There’s no mystery or range of expectations whatsoever for the Golden State Warriors this year. A team already in the conversation for best of all time before a few crazy weeks in May and June went out and added one of the best players of a generation squarely in his prime, instantly transforming the letdown of history slipping through their fingers into a whirlwind of excitement at fielding the most dominant on-paper squad ever assembled.
Even if title-or-bust is the obvious mantra surrounding this team, the path toward glory will have plenty of intrigue along the way. Which lessons, if any, should be drawn from last year’s eventual shortcomings? How will a combination of offensive talent never before seen on a single roster coalesce and adjust to the Xs and Os of a virtual All-Star team? Will defense or depth in certain areas be a realistic problem minus a couple key contributors, or will the overall skill level simply overwhelm these kinds of concerns?
With all this and more, Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Warriors are super good. What else really needs to be said? They’re basically an All-Star team set to play against a field of proles all season long. Kevin Durant was a huge acquisition, Stephen Curry is so in the zone and Klay Thompson is the best shooting guard in the league. Draymond Green can guard all five positions at an elite level, the bench is still stacked and Steve Kerr is a great coach. We expect big things, but that’s only because big things seem inevitable. Anything can happen (just ask the 2003-2004 L.A. Lakers), but “anything” also can include a championship.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
Adversity builds character. The heart of a champion is often determined by how well they respond to challenges that would break normal spirits. The Warriors were within one victory of capping off a historic 73-win regular season with a repeat championship, but the club dropped three straight games in the Finals and watched the Cavaliers celebrate on their own court. In many ways that setback was the first true test for the Warriors who had begun to run roughshod on the league with little resistance. The club was already built to make another trip to the Finals in 2017, but the addition of All-Star Kevin Durant essentially makes this a lock – barring major injury. See you in June.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Lang Greene
The Golden State Warriors were already elite and then they added Kevin Durant. And this isn’t the same as when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami. The Warriors already have really good chemistry and Durant is going to fill in the starting position that Harrison Barnes held. The dynamic will have to change on offense somewhat since Durant and Stephen Curry both need the ball in their hands, so it will be up to Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to adjust accordingly. Another scary part about this team is that Durant flashed defensive versatility in the postseason that reminds us of Draymond Green. If Durant can continue defending at that level, this Warriors team will basically be unstoppable. It should be noted that some key contributors from the last few seasons are now gone, but the Warriors did a nice job of plugging in the holes that were left after adding Durant. This team is stacked and should make it back to the NBA Finals this season.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the Warriors aren’t the favorites to win their division, their conference and the 2017 NBA Finals. What I will say, though, is that it’s not every day that you see a team that wins 73 games and take a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals radically redesign itself. Of course, adding Kevin Durant to the already big three of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green seems worth it, but let’s take a moment to recognize that Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush and Marreese Speights are all gone. Those six guys were among their top 11 rotation players last season, and they have effectively been replaced by Durant, Zaza Pachulia, David West, Phil Pressey and (perhaps) JaVale McGee. I obviously like the Warriors to win the Pacific Division, but for me, there is enough intrigue with the new core in Oakland to keep me watching all season long. I doubt Steve Kerr even entertains the idea of allowing his team to chase down 70 wins again, because losing the Finals last year probably changed the perspective of everyone associated with the team. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about these guys this coming season, so I’ll end this here and just state the obvious: they’re the clear favorite.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Moke Hamilton
Anything less than a championship will obviously be a disappointment for this Warriors squad. I know a lot of NBA fans were upset about the Kevin Durant addition because they believe the 2016-17 season will now be pretty anticlimactic. However, as we saw in last year’s NBA Finals, nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. Injuries, chemistry issues and more can change the landscape of the NBA in an instant. We’ll see if the Warriors can live up to the ridiculously high expectations. My guess is that they will – mainly because their star-studded squad is full of unselfish players who are versatile and complement each other well. But titles aren’t won in the offseason, so we’ll have to see how they come together.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Durant
Honestly, how is one supposed to support a single candidate here for a team that now boasts two of the five most devastating offensive players in the game? There can be absolutely zero argument against either Kevin Durant or Steph Curry here, but the nod goes to KD primarily for this reason: He’s slightly more matchup-proof.
Don’t fly off the handle, Chef Curry fans – no one’s doubting Steph’s ability to bend physics and break defenses on a night-in, night-out basis. He’d have won this category going away over Durant and any other player on earth last season.
But while some of it was surely due to lingering injury issues and other context, we saw smart defenses poke tiny holes in his preferred methods of dominance in the postseason. In particular, opponents began stationing a wing player on Draymond Green and negating the deadly Curry-Green pick-and-roll by switching it between two guys capable of hanging with Steph off the dribble for a possession at a time. Not everyone has the defensive talent or discipline to pull this off – and Curry at his full powers can often abuse these switches himself – but the theme certainly looked primed to become a blueprint for those with the right personnel.
In comes Durant, and out goes that theory.
Want to switch the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll? Fine with them. Go right ahead and switch a smaller guy onto Durant, who shot an unreal 61 percent in the post last year and was the league’s most efficient per-possession volume player on the block, per Synergy Sports. The opponent is clogging the block and denying the entry? Cool, either they’ll rotate to another knockdown shooter for an open three or simply give Durant the ball in isolation, where he was also a top-10 efficiency player last year among volume guys (in a less spacious offense and more commonly against guys closer to his own size, at that).
None of this even gets into KD’s numerous other prodigious skills, most of which fit like a glove within what was already the league’s most dominant offense. With Durant’s ability to rip up the one meager trump card the league had finally managed to conjure against them, this group could be primed to set records.
Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green
Ah, much easier. Green is already among the most versatile elite defenders in the history of the game – seriously, how many other guys ever have been capable of locking down all five positions on the floor individually, from running with jittery guards to protecting the rim against giants and LeBron James? The list of players who have done so at a consistently elite level while also playing a large role on the other end of the floor is probably limited to one hand, maybe even with a couple fingers to spare. Green will have even more defensive responsibility after the departure of guys like Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli in the frontcourt, but he’s proven more than up to the task.
Top Playmaker: Steph Curry
There’s an under-the-radar case to be made here for Green, a fantastic passer who actually averaged more nightly “assist opportunities” (passes which either became an assist or would have if the shooting player had made his resulting shot) than Curry last season, per SportVU data. On a deeper level, though, even Draymond himself would likely admit that many of these were simply a trickle-down result of the way Steph’s magic forces teams to contort themselves. Many of those four-on-three chances where Green is free to rumble down the lane and take his pick of open shooters evaporate with any other ball-handler in the world as his partner.
Curry makes those plays possible while also maintaining his own strong passing numbers. His percentage of passes which led to a positive team event (assists, free-throw assists or secondary “hockey” assists) – a Holy Grail-type category topped consistently by consensus elite creators like Chris Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook – fell in the league’s top 10 last season, decimals behind LeBron James and Ricky Rubio. Curry remains the distributing engine that powers this offensive machine, and could even be in for an uptick with another elite offensive player in the lineup next to him.
Top Clutch Player: Steph Curry
This is another category likely to end up in a split of some sort between Curry, Durant and the general sort of team scheme that the Warriors have generally done well at sticking with during rare clutch moments the last couple seasons. Curry took about a third of the team’s regular season shot attempts during these minutes last year, with Durant right in the same neighborhood with OKC, albeit in a far different team context. Curry was more efficient than KD, particularly from deep (he shot 38.1 percent from three compared to 32.4 percent for Durant in the clutch), and who can forget that legendary game-winner on Durant’s own floor?
The Unheralded Player: Andre Iguodala
Iguodala should have won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, but his remarkable importance to his team continued to fly under the radar in favor of more traditional metrics. He doesn’t post flashy box score stats or make many highlight-reel plays, instead contributing in exactly the sort of ways that go overlooked. He was a constant presence in crunch time lineups last season (appearing in nearly 90 percent of all such minutes while healthy), and his on court-off court impact on variations of Golden State’s “Death Lineup” was comparable to or even perhaps greater than any other member besides Curry himself. He’s the most important defensive player outside Green and a vital locker room presence, and shouldn’t be looked past as part of the heart of this team.
Top New Addition: Kevin Durant
Yeah, the contrarian pick might be a bit difficult to sell here. We covered much of Durant’s potential impact, but a couple other summer signings will be meaningful as well.
Zaza Pachulia took a huge pay cut to chase a ring, and should take over for Andrew Bogut in the starting center spot. He’s not the passer, defender or overall basketball savant Bogut is, but he’s a more durable body who brings consistent effort and performance. David West brings another veteran voice to the locker room as a solid backup who can play both big positions, though it’s fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank at 36 years old. Neither are stars, but with so much skill at the top of the roster there’s no need – these guys will provide solid complementary skills and depth.
– Ben Dowsett
WHO WE LIKE
- Klay Thompson
Oh yeah, him. It’s a little insane that a truly legitimate case can be made for the second-best shooter in the entire NBA as just the fourth-most important piece of the equation for his team, but here we are.
Concerns about Thompson’s usage and involvement are at least partially valid, but questions about his role aren’t: It’s the same. He’ll use wildly underrated conditioning (almost certainly best on the team and among the tops in the league) to continuously rocket around picks and open up space with his gravity offensively, then spend most of nearly every game locking down the opponent’s top guard defensively. Thompson is prone to the sort of shooting barrages even Curry can’t match, and we should see even more of these with Durant around to draw attention.
If the number of mouths to feed in the offense becomes a problem, the Warriors will cross that bridge when they come to it. For now, they’ll simply plug even more talent into his lineups and turn Klay loose with the exact same mandate as last season. A not-so-bold prediction: He leads the NBA in three-point percentage among volume shooters next season.
- Steve Kerr
Whether you do or don’t believe Kerr had his share of correctable errors at various points last season, there’s little doubt the year will serve as a vital learning experience. Even the best of us make our share of mistakes, and failure is necessary before success can truly be attained for most in the NBA. Kerr has had the summer to reflect on his bigger picture (when he’s not fist-pumping at the team’s offseason acquisitions at least), and should have more perspective for a group almost certain to chase some more history. He’s already proven himself times over as one of the most adaptable and player-friendly coaches in the league, with strong tactical chops and a willingness to critique himself. It’s easy to forget he’s only entering his third NBA season at the helm – he’s still likely improving as a coach.
- Shaun Livingston
Livingston has put a catastrophic injury well behind him in becoming a key bench cog for the Warriors, one with the skills to prop up an offense for a few minutes a game (his midrange post game felt unstoppable for long stretches last season) plus the size at the point to maintain the Dubs’ switch-everything defensive identity. His size makes him capable of fitting in alongside starter-heavy units when there’s a need, and he may have been the single Warrior most capable of exploiting a one-on-one size mismatch in a pinch until Durant came along. He’ll continue to do important work behind the scenes.
- David West
West brings experience, savvy and guile as the team’s new elder statesman, and more importantly might save Kerr from his maddening tendency to trot Anderson Varejao out at strange times. He’s physical enough to help make up for a general lack of size at the big positions, and could be a great mentor for someone like Green.
– Ben Dowsett
SALARY CAP 101
Once Kevin Durant agreed to join the Warriors, the team renounced the rights to free agents Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa and others, then traded Andrew Bogut to the Dallas Mavericks. Once they had enough room under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, they signed Durant to a two-year, $54.3 million contract. Durant can opt out next season, and either re-sign with Non-Bird Rights at $31.8 million — or push Golden State to use cap room to pay him a maximum salary that projects to be $33.5 million with a $102 million projected salary cap. The former makes a lot more sense for the team, and is probably a necessary sacrifice for Durant.
Meanwhile, the team has 14 guaranteed salaries, with five players vying for one spot (Elliot Williams, JaVale McGee, Phil Pressey, Cameron Jones and Elgin Cook). The team has until the end of October to pick up Kevon Looney’s rookie-scale option. Next summer, the Warriors can get to about $60 million in cap space, but that number assumes Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Durant move on as free agents. Naturally, the Warriors would seriously prefer to not drop under next year’s cap.
– Eric Pincus
Barring catastrophe, the Warriors will contend with some of the most dominant offenses in league history. They’re the most talented group of shooters ever assembled by a wide margin, and Durant brings them one of the league’s most efficient one-on-one options for the brief stretches where gravity within their team scheme isn’t enough. Expect them to once again be near the league lead in transition chances and efficiency, plus overall pace – no one is more comfortable trading quick possessions. They could be in for some amount of defensive slippage, but it’s possible this still remains a strength with a number of talented, like-sized guys in the rotation and Green at the helm. Green was also the linchpin for strong team rebounding figures, which should likely continue this year.
– Ben Dowsett
Depth concerns are probably overstated among those simply trying to find something negative about this team, but Green could be the exception here: Where guys like Durant, Curry and Thompson at least have some of the same overlapping skills and gravity, no one else on this roster does what Draymond does or even comes close. Any prolonged absence or slippage from Green is the only semi-realistic regular season scenario that really casts doubt on the team’s depth, but that scenario could be scarier than most assume. Age and durability are concerns for basically the entire frontcourt outside of Green. It’s also fair to wonder whether the likes of Pachulia and West are as capable on either end of the ball as Bogut and Festus Ezeli, particularly defensively, and whether the season-long trickle-down might be enough to drop the Warriors out of the league’s top 10 for defensive efficiency.
– Ben Dowsett
THE BURNING QUESTION
Do the Warriors win a ring or not?
Every team has an abundance of smaller queries that add up to this big one, but few others in recent memory have been in a situation where that all-important question is so singularly prominent. This is arguably the strongest collection of talent to ever share a court in this league, and anything but the ultimate prize will, right or wrong, be considered a failure. What the Warriors do during the regular season is about as close to irrelevant as it gets – their entire year will be sculpted with that couple-month stretch from April to June solely in mind. Expectations are sky-high, but so is this group’s confidence and, of course, their skill level. Only the hardware will represent a successful season this time around.
– Ben Dowsett
NBA Daily: Potential Free Agent Bargains
With the NBA’s free agency right around the corner, David Yapkowitz identifies some valuable players that could be had for a nice price.
The NBA Draft is in the rearview now which means free agency is right around the corner—this coming weekend, to be exact.
With seemingly few teams having money to spend, it might not shape up to be as crazy a free agency period as some believe.
Already, several players such as the Los Angeles Clippers’ Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic, the Denver Nuggets’ Wilson Chandler and the Atlanta Hawks’ Mike Muscala have chosen to exercise their player options rather than test the open market. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Carmelo Anthony will do the same.
With little money to go around, some free agents are going to have to settle for whatever is left. There might be a few guys who end up signing bargain contracts, and here’s a look at some players who could end up on that list.
Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks – $1,471,382
One year ago, Mike Scott was recovering from multiple injuries and was seemingly on the borderline between being in and out of the NBA. He signed a one-year contract with the Washington Wizards last offseason and ended up having a resurgent year. He emerged as a key contributor for a Wizards bench that has been one of their weaknesses for some time.
He’s a stretch-four, a perfect fit for today’s NBA game. He put up career-high shooting numbers with 52.7 percent shooting from the field and 40.5 percent from the three-point line. He played well against the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. He’ll fetch more than the minimum contract he signed last summer, but again, it’s a question about how much. Plenty of teams could use a versatile shooting big man with solid defense.
Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – $1,471,382
Seemingly buried on the Golden State Warriors bench his first two years in the league, Kevon Looney broke out this season and proved he could be a valuable option in the rotation. To begin this season, he was even behind rookie Jordan Bell in the lineup. It wasn’t until Bell went down with a brief injury that Looney got his chance.
With today’s game increasingly moving away from positions and big men needed more of an all-around skill set to thrive, Looney is perfect. He’s shown an ability to guard multiple positions. He can finish well around the rim and he’s active on the glass. One area he could improve on is developing a consistent jump shot, but that’s something that can come with time. Depending on what the Warriors decide to do with JaVale McGee and David West, Looney might be squeezed out from the team. He’s sure to attract interest though around the league.
Jerami Grant – Oklahoma City Thunder – $1,524,305
When he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers four years ago, Jerami Grant immediately became a solid rotation player. He continued his strong play after coming over to the Thunder in a trade about two years ago. His numbers may not jump off the stat sheet (8.4 points and 3.9 rebounds), but he does a lot of little things that bring value to a team.
In today’s NBA, he’s able to play multiple positions both offensively and defensively. He didn’t shoot so well from beyond the arc this season (29.1 percent), but the year before he connected on 37.1 percent of this three-point attempts. He has that ability to spread the floor. He made $1,524,305 this past season and he most definitely is in line for a bigger payday. How much bigger though is the question. His versatility would be a boost to any team.
Will Barton – Denver Nuggets – $3,533,333
Heading into free agency, Will Barton had the best season of his career. He put up 15.6 points per game on 45.2 percent shooting from the field, 37 percent from the three-point line and 4.1 assists, all career-highs. He was a contender for the Sixth Man of the Year award but he also proved that he could start as well. Known for being a scorer most of his career, he really developed into more of a playmaker this season.
Barton would be an asset to any team looking to add some wing firepower and playmaking to their rotation. Close to the end of the season with the Nuggets making a playoff push, Barton was thrust into the starting lineup for the final 13 games. During that stretch, he put up 19.2 points while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. He’s proved himself worthy of getting paid, it just remains to be seen what those offers might look like.
Isaiah Thomas – Los Angeles Lakers – $6,261,395
A little over a year ago, Isaiah Thomas was the face of the Boston Celtics and a legit MVP candidate. The Celtics were then swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it was revealed that Thomas had an injury that required surgery. After being dealt to the Cavaliers last offseason, he never really was able to fit in with the team and they jettisoned him off to the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline.
He looked a bit more comfortable with the Lakers but ended up having to shut it down in late March due to lingering injury issues. He once was on the threshold of receiving a max contract, but that doesn’t appear to be so anymore. There’s no question about his value to a team if healthy. He did average 15.6 points and 5.0 assists in 17 games with the Lakers. It’s possible he opts for a one year deal to prove he’s healthy and then test free agency again next summer. In any case, provided his injuries are behind him, he could be a free agent steal.
It will be interesting to see how the free agent landscape unfolds money wise. The players on the list can all be capable contributors to a playoff contender. It just seems like most of the teams with cap room this summer are teams in the midst of rebuilding. These guys could wind up being contract bargains for a contender off the bench.
NBA Daily: Kevin Knox and Kristaps Porzingis Already Have One Thing In Common
Kevin Knox’s experience on draft night was eerily similar to that of Kristaps Porzingis.
Michael Porter, Jr. might be the next Kevin Durant, but he could just as easily be the next Greg Oden.
And if you’re searching for comfort in the wake of the decision of the Knicks to pass on the opportunity to draft the young man who was widely regarded as being the top prospect in the class of 2018, it is pretty easy to find in the fact that of all people, Jerry West decided that Porter wasn’t worth the risk, either.
While Porter might end up being a Hall of Famer, when it comes to drafting prospects, we might as well be shooting in the dark. We all knew that Markelle Fultz was the best option for the Sixers in last year’s draft, and 12 other teams clearly had no idea what Donovan Mitchell had in store for the league.
Heck, two years ago, as I was recently reminded by someone on Twitter, I predicted that the Knicks would select Emmanuel Mudiay with their fourth pick. Instead, they walked away with Kristaps Porzingis.
If I were the man making the call back then, with the information I had, I certainly would have drafted Mudiay. And you know what? That decision probably would have gotten me fired, and rightfully so.
The true moral of the story is that we simply can’t see into the future and all the analytics in the world won’t able to measure things like guts and heart. So as the Knicks pin their hopes on Kevin Knox, it truly will be interesting to see how the career arcs of he and Porter compare.
As for why we would single out the Knicks and make the franchise’s decision to draft Knox over him a personal one, quite a few people in the know relayed the same information on the Knicks and Porter going back to their date at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in May—they loved each other.
Thereafter, there were reports that the Knicks were looking to move up in the draft, and Porter was on their minds. On Thursday night in Barclays Center, with the Knicks on the clock, their fans in attendance cheered for Porter, as they were hopeful that he would be selected to be the franchise’s next stud.
They were disappointed, and now, they’ll hope that Scott Perry’s decision to go with Knox ends up being the right one. It might be, just like Porzingis was the right pick over Mudiay, and it might not be, just like selecting Frank Ntilikina over Mitchell wasn’t.
Like it or not, though, the two young men will forever be linked, both in my mind and in the minds of plenty of other Knicks fans.
“That’s just motivation,” Knox said of the Knicks fans in attendance chanting Porter’s name.
“A lot of people want him to get to the Knicks, but I mean, it’s all good with me. I’m ready to get to work. I’m ready to get to work and ready to prove people in Summer League and prove people in the NBA.”
Knox’s experience on draft night was remarkably similar to that of Porzingis, and now, if you even so much as suggest trading the Latvian unicorn for a player such as Kyrie Irving, Knicks fans just might call for your head.
It’s strange how quickly things can change for you in New York City. At the end of the day, it comes down to working hard and earning the adoration of the faithful in Gotham City. Porzingis succeeded there, and there’s every reason to believe that Knox will, as well.
“They booed Porzingis (on draft night) and look where he is now,” the rookie remarked.
“They can chant Michael Porter all they want, but they got Kevin Knox, and I’m willing to work and I’m willing to get better.”
When asked, Knox would tell you that he and Jayson Tatum happen to have something in common. According to him, neither of the two really got an opportunity to show what they could do at the collegiate level.
With more opportunities and more repetitions, the sky truly is the limit for the 18-year-old.
“I think I can pretty much play all around the floor,” Knox said.
“I can handle the ball, pick-and-roll situations, make plays, make passes. I can stretch the floor, shoot the ball, get rebounds, push it coast to coast. So I think that versatility in the league is something that a lot of teams really need, and I think that’s something I can bring to the Knicks right now.”
Privately, to members of the Knicks organization, Knox has spoken highly of the spotlight that he’s bound to face in New York and believes that playing at Kentucky helped to prepare him for the type of demanding environment that he’ll be introduced to once the season gets underway in New York. And even without a bad back, the crushing expectations and heavy burden could cause a weaker minded player to crumble.
A FaceTime call with Porzingis on draft night went a long way toward giving the rookie the confidence that he’ll need to thrive in New York.
That the franchise’s pride and joy immediately reached out to his new running mate to congratulate him, welcome him to the team and give him some insight is a good sign. At the very least, it shows that Porzingis takes his responsibility as being the team’s lead man seriously.
At most, it could signal K.P.’s being pleased with the selection.
We’re about to embark upon the story of Kevin Knox. We’ve only seen the preamble.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you certainly can’t know how the final chapter will end based on what you’ve read in the first chapter. So no, the Knicks fans that wanted Michael Porter on their squad didn’t get their wish, but in the long run, they may end up being better for it.
Just like Kristaps Porzingis, Knox wasn’t received warmly by Knicks fans on draft night.
Hopefully, for the rookie, it’s not the last thing he and the beloved Porzingis will have in common.
NBA Daily: Lessons From The 2018 NBA Draft
After a wild 2018 NBA Draft, here are four lessons and storylines worth watching over the next few years.
Now that the dust has settled on an unpredictable NBA Draft — what exactly have we learned? In amongst the unrelenting rumors, refused workouts and surprise reaches, there are a few key takeaways from Brooklyn. Of course, some of these are one-off instances, but others are definitely part of modern-day draft patterns. While draft night may sometimes seem like complete chaos or chance, each scenario on this rundown has been boiling over for weeks. Between passing on a talented prospect to letting an injured one slide, here are four important lessons from the 2018 NBA Draft.
Luka Dončić… Not The No. 1?
For months and months, it appeared as if Luka Dončić was poised to become the No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Even today, it’s hard to believe that somebody with Dončić’s age and resume wasn’t the top selection. In 2017-18 alone, the Slovenian took home EuroLeague MVP and Finals MVP plus ACB MVP, with championships in both leagues to boot — but here we are. Dončić averaged 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals over just 25 minutes per game, quickly transforming into the most well-rounded overseas prospect of all-time. But as impressive as Dončić was throughout the spring, the potential ceilings of both DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III eventually won out.
At 7-foot-1, Ayton’s 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game were undeniably worthy of a top selection too, pairing well alongside Devin Booker and Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future. While the jury is still out on Bagley III — his defense needs some major fine-tuning — he won’t take key touches away from De’Aaron Fox either. More or less, nobody wants to be the organization to miss on such a franchise-altering pick. The Suns, Kings and even the Hawks may eventually regret passing on Dončić, but when general managers’ entire careers can depend on making the right choice at the right time, it’s not difficult to understand why the top of the draft unfolded as it did.
Playing Hard To Get Doesn’t Always Work Out…
As draft boards began to take shape, there was one particularly interesting situation sitting at No. 4 overall. Jaren Jackson Jr., solidly leading the second tier of prospects, was looking like a lock at the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick — but with one major caveat: Jackson Jr. reportedly didn’t work out or give his medical information to the franchise. After he was drafted, Jackson Jr. called those rumors “a tad out of context” — but, obviously, those are some massive red flags. Either way, Memphis went with their gut and selected the talented forward anyway.
But beyond all that, Memphis absolutely made the right move by sticking to their guns. Putting a modern three-point shooting, defensive-minded athlete next to Marc Gasol should prove to be an absolute nightmare for years to come. Naturally, Jackson Jr. will get plenty of easy looks from the stellar Mike Conley Jr. too — so if the draftee was once apprehensive, surely that will pass soon. Still, it reflects on a larger NBA pattern, wherein which prospective athletes sensibly look to mold their own path out of college. With players trying to control their draft narratives more than ever, it’s reassuring to see that some franchises will take their target first and then figure out the rest.
We may never know Jackson Jr.’s full thought process behind not working out for the Grizzlies, but there’s a great chance that the former Spartan was made for Memphis’ tough brand of basketball — and we should all be glad we’ll get to see it.
…But Injuries Will Lead To A Slide
Michael Porter Jr. — what a year for him, huh?
After missing out on much of his only collegiate season due to back surgery, Porter Jr. promised that he was feeling better than ever. But over the last month, scouts and front offices were treated to canceled workouts and hazy uncertainty. And, at the end of the day, it probably scared a handful of franchises away from the talented scorer. Just this week, the Kings heavily considered Porter Jr. at No. 2 overall — but even with that sudden unlikelihood passing by, few thought he’d drop out of the top ten altogether. Outside of the guaranteed money that Porter Jr. will miss out on, redshirting his rookie year may also be on the table as well.
The inherent upside with Porter Jr. is obvious, but — similarly to the Dončić issue — it’s tough to ask franchise officials to stake their livelihood on the prospect’s health. If Porter Jr.’s lingering issues stay with him and he never reaches his mountain of potential, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The 19-year-old would fall all the way down to No. 14, where the Denver Nuggets gladly scooped him up. During the combine in May, Porter Jr. called himself the best player in the draft — but it’s now up to him to prove them all wrong.
The Mysterious Men Nearly Miss Out
Let’s rewind to early April. Villanova had been just crowned NCAA champions for the second time in three years, the NBA playoffs were soundly on the horizon and mock drafts had begun to consistently pour out. Early on, there were two athletic big men that looked like shoo-ins as first-rounders: Robert Williams and Mitchell Robinson. Despite their undercooked skill-sets, both players pulled out of the combine and then waited for the hype to build — except, well, it didn’t. Williams, who was typically projected in the early teens, slipped out of the lottery entirely, only to be rescued by the Boston Celtics at No. 27. Williams is a booming, powerful prospect, but he could’ve really benefited from competing against the other top prospects in May.
Although he’s now landed in an ideal situation with Brad Stevens, Al Horford and a process-driven Celtics squad, Williams likely cost himself a whole load of money over the last 30-plus days as well.
In Robinson’s case, many believed his floor was the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 — rumors swirling that the 7-foot-1 center even received a promise from the illustrious franchise. Instead, Robinson dropped to the New York Knicks at No. 36 overall. Robinson had originally committed to Western Kentucky in July of 2017 before dropping out to prepare for the draft. After skipping the combine last month, Robinson indeed exhibited the potential to be both a steady shot-blocker and three-point maker during his individual evaluations. But with little to go off of but high school highlight reels and small session workout tapes, he understandably fell.
Sometimes the hype is impossible to ignore, but not participating in the combine and staying as mysterious as possible hurt these ultra-talented prospects.
While the 2018 NBA Draft wasn’t quite the trade-heavy, drama-laden extravaganza much of the world expected, there are plenty of narratives to reflect upon. At the end of the day, the ink is barely dry on this year’s festivities and it’ll be some time before there’s any indication of these successes or failures. Still, there are lessons to be learned from every draft, workout or injury process and these are four conversations worth considering as the NBA quickly rolls into the summer league season.