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Brightest Future in the NBA’s Pacific Division?

An in-depth look at every team in the NBA’s Pacific Division with an eye towards the future and who has the most potential beyond this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Pacific Division has been dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers for a long time. The Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns have also experienced sustained periods of success over the last decade. But now it is the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors who lead the Pacific, which goes to show that nothing lasts forever, even when it comes to the Lakers and Clippers.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at each of these teams and assess who has the brightest future.

Los Angeles Clippers (57-24, 3rd in the Western Conference, 1st in the Pacific Division.)

Coach: Doc Rivers
Cornerstones: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan
Assets: 2014 1st round pick, Reggie Bullock.

The Clipper’s ascension to the top of the Pacific started a few years ago when they unexpectedly won the 2010 NBA Lottery and selected Blake Griffin with the first pick in the draft. Griffin joined a team that featured young players like Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan, and veterans like Chris Kaman and Baron Davis. But from day one Griffin was the new foundation for the Clippers and everything was built around him.

Then, in December 2011, the Clippers landed Chris Paul in dramatic fashion after David Stern cancelled a deal that would have placed Paul with the Lakers. Stern, acting as de facto owner of the league owned New Orleans Hornets, said his decision was for “basketball reasons.” This trade seismically shifted the power dynamic in Los Angeles, and is the main reason why the Clippers are now atop the Pacific division.

How Things Went This Season

The Clippers entered this offseason looking to make a run to the NBA Finals. To do this, they hired former Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. The team sent their 2015 first round pick to the Celtics, who agreed to release Rivers from his contract and take over the Clippers. In addition, the Clippers signed point guard Darren Collison, center Byron Mullens, forward Antawn Jamison, and resigned small forward Matt Barnes. The Clippers also acquired Jared Dudley from Phoenix and J.J. Redick from Milwaukee via trade, sending Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to Phoenix and a second round pick to Milwaukee. The team also added young sharpshooter Reggie Bullock from North Carolina with the 25th pick in the draft.

The Clippers set a franchise record on April 15, beating the Denver Nuggets and winnings its 57th game of the season. They managed this by fielding one of the league’s most potent offenses and steadily improving on defense all season long. The Clippers currently have the highest rated offense in the league, scoring 109.5 points per 100 possessions, and the 7th best defense, giving up 101.9 points per 100 possessions. This combination is good for a 7.5 point differential, second best in the NBA behind the ageless San Antonio Spurs.

Credit goes to Doc Rivers and his staff for making some key changes that have paid off this season for the Clippers. First, Rivers instituted his strong-side defense, which has improved as the players have adjusted, and has turned the Clippers into the best team at guarding the three-point line. Also, from day one Rivers has instilled confidence in Jordan, which has resulted in a career year for the young center.

Most importantly, Griffin has taken the next step in his development. After Paul separated his shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks on January 3, Griffin stepped into the lead role and has not taken a back seat since. He is shooting with more confidence, hitting free throws, running fast breaks, creating scoring opportunities for teammates, and is engaged defensively.

Looking Ahead

The Clippers are structured to win this year and for the foreseeable future. Griffin and Paul both are locked up until 2017-2018, when both players will have a player option to opt out of their contracts. Jordan is signed through next season, at which point the Clippers will try to extend him. In addition, J.J. Redick is locked in until 2016-2017. The Clippers have a team option on 6th man of the year candidate Jamal Crawford for 2015-2016, which the team will likely exercise. Also, Rivers signed a three year contract with the team that will run through 2015-2016 as well. With these five players, and Rivers, who will likely be around until at least 2015-2016, the Clippers look to be atop the Pacific Division for the foreseeable future.

Additionally, with a first round pick in this year’s draft, and youngster Reggie Bullock developing, the Clippers have a few assets in their back pocket. Look for the Clippers to bring Bullock along slowly. The Clippers will also continue to benefit from the free agent market as they have this season with players like Darren Collison, Danny Granger and Glen Davis, who all signed for substantially less for a chance to play on a contending team.

Golden State Warriors (50-31, 6th in the Western Conference, 2nd in the Pacific Division)

Coach: Mark Jackson
Cornerstones: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala
Assets: Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green

The Golden State Warriors entered this season with high expectations after advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals last year.

How Things Went This Season

The Warriors made a big move this offseason, acquiring defensive ace Andre Iguodala. With the addition of Iguodala and Andrew Bogut anchoring the defense, the Warriors have touted the league’s third highest rated defense, which allows only 99.9 points per 100 possessions. But with explosive players like Curry and Thompson on the team, and a top rated defense in place, the Warriors should arguably be first in the Pacific, even ahead of the Clippers.

The problem is that the Warriors are rated as the 12th best offense in the league, scoring 105.3 points per 100 possessions. This is above league average, but with a talent like Stephen Curry running the show, and players like Klay Thompson, David Lee, and Iguodala, it’s fair to expect this team to at least be a top-10 offensive team. Part of the issue is that for the better part of the season, the Warriors bench has failed to contribute as much as other top teams. The Warriors recognized this and made trades for players like Steve Blake and Jordan Crawford. These were both underrated acquisitions, but the Warriors still are not as efficient as they could be.

In spite of this, the Warriors have a chance to make a run this postseason. They will likely face the Clippers in the first round and will have to be at their best to advance without Bogut, who sustained a broken rib this past week and is out indefinitely. It will be a tough series, but if Curry and Thompson get hot from the perimeter, they might be able to get past the Clippers.

Looking Ahead

The Warriors, much like the Clippers, are designed to win now and in the immediate future. Players like Bogut, Iguodala, and Curry are locked in until 2016-2017. Also, Thompson will likely sign a new contract with the Warriors this offseason that will lock him up for anywhere between the next three-to-five years. The Warriors also have a team option on Harrison Barnes for next season at $3,873,398. Though Barnes has had a disappointing season, he can bounce back and be a major piece for this team moving forward. Lee is signed through 2015-2016 and may very well resign with the Warriors. However, his next contract will be for less, as he is set to make $15,493,680 next season.

While the roster is set to win now and in the future, the coaching situation is less stable. Mark Jackson has led the Warriors to winning seasons since taking over. However, recent reports indicate that the front office has not yet committed to Jackson long-term.

The most recent issues pertain to Jackson’s assistants. Brian Scalabrine was recently demoted by Jacksons to the Warriors’ D-League affiliate team in Santa Cruz, and lead assistant Darren Erman was dismissed from the team for a “violation of the organization’s policy.” Jackson’s future with the Warriors depends in large part on how the team fares in the playoffs. If the Warriors cannot advance past the Clippers, expect Jackson to be placed on the hot seat.

In spite of the unstable coaching situation, this roster is good enough to compete with the Clippers this season, and for the foreseeable future. Bob Meyers, the general manager of the Warriors, has done a good job of assembling a roster of young talent, and solid veterans. Curry is a top talent, and with players like Thompson around him, this team is set to compete for many years to come.

Phoenix Suns (47-34, 9th western conference, 3rd in the Pacific Division)

Coach: Jeff Hornacek
Cornerstones: Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe
Assets: Three 2014 first round picks, Alex Len

Throughout the mid-2000s the Phoenix Suns were atop the Pacific Division with the Los Angeles Lakers. Their past success stemmed in large part from former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced-offense, which has caught on throughout the league. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire ran the system perfectly, and the Suns managed to surround these two with shooters and other versatile players. However, Stoudemire eventually left for New York, and Nash was eventually traded to the Lakers. Thus, the Suns finally started to rebuild from the ground up this past offseason.

How Things Went This Season

The Suns have been the surprise team of the season. This past offseason the Suns hired rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek, and drafted Alex Len with the fifth pick in the draft, along with Archie Goodwin (29). The Suns then traded Jared Dudley to the Clippers for Caron Butler and Eric Bledsoe, and then traded Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers for Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee, and a 2014 first round pick (lottery protected). The Suns then traded Marcin Gortat, Malcom Lee, Kendall Marshall and Shannon Brown to the Washington Wizards for Emeka Okafor and a protected 2014 first-round pick. The Suns also picked up the fourth-year options on Markieff and Marcus Morris and used the stretch provision to waive Michael Beasley.

The Suns clearly were all in on rebuilding the franchise from the ground up. With a rookie head coach, and few veteran players, no one expected Phoenix to be in the playoff hunt this season. Nevertheless, the Suns exceeded all expectations and were only eliminated from playoff contention on April 15, when they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Looking Ahead

The Suns thrived this season behind the excellent play of Most Improved Player candidate Goran Dragic and budding star Eric Bledsoe. With Dragic and Bledsoe sharing the backcourt, the Suns featured the league’s eighth best offense, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions. Beyond Dragic and Bledsoe, players like Gerald Green had career years. Green has made the fourth most three pointers in the league (currently 202) on 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

It’s a shame that Suns will did not make the playoffs this season. If the Suns were the in the Eastern Conference, they would be ranked 5th and set to play the Chicago Bulls in the first round. Fortunately for the Suns, they have a pile of draft picks to add more players, and potentially trade.

Dragic (player option), Len (team option), the Morris twins (qualifying offers), and Plumlee (team option) are likely to be with the team through 2015-2016. The Suns will look to sign Bledsoe to a long term deal this offseason, but it remains to be seen at what price. Other teams looking for a long term fit at point guard may offer Bledsoe a max free agent offer sheet, which the Suns will have the right to match.

The Suns will also look to keep players like P.J. Tucker (qualifying offer), Green (signed for next season), and Frye (player option). After next season however, these players may become too expensive for the Suns to keep. The Suns will also consider packaging draft picks and players for an established star, like they tried to earlier this season with Pau Gasol. The Suns could even make a substantial free agent offer to free agents like Luol Deng, who would add veteran stability to the young roster.

The Suns are in a favorable position right now. They unloaded veteran players and turned them into future assets. They acquired players like Green and Plumlee, who had career years, and hired a young coach who could win Coach of the Year. With a roster that almost made the playoffs in the deep Western Conference and with more flexibility than just about any team moving forward, the Suns are ahead of schedule on their rebuild. This is a team to keep an eye on this offseason and could compete with the Clippers and Warriors in the near future for Pacific Division supremacy.

Sacramento Kings (28-53, 13th in the Western Conference, 4th in the Pacific Division)

Coach: Michael Malone
Cornerstones: DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay
Assets: Ben McLemore, 2014 first round pick

The Sacramento Kings have been at the bottom of the Pacific Division for the past few seasons and are looking to turn that around under new owner Vivek Ranadivé. The Kings hired Michael Malone who is trying to develop young players like DeMarcus Cousins, and create a winning culture in Sacramento.

How Things Went This Season

It has been a disappointing season for the Kings. During the offseason, and throughout the season, the Kings made moves to add young talent and veterans to create a more balanced roster.

Last offseason the Kings selected Ben McLemore with the seventh pick and Ray McCallum with the 36th pick. They then traded Tyreke Evans to New Orleans Pelicans for Greivis Vasquez and two second-round picks. The Kings then signed Carl Landry to a four-year, $26 million contract. In November, they traded Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Derrick Williams and in December, the Kings traded John Salmons, Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez to the Toronto Raptors for Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy. In February, the Kings traded Marcus Thornton to the Brooklyn Nets for Jason Terry and Reggie Evans.

Looking Ahead

While the flurry of moves did not pan out this season, there is still hope for a better future in Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins, in spite of his maturity issues, is a top center in the NBA. In each of his last three games, Cousins has scored over 30 points and hauled in over 10 rebounds. Though his shooting percentage from the field needs to improve, and he needs to control his on court emotions, he is one of the most skilled big-men in the NBA, and is a major asset for the Kings.

Ben Mclemore is another asset moving forward despite his underwhelming rookie season. At times throughout this season Mclemore has displayed elite athleticism and the smooth jump shot that scouts raved about entering the draft. Like the majority of rookies, Mclemore has been inconsistent and hesitant at times. His shooting percentages, 37.3 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from beyond the arc, need to improve dramatically, but the talent is there.

One of the biggest questions marks heading into the offseason is whether Rudy Gay will exercise his player option for the last year of his contract (worth $19,317,326), or look to sign a new, long-term deal. Gay has improved his play since arriving in Sacramento and he has indicated that he would like to stay with the team moving forward. If the Kings can sign him for a reasonable rate, they should sign lock him in for the next few seasons.

The other big question is what will happen with Isaiah Thomas. Thomas has exceeded all expectations and proven to be a valuable player for the Kings. However, at 5’9 Thomas gives up considerable size to most opposing point guards. The Kings undoubtedly want to keep Thomas, but it will have to be at a price that makes sense for the franchise.

Overall, the Kings have quality talent on the roster. However, there are veteran contracts that are taking up too much cap space, such as Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, and Travis Outlaw. Look for the Kings to try and unload these contracts, and continue adding young pieces around Cousins, Thomas, Mclemore, and Gay. This includes the Kings’ top-10 pick in the upcoming draft, which includes some very talented prospects. The future looks bright for the Kings, but it will take a few seasons before they can compete for Pacific division supremacy.

Los Angeles Lakers (26-55, 14th in the Western Conference, 5th in the Pacific Division)

Coach: Mike D’Antoni
Cornerstones: Kobe Bryant
Best Assets: 2014 first round pick, Ryan Kelly

The Los Angeles Lakers are one of, if not the league’s marquee franchises. However, this has been a rough season for the franchise and its fans. In fact, this season is the first and only time in NBA history that the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics failed to make the playoffs in the same year.

How Things Went This Season

The Lakers entered this season with cautious optimism, in spite of losing center Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets. Kobe Bryant indicated that he may be healthy enough to play opening night, and Steve Nash had spent the entire offseason rehabbing as well. In addition, the team had signed young players that had underachieved for other teams, and were looking for a fresh start. Things did not work out however. Bryant missed opening night and only played six games all season. It was the worst season in franchise history, with one of the worst defeats coming at the hands of the Clippers, who won by 48 points. Unfortunately, there were only a few bright spots, such as Kendal Marshall, Jodie Meeks and Nick Young and Ryan Kelly.

The Lakers selected Ryan Kelly with the 48th pick in the draft, signed Jordan Farmar to a one-year, minimum contract for $1.1 million, waived Metta World Peace with their one-time amnesty provision, and then signed Nick Young to a two-year, minimum contract at $2.3 million (second season player option). The Lakers then signed Chris Kaman to a one-year, $3,183,000 contract, and Wesley Johnson to a one-year, $916k minimum contract. They also signed Xavier Henry to a one-year, non-guaranteed $916k minimum contract.

The biggest move of the season came in November when they signed Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension. Bryant had not returned from his injury yet, but the Lakers wanted to show their commitment to their star. Then in February, the Lakers traded Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks.

These roster moves did not lead to much success unfortunately. The Lakers have the second fastest pace in the league, but are rated 21st in terms of offensive efficiency. Even worst, the defense has allowed opposing teams to score 108.1 points per 100 possessions, third worst in the league. Beyond the offensive and defensive issues, the Lakers have been devastated by injuries.

Looking Ahead

The Lakers have roughly $34,226,243 in guaranteed player salary next season. This comes mostly from Bryant and Nash’s contracts. When the Lakers announced Bryant’s contract, the immediate reaction was surprise. Everyone thought Kobe was going to take a major discount so the Lakers could sign two max free agents, like LeBron and Carmelo. Instead, the Lakers now have room for only one max free agent, and little else. The contract seems to indicate that the Lakers realize that they are at least two years away from truly contending, and are going to ride out Kobe’s last two years in the league. Despite the Lakers and Kobe publically stating that they are planning on contending next year, the reality is that there simply is not enough flexibility to make that happen. While you can never count out the Lakers, the immediate future does not look bright.

The Lakers do have a top-10 pick coming up this offseason, and if that pick pans out, it can turn things around for the Lakers quickly. Also, if a player like Kevin Love becomes available, expect the Lakers to offer a package based around the pick.

Current players like Young, Meeks, Hill, Marshall, and Henry have proven that they are worth keeping around, but there is no real core to build around. Every other team in the Pacific has star players, or potential star players to build around except the Lakers. However, as bleak as things may seem now, the Lakers always bounce back quickly. Unfortunately, the next time the Lakers are contending for top spot in the Pacific, it likely won’t include Kobe Bryant.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

Where Do the Celtics Go From Here?

The Boston Celtics face an uphill climb after the loss of Gordon Hayward, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Boston Celtics suffered a crushing blow Tuesday night after losing marquee free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward to a gruesome leg injury in the early goings of the season’s opening contest. Unfortunately for Boston, the NBA will continue to march on and Brad Stevens and his squad will have to adapt, adjust and learn on the fly. With 81 games still to play, all might not be lost for the Celtics, but where can the team go from here?

A lineup shuffle is almost certainly in the cards. Marcus Smart, projected to be Stevens’ first man off the bench, will likely slot into the starting lineup as the shooting guard next to Kyrie Irving, sliding Jaylen Brown to the small forward position. From there, a larger rotation and a minutes bump for other bench guys like Terry Rozier, Shane Larkin, Semi Ojeleye, etc., would make the most sense as Stevens attempts to ensure his key guys — Irving, Brown and Al Horford — have fresh legs down the stretch. Nineteen-year-old Jayson Tatum, who impressed in his debut with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, should also get an extended look, even after presumed starter Marcus Morris is back and healthy enough to play. Irving and Horford’s veteran presence in the locker room cannot be understated as well.

Brown, who should move into Hayward’s spot in the lineup, had already been pegged for a major role on the team this season. Now, the second-year wing will bear an even heavier burden and will seemingly have to produce all over the floor for the Celtics. Without Hayward, Brown now joins a defensive group of Smart, Horford and Morris that will have their work cut out. Brown will also be expected to produce more on the offensive end as well and do so efficiently. While he poured in 25 points last night, Brown did so on an inefficient 11 of 23 shooting while going just 2-of-9 from three-point range. Still rough around the edges as expected, Brown will need to quickly smooth out his game if Boston wants to remain competitive during the season.

Danny Ainge will certainly survey the remaining free agent and trade market as well. If a low-cost, low-risk opportunity were to present itself, don’t expect the thrifty general manager to just sit back. While low-cost and low-risk doesn’t fit Ainge’s usual MO, he knows better than to make a knee-jerk reaction to a freak injury like the one Hayward sustained; he isn’t going to break the bank and mortgage the future he painstakingly built over the past several seasons to bring Anthony Davis to Boston, but a grab at JaMychal Green or a similar player certainly isn’t out of the question.

The real key to the team’s success going forward will be the play of Irving. Formerly the 1A to Hayward’s 1B, Irving will now be the sole No. 1 option and will be relied on by Stevens and the rest of the team as such, which is what Irving has really wanted all along. The whole reason he wanted out of Cleveland, out of LeBron James’ massive shadow, was to show that he could be “the guy” and now Irving has a prime opportunity to prove that he can be. The Celtics from here on will go as he goes; if Irving falters, the team will as well. While the initial showings were positive — Irving posted a double-double of his own with 22 points and 10 assists — there is a lot of basketball left to be played.

All is not lost for Boston and the 2017 season can certainly be salvaged. While Hayward’s injury is devastating and certainly sucked the enjoyment out of what many expected to be a very exciting season, the Celtics are more than capable of weathering this storm and coming out stronger on the other side with Ainge and Stevens at the helm and Irving, Brown and others leading the team on the floor.

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Changing Circumstance: On Utah’s Foundational Frontcourt

Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are ready for a big season as a duo, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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In many ways, the partnership that now forms the starting frontcourt in Utah is characterized by circumstance. The Jazz basically stumbled upon the duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert during a mostly lost 2014-15 season, allowing it to blossom after trading Enes Kanter at the deadline. Many in the organization loved Gobert, but few expected to force his way into such a large role as early as he did.

Even with the league beginning to move firmly in the direction of smaller, spaced-out lineups, the Jazz quickly realized they had something here. Favors and Gobert picked up chemistry in a hurry – the ability to “communicate telepathically,” as Favors jokingly puts it. They quickly formed a formidable defensive duo, nicknamed “The Wasatch Front” by certain clever folks in Jazzland. (Jazz fans: Rudy is fine with this nickname, but is open to better suggestions. Get those Twitter fingers typing.)

After the Kanter trade really opened things up for the pair to start games following the All-Star break, the Jazz posted a frighteningly low 92.5 per-100-possession defensive figure – over 10 full points better than their third-ranked defense in 2016-17, and nearly nine better than the league-best Spurs posted last year.

Over the next couple years, circumstance would strike in other ways. Both guys would miss significant time with injuries in 2015-16, including overlapping periods that made it tough to find rhythm. Gobert admitted he was never really himself after an MCL sprain he likely rushed back from just a bit. Even many casual fans could pick up on how physically limited Favors was last year, even when he was ostensibly healthy.

Another bit of circumstance arose last season: With Joe Johnson in town, the Jazz found their own versions of the league’s small trend. Lineups featuring Gobert at center and Johnson playing the power forward spot were easily Utah’s best for the season, quickly becoming coach Quin Snyder’s go-to look in crunch time. Even when Favors was in the lineup, he’d regularly lose big minutes.

Circumstance was once again present over the summer, with star Gordon Hayward and point guard George Hill departing. Where Favors may have once looked like a forgotten man, he’s back at full health for the first time in over a year and is right back in the picture as a foundational piece. Where Gobert may have been part of a two-headed monster hoping to challenge for contender status in the West, he’s now the singular face of a franchise that fully expects to avoid another rebuild.

Individually, it’s a big season ahead. As a duo, it might be even bigger – not only for the pair, but for the Jazz and even for the league as a whole.

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Most of the concerns you hear regarding the Favors-Gobert duo come on the offensive side of the ball. There were some struggles in that first year together, where they posted an anemic on-court figure (they were still a net plus, but only because they also strangled opponents in those minutes). That’s also about how long it took for that almost supernatural connection to kick in, as Favors tells it – it was in full swing by the 2015-16 season.

“That whole type of thing normally comes with a point guard, because they’ve got the ball all the time and they see stuff,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. “We just see each other, just communicate telepathically.”

Favors describes the connection as one of the most unique of his career, and it was visible on both sides of the ball. The two developed an uncanny knack for covering each other at the rim. Offensively, they quickly picked up a big-to-big passing game that helped with some of their spacing concerns.

“I think we both learned that we need to space for each other, we need to be precise with our spacing,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I got better at passing, I got better at finishing, he got better at passing too. I know that when I’m rolling, if his guy comes, he’s going to be open – so I dump it off to him or the corner.”

“These things don’t come just like that, but once we figure it out, it’s very hard to guard,” Gobert continued. “People see that as a weakness – I see it as a strength. When teams play small, there’s going to be small guy on either one of us.”

A smaller guy on Favors means a better passing lane for Gobert, or an opportunity to seal for deep post position. A smaller guy on Gobert – something teams used to do often but have moved away from more and more as he’s developed his rolling skills – invites high lobs and dunks, or compromising help from elsewhere in the defense.

Both guys have gotten much better with their angles, as well. That smaller defender is often trying to mitigate his size advantage by fronting or some other exploitable technique, and both Favors and Gobert have learned how to attack these strategies.

Gobert has taken huge strides in his ability to finish from both sides of the hoop, and through contact. He shot one of the highest percentages in the league among centers near the rim last year, at over 68 percent, and was up at a ludicrous 81.5 percent during the preseason.

Put it together, and it’s possible the duo’s offensive concerns have been a tad bit overstated in the past. The per-possession net rating the Jazz posted while Favors and Gobert played together in 2015-16 would have ranked seventh in the league for the full season, and it actually rose last year (the corresponding rank dropped, however, as the league improved overall). The Jazz’s slightly above average offense saw virtually no drop-off last year from when the duo played together to when they didn’t, and that’s before considering Favors’ health woes.

The savvy reader will note that their surroundings are an important part of this, and they’d be right. A big chunk of their minutes together last year came with Hill running the point and spacing the floor, and over 90 percent of them came with Hayward on the court – they did okay in a tiny sample last year, but historically have struggled to score at even league average rates without Utah’s former All-Star sharing the court.

Ricky Rubio’s acquisition will likely make them even more lethal defensively, but it also presents some additional theoretical concerns. Snyder appears likely to start each of Rubio, Favors and Gobert, meaning Utah will open the game with three non-threats from deep.

Rubio’s history, though, offers a glimpse of how they might get around these issues. With the exception of last season, when Karl-Anthony Towns’ development as a shooter and playmaker opened things up a bit more, Rubio never exactly played in spacing-charged lineups in Minnesota in the past. Look at the three-point percentages of his most common jump-shooting floor-mates from the 2015-16 season:

Andrew Wiggins (played during 95 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent

Karl-Anthony Towns (89 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 34.1 percent

Gorgui Dieng (54 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent

Zach LaVine (45 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 38.9 percent

Tayshaun Prince (39 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 17.4 percent

Shabazz Muhammad (18 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 28.9 percent

Only Towns and LaVine were passable three-point shooters among that group, and LaVine played well under half of Rubio’s minutes. Virtually every lineup Rubio played in contained at least two other total non-threats (often three), and not a single one ever contained a marksman like Jazzman Joe Ingles, who nearly led the league in three-point percentage last year. Things were like this for the vast majority of Rubio’s time in Minnesota.

And yet, his teams consistently have succeeded offensively.

Since he became the full-time starter, no Wolves offense helmed by Rubio finished lower than 11th in the league during a year he was healthy – in his only non-healthy year, 2014-15, they were 26th. His teams consistently got way worse offensively when he left the floor, and consistently strong offensive Real Plus-Minus ratings (17th among point guards in 2016-17, 12th in 15-16 and 14-15, 22nd in 13-14) indicate that this was more than just a case of bad backups.

“He’s been like that his whole career, and I think he’s been pretty good [despite] it,” Gobert said of his new teammate. “There’s a lot of ways to score. He’s very quick. Even if you’re backing up, he can still attack you and find the open man. I’m not really worried about spacing.”

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Rubio also comes with a few strong points that should help improve areas the Jazz were lacking on in recent years, namely their transition game. Play type figures from Synergy Sports on NBA.com seem to indicate that the Jazz were elite on the break last year – they had the highest per-possession efficiency – but this is an example of where those numbers can lead you astray. The Jazz had one of the lowest frequencies of such plays in the league; their efficiency was only so high because they only attempted sure-thing shots while avoiding other transition chances like the plague.

That’s not an optimal approach offensively. Even some of those iffier transition chances still hold an expected point value that’s far higher than anything you’ll find in the halfcourt, and backing out of them for fear of an imperfect shot leaves easy points on the table.

Snyder recognizes it, and he’s looking to transition (pun maybe intended) the Jazz away from their state as one of the league’s slowest teams on the break. It starts with Rubio, long known for his ability to jitterbug up the court after defensive possessions and wreak havoc. Snyder is placing more emphasis on the ball in Rubio’s hands after misses – he wants his wings sprinting up the floor to space out to the corners whenever possible. Guys like Favors and Gobert play a big role as well.

“It’s important, especially the big that doesn’t get the rebound,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Snyder] put an emphasis on [that] this year – the big who didn’t get the rebound has to run, has to sprint and try to beat his guy up the floor.”

Favors is ready for more of that now that he’s back at full health. Gobert has always loved beating guys down the floor; look how far behind DeAndre Jordan he is when he’s pushed out of the frame, and how much faster he is getting up the court for an easy bucket.

Snyder has talked about upping the tempo in preseason before, notably in his first year in Utah, only to see it fall flat when the games count. It feels different this time, though: The Jazz finished eighth in per-possession fast break points for the preseason, per NBA.com, way up from a 29th-place finish last season. Rubio is easily the cleanest fit they’ve had at the point in this area, and it feels like we should expect a few extra freebies every night in transition to goose the offense.

The other area that should see a big spike, especially when the two behemoths play together, is offensive rebounding. The Jazz were a dominant team here in 2015-16, generating the third-most per-possession second chance points in the league largely on the back of the Favors-Gobert duo, which rebounded nearly 30 percent of the team’s own misses and put up over 10 second-chance points for every 36 minutes on the court.

Last year, though, things fell way off. Some of that was drop-off and health concerns from the tandem itself, and some was more stylistic.

“We’ve emphasized transition defense, and sometimes there’s an opportunity cost at the offensive glass,” Snyder said. “Sometimes when you’re spaced a certain way, it’s harder to get to the glass.

“A couple years ago our spacing was a little different – we just had guys around the rim all the time. We didn’t design our team that way or our offense that way in order to offensive rebound, we designed it that way because we had players that were effective around the rim and didn’t necessarily have three-point range. So when you look at Joe Johnson, offensive rebounding is not going to be as much of a premium for him. But Ekpe [Udoh], Derrick and Rudy, certainly.”

With Favors back healthy and starting, plus the addition of Udoh as mostly a big lineup four-man (at least in preseason), expect the Jazz to revert back to their bullying ways on the offensive glass. They lost nearly three second-chance points per night between the 15-16 season and the 16-17 one – if they can get those back or even add to them slightly, it’s another piece that can help fill in the gaps offensively. Utah was back to fourth in second-chance points for the preseason, another positive sign.

“If you’re a three and you’re playing at the four, and you’re guarding Derrick or myself, it’s not going to be a fun night for you,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders.

And if Favors and Gobert can maintain or even improve offensively together, watch out.

They’re fearsome defensively, and will only be more so if Favors’ improved mobility remains. Utah’s entire defensive scheme is built around them.

“My job really, not to give away a scouting report, but is to take guys off the three-point line and really just send them in there,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “They take pride in defending the basket, they take pride in defense.”

The Jazz are looking to take a few more risks defensively this year to up their steals, which Snyder hopes will feed into increased transition opportunities. Rubio’s presence as one of the league’s premier ballhawks helps, but having those rocks behind them makes this emphasis easier to follow.

“It gives you a lot more confidence – not even to gamble, I guess, but just to be more aggressive,” swingman Joe Ingles said. “I know that if I do get beat being aggressive, that they’re going to be there and they’re going to come over and help.”

How Snyder chooses to use his big duo is yet to be seen. If preseason is any indicator, their usage will resemble much of last season, particularly toward the end: Favors and Gobert both start the game, but outside those minutes and the ones to open the third quarter, they rarely play together once Favors exits. At this point, Favors is mostly relegated to backup center during the minutes Gobert sits while Gobert plays either in small lineups or alongside Udoh.

Can they do enough to force Snyder’s hand into more minutes? It’s tough to say. Gobert is one of the few bigs in the league who can keep an interior defense afloat completely by himself – there was virtually no drop-off to Utah’s field goal percentage allowed at the rim when Gobert played around a small lineup compared with when he played next to Favors last year.

A good chunk of that could have been Favors’ health, and the Jazz will hope it’s a big chunk; if Favors’ presence doesn’t actually swing the interior defense all that much compared to when the Jazz play small, it’ll be hard to really maximize his value. Even for all the offensive improvements they’ve made as a pair, the Favors-Gobert combination still can’t touch the kind of efficiency the Jazz put up with Johnson playing power forward next to Gobert. Why play Favors-Gobert at all if there isn’t a value to the trade-off?

******

A healthy Favors could make that last question sound silly, and he’s out to do that to plenty of folks. Derrick doesn’t have the same kind of outward bravado Gobert boasts, but he’s quietly fierce. He heard all the noise about his declining game over the last 18 months.

He’s also prideful, and it’s tough to sit on the bench during crunch time when you’re a player of his stature. For Favors, this was an intersection of personal frustration and collective acceptance.

“Of course I want to be out there, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. He also knew who was replacing him: “If it was anybody else you’d be mad – but it’s Joe Johnson, so it’s like, ‘Hey, Joe Johnson can close games, man.’”

It was a sacrifice for Favors, and not the first one he’s made to help foster optimal usage for a teammate. As a young player, he was one of the league’s up-and-coming talents as a roll man in pick-and-roll; he’s still great there, but Gobert’s emergence as one of the game’s most dangerous lob threats here has changed the way Favors is used.

He expanded his game, working to find ways to complement Gobert when the played together. His timing has grown leaps and bounds as the “dunker” in pick-and-roll action, waiting for a dump-off from Gobert. He’s developed a great chemistry with Gobert on the “short roll” for when teams blitz ball-handlers.

All this has essentially forced him to become more versatile.

“I know when I came into the league, my calling card was rolling to the rim,” Favors said to Basketball Insiders. “[Now] I can roll to the rim, I can pop, I can play in the half roll, I can space out. I think that’s something I wanted to show everybody I can do.”

With a contract year set to begin Wednesday night, it’s a vital time for Favors. Comments from agent Wallace Prather last spring indicated that a Hayward departure was likely the only realistic avenue to Favors remaining in Salt Lake City long term; with Hayward indeed gone, Favors now has to show Jazz brass he’s worth that investment.

Gobert isn’t going anywhere, and that means Favors’ stock could rise and fall depending on how the two fare together. If the combo can’t succeed, or if small lineups end up far more effective, it would be virtually impossible to justify Utah investing the amount Favors is worth into his future.

More than that, the Favors-Gobert combo could represent a last stand of sorts for these kinds of big lineups across the league. An optimized Favors, or a similar type, is virtually a must if you’re going to try big ball against the Golden States and Houstons of the world: A guy big enough to punish wings guarding him on one end, but stick with those guys laterally on the other.

Only the fully healthy version of Favors is capable of this in big minutes. Even then, it might be a struggle against the league’s best teams – every possession in these lineups is an uphill climb against the simple math that’s made small-ball so popular in the first place. Elite opponents will choke away space and demand that Favors and Gobert beat them while outside their comfort zone.

They’re out to prove they’re ready, though. A duo marked by unexpected circumstance ever since they first came together is now looking to write their own narrative, and they’ll start it off on Wednesday night.

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NBA

NBA AM: LeBron James’ Quest For Eighth Straight Finals

Despite playing 30 minutes in preseason, LeBron James dazzled in the season opener with an impressive stat line.

Lang Greene

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Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star forward LeBron James has been known for his durability ever since entering the league in 2003. Despite a heavy annual workload, James has played less than 70 games just twice in 14 seasons. One of those campaigns was the strike-shortened 2012 season, in which in he appeared in 62 out of 66 contests.

Heading into the season opener on Tuesday, there were concerns that James wouldn’t be able to lace them up due to an ankle injury suffered during a preseason in which he logged only 30 minutes. However, James not only suited up, he was the primary driving force in the team’s 102-99 victory over the Boston Celtics.

James finished the contest with 29 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists on 12-for-19 shooting from the floor. Yet, after the game, James was transparent about his physical conditioning – or lack thereof.

“I’m out of shape, very out of shape for my expectations,” James told the press after the Cavaliers’ defeated the Celtics in Tuesday’s season opener. “Rightfully so. I haven’t been able to play during the preseason. I played one game [and] reinjured my ankle. I don’t like where I’m at right now.”

James has a reputation for going to extreme lengths to keep his body in tip-top shape, but Tuesday night’s performance didn’t appear to be the work of a man struggling to keep up.

While the Golden State Warriors are the favorites to once again hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end, the Cavaliers are expected to make their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.

But Cleveland has plenty of question marks to start the season.

The Cavaliers are still integrating former league MVP Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green into the rotation. Two starters from previous seasons, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, are now adjusting to roles off the bench and presumably reduced minutes. This doesn’t even take into consideration the impending unrestricted free agency status of James, Rose and Thomas next summer, which will become a daily outlet of speculation.

James acknowledged the team is still adjusting on the fly and building chemistry where possible.

“The most important thing is we got the win,” James said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us because we got seven new guys, putting in a new system and every game is going to be a learning experience.”

James has been able to avoid serious injury throughout his career and the preseason ankle injury appears to be a thing of the past.

“It’s a little sore,” James said about his tweaked ankle. “But I’d figured that much.

“We don’t play again until Friday, so I get a couple of days. But I have to get some conditioning in as well. So it’s going to be a fine line for me—rest my ankle trying to get in healthy or do I continue to get some conditioning in because I need it? We have a great support staff and I’ll be fine.”

Other Opening Night Observations

Boston Celtics (99) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (102)

  • Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, one of the team’s marquee offseason acquisitions, suffered a fractured ankle early in the first quarter
  • Celtics forwards Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum combined for 39 points and 16 rebounds
  • Celtics guard Kyrie Irving recorded 10 assists in his Boston debut. Last season with the Cavaliers he posted just eight games of 10+ assists
  • Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson played 20 minutes off the bench. Last season the forward averaged 29.9 minutes per contest

Houston Rockets (122) vs. Golden State Warriors (121)

  • The Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth quarter to stole a victory at Oracle Arena on ring ceremony night
  • Rockets role players P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon combined for 44 points on 15-for-25 shooting from the floor in the victory
  • Rockets guard Chris Paul recorded 11 assists in his debut, but shot just 2-for-9 from the floor and totaled four points
  • Warriors forward Draymond Green left the game in the second half due to a knee sprain. At the time of his departure, Green had posted nine points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists
  • Veteran guard Nick Young led the Warriors in scoring with 23 points on 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range in the opener

The gross majority of the league’s teams will open up their seasons on Wednesday, and by Friday, everyone will have played one game.

In it all, though, from here, it still appears that LeBron James is king.

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