It is the end of 2018, a year in which J.R. Smith threw soup at a coach in March, dribbled out the clock in a tied Game 1 of the NBA Finals in June and openly informed us that his Cleveland Cavaliers were tanking in November. What a year for J-Swish. What a year for the NBA, a league that saw Bryan Colangelo, the general manager of a team with arguably the brightest of futures, get fired because his wife took a flamethrower to the organization on a series of burner Twitter accounts. Never forget.
Let us also not forget this is the year that NBA practices became performance art. When asked to increase his level of intensity, John Wall told Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks, “F— you,” and Jimmy Butler somehow topped that in Minnesota, where he showed up to practice during a trade demand holdout, called out everyone in the organization, and then went on ESPN to talk about it.
The drama is enough to distract us from the incredible reality that the Golden State Warriors are seeking a three-peat and LeBron James just joined the freaking Los Angeles Lakers. We are living in an era of unprecedented NBA popularity for all of these reasons, and yet there’s reason to believe every team can do better in 2019. Here are the true-to-form resolutions for every Western Conference team.
Dallas Mavericks: Learn to cook
Everything is starting to trend this way already, but the Mavs have to turn everything over to Luka Doncic and start building a meal around him now. It’s going to be delicious. His buzzer-beater against the Portland Trail Blazers was the latest evidence that the rookie has all the makings of an all-time chef. He just needs the ingredients to maximize his considerable talent.
Dennis Smith Jr. and Wes Matthews’ expiring contract make for interesting trade bait, and rival executives have informed The New York Times’ Marc Stein that they expect Smith to be moved. The Mavericks will also have a ton of cap space this coming summer, but they have had little success landing the biggest fishes on the market. Maybe now that Doncic is delivering tasty dishes, they’ll give Dallas a second look. This is imperative now. The world is hungry for it.
Denver Nuggets: Don’t disappoint
We’ve been here before with the Nuggets. Not here, exactly, with them atop the Western Conference standings, but we’ve seen fun runs from this exciting core fall short of the finish line. The last two seasons have ended prematurely, with Denver just missing the playoffs, and it’s important to remember that even the best teams out West are only a handful of games from the lottery at this point of the season. A fall from grace this time around would be unacceptable.
The Nuggets rank among the league’s top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating, and they’ve done it at less than full strength, mainly because Nikola Jokic has been a monster. Denver is working without Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. Gary Harris can’t stay healthy. That’s a playoff team on its own in the East, and yet somehow the Nuggets have held it together. It almost seems too good to be true, and that’s a trap we don’t want them to fall into again. Give us something other than the Golden State Warriors to believe in out West.
Golden State Warriors: Learn to let go of grudges
The Warriors are right. The only thing that can prevent them from winning a third straight championship is themselves, and they’re doing a pretty good job at making it a challenge. We could argue that none of their issues stems from the dust-up between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green — that Durant is playing at an MVP level and Green is still working his way back from a toe injury — but nothing else explains how the Warriors could lose a marquee game to the (mostly) LeBron-less Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas. Something’s not right in Golden State.
This is about money and power and how both corrupt us all. Durant wants to be wanted — by the Warriors, by the rest of the league in free agency and by NBA fans everywhere — and Green wants respect in the form of a contract befitting a Defensive Player of the Year, and those personal goals are getting in the way of each other at no benefit to what could be the greatest team ever. It’s high time they focus on what matters — making the Warriors fun again. Let go of the B.S. Embrace Stephen Curry as the centerpiece of the most entertaining brand of basketball we’ve seen this century, and maybe then Klay Thompson can chill and start lighting it up again.
Houston Rockets: Go see your doctor more often
Man, it is sad to see what’s become of the Rockets. They were once our only hope to challenge the Warriors, and now they’ll be challenged to get to the playoffs. There is a pretty big elephant in the room on this one, and his name is Chris Paul. Paul is two months into a contract that will pay him $44 million in 2022, and he’s been sidelined with a strained hamstring. Again. He turns 34 years old this season, with 35,000 career regular-season and playoff minutes to his name.
The Rockets have to figure out a way to get Paul into the playoffs healthy for four more seasons, and that’s going to require a plan beyond playing him 33 minutes a night and hoping a hodgepodge of Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Knight and Austin Rivers can eat some minutes behind him. They need the sort of training regimen that helped Steve Nash play at an All-Star level into his mid-30s or has LeBron seemingly immune to any injury of significance.
Los Angeles Clippers: Keep in touch with loved ones
For as good as Tobias Harris has been, the Clippers are the team without a star, and they did as well as they could with that identity through the season’s first 20 games, even holding onto first place for a time. Their grip on a playoff seed has slipped in recent weeks, proving how difficult it is to compete in the West without elite talent. Luckily for them, they will have both the means to sign big-name free agents ($54 million in projected cap space) and the location to lure them.
That’s where team president Lawrence Frank comes in. He has reportedly been following Kawhi Leonard around the league, trying to let the Toronto Raptors forward know he’s wanted in L.A. (One small problem: Kawhi apparently didn’t know who he was.) So, why stop with Frank? Break out all the stops. Disguise Jerry West as an Uber driver and have him chat up Leonard on the way to the arena. Put Steve Ballmer in the front row at Oracle and have him openly rooting for Kevin Durant, accidentally dropping fistfuls of cash on the floor with every fist pump.
Los Angeles Lakers: Stop procrastinating
Look, you guys want Anthony Davis. You know it. He knows it. The whole world knows it, now that LeBron has openly endorsed the pairing and taken the All-Star out to dinner. Just make your move already, because I don’t want to hear six more months of who’s courting who, where Davis might end up and why he’s not long for the New Orleans Pelicans, especially since he won’t be making a decision on his supermax extension until July, when the Celtics can also enter the trade partner picture (due to a rule that prevents them from acquiring a second designated player) — just one more reason the Lakers should act fast on the Davis front.
There’s also the issue that Durant raised recently — that superstars don’t want to share the spotlight with James’ ever-presence — which likely contributed to Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler crossing the Lakers off their list of preferred destinations. The Lakers could have challenged Oklahoma City and Toronto in the George and Leonard sweepstakes, and they’ll hope Leonard doesn’t make the same decision George did to sour on Los Angeles. Who’s to say Davis won’t do the same? LeBron will turn 35 years old by the time Davis’ current deal is up, and each passing summer without a superstar partner is one less crack at a title for the legend.
Memphis Grizzlies: Streamline your possessions
With Mike Conley back, Marc Gasol returning to two-way brilliance and Jaren Jackson Jr. injecting some youthful stardom into a Memphis organization that had otherwise stagnated, the Grizzlies gave us great hope that they may again be the same tough playoff out they once were for so many years. They own a top-five defense, and while we love the commitment to the Grit and Grind identity, let’s work on improving that bottom-five offense, shall we?
The Grizz work at the NBA’s slowest pace, which is fine when you’re trying to run your opponent through the grinder on as few possessions as possible. But that doesn’t mean you can’t score more efficiently on the other end. Memphis is now on its fourth coach in seven seasons, and this has been a running theme, which would suggest the issue is personnel-related. Yet, their lineup features capable playmakers and shooters. Something’s gotta give. One more wing might be nice, which is what they were trying to do in their failed attempt to land Kelly Oubre. Keep trying.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Reduce stress
The beginning of this season was as ugly a divorce as we’ve seen in a new NBA landscape full of them. Butler tried to tear down the organization from within, and Tom Thibodeau enjoyed the chaos, if only because he thought it would ignite his listless young stars to play an old-school brand of bully-boy basketball. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins aren’t those dudes.
Maybe instead of jamming a singularly focused mentality down their throats, nurture them in their own style. Let’s find what they do best, which might not be much in Wiggins’ case, and build around them in a stress-free environment. Since the Butler trade, Towns is averaging 21.5 points on 50-37-81 splits, and there’s a whole lot more to mine there. Find ways for Towns and Dario Saric to play off each other, because they’re a plus-39 in 233 minutes together. Don’t put guys in the doghouse just because they don’t fit exactly the way you’re accustomed to playing.
New Orleans Pelicans: Reinvent yourself
Like it or not, the clock is ticking, and when it runs out, you can’t be where you are now — a handful of games below .500, out of the playoffs wondering where it all went wrong, what might have been. If the Pelicans have any hope of retaining Davis, they have to take risks now. If there’s a trade out there, and New Orleans is wondering whether it’s enough of an upgrade or if it puts them in a precarious cap position, just go for the gusto. Don’t worry about making a mistake or piling up bad contracts, because what’s one more on a years-long trail of them?
Where was their offer for Kyle Korver or Trevor Ariza? Why didn’t they explore a reunion with Austin Rivers? Can you get Kevin Love? Could Davis’ strengths mask Jabari Parker’s weaknesses? How about Kent Bazemore? The addition of Nikola Mirotic last season gave the Pelicans a boost, and another injection might be enough to salvage another playoff appearance and convince Davis that they’re doing everything in their power to make this work.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Spend more time with the people who matter
Like Scott Brooks before him, coach Billy Donovan’s biggest challenge is finding lineup combinations that work and getting players to work within the ones that might. With Carmelo Anthony no longer being force-fed minutes, Donovan has done well this season, working Jerami Grant, Dennis Schroder, Terrance Ferguson and Alex Abrines around mainstays Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams (who are outscoring opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions when they’re on the floor together, regardless of who else is on the floor).
George has been a beast, and some increased efficiency from Westbrook will only serve them better (especially if it comes off ball, with Schroder sharing some of the playmaking load). Finding the right minutes for the guys around them is no easy task, but giving up on the Patrick Patterson experiment is a start. Finding a stretch big wouldn’t hurt. The injury to Hamidou Diallo and many setbacks to Andre Roberson haven’t helped, either. It’s going to take some tinkering, but as long as the Thunder can find the combos that work by playoffs, this team is dangerous.
Phoenix Suns: Learn how to defend yourself
The Suns’ offense isn’t good (currently 28th in offensive rating), but it can be good. The two most frequently used lineups with Devin Booker at point guard are scoring an average of 109.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, which would put them in the top half of the league. He is an extraordinary scorer, and Deandre Ayton is acquitting himself quite well on that end of the floor, too. It won’t take too much tinkering to get this right, especially if Oubre and T.J. Warren continue to shoot lights-out from distance and Josh Jackson ever does.
The problem is finding a path to defensive success with those two players headlining the roster. Jackson and Mikal Bridges both have lockdown ability, and they would go a long way toward forming a cohesive unit around Booker and Ayton if they could space the floor on offense. But Ayton holds the key. If he can be even an above-average rim protector, which he is not, the Suns might stop enough possessions to give their offense a chance. It’s not for a lack of effort, and the hope is that a firmer grasp on schemes will translate into better positioning in time.
Portland Trail Blazers: Start being more creative
No matter how good the Blazers are during the regular season, and they’ve had their moments this year, we’re not falling for it this time. They got swept in the first round of the playoffs last season, and trotting out the same triumvirate of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic isn’t going to magically produce different results, even if all three have improved incrementally. You still have the same supporting cast, minus Ed Davis and plus Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry, who have been encouraging — but come on. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
I’m not sure Melo is the answer, as some have floated, but there are a couple of options here. Build a trade package using whatever value is left on your current roster — 2017 first-round pick Zach Collins, Mo Harkless’ mid-sized contract and/or future picks — to chase a 3-and-D wing who makes sense. (At the very least, a Wesley Matthews reunion might work on the cheap.) Or trade one of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic. If you can’t do one, you’ve got to do the other, because running it back with a team that’s ceiling is set is just a maddening exercise.
Sacramento Kings: Take some chances
The Kings are the surprise of the NBA season so far. Once pegged as a bottom-dweller, they are hovering above .500, lurking in the Western Conference playoff hunt. De’Aaron Fox has made the leap, while Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein aren’t far behind. No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley is living up to most of our standards, save for maybe his own coach’s. Nemanja Bjelica was a nice free-agent signing, and Iman Shumpert is a real live basketball player again.
You’re treading dangerously by asking a Sacramento front office to wheel and deal, but why not bolster this roster. Kings fans deserve this after all they’ve given this team during this drought. They have more than $30 million in expiring contracts and some intriguing young players who aren’t in the regular rotation (Harry Giles and Skal Labissiere). Unfortunately, their past attempts at making moves have left them without their 2019 first-round pick, but they have a cache of second-rounders and their 2021 selection to send out if they can find the right fit for this group.
San Antonio Spurs: Get over an ex
As well as DeMar DeRozan has been playing — and he has been playing well, averaging 23.1 points on 54.8 percent true shooting and a career-high 6.2 assists per game — it still feels like he’s not quite a Spur yet. Maybe that’s because he is still processing his trade from the Toronto Raptors. Maybe it’s because he’s surrounded by stars past their prime and (hopefully) before their prime, and both factions have been injured. And maybe it’s because we haven’t had his signature “This is the day DeMar DeRozan became a Spur game” just yet. Let’s get there.
DeRozan will play his first game against the Raptors on Thursday. Maybe that’s the game. Here’s hoping it is — and the first of many, with nationally televised games against the Thunder, 76ers, Warriors and Blazers also on the horizon. Here’s also hoping that the recent reactivations of injured 38-year-old veteran Pau Gasol and 20-year-old rookie Lonnie Walker IV help keep them in the playoff hunt this season, and the eventual return (likely next year) of Dejounte Murray from an ACL tear further helps DeRozan and the Spurs return to normal together.
Utah Jazz: Make new friends
Since acquiring Kyle Korver from Cleveland, the Jazz own the NBA’s second-best defense and a top-10 offense, good for the league’s third-best net rating in December. That doesn’t make all the sense in the world, since Korver isn’t a defensive stopper, but it does suggest that injecting new blood into a team that very clearly reached its ceiling last season is not such a bad idea.
Rudy Gobert is what he is, a rim-protecting and lob-catching spindle of arms who isn’t going to score outside of 5 feet. We don’t know what Donovan Mitchell is. Is he Dwyane Wade 2.0, as he was during the playoffs last season? Or is he Steve Francis 2.0, as he has been this inefficient season. So, the Jazz have to continue searching for pieces to fit around them (insert Derrick Favors trade rumor here), because beyond Joe Ingles, who could fit anywhere, they don’t have enough performing to the level they need them. Don’t be afraid to reshuffle the deck again.
The same could be set about us all on New Year’s Eve. Let’s all make some changes in 2019.
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