REAL DEAL BASKETBALL REPORT: OFFSEASON RECAP
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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 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 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
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
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
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 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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:
- San Antonio
- New Orleans
- Golden State
(Jeez, the West was tougher than I thought. It feels like 1-7 is a pick ’em.)
Let me know your playoff predictions!