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Los Angeles Lakers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

It’s not often a team can remake itself in such dramatic fashion as the LA Lakers did this summer. The question is, is it enough to compete for anything in year one? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the LA Lakers in this 2018-19 NBA Season preview.

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The new look Los Angeles Lakers have arrived. While the team sports a number of new players, none compares to LeBron James. King James arrives with what appears to be monumental pressure on his shoulders. Like another all-time great, Wilt Chamberlin, James will be wearing purple and gold as a veteran having already accomplished much in his career. James also comes to a Lakers team that has suffered through an abnormally long postseason drought, having not made the playoffs since the 2012-2013 season. Unlike other players his age, James is playing basketball at the highest levels and is positioned to lead the team back to renewed levels of success and visibility.

To kick off this new era of Lakers basketball, the Lakers bring back a core of young and talented players along with returning head coach Luke Walton. Walton and the young core will face new levels of attention and pressure as the presence of James immediately elevates the team’s profile and expectations. After James committed to the Lakers, the front office went out and added several veterans to round out the roster. In the short term, expectations are all over the place, from championship contention down to merely fighting for one of a playoff spot in the very competitive Western Conference. Where the team actually ends up will be determined by how quickly this new group of players can come together. Regardless of this season’s results, a new era has begun in Lakers land.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

You might have heard that the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James this offseason. The addition of James alone means the Lakers are a threat to make the postseason, even in the stacked Western Conference. The addition of veteran players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and the re-signing of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should also help the Lakers in the playoff hunt this season. However, I do wish the Lakers had used their cap flexibility on better shooters who could collectively space the court and don’t need the ball in their hands to be effective. Players like Wayne Ellington and Avery Bradley come to mind. Regardless, this season isn’t the main priority. The Lakers have LeBron under contract for at least three more seasons and will have cap space to add another star next offseason. Needless to say, things are looking up in L.A.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

All things considered, a pretty dull and boring offseason in Los Angeles. Not a whole lot of note to report, honestly. All jokes aside, how much more is there to say about the league’s reinvigorated epicenter? In acquiring LeBron James and turning over a huge chunk of the roster, the Lakers have reminded the league that even after a strange dry spell, the purple and gold just operates on a different plane. All the big questions for LA headed into the year revolve around chemistry and roles – this is a unique situation for a LeBron team, both in terms of the relative ages of his top supporting cast and in terms of their skill sets. Whether he can mesh with noted non-shooters like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson remains to be seen, though the Lakers quietly do have certain lineups that could be dominant offensively (think Josh Hart-Brandon Ingram-LeBron-Kyle Kuzma-JaVale McGee, for instance). The bright lights are on and the league is watching.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

-Ben Dowsett

Have you guys heard that LeBron James is a Laker? All kidding aside, it is going to be a loud year in Hollywood. From the promising rookie seasons out of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma to the constant development of former number two overall pick Brandon Ingram, there was already excitement in the air. Bringing in The King and a ton of veterans on one-year deals who understand the league from back to front—that’s just a roster made up of a solid mixture. Knowing how first-year LeBron teams are, it’s going to be a roller coaster, but it should be fun and interesting once we get to the postseason.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

Since Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over the Lakers’ front office, they’ve had three major wins. One, they added LeBron James. Two, they’ve expertly managed to get rid of their bad contracts so they’ll have long-term cap room. Three, they have promising young talent on rookie contracts. The Lakers should be a playoff team this season with all they added this summer, but I hesitate to call them a contender because they lack a number two and they need an upgrade at center. Still, the Lakers are back, and that’s all that matters.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Matt John

How can you not like what the Lakers did this summer? They nabbed the biggest fish in the pond in LeBron James, added proven veterans on short term deals and didn’t have to give up draft picks or youth to get out of the Luol Deng albatross of a contract; that is a solid offseason. The real question is, do the Lakers have enough to do anything meaningful in year one of LeBron? The answer is a big maybe. Keep in mind LeBron took a team with across the board less talent and got them to the Finals. That’s not necessarily happening in the West, but does LeBron have another miraculous season to get this roster to the second round, and if he is anywhere close to what he was last season? The answer is yes. It’s hard not to see the Lakers as a stock worth investing in, beyond what could be the most comical group of eccentric personalities in basketball – the Lakers got a lot better.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LeBron James

Without question, James fits the bill here. At any given moment James is a threat to set up his teammates or score at will from nearly anywhere on the court. James has slowed down a bit as the years have gone by and is somewhat less apt to engage in high energy run and gun, fast break basketball. However, James is still capable of unleashing his athleticism when the situation or moment calls for it. His teams often feature lots of veteran players who adjust to a James-based system with specialized roles.

This new roster is filled with young players unaccustomed to winning at the pro level and an assortment of veterans on one-year deals. How minutes are distributed needs to shake out over time. Over his career, James has handled the primary ball handling, distribution and scoring load. As discussed below, things might change with this roster full of playmakers who are also used to having the ball in their hands. Should James move his game off the ball somewhat, his usage percentage may dip a bit, but his overall offensive impact will still be massive. Though, if instead James continues to dominate the ball as in years past, expect for him to continue to be the do-everything singular force on offense. One way or another, James is going to be the Lakers’ most important and effective offensive player this year and for years to come.

Top Defensive Player: Lonzo Ball

Quick shout out to James as the player with the highest defensive potential. However, in recent seasons James has decreased his defensive intensity in an effort to save energy for offense and that doesn’t figure to change this season. Beyond James, its not exactly clear who the top defender might be. If he steps up to the opportunity, second year guard Lonzo Ball is positioned to step into this role. With the possibility of playing off the ball more often (discussed below), Ball can further increase his overall effort and effectiveness with his individual defense. On defense, Ball has already shown a knack for reading passing lanes and even picking his opponent’s pocket in isolation situations. After apparently adding significant muscle in the offseason, Ball may have addressed the issue of size and strength that affected him at times last season. Should the Lakers employ a defense that emphasizes switching, Ball should have the strength and ability to defend multiple positions. Ball may not have the size or strength to impact the court like James can, but he has the tools to be a key defensive player and is better situated to make that his priority this season.

Top Playmaker: Rajon Rondo

Another mention for James, but Rajon Rondo gets the nod here. For years, any team featuring James ran most of their offensive action through him. The gravity and attention he draws opens up teammates for easy scoring opportunities consistently. However, this new Lakers team appears (operative word) to be designed to lessen James’s shot creation responsibility.

Enter Rondo. Compared to Ball, Rondo averages more assists per game, has a better assist to turnover ratio and a championship level pedigree. This assumes Rondo will win the starting point guard position as a more established veteran and won’t have chemistry issues. Compatibility with Rondo is not a guaranteed thing. Rondo comes to the Lakers having played a critical role in the New Orleans Pelican’s playoff success last season.

Ball may win the starting role at some point. In the meantime, there is an ongoing belief that as Ball improves his mechanics, he can become a reliable three-point threat. Off the ball, he can also be a valuable secondary creator who can pass or score off the dribble creator as well. Rondo and Ball are elite playmakers but Rondo is further along and more established at this point and serves as the top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: LeBron James

James gets mentioned a lot in this preview and with good reason. It’s not yet clear what the pecking order is after James. Regardless, James has been to the Finals eight straight seasons and has been the deciding factor in countless clutch moments. James will draw the other team’s attention and can make almost any play. All eyes will be on James in any game that comes down to the wire.

The Unheralded Player: Josh Hart

Lakers fans already know this one should go to guard Josh Hart. Like Ball a year before, Hart stepped up to dominate in the Las Vegas NBA Summer League. Hart led this year’s summer league Lakers squad to the championship game while earning the Summer League MVP trophy. Hart is poised to contribute should he get the minutes. Only a rookie last year, Hart stepped his game up as the season went on and his playing time increased. Unfortunately for Hart, the roster currently has as many as 11 players expecting regular rotation minutes so Hart will need to be ready to step up again and show he can earn and keep those minutes.

Best New Addition: LeBron James

James again, hands down, for obvious reasons. The addition of James sparks a new era in the Lakers’ vaunted history that had become stagnant for the last few years. After James, Rondo serves as the team’s other best new addition.

– James Blancarte

Who We Like:

1. The Lakers’ front office – Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka

Through them, the Lakers finally got the free agent superstar savior they had been craving since the tail end of the Kobe Bryant’s career. Even more, the Lakers were also able to secure a three-year contract (with a 4th year player option) from James, showing a level of commitment not previously given in Cleveland in the last few years. With a long-term commitment from James, the team assembled a roster that is a mishmash of veterans on one-year deals alongside talented, developing young players. The franchise also convinced Luol Deng to agree to give back significant money ($7.5 million) as part of a buyout that allows Deng to re-sign elsewhere. Now the franchise is fully poised to swing for the fences next offseason and sign other top tier free agents in the loaded 2019 NBA free agent class.

2. Brandon Ingram

Ingram ended last season showing new elements in his offensive game. Ball was the team’s primary ball handler but struggled with injuries and missed major portions of the season. By necessity, the team put the ball into Ingram’s hands and asked him to become more of a creator as the season ended. How good Ingram can become is yet to be seen but his potential seemed to increase with more responsibility on offense. Now Ingram will likely have to adjust again. James, Rondo and Ball are likely to dominate the ball, leaving Ingram to wait for his touches as an isolation scorer, spot up shooter or secondary ball handler. However, should Ingram adapt and continue to grow on this new team, he could answer the question of who is the second-best player on the roster after James. On the flip side, should the Lakers find the opportunity to make a deal, Ingram is a desirable trade piece and could find himself as the centerpiece in a deal for a star player. Either way, Ingram brings plenty of value to the Lakers.

3. Michael Beasley

While the additions of Rondo and Stephenson have garnered more attention, the addition of Beasley is overlooked. He has bounced around the league the last few seasons while continuing to play surprisingly good basketball. Last season he played his most games (74 games) since the 2012-13 season. With New York, Beasley served as a reliable spark plug for the offense coming off the bench and was an effective isolation scorer. With Kristaps Porzingis going down for the season, Beasley stepped up and even started 30 games for a Knicks team that fell out of the national spotlight. With his career on the upswing, Beasley has the chance to once again serve as a bench scorer who can play expanded minutes in a pinch, especially if the Lakers are willing to experiment with him at center. While Beasley’s career has never matched expectations coming out of college, now is a great chance for him to play and perhaps shine in a useful role on a good team.

4. Luke Walton

Now going into his third season as a head coach, Walton faces the biggest challenge of his career. Like many coaches before him, Walton needs to gain the respect and confidence of James, who has seen a wide range of coaching styles throughout his career. Having won multiple championships and perfected his game, James is now seen as someone who dictates the direction his team takes as much as any player in the league. Walton will need to balance his ability to lead his team while sharing authority with James. Walton is well liked around the league and unlike the last few Lakers head coaches, he has not had to deal with as much outside scrutiny, which has allowed his young core to develop effectively under his tutelage. Walton will have to establish who does and does not make it into the rotation while balancing the continued development of the younger players while keeping James happy. No easy task. Walton has reportedly already spoken to Cavaliers Head Coach Tyronn Lue about his experience coaching James and, at this point, appears to be up the task and poised to take a huge leap in his coaching career.

– James Blancarte

Strengths

Any team featuring LeBron James immediately has the ability to be competitive. With this roster, James has the opportunity to experiment with allowing other players to share on-ball shot creation responsibilities. As James continues his transition to the latter years of his career, this can serve as another means of longevity. In addition, it could serve to make the team more dynamic since the best teams in the league move the ball and have multiple creators unlike James’s team last Cavaliers team. This team also has multiple young players under contract who might develop into stars in the foreseeable future. Should the young players develop accordingly, the team has the ingredients to be successful now and into the future, and that’s before adding additional free agent talent next year. The future is bright in Los Angeles.

– James Blancarte

Weaknesses

Pressure, volatility and defense. Playing with James produces the kind of pressure that many players are ill-equipped to handle. Look at restricted free agent Rodney Hood. He came to the Cavaliers expecting to play a key role in the playoffs, which could have bolstered his profile going into free agency. Instead, he could barely get off the bench and never acclimated to playing with James. Something similar could happen in Los Angeles, especially to the various youngsters on the squad.

As mentioned above, there are numerous new veterans hoping to play well and make their mark this season, including Stephenson, Beasley and center JaVale McGee. Stephenson and Beasley are both talented offensive players with questionable personality profiles. Whether they can coexist with James and his high standards is in question. In addition, both are inconsistent defenders. McGee overcame similar concerns and showed he can be successful in a limited role on a championship squad and might do the same should he crack this rotation. Finally, it’s not clear if the Lakers have the sufficient personnel to be a good defensive team. Should the team struggle on defense, this season could go sideways quickly.

– James Blancarte

The Burning Question

Will the Lakers be able to resist making a trade should the season not begin as expected?

Teams acquiring James’ talents require time to adjust to him. Unlike his latest stint in Cleveland and Miami before that, this James led team heavily relies on young, untested talent. Should James (turning 34 in December) not mesh well with the young prospects on the team, the franchise may feel pressure to not waste one of James’s few remaining years as a top shelf, elite talent. Any trade for top-tier veteran players would requiring sacrificing some combination of young talent, cap flexibility and draft assets. Despite the pressure, the Lakers will likely not sacrifice these assets and will instead hold firm and hope that the team will work things out on their way to a likely lower end playoff berth.

– James Blancarte

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NBA Daily: Finding Julius Randle A Permanent Home

Julius Randle will be highly sought-after this offseason following his career-year in New Orleans — but where might the talented power forward end up?

Ben Nadeau

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There will be no buried lede this time: Julius Randle is about to make some serious bank this summer.

And without hesitation, he certainly deserves it.

Randle’s road to this advantageous position has been anything but a straight line, first losing his entire rookie season to a broken leg before falling in-and-out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rotation for the following three seasons. After the acquisition of LeBron James brought the signings of JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, the hulking forward had no choice but to bet on himself. Randle, 24, asked the Lakers to renounce his rights, wherein he signed a two-year deal worth $18 million with the New Orleans Pelicans.

At the time, it was reported that Randle turned down more lucrative offers to take New Orleans’ — now, he’s set to cash in on his slow burn approach.

See, that second year, wisely, came loaded with a player option. To Randle, he was willing to forgo the long-term security and pay for a re-do at free agency in 2019, should his on-court growth warrant such a decision. Evidently, that threshold has been met and more. In the power forward’s latest career-year rendition, he’s averaged 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.3 percent from three-point range. All in all, Randle has improved in every successive season so far — but 2018-19 has quickly become his magnum opus.

Almost assuredly, Randle will opt out this offseason and sign the newer, bigger and better contract he’s rightfully earned.

While the Lakers certainly deserve scrutiny for their decision to focus on elsewhere — although the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell would like a word on that front too — this is not that piece. Instead, one of the other 29 teams is set to sign their forward of the future, benefiting immensely from Los Angeles’ ultimate impatience. Heading into July, the world may as well be Randle’s oyster — but where might his best fit be?

This, of course, is a messy exercise. There are a handful of franchises that either will be mostly capped out — Boston, Washington, Miami, Oklahoma City, etc — or don’t have a pressing need to add another power forward to the roster — Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago, Dallas, etc. In return, that leaves just about four perfect landing spots for Randle this summer.

Los Angeles Clippers

With the Clippers, their inclusion comes with the obvious whopping caveat: Should they strikeout during their foray into star-chasing free agency, adding Randle would be a more-than-acceptable pivot. As of late, Los Angeles has done a remarkable job of competing without a top-tier star in the crowded Western Conference, particularly so after Tobias Harris’ departure at the trade deadline. If Leonard, the Clippers’ reported main target in free agency, stays put in Toronto or is lured to the opposite locker room within the Staples Center, Randle is a budding option with All-Star potential. Randle would make the Clippers actively better without signing up for another season of wistfully dreaming of a big-time free agent.

In 2018-19, Los Angeles has scored 50.9 points in the paint per game, seventh-most in the NBA. One of the few teams ahead of them? Naturally, the Pelicans at 58.4 are the top dog in that realm and although Anthony Davis certainly boosts their average, Randle’s consistency has been a steady presence under the rim.

Most importantly, Randle would fill a long-term need on the roster. Future restricted free agent Ivica Zubac has remained promising since his arrival from the Lakers in February, but his sample size is still small, all things considered. While Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari have performed dutifully, they’ll both be free agents and on the wrong side of 30 in 2020. Of note, Los Angeles’ most coveted assets — other than that unprotected 2021 HEAT pick — are all guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet.

Tossing Randle into that mix, especially next to the defensive-minded Harrell, would make for a mobile yin-and-yang pairing down low. Then flanked by those aforementioned young sharpshooters and you’ve got a future worth getting excited about, even without a superstar signing.

Utah Jazz

Heading into April, Utah appears to be flying under the radar once again — and that’s for a few reasons. The Jazz will reach the postseason for a third consecutive season, they’ve found their prodigal centerpiece in Donovan Mitchell and, top to bottom, the roster is well-built already. Elsewhere, Rudy Gobert is in the midst of another potential Defensive Player of the Year campaign, Joe Ingles is a two-way standout and the roster has blossomed with head coach Quin Snyder at the helm — Randle, however, might just be the lottery ticket worth buying. Should the Jazz let Ricky Rubio walk and then waive the non-guaranteed $16.9 million left on Derrick Favors’ deal, the franchise would suddenly have top-tier money to spend.

Similarly to the Clippers, Utah is not often considered a marquee free agent destination — but those times, they are a-changin’. Still, not landing Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant wouldn’t a nightmare scenario as it would clear the runway for Randle. Although the Jazz remain one of the league’s premier defensive units, their scoring efforts are often middling and an offensive rating of 109.4 (15th) reflects that. If anything, Randle is a certified bucket-getter and Utah can lean rather heavily on Mitchell to make things happen. The 6-foot-9 big man has already thrived next to one elite rim-protecting center, but teaming him up with two other up-and-coming superstars is a tantalizing thought exercise.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets themselves are said to be chasing a white whale the offseason — the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard continue to pop up — but those free agent fever-dreams still seem at least an offseason away. In recent years, the Nets have become an incredibly successful island of misfits — so signing Randle would be the blissful cherry on top of it all. Understandably, Randle and Russell are buddies from their Lakers days and Brooklyn has an absolutely glaring need at power forward. Ideally, Randle would be a stretch option already — 0.9 made three-pointers per game on 33.3 percent, a career-best mark — but the Nets have created a strong portfolio of development since bringing head coach Kenny Atkinson on in 2016. In fact, Brook Lopez — another one of Randle’s forgotten teammates last season — turned into a three-point maestro almost overnight, after seemingly ignoring the line for the first eight years of his career.

If they can transform Joe Harris from a scrap heap shooter to a three-point champion in two years, the Nets can certainly get Randle to hit at least the league average from deep.

Regardless, the Nets have hit home runs with nearly every signing in the Sean Marks era — but it’s time to get serious. Now all they need is a bullish, reliable power forward to wrap their painful three-year rebuild together with a neat bow. Currently, veteran extraordinaire DeMarre Carroll is out of a contract this summer, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will hit restricted free agency. Rodions Kurucs, energetic as he may be, has not proven to be the long-term answer in the frontcourt and the speedy rookie seems better suited to riveting one-man fastbreaks. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Russell holding down the guard spots and Jarrett Allen coming into his own at center, the Nets shouldn’t be afraid to chase Randle’s looming athletic stature (and his even brighter potential) come July.

New Orleans Pelicans

Last but not least, we’d be remiss not to mention the Pelicans.

This is an issue most certainly complicated by the status of Anthony Davis — but if you’re hitting the reset button on a perennially disappointing franchise, Randle’s not a bad place to start from scratch.

Davis’ midseason trade request managed to torpedo both New Orleans and Los Angeles’ playoff hopes rather remarkably — but Randle, to his credit, has just kept on trucking. Last week, Randle exploded in a loss to Portland, dropping a career-high 45 points, plus 11 rebounds and six assists. Long before this drama even started, Randle even managed to notch his first-ever triple-double during a November victory over San Antonio. At just 24 years old, that’s undoubtedly something worth betting on.

With Davis’ presumed exit already on the cards — and Nikola Mirotic’s swift departure at the trade deadline — Randle is suddenly the Pelicans’ most talented frontcourt asset, bar none. Even if they don’t recoup complete value for Davis, they’ll have the money to spend big in free agency this summertime. Growing by the game, Randle’s self-gamble has paid off in a remarkable way as he’s gone from castaway to a legitimate near-max contract contender in the span of a year.

And he did all that in New Orleans.

Needless to say, Randle should be a priority for the rebuilding Pelicans the moment he (presumably) opts out. This time, however, the power forward won’t come so cheaply. After some career-scarring bumps and bruises along the way, Randle has made good on his effortless potential — finally, he’ll get to reap what he’s sown. In October, Randle will head into his sixth NBA season and at long last, wherever he may be, he’ll finally have a place to call home.

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NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.

Shane Rhodes

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With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.

It’s been nearly two years since the Chicago Bulls kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.

That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.

So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?

What is Working

Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.

The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.

He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.

Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.

There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.

More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.

What Needs to Change

The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.

Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.

Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.

The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.

And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.

Focus Area: The Draft

As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.

Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.

Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.

Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.

Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.

Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.

Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.

The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough

Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

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NBA Daily: Who Deserves Coach of the Year?

As the season enters its final stages, Matt John takes a look at who are the prime candidates for Coach of the Year.

Matt John

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Last year, this writer started his tenure with Basketball Insiders writing about who had the best case for Coach of the Year. One year later, we’re revisiting the same discussion. This time, with an entirely new slate of candidates.

The Coach of the Year Award produces one of the most fascinating races in the NBA that doesn’t get as much attention. What makes it fascinating is that there are a variety of reasons for why a coach can win the award. Why it doesn’t get enough attention is because fans understandably care more about the players than the coaches, which is nobody’s fault.

This season, we have coaches with different reasons for why they are viable candidates for Coach of the Year. Some aren’t necessarily coaching the best team, or are making the most progress, but they’re making a good enough case that they should be in the discussion.

Please note that these are ranked in alphabetical order, not by who deserves it the most.

Mike Budenholzer

A few weeks ago, this writer detailed why the Bucks’ front office deserved credit for building the contender that they did, and he stands by it. However, while it’s on the front office to assemble a great team, it is on the coach to make the pieces work. That is what Coach Bud has done, and he’s done it marvelously.

Milwaukee sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 53-19 record, they have the best net rating in the NBA and Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the center in one of the most intense MVP races of all time. With the exception of the most recent untimely injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, this season could not have gone better for the Bucks.

Milwaukee always had the talent to be one of the league’s best teams. They just needed the right guy calling the shots. They have their man. Let’s be fair though. The Bucks needed Mike just as much as he needed them. So far, it’s worked for the best for both sides because now, Coach Bud has a very believable chance to join his mentor Gregg Popovich among the very few coaches who have won the award multiple times.

Dave Joerger

Anytime you make the NBA’s doormat look the most promising it’s been in over a decade, you automatically get your name among the NBA’s coaching elite.

Coming into the season, many thought the story surrounding the Kings was going to be about how good of a pick they were going to give Boston or Philadelphia in the lottery. That was proven wrong. Somehow, with 11 games left in the season, the Kings are still fighting for a playoff spot. Miraculously, they’ve become the NBA’s little engine that could.

Much credit should go to the improvement of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, along with the exciting play of Marvin Bagley III among others, but young talent can grow together without being cohesive. Joerger deserves credit for the youth’s improvement and cohesion getting Sacramento results. The one knock against Joerger is that the Kings probably aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re finally trending in the right direction.

For that, Joerger absolutely deserves to be in the conversation. Let’s just hope those rumors of tension with upper management turn out to be nothing more than gossip.

Michael Malone

It’s arrived later than they would have wanted, but hey, better late than never! The Nuggets’ new era has finally started, and it has started gloriously.

The Nuggets currently place second in the Western Conference and have clinched their first playoff berth since 2013. They have the third-highest offensive rating in the league, and one of the best all-around offensive bigs the league has ever seen in Nikola Jokic. The improvements of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, along with the surprising productivity coming from Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, have given the Nuggets a team swimming in depth.

This season has shown that just because you have depth on your squad does not mean that everything will fall into place – See Celtics, Boston – which is what makes Malone’s work in all the more impressive. It’s helped that he’s gotten more games out of Paul Millsap – who has the highest net rating on the team (plus-8.4) – but Malone has mixed and matched the roster about as well as Denver could have hoped.

There is a fair amount of skepticism as to whether the Nuggets will keep this up in the playoffs. Even if they don’t, Malone did his job extraordinarily.

Kenny Atkinson

Atkinson has been on the radar for a couple of years now since he’s had to clean up Brooklyn’s mess for the previous two seasons. This season, the Nets are starting to reap the benefits from the winning culture he has created.

Besides Joerger, Atkinson has the least impressive record of the coaches put on this list. Much like Joeger, in Atkinson’s case, it doesn’t matter because the jump his team has made from last season makes his case all the more legitimate. DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis have been dependable veterans, and the leaps that Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert have taken are too good to go unnoticed.

But most impressive of all, Atkinson seems to have unlocked D’Angelo Russell. After both the turmoil and the injuries that D-Lo has had to deal with since entering the league, he now has emerged as one of the league’s brighter young stars. It’s important that young talent be molded correctly otherwise it can stunt a player’s growth. We’ll never know if that would have happened in LA, but we now know that Russell’s move to Brooklyn was vital to his progress.

Brooklyn believed Atkinson was up to the task when he was first hired, and now, their faith is being rewarded.

Nate McMillan

Of all the coaches that were put on this list last year, only two resurfaced this season. You probably already know who one of them is, while McMillan is the other.

First off, hats off to McMillan for reviving his career as a head coach. Many were skeptical when Indiana replaced Frank Vogel with him. Since then, he’s only made them eat their words. His work last season was already impressive. He’s only continued to do so this season.

The Pacers are currently 44-29. If they just go 4-5 over their last nine games, they’ll match their record from last season. That’s remarkable considering they lost Victor Oladipo, i.e. their best player halfway through the season. They were on a 56-win pace before ‘Dipo’s injury, but his numbers actually declined this season, which shows that the team itself has grown.

Indiana currently is tied for the second-best defensive rating in the league (105.9) thanks to the likes of Myles Turner, which has mitigated Oladipo’s absence. They haven’t been great since Victor went down, but they’ve done well enough to stick with Boston and Philly in the playoff race. For that, Nate deserves recognition.

Nick Nurse

The new kid on the block had a tall order when the Raptors replaced Dwane Casey with him as head coach. So far, he’s run with it.

It’s likely Toronto won’t be able to match last season’s regular season win total. Their defense has stayed the same, but their offense has taken a step back this season, going from the second-highest in the league to the seventh. Nobody seems too concerned about that because the general feeling is that this is the best Raptors team ever assembled.

Kawhi Leonard has looked as good as ever. Pascal Siakam has exploded onto the scene as perhaps the team’s second-best all-around player. Serge Ibaka’s having his most efficient season in years. New additions Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin have fit in without much trouble. The list goes on.

Nurse had a lot to juggle when he was appointed head coach, and so far, he’s filling in well for the departed Casey. We’ll have to see if he gets Toronto past its playoff demons, but what a season he’s had.

Gregg Popovich

Just when you think the Spurs are down for the count, they find ways to stay relevant. They’ve done this so many times that you’d think the national media would learn not to count them out. Somehow we still do, and we’re always wrong.

To recap, Coach Pop lost his best player (Leonard) during the summer. He lost his most promising young player (Dejounte Murray) just before the season started. Two of the most iconic Spurs ever – Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – left the team. His two best players – LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan – are not reliable three-point shooters in a league that’s become increasingly reliant on floor spacing. It was supposed to be the start of the Spurs’ descent.

For a while, it looked that way, but as the season is winding down, it appears San Antonio isn’t going anywhere. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games, they have the sixth-highest offensive rating in the league, and most ironic of all, they have the best three-point shooting in the league at almost 40 percent.

It’s fair to say that this has been fantastic work by Popovich, but when was the last time he fell short of that description?

Doc Rivers

Rivers has plenty of evidence to support that he’s one of the league’s best coaches. He won Coach of the Year back in 2000 and led one of the most dominant basketball teams in the 21st century in 2008, but this season might just be his best work yet.

The Clippers looked like they were about to start rebuilding, but instead opted to build a winning culture. Doc’s coaching has put guys who know who they are in positions to thrive. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – all of them, no matter where they are at in their career, have played excellent in the role Doc gave them. Oh, and has it been brought up that the Clippers traded their best player and haven’t slipped at all?

By doing this, Doc went back to his roots during his days as the head coach of the Magic. There were no elite players on the team, but guys who knew what they were supposed to do. What makes this Clippers team more impressive team than that Magic team is the Western Conference in 2019 is much tougher than the Eastern Conference was in 2000.

This could do so much for the Clippers. After the Magic’s impressive run in 2000, they landed Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and almost Tim Duncan. If Doc continues to impress, a certain LA-native and Canadian resident might be donning a Clippers uniform.

There are some tough omissions, such as Quin Snyder, Brett Brown and Billy Donovan. The difference between them and the others mentioned is that they’ve reasonably met expectations. All of them are coaching playoff teams. It’s just that their respective teams or where we thought they’d be.

That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve consideration. It’s just that their case isn’t as strong as the others mentioned above.

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