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Los Angeles Lakers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Los Angeles Lakers.

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Here’s to new beginnings as the Los Angeles Lakers embark on their seasonal voyage without the services of one Kobe Bean Bryant for the first time in 20 years. While no one within the organization was looking to kick dirt on his basketball grave, it is understandable if there is at least a slight amount of collective relief among the players as they head into a season with a significantly lower amount of expectations than this franchise is accustomed to. Any 17-win team coming off back-to-back-to-back “worst season ever” showings should be afforded such a luxury no matter what name is on the front of the jersey.

Diehard fans may still struggle to maintain perspective at times, but the freedom that should come from simply being free of the scrutiny that was a result of the extended farewell tour should be liberating for all parties. Newly hired head coach Luke Walton made it clear he intends to judge this team by the progress it shows rather than wins and losses. That’s because while he is obviously new to his official role, he also realizes the pressure that will already be on a team headlined by a second-year point guard and rookie scoring prospect. On top of that, Los Angeles will feverishly be looking for someone to ascend from the pack as the team’s new leader and wear the de facto “face of the franchise” tag.

The veteran additions of forward Luol Deng and center Timofey Mozgov should help with some of the transitioning, but there is obviously a ton of work to do in terms of reestablishing the team’s identity. Walton knows those things have to happen somewhat organically and wants to not only permit the process to take place, but also be afforded the same patience as he adjusts to life at the helm of a talented but still unproven team.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The dream of Russell Westbrook may have died, but with Brandon Ingram joining a core of youngsters that includes D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers have reason to be optimistic about their future.

Timofey Mozgov became the poster child of the questionable contract, but he will absolutely fill a need for the Lakers this season. Though well past their primes, Luol Deng and Jose Calderon are each professionals who have been around the block in the NBA, and both know what it takes to be successful in the league.

The first season of the post-Kobe Bryant era will have one less distraction and could possibly result in more wins after just 17 last season. With Luke Walton presumably installing a free-flowing system that will help keep the young guns in Los Angeles loose and engaged, we will likely see some of the talent accumulated pay off this season. Depending on how steep the learning curve is, the Lakers may surprise a few this season and show some fight. The Warriors and Clippers are still far outside their reach, but they should be competitive for the third seed in the division. I’d still be inclined to put the Kings above them since they have the best player, but even that is no guarantee.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Los Angeles Lakers enter the upcoming season without Kobe Bryant for the first time in roughly two decades. This really is the beginning of a new era for the proud franchise and its fans. Fortunately, the team features a core of young talent, including D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram. This strong nucleus will be led by rookie head coach Luke Walton, who will need to do a better job communicating with and developing the young guys than his predecessor Byron Scott did. The team also added veteran free agents Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, plus made a deal for Jose Calderon. Deng and Mozgov were given a lot of money over the next four years, so the Lakers will need real production on the court from these guys and not just leadership in the locker room. Despite overpaying for Deng and Mozgov, the Lakers finally have a path towards rebuilding their team and a bright young coach to lead the way.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Lakers fans are ready to see this team turn the corner, and with young talent just dripping from the roster it’s easy to see why they’re so excited. Brandon Ingram’s name often is whispered in the same sentence as Kevin Durant’s, D’Angelo Russell could be on the brink of something really interesting this season, and we know what kind of young talents the team has in Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. On the other hand, they also excitedly doled out the summer’s worst contract to Timofey Mozgov and brought Chinese star Yi Jianlian back into the NBA after his exile spanning the better part of the last four seasons. There’s some fascinating young talent, but outside of Jose Calderon, Luol Deng and Yi, the “youngster” theme on this roster is pretty overwhelming. That means no matter how badly the Lakers faithful want to believe things will turn around quickly, they probably won’t, but at least they can sleep at night knowing things are back on the right track. It’s just going to take some time for it all to marinate.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

For the first time since the 1996-97 season, the Lakers will head into training camp without the presence of future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant. Through a combination of injuries and Father Time, the franchise has been prepared to move on to the next chapter for quite some time now. The Lakers have plenty of young talent with Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, and this summer the club invested in veteran free agent talent to surround their youth movement. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov will be expected to help the young Lakers grow up and mature into top flight professionals and rookie head coach Luke Walton promises to remove the security blanket and throw his youngsters into the fire early. The Lakers will begin life after Bryant on the right foot, but unfortunately it won’t translate into significantly more wins in the short term.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

All eyes will be on Luke Walton as he makes his head coaching debut with the Lakers this season. Walton did a terrific job with the Warriors when called upon, but many people wonder if his success was simply due to the star-laden roster. This is Walton’s opportunity to show what he can do and silence his doubters. Talking to players this summer, it’s clear that Walton has already started to change the team’s culture and everyone seems excited to play his brand of basketball. This is an intriguing team – a mix of young talent and experienced veterans – but it’s hard to imagine the Lakers seriously competing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference this season. Instead, this year is about getting Walton comfortable, turning things over to him and developing the young core as they buy in to the new system.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell

It’s important to note this isn’t solely asking which player will lead the team in scoring, although Russell should certainly have the ball in his hands enough to also challenge for that honor. The Lakers not only need Russell to be a multi-faceted and efficient scorer, but they’ll also need their 20-year-old point guard to be the type of floor general and leader that can also create offensive scoring opportunities for his teammates (3.3 assists per game as a rookie in 28.2 minutes per contest) while fostering a positive chemistry on the court and in the locker room. A tall task for any player, but especially for one as relatively inexperienced as Russell. Regardless, that’s the role these Lakers will need him to fill as they lay the new foundation.

Top Defensive Player: Luol Deng

Serious thought went into placing Ingram in this position given his potential to actually make a serious impact on that side of the ball as well, but he’ll undoubtedly face his fair share of growing pains as he continues to add strength and size to his frame. Deng may be new to the Los Angeles Mix, but the 31-year-old remains an above-average defender that can be utilized at several positions depending upon the matchup. Oft-injured during the middle section of career, the Lakers will also need him to display the type of durability that allowed him to play 72 or more games in each of the last two seasons for Miami.

Top Playmaker: D’Angelo Russell

Like we mentioned, the Lakers need Russell to be special. No other way to put it. The “ice in my veins” moments are great and will always be a part of the Sports Center package, but this team needs more steak than sizzle moving forward. Russell (13.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.3 APG as a rookie) is a better athlete than initially given credit and appears to be in better shape than he was at this point heading into his rookie campaign. Russell was a bit turnover prone at times as a rookie and saw his playing time and role fluctuate as a result, but the team has to hope the added conditioning and perhaps a slightly longer rope from the new staff could result in an increase in his overall productivity this season.

Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram

Although unfair to expect a rookie player to “place the team on his back” with any regularity, one of the main reasons the Lakers drafted Ingram was because of his impressive offensive skill-set for a man of his size. Listed at 6’9 and likely right around 200-205 pounds by the time training camp starts later this month, Ingram can shoot over the top of most defenders as well as put the ball down and create off the dribble. Once he possesses the necessary strength to physically compete against the tougher or heavier opponents, this young man is going to be a matchup nightmare – throughout the flow of the game, but obviously in “clutch” moments as well. This team may not have all that many opportunities for moments of that nature this season, but Ingram could be one of the guys they look to go to from an early point in the year.

The Unheralded Player: Larry Nance Jr.

As beloved and appreciated as Nance Jr. is by the fan base on social media, it still feels like a good portion of folks not covering the team and outside of the market doesn’t realize how effective Nance Jr. could ultimately be under Walton. He’s much more than simply a high-flying act, as the 23-year-old former Wyoming Cowboy continues expanding his shooting range and has better touch around the basket than you might think. Nance Jr.’s greatest contribution could actually end up being on the defensive end and on the backboards, especially if he is able to earn additional playing time (20.2 MPG as a rookie in ‘15-16). He’s a high-energy guy that can not only be a disruptor near the basket and in the passing lanes, but also someone that will change ends with the quickest of big men and finish over the top of plenty as well.

Best New Addition: Brandon Ingram

We certainly don’t mean to be repetitive, and while cases could be made for Deng’s eventual impact and even how Mozgov could make a difference as a rim protector and in mentoring other young bigs like second-round pick Ivica Zubac (purple and gold fingers crossed, probably), the reality is Ingram is the best player they added this summer. They took him with the second overall pick because of that fact. Ingram is oozing with talent and potential and isn’t done growing into his frame.

– Jabari Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Luke Walton

Walton returns to the organization after actually being traded away as a player at the 2012 deadline. Obviously, his path led him to even brighter things as a member of that successful Golden State Warriors’ staff over the past couple seasons, but few remember that his coaching career technically started back during the 2011 lockout when he took a position as an assistant under John Pastner and the same Memphis Tigers program that featured the exploits of a young Tarik Black. It’s almost shocking how quickly we’ve come full-circle, as Walton now has the opportunity to coach Black and this talented group of players for the organization he experienced so much success with as a player.

Walton may no longer have the luxury of coaching a team that is immediately within the title mix, but he’s certainly not returning to bare cupboards in terms of talent to work with. With any young coach, especially those also faced with the challenge of guiding primarily young talent, fans and the organization must have patience with this process since there will undoubtedly be games that lead to questions in the early going. Beyond the need to end the trend of having a revolving door on the bench (Walton is the fourth head coach since Phil Jackson’s departure in 2011), he’s being asked to oversee a total shift in culture and direction. Players are noticeably excited about the opportunity to play in his new system, which is obviously a good thing, but now comes the time to actually adapt the approach and learn how Walton wants the game played.

While much has been made about how well the offense will fit some of these players, the real challenge for Walton and staff will be in establishing a defensive identity with this roster. Not only will this staff have to continue teaching defensive principles, but they’ll also be tasked with the duty of convincing young players to take as much (if not more) pride in shutting someone down as they take in scoring on them. It may take time, but Walton is definitely equipped with a strong supporting cast of assistants to ease his transition into the head role. Former Laker player/coach Brian Shaw joins Jesse Mermuys and Mark Madsen, who was also retained by the organization. Casey Owens and Will Scott have also reportedly been promoted into assistant and coordinator roles as well.

2. Julius Randle

Perhaps the most interesting roster “battle” – or at least positional juxtaposition – could come from Randle and Nance Jr. While significantly chiseled and in much better shape than when he joined the organization, Randle is still a guy that wants to lower his shoulder and bull-rush you around the basket. Injury to his right hand aside, Randle has reportedly been working like a madman to improve all facets of his game this summer. Being able to keep the defense in a vulnerable position by continuing to add touch and range on his shot will likely be key to his ultimate success on the offensive end at this level, but he also needs to take a step forward as a defender. He was a walking double-double in ‘15-16 (34 total) and was at least willing to challenge at the rim some of the time, but fell prone to the same lapses, poor angles and improper footwork that tend to plague young defenders. He also tended to get himself into early foul trouble due to those undisciplined tactics and poor positioning, especially early in the year.

Playing alongside more able-bodied defenders could and probably should help, but Randle will also need to improve his attention to detail and at least provide a consistent effort on that end if he wants to keep Nance Jr., Deng and others from potentially taking some of his playing time. It wasn’t exactly clear why the last coaching staff didn’t look to utilize more Russell-to-Randle pick-and-roll action – if for no reason other than to simply make scoring a bit easier for him – but we should probably expect to see more of it moving forward. Being able to effectively score around the bucket with his right hand and spread the defense out with the jumpshot are each vital, but sometimes giving a young player that extra space or step with some good pick-and-roll action can also make the difference simply from a confidence and comfort standpoint. The concern could have been with Randle’s ability to change directions once he gets his momentum going, but the 21-year-old did show improvement with his awareness and body control throughout the year.

If you’re the Lakers, you might secretly love the idea of Nance Jr. functioning as a driving force behind Randle. As someone who has actually shown a fair amount of poise and maturity at an early age, Randle seems to possess a singular focus on simply being the best player he can be, and that will permit him to embrace the challenge in a manner that should be positive for both parties. The two of them could wind up pushing one another to the next level as players, and that certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.

3. Jordan Clarkson

Due to the traffic sensational headlines can garner during the free agency period, Clarkson’s four year, $50 million deal was somewhat swept under the rug this summer, but it has the potential to become an absolutely phenomenal value contract for this team. Clarkson (15.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.3 APG in ’15-16) may not have had the chance to join his teammates on Team USA’s Select squad, but that doesn’t mean the young man hasn’t been putting in serious work in the gym and weight room this summer. Fans and opponents alike may be in for a surprise when they see the results of his dedicated workout regimen as the third-year guard really appears to be exhausting all efforts in order to continue improving.

Clarkson was impressive as a rookie, particularly for a late second-round pick the Lakers actually purchased from the Wizards. He showed a solid level of improvement in year two, but if the 24-year-old can take yet another step as a playmaker and defender under the new regime then his deal would quickly become a steal. You don’t simply become a solid perimeter defender overnight, but Clarkson shows the physical tools of someone that is far more capable than he’s been in that department through two years.

The freedom of the new system will also need to come with discipline. Clarkson can get a bit “out over his skis” when attacking at times, but he can be the type of interchangeable player you want when adopting a less constrained system. He was up to 34.7 percent from deep with about as disjointed an offensive system as you can imagine, and should see far more quality looks moving forward. If Clarkson can consistently knock down the deep ball while developing into a player that can at least adequately defend a couple positions (as is the ultimate hope), the Lakers will be in business.

4. D’Angelo Russell

If Russell is truly that transcendent type of player that some scouts and analysts believed he could be when coming into the league, then we should start to see significant strides in his game on both sides of the ball as early as this year. Last year may have appeared to be an unmitigated disaster considering his difficulties with professionalism, with maintaining his role and even position on the court at times, but Russell did show some real flashes of brilliance at certain moments. Not quite enough to offset some of the sophomoric behavior and antics for some, but he was able to do enough to make the organization at least appear to remain comfortable with the idea of Russell at the helm.

Russell showed a clear ability to shoot the ball from distance at this level as the season wore on (38.8 percent or 57/147 from the start of February through the end of the season) and actually has a nice post-up and mid-post game you should probably anticipate seeing more and more of (especially against small or smallish opponents – yes, you, Isaiah Thomas and the like), but we have yet to see him consistently embrace being a playmaker as a Laker. After being intoxicated by comparisons to greats like Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd when it came to his passing, it seemed as though Russell was a bit more comfortable attacking NBA defenders as a scorer than he was with generating offense for others.

To be clear, the 2015-16 Lakers didn’t have an awful lot of players capable of capitalizing on his creativity, but Russell also appeared to struggle against defenders that applied heavy pressure at times and he often adopted the “put your head down and go get a bucket” mentality many of today’s top scoring guards employ. With Walton likely to utilize a system similar to the one he was a part of in Golden State, there should be plenty of opportunities for Russell to display just how much ice his veins possess, but these Lakers need him to be dynamic and all-around offensive presence he was once advertised as being if they are to take the next step as a unit.

5. Brandon Ingram

We’d ask everyone to write, “I will not unfairly expect Ingram to immediately play like Kevin Durant” 100 times on the chalkboard if we thought it might help… but it won’t. Not with Ingram being built so similarly and being such a capable scorer at the same position. Especially not with guys like Durant himself making mention of it, as he did when the two faced one another during this summer’s Team USA training camp. While fans can’t be faulted for finding it difficult to curb their enthusiasm when it comes to this team, it will do all parties involved a service if a bit of patience is utilized with Ingram.

He’ll undoubtedly have some nights that look incredible along the way, but they’ll probably be balanced with some rough ones against certain teams, especially in the early portion of the season as he adjusts to the pace and physicality. As a swingman, Ingram is not only going to have to figure out how to consistently score against top defenders and schemes expressly designed with limiting his comfort in mind, but he’ll also be charged with the responsibility of at least slowing down some of the league’s most dynamic scorers on the other end.

Much like the reality that Russell was faced with as a rookie, Ingram will likely see a steady diet of Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Andrew Wiggins, Gordon Hayward and probably even Rodney Hood all within the first 30 days of the regular season. Good luck with that.

“Don’t get too high on the highs or too low on the lows” may be one of the more commonly used clichés in sports when dealing with a young team or player, but it will need to be the approach taken with Ingram and most of these players. As long as they continue to show progress along the way, that’s all that can be fairly asked. If what we’ve seen from Ingram while a member at the University of Duke and during the Last Vegas Summer League are any indication of what is to come, then we have a feeling fans will be more than willing to wait for his total development.

6. Luol Deng

While Deng’s contract partially swept up in the general disappointment and outcry over the Lakers failing to bring in some of the summer’s top names, he is actually a really good addition to this team. He may be 31 and have some miles on his body, but as mentioned, he remains a relatively versatile defender that can be depended upon to knock down the deep ball at a respectable level (34.4 percent in ‘15-16, 35.5 in ‘14-15). Whether he’s used primarily at the small forward or Walton elects to move him around according to the lineup and opponent, Deng’s value won’t be limited to the box score.

He is the perfect guy for a locker room in need of guidance and professionalism. Last year in Miami really exemplified how Deng has somewhat seamlessly transitioned from being a primary focus and one of the main options of the offense – as he was throughout his time in Chicago – to a jack-of-all-trades member of the supporting cast. Quite honestly, it could have made a bit more sense for a player of Deng’s capability to join a roster that is closer to being an immediate playoff team.

However, Deng makes sense for L.A. While developing young talent, you need a glue guy like Deng to contribute and hold things together during the difficult periods that will come over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Similar to what guys like Joe Johnson (Utah Jazz) or even Al Jefferson (Indiana Pacers) did in accepting similar supporting roles, the fact that Deng decided to join this team at this time should absolutely be taken as a positive. Sure, money and the length of his deal (four years, $72 million) are factors, but Deng still has plenty to offer and could play a pivotal role in helping with the development of several others on the roster.

– Jabari Davis

SALARY CAP 101

The Lakers used cap space to acquire players like Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Jose Calderon, Ivica Zubac and Yi Jianlian. Now over the cap, the Lakers still have their $2.9 million Room Exception – although their roster is full with 15 guaranteed players. The Lakers are looking to get out of Nick Young’s salary ($11.1 million over two years), which could open a roster spot for Zach Auguste, Travis Wear or Julian Jacobs.

Yi’s contract is unique in that it’s minimally guaranteed, ramping up by games played (20, 40 and 59), making Yi a potential trade piece starting Dec. 15. Looking ahead to next summer, the Lakers project to have at least $26.6 million in cap space, and more if they can get out of Young’s contract. That assumes the Lakers do not finish with a top-three pick in the 2017 lottery, instead sending their pick to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the Steve Nash trade. The Lakers also have three easy decisions to make before November – the rookie-scale options for D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Larry Nance are all no-brainers.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The added talent will definitely help, but the refreshing feeling around the team with the new direction already appears to be taking effect. Although down the road there could be some revised appreciation for the time they played for the previous staff, to a man, the players have each expressed great optimism about the current trajectory. Also, as mentioned, while a certain level of pressure will always come with playing under the bright lights of Staples Center and for this organization in general, at least this team won’t have anyone truly expecting them to compete for a playoff spot in the ever-challenging Western Conference for at least another year or so. The transition to a more free-flowing and uptempo style should not only be a far more entertaining product for the fans, but should lead to guys actually having more fun while out there on the court.

– Jabari Davis

WEAKNESSES

Deng, Mozgov and perhaps Lou Williams aside, the majority of the core is still littered with early 20-somethings and guys that have less than three years of NBA experience. Randle was still in high school in 2013 and missed a year of action due to a leg fracture. As talented as he may be, Ingram was still playing high school basketball in Kinston, North Carolina in March of 2015. The NBA isn’t very forgiving on rookies and inexperienced players (see: last season), so there may be some games that look eerily similar to the more disappointing of nights over the past few seasons; but the main difference will be the team should actually be headed in a definitive direction these days. For fans, more disheartening than anything else over this stretch of futility was the fact that it at least appeared the front office may have been a bit lost over the past few years.

The decisiveness with which they locked in on Walton coupled with all the spoils of their recent inefficacy -whether gathered intentionally or with a bit of luck along the way- at least present the appearance of a stable and clear-cut plan. Their lowest point also happened to coincide with the league shifting both from a financial/structural and on-court standpoint. Laker fans may shake their heads in disapproval, but the truth of the matter is to have potentially turned it around in as quickly as four years on the heels of losing the organization’s long-time patriarch in Dr. Buss and having to figure out the eventual hierarchy, influence and control between two very different siblings in Jeanie and Jim Buss, all while watching an aging superstar transition away would be a bit of a miracle when all things are considered.

– Jabari Davis

THE BURNING QUESTION

The biggest question for this team will be: how long does it take them to individually develop so they can collectively improve? If a couple of the young guys were to actually take the next step on both sides of the ball while the other young prospects at least showed a steady rate of improvement, then a win-total as high as the upper-20s (or perhaps even low 30s if everything were to break somewhat favorably) is attainable. That prognosis may be a bit gloomy for some and is almost certain to outright anger others, but that’s why we’ve preached “perspective” throughout the preview. If the Lakers were to somehow reach a win range of even 28-32 games it would take a remarkable 11-15 game improvement from one season to the next, which would be a great accomplishment for any rebuilding team. Walton set the tone by establishing progress as his determining marker and that has to be the mindset and approach for everyone within the organization moving forward. This steady, even incremental advancement may be new for some of the younger amongst the fan base, but, by and large, these are the steps most franchises have to take when building a winner. The Lakers may not quite be there yet, but it is nice to see them headed in that direction once again.

– Jabari Davis

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NBA

San Antonio Spurs 2017-18 Season Preview

The Spurs brought their band back and added Rudy Gay. Will it be enough to win the Southwest again?

Basketball Insiders

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After cruising through last season to the second seed in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs’ championship hopes were ended when Kawhi Leonard suffered a playoff-ending ankle injury in the Western Conference Finals.

Now, the Spurs look to gather themselves and attempt to knock off the Golden State Warriors this season. Most of the team is back for another run, with a few changes here and there. Can this group compete for a sixth championship in the Gregg Popovich era?

Let’s take an early look at the 2017-18 Spurs season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

While the rest of the Western Conference powerhouses were adding star players and key talents to their arsenal in an attempt to knock the Golden State Warriors off of their high horse, the San Antonio Spurs held their ground.

Aside from bringing in Rudy Gay, the same old Spurs captained by the stoic looks of Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard will enter this season looking to do what every team last season failed miserably at; beat the Warriors.

Unfortunately for San Antonio, the road to that seemingly impossible task looks a whole lot bumpier this season. With no real upgrades across the board for their squad, this may not be the year the Spurs have a chance at title number six under Coach Pop. But don’t expect the NBA’s pillar of sustained excellence to go down without a fight.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Nothing has happened over the course of the last four months to suggest that the San Antonio Spurs won’t be every bit as formidable as they’ve always been. Manu Ginobili is back. The team re-signed Patty Mills and Pau Gasol, while adding Rudy Gay to the rotation for some more scoring. Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the league, and it’s not like Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge have been completely siphoned of their usefulness. This still is an incredibly good, incredibly deep team that still has Gregg Popovich as a coach. They’ll be a top-four seed in the Western Conference, as has become their custom.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Re-signing Pau Gasol and nabbing Rudy Gay were the splashiest moves the Spurs made this past summer, but at this point, nobody should doubt them or their ability to seemingly overachieve.

If Tony Parker isn’t able to return to pre-injury form quickly, it could threaten the Spurs and their ability to win the Southwest Division, but I think I’ve seen enough from the combination of Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray to believe that they’ll be able to hold the fort in his absence. Plus, we can rest assured of at least two guys on Popovich’s roster will reveal to the world that they are studs.

I’m sad that Jonathon Simmons will be wearing a new uniform next season, but am happy for him and the fact that he was able to turn his opportunity with the Spurs into a three-year, $20 million contract with the Orlando Magic.

It’s fairly easy to see the Rockets finding a way to outlast the Spurs and take the division crown, but with their compromised depth and the Spurs being the Spurs, at this point, I’m still betting on Popovich and Kawhi Leonard.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Is this finally the year the Spurs take the small step back many have been predicting from them for half a decade? It could be, but you won’t see that pick coming from this pen until we’ve at least seen it happen once. The Spurs stood pat this offseason other than the acquisition of Rudy Gay – unless they have more moves up their sleeve, it seems as though they’ll look to challenge the Warriors with roughly the same kind of roster. They’ll rack up wins all season against inferior competition, as per usual, and the big questions will arise come spring time. To this eye, Kawhi Leonard is one of the best MVP bets available on the board.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

Between the issues at point guard, Rudy Gay’s recovery from an Achilles tear, Pau Gasol’s age and the loss of Jonathon Simmons, I’m a bit concerned about the San Antonio Spurs heading into this season. I fully understand that the Spurs will likely find a variety of ways to be as competitive as ever this upcoming season, but this roster just feels outmatched by other elite teams in the league at this point. The defense should still be formidable, Kawhi Leonard may be even better with another season under his belt and LaMarcus Aldridge could bounce back and become more of a focal point for the team. But, as of now, it feels as though the Spurs are a step behind the Houston Rockets and even further behind the Golden State Warriors.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

One name that will be a constant on this list: Kawhi Leonard. He is among the best players in the NBA and leads the Spurs on both ends of the floor night in and night out.

Leonard averaged a career-high 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game last season. Although he finished third in the Most Valuable Player award voting and third in the Defensive Player of the Year award voting, he had a case to win both awards.

He can attack a defense in a variety of ways. He can knock down the outside shot, drive to the basket and finish through contact and is one of the league’s best scorers in the pick and roll. Leonard aslo ranked third in the NBA in PER at 27.6.

Most Spurs fans will remember the 43 points he scored against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs while knocking down seven three-pointers or the six consecutive games he had in January in which he scored at least 30 points.

Leonard has long been known to be a lockdown defender, but it’s possible his offense is nearly just as good as his defense, which is why he’s one f the best overall players in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

As a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Leonard listed as the team’s best defender.

Leonard is tasked with guarding the best players in the league on any given night and he has proven to have more success than others in doing so. He has long arms, great athleticism and seemingly never gives up on any play.

It’s perhaps most impressive that Leonard can guard virtually any position on the floor. He can be matched up with the game’s fastest players on one night and then be asked to guard some of the biggest players on other nights. Whether it’s matching up against John Wall or Kevin Durant, Leonard can lock up just about anyone and has a legitimate case to be the best NBA’s best defender.

He ranked eighth in defensive rating (101.5), sixth in defensive win shares (4.7) and seventh in steals (1.8 per game). He had a legitimate case to win DPOY for a third consecutive year, but was voted third, instead.

Top Playmaker: Tony Parker

While his best years may be behind him, Parker is still a key playmaker for the Spurs. Sure, Leonard is the team’s best player and responsible for carrying the offense load each night, but Parker is still the point guard and is often the one initiating the offense.

Parker has proven to be a great penetrator over his 16 years in the NBA and can make a great pass to find an open man as well. His 4.5 assists per game last season led the Spurs as a unit. Parker simply knows how to feed the team’s key offensive players – especially in the post.

He may not be ready to play until January after tearing his quad in the postseason, but he’ll surely be a welcomed addition to the team once he’s healthy again.

Top Clutch Player: Kawhi Leonard

As Leonard proved to be the team’s top clutch player, he was also one of the best clutch players in the NBA.

The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Leonard ranked 13th in the NBA with 136 total points last season in those situations and shot 40 percent (38-of-95) from the field.

Leonard had an incredible clutch sequence back in March against the Houston Rockets. James Harden converted on one of two free-throw attempts to give the Rockets a 108-107 lead with 39.7 seconds left in the game. Leonard then brought the ball down the court, dribbled to his left and pulled up to drain a three-pointer to give the Spurs a two-point lead with 25.4 seconds left. Just seconds later, Leonard blocked a shot by Harden at the rim to seal the victory.

He also hit a game-winning shot against the Washington Wizards in December. He’s proven to be among the best in the league in these clutch situations and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him add a few more game-winning shots to his collection this season.

The Unheralded Player:  Danny Green

Leonard often dominates the headlines when discussing this Spurs team and rightfully so. Even after Leonard, most will talk about LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Each player brings something to the table and are key contributors for this team.

One player that is often overlooked is Green. His stats last season weren’t flashy: 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range.

But Green is still a key piece to this team. His shooting creates spacing to allow guys like Aldridge and Pau Gasol room to work and he is still among the best defenders in the league after earning All-Defensive Second Team honors last season.

He came up with some big plays down the stretch to help the Spurs to a 3-2 series lead over the Rockets in the playoffs last year. It might be easy to overlook him, but it’s clear that Green is more than just what appears on the stat sheet.

Best New Addition: Rudy Gay

Gay leaves what he described as “basketball hell” with the Sacramento Kings and joins one of the best organizations in the league.

Signing Gay has the potential to be one of the best free agency steals of the summer after adding him on a two-year, $17.2 million deal. He holds an 18.4 points per game mark over his 11 seasons in the NBA. While he may not put up numbers like that this season, he still figures to be another quality scorer for the team.

He reportedly met with the Spurs, Warriors and Thunder in free agency and ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Gay will take the pressure off of Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge on the offensive end.

Of course, health is a huge question mark with Gay as he’s just one year removed from an Achilles’ heel injury that limited him to just 30 games last season with the Kings. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a huge addition to the second unit as a player that can still get buckets.

— Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Popovich has guided the Spurs to the playoffs in 20 of his 21 seasons on the job. It’s a pretty remarkable feat, but the Spurs have become a team expected to compete for a championship each year while under his watch.

The Spurs have won five championships during his tenure and he has won three Coach of the Year awards to back that up. It remains to be seen just how much longer Popovich has left as coach, but it has been proven that the Spurs will be among the league’s best as long as he’s still there.

2. LaMarcus Aldridge

As the Spurs’ No. 2 man behind Leonard, Aldridge has had a solid two season run in San Antonio. Rumors regarding his happiness with that role aside, Aldridge still has plenty to offer the Spurs.

While some teams opt to move away from the mid-range shot, Aldridge is still shooting it and shooting it well. The Spurs have developed ways to get him clean shots and he’s knocking them down. Aldridge ranked fourth in the NBA last season with 3.3 made shots from mid-range per game while connecting on 41.2 percent of them.

The Spurs will continue to count on Aldridge to help Leonard carry the offensive load and it looks as though he’ll continue to deliver.

3. Dejounte Murray

As a rookie, Murray showed a lot of promise. Now, the Spurs will really get a good idea what they have with him as he figures to transition into a bigger role in his second year.

With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Murray projects to play more minutes in his place. It could be a welcomed sign for the team in order to get Murray more comfortable playing big minutes. He played sparingly during the regular season last season, but was asked to step in for Parker after he went down with his quad injury.

If Murray can continue to progress, it should be fun to see how he improves and if he’ll be a major factor this season for the Spurs. Popovich showed a lot of confidence in him by playing him big minutes in the playoffs and that should in turn help Murray and his confidence.

Murray has been in the gym working out with the likes of Leonard and Ginobili so we expect to see a big second year from him.

4. Manu Ginobili

We love the fact that Ginobili is back for a 16th season in the NBA. It almost wouldn’t feel like a Spurs season without Ginobili on the court making amazing passes, making defenders miss with his signature left-handed drive or hitting clutch shots.

While he may have averaged a career-low 7.5 points per game last season, he still has value to this Spurs team. He still has enough juice in the tank to put up a 21-spot in the playoffs (See: Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals) and even have a clutch block on James Harden.

— Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Spurs stayed over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap this summer, using their Mid-Level Exception on Rudy Gay (locking in a hard cap at $125.3 million). San Antonio isn’t close to the limit, comfortably under the luxury tax threshold of $119.3 million. If needed, the team should be able to use their available $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception to add another free agent to the roster.

Kyle Anderson is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Spurs also must decide on Dejounte Murray’s 2018-19 team option before November. Next summer, San Antonio may be able to get to about $40 million under a $102 million salary cap, but that assumes LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne all opt out of their contracts.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

For a team that has made the playoffs in 20 consecutive seasons, there are understandably not many holes on this team. The team has the playoff experience needed to make a deep run, and had it not been for an injury to Leonard, the team may have challenged the Warriors for a spot in the NBA Finals. It also helps that they have arguably one of the best players in the league that can impact a game equally on both ends of the floor.

— Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

Although Tony Parker’s best basketball is behind him, his loss will still impact the team’s point guard position. Patty Mills has proven to be a solid fill-in for Parker, but after that there are questions. It appears as though Dejounte Murray will start at point guard with Mills off of the bench. Can Murray develop into a capable starter? That will be a question the team will need to know as soon as possible.

Of course, having Leonard on the court helps, but will the team be able to duplicate its top defense from a season ago? They lost Jonathon Simmons in free agency to the Orlando Magic and Dewayne Dedmon is now a member of the Atlanta Hawks. Simmons was among the team’s best perimeter defenders and Dedmon helped control the paint inside. It may not necessarily be a weakness just yet, but a situation worth monitoring.

— Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can the Spurs make it past the Warriors in the playoffs this season?

It’s a question each team in the Western Conference is asking this season. Obviously, some teams have a better chance than others to pull off an upset against the Warriors, but can the Spurs make it past them? They certainly started off well against the Warriors in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals, but an injury to Leonard ended their hopes in that game. Even with a healthy Leonard, it remains to be seen how the Spurs would fare against the Dubs in a seven-game series and we’re not quite ready to say the Spurs would be able to knock off the defending champs given just how stacked the Warriors are.

— Cody Taylor

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NBA Saturday: Early Season Storylines To Keep An Eye On

This summer produced several NBA storylines heading into this season. Here are a few that will dominate the early news cycle.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s that time of year again, folks. The NBA season is back.

On Monday, most teams around the league will hold their media day availability, and the teams that don’t will be opening their doors to reporters in the days that follow. After what seemed like an incredibly short offseason due to all of the madness that took place throughout the Association this summer, the league as a whole is ready to get back into the swing of things.

With the aforementioned crazy summer, the NBA experienced a fresh new set of storylines heading into this season. Some are set in stone, some are still developing, but all look to be a whole new level of interesting for a league that people generally complain about the regular season being too boring.

As basketball season gets set to tip off, let’s take a look at some of the stories that are going to be dominating the news cycle for this year.

Golden State Dominance

Two years ago, the Golden State Warriors won 73 games. You know how that team’s story ends. So, in light of their shortcomings, the 73-win Warriors added Kevin Durant. You know how that team’s story ends, too.

Well, here we are. Year two of the Durant Warriors, fresh off of a world championship with no clear signs of slowing down. Durant actually took less money than what he could’ve signed for just so Golden State could keep the core guys like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston around in the Bay Area. When your best player is taking less money to keep key bench guys on the squad, chances are you’re going to be in the running for a title that next season.

Now, just because the Warriors were so dominant last season doesn’t mean the rest of the league is laying down. The Houston Rockets made a move to pair Chris Paul with James Harden, Jimmy Butler is in Minnesota with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George (and as of today, Carmelo Anthony) joined Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward moved to Boston. Elite players seemed to swap jerseys this summer at an eye-opening rate, in theory, to position themselves for the opportunity to one day take down the empire out in California.

What makes this unfolding story so interesting is, will it be enough? Will all of these new-look teams with new star players be able to make Golden State sweat, or will they just steamroll everyone like they did last year?

Only time will tell for certain, but the smart money is still on the Warriors.

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving

Raise your hand if you guessed Kyrie Irving would be the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics on opening night this season. If you raised your hand, you’re a liar.

Shortly following Irving and LeBron James’ third season, and their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, the point guard dropped a bombshell on just about every person in the basketball community when news broke that he was demanding a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Three years of living in King James’ shadow proved to be too much for Irving, and he spoke publicly about wanting to have his own team, to be able to do his own thing. Not many players, if any at all, had so publicly looked for a divorce from arguably the greatest player of this generation. Boiled down to its core, the move by Irving was a statement that sometimes regardless of how great a player he is, James just isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

To make things even more interesting, the Cavaliers shipped Irving right to the team they had just beaten in the Eastern Conference Finals. Irving in Beantown to start the 2017-18 NBA season, what a time.

And because the NBA is a perfect blend of consistent chaos, the Cavs and Celtics will have to wait a whopping zero days before facing off against each other in their newest forms.

That’s right. Opening night, Oct. 17, at Quicken Loans Arena. In a perfect world, James will switch onto Irving in a defensive matchup and the place will go wild. With how perfect the NBA’s insanity has been over the past few months, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

 

Lonzo Ball

It’s almost unbelievable how much impact a rookie point guard who hasn’t stepped foot on an NBA floor for a meaningful minute can dominate the news headlines.

I’d be willing to wager, however, that most rookie point guards don’t have a dad like Lonzo Ball does.

When you mix up the Big Baller Brand, Lonzo’s incredible passing skills, LaVar’s big mouth, and the Los Angeles market you get a whole bunch of interest. Everyone and their mother will be monitoring each step of Lonzo’s rookie season. Some will be wishing him success, others will be hoping he fails, but everyone will be watching. In fact, Lonzo is expected to generate so much coverage through the media that USA Today launched a wire service site strictly dedicated to the coverage of the Lakers rookie point guard, dubbed “LonzoWire.”

Say what you will about LaVar, but man can that guy market his son.

The Lakers, now run by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, have made some moves to better the franchise for this season. Trading for Brook Lopez and signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to pair with young core members Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle makes for an interesting team heading into this season.

While playoff basketball won’t likely be in the cards for Los Angeles this season, the conversation around the team will have you thinking Kobe Bryant came out of retirement and suited up.

Philadelphia 76ers Health Concerns

If you’ve grown accustomed to trusting The Process, there’s a good chance you’ve had to explain the severity of certain injuries to a fellow basketball fan.

After multiple injuries to heralded prospects, the stars seem to be aligning in Philadelphia for the 76ers and their crop of young talent. Ben Simmons is at what appears to be full strength after head coach Brett Brown told media Wednesday he’s been participating in 5-on-5 drills and has been “dominating the gym.” Markelle Fultz seems to be recovered from rolling his ankle in Summer League play.

But the question about franchise center Joel Embiid’s health — who showed more than a few flashes of brilliance during his 31 games last season –is still very much alive. After suffering a meniscus injury that ended his season last winter, Embiid is still yet to be cleared for 5-on-5 play.

As Embiid goes, the Sixers will go. Simmons and Fultz could potentially turn into game-changers one day, but as far as the basketball world knows, Embiid is already at that level when healthy. For a team with playoff aspirations in a weakened Eastern Conference, they’ll need at the very least 55 games from their franchise big man to pull themselves out of the lottery for the first time in six years.

With the captivating personality Embiid possesses, he’s the picture perfect media darling. Every tweet Embiid sends out goes viral in minutes, and his post game dancing antics never fail to make for a hilarious video.

For every bit of promise the Sixers ooze heading into this season, there will be a dark cloud of skepticism that hovers over them until proven otherwise. That intrigue in itself, not even counting how fun a Simmons-Fultz-Embiid trio could be, will be enough to have people following along closely.

Granted, these aren’t all of the storylines that will dominate the NBA this season. That’s the best part. New drama will almost assuredly pop up on a regular basis as the season begins to get itself into mid-season form, and there were be a whole new bag of goodies for the fans to digest.

If this past summer is any indication for how this NBA season will go, not many people will be calling the regular season boring this time around.

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Houston Rockets 2017-18 Season Preview

With Chris Paul joining James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, how high can the Rockets soar? Basketball Insiders takes a look.

Basketball Insiders

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After overachieving last season, the Houston Rockets pulled off one of the more surprising moves of the summer. With Chris Paul now joining James Harden, the Rockets have one of the league’s best backcourts. The question now, however, is whether or not they have enough to help them become one of the top two teams in the Western Conference.

With a roster that isn’t as deep as it was last season, the 2017-18 Houston Rockets will be counting on their supremely gifted backcourt to help them surpass last season’s 55 wins.

Whether or not they can may ultimately depend on how general manager Daryl Money fleshes out his roster around his two superstars—and also whether the team is able to eventually pull off a long-discussed trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2017-18 Houston Rockets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

For the first time during his Houston Rockets tenure, James Harden has a true superstar companion (no, I’m not counting Dwight Howard in that category).

Chris Paul joins Harden in H-Town after a season that saw Harden switch to point guard in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and lead the league in assists per game. While that may seem odd at first glance, Paul’s ability to command the floor, shoot and score effectively, and play elite defense gives Houston a backcourt that can rival any in the league — even those dudes in the Bay Area.

With role players like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, and Trevor Ariza on board, Harden and Paul should have enough artillery to overtake their division and actually give Golden State a run for their money.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Oh, there will be three-pointers. So many three-pointers. A year ago, the Houston Rockets broke the single-season record for most deep attempts in a season, having shot over 40 of them per game, and it doesn’t look like this year is going to be any different, especially with Chris Paul helping to break down defenses and create potentially even more open looks for those Houston shooters. Nabbing Paul was a huge boon, and somehow finagling Carmelo Anthony would only add to the haul basketball gods willing. Even without Anthony, though, Paul and last year’s MVP runner-up James Harden is enough to make this team a powerhouse. The role guys here fit Mike D’Antoni’s system beautifully, and the star power obviously is there. Pencil the Rockets in for a very deep playoff run this summer. Nobody is going to give Golden State more trouble than these guys, health pending.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Joel Brigham

Houston is hoping that the backcourt duo of James Harden and Chris Paul can bridge the gap between the Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are still the favorites, but Houston now has arguably the league’s best backcourt, versatile wing defenders that theoretically match up well with Golden State and enough overall talent to have a chance to upset the Warriors on any given night. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah Moute help to bolster the team’s defensive versatility, while Paul is still one of the league’s best defensive point guards. However, the loss of players like Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could sting a bit more than most predict. The wildcard right now is the stalemate regarding Carmelo Anthony. If Anthony ends up in Houston, the Rockets would have a very impressive arsenal of offensive talent. Whether the skill sets of Paul, Harden and Anthony could effectively mesh together is unclear, but it sure would be fun to see what they could achieve together.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

What an offseason for Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who should easily be in pole position for Executive of the Year at this point. The Chris Paul trade is the obvious feather in the cap, but Morey also got fantastic deals on guys like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute – both exactly the kind of wing stoppers this team has been in dire need of for some time. The Rockets now have more of the kind of switchable bodies needed to throw at a behemoth like Golden State, plus two of the league’s best ball-handlers in Paul and James Harden. They’re all-in on making a charge at the champs this year; we’ll see if they have enough to do it.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Rockets enter the season very similarly to the Celtics.

Each team surpassed expectations last season, but ended up trading away a few rotation pieces to consolidate and bring in a superstar. I think the partnership between Paul and James Harden will work so long as Harden continues to play with his head up. The propensity for many people in Harden’s shoes would be to revert to being a shoot-first guard, but I think the Rockets will only maximize their potential if both Paul and Harden make it their duty to make their teammates better.

Although these guys may struggle to get defensive stops at times, they are just one more piece away from potentially winning the Western Conference. The Rockets would be best-served by encouraging Carmelo Anthony to work out a contract buyout with the Knicks and join them after potentially clearing waivers. Until they find a way to add him (or a player with similar caliber), they will still be looking up at the Spurs in the Southwest and at at least two other teams in the conference.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: James Harden

Although Chris Paul is a supremely gifted offensive player, James Harden is absolutely extraordinary. Russell Westbrook’s record-breaking 42 triple doubles overshadowed the fact that Harden himself turned in an amazing 22 over the course of the season. Always having been a dynamic scorer, Harden took his game to the next level last season after being installed as the primary point guard for Mike D’Antoni and his club. Harden reverted to his prior days as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder and proved that he still had the ability to create plays for his teammates and be an effective “finder” in pick-and-roll situations.

Last season, the Rockets finished second in points per game and second in offensive efficiency, and they did so because of Harden. The bearded point guard averaged career-highs across the board with 29.1 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game and 11.2 assists per game.

He’s not only the top offensive player on the Rockets; it could be argued that he’s the top offensive player in the entire league.

Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Again, Chris Paul gets snubbed, but barely. The same can be said for the newly signed Luc Mbah a Moute, who is entering his 10th NBA season. Both Mbah a Moute and Paul were members of the most effective defensive lineups deployed by Doc Rivers last season, but Clint Capela is a true game-changer on the defensive end of the floor.

Although he had the benefit of being protected on the perimeter by Patrick Beverly and Trevor Ariza, Capela is a prototype of what today’s defensive NBA should be. He is wiry and rangy—his long arms make him a good shot blocker and pass lane defender, while his athleticism and light-footedness make him nimble enough to defend opposing perimeter players after being switched out on pick-and-roll plays. The numbers might not necessarily back up the claim (Capela averaged just 1.2 blocks and 0.5 steals per game during the regular season), but he was the anchor and final line of defense for a team that finished a respectable 18th in defensive efficiency last season. Most importantly, though, was Capela’s defense during the playoffs. He averaged 2.5 blocks per game and helped the Rockets hold their playoff opponents to 105.8 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the playoffs.

As it relates to defensive presence, the Swiss-born center is special.

Top Playmaker: Chris Paul

James Harden may have led the league in assists per game last season, but Chris Paul is the best playmaker on the roster. Whether or not he can be more effective with Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson—the three of whom all shared the floor with Harden last year—remains to be seen, though.

Still, Paul has averaged at least nine assists per game for each of the past 10 seasons and has never drawn criticism for a lack of creating opportunities for his teammates. In fact, it will be especially interesting to see how effective Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will be on the offensive side of the basketball without him.

As it currently stands, Paul enters his 13th season averaging 9.89 assists per game—the third-highest per-game average in NBA history. Magic Johnson (11.19) and John Stockton (10.51) are the only ones who have averaged more per game. Paul is also just one of two active players to rank in the Top 10 for total career assists. Andre Miller, who has recorded 8,524 career assists, ranks ninth. That leaves him just 273 assists ahead of Paul’s 8,251.

In all likelihood, Paul, one of the top playmakers in the history of the league, will become ninth this season.

Top Clutch Player: James Harden

While Chris Paul has certainly made his fair share of big shots, James Harden gets the nod. Truth be told, however, an inspection of the numbers yields the conclusion that both Paul and Harden leave a bit to be desired in clutch moments of games. Last season, in the final five minutes of a game that was within five points in the fourth quarter and overtime, Harden shot 33-for-93. Converting on just 35.5 percent of shots in those situations is a mediocre showing, but it is better than the 13-for-41 shot by Paul in those moments. Paul’s 31.7 percent shooting in those situations is not as good as we would expect it to be, but he should also point out that his lack of attempts in those situations is probably due to the fact that he has more of a propensity to pass the basketball in the first place.

Still, Harden gets the nod.

The Unheralded Player: Eric Gordon

In an interesting twist, in December 2011, Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a package of players that most prominently featured Eric Gordon. The two will now share the floor as members of the Houston Rockets.

After averaging 22.3 points per game in his third season, Gordon seemed destined for greatness as the NBA level. The Hornets thought they were getting an All-Star caliber player in exchange for Paul, but Gordon’s very first season in New Orleans was an indicator of what would become of his career. Gordon was limited to just nine games in 2011-12 and would play just 42, 64, 61 and 45 games over the following four years, respectively.

Last season, though, things turned. After being relegated to the bench, Gordon appeared in 75 games and scored 16.2 points per game off the bench. As a result, Gordon managed to edge out Andre Iguodala for the 2016-17 Sixth Man of the Year Award and play an integral role in the Rockets and their overachieving last season. He hasn’t necessarily gotten his due from the masses, though, which is why he deserves some love here.

Best New Addition: Chris Paul

Obviously, when you add a player like Chris Paul to a team with the firepower of the Rockets, he is the best new addition. At 32 years old, Paul is probably past his physical prime, but his game has never been about athleticism. If there is a concern, it would be that he managed to appear in just 61 games last season, but in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, he suited up for 82 and 74 games, respectively.

It will be interesting to see how Mike D’Antoni managed Paul’s minutes, and the extent to which he has James Harden and Paul share the floor for long spurts or whether he uses them to spell one another. However, if Paul can remain relatively healthy, the Rockets may be one or two more pieces away from winning the Western Conference, and that’s the case because they managed to add Paul.

Luc Mbah a Moute gets an honorable mention here, as well.

— Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike D’Antoni

Say what you want about Mike D’Antoni, but the Rockets were a respectable defensive team last season. At the very least, that shows that when D’Antoni has the personnel, he can pull some good defense out of his club.

What D’Antoni deserves respect for, however, is demanding greatness of his team and remaining true to his principles. Since his departure from the Phoenix Suns, he has failed to find the type of success that many expected after leading the Suns to contention. The winner of the 2016-17 NBA Coach of the Year Award, D’Antoni joins Gregg Popovich, Hubie Brown, Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Gene Shue, Bill Fitch and Cotton Fitzsimmons as the only coaches in history to win the award multiple times.

As great as James Harden has been, it could certainly be argued that he wouldn’t have been able to unleash his offensive potential without having a system that could take advantage of his gifts and a coach that could reach him.

It’s easy to argue that the 2016-17 season with the Houston Rockets represents the finest coaching job in D’Antoni’s career.

2. Daryl Morey

One of the leaders of the contemporary NBA’s love affair with advanced statistics and analytics, Morey is one of the more renowned general managers in the NBA. Whether it was making an aggressive run at Chris Bosh or signing Jeremy Lin or Dwight Howard, Morey has traditionally been a general manager who often looks for and usually finds ways to improve his team. An autopsy of the moves that he has made would show a few failures and a few contracts that were richer than they should have been, but the same can be said of most executives across the NBA. Long ago, Morey earned the monicker of “the Wizard” for seemingly being able to come away from trades with more than he gave up. The test of the monicker will be this season, though. With Chris Paul’s advancing age, Morey will have limited time to build a contender around he and James Harden. However, over the course of his 10 years in Houston, we admire his zeal and give him the benefit of the doubt.

3. Trevor Ariza

Though lacking the hardware, one could make the case that Trevor Ariza is a lite version of the modern day Bruce Bowen. Since being drafted with the 43rd pick of the 2004 NBA Draft, Ariza has been a plus contributor for each one of his 13 years in the NBA. He has earned a reputation for being a true professional, an excellent teammate and a hard worker.

Defensively, although Ariza has lost a step or two, he is still pesky on the perimeter. He shot 34.4 percent from the three-point line last season and is a career 35 percent shooter from deep. Although that percentage doesn’t necessarily put him among the league leaders, it allows him to blend in nicely with Chris Paul and James Harden. He will contribute positively on the defensive end while helping to keep the floor spaced and the game open.

4. Nene

Having just turned 35 years old, there was some doubt that Nene would return for his 16th NBA season after his 2016-17 campaign ended prematurely. Nene tore a muscle in his left thigh during the Rockets’ playoff battle against the San Antonio Spurs, and any chance that the team had of competing with Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard went up in smoke.

Nene is still an effective defender and still has magnificent footwork. He’s nimble and should still be able to give the Rockets an effective 15 minutes per game. It’s also reasonable to expect him to be the team’s best post option and, in a best case scenario, someone who can help some of the younger big men on the Rockets develop their own skills.

5. Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson’s name has been mentioned a lot this past summer, but mostly because the New York Knicks have let it be known that they refuse to take him back in any would-be trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Truth is, when it was learned that the Rockets would sign Anderson to a four-year, $80 million contract last summer, most people questioned the wisdom behind the deal. Certainly a hefty commitment, Anderson could be argued as being overpaid, but his effectiveness with last season’s Rockets can’t be questioned.

In 29.4 minutes per game last season, Anderson scored 13.6 points per game. More importantly, though, he led the team in three-point percentage, connecting on 40.3 percent of his looks from long distance.

What made Anderson’s proficiency and durability especially noteworthy last season was the fact that he missed 97 total games over the precious three seasons. He appeared in 72 total contests last season, and appears to be trending in the right direction. Although he owns a rich contract that the Knicks rightfully want no part of, he fits nicely with the Rockets, who they are and what they do.

— Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Rockets had an interesting summer, dipping below the salary cap in June to acquire multiple contracts to immediately turn around in trade for Chris Paul. The team has been over the cap since the start of July, using almost their Mid-Level Exception on P.J. Tucker and Zhou Qi. Houston also spent its Bi-Annual Exception on Tarik Black. With $114.7 million in guaranteed salary, the Rockets have some wiggle room under their hard cap of $125.3 million – potentially staying completely under the league’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold.

Next summer, the team could get to almost $20 million in cap room but only if Paul leaves as an unrestricted free agent. Houston is far more likely to stay over next year’s projected $102 million cap, locking down Paul on a new, long-term deal. Before the start of the coming season, Houston can work an extension with Clint Capela, otherwise he’ll hit restricted free agency in July.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Backcourt and the Coach

Chris Paul and James Harden, in terms of talent, can argue for mention as the top backcourt in the league. At the very least, they are on the same plane as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Whatever the Rockets hope to be this season will begin and end with how Paul and Harden galvanize their troops. For the most part, though, the two have each proven themselves to be effective leaders and winners. Paul has always maximized the talent around him, and last season Harden proved that he is just as capable of doing the same. If the Rockets can collectively take the next step and keep the ball moving as opposed to standing by idly and waiting for Paul and Harden to create, they’ll be in business.

As it relates to Mike D’Antoni, he will only be effective if his players are buying into what he is preaching. With Paul and Harden, D’Antoni will have the most gifted tandem he’s ever coached, and it should be interesting to see what kind of return he is able to get. If there is one coach that should be entrusted with finding a way to make Paul and Harden work together, it’s D’Antoni.

— Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

Depth and Chemistry

Jumping on the opportunity to acquire a player like Chris Paul was the right move, but the Rockets don’t have the depth required of a championship contender. Both the Warriors and Cavaliers have 10 players who can be counted on to have an impact on any given night. The same probably can’t be said of the Rockets. At best, the Rockets have eight players who have proven that they are everyday NBA contributors, but Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are only threats on offense, while Clint Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute are most effective on the defensive side of the ball. Nene probably can’t play much more than 15 minutes per game and at least one of Demetrius Jackson, Tim Quarterman or Isaiah Taylor will be depended upon to play impactful minutes at the lead guard position, especially if either Paul or Harden goes down.

Aside from that, the Rockets have a lot of new faces. For a team that won 55 games last season and found success with what it was running, incorporating so many new faces will pose a challenge.

— Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Daryl Morey find a way to land Carmelo Anthony?

Acquiring Chris Paul came at a great cost. In exchange for the future Hall-of-Famer, the Rockets traded away some key members of last seasons team in Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams, as well as a few youngsters in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. The Rockets also sent a top-three protected 2018 first round pick to the Clippers. The club also sent cash to the Clippers.

The only problem for the Rockets now, though, is depth. While they still have some very good contributors, the team has consolidated a few of its important pieces (including a top-flight defender in Beverly) for the right to acquire Paul. It makes perfect sense that the team is interested in Carmelo Anthony, but the cupboard seems fairly bare. What remains to be seen with the Rockets now is whether and how they will find creative ways to add two or three more rotation-ready pieces to their roster. If Anthony holds out until December, the trade winds will begin swirling, as players who signed contracts this past summer will become trade-eligible. In other instances, players who seek buyouts (such as Dwyane Wade) may eventually wiggle free and may circle Houston as a preferred destination.

The question at the end of the day thus becomes whether Morey can continue to be the Wizard we have come to know and put some more meaningful pieces around his dynamic backcourt—whether it be Carmelo Anthony or someone else.

— Moke Hamilton

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