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Minnesota Timberwolves 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues our season preview series with the intriguing Minnesota Timberwolves.

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The Minnesota Timberwolves completed one of the biggest deals of the offseason. They dealt promising young players in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn to the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler, one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Butler, along with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, helps form quite possibly one of the best trios in the league. For a team looking to finally break through and reach the playoffs, Butler was a huge addition.

They didn’t stop there, however. Tom Thibodeau added several quality veterans in Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford. These moves made it clear that development is over and playoffs are the goal. The Western Conference is tough though, and it will be a difficult task.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves could be a fascinating clash of standard team-building mantras. On the one hand, summer moves that brought Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague to town while jettisoning Ricky Rubio unquestionably bolstered the overall talent on the roster, as should expected improvements from young blue-chippers like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. On the other hand, though, we’ve seen numerous examples of fit struggles for teams trying to incorporate pieces on the fly – and there are a few signs that could be the case in Minnesota. For one thing, their floor spacing could be a bit of a struggle; guys like Butler and Teague do a lot of things very well, but neither provides a ton of spacing out beyond three for a team that also lost its best volume three-point shooter in Zach LaVine. For another, their depth could be suspect – always at least a token concern for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, who’s been known to run his players ragged. Some are penciling in the Wolves as a playoff lock out West, with many even considering them as the favorites for the 5-seed or higher; to this eye, they’re closer to the rest of the conference’s middle that will compete for the final several playoff spots, though their ceiling is certainly higher than virtually all these other teams (Denver, LA Clippers, Portland, Utah, Memphis, etc). The Wolves could legitimately finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Northwest.

3rd Place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

With all that has transpired over the course of the offseason, it would have been somewhat easy to miss the fact that the Timberwolves probably had the best offseason of any team. Sure, the Celtics added Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, but they were already the top team in the Eastern Conference last year, and most people would still pick the Cavaliers in a seven-game series.

The T-Wolves, on the other hand, are coming off of a 31-win season and haven’t even as much as made the playoffs since 2004. That’ll change this season.

With Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson joining Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, if things break right, the T-Wolves will make the Northwest Division the toughest in basketball. Although the Jazz are the defending champs, the loss of Gordon Hayward is going to hurt their chances of a repeat. The Denver Nuggets are on the uptick and Russell Westbrook has Paul George by his side.

Because of my belief in Tom Thibodeau, I’m willing to bet that, so long as the team is healthy, Thibs finds a way to land his team in the top three in the Northwest and lead them to a long-awaited return to the playoffs.

2nd Place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

It’s easy to think, “Don’t get ahead of yourself. There are a lot of new players here. And a lot of young players here. Don’t expect too big a leap in their first year trying to figure it all out.” But I’m defying all that logic and picking them to finish 2nd in the league’s most insane division anyway. We all were excited about the team’s young core a year ago, and now they’ve only improved upon that core by adding Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. They’re coached by a man possessed by the specter of perfectionism, and goodness do they look promising. There’s real star power here, and real depth. That slots them a bit ahead of Portland, Denver and Utah.

2nd Place — Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

Tom Thibodeau used this summer to get some of his old Chicago Bulls band members back together in Minnesota. With a few solid building blocks in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins already developing under Thibodeau’s tutelage, the former Bulls head coach traded for his former star shooting guard in Chicago, Jimmy Butler. Thibodeau then went a step further and acquired another one of his former players when the Wolves signed Taj Gibson in free agency. Adding those former Chicago guys to the mix in Minnesota, plus the signing of Jeff Teague, gives the Wolves a increased level of talent, and more importantly, veteran leadership to help guide the younger guys to their first ever playoff appearance. Thibodeau’s familiar faces should really put Minnesota over the hump and turn them into a true contender this season.

1st place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the more interesting teams entering the 2017-18 NBA season. Already featuring young talent like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, while bringing in players like Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, the Timberwolves have a lot of talent and the potential to finish as high as second and as low as fifth in the Northwest Division. Tom Thibodeau will be tasked with making all of this talent fit together in a coheisve manner, which will be difficult considering the team’s lack of overall floor spacing. The Timberwolves have nice talent but are short on quality three-point shooters, which is going to make like particularly difficult for Towns and Butler, who should anchor the team’s offense. The team’s defense is also going to need to improve significantly if Minnesota hopes to make some real playoff noise. Adding guys like Butler and Gibson should help on defense, but guys like Wiggins are going to need to step up their respective games.

3rd Place — Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns

Yes, the Wolves acquired Butler, and yes he is a top 10-15 talent. But Towns remains the best offensive player on the team. He’s improved every year he’s been in the league so far. He is incredibly versatile offensively. He can post up like a traditional big man, and he can also play the wing like a guard. He has unlimited range as well. He shot 34.1 percent from the three-point line his rookie year, and 36.7 percent from downtown this past season.

He is also an improving playmaker. Interestingly enough, he’s almost in the mold of a young Kevin Garnett, who acted as a mentor to Towns as a rookie. Towns is a franchise talent in the making. He was the unanimous Rookie of the Year in 2016 when he averaged 18.3 points per game on 54.2 percent shooting. This past season, he upped that to 25.1 points on the same shooting percentage. Whatever fate lies ahead for the Wolves, Towns will definitely be at the center of it all.

Top Defensive Player: Gorgui Dieng

The clear choice here is Butler, and while he’ll have a major impact on the Wolves’ defense, it’s possible that the team’s most important defensive player is Gorgui Dieng. Dieng is the epitome of substance over style. He’s not going to wow anyone with spectacular plays, but he does so much of the little things that contribute to winning basketball, including playing defense.

Dieng has become a great shot-blocker and team defender. With the addition of Taj Gibson, Dieng might be moved to the bench. While Gibson is also a solid defender, he does not possess the shot-blocking prowess of Dieng. For someone like Towns who is still a work in progress defensively, having Dieng behind him waiting to challenge opponents at the rim is probably the better fit. It worked last year as Dieng fit seamlessly into the starting lineup.

Top Playmaker: Jimmy Butler

It was just an absolute steal for the Wolves to nab Butler. He can do so many different things on the court, including being a primary playmaker. Butler often played point guard at times with the Bulls, and he should get his fair share of playmaking duties with the Wolves as well. With the ball often in his hands last season, he averaged a career-high 5.5 assists.

The Wolves traded Ricky Rubio this summer who used to occupy the role of top playmaker on the roster. For a talent like Butler, Rubio, who is not a strong shooter to begin with, didn’t really fit alongside him. Jeff Teague is a much better fit as his shooting will help space the floor a lot better. With Teague behind the three-point line and athletic talents like Towns and Wiggins running the floor, Butler will have no shortage of options to pass the ball to. His assist numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the league and it’s possible that happens again this upcoming season.

Top Clutch Player: Jimmy Butler

When the Bulls needed a clutch shot last season, the ball was in the hands of Butler. He’s incredibly strong and athletic, allowing him to get his shot off over most defenders. He has cemented himself as one of the top clutch players in the NBA. Not only was he the Bulls top shot option in the fourth quarter, he was their top option period. Most of his time at point guard came down the stretch as the Bulls trusted him to not only take a clutch shot but make the right play as well.

The Wolves were a team that struggled late in the fourth quarter last year. Butler is the remedy. Thibodeau has a legit go-to option for whatever play needs to be made down the stretch.

The Unheralded Player: Tyus Jones

Jones has been an afterthought his first two years with the Wolves. Now with both Rubio and Dunn gone, the backup point guard spot is his for the taking. It’s possible that the Wolves still sign a veteran backup before the season starts, but it might be a good idea to start utilizing some of the overlooked young talent on the roster.

Jones has only played in a total of 97 games over the past two years, at 14.2 minutes per game. He was, however, used a bit more frequently this past season, Thibodeau’s first as head coach. He showed an ability to hit from downtown at a respectable 35.6 percent, as well as being able to steady an offense and make the right pass. He also showed he can be a solid defensive presence. His ability to score is still a question mark, but with Jamal Crawford generating most of the offense off the bench, simply getting guys good shots and taking the open shot when it comes to him is what he’ll need to do to really establish himself in his third season.

Best New Addition: Jamal Crawford

For a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade, adding a veteran like Crawford was exactly the type of move they should be making. Crawford may be 37 years old, and his shooting percentages have always hovered around the low 40s, but he remains one of the deadliest scorers in the league off the bench. His difficult shot making ability as well as being able to get his shot off against any defender is almost unparalleled.

He’s been a double-digit scorer his entire career, he averaged 12.3 points per game with the Los Angeles Clippers last season, and that should stay the same. The Wolves are in desperate need of consistent bench production and Crawford will address that issue. He also brings a ton of veteran experience, something that should rub off on the young Wolves.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Tom Thibodeau

Thibodeau has long been regarded as one of the toughest and best defensive coaches in the NBA. He helped transform the Big 3 Boston Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen into one of the best defensive teams of the past few decades. His Chicago Bulls teams were always among the top defensive teams in the NBA. Now, he’s looking to work his magic with the young Wolves. The additions of Butler and Gibson, two players he coached in Chicago, and two strong defenders will fit in perfectly with the system he runs. He’ll have to squeeze in all the new players, but Thibs can do it. A no-nonsense type of guy, he’s perfect to guide the Wolves back to the playoffs.

2. Andrew Wiggins

The least established of the Wolves Big 3 of himself, Towns, and Butler, Wiggins is still a force to be reckoned with. There was a lot of hype surrounding Wiggins when he entered the 2014 draft, and it came with some heavy expectations. Thus far, he hasn’t quite been the superstar many projected him to be, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t an impact player, or that he can’t still emerge into that type of guy. His scoring has improved every season, going from 16.9 points per game two years ago to the 23.6 he averaged this past season. He shoots around 45 percent from the field which is very respectable for a wing scorer. What he’ll need to improve upon to take that next leap are his defense and three-point shooting. He’s got all the physical tools to become a top wing defender and consistently being able to hit the three-ball is a must in today’s game.

3. Jeff Teague

When the Wolves traded Rubio, they almost immediately came to terms with Teague as a free agent. For the roster that Thibodeau is building, Teague was clearly the better fit. Teague is nowhere near the elite playmaker that Rubio was, but that won’t matter too much with Butler as the de facto point guard on the floor. Where Teague will excel is his outside shooting. He can space the floor much better than Rubio which is a necessary skill in today’s NBA. He will help open up the lane for Minnesota’s Big 3. He also brings playoff experience and leadership to help steer the young guys in the right direction.

4. Taj Gibson

Gibson was one of the best role players on the market this summer and it was an excellent move for the Wolves to snatch him up. He can start or come off the bench and still make a solid impact on the court. He’s a good midrange shooter to help space the floor and he has a knack for playing around the rim and getting put-backs off missed shots. He is also a rugged rebounder and strong defender, traits that are necessary for Thibodeau’s system. Gibson is a veteran with years of playoff experience. Whether he starts or helps anchor the second unit, his impact will surely be felt.

5. Justin Patton

The deal for Butler was a home run for the Wolves even if he was the only player they received in return. The fact that they managed to acquire Justin Patton as well made the trade that much more in favor of Minnesota. Patton required offseason surgery for a foot injury and was unable to make his summer league debut. He will most assuredly miss time once the season gets underway and will have to postpone his NBA debut. If he manages to get on the court this season, however, he could have a solid impact. He’s an athletic big who can finish around the rim as well as step out and knock down jumpers. He’s also in the mold of a potentially elite interior defender. The Wolves have little front court depth off the bench, with Cole Aldrich and Nemanja Bjelica as the only realistic options. If Patton can get healthy quickly, he could find a spot for himself in the rotation.

-David Yapkowitz

SALARY CAP 101

The Wolves made their big play on the night of the NBA Draft, trading for Jimmy Butler. The team went on to use cap room to sign Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, and spent its $4.3 million Room Exception on Jamal Crawford. Now all Minnesota has left to round out the roster are minimum contracts.

The team has until the start of the season to work out an extension with Andrew Wiggins. The Wolves need to pick up team options on Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones before November. With the sizable contracts of Gorgui Dieng, Butler, Teague and Gibson, the Timberwolves do not project to have any significant spending power.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Wolves will have no trouble scoring the basketball, that much is clear. Butler, Towns, and Wiggins are all deadly offensive options. With Teague and either Dieng or Gibson rounding out the starting lineup, it will be tough for opposing defenses to slow them down. Although neither Dieng nor Gibson are known for their scoring, they are capable scorers when needed. Both can finish at the rim, and both have become strong midrange shooters. It’s a pick your poison type of situation. The bench is more of a question mark, but that’s where Crawford comes in. If the Wolves can get one or two other guys to provide consistent scoring for the second unit, they should be alright. Thibodeau plays a tight rotation, so whoever it is will need to give solid production.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

The Wolves were one of the worst teams in the league last season at finishing games. There were numerous instances when the Wolves went into the fourth quarter with a lead, only to see it evaporate and watch the game slip away in defeat. Enter Butler and Crawford, two players among those with the best crunch time reputations in the NBA. They should vastly improve the Wolves clutch decision making.

The defense was also an issue for the Wolves this past year. With Thibodeau bringing in some of his former defensive standouts like Butler and Gibson, that should help remedy their defensive woes. In order to make that jump to a true playoff contender in the West, it is imperative that the Wolves improve their defense to the upper echelon of the league.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Timberwolves break through and end their decade plus long playoff drought?

It’s clear that playoffs are the ultimate goal for the Wolves this season. Their offseason moves reinforced that. The Western Conference is a tough place. The Golden State Warriors reign supreme with teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and Oklahoma City Thunder lying in wait. Outside of those four teams, though, the West should be much more of a tossup. Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz have taken steps back while the Denver Nuggets should be improved. When looking at the bottom half of the conference, the Wolves have as much talent as anyone, perhaps more. A 5-7 seed is definitely not out of the question. With Thibodeau at the helm, and a current superstar in Butler paired with a superstar in the making in Towns, the Wolves will not only end their postseason drought, but they will finish with a top-5 record in the West and give some team all they’ve got in the first round of the playoffs.

-David Yapkowitz

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NBA

Boston Celtics 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Bostons Celtics might be the deepest team in the NBA, and if they can stay healthy might be the most formidable challenger to the Warriors in a while. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Celtics in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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In looking at the roster of this season’s Boston Celtics, the first question that comes to mind is: Can this team beat the Warriors? Boasting an elite starting five, both offensively and defensively, one can only assume this is one of the few teams in the league with that sort of ability. What makes this team even deeper is the fact that they boast a slew of high-level personnel coming off the bench. But the cherry on top? Brad Stevens. Year after year, Stevens has continued to lead almost any and all versions of the Celtics to success. We’ve already seen a number of players who thrived in Stevens’ system, only to see their play severely diminish with a different team. So essentially, this Boston Celtics team not only has an outstanding roster, but a coach that will get the best out of them night in and night out.

Brad Stevens has improved his yearly win total in each of his first five years in the league. He’s rattled off four straight trips to the postseason and two straight losses to LeBron James in the conference finals. With LeBron now out West, and a healthy Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to start the season, do the Celtics have what it takes to to make the 2018-19 NBA Finals? Let’s take a deep dive into their team and find out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Boston Celtics didn’t make any blockbuster acquisitions this summer, but they are still getting some serious reinforcements this season. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward collectively missed most of last season due to injuries, but are now on track to start on opening night. Boston was a dangerous team last season without those two star players. With Irving and Hayward back in the fold, it’s hard to not like Boston’s chances of making it out of the Eastern Conference. Head coach Brad Stevens will have to manage his players’ minutes and find a balance that keeps his stars and role players happy. With Irving, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart on the roster, Stevens will have to figure out how to balance the minutes at point guard. The same issue applies at the forward positions, with Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris all looking for heavy minutes. It’s a nice problem to have and if anyone can manage it, it’s Stevens. With high-end talent, solid role players, a strong team culture and a top-notch head coach, the Celtics are primed for a deep playoff run and possibly a trip to the NBA Finals.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

There’s true excitement in Boston headed into the season, and with good reason. A team that overachieved last year now returns multiple All-Star level talents to the fold, plus can expect major development from some of the most tantalizing young wings in the league in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Coach Brad Stevens, who has spent years getting the most out of rosters, will finally be getting one of the most stacked groups in the NBA outside Golden State. And if everything breaks right, particularly health and development from the youngsters, could this finally be the squad to challenge the Warriors? They have several lineup combinations that at least theoretically seem to match up well with the two-time defending champs, but they’ll have to prove they’re on that level on the floor first – including getting past a similarly stacked Raptors team that plays in the same division.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Ben Dowsett

For the entirety of last year, the Boston Celtics lived by the mantra, “next man up.” There is so much to look forward to with this team now that they’re starting over healthy. We know how amazing a player Kyrie Irving is. Gordon Hayward is getting stronger with every day in anticipation for his return. The rookie season of Jayson Tatum, and more importantly his performance in the playoffs, was incredible. Between those three, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and more—it’s an embarrassment of riches for the Celtics. Putting it together shouldn’t be too difficult, and it should result in an NBA Finals appearance if they can stay healthy.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

One thing’s for sure about the Celtics this season: They are no longer “cute.” It was cute to watch them wildly exceed expectations given their circumstances for the past few seasons. This time, things will be different. Now that they are coming off a surprise run to the conference finals, will get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back, and expect progress from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics should not wildly exceed expectations, but only because the bar is firmly set at getting Banner 18. It’s evident that the Celtics have one of the deepest, most versatile rosters in the league led by one of the league’s best coaches in Brad Stevens. They have so many lineup possibilities in their arsenal that it’s almost unfair with the talent they have. Skeptics have pointed out that the Celtics won’t have enough minutes for all the talent they have which could lead to inner turmoil. That is a valid concern, but if their players are willing to put their egos aside, then this team could potentially be the toughest challenger Golden State has ever faced.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

There is such thing as too much of a good thing. The Celtics are L-O-A-D-E-D, and that proved to be valuable last season when guys started to go down, but in the grand scheme how long will these young guys accept being marginalized for the sake of depth? The good news is, it’s easy to sell sacrifice when you are winning and the front runner to win the East and to get to the NBA Finals, but if the Celtics struggle – which is hard to imagine – when do the young guys want their own opportunities? That’s going to be a real thing in long-run, but for now the Celtics are loaded with all kinds of options and Brad Stevens has proven to be the coach that can maximize that. The Celtics are king of the hill in the East and if wear and tear catches up to the Warriors, maybe Boston is good enough to go all the way.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Although he missed the last quarter of the regular season and the playoffs due to a minor knee surgery, Kyrie still poured in buckets while he was healthy. He had a double-digit lead on points per game over the next Boston player at 24.4. He scored at a highly efficient mark, notching 49.1 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three. He led the team in assists at 5.1 per game. He also led the team in free throw percentage at 88.9.

Irving has arguably the best handles in the league. Not only does this allow him to land on the SportsCenter Top 10 consistently, it allows him to to free up his teammates at an elite level. He lead the Celtics in assist percentage at 28.2, and his assist to turnover ratio of 2.2 shows he is capable of taking care of the ball, as well.

Of players that had more than a 30 percent usage, only two players had a higher true shooting percentage than Kyrie. Those players were LeBron James and James Harden.

Top Defensive Player: Al Horford

Understandably, this Brad Stevens coached team is loaded with defensive talent. There are a handful of players that do a lot defensively, but Al Horford is the anchor. He helped the Celtics finish the season last year with an NBA-low defensive rating of 101.5, largely thanks to his sheer presence on the court. His versatility allows him to both protect the rim and defend the wing on switches when necessary.

Marcus Smart has long been considered one of the best defensive players on this team, but he isn’t the sole reason the Celtics dominate on that end of the court. Apart from his size and athleticism, Horford’s combination of defensive IQ and leadership allow the team to excel against just about any style of play.

Horford finished fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and understandably so. As the season progresses, he’ll look to continually make an impact for his team on both sides of the court, but it’s his defensive presence that will be felt the most. Few players in the league can defend the four as well as the five with as much success as Horford.

Top Playmaker: Kyrie Irving

Last season, a lot of the offensive burden was handled by Irving. With Hayward going down game one, Jaylen Brown still developing, and Jayson Tatum not emerging as a self-creator until late in the season, Kyrie was one of the few players on the team with the ability to create. He was still able to lead the team in assists per game, thanks in part to his ball-handling, quickness, and ample court vision.

Imagine the step he will be able to take in this category with a healthy Hayward, a much more seasoned Brown and Tatum, and a superb shooter in Horford. The less Kyrie has to focus on creating offense, the better of a playmaker he’ll become. As the players around him continue to develop, Kyrie’s playmaking ability will put them in spots they are comfortable with, allowing them to score more efficiently. The less Kyrie is relied upon to make baskets, the better this team will become.

Another interesting thing to note in regards to Kyrie as a playmaker: He averaged 23.9 points in all wins and 25.5 points in all losses. In turn, he notched 5.3 assists in all wins and 4.7 in all losses. The numbers might be close, but they definitely tell a story. In games where Kyrie isn’t relied on to score and in turn can facilitate the ball at a more efficient mark, they typically win.

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

No player on this roster has a history of clutch performances quite like Kyrie’s. We all remember his famed dagger in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, but he’s been pouring in consistent baskets at the end of close games for quite some time.

In his first season with the Celtics, Kyrie averaged 4.2 points in the clutch (last five minutes of the game within five points). This was good enough for fourth in the league counting players who participated in more than four clutch situations, putting him behind LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, and Jimmy Butler. Go back a year to his last year with Cleveland and he was still top 15 in point in the clutch, and top 10 in 2015-16.

We’ve already discussed Irving’s superhuman abilities when it comes to ball handling, but this gives him a significant edge down the stretch when players start to lose their legs. His ability to beat defenders off the dribble give him an easier lane to the basket or an open jumper, or allow him to find someone else when a defender has to slide over to help.

The Unheralded Player: Gordon Hayward

To the dismay of many Utah Jazz fans, Gordon Hayward is still incredibly relevant to the Celtics. Many have discussed the prospect of Hayward losing his spot to younger players like Tatum or Brown, but the reality is that neither of those players are even necessarily close to Hayward’s production his last year with Utah. Hayward is being listed as the Unheralded Player this year, because a lot of people are simply forgetting that he is an incredibly talented basketball player all over the floor. It’s easy to forget he’s on the roster, as he doesn’t have a “headline-grabbing” personality, but his play this upcoming year can greatly alter the success of this Boston team. The Celtics had a highly successful season with zero help from Hayward, but things look to change this year.

Until his injury, Hayward had improved his points per game in each of his first seven years in the league. He also posted a more-than-respectable mark of 39.8 percent from three his last year in Utah, his highest mark since taking over the reins of the franchise. He is a huge plus on the defensive side of the floor, but most importantly he becomes the second best playmaker on the roster. His playmaking ability will take a significant portion of the burden off of Kyrie’s shoulder, allowing their offense to open up quite a bit.

There’s a big reason why the Celtics offered Hayward a max contract slot: he is clearly a max contract player. Unfortunately, his injury sidelined him for all but five minutes last season. Regardless of the talent on this roster, let’s forget their second best player missed the entire season.

Best New Addition: Brad Wanamaker

For the last seven seasons, Wanamaker has made a name for himself throughout Europe. Apart from a small stint with the G League (then the D League), he has played professionally in Italy, France, Germany, and Turkey. This latest season he helped his team, Fenerbahçe, to the EuroLeague Final Four, losing to Real Madrid in the finals.

At 29 years old, Wanamaker is a grizzled veteran and should immediately make an impact off the bench. While he does have the ability to score, look for him to do more of the little things to stand out on the roster and earn himself some playing time. With the Celtics opting to let Shane Larkin walk, they needed another solid wing to come off the bench, so Brad Wanamaker was a solid option.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jayson Tatum

Tatum had an incredibly solid rookie campaign. Just about everyone had him in their top three for Rookie of the Year. But it was his play in the playoffs that should get Boston fans excited. During that run, Tatum led the team in points per game at 18.5, was second in plus-minus at 2.7, and second in net rating at 3.7.

He showed the ability to get buckets in isolation, and made a lot of big time plays in the clutch to help the Celtics win close games. His three point percentage was lower than what you’d like at 32.4 percent, but he shot an elite 43.4 percent from three during the regular season, so he likely ran slightly cold during their deep playoff run.

Tatum averaged over 30 minutes a game in the regular season and over 35 in the postseason. Look at him to add more aspects to his game, as Hayward coming back will help take some of the scoring load off his shoulders.

2. Terry Rozier

Having a point guard as capable as Rozier coming off the bench is a great problem to have. His tear through the playoffs was so impressive that there’s been chatter of letting Kyrie walk in free agency so Rozier can take over the reins as the franchise point guard. Let’s not jump to any conclusions; it’s safe to say that Kyrie is still the better player, but Rozier put together a really nice third season.

Averaging over 11 points during the regular season, that per game average jumped up to 16.5 during the playoffs, as Rozier saw himself in the starter role due to to Kyrie’s injury. His scoring was streaky in the postseason, but he notched 26 point in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks, then poured in 29 two days later during Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers without shooting a single free throw. His last memorable performance of the playoffs was Game 6 against the Cavaliers. Terry finished with 28 points, thanks to 6 of 10 shooting from three. One thing we learned about “Scary” Terry Rozier is that the man isn’t shy of the spotlight. He showed up night in and night out during the playoffs and put together a handful of impressive stat lines. He should be a very nice piece coming off the bench this upcoming season.

3. Depth at the Wing

This Boston team does not lack solid wing players. Here’s a list of them just in case you were doubting: Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Morris. Throw in Marcus Smart, who often finds himself on the wing, and Semi Ojeleye, coming off a solid rookie campaign and an even stronger performance in this year’s Las Vegas Summer League. All but one of these players would be starting on most rosters in the league, and Ojeleye would certainly be a coveted bench contributor for most squads as well.

In today’s NBA, positionless basketball is all the new rage and just about every player listed above fit the bill. They can all defend multiple positions, they all have the ability to create on offense to some degree, and none of them shoot at an inefficient clip (with the exception of Smart). This group of wings is elite and will help the Celtics produce consistent wins.

4. Robert Williams

Okay, take a deep breath. We’ve heard the same things you have about Williams and understand that he may be a project, both physically and more so mentally. His start to the NBA career hasn’t been pretty, between missed flights, lost wallets, and showing up late to multiple important meetings. But thanks in part to his talent and potential, many had him notched as a late lottery pick. Because many post lottery teams opted for guards, Williams slipped all the way to the Celtics picking 27th, and they may have gotten lucky. He has elite size and length, standing 6-foot-10 with a wingspan of 7-foot-6. He is very athletic as well and could easily develop into a DeAndre Jordan-esque type player. The fact that both went to Texas A&M could add fuel to that prediction. If the Celtics can help him improve his off-court issues, he could end up being a sizeable contributor off the bench this year.

5. Brad Stevens

Few coaches in this league hide deficiencies and display strengths like Brad Stevens. Like I’ve previously mentioned, Stevens has had tremendous success getting the best out of players and his track record shows. This is arguably the best roster he’s had since taking over head coaching duties.

Despite missing their two best players for the entire postseason, Stevens still managed to bring the hobbled roster within one game of the NBA Finals. That is an impressive feat and doesn’t get mentioned enough. The front office has essentially been able to retain the entire roster from the previous season, with Shane Larkin being the only significant departure. With a healthy roster going into training camp, Gordon Hayward in the system for an entire year, and an Eastern Conference that is no longer controlled by LeBron James, Brad Stevens looks to make a significant splash in the postseason.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

The biggest strength that the Celtics have going into the season is that they don’t really have any clear weaknesses. They are obviously one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, finishing first in defensive rating and third in opponent points per game last season. They are an elite three point shooting team, coming in second behind the Warriors at 37.7 percent. They have arguably the best coach in the NBA. They have a handful of players that create their own offense, be it through isolation, the pick and roll, or simply getting to open spots. Most of their core is incredibly young, as well. Tatum and Brown clock in under 21, Kyrie is 26, Hayward is 28, and Horford is the resident grandfather at 32.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

The biggest weakness the Celtics had last season was their ability to create offense. They finished in the bottom half of the league for both points per game and assists per game, ending up at 20th for both in these categories. A large part of that can be traced to injuries. It can also be traced to youth and development. Tatum and Brown were likely relied upon a little too much at times to create offense. Kyrie was likely relied upon a little too much to score. With Hayward coming back, younger players on the roster developing, and Kyrie getting healthy, offense should soon become a legitimate strength for this roster.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is This Celtics Roster Talented Enough to Beat the Warriors in a 7 Game Series?

If you look at the entire NBA, there are realistically four or five teams that have a chance, big or small, to beat the Warriors. The Boston Celtics are definitely in the mix. As discussed earlier, they don’t have too many holes in their game, and they have one of the best coaches in the association. The only problem is, the Warriors are similar. They have an offensive arsenal that is likely better than anything the league has ever seen, and a coach that puts them in the right positions defensively to be very successful. I think this Celtics team is talented and coached well enough to potentially beat the Warriors, but I don’t believe that they will. They still need another year or so to establish their championship identity, and a prayer that the Warriors core breaks up during free agency.

– Jordan Hicks

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Philadelphia 76ers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

No NBA team has arguably the potential to be exceptional quite like the Philadelphia 76ers. But while the team has the potential of three young stars, there are real issues that could hold this team back. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 76ers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year, the Philadelphia 76ers won more games than they lost for the first time since 2012, putting the league on notice of the franchise’s official reemergence. Through season after season of the often-maligned Process, the 76ers collected marquee prospects and crossed their fingers for better days down the road. But now that Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and the rest of their young roster have won a playoff series, both the franchise and fans alike are looking much higher in 2018-19 and beyond.

This summer, the 76ers retained J.J. Redick, acquired Mike Muscala, added Zhaire Smith and traded for Wilson Chandler. There are big-time expectations for Markelle Fultz once again, but they also lost Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in free agency. Additionally, Amir Johnson decided to stay put and the mysterious Jonah Bolden has finally joined the roster as well. While those re-signings and additions will majorly factor into this upcoming campaign, the pressure will fall squarely on Simmons and Embiid to push the team into conference royalty and potentially even further.

Here’s the Basketball Insiders team’s thoughts on the 76ers their upcoming season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Philadelphia 76ers have just about everything you need to be considered a legitimate title contender. They have two budding superstars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, talented role players, experienced veterans, a quality head coach and several young players who have plenty of room to keep improving. The wildcard here could be the play of Markelle Fultz. If his jump shot has truly been rebuilt in an effective manner this offseason, he could add an element to the 76ers’ roster that was missing last season. With LeBron James heading to the Los Angeles Lakers, the door is more open in the Eastern Conference than it has been in some time. The 76ers have what they need to make it out of the Eastern Conference and to the NBA Finals this season. But they face some stiff competition in Boston and Toronto.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the first time in what feels like forever, there are real, true expectations on the Philadelphia 76ers. The Process has finally reached some of its later stages, with stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ascending to their place among the league’s best young cores. The 76ers had a busy summer despite only recently hiring Elton Brand as their full-time GM – they re-signed J.J. Redick, brought in Wilson Chandler from Denver and made a few other moves around the margins. They’ll be hoping their biggest offseason development, though, has been a re-acquiring of confidence and trajectory from first overall pick Markelle Fultz; recent videos have appeared to show Fultz with a re-worked jumper and some positive signs, but we have to see it on the court first. With LeBron gone from the East and two legitimate All-NBA talents on the roster, the window is officially open for Philly.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

-Ben Dowsett

Last season was an eye-opener in the City of Brotherly Love. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have formed an elite on-court partnership that can lead this Sixers ball club to new heights in this coming year. They picked up Wilson Chandler in the summer, who is going to try and earn a payday in a contract year. Markelle Fultz’s jumper is progressing as he continues to tweak his form. Veteran J.J. Redick is back for another stab at a championship ring as well. Brett Brown’s leadership along with this talent has incredible potential to build on what happened in 2017-18. They’re in one of the most top-heavy divisions in basketball, but look out for Philadelphia.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

Bad news: Philly struck out on every high-profile player they targeted this summer, resulting in minimal roster improvement. Good news: They are still one of the most promising teams with some of the league’s best talent. Now we enter Year Two of the Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons era. Those two may very well take another step forward, but the X Factor is Markelle Fultz. Hopefully now that Fultz has gotten over whatever it was that was keeping him off the floor last season, the Sixers can find another dimension on their team that they can use to their full advantage. If he doesn’t, then Philly’s improvement might be stunted. They should be a good team, but they need that extra push from someone not named Embiid or Simmons to be great.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

On the surface, you can’t help but like everything you see about the 76ers. They have a promising young core filled with ready to break out stars and a solid coach in Brett Brown. It’s all right there. The problem is it’s tough for young teams to stay focused in the moment, especially when there are expectations. Not many outside of Philadelphia believed in the 76ers as a serious contender, and now that they have something of a target on their back. How will the young guys respond? Keep in mind the 76ers surged late in the season behind some veterans that are no longer there. That’s the big unknown for the 76ers, how do the young guys carry the load? It’s going to take something pretty dramatic for the 76ers not to be a post-season team, they showed they have that part covered. But they are going to need for their young guys to become consistent under pressure, and that hasn’t been the case yet.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Joel Embiid

We’ll get right to the point here: Joel Embiid is an other-worldly player.

Whether he’s stepping out behind the arc or toasting the opposition in the post, Embiid has become the complete offensive package. The 7-foot center’s unique blend of skills make him nearly impossible to stop and the numbers prove it. Perhaps fully unleashed for the first time in his career, Embiid tallied 22.9 points, 11 rebounds, 3.2 assists and one three-pointer over 30.3 minutes per game. If you’re searching for a boxscore with long-term implications, look no further than Embiid’s 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, seven blocks and 2-for-3 mark from three-point range he put up against the Lakers in November. In two words, that type of line should be downright terrifying.

If Embiid can improve on a 30.8 percent rate from deep — which was an offseason goal for him, apparently — then good luck on stopping an already immense talent. In 2017-18, Embiid’s 33.9 percent usage was only bested by James Harden’s 36.1, so he’s proven he can handle the workload over a complete season too. As long as Embiid stays healthy, a likely conclusion at this point, then he isn’t just the 76ers’ best offensive player — he’s one of the best scorers in the entire league.

Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington

The top nominee in this category could easily be Embiid again, but we’re going with the lockdown wing in the interest of spreading the love.

Strong and versatile, Covington has become one of Philadelphia’s most important assets, even though he doesn’t frequently earn the headlines. While his three-point shot is consistent, Covington’s tenacious ball-hawking instincts are understandably key for a franchise that boasts the makings of a defensive juggernaut. In conference play alone, Covington will likely find himself plastered on the likes of Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard, John Wall and more, all in the name of flexibility and team success.

His 7-foot-2 wingspan makes him a disruptive pest on the perimeter and his 3.9 deflections per game were tied with Paul George for the league lead. And when Covington drummed up three or more steals in a game, the 76ers’ record was 14-8. For his year-long efforts, Covington was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team this past spring — so he should no longer be an afterthought when discussing this super core. Trashing on Covington has been popular this offseason, but he’s clearly been worth every penny of that contract extension.

Top Playmaker: Ben Simmons

Standing at a towering 6-foot-10, Simmons quickly established himself as a lethal playmaker in year one. Although it was always assumed that Simmons could run a high-level offense at point guard, his immediate success has made him impossible to ignore. The 22-year-old averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.7 steals over 33.7 minutes per game — incredulously, the best is still to come. The concerns surrounding his non-existent three-point game are legitimate, but Simmons straight-up impacts the game in so many other ways that it may not even matter.

At times, the savvy court-vision and execution exhibited by the all-purpose point forward can be downright jaw-dropping. Whether he’s scoring off a one-man fastbreak or dropping a no-look, pinpoint dime to a floor-running teammate, Simmons is an architect with the rock. He’ll need to cut down on his 3.4 turnovers per game — but casual onlookers should be anxiously awaiting what Simmons has in store for the follow-up excursion.

Top Clutch Player: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric

For most star-driven franchises, the ball often rests in the hands of their go-to player during clutch-time — but for the 76ers, it wasn’t always that easy in 2017-18. Ben Simmons’ 73 points on 65.7 percent shooting were impressive but, of course, none of those buckets came from behind the arc. A bit further down the list, Saric tallied 62 points on 52.9 percent and an impressive 11-for-20 from three-point range by taking advantage of the less-focused attention from opposing defenses.

Lastly, Embiid’s point total (83) was the highest of the trio, but his percentage was the lowest (47.5). Of note, Embiid’s 11 clutch-time blocks trailed only Anthony Davis (13); while Simmons’ 14 steals were outpaced by just Jrue Holiday (16). More or less, this should be a fascinating category to watch moving forward. Will Embiid up his conversion rate? Should Saric get more late-game touches? With Simmons’ playmaking abilities, he’s the guy Philadelphia will ultimately want with the clock winding down — but that lack of a jumper right now makes him discernibly less dangerous in a handful of situations.

Best of all, this blurb could’ve mentioned Covington’s 11 clutch-time three-pointers, Redick’s extensive resume as a late-game scorer and how Fultz’s explosive scoring may impact things — but for simplicity’s sake, remember to keep an eye on this area as the season unfolds.

The Unheralded Player: Markelle Fultz

Speaking of Fultz, there’s a whole lot being written about the aforementioned trio, deservedly, and not all that much about the former No. 1 overall selection. After sitting out until late March with a broken jumper and confidence issues, Fultz’s return came with little fanfare. During the 76ers’ 16-game winning streak to close out the year, the 6-foot-4 guard was eased into the rotation and, all things considered, Fultz did just fine. In the regular season finale against Milwaukee, Fultz dropped 13 points, 10 assists and two steals on 6-for-13 shooting — a sorely welcomed sign for the rookie.

To put it lightly: It’s been a long, long year for Fultz but he was the top draftee for a reason. In his one campaign at Washington, Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks and 2.1 three-pointers on 41.3 percent from deep — only now he’ll be surrounded by the likes of some All-NBA-worthy talents. Naturally, for Fultz to breakout in 2018-19, this assumes a few things: Firstly, that he’s good to go and everything that’s troubled him is in the past. Secondly, that he’s a lock to siphon away a large chunk of Simmons’ massive usage rate. While neither of those caveats seems like a shoo-in at this point, a simply healthy, self-assured Fultz could elevate an already potent squad.

Simmons will be in contention to lead the league in assists and Embiid might become an MVP candidate soon enough, but it’s Fultz’s progress and contributions that could push the 76ers up over the top.

Best New Addition: Wilson Chandler

Over his 10-year career, Chandler has played in 590 regular season games and holds an average of 13.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists. These numbers won’t jump off the page in all likelihood, but he’s the type of gritty, defense-first veteran that this roster has badly needed. The 76ers’ 31.2 bench points per game ranked as the 7th-worst mark last year but Chandler should find himself right at home in Philadelphia. As a starter for the Denver Nuggets in 2017-18, Chandler scored 15-plus points on 20 occasions and only had three instances of three or more turnovers despite his hefty 31.7 minutes per game tally. Needless to say, finding a bench scorer that takes care of the ball like Chandler is an absolute victory any way you slice it.

Chandler rebounds well for a wing, can guard two positions and should work well alongside any combination of fellow 76ers. Considering that the front office picked up Chandler for just cash considerations, this was a low-risk, high-reward, no-brainer move. He’s not the shooter that Belinelli was but his two-way ability will likely make him a better, more productive fit in the Sixers’ rotation. Chandler’s solid perimeter defense and locker room presence should pay dividends at the cost of virtually nothing, which easily makes him the winner of our final superlative.

– Ben Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. J.J. Redick

And exhale, 76ers fans — the sharpshooting veteran is sticking around for at least one more go in Philadelphia.

The re-signed Redick’s 17.1 points per game were second-most for the 76ers and his long-range shooting helped anchor an impressive offensive bunch all season. At 2.8 three-pointers per game on an even better 42 percent clip, Redick easily keeps his place as one of the NBA’s most elite shooters. Given Belinelli and Ilyasova’s departures — 2.0 and 1.3 per game, respectively — the onus will land on for Redick to provide another reliable season from deep. While Covington, Saric and Embiid will help to pick up the slack, Redick’s off-ball wizardry will undoubtedly remain a crucial cog for Philadelphia.

Redick’s 2.8 three-pointers per game tied him with Kyrie Irving for the 10th-best average in 2017-18, while only Stephen Curry (42.3) and Klay Thompson (44) made more at a higher percentage. If Redick’s importance to this 76ers wasn’t obvious before last season began, that sentiment certainly isn’t in question now.

2. Dario Saric

Saric is good at just about everything, but not the best at any — which is why he lands here instead of in a superlative category.

Still, that’s hardly an insult for the third-year player that’s steadily improved since he joined the 76ers in 2016. Saric’s 14.6 points per game are solid — particularly as the third or fourth option on the floor to boot — but he doesn’t regularly earn the plaudits over his star-ready teammates. His two three-pointers per game on 39.3 percent were noteworthy too, but not more so than the previously-mentioned Redick. In fact, you could write that sentence about Saric in terms of most measurables statistics from 2017-18 — he chips in admirably almost everywhere, which, for now, anoints him as the 76ers third-best player.

Either way, he’s the perfect fit for the 76ers as they look to ascend to Finals contenders. Need energy? Check. Need shooting? Easy. Need somebody to take care of the ball? Saric is your guy. Every burgeoning squad needs a do-it-all glue guy and that may just be Saric given his solid skills across the offensive board. But if there’s an extra gear to the 24-year-old’s already-efficient game, the rest of the league truly is in trouble.

3. Brett Brown

For years, observers wondered why Brown kept his job during a horrific 75-253 streak over the initial four efforts — but the 76ers’ faith has been rewarded in kind. Sure, the core outside of Fultz stayed healthy for the first time in his regime, but the 76ers exceeded most expectations last season, even reaching the second round of the playoffs as an added bonus. Brown’s leadership helped Philadelphia rack up 52 wins, their highest total since the Allen Iverson-led squad reached the Finals way back in 2000-01.

The 57-year-old took home the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors in March after captaining his blossoming roster to an excellent 13-3 record, an extended streak that included wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. With his playmakers another year older and more refined, Brown could find himself in the conversation for Coach of the Year come April alongside Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr and the rest of the usual suspects.

On top of all that, Brown has been pulling double duty as the franchise’s general manager since June, where he added the athletic Zhaire Smith (plus an unprotected Miami HEAT pick in 2021) and Landry Shamet on draft night, among other positively-reviewed moves.

4. Zhaire Smith

These days, it almost seems like a rite of passage for rookies in Philadelphia to spend a large chunk of their rookie season injured. Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot following Summer League in August, but there’s a possibility he could return in the second half of the campaign if rehab goes well enough. Although the debut for the first-year professional will have to wait, he’s aiming to be a difference-maker down the road.

His showing in Las Vegas wasn’t earth-shattering, but Smith averaged 11.3 points, five rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks on 55.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from behind the arc during his single season at Texas Tech. Once he returns, Smith won’t be a top option on the floor, but he’s an athletic, hard-nosed prospect that can play within his role and contribute wherever needed, thus making him a fine supplementary selection to their budding stars.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

Last year, it was relatively cut-and-dry: Add Ben Simmons and deploy Joel Embiid in more games. Almost overnight, the 76ers jumped from the 17th-ranked defense all the way up to No. 3 overall. Somehow, given the internal development and newest additions, the 76ers might build out an even tougher unit by the springtime. Philadelphia will miss the shooting prowess of Belinelli and Ilyasova, but Mike Muscala and Chandler are two-way upgrades there. Simmons is the type of ball-stealing, court-running athlete that could end up in Defensive Player of the Year discussions soon enough and Embiid is already there.

Covington rightfully earned First Team honors and continues to be a menace around the perimeter, while there’s some potential for Fultz and Smith to step in as defensive contributors before long as well. As suffocating as Philadelphia was defensively at times last season, it could be even scarier come April — and that’s a nauseating concept for their Eastern Conference foes.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Generally speaking, the 76ers are fairly strong headed into the 2018-19 campaign. They’re young, they’re healthy and they’re developing at an incredibly rapid rate — a killer trio in today’s modern NBA landscape. Philadelphia ranked in the top ten in rebounds (first), transition points (sixth), steals (seventh), blocks (ninth), three-point percentage (10th) and came in at No. 11 for offensive rating at 107.4. There are plenty of signs that this 76ers team eventually won’t just be good, but that they’ll be great — however, there are still two alarming red flags.

Their free throw percentage was abysmal at 75.2, a mark that was seventh-worst and left the Oklahoma City Thunder as the only playoff team ranked below them. Worst of them all, the 76ers led the league in turnovers per game at 16.5, which isn’t surprising giving their fast-breaking inexperience, but they must take care of the ball to go toe-to-toe with the well-disciplined Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics in the postseason.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the NBA Finals on the table for the Philadelphia 76ers?

And that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Last year, the 76ers just wanted to stay healthy and make the postseason. They not only achieved that, but they reached 50 wins, won a playoff series and crafted the league’s third-best defense along the way. After a year like that, the bar for measurable successes gets much loftier and they certainly have the personnel to reach for it. With LeBron James out of the picture, their path gets clearer too and the remaining biggest obstacles are in that pesky Atlantic Division.

Embiid, Simmons and Saric will all be a year older and wiser, while Redick and Chandler should provide the veteran scoring punch — both with the scorers and off the bench. Covington is already an elite defender and adding Fultz into the mix full-time might turn Philadelphia into a walking nightmare for opposing teams. Since the Process began, these sections have shoehorned a cautious if-healthy forewarning into any and all predictions involving the 76ers — and, back then, they were all totally fair.

These days, it seems like those chronic injuries and lingering rehabs are in the rearview mirror, so perhaps it’s time to go even stronger in the other direction. Now that the 76ers are injury-free, hardened and, importantly, more experienced, there’s really no reason why this team can’t compete for the Eastern Conference crown in 2018-19 and beyond.

– Ben Nadeau

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Cleveland Cavaliers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Cleveland Cavaliers may not be as different as you think, especially with most of their Finals core returning from last season. They may not be contenders, but the question is can they stay in the playoff hunt while their big contracts age off the books? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Cavaliers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer the talk of the town in the Eastern Conference. The King has left his post for a venture westward and the organization he was the face of is now on its own.

With a mixture of veterans and inexperience, it’s going to be a roller coaster season for the wine and gold, but they’ll be better prepared this time around for the departure of LeBron James.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Losing LeBron James is a tough blow (obviously) but there are still enough solid players on Cleveland’s roster to compete for a playoff seed this season. The main question is whether Kevin Love can recapture his superstar form from years ago when he was playing in Minnesota. It has been a while since Love was the go-to player on a team, so only time will tell if he is able to lead this team to the playoffs. The Cavaliers will also try to get more production out of players like Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and George Hill. These guys can produce but were inconsistent last season. My focus will be on the play of Collin Sexton, whom the Cavaliers drafted eighth overall in this year’s draft. Sexton has the attitude and talent to be a quality point guard and could be a nice sparkplug for the Cavaliers this season.

4th Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s hard to pinpoint which direction Cleveland is going. They actually did a pretty solid job this summer outside of losing the best basketball player of this generation. Drafting Collin Sexton, extending Kevin Love and adding under-the-radar players such as Sam Dekker and David Nwaba were sensible decisions. Sad to say, their current roster is now only good enough to be conversation for one of the lower seeds in the east. That may not be the best idea since they owe Atlanta a top-10 protected first-rounder this year. Still, there should be plenty of interesting storylines for them this year, which include how well they perform post-LeBron (again), how good of a coach Tyronn Lue really is, and what they have in Sexton.

4th Place – Central Division

– Matt John

Much more prepared for the second time LeBron James left the franchise, the wine and gold are poised to create a team-first environment with a healthy culture in the building. Kevin Love will have to take the reigns and Rodney Hood will be heavily depended on to put the ball in the basket. Larry Nance Jr. is going to be tasked with protecting the paint. Player development is going to be the sole focus, but winning is an absolute priority for the Cavaliers. Eighth overall pick Collin Sexton will have the chance to showcase his skills right away with plenty of young talent surrounding him. They’re not looking to tank as some speculated they would post-LeBron, so we’ll see if it pays off. Considering the Eastern Conference is wide open, there’s still a chance they could sneak into the playoffs.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

In their second go-round after losing LeBron James in free agency, there’s definitely hope in Cleveland that things won’t go quite so poorly for the Cavs. Last time, as many will recall, they went from the league’s best record to its worst in just a single season when The King departed. This time? There’s even playoff hope still abound in Cleveland, though whether it’s realistic or not is up for debate. Much of those hopes rest on Kevin Love, who is now armed with a new extension that’ll keep him paid through 2023. Many forget that Love was once a perennial All-Star and considered a borderline top-five player in the NBA in his Minnesota days – does he still have that level of play left in him as the lead dog? The Cavs still have solid shooting in Love, George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and others, but there are real concerns about whether this roster will have enough playmaking or defense to make any noise. Still, the relative weakness of the East makes a playoff appearance possible.

4th Place – Central Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Cavaliers are going to take a huge step backward, that’s not news or shocking, but to think the Cavs will fall off the map might be misplaced. Kevin Love is an All-Star, and he still has a lot of proven guys around him. The Cavs draft pick, Collin Sexton, should get all the opportunity to be the next guy and has star potential and Ty Lue is a good player-centric coach. The 8th seed isn’t out of the question for the Cavs, and that’s not bad for a team that lost its franchise player for nothing in return.

4th Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kevin Love

The five-time All-Star forward is going to have his hands full. There is no LeBron anymore. There is no Kyrie Irving anymore. Ironically, he is the last man standing out of the former big three and just signed a long-term deal this summer to be “the man” in Cleveland.

For years, basketball fans have been begging to see Love return to the same player as he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. This season, he has the opportunity to become that dominant force once again. We all know he’s a double-double machine who can stretch the floor and crash the glass, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the Cavaliers establish him on the block more often.

According to NBA.com, on a minimum of three possessions per game, Love had the sixth-lowest frequency, yet scored 0.98 points per possession in post-up situations. Only Karl-Anthony Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge were ranked above him in PPP. Last year’s offense was full of isolation and drive-and-kicks, leaving little opportunity for the 30-year-old big man to work down low.

He’s coming off his best perimeter-shooting season since 2010-11, too. It might take a few games to get re-acquainted to being the go-to guy without LeBron there, but Love will now have the chance to remind everyone that he is one of the most forceful inside-outside threats in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Larry Nance Jr.

The 2017-18 Cavaliers were an abysmal defensive team. Whether it was a veteran-heavy roster failing to get their legs under them, poor effort, flawed schemes or too much miscommunication on switches—it was not pretty.

With that said, there was a small silver lining in that ugliness, and it was Nance Jr. From challenging bigs at the rim to moving his feet and making it tough on guards, he immediately made an impact as a versatile defender when healthy. Per Cleaning The Glass, with Nance Jr. off the court, Cleveland allowed 9.9 points per 100 possessions more. Opponents’ effective field goal percentage also increased by 4.5 percent as well.

Entering his second season with the wine and gold, Nance Jr. is going to play a huge role in forcing turnovers and making it hard on his assignments. The more floor time he receives, the better he will get.

Top Playmaker: Collin Sexton

A label held by LeBron for the past four years will be taken over by a rookie. There is no replacing the best player in the world in any way, shape or form. It’s all about creating a new star, and that’s what the Cavaliers are planning on doing with Sexton.

You will find no shortage of confidence or explosiveness watching the Alabama alum play the game. Not to use NBA Summer League as the best of examples, but just go back and look at his body language during that tournament, especially against Josh Hart and the Los Angeles Lakers. He is a surefire competitor, which is exactly why Cleveland selected him with the eighth overall draft pick.

He’s able to make things happen for both his teammates and himself. Sexton can change speeds quickly and get to the rim with conviction, pass on the drive and kick and get out in transition. Getting used to the speed of the NBA level will take some adjusting, as will playing with new teammates and learning their tendencies, but the man dubbed “Young Bull” is poised to have a breakout debut year.

Top Clutch Player: Kyle Korver

Who takes the big shot at the end? Who gets the big stop? Who makes the game-altering pass? All of these questions were answered with “LeBron” in the snap of a finger before. The question now is who will assume that responsibility.

At the moment, it’s a collective team effort. One night it could be Love, another it could be Sexton. Maybe Rodney Hood even gets the ball from time-to-time in a late-game situation. The point is, we don’t know the answer quite yet.

Purely based on who had the second-highest net rating in clutch situations to LeBron in a minimum of 30 games played in crunch time, Korver gets the nod here. The veteran sharpshooter’s offensive rating and true shooting percentage were both the highest on Cleveland as well. If you get the 37-year-old the ball on the outside, he’ll likely knock down a big bucket.

The Unheralded Player: Cedi Osman

When you look at the Turkish swingman’s statistics from last year, you’ll probably question what the fuss is all about and why he is getting invited to private workouts with the likes of LeBron, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Here’s why: He has the desire to play the game the right way.

Osman is only 23 years old. He already has the potential to be the perfect glue guy in his second season at the NBA level. Something about his game just provides a spark. It might be the energy he brings to the floor, or maybe it has to do with how aggressive he is on both sides of the boards.

Playing for his country in FIBA, there’s already been an improvement with his jump shot. He’s been drilling threes, specifically on off-the-dribble and pull-up attempts. Remember, he did work with Korver last season often. Maybe the veteran’s pointers will pay off for Osman.

Best New Addition: Collin Sexton

Cleveland desperately needed to add a playmaker to the roster. They severely missed that last year without Kyrie Irving. The 19-year-old rookie is going to have his ups and downs, but more importantly, he’ll be fun to watch develop. Learning under a veteran like George Hill could do him some good, regardless of whether or not the seasoned guard finishes the year out there.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Rodney Hood

It was a difficult second half for Hood last year. Being traded to the Cavaliers at the deadline, some thought he could just fit right in and score 17 points per game as he did with the Utah Jazz. But unfortunately, the league isn’t a 2K simulation where teams can just plug and play with no issues. It took time for him to learn to play off LeBron. His usage was down nearly 10 percent as well. Year two in The Land should allow him to get back to his usual confident self. Tyronn Lue thinks the world of him, so we’ll likely be seeing a lot of trust put into Hood.

2. David Nwaba

On a one-year deal, Nwaba is looking to prove he’s worth a bigger deal in the long term. He’s only going into his third season, but since making waves a couple of years ago in the Lakers’ G-League system and on the big club, he’s been scratching and clawing his way up. He started over 20 of the 70 games he played in for the Chicago Bulls in 2017-18. He’ll likely play a key role in the second unit., but the more playing time he’s gotten, the better the production has been. Nwaba has athleticism through the roof and is already one of the top defenders on the Cavaliers.

3. Channing Frye

Frye is a fan-favorite and an important part of the team culture Cleveland is aiming to instill in the locker room. He’s the perfect person to loosen things up if they get tense, almost like a player-coach type. On the floor, he’s still going to provide valuable production offensively as a knockdown shooter. Off of it, he’ll be a mentor to his younger teammates and a calming presence to the others. That’ll be necessary for an up-and-down season.

4. Tyronn Lue

With no LeBron around, we’re going to really see what Lue is made of. There were plenty of detractors last season due to the rotations he played and the way he managed minutes. Here’s his shot at proving the doubters wrong. Losing the four-time NBA MVP is going to make life harder on everybody in the franchise, but there’s a free range of what to do with this team now. Versatility and youth are available to him now like they never have been before. The pressure has been lifted a bit with the expectations tampered down a bit. It’s time to see if Lue can walk the walk.

– Spencer Davies

STRENGTHS

The Cavaliers finally have a chance to focus on the long-term, while addressing the now. General manager Koby Altman said it himself: This organization is getting back in the player development business. With the moves they made over the offseason, that couldn’t be clearer. Players who haven’t gotten too many opportunities—Sam Dekker, Isaiah Taylor, Kobi Simmons, Nwaba—are going to have a chance to show the coaching staff what they’re made of in training camp. The youth movement started early at the deadline last season with the acquisitions of Jordan Clarkson, Hood and Nance Jr. It’s full speed ahead now.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

This team lost its best scorer, its best playmaker, its best clutch option—pretty much all of the above. Filling the void of LeBron is impossible. In one year without him, it’s not going to be pretty at times. Depending on who is starting these games, you’re going to see errors and mistakes you haven’t seen in a while with the Cavaliers. They’ll show flashes of what they can become in due time, but for the most part, there will be plenty of teaching moments. It’s not going to happen overnight. Everybody involved probably knows, but we’ll see what the reaction is once things are set in motion.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

What is the plan with these veterans and their contracts?

Cleveland has a tall task ahead of them when it comes to shedding salary. We can start off with the $19 million contract of George Hill, followed by the $14.72 million that J.R. Smith is making this season. Both of these veteran guards do not have guaranteed big money next season, though, if waived in the summer of 2019. Only $1 million of Hill’s deal is guaranteed until July 1 and $3.7 million of Smith’s deal is guaranteed until June 30, respectively. If these two are waived before said dates, a team would not be on the hook for the last season of their contracts (Hill at $18 million, Smith at $15.68 million). Because of that, those two players would likely be easier to move for the Cavaliers than Tristan Thompson, who has two fully guaranteed years left on the deal he signed before the 2015 season.

Considering the shift in direction that the franchise has made, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if at least two of these three were moved in the future. Whether that’s mid-season, at the trade deadline or next offseason, we’ll have to wait and see.

– Spencer Davies

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