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2014-2015 Utah Jazz Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues previewing the 2014-2015 NBA season with a look at the Utah Jazz of the Northwest Division.

Basketball Insiders

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The Utah Jazz replaced Ty Corbin with Quin Snyder, kept Gordon Hayward and added some veteran experience during a relatively quiet offseason. Two years removed from their last playoff appearance, they’re banking heavily on internal development to help them move up the ranks in the ever-improving Western Conference.

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-2015 Utah Jazz.

Five Guys Think

It feels like the Jazz have been a “promising young” team for the last half decade, and with so much youth on the team again this season it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot this year, either. Gordon Hayward is the first of the youngsters to get his massive extension, so he’ll be looked upon to be the leader of the team this year, but with Derrick Favors, Trey Burke and now rookie Dante Exum all in the fold, there’s plenty to be excited about in Salt Lake City. Of course, we’ve been saying that for a few years now. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to stop amassing young talent and start winning some games. This season should be a bridge to better things.

4th Place – Northwest Division

-Joel Brigham

Over the offseason, I stated that the Jazz have assembled one of the best young cores in the NBA with talented players like Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood. I stand by that statement and believe that the future is very bright for the Jazz. It’ll be interesting to see how new head coach Quin Snyder uses Exum and Burke in the backcourt, and how all of the pieces will come together. But there’s no doubt that Utah has the talent in place to be a very good team in several years. In the meantime, they just need to keep developing their young players and giving them experience. They probably won’t win many games in the 2014-15 season, but they should show some improvement and take a step in the right direction. Then, they’ll add yet another lottery talent in next year’s draft and pretty soon we should be talking about Utah as a team that can make noise in the Western Conference.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

The 2014-15 campaign may very well represent another year in the league basement for the Utah Jazz, but the franchise has plenty of young talent up and down the roster. Now we play the waiting game and see how long it will take the talented group of young players to develop the chemistry needed to win at the professional level. However, while the youth develops at their own place, two players who need to take huge steps this season are Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. Both guys are getting paid like All-Stars and are oozing with upside. Now it’s time for them to take their games to another level. If they can, the Jazz may be able to add 10 more wins to last season’s victory total (25).

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

Over the next four years, the Utah Jazz have committed more than $100 million to the duo of Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. Although Hayward appears to be a star on the rise, it is difficult imagining these two helping the Jazz even come close to escaping the cellar in the Western Conference. Steve Novak and Trevor Booker were both low cost acquisitions, but the biggest question for the Jazz heading into the season will be whether Dante Exum is ready for this level of basketball and how he will coexist with Trey Burke. The Jazz opting to select Exum with the fifth overall pick in last June’s draft was questionable considering Exum’s stated desire to play point guard in the NBA, despite having shooting guard height. It will be another long season in Salt Lake City, marked mostly by new head coach Quin Snyder trying to make sense of the pieces he has been given. Unfortunately, another trip to the lottery awaits.

4th place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Utah Jazz are at the most difficult part of the rebuilding process. They’ve yet to land a true No. 1 option in the draft, but have already handed out a significant amount of cash to keep their top players coming off of their rookie contracts in Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. Quin Snyder coming in and replacing Ty Corbin will provide a fresh, new presence at the head coaching position, but he’s not going to have much more to work with than Corbin did. This team’s ceiling still seems relatively the same, barring some serious internal development. There was a lot of hype surrounding their top draft pick Dante Exum prior to the draft, but an underwhelming showing at Summer League and the FIBA World Cup has brought expectations back down to reality. Overall the Jazz are worth watching and have potential, but the West remains brutally tough and they don’t look any better than last place in their division, once again.

5th place – Northwest Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Once again the Utah Jazz will call upon swingman Gordon Hayward to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load as the most experienced member of the team. We are talking about a versatile guy who has upped his scoring average every year he’s been in the league and shows the type of budding talent that led the Charlotte Hornets to offer him a max contract this summer. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey and ownership felt confident enough in Hayward’s ability to continue his trend upwards to match that contract.  With a lack of scoring on the team, Hayward’s shooting percentages last year by his own account were not where he wanted them to be as defenses were keen to hone in on stopping him in his new role as the primary offensive focal point. Coming into his own heading into his fifth NBA season, look for him to step up his shooting and lead the team on offense.

Top Defensive Player: When searching for a defensive anchor in the middle that will have opposing offensive players checking over their shoulders, look no further, Derrick Favors is your guy. A unique physical specimen with a 7’4 wingspan and a 9’2 standing reach, he was 19 years old when he entered the NBA (the youngest in the NBA at the time) after leaving school early from Georgia Tech. Four years later, he is beginning to scratch the surface of his potential as he’s started to match his tremendous physical tools and defensive instincts with an evolved understanding of the game. In his young career, he has already established himself as an imposing shot blocking force by averaging nearly two blocks per game. Don’t let his calm demeanor fool you and look for him to captain the defense next season with more experience under his belt.

Top Playmaker: This technically could be a three-headed monster between Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward and newcomer Dante Exum as they will all be asked to facilitate the offense for head coach Quin Snyder next season. However, the nod will go to Burke considering as an All-Rookie First Team player he led the team with 5.7 assists per game. Burke also proved to have a steady hand in minimizing his mistakes on the court and taking care of the rock, posting an excellent, rookie-low 1.9 turnovers per game. Compare that to last season’s Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, who committed 3.9 turnovers per game and you can see why Burke was known to be such an excellent floor general coming out of Michigan. No longer a rookie, look for him to further improve his playmaking skills with another year under his belt and more offensive weapons on the team. He has a lot to prove this year with another playmaking guard added to the roster in Exum, who has lofty expectations of his own.

Top Clutch Player: The departure of dependable veteran big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap left the Jazz searching for someone who would be able to step up to get buckets when they need it the most. While swingman Gordon Hayward did have his moments last year, it was Trey Burke in the end who showed the most poise in the clutch for the team. While to some he may have had a disappointing rookie season, with the game on the line it was Burke that led the team in points scored (2.4), free throw shooting (93.3 percent), three-point shooting (57.1 percent) and shooting from the field overall (51.9 percent). The Jazz are hopeful the game-winning three pointer he hit over the outstretched arms of the Orlando Magic’s Victor Oladipo last March is a sign of future things to come.

The Unheralded Player: While many of the other players mentioned previously are known to be part of the future core for the Jazz, there are two players with the potential to be included in the group but still have some questions marks. We are talking about Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. Both of these players have shown flashes of brilliance in their time with the Jazz and will be coming into contract seasons eager to prove they are worthy of getting a nice payday. My money is on Burks breaking out this season. He doubled his scoring average last year from seven points to 14 in his third year in the league and looked to be playing more under control than ever before. He also noticeably improved his passing, nearly doubling his average to 2.7 assists per game from the previous year with the increased playing time. Burks also has a knack for getting to the line and being able to create his shot, which are unique skills that the team lacks. Look for him to lead the second unit and continue his trajectory upwards for this young Jazz team.

Best New Addition: There’s no question the best new addition to the Jazz (and the player who will be receiving the most buzz coming into the season) will be Dante Exum. The man dubbed the biggest mystery heading in this June’s NBA Draft brings a lot of excitement, optimism and curiosity about how he will fit not only in the NBA but also with this Jazz team.  There’s a lot to like about the 19-year-old Australian wunderkind Exum. He has excellent size to be able to play either guard spot, standing at 6’6 in shoes. He dazzled NBA scouts and GMs at the NBA Draft Combine by beating every other drafted point guard with blazing fast lane agility and sprint times. He will be one of the fastest players in the NBA from day one. If that isn’t enough to get you excited, he plays the game with a nice fluidity, has a tremendous first step and loves to get into the paint to be a playmaker for his teammates. While many of his detractors will say he hasn’t played against top competition playing for the Under 19 Australian team, his supporters will point to his excellent performances against many of his peers that went on to play collegiately in the same class at the Nike Hoop Summit. His shot is still a work in progress but he comes to the Jazz with a tremendous work ethic, has impressed with maturity beyond his years and will be given every opportunity to prove he was worthy of being a top pick in the draft.

– E.J. Ayala

Who We Like

Dennis Lindsey: Coming from a tremendous tree of successful coaches and executives from the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets organizations, there’s a lot to like about Lindsey. The general manager’s calm methodical nature and eye for talent has already seen him transform this Jazz team into one of the most promising young cores in the league. After the Jerry Sloan era and the trade that sent Deron Williams packing to the Nets, many were left wondering where the organization would go from there. It has taken some time for the plan to take shape, but we are starting to see the vision Lindsey sold Jazz owner Greg Miller on when he was first hired back in August of 2012.  In the short while at the helm, Lindsey has managed to collect assets in the form of draft picks and trade exemptions, and he has made shrewd trades with the long-term plan in mind. He has eliminated aging players, drafted reasonably well and kept the team under the salary cap, all the while only having one losing season, which was last year and by design. Flexibility is the name of the game in today’s NBA and with a small-market team in Utah, the margin for error is slim. Now with a coach of his own choosing in the fold in Quin Snyder that shares the same basketball philosophy, we will see yet another piece added to the puzzle as he continues to make his mark on the Jazz organization. While there is still plenty of work to be done for his vision to come to fruition, the future in Utah looks bright.

Quin Snyder: The Jazz named Snyder as their new head coach this summer. What he brings to the table is an incredible amount of leadership and coaching success at every level he’s been at. When he’s been part of an organization (as a head coach, assistant coach or otherwise), he has an outstanding record: 616-385. That’s good for about a 62 percent winning percentage. He’s just a winner. He’s also a former point guard and team captain for the Duke Blue Devils under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, and he knows what it takes to bring a team together. With two young promising talents in Trey Burke and Dante Exum in the fold, look for Snyder to help them reach their full potential as both players and leaders. Snyder is also more of the new breed of coaches that blend traditional basketball knowledge with the new wave of advanced analysis we see the league trending toward. Also, former players who have worked with him have raved about his attention to detail with player development.  Former Jazz player DeMarre Carroll went on record to say that Snyder was the first coach to ever spend extra time helping him with his footwork, which paid dividends for his growth last season. This type of help can only be a good thing for one of the youngest teams in the league with plenty of room to grow.

Rodney Hood: While his top-five pick teammate Dante Exum may have had the most buzz leading up to the draft, it was swingman Rodney Hood who at times shined as the most impressive rookie during Vegas Summer League. Drafted 23rd overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, many draft experts considered the Jazz selection to be an absolute steal as he was projected to be picked much earlier. The sweet shooting southpaw definitely showed his three-point range, rounded out floor game and solid decision making skills this summer. Don’t be surprised to see the former Duke captain come out of the gate as the more NBA-ready player, even though Exum may have a much higher ceiling.

Rudy Gobert: Standing at an imposing 7’1 with a freakishly long 7’9 wingspan, an NBA Combine record at the time, Gobert possesses elite physical tools as a defender. Hailing from France as a rookie last season, Gobert looked every bit the raw center prospect. While at times we saw flashes of dominant defensive potential, other times he looked completely lost on defense and slow to react. What a difference a year makes, as he was very impressive this summer and was named to the Vegas Summer League Second Team, posting 11.8 points per game, 2.5 blocks per game and an unreal 73 percent from the field overall. The Frenchman, who continued to show intriguing flashes during the FIBA World Cup, appears to have improved his feel for the game, put some time in the gym and looks to be more confident coming into his second season with the Jazz.

– E.J. Ayala

Strengths

Youth, talent and flexibility are some things the Jazz can count on next season. That translating into wins is a whole other matter, considering the Jazz were one of the worst teams in the league last season. Look for new head coach Quin Snyder to maximize that young energy next season by playing with a quicker tempo and a heavy emphasis on ball movement. The Jazz have bigs that can run the floor in Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and reserve high-flyer Jeremy Evans. They’ve addressed some shooting concerns with the addition of three-point specialist Steve Novak and drafting of Rodney Hood. They’ve also shored up the frontcourt bench with the additions of forward Trevor Booker, who brings toughness and the ability to score down low. The Jazz will be relying heavily on Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke and Derrick Favors to lead the team. Those key players will need to take the next step in order for the Jazz not to have a repeat of last season.

– E.J. Ayala

Weaknesses

There’s a reason why during summer league Coach Snyder made it a point to praise good defensive play first before anything that happened on the offensive end of the court. To say the Jazz last season were not a good defensive team would be an understatement. They were in the bottom half of the league with 102.2 opponent points allowed per game. While Favors and Gobert are both good rim protectors, it will take a total effort from a team standpoint to really turn things around next season. Shooting is another thing that plagued the Jazz last season as they were the seventh worst shooting team in the league overall with a 44 percent field goal percentage. The Jazz are hoping the new additions, continued growth of core players and additional emphasis on player development will help the team improve their shooting next season.

– E.J. Ayala

The Salary Cap

The Jazz chose to match the Charlotte Hornets’ offer to Gordon Hayward, inking the former restricted free agent for four years, $63 million.  Utah also added Trevor Booker in free agency and traded for veteran shooter Steve Novak.  While still under the salary cap, the Jazz have 18 players under contract, five with partial or non-guaranteed salaries.  The Jazz can get to about $5.7 million under the cap, cutting players like Toure’ Murry ($250k of his $1 million is guaranteed), Kevin Murphy, Dee Bost, Jack Cooley and Brock Motum.  The Jazz are still in a position to use their cap room to take on another team’s unwanted salary, in return for draft considerations.  Utah still has their $2.7 million Room Exception, once they climb over the cap — but the issue is roster space, not spending power.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

For the first time since the 2011 departure of Deron Williams, there is reason for true long-term optimism in Utah.  While the team has had draft assets and cap flexibility over the past few years, a return to contention was always theoretical without a player in the fold who realistically could become a star.  With Dante Exum now in the fold, a Jazzman finally has that kind of upside, though he has a long way to go before realizing it.

In the brutal Western Conference, the Jazz do not have any realistic hopes of contending for the playoffs this year.  But Jazz fans cannot be blamed for expecting significant improvement this year.  The team did win 25 games last year with a young core, and had stretches of near-.500 ball during the heart of the season.  Nearly every returning player projects to be better than last season.

But Utah was a bit lucky last year, posting the point-differential of a 22-win team.  And while few may lament the departures of Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams—both of whom were overstretched as starters a year ago—the fact remains that they provided valuable floor-spacing for Utah last year.  The combination of Favors and Kanter was disastrous offensively last year in large part due to the lack of passing and spacing they provided. Exum also projects to play significant minutes, but the odds of him being a winning contributor this year are low due to his inexperience and developing jump shot.

On the other hand, Quin Snyder could provide an upgrade on both ends from a coaching perspective.  Rudy Gobert has looked excellent in summer league and FIBA play, and if he can play reasonable minutes with Favors it would be possible that the Jazz significantly improve their 30th-ranked defense.  Favors, Kanter, Alec Burks, Trey Burke, and Gordon Hayward could all take significant steps forward, especially on defense.

Best Case

31-51

The Jazz defense improves significantly as Gobert gets more minutes and Favors and Kanter learn the ropes.  The latter two develop serviceable jump shots, allowing them both to play with Gobert, while Trevor Booker becomes the fourth member of a solid frontcourt rotation.  Burke improves his ability to get to the rim, Burks and Hayward improve their shooting, and the Jazz offense improves slightly as a result.

Worst Case

21-61

Burke’s inability to finish and poor summer league portend little improvement.  Synder, who would likely prefer a shooter at the four, proves unable to create an improved offense from limited-range bigs.  Gobert proves so bad offensively the he falls out of the rotation, while Exum either a) is unplayable at backup point guard or b) is unplayable at backup point guard and gets development minutes anyway.  Hayward and Burks show that they have essentially reached their ceilings.  By March and April, the Jazz are playing only for lottery positioning.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Do the Jazz Have Enough Star Power?

The easy answer to the question is no, at least not right now. Across the league, we see superstar players sending their teams deep into postseason play by carrying them on their backs. Arguably the best player in the NBA right now LeBron James has teamed up with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in a Cleveland homecoming with hopes of bringing a championship to his home state. So where does this leave the Jazz? How far away are they from contending? Right now, there’s an opportunity for a core group of guys to show they can take the necessary leap from good to great. The potential is there and it’s part of the reason of why the Jazz drafted Dante Exum over a more proven college star like Marcus Smart, who appeared to have a lower ceiling. This is the life of a small market team in the NBA, where landing that big free agent fish doesn’t come easy. The true answer to this question will be revealed two or three years from now. In the meantime, it’s time for the Jazz to see what they have in their young guys and who is worth building around going forward.

– E.J. Ayala

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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