years and change back in time, when KD and Westbrook both left OKC, changing the climate of the Western Conference for the next five years or more. Westbrook went to a Phoenix team that was utterly mediocre in year one, but has become a major threat in the West. The same has not been true in LA, where KD’s team has struggled.

In dynasty leagues, it’s almost never a good idea to trade sure-thing, proven superstars. We all know what happened to OKC after trading away the reigning NBA MVP. But for the Lakers, the return looks slightly more promising (and I mean very slightly, but still pretty bad considering how valuable Durant is). Jordan Clarkson and two lottery picks in a stacked draft, including the odds-on favorite for the #1 overall selection, is fair enough.

But the real story is how KD impacts his new team, the Chicago Bulls. Chicago had been putting together a decent year on the back of Hassan Whiteside and his 17 points and 15 rebounds per game. But given how competitive the Central has been this year, paired with disappointing output from guys like Rubio, Gordon and Harris, it was time to make a big move – and the Bulls made the biggest one possible.

Chicago might be the favorites to win the Central now, and that’s no short order. The Indiana Core of Young Super Mutants led by Paul George, the grizzled, 26-year-old veteran of the team, still holds bragging rights and sits atop the division fresh off a finals appearance – and to be honest, this team looks like an engine that won’t slow down for the next decade or so. Jason Kidd unleashing the hell on earth that is Giannis Antetokuonmpo at point guard in NBA basketball games has vaulted the Milwaukee Bucks out of anonymity and they’re right in the thick of things, too. Even the duds of the division are not to be brushed off. Cleveland still has LeBron, Dray and Melo, even if they have nothing else, and the surprisingly scrappy Pistons are enjoying great seasons from the scrap heap of NBA players like Ish Smith and Sean Kilpatrick. Oh, and no team in the division has a losing record.

But what might be even more interesting than the division race is how this newly ultra-powered Bulls team will fare against the other top competitors in the East; namely, Atlanta and Charlotte. Both of those teams roll eight or nine deep with players who score 30 or more points per game. They’re also both 18-4, two games above Chicago, and are 2nd and 5th overall in points scored.

Now the top of the East is an arms race. Are Atlanta or Charlotte threatened enough by the Bulls to make a move? Each team has enough young talent to attempt to wrestle a star way from a team who might want to blow it up as the season goes on.

If the season ended today, the playoff seedings would look like this:

  1. Atlanta (18-4)
  2. Charlotte (18-4)
  3. Toronto (17-5)
  4. Indiana (16-6)
  5. Chicago (16-6)
  6. Milwaukee (15-7)
  7. Miami (12-10)
  8. Cleveland (12-10)

So there’s a clear top 6. Chicago is on the rise. How will everyone else keep up?

 

SHOUT OUTS

Some shout outs to teams and players I didn’t get to cover this month:

Shout out to the Raptors. Gotta give it up to them, because even though they play in a trash division and have enjoyed the fourth easiest schedule, they’re still 17-5 and are 9th overall in points. DeMar DeRozan has played like an MVP and Kyle Lowry has looked really good lately after a putrid start. And it’s awesome seeing Vince Carter playing good basketball again.

Shout out to the San Antonio Spurs, who are the league’s best team so far at 20-2 and #1 in overall points. KAT, Kawhi and Drummond are a built-in 150 points per game and that’s enough to propel this team into at least the Conference Finals.

Shout out to Kevin Love. He’s playing his best ball in years and the Cavs have finally figured out how to play him with LeBron and Kyrie. Just get a team around him, Minny!

Shout out to Chris Paul, my choice for MVP this season until about a week ago.

Shout out to Joel Embiid for being the only rookie worth a damn this year (and he wasn’t even drafted this season).

Shout out to Kemba Walker, perhaps the most underrated player in the league.

Shout out to Otto Porter for finally being good.

Shout out to those of us trying to make trades in this league!

And that’s it. See you in January.

Division Previews: Western Conference

NORTHWEST DIVISION

1. UTAH JAZZ

This division is all Utah’s. Every player in the starting eight should be good for at least 30 points a game once Hayward and Zeller are back in full health. There are no star players here – the boring but always solid Horford and Hayward are probably as close as the Jazz get to that – but that doesn’t matter with depth like the type that Utah enjoys. This is a team that could finish very high in the West thanks to weak in-division competition.

 

2. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Portland enjoys having two of the five Hooper family members.
Portland enjoys having two of the five Hooper family members.

Don’t look now, but this team might be a playoff contender. Reaping the benefits of the Aldridge trade, Portland already has a nice young core of Lillard and Butler. The acquisition of DeAndre Jordan means this team is in win-now mode, and with four 1sts next year, there are plenty of trade chips. Portland could use some more help in the supporting cast, which is pretty lacking outside of Rodney Hood. Regardless of what changes might be forthcoming for the Blazers, this is a team on the rise, and the decline of other teams in this division makes them a playoffs dark horse.

 

3. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

A team no longer in the business of winning division championships, the Wolves are looking for ways to get into the postseason again. Armed with a solid if not astounding core of Kevin Love and Jeff Teague, Minnesota has a lot on its roster in terms of end of the bench guys, but the supporting cast just isn’t anything special, or even average, at this point. Barring an unexpected surge from someone else, Minnesota’s third-best player this season will be either Jared Dudley or Jose Calderon. That’s just not good enough. Fortunately, though, Minnesota has some options here. If they decide to make a run, there are assets to be traded, including one of the two first round picks it owns and intriguing youngsters like the Powells and Kelly Oubre. If, however, they decide to hold off, there are plenty of veterans to auction off for picks and younger, cheaper guys. As presently constructed, the Wolves are just an ok team, but there’s a lot of flexibility here.

 

4. DENVER NUGGETS

Denver is about five good players away from being a contender, but what’s there is pretty good – at least in the backcourt. A trio of Booker, Smart and McCollum is a set-and-forget for at least the next 10 seasons at the top of the order. Beyond that, however, the Nuggets are lacking. Jaylen Brown, while exciting, is a total unknown as an NBA players. Faried may no longer be a double-double machine in Denver as the team continues to slowly phase him out. Horford’s arrival in Beantown mercifully sends Olynyk to the bench, and the talented Motiejunas is buried and unhappy in Houston. The entire bench could be cut and this team really wouldn’t be missing anything. This team is on the right track, but still very much in development.

 

5. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

The once-mighty Thunder are still reeling from a woeful 2015-16 season, during which OKC won just 1 single game. The Durant and Westbrook trades allowed OKC one season of success before rearing their ugly heads; now, it will take years for the Thunder to dig themselves out of this hole and become relevant again. The prognosis for 2016-17 remains grim, but the good news is that things are trending up – even if only a little bit. After a nice draft this month, the Thunder now have a young group that includes Bobby Portis, Tyler Ulis, Denzel Valentine, Furkan Korkmaz, Kay Felder and Cam Payne. None of those guys will develop into top players on a championship team, but it’s something. OKC’s mission this season is to get some more picks – they have no 1st rounders for the next two years and no picks at all next fall, which threatens to stall the rebuild significantly.

 

SOUTHWEST DIVISION

1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS

After taking over this team midway through the league’s first season, the Spurs lucked into the first pick and Karl-Anthony Towns, who is the best first overall pick since LeBron James. Combine KAT with Kawhi and Drummond and you have a lethal trio that should easily average 150 points per game by themselves. And even beyond those three, there’s a lot else to like here. Lin will be the showrunner for the Nets this season. Turner is a weird fit in Portland, but I can see it working. Dieng and Biyombo will collect double-doubles. Jennings and Booker are nice players to have on the bench. The Spurs are one of three teams I see vying for the top spot in the West.

 

2. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

Trust the process!
Trust the process!

After two seasons of lying in wait, it’s finally time for the Pelicans to have a good season. Kyrie and AD have long been the cornerstone pieces of this franchise, and with midseason additions Eric Bledsoe and LaMarcus Aldridge, this team is looking really dangerous. The starting eight is rounded out by two high-upside players in Embiid (finally!) and MKG, and two very solid guards in Manu and CoJo. Plus, there’s Ben Simmons – but who knows if he’ll actually play this season. This team’s biggest problem will be injuries. AD is already banged up. I mentioned Simmons already. Bledsoe, MKG and Kyrie have all missed a lot of games over the past two years. And Embiid hasn’t played basketball in two years. If everything comes together, this team could be unstoppable. But that might be a big “if.”

 

3. HOUSTON ROCKETS

The Rockets finishing this low is no knock on them. The Southwest is by far the toughest division in the league this year and the two teams above them have just a little bit more juice. This is still a great team led by James Harden, who’s my MVP pick this season. I do have a few concerns about the rest of this team, however, though they are small. Can Deron Williams still be good? Will Barnes be a complete train wreck as a primary option? Will having three starters from the same team (Dallas) hurt the Rockets fantasy-wise? Will Joakim Noah stay healthy? Will Mozgov play under Luke Walton? Will anyone on the bench aside from Henderson contribute anything of consequence? I do think the Rockets will be just fine, but there are enough things about this roster that make me wonder if they can stay on top.

 

4. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

I never know what to say about this team because it’s always been so solid, and it appears they’ll remain so. It just sucks for them that the rest of this division is so good. The Grizzlies would be an easy playoff team in the East, but in the West’s Southwest Division, this team is going to take a pounding from the other top-tier teams. Injuries hampered their campaign last season, and now they’re without Eric Bledose, who’s off playing for a division rival. Still, much like the real Grizzlies, a team backed by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley should do pretty well. For Memphis to do really well, Carroll and Gordon are going to have to stay healthy and Green and Frazier will have to flourish in their new starting roles. Don’t know if I see any of that happening.

 

5. DALLAS MAVERICKS

I really hate ranking Dallas last, but the fact is that the Southwest is absolutely stacked. This team has a lot of really good young players like Noel, Crowder, Jokic and Mirotic, but there are too many unknowns in the starting eight for me to say that the Mavs will realistically be any better than San Antonio, New Orleans, Houston or Memphis. A backcourt of Seth Curry, James Ennis and Patrick McCaw doesn’t do much for me. Dallas might be able to make some moves, but more likely they just might have to ride out a long season.

 

PACIFIC DIVISION

1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

There’s a lot of reason to think that the Warriors’ title defense will be pretty successful: namely, Steph Curry. Sure, he’ll score less, but with KD in town Curry will pile on more assists because Durant will make good on all the buckets Barnes would miss. He probably won’t score 30 a game anymore, but maybe he’ll average close to 10 assists. Klay’s value takes a hit with KD in town, but the rest of the starters can make up for that dip. KCP should have a big year as Detroit’s primary outside shooter, Plumlee continues to grow as a player, Teletovic will give much-needed spacing to Jason Kidd’s Bucks, Lopez is the only legitimate NBA player on the Nets, and Turner should make that next step sometime this season. The Middleton injury is a huge blow, and Golden State truly has no bench right now, but I don’t think that’s enough to stop them from emerging from the Pacific on top.

 

2. SACRAMENTO KINGS

The Kings might really need this year to be a big one. It’s the last time, probably, that they can count on Dirk and Wade to put up big numbers. They’re in great shape for this year, but it’s time to take the next step. Boogie is the kingpin for what should be a great team, and the supporting cast is quite good. Barton and Dellavedova were great pickups. Beal, if healthy, should continue to be very useful. Rudy Gay is a good fantasy player and that’s all I’ll say there. The bench, however, is seriously weak until Burks comes back. Sacramento might have to bulk up in order to stay near the top of the West, but either way, with Cousins in the middle, this is one of the league’s best teams.

 

3. PHOENIX SUNS

Russell Westbrook is going to absolutely light the world on fire this year, and that’s great news for the Suns, who might have the first player since the Big O to average a triple double (even if Westbrook’s come in the form of points, turnovers and missed 3s). Russ is truly where this team begins and ends: how successful the Suns are this year depends on how good he is. The rest of the squad, led by Thomas, Knight, Deng and a few decent bigs, can keep the Suns afloat if something goes wrong, but Russ is the key to this team reaching its full potential.

 

4. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

The Clippers are an interesting team. Much like the real Clippers, this might have to be this team’s last year rolling Blake and CP3 before some changes are made. Several off-season moves – such as their trade of next year’s pick and the signing of David West – send a message to the league that this team wants to win now. With this roster, I actually can see LA making some noise this year; the dynamic duo is backed by a slew of vets that include Korver, Frye, West and Lee, all of whom should produce reasonably this year. Josh Richardson is all that the team has in terms of youth, unless Luwawu or Onuaku have big rookie years out of nowhere. There’s a lot to like here – but there’s a lot more to like in Oakland, Sacramento and Phoenix.

 

5. LOS ANGELES LAKERS

How can a team that has Kevin Durant continue to underperform? I’m telling you, man, depth really matters in this league. The blockbuster deal that sent KD to LA ended up being a killer for both sides as the Lakers continue to struggle to put the right pieces around their superstar, whose fantasy value is taking a hit, by the way, playing next to Steph and Klay. Robin Lopez might end up being the Lakers’ second-best player. Tony Parker is still ok but has been declining for about five years. DRose could be a revelation in New York, or he could be a disaster. Nobody else on this team offers meaningful production. If I’m the Lakers, I try to get young quickly without letting go of Durant and start building an army, because this division is not getting any easier.

 

PLAYOFFS

1. GOLDEN STATE

2. SAN ANTONIO

3. SACRAMENTO

4. PHOENIX

5. UTAH

6. NEW ORLEANS

7. HOUSTON

8. PORTLAND

Division Previews: Eastern Conference

Basketball is finally almost here!

Let’s get to some predicting. Here, I give my guesses as to how the divisions will end up, and who makes the postseason.

 

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. TORONTO RAPTORS

Toronto, for the third straight year, is going to walk into a division title just because it’s the only team in this division that isn’t a complete train wreck or deep in a rebuild. Lowry and DeRozan, as in real life, are a fine if not particularly riveting duo. Randolph and Gortat have historically been the leading second-tier contributors for the Raptors, but Gorat is in decline and Randolph is 35 and now coming off the bench in Memphis. And beyond that, Toronto doesn’t have too much going on. Ahead of a bench with no one particularly useful on it, the Raptors will be counting on big production from the likes of Dion Waiters, Patrick Patterson and Omri Casspi, which doesn’t sound too promising for Toronto’s playoff run – especially considering how good some other teams in the East are becoming.

 

2. NEW YORK KNICKS

New York made one of the biggest off-season trades by trading DeAndre Jordan for the younger hometown kid with more potential: Kristaps Porzingis. A great move for the Knicks, which sets a foundation for them to stay relevant down the road in a division with three long-term redevelopers while simultaneously remaining the second best team in the Atlantic. If things go really wrong in the East’s other two divisions, this team might even sniff at a playoff spot – but don’t count on it. A couple of New York’s role players – Patty Mills, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Joe Johnson – could help the Knicks spoil some games, and there is a slew of promising rookies also present on the roster. This team could be pretty interesting in a couple of years.

 

3. BROOKLYN NETS

My team would finish dead last in any other division, but here we are in the Atlantic, where sub-mediocrity is just part of the brand. Fantrax projects the Nets to have five players put up 24 points per game or more this season, which is actually more than any other team in the division, even the Raptors. Brooklyn is still very much in rebuild mode, but the lack of competition within the Atlantic might push this team over 35 wins and spoil another chance at a high draft pick.

 

4. BOSTON CELTICS

Boston's playoff odds.
Boston’s playoff odds.

Still a long way to go for the Celtics, too. Russell is a franchise point guard and Winslow will be great for a long time in the NBA, but there are still so many holes on this team. Nurkic, Poeltl, Jones and Anderson are pieces worth holding onto, but you can pretty much scrap the rest of this roster. The Celtics missed out on a high draft pick after a stinker season last year, but they should have another pick in the top 5 next fall.

 

5. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Philly’s new owner has done an admirable job so far of trying to make this team’s future a bit brighter, but for now, this team still stinks. Mudiay will produce fantasy numbers this year, but beyond that, I don’t think any of these players will do anything meaningful this season, except maybe Allen Crabbe. The 76ers had a ton of draft picks this year, but aside from Marquese Chriss, will any of them pan out? I love Diallo’s game, but he’s still a gamble. Brogdon, Papagiannis and Niang are all very low-ceiling, as are other prospects like McDaniels, Bertans and Robinson. Having no 1sts in 2017 hurts this team’s rebuild in a major way and it could be a long few years for the 76ers.

 

 

CENTRAL DIVISION

1. CHICAGO BULLS

I’m not as bullish (pun intended) on this team as I was last year, but I do think they should win the division again. Players 1-8 on this team are all really good, with Asik and Len possibly being exceptions. The rising cap has saved Chicago and given the Bulls a little bit of wiggle room to add some sorely-needed bench depth. Livingston is solid, Abrines could be nice, but I’m not sold on anyone else here. Parsons will be a big addition when he comes back, but when will that be? Regardless, Chicago has the best starting lineup in the Central and should repeat as champs, unless some of Indiana or Milwaukee’s young guys make a big step up this season.

 

2. INDIANA PACERS

Indy shocked the league by making the finals last season, riding hot streaks from its young core. The Pacers don’t have much to worry about – that young core is still the best in the league. However, I do think this team is still a year or two away from sustaining consistent greatness over a full season. A look up and down this roster speaks for itself and I’ve written a ton about this in the past: This is a team built for long-term success. Will they get lucky in the playoffs again?

 

3. MILWAUKEE BUCKS

I was down on the Bucks last season, but recent developments have made this team really interesting – first and foremost, the miraculous emergence of Point Giannis, who might be a top 10 fantasy player this season and is a 21-year-old, 7-foot-tall point forward (NOT A POINT GUARD. STOP SAYING THIS!). Ibaka’s move to Orlando removes him from the role of understudy and will probably make him the focal point on offense for the Magic. Oladipo leaving town will open up a ton of room for Payton to play more effectively and have shooters around him. Solomon Hill will be starting (lol) for the Pelicans. Thad Young will be counted on in Indiana. The Bucks had just one 2nd round pick this year and no more picks until 2018, but fortune may have bought this team a few more good years. The Bucks don’t have many trade pieces to build some depth, which would go a long way, so that limits them a bit this season, but they could make the playoffs.

 

4. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Man, what happened here? Cleveland began this league as the prohibitive favorite. Now? LeBron is still LeBron, but expect him to play a lot less this year now that he’s finally won a title for his hometown team. Melo might be washed. Green is still great, but KD coming to Golden State will probably push him to play center a lot more and thus have the ball in his hands less frequently. And beyond that big three, there’s not a single player I like here. Morris is still a head case and Pachulia is a terrible fit for the Warriors and will probably get phased out pretty quickly. Maybe the big three will be enough to carry Cleveland to the playoffs, but maybe not.

 

5. DETROIT PISTONS

Things are not looking great in Motor City after the Andre Drummond trade. Detroit got a lot of picks out of it, but Jahlil Okafor might never be given a chance to put up numbers again and this team doesn’t have a lot of help elsewhere. There are some intriguing youngsters – Hield, McDermott, Hernangomez, Muhammad, Nance – but they’re all still a number of years away from big production and this team’s best fantasy player is Tristan Thompson. Could be a long season for Detroit.

 

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

1. ATLANTA HAWKS


This is still Atlanta’s division until someone comes and takes it from them. Depth is still this team’s biggest issue, although the new ownership deserves some credit for assembling some at least decent backups. (Last year’s owner, if you’ll recall, rode the league’s best starting 8 [put together by another – nameless – GM] all the way to the league’s best record and a nice cash prize.) Much of the Hawks’ success will be determined by how three big names – Rondo, Howard and Oladipo – perform on their new teams. Paul Millsap is the league’s most underrated player, both in real life and fantasy, and is easily a top-10 all-around, two-way NBA player. Luckily for Atlanta, all three relocations seem for now to be of benefit to the players in question. Atlanta is poised for another good year, but they’ve got to continue sculpting this roster if long-term success is on the agenda.

2. CHARLOTTE HORNETS

Charlotte was the most unexpectedly good team of last season, and there’s a chance they can be even better this year. It’s likely they can even push Atlanta for the division crown and make another deep playoff run. Kemba and Bazemore both had career years last season; they’ll need to keep that up. Capela, Bogut and Kanter all figure to have increased offensive roles in their new situations. Warren and Porter have to develop and produce this year, and many think they will. Bradley and Aminu are rock solid. Anything the Hornets get from Jefferson, Wroten and MCW is gravy. Plus, that salary cap nightmare is finally sorted out – even if it took a leaguewide bailout. Keep an eye on this squad.

 

3. MIAMI HEAT

Goran want 2nd place, not 3rd.
Goran want 2nd place, not 3rd.

Miami, largely due to the fierce competitiveness of the division, has always been a team on the cusp of the playoffs. This year, I think the Heat can make a leap forward. There are some nice pieces here, starting with Dragic and Collison, who are literally the only competent point guards on their respective teams and will thus play a lot. Valanciunas may take a big step up this season. Iggy, Crawford, Morris and Fournier are money in the bank. Bogdanovic could be a secret weapon. Given the declining state of the Southeast, Miami may be poised for a nice season. And I’m not even considering Chris Bosh.

4. WASHINGTON WIZARDS


From a championship in season 1 to missing the playoffs last year, the Wizards will finish this season with answers that are currently unknown. Are Wall and Randle a good enough one-two punch to repeat as title contenders? Has the competition in the Southeast cooled off enough for this team to have sustained success? Just how dire is the issue of depth with this team? I take a long look at this team’s rotation players – Andre Roberson and his one career good offensive game, Jeff Green and his inconsistent production, Mike Scott and his $23 million contract, the ghost of Tyson Chandler – and I can’t help but think it’s going to be a long year in the capitol. The Wizards might be on the downswing, and looking back, that Bradley Beal trade hurts if that’s the case (Washington did get three 1sts in the deal, but two of those are already made [the low-ceiling Domantas Sabonis and the what the heck is this guy Skal Labissiere], and the other one is two years away).

5. ORLANDO MAGIC

This team's in so much trouble that they get a watermarked stock photo.
This team’s in so much trouble that they get a watermarked stock photo.

This is a team in crisis mode. Despite a stacked front line, the one-mighty Magic are suddenly staring at an immense uphill battle to reclaim glory for the city of Orlando. One look at the roster is all you need to get a sense of where this franchise is. Orlando will quickly have to flip some pieces for a couple of guards, or they’re staring a Steve Blake – Jason Terry – Kevin Martin – Tayshaun Prince starting lineup dead in the face – and three of those guys aren’t even on an NBA team. Trading high-intrigue pieces like Dragan Bender, Ivica Zubac, Tyreke Evans and some picks may be the only way out of dire straits, unless the Magic decide to hope for the best in free agency this season. There’s a lot of work to be done here, and it’s gotta be done fast.

 

PLAYOFFS

1. ATLANTA

2. CHARLOTTE

3. CHICAGO

4. INDIANA

5. TORONTO

6. MIAMI

7. MILWAUKEE

8. CLEVELAND