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After running through some of the winners and losers of the NBA summer, we found ourselves thinking a lot about the non-marquee-name teams that might not line up neatly in one category or the other, but that still felt pretty compelling to us heading into next season. So let’s run through 10 of the NBA’s most interesting teams (outside of … y’know … that one) at the moment, starting with…
After winding up one overtime loss away from the playoffs despite Paul Millsap missing more than half the season with a bum left wrist, Denver will enter next season with hopes of an even brighter future, because general manager Tim Connelly found a way to augment his team’s core while avoiding (for now) the pitfall of a young squad becoming too expensive too fast.
Step one: hold onto your own guys. Denver declined star center Nikola Jokic’s dirt-cheap $1.6 million team option for next season, which would have allowed him to hit unrestricted free agency next summer, then locked him up on a five-year, $147 million (but not quite max ) contract. They also kept explosive shot creator Will Barton with a four-year, $53 million deal — maybe slightly more than they’d have liked to pay, but worth it to maintain continuity on one of the NBA’s best offenses. Connelly then set about pruning that tax bill. Out went forward Wilson Chandler; then, big men Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur followed suit.
The two moves erased $34 million in payroll and a projected $90 million in luxury tax payments off Denver’s balance sheet while opening the door for Barton to step into the starting five. (By the way, the lineup of Jokic, Millsap, Barton, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray bulldozed opponents by 53 points in 65 minutes of floor time last season.) They also created more opportunity for some of their recent draftees to earn larger roles… and, maybe, for a pair of lottery tickets to pay off. With their core already in place, the Nuggets took two low-risk, high-reward gambles, using the 2018 draft’s No. 14 pick on prep superstar Michael Porter Jr. and taking a flyer on Isaiah Thomas, an All-NBA scorer whose career has been waylaid by hip injury and circumstance.
How much (or even whether) Porter will play this season and what Denver can expect from a post-hip-surgery IT remain glaring questions. So does a defense that’s been one of the league’s five worst in each of the last two seasons , and that doesn’t figure to get much stouter by adding the likes of Thomas and Porter. But add continued development from Murray and Harris to the chance that an extremely motivated Thomas rediscovers his All-Star form alongside Jokic, and that Porter justifies all that No. 1 pick hype, and man… this offense could be frightening . Is that enough for 50 wins and a playoff spot? I don’t know. But it’ll be fun to find out. — Dan Devine
Portland Trail Blazers
I don’t think the Blazers are better, and they might be worse.
In the frontcourt, they brought back restricted free-agent center Jusuf Nurkic on a reasonable four-year, $48 million deal, but lost backup Ed Davis’ rim-protection and rebounding to the Brooklyn Nets for $4.4 million. Sophomore center Zach Collins should grow into a shot-blocking and floor-spacing big, but the guess here is they’ll miss Davis’ grit, at least this coming season.
They swapped backup point guard Shabazz Napier for Seth Curry in free agency, which might represent a slight upgrade, if Curry returns to form after a leg injury cost him all of last season. But most guard minutes will continue to go to franchise cornerstones Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who remain (for now) despite another year’s worth of rumors that their backcourt partnership could come to an end in Portland’s pursuit of top-end talent elsewhere on the roster.
They seem content running it back with the same team that captured the West’s third seed, only to be swept by the Pelicans in embarrassing fashion. The Blazers will again hope Nurkic finds the game-changing form he displayed late in the 2016-17 season and rely on the development of 2017 first-round-picks Collins and Caleb Swanigan, along with rookie Anfernee Simons.
But Lillard was already commanding meetings with owner Paul Allen about the team’s direction last season, and it’s hard to imagine retaining Nurkic and adding Curry is enough to alleviate his concerns. After reaching the conference semifinals in 2016, the Lillard-McCollum partnership has now yielded two straight first-round exits, and the Blazers are still looking up at the West’s best teams. That rumored backcourt shakeup seems almost inevitable now. — Ben Rohrbach
Los Angeles Lakers
(OK, so we’re doubling up on this one.)
We’ve already covered the new-look Lakers a lot — like, a whole, whole, whole lot — but the fact that we’ve already talked over seemingly every angle of LeBron-to-L.A. and what it’s wrought doesn’t mean that they’re any less interesting entering the season.
I get that everybody involved very much wants us to know that LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are all on the same page with the curious post-LeBron signings — JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo — that have turned the Lakers’ roster into a shooting-light, playmaking-and-attitude-heavy, defensively-questionable collection of characters. I know that all parties concerned are communicating that LeBron’s totally on-board with the idea that he should handle the ball less, operate out of the post more, and allow teammates to take on a larger share of the offensive responsibility. I’m just going to need to see it, is all.
Far be it from me to doubt the collective basketball acumen of James, Johnson and the rest of the L.A. braintrust. I just want to see it actually play out, and LeBron show a full season of patience with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, without forcibly seizing the ball, the reins, the playmaking responsibility and the means of roster-management production before I fully believe it’s really going to happen. I know what they’re telling us it’s going to look like, and what I think it might look like, but how LeBron actually navigates the first year in the last nine in which he won’t be favored to make the Finals promises to be fascinating. — DD
The Wizards felt the need to jettison starting center Marcin Gortat in part due to a quarrel with star point guard John Wall, only to replace him with notorious locker–room stenchman Dwight Howard in free agency. In return for Gortat, they got the ever-combative Austin Rivers. They also signed Jeff Green, who has sort of wandered through 10 seasons and seven NBA cities.
Rivers gives the Wizards the backcourt depth behind All-Stars Wall and Bradley Beal that they’ve been searching for since, well, forever. Green is always capable of contributing, if only on occasion (see Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference finals). And Howard may not be the All-NBA and All-Defensive mainstay he once was, but he’s still a productive player at age 32. He could be a devastating pick-and-roll partner for Wall and create space for Beal and Otto Porter with his gravitational pull to the basket. Washington has more talent as a result of these moves.
But ask Kobe Bryant or James Harden how Howard’s talent translated in the locker room. Add Dwight, Rivers and a Morris twin capable of anything to Wall and Beal’s already combustible relationship, and this chemistry experiment has the potential to explode, as colleague Dan Devine put it, into “about 31-players-only meetings and zero postseason series victories.” — BR
I believe in Derrick Favors, one of the best players in the NBA that hardly anyone ever really thinks, a ho-hum two-way ass-kicker who shot nearly 74 percent at the rim, and might actually have enough touch to add the stretch to his game (14-for-63 from 3-point range last year, after attempting just 26 long balls through his first seven pro seasons) that could finally help ease the long-established traffic jam inside when he shares the floor with Rudy Gobert. I believe in Dante Exum, who has the physical tools to be an elite stopper and has shown enough playmaking juice amid myriad injuries to get more than 179 games’ worth of runway to prove he can develop into something like an ideal partner for Donovan Mitchell.
I think Utah did well to bring them back on short deals — two years, $36 million for Favors, three years, $33 million for Exum — that round out a deep, tough, talented roster that should once again rank among the NBA’s best defensive units and might rise up the offensive ranks, assuming even more excellence from Mitchell and the benefit of continuity with Ricky Rubio in Year 2. The Jazz can play their familiar bully-ball with the Gobert-Favors frontcourt, can downshift to small-ball with Joe Ingles or Jae Crowder at the four and one of Gobert or Favors on the back line, and can juice up their playmaking by rolling out three-guard looks with some combination of Mitchell, Rubio, Exum, slashers Alec Burks and Royce O’Neale, and rookie Grayson Allen. There are options, here, and they’re ones that can kick most teams’ asses on any given night.
It’s possible that standing pat by re-upping Favors and Exum represents arrested development for Utah, keeping the Jazz locked into a two-big identity that almost definitionally renders them unable to compete with the likes of Golden State, Houston and any other elite-level competitor that can credibly go five-out for the bulk of the game. But last year’s Jazz managed a 52-win point differential with Gobert missing 26 games, Exum playing just 14, Crowder only joining at the trade deadline and Mitchell on only his first run through the league. styles make fights, and Utah’s an awful lot of fun to watch as one of the NBA’s premier southpaws; give this team a clean bill of health, and Quin Snyder a full training camp at the controls, and let’s see if we don’t have a monster on our hands. — DD
They’re in a weird spot. There’s no doubt we underrate the threat they posed in the playoffs. The Bucks pushed a Boston Celtics team that came within six minutes of the Finals to seven games in the first round — two more than the upstart Philadelphia 76ers did in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Who knows what might have happened had Giannis Antetokounmpo squared off with LeBron James in a winner-take-all meeting of the game’s future and present.
What we do know is that for seven games Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton dominated, averaging 50.4 points on 58.4 percent shooting and 9.4 assists combined, and their supporting cast cost them a shot to advance. Outside of Jabari Parker’s occasional outburst or a short-lived Thon Maker adjustment, the Bucks were overmatched by Boston at too many other positions.
One of those positions was at head coach, where Joe Prunty has since been replaced by Mike Budenholzer — he of the 60-win, top-seeded 2015 Atlanta Hawks. And all of Milwaukee’s moves since the end of last season appear geared toward helping Coach Bud do as he did in those early Atlanta days, spreading the floor versatile lineups full of shooters around Giannis.
The drafting of Donte DiVincenzo as well as the signings of Ersan Ilyasova (three years, $21 million) and Brook Lopez (1 year, $3.4 million) potentially increase the perimeter threat at almost every position and unlock all sorts of lineup combinations. They do not necessarily solve their defensive woes, and point guard Eric Bledsoe — a two-way talent who disappeared both ways in the playoffs — remains a question. There is also the question of Parker, a useful player who hasn’t fit with Antetokounmpo and remains in search of an offer sheet in restricted free agency.
None of Milwaukee’s moves will wow you, but combined they might help the Bucks reach the potential we should expect from a team in the East with a top-five NBA talent. If not, that’s the weird spot, because Giannis will be one year closer to a contract that expires in 2021, with no further evidence that the organization can compete for a title, and the past two summers have demonstrated the sort of drama disgruntled superstars can create in such a scenario. — BR
New Orleans Pelicans
Speaking of such scenarios: Hello, Anthony Davis.
The Pelicans parted ways with two key members of a team that, if healthy, could have given any Western Conference team fits, all over some $14 million. Rajon Rondo signed with the Lakers for $9 million, more than the mid-level exception New Orleans could offer, and DeMarcus Cousins turned down a reported two-year, $20 million deal to take the MLE from Golden State.
You shouldn’t blame Rondo for fleeing to L.A. or the Pelicans for holding firm on a competitive offer to a guy six months removed from a career-threatening Achilles injury, but Davis just might.
The signings of Elfrid Payton (1 year, $2.7 million) and Julius Randle (2 years, $17.7 million) might assuage any concerns Davis has about the franchise’s unwillingness to meet Cousins’ contract demands, as both have the potential to outperform the guys they’re replacing. But Rondo worked with Davis, and Payton brings all the poor shooting without the veteran savvy. And Randle brings the same questions of effort and ball-stopping, only in smaller baggage.
Both are still under 25 years old and have flashed potential befitting their recent lottery pick status, making each well worth their new contracts, but neither has contributed to a winner in four NBA seasons. Payton is a step down from Playoff Rondo, and the Davis-Randle-Nikola Mirotic frontcourt has boom-or-bust possibilities, but we also haven’t seen them play with a paradigm-shifting talent like Davis before. There is a very real chance Randle and Payton help New Orleans reach the same ceiling they might have had Rondo and Cousins remained.
The question is whether either signing makes them anything more than first-round fodder again. They’re still short on 3-and-D wings and superstar talent, and even the perception that keeping Cousins would have helped could impact how Davis views New Orleans as a viable franchise. He too is a 2021 free agent with title aspirations running out of reasons to stand idly. — BR
It all depends on whether DeAndre Jordan really is the rising tide that Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle have long expected him to be, and on how quickly sky-walking sophomore Dennis Smith Jr. and highly touted rookie playmaker Luka Doncic can find their rhythm and get up to speed with their new screen-and-roll dive man.
If the slide in Jordan’s defensive numbers last year that I wrote about when he agreed to terms with Dallas winds up being a one-year fluke, then the Mavs might have found the perfect mistake-eraser to help rise back up the defensive rankings, along with an organizing pick-and-roll threat to help create playmaking space and open looks in the half-court on the other end. If all that breaks right, along with solid years from underrated four man Dwight Powell and top frontcourt scorer Harrison Barnes, then Dallas might find itself in playoff contention after two down years. But if Jordan really has started to lose a step, Doncic needs some time to get up to NBA speed and Smith has trouble figuring out how to operate alongside another primary ball-handler, then the Mavs might be at least another year away from getting back on the right track.
Whichever way it turns out, the Smith-Doncic-Jordan trio, featuring occasional accompaniment by a certain giant German, figures to be a pretty watchable experiment in progress. — DD
As terrible as things were in Memphis last year, and man , were they terrible, they were so dismal because, at base, the Grizzlies essentially lost all hope of being competitive in mid-November . Well, that hope’s looking awfully spry these days…
… so maybe things might not be quite so dire in Memphis?
The available evidence suggests that when Mike Conley and Marc Gasol share the court, the Grizzlies will outscore the opposition; prior to last year’s 12-game injury-shortened stint, that had been the case for eight straight years. You can’t count on that forever, of course, but in general, the longtime Beale Street bookends have provided a baseline of playmaking potency and defensive aptitude. What falls to general manager Chris Wallace and no-longer-interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff is to fill the gap between point guard and center… and if you squint, you can see some pretty intriguing stuff in that space.
No. 4 overall draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr. feels like a perfect fit alongside Gasol and incumbent power forward JaMychal Green, a versatile big man with the shooting touch, shot-blocking potential and quick feet to occupy either the four or five spot depending on matchups. Second-round selection Jevon Carter’s a tailor-made backup point guard, a hounding defensive presence who’ll endear himself to a fan base weaned on grit and grind. Dillon Brooks and Wayne Selden both have a chance to pop at the two-guard spot, offering complementary scoring and playmaking ball while providing length and versatility on defense.
And the more I think about it, the more I find myself coming around on the idea of Kyle Anderson — imported from San Antonio with a four-year, $37 million offer sheet in restricted free agency — serving as something of a positionless two-way jack-of-all-trades. “Slow-Mo” doesn’t look the part of a game-changing signing, but he’s a high-floor player — a smart, active, opportunistic defender who can switch three positions on every possession, and a quality secondary ball-handler and facilitator with great court vision who can fit passes into tight windows. He’s not a shooter, but when has that ever been a problem in Memphis? If you can stop the other guys, help generate buckets and be kind of weird while doing it, you’ll fit in just fine at the Grindhouse.
How Jackson, one of the youngest prospects in this year’s draft class, adapts to the pro game remains to be seen, and there’s no telling what the Grizzlies will be able to count on from the hoped-for contributors dotting the back half of their roster, from former lottery pick Ben McLemore to the slew of second-rounders they’ve kept around while bombing years of first-round draft picks. And, at this point, depending on Chandler Parsons to provide anything more than a half-season of half-games of decent play off the bench seems like asking too much (though I’d love to be proven wrong). But if Conley and Gasol are healthy the whole year, Memphis will be be in just about every game it plays… and if a couple of things actually break their way this year, the Grizzlies’ stay in the NBA’s cellar could be a lot shorter than we might have expected. — DD
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