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Boston Celtics 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Bostons Celtics might be the deepest team in the NBA, and if they can stay healthy might be the most formidable challenger to the Warriors in a while. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Celtics in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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In looking at the roster of this season’s Boston Celtics, the first question that comes to mind is: Can this team beat the Warriors? Boasting an elite starting five, both offensively and defensively, one can only assume this is one of the few teams in the league with that sort of ability. What makes this team even deeper is the fact that they boast a slew of high-level personnel coming off the bench. But the cherry on top? Brad Stevens. Year after year, Stevens has continued to lead almost any and all versions of the Celtics to success. We’ve already seen a number of players who thrived in Stevens’ system, only to see their play severely diminish with a different team. So essentially, this Boston Celtics team not only has an outstanding roster, but a coach that will get the best out of them night in and night out.

Brad Stevens has improved his yearly win total in each of his first five years in the league. He’s rattled off four straight trips to the postseason and two straight losses to LeBron James in the conference finals. With LeBron now out West, and a healthy Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to start the season, do the Celtics have what it takes to to make the 2018-19 NBA Finals? Let’s take a deep dive into their team and find out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Boston Celtics didn’t make any blockbuster acquisitions this summer, but they are still getting some serious reinforcements this season. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward collectively missed most of last season due to injuries, but are now on track to start on opening night. Boston was a dangerous team last season without those two star players. With Irving and Hayward back in the fold, it’s hard to not like Boston’s chances of making it out of the Eastern Conference. Head coach Brad Stevens will have to manage his players’ minutes and find a balance that keeps his stars and role players happy. With Irving, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart on the roster, Stevens will have to figure out how to balance the minutes at point guard. The same issue applies at the forward positions, with Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris all looking for heavy minutes. It’s a nice problem to have and if anyone can manage it, it’s Stevens. With high-end talent, solid role players, a strong team culture and a top-notch head coach, the Celtics are primed for a deep playoff run and possibly a trip to the NBA Finals.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

There’s true excitement in Boston headed into the season, and with good reason. A team that overachieved last year now returns multiple All-Star level talents to the fold, plus can expect major development from some of the most tantalizing young wings in the league in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Coach Brad Stevens, who has spent years getting the most out of rosters, will finally be getting one of the most stacked groups in the NBA outside Golden State. And if everything breaks right, particularly health and development from the youngsters, could this finally be the squad to challenge the Warriors? They have several lineup combinations that at least theoretically seem to match up well with the two-time defending champs, but they’ll have to prove they’re on that level on the floor first – including getting past a similarly stacked Raptors team that plays in the same division.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Ben Dowsett

For the entirety of last year, the Boston Celtics lived by the mantra, “next man up.” There is so much to look forward to with this team now that they’re starting over healthy. We know how amazing a player Kyrie Irving is. Gordon Hayward is getting stronger with every day in anticipation for his return. The rookie season of Jayson Tatum, and more importantly his performance in the playoffs, was incredible. Between those three, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and more—it’s an embarrassment of riches for the Celtics. Putting it together shouldn’t be too difficult, and it should result in an NBA Finals appearance if they can stay healthy.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

One thing’s for sure about the Celtics this season: They are no longer “cute.” It was cute to watch them wildly exceed expectations given their circumstances for the past few seasons. This time, things will be different. Now that they are coming off a surprise run to the conference finals, will get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back, and expect progress from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics should not wildly exceed expectations, but only because the bar is firmly set at getting Banner 18. It’s evident that the Celtics have one of the deepest, most versatile rosters in the league led by one of the league’s best coaches in Brad Stevens. They have so many lineup possibilities in their arsenal that it’s almost unfair with the talent they have. Skeptics have pointed out that the Celtics won’t have enough minutes for all the talent they have which could lead to inner turmoil. That is a valid concern, but if their players are willing to put their egos aside, then this team could potentially be the toughest challenger Golden State has ever faced.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

There is such thing as too much of a good thing. The Celtics are L-O-A-D-E-D, and that proved to be valuable last season when guys started to go down, but in the grand scheme how long will these young guys accept being marginalized for the sake of depth? The good news is, it’s easy to sell sacrifice when you are winning and the front runner to win the East and to get to the NBA Finals, but if the Celtics struggle – which is hard to imagine – when do the young guys want their own opportunities? That’s going to be a real thing in long-run, but for now the Celtics are loaded with all kinds of options and Brad Stevens has proven to be the coach that can maximize that. The Celtics are king of the hill in the East and if wear and tear catches up to the Warriors, maybe Boston is good enough to go all the way.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Although he missed the last quarter of the regular season and the playoffs due to a minor knee surgery, Kyrie still poured in buckets while he was healthy. He had a double-digit lead on points per game over the next Boston player at 24.4. He scored at a highly efficient mark, notching 49.1 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three. He led the team in assists at 5.1 per game. He also led the team in free throw percentage at 88.9.

Irving has arguably the best handles in the league. Not only does this allow him to land on the SportsCenter Top 10 consistently, it allows him to to free up his teammates at an elite level. He lead the Celtics in assist percentage at 28.2, and his assist to turnover ratio of 2.2 shows he is capable of taking care of the ball, as well.

Of players that had more than a 30 percent usage, only two players had a higher true shooting percentage than Kyrie. Those players were LeBron James and James Harden.

Top Defensive Player: Al Horford

Understandably, this Brad Stevens coached team is loaded with defensive talent. There are a handful of players that do a lot defensively, but Al Horford is the anchor. He helped the Celtics finish the season last year with an NBA-low defensive rating of 101.5, largely thanks to his sheer presence on the court. His versatility allows him to both protect the rim and defend the wing on switches when necessary.

Marcus Smart has long been considered one of the best defensive players on this team, but he isn’t the sole reason the Celtics dominate on that end of the court. Apart from his size and athleticism, Horford’s combination of defensive IQ and leadership allow the team to excel against just about any style of play.

Horford finished fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and understandably so. As the season progresses, he’ll look to continually make an impact for his team on both sides of the court, but it’s his defensive presence that will be felt the most. Few players in the league can defend the four as well as the five with as much success as Horford.

Top Playmaker: Kyrie Irving

Last season, a lot of the offensive burden was handled by Irving. With Hayward going down game one, Jaylen Brown still developing, and Jayson Tatum not emerging as a self-creator until late in the season, Kyrie was one of the few players on the team with the ability to create. He was still able to lead the team in assists per game, thanks in part to his ball-handling, quickness, and ample court vision.

Imagine the step he will be able to take in this category with a healthy Hayward, a much more seasoned Brown and Tatum, and a superb shooter in Horford. The less Kyrie has to focus on creating offense, the better of a playmaker he’ll become. As the players around him continue to develop, Kyrie’s playmaking ability will put them in spots they are comfortable with, allowing them to score more efficiently. The less Kyrie is relied upon to make baskets, the better this team will become.

Another interesting thing to note in regards to Kyrie as a playmaker: He averaged 23.9 points in all wins and 25.5 points in all losses. In turn, he notched 5.3 assists in all wins and 4.7 in all losses. The numbers might be close, but they definitely tell a story. In games where Kyrie isn’t relied on to score and in turn can facilitate the ball at a more efficient mark, they typically win.

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

No player on this roster has a history of clutch performances quite like Kyrie’s. We all remember his famed dagger in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, but he’s been pouring in consistent baskets at the end of close games for quite some time.

In his first season with the Celtics, Kyrie averaged 4.2 points in the clutch (last five minutes of the game within five points). This was good enough for fourth in the league counting players who participated in more than four clutch situations, putting him behind LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, and Jimmy Butler. Go back a year to his last year with Cleveland and he was still top 15 in point in the clutch, and top 10 in 2015-16.

We’ve already discussed Irving’s superhuman abilities when it comes to ball handling, but this gives him a significant edge down the stretch when players start to lose their legs. His ability to beat defenders off the dribble give him an easier lane to the basket or an open jumper, or allow him to find someone else when a defender has to slide over to help.

The Unheralded Player: Gordon Hayward

To the dismay of many Utah Jazz fans, Gordon Hayward is still incredibly relevant to the Celtics. Many have discussed the prospect of Hayward losing his spot to younger players like Tatum or Brown, but the reality is that neither of those players are even necessarily close to Hayward’s production his last year with Utah. Hayward is being listed as the Unheralded Player this year, because a lot of people are simply forgetting that he is an incredibly talented basketball player all over the floor. It’s easy to forget he’s on the roster, as he doesn’t have a “headline-grabbing” personality, but his play this upcoming year can greatly alter the success of this Boston team. The Celtics had a highly successful season with zero help from Hayward, but things look to change this year.

Until his injury, Hayward had improved his points per game in each of his first seven years in the league. He also posted a more-than-respectable mark of 39.8 percent from three his last year in Utah, his highest mark since taking over the reins of the franchise. He is a huge plus on the defensive side of the floor, but most importantly he becomes the second best playmaker on the roster. His playmaking ability will take a significant portion of the burden off of Kyrie’s shoulder, allowing their offense to open up quite a bit.

There’s a big reason why the Celtics offered Hayward a max contract slot: he is clearly a max contract player. Unfortunately, his injury sidelined him for all but five minutes last season. Regardless of the talent on this roster, let’s forget their second best player missed the entire season.

Best New Addition: Brad Wanamaker

For the last seven seasons, Wanamaker has made a name for himself throughout Europe. Apart from a small stint with the G League (then the D League), he has played professionally in Italy, France, Germany, and Turkey. This latest season he helped his team, Fenerbahçe, to the EuroLeague Final Four, losing to Real Madrid in the finals.

At 29 years old, Wanamaker is a grizzled veteran and should immediately make an impact off the bench. While he does have the ability to score, look for him to do more of the little things to stand out on the roster and earn himself some playing time. With the Celtics opting to let Shane Larkin walk, they needed another solid wing to come off the bench, so Brad Wanamaker was a solid option.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jayson Tatum

Tatum had an incredibly solid rookie campaign. Just about everyone had him in their top three for Rookie of the Year. But it was his play in the playoffs that should get Boston fans excited. During that run, Tatum led the team in points per game at 18.5, was second in plus-minus at 2.7, and second in net rating at 3.7.

He showed the ability to get buckets in isolation, and made a lot of big time plays in the clutch to help the Celtics win close games. His three point percentage was lower than what you’d like at 32.4 percent, but he shot an elite 43.4 percent from three during the regular season, so he likely ran slightly cold during their deep playoff run.

Tatum averaged over 30 minutes a game in the regular season and over 35 in the postseason. Look at him to add more aspects to his game, as Hayward coming back will help take some of the scoring load off his shoulders.

2. Terry Rozier

Having a point guard as capable as Rozier coming off the bench is a great problem to have. His tear through the playoffs was so impressive that there’s been chatter of letting Kyrie walk in free agency so Rozier can take over the reins as the franchise point guard. Let’s not jump to any conclusions; it’s safe to say that Kyrie is still the better player, but Rozier put together a really nice third season.

Averaging over 11 points during the regular season, that per game average jumped up to 16.5 during the playoffs, as Rozier saw himself in the starter role due to to Kyrie’s injury. His scoring was streaky in the postseason, but he notched 26 point in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks, then poured in 29 two days later during Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers without shooting a single free throw. His last memorable performance of the playoffs was Game 6 against the Cavaliers. Terry finished with 28 points, thanks to 6 of 10 shooting from three. One thing we learned about “Scary” Terry Rozier is that the man isn’t shy of the spotlight. He showed up night in and night out during the playoffs and put together a handful of impressive stat lines. He should be a very nice piece coming off the bench this upcoming season.

3. Depth at the Wing

This Boston team does not lack solid wing players. Here’s a list of them just in case you were doubting: Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Morris. Throw in Marcus Smart, who often finds himself on the wing, and Semi Ojeleye, coming off a solid rookie campaign and an even stronger performance in this year’s Las Vegas Summer League. All but one of these players would be starting on most rosters in the league, and Ojeleye would certainly be a coveted bench contributor for most squads as well.

In today’s NBA, positionless basketball is all the new rage and just about every player listed above fit the bill. They can all defend multiple positions, they all have the ability to create on offense to some degree, and none of them shoot at an inefficient clip (with the exception of Smart). This group of wings is elite and will help the Celtics produce consistent wins.

4. Robert Williams

Okay, take a deep breath. We’ve heard the same things you have about Williams and understand that he may be a project, both physically and more so mentally. His start to the NBA career hasn’t been pretty, between missed flights, lost wallets, and showing up late to multiple important meetings. But thanks in part to his talent and potential, many had him notched as a late lottery pick. Because many post lottery teams opted for guards, Williams slipped all the way to the Celtics picking 27th, and they may have gotten lucky. He has elite size and length, standing 6-foot-10 with a wingspan of 7-foot-6. He is very athletic as well and could easily develop into a DeAndre Jordan-esque type player. The fact that both went to Texas A&M could add fuel to that prediction. If the Celtics can help him improve his off-court issues, he could end up being a sizeable contributor off the bench this year.

5. Brad Stevens

Few coaches in this league hide deficiencies and display strengths like Brad Stevens. Like I’ve previously mentioned, Stevens has had tremendous success getting the best out of players and his track record shows. This is arguably the best roster he’s had since taking over head coaching duties.

Despite missing their two best players for the entire postseason, Stevens still managed to bring the hobbled roster within one game of the NBA Finals. That is an impressive feat and doesn’t get mentioned enough. The front office has essentially been able to retain the entire roster from the previous season, with Shane Larkin being the only significant departure. With a healthy roster going into training camp, Gordon Hayward in the system for an entire year, and an Eastern Conference that is no longer controlled by LeBron James, Brad Stevens looks to make a significant splash in the postseason.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

The biggest strength that the Celtics have going into the season is that they don’t really have any clear weaknesses. They are obviously one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, finishing first in defensive rating and third in opponent points per game last season. They are an elite three point shooting team, coming in second behind the Warriors at 37.7 percent. They have arguably the best coach in the NBA. They have a handful of players that create their own offense, be it through isolation, the pick and roll, or simply getting to open spots. Most of their core is incredibly young, as well. Tatum and Brown clock in under 21, Kyrie is 26, Hayward is 28, and Horford is the resident grandfather at 32.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

The biggest weakness the Celtics had last season was their ability to create offense. They finished in the bottom half of the league for both points per game and assists per game, ending up at 20th for both in these categories. A large part of that can be traced to injuries. It can also be traced to youth and development. Tatum and Brown were likely relied upon a little too much at times to create offense. Kyrie was likely relied upon a little too much to score. With Hayward coming back, younger players on the roster developing, and Kyrie getting healthy, offense should soon become a legitimate strength for this roster.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is This Celtics Roster Talented Enough to Beat the Warriors in a 7 Game Series?

If you look at the entire NBA, there are realistically four or five teams that have a chance, big or small, to beat the Warriors. The Boston Celtics are definitely in the mix. As discussed earlier, they don’t have too many holes in their game, and they have one of the best coaches in the association. The only problem is, the Warriors are similar. They have an offensive arsenal that is likely better than anything the league has ever seen, and a coach that puts them in the right positions defensively to be very successful. I think this Celtics team is talented and coached well enough to potentially beat the Warriors, but I don’t believe that they will. They still need another year or so to establish their championship identity, and a prayer that the Warriors core breaks up during free agency.

– Jordan Hicks

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High-Performance Mindfulness: The Quantum Mechanics Of Player Development

Jake Rauchbach breaks down Player Development at the Quantum Level.

Jake Rauchbach

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We are going to go deep again into the Integrated Player Development subject matter, discussing Quantum Mechanics principles. Employing processes that work from this deep level often helps players generate substantial performance improvement on-court.

Quantum Mechanics

In Quantum Physics, there is something called Quantum field theory which says, “the Universe can be thought of not as isolated particles, but as a continuous fluctuating energy field with interconnectivity between two seemingly separated objects.”

Said in another way, the theory states that everything is interconnected via a unified field of energy. In an example, the ball, the hoop and the players on the floor are somehow interconnected.

How does this relate to player development? For starters, it may give us a deeper understanding, or at the very least, provide a drastically differing vantage point of how to potentially unlock massive performance improvement for players.

Instead of looking solely at repetition, mechanics or even the mental and emotional levels, addressing the deeper Quantum or Energetic level of the player may be key to unleashing massive exponential performance improvement.

In previous columns, we discussed Energy Psychology – Player Development; specifically, how EP – PD Programs, when integrated into overall PD departments, could likely be the wave of the future across professional sports.

We also outlined how performance-blocking thoughts and emotions are just stuck Energy, held at the muscle memory level. We highlighted how EP Programs work to repurpose said Energy at the most fundamental levels for the direct aim of influencing on-court statistical improvement. Freeing up past on and off-court traumas through the use of EP works directly with the mental and emotional levels of the player.

EP also inherently works with the Quantum or Energetic level of the player as well, helping to create momentum in the direction of performance improvement.

When negatively charged thoughts and emotions from past on-court failures are eliminated from a player’s consciousness, not only are the mental, emotional and physical levels of the player influenced, but so too is the unified field around the player.

One classic Quantum Mechanics scientific experiment that illustrates this point can be found here.

How does this affect the team concept? As discussed in a prior piece, when one player does the internal work necessary to optimize performance upwards, it can have a net positive effect on the overall team around him (or her).

This has been intuitively known by coaches for years. When a player brings great energy, a revitalized approach and a higher performance output, it positively rubs off on the team.

Energy Psychology & Player Fundamentals

EP has already been employed behind the scenes in the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and college ranks for the past 10 years, and it interfaces with the smallest and most fundamental element of the player – the player’s energy. In this Quantum space, big change can be facilitated, as this is the level where player routines and muscle memory truly lie.

Working at this level influences all other levels (mental, emotional, physical and performance) of the player simultaneously. The successful re-programming with changes made to fix a broken jump shot, down-trending shoot percentage or bad body language, ultimately, can be found at this Quantum level.

Modalities that work to unlock trapped energy within the player’s system directly interface with this level and work directly in concert with Quantum mechanical principles.

This is about as in-depth as it gets when talking and breaking down player improvement.

The educational and subject matter around this space may take some time to catch on in the mainstream. However, for players and teams already implementing EP, they don’t care about the inter-dynamics, only about the results it is producing out on the floor.

Why Did We Break This Down?

It is important to illustrate that players and the components to player performance are far more complex than just the physical aspect. Quantum Player Development Programs are already in play, and may be tapping into a much deeper and more powerfully interconnected system than normally addressed.

For players and organizations employing these methods, expect Quantum improvement in both performance and overall well being to unfold.

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Brooklyn Nets 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Brooklyn Nets had a stellar off-season landing not one, but two major star free agents. The problem is both stars bring more questions than answers, which begs the question – are the Nets better today than they were a year ago? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Brooklyn Nets in this 2019-20 NBA Season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Brooklyn Nets enter the 2019-20 NBA season with very different expectations than they did a season ago. Lots of teams enter training camp talking about culture and/or how they’re being overlooked. Well, the Nets were one of the few teams that were right in 2018-19. They entered last season having won only 28 games the season prior and ended the season with 42 wins and a playoff berth.

Being overlooked can benefit a team in numerous ways, but that is not a luxury they will have this season.

The Nets swapped out D’Angelo Russell for Kyrie Irving, they return a fully healthy Caris LeVert and they still have Kevin Durant to look forward to in 2020-21. Further, they fleshed out their depth at the center position and swapped out Allen Crabbe for Taureen Prince. Long story short, the Nets are ready for the national spotlight. Now they’ll have to live up to the hype instead of playing above expectations.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Nets became contenders incredibly quickly – going from the laughing stock of the league to the envy of it in about two years. Even with Durant missing most – or probably all – of 2019-20, the Nets will still boast top-10 talent. They swapped out D’Angelo Russell for Kyrie Irving and Jared Dudley for Wilson Chandler (who will serve a 25-game suspension to begin the season). The Rodions Kurucs allegations are unfortunate and troubling, but it’s a single issue rather than an indication of a bad culture within the team. They’ll be fun this season and if Durant returns to form in 2020-21, look out. The one caveat for 2019-20 is if Kyrie can put his ego aside and be the Nets on-the-court leader. He struggled to do so in Boston. But last year was a learning opportunity and Irving should be better prepared to be a team-centric leader with the Nets this year.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Drew Maresca

The Nets had one of the best offseasons in the league. It’s just unfortunate for them that they likely won’t reap the benefits until the 2020-21 season as Kevin Durant is expected to miss the entire year as he recovers from an Achilles injury. Not to worry, Kyrie Irving and company are more than capable of leading the Nets back to the playoffs. Sean Marks inherited a mess of a team when he took over in the front office, and he’s done a remarkable job of cleaning it all up and putting a real contender together. Brooklyn has become a destination for marquee players and that was evident this past summer. Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, and Wilson Chandler were solid pickups. Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs were spot on draft picks. It will be huge if this team can manage to win a playoff series while Durant recovers.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Brooklyn Nets have sure come a long way from 2013 when they were trading just about every future draft asset possible in a failed attempt at a title. After a few seasons of smart and patient moves on the periphery, the Brooklyn Nets managed to sign both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant as free agents this offseason. Irving is coming off of a drama-filled season in Boston but is still in his prime and one of the top point guards in the NBA. However, Durant will likely miss this upcoming season after tearing his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Despite the lost season for Durant, this is a major win for the Brooklyn Nets, who managed to outmaneuver the New York Knicks in attracting Irving and Durant. Brooklyn made some nice smaller transactions as well, including trading D’Angelo Russell, via sign and trade, along with Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham to the Golden State Warriors for a protected 2020 first-rounder as part of the deal to acquire Durant. The Nets also added Taurean Prince, who could be a nice addition on the wing, in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks. Signing Garrett Temple to a two-year $9,772,350 contract (team option on final season) is also a good value. However, I’m not a big fan of signing DeAndre Jordan to a four-year, $39,960,716 contract considering his declining performance and with Jarrett Allen already being on the roster. However, Jordan is close friends with Durant, so adding him makes sense and could be a good move if Jordan ends up playing with more intensity than he has in recent seasons. It wasn’t a perfect offseason for Brooklyn, but adding Irving and Durant is a major win and sets Brooklyn up nicely in the short and long-term.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Nets have earned their keep and standing in the Association. Behind the brilliance of Sean Marks, they went from one of the most undesirable situations in league history to arguably the healthiest situation in the present day. The success has led to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant making their way to the Barclays Center. Irving will be on his own this year with KD on the sideline, but there’s something about being home that lifts a weight off your shoulder. He’ll leave the drama behind in Boston and Cleveland to start anew under head coach Kenny Atkinson. With a backcourt partner like Caris LeVert, things could get real very fast regarding the cohesiveness and danger this team presents. DeAndre Jordan will be hounding the rim on both ends of the floor, back tapping whatever misses comeand finishing whatever passes he’s thrown. Taurean Prince might’ve been one of the best under-the-radar acquisitions in the league, as his commitment to the defensive end and improvement as a shooter are well-documented. With all of this said, the Atlantic Division rivals the Pacific for the toughest in the Association. Regardless of where they end up, the Nets are playoff-bound again – and this time, it could be a special run.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

On paper, the Brooklyn nets won the off-season in a walk. They nabbed arguably the top two free agents in the market and added to a roster via trade that was already respectable. The problem is Kyrie Irving was a cancer to the Celtics a year ago, and Kevin Durant may miss most of, if not all of the season to an injury that kills basketball careers. On paper these moves are incredible, but in practice, the Nets may have killed a really good thing. The Nets had built an impressive young core that looked to be a team on the rise but to make it all work they parted with the roster’s only All-Star and went all-in on the named guys. If Irving can bounce back to his All-Star form and buy into his young guys and his coach, then Brooklyn will be better. If Durant can be the guy that comes back from an Achilles to remain an All-Star, the Nets could be title contenders. The problem is neither one of those things seems likely, especially not this year. The Nets bet big, but it remains to be seen if that bet will pay off.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Nets were extremely creative over the offseason, maximizing their cap space to sign Kyrie Irving while using D’Angelo Russell in a dual sign-and-trade deal with the Golden State Warriors for Kevin Durant. The move gave Brooklyn a hard cap for the season at $138.9 million, but given the team has 15 guaranteed players at $126.1 million with no additional exceptions, the spending limit is mostly immaterial.

Taurean Prince is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. The Nets already reached a deal with Caris LeVert on a three-year, $52.5 million deal. Brooklyn also has to decide on team options for Jarrett Allen and Dzanan Musa before November.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Irving’s talent is almost impossible to comprehend. He is a top-five shooter, ballhandler and finisher. He is extremely crafty, can score in isolation, initiate the offense and play off the ball. His defense leaves something to be desired, but mostly because he gives up serious size to opposing guards. He is undoubtedly the Nets most skilled and versatile offensive player – at least until Durant returns from injury. There is enough talent alongside Irving so he doesn’t need to not burn himself out, and can even rest (i.e., load management) when it’s situationally appropriate. Irving will probably start the season with a major chip on his shoulder. But he won’t be judged on how he starts the season – it’s all about how he ends it. Regardless of how he plays, the most important thing will be for Irving to demonstrate patience and a willingness to mentor his new teammates. Taking a true leadership role hasn’t been Irving’s strong suit and displaying progress would make a lot of executives in Brooklyn feel a whole lot better about their investment in him.

Top Defensive Player: Jarrett Allen

Allen boasts a resume that few players throughout the history of the game can, having blocked LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and James Harden.

While the newly acquired DeAndre Jordan will eat into his minutes – and possibly even steal his starting job – Allen is the star of the defensive show. Allen isn’t going to hand over the starting job, telling Nets Daily that he prefers to start, but also that he’ll accept whatever role Coach Atkinson assigns him.

Allen has a strong work ethic and a great attitude, especially considering he’s only 21 years old. He still needs to grow his game in a lot of ways, but his defensive instincts have been spot-on throughout his young career – he posted the eleventh most blocks in the league last season in only his second year in the NBA.

A major knock on Allen was on full display in the postseason last year against Joel Embiid and Philadelphia. Embiid made a habit of bullying Allen in the post, and Allen simply couldn’t hold his ground. But according to Nets Daily, Allen added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason, which will come in handy when battling bigger and more physical opponents – and which could help separate him and other above-average rim protectors as early as this season.

Top Playmaker: Spencer Dinwiddie

Spencer Dinwiddie attacks the basket with supreme confidence – he averaged a career high 6.6 points in the paint in 2018-19. But he can also dish the rock, too. He averaged 6.6 assists per game in 2017-18 and 4.6 in 2018-19.

He’ll probably play alongside Irving a bit but since the Nets lack true point guards, he’ll also almost certainly rack up minutes as the lead guard for the Nets’ second unit, allowing him to demonstrate his ability to create for others.

If Dinwiddie can shore up the second unit, the Nets will – once again – boast two top-tier point guards. And the drop off from Irving to Dinwiddie might be the smallest across the entire league as far as starting and backup point guards is concerned, which is a huge buoy to a team’s offensive continuity.

Top Clutch Player: Joe Harris

Joe Harris gained national attention in the last year or so, thanks entirely to his shooting ability. Harris is definitely more than just a shooter, but he is also a certifiable assassin from long-range. He shot 45.9 percent from three-point range last season and ran around screens at an elite level – according NBA.com, Harris ranked 5th in the league in average speed on offense at 5.17 mph. He also shot 47.9 percent on 4.2 attempted catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game.

Also, his time with Team USA this summer should only improve his game and work ethic, having been exposed to superstars and their processes, including Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum.

Harris’ unassuming approach and demeanor also make him a perfect fit with other similar-minded Nets like Jarrett Allen. And having a team-first shooter like Harris is a must for teams hoping to compete for a championship (e.g., Kyle Korver).

The Unheralded Player: Caris LeVert

It might be a stretch to call LeVert unheralded, but the presence of guys like Irving and (eventually) Durant will allow him to fly under the radar, even after a quasi-breakout year last season.

Fresh off of a three-year extension with the Nets, LeVert can now put financial distractions aside and focus exclusively on his game – not that that’s been an issue. He looked primed for an All-Star selection through the first few weeks of last season, but an ankle injury derailed his year and cost him more than 30 games.

A healthy LeVert will benefit from the increased offensive threat that is Kyrie Irving. He is an ideal third option alongside Irving and Durant come 2020. But LeVert will happily develop his game as the second option this season next to Irving – and the Nets could find themselves contending for an NBA title if LeVert takes his game to the next level.

Best New Addition: Kevin Durant

As much as Durant doesn’t affect the on-the-court product this season, building a dynasty is about much more than one year. Durant’s addition truly validates the Nets ascension. They have completely arrived as a force to be reckoned with. Irving was a great addition and boasting a strong core and excellent coaching staff is equally important, but adding a top-three active player moves the needle in the NBA like few other things can. Durant has the luxury of being patient with his rehab and recovery. While rumors already began to circulate about Durant’s return thanks to video of him walking without crutches in Los Angeles this summer, it’s more likely than not that Durant takes his time and returns at the start of the 2020-21 season. And the Nets should do everything in their power to ensure that is the case – unless his recovery is so far ahead of schedule that the team and every expert available all agree that he there is no doubt he is back to 100%.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. Dzanan Musa

Musa possesses a good jumper and the ability to guard NBA wings. His potential is obvious. Unfortunately, Musa sprained his ankle before the start of the 2018-19 season and he never found his niche with the club. But considering the Nets moved all of their first-round picks last June, the Nets can look to 2019-20 as Musa’s second rookie year. And it’s not that big of a stretch considering he’s actually younger than the Nets’ actual rookie – Nicholas Claxton. And there is reason to believe that Musa will establish a spot in the rotation. He has a good motor and defensive instincts, and he performed extremely well in his stint in the G-League last season (approximately 20 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game). And more importantly, he added 20-pounds this offseason, which should prepare him to defend more positions.

2. DeAndre Jordan

As much as Allen is the Nets’ defensive anchor, he struggled defending Embiid in the playoffs (as stated above). Jordan’s game is very similar to Allen’s, only he is 10 years older and approximately 30 additional pounds heavier. Having two starting-caliber centers who can’t share the floor with one another – neither of them can stretch the floor – might be unusual for the modern NBA, but it also guarantees that they’ll always have a shot blocker and rim runner available. Signing Jordan to a four-year deal with no team options was curious, but he’s obviously a good addition.

3. Nicholas Claxton

Claxton was rumored to go slightly higher than 31 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft, but the Nets lucked out and grabbed him with the first pick in the second-round. He has above-average length and athleticism and his jump shot showed some potential in his sophomore season at Georgia. He will struggle to secure consistent minutes with Jordan and Allen ahead of him on the depth chart, but he has the ability to learn from two of the best shot blockers and rim-runners in the game. Claxton can definitely grow into a solid back-up center, and he could even develop into a starter if he learns to extend his motor throughout the game and continues to develop offensively.

4. Wilson Chandler

Chandler is a versatile player with a well-rounded offensive game and the ability to defend at least three positions. His three-point shooting has improved dramatically over the years – he shot 30 percent on .9 attempts per game as a rookie and 37.3 percent on 3.1 attempts per game last season. Chandler also adds a significant veteran presence. And at $2.56 million in 2019-20, he will be more than worth the money he’s being paid – once his 25-game suspension for PED use is up.

5. Coach Kenny Atkinson

Coach Atkinson – along with GM Sean Marks – has really streamlined the Nets rebuilding timeline. They seemed so far away only two short years ago, and now they could compete for a championship as early as this season. Atkinson’s pick-and-roll heavy offense was allegedly a draw for Irving and Durant, but his influence supersedes Xs and Os. Atkinson totally rebuilt the team’s culture and he created a great locker room environment, which resulted in his gaining the full trust and support of his locker room. Swapping out Russell for Irving could potentially challenge that last point considering how close the team was last season. Atkinson has his work cut out for him in satisfying two of the tougher players to coach and keep happy. But if anyone can do it, Atkinson can.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

Shooting. Joe Harris was among the best shooters in the entire league last season.

As a team, the Nets ranked fourteenth overall in three-point shooting percentage last season and some of their best shooters (by percentages) are no longer on the roster – Russell, Allen Crabbe and Jared Dudley. At first glance, it could be perceived that the Nets are in trouble.

But the Nets actually managed to improve their shooting, at least on paper. They added Irving, who shot 40.1 percent from three-point range in 2018-19. They also added Taurean Prince (39.0 percent from three-point range last season) and Wilson Chandler (37.3 percent from three-point range last season).

All three of the aforementioned players represent upgrades from an efficiency standpoint (although they shoot slightly less than the players they’re replacing). Just think, the Nets could realistically put out a starting lineup with Irving, Harris and Prince – who would have shot above .400 from three-point range last season on above-average volume. And there’s still Chandler, LeVert and Dinwiddie for opponents to contend with.

Further, the Nets weren’t shy in launching threes last season. While they didn’t shoot an elite percentage, they did shoot the fifth most three-pointers last season. So with their upgraded lineup, the Nets stand to take and make even more three-pointers.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

Too few stretch fours. The Nets have tremendous versatility – only it’s mostly centered around the guard and center positions. They have two guys who would traditionally be considered point guards (Irving and Dinwiddie), another seven wings (LeVert, Harris, Prince, Chandler, Musa, Kurucs, Temple) and three centers (Allen, Jordan and Claxton) – none of whom are known for shooting or passing from the perimeter. And that’s the vast majority of the Nets roster.

Sure, positionless basketball has been adopted by essentially every team in the league. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need versatile bigs – it just means that you need multi-dimensional ones. The Nets don’t have a single big man who can shoot and handle the ball while also rebounding and maintaining a defensive presence in the paint. Now that is a tall order for most players, but that’s why really good stretch-fours are in such high demand.

The Nets 2018 draft picks—Musa and Kurucs – can both potentially grow into stretch fours; both are 6’9 and both have the offensive characteristics of a modern-day stretch-four. But neither boasts the physique to bang with bigger power forwards. Musa allegedly gained nearly 20-pounds this offseason, but Kurucs’ situation has hit a snag. The Nets are certainly disappointed in Kurucs’ recent legal troubles, and they will be greatly affected by the outcome. But either way, neither is prepared to log heavy minutes at the four spot just yet.

The Nets can definitely play around their deficiency and get by without a stretch-four, but they become significantly better if they’re able to add a top-tier forward who can stretch the floor offensively and bang down low and rebound defensively.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Kyrie Irving play nice with others?

It’s hard to say so with certainty. His recent past doesn’t speak highly of his ability to do so. He abruptly asked for a trade from Cleveland, and then he wore out his welcome in Boston thanks to an allegedly holier-than-thou attitude.

But Brooklyn might be different. After all, he likely won’t have to endure any prolonged periods of subpar play, which could change his thinking on things – and that probably won’t happen given the level Coach Atkinson had his team operating at last year.

And further, Irving had selected Brooklyn as his destination of choice. While he requested out of Cleveland, Boston was not on his short list of preferred teams. We haven’t seen a prime, locked-in Irving since the 2016 NBA Finals. His recent experiences will serve him well in his dealings with Durant, LeVert and his other teammates.

Additionally, Irving’s played for some accomplished coaches – but none as universally loved by their teams as Coach Atkinson is in Brooklyn. And because of that, Atkinson can get even more out of Irving than did Mike Brown, David Blatt, Ty Lue or Brad Stevens.

So if Irving is willing to be a big brother to his teammates and help lead the way, he’ll have the requisite support of his coaches – and that could result in the 2019-20 version of Irving being the best we’ve seen yet.

– Drew Maresca

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Charlotte Hornets 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Charlotte Hornets are now a team in re-build mode, the question is will this be a quick re-build or a long protracted rebuild that costs leadership their jobs? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Charlotte Hornets in this 2019-20 NBA Season preview.

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A new era has finally dawned for the Charlotte Hornets. Facing another half-decade of sustained mediocrity, Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak elected against re-signing the beloved Kemba Walker, giving the Hornets a much-needed reset but ridding the roster of the only player who ever really propelled them to success.

The rebuild, for the long-term better and short-term worse, is here. But the track it follows will largely depend on the development of several young players, any of whom it’s easy to envision ultimately coming into their own elsewhere.

Will this season mark the infancy of Charlotte’s next playoff team, or merely serve as year one of a lengthy, laborious process that ultimately takes multiple forms? Either way, the Hornets won’t be winning many games in 2019-20, a blueprint toward future contention this franchise unfurled a bit later than it should have.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The 2019-20 season looks bleak for the Hornets. They passed on extending Kemba Walker, and swapped him for Terry Rozier. There are lots of overpaid players on the roster like Nic Batum and Marvin Williams, and some unproven younger ones like Malik Monk. The few bright spots on the Hornets roster appear to be Miles Bridges and rookie P.J. Washington – and maybe Rozier depending on how you define a bright spot. The Hornets flirted with the playoffs for a few years – even qualifying in 2016. That won’t be the case this season.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

To say the Hornets had a poor offseason would be kind of an understatement. Not only did they lose franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker, they didn’t really do anything to pick a firm direction they want to go in. With Walker gone, a rebuild seems to be the best option moving forward, but they kept all of their high-priced veterans around. Of course, it could be that there isn’t a market for any of them. After all, a team needs to be willing to trade for those players/contracts. The signing of Terry Rozier is a bit of a head-scratcher, as they gave him quite a bit of money for a player that isn’t of Walker’s caliber but is expected to replace him. The one thing they may have going for them though is some of their youth. Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon and P.J. Washington are a start. Not a very confidence-inspiring start, but a start nonetheless. Expect the losses to pile up for the Hornets this season.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

For the first season since 2011, the city of Charlotte will not have Kemba Walker suit up on opening night. It’s never easy losing a star player, but this one especially hurts. There’s a question of who will be the one to step up. What the question should be is who will be the *ones* to step up. You can’t replace somebody like that with one player. Terry Rozier can have a career season, and he’s bound too, yet it’ll still take a collective effort and strong performances all around to keep this group afloat. Miles Bridges will have to grow up fast. The same could be said of Dwayne Bacon, Malik Monk and even rookie forward P.J. Washington. The mental toughness of the Hornets will be tested this season and the near future. How James Borrego handles this type of adversity will be paramount to the team’s direction.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

It’s hard to understand what Charlotte’s goal was going into this offseason and what the long-term vision is at this point. First, if the Hornets were not going to offer Kemba Walker a max contract, then they should have traded him before he hit free agency. Charlotte hasn’t been anywhere close to contention in recent seasons and should have foreseen Walker moving on if the team was not going to offer a max contract. Second, in response to Walker opting to move on, the Hornets engaged in a sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics, sending Walker and a 2020 second-rounder to in exchange for Terry Rozier on a new three-year, $56,700,000 contract. That is a lot of money for Rozier who is talented, but is unlikely to live up to this contract. Third, they let Jeremy Lamb go to the Indiana Pacers for what turned out to be a very reasonable contract (three-year, $31.5 million). Lastly, I’m just not a big fan of what the Hornets did in the draft. A few years down the road, it may turn out that P.J. Washington (12th), Cody Martin (36th) and Jalen McDaniels (52nd) were all good selections for Charlotte, but I am not counting on that. Its just difficult to see what the strategy is here for the Hornets and it’s hard to get past how big of a mistake it was to not trade Walker when he was still under contract for young talent and future assets.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Charlotte Hornets are a team poised for a re-build, although one could argue that if anyone on the roster steps up to an All-Star level things could get interesting in Charlotte. In fact, the Hornets are returning a lot of the same core that won 39 games last year. It’s clear there is no one on the roster of former Hornets star Kemba Walker’s stature, but if a combination of guys step up or have the expected internal growth, they could be better than most seem to be thinking. That said, the Hornets still look like a team more likely to lose 50 games than win 50, which will put them in the lottery and likely sellers of any meaningful veterans they have on the roster come the trade deadline in February.  James Borrego is a quality coach – it is just unfortunate that he’ll have to skipper another roster thats not likely to be playing for much at the end of the season.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

When Kemba Walker chose the Boston Celtics, the Hornets opted to facilitate a double sign-and-trade transaction landing Terry Rozier on a three-year $56.7 million contract. That move locked in a hard cap for Charlotte, limiting the team to $138.9 million in total salary. That shouldn’t be an issue, the team will likely enter the season with a payroll at roughly $125 million.

If needed, the Hornets still have $8.1 million of their Mid-Level Exception remaining (partially used on Cody Martin) and their full $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception. But don’t expect the franchise to exceed the $132.6 million luxury tax threshold, let alone reach the hard cap.

Before November, Charlotte needs to decide on the team options for Malik Monk and Miles Bridges.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Nicolas Batum

As much as anything else, Batum’s status as Charlotte’s best offensive player is an indicator of just how lacking this roster is for talent compared to the rest of the NBA. He was always overstretched as the Hornets’ secondary scorer and playmaker under Steve Clifford, and indeed seemed more comfortable last season after first-year coach James Borrego shifted him down to small forward, allowing the veteran to play a more ancillary offensive role as he entered his thirties.

Batum bumped his true shooting percentage comfortably above league average for the first time in six years, sacrificing mid-range jumpers for threes and making a career-best 39.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples, per NBA.com. Both his usage percentage and amount of touches dipped considerably, while his share of assisted baskets ticked all the way up to 67.2 percent – far higher than in any of his previous four seasons with the Hornets.

As a jack of all trades and master of none, this is the role for which Batum has long been best suited. The problem is the value of dependent offensive players, especially one with natural court sense like Batum, correlates to the quality of their teammates, and no team in the league is in more dire need of a talent influx offensively than Charlotte.

Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Kidd-Gilchrist was another benefactor of Borrego embracing a more modern style of lineup construction last season. Finally playing the right position, power forward, he re-established himself as an ultra-versatile difference-maker defensively.

Kidd-Gilchrist led the Hornets in both defensive rating and net defensive rating, per NBA.com, evidenced by his ability to switch across four and sometimes five positions. He was Charlotte’s only player other than Cody Zeller with a defensive real plus-minus above 1.0, and held offensive players to a lower field goal percentage than expected from everywhere on the floor, too.

Dreams of the former No. 2 overall pick becoming a positive player on the other side of the ball are long gone, and a relative deficiency in short-area quickness has kept him from fulfilling expectations as a stopper of historic order. But Kidd-Gilchrist has natural defensive instincts and always competes, while his effectiveness holding up at power forward – occasionally even small-ball center, too – unlocks crucial flexibility for the Hornets they would otherwise lack.

Top Playmaker: Terry Rozier

Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak have placed a lot of faith in Kemba Walker’s replacement – too much, in fact, by almost any measure. It’s unclear who Charlotte was bidding against when it offered Rozier a three-year, $58 million deal in free agency, ultimately acquiring him from the Boston Celtics via sign-and-trade. But unless he shows far more capacity as a floor general with the Hornets than he ever did with the Boston Celtics, Rozier is poised to disappoint – and hamstring his new team’s arduous rebuilding efforts.

It’s unclear how Borrego will tweak an offense that last season used more ball screens than any team in the league but the LA Clippers, per NBA.com, but he’ll have to with Rozier in Walker’s place. Charlotte’s new franchise point guard is more accurately described as a ball-handler than playmaker. He lacks high-level passing vision, and doesn’t threaten the defense enough by attacking the rim or with his pull-up jumper to create the space needed to consistently compensate for that weakness.

The Hornets need a point guard who can make his teammates better if he can’t drive them to success by himself, and neither description fits Rozier based on his career to date. But he’s also the only guard on this roster with the physical tools and eroding potential to play either role should he suddenly take a major step forward.

“Offensively, I’ve got to get him more comfortable right now in our system,” Borrego said of Rozier, per Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. “He’s got a lot to prove — the first time he’s out there as a starting point guard.”

The viability of Charlotte’s offense won’t hinge on Rozier nearly as much as it did Walker, but unless he shows court sense and an ability to manipulate the defense that he’s yet to thus far in his career, the responsibilities he’ll be asked to shoulder will almost certainly prove too heavy regardless.

Top Clutch Player: Malik Monk

Monk has virtually no track record of crunch-time success in the NBA. He took 15 shots in those situations last season, making five of them, and was on the court for less than a third of Charlotte’s 158 minutes in the clutch, per NBA.com. Needless to say, thats not exactly the resumé of a player normally tasked with serving as his team’s alpha dog when it matters most.

But Monk could fit that bill this season anyway for the Hornets, who are otherwise bereft of the shot-making talent necessary to score under the pressure cooker of crunch time. Rozier, even considering the overblown hype of “Scary Terry” in the 2018 playoffs, isn’t a reliable enough off-dribble shooter. Batum just isn’t that type of player. Miles Bridges definitely isn’t ready to be Charlotte’s top offensive option when the game is on the line, and likely never will be.

That leaves Monk, whose blend of explosive athleticism, wiggle with the ball and flammable scoring skills has long prompted Lou Williams comparisons. The problem? Monk’s ability to drain difficult pull-up jumpers is mostly theoretical at this point, and he doesn’t navigate ball screens with enough knack and subtlety to crease the paint when defenses dare him to shoot. Just like the Hornets, he’s still very much still a work in progress – which is all the more reason why they should force-feed Monk touches in the clutch to help figure out how he fits in the organization’s big-picture plans.

The Unheralded Player: Cody Zeller

Death, taxes and Charlotte faring better when Zeller is on the floor. Ever since his rookie year in 2013-14, the Hornets have put up a positive net rating with Zeller in the lineup. Last season, the six-year veteran was the only player on his team to notch an on-court rating better than 1.0, per NBA.com.

Zeller’s influence comes in the margins. He racked up screen assists at a rate higher than any other player in the league, evidence of his speed running into picks and comfort flipping the angle and direction of screens at a moment’s notice. He’s adept in the dribble hand-off game, too, and creates several easy scoring opportunities per game for his teammates simply by sprinting the floor in transition and diving hard to the rim, sucking in defenders. Zeller’s short arms limit him as a rim-protector, but he’s almost always in the right position, using his instincts and quickness to routinely cover for teammates.

Unfortunately, a penchant for injury has prevented Zeller from staking his claim as one of basketball’s best role-playing bigs. He’s played a total 82 games over the past two seasons due to knee and hand injuries, and has appeared in more than 62 games just twice in his six-year career.

Best New Addition: P.J. Washington

Washington isn’t sexy.

He has good physical tools for a power forward, with impressive quickness and overall coordination, and possesses more than enough length and strength to play small-ball five. He shot 42.3 percent on over two three-point attempts per game at Kentucky last season, the most significant of across-the-board improvements made compared to his freshman campaign.

The rough outline of a productive NBA player is here. But unless Washington gleans a much better understanding of how to play when he’s not involved in the primary action on both sides of the ball, it seems likely his decided dearth of natural instincts will keep him from reaching his potential as a switch-proof big man with nascent three-point range who can put the ball on the floor in space.

Washington’s selection here, like most, says more bad things about the Hornets than it does good things about him. Charlotte punted on free agency other than Rozier, whose contract is one of the summer’s most head-scratching, and has no plans to change that approach going forward as it transitions to life without Walker.

“Free-agent signings, for us, are not something we need to concentrate on going forward. We’re not going to get the ‘Big Fish,’” Kupchak said, per The Observer. “We have to create a culture where those kinds of players would want to come here. And, quite frankly, we’re not there yet.”

– Jack Winter

WHO WE LIKE

1. Charlotte Finally Embracing The Future

Even during this organization’s most successful seasons under Clifford, there was a clear cap on just how high the Hornets could rise in the Eastern Conference. A team with Walker as its best player, as dynamic as he is on the floor and inspiring he is off it, was just never going anywhere meaningful. In that vein, moving on from the homegrown star made sense for the Hornets.

What didn’t, and is fully deserving of the widespread criticism it sparked, was Kupchak insisting Charlotte would do “everything” possible to re-sign Walker in free agency, only to extend him a a five-year, $160 million final offer that fell well below the max. Kupchak’s recent concession that the Hornets’ plans were complicated by Walker making Third Team All-NBA, thus qualifying for the super-max, doesn’t make the optics any better.

Regardless, staying the course was never the best plan for Charlotte, as difficult as the circumstances surrounding Walker’s departure were. There’s no telling where this team ultimately goes from here, and it will almost surely be a bottom-dweller in the standings this season. But the mere prospect of real contention going forward – way forward, to be clear – is a more hopeful position than the Hornets have been in since 2016.

2. Dwayne Bacon

Playing in Charlotte could cost Bacon a lot of money this summer. There aren’t many 6-foot-7 wings with workable athleticism, a plus wingspan, thick shoulders and fledgling three-point range who could remain relatively anonymous in league circles, especially just one season ahead of restricted free agency. But that reality applies to Bacon as 2019-20 approaches, and unless his development continues at the accelerated rate it did last season, could save the Hornets some cash next summer.

Bacon’s impact as a rookie in 2017-18 was almost impossible to distinguish. He’s not quite good enough defensively to be considered a true stopper, and isn’t disruptive enough on that end that his presence alone makes a positive difference. But coupled with an adjusted shot chart that prioritized the rim and the arc – where he shot 69.4 percent and 43.7 percent, respectively, last season – Bacon’s utility as a solid, versatile, scheme-sound defender takes on a whole new level of value.

One caveat: Bacon’s newfound prowess from deep came on just two tries per game, and he shot only 25.2 percent in the G-League last season, albeit on a much more aggressive diet of attempts than he’ll ever need in the NBA. He definitely isn’t the marksman his three-point shooting percentage from last season indicates, basically. But if Bacon proves himself a player who must be guarded beyond the arc in 2019-20, a substantial payday likely awaits, one that could cement him as a viable rotation player for years to come.

3. Devonte’ Graham

Every team needs a reserve guard who can competently run the offense, make the defense pay when given air space from beyond the arc and compete defensively. Graham, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, has the makings of not just fulfilling that archetype, but potentially overgrowing it.

No numbers from Graham’s rookie season suggest either possibility is imminent. He shot 34.3 percent overall and 28.1 percent from deep, and posted the worst on-court rating of any player on the roster othan than Bismack Biyombo. Equally discouraging? An average leaper with a still-developing floater game, Graham shot 37.5 percent on drives, per NBA.com – fifth-lowest in the league.

Ignore specific takeaways from those damning statistics for now. Graham has just enough size to be used in two point-guard lineups and plays with a natural sense of pace, effectively changing speeds to get where he wants to go. Most optimism about Graham, though, stems from his fearless nature at Las Vegas Summer League, where he took nearly nine threes per game – with many coming off the bounce – and hit them at a 38.5 percent clip.

Graham won’t ever be a star, and very likely nothing more than a spot starter. But the league could always use more tough, smart guards who will take and make tough shots to sop up minutes behind stars, a role it’s easy to imagine him eventually playing at a worthwhile level.

4. Miles Bridges

The Bridges hype, even to the understated extent it exists, seems a bit overblown. He has average length for his position, and he lacks the hip fluidity needed to consistently keep up with dynamic ball handlers or even elite off-ball shooters after switches. He won’t ever be anything approaching a primary option offensively, but his shot-put stroke doesn’t suggest he’ll ever be a knockdown three-point shooter, either.

Even if Bridges reaches a more modest appraisal of his ceiling, it seems pretty clear he’ll fall short of being an All-Star. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But his jaw-dropping vertical oomph, rare aerial body control and passing-glance positional versatility has led some to believe he has legitimate star potential, and there was little to indicate as much during his rookie season save for so many highlight-reel finishes.

Still, the Hornets’ clearest path back to respectability involves Bridges establishing himself as a pillar of their rebuild – even if that means he’s ultimately more impact role player than secondary star.

– Jack Winter

STRENGTHS

Charlotte is finally playing the long game. The roster obviously isn’t where it needs to be in terms of overall talent, but the Hornets will at least employ a style this season that should position them well for rapid growth when the necessary pieces are in place.

That’s reflected in several aspects of Borrego’s overall philosophy: a preference for playing two ball handlers, his pointed decision to slide several players down a position and an offensive scheme that prioritizes space and quick-hitting ball movement. Though the Hornets aren’t the Moneyball Houston Rockets, the early takeaways of Borrego’s style indicate they’ll rely on modern offensive tenets now and going forward.

A more tangible immediate strength is Charlotte’s defensive flexibility. Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Batum, Bacon and Bridges can all guard three or more positions, and Borrego took semi-frequent advantage in 2018-19 by yanking all traditional bigs off the floor. Defense will be the source of the Hornets’ success this season far more often than offense; their enviable lineup and stylistic versatility should be the biggest reason why.

– Jack Winter

WEAKNESSES

Most teams have multiple players they have reason to feel confident in as lead ball handlers. Charlotte, depending on how you feel about Rozier, may not have any. More debilitating might be its shortage of players who can create unscripted offense for themselves and their teammates.

Bottom line: The Hornets have the worst collection of offensive talent in the league, and it’s not particularly close. Even if young players eventually scrape their realistic ceilings, they’ll still need to add multiple prospects with high-level offensive upside to be playoff-caliber on that side of the ball in the future.

– Jack Winter

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is there a surefire long-term building block on this roster?

In an illuminating interview with The Observer that finally ended their silence in the wake of Walker’s departure, Kupchack and Borrego full-throatedly endorsed a youth movement. Stalwart veterans like Batum and Williams will have their playing time cut to make room for younger players; even Kidd-Gilchrist, just 25, will likely fall prey to that stark shift in organizational priorities.

An unabashed rebuild has been long-awaited in Charlotte. The issue is that it’s unclear which of these incumbents will be able to show enough to have seen it through to the finish.

Even believers in Rozier know he won’t top out as anything more than a league-average starter. Monk’s high-outcome destiny as a microwave scorer is tantalizing, but accompanied by inherent questions of roster fit and cap resources. Bridges projects as an elite role player at best, and so does Washington.

The Hornets have ample time to find the star power they need to ultimately contend. Kupchak will be picking near the top of the lottery for the foreseeable future, and the seemingly imminent firesale of veterans midseason – in February 2020 or 2021 – will further stock Charlotte’s stable of draft assets. But holdovers from the Walker era aren’t good enough by themselves to foster a healthy environment of growth, and top-five picks won’t serve as that immediate panacea, either.

As the Hornets lose game after game, many by double digits, how are Rozier, Monk, Bridges and Washington supposed to make an inarguable case as cogs of this franchise’s long-term prospects? The more damning question for Charlotte’s future is whether or not they’d even be able to under more stable and rewarding circumstances.

– Jack Winter

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