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Charlotte Hornets 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Charlotte Hornets.

Basketball Insiders

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As splashier offseasons from some of their Eastern Conference competitors stole most of the summer headlines, the Charlotte Hornets quietly went about their business.

They replaced outgoing Jeremy Lin with understated veteran Ramon Sessions at a much lower price tag, plus grabbed one of the standouts of NBA Summer League in high-upside big man Christian Wood on a team-friendly deal. They fleeced the rest of the market in re-signing two incumbent unrestricted free agents, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, who now check in at moderately and comically underpaid, respectively. To cap it off, they used some of the extra space from Williams’ bargain deal to nab forgotten rim protector Roy Hibbert on a cheap deal, replacing outgoing Al Jefferson with a more defensive-minded anchor.

Much like their on-court product the last couple seasons, the moves predictably fell mostly under the radar as other contenders flashed their expensive feathers. Those who did give the Hornets a second look focused more on offseason departures like Lin, Jefferson and Courtney Lee, all of who were nice pieces but were nonetheless a bit overrated as drivers of Charlotte’s success. Lin and Lee both saw the team perform better when they sat than when they played, and Jefferson’s fit in the modern NBA grows worse and worse by the year. Smart additions to fill whatever holes were left, plus the return of plus-minus star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from a season mostly lost to injury, make worries surrounding outgoing players a bit overdone.

A group that technically finished third in the conference last year in a four-way tie is commonly being picked at the back of the East’s playoff picture or even out of it altogether. Have their competitors behind Cleveland – including teams the Hornets were clearly better than last season with the same core group – truly distanced themselves that much in such short order, or is Charlotte being shortchanged?

Basketball Insiders previews the Charlotte Hornets’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Hornets had a sneaky good (though not perfect) offseason. Retaining Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams were big wins considering how important they are to the team’s overall success. Batum’s playmaking skills complement Kemba Walker’s well and allow him to play off the ball at times. Also, the additions of Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert help to, at least partially, offset the losses of Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson. I will say that I wasn’t a fan of the Hornets trading the 22nd pick in this year’s draft to the Sacramento Kings for swingman Marco Belinelli. Belinelli has been very inefficient since leaving the San Antonio Spurs and that was a steep price to pay for a player who has been a net negative on the court recently. Having said all of that, the biggest change next season for the Hornets will be the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Though shooting has never been a strength for Kidd-Gilchrist, his relentless perimeter defense, versatility and slashing ability makes him one of the Hornets’ most important players. Charlotte is simply a much better team when Kidd-Gilchrist is on the court, so hopefully he can avoid the injury bug this upcoming season.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

While the Hornets didn’t do a lot to drastically improve this offseason, they are plenty talented enough to win a weak Southeast with essentially the same group that made such a big step forward last season. Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson are out, but Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert are in. Not to mention, getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back healthy is obviously big too. Kemba Walker is really, really close to being an All-Star, and Nic Batum and Marvin Williams are proven commodities at this point. With this lineup and Steve Clifford at the helm, the Hornets look poised for a strong year.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

This past summer, the Hornets lost Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin. The three were important pieces of their team, and some might say the team will take a step back. Of course, they could, but if there is one thing that the Portland Trail Blazers taught us last season, it’s that there are exceptions to the rule. Those departures will create more minutes for the likes of Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can return to being the player he was prior to his injury, then the additions of Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions will actually count for something. It’s pretty well documented that I’m a big believer in Kemba Walker. I first met him the night he was drafted and quickly became convinced of his potential as a professional. I think he is realizing it. He and Steve Clifford have a great relationship and, based on their performance and experience last year, I think the best is ahead. I wouldn’t be shocked if they walked away with the division this year, but on paper, I’d still favor the Wizards because of their superior talent and improved coaching.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

Steve Clifford is a fantastic coach and there is a lot to be excited about for the Hornets. The return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is huge for this team, and their offseason additions were solid (although I would’ve liked to see them re-sign Courtney Lee). While I have the Atlanta Hawks winning the Southeast Division, I believe Charlotte will take a step forward this year and win a lot of games during the regular season. Whether they’re ready to make any noise in the playoffs remains to be seen, but I do think the Hornets are poised for a strong season and are heading in the right direction.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Hornets reached the playoffs in 2014, but then crashed back down to earth and missed out on the festivities in 2015. Then, Charlotte managed to return to the postseason in 2016. Do you see a pattern here? The Hornets lost three productive veterans in free agency this summer with Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee headed to new destinations. Charlotte managed to address their backcourt by bringing in veterans such as Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions, while also introducing former All-Star center Roy Hibbert into their frontcourt. The East has improved, but there’s enough uncertainty going on in the conference that Charlotte should be able to break free from their recent trend and reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker

Walker is the unquestioned offensive captain for this team, fresh off a career year in which he easily led the Hornets in usage percentage and attempted nearly 500 more shots than second-place Nicolas Batum. His playmaking-to-turnovers ratio is the best in the NBA among volume guards, as noted previously in this space. Major progression with his open jump-shooting allowed for a big leap in his three-point percentage last season, one that feels at least mostly sustainable if the quality of his looks maintains.

A big part of this is Batum, whose presence or absence next to Walker last season came with a pretty noticeable swing in Kemba’s production – especially as a shooter. Walker shot over 41 percent from deep on a diet of mostly open looks while he and Batum shared the court, a figure that dropped precipitously to just over 28 percent when Batum sat and took his gravity with him. Space on the floor for Walker disappeared without the French marksman, a fact hammered home by Kemba’s increased turnover numbers during these minutes and nearly a five point reduction in his overall field-goal percentage. Any significant absence for either player is probably the biggest realistic worry for this team, and perhaps the only occurrence that should really threaten their playoff hopes.

With both healthy, though, Walker is primed to again approach All-Star level. He’s an underrated headache for defenders, running them enough to affect their performance on the other end of the floor. Now squarely in his physical prime, Walker should be in for a very nice year once again.

Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

If one of the elite offensive wings in the NBA, a recent top-three draft pick, had missed all but seven games with a non-career-threatening injury in his age-22 season, the summer preceding his return would likely be filled with ravings about his recovery and potential impact, right? Guys that age are often still improving, particularly if they’ve lost a year of development, and the expected added value for his team could be massive after they got so little production the year before.

Why, then, is Kidd-Gilchrist’s slated return drawing so little relative buzz?

Maybe some of it is a collectively faulty memory. It’s easy to forget how devastating a defender MKG was in his last healthy year – a 2014-15 season in which he trailed only two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus among small forwards. (Not to mention, he was among the top 15 most impactful overall defenders in the league here, despite DRPM generally favoring big men). He has the quicks and length (a seven-foot wingspan) to check point guards as well as the strength to bang with many power forwards, and he’s arguably the strongest non-Leonard option in the league against stars at the shooting guard and small forward positions in between.

Critics point to his offensive game, a legitimate concern that nonetheless hasn’t had nearly the effect one might expect on his on-court impact. Kidd-Gilchrist’s presence or absence has consistently produced the sort of gap in team efficiency typically reserved for borderline star-level players at his position, and brief appearances last year were no exception. And if he’s this impactful as one of the worst offensive rotation wings in the league, what happens if he does what many talented 22-year-old NBA players do and improves even slightly on that end?

Health remains by far his largest concern after missing time in each of his first four seasons, but folks are sleeping on Kidd-Gilchrist if he can log 70-plus games. Along with incoming free agent Hibbert, he markedly raises the defensive ceiling of a team that was already in the league’s top 10 last year.

Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum

Batum is the catalyst who allows Walker and the rest of the scheme to operate at peak levels. He’s the perfect Kemba complement: Not in Walker’s stratosphere as a ball-handler, but a strong shooter and off-ball cutter who slices into the high-leverage areas of the floor and doubles as an underrated passer. Batum actually assisted on a higher percentage of Charlotte baskets while on the floor than Walker last season, with the two combined accounting for over 45 percent of the team’s dimes overall. Walker initiates more plays, but it’s Batum who often finds the incisive pass after moving the defense around with his gravity.

Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker

This pick reflects the likely reality, but perhaps it’s not actually the optimal approach. Walker attempted nearly double the shots of any other Hornet during crunch time last year, but did so in a mostly fruitless manner – he shot under 40 percent from the field and under 27 percent from deep. He spent the entire year (and much of his career) as a relatively ineffective isolation option, per Synergy Sports, so it’s no surprise he had issues during iso-heavy clutch minutes. At the same time, the approach seemed to work: The Hornets were the league’s fifth-best per-possession team in the final five minutes of close games, though some of this certainly speaks to their defense.

Not a lot has happened with this roster to suggest big changes here, but perhaps coach Steve Clifford should consider some minor tweaks. Batum was even worse from the field than Walker down the stretch last season, but certain members of the supporting cast (Williams in particular) were actually really effective – suggesting the possibility that a more team-oriented approach might be even more useful. This can be tougher in practice than in theory, of course, and there will be times where they simply have to rely on Walker or Batum to make things happen themselves.

The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams

Williams has finally found his perfect niche under Coach Clifford: a stretchy power forward who does just enough defensively and is a huge spacing asset for a team with shooting imbalances in strange places. He was the team’s best high-volume spot-up shooter outside of Walker, and the fact that over 90 percent of his looks from three were classified as “Open” or “Wide Open” by SportVU data indicates just how often he was used as a safety valve when teams collapsed on the likes of Walker and Batum. The only major risk for Williams’ productivity is the chance that his body begins to break down in the power forward role as he crosses age 30, but he’s been very durable the past few years and doesn’t have to shoulder any huge offensive burden that might tax him further. He remains a vital complementary piece on a fantastic new contract.

Top New Addition: Roy Hibbert

It’s tempting to include Kidd-Gilchrist here after he played just 205 minutes last year, but Hibbert’s under-the-radar signing is more organic. Not even 18 months removed from a time when many still considered him among the league’s elite interior defenders, Hibbert has seen his reputation slide into the gutter after a year in the NBA’s worst defensive culture. Are we really already prepared to write him off after one throwaway season under Byron Scott with nothing to play for? This feels premature. It’s possible Hibbert’s best days are behind him at 29 years old, but with real defensive players and a real defensive scheme around him once again, this is a guy primed for a resurgent year. He’ll work well with a floor spacer like Frank Kaminsky in second units that can both stretch the court and protect the rim, and could even enter crunch time lineups to help protect leads when necessary.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Cody Zeller

Zeller will turn 24 years old in a couple weeks and is mostly a finished product at this point in his career, though he’s made solid improvements around the margins in recent years (lowering his turnovers, improving his scoring efficiency). He’s settled in as an above-average defensive center who makes up for a negative wingspan with strong instincts and good lateral mobility. He’s a very effective dive man in pick-and-roll sets, shooting nearly 60 percent on these plays and drawing a boatload of fouls as Charlotte’s most prolific rim runner. His 1.22 points scored per roll-man possession ranked fifth in the league last year among guys with at least 100 attempts, per Synergy. He’ll continue to serve as Walker’s most reliable screener and a solid, more-versatile-than-you-think defender.

  1. Steve Clifford

Clifford has quietly been one of the most productive systems coaches in the league since arriving in Charlotte. His schemes have gotten the most out of Walker, Williams and others offensively while simultaneously covering career-long defensive warts for someone like Jefferson. His Hornets teams have been in the league’s top 10 for defensive efficiency each year he’s been in town, and he preaches a ball control-centric offense that’s posted the lowest turnover rate in the NBA for those same three years running. Charlotte doesn’t give the opponent anything easy, and the system really started to hum when Williams and Batum came aboard and opened up the floor for Walker. The Hornets were one of just five teams to finish in the NBA’s top 10 for both offensive and defensive efficiency last year, typically a mark of a contender. They should be in the same neighborhood this year.

  1. Ramon Sessions

Those looking past the Hornets this year are doing so in part due to concerns regarding Jeremy Lin’s departure, but are perhaps a step or two ahead of themselves. Sessions was a more efficient offensive player in Washington last season despite arguably a worse supporting cast during his minutes, and he comes at a much cheaper price tag (signing Hibbert almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible if the Hornets had retained Lin at his eventual Brooklyn contract figure). He’s a downgrade on Lin defensively, to be sure, but additions like Hibbert and Kidd-Gilchrist should help cancel this out. Sessions is a perfectly acceptable backup point guard who can function mostly as a caretaker while Walker rests, and the need for two-point-guard lineups that featured Lin last year is greatly diminished with MKG’s return.

  1. Frank Kaminsky

Year two will be a big one for Frank the Tank, who had mostly a negative on-court impact as a rookie, but has several skills that could be vital for bench units now that Jefferson isn’t around to eat his share of possessions on the block. A slight uptick in Kaminsky’s three-point shooting could allow him to pair with Hibbert for a strong two-way lineup; defensive strides could allow Kaminsky himself to play center more often to juice spacing and bits of improvement in the post could make him more of a stand-alone option when Walker is off the floor. Kaminsky won’t check all these boxes at once, of course, but if he can nail one or two and stay healthy, he’ll be an asset. If not, he could lose minutes to Spencer Hawes, Hibbert or even youngster Wood.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Hornets went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to acquire Marco Belinelli, Roy Hibbert and Ramon Sessions, before re-signing Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. Now over the cap, Charlotte still has their $2.9 million Room Exception. The team has 13 guaranteed players, with five players fighting for two available roster spots (Aaron Harrison, Mike Tobey, Treveon Graham, Rasheed Sulaimon and Andrew Andrews).

Next summer, the Hornets could have $21 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up Frank Kaminsky’s rookie-scale option before November. It also presumes Spencer Hawes opts out before next season, and that the team declines options on both Christian Wood and Sessions.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Hornets under Clifford are built on discipline, smart systems and maximization of talent. Guys know their roles or they don’t play. This is most likely to show through on the defensive end this year, where Kidd-Gilchrist and Hibbert raise the ceiling significantly. The former in particular almost certainly gives Clifford his largest collection of defensive talent since taking over in Charlotte. The Hornets were also the best defensive rebounding team in the league last year despite starting a small lineup and not employing anyone with a reputation as a monster on the glass, which is another tribute to Clifford’s demand of attention to detail.

They should remain solid if not spectacular offensively barring key injuries, with shooting as a crux point. There’s certainly a chance guys like Walker or Williams see slight negative regression, but it’s also far from out of the question that Kaminsky or Kidd-Gilchrist improves some. Even Batum has been a shade below his career averages the last couple years – he’s not too old to creep back up toward the mean. Belinelli’s addition should also help (another candidate for a moderate resurgence in a productive culture), and there’s enough here for another borderline top-10 finish.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Things get a bit dicey offensively if Walker or Batum misses any time, and overall margin for error in that regard is relatively thin in Charlotte. Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t been very durable in his four NBA seasons. Depth and shot creation could quickly become a concern if a couple guys go down or heavily disappoint, and this is where Lin or Jefferson could be missed. The Hornets punt the offensive glass as much as virtually any team in the league, a tactic that shouldn’t change with Williams entrenched at starting power forward. If there’s an area truly poised for regression with this team, it’s their surprisingly strong showing in crunch time minutes last year.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Charlotte carry over their quiet success with improvements elsewhere in the East?

It’s a tough question, and for many the natural inclination is to look at larger surface changes to the Hornets’ competition and assume they’ve fallen behind.

Continuity doesn’t always mean stagnation in this league, though, particularly not with a strong coach and culture. Concerns regarding departures could be overstated, as we’ve discussed, especially if Kidd-Gilchrist has an impact anything like his age-21 season. A group that clearly has chemistry and a desire to win together – enough to get Batum and Williams back to a small-ish market for a bargain, at least – runs it back with a bit more talent in certain areas and another year of familiarity. They weren’t far at all from the East’s elite last season, so there’s no reason to believe they can’t at least come close again.

– Ben Dowsett

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NBA

NBA PM: Oklahoma City Thunder 2017-18 Season Preview

The Thunder were very good a season ago, could they be even better this season? We explore the Thunder in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Oklahoma City Thunder were dealt a crippling blow last year when Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area. Considering where the franchise was around this time last year, the historic season Russell Westbrook put together and the strong moves the front office made this season, Thunder fans have plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic about the team’s prospects both for this upcoming season and beyond.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

So, Oklahoma City having just one top-10 player in the league didn’t last long, as the Thunder acquired Paul George from the Indiana Pacers to pair with the league’s MVP, Russell Westbrook.

With Westbrook set to hit free agency next summer, general manager Sam Presti is pulling out all of the stops to try and ensure another homegrown superstar doesn’t fly the coop for greener pastures. However, despite the addition of George, the Thunder still lack the depth to truly compete with the big dogs of the Western Conference. One step further, OKC may not even have enough firepower to be the best team in their division. The boys in Minnesota will have plenty to say in that regard.

2nd place – Northwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Thunder’s consolation prize for losing Kevin Durant a year ago was apparently an MVP campaign for Russell Westbrook and the one-year rental of Paul George, acquired over the summer for a middling former lottery pick and an overpaid wing. George makes the team immediately better, but the Thunder have the misfortune of playing in the most competitive division in the NBA. I don’t see a whole lot of distance between any of the five teams in the Northwest this year, but I do have a feeling OKC will eke out the top spot by the time everything wraps up. This really is a good team, if not quite a contender.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Much of the attention when it comes to the potential for topping the world champion Warriors out West has gone to the Rockets this offseason, and rightfully so. But don’t overlook the Thunder, a team that, at least conceptually, might match up a little more organically with the Dubs. In Paul George they now have one of the few bodies on earth who can hope to credibly match up with Kevin Durant for a full game or series, and also a guy who can relieve some of the offensive burden on Russell Westbrook. Guys like George, Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines and even Jerami Grant can do a reasonable amount of switching on the perimeter, an absolute necessity against a beast like the Warriors. Whether they have enough firepower to make this matchup sneakily more entertaining than we’d assume remains to be seen, and a lot has to go right fit-wise. But if there’s any group that can give the Warriors trouble (and we aren’t sure if there actually is), don’t sleep on the Thunder.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Oklahoma City Thunder had the best overall offseason of any NBA team. The Thunder fleeced the Indiana Pacers in trading Victor Oladipo and Damontas Sabonis in exchange for Paul George. George could walk away for nothing in return after this season but the deal was such an absolute steal that it was still a no-brainer for Sam Presti. The Thunder shed long term salary in the deal, bolster their prospects for the upcoming season, give Russell Westbrook a legitimate star to play next to, and, even George walks away, the Thunder are in a solid position to move on and rebuild (depending on what Westbrook opts to do). The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and signed Patrick Patterson on a team-friendly deal – an underrated move that could have a bigger impact for Oklahoma City than most people realize. In short, the Thunder took care of their short term and long term interests this offseason and are now one of the most capable teams of matching up with the Golden State Warriors.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The thing I love about the Thunder more than anything else is the fact that Russell Westbrook is entering what will likely be the final year of his contract and that the Thunder have tendered him a $200 million extension that he hasn’t signed. As the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, it’s amazing that this hasn’t become a much bigger storyline, especially with Russell’s hometown Los Angeles Lakers armed with some major cap space next summer.

Anyhow, focusing on the here and now, the Thunder have gotten much stronger this offseason. They lost one of my favorite players in Taj Gibson but brought in Paul George and some much-needed backcourt help in Raymond Felton. They walked away from the draft with the highly-regarded Terrance Ferguson and re-signed the impactful Andre Roberson. All things considered, they enter this season as a much stronger team than they were last year, at least on paper. What I’ll be looking for more than anything else is whether and to what extent Westbrook and George’s status as pending free agents impacts the team. Aside from that, though, based on what Sam Presti has done with the roster this past offseason, there’s no reason to think that the Thunder won’t pick up where they left off and that they’ll be competing for the Northwest Division crown again.

Winning it, though, certainly won’t be a walk in the park. It’s the toughest division in the league this year.

1st place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul George

Paul George is one of the most complete offensive talents in the NBA. He can run his team’s offense as a point forward, score in isolation, knock down three-pointers and score from just about any area on the floor. Russell Westbrook could also be slotted in as the team’s top offensive player but George is more of a natural scorer and doesn’t need to dominate the ball quite as much as Westbrook to be an elite offensive contributor. How George and Westbrook share the ball and play off of one another is going to be one of the more interesting dynamics to follow and monitor this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

There are a lot top-tier defenders on the Thunder’s roster, but we give the nod here to Roberson. He may not be at the level of Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green but he isn’t that far off either, which says a lot. There are other lock down wing defenders in the league, but few can match the consistent impact of Roberson. For an excellent breakdown of Roberson’s defensive skills, check out this article by Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook doesn’t rack up assists the way more traditional point guards like Chris Paul does or the way Steve Nash used to. However, this isn’t a criticism of Westbrook. Westbrook is an athletic freak who attacks his opponents relentlessly off the dribble, which forces teams to switch, send help and leave his teammates open. Few players can generate gravity like Westbrook, which comes about as a result of his high octane, relentless style of play. Westbrook, arguably, doesn’t have the elite vision or passing abilities that some of the best lead guards in the NBA have or had, but he averaged 10.2 assists last season for a reason. Paul George is likely to take on some of Westbrook’s playmaking responsibilities this upcoming season, so don’t be surprised if Westbrook’s assists numbers fall off a little bit.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook

Some may be tempted to think George should get the nod here, but this isn’t even close. Westbrook had one of the most clutch seasons in NBA history last season and singlehandedly willed the Thunder to several wins in late-game situations. Westbrook was truly incredible as he went on several scoring outbursts late in fourth quarters with his team down by what seemed to be insurmountable deficits. Every opponent knew Westbrook was going to have the ball in his hands and was the person who was going to take the game-winning attempt and they still couldn’t stop him. Westbrook was an unstoppable force in clutch situations last season and earns the top clutch player designation here.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Patterson

How did the rest of the NBA miss out on signing Patrick Patterson to a competitive contract? The Thunder managed to sign Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million contract this offseason, which is a great deal for Oklahoma City. Patterson’s per-game statistics won’t blow anyone away, but he is a 27-year-old power forward that shot over 37 percent from three last season, can defend multiple positions and was almost always a positive contributor for the Toronto Raptors last season. For less than $6 million a season, the Thunder addressed their starting power forward position (which was one of their biggest holes last season) and bolster their defensive personnel. No team can truly stop the Golden State Warriors, but the Thunder have a handful of versatile defenders, including Patterson, that are necessary to have a shot of even slowing the Warriors down. So we ask again – how did the rest of the league let Patterson slip to the Thunder on such a team-friendly deal?

Top New Addition: Paul George

Yes, Paul George can walk away at the end of this season. It’s a real concern for the Thunder. However, the deal to acquire George was so lopsided that there was no downside in acquiring the star forward. The Thunder shed long term salary and get a shot to pair George up with Westbrook. Ideally, the pairing will be so effective that both George and Westbrook decide to commit to playing in Oklahoma City together long term. However, even if that doesn’t happen, the Thunder still have the young talent and financial flexibility to retool or rebuild on the fly.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Sam Presti

Sam Presti, to some extent, will always be haunted by the deal that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Presti has also made some other deals over the years that didn’t exactly work out. Nevertheless, Presti seemingly had little to work with this summer and yet ended up with Paul George without giving up draft picks, unloaded the bloated contract of Victor Oladipo, re-signed Roberson to a reasonable contract, signed Patterson to a team-friendly deal and overall had the best offseason of any general manager. If there were any doubts as to Presti’s abilities as a front office executive, they were put to rest this offseason.

2. Russell Westbrook

He’s coming off a historic MVP season and seems primed for another epic year. The only concerns with Westbrook are whether he will gel with George and whether he will ultimately commit to the Thunder long term.

3. Paul George

As previously mentioned, George is a complete offensive talent. Additionally, he is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league and one of the few players that has any shot of matching up with Kevin Durant defensively. I for one am hoping to see the Thunder face the Warriors in the postseason to see how well George can matchup with Durant over a seven game series and to see how well the Thunder’s stingy defense can slow down the Warriors’ offensive attack.

4. Steven Adams

It goes unnoticed, but Steven Adams put together a career-year last season. Adams has developed into a top-level defensive center and does all of the little things to make it possible for players like Westbrook to focus on scoring and filling up the box score. Whether it’s hauling in offensive rebounds, setting hard screens, finishing a lob or anchoring the team’s defense, Adams does everything he can to help his team win.

5. Patrick Patterson

As previously discussed, Patterson comes to the Thunder on a team-friendly deal and is likely to fill a role the Thunder desperately needed to address. From the power forward position, Patterson can play off the ball, stretch the floor and move the ball within the team’s offense when he’s not open for a shot. Defensively, Patterson has the strength to guard bigger players in the post and the mobility to switch onto wing players when necessary. That sort of skill set usually garners a hefty contract in free agency. Fortunately for the Thunder, they nabbed him on a favorable deal.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Thunder reportedly have a $207.1 million extension on the table to Russell Westbrook but the MVP has yet to sign it. If he waits until next summer, opting out of his final year at $30.7 million, he’ll be eligible to sign a new contract for the exact same figure. The benefit of inking now is locking in long-term security but then he won’t know if Paul George, who can opt out of his $20.7 million for 2018-19 is going to re-up. If only one stays, Oklahoma City won’t have the cap room to add in a replacement star.

If both do leave in free agency, along with Enes Kanter, who can opt out of his final year $18.6 million, the Thunder can get to roughly $42.8 million in cap space. The team can also give Doug McDermott to an extension before the start of the 2017-18 season. Oklahoma City also has to decide (before November) on Josh Huestis’ option for 2018-19. In the meantime, the Thunder are over the luxury tax threshold ($119.3 million) by at least $6 million for a bill of about $10.5 million.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Thunder’s defense should be top-notch this season. The lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams should make life miserable for opposing offenses. This lineup has the collective skill, size, mobility and experience to take on the league’s best offenses – perhaps even the Warriors. The Thunder’s offense may falter at times, but the defense should be a constant asset for Oklahoma City.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The Thunder don’t have many weaknesses, but one concern is how Westbrook will adapt to life with Paul George. Westbrook maintained an absurdly high usage rate last season and his teammates even seemed to facilitate his run for the triple-double record. George similarly needs the ball in his hands to maximize his skill set and likely won’t be interested in helping Westbrook break records. Finding a proper balance and adapting the team’s offense to be more inclusive is of tantamount importance. There will be times where Westbrook feels the need to take matters into his own hands. It might become a problem if he feels inclined to do so too often and at the expense of George and his other teammates.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Paul George and Russell Westbrook convince one another to partner up long term in Oklahoma City?

Both Westbrook and George have the ability to take their talents elsewhere after this season. If the duo quickly develops chemistry and finds a recipe for competing with the Warriors, they may be convinced to stay put and team up for the long term. However, if it becomes clear that the two cannot coexist and that they each have better opportunities elsewhere, the Thunder will be left without their two star players and will have to quickly restructure on the fly. With Sam Presti in charge, Thunder fans should take solace in the knowledge that he and his staff are likely fully prepared for that worst case scenario. Still, Thunder fans will be on edge all season wondering what will ultimately happen with the team’s two best players.

– Jesse Blancarte

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NBA

Washington Wizards 2017-18 Season Preview

The Washington Wizards have invested big into their young core. Could they be serious contenders this year? We take a look in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Washington Wizards needed to win a game on the road to overcome the Boston Celtics’ home court advantage in the second round of the playoffs. Less than two quarters into the series, Wizards starting power forward Markieff Morris suffered a sprained ankle. He was limited to 11 minutes in Game 1 but played through the injury in Game 2, only to see Isaiah Thomas drop 53 points and the Celtics prevail in overtime in what was the Wizards’ best chance to steal a game on the road. Boston would ultimately prevail 4-3 with the home team winning every game of the series. With John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter all signed long-term, the Wizards are now committed to one of the NBA’s best starting lineups with little financial flexibility to address a lack of quality depth. Now Washington must look to internal improvement, better luck with injuries and personnel moves on the margins to improve on a season in which the Wizards were one road victory away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

This is the year that John Wall asserts himself as a perennial league MVP candidate — or at least the year the rest of the league stops pretending that he isn’t.

As the driving force behind the Washington Wizards’ attack, Wall is another year further into his prime and looks poised to fully utilize the weapons he has around him in D.C. After last season’s breakout year (finally) for Wall’s backcourt partner, Bradley Beal, the one-two punch in Washington is plenty capable of hanging around with the likes of Boston and Cleveland.

With a weaker back half of the Eastern Conference set to provide a few more easy wins for the Wizards, Wall and Co. look to have the makings of a 50-win team this season.

1st place — Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

I am a big believer in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Jr. and a few other players on the Washington Wizards, but I’m not convinced this team has the collective talent to scare the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics this upcoming season. Wall and Beal make up one of the best backcourt duos in the league, but if either player is off their respective games or struggling with injuries, Washington simply cannot keep up with the Celtics or Cavaliers. If players like Porter or Kelly Oubre Jr can take a significant step forward in their development, that could change the dynamic in the Eastern Conference a bit. Outside of that scenario or a lopsided deal that bolsters Washington’s roster, I just don’t see Washington having much of a shot at taking Cleveland or Boston down in the postseason.

1st Place — Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Last season, the Wizards showed tremendous growth. They were still haunted by inconsistency and growing pains, but John Wall and Otto Porter, Jr. each grew quite a bit. The best part of all was that Bradley Beal managed to play in 77 games, a career-high.

I thought that the acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic from the Nets was quite shrewd and underrated. In 26 games, he gave the Wizards about 13 points off the bench and shot 39 percent from distance. After matching Brooklyn’s offer sheet to Otto Porter, though, the Wizards rescinded his qualifying offer, which cleared the way for him to sign with the Pacers on a two-year, $21 million deal. In the long run, his departure could hurt the club. If the Wizards stay healthy this season, though, their continuity should allow them to easily win the division again. Last season, the Hawks finished second, but six games worse than the 49-win Wizards. Both the HEAT and Hornets are improved, but I don’t think they’ll make up enough ground on Scotty Brook’s team to pose a real challenge.

Out East, this season, it’s supposed to be the Cavs, Celtics, Raptors and Wizards vying for supremacy as the top four seeds. So long as the Wizards stay healthy and continue to be the team we saw last season, they should be right there.

1st place — Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

John Wall is the best. He’s been talking about taking the “next step” in his postseason career every summer for the last half a decade, and one gets the sense that the Wizards are closer to that than they ever have been. With Cleveland potentially vulnerable in the wake of losing Kyrie Irving and Boston integrating a lot of new pieces, the Wizards have a great opportunity to jump out to the East’s best overall record, especially early in the season. Beal should have been an All-Star last year and probably will be this year, while new-max player Otto Porter is expected to make a jump, too. I’m a believer in this Washington team, which is to say I’m a believer in John Wall.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

All the talk in the East surrounds the Cavs and Celtics, and something tells me the boys in Washington are going to have something to say about that. Fresh off a playoff collapse against Boston that they likely feel should never have happened, the Wizards will be itching to show the league that this isn’t a two-team conference. John Wall and Bradley Beal are an All-Star backcourt, and swingman Otto Porter is entering a brand new massive contract extension. The bench still remains an area of concern, though improvements from guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. could stem that tide somewhat. Don’t be surprised if Washington makes some real noise to challenge for a conference final appearance if they can keep the primaries healthy.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

John Wall led the Wizards in scoring for the postseason at 27.2 points per game while shooting 21-for-61 (34.4 percent) from three. Beal struggled from three in the playoffs, shooting 29-for-101 (28.7 percent) and trailed Wall at 24.8 points per game. Beal was slightly better than Wall in overall shooting percentage, but most interestingly he was far more efficient as the ball handler in pick and rolls during the playoffs. In 70 possessions, the Wizards scored a spectacular 1.14 points per possession with Beal as the ball handler, which ranked in the 95th percentile. In 149 playoff pick and rolls initiated by Wall, the Wizards scored only .8 per possession, which ranked in the 44th percentile. With Beal struggling to hit from outside and Wall hitting at a respectable clip, the Wizards might have been better served to allow Beal to initiate more plays with Wall playing off-ball.

Top Defensive Player: Ian Mahinmi

In the summer of 2015, Washington used its opportunity to make a major commitment to a free agent to sign Ian Mahinmi to a four-year, $64 million contract. He promptly suffered a partially torn meniscus in the preseason and missed most of his first season as a Wizard. He then suffered a calf injury which limited his effectiveness in the playoffs. Earlier this summer, Mahinmi underwent what was described as a minor procedure on his left knee. With the Wizards set to pay the luxury tax, the team needs its major free agent signing to pay dividends in his second season.

To contend for an NBA championship, teams typically need to be ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense. The Wizards finished the regular season ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. A healthy season from the rim-protecting Mahinmi could be the factor that helps Washington turn the corner defensively and take advantage of the roster flux in Boston and Cleveland to make a run to the conference finals — and perhaps beyond.

Top Playmaker: John Wall

Despite any struggles as a ball handler in the pick and roll, Wall is unquestionably the turbocharged engine that makes the Wizards go. Wall exerts major pressure on opposing defenses by pushing the ball in transition, leading to efficient opportunities at the basket and three-point line. The Wizards are the best transition team in the Eastern Conference, but the mediocre defense has limited the team’s transition opportunities. If the team can improve defensively in 2017-18, it will give Wall more chances to push opposing defenses to the breaking point. During the playoffs, Beal also acknowledged Wall as the team’s vocal leader and organizing force on the court.

Top Clutch Player: Marcin Gortat

It’s a tiny sample, but last season Marcin Gortat shot 21-for-29 (72.4 percent) on field goal attempts in clutch situations. Porter was second among Wizards with double-digit attempts at 53 percent on 32 attempts while Markieff Morris shot 49 percent on 49 clutch attempts. The lion’s share of shot attempts in clutch situations went to Beal — who shot 43.3 percent on 104 attempts — and Wall — who shot 41.2 percent on 119 possessions. Gortat told CSN at the conclusion of last season that he planned to speak with GM Ernie Grunfeld about his fit with the team after grousing about his limited role in the playoffs. Perhaps Gortat has a point. Given the far greater efficiency of the other starters in clutch situations, perhaps it’s time for Wall and Beal to share those responsibilities more evenly.

The Unheralded Player: Kelly Oubre Jr.

In 2011, the Wizards passed on future All-Stars Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard to draft Jan Vesely. Washington obviously wasn’t in the market to draft a point guard the summer after drafting Wall, but the point remains. One of the greatest factors standing between the Wizards and true contender status is the team’s past failures at talent evaluation. Currently, the team’s biggest hope for internal improvement from a former first-round pick is Kelly Oubre Jr. The Wizards need defense, and Oubre combines with Porter to give the team a pair of wings who can guard multiple positions.

Unfortunately, Oubre’s offensive development hasn’t gone as well as hoped. Part of the reason could be that, in February, the Wizards opted to sacrifice a first-round pick to obtain Bojan Bogdanovic, who was averaging a career-high 14.2 points for the Nets. Bogdanovic was another score-first, defensively-challenged player who was never going to factor in Washington achieving a top-10 defense. Additionally, he got in the way of Oubre’s development. Bogdanovic wasn’t a difference maker in the playoffs.

Had the Wizards committed those regular-season minutes to Oubre’s development, his offense might have come around by the playoffs and given the team another impact defender. Oubre shot just 28.7 percent from three during the regular season but upped his percentage to 36.7 in the playoffs in limited opportunities. Multiple Wizards observers have speculated about a small ball lineup for Washington featuring Morris at center, Porter as a stretch four and Oubre at small forward. Provided Oubre continues to hit threes at a league-average clip, that lineup could be a nightmare for opponents. Had the Wizards not traded for Bogdanovic, Oubre might be farther along and Washington would have had a first-round pick in this summer’s deep draft to address depth issues.

Best New Addition: Jodie Meeks

With few options to add talent due to cap restrictions, the Wizards made a low-risk, high-upside move by signing former Magic shooting guard Jodie Meeks to a two-year, $7 million free agent contract in July. Meeks is a 37.6 percent three-point shooter for his career and shot nearly 41 percent in 36 appearances last season for Orlando. The Hawks tried to go small to get past the Wizards in the first round, but Washington crushed Atlanta’s small-ball lineup. Meeks could give the Wizards another floor-stretching option to open driving lanes. However, like Wizards additions of the past, Meeks has a long injury history. He has appeared in only 99 games over the last three seasons.

– Buddy Grizzard

WHO WE LIKE

1. Otto Porter

Porter will be the Wizards’ highest-paid player the next two seasons after Washington matched a four-year, $106.5 million restricted free agent offer sheet from the Nets. It’s an overpay on the surface until you consider that Washington had no way to replace him if the team didn’t pay up. Through March 20 — when he was overtaken by Kyle Korver — Porter led all NBA players with at least 200 three-point attempts at 44.9 percent. He’s not the most explosive player, but he’s so efficient as a scorer that the Wizards must find ways to get him more involved in the offense.

2. Coach Scott Brooks

The Wizards are the closest the franchise has been to contending for a championship since Washington defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games during the 1978 NBA Finals. Scott Brooks is a big part of that. In interviews, Brooks oozes confidence and competence. He’s modernized the team on both sides of the ball and helped get the most out of the Wizards during the John Wall era. He’s proven to be much more for Washington than Kevin Durant bait.

3. Owner Ted Leonsis

Speaking of Oubre’s importance to the Wizards, how can you not like an owner who shows up wearing this after his young player is suspended for a playoff game:

4. Markieff Morris

If he could defend without fouling (an unlikely proposition), Markieff Morris could be an All-Star. The Hawks lost in the first round because Mike Budenholzer went small. Based on individual stats, Paul Millsap outplayed Morris. Per on/off differentials, Washington was far better with Morris on court than Atlanta was with Millsap on court. For the playoffs, the Wizards were +10.1 points per 100 possessions with Morris on the court, easily a team-high. Unfortunately, due to foul trouble and injuries, Morris played only 372 postseason minutes compared to over 500 for Beal and Wall.

– Buddy Grizzard

SALARY CAP 101

The Wizards are heavily invested in their roster with $123.5 million in guaranteed salaries, easily above the NBA’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Washington will pay at least $6.4 million in tax, more if they keep two of their four non/partially-guaranteed players (Sheldon Mac, Daniel Ochefu, Carrick Felix and/or Donald Sloan).

After re-signing Otto Porter to $106.5 million and giving John Wall $169.3 million in an extension (both over four years), the Wizards are heavily invested in their core with Bradley Beal. Before November, the team needs to decide on the 2018-19 options for Kelly Oubre and Chris McCullough. Regardless, the team is not projected to be under the cap next season – instead facing another luxury tax penalty.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

As mentioned, the Wizards are the best transition team in the East and boast one of the league’s best starting lineups. The three-pointer will continue to be a weapon for Washington. If Porter spends time as a stretch four, he will get pushed around by most power forwards but the Wizards will be trading three for two. Few NBA power forwards can chase Porter over screens and prevent him from launching from deep — Korver was his closest analogy for most of last season. Because the Wizards can stretch the floor and have one of the league’s best point guards at attacking the basket, Washington is a nightmare for opposing defenses. If not for injuries and Beal’s curious struggles from distance, Cleveland might have had its hands full in the conference finals against the Wizards.

– Buddy Grizzard

WEAKNESSES

Again, as mentioned, sub-optimal use of draft picks and injury woes have robbed the Wizards of the depth that is vital to a deep postseason run. And until the Wizards show enough pride on the defensive end to be something better than average, the team is unlikely to ascend to contender status. If this is the season when Morris limits his fouls, Mahinmi stays healthy and the Wizards become a top 10 defense — yes, that’s a lot of ifs — you’ll finally see peak John Wall unleashed in transition against terrified defenses.

– Buddy Grizzard

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Wizards use continuity to challenge the in-flux Celtics and Cavaliers in the East?

As much as the Wizards are handcuffed by the salary cap and dearth of developmental options, having the team’s core signed long term gives Washington continuity that’s not shared by its Eastern Conference rivals. The Celtics will miss Jae Crowder’s ability to guard an opposing team’s best player and Kyrie Irving has never accomplished anything without LeBron James. With Thomas set to miss extended time with a nagging hip injury, Cleveland has huge questions at point guard. And then there’s the matter of LeBron’s pending free agency next summer. If he heads West, as so many have speculated, Washington’s list of true rivals in the East becomes shorter. For all the question marks, the fact that Brooks has figured out how to make Wall and Beal complement each other and Washington has most of its key pieces signed long-term means the Wizards will be a force to be reckoned with — this season and in seasons to come.

– Buddy Grizzard

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NBA

NBA AM: Kyrie Irving Wants To Be His Own Star

Kyrie Irving says his decision to leave Cleveland is less about LeBron James and more about Kyrie Irving.

Steve Kyler

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Can You Blame Him?

Former Cavalier guard and current Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving has started to make his rounds on the PR circuit to not only set the record straight, but to try and clear the air before the 2017-18 season opens. During his appearance on ESPN’s First Take, he was asked directly about his motivations for wanting a trade from Cleveland.

“The request came at a time I deemed right for me,” Irving said. “As a 25-year-old evolving man, coming in to perfect my craft every single day, I just wanted to be in an environment where I felt I could be taught every single day and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential and see how far I can go.”

As much as people have tried to make Irving’s exit from Cleveland about LeBron James, the story coming from Kyrie continues to be the same—he wanted to be the focal point, not just in the offense, but in how the team was coached and constructed.

Let’s be real for a minute: Irving is just 25 years old. He is not wise beyond his years, he is a young guy trying to make his mark in the NBA, and he’s doesn’t want to do so as the second option or the afterthought next to the Hall-of-Famer. Instead, Irving wants the chance at creating the opportunity for himself to be in the Hall-of-Fame discussion in his own right.

As much as people have blasted Irving for exiting a winning situation, the thing most don’t seem to want to accept is that Irving was also going to be the second concern in Cleveland. That’s a tough thing to expect from a young player. It’s easy to expect players to want to accept secondary roles or, worse yet, play from the bench, but when you consider how much blood, sweat and tears players put into their careers, can you blame Irving for wanting to see how far he can go on his own terms?

That’s what the exit from Cleveland was really about. Irving wanted to put himself in the environment to be the very best player he could be and give himself the best opportunity at long-term greatness.

Were there problems in Cleveland? Absolutely. You can’t look into that situation and think everything is perfect, because the evidence on the floor showed you that it wasn’t. That’s a tough thing to expect a player to accept.

“I was raised being in a professional environment,” Irving said about how long this was brewing. “Being in a workplace and making sure it’s conducive for everybody. So having those relationships and developing those every single day, and on top of that, still wanting to be as successful on the court and still trying to figure out myself off the court. I had to balance those two. When I was coming into that environment, there were times where my energy was a little off. I just had to figure that out. There were times when after games I would go out and shoot, and as any professional athlete or any person knows, when in your workplace and you have those tough days, there are questions that you ask yourself, ‘Is this the right thing for me right now?’ I answered that question for myself.”

As Irving has started to explain his motivations, it’s becoming increasingly clear that his desire to move was more about the environment he was in more than any interpersonal relationship. That’s not a surprising thing either. If you didn’t know, the Cavaliers are built around LeBron James. The offense is built around James, the defense is built around James, the pace of play is built around James. That’s great for James and it’s great for support players that benefit from James, but is that great for a 25-year old player trying to become his own superstar?

It’s not, and it’s a little naïve to think a player should accept that at this point in his career.

Irving may grow to regret leaving a sure-thing like the Cavs. He may find out the grass is not always greener on the other side. He may think he’s landed in a better environment than Cleveland, but that too can change. Just ask the Celtic players that were traded away before free agency decisions. Still, the one thing Irving can absolutely embrace is that he has bet on himself. He has taken the chance to be great on his own terms, and that’s what most players truly covet—especially the ones in Irving position.

As much as people have lambasted Irving for exiting a Finals team in its prime, Irving has put himself in a position to be his own guy. While that may seem short-sighted in the grand scheme of careers, ask yourself how you really view Scottie Pippen, Klay Thompson or Tony Parker. Being the guy next to the guy is pretty good way to become a footnote to a Hall-of-Fame career. You might win a lot of games and even make a lot of money, but when the book is finally written on your career, did you become what you set out to become when you started the journey? That’s the question Irving wants to answer on his own terms and if that means he fails, he will fail trying to be great, not just accepting the accolades of being the guy next to greatness.

It is easy to be dismissive or Irving’s desire for individual greatness, but can you really blame him for wanting to try? Isn’t that how the greatest of the greats got to their place in NBA history?

By blazing their own way?

Kyrie Irving wants to be his own star, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

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