With the final weeks of the 2016-17 regular season upon us, the looming playoffs will have major implications for this summer’s impressive free agent class. While many observers expect the major stars to stay put, an early playoff exit could be the first domino to fall in a series of events that reshapes multiple NBA franchises. With so much at stake in the coming days, Basketball Insiders is getting an early jump on 2017 free agency, starting with today’s look at a deep point guard class.
A common theme throughout is that players, in most cases, will exert major leverage on the teams that will bid for their services. The available players are divided into four tiers, two for starters and two for the reserves.
Tier 1: Top Shelf Starters
1. Stephen Curry, Warriors
The Golden State Warriors, despite Kevin Durant’s injury and an off year from Stephen Curry — by his standards — are still the best team in basketball. And it is the two-time defending MVP who is leading the way, despite shooting a career-low from three-point range and his worst overall field goal percentage since 2012-13. After posting a 31.5 Player Efficiency Rating during last year’s back-to-back and unanimous MVP season, Curry is currently posting his lowest PER in four seasons (23.7).
Despite any struggles, the Warriors are performing better as a team with Curry on court than any other player. Golden State outscores opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions with Curry on court. That isn’t a team-high, but his off-court net is by a wide margin. The Warriors are 14.9 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on court than on the bench. Draymond Green is second in on/off net differential (+10.5), Klay Thompson is third (+9.8), and Durant fourth (+9.1). Even with Curry struggling from three-point range as he never has in his career, he makes the best team in the world better through his presence on the court.
As such, anything other than a super-max contract for Curry this summer is impossible to imagine. Durant also has a player option, but with Thompson and Green each signed for 2+ seasons at relative bargains, he’s likely to stay the course as well. That may mean departures for unrestricted free agents Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Zaza Pachulia, but that’s the price of having a Big Four.
2. Chris Paul, Clippers
Advanced stats actually favor Chris Paul over Curry. The Clippers’ floor general has a +18.4 on/off differential that leads the NBA. Paul is third among point guards in Box Plus-Minus per Basketball Reference and fourth in PER compared to a rank of fifth in both categories for Curry. This likely results from the additional burden on Paul due to a top-heavy roster that isn’t getting as much from its bench as the Warriors.
While the Clippers dominate with Paul on court, the team is 9.3 points per 100 worse with Austin Rivers on court compared to off, while Raymond Felton’s differential is a disastrous -12.8. Perhaps if Paul and Curry switched teams, Curry would struggle more while Paul led the Warriors to even greater heights. But in the real world, the tie goes to the player that produces in the standings, and ultimately in the playoffs. With the Clippers now only a game ahead of the seventh-place Grizzlies, Curry has a clear edge as the best point guard available in the coming offseason.
Barring health concerns, Paul will almost certainly exercise his early termination option to enter unrestricted free agency this summer. It’s a tricky situation for the Clippers as Blake Griffin has the same option while J.J. Redick is on an expiring contract. Luc Mbah a Moute — who has become an important piece — has a player option for $2.3 million he will almost certainly decline. DeAndre Jordan is the only player in the top five of the Clippers’ rotation who is under contract for next season with no options.
Is the Clippers’ late-season swoon a sign of fractured chemistry, or a consequence of lingering effects from the thumb injury Paul suffered earlier in the season? It’s hard to say, but an early playoff exit could ignite a chain reaction with one or more starters defecting in free agency. If Griffin leaves, there’s no telling where Paul could end up. And if the Clippers go deep into the luxury tax to sign Griffin and Paul to massive new contracts, would Redick — easily among the league’s best shooters — compromise his career earnings to stick around on a bargain contract? Anything less than a Western Conference Finals appearance could have disastrous consequences for L.A.
3. Kyle Lowry, Raptors
Among NBA point guards, only Kemba Walker, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Curry and Paul have a better on/off differential than Kyle Lowry. His +10.1 trails only Patrick Patterson’s +10.9 for Toronto. With Terrence Ross departed to Orlando via the trade that brought back Serge Ibaka, Lucas Nogueira (+8.1) is currently the only other Raptor with a positive differential (minimum 300 minutes). The rest of the roster ranges from DeMarre Carroll’s -1.2 to Jakob Poeltl’s -8.8. The positive differentials for Patterson and Nogueira are almost certainly a consequence of spending the bulk of their minutes on court with Lowry (846 of 1328 minutes this season for Patterson, 734 of 1067 for Nogueira).
Lowry may not be in the same conversation with Curry and Paul, but these numbers show that he’s a difference maker that deserves to be on the highest tier of pending free agent point guards. One need look no further than the near-max contract the Magic gave Bismack Biyombo after his heroics in the playoffs to see the Lowry effect. A stout rebounder, defender and shot blocker, Biyombo has looked like a shell of himself this season without Lowry to set him up for attacks on the rim. Basketball Insiders editor and publisher Steve Kyler spoke to sources close to the Raptors during All-Star festivities in New Orleans, who said there is almost no scenario in which Toronto wouldn’t pay whatever it takes to keep Lowry, despite the wrist injury that has cost him extended time.
Simply put, the Raptors without Lowry are in danger of falling into the dreaded NBA purgatory. A healthy Toronto squad can compete for a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. If Lowry departs in the summer, the Raptors lack the cap space to replace him with anything close to equal talent. In that scenario, the Raptors would be too good to tank for high draft picks, but not good enough to contend. Toronto must do everything within its power to keep Lowry long term. Trading for Ibaka was almost certainly part of that equation.
4. George Hill, Jazz
The Jazz emerged as clear winners of the draft-day, three-team trade that brought George Hill from Indiana, sent Utah’s lottery pick (12, became Taurean Prince) to the Hawks and delivered Jeff Teague to his hometown Pacers. Hill has vastly outperformed Teague and newly-minted Hawks starting point guard Dennis Schroder this season, as evidenced by the Jazz’s current fourth seed in the brutal Western Conference. Hill’s +9.1 net differential ranks seventh among NBA point guards behind Lowry. He’s eighth in BPM and 14th in PER, placing him a step below Lowry but firmly in the upper echelon of free agent point guards.
Although Hill has only appeared in 43 games due to injury, he has emerged from Paul George’s shadow in Indiana and come into his own in Utah. It’s much easier now to see why San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich agonized over trading Hill for the pick the Spurs used to draft Kawhi Leonard. As with Lowry, the Jazz are left with no choice but to pay whatever the market demands to keep Hill. Trading a lottery pick made sense — even with Hill entering the season on an expiring contract — because Utah had plenty of young talent on the roster but lacked a frontline point guard. The Jazz’ situation was so dire last season that the team started Shelvin Mack in 27 games. That may be the fate that awaits Utah again if the organization can’t convince Hill to commit long-term. Any player that can elevate a lottery team to the brink of home-court advantage in the West deserves a spot this high on the list.
Tier 2: Serviceable Starters
5. Patty Mills, Spurs
While teams like the Warriors and Clippers are extremely top-heavy in terms of net rating differential, the Spurs are an anomaly. Patty Mills is nominally a bench player who leads San Antonio in net differential (+7.7) followed by fellow reserves David Lee (+4.7) and Manu Ginobili (+4.3). None of the trio has started more than 10 games this season. Meanwhile, the entire starting lineup is in the bottom six. This is likely due to Popovich starting Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, two players in the twilight of their career. Parker ranks no higher than 40th among NBA point guards in net differential, BPM and PER.
The upshot is that Mills may be a reserve for the second-best basketball team on Earth, but he could easily start for half the league’s teams. Mills will be paid as such this summer, and San Antonio shouldn’t think the rest of the league has failed to notice how good he is. Fortunately, the Spurs have LaMarcus Aldridge and Leonard signed through next season on reasonable contracts. Parker has one year left at $15.5 million and Gasol has a player option for $16 million, but the Spurs have full Bird rights for Mills. As such, San Antonio can spend into the luxury tax to keep Mills if that’s what is required. With the number of teams that will be after him, it almost certainly is. Mills’ piddling $3.6 million contract that expires at season’s end will have the old timers pining for the days when you could go to the movies for a nickel.
6. Jrue Holiday, Pelicans
Jrue Holiday is statistically very similar to Mills and Teague in terms of the stats used above. Mills obviously distinguishes himself by playing a major role on a true contender. But Holiday has another similarity to some of the point guards already discussed. Like Lowry and Hill, Holiday will have an unbelievable amount of leverage with his incumbent team when his final year at $11.3 million expires in a few short months.
Statistically, Holiday is around average for an NBA starter. Just don’t expect him to ask for an average salary July 1. If Holiday leaves New Orleans this summer, the Pelicans would only have as much as $15 million in cap space to find a replacement. That won’t get you any of the point guards listed above, nor some listed below. Teague will certainly be out of that price range after the Pacers gave up Hill to get him.
New Orleans’ best hope might be convincing Jrue’s older brother Justin Holiday, currently enjoying a breakout season with the Knicks, to join the team via an exception or cap space. The elder Holiday recently discussed his desire to play next season on the same team with his brother with Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto. The two may be a package deal for next season, which could work out well for a Pelicans team in desperate need of aid on the wing. Since New Orleans holds full Bird rights for Jrue, the team could potentially sign Justin with cap space then exceed the cap to sign his brother. This scenario becomes even more workable if Dante Cunningham declines his player option for $3.1 million to seek a longer-term deal.
7. Jeff Teague, Pacers
Theme warning: Market economics for NBA point guards will favor the supply side this summer, and that means suppliers of spin dribbles, assists and three-pointers like Jeffrey Demarco Teague. Back in 2013, then-Hawks GM Danny Ferry decided to play hardball with Teague, a restricted free agent. Rather than make an offer, the team waited for Teague to sign a dirt-cheap, four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks where he would have reunited with recently-departed Hawks coach Larry Drew. Ferry and newly-hired coach Mike Budenholzer likely made many a toast to their bargaining acumen.
But then, a few years later, Budenholzer learned the downside of such tactics. With the Hawks organization showing so little commitment to him, Teague apparently wasn’t too enthusiastic about spending the final year of his contract in Atlanta. Early last season, Teague put his condo in Buckhead on the market. Shortly after the Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers in the Conference Semifinals, Teague removed all Hawks-related images from his Instagram account. Teague then made and deleted a post on Instagram claiming that he played the entire 2015-16 season with a torn patellar tendon.
Perhaps it was the Hawks’ bargaining tactics, or perhaps it was fractured chemistry after his backup Schroder was quoted by German magazine Bild saying that he would seek greener pastures if he had not secured the starting job by the end of his current contract (Schroder insisted before a road game in Charlotte last season that he was misquoted and taken out of context by Bild). Whatever the reasons, Budenholzer made the decision to accelerate Schroder’s timeline by shipping Teague to the Pacers for the lottery pick Atlanta would use on promising small forward Taurean Prince. As mentioned, with Utah easily getting the best point guard out of the deal, Larry Bird’s back will be against the wall when it comes time to negotiate with Teague. There probably won’t be as many congratulatory slaps on the back as there were in Atlanta.
8. Darren Collison, Kings
Darren Collison has been a nomadic NBA starter who hasn’t won a lot. This is likely as much the fault of roster construction as Collison’s inability to elevate his teams. That could all change this summer after his contract expires with a final year at $5.2 million. One of those hard-bargaining point guards mentioned above could very well change teams, which would leave the incumbent team scrambling for an affordable replacement. Of all the players mentioned so far, Collison is the most likely — but by no means certain — to be available for a reasonable price. For example, if Holiday bolts from New Orleans, Collison could rejoin Cousins with the Pelicans and have the opportunity to play with a superstar in Anthony Davis. That has a much better ring to it than sticking around for an excruciating rebuild in Sacramento. Collison is at the lower end of starting NBA point guards, but he’s definitely a starter. He ranks in the 26-35 range in net differential, BPM and PER.
9. Derrick Rose, Knicks
Ranking Derrick Rose with the second tier probably counts as flattery. Rose will no doubt be seeking a max contract from his next super team, but the reality is that he’s 41st among NBA point guards in net differential and 48th in BPM. He’s somehow 21st in PER, a stat which is known to inflate the value of inefficient volume scorers. For the Knicks, Rose is right in the middle, neither elevating the team nor dragging it down from a net rating perspective. A bigger issue is probably Carmelo Anthony checking out on the organization with a -4.3 net differential that is worse than every Knick except Lance Thomas (-8). Rose has certainly been a workhorse, soaking up nearly 2000 minutes through 60 games, the third-highest total on the team.
Has Rose done enough to justify the kind of payday he doubtless believes he’s in line for after his deal expires July 1? With so many teams with their back against the wall, it only takes one. But if the Knicks double down on a failed personnel mix, it could be another wasted opportunity to begin building around Kristaps Porzingis.
Tier 3: Quality Reserves
10. Devin Harris, Mavericks
Devin Harris grades out better than Rose in the above-referenced metrics but he’s only played 867 minutes this season. Harris has battled injury issues throughout his career and been highly effective in stretches when injuries haven’t held him back. He’s a borderline starter when healthy but he’s getting toward the end of his career.
11. Yogi Ferrell, Mavericks
Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds. How painful must Yogi Farrell’s breakout for the Mavericks but for Brooklyn fans starving for talent? Sean Marks is a young, inexperienced GM, and this was a sharp lesson in the value of taking a longer look at guys before cutting them loose. It’s a sample of fewer than 800 minutes, but Ferrell has a very respectable +1.8 net differential that’s in the top half of the Mavericks’ roster. He’s also 30th among point guards in BPM and 38th in PER, giving him stats that verge on lower-end NBA starter. There’s a less than zero chance the Mavericks decline the team option to make Ferrell a free agent. He’s only mentioned here in the interest of piling on.
12. T.J. McConnell, 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers are within a game of the Knicks and the metrics say T.J. McConnell is a better player than Derrick Rose. Shouldn’t he be ranked higher? It’s actually a fair question. McConnell has started 38 games this year with Sergio Rodriguez starting 30. The 76ers will likely target a point guard in the upcoming draft, which is rich with them. But the numbers say McConnell rates as a very competent reserve. Philly would be quite foolish not to guarantee his 2017-18 salary.
13. Ty Lawson, Kings
Although his stats can be dismissed as having been compiled on a bad team, Lawson ranks between 30th in PER and 40th in BPM. That indicates quite a bit of value for a reserve as long as you’re confident that Lawson has put his past off-court issues behind him. The one-year veteran’s minimum deal he signed with Sacramento may have served as a good rehab stop for him and a better situation could await in free agency.
14. Deron Williams, Cavaliers
The Mavericks were outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions in Deron Williams’ 1171 minutes on the court this season, so it was understandable for the team to take a shot on some younger talent. Nevertheless, he represents a significant upgrade at backup point guard for the Cavaliers, who had relied on Kay Felder previously. One of the more favorable stats for Williams is PER, where he ranks 28th among NBA point guards. As with Collison, he could be a viable Plan B for a number of teams if they miss out on their primary target in free agency.
15. Rajon Rondo, Bulls
It just hasn’t been all that the Bulls’ collection of veterans hoped at the beginning of the season. After Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler cracked down on the rookies, Rondo stood up for them. It wasn’t any one player’s fault, but the net result was fractured leadership and disunity. Only $3 million of next season’s $13.4 million is guaranteed, and there may be no front office less predictable than Chicago’s. Rondo could be sent on his way as a scapegoat for this season’s shortcomings, or he could be back with the Bulls providing quality minutes. Rondo is definitely in decline but there’s still something left in the tank.
Tier 4: The rest
Beno Udrih and Toney Douglas, two NBA nomads, along with Spencer Dinwiddie, are the closest players in this tier to making a move up. Brandon Jennings, like Rose, has some cache as a longtime starter, but the numbers in New York were brutal. Hopefully, he can have a good run with the Wizards and move up a tier ahead of this summer’s unrestricted free agency. Felton, as mentioned above with Paul, has also underperformed. Chicago’s Michael Carter-Williams, a pending restricted free agent, is statistically similar to Felton. The Bulls gave up a rotation player in Tony Snell to get him, so Chicago will almost certainly extend a qualifying offer in hopes that he will fulfill the promise he showed as Rookie of the Year. Rodriguez gave way to McConnell in Philly, and rightly so. He grades out worse than Felton.
Mack enjoyed a brief moment in the sun as the Jazz’ starter last season. His on/off numbers improved dramatically as opportunity and role often allow. But as soon as he went back to the bench, his efficiency numbers went back to their accustomed place south of the Felton Line. C.J. Watson, Ramon Sessions, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks, Brian Roberts, Jose Calderon, Shaun Livingston and Isaiah Canaan have all lived further south this season. Felder, Trey Burke and Semaj Christon have been at the farthest fringes among NBA point guards with enough minutes to draw any conclusions about.
Indiana Pacers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
The Indiana Pacers should be darling of the Central Division and easily next in line as an Eastern Conference contender The problem for the Pacers is they will face pressure to improve on last year, and that’s a tall order for such a young and unproven core. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Indiana Pacers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.
The Indiana Pacers quickly demanded everyone’s eyes last season. It was a fantastic season for what was thought to be the first year of a rebuilding process. A star was made, a coach’s message was delivered and a true team was born.
Now, coming into this specific core’s second season together, there is a chance to really put a stamp on the NBA. The Eastern Conference’s king is gone, meaning there’s a wide opening in the Central Division and more.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
I didn’t have high expectations for the Indiana Pacers entering the 2017-18 season, but Victor Oladipo and his supporting cast have my attention now. The Pacers added Tyreke Evans and drafted Aaron Holiday this offseason, which I think are solid moves. I also like the addition of Kyle O’Quinn, but he could take some of Domantas Sabonis’ minutes at center, which could hurt his production and the team overall. Doug McDermott could also help this team but the Pacers committed more years and money than I think was necessary. The Pacers now have a compelling mix of solid veterans and talented young players who can contribute now and continue developing moving forward. It’s not clear that the Pacers can take down the top Eastern Conference teams in a seven-game playoff series but I wouldn’t count them out either.
1st Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
After a 2017-18 season where they were almost certainly the league’s most pleasant surprise compared to preseason projections, the Indiana Pacers will try to avoid the trap of outsized expectations the following year – and they’re well-positioned to do so. They made smart but understated signings over the summer in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, guys who may not make them title contenders but will absolutely help in several areas. They’ll hope for another year of development out of big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, the former in particular. But especially given the still-low quality of the East’s playoff picture after teams like Boston and Toronto at the top, it feels like the only thing that could truly lead to a real regression for the Pacers is a big drop-off from Victor Oladipo, who became a full-blown star last season. If he holds his level and stays on the floor, it’s hard to imagine Indiana doing much worse than their fifth-place finish in the East last year.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
It’s really hard not to like the Pacers right now. They found the league’s newest superstar in Victor Oladipo by sheer luck. Their team chemistry is phenomenal. Best of all, their salary cap situation is fantastic, since the only players they’ve committed long-term money to are Oladipo and Doug McDermott. Remember, this team was within inches of beating LeBron in a playoff series. This year, they will have basically the same roster along with new names including McDermott, Tyreke Evans, and Kyle O’Quinn who should all fit in like a glove. If they just add a top-notch scorer to complement Oladipo, there’s no telling what the Pacers’ ceiling is.
1st Place – Central Division
– Matt John
The Pacers made a statement last year. They took the Eastern Conference champions to the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs. Everybody on the team bought into what Nate McMillan was selling. Victor Oladipo is going to work harder than anybody to get back to the postseason and exceed what they did in April. Myles Turner has the chance to blossom into one of the top young centers in the entire league if he can stay consistent. Thaddeus Young is back and continues to fly under the radar as one of the better forwards in the NBA. Darren Collison is a steady point guard who is the perfect veteran to take rookie Aaron Holiday under his wing. Tyreke Evans is coming off his best season since being a rookie in Sacramento. The frontcourt of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle O’Quinn in the second unit will benefit from Cory Joseph running the offense. Indiana has a big opportunity this season in what will be a fight for first place in the Central Division with the Bucks. It’s up for grabs.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
It hard not to like the Pacers. They are young, hungry and motivated. They play hard defensively, they have all kinds of pieces and all of them seem to be scratching the surface of their ultimate potential. Here is the problem: it’s one thing to be the underdog darling everyone loves, but that’s not who the Pacers will be coming into the season. There are expectations now. Victor Oladipo has to carry the team. Myles Turner has to live up to his off-season hype. These are not easy things for young teams to do. On the surface, the Pacers should win the Central Division. They should be a home court playoff team and they should be nipping at the heels of the East’s elite teams… They should be.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo
The NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player is not satisfied. After falling mere minutes short of knocking off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the postseason, Oladipo sternly made it clear he absolutely hated the feeling of losing. Mind you, this was a series in which he averaged nearly 23 points, over eight rebounds and six assists per game. He put the onus on himself by playing over 37 minutes per game and attempting an average of 18 field goals in each contest.
And that only summarizes the seven games he played in the playoffs. In the regular season, Oladipo led the Pacers to a 48-34 record with his fearlessness and adapted to being the new face of a franchise. According to Cleaning The Glass, his usage increased by 11.6 percent from the previous year, accounting for 31 percent of the team’s offense. With the greater opportunity came better results for the Hoosier alum. He was more confident in his driving ability and his jump shot, making him on of the most dangerous threats in the whole league.
Just hours after the aforementioned defeat in the winner-take-all first-round Game 7 loss, Oladipo texted his trainer David Alexander: “When do we start? I’m ready to take it to another level.” With that kind of work ethic, it’d be foolish to expect anything else but greatness out of the 26-year-old in his second season with Indiana.
Top Defensive Player: Thaddeus Young
This could have been Oladipo for all intents and purposes. After all, he did lead the league in steal percentage (3.5) and steals per game (2.4) to go along with a net plus-14.4 rating. But we’re going to show some love to his teammate that is just as effective at a different positions.
Young is a versatile player. He can stick on to guards, he can go toe-to-toe with forwards and, if necessary, can muscle up and defend big men in the post. Height-wise he’s a little undersized for his position, but he makes up for it with his strength and wingspan. Having active hands is the most effective tool at his disposal.
When he was off the floor last season, the Pacers allowed 4.8 points per 100 possessions more than what they did when he was on. They also forced turnovers on 20.2 percent of their opponents’ possessions while he played, per CTG. As a veteran entering his 12th year, Young should be on tap for yet another solid season on the defensive end.
Top Playmaker: Tyreke Evans
Again, it’s difficult to not give the nod to Oladipo for nearly all of these categories, however his new teammate will give the Pacers an entirely different weapon than they’ve had. Evans is indefinitely one of the most underrated pickups of the summer and will fit in beautifully with this roster as a sizable upgrade at point forward.
We’ve addressed his abilities over the offseason a couple of times since the move, but to give you the cliffs notes—he’s an aggressive, multi-tooled player that can share the wealth and produce on his own simultaneously. As specified by CTG, Evans had assisted on 30.4 percent of his Memphis teammates’ made shots and had a usage of 30.7 percent. Those figures ranked among the best in the NBA.
Even citing the basic statistics, Evans averaged over 19 points, five rebounds and five assists per game as the leader of the Grizzlies last year. Forming a tandem with Oladipo in Indianapolis is going to be fun to watch. Having signed a one-year deal with this franchise, he’s betting on himself to earn a bigger payday next offseason from anybody—and it might just happen.
Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo
Some of the best moments of the 2017-18 season came from Oladipo’s fourth-quarter heroics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He had his signature celebration by saying, “I’m right here” while pointing down with two fingers. The emotions were high and made those plays memorable.
When the Pacers were in a close game, chances were he’d take it over. Whether it was a big steal, a shot to seal the game or a bucket to win it, he made it happen. It wasn’t only at home, either. He brought it on the road as well. Looking at NBA.com’s numbers, Oladipo had the highest net rating in clutch situations (plus-22.4) among those who played in at least 40 games in such scenarios.
To put that in perspective, only LeBron James had a higher offensive rating and only Anthony Davis had a better defensive rating in the clutch. That is elite company. Who knows if Oladipo can replicate what he did last season, but we do know that he will never shy away when the lights get brightest.
The Unheralded Player: Darren Collison
To be truthful, Indiana as a whole was underappreciated throughout the season. You could name almost anybody from the roster last season that’s on this current team and be right. For this purpose, though, we’re going to go with a wily veteran.
Back for his second stint with the Pacers, Collison flew under the radar. He led the NBA in three-point percentage (46.8 percent), recorded a career-high true shooting percentage (61 percent) and averaged over five assists and one steal per game.
With a star-in-the-making in Oladipo, an up-and-comer like Myles Turner and others drawing the attention of most, Collison just came in and did his job every night. He doesn’t turn the ball over, he doesn’t demand the basketball and he’s selfless. With another season of experience under his belt, expect the same type of contributions from the 31-year-old.
Best New Addition: Kyle O’Quinn
Evans is the clear-cut pick here, but we’ve already talked about him, so how about another choice? Losing tough-minded players like Lance Stephenson and Trevor Booker, general manager Kevin Pritchard hit the nail on the head by bringing one of the most underrated big men in the game to town.
O’Quinn is an immediate impact once he steps foot onto the hardwood. Alike to Enes Kanter and Marreese Speights’ styles on the offensive end, he scores in bunches. He hasn’t gotten the opportunity to show his skills often with his lack of playing time (18 minutes per game with New York Knicks last season was a career-high), but when he has, the veteran center has made the most of it.
He has an uncanny knack for hitting the glass, can put the ball in the basket and uses his size to his advantage on defense. The Pacers have solid depth in their frontcourt with O’Quinn.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. Nate McMillan
Aside from winning a championship, getting the most out of your players is a primary goal of a head coach in sports. McMillan not only did that, but he instilled a culture and a belief in a young group who was counted out before the season even started. Those same players are still a part of the core they’ve established in Indiana. Expect more player development and a higher confidence with a team who truly has bought into what McMillan is selling. If you thought year one was a smashing success, you haven’t seen anything yet.
2. Myles Turner
Coming into the 2017-18 campaign, many put their money on Turner becoming the new face of the Pacers. We all know that Oladipo took that title and ran with it, but it’s not to say that the 22-year-old didn’t have a good year. He had to adjust some, sharing time with Domantas Sabonis, Trevor Booker and Al Jefferson at times. He can be effective stretching the floor and is a shot blocker on the other end of the floor. This is a real opportunity for Turner to spread his wings this season. Remember, he’s only going into year four.
3. Domantas Sabonis
Similar to Oladipo, the once-misused Sabonis took plenty of advantage of an expanded role that he didn’t have with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He crashed the boards aggressively, he could be the ball handler and the runner in the pick-and-roll and he was a knock down shooter from the mid-range. He was actively involved in every set he was a part of. Entering his third season, his ascent is only in the beginning stages.
4. Bojan Bogdanovic
Another player on this team that shot above a 40 percent three-point clip, Bogdanovic knows exactly what he’s supposed to provide for this group. He doesn’t hesitate to take shots, but he won’t hog the rock, either. The Bosnian native is the ideal tertiary or fourth option on offense for Indiana. Considering how consistent he’s been for the past few years, you can likely predict the same thing to happen.
– Spencer Davies
These Pacers are confident and hungry…and they have an open window. The Eastern Conference is there for the taking. McMillan and company have all of the talent necessary to compete and beat every team in their conference. Statistically, they were physical on the ball and turned their opponents’ over often. They shot the ball extremely well from deep (37.6 percent) and overall (46.5 percent), in addition to making their free throws.
– Spencer Davies
Indiana has to go after rebounds with more conviction. They were a bottom four team in the league regarding their average 42 total rebounds per game. Preventing their opponents from doing so would help, too. Another focus should be on taking away chances on the perimeter, as their adversaries took 29 triples per game last year.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
How do the Pacers respond to expectations?
Based on this preview and all of the positive predictions coming with it, you’re probably thinking to yourself that Indiana is aiming for a 50-win type of season. With the grit and determination they showed last year, that’s exactly what we should peg them for. They should eclipse that mark for the first time in five seasons. But are we sure Indiana will be able to handle the spotlight for the entirety of an 82-game campaign? This time around, fans and pundits are going to be paying much closer attention to ensure the previous year wasn’t an anomaly. Chances are it won’t matter to the Pacers at first, but there are two directions teams go when it comes to constant pressure. We’ll see if the cream rises to the top or if it breaks this young group. I’ll go with the former.
– Spencer Davies
Utah Jazz 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
The Jazz have started to emerge as a legit contender in the West with a great balance of offense and defense. But are they deep enough to be anything more than a playoff team? Basketball Insiders digs into the Utah Jazz in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.
The Utah Jazz find themselves in a curious position headed into the 2018-19 season. They made some of the fewest notable changes of any team in the association this offseason, essentially bringing back the same band plus the addition of first-round draft pick Grayson Allen. At the same time, an already brutal Western Conference got even tougher over the summer. And yet, most projections and predictions have them at least matching last year’s 48-win total, with many expecting them to exceed this and challenge for home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Some of that is due to expected health improvements, while some is also due to projected internal development and some of the best continuity in the league. There are even projection systems and pundits who give the Jazz a real chance to challenge for the third or even second seed out West. Can the team deliver on some of its highest expectations in recent memory?
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Utah Jazz didn’t grab any major headlines this offseason but they have plenty of reason to be excited and optimistic as we approach the upcoming season. Utah returns all of its core rotation, which features several players who could take another step forward this season. Rudy Gobert seems to improve each season, though injuries have been an issue in the past. Donovan Mitchell was a breakout star last season and should be even better this season. Dante Exum is still just 23 years old and has plenty of room to keep developing. This team has more continuity in its roster than most teams and a quality coach in Quin Snyder to lead the way. However, the Western Conference is as stacked as ever with Golden State still standing strong at the top of the hill. It’s unlikely that Utah can advance out of the Western Conference playoff race but they will certainly put up a good fight against anyone they are matched up against.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
In a league where the elite teams at the top have bent the way we interpret modern basketball, the Utah Jazz are something of a throwback. You can see it in their starting lineup, which succeeds consistently despite their shooting-shy mammoth frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. It’s visible in their grinding style of play, one that wears opponents down mentally and physically. Utah’s front office has never wavered in its commitment to this group, as evidenced by a summer where they made virtually no major changes to the roster and will be relying on more of the same to keep them in the upper parts of the West’s playoff conversation.
1st Place – Northwest Division
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Jazz added pretty much nothing to their roster simply because they didn’t have to. Even after losing Gordon Hayward, the Jazz had one of the most resilient seasons in 2017-18. Now that the whole gang is back, plus Grayson Allen, for one more round, the Jazz should expect to take another step forward. Utah now approaches year two in the Donovan Mitchell era, which should bring much optimism given his electric rookie year. The supporting cast he has isn’t very talented, but they all function at a high level together. Because of that, expect more from them. Especially if Dante Exum continues to progress.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Matt John
What a fantastic season the Jazz had last year. Having lost Gordon Hayward going into 2017, nearly everybody chalked them up to miss the playoffs. For the first couple of months, it looked that way—until a rookie emerged into a superstar. Donovan Mitchell will try to capitalize on a sensational first season we’ll never forget. Reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is poised to continue his interior dominance. Ricky Rubio wants to build on a career-year. Joe Ingles will likely continue his ways of being the ultimate teammate and a top three-point shooter. With all of this said, Utah did what they did a year ago with no expectations. The script is flipped this time around. All eyes are on Quin Snyder and company. They’re undoubtedly a top playoff team, but they might fall just short of a Northwest Division title.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
How can you not like what the Jazz have built? They are a tough team defensively, they have a dynamic offensive player in Donovan Mitchell who is just scratching the surface, and their role guys are progressing nicely. Utah is a solid team. The problem is they don’t have the firepower to believe they are truly elite, unless someone we didn’t expect emerges. Maybe that’s Dante Exum, maybe that’s rookie Grayson Allen, maybe it’s Jae Crowder. The problem is you don’t know at this point who the next guy is going to be, if they have that guy at all. Being good is nice, but to matter in the West you have to be great, and it’s hard to see the Jazz as great, especially in the Northwest. The Jazz are going to be a tough out every night and that’s a good thing, but they need one more guy to put them in that top tier and it is just not clear who that guy is yet.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Donovan Mitchell
As a rookie, the questions with Mitchell kept becoming grander and greater in scope as the year went on. Could he crack the rotation? Could he be a spark plug off the bench behind guys like Rodney Hood and Ricky Rubio? Could he start? Could he average 15 points a night?
The answers to all those questions and more proved to be a resounding yes. Mitchell became the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring for the year since Carmelo Anthony with the Nuggets over a decade ago, then went toe to toe with Russell Westbrook and Paul George in Utah’s first-round win over the Thunder. He became the first Jazz player, rookie or otherwise, to shoulder a usage load of 29 percent or higher (minimum 500 minutes played) since the great Karl Malone in 2000-01. He’s the Jazz’s answer to the league’s growing emphasis on switching defense, and their go-to when the play breaks down and they need to generate a shot before the clock runs out.
Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert
When you’re the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, this category isn’t too tough a call. Gobert is coming off his second straight season leading the NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure – he’s never finished outside the top-15 in this category since he became a full-time NBA player in his second year. He’s the basis for Utah’s entire defensive strategy, a funneling operation that allows wing defenders to be more aggressive on the perimeter, clog passing lanes and otherwise disrupt things with the knowledge that Gobert is at the rim to clean up mistakes.
Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio
Rubio averaged by far the fewest assists of his career with the Jazz last year, but that’s a reflection of a scheme, not a player. The Jazz under Quin Snyder emphasize a motion-based system that spreads the playmaking duties around several ball-handlers, and while it took Rubio a few months to get used to it, it eventually clicked and led to a post-All-Star break run that was some of the strongest play of his career. Rubio may not be diming up teammates 10 times a game in Utah, but his effect on the organization and execution of the offense is clear: The Jazz’s assist percentage (the rate of team baskets that drew an assist) dropped from 61.4 percent with him on the floor to 54.8 percent with him on the bench. He could be even more of a force after another full offseason.
Top Clutch Player: Donovan Mitchell
However you define the term “clutch,” Mitchell is clearly that guy for Utah. Using NBA.com’s standard definition – the final five minutes of a game with the score within five points – Mitchell attempted over double the per-minute shots of any other full-season rotation player on the roster. That crazy-high 29 percent usage rate we mentioned earlier? It skyrocketed to 44 percent during these minutes (55 percent in the playoffs!), almost an unfathomable load.
That’s not the only way to think about clutch play, though, at least if you’re liberal about defining it. Consider how reliant the Jazz were on Mitchell to bail them out when the offense stalled, for instance: Donovan attempted more than double the shots in the final four seconds of the shot clock of any other player on the team, per Second Spectrum data. When the Jazz need a bucket, be it in a tight game or just a tight possession, Mitchell is where they turn.
The Unheralded Player: Joe Ingles
As Ingles has gotten a bit of notoriety, including a top-60 finish in the most recent SI Top-100 Players list, this title is at risk of losing its validity to some degree. Still, though, there are plenty of opposing broadcast crews still wondering who the heck this balding Australian guy is as he drops his sixth three-pointer of the night on their team.
Ingles quietly does a little bit of everything for the Jazz. He’s sporting two consecutive finishes in the league’s top five three-point shooters by accuracy, a distinction shared by only Washington’s Otto Porter. Ingles isn’t flashy, but he’s a more than capable pick-and-roll operator with one of the best pass-fakes in the entire league. He’s a jack-of-all-trades defender who spends time on point guards and power forwards alike. And best yet, he’s a grounding presence in a tight Jazz locker room.
Best New Addition: Grayson Allen
Allen wins this one by default – he’s the only actual addition the Jazz made to their 15-man roster who didn’t play for them last year. The front office is incredibly high on Allen, a four-year college prospect who had to adjust his game multiple times at Duke to make room for various talented freshmen. They see him as a light version of Kyle Korver offensively, a guy who can rocket around screens and draw defensive eyes away from guys like Mitchell and Rubio – but who can also put the ball and the floor and run pick-and-roll as a secondary creator. Time will tell if he has the length and lateral speed to defend at a high NBA level, but he’s got sneaky vertical athleticism for his size and already thinks the game really well. It’ll be interesting to see if he can crack consistent rotation minutes for a team that’s deep on the perimeter.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Quin Snyder
Fresh off a second-place finish in the Coach of the Year vote, Snyder has finally begun to draw his due credit around the league for the job he does in Utah. His staff is consistently among the most detailed and prepared in the league, something opposing coaches will happily confirm for you if you ask them. Snyder’s player development skills are also beginning to get recognition – the hiring of former assistant Igor Kokoskov as head coach for a young roster in Phoenix is just one piece of that. Snyder demands a lot from his players, but he puts just as much into the job. He’s a clear asset in Utah.
2. Derrick Favors
Favors deserves real praise for the way he’s accepted multiple changes in roles since Rudy Gobert’s ascent to among the league’s dominant centers, and he got a bit of a reward this offseason with a nice two-year deal from the Jazz (second year non-guaranteed). The deal is great for both sides – Favors gets a nice bump for a year or two, then can re-enter the market while still in his late 20s. The Jazz, meanwhile, have the ability to get off Favors’ contract in just a year if they can land a big fish on the 2019 free agency market. If not, though, they can simply retain him as a starting power forward and arguably the league’s best backup center. He’s a consistent presence on the floor who serves as an excellent insurance policy in case Gobert struggles with injuries.
3. Dante Exum
Another guy who got rewarded over the offseason was Exum, who’s been plagued by two extremely unfortunate injuries but retains the trust of the Jazz front office regardless. The young Aussie showed flashes of his defensive potential late last year, including some elite-level defense on James Harden and other top ball-handlers. Utah paid a bit of a premium on his three-year deal, but they did so with the assumption that this is still far from a finished product. He projects as a third guard behind Mitchell and Rubio, but has the size to play some three at times and could see a lot more court time if his offensive game becomes just a bit more consistent.
4. The 4s
The Jazz quietly have one of the strongest groups of power forwards in the league, one that includes a great deal of versatility. They’ll start with their twin towers combo of Favors and Gobert, a duo that’s continued to crush most teams even despite the league’s emphasis on spacing. Favors will mostly play backup center after those early first- and third-quarter stints, but Snyder will then have his choice of Jae Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha – the former coming off a strange season where he lacked a lot of his usual preparation after the death of his mother and multiple trades, the latter recovering from an MCL injury while also returning from a drug suspension.
The Jazz have consistently dominated playing these wing types at four next to Gobert, and they may be able to downsize even further and play guys like Joe Ingles or Royce O’Neale there (O’Neale deserved to make this list on his own, but there’s only so much space). And watch out for newcomer Georges Niang, who spent much of last season with the SLC Stars in the G-League. Niang doesn’t jump out of the gym, but he’s a savvy and skilled guy who can really stretch the floor.
5. Dennis Lindsey and Co.
The Jazz’s coaching staff has begun to receive plaudits for the work it does, and the same can be said about the front office. Helmed by GM Dennis Lindsey, Jazz brass has secured a number of big wins over recent years: Trading for Donovan Mitchell, hiring Quin Snyder and moving up in the draft to select Rudy Gobert chief among them.
What really separates them, though, is their work around the margins. Look at a guy like Royce O’Neale, who Lindsey and his group signed as an undrafted 24-year-old free agent a year ago – by the end of the year, he was a vital rotation piece who might be the team’s best overall perimeter defender. Imagine how much a team like Houston could have used O’Neale when their seven-man rotation was running out of steam against the Warriors in the conference finals; that one more capable wing body could have done wonders. The Lindsey track record is filled with those kinds of moves, from Joe Ingles (cut by the Clippers) to guys like Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh.
The Jazz have a number of strengths, but everything starts with their continuity. Few teams will be as comfortable with each other from the jump as this group, which returns every guy from last year’s end-of-season rotation. Linked to this is the defense, which is obviously a strength due to personnel like Gobert first and foremost, but also adds up to a sum greater than its parts due to this familiarity.
Depth is another clear strength for the Jazz. Snyder ran 11-deep at times last season, and that was with a few injuries and before adding a rookie in Grayson Allen who looks like he could be capable of bench minutes at least. There will be real competition for playing time in Utah, often among guys who could walk into rotation spots on many other teams.
The Jazz finished almost exactly league average last season for points scored per-possession, so this isn’t necessarily a weakness in a vacuum, but it’s certainly a concern for the heights this team hopes to reach. In particular, Utah has had issues with teams that emphasize a lot of switching in their defenses – since the departure of Gordon Hayward (and even before then, honestly), they’ve been a bit short on guys who can consistently win the one-on-one mismatches you get from those defenses. Mitchell quickly became that guy as a rookie – can he improve his efficiency on these plays a bit? Can others, such as Exum or Alec Burks, help shoulder some of that load?
One area that could help in terms of picking the low-hanging offensive fruit is transition, where the Jazz haven’t been quite aggressive enough in recent seasons. Per Cleaning the Glass, they were the sixth-most efficient team in the league last year on the break, scoring a robust 125.7 points per play – but they ran in transition just 19th-most in the league on a per-possession basis. Running more might lead to a slight decrease in that efficiency number, but we’re still talking about possessions that are far more valuable than the standard halfcourt look. It’s understandable that Snyder wants to control the tempo of the game and grind teams down, and there’s a limit to how much teams can run when you think about conditioning, but it’s still something Utah could prioritize a bit more.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is this Jazz core a year away from true title contention, or are they still missing a major piece?
We’re going big-picture with this one. With apologies to Jazz fans everywhere (and the fans of at least 26 other teams, most likely), their chances of winning the title this season are slim to none while this version of the Warriors remains intact. But that doesn’t mean this year is meaningless, even without a freak event like an injury in the Bay.
This is a chance to assess this core against the other elite teams in the league. It’s a chance to see how much more development guys like Mitchell, Exum and even Gobert have in them. If they’re close enough to the Warriors and Rockets of the league by season’s end, Lindsey and his team could reasonably conclude that moderate offseason moves in 2019 (plus more internal development) will be enough to push them into true title contention pending events in Oakland. If not, the front office will have a clearer idea of what they need to do or add to help bridge that gap. There are numerous smaller questions about this team, such as whether they can get home court in the first round and whether they can make the second round for the third year straight, but this is the broadest one in regard to the franchise’s future.
Oklahoma City Thunder 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
The Oklahoma City Thunder have all the pieces to be an elite team, even in the West, but can they survive missing Russell Westbrook and does their style of play translate to winning NBA basketball? Basketball Insiders take a look at the Oklahoma City Thunder in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.
The Oklahoma City Thunder entered last season with championship aspirations. They surprisingly pulled off a trade to bring Paul George to the team, and then followed that up by trading for Carmelo Anthony. On paper, they appeared to have all the makings of a team that could make a deep postseason run.
Their season didn’t end that way, however, as they were bounced in the first round by the Utah Jazz despite having home-court advantage. Anthony never seemed to fit, and the team traded to him to the Atlanta Hawks, who eventually bought out his contract. They did manage to secure a huge win in free agency, though by convincing George, who supposedly was all-in on finding a way to Los Angeles, to re-sign. They also made a couple of nice pickups in Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel to strengthen their roster and stay afloat in the ever tough Western Conference.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Give Sam Presti credit for the work he did this offseason. He managed to re-sign Paul George to a four-year, $136,911,936 contract, moved Carmelo Anthony’s contract while acquiring Dennis Schroder, traded for the rights to Hamidou Diallo, signed Nerlens Noel to a two-year, $3,745,548 contract (player option on final season) and rounded our the roster with some other cost-effective deals. This offseason could have been a disaster, but re-signing George sets the stage for the Thunder to remain competitive in the Western Conference. The team has the potential to make some real noise in the postseason if Russell Westbrook and George develop some meaningful chemistry — something that didn’t happen last season. Westbrook underwent an operation recently, so that will be a factor as well. If Westbrook, Andre Roberson and the Thunder’s other key players avoid the injury bug this season, they could be a surprisingly competitive team. However, even in the best case scenario, the Thunder will likely be a tier below the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Thunder did about as well as anyone could have hoped over the summer, winning Sam Presti’s 2017 gamble outright when they re-signed Paul George to a long-term deal. That they also managed to shed Carmelo Anthony’s albatross deal in the process was just icing on the cake. The big question now becomes this: Will keeping George and Russell Westbrook together motivate the pairing to address some of their on-court shortcomings last year and come back even stronger, or will they rest on their laurels? A recent Westbrook surgery is only supposed to keep him out through training camp, but it’s worth monitoring – if he has to miss any time, new acquisition Dennis Schroder will be put to the test early. But the Thunder were a very strong regular season team last year before Andre Roberson went down with an injury, and it’ll be interesting if they can parlay his renewed health into a charge at a top-three seed in the West.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
If there was ever a time to use the phrase “addition by subtraction,” now would be the appropriate time with the Thunder. After a year together, Russell Westbrook and Paul George know each other’s tendencies. One’s more aggressive than the other, but they’ll both have a better feel for things. Oklahoma City adding Dennis Schroder to the equation gives its bench bunch a potential sixth man candidate that could potentially play alongside the starters in certain rotations. Steven Adams broke out as best offensive rebounder in the NBA, and that won’t change. There’s real potential for Jerami Grant to take on a more significant role, as well as a chance for Nerlens Noel to re-establish himself in the league. Billy Donovan has plenty of options to go with for different types of styles.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Thunder were one of the league’s biggest letdowns last season. Although, it was not entirely their fault. They were playing their best basketball before Andre Roberson’s season-ending knee injury. Since their elimination, OKC not only kept the best of their team together, but they also renovated the roster. Replacing the incompatible Carmelo Anthony with Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel gives the team well-needed depth. Lack of shooting might be a cause for concern if they plan to make an extended playoff run, but the Thunder have a better supporting cast around Russell Westbrook and Paul George. That should mean a better final result than last season.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Matt John
The injury/surgery of Russell Westbrook is going to impact the team more than most think; it not just that he’ll miss some time, it’s he’s going to miss time and need to reintegrate. In any other division that might be okay, but in the Northwest virtually every team should make the postseason, so every game is going to matter in the final standings. Think about last season: one game decided third place from fourth place and one game determined whether you got in the playoffs or not. The balance of the Thunder is scientifically better. The addition of Dennis Schroeder is solid. Andre Roberson is supposed to be healthy, so the Thunder should be better, but missing Westbrook for any games is going to be tough to overcome, even with Paul George back in the fold.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Russell Westbrook
The 2016-17 Most Valuable Player, Russell Westbrook is one of the most explosive offensive players in the league. He’s near impossible to stop when attacking the rim and his strength allows him to finish the play while absorbing contact. He’s also worked on his jumper tremendously since coming into the NBA, to the point where he’s a threat to score from anywhere on the court.
He’s been among the league leaders in points per game the past few seasons, and during his MVP year, he led the league with 31.6 points per game. There have been questions about Westbrook’s shot selection and whether or not he dominates the ball too much, but the fact remains that he’s an amazing offensive talent and a walking triple-double. He is without a doubt the type of player you can build a franchise around. There are 29 other teams that would love to have a player of that caliber. He’s a top-five player in the league and a perennial MVP candidate.
Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson
Despite being a limited threat offensively, the Thunder missed Anthony Roberson tremendously in the playoffs. He suffered a season ending injury back in January. He’s emerged as one of the premier wing defenders in the league. His presence would have gone a long way to corralling Donovan Mitchell, whom the Thunder seemed to have no answer for in the postseason.
Prior to his injury, Oklahoma City had the best defense in the league. Without him in the lineup, their defense took a huge hit and they slipped to only middle of the pack. He’s able to guard multiple wing positions and his one-on-one defense is almost second to none. When he’s back on the court, he’s a potential All-Defensive First Team member and could be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook
In many ways, as Westbrook goes, so go the Thunder. Much of their success relies on the superhuman efforts of Westbrook, part of which is his ability to create opportunities for his teammates. There has been plenty of garbage floating around suggesting that Westbrook “hunts for stats,” as if it were that easy to average double figures in assists. He’s become one of the elite playmakers in the league. The Thunder are that much better with him on the floor.
The past three seasons he’s averaged double figures in assists, including his final season with Kevin Durant, in which he dished out a career-high 10.4 assists. This past season, his 10.3 per game led the league. Not only does he generate offense himself, but he does so for his teammates as well. They all become a threat to score when Westbrook is on the court. He’s a floor general and leader who quarterbacks the team.
Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook/Paul George
Of course Westbrook deserves to be mentioned here. He’s hit numerous big shots and come through in plenty of clutch situations for the Thunder. However, Paul George has garnered more of a reputation of his own for making big plays in crunch time. There are plenty of stats floating around that suggest George isn’t a clutch player or that he’s abysmal with the game on the line. As always, stats don’t tell the complete story.
The Thunder struggled during close games last season, mostly due to the trio of Westbrook, George and Anthony never really finding a groove together. It was pretty much each guy taking turns with the ball in his hands. With Anthony now out of the picture, things should run a little more smoothly. The casual fan forgets George going toe to toe with LeBron James and the Miami Heat a few years back. He made numerous big plays during those battles with Miami. The fact is you can rest comfortably knowing that the ball is in either Westbrook or George’s hands when the fourth quarter comes around. You can’t go wrong with either.
The Most Unheralded Player: Steven Adams
Steven Adams has rightfully begun to garner more attention for what he brings to the Thunder, but there are times when it still can go unnoticed. His rebounding and interior defense are a huge part of what the Thunder do. Last season, he averaged more offensive rebounds (5.1) than defensive rebounds (4.0), helping Oklahoma City to extra possessions.
He’s become one of the best defensive anchors in the paint as well as a good man to man defender. He’s also emerged as a valuable contributor on the offensive end as well. He’s great in the pick and roll as both a screener and a finisher. His offensive rebounding prowess enables him to get multiple put-backs. And he’s begun to develop a jump shot and a little floater. The Thunder certainly have star power, but Adams is a vital piece of the team and an absolute necessity if they want to make a deep playoff run.
Best New Addition: Dennis Schroder
As part of the three-team trade that sent Anthony out of Oklahoma City, the Thunder received Dennis Schroder from the Hawks. Schroder gives the Thunder a much-needed scorer off the bench. Last season, the Thunder had a few capable bench guys, but none that could really stabilize the second unit. Schroder can do just that. He can generate his own offense as well as create opportunities for his teammates.
Last season in Atlanta, he averaged a career-high 19.4 points per game and 6.2 assists. He will need to improve his outside shooting, but there’s no doubt that he’ll be a welcome addition to the Thunder offense. He should also get an opportunity to share the backcourt with Westbrook at times while Westbrook slides to shooting guard. It will give the Thunder a scoring punch in the backcourt that they haven’t had since they traded Reggie Jackson.
– David Yapkowitz
WHO WE LIKE
1. Patrick Patterson
Still recovering from offseason surgery, Patterson had quite an underwhelming year for the Thunder. Also, with Anthony playing power forward and the emergence of Jerami Grant, Patterson was the odd man out, although he did manage to play in all 82 games. It wasn’t too long ago that he was one of the most valuable contributors off the Toronto Raptors’ bench. He’s a stretch four with good defense and rebounding and with Anthony gone, look for him to play more of an important role in the rotation.
2. Jerami Grant
Jerami Grant was perhaps the best player off the Thunder bench last season. He’s mobile big man who can guard multiple positions. He also has an improving offensive game. He’s great in the pick and roll, and has ability to finish around the rim. He drew plenty of interest as a free agent this summer, but the Thunder were able to retain him. He should continue to improve as a player and be a reliable contributor in the second unit.
3. Nerlens Noel
Nerlens Noel was once thought of as one of the top up and coming defensive big men in the league. A former lottery pick, he found himself out of the rotation with the Dallas Mavericks. This is essentially a fresh start for him, a chance to remind everyone why he was once a coveted draft pick. He’s a Steven Adams-lite, essentially. He’ll be counted on to provide the Thunder with defense and rebounding off the bench. He could end up being an X-factor in Oklahoma City.
4. Terrance Ferguson
As a rookie, Terrance Ferguson saw himself thrust into the rotation with the injury to Andre Roberson. He had a pretty good showing despite being a player who wasn’t expected to do much. He still has a long way to go in his development, but he showed flashes of the player he could become. He can create his own shot and he’s a good shooter. He’s got the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. Overall, he’s a nice young player for the Thunder to continue to develop.
– David Yapkowitz
Defense, defense and defense. When Roberson was in the lineup, the Thunder were on top of the league defensively. His return to the lineup is much needed. Prior to the addition of Anthony last summer, the lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams looked like the team best equipped to match up with the Golden State Warriors juggernaut defensively. With Anthony now out of the picture, Oklahoma City should regain their spot as one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. Whether it’s Patterson or Grant that ultimately wins the starting power forward spot, all five of the Thunder’s starters are above average to elite defenders. They should wreak havoc on the league defensively.
– David Yapkowitz
The Achilles Heel for Oklahoma City last season was their performance in the clutch. They struggled mightily in close games. Most of that, however, was the result of Westbrook, George and Anthony never meshing well as a trio. Each of them would take turns doing their own thing with the ball. Now with only Westbrook and George there, they should be more efficient down the stretch.
– David Yapkowitz
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Oklahoma City Thunder good enough to beat the Warriors and get to the Finals?
There’s no question that after the Thunder brought in George and Anthony, getting through the Western Conference and to the Finals to compete for a title was the goal. They fell woefully short of that. The Warriors have run roughshod on the West the past several years. Their stars are all in the prime and they show no signs of slowing down. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Thunder. Will their offense run smoother with Anthony gone? Can Roberson make a full recovery and bolster Oklahoma City’s defense? Will they get the necessary production out of their bench? They’ve got the talent, and they should be able to make a stronger postseason run, but ultimately it’s tough to envision them knocking off Golden State. Stranger things have happened, but it doesn’t appear likely.
– David Yapkowitz