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NBA AM: Howard Excited for Fresh Start With Hawks

Dwight Howard seems thrilled about his latest change of scenery to join his hometown Atlanta Hawks.

Cody Taylor

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Howard Excited for Fresh Start in Atlanta

After establishing himself as one of the NBA’s premier players during his stint with the Orlando Magic, Dwight Howard’s time in the NBA has been a bit rocky ever since. Over the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, Howard has dealt with various injuries, on-court chemistry issues with teammates and a reduced role.

Most notably, Howard struggled to adjust to teammates like Kobe Bryant and James Harden. The Lakers were one of the teams on Howard’s wish list when he decided to force a trade from the Magic, but his time in L.A. didn’t go as planned as he clashed with Bryant and head coach Mike D’Antoni.

Howard’s move to the Rockets was expected to give Harden the help he needed to compete for a championship. But as Howard left the Rockets this offseason, the center’s relationship with Harden didn’t end on the best of terms. Howard even mentioned over the summer that their relationship wasn’t good enough for the team to be successful.

His decision to sign elsewhere this summer didn’t come as a surprise to many. Howard inked a three-year, $70.5 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks over the offseason in a move that will bring Howard back to his hometown. Signing with the Hawks can be seen as a new chapter for Howard, one that will presumably allow him to return to playing at a high level without any distractions.

“It’s another chapter in my life,” Howard said Sunday night in Orlando. “There will always be good chapters and bad chapters, but I think I’ve already got those bad chapters out of the way. Everything else will be up from here. Atlanta is great; it’s my hometown. My family has been great, my friends have been great and the team, for the most part, everybody is amazing.”

Watching Howard interact with friends, family and fans in a city that he once played for indicates that he is in a much better place in his life after having many ups and downs over the past few years. Howard flashed that vintage smile that was so popular during the positive times while playing for the Magic, and he seemed genuinely happy to be back interacting with old friends.

It seems as though signing with the Hawks can only be a positive for Howard. Atlanta has formed an outstanding infrastructure that starts with the front office and goes down to the players. Mike Budenholzer is one of the most respected head coaches in the league and has helped the Hawks qualify for the playoffs in an Eastern-Conference-high nine straight seasons.

Howard echoed those statements to reporters prior to a 105-98 win over the Magic on Sunday. Howard was held out of the game for rest but offered high praise for his new team. He called Budenholzer an unbelievable human being and said the Hawks are an organization that really cares about what’s best for their players.

“I really couldn’t be happier with how Dwight has integrated himself into our program – his willingness to work [and] his willingness to be open to coaching,” Budenholzer said. “He’s added a lot of positive energy and he’s got a big personality that I think our team has welcomed. It just feels like it’s a great opportunity for us and him. We’re just looking forward to growing together.”

While Howard didn’t appear in Sunday’s game, he’s turned in a strong preseason thus far. He said that he’s feeling great heading into the season, and it’s showing on the court. Through three games, Howard is averaging 15.7 points, eight rebounds, 1.7 blocks and one assist per game. He turned in a monster game last Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, recording 26 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, two assists and one steal.

The Hawks are hoping Howard can step into the lineup and take Al Horford’s place in the paint. While it’s safe to say that Howard is far removed from his dominating days with the Magic, he still has shown that he can be among the best centers in the league when healthy. His numbers dipped a bit last season with the Rockets – he averaged 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game – but Howard’s role with the team diminished down the stretch of the season.

Based on how things have played out so far during the preseason, it seems like Howard will have a big role with the Hawks this year. Coach Budenholzer’s teams have performed well on defense under his watch, finishing 14th in defensive efficiency during the 2013-14 season, seventh in 2014-15 and second last season. Adding a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard can only help bolster the defensive unit.

“He adds another layer to our defense, being a guy who can block shots,” Paul Millsap said. “He’s athletic enough to switch the pick-and-rolls and move on the pick-and-rolls. We look forward to that. We look forward to having a big body under the basket, altering shots and making guys work for twos.”

The Hawks have generally avoided making huge roster changes. When you have a nine-year playoff streak, you tend to stick with the same core group and value continuity. However, with Horford joining the Boston Celtics via free agency and Jeff Teague being traded away to the Indiana Pacers, the Hawks will enter this season with a much different look. With much of the Eastern Conference improving over the summer, it remains to be seen where exactly the Hawks fit into the playoff picture.

In addition to Howard, the team also added veteran Jarrett Jack to the roster to provide some depth at point guard behind Dennis Schroder, who will replace Teague as the team’s starting floor general. With so many veterans on the team that have won at a high level, it seems reasonable to believe the Hawks can continue to compete for a high playoff seed.

For Howard, returning to a place in which he’s personally comfortable seems like it’ll help his play on the court. He seems to be as happy as he’s been in awhile and looks to be the same player we saw in Orlando – the upbeat guy who gets along with everyone. Don’t be surprised to see Howard deliver a strong bounce-back campaign and send a reminder to the NBA that he’s still among the best centers in the game.

Millsap Returns with Strong Performance Against Magic

When Hawks power forward Paul Millsap underwent a preventative procedure to reduce swelling in his right knee in late September, the news came as a bit of a surprise since it was taking place so close to the start of the season.

The team deemed the procedure to be the best course of action to treat Millsap’s knee. The All-Star forward has stayed pretty close to the initial timetable to return, as it originally called for the big man to miss two preseason games and he ultimately missed four games.

While Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer opted to rest several starters Sunday night in Orlando including Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, Millsap returned to the court for the first time this preseason.

In 19 minutes of action against the Magic, Millsap recorded 19 points (on 7-12 shooting), nine rebounds and seven assists. In a game in which his minutes were limited and many expected him to just knock off the rust, Millsap looked like he’s already in midseason form.

“We think he’s pretty good; we’ll probably keep him,” Budenholzer joked after Millsap’s impressive performance. “He’s such a unique and gifted player. I think the seven assists is probably what stands out to me as much as anything. He’s just a playmaker. He finds guys. He just feels things that I think are on another level. He had a good practice. It was good to see him now get out and do it in a game.”

Budenholzer said that the plan with Millsap is to continue monitoring his status through game situations and practices. He played in 19 minutes on Sunday night and will continue to increase his minutes incrementally each game. The biggest objective for Millsap moving forward will be getting his conditioning back.

“My body feels great,” Millsap said. “I was just getting my wind up. That’s going to take a few games. You can’t simulate that type of style in practice or [by] running on the treadmill. It’s good to be out there playing games. We still have two more preseason games to get ready.

“You have to get on the floor in game-like situations with the starters. We got two more games to do that. Hopefully, we can get out there and get our chemistry down and get ready for the regular season.”

As Budenholzer pointed out, the biggest takeaway from Millsap’s performance was his seven assists. It was surely an encouraging sign for the team that he was able to find his teammates like that in his first game back in action. It also shows his chemistry with his teammates is there, despite not yet playing during the preseason.

“[I’m] just taking my time, especially with these younger guys cutting to the basket and moving without the basketball,” Millsap said. “I think our offense was in pretty good sync tonight – guys moving without the basketball, setting screens for each other, just sharing the basketball. I think that’s what we’re all about. It just so happened to be me tonight, but any other night it could be anyone else.”

Last season, the 31-year-old averaged 17.1 points, nine rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks while earning his third-straight All-Star nod.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA AM: Boston Celtics 2017-18 Season Preview

The Boston Celtics will have a very different look this season. The question is will it be enough to topple the Cavaliers? We look at the Celtics in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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When a franchise returns just four players from the prior season, that’s typically a sign of a rebuild, a strategy not often embraced by teams that were just three wins shy of reaching the NBA Finals. Of course, this massive roster overhaul comes after the Boston Celtics clawed their way to the Eastern Conference’s top seed with a 53-29 record, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to demoralize them in five games.

After moving down from the No. 1 overall pick (via Brooklyn) in the 2017 NBA Draft to take talented rookie Jayson Tatum, the Celtics then added Gordon Hayward in free agency and executed a blockbuster trade for Kyrie Irving. While the Celtics are still soundly one of the conference’s elite contenders, general manager Danny Ainge has effectively gone all-in for 2017-18 without sacrificing much of the franchise’s long-term potential.

The Celtics’ revamped roster has set their collective sights on a championship, but here’s how Basketball Insiders envision this season shaking out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Incredibly, the team that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season added two star caliber players and a top-three pick in the draft during this offseason.

Talk about a productive summer.

The Boston Celtics are officially a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers Eastern Conference throne after signing Gordon Hayward, adding Jayson Tatum to the mix, and ultimately parting with the Brooklyn pick and their own point guard to bring Kyrie Irving behind enemy lines.

However, this season won’t be the season they finally usurp the King in Cleveland. But, Boston fans should be overjoyed with how the immediate and long term future of their team looks now with the likes of Irving and Hayward on board alongside a bevy of young talent and assets. The return to the glory days of Celtics basketball seems to be right around the corner.

1st place– Atlantic Division

– Dennis Chambers

It is my opinion that adding Kyrie Irving was good for the Celtics. Also, that signing Gordon Hayward was good. Also, that drafting Jayson Tatum was good. Together, all of these good things added to the good things Boston already had on the roster, including last year’s big additions, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, makes for a good team. The coach is good, too. Everything here is good. Big things are on the horizon for the Celtics this season.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

After scores of people ridiculed Danny Ainge for failing to land either Jimmy Butler or Paul George, he absolutely got the last laugh by signing Gordon Hayward and executing a trade for Kyrie Irving. As a result of a fairly busy summer, the Celtics have a ton of new faces and have lost their defensive stalwarts in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. With Hayward and Irving joining Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, though, the Celtics probably have enough firepower to win the Atlantic Division.

The reasonable expectation for this team is to give the Cavaliers a good fight in the Eastern Conference Finals. My main concern with them is that they simply lack the depth that made them who they were last season. Sure, consolidation is generally a good thing when you’re adding superstars, but the Celtics probably need two more solid rotation players before I consider them to be a legitimate threat to the Cavs atop the East. That, of course, assumes that everyone remains relatively healthy.

Still, Ainge deserves an A+ for what he pulled off this summer, and the Celtics’ next reign atop the Atlantic will likely begin this season.

1st place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The summer’s most active team, the Celtics will suddenly be without three of the five guys they sent out to start Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They landed the offseason’s biggest free agency fish in Gordon Hayward, then engineered a massive blockbuster for Kyrie Irving. These moves also forced them to move on from each of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, though they also picked up Marcus Morris for Bradley. The Celtics undeniably got more talented this summer, but how will potential fit and chemistry issues clash with that improvement? It’s tough to say, though coach Brad Stevens is among the best bets in the league to work things out quickly.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Adding Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving and a top-three draft pick in Jayson Tatum is a big deal. However, we can’t simply forget that guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are no longer with the team. The Thomas hip injury is problematic and he was about to become very expensive, so replacing him with Irving, even at a high price, was probably the right thing to do. Bradley is also about to become very expensive, but his elite perimeter defense and shooting will be missed. Also, I think the loss of Crowder is going to hurt more than most people predict. Having said all of that, the Celtics are primed to compete now and for the foreseeable future. Boston has a nice mix of versatile veteran and young talent to mix and match and I’m confident that Brad Stevens is going to figure out how to best utilize it. I don’t know if Boston has enough to take down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but I think the potential to do so is there.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Simply put, Irving is one of basketball’s best offensive players without a doubt. Whether Irving is looking to create his own shot or wants to feed off of his teammates as a spot-up assassin, the 25-year-old can do it all. Although Cleveland ultimately came up short against the Golden State Warriors, Irving managed to improved in the playoffs once again, this time tallying 25.9 points to go along with 5.3 assists and 2.4 three-pointers per game. With the ball, Irving is immensely talented and creative in both pick-and-roll or isolation situations, particularly so when the game hangs in the balance.

His trade demand exhibited the desire to be a franchise’s top option offensively, a role Irving hasn’t held since LeBron James re-signed with Cleveland in 2014. The future dynamic between the Celtics’ new 1-2 scoring punch hasn’t been defined, but Irving may be headed toward his most fruitful season yet.

Top Defensive Player: Marcus Smart

Nearly by default, Marcus Smart is the clear leader in this category. With the departure of Avery Bradley this summer, Stevens will badly need a defensive bulldog to play a large role in the backcourt. Smart’s slower offensive development has kept him from becoming a star, but there’s no denying his hawk-like instincts and ruthless intangibles. Using his hulking 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, Smart hounds opposing players and aggressively takes advantage of their mistakes.

In 2016-17 alone, Smart totaled 14 games with three or more steals, even reaching an absurd tally of eight in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers just before the All-Star break. Today, Smart is an extremely versatile defender, often capable of guarding every position on the floor despite the difference in height. It’s been said every year since Smart was drafted in 2014 – he owns a career three-point mark of 29.1 percent – but if he develops a more consistent jumper, the sky’s the limit for the enigmatic guard.

Unless the Celtics and Smart agree on an extension before the regular season begins, he’ll be a restricted free agent next July. With a huge role on the table and plenty of money up for grabs, expect Smart to run with the opportunity and become one of the Celtics’ big-time glue guys, even if he’s not a starter.

Top Playmaker: Gordon Hayward

Hayward has long been on the shortlist for the NBA’s most underrated, but that will likely change in Boston this season. Since the Utah Jazz drafted Hayward in 2010, the 6-foot-8 small forward has improved in every consecutive season and posted career-highs in points (21.9), rebounds (5.4) and field goal percentage (47.1)* during his final campaign in Utah. Despite his low usage for a star (27.6), Hayward was the key linchpin behind a Jazz team that reached the playoffs’ second round for the first time since 2009-10.

As a versatile offensive wing, Hayward has blossomed into a reliable shooter from nearly every spot on the court. Defensively, Hayward was a difficult assignment in 2016-17 and he was more than happy to launch from long range (39.8 percent) or penetrate (5.9 FTA) depending on the situation. In 2013-14, Hayward averaged 5.2 assists per game and the Celtics will tap into his efficient playmaking abilities in Stevens’ fluid offense.

* If you don’t count his rookie season percentage of 48.5, in which Hayward only attempted 4.1 shots per game

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

No matter what situation, moment or deficit is at hand, nothing is impossible or too big for Irving. Even on a team that often deferred to James in the waning moments, Irving’s fourth quarter explosions were always an incredible joy to watch in Cleveland. Armed with an arsenal of ankle-breaking crossovers and an uncanny ability to finish around the rim, there’s no defender that enjoys guarding Irving as the clock ticks toward the final buzzer.

The Boston faithful fell in love with Thomas’ volume shooting late in games and his average of 9.8 fourth quarter points trailed only Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, so Irving undoubtedly has huge shoes to fill. But if Irving’s stellar track record – see Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals – is any indication, the Celtics will adore their new franchise point guard all the same.

The Unheralded Player: Al Horford

Al Horford was the Celtics’ big-time free agent coup in 2016, a precursor to this summer’s onslaught of roster changes. And yet, the four-time All-Star took plenty of criticism, even as Boston battled their way to the conference’s No. 1 seed. For $26.5 million, fans argued, Horford should be contributing more than 14 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. However, Horford’s influence on both sides of the ball extends beyond the box score.

The 11-year veteran is now on the wrong side of 30, but Horford is a Swiss Army Knife of versatility for Boston. Defensively, his ability to effortlessly switch on screens and stay with driving opponents makes him an invaluable piece to Boston’s puzzle. Rebounding is still a team-wide weakness, but Horford was Boston’s best rebounding big man last season – Bradley grabbed more than anybody else and ranked No. 2 with 6.1 per game.

Like it or not, the Celtics will need Horford’s reliable numbers after shuffling Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko out the door this offseason.

Best New Addition: Marcus Morris

Yes, Irving and Hayward are Boston’s best new additions, but in the interest of sharing the spotlight, there’s another arrival that deserves attention as well. This summer saw the departure of both Crowder and Olynyk, but Marcus Morris should be an excellent replacement for the Celtics. Morris started 79 games for the Detroit Pistons last season and averaged 14 points and 4.6 rebounds as the team’s small forward. While he’ll be asked to fill a slightly different role with the Celtics, Morris should fit in nicely on the roster and in Stevens’ offensive and defensive systems.

Although he only converted on 33.1 percent of his three-point attempts last season, Morris has developed into a reliable 3-and-D player nonetheless. For almost two years, Morris has been hailed as one of the league’s top LeBron-stoppers as James averaged just 22 points against the Detroist Pistons in 2016-17, according to Boston.com. Another tidbit worth noting: Morris has played in 399 of 410 possible games over the last five NBA seasons, a near-perfect bill of health for the hard-nosed forward.

– Benny Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Danny Ainge

Gifted a treasure trove of high-level assets by the Brooklyn Nets in 2013, Ainge quickly changed the fortunes of a franchise headed for an inevitable rebuild. The combination of hungry youngsters and the eventual emergence of Thomas jumpstarted the Celtics’ latest revival, a streak often attributed to the general manager’s overall savviness in trades and drafts. Unpredictable in nature, Ainge has been calculated in his moves thus far, looking to contend and build for the future at the same time.

When Ainge needed cap space to sign Hayward, he made the difficult decision to move Bradley instead of Crowder or Smart. While Bradley was beloved by fans and essential to the roster’s core DNA, the forward-thinking Ainge traded the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent instead of Crowder’s team-friendly deal or Smart, who will be restricted in 2018. After selecting Jaylen Brown in 2016 and moving down for Tatum this June, Ainge was comfortable enough to move Thomas, Crowder and the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder to acquire Irving.

The Celtics haven’t conquered their James-sized problem quite yet, but Ainge deserves credit for the bold direction he’s taken the franchise this summer alone.

2. Brad Stevens

Year after year, Stevens continues to build his case as one of the NBA’s brightest coaches. Stevens is lauded as a tactical mastermind and his approach to the Xs and Os helped Boston to a 108.6 offensive rating last season, the eighth-best mark in the league. Out of timeouts, the Celtics are deadly and Stevens excels at utilizing screens and deceptive movements to create easy shot opportunities. Unanimously liked in the locker room as well, Stevens is able to squeeze every ounce of talent from his roster each season.

Reuniting with Hayward is not only a fantastic storyline for the 2017-18 season, but he’s another uber-efficient talent for Stevens to weaponize as he sees fit. Truly historic results from both Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni have stolen the coaching spotlight away from Stevens during recent award seasons, but it shouldn’t be long before the well-received leader earns a trophy of his own.

3. Jaylen Brown

At this point, there’s no stopping Brown’s hype train and his expectations as a hooper have never been higher. After encouraging stints at both the Utah and Las Vegas summer leagues, many have tipped Brown as the favorite to supplant Bradley as a starter. Brown is an energetic, enthusiastic defender and his athleticism should make him a highlight machine alongside Irving.

Stevens hasn’t chosen between Brown and Smart quite yet, but the sophomore will see a major boost in minutes this season either way. As Basketball Insiders wrote last month, nobody benefitted more from the Irving-Thomas deal than Brown – now it’s time to prove it.

4. Jayson Tatum

Leading up to June’s NBA Draft, Markelle Fultz was the unanimous choice for the No. 1 overall pick. When Ainge eventually traded down for Tatum, some onlookers were initially confused. With Thomas set to hit unrestricted free agency in 2018 and openly searching for an expensive deal, Fultz would have been an appropriate replacement. But after the Irving trade in late August, Ainge’s master plan became much clearer: Brown and Tatum are the future of the franchise.

For what it’s worth, Tatum’s first summer league entry was an undeniable success and the rookie immediately exhibited an ability to score at the NBA level. His role will certainly be limited this season, but Tatum’s positional fluidity should earn him opportunities to contribute, albeit small ones. However, if an injury strikes, it’ll be interesting to see if Tatum can thrive in a high-intensity role.

– Benny Nadeau

SALARY CAP 101

The Celtics made their big move in acquiring Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team started the summer under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, landing Gordon Hayward in free agency. Now over, Boston used their $4.3 million Room Exception on Aron Baynes. Outside of additional trades, the team can only bring on additional players on minimum contracts.

Next summer, the Celtics will be over the league’s projected cap of $102 million. They’ll need to decide on the 2018-19 options for Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier before November. Marcus Smart is eligible for an extension until the start of the coming season.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

With just Horford, Smart, Rozier and Brown returning from last year’s team, it’s tough to pinpoint what exactly the Celtics will excel at this upcoming season. The onus here falls on Stevens to put together a cohesive unit as quickly as possible, but many of their strongest traits could return this winter. In 2016-17, the Celtics made 12 three-pointers per game, third-most in the league and equal to the supercharged Warriors’ total.

Thomas, Crowder and Bradley accounted for 7.4 of those 12 aforementioned three-pointers last season, but the arrivals of Irving (2.5), Hayward (2.0) and Morris (1.5) should make the Celtics one of the league’s best shooting teams in 2017-18. Despite their reliance on young talent, the Celtics should continue on as a solid defensive unit – their 105.5 defensive rating was twelfth-best in 2016-17 – even without Crowder and Bradley in tow. Hayward and Morris are underrated defenders and if the youngsters (Brown, Smart and Rozier) are able to provide quality minutes in their increased roles, they’ll frustrate opposing teams for at least another year.

– Benny Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Despite the Celtics’ intense makeover, they’re still lagging behind in the rebounding department. In 2016-17, Boston grabbed just 42 rebounds a game, the NBA’s fourth-lowest mark. It bears repeating that the 6-foot-3 Bradley was Boston’s second-best rebounder last year as well. To shore up that front, the Celtics added both Ante Žižić and Daniel Theis to the roster this summer, but the former was included in the Irving-Thomas trade. At 25 years-old, Theis is a three-time German League champion and could be a valuable pickup behind Horford.

Additionally, the Celtics signed Aron Baynes as well, a 6-foot-10 center that spent the last two seasons with Detroit and averaged 4.4 rebounds last year. Still, the two new centers are unlikely to reverse Boston’s rebounding misfortunes alone. Although Boston has taken steps to address their biggest weakness from 2016-17, they’ll likely struggle on the boards for most of the season once again.

– Benny Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Following the Irving-Thomas trade, can Boston finally topple Cleveland?

This is undoubtedly a difficult question, but we won’t have a better idea until Thomas returns from that long-term hip injury, whenever that may be. The Cavaliers coasted through the regular season in 2016-17 and ceded the No. 1 position to Boston in the process, all before annihilating them in the conference finals. Ultimately, as long as Thomas is healthy come playoff time, Cleveland remains the odds-on favorite to reach the championship for the fourth straight season.

Derrick Rose is not an equal-level replacement for Thomas, but he’ll get the job done on most nights. Crowder, on the other hand, instantly becomes Cleveland’s third-best forward behind Kevin Love and James. Even if the Celtics can’t overcome the Cavaliers this season, this won’t be the last time this burning question is asked, particularly so if James leaves in 2018.

Although Hayward, Irving and Horford will form a fearsome trio in 2017-18, the future is still incredibly bright as well. Anchored by Stevens and guided by the internal development of Smart, Brown and Tatum, the Celtics’ franchise is looking quite strong these days.

– Benny Nadeau

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NBA PM: Los Angeles Clippers 2017-18 Season Preview

After the loss of star Chris Paul, Basketball Insiders previews the LA Clippers for 2017-18.

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Earlier this offseason, Chris Paul decided to take his talents to Houston to play alongside James Harden. With this decision, the Los Angeles Clippers we have known for the last few years came to an end. However, rather than leaving the Clippers empty handed, Paul opted into the final year of his contract, which allowed Los Angeles to trade him to the Rockets in exchange for Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, a protected 2018 first-rounder and $661,072. It’s never good to lose an elite talent, but this was as ideal of an outcome as a team could reasonably hope for in this sort of situation.

Shortly after Paul was traded, Blake Griffin re-signed with the Clippers on a five-year, $173 million contract. The deal signaled that the Clippers were not going to strip down the roster and start a full rebuild. Instead, the Clippers invested heavily in Griffin, acquired Danilo Gallinari in a sign-and-trade deal with the Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks, signed Milos Teodosic and Willie Reed and added new executives to restructure the team’s front office.

The Clippers added a lot of fresh faces, but necessarily said farewell to several key contributors and role players, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson and Brandon Bass. With a fresh new roster, based heavily around Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers enter the season with several questions, including how far this team can go in the postseason.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Clippers did an admirable job bouncing immediately back from Paul’s decision to take his talents to Houston. The team is deeper than it has been in recent seasons, though they lack the high-end talent they had when Paul was on the roster. It’s not clear how far this team can go in the playoffs, but the team has potential. If nothing else, this season will be more interesting that the last few have been. Rather than predictably falling short in the playoffs because of a lack of depth and health issues, this squad has the talent to withstand a few injuries and the chance to create a new identity. The Clippers can’t reasonably expect to overtake the Warriors this season, but they should be competitive on any given night, regardless of who their opponent is.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

— Jesse Blancarte

The days of dreaming about raising a Clippers championship banner at Staples Center followed Chris Paul to Houston. It’s over.

Even still, credit the franchise for making lemonade from their lemons; they recovered nicely from Paul’s departure. I wouldn’t be shocked for the Clips to flirt with 50 wins this season, but that’ll depend on Blake Griffin’s health and the ease with which Milos Teodosic is able to make the conversion to the NBA. Aside from that, there’s a lot to like — Danilo Gallinari is a stud, Patrick Beverly is underrated and Lou Williams is still a prolific scorer. I also happen to think that both Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans are certified NBA players, so the Clippers are one of the teams I will be paying closest attention to this season.

I do expect the Kings to be much-improved, as well, but in the end, I’d expect Doc Rivers to figure out how to put all these new pieces together and carry his Clippers to the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.

2nd place — Pacific Divison

— Moke Hamilton

Basic math suggests that the Los Angeles Clippers minus Chris Paul equals a huge step backward as a franchise, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are still in the fold, after all, and the return for Paul wasn’t bad. Pat Beverley is an elite defender at the point guard spot, and electric Euro backup Milos Teodisc brings the offense that Beverley can’t. Lou Williams can replace some of the bench scoring lost from Jamal Crawford, while there’s plenty to like still about the team’s kids — Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and even rookie Sindarius Thornwell. They lost their captain, which hurts, but I don’t see any reason why they can’t still compete at an elite level this season considering how well they restocked. I’m not out on LAC just yet.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

— Joel Brigham

Despite Chris Paul handcuffing the Los Angeles Clippers into trading him this summer, they somehow managed to turn around and receive an impressive haul for the all-star point guard.

In return for Paul, the Clippers acquired Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, and a few more pieces. By moving Paul, Los Angeles had enough money in the bank to pair Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. With this group of players, the Clippers should still be plenty competitive in a deeper Western Conference, and ultimately should find themselves in the playoff picture this season. Not bad for losing arguably the best point guard in the entire league.

2nd place — Pacific Division

— Dennis Chambers

It’s never easy to lose a consensus top-10 player in the NBA, and the Clippers acquitted themselves nicely despite being forced to send Chris Paul to Houston this offseason. Their massive trade haul with the Rockets included strong pieces like Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Lou Williams and others, and they also made some smart signings in Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic. Will a deeper, more diverse roster be enough to make up for the loss of Paul? It’s tough to say, though we have to expect at least some drop-off. The health of DeAndre Jordan and especially Blake Griffin will loom large for this bunch, and there could be a few fit issues with a guy like Gallinari, who will play a lot of small forward despite being better-suited as a four man at this point in his career. Expect the Clippers to be right there competing for the final few playoff spots in the West.

2nd Place — Pacific Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin, when healthy, is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. He still struggles with his jumper, but his combination of size, strength and skill makes him an efficient scorer and effective playmaker from the power forward position. Griffin averaged 22.8 points per game last season and shot 33.6 percent from three-point range on a career-high two attempts per game. If Griffin can improve his three-point shooting even by just a few percentage points, it will force opponents to guard him more closely on the perimeter, which could open up more opportunities to attack the basket off the dribble. Additionally, Griffin is still one of the best playmaking power forwards in the league. Last season, Griffin averaged 5.2 assists per game – a number that could easily increase this season with the exit of Paul. Griffin isn’t quite as physically explosive as he was earlier in his career, but with Paul out of the picture and a more refined offensive game, Griffin is in a position to take his game to another level. Much of the Clippers’ success this season will depend on how effectively Griffin can manage being the focal point on offense.

Top Defensive Player: DeAndre Jordan

The Clippers have, for the most part, been an average-to-good defensive team over the last few seasons – thanks in large part to DeAndre Jordan. Jordan entered the league as a raw, physically gifted center. Over his career, he has steadily improved and refined his game. The result is Jordan is now one of the most physically gifted and effective defensive centers in the NBA. He’s still prone to making a few mental errors on most nights (biting on pump fakes, failing to rotate to help a teammate, etc.), but also consistently contests shots at the rim, blocks shots, rotates effectively on the perimeter and hauls in plenty of rebounds. Patrick Beverley comes in as a close second here, but Jordan anchoring the defense from the center position is arguably more important than Beverley’s perimeter defense.

Top Playmaker: Milos Teodosic

The Clippers signed Milos Teodosic to a partially-guaranteed, two-year $12.3 million contract (with a player option on the final season). Teodosic, 30 years old, has arguably been the best player in Europe over the last few years and is one of the best passers currently playing the game of basketball in any professional league. Teodosic spent the last few years playing for CSKA Moscow of the Russian League and VTB United League. NBA fans may not know much about Teodosic and many have likely never even seen him play before. However, if Teodosic’s game translates to the NBA, it won’t take long for NBA fans to take notice. Teodosic’s passing skills and court vision remind us of players like Steve Nash, John Stockton or perhaps even Jason Williams. Teodosic will struggle on the defensive end of the court, but expect him to quickly develop chemistry with his teammates on offense, especially the high-flying Griffin and Jordan.

Top Clutch Player: Danilo Gallinari

Danilo Gallinari isn’t generally considered to be one of the NBA’s top clutch players, but he has proven himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in late game situations. Gallinari has suffered through knee and other injuries over his career but he is still a very capable scorer. He is a good spot up shooter, can score in isolation, in the post and gets to the free throw line frequently. Gallinari is also a good playmaker and is as much of a threat to create an easy scoring opportunity for a teammate as he is to score himself in a clutch situation. Gallinari probably looks to draw a foul too often in these situations, which can get him into trouble, but with the game on the line, he is probably the team’s best option to either get a bucket or create a scoring opportunity for a teammate.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Beverley

Patrick Beverley has established a reputation for being one of the grittiest, tough-nosed point guards in the league. Whether he is facing off against Russell Westbrook or Ramon Sessions, Beverley is going to give maximum effort to lock down his opponent. His box score numbers won’t blow anyone away on most nights, but he will make the Clippers a better team and will often keep his opponents in check.

Best New Addition: Danilo Gallinari

Gallinari comes to Los Angeles at a hefty price, but he addresses several areas of need for the Clippers. Gallinari is probably better suited to play the power forward position at this point in his career, but he can still manage to play small forward as well. The Clippers have been in desperate need of a quality small forward and Gallinari should help in that regard. However, Gallinari’s ability to play power forward should allow the Clippers to create some interesting small ball lineups that, in theory, should be quite effective on offense. The issue with Gallinari is his health. Gallinari has only managed to play in 70 or more regular season games twice in his career and the last time was in the 2012-13 season. Gallinari is off to a bad start this season health wise as he injured his hand in an on-court altercation earlier this offseason.

— Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jerry West

Jerry West has established himself as one of the best team architects in the NBA. West’s fingerprints are all over the Golden State Warriors, who have assembled and maintained one of the most talented rosters in NBA history. Looking for a new challenge, West agreed to join the Clippers as a consultant this offseason and his fingerprints already appear up and down the Clippers’ current roster. It can be argued that he should have opted for a complete rebuild after Paul left, rather than retooling the team’s roster on the fly. As impressive as the Clippers’ roster reconstruction has been this offseason, there’s a legitimate argument that they aren’t good enough to win a championship and too good to land into top-draft picks to rebuild with. While this may be the case, we trust West to make the necessary moves to put the Clippers in a position to be successful.

2. Patrick Beverley

The Clippers are in search of a new identity and culture, which is something Beverley can have a big impact on. Earlier this offseason, Beverley said that he hoped his effort and approach to the game would have a positive effect on his teammates and give the team a new identity.

“Me providing the leadership I provide. Trying to change the culture a little bit,” Beverley said. “You think of L.A. and you think of lights, camera, action. All of that is fun for sure. But at the end of the day, they judge you by wins and losses and how hard you play, and how you putting on for the city. If I can just be fortunate to bring my culture to the team, try to change the culture a little bit to kind of a blue collar, grit and grind kind of team and potentially make the playoffs and when you make the playoffs, anything can happen.”

The Clippers have a reputation for complaining to the officials too often and falling short of expectations. If the team adopts Beverley’s hard-nosed approach to the game and learns to stay away from the officials (or at least tone it down), their reputation across the league could transform quickly.

3. Blake Griffin

Despite the departure of CP3, Griffin returns to the Clippers on a max-contract with the hope of not only maintaining the team’s standard of play, but improving on it. It won’t be easy, however. Paul is still one of the best overall point guards in the league and has been the focal point of the team’s offense since he first put on a Clippers jersey. Griffin has the skills to thrive both as a scorer and playmaker, which will likely be on full display this season. Health has been a problem throughout Griffin’s career. With Paul gone, any time Griffin misses will be even more detrimental than it has been in past seasons (though Paul and Griffin played quite well over the years whenever the other was injured). If Griffin has better luck with health and thrives in the absence of Paul, Griffin could have a big season.

4. Sindarius Thornwell

The Clippers purchased the No. 48 pick in this year’s draft from the Milwaukee Bucks and used it on former South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell. Last season, Thornwell averaged 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.1 steals while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. Thornwell earned First-Team All-SEC honors and was named the SEC Player of the Year. Thornwell, who played four years of college ball, does not have the upside of other prospects, but he was arguably college’s most productive player last season and brings youth, athleticism and skill to the Clippers. It’s not clear how Doc Rivers plans to utilize Thornwell with this year’s roster, but if he proves to be a reliable contributor, he would be a big boost for the Clippers.

— Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Clippers stayed above the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, re-signing Blake Griffin while sending Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets via sign and trade. By acquiring Danilo Gallinari and using most of their Mid-Level Exception on Milos Teodosic, Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans, the Clippers are hard-capped at $125.3 million. They’re close to that line with 14 guaranteed players, limiting their ability to use their $7.3 million trade exception for Paul, which expires in late June.

Before next season, DeAndre Jordan can opt out of his contract. If the Clippers stumble this season, they may be better off shopping Jordan instead of risking he leaves outright as a free agent. Before November, Los Angeles needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Sam Dekker and Brice Johnson. The Clippers could have a decent amount of cap room next July (roughly $35 million) but that relies on Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, Teodosic and Jordan all opting out.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Depth. During the CP3 era, the Clippers constantly struggled to manufacture adequate depth on the roster. With three massive contracts between Paul, Griffin and Jordan, the Clippers had little flexibility to bolster the roster. Now, the Clippers have invested heavily in Gallinari and the other players acquired in the trade for Paul. The result of this is a deeper roster that doesn’t have as much top-end talent, but isn’t scrapping the bottom of the barrel for help either.

— Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

While the Clippers’ roster is deeper than it has been in years, the absence of Paul means the Clippers no longer have an elite Big 3 to build around. While other teams like the Warriors feature several superstar talents, the Clippers are down to Griffin and Jordan. Will these two be enough to carry the Clippers deep into the playoffs? It’s unclear what the duo and this new roster is capable of, but this season should be more interesting that recent seasons in Los Angeles.

— Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Should the Clippers have opted for a full rebuild rather than retooling on the fly after the loss of Chris Paul?

The Clippers had the opportunity to shed all of their major salaries and rebuild from the ground up. Rather than engaging in a Sam Hinkie style rebuild, the Clippers re-signed Griffin, invested in Gallinari and rounded out the roster with several veterans and young prospects with guaranteed salaries. The Clippers could still unload these players in trade if it’s clear this roster cannot compete with the elite teams of the league, but that doesn’t seem likely. Instead, the Clippers will likely earn a bottom-four seed in the Western Conference and will hope that moving forward they can bolster the roster through opportunistic trades, solid drafting and internal development. We will never truly know whether the Clippers would have been better off by engaging in a full rebuild, but if this teams falls flat this season, people will second guess the team’s offseason strategy to retool on the fly.

— Jesse Blancarte

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Indiana Pacers and Jarrod Uthoff Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The Indiana Pacers and free agent forward Jarrod Uthoff have agreed to a one-year, partially guaranteed deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Uthoff, who shot 46 percent from beyond the arc in the G-league last year before being called up by the Dallas Mavericks, gives Indiana 20 players heading into training camp.

Uthoff passed on EuroLeague offers as well as offers from three other NBA teams, Basketball Insiders has learned.

The 24-year-old forward averaged 4.4 points and 2.6 rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game while playing in nine games for the Mavericks last season.

For more information on Indiana’s salary cap and roster situation, click here.

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