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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

New Orleans Pelicans 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans have all the parts to be a very, very good NBA team. The problem for New Orleans is they have struggled to get and stay healthy, which has derailed them in previous seasons. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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Last year’s regular season ended in a flurry. A large number of teams spent the last few weeks of the season jockeying for positioning in an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race. In the end, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to secure the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. As it turned out, the first-round matchup was a smashing success as the Pelicans were able to smother the Blazers’ star backcourt on their way to a four-game sweep. Unfortunately, the Pelicans then ran into the unstoppable buzz saw that was last year’s Golden State Warriors team.

Notably, last year’s team withstood the midseason loss of DeMarcus Cousins. That loss was mitigated by the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic, who was effectively rescued and revived in New Orleans. In the offseason, the franchise watched Cousins leave to join the Warriors and Rajon Rondo leave to join the Los Angeles Lakers. In the meantime, the Pelicans have undergone some roster tinkering as they look to solidify their standing as a playoff team and pick up where they left off.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a terrible injury, the New Orleans Pelicans finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league behind Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Boogie is gone for good now, though, and The Brow has a new partner in Julius Randle and a returning Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. The overshadowed loss for Alvin Gentry will be Rajon Rondo’s playmaking ability, but they’re counting on Elfrid Payton to fill the void as one of the top under-the-radar signings in the league. Considering the way they played in the postseason and that Davis is a top three superstar in the league, it’d be hard to see too much of a regression. The bad news, however, is that NOLA plays in a Western Conference with plenty of competition.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

At least among playoff hopefuls, the Pelicans might have the largest range of projections and expectations across the NBA landscape. There are some who believe that losing DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, even despite Cousins’ Achilles tear that looks to keep him out for much of the upcoming season, is too big a blow and the Pelicans will be in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Then there are those who look at their post-Cousins injury splits and wonder whether the team wasn’t slightly better without him anyway. Julius Randle is an excellent acquisition who can fill at least some of Boogie’s previous roles, and the Pels will be banking on more seamless lineups around Anthony Davis at the five to help offset the ostensible talent loss they took in the offseason. They’ll be one of the league’s most interesting windows into how fit and talent coexist – or don’t.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Pelicans actually started to look like the team they were supposed to be. The issue for them has never been about talent. The roster has been loaded with the talent. The question was durability and consistency. The Pelicans broke through last season and with some solid additions this offseason it’s hard not to believe the Pels will get right back after it. The problem for New Orleans is the West is tough and as we saw last season the difference between home court in the playoffs can come down to two or three games. The Pelicans are easy to like, mainly because Anthony Davis is such a special player. But it’s also easy to see that if the Pelicans don’t get aggressive right out of the gate, the specter of him being unhappy and wanting out starts to become real.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

While DeMarcus Cousins is an elite center, I think moving Anthony Davis to the center position and plugging Julius Randle into the rotation will mostly address Cousins’ departure. Randle is a nice addition to the Pelicans’ roster and should fit in nicely alongside Davis and Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. While I like a lot of the talent on the Pelicans’ roster and the reclamation projects of Elfrid Payton and Jahlil Okafor, I am concerned that even a few injuries could quickly derail the Pelicans. They are already limited on the wing, especially at small forward, and are relying on a few guys who are playing out of position and/or have past injury concerns. I am hoping the Pelicans will continue to surprise us as they did at the end of last season, but there are a few red flags heading into the season.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

No surprise here. Davis has everything you can want in a superstar. He is talented, has unbelievable length, is athletic and has the basketball intelligence to dominate consistently. Even better for New Orleans, Davis is the homegrown superstar that has nearly maximized his potential and should be an MVP candidate every year should he play up to his abilities. These past two years Davis has been averaging over 28 points per game and has been astounding on the offensive end. Last season, Davis took and made career-high numbers in three-pointers, which made his offensive game even more dynamic. Simply put, this offense revolves around Davis, a trend which should continue this season.

Top Defensive Player: Jrue Holiday

Jrue Holiday is the lead defender for the Pelicans. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus ranking, among point guards Holiday is fourth in the league and, according to NBA.com, is top-15 in the league in defensive win shares. Holiday’s role on the team is of course not as a defensive specialist only. Last year saw Holiday make the transition from point guard to more of a combo/shooting guard role. Whether guarding opposing shooting or point guards, Holiday has the physical tools and awareness to execute the Pelicans’ defensive schemes effectively. So long as the team is able to find an adequate replacement for Rondo at the lead guard position, Holiday should be able to continue in this role, which he thrived in last season on both ends of the court.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

My prediction is that Holiday will initially work on the ball and serve as the placeholder as the Pelican’s top playmaker. Holiday averaged six assists a game last year on his way to a career season. But part of his success came due to a purposeful transition to the shooting guard position. Now Rondo is gone and Holiday will hold this place until Elfrid Payton can show that he is ready to take over as the team’s lead guard.

Payton goes into his fifth season needing to prove he can become the player the Orlando Magic had originally envisioned years ago and take over Rondo’s role. Payton remains a below average offensive scoring threat, unable to hit outside shots with great consistency, but Rondo was able to succeed with similar shortcomings. In fact, Rando really thrived when Cousins went down, allowing Rondo to have the space and freedom to use his creativity to penetrate and operate in the lane. Now Cousins and Rondo are gone and the table is set for Payton to take over.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

The nod again goes to Davis. It’s not typical for a frontcourt player to take the mantle of top clutch player but Davis is not a typical player. According to NBA.com’s clutch time data, Davis has a very high net rating in clutch time, indicating a strong impact on both offensive and defensive net rating (much higher than Cousins), as well as strong shooting percentages. Davis’ strong clutch play is aided by his outside shooting, strong court vision and adept ball handling for a big man. When the game goes into crunch time, Davis should have the ball in his hands.

Unheralded Player: Frank Jackson

Die-hard Pelicans fans are excited for and rooting for Frank Jackson to make some inroads at the point guard position. Jackson was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Dwayne Bacon. Jackson doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of New Orleans and for good reason. He has yet to play a single minute of regular season NBA basketball after inking a multiyear contract with the Pelicans last year. However, that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for Jackson, who has tremendous athletic abilities and high upside potential. Whether Jackson can handle point guard responsibilities is an unanswered question. Additionally, Jackson now has veteran Jarrett Jack slotted ahead of him in the rotation. Jack agreed to terms on a deal with the Pelicans earlier this week.

Best New Addition: Julius Randle

Rondo’s departure, unlike that of Cousins, was more of a surprise for the franchise. However, it did allow the team to sign Julius Randle. Although technically a free agent signing, Randle and Rondo swapped places almost as if the teams had actually executed a trade. The Pelicans are thrilled to have Randle and he is poised to play a very significant role with the team.

Randle is under contract at roughly nine million a year for the next two years, although the second year is a player option, which is significant. With multiple expected suitors next offseason, this season may ultimately serve as an extended tryout for the next free agent market. Randle showed steady progress year-to-year in Los Angeles and many Lakers fans were sad to see him leave. He proved himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in transition and is a handful down low because of his quickness, agility and strength. That same strength serves him well as he can be a tenacious one-on-one defender when locked in and has demonstrated this against the Pelicans when matched up with Davis in the past.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jahlil Okafor

The Jahlil Okafor experience continues. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year, Okafor started nearly every game he played in, averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 30 minutes per game. Of course, that play came in the middle of “The Process” and didn’t translate to winning basketball. Now, after some tough seasons, Okafor is fighting to prove that he still belongs in the league. Okafor comes to the Pelicans as an afterthought after failing to find his footing in Brooklyn. New Orleans has a loaded frontcourt that doesn’t have a lot of extra minutes. With lower expectations, Okafor can contribute in spot minutes and step up should anyone ahead of him go down with injuries. Indications are that Okafor is eager to play with and learn from Davis and likes the city of New Orleans, as well as the franchise. Look for the Pelicans to give Okafor a chance to prove his worth when the opportunity presents itself.

2. E’Twaun Moore

Among the weaknesses the Pelicans have to overcome is the lack of viable options at the small forward position. E’Twuan Moore solidified his hold on the small forward position last year in part due to the unavailability of Solomon Hill. Despite being undersized and a more natural fit at shooting guard, Moore stepped up to meet his team’s needs. With Holiday thriving at the two, Moore’s projected place on this team is at small forward. Moore helps spread the floor with his three-point shooting and is a capable scoring threat overall. At 6-foot-4, Moore will most often be at a size disadvantage on defense but handles it reasonably well. Hill is slated to return but is likely to back up the Moore due to his poor outside shooting. Unless the Pelicans make a move, expect Moore to continue to play heavy minutes at small forward.

3. The Randle and Mirotic Frontcourt Combo

Randle and Mirotic are a tremendous pair of frontcourt players to pair with Davis. However, with Randle’s player option, both players are essentially free agents after this upcoming season. The franchise will work to feature both prominently while giving Davis as much support as possible. Davis and Mirotic already showed great synergy on the court together last season and at times scorched opposing defenses. Davis is a good shooter and should provide the spacing Randle needs to be aggressive on the move and in the post. Randle might also be able to handle the ball at the high post the way Cousins would at times, which can be difficult for opponents to stop. The biggest question left is how well the team will manage when Randle and Mirotic share the court without Davis anchoring the defense?

4. The Front Office

The Cousins situation was not a simple one. Once Cousins went down with the Achilles tear, it made re-signing him very difficult as he had been expecting a max offer. New Orleans’ front office deserves credit for not overpaying an injured Cousins on a long-term deal that could soon become an albatross.

The front office had been quite vocal and much more confident about keeping Rondo, however. To replace these two, the front office acquired Randle and Payton. Couple that with last season’s trade for Mirotic and it’s clear the team has done some quality retooling going back to last season. Should these new acquisitions work out, the franchise may succeed with their number one priority: keeping Davis happy as he heads toward free agency. Unfortunately, Randle, Payton and Mirotic can leave after this season as free agents, so the pressure will be back on the front office to make the appropriate moves to prove to Davis that he is in good hands with New Orleans.

– James Blancarte

STRENGTHS

The talent and leadership of Davis and Holiday.

Last year’s playoff run demonstrated that Davis and Holiday are more than able to run this team together. Rondo was a guiding presence as well, but this team knows that Davis and Holiday set the tempo and are the leaders of this squad.

Also, the frontcourt could be dynamic if Randle, Mirotic and Davis generate some chemistry together. Defense will be an issue but their collective offensive talent could be trouble for opponents.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Point guard and small forward.

As mentioned above, the Pelicans need Payton to fill the role Rondo occupied and take the next step in his career, especially since Holiday is the team’s best option at shooting guard. Jackson looms as a high upside player that might one day threaten Payton for the starting role but it’s unlikely he is ready to take on a major role. Jack should provide some stability but it’s not clear how much he has left in the tank. Simply put, Payton needs to step up in a big way this season.

While Moore has filled in admirably at the three, small forward is still not a position of strength for the team. There is talk of Mirotic possibly playing at the three as well. While this might work in limited situations, Mirotic lacks the footwork and mobility to effectively defend opposing small forwards consistently. Any future roster moves should revolve around these two positions.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is the agent swap for Anthony Davis an ominous warning sign?

Davis recently parted ways with his prior longtime agent and speculation is that he will be signing with Klutch Sports. Yes, the same Klutch Sports associated with LeBron James. That’s more than enough information to make any Pelicans fan somewhat nervous. So far, officially, the franchise is not fretting about Davis wanting to move on and have put out the message they are not concerned. Looking at Davis’s contract status, it’s easy to see why. Davis remains under contract for at least two years with a third-year player option at nearly $29 million. In addition, the Pelicans can also offer a significantly larger contract than any other team. The franchise, as mentioned above, has made moves to stay competitive while bringing in younger talent that can grow on the same timeline as Davis and Holiday. Assuming those moves work out reasonably well, the Pelicans shouldn’t worry too much about Davis. But the Pelicans’ front office is on the clock and needs to show Davis that he’ll be able to compete at the highest levels if he stays in New Orleans long-term.

– James Blancarte

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Indiana Pacers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Indiana Pacers should be darling of the Central Division and easily next in line as an Eastern Conference contender The problem for the Pacers is they will face pressure to improve on last year, and that’s a tall order for such a young and unproven core. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Indiana Pacers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Indiana Pacers quickly demanded everyone’s eyes last season. It was a fantastic season for what was thought to be the first year of a rebuilding process. A star was made, a coach’s message was delivered and a true team was born.

Now, coming into this specific core’s second season together, there is a chance to really put a stamp on the NBA. The Eastern Conference’s king is gone, meaning there’s a wide opening in the Central Division and more.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

I didn’t have high expectations for the Indiana Pacers entering the 2017-18 season, but Victor Oladipo and his supporting cast have my attention now. The Pacers added Tyreke Evans and drafted Aaron Holiday this offseason, which I think are solid moves. I also like the addition of Kyle O’Quinn, but he could take some of Domantas Sabonis’ minutes at center, which could hurt his production and the team overall. Doug McDermott could also help this team but the Pacers committed more years and money than I think was necessary. The Pacers now have a compelling mix of solid veterans and talented young players who can contribute now and continue developing moving forward. It’s not clear that the Pacers can take down the top Eastern Conference teams in a seven-game playoff series but I wouldn’t count them out either.

1st Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

After a 2017-18 season where they were almost certainly the league’s most pleasant surprise compared to preseason projections, the Indiana Pacers will try to avoid the trap of outsized expectations the following year – and they’re well-positioned to do so. They made smart but understated signings over the summer in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, guys who may not make them title contenders but will absolutely help in several areas. They’ll hope for another year of development out of big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, the former in particular. But especially given the still-low quality of the East’s playoff picture after teams like Boston and Toronto at the top, it feels like the only thing that could truly lead to a real regression for the Pacers is a big drop-off from Victor Oladipo, who became a full-blown star last season. If he holds his level and stays on the floor, it’s hard to imagine Indiana doing much worse than their fifth-place finish in the East last year.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Ben Dowsett

It’s really hard not to like the Pacers right now. They found the league’s newest superstar in Victor Oladipo by sheer luck. Their team chemistry is phenomenal. Best of all, their salary cap situation is fantastic, since the only players they’ve committed long-term money to are Oladipo and Doug McDermott. Remember, this team was within inches of beating LeBron in a playoff series. This year, they will have basically the same roster along with new names including McDermott, Tyreke Evans, and Kyle O’Quinn who should all fit in like a glove. If they just add a top-notch scorer to complement Oladipo, there’s no telling what the Pacers’ ceiling is.

1st Place – Central Division

– Matt John

The Pacers made a statement last year. They took the Eastern Conference champions to the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs. Everybody on the team bought into what Nate McMillan was selling. Victor Oladipo is going to work harder than anybody to get back to the postseason and exceed what they did in April. Myles Turner has the chance to blossom into one of the top young centers in the entire league if he can stay consistent. Thaddeus Young is back and continues to fly under the radar as one of the better forwards in the NBA. Darren Collison is a steady point guard who is the perfect veteran to take rookie Aaron Holiday under his wing. Tyreke Evans is coming off his best season since being a rookie in Sacramento. The frontcourt of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle O’Quinn in the second unit will benefit from Cory Joseph running the offense. Indiana has a big opportunity this season in what will be a fight for first place in the Central Division with the Bucks. It’s up for grabs.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

It hard not to like the Pacers. They are young, hungry and motivated. They play hard defensively, they have all kinds of pieces and all of them seem to be scratching the surface of their ultimate potential. Here is the problem: it’s one thing to be the underdog darling everyone loves, but that’s not who the Pacers will be coming into the season. There are expectations now. Victor Oladipo has to carry the team. Myles Turner has to live up to his off-season hype. These are not easy things for young teams to do. On the surface, the Pacers should win the Central Division. They should be a home court playoff team and they should be nipping at the heels of the East’s elite teams… They should be.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo

The NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player is not satisfied. After falling mere minutes short of knocking off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the postseason, Oladipo sternly made it clear he absolutely hated the feeling of losing. Mind you, this was a series in which he averaged nearly 23 points, over eight rebounds and six assists per game. He put the onus on himself by playing over 37 minutes per game and attempting an average of 18 field goals in each contest.

And that only summarizes the seven games he played in the playoffs. In the regular season, Oladipo led the Pacers to a 48-34 record with his fearlessness and adapted to being the new face of a franchise. According to Cleaning The Glass, his usage increased by 11.6 percent from the previous year, accounting for 31 percent of the team’s offense. With the greater opportunity came better results for the Hoosier alum. He was more confident in his driving ability and his jump shot, making him on of the most dangerous threats in the whole league.

Just hours after the aforementioned defeat in the winner-take-all first-round Game 7 loss, Oladipo texted his trainer David Alexander: “When do we start? I’m ready to take it to another level.” With that kind of work ethic, it’d be foolish to expect anything else but greatness out of the 26-year-old in his second season with Indiana.

Top Defensive Player: Thaddeus Young

This could have been Oladipo for all intents and purposes. After all, he did lead the league in steal percentage (3.5) and steals per game (2.4) to go along with a net plus-14.4 rating. But we’re going to show some love to his teammate that is just as effective at a different positions.

Young is a versatile player. He can stick on to guards, he can go toe-to-toe with forwards and, if necessary, can muscle up and defend big men in the post. Height-wise he’s a little undersized for his position, but he makes up for it with his strength and wingspan. Having active hands is the most effective tool at his disposal.

When he was off the floor last season, the Pacers allowed 4.8 points per 100 possessions more than what they did when he was on. They also forced turnovers on 20.2 percent of their opponents’ possessions while he played, per CTG. As a veteran entering his 12th year, Young should be on tap for yet another solid season on the defensive end.

Top Playmaker: Tyreke Evans

Again, it’s difficult to not give the nod to Oladipo for nearly all of these categories, however his new teammate will give the Pacers an entirely different weapon than they’ve had. Evans is indefinitely one of the most underrated pickups of the summer and will fit in beautifully with this roster as a sizable upgrade at point forward.

We’ve addressed his abilities over the offseason a couple of times since the move, but to give you the cliffs notes—he’s an aggressive, multi-tooled player that can share the wealth and produce on his own simultaneously. As specified by CTG, Evans had assisted on 30.4 percent of his Memphis teammates’ made shots and had a usage of 30.7 percent. Those figures ranked among the best in the NBA.

Even citing the basic statistics, Evans averaged over 19 points, five rebounds and five assists per game as the leader of the Grizzlies last year. Forming a tandem with Oladipo in Indianapolis is going to be fun to watch. Having signed a one-year deal with this franchise, he’s betting on himself to earn a bigger payday next offseason from anybody—and it might just happen.

Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo

Some of the best moments of the 2017-18 season came from Oladipo’s fourth-quarter heroics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He had his signature celebration by saying, “I’m right here” while pointing down with two fingers. The emotions were high and made those plays memorable.

When the Pacers were in a close game, chances were he’d take it over. Whether it was a big steal, a shot to seal the game or a bucket to win it, he made it happen. It wasn’t only at home, either. He brought it on the road as well. Looking at NBA.com’s numbers, Oladipo had the highest net rating in clutch situations (plus-22.4) among those who played in at least 40 games in such scenarios.

To put that in perspective, only LeBron James had a higher offensive rating and only Anthony Davis had a better defensive rating in the clutch. That is elite company. Who knows if Oladipo can replicate what he did last season, but we do know that he will never shy away when the lights get brightest.

The Unheralded Player: Darren Collison

To be truthful, Indiana as a whole was underappreciated throughout the season. You could name almost anybody from the roster last season that’s on this current team and be right. For this purpose, though, we’re going to go with a wily veteran.

Back for his second stint with the Pacers, Collison flew under the radar. He led the NBA in three-point percentage (46.8 percent), recorded a career-high true shooting percentage (61 percent) and averaged over five assists and one steal per game.

With a star-in-the-making in Oladipo, an up-and-comer like Myles Turner and others drawing the attention of most, Collison just came in and did his job every night. He doesn’t turn the ball over, he doesn’t demand the basketball and he’s selfless. With another season of experience under his belt, expect the same type of contributions from the 31-year-old.

Best New Addition: Kyle O’Quinn

Evans is the clear-cut pick here, but we’ve already talked about him, so how about another choice? Losing tough-minded players like Lance Stephenson and Trevor Booker, general manager Kevin Pritchard hit the nail on the head by bringing one of the most underrated big men in the game to town.

O’Quinn is an immediate impact once he steps foot onto the hardwood. Alike to Enes Kanter and Marreese Speights’ styles on the offensive end, he scores in bunches. He hasn’t gotten the opportunity to show his skills often with his lack of playing time (18 minutes per game with New York Knicks last season was a career-high), but when he has, the veteran center has made the most of it.

He has an uncanny knack for hitting the glass, can put the ball in the basket and uses his size to his advantage on defense. The Pacers have solid depth in their frontcourt with O’Quinn.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Nate McMillan

Aside from winning a championship, getting the most out of your players is a primary goal of a head coach in sports. McMillan not only did that, but he instilled a culture and a belief in a young group who was counted out before the season even started. Those same players are still a part of the core they’ve established in Indiana. Expect more player development and a higher confidence with a team who truly has bought into what McMillan is selling. If you thought year one was a smashing success, you haven’t seen anything yet.

2. Myles Turner

Coming into the 2017-18 campaign, many put their money on Turner becoming the new face of the Pacers. We all know that Oladipo took that title and ran with it, but it’s not to say that the 22-year-old didn’t have a good year. He had to adjust some, sharing time with Domantas Sabonis, Trevor Booker and Al Jefferson at times. He can be effective stretching the floor and is a shot blocker on the other end of the floor. This is a real opportunity for Turner to spread his wings this season. Remember, he’s only going into year four.

3. Domantas Sabonis

Similar to Oladipo, the once-misused Sabonis took plenty of advantage of an expanded role that he didn’t have with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He crashed the boards aggressively, he could be the ball handler and the runner in the pick-and-roll and he was a knock down shooter from the mid-range. He was actively involved in every set he was a part of. Entering his third season, his ascent is only in the beginning stages.

4. Bojan Bogdanovic

Another player on this team that shot above a 40 percent three-point clip, Bogdanovic knows exactly what he’s supposed to provide for this group. He doesn’t hesitate to take shots, but he won’t hog the rock, either. The Bosnian native is the ideal tertiary or fourth option on offense for Indiana. Considering how consistent he’s been for the past few years, you can likely predict the same thing to happen.

– Spencer Davies

STRENGTHS

These Pacers are confident and hungry…and they have an open window. The Eastern Conference is there for the taking. McMillan and company have all of the talent necessary to compete and beat every team in their conference. Statistically, they were physical on the ball and turned their opponents’ over often. They shot the ball extremely well from deep (37.6 percent) and overall (46.5 percent), in addition to making their free throws.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

Indiana has to go after rebounds with more conviction. They were a bottom four team in the league regarding their average 42 total rebounds per game. Preventing their opponents from doing so would help, too. Another focus should be on taking away chances on the perimeter, as their adversaries took 29 triples per game last year.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

How do the Pacers respond to expectations?

Based on this preview and all of the positive predictions coming with it, you’re probably thinking to yourself that Indiana is aiming for a 50-win type of season. With the grit and determination they showed last year, that’s exactly what we should peg them for. They should eclipse that mark for the first time in five seasons. But are we sure Indiana will be able to handle the spotlight for the entirety of an 82-game campaign? This time around, fans and pundits are going to be paying much closer attention to ensure the previous year wasn’t an anomaly. Chances are it won’t matter to the Pacers at first, but there are two directions teams go when it comes to constant pressure. We’ll see if the cream rises to the top or if it breaks this young group. I’ll go with the former.

– Spencer Davies

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Utah Jazz 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Jazz have started to emerge as a legit contender in the West with a great balance of offense and defense. But are they deep enough to be anything more than a playoff team? Basketball Insiders digs into the Utah Jazz in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Utah Jazz find themselves in a curious position headed into the 2018-19 season. They made some of the fewest notable changes of any team in the association this offseason, essentially bringing back the same band plus the addition of first-round draft pick Grayson Allen. At the same time, an already brutal Western Conference got even tougher over the summer. And yet, most projections and predictions have them at least matching last year’s 48-win total, with many expecting them to exceed this and challenge for home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Some of that is due to expected health improvements, while some is also due to projected internal development and some of the best continuity in the league. There are even projection systems and pundits who give the Jazz a real chance to challenge for the third or even second seed out West. Can the team deliver on some of its highest expectations in recent memory?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Utah Jazz didn’t grab any major headlines this offseason but they have plenty of reason to be excited and optimistic as we approach the upcoming season. Utah returns all of its core rotation, which features several players who could take another step forward this season. Rudy Gobert seems to improve each season, though injuries have been an issue in the past. Donovan Mitchell was a breakout star last season and should be even better this season. Dante Exum is still just 23 years old and has plenty of room to keep developing. This team has more continuity in its roster than most teams and a quality coach in Quin Snyder to lead the way. However, the Western Conference is as stacked as ever with Golden State still standing strong at the top of the hill. It’s unlikely that Utah can advance out of the Western Conference playoff race but they will certainly put up a good fight against anyone they are matched up against.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

-Jesse Blancarte

In a league where the elite teams at the top have bent the way we interpret modern basketball, the Utah Jazz are something of a throwback. You can see it in their starting lineup, which succeeds consistently despite their shooting-shy mammoth frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. It’s visible in their grinding style of play, one that wears opponents down mentally and physically. Utah’s front office has never wavered in its commitment to this group, as evidenced by a summer where they made virtually no major changes to the roster and will be relying on more of the same to keep them in the upper parts of the West’s playoff conversation.

1st Place – Northwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Jazz added pretty much nothing to their roster simply because they didn’t have to. Even after losing Gordon Hayward, the Jazz had one of the most resilient seasons in 2017-18. Now that the whole gang is back, plus Grayson Allen, for one more round, the Jazz should expect to take another step forward. Utah now approaches year two in the Donovan Mitchell era, which should bring much optimism given his electric rookie year. The supporting cast he has isn’t very talented, but they all function at a high level together. Because of that, expect more from them. Especially if Dante Exum continues to progress.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

What a fantastic season the Jazz had last year. Having lost Gordon Hayward going into 2017, nearly everybody chalked them up to miss the playoffs. For the first couple of months, it looked that way—until a rookie emerged into a superstar. Donovan Mitchell will try to capitalize on a sensational first season we’ll never forget. Reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is poised to continue his interior dominance. Ricky Rubio wants to build on a career-year. Joe Ingles will likely continue his ways of being the ultimate teammate and a top three-point shooter. With all of this said, Utah did what they did a year ago with no expectations. The script is flipped this time around. All eyes are on Quin Snyder and company. They’re undoubtedly a top playoff team, but they might fall just short of a Northwest Division title.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

How can you not like what the Jazz have built? They are a tough team defensively, they have a dynamic offensive player in Donovan Mitchell who is just scratching the surface, and their role guys are progressing nicely. Utah is a solid team. The problem is they don’t have the firepower to believe they are truly elite, unless someone we didn’t expect emerges. Maybe that’s Dante Exum, maybe that’s rookie Grayson Allen, maybe it’s Jae Crowder. The problem is you don’t know at this point who the next guy is going to be, if they have that guy at all. Being good is nice, but to matter in the West you have to be great, and it’s hard to see the Jazz as great, especially in the Northwest. The Jazz are going to be a tough out every night and that’s a good thing, but they need one more guy to put them in that top tier and it is just not clear who that guy is yet.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Donovan Mitchell

As a rookie, the questions with Mitchell kept becoming grander and greater in scope as the year went on. Could he crack the rotation? Could he be a spark plug off the bench behind guys like Rodney Hood and Ricky Rubio? Could he start? Could he average 15 points a night?

The answers to all those questions and more proved to be a resounding yes. Mitchell became the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring for the year since Carmelo Anthony with the Nuggets over a decade ago, then went toe to toe with Russell Westbrook and Paul George in Utah’s first-round win over the Thunder. He became the first Jazz player, rookie or otherwise, to shoulder a usage load of 29 percent or higher (minimum 500 minutes played) since the great Karl Malone in 2000-01. He’s the Jazz’s answer to the league’s growing emphasis on switching defense, and their go-to when the play breaks down and they need to generate a shot before the clock runs out.

Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert

When you’re the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, this category isn’t too tough a call. Gobert is coming off his second straight season leading the NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure – he’s never finished outside the top-15 in this category since he became a full-time NBA player in his second year. He’s the basis for Utah’s entire defensive strategy, a funneling operation that allows wing defenders to be more aggressive on the perimeter, clog passing lanes and otherwise disrupt things with the knowledge that Gobert is at the rim to clean up mistakes.

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio

Rubio averaged by far the fewest assists of his career with the Jazz last year, but that’s a reflection of a scheme, not a player. The Jazz under Quin Snyder emphasize a motion-based system that spreads the playmaking duties around several ball-handlers, and while it took Rubio a few months to get used to it, it eventually clicked and led to a post-All-Star break run that was some of the strongest play of his career. Rubio may not be diming up teammates 10 times a game in Utah, but his effect on the organization and execution of the offense is clear: The Jazz’s assist percentage (the rate of team baskets that drew an assist) dropped from 61.4 percent with him on the floor to 54.8 percent with him on the bench. He could be even more of a force after another full offseason.

Top Clutch Player: Donovan Mitchell

However you define the term “clutch,” Mitchell is clearly that guy for Utah. Using NBA.com’s standard definition – the final five minutes of a game with the score within five points – Mitchell attempted over double the per-minute shots of any other full-season rotation player on the roster. That crazy-high 29 percent usage rate we mentioned earlier? It skyrocketed to 44 percent during these minutes (55 percent in the playoffs!), almost an unfathomable load.

That’s not the only way to think about clutch play, though, at least if you’re liberal about defining it. Consider how reliant the Jazz were on Mitchell to bail them out when the offense stalled, for instance: Donovan attempted more than double the shots in the final four seconds of the shot clock of any other player on the team, per Second Spectrum data. When the Jazz need a bucket, be it in a tight game or just a tight possession, Mitchell is where they turn.

The Unheralded Player: Joe Ingles

As Ingles has gotten a bit of notoriety, including a top-60 finish in the most recent SI Top-100 Players list, this title is at risk of losing its validity to some degree. Still, though, there are plenty of opposing broadcast crews still wondering who the heck this balding Australian guy is as he drops his sixth three-pointer of the night on their team.

Ingles quietly does a little bit of everything for the Jazz. He’s sporting two consecutive finishes in the league’s top five three-point shooters by accuracy, a distinction shared by only Washington’s Otto Porter. Ingles isn’t flashy, but he’s a more than capable pick-and-roll operator with one of the best pass-fakes in the entire league. He’s a jack-of-all-trades defender who spends time on point guards and power forwards alike. And best yet, he’s a grounding presence in a tight Jazz locker room.

Best New Addition: Grayson Allen

Allen wins this one by default – he’s the only actual addition the Jazz made to their 15-man roster who didn’t play for them last year. The front office is incredibly high on Allen, a four-year college prospect who had to adjust his game multiple times at Duke to make room for various talented freshmen. They see him as a light version of Kyle Korver offensively, a guy who can rocket around screens and draw defensive eyes away from guys like Mitchell and Rubio – but who can also put the ball and the floor and run pick-and-roll as a secondary creator. Time will tell if he has the length and lateral speed to defend at a high NBA level, but he’s got sneaky vertical athleticism for his size and already thinks the game really well. It’ll be interesting to see if he can crack consistent rotation minutes for a team that’s deep on the perimeter.

-Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

1. Quin Snyder

Fresh off a second-place finish in the Coach of the Year vote, Snyder has finally begun to draw his due credit around the league for the job he does in Utah. His staff is consistently among the most detailed and prepared in the league, something opposing coaches will happily confirm for you if you ask them. Snyder’s player development skills are also beginning to get recognition – the hiring of former assistant Igor Kokoskov as head coach for a young roster in Phoenix is just one piece of that. Snyder demands a lot from his players, but he puts just as much into the job. He’s a clear asset in Utah.

2. Derrick Favors

Favors deserves real praise for the way he’s accepted multiple changes in roles since Rudy Gobert’s ascent to among the league’s dominant centers, and he got a bit of a reward this offseason with a nice two-year deal from the Jazz (second year non-guaranteed). The deal is great for both sides – Favors gets a nice bump for a year or two, then can re-enter the market while still in his late 20s. The Jazz, meanwhile, have the ability to get off Favors’ contract in just a year if they can land a big fish on the 2019 free agency market. If not, though, they can simply retain him as a starting power forward and arguably the league’s best backup center. He’s a consistent presence on the floor who serves as an excellent insurance policy in case Gobert struggles with injuries.

3. Dante Exum

Another guy who got rewarded over the offseason was Exum, who’s been plagued by two extremely unfortunate injuries but retains the trust of the Jazz front office regardless. The young Aussie showed flashes of his defensive potential late last year, including some elite-level defense on James Harden and other top ball-handlers. Utah paid a bit of a premium on his three-year deal, but they did so with the assumption that this is still far from a finished product. He projects as a third guard behind Mitchell and Rubio, but has the size to play some three at times and could see a lot more court time if his offensive game becomes just a bit more consistent.

4. The 4s

The Jazz quietly have one of the strongest groups of power forwards in the league, one that includes a great deal of versatility. They’ll start with their twin towers combo of Favors and Gobert, a duo that’s continued to crush most teams even despite the league’s emphasis on spacing. Favors will mostly play backup center after those early first- and third-quarter stints, but Snyder will then have his choice of Jae Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha – the former coming off a strange season where he lacked a lot of his usual preparation after the death of his mother and multiple trades, the latter recovering from an MCL injury while also returning from a drug suspension.

The Jazz have consistently dominated playing these wing types at four next to Gobert, and they may be able to downsize even further and play guys like Joe Ingles or Royce O’Neale there (O’Neale deserved to make this list on his own, but there’s only so much space). And watch out for newcomer Georges Niang, who spent much of last season with the SLC Stars in the G-League. Niang doesn’t jump out of the gym, but he’s a savvy and skilled guy who can really stretch the floor.

5. Dennis Lindsey and Co.

The Jazz’s coaching staff has begun to receive plaudits for the work it does, and the same can be said about the front office. Helmed by GM Dennis Lindsey, Jazz brass has secured a number of big wins over recent years: Trading for Donovan Mitchell, hiring Quin Snyder and moving up in the draft to select Rudy Gobert chief among them.

What really separates them, though, is their work around the margins. Look at a guy like Royce O’Neale, who Lindsey and his group signed as an undrafted 24-year-old free agent a year ago – by the end of the year, he was a vital rotation piece who might be the team’s best overall perimeter defender. Imagine how much a team like Houston could have used O’Neale when their seven-man rotation was running out of steam against the Warriors in the conference finals; that one more capable wing body could have done wonders. The Lindsey track record is filled with those kinds of moves, from Joe Ingles (cut by the Clippers) to guys like Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh.

-Ben Dowsett

STRENGTHS

The Jazz have a number of strengths, but everything starts with their continuity. Few teams will be as comfortable with each other from the jump as this group, which returns every guy from last year’s end-of-season rotation. Linked to this is the defense, which is obviously a strength due to personnel like Gobert first and foremost, but also adds up to a sum greater than its parts due to this familiarity.

Depth is another clear strength for the Jazz. Snyder ran 11-deep at times last season, and that was with a few injuries and before adding a rookie in Grayson Allen who looks like he could be capable of bench minutes at least. There will be real competition for playing time in Utah, often among guys who could walk into rotation spots on many other teams.

-Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

The Jazz finished almost exactly league average last season for points scored per-possession, so this isn’t necessarily a weakness in a vacuum, but it’s certainly a concern for the heights this team hopes to reach. In particular, Utah has had issues with teams that emphasize a lot of switching in their defenses – since the departure of Gordon Hayward (and even before then, honestly), they’ve been a bit short on guys who can consistently win the one-on-one mismatches you get from those defenses. Mitchell quickly became that guy as a rookie – can he improve his efficiency on these plays a bit? Can others, such as Exum or Alec Burks, help shoulder some of that load?

One area that could help in terms of picking the low-hanging offensive fruit is transition, where the Jazz haven’t been quite aggressive enough in recent seasons. Per Cleaning the Glass, they were the sixth-most efficient team in the league last year on the break, scoring a robust 125.7 points per play – but they ran in transition just 19th-most in the league on a per-possession basis. Running more might lead to a slight decrease in that efficiency number, but we’re still talking about possessions that are far more valuable than the standard halfcourt look. It’s understandable that Snyder wants to control the tempo of the game and grind teams down, and there’s a limit to how much teams can run when you think about conditioning, but it’s still something Utah could prioritize a bit more.

-Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is this Jazz core a year away from true title contention, or are they still missing a major piece?

We’re going big-picture with this one. With apologies to Jazz fans everywhere (and the fans of at least 26 other teams, most likely), their chances of winning the title this season are slim to none while this version of the Warriors remains intact. But that doesn’t mean this year is meaningless, even without a freak event like an injury in the Bay.

This is a chance to assess this core against the other elite teams in the league. It’s a chance to see how much more development guys like Mitchell, Exum and even Gobert have in them. If they’re close enough to the Warriors and Rockets of the league by season’s end, Lindsey and his team could reasonably conclude that moderate offseason moves in 2019 (plus more internal development) will be enough to push them into true title contention pending events in Oakland. If not, the front office will have a clearer idea of what they need to do or add to help bridge that gap. There are numerous smaller questions about this team, such as whether they can get home court in the first round and whether they can make the second round for the third year straight, but this is the broadest one in regard to the franchise’s future.

-Ben Dowsett

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