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Dallas Mavericks 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Dallas Mavericks are an enigma. They want to rebuild, but continue to sign win-now players. The Mavericks have done a good job landing top-level draft picks, but the question i,s what does that equate to in a tough Western Conference? Basketball Insiders takes a look in this 2018-19 Dallas Mavericks Season Preview.

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After spending the last two years rebuilding, Dallas came up as one of the biggest winners of the 2018 off-season. They did this primarily by making two moves. First was trading the fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft (Trae Young) along with a 2019 first-rounder for European sensation Luka Doncic, a prospect who many believe could be the best player in what was believed to be a very loaded draft. The second was signing big-time center DeAndre Jordan, a walking double-double still very much in his prime.

By adding these two, Dallas once again has playoff ambitions while also building a good future to go off of with Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Along with those two, Dallas brought back plenty of familiar faces in free agency, including Dirk, Salah Mejri, and even Devin Harris just months after trading him to Denver. Some of the players they lost included Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell, Seth Curry, and Nerlens Noel. However, the impact of losing them does not come anywhere close to the potential impact Jordan and Doncic could have on the team.

The one fly in the ointment is that as good as the Mavericks should be this season, they still play in a Western Conference that has many teams hoping to make the playoffs. No matter how Dallas’ season turns out, it’s very admirable of them to go down swinging as the Dirk Nowitzki era comes to a close. That being said, let’s take a look at what the Dallas Mavericks could look like this season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Will this finally be the year of the swan song for Dirk Nowitzki? After what seems like several straight seasons that could be his last, the legendary German forward will indeed be back for another year. True to form, the Mavericks have continued to toe the line between rebuilding and competing with Dirk still in the league, and their 2018 offseason was much of the same. While they obtained another major core piece for the future in a big draft day trade for Luka Doncic, they also went out and signed DeAndre Jordan for a mammoth one-year deal in the hopes of competing out West once more. If Doncic’s game translates to the NBA right away and second-year point man Dennis Smith Jr. has a leap or two in him, this team could sneak up on a few people and threaten for the final couple playoff spots. More likely, though, is gradual development from the youngsters, some fun games, but another lottery finish for the Mavs.

5th Place – Southwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

Following a dismal year in the Big D, all eyes are on the Mavericks to make a quick turnaround. The hype train for Luka Doncic is picking up speed with each day, as the Slovenian sensation looks to find his niche alongside Dennis Smith Jr. and company. Harrison Barnes’ confidence has continued to grow at the power forward position. Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson lured DeAndre Jordan to Dallas to be the team’s interior presence on both ends, as well as a rim runner in transition. Considering their division and that this is the first time we’ll see some of these guys play together, though, it’s tough to say they will get out of the basement of the Southwest.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

Dallas got the best of both worlds this summer. Mark Cuban and co. want Dirk Nowitzki’s last year(s) in the NBA to be meaningful while also wanting to build a promising future. Trading for Luka Doncic and signing DeAndre Jordan did just that. With them aboard, Rick Carlisle has more malleable talent to work with. Jordan’s the first rim protector/elite rebounder the Mavericks have had since Tyson Chandler, and Doncic could potentially be Dirk’s heir. Add them to Dallas’ already astute roster, and the postseason is in their sights again. At this point, that’s all they can ask for as Nowitzki’s retirement nears.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Matt John

The Mavericks have kept no secret of their desire to completely rebuild and after two passes through the draft, they have collected two impressive first-round talents that should line up with some the middle tier players they have nabbed during the rebuild. Its unlikely the Mavericks jump into the playoff discussion in the West without one of those guys becoming an All-Star level guy this season, but the Mavericks have a great foundation to build from and that should be overlooked. They may not be in the postseason but they will be significantly better this year.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

The Dallas Mavericks have at least one more season with Dirk Nowitzki and clearly want to make the most of it. Dallas traded for the rights to Luka Doncic, who projects to be a capable contributor as early as this season. The Mavericks also signed DeAndre Jordan to a large one-year deal. With an interesting mix of veterans and talented youngsters, the Mavericks have a shot of competing for a playoff seed if everything breaks right this season. If Dennis Smith Jr. takes a significant step forward in his development and finds some chemistry with Doncic, Dallas’ offense could be surprisingly potent this season. This is especially true if Jordan meshes quickly and becomes a consistent lob threat for Smith Jr. and Doncic.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Harrison Barnes

It was difficult to choose between Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. here. Smith had quite the electric rookie campaign last season, and he could very well take this label away from Barnes by season’s end. For now, the reason why Barnes gets the nod is his efficiency. On 15.7 attempts a game, Barnes averaged a team-high 18.9 points a game on 44.5 percent shooting from the field and 35.7 percent from distance. Compared to Smith who, on only one less attempt a game on average, shot 39 percent from the field and 31 percent from distance.

Smith has the higher ceiling than Barnes at this point, but until he proves to be a reliable shooter, Barnes gets the nod as he is the Mavericks’ most proven scorer. It feels so sleazy to say that because for the last 15-plus years, it was undeniable that Dirk fit this label.

Top Defensive Player: DeAndre Jordan

This would seem obvious. Dallas’ defense was slightly below league average – 17th in defensive rating (109.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) – so adding someone with the resume that DeAndre Jordan has should give them a boost. However, a closer look at some of Jordan’s stats could say otherwise. Jordan averaged 0.9 blocks a game, his lowest average since his second year in the league when he was playing half as many minutes. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus was only slightly better than average at 1.32, and the Clippers’ defense was 3.4 points per 100 possessions better when he was off the court.

So why pick him as the top defensive player? Rick Carlisle. Remember that when the Mavericks acquired Tyson Chandler in 2011, his value was pretty low. Hence why they got him for peanuts. When Carlisle was done with him, Chandler got a four-year, $58 million contract the following summer. If there’s anyone who can get Jordan back to his NBA All-Defensive 1st team form, it’s Carlisle.

Top Playmaker: Jose Juan Barea

Surprised? A fair argument could be made for Luka Doncic or Smith. But, until we see how Doncic does at the NBA level and until we see how much Smith improves his playmaking, the team’s top playmaker currently is JJ Barea. Barea is and always has been the glue since donning the Mavericks’ uniform. In just 23.2 minutes, Barea led the team with 6.2 assists a game last year. Better yet, Dallas’s offensive rating was 4.8 points per 100 possessions better when Barea was on the court, which also was a team-best for all players who stayed on the team for the entire season.

By next year, Doncic or Smith will probably supplant Barea in this category, but for the time being, let’s appreciate that Barea continues to be one of the league’s premier bench players even at 34.

Top Clutch Player: Harrison Barnes

Take note that Dallas was not exactly great in the clutch last season. In games decided by five points or less, they only won five of 23 games. In the 41 games that were classified as clutch by NBA.com, Barnes’ net rating was -34.3.

Yikes.

Since Barnes is the team’s most proven scorer at the moment, he currently takes the mantle as its top clutch player. As bad as Dallas was in close games, Barnes averaged 2.2 points in 3.5 minutes on 43 percent shooting from the field in games that were classified as clutch last season. It’s fair to mention that he had that nice buzzer beater against Memphis last season. He’s not ideal, but he’s somebody.

The Unheralded Player: Dwight Powell

Originally a throw-in when the Rajon Rondo trade was completed, Powell has slowly worked his way into becoming a solid rotation player for Dallas as a rim-running energy big. His traditional statistics from this season speak for themselves: 8.5 points, 5.6 rebounds on 59 percent shooting including 33 percent from three-point land were all career-highs. However, it’s the advanced metrics that prove how valuable this guy is.

Dallas was overall +5.6 in overall net rating with Powell on the floor, with their offensive rating being +3.2 on offense and their defensive rating being +2.4. Powell had a Real Plus-Minus of 2.43, good for ninth among centers, and totaled 5.82 win shares, good for fifteenth among centers. Now that he’s Dallas’ third/fourth big, Powell’s services should serve the Mavericks very well in their playoff hopes.

Best New Addition: DeAndre Jordan

Long-term, Dallas’ best new addition will probably wind up being Doncic. Presently, DeAndre Jordan will be the more integral part of Dallas’ success. There’s already been plenty said about what Jordan could do for the Mavericks defensively, but the one area where Jordan is going to help the most this season will be on the boards.

Jordan’s blocks may have taken a hit last season, but his rebounding was still as good as ever. Jordan averaged a phenomenal 15.2 rebounds a game last season, a career-high. Last season, Dallas tied for 24th in the league in team rebounding averages, corralling 42.9 a game, while also allowing their opponents to nab a league-high 47.5 rebounds a game. Jordan will solve that problem practically by himself.

Dallas should also be excited for Jordan’s improvements from the charity stripe. Jordan shot 58 percent from the free throw line last season, which isn’t good, but a major improvement compared to his entire career. It may, in fact, be good enough to not force Dallas to bench Jordan in crunch time. Even if it’s been three years in the making, Jordan should make Dallas very happy this season.

-Matt John

WHO WE LIKE

1. Rick Carlisle

It’s been a rough couple of the years for one of the league’s best coaches. From all the drama behind the scenes with Rajon Rondo and Nerlens Noel to DeAndre Jordan reneging the team, both Carlisle and the Mavericks have been through a lot, but that’s over now. With Jordan and Doncic onboard, Carlisle now has plenty of lemons to make lemonade with. Now that his roster has both talent and depth again, don’t be surprised that, if and when the Mavericks find themselves in the playoff hunt, Carlisle will be making another run at Coach of the Year.

2. Dennis Smith Jr.

Everything that Dennis Smith did last year was exactly what many expected from him, as both his strengths and his weaknesses were on full display. Smith is a super athlete with good passing instincts and fantastic energy, but his spacing leaves much to be desired. A fair amount of Dallas’ success hinges on his improvement this season, a challenge that Smith appears to relish. DSJ doesn’t have to be Stephen Curry for both he and Dallas to succeed. All he needs to do is capitalize on such a promising rookie year under the tutelage of Coach Carlisle.

3. Wes Matthews

Matthews has done everything he can to regain his form after his devastating Achilles injury three years ago. He hasn’t been able to get it back entirely, but he has tried his best since arriving in Dallas. At 32 years old and on the last year of his contract, you better believe Matthews will be playing his heart out this season. Matthews is still a reliable floor spacer – 38 percent from three for his career – and he still tries his best on defense. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, his efforts should fit well with Dallas’ goals.

4. Dirk Nowitzki

You thought we’d forget about good ol’ Dirk? No chance in hell would we forget about the best Maverick of all time! At 40 years old, Dirk won’t be much more than a role player for Dallas. That’s all that can be expected of him at this point. Dirk stands out because he’s one of the few players in the NBA that stuck with his team through the thick and thin in a league where loyalty is going extinct from both players and general managers alike. That’s what makes Dirk’s final years so riveting to watch. With any luck, he’ll also have a great influence on Luka Doncic’s future as a pro.

-Matt John

STRENGTHS

This is the most well-rounded roster the Mavericks have had since the one they assembled in 2014 (before they acquired Rondo). The Mavericks have a team that is built to compete both now and in the future, led by one of the league’s best basketball minds in Rick Carlisle. They have young talented building blocks in Smith and Doncic. They have star talent and pseudo-star talent in Jordan and Barnes respectively. They have experienced vets in Dirk, Matthews, Barea, Powell, and Devin Harris among others. Ironically, Dallas’ biggest strength may be that they don’t have a weakness to exploit. If all goes right, they may be the one team nobody in the West will want to face in the playoffs.

-Matt John

WEAKNESSES

As well-rounded as they are, the Mavericks’ weakness is that they don’t have an elite player on their squad. They had one in Dirk, but he’s way past his prime. They could have two in Smith and Doncic, but their primes are years away. It took Dirk a few years to become a star, and it took a few more years for him to evolve into the legend he is today. This is a league where talent rules supreme no matter what changes are made. Dallas has admirably done what it can to build a winning team in Dirk’s last ride, but their absence of a star could really hurt their chances in the postseason.

-Matt John

THE BURNING QUESTION

What is Dallas’ long-term plan?

It appears that this is the team that Dallas wants to run with as Dirk fades into the sunset. Whether this team is what Dallas wants past Dirk’s retirement is another story. That’s the impression I got when they gave Jordan a one-year deal instead of a long-term contract. A lot of Dallas’ future rides on how they do this season. If this experiment works, then Dallas should do everything in their power to keep the team together. If it fails, Jordan and/or Matthews may not stay. If the Mavericks can’t replace them, they may opt for a full rebuild, which could affect Carlisle’s desire to stay as head coach. This team is more likely to succeed than it is not to, but after this season, the future is up in the air.

-Matt John

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NBA

Houston Rockets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Houston Rockets proved a year ago that they were as formidable a challenger in the West as we’ve seen in a while. Although the roster has evolved, the question remains, did they get better? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Rockets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year, it was about proving the skeptics wrong for Houston. This year, it’s about proving that they can keep it up.

A few months ago, the Houston Rockets were a half-decent three-point shooting performance from one of the biggest upsets in NBA history and their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1995. Getting the number one seed while almost toppling one of the most talented teams ever assembled would usually make their season a wild success. For the Rockets,. though, that wasn’t enough.

That brings us to this season. Bringing up what the Rockets lost this summer is pretty much beating a dead horse at this point, so let’s summarize it like this: While Houston kept its star power, it lost players who brought intangibles to the table. Who they replaced said players with has brought much doubt as to whether Houston can repeat last season’s performance, much less win a championship.

No matter what setback(s) they may have faced this off-season, the Rockets’ goal remains unchanged. They want their next title. Though the roster has gone through a little shakeup, the Rockets should still be one of the league’s best teams.

But is it enough to get them over that colossal hump that is the Golden State Warriors? Well, let’s take a look at what their team looks like.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Houston Rockets were the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors at the beginning of the offseason. However, I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. Last season, with a stable of versatile defenders, the Rockets were able to implement a very aggressive, switch-everything scheme against the Warriors in the playoffs. The Rockets’ defense gave the Warriors problems in the Western Conference Finals, but Houston couldn’t overcome the loss of Chris Paul to a hamstring injury. This summer, the Rockets lost Trevor Ariza to the Suns and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Clippers and added several new players, like Carmelo Anthony. I think the Rockets have the talent to push the Warriors in a seven-game series, but they won’t be able to use the same defensive schemes that made life miserable for Golden State. The Rockets had an okay offseason all things considered, but I don’t think they closed the gap on the Warriors in a meaningful way.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s hard to shake the feeling that last season might have been the Rockets’ best shot at beating the current iteration of the Warriors. The losses of guys like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute really hurt their wing depth, an area that was already somewhat thin – and also vital to any hopes of making it past the behemoths in Golden State and out of the Western Conference. Carmelo Anthony looks like a big name to help replace them, but is he really effective at this point? The Rockets will always be among the league’s elite with James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela on the roster, but Paul isn’t getting any younger and Mike D’Antoni’s rotations were already dangerously short. It feels bad to be so negative about a group that’s unquestionably one of the league’s best, but the goal has always been a title for this team in Houston, and they look further away from it than this time last year.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The big news of the summer for the Rockets was the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. They needed to fill the void left by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, so it’s on the 10-time All-Star and James Ennis to replace them. The upside of this is Houston’s main core is still intact. Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela know each other’s tendencies and how to play off one another so well. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker are perfect for the secondary roles that they are assigned. Guys like Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss are solid additions to bolster this squad’s depth as well. Mike D’Antoni will have to experiment with rotations, but the talent is most definitely still there. We’ll see how it stacks up with the other giants in the Western Conference.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

For a moment there, Houston was in the driver’s seat to the NBA championship, but only so briefly. After all that transpired this summer, there are severe doubts surrounding the Rockets’ ability to repeat last season’s success. Their perimeter defense on paper took a hit, and Chris Paul isn’t getting any younger. Still, as long as James Harden is running things and Paul is his running mate, the Rockets will be one of the league’s best teams. Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hurts, but Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Knight can add some firepower that could make up for what the Rockets lost. If they don’t, then Houston will need to make some more moves. Because whether they like it or not, the clock is ticking.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Matt John

It is easy to look at the Rockets through a negative prism… they lost Trevor Ariza, they added Carmelo Anthony, Jeff Bzdelik is retiring. There are plenty of negatives, but when you look at the end of the day roster coming to camp, the Rockets may have traded off a little defense in exchange for a whole lot more firepower. The Rockets were tremendous last season and there is no reason to believe they won’t be tremendous again this season – the question is, will they be tremendous in the post-season? That’s a huge unknown. The Rockets are a better basketball team; it’s unclear if they’ll be good enough to derail the Warriors, but they sure are equipped to try.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: James Harden

It speaks volumes about you when you’re teammates with one of the best point guards of all time – who’s still reasonably in his prime – and you’re the obvious pick. James Harden has been in the MVP conversation in three of the last four years. This past season, he finally made it all the way to the top, getting named the league’s Most Valuable Player without much question.

His numbers continue to be outright ridiculous: 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds a game are legendary-type numbers. What makes Harden so incredible to watch is his lack of predictability. He’s an expert at getting the right shot, finding the right pass, or overall making the right decision. His style isn’t necessarily the most fun to watch – Harden is a flopper and knows how to draw fouls that slow down the game – but he knows how to orchestrate an elite offense by himself. Until Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry separate, which may or may not happen, James Harden is the league’s top offensive weapon at the top of his prime.

Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Houston made Capela a very rich man this summer, and for very good reason. The Swiss center has gradually become one of the league’s top rim protectors in the couple of years. Last year alone, Capela saw a gradual increase in both rebounds (10.8) and blocks (1.9). In fact, Capela’s 137 total blocks ranked second in the league behind only Anthony Davis.

What should excite Houston is that Capela is still only 24 years old who is playing in a system that suits his strengths, so his ceiling could potentially be even higher. Future star may be a stretch, but Houston could still even more improvement from Capela in the coming years. Best-case scenario: Capela winds up becoming what Houston hoped Dwight Howard was going to be.

Top Clutch Player: Chris Paul

Paul doesn’t exactly have the best resume when it comes to playing in the clutch, but he’s proven that he can step it up when his back is up against the wall. Whether it’s for the better or worse of the team, Chris Paul has never been afraid of the moment. This was best evidenced by him pretty much single-handedly beating the Warriors in an intense Game 5 during the Western Conference finals.

His statistics in the clutch are pretty solid as well. Paul only played in 21 games last season that were deemed clutch, primarily because he missed a good chunk of the season with injury and when he played, Houston’s games were rarely close. In those games, Paul has a plus-minus of +3.5, averaging three points a game and shooting 59 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three. Harden has an even shakier history in the clutch, so Houston should feel fortunate to have CP3 in crunch time.

Top Playmaker: James Harden/Chris Paul

This is is definitely one topic where everyone can agree these two are dead even. Paul and Harden are two of the league’s very best distributors, which played a huge role in Houston arguably having the best offense in the league last season.

Houston, believe it or not, ranked among the lowest in overall team assists, averaging 21.5, a game which tied for 26th overall in the league. Harden and Paul together account for 16.7 of the team’s assists, good for about 78 percent. That makes it all the more impressive that they had the league’s highest offensive rating at 114.7 points per 100 possessions. Their efforts offensively proved to be for Houston’s benefit as well. The Rockets’ offense was +8.1 when Paul was on the floor and +6.6 with Harden on the floor. As long as one of these two are on the floor at all times, Houston’s offense will be in good hands.

The Unheralded Player: Eric Gordon

Eric Gordon is evidence of the abundance of riches the Rockets have. He is perfectly capable of being the second guard on a championship team. Yet, he’s the Rockets’ third guard. Because he plays for a team whose two best players play the position as him, Gordon falls a bit under the radar, but his impact on the floor is undeniable.

Gordon gives Houston a potent offensive option off the bench who fits quite well in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and complements Harden and Paul quite well. This is evidenced by his scoring output, as his 18 points per game average last season was the best he’s had in years. Better yet, his contributions get results for Houston. Gordon’s net rating placed him first on the team among players who played at least 1,000 minutes, as the Rockets were +10.3 overall when Gordon was on the floor.

The real triumph to all of this is seeing Eric Gordon salvage his career so swiftly after all he’s been through. Hopefully, it just gets better from here on out for him.

Best New Addition: Carmelo Anthony

Even at this point in his career, who would have thought that when you call Carmelo Anthony your best new addition this summer, you have to follow that up with, “By default”?

Though not the sexy name he once was, Carmelo Anthony is still capable of putting up 15-20 points a game. Since he has experience playing with both James Harden and Chris Paul on Team USA, ‘Melo may prove to be a better fit than the skeptics give him credit for. Even if he continues to play below expectations, it’s not like Houston invested much in him. If the guy stinks, the Rockets won’t play him. If he thrives, they found another dimension to their team. It doesn’t matter what happened last season in OKC. Adding Carmelo Anthony for $2.4 million provides minimal risk.

Adding him to the Rockets isn’t really low-risk/high-reward, but rather a low-risk/high-enough-reward for the Rockets.

– Matt John

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike D’Antoni

Even though he’s won Coach of the Year with two separate teams, D’Antoni’s best coaching of his career may have come last season. On top of having the league’s best offensive rating – surprising absolutely no one – he finally disproved the fallacy that he can’t coach defense. Houston had the league’s sixth-best defensive rating, which can be attributed to their improved personnel on the defensive end. However, having better defenders can only work so well if they are utilized properly, which was the case under D’Antoni. Offensively, the Rockets should still be top of the line, but for Houston to stay in the discussion with Golden State, D’Antoni needs to build off his success defensively despite what he lost.

2. Daryl Morey

The Rockets’ general manager never ceases to amaze. He somehow was able to find a taker for Ryan Anderson’s mammoth contract, acquired a potentially better player in Brandon Knight, and even received intriguing young talent in Marquese Chriss, whose career outlook is still up in the air. That’s masterful work for a guy who didn’t really have much to work with this summer. When people count him out, Daryl Morey always manages to have something up his sleeve. That’s why nobody should sleep on Houston. The Rockets may take a step back, but never underestimate what Morey can do.

3. Brandon Knight (or Brandon Knight’s contract)

It really is a shame to see how much has gone wrong for Knight. Because of injuries and playing on a rebuilding team, Knight hasn’t done anything relevant in the NBA since 2015. It’s important to remember that he is only 26 years old, so the potential he has on this team could be much higher than people think. If Knight returns to form, he’s going to be a fantastic addition to Houston’s high-octane offense. If he doesn’t, then he’s going to be a valuable trade asset if Houston decides to search for another wing this season.

4. PJ Tucker

So much has been made about the 3&D wings the Rockets lost. What about the one premier 3&D wing they still have? Tucker proved to be a smart investment by Houston last season, as he gave the team more needed three-point shooting and tough-as-nails defense. Tucker also gives the team a fair amount of good leadership and is a pretty good rebounder for a man of his size. Now that he’s the only proven 3&D wing they have – James Ennis could prove this notion wrong – expect Tucker to have an even bigger role.

– Matt John

STRENGTHS

The Rockets have two of the league’s best all-around guards playing under one of the league’s most brilliant offensive minds. Those three components alone make them one of the NBA’s best teams. Harden and Paul proved to be one of the league’s best backcourts, and should that lead to a title, they could be among one of the best of all-time, if they weren’t already. Also, despite all the skepticism that came from adding him, Carmelo Anthony still is another proven offensive option that could add some more pizzazz to the league’s best offense. Adding him to a team that has Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, and PJ Tucker should make Houston a great all-around team no matter what.

– Matt John

WEAKNESSES

Last season may have proven that Mike D’Antoni can coach defense after all, but only if he as the personnel to do it. Houston’s defense should be fine overall, but losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hurts their perimeter defense and more importantly, their versatility. Those two aspects weren’t the main ingredient, but they played a huge role in Houston’s improvement last season. Carmelo Anthony is expected to take Ariza’s spot in the starting lineup, but he’s hardly ever been a plus defender. In a league where teams take advantage of defensive mismatches now more than ever, Carmelo is bound to get picked on. Again, the Rockets’ defense should be fine, but if it’s not elite this time, then their season may wind up in disappointment again.

– Matt John

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is this the team Houston goes with when the playoffs come around?

As long as they have their whole team healthy in time for the playoffs, Houston should still be an elite team. However, the reason why they almost toppled the Warriors was because, along with their starpower, they had players that gave Golden State matchup problems. With Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gone, that advantage isn’t nearly as strong as it once was. Adding Carmelo Anthony’s scoring and/or James Ennis’ defense could potentially soften the blow, but if it’s not enough, then the Rockets could be in trouble. Houston has to remember that Chris Paul is on the wrong side of the 30, so they have no time to waste.

There is a chance that Houston does just fine even with the hits they took, but the odds aren’t in their favor. If Houston does take a step back, then they better look for the best wing they can get on the trade market.

– Matt John

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NBA

Toronto Raptors 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Raptors tinkered with an already impressive roster this offseason. Will their changes payoff? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Raptors in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

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The Toronto Raptors enter 2018-19 with high expectations. The team has been a reliably strong squad, qualifying for the playoffs in each of the previous five seasons. That success reached a peak last season, when the Raptors won 59 games in route to the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But simply reaching the playoffs isn’t enough for the Raptors and GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri parted ways with 2017-18 coach of the year Dwane Casey in favor of former assistant coach Nick Nurse. And he capitalized on Kawhi Leonard’s fractured relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, swapping DeMar DeRozan and others for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP along with Danny Green.

The Raptors enter this season with as much boom-or-bust potential as any roster in the league. The team could flourish with an upgraded roster. Or they could flounder due to injury and/or chemistry issues. Will Leonard return to form as the potent scorer and lock down defender that we last saw in 2017? Or will the trade backfire on the Raptors and set off a series of events that culminates in a complete rebuild?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Masai Ujiri took a huge gamble this offseason and the payoff could be huge. Trading for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green gives the Toronto Raptors some impressive defensive versatility. I can’t wait to see what Nick Nurse is able to do with a roster full of impact defenders and Kyle Lowry and Leonard leading the offensive attack. Having said that, there are some concerns. We still aren’t sure whether Leonard has fully recovered from his lingering leg injury. Green was limited last season by a groin injury. This team has thrived off of talent and chemistry, which may be compromised with DeMar DeRozan now in San Antonio and Dwane Casey in Detroit. This team has a high ceiling and a surprisingly low floor. The other big concern is Leonard’s long term future. He will hit unrestricted free agency next summer and several reports have him favoring a move to Los Angeles. A lot can happen between now and then, but this situation will hang over Toronto all season.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the NBA fans and analysts out there who subscribe to the “worst or first” philosophy that says you should be either competing for titles or picking at the top of the lottery for blue chip talent, this Raptors offseason was nirvana. By pushing all their chips in on Kawhi Leonard, who has just one year left on his deal and seems a real threat to bolt after a single season, they’ve positioned themselves for Leonard’s decision to dictate the franchise’s direction. If he leaves, you rebuild around a young core that’s solid but lacks a star. If he stays…well, you’re laughing. It’s hard to get a read on Leonard’s true thinking at this point, but competing for an Eastern Conference crown and perhaps even giving the Warriors a run for their money in the Finals likely couldn’t hurt their efforts toward keeping him. The Raps have a ridiculous amount of lineup versatility assuming full health from Leonard; Danny Green is an underrated part of that same trade, even if he had a down year last season. They’ll have the best player on the floor in any series against Boston if Leonard returns to his prior form, and the East’s playoffs could be extremely entertaining.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Props to Toronto for going all in. They didn’t have a second’s hesitation to trade their franchise’s best player of all time for Kawhi Leonard. If you’re a contender with a realistic chance to acquire an MVP candidate in his prime, you take it no matter what. Leonard by himself potentially gives Toronto that extra gear that they’ve been craving for the past half-decade. The Raptors were one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the floor last season, so now that they have Leonard, they can’t afford to screw this up. Leonard’s expiring contract and supposed desire to go to Los Angeles makes this a do-or-die situation for the Raps. This is the magnum opus for Toronto because Leonard will either be the beginning of a glorious era or the end of a disappointing one.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

It’s a new era in The North. Kawhi Leonard is coming to re-define Raptors basketball under head coach Nick Nurse. The organization kept the majority of its core intact outside of moving DeMar DeRozan, meaning Kyle Lowry is still going to be the man in charge of the offense. Danny Green is an underrated acquisition who came along with his former San Antonio Spurs teammate. Though Jakob Poeltl is gone, Toronto’s bench is looking to be just as effective as it was last year behind Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and veteran C.J. Miles. Coming off an impressive first season, O.G. Anunoby is the perfect understudy to Leonard as well. With all of this said, the Atlantic’s top is stacked. They’ll most likely finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference, but their division foes are just better at this point. That doesn’t mean they won’t surprise come mid-April.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

I get the logic. The Raptors were stagnating, especially in the playoffs. They needed to do something, and trading for Kawhi Leonard was maybe the right move. Too often we get caught up in next year and the future. The reality is you have to have an eye on the future. But you also have to play in the present and if the young core that was good last year takes another step and Kyle Lowry and Leonard click, then Toronto could be pretty special. But as they say, that’s an awful lot of “ifs” to bank on. If it all doesn’t work out, then the Raptors strip things down and rebuild. But at least they tried right? With Dwane Casey out, and so much change, it’s hard to peg the Raptors above Boston and Philly. They could be really good, but change at this scale is a huge unknown.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

When healthy, Leonard is a top-three player in the league – his most recent healthy season (2016-17) was capped off by him single-handedly pushing the Warriors to the absolute brink in the opening game of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The Spurs were up 62-42 at halftime behind Leonard’s offensive and defensive heroics. But Leonard sprained his ankle in the third quarter and missed the remainder of the series, and the rest is history.

That anecdote demonstrates Leonard’s influence as much as any can. He affects his team’s ability to succeed unlike almost any other active player, LeBron James included. He is that good. In his last complete season (2016-17), Leonard averaged 25.5 points, 3.5 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He finished third behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the MVP race in a season when the Westbrook averaged a tripled-double and Harden averaged 29.1 points and 11.2 assists per game. But can he recover from the quad injury that sidelined him last season and the subsequent rust that goes along with the time off? If so, the Raptors could post their best year in franchise history, again.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

In case you don’t already know, let me reiterate: Kawhi Leonard is also an exquisite defensive player. Much in the same way Michael Jordan dominated games on both sides of the ball in the late 80s and early 90s, Leonard can take over an entire game almost single-handedly – hence the two defensive player of the year awards.

Leonard’s dimensions are tailor made for defensive success. He stands 6-foot-7 tall with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. He has exceptionally large hands at 9.8 inches long and 11.3 inches wide; comparatively, fellow defensive specialist Klay Thompson’s hands are 8.8 inches long and 9.3 inches wide. Leonard weighs a sturdy 230 pounds: enough to bang with many power forwards, while maintaining the quickness and agility necessary to keep wings in front of him and elevate to block shots with ease. In 2016-17, Leonard averaged 1.8 steals and .8 blocks per game. Leonard is the rare athlete who can play passing lanes, but rarely gets beat back door. He can just as easily jump a passing land and turn a steal into an easy buck as he can chase down a fast break and surprise opponents from behind. The Raptors have a number of other qualified defenders. But when healthy, Leonard is arguably the league’s best defender.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry is an incredibly effective scorer and distributor. He is widely considered a top-10 point guard. Lowry creates space for himself and can also bully opposing point guards on his way to the rim. Despite his scoring prowess, Lowry doesn’t impose his will on games terribly often.  He understands the need to get his team involved. And he did so successfully last season, posting 6.9 assists per game. In fact, Lowry’s assist production has remained within a half an assist per game of his 2017-18 average every season since 2010-11.

But as referenced above, the 6-foot, 205 pound guard can also score the ball. He averaged 16.2 points per game last season, which was a relatively big step back predicated on the need to get others more involved. He is a rare talent who can create for himself as well as for others. With the addition of Leonard and Green, look out for Lowry to continue to build his reputation as an elite playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Danny Green

Danny Green is an excellent shooter despite what his 2017-18 averages imply. He shot 36.3 percent from three-point range, which is right in line with the league average. But most of Green’s career has been spent stretching the floor for greats like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Duncan retired prior to last season, Parker and Leonard both missed stretches with quad injuries and Ginobili was far from his old self in 2017-18. The Spurs operated with more of an egalitarian philosophy last season – a necessity, but one that hindered Green’s production given the increased attention defenses were paying to all Spurs players.

But history is on Green’s side when it comes to being clutch. Let’s not forget, Green broke Ray Allen’s NBA Finals three-point record in 2013, which included going a perfect five for five in Game 2 and seven of nine in in Game 3. 2013 was not an anomaly. He is a career 39.3 percent shooter from deep. Green can still sink shots, and he has proved he can do so in the biggest of moments. If the Raptors find themselves in tight games late in the season or in the playoffs, look for plays to be drawn up for Danny Green.

The Unheralded Player: Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas is a bit of a throwback to bigger centers of decades past. He doesn’t have the traditional pre-2000s, back-to-the-basket game that would be expected of centers from that era, but he is a powerful big, standing 7-feet, and weighing in at 255 pounds. His  7-foot-6 wingspan aids him in collecting rebounds. Valanciunas pulled in 8.6 per game in 2017-18 in 22.4 minutes. Put differently, that’s 13.8 per 36 minutes, which would have ranked third in the entire league.

But Valanciunas is more than just a big body that can rebound. Valanciunas is a skilled scorer who boasts an effective mid-range game. He shot 40.5 percent from three-point range on 74 attempts. While plenty of centers shot more attempts last season, that’s still a better percentage on more attempts than the career high of either David Robinson or Patrick Ewing, two of the best shooting centers of the 1990s.

Further, Valanciunas is primed for a bigger role with the Raptors, and deservedly so. He posted 12.7 points last season in only 22.4 minutes per game. That’s 20.4 points per 36 minutes. And yet Valanciunas has only cracked the Raptors’ top three in usage rate once. Fortunately for him, Coach Nurse appears to be a Valanciunas fan, as is evidenced by his work with and comments about Valanciunas dating back to 2013. Valanciunas is Toronto’s only real low-post scorer – a necessary facet to the Raptors’ success.

Best New Addition: Kawhi Leonard

By arriving in Toronto and instantly registering as the team’s best offensive and defensive player, Leonard is also clearly its best new addition. But the caveat is that he must be healthy. He hasn’t played competitively on a regular basis since the season before last. That’s a lot of rust to shake off. If healthy, Leonard registers as probably the best new addition of anyone across the league this offseason.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. OG Annunoby
Annunoby is the quintessential, modern-day NBA player. He is long, athletic and skilled. Annunoby runs the floor effectively and possesses an excellent motor. He is 6-foot-8 with a better-than-7-foot wingspan. He has a good build for a 21 year old at 232 pounds. His offensive game still needs work, but he did sink 37.1 percent of his three-pointers last season.

Annunoby’s potential is well supported by his per-36 numbers: 10.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and .3 blocks per game. His defensive versatility is enticing. While his defensive contributions are noteworthy, his salary is probably equally alluring to a team as cash-strapped as the Raptors. If Leonard re-signs, the Raptors will be over the salary cap for at least the next three seasons. Meanwhile, Annunoby is entering only his second year in the league and is locked into a team-friendly rookie deal for as long as the next four seasons. Annunoby is no doubt an asset, but is he a foundational piece or a role player?

2. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka is a known commodity, but that doesn’t make him any less effective. He is a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center/forward who shoots 36 percent from three-point range while averaging 2.2 blocks per game. His blocks per game were down dramatically last season (1.3) from his career high in 2011-12 (3.7), but his long-range shooting, rebounds and points per game remain mostly on par with his career averages.

Ibaka is no longer the player the Thunder chose to hang onto over James Harden, but the Raptors will rely on him as its main backup center since Jakob Poeltl was included in the Leonard trade. But as long as he blocks shots and shoots an above-average percentage from downtown, he will have a place in Tornoto’s rotation.

3. Pascal Siakam
With Ibaka slated to spend a good chunk of his time at back-up center, an opportunity exists for Pascal Siakam to back up the power forwards. The 24-year-old has decent upside and should see increased playing time given how he performed last season. In only his second season in the league, Siakam’s playing time doubled – his points, rebounds and assists per game all saw precipitous increases, as well. The 6-foot-9 Siakam boasts an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan, which further cements his place in the rotation as a defensive-minded player. And like many other big men, rumor has it that Siakam has added the three-ball to his arsenal.

4. Fred VanVleet
Fred VanVleet enters the 2018-19 season with high expectations. He had a breakout year last season, posting 8.6 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting from three-point range in 20 minutes per contest. VanVleet is a crafty 6-foot point guard who can finish in traffic. Despite having only two seasons of experience, he plays with the confidence of a veteran. VanVleet led the Raptors in minutes played in the fourth quarter in 2017-18 and began to find a nice rhythm prior to injuring his shoulder in April. VanVleet’s win share was an impressive 4.7. He has been looked over for much of his basketball career, dating back to his recruitment Wichita State, or lack thereof. But VanVleet proved last season that he can play a pivotal role for a competing team. Expectations  are high for the diminutive guard, but he seems to thrive under pressure.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

The Raptors bench was a driving force for its success in the past, including last season. The team’s next-man-up mentality is especially evident when examining point differentials. The team’s lineup was a +14.9 per 100 possessions when it had at least one bench player on the court, whereas the five starters were a +9.1. This juxtaposition is not uncommon for the Raptors, which had an even bigger contrast in its starters point differential compared to the differential of its lineup with at least one substitute in the lineup in each of the previous three seasons. In fact, last season is the first in the last four years in which the starters had better than a +3 differential. That should only continue to improve next season with the infusion of Leonard and Green.

But the bench’s point differential speaks to the team’s versatility and talent beyond its starting five. The bench boasts well-rounded players like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles, Greg Monroe and Serge Ibaka – many of whom smartly shoot a majority of their shots from three-point range or within two feet of the rim.

The versatility and confidence that each of the team’s bench players brings to the game is incredibly valuable and varies player to player. Each complements the next very nicely, from VanVleet’s creativity, to Wright’s play making, to Monroe’s post game, to Ibaka’s three-point shooting and (decreasing) shot-blocking ability.

The team’s bench is as strong as it has been in years. The Raptors featured a 10-man rotation in 2017-18 and yet only two of its starters averaged more than 26 minutes per game – the only team in the league to do so. Relying more heavily on the starting lineup is rarely a problem for a team, but it alleviates pressure on an already talented group of mostly young players; but, if the starters falter, the bench will almost certainly be ready. That is an almost can’t miss recipe for success.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

The Toronto Raptors have experienced four-straight seasons that ended in disappointment, all due to a lack of top-tier talent. That’s not to say the team wasn’t talented – they were. Just not talented enough to get past the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. While James has fled the Eastern Conference for the sunny skies of L.A., there is still elite talent back East that will prove difficult to overcome for any team – and there will most definitely be elite talent awaiting whoever the Eastern Conference champion is come June of 2019.

I am inclined to believe that the Leonard-DeRozan deal was a net-positive for the Raptors because it adds an elite player to an already capable roster. But modern-day championship contenders feature multiple top-tier contributors: the Rockets have two of the top five players in the league in James Harden and Chris Paul; the Warriors feature an embarrassment of talent with Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; and the Celtics feature Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – all of whom are stars in their own right. The Raptors have one transcendent talent and another very good player, which is not quite equivalent to the other contenders. So then, where does Leonard’s help come from deep into the playoffs?

Still, Leonard of all players understands the by-committee approach having played his entire career for Coach Gregg Popovich. And Leonard might be the only player in the league other than (and maybe not even) LeBron James who single-handedly strikes fear into the hearts of  the Warriors– see the above anecdote about Leonard’s Game 1 heroics against Golden State in 2017.

And the Raptors do have an abundance of not-quite elite players, but ones who have a role and execute it to perfection. Will the Raptors team-centric approach payoff? They could be the exception to the super team-rule, which took off following the formation of the Miami HEAT’s big three in 2010.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Leonard/DeRozan Trade Pay Off?

The Raptors swung for the fences this past offseason. They dismantled a team that set a franchise record for wins to chase championships. While the timing was ironic given how the team that had sent them home from the playoffs in each of the three previous postseasons just lost its megastar, you can’t help but respect the big-risk, big-reward move.

DeRozan was under contract for the next three seasons at $27,739,975 per year. DeRozan is an incredibly productive player, but is one of the two best players on a championship contender? We know that when healthy Kawhi Leonard is. And the trade also netted the Raptors shooting guard Danny Green, who brings defense and shooting at a time when 3-and-D players are valued highly by front offices and coaches alike.

If Leonard is healthy, there is clearly more talent on the Raptors roster entering this season’s training camp than there was this time last year. But that’s a big gamble. The team agreed to the trade without any indication from Leonard that he was willing to re-sign, and without any definitive assurances he was healthy. And Danny Green experienced a considerable dip in production last year, albeit without his superstar teammate on the court to serve as the Spurs’ focal point. Still, both are legitimate questions that need to be addressed.

Even still, were the Raptors going to advance to the NBA Finals with the roster with which it ended the 2017-18 season– past the Celtics and Sixers – let alone win a championship? Unlikely. But if this roster gels, they have the requisite talent and star power to do just that. Yes, it’s a long shot. But it’s a shot, none-the-less. And if Leonard decides to walk, the team can embrace a rebuild instead of hanging onto mediocrity for the foreseeable future. The move indicates that the team’s front office is more serious about winning championships than filling the arena, which should be welcome news to Raptors’ fans and players alike.

– Drew Maresca

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Boston Celtics 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

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

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

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

FIVE GUYS THINK…

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

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

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

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Ben Dowsett

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

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

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

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

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

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

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

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

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

Top Defensive Player: Al Horford

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

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

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

Top Playmaker: Kyrie Irving

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

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

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

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

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

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

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

The Unheralded Player: Gordon Hayward

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

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

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

Best New Addition: Brad Wanamaker

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

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

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jayson Tatum

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

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

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

2. Terry Rozier

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

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

3. Depth at the Wing

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

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

4. Robert Williams

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

5. Brad Stevens

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

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

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

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

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

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

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

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

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

– Jordan Hicks

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