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NBA Daily: The Most Underrated Departures

A lot can be made about the under-the-radar players that teams pick up, but not enough is made about the under-the-radar players that teams lose. Matt John elaborates.

Matt John

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When comparing the loss of a star player to the loss of a glue player, there’s no question which one is worse. Losing a star can set back a franchise for years, with so many questions surrounding what they should do next in light of his departure. Losing a glue player doesn’t make as much of a sting, but it can make all the difference in a playoff series.

It’s a shame that Golden State had all the injuries that it did. Because, had the Warriors been at full health, we would have seen one of the most obvious advantages the Raptors had over them – their glue guys. The Raptors had plenty of them at their disposal while the Warriors’ glue guys had slowly disintegrated into a shell of the depth they once had.

Before Durant’s injury, Golden State had enough star power to match up with Toronto’s, but Toronto’s glue players rounded out the edges whereas Golden State’s could not. That made a big difference in how the NBA Finals turned out.

Which brings us to this summer. This may have been the most epic player movement in one offseason. The highlight has been the movement among the players considered among the upper class.

A fair amount of quality teams lost their star players this year. Golden State lost Kevin Durant. Boston lost Kyrie Irving. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler. None of these teams replaced their departed stars with players who can do everything they can, but their replacements can do enough to keep the team afloat.

It’s a rarity to see playoff teams that lose their star players make such an effort to replace them. What’s not a rarity is that these teams also lost some of their glue players in the process. Since so many big names switched teams this offseason, their decisions have overshadowed the role players who have done the same.

This won’t be the case next summer when the NBA has one of its weakest free agency classes it’s had in years, but not enough has been made about the glue guys who find themselves on different teams this summer. Let’s take a look at who would fit that bill.

JJ Redick – Philadelphia 76ers

The acquisitions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford – on top of paying top dollar to re-sign Tobias Harris – has overshadowed the loss of the man who helped kick “The Process” into a higher gear.

Redick was a brilliant addition for the 76ers. With Simmons slated to play his rookie year and Embiid itching to capitalize on his promising rookie season, Philadelphia knew that it was too good to be a bottom dweller. With the centerpieces coming into place, the team needed immediate help. With all the cap room in the world, it added a surefire contributor with Redick.

JJ’s all-around abilities as a player are not what they once were, but what he is best at showed up so beautifully that it made him worth every penny in Philly. Because Philly used his elite three-point shooting as a focal point of its offense, Redick averaged career-highs in points per game in his two years as a Sixer.

Averaging 17.1 points per game in one season then 18 the next doesn’t usually happen with players entering their mid-thirties. The 76ers basically used JJ the same way the Hawks used Kyle Korver, only at a higher volume. Offensively, he may have never looked better in his entire career.

Because Redick’s shooting fit so snugly next to Simmons and Embiid – the three-man trio was the most used three-man lineup by Philly last year – his three-point shot became a weapon. Now that weapon is gone.

Richardson and Horford are adequate three-point shooters, but their ability to shoot the longball isn’t as intimidating as Redick’s is. Compared to Redick, their three-point shots are not accurate nor quick enough that other teams would frantically do everything to make sure their shot couldn’t see a glimmer of daylight.

The Sixers should be fine this season, but adjusting to Redick is not going to be easy. Especially for Simmons and Embiid, who lest we forget are their two cornerstones.

Aron Baynes – Boston Celtics

There was some temptation to put Al Horford on this list, but those in the know can see clear as day that going from Horford to Enes Kanter is a downgrade for the Celtics. Boston’s going to miss Horford the most out of all the players it lost, but losing Baynes is really going hurt the team’s defense in the post.

There are lots of reasons as to why the Celtics disappointed as badly as they did. There’s no reason to rehash everything because you probably saw it yourself. In regards what Baynes has to do with it, well, an injury-plagued season had him play in only 51 games.

In the 31 games that Baynes was absent, the Celtics went 17-14. When taking into effect that the Celtics won 49 games in total, it’s not totally out of left field to suggest that maybe they could have added a few more wins, and then some, had Baynes avoided the injury bug.

His unavailability definitely played a role in how the Celtics defensive rating went from 103.8 to 108 in 2019. Since the defense allowed 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor – the highest among players who played 800 minutes or more – they missed what he could do when he was out last season, and it’ll be the same reason why they’re going to miss him in his entirety this season.

To make things worse, Baynes and Horford made for one terrific frontcourt duo. In their first season, the two of them together combined for a defensive rating of 95.5. The next season, that defensive rating was 98.5. Baynes doesn’t have the typical criteria for a shot-blocker, but the results speak for themselves. When he’s on the court, he makes life hell in the paint.

Boston had to trade him in order to get the cap space to bring Kemba Walker in. With a star like that, sacrificing Baynes is more than understandable, but his absence should be felt.

The real question is, why exactly did Phoenix go out of its way to get him?

Al-Farouq Aminu/Moe Harkless – Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers lost a lot of players that helped them reach their first Conference Finals since 2000. Enes Kanter. Evan Turner. Seth Curry. Harkless and Aminu stand out the most among them because they’ve been with the team since 2015 – the year Portland lost LaMarcus Aldridge – and have been in the starting lineup for most of that time.

Losing continuity can really hurt. In Portland’s case, there’s more to this than just losing two players that they relied on. They didn’t replace what they can do. Both Harkless and Aminu are wings capable of playing power forward in a small-ball lineup. This summer, the Blazers added Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja and retained Rodney Hood.

Bazemore is a two/three tweener who’s barely played power forward. Hezonja has played some power forward, but he hasn’t really put it together. Hood played a fair amount of power forward in this year’s playoffs, but in the regular season, not so much. Most of the minutes he’s played are at small forward.

There is a gap there that one way or the other, Portland is going to have to fill. Neither Aminu nor Harkless are the best three-point shooters – Harkless’ three-ball somehow went to hell this season – but their defense will sorely be missed. Harkless has a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.69 while Aminu had one of 1.46. While not the best, both finished in the top-20 in their respective positions.

With Jusuf Nurkic out for who knows how long, Portland definitely had to do something to fill that gap. Trading Harkless for Hassan Whiteside – in a contract year – was a move the Blazers had to make even if it’s just a stopgap.

Losing both continuity and versatility can definitely hurt when you’re trying to pounce on a tough, but wide-open Western Conference. If the Blazers want to go further than they did last year, they need to address this before the season starts.

Glue guys are important, but what they bring to the court can be replaceable in some cases. Fans should really keep an eye out on how buyout season goes because, with all the contracts that are set to expire this year, we could see a lot of talent on the open market six months from now.

The teams that lost these players have the privilege of waiting to see how they fare. Even if losing a role player doesn’t sting as much as losing an All-Star does, getting someone who can replace what he does can make all the difference between winning the championship and getting eliminated in the opening round in this day and age.

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New Orleans Pelicans 2019-20 Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans may have had the busiest offseason in the NBA by trading away Anthony Davis, drafting the top overall pick in Zion Williamson and remaking the front office into a world-class operation. Will that be enough to matter this season? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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No team in the NBA has remade themselves quite like the New Orleans Pelicans. After a drama-filled season last year that saw franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis ask for — and ultimately receive — a trade, the Pelicans pulled off an offseason no one could have expected a year ago.

The Pelicans tapped long-time NBA executive David Griffin to run the team and he wasted no time to put his own stamp on the franchise. The Pelicans landed the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, which became Duke big man Zion Williamson. Then New Orleans earned an absolute windfall from the Lakers in the Davis trade, thus giving Griffin a rebuild-on-the-fly that could set the franchise up for a very bright future.

Let’s take a look the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Talk about a quick rebuild! The Pelicans are now one of the most interesting teams in the league — and not only because of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. New Orleans now features incredible depth and versatility in Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Josh Hart and Jaxson Hayes. They will be incredibly fun to watch, and they could even compete for the final seed in the Western Conference.

They’re still really young and that will probably cost them a few too many games. Williamson’s ability to stay on the court will be put to the test immediately. Remember, very few non-centers have played at 285 pounds or above, so the shape in which Williamson enters the season could play a major role in his durability. But the Pelicans really streamlined their rebuild and look better off now than they were prior to trading Anthony Davis, which says a whole lot about their immediate and long-term future.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Pelicans officially hit the reset button when they traded Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. But they managed to get a really good haul for him, bringing in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and drafting Jaxson Hayes with the Lakers lottery pick. Not to mention the basketball gods smiled upon them with the No. 1 pick and Zion Williamson. They also pulled off a draft-day trade for Nickeil Alexander-Walker. This team is oozing with young talent, you couldn’t have asked for a better rebuilding situation. Playoffs are probably out of the question this season, but this will be a very entertaining team to watch.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

What hasn’t been said about the Pelicans’ busy offseason? We’ve been treated to the new-look squad in NOLA all over social media. Former Lakers such as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart are going to be a key part of this re-tooling, but it’s the addition of Zion Williamson that is drawing the hype train. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes put their potential on display in Las Vegas. Smartly, David Griffin went out to get veteran presences in both Derrick Favors and JJ Redick to ensure the team would hit the ground running. Jrue Holiday is going to show the world just how good he really and he’ll bring the rest of the crew along with him. Talking playoffs isn’t too far off with Alvin Gentry’s resilient squad.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

While the upcoming season is still over a month away, I still believe Griffin has already put himself in the running for the 2019-20 NBA Executive of the Year Award. That may sound hyperbolic but when you consider where the Pelicans were last season when Anthony Davis demanded he be traded, the moves Griffin made in response to this situation and where the team currently stands, it seems clear to me that Griffin is already a leading candidate for this award. There is a wide range of opinions on the young players the Pelicans acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers for Davis, but each player has serious talent and is worth investing in.

Griffin also managed to shed Solomon Hill’s contract and sign JJ Redick to a very reasonable deal. The savvy-front office expert also added Favors, whom the team can re-sign after this season using his full Bird rights. And Griffin drafted some promising young prospects in this year’s draft who will grow alongside Zion Williamson. Landing the No. 1 pick and drafting Williamson was a lucky outcome so we aren’t crediting Griffin with that necessarily. But the roster he has structured around Williamson can credibly compete on a nightly basis this upcoming season and is loaded with young talent. This is a great overall outcome for the Pelicans and Griffin deserves a lot of praise for it.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It is hard not to look at the Pelicans offseason in awe. Few franchises survive the exodus of a mega-star player without needing to hit the bottom to get another one, but not only did the Pelicans get an epic return for Anthony Davis from the Lakers, but they also landed the future face of the franchise in Zion Williamson — all without having to part with Jrue Holiday. On paper, the Pelicans might be a better all-around team than they were with Davis, mainly because of his extensive injury history and the upside of the guys coming in from the Lakers. We’ll see if the Pelicans can come together fast enough to matter, but the roster work was impressive.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Pelicans were one of the most active teams over the offseason, rebuilding the team under the leadership of new executive vice president David Griffin. The franchise went under the salary cap to bring in veterans like Derrick Favors and JJ Redick, supplementing the bounty they got from the Los Angeles Lakers for Anthony Davis. One big question is the future of Brandon Ingram, who can sign a contract extension before the start of the season.

New Orleans also needs to pick up the team option on Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball before November. With Darius Miller out with a torn Achilles, the Pelicans will probably ask the league for a disabled player exception that would give the team another $3.6 million to acquire a player (with one year left on their deal), either via free agency, trader or off waivers. The Pelicans have two players on partially guaranteed deals in Jahlil Okafor and Kenrich Williams. If both stick, they round out the roster at 15 (not including two-way players).

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jrue Holiday

It’s amazing what one year can change. Last year at this time, Anthony Davis could have been considered the top player in almost all of the following categories. He was the best player on the team, so, obviously, the franchise was gutted when he demanded a trade prior to the All-Star break.

This made things even worse for the second-best player, Jrue Holiday. He had recently signed a big extension with the franchise and received his money, but once Davis wanted out, he was hung out to dry. Certain reports even said the Pelicans were calling teams to gauge interest in Holiday, just in case they wanted to trade him.

Things changed dramatically for the franchise come lottery time. Not only did they receive a nice haul of young talent from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Davis, but they were also blessed with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft.

With Zion coming to the team, all hope was not lost. And moving forward – at least in the immediate future – this is Jrue Holiday’s team.

Last season, Holiday averaged career-highs in points, steals, blocks and rebounds. As the best offensive player, let’s highlight the specific stats that point to that designation.

His 21.2 points per game were best for third on the team last season behind Julius Randle and Davis. Both of those players have moved to different teams, and none of the players brought in as replacements averaged more than 18.3 points per game. Williamson could eventually become a bigger scoring threat than Holiday, but we need to see him play some serious NBA minutes first.

Holiday had career-highs in both free throws made and free throw attempted — still, even after all these years, he is getting better at drawing fouls and getting to the line.

He averaged 7.7 assists to only 3.1 turnovers — cementing that he is both a capable ballhandler as well as a legitimate scoring threat.

His one glaring weakness on offense is his three-point shot. It’s not horrible, but it has dramatically gotten worse throughout his career. There is almost a direct correlation in his shot attempts increasing with the percentage decreasing. In fact, last season he put up a career-high 5.4 three-point attempts per game but made a career-low 32.5 percent of them.

Top Defensive Player: Derrick Favors

Many fans don’t quite understand the caliber of player that Favors has become. He’s more-or-less been in the shadow of Rudy Gobert the last few seasons but — as one of the most humble guys in the NBA — you haven’t heard any complaints. Utah – reluctantly – had to trade Favors in order to make room for their new free-agent acquisitions, so New Orleans was the team lucky enough to pick up the last year of his team-option contract.

Favors is one of just 11 players in the last five seasons to average at least 13.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Take away guys that played more than 30 minutes per game and guess how many that leaves on the list? Just one: Favors.

What’s more, he has only averaged 27.6 minutes per game over the last five seasons. Imagine what he can do with a full load of starting five-caliber minutes.

He’s a monster in the paint, easily a top-5 rim protector in the NBA, and strong enough to guard the most powerful post players. He isn’t elite at switching onto forwards but has the ability to make a decent impact when it’s necessary.

Jrue Holiday has a case for the best defensive player, but he won’t have near the impact as Favors does in stopping opponents from scoring. New Orleans will be more than pleased with their new starting center.

Top Playmaker: Lonzo Ball

The inevitable finally occurred for the Ball family. Ever since Davis requested his trade, Lonzo was considered to be a centerpiece in the trade talks. Much to the dismay of LaVar, the baby Ball found himself out of Hollywood and down in the Big Easy.

Ball was third in assist percentage last season in Los Angeles behind LeBron James and Rajon Rondo – two elite passers. He was second in assist-to-turnover ratio behind, again, only Rondo.

While he has continued to struggle with his shooting, his court vision has only gotten better since college. He is one of the true young talents when it comes to playmaking in the NBA and, considering his age, could likely become the best in the league within a couple of years. He has to be considered the best passer in the league aged 21 or younger — and the only person currently on New Orleans’ roster who could give him a run for his money is Holiday. But Holiday has transitioned into more of a scoring role, so his ability to dish the ball has taken a backseat.

Ball is still waiting for his breakout season and, with a bigger role in New Orleans, it might be his time. Watch for his playmaking to improve even more now that he has more room to function.

Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram

This will most likely be a tough box to check during the season. Most players on the roster either didn’t play much in the clutch last season or performed poorly when they did. As a remember, clutch situations occur when there is a five or less point differential with five minutes remaining in the game.

Holiday played plenty of clutch minutes but shot horrendously from the field when he did. Favors’ scoring was incredibly efficient, but he only played 11 games in clutch situations and put up less than one field goal per game.

Ingram performed best in the clutch last season, although he still wasn’t a killer by any means. He averaged 1.4 points per game in the clutch, shot 44 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. His unique ability to get to the basket certainly helps in late-game situations when most players are gassed.

Ingram, although young and not mistake-prone, is athletic, knows his handle well and can beat defenders either to the rim or to certain spots where he likes to shoot. He has an elite length for his position and this really comes in handy when his team needs a bucket. He wasn’t the Lakers’ go-to guy last year for late-game shots – for obvious reasons – but he’ll have the ability to be that guy on an inferior starting-five for the Pelicans.

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

Seriously, by the end of the season, you will have a much better idea of who Favors is. It’s really hard to point out exactly what it is that Favors does so well, likely because he does many things on the court at a high-level.

As previously mentioned, he is an elite rim protector. Favors is also an incredible rebounder on both ends of the floor. He is superb at finishing at the rim but has quite a solid midrange game, too. The veteran’s offensive efficiency is up there with the best players in the league, to boot.

But his best attribute of all has to be his effort. Favors is a workhorse on both ends of the court and will give you his all regardless of how many minutes he plays. Not once during his almost nine-year tenure with Utah was his effort ever called in to question and not a single time did you hear him complain about losing minutes to Gobert or declining touches on offense.

Even better, Favors rarely has an off night. He’s outrageously consistent, supremely humble and, overall, just a dude you want in your locker room and on the court every night. Pelicans fans may not have known how to react when they got him via trade, but they’ll be very pleased with the results he brings at the end of the season.

Best New Addition: Zion Williamson

Okay, I know you were waiting for this one. Probably the most hyped player to come out of the draft since LeBron James, Zion brings a certain buzz of excitement to the league that hasn’t been felt since the aforementioned Davis entered. His mix of size, athleticism and basketball IQ at such a young age are perhaps better than even James’ at the time of his draft.

It almost looks extraterrestrial to see his massive frame jump off the ground as high as he does. He has the weight and strength of an NBA center, the height of a small forward and the handles and touch of a guard. At the collegiate level, he was unbelievable in the open court when running fast breaks.

Williamson’s defensive skills are ahead of his time. He can guard just about every position with ease and can elevate to levels above the rim that almost seem impossible for his height.

He finished his college campaign with a 20 box plus-minus which is the best on record for a college player, finishing in front of players like Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns and Victor Oladipo.

It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint what position and situation will allow him to have the biggest impact in the NBA, but his success is almost a sure-fire thing. It is unfathomable to assume his floor is any lower than a solid starter for many years. His ceiling could go as high as the greatest player of all time. We won’t get ahead of ourselves here, but the intangibles are all there. Now, it just comes down to whether or not he can put them all together.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jrue Holiday

Until Zion proves otherwise, this is his team. He remained as second-fiddle to Anthony Davis for quite some time, so this could truly be his breakout year. We got a taste of it last season post-All-Star break when Davis played severely shallow minutes, but Holiday’s game has really grown to an All-Star-caliber level. He defends at an elite level and can score quite well, too.

He still needs to improve his finishing, as often his scoring comes as a result of poor efficiency, but downplaying the ability to get points in the NBA, regardless of percentages, is a poor move. Holiday is continually improving his offensive arsenal — and his defense is already at one of the top positions in the league — so he will be a major face to the franchise for at least this season, likely for many to come.

2. David Griffin

Give it to the big man upstairs for constructing this talented roster when all seemed lost. It was expected that they’d get quite the haul for Davis, which they did, but getting Derrick Favors, and JJ Redick, in addition, was huge. Also, drafting both Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker using draft picks from the trade, look to be enormous pickups as well. Both of those young guys played incredibly well during the NBA Summer League.

Seriously, things appeared pretty dismal for the Pelicans after the Davis news originally broke. The fact that they are even minutely mentioned in the playoff race six months later in the deep Western Conference is pretty miraculous.

3. JJ Redick

Redick – at age 34 – is coming off his highest-scoring season ever. On a roster that included Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid that is surely saying something. He finished the season with 18.1 points per game and did so shooting an effective field goal percentage of 55.7 percent.

It is still quite puzzling that the 76ers just let him go, especially for a team that sorely needs three-point shooting. Redick will be an instant boost on offense for the Pelicans and will absolutely help spread the floor.

He has the ability to consistently knock down shots at multiple levels, which will allow his teammates to move around more freely, as defenses will always need to keep an eye on the veteran’s location. He may not do what he did last season points-wise, but Redick isn’t anywhere near a decline at this point in his career.

4. Zion Williamson

What’s not to like? He’s big, strong and fast. For PR junkies, he has a nice smile and always seems to know what to say for a player at his age. He dunks with authority, has a motor that most have never seen and clearly loves the game of basketball. The list goes on and on and on.

What else can be said about this guy? His weight could be a factor down the road as far as the health of his knees is concerned, but something like that is such a small concern for the amount of upside at this time. Plus, it’s not that difficult to lose weight. And Williamson’s weight isn’t all that unhealthy. NBA trainers will get him looking like less of a football player and more of a basketball player in no time.

He will likely be in the starting lineup day one, so look for him to make a hyper-quick impact in the NBA. Fans everywhere will be holding their breath for his first earth-shattering dunk. Especially due to the fact that his play was so limited in the Las Vegas Summer League. Ladies and gentlemen, the Zion Era is almost upon us.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

This team’s biggest strengths are that there are no glaring weaknesses. They have pretty solid talent at multiple levels and don’t really lack anything on either side of the ball.

Their starting unit will consist of five players that would start for just about any team — and the fact that one of Ball, Ingram or Redick will likely start the season coming off the bench is telling about the level of top-end talent they possess.

The roster was pretty heavily rebuilt during the offseason, so we’ve yet to see what it will look like on the court, but there is plenty of talent there. Holiday, Favors and Ball can hold things down on defense, while players like Redick, Ingram and Williamson will be able to generate good looks on offense.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

On the flip side, however, their biggest weakness is that they have no outlying strengths. While everything on the court looks solid on paper, nothing really sticks out as an outright strength. The team is still incredibly young — there’s a lot to like about their roster, but what is one supposed to like the most?

Obviously Williamson will be fun, there’s no denying that. But calling him a strength without seeing any minutes against actual NBA talent would be a stretch. There’s no doubt he’ll get there, and maybe relatively quickly, but it’s still a question mark for now.

Until we see the finished product on the court working as a cohesive unit, you can’t really point to any major strengths. Will they make the playoffs? Maybe. But what will it be that gets them there? Only time will tell.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Pelicans make the playoffs?

It would be so fun to say yes here. The team is young, hungry, rebuilt and, in some cases, ready for revenge. What was the Lakers’ young core likely feels like used goods and is ready to show the NBA why they shouldn’t have been traded for Davis. Williamson is ready to make his stamp on the NBA, Favors is ready to blossom post-Jazz-life and Redick is out to prove why the 76ers should have paid him instead of others.

Unfortunately, the conference is just too deep. There are at least eight teams better than New Orleans and at least three teams that are arguably just as talented — to wit, to this writer: the Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings Oklahoma City Thunder.

It’s certainly not impossible. There is for sure a path that ends with New Orleans in the playoffs at the end of this season. But they are at least a year out before it becomes a determined, expected reality. They are too young, don’t have enough time together and still need to find out what their identity is. The Pelicans weren’t exactly a powerhouse with Anthony Davis, so they still have a long ways to go.

But they just might have the talent to eventually get them there.

– Jordan Hicks

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Dallas Mavericks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Dallas Mavericks appear to have two future franchise-leading talents, but will that be enough to get out of the conference basement? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Mavericks in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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In a season where there will be plenty of wild cards, Dallas just might be the wildest of them all.

With the long-awaited return of Kristaps Porzingis, no one knows exactly how this season is going to turn out for the Mavericks. If Porzingis is — or will be — back to normal, there may not be words to quantify how high their ceiling could be. If he’s not back to normal, then not only could Dallas be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, but this experiment could turn out to be one of the worst backfires ever. Particularly so after the hefty contract they gave the presumed franchise cornerstone this summer.

That’s a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it, however. And even though Porzingis is the key do-or-die piece for the Mavericks, they still have Luka Doncic and his superstar career ahead of him. With all the uncertainty surrounding the franchise leading up to Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement, Doncic should help the Mavericks rest easy knowing that the future is indeed promising.

But how promising? Porzingis at full strength definitely makes the future brighter, but the Mavericks need more than only him and Doncic if they want another shot at the title. Outside of them, Dallas’ roster isn’t exactly the prettiest. Because of the duo’s youth, they’ve got time to figure out what the best course is for them. For now, they just have to see where their two main cogs are at, plus who are the best players to put around them.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Mavericks should look dramatically different in 2019-20 than they did last year – mostly due to the presence of a 7-foot-3 unicorn. Kristaps Porzingis will change the entire makeup of the Mavericks as Luka Doncic should complement him beautifully. Head coach Rick Carlisle is known for getting the most out of his players and will undoubtedly continue to develop new additions like Seth Curry and Boban Marjanovic. The Mavericks don’t have elite talent beyond their two superstars, but they feature enough versatility — Delon Wright and Courtney Lee, for example — to make noise. The Western Conference is brutally tough; but when the dust settles, expect the Mavericks to finish in the top-eight – albeit toward the bottom of the playoff ladder.

3rd place – Southwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Mavericks have one of the more interesting duos in the league in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Doncic is a budding star, but the major question mark is what Porzingis will look like as he returns from a major injury. Before he got hurt, Porzingis looked like a potential franchise difference-maker. If he can regain close to that form, Dallas may have hit the jackpot. Provided that Dallas maintains a healthy roster, it isn’t inconceivable that they make a playoff push. There’s a lot of good teams in the conference, however, so it’s still unlikely. What it all really boils down to is what condition Porzingis is in and what kind of on-court production will he bring. The Mavericks season hinges on that.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

To say people are fawning over the future of the Mavericks would be an understatement. Who wouldn’t be? Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis may be one of the most dynamic international one-two punches we’ll see sharing the court in quite some time. However, it depends on the health and production we see out of the latter in his first season playing since 2017-18. Yet outside of those two, nothing about this team jumps out. Delon Wright could very well be the player that does — and the bench looks like it could be just as energetic as it was before — but who else can step up as that tertiary option? Tim Hardaway Jr. will probably be the one. Maybe it’ll be Seth Curry.

Here’s the question to ask yourself: Is this a playoff team in the Western Conference? They’ll be battling with a ton of teams for that eighth seed. Whether they can snag it or not, we’ll have to wait and see. This writer isn’t counting on it.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Dallas Mavericks’ offseason is one of the hardest ones for me to fully digest and put a final grade on. Dallas made a lot of significant moves, but I just am not sure that collectively they were overall positive moves. I like the sign and trade to bring in Delon Wright on a three-year contract; while signing Seth Curry to a four-year deal worth $32 million seems fair, despite some injury concerns. But giving Dwight Powell a three-year extension at $33 million seems heavy when, seemingly, there wasn’t going to be a similar offer from other teams.

And when you take all of Dallas’ moves together, this offseason seems very similar to the Miami HEAT’s 2017 offseason, in which they signed several mid-tier free agents (e.g., James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk) to long-term deals without any path forward to continue significantly upgrading the roster.

Unlike Miami, however, the Mavericks have two franchise cornerstones in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the second of whom Dallas signed to a five-year, $158 million extension. Dallas has reason to be optimistic moving forward, but it seems like the franchise overpaid on a few of its offseason deals and surrendered future flexibility without having to do so.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

This could finally be the year the Mavericks break out of the lottery cycle and actually win some games. If the talk surrounding Kristaps Porzingis is real, he could be poised for a monster MVP-type season. Given how much work Luka Doncic put in this summer himself, the Mavs have their future franchise players set. Add in some solid veterans and a great head coach in Rick Carlise, everything is set up for the Mavericks to be significantly better. The problem is the conference is absolutely loaded and while Dallas could be significantly improved, it’s hard to see them cracking the 40-win mark unless Doncic takes a big jump and Porzingis is everything he can be after a full year recovering from an ACL tear, all of which is very possible.

If anything the Mavericks are going to be fun to watch, and that is a far cry from the last two seasons where things were just awful.

3rd place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Mavericks had the option of going under the NBA’s $109.1 million salary cap or staying over the cap entirely. They chose the latter, using almost all of their Mid-Level Exception on Seth Curry and rookie Isaiah Roby, plus their Bi-Annual Exception on Boban Marjanovic. The team is also carrying an $11.8 million trade exception until Feb. 7, the remainder from the Harrison Barnes trade after using a portion to acquire Delon Wright via sign and trade from the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Mavericks have a hard cap this season at $138.9 million, triggered multiple ways (the Wright acquisition, use of the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions). With a team salary at roughly $121 million, they’re not close to that figure.

Before November, Dallas needs to pick up team options on Justin Jackson and Luka Doncic.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Luka Doncic

Prepare yourself, because Luka Doncic is going to show up a lot on this list. That shouldn’t shock anyone because Doncic isn’t just the new face of the Dallas Mavericks — he could potentially be the new face of the entire NBA. The young Slovenian sensation exceeded all of the hype that he had coming into his rookie season. With all of the accolades coming from his already advanced IQ on the offensive end, he is undoubtedly the best offensive player on this Mavericks’ squad.

Doncic probably won’t be participating in any Slam Dunk Contests any time soon. As of now, it doesn’t look like he’ll be in any three-point contest either. But if you watched this kid at any point last season, you knew just how spectacular he was. Usually, rookies that have the look of a generational talent is because of their athleticism or their efficiency. In this case, his label as a future superstar has come from both his poise and his IQ. The way Doncic handles himself on the court makes him look like his life’s purpose was meant for playing basketball.

All of that came from the bag of tricks he has on the offensive end. His 42/33/71 splits are phenomenally average, but his average of 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists as a 19-year-old for most of the season is jaw-dropping. It should only get better from here on out. If Doncic continues to blow our minds this season, it may not be long before he enters the MVP discussion.

Top Defensive Player: Kristaps Porzingis

Fun fact: Last year, this writer wrote Dallas’ season preview and elected not to put Doncic in any of the top categories for some reason. As stupid as that was in hindsight, joining as an incoming international rookie, no one knew what to expect from him. Porzingis, in a way, is in the same boat as we haven’t seen him play since Feb. 2018. The difference, of course, is that we’ve seen what Porzingis can do when he’s at the top of his game. When he is, Porzingis changes the pace of the game so much — most of that comes from his defense.

Standing at 7-foot-3, Porzingis has established himself as an excellent rim protector and, since he entered the league, his block average has gone from 1.9 to 2.4. In his final year with the Knicks before his ACL tear, Porzingis’ defense around the rim was elite as opponents only shot 48.7 percent in the post. At the time, such a feat was better than the likes of Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert.

In that time, New York had the league’s 16th-best defensive rating, allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions. After he went down for the season, that dropped all the way down to 114 points per 100 possessions, an abysmally-ranked 29th.

The Zinger was making a fair case for an All-Defense selection leading up to his injury. If that Porzingis comes back, then Dallas’ defense — which tied for 17th-best in the league, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions — could make a major jump next season.

Top Playmaker: Luka Doncic

This one should be pretty obvious. Doncic led the team in assists per game (6) and now that Dallas has effectively put him in charge of the offense, that number should climb even higher. At such a young age, the Slovanian has incredible vision. He’s an expert at the pick and roll, pick and pop, alley-oop, behind the back — name it and Doncic’s got it in the arsenal already. He could definitely improve in the turnover department (3.4 per game last season) but the youngsters got some serious handles.

Here’s where Mavericks fans should get more excited about Doncic in the passing department. Over the first month and a half of the season, he only averaged 4.3 assists a game. After Dennis Smith Jr’s injury/trade and JJ Barea’s longterm ailment, Doncic upped that average to 6.6. With those two out of the picture, Doncic’s usage rate went from 25 percent to 31.5.

Now, he runs the whole operation. With that, expect a lot more flare from the up-and-comer.

Top Clutch Player: Luka Doncic

This one is not as obvious as some of the other top categories that Doncic fits under, but it’s still all the same. Doncic’s clutch stats aren’t great, but one can’t help but wonder if that’s really his fault. In the 46 games in which circumstances were considered “clutch,” Dallas went 20-26 with a net rating of minus-6.5 — slotting them in at 24th and just plus-0.1 better than the Bulls, who won 11 fewer games.

In that frame, Doncic played in 38 of those games and posted a net rating of minus-4.5. Maybe that had more to do with who was surrounding him than inadequacy himself. During those contests, he had a respectable effective field goal percentage of 51.1 and an impressive assist percentage of 40.4. The only players who topped him in that department were Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Trae Young, Russell Westbrook and Mike Conley Jr. That’s not bad company by any stretch.

More importantly, the phenom definitely is not afraid of the moment. Case and point: Remember that insane buzzer-beater he had against Portland back in December? In all honesty, that may just be the tip of the iceberg.

The Unheralded Player: Tim Hardaway Jr.

Finally, one that doesn’t have the name “Luka Doncic” in it. Anyway, Hardaway Jr. gets overlooked because of the ridiculous contract that Dallas agreed to swallow as a sweetener for prying Porzingis away from New York. Nobody is arguing against how overpaid Hardaway is — but it’s just unfortunate that his contract has overshadowed how productive he can be.

After Doncic and Porzingis, Hardaway is slated to be both Dallas’ third scorer and, arguably, their third-best player. He’s not the ideal third banana, but his scoring abilities could come in handy for Dallas. Since his ship came in, Hardaway’s scoring numbers have gone up from 14.5 to 18.1. He’s being paid to score — so it’s not like he’s taken the money and run. He tries. Unfortunately, his field goal percentage in that span went from 45.4 to 39.3, which is not ideal for someone being paid $20 million.

He could see a more efficient season now that he’s third in the pecking order. Hardaway probably won’t have the same scoring average and, in so doing, won’t justify the money he’s getting paid — still, he could play a crucial role in Dallas’ hopeful successes.

Best New Addition: Kristaps Porzingis

Look, technically, Porzingis was added in February, but since Dallas understandably preserved him to be 100 percent by the start of this season, he should still fit under this umbrella rather easily.

It’s not difficult to understand the magnitude of adding Porzingis to a team that already carries one of the league’s most promising young players in Doncic. Porzingis gives the point-everything a running mate that can run a rich, deep variety of plays together. KP can post up, he can roll out for three and he can finish alley-oops — imagine all that with Doncic on the other end of the string. He’s even shown flashes of being a fluid passer, so there’s really not much he can’t do. With Doncic coming off of a phenomenal rookie season, there’s always the chance of a sophomore slump. Hence, Kristaps’ presence alone could negate a fair amount of that.

Ultimately, there may not have been a more perfect second-in-command to put next to Doncic than Porzingis. Because of both of their youth and ceiling, they could usher in an era more golden than the days of Dirk. As long as Porzingis is every bit as good as he was before he tore his ACL, this should be the start of something beautiful.

– Matt John

WHO WE LIKE

1. Delon Wright

If Porzingis didn’t count as Dallas’ best new addition, then Delon Wright could certainly make a case for himself. Wright’s coming off of the most productive play of his career — at least after he arrived in Memphis. His three-point shot left a lot to be desired — 25.6 percent on three attempts a game — but he’s slated to be in the secondary playmaker role which could be just right for him.

When given extended minutes, Wright proved himself to be a Swiss Army knife-type and put up career-highs in points (12.2), assists (5.3), rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.6). The Grizzlies didn’t exactly have many other players to turn to — and it’s not like they won a ton of games in that time period — but Wright did his job. Now that he’s paired next to Doncic, we could see even more efficient play from him.

What’s most encouraging is that the guard’s assist-to-turnover ratio has gradually increased as his career has progressed. His rookie year, the ratio was 1.9. During his 26-game stint with Memphis, that number rose to 3.5. For what Dallas is paying him, Wright is a solid pickup.

2. The Other Youngster

If it weren’t for the fact that Doncic proved himself to be really, really good almost immediately last season, more attention would have been given to Jalen Brunson, the Mavericks’ recent second-round steal. Having just turned 23 years old, it was hard to imagine Brunson with that high of a ceiling. But for where he was selected, he gave the Mavericks some pretty outstanding value.

Over 73 games, Brunson averaged 9.3 points on 47/35/72 splits while averaging 3.2 assists and 2.3 rebounds in a tick under 22 minutes. In March, he put up the best numbers in his young career, averaging 15.1 points on 53/34/80 splits. From those statistics alone, Brunson established himself as a capable off-guard to put next to Doncic in the backcourt. The problem is: With Wright, Hardaway, Seth Curry, JJ Barea, Devin Harris and, potentially, Courtney Lee, who knows how many minutes Brunson will see?

Rick Carlisle knows to put his best men out there — so, if Brunson takes his game to another level, it’ll be difficult to keep him on the sideline.

3. Courtney Lee’s Contract

With Doncic’s sophomore year approaching and Porzingis itching to prove he’s still the same unicorn we adored in New York, Dallas will use any asset it can to improve its chances. The trade with the Knicks depleted the Mavericks a fair amount in that department, but Lee’s expiring deal could fetch something on the open market. Not star-level good, but a sizable upgrade-level good.

Lee has done what he can since signing that luxurious deal with the Knicks three years ago, but he’ll be 34 when the season starts and the Mavericks have plenty of guards to go through. Dallas could definitely use some wing depth that specializes on the defensive end and there could be a few on the market that Lee’s contract matches with — Andre Iguodala, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Roberson come to mind.

No matter what the Mavericks decide to do, they’re one of the few teams in the NBA who are aiming to reach the playoffs with expendable expiring contracts to shed.

4. Dallas’ Favorite Castoffs

It seems that Hollywood’s obsession with nostalgia has rubbed off on the Mavericks. It all started with the Jason Kidd trade 11 years ago. After being the face of the franchise back in the 90’s, the Mavericks brought back Kidd from the Nets to aid the franchise’s quest to win its first title. The main piece that was given away in that deal, Devin Harris, was then brought back five years after that.

It didn’t stop there. Three years after being the defensive anchor for the team’s first championship, Tyson Chandler was brought back yet again as a one-year rental. It was that same year that they brought back another valuable player from that team, JJ Barea. Five years after being brought back to the team, Dallas then traded Devin Harris to the Nuggets, from which, he then came back for a third go-round.

And now, Seth Curry, after being off the team for just one year, is back for his second tenure. It certainly seems like the Mavericks just can’t let go of the players who left after buying into their system.

-Matt John

STRENGTHS

It’d be unfair to say that the Mavericks don’t have much to boast besides Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Are we forgetting that Rick Carlisle still coaches this team? And that the 2011 Mavericks won the title because they had one mega-star and a ton of contributors who knew exactly what their roles were and thrived in them? Right now, the Mavericks aren’t contenders — as far as we know — but with the big-time talent, amount of depth on their roster and Carlisle’s reputation of getting the most out of his players, the Mavericks just might sneak up on everyone this season.

-Matt John

WEAKNESSES

Outside of the aforementioned duo, the roster really isn’t all that special. That could be a problem if one of them goes down. In fact, it could be a problem even if those two stay on the floor. Now that there’s more footage of Doncic, defenses will be more prepared for him when the season starts. If teams figure out how to limit his play on the court, who steps up? Besides the presumably-healthy Porzingis, who can’t play all 48 minutes, who can take that next step? Never doubt Carlisle, but working around his two young stars will be a tough assignment even for someone like him.

-Matt John

THE BURNING QUESTION

Other than the budding cornerstones, who else from this roster is a keeper?

With both Doncic and Porzingis both on the team for the foreseeable future, Dallas has time to figure out who they want beside them. This season should serve as a test run to see what works and what doesn’t. In that time, the Mavericks can better surround them as they plot for bigger and better things over the next couple of years. As of now, it appears the only ones who are slated to be on the team long-term are Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, Wright, Curry and Brunson.

Those are all fine complementary players — but they’re not making any All-Star teams though. If Dallas is serious about this new chapter in the franchise, they’ll need to bring in more upscale talent. Still, doing so means sacrificing assets that have proven they work in Carlisle’s system. But, in order to be great, you have to sacrifice something valuable. Brooklyn did this when the franchise essentially exchanged D’Angelo Russell for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. To a lesser extent, Utah did this when it traded Derrick Favors to make room for Bojan Bogdanovic.

It may not be long before Dallas has to make a similar sacrifice.

Whether or not the Mavericks make a serious postseason run just yet, however, should not change their longterm plans. Play Doncic, Porzingis and go from there — it really is that simple.

-Matt John

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NBA

Washington Wizards 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The future for the Washington Wizards seems murky at best, however even with the injury to John Wall could the Wizards be a sleeper playoff team with Bradley Beal as its singular star? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Washington Wizards in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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The Washington Wizards enter next season with a lot of question marks about the present and the future of the team. They have one of the best backcourts in the league with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Unfortunately, Wall is out for the entire season due to a tear in his Achilles tendon and will be starting to earn one of the biggest contracts in the NBA. Beal is healthy and was an All-Star last year, but has not signed the contract extension of 3 years/ $111 million offered to him this past summer by the Wizards. Uncertain if Beal will re-sign or Wall will ever get back to playoff form, the Wizards have started developing a solid young core and brought in veterans to help with their development.

The Wizards will hope to follow their newly minted general manager Tommy Shepard’s vision for the future and get back to the playoffs after missing the postseason for the second time in five seasons with a 32-50 record. The question will be: Will the Wizards rely on their old guard, or will the young core show enough to promise to move forward without their dynamic backcourt?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Sorry, D.C. – the Wizards are in for a long season. John Wall is unlikely to return this season, and the Bradley Beal trade rumors are only going to get louder as the losses pile up. Rui Hachimura flashed his potential in summer league and through his first few games with Japan at the FIBA World Cup (not counting Thursday’s game against the Team USA), and Isaiah Thomas should have ample opportunity to prove that he is still a contributor in the NBA. But the Wizards are going to lose a lot of games in 2019-20. Their best bet may be to fully embrace the idea of a rebuild.

5th place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

It’s safe to say Scott Brooks has his work cut out for him. John Wall is sidelined with a torn left Achilles injury and Bradley Beal is about the only aspect of his squad that’s a sure thing. The rest, we’ll have to see. Thomas Bryant won’t be surprising teams anymore coming off a stellar season. There will be a lot asked of rookies Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield – it is beneficial these are upperclassmen coming in – however, the talent level is simply not there as it has been in the past. Isaiah Thomas vying for a comeback would be one heck of a story. Again though, Washington’s year all hinges on luck, quite frankly. Consider this writer pessimistic about the situation in D.C.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Wizards are in a state of flux right now. With John Wall likely out for the entire season, the Wizards aren’t good enough to make a push for the postseason. Bradley Beal’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors, but it doesn’t seem like the Wizards are all that inclined to trade him. That may change as the trade deadline draws closer. It’s in Washington’s best interest to hit the reset button and trade Beal for some young pieces and/or picks if they can. This season should be about playing all the young guys they have and seeing who is worth keeping around for the long haul. If his FIBA play is any indication, the Wizards may have hit the jackpot with Rui Hachimura. He should be given ample opportunity to play, as should players like Troy Brown Jr, Thomas Bryant, and Mortiz Wagner. There really is nothing to lose.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

Any analysis of the Washington Wizards must begin with the difficult truth that is John Wall is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and is set to make $38,199,000 this season and $47,366,760 in the 2022-23 season. Ouch. After that, I cannot get past the thought that the Los Angeles Clippers approached the Wizards about trading for Bradley Beal and Washington basically said thanks, but no thanks. Beal is a star guard and moving him in a deal isn’t exactly a no-brainer. However, when you consider what Sam Presti managed to squeeze out of the Clippers in the Paul George trade, it makes you wonder what Washington may have passed up bypassing on any deal including Beal. Moving past this, however, Washington did make some crafty moves. The Wizards did manage to nab Davis Bertans in the Brooklyn Nets’ sign-and-trade of DeMarre Carroll with San Antonio. They also took on Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones from the Lakers essentially for free so the Lakers could clear extra cap space in order to acquire both Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard (which didn’t end up happening, of course). Washington also drafted Rui Hachimura, a talented prospect, with the ninth overall pick. Some believe Hachimura is a reach at ninth overall, but I am of the belief it was a solid pick for Washington. Overall, this was an okay offseason for the Wizards, in my opinion. However, the Wall contract is the albatross that will hang over this team for the foreseeable future.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Wizards kicked the tires on splashy options for new leadership but ended up promoting long-time Wizards executive Tommy Sheppard to the senior operations role of the team. Since that decision, the Wizards have made a number of changes in the front office that should better prepare them for the likely and maybe inevitable re-build they will have to embark on. As much as current leadership wants to build around All-Star Brad Beal, it seems unlikely that unless he turns into an MVP caliber guy by himself that the Wizards will have to try and convince Beal he can really win in Washington, which will be pretty hard given the size of guard John Wall’s contract and his uncertain future after an Achilles tear. The good news for the Wizards is they don’t have to cross that Beal bridge this season and, given whats a stake financially with Beal becoming Super Max eligible if he makes an All-NBA team this year, things are lined up for at least one more run with Beal as the focal point and the roster as constructed might be a playoff contender, especially if Beal stays healthy.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Wizards have worked their team salary down to below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold. Washington is trying to field a competitive team despite having $38.2 million going to John Wall ($171.1 million over the next four years, player option on the final season), who isn’t expected to play this year after an Achilles tear. The big question is Bradley Beal, who can sign an extension through the 2023-24 season for roughly $111 million. His answer sets the course for the franchise. Even though he’s under contract through 2020-21, he could end up on the trade block if he turns down the extension offer.

Additionally, the team needs to pick up the team option on Troy Brown Jr. and Mo Wagner before November.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

Bradley Beal is entering his eighth NBA season this season and delivered the best offensive season of his career by averaging 25.6 PPG, 5 RPG, and 5.5 APG. Even with the Wizards having a down year, Beal was a shining star for the team. During the offseason, Beal was highly sought after because of his scoring ability without having the ball in his hands.

Teams like the Lakers and Rockets perused Beal to be an All-Star alongside each of those teams’ ball-dominant stars. Beal has shown that he does not need to have the ball in his hands to make a strong offensive impact, which has made him such a dynamic star alongside John Wall. Wall requires the ball in his hand to make the most of his offensive abilities. Beal has really benefitted by being a perimeter threat that can finish at the hole if pressed too tightly. With Wall out for the season, we should see Beal being more aggressive and handling the ball more. With Wall out, we saw career numbers from Beal by the end of last year.

Top Defensive Player: Thomas Bryant

Thomas Bryant will become a focal point of this year’s Wizards team on the defensive side of the ball. Despite competing with Ian Mihainmi for minutes, it is looking like he will break the starting rotation and will secure the starting job at Center. Mahinmi will come in to be a defense and rebound specialist, but Bryant has shown that he can be a threat on that end of the court as well. The Wizards looked to rely heavily on Dwight Howard last year to stabilize the defense, but he had to undergo back surgery and only played nine games last season. Instead, the Wizards relied on a tandem of Thomas Bryant and Ian Mahinmi to make up for the loss of Howard. Bryant ended up starting because of efficiency on offense and signed a 3 year/ 25 million dollar extension with the team this off season.

Bryant led the team in defensive win shares with a +2.7 rating, defensive rebounds with 10.8 per game and blocks with 2.7 per game. Bryant looks continue to build on the defensive success by cementing himself as the starting Center by not having Howard on the roster anymore.

Top Playmaker: Isaiah Thomas

For the 2018-2019 season, Thomas signed a veteran minimum contract with the Washington Wizards, where he could earn the starting point guard role. Being able to run the offense for a point guard hungry Washington Wizards team will be the ultimate opportunity for a great comeback season. Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016, but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards.

At his peak, Thomas had two All-Star seasons with the Celtics and led them to the Eastern Conference Finals by averaging 28.9 points per game. The Wizards brought Thomas and Ish Smith to compete for the starting point guard position due to Wall’s injury. If Thomas can stay healthy, he look to be able to run the Wizards offense and will have a great offensive tool with Beal. Look toward Thomas having Beal playing off of his playmaking ability and maximizing both of their talents this year.

Top Clutch Player: Bradley Beal

Beal’s stats during “Clutch Time” (during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points) were some of best in the NBA last season. During Clutch Time, Beal had the one of the best last minute field goal percentages among players who took 25 or more attempts with a 45 percent conversion rate. Beal also ranked seventh in most points scored during clutch time with 125 points.

Isaiah Thomas was the first option in many crunch time situations when he was with the Boston Celtics. If Thomas can gain the trust of the Wizards coaching staff through the season, he may steal some crunch time shots, but still look for Beal to be the primary option.

Unheralded Player: Troy Brown Jr.

With C.J. Miles healing a stress fracture in his left foot to start the season, Troy Brown Jr. has a strong opportunity to be the starting small forward on opening night for the Wizards. Being a lottery pick in the 2018 draft, the Wizards have high hopes for Brown to turn into reliable small forward in his sophomore year. Brown was quite clearly the best player on the Wizards’ Summer League roster. In his only full game, he put up 18 points and 15 rebounds, but he only shot 40.6 percent in Vegas. Brown will not have any pressure of being the focal point of the Wizards’ offense, which will make it easy to play off players like Beal or Thomas to gain some easy scoring opportunities.

Best New Addition: Rui Hachimura

Hachimura only played in three of the Wizards’ summer league games, but posted a dominant performance in his final game of the tournament, scoring 25 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Hachimura was definitely seen as a cerebral player who smoothly adjusting to the speed of the NBA and improving game-by-game. Hachimura also had a strong performance in the FIBA World Cup this summer, where he averaged 13.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and 2.3 APG. He has been hampered by a knee injury that kept him out of two games in the World Cup. If Hachimura can overcome his leg injuries, it should give Wizards fan hope he can contribute as a rookie.

– David Weissman

WHO WE LIKE

1. Free Lakers Pieces

The Wizards acquired center Moritz Wagner, forward Jemerrio Jones, guard Isaac Bonga and a 2022 second-round draft pick from the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team trade involving the New Orleans Pelicans. Wagner was selected 25th in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft by the Lakers. In 43 games with the Lakers last season, he averaged 4.8 points and 2.0 rebounds, including 11.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in five games as a starter. Bonga was selected 39th in 2018 draft and Moon went undrafted.

Wagner appears to be the most coveted one since Bonga and Jones both played sparingly or didn’t spend much time with the Lakers. Despite their lack of experience, they both have tremendous upside – Bonga being a 6-foot-9 point guard and Jones being one of the toughest defenders in the league according to Mo. The Wizards were able to get players who will be long term projects that can continue to build a solid young core.

2. Veteran Balance

Tommy Sheppard’s focus this offseason was to balance the Wizards roster by bringing in young talent. The front office focused on securing veterans leadership for the team as well. Besides signing eight-season NBA vet Isaiah Thomas, the Wizards also signed guard Ish Smith, who is entering his ninth season. The Wizards also signed guard-forward C.J. Miles, who is coming into his 15th NBA season. There is strong potential for these veterans to mentor younger Wizards and boost the team’s confidence with the help of Beal.

Thomas only played 12 games with the Denver Nuggets last year and is looking to make a strong come back from a hip injury his sustained in 2016. Smith played three years with the Detroit Pistons where he averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game last season on 41.9 percent from the field. Miles only played 13 games last year but can contribute as a stretch four, averaging 36 percent from behind the arc for his career.

3. New Management

On July 22, 2019, the Wizards hired Tommy Shepard as general manager of the team. Shortly after the team hired Shepard, he started filling out the front office by naming Johnny Rogers as Vice President of Pro Personnel, Antawn Jamison as Director of Pro Personnel, Sashi Brown as Chief Planning and Operations Officer and former Georgetown head coach John Thompson III the head of  athlete development and engagement department This rebuild was organized by Monumental Sports and Entertainment (MSE) CEO Ted Leonsis after he let go of Ernie Grunfeld in April after 16 years of service.

MSE went soul searching during this rebuild and used 78 different consultants for this front office reorganization. Leonsis picked the brains of the youngest general manager in the history of major league baseball, a former NFL executive of the year who led his franchise to a Super Bowl win and even the 44th president of the United States. Leonsis made it clear that he needed help in his search for a replacement or, better yet, an entirely new system for his organization to run on. More importantly, the front office rebuild will not be a success if Shepard is unable to put together an NBA Finals contender. Though it seems that the Wizards are searching for a championship and will do anything to improve their odds.

4. Thomas’ First Fully Healthy Season

Isaiah Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016 but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards. Once an MVP candidate, Thomas’ career now hangs on whether the labrum in his hip can heal properly. The Wizards hope that Thomas has fully addressed the hip issue and can make a full recovery after his surgery. The likelihood of him fully recovering is not in his favor, but if he can manage to be the starting point guard for the Wizards, that would justify taking the risk on Thomas.

Thomas has always a narrative of being an underdog: Being picked last in the 2011 draft, having the Kings refuse to sign him after averaging over 20 points a game, to the Celtics who traded him to the Cavs after having two All-Star seasons. Thomas was all but counted out when he tore his labrum and to come back from this injury would solidify the underdog narrative.

-David Weissman

STRENGTHS

Realistically, the most proven piece of the young core is Thomas Bryant who started 53 games for the Wizards last season and this summer got a new contract of 3 years/ $25 million. At 22, Bryant has the best resume and most upside to start at the five, especially with per-36 numbers last year of 18.2 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.6 BPG.

Troy Brown Jr. will also be an integral part of this young core. Brown played in only 52 games, 10 of which he started. He averaged under 15 minutes per game, scoring 4.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG and 1.5 APG. With an opportunity to play bigger minutes this season, Brown has provided optimism from his performance during the summer league and is anticipated to make a jump statistically this next season.

The Wizards also acquired Mo Wagner, Issac Bonga, Jemerrio Moon, Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield to bolster the youth movement on the team. Sheppard looks like he is attempting to rebuild while still maintaining Wall and Beal on the roster. Beal has been offered 3 years/ $111 million extension, but has yet to accept. If Beal walks after two seasons, the young core can hopefully supplement his absence in the future.

-David Weissman

WEAKNESSES

The one glaring issue that the Wizards face is the lack of security at the point guard position. Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on Jan. 8, 2019, to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years.

Wall is a six-time All-Star who has averaged 19 PPG, 9.2 APG and 4.3 RPG during his career, creating a glaring hole of productivity at the point guard position. The Wizards took a risk on Isaiah Thomas to try and fill the offensive productivity they are used to with Wall. As mentioned before, Thomas is coming off of a serious hip injury and may be limited himself. The Wizards signed Thomas on the veteran minimum salary, a small risk especially after having so much money tied up at the point guard position already with Wall’s massive contract.

The Wizards will probably know fairly early in the preseason about what they have in Thomas and what they can expect. If Thomas’ last season performance is any indication about his availability this season, Ish Smith will be spending a lot of time on the court. Smith averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game last season, solid for a backup point guard, but a far drop from the productivity of Wall.

-David Weissman

The Burning Question

What Does Sheppard Do With The Future Of The Team?

As Tommy Sheppard takes over as General Manager for the Washington Wizards, he faces a tough choice that will determine the Wizards’ future: (1) Blow the team up or (2) Continue to build around John Wall and Bradley Beal. Blowing up the team would require trading away the All-Star backcourt, allowing Sheppard to focus on developing a young core featuring Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura. Building around Wall and Beal, on the other hand, would require keeping a duo together who has not had the best relationship in the past and Wall overcoming injury. Sheppard has suggested he wants to maintain the established backcourt by offering Beal a full max extension, the best approach for the Wizards’ future despite the risk of gambling on Wall’s health.

Wall had been an All-Star for the five seasons prior to the 2018-2019 season, mainly due to his athleticism and playmaking ability. In December 2018, Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on January 8, 2019 to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles, worsening the injury from December 2018. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years. Trading this incredibly expensive contract with a devastating injury attached to it is an incredibly difficult feat without giving up assets, making sticking with Wall an almost unavoidable option for Sheppard.

Trading Wall and Beal, the Wizards would start off fresh with whatever is left of a young core comprised of Brown Jr., Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. The Wizards’ hopes would rest on the young core developing into a strong foundation that could attract All-Star caliber talent and drafting well during a multi-year rebuild.

Given the difficulty of moving Wall and the uncertainty of what the rebuild can actually achieve, sticking with the current Beal/Wall duo seems like a better recipe for success in the near future. Best case scenario, Wall is able to perform at an All-Star level again and re-develops a dynamic duo in a wide open Eastern Conference with Beal.

-David Weissman

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