Training camp is so close you can almost taste the arena hot dogs and beer. But we’re not there yet. So while we wait for these last few weeks to tick away to have the NBA back in our lives, Basketball Insiders will look at five burning questions that face the NBA, its players and its teams as a brand new cycle is set to begin.
1. Is Derrick Rose the answer for Cleveland?
We’ve already explored the question of what moves the Cavaliers might make to ensure this season’s team is a contender. Cleveland’s fate, with LeBron James set to enter free agency next summer, provides some of the most compelling drama for the upcoming season. The Kyrie Irving trade provided the Cavs with a movable asset in the Nets’ unprotected 2018 pick which could be used to address whatever is the team’s greatest position of need.
Thus, Derrick Rose must try to show early on that point guard is not that position. The question is, can Rose be a complimentary player? In his best seasons, Rose was the centerpiece of Bulls roster that appeared to be on its way to contending for championships. Post-injury, the Cavaliers must discover if Rose is willing and able to operate in the shadow of James, a shadow that grew too long for Irving. If Rose can’t thrive in a complimentary role, the Cavs may still need to address the point guard position. The organization has been ominously silent about Isaiah Thomas’ timeline for a return to action, so it may not be able to afford to wait to see if he can be the answer either.
2. Can Russell Westbrook coexist with another star?
Anytime an NBA team has three of the top 10 players in the world, the reasonable expectation is that the team will win multiple championships. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be forever known as a team that was given that opportunity and failed to capitalize. The reasons for that failure will remain matters of debate for the foreseeable future, so it might be best to analyze it in terms of results.
After Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals, during which James Harden attempted only six shots, Harden complained about his lack of touches. The result was a rift in the locker room which led to a messy divorce that sent Harden to Houston in one of the most second-guessed trades of all time. With Harden gone, OKC’s remaining top-10 players — Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — failed to return to the NBA Finals. As a result — since Durant’s goal is to win NBA championships — Durant sought greener pastures and found a championship formula in Golden State.
As a result of Durant’s departure, Westbrook was free to take as many shots as he wanted and pursue individual accolades such as MVP. But this offseason, the Pacers unexpectedly threw the Thunder a lifeline by offering Paul George in a trade. With George’s arrival, the Thunder — on paper — have the talent to compete in the stacked West. But can Westbrook coexist with another star player who needs the ball in his hands to be effective? During every previous opportunity, the combination has failed to produce a championship for the Thunder.
3. Can Kemba Walker unlock Dwight Howard?
In stops with the Lakers, Rockets, and Hawks since leaving Orlando, Dwight Howard has always sought a return to his glory years when he carried an average Magic roster to the NBA Finals. To hear Howard tell it, circumstances have conspired to prevent that return from happening.
In Los Angeles and Houston, Howard failed to mesh with star teammates. In Atlanta, a roster with more role players and complementary pieces — rather than superstar egos — awaited. But Howard says he still didn’t receive the role he was sold on when he signed. Regardless of who is to blame for Howard’s inability to recapture his Orlando form, it falls to Kemba Walker to incorporate him into a Hornets team that hopes to put last season’s disappointment behind it and make the playoffs.
To do that, Walker will need to form a consistent pick and roll partnership with Howard. Long gone are the days when throwing the ball into the post and expecting Howard to manufacture a bucket was an efficient use of a possession. Howard is dramatically more efficient when operating as the roll man in pick and rolls. But for some reason, Howard used fewer than 100 such possessions in Atlanta last season. Who is to blame for that? Was it Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder’s lack of proficiency or Howard’s lack of willingness? Who knows and who cares? For Walker and the Hornets, all that matters is results.
4. Will Dennis Schroder wreck Atlanta’s tank?
Speaking of Dennis Schroder, despite being outplayed by John Wall in last season’s first round, he showed real signs of maturation in his first season as a full-time starter. Schroder’s assist-to-turnover ratio improved dramatically in the postseason despite facing a top-flight defender in Wall. Meanwhile, he’s in a neck-and-neck race with Goran Dragic to emerge as the most outstanding player at the ongoing EuroBasket 2017.
Schroder showed out in a round of 16 victory over France, shredding every defender that tried to slow him and flying all over the court to help his team advance. After Spain defeated Turkey in the first round of the knockout stage yesterday, it set up a meeting with Schroder’s Germany on Tuesday in the round of eight. Spain’s roster is packed with NBA players while Schroder is the only major NBA talent on Germany’s roster. The meeting with Spain will be an opportunity for Schroder to show how far he’s come.
In the meantime, ESPN’s Zach Lowe joined the Woj Podcast Friday with Adrian Wojnarowski to talk about the NBA’s latest proposal to reform the NBA Draft Lottery (more on that below) and casually threw out the Atlanta Hawks as a team that may be deliberately tanking. If the Hawks are tanking, the organization has a strange way of going about it after signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova as free agents. They give the Hawks depth and starting experience in the power rotation. If Atlanta is really determined to lose games, why not stick with Miles Plumlee and Mike Muscala?
Beyond the steps new Hawks GM Travis Schlenk has taken to ensure Atlanta has a fairly complete roster, Schroder may be too good to allow the Hawks to tank. Judging by his performance at EuroBasket, Schroder could have a breakout season and drive Atlanta’s tank right into a ditch.
5. What’s really behind the NBA’s lottery reform proposal?
Lowe and Wojnarowski had a fairly thorough discussion of the NBA’s latest lottery reform proposal, but it raised as many questions as it answered. Both seemed to agree that nobody around the league really thinks the proposal will put an end to tanking, which is the stated purpose. If nobody believes reform will stop tanking, then what’s the real reason behind the proposal?
“If the point of tanking is to get stars and you want to eliminate tanking, in theory, you can’t just look at lottery reform,” said Lowe. “You have to look at, how can we enable these other teams to get stars in different ways?”
With those two sentences, Lowe cut to the heart of the debate. The issue isn’t tanking. The issue is, which teams have access to star players and how do those teams have access to star players? Basketball Insiders’ Dennis Chambers recently argued that the league’s latest lottery reform proposal won’t create parity. The reality is that parity in the NBA is impossible. Here’s why:
Championships in the NBA are won by what we’ll refer to as “dynastic” players. A dynastic player is a player that has been central to multiple NBA championships. Putting aside any arguments about the definition of “central” for the moment, here are the dynastic players since 1980 and how many championships they’ve won:
Magic Johnson, 5
Larry Bird, 3
Isiah Thomas, 2
Michael Jordan, 6
Hakeem Olajuwan, 2
Tim Duncan, 5
Kobe Bryant, 5
Shaquille O’Neal, 4
Dwyane Wade, 3
LeBron James, 3
Stephen Curry, 2
Since 1980, only four teams — about 10 percent — have won an NBA championship without a dynastic player: The 1983 76ers (Moses Malone was Finals MVP), 2004 Pistons (Chauncey Billups), 2008 Celtics (Paul Pierce) and 2011 Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki). Almost 90 percent of the time, a team needs a player capable of winning multiple championships to win an NBA title. Of 34 NBA champions since 1980 that featured a dynastic player, 27 (79 percent) included one that was selected in the top three of the NBA Draft. That means only a small percentage of teams will EVER compete for an NBA championship. In contrast to Major League Baseball and the NFL — where parity is possible because no single player can drive the fate of an entire franchise — the NBA is a completely star-driven league.
And stars are in too short a supply for parity to ever happen in the NBA.
Thus, since the consensus is that tanking will continue no matter what sort of lottery reform the NBA institutes, the proposal appears to be aimed at impacting what teams have access to star players. In a sort of Trojan Horse, the reform proposal includes a provision that would increase the odds for a team that barely misses the playoffs to receive one of the top three picks. This proposal was part of the league’s last attempt at lottery reform that was voted down by league owners. It’s unclear who is pushing this effort to give borderline playoff teams a better shot at a superstar, but it’s clear from the league’s persistent efforts that this is the end game.
And that’s something that nobody is paying enough attention to. With the fate of NBA franchises so dependent on ultra-rare generational talents, which teams have access to those players should be the focus of the debate, not the smokescreen of tanking.
With a new NBA season just around the corner, these are some of the storylines that will be at the forefront. As this offseason proved, however — with Irving’s unexpected trade request and the forced retooling of Cleveland’s contending roster — it’s impossible to predict what new storylines will emerge at any given moment.
New Orleans Pelicans and Cliff Alexander Agree To Deal
The New Orleans Pelicans and free agent forward Cliff Alexander have agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.
The addition of Alexander will give New Orleans 20 players heading into training camp.
Alexander spent last season playing 40 combined games with the Erie Bayhawks and Long Island Nets in the G-League, where he averaged 15.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game. Alexander also shot 52 percent from the field and blocked one shot per game.
The 21-year-old forward was a McDonald’s All-American and won MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic in 2014 before attending Kansas University. Alexander played 28 games as a Jayhawk and averaged 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 17.6 minutes per game before declaring for the draft.
After going undrafted, Alexander played in eight games for Portland during the 2015-16 season and received a 10-day contract from the Brooklyn Nets in April.
For more information on the salary cap and roster situation for the New Orleans Pelicans, click here.
New Orleans Pelicans and free agent forward Cliff Alexander have agreed to a 1-year, non-guaranteed deal, league source told @BBallInsiders.
— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) September 24, 2017
Atlanta Hawks and John Jenkins Agree To Deal
The Atlanta Hawks and free agent guard John Jenkins have agreed to a training camp deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.
The addition of Jenkins will give Atlanta 20 players heading into training camp.
Jenkins drew interest from several other teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks.
The 26-year-old guard began his career in Atlanta after the Hawks selected him 23rd overall out of Vanderbilt in the 2012 draft. For his career, Jenkins has averaged 5.1 points in 12.8 minutes per game while shooting 45 percent from the field overall and 36 percent from beyond the arc.
For more information on Atlanta’s salary cap and roster situation, click here.
Atlanta Hawks and free agent guard John Jenkins have agreed to a training camp deal, a league source told @BBallInsiders.
— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) September 24, 2017
Golden State Warriors 2017-18 Season Preview
The Golden State Warriors remain the cream of the NBA crop, even after several franchises went all in this offseason. Can anyone really beat the Warriors in a seven-game series? We look at the Warriors in this final NBA season preview.
After losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors were highly favored to win the 2016-17 championship with the offseason addition of Kevin Durant. In the Warriors’ third straight Finals match up with Cavaliers, Golden State, with plenty of help from Durant, over-matched Cleveland in last season’s NBA Finals. This year, with Durant taking a pay cut, the team did a masterful job of bringing back just about all of the key players from last year’s championship run. Now the team is primed to wreak havoc on the league once again.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s almost comical at this point how the best team in basketball keeps getting better.
After adding Kevin Durant last summer, and then completely decimating the entire NBA, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, all the Golden State Warriors did was go out and add two players in Omri Casspi and Nick Young who almost perfectly fit their brand of “you’re not out-shooting us” basketball.
The powers of the NBA all shuffled around their rosters this season in hopes of trying to assemble some type of “anti-Warriors” remedy, and when it’s all said and done, those moves will be all for naught. Expect Golden State to ride their legendary roster to another NBA title.
1st place – Pacific Division
– Dennis Chambers
What do you need me to say about the Warriors that you don’t already know? Two of the best five players in the league are on the roster, as well as arguably the top defensive player in the league and a cast of reserves that fit perfectly with the superstars running the show. Even JaVale McGee is shooting three pointers now. The Warriors are unstoppable and in some ways even better than the team that won a championship a few months ago. It’s going to be a long season for every other team in the league. They’re all playing for second place.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
The road to the NBA Finals obviously goes through Oakland, especially after the club managed to re-sign JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Nick Young will give the team some additional firepower, but they probably don’t even need it.
So long as these guys stay healthy, they’ll probably find their way to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, and with the Clippers having lost Chris Paul, the Warriors should have a relatively easy time winning the Pacific Division for the fourth straight year.
I’m usually longer-winded than that, but I’m not sure much else needs to be said about the Warriors.
1st place – Pacific Division
– Moke Hamilton
At this point, what’s really left to say? The Warriors had arguably the best basketball team ever assembled last season, and that was while dealing with minor role concerns and dealing with Kevin Durant’s midseason injury. Then they went out and improved this offseason, adding the likes of Omri Casspi and Nick Young as perfect end-of-roster pieces. Combine that with what most would expect will be even better fit and chemistry across the roster this season, and the Warriors stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league even with several squads making big power moves to try and bridge the gap. Anything but a third title in four years will fail to do justice to the incredible, historical talent on this roster.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Ben Dowsett
The best team in the NBA went out and retained key players and signed Omri Casspi and Nick Young to round out the roster. As has been the case for several years now, the Warriors enter the upcoming season with the most overall talent, improved chemistry, good health and every ingredient necessary to win an NBA championship. Several other contenders pulled off some impressive moves to try and bridge the gap between themselves and the Warriors, but Golden State still holds the advantage against every other team in the league. So long as the Warriors are playing up to their potential, or anywhere near it, the other contenders are out of luck. Unless the Warriors face some serious injuries this upcoming season or some internal discord, we should expect them to win their third championship in four seasons.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant
Don’t knock me for not clearly choosing a single player here. The individual excellence of both Stephen Curry and Durant cannot be stated enough. While Curry’s statistics did take a bit of a step back from the year prior, he still led the way for the Warriors last season. Last year, Curry led the team in points per game (by a slim margin), three-pointers made, assists and usage percentage. Keep in mind, Durant was excellent but Curry still commanded the offense for the most part. However, Durant was right on Curry’s heels and in the playoffs actually slightly surpassed Curry in points per game. In addition, Durant remains as tough to cover one-on-one as anyone in the league. Regardless, both players are unbelievable individual talents and would easily be the top offensive player on just about any other team.
Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green
For the foreseeable future, Draymond Green has this category on lockdown for the Warriors. Green uses a combination of length, strength, timing and sneaky athleticism to smother his opponents. Green’s versatility allows him to guard a range of positions in the post and switch to guard guards and forwards on the wing effectively as well. His versatility is the lynchpin of the Warrior’s vaunted death line up that uses Green at center and brings Iguodala off the bench to close games. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year race came down to Green and Utah center Rudy Gobert. In the end, Green’s versatility as well as his ability to guard the rim effectively made him the top choice in voters’ minds. Expect Green to be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year this upcoming season as well.
Top Playmaker: Stephen Curry
When the Warriors added Durant to the roster, many wondered, even for a team as unselfish as the Warriors, how would Stephen Curry and Durant manage to share the ball? That question was answered when Curry took a step back and allowed Durant’s individual offensive brilliance to shine. Curry’s points per game dropped (30.1 to 25.3) as did his usage percentage (32.0 to 29.2). Curry’s individual excellence continued regardless as he remained the Warriors’ top distributor (followed closely by Draymond Green). In addition, Curry garners so much attention that his simple presence on the court creates more room for teammates to operate. Curry’s ability to pull up from virtually anywhere on the court and willingness to make the extra pass to teammates makes him a nightmare to cover and the Warriors’ top playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry
Once again, you could give this award to either of the Warrior’s two best offensive players. Curry dominates most of the advanced statistics when breaking down clutch play, defined as the last minutes of a game within 5 point or less, per nba.com. However, based on Durant’s size, length and ability to get off a shot in isolation, he makes for an excellent clutch player in just about any situation. Either is an extraordinary option and their play in crunch time continues to be critical to their championship fortunes.
The Unheralded Player: Klay Thompson
Klay Thompson is a phenomenal talent who does a number of things well. He’s an unbelievable three-point shooter and defends elite point guards to alleviate the pressure on Curry. For a team with two elite offensive players, having Thompson as your third option on offense is just unfair to the rest of the league. Thompson lights up the league with his ability to hit outside shots without needing to dominate the ball. Don’t just count on Thompson to score as he takes pride in his defense and his ability to lockdown on defense.
Best New Addition: Omri Casspi
Overall, the Warriors have had an unbelievable stretch of luck when it comes to injuries, which will hopefully rub off on Omri Casspi this season. With his length, versatility and the ability to stretch the floor, he can slide into either forward spot. His addition strengthens the team’s ability to survive the grind of the regular season and lessen the minutes of the starters. Casspi fills a lot of needs for several teams that are looking to challenge the Warriors, so simply keeping him away from those teams is an added benefit to his signing.
– James Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr continues to be the perfect coach for this team. He helps to keep the players focused on their individual roles within the larger team structure and has so far prevented major dissension and discord. Kerr took the team that Mark Jackson previously coached and helped to transform the team into champions. Credit is deserved for his part in successfully orchestrating the move of former All-Star Iguodala to a bench role and meshing Durant’s individual brilliance with the Warriors’ pre-existing, pass-happy offense. Kerr has missed significant time due to his botched spinal surgery, but if he can manage his health, count on Kerr to keep the Warriors a well-oiled machine.
2. Nick Young
Nick Young is a player that has had an up-and-down career. Credit Young for carving out a relatively successful career as a journeyman three-point shooting wing. Keeping Young focused and unlocking his full range of talents has been difficult for many organizations. The Warriors are up next and will give the 11th year pro an opportunity to do what he does best — knocking down three-pointers. As a career 37.6 percentage three-point shooter, Young will have a chance to get more open looks from distance than he has previously in his career. Like JaVale McGee, Young will also have a chance to transform his reputation if he proves to be a disciplined, effective contributor to a championship team.
3. Jordan Bell
What’s the perfect piece for a rebuilding team in need of young talent to build around? Jordan Bell, selected with the 38th pick in this year’s draft), is just that sort of player. The Warriors acquired the pick from the Chicago Bulls for cash consideration. The Bulls loss is the Warriors gain as hopes are high for the young talent from the University of Oregon. The Warriors will take their time with the 6-foot-9 forward and hope that he will build on and develop his defensive talents and one day be a reliable contributor for Golden State.
4. Shaun Livingston
Shaun Livingston is many years removed from the knee injury that nearly ended his professional career. While Livingston has played for nine teams in his career, he continues to be loyal to the Warriors, the team with which he has experienced the most success post-injury. Livingston continues to do whatever the team requires as he slides into either guard slot when needed and provides reliable production from the bench. Opposing backup point guards often get caught being posted up by the lengthy 6-foot-7 guard. Count Livingston as another essential cog who will do whatever it takes to help the Warriors win at all costs.
– James Blancarte
SALARY CAP 101
The Warriors are a major spender at $135.4 million in guaranteed salary, resulting in at least $32 million in luxury taxes. Golden State used its Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to sign Nick Young at $5.2 million for a season. Having re-signed on one-year deals, Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee can block any trades.
Before November, the Warriors need to decide on 2018-19 team options for Kevon Looney and Damian Jones. Next summer, Kevin Durant can opt out again but now the team has his Early Bird Rights and the ability to give him a raise in the $35 million range. The Warriors seem willing to pay for a winner but for how long as luxury taxes grow progressively as the team gradually becomes a repeat offender?
– Eric Pincus
This team continues to have everything you could want in a modern NBA team. An electric point guard who is nearly unstoppable, a 3-and-D wing with a killer three-point shot, an unstoppable one-on-one player who can score from anywhere, a dominant and flexible defensive forward who can play center and a defensive wing who is a great glue guy. That’s just the five players that are normally used to close out games. The rest of the roster has a number of key contributors ready to do whatever the team needs. Oh, and they also have a great coach to keep everyone on the same page. With all the pieces a team could want, expect the Warriors to again push a possible record-breaking pace in the regular season on their way to the playoffs and likely the Finals.
– James Blancarte
The easiest answer here is none. Eventually the injury bug might hit the Warriors but for now they have everything they could want to continue their excellent play. Perhaps some players may lose a sense of urgency in the regular season after breaking records and dominating the last few seasons, though that seems unlikely. On paper, this team is not afflicted by any major weaknesses.
– James Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can anyone stop the Warriors?
Other teams continue to make moves to get better. On September 23, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded agreed to terms on a deal to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. With that move, count the Thunder, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and the Cavaliers as the biggest potential obstacles in the Warriors’ path to repeat. One of these teams may beat them, but the Warriors are the heavy favorites and the team most likely to win the championship next year.
– James Blancarte