It’s been three weeks since the 2014-15 NBA season started, and there have already been a number of interesting surprises. While the sample size is still relatively small since it’s still early in the season, we wanted point out some of these shocking developments and look at the reasons behind them. Here are 10 of the biggest early-season surprises:
Milwaukee’s Top Defense – Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks had the 29th ranked defense in the league, behind only the Utah Jazz. They allowed 108.9 points per 100 possessions and teams loved facing Milwaukee. The Bucks let teams shoot 46.8 percent from the field (25th in the NBA), 38.2 percent from three-point range (30th in the NBA) and they forced just 13.6 turnovers per game (20th in the NBA). In other words, Milwaukee was awful on the defensive end last season.
Now, all of a sudden, they’re one of the league’s best defensive teams. They are giving up just 94.7 points per 100 possessions (second in the NBA), allowing teams to shoot just 41.8 percent from the field (fourth in the NBA) and forcing 15.6 turnovers per game (ninth in the NBA).
So, what happened? Jason Kidd took over as the team’s head coach over the offseason, and has been trying to turn the group into a defensive-oriented team. Jared Dudley, who is also new in town, gave credit to assistant coach Sean Sweeney, saying that he has stressed the importance of defense to the young group and stayed on top of the players. Kendall Marshall, another new addition, says Kidd has been meticulous and points out every little thing that can help the team improve on the defensive end.
Getting Larry Sanders back has also been huge, as he’s one of the better rim protectors in the NBA when he’s healthy and playing like himself. This season, Sanders is averaging 2.0 blocks and 1.7 steals, both of which are team-highs. The development of the team’s young core (John Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brandon Knight, Nate Wolters, Khris Middleton, etc.) has also been huge, as well as the addition of Jabari Parker, who has been working hard on the defensive end and averaging 1.1 steals.
Whether the Bucks can sustain this success on the defensive end remains to be seen, but it has been a pleasant surprise early in the season. They are currently 4-5 and find themselves in the eighth seed, which shows how a revamped defense can help turn a team around. Just ask the Charlotte Hornets, who made a similar worst-to-first jump on the defensive end last year thanks to Steve Clifford’s schemes and used that to propel them into the playoffs against all odds.
Anthony Davis’ Video-Game Numbers – It’s no surprise that Anthony Davis has emerged as a superstar. Many people saw that coming over the offseason, this author included . However, nobody expected Davis to put up these ridiculous numbers and look like the frontrunner for the Most Valuable Player award, yet that’s exactly what the 21-year-old has done in the early stages of the season.
Right now, Davis is averaging 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.1 blocks and 2.3 steals. His PER is 35.55, which is first in the NBA by a large margin since the next-best starter is Dirk Nowitzki at 27.57. Davis ranks fourth in scoring, third in rebounds, first in blocks, fourth in steals, second in double-doubles and first in ridiculous box scores that make jaws drop.
Since the start of last season, Davis has six games in which he’s recorded 25 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, which is the same number of 25-10-5 games all other NBA players combined have during that span. Davis has contributed 25 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in three of eight games this season. No player in the last 15 years has had more than three 25-10-6 games in a season, but Davis seems poised to change that (potentially in the next few weeks).
Davis dominated during the summer when he suited up Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. Now, he has picked up right where he left off in the NBA, playing outstanding basketball on both ends of the floor to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 5-3 record. If Davis keeps this up, he’ll surely be in the mix for the MVP award and his name will be all over the NBA’s record book.
Chicago’s Effective Offense – The Chicago Bulls are known for many things, including their elite defense, excellent coaching and ability to withstand injuries. One thing that the Bulls aren’t known for is their offense. In recent years, Chicago has won games with their physical play and exceptional defense, not by putting up a lot of points.
Last season, Chicago scored just 99.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 28th in the NBA ahead of only the woeful Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. They shot just 43.2 percent from the field (ranking dead last in the NBA) and 34.8 percent from three-point range (ranking 24th). Their 93.7 points per game was the worst in the league. The Bulls’ style was to wear teams down and grind out wins. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done on many nights.
However, this year, things have been different in Chicago. While the Bulls remain a top 10 defense, their offense has been very good as well. Chicago has the ninth-best offense in the NBA, scoring 106 points per 100 possessions. They’re shooting 46.7 percent from the field (seventh in the NBA) and 37.4 from three (ninth in the NBA). They’re scoring nearly 10 more points per game, and hurting teams on both ends of the floor for the first time in quite a while.
Getting Derrick Rose back has obviously helped them, as he’s averaging 18 points while making his teammates better and significantly increasing the team’s pace. The addition of Pau Gasol has also been huge for Chicago, since he’s one of the most skilled big men in the league and he’s averaging 18.6 points while shooting 48.7 percent from the field.
However, the biggest difference for the Bulls has been the development of Jimmy Butler. Last year, in his third season, Butler averaged just 13.1 points and shot the ball poorly (39.7 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from three) while he was dealing with turf toe for much of the season. Now, Butler has emerged as Chicago’s leading scorer, averaging 21.3 points to go along with 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals. Butler is shooting a remarkable 53.3 percent from the field and a career-high 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. This has been a breakout year for Butler, and it comes at a perfect time since he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer and a lucrative payday now seems inevitable. One reason he didn’t agree to an extension with the Bulls prior to the Oct. 31 deadline is because he wanted to bet on himself and he felt he could have a monster year. That’s looking like a great decision.
Right now, Chicago ranks in the top 10 in offense and defense, which is even more impressive when you consider that Rose, Butler and Joakim Noah have all missed multiple games this season. The Bulls are a scary team and they have the talent to go deep into the postseason this year, especially if their well-rounded play continues.
Jackson has averaged 21.5 points, 7.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds – all of which are career-highs. He has scored over 20 points in six of his eight games, and is leading Oklahoma City in points and assists. He’s also doing a solid job running the offense and making his teammates better, as evidenced by his career-high dimes.
Jackson has made it clear that he wants to be a starter, and he has made the most of this opportunity to show that he’s a starting-caliber guard. This breakout stretch couldn’t have come at a better time for Jackson, as he’s about to hit restricted free agency next summer.
As Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports recently noted, executives around the league have been paying close attention to Jackson’s play and have said he could land an offer sheet in the $13 million to $14 million range.
With the way Jackson is playing and helping his stock before free agency, Oklahoma City’s front office probably regrets not extending their young guard prior to the October 31 deadline.
Jackson is only 24 years old, so his best basketball is likely still ahead of him. Don’t be surprised if a team extends a lucrative offer to Jackson next summer in hopes of making him their point guard of the future.
Cleveland’s Defensive Issues – Entering the season, everyone knew that the Cleveland Cavaliers would take time to jell and reach their full potential as a team. Anytime three superstars are getting used to playing with each other, there’s going to be an adjustment period, especially when they’re doing so under a first-time NBA head coach who has no experience with any of them. Cleveland’s 1-3 start was blown out of proportion, and the team has silenced their critics with a four-game winning streak.
However, there is some reason to be concerned about this Cavs team, and it has nothing to do with their record. The issue is Cleveland’s defense, which has been extraordinarily bad thus far. Looking at their personnel, nobody expected the Cavs to be the league’s best defensive squad, but nobody thought they’d be this bad either.
They are allowing teams to score 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 26th in the NBA. To show what kind of company the Cavs are in with that defensive rating, consider that the only teams worse than them are the Boston Celtics (3-5), Utah Jazz (4-7), Minnesota Timberwolves (2-7) and Los Angeles Lakers (1-9). That’s right, even the winless Philadelphia 76ers have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than Cleveland. The Cavaliers allowing opposing teams to shoot 48.4 percent from the field (28th in the NBA) and are forcing just 13.4 turnovers per game (18th in the NBA).
Not only are the numbers ugly, some these issues aren’t just things that will be corrected with time and improved chemistry. Cleveland lacks a rim protector, which is why teams are scoring so many points at such a high percentage. The Cavs are blocking just 5.8 shots per game (26th in the NBA) and it’s hard to see that number improving unless they sign a free agent rim protector (I’ve suggested Emeka Okafor once he gets healthy) or trade for an interior defender. Rumors have already surfaced that they’re trying to acquire Minnesota’s Corey Brewer to help their perimeter defense.
Fortunately for the Cavs, they have one of the best offenses in the league, which allows them to score 110.7 points per 100 possessions (ranking second in the league). That keeps them in games and is the reason for this win streak. During those four wins, they’re still allowing teams to score 106.75 points on average, they’re just dominating on the offensive end and winning shootouts. That may work in the regular season, but it’s nearly impossible to win a championship in the NBA with one of the league’s worst defenses. It’s obviously not time to hit the panic button in Cleveland, but it is time to acknowledge that they have issues on the defensive end that could cause problems for them as they pursue the title.
Sacramento’s Impressive Wins – The most surprising team in the first three weeks of the NBA season has been the Sacramento Kings, who are currently 6-4 and in the Western Conference playoff picture. Last season, Sacramento didn’t get their sixth win until Dec. 9, when they were 6-13 and near the bottom of the standings. But this year, they have been playing much better and racking up quality wins.
The Kings’ first six wins have come against the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets (twice), Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs. Sacramento also led by 20 points at one point in their games against the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies, but ultimately lost those contests. While those losses were heartbreaking, they did show that Sacramento can hang with any team in the West this year (even if they need to get better at closing games).
The Kings have made huge strides for a number of reasons.
First, DeMarcus Cousins has taken his game to another level and emerged as one of the best centers in the NBA, averaging 22.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals, while shooting 50 percent from the field. In the past, Cousins really struggled on the defensive end, but he has been much better this year and it seems he has matured. Cousins should have been an All-Star last season, but was stubbed, but he seems like a lock to make his All-Star debut this year.
Another key for Sacramento has been Rudy Guy playing at an extremely high level and looking more efficient than ever. Gay is averaging 22.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.8 percent from the field. He’s making better decisions and his 22.1 PER is by far a career-high, as he has never hit the 20 PER mark in his career until this season. The Kings have been so impressed by Gay’s production that they just gave him a three-year, $40 million extension.
Finally, there’s the play of Darren Collison. When the Kings decided to let Isaiah Thomas walk as a free agent and then signed Collison (and later Ramon Sessions) to be the replacement, many people were scratching their head. Throughout his career, Collison had shown that he was a solid backup, but struggled when put into the starting lineup with the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks. But this year, he has been excellent for the Kings, averaging career-highs in points (15.8), assists (6.0), rebounds (3.6), steals (1.9) and PER (19.2) while limiting his turnovers. He has really stepped up for Sacramento, and he’s doing a good job running the offense and moving the ball around.
It remains to be seen if the Kings can continue to play at this level. Their wins have been against quality opponents, but they also just became the first team in NBA history to lose two consecutive games when they were leading by 18 or more points at the end of the first quarter. They have been somewhat inconsistent (as many young teams are), but if the good Kings show up on more nights than not, Sacramento may be able to end their eight-year playoff drought and give their extraordinary fans something to be excited about.
Brandon Jennings’ Efficient Play – Entering this weekend’s games, Jennings had the sixth-best PER in the NBA, ranking ahead of superstars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry among others. Why is that surprising? Because in Jennings’ six-year career, he has only finished in the top 100 in PER one time, and he has developed a reputation as an inefficient player who takes bad shots and plays out of control.
Initially, it seemed like Jennings and new head coach Stan Van Gundy were a horrible match. After all, Van Gundy has always liked point guards who were controlled and did exactly what he wanted. It’s why in Orlando he played the struggling veteran Chris Duhon over the young, exciting speedster Ish Smith, much to the dismay of Magic fans. It’s also why he preferred Jameer Nelson to Rafer Alston, even after the latter point guard led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009. With this in mind, many around the NBA thought that Van Gundy and Jennings wouldn’t work together.
However, that hasn’t been the case. Jennings has done a terrific job this season, averaging 16.2 points, six assists and 1.1 steals, while shooting career-highs from the field (45.1 percent) and three-point range (43.2 percent). He’s making better decisions and taking the right shots by getting the basket and not settling for jumpers. Basically, he’s no longer doing all of the things he has done in years past that would have infuriated Van Gundy.
Jennings has the third-highest PER in the East, behind only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and he has been the most efficient point guard in the conference so far this season.
If he keeps this up, it will make Van Gundy’s job much easier and Jennings may be able to change the way he’s perceived around the league, much like Monta Ellis did last season with the Dallas Mavericks.
Evan Fournier Exceeding Expectations – When the Orlando Magic initially traded Arron Afflalo to the Denver Nuggets for Evan Fournier and a late second-round pick, many fans and analysts criticized the move. Afflalo was coming off of the best season of his career and many reports had indicated that Orlando wanted a first-round pick as well as an attractive asset in exchange for him. A late second-rounder and Fournier, who had been a mediocre reserve in his first two NBA seasons, didn’t seem like much in return for the Magic’s most attractive trade chip.
However, through the first few weeks of the NBA season, Fournier has emerged as one of Orlando’s best players. He’s averaging 17.6 points while shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 51.1 percent from three-point range. He has been Orlando’s starting shooting guard, and always seems to hit big shots when the teams need them.
The acquisition of Fournier is similar to how the Magic landed Tobias Harris two years ago. They traded J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks for the seldom-used Harris, and the deal was initially criticized since Harris had barely played or produced in his first two NBA seasons and Redick was in the midst of a career-year. Harris had yet to average more than five points in a season and had only played 11 minutes per game. However, with the opportunity to play significant minutes every night, Harris broke out in Orlando and is now one of the team’s most productive players, averaging 17.9 points and 8.5 rebounds.
General manager Rob Hennigan has done a terrific job of finding diamonds in the rough through trades. Fournier and Harris are perfect examples, as are Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless who came over from the Philadelphia 76ers in the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade. Hennigan has a good eye for talent, and the Magic’s young core is full of up-and-coming players who are playing very well.
Surprising Rookies Making an Impact – The 2014 NBA Draft featured a number of potential stars who had been on the NBA’s radar since they were in high school, including Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Marcus Smart.
However, early in the season, it’s been some of the less notable rookies who have gotten off to strong starts. Randle, unfortunately, broke his right leg in his NBA debut and will miss the remainder of the season. Smart had a scary injury of his own, hurting his ankle to the point that he had to leave the court on a stretcher and doctors had to cut through his shoe to do tests since his foot was so swollen. Wiggins and Parker are healthy, but they haven’t burst onto the scene like some expected.
Instead, the top rookies according to efficiency rating have been Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic), Jordan Clarkson (Los Angeles Lakers), James Ennis (Miami HEAT), Jusuf Nurkic (Denver Nuggets), K.J. McDaniels (Philadelphia 76ers), Joe Harris (Cleveland Cavaliers) and P.J. Hairston (Charlotte Hornets) Bojan Bogdanovic. Parker and Wiggins are ranked eighth and 10th, respectively.
It’s obviously way too early to grade these players and Wiggins and Parker have each flashed glimpses of brilliance that show just how high their ceilings are, and they are the only two rookies scoring in double-figures for the season. However, the names ahead of them are surprising, as Gordon and Nurkic were labeled projects who were very raw during the pre-draft process. Yet Gordon is the only rookie posting a PER above the league average of 15. Unfortunately, Gordon is now sidelined indefinitely due to a fractured foot, which further opens the door for some of these unheralded rookies to steal the spotlight. The other names atop this list are even more surprising, since Clarkson, Ennis, McDaniels and Harris were all second-round picks.
While it’s still very possible that Wiggins and Parker will eventually emerge as the best players in this class, the early-season results could suggest that the Rookie of the Year race will be much more competitive than originally expected and that this draft class may be quite deep.
Rockets Thriving On Both Ends – A prominent storyline over the offseason was that the Houston Rockets took a significant step back after losing Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin while failing to land their third star despite pursuing free agents Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony. Houston managed to sign Trevor Ariza to fill the void left by Parsons’ departure, but many felt that the team had regressed and would have trouble contending in the loaded Western Conference.
That clearly hasn’t been the case thus far. Houston currently stands at 9-1, with the top record in the West. Their success largely stems from the fact that they have the league’s best defense, allowing just 91.5 points per 100 possessions. Teams are shooting just 40.3 percent from the field against Houston (first in the NBA) and 28.1 percent from three-point range (also first in the NBA).
Dwight Howard is putting up his best stats since leaving the Orlando Magic, averaging 20.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and a steal while shooting a career-high 61.8 percent from the field. Howard didn’t get enough credit for his dominance during Houston’s first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in last year’s playoffs when he averaged 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks, and he has picked up right where he left off. James Harden is also having a monster year, averaging career-highs in points (26.2), assists (7.4), rebounds (6.3), steals (1.8) and blocks (1.0).
Ariza has been huge for the Rockets as well. He has clearly improved Houston’s defense since the team now has three quality defenders in the starting five with Ariza, Howard and Patrick Beverley. Ariza is making significant contributions on offense too, averaging 14.9 points (tying his career-high), 6.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and two steals. He’s shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from three-point range. He has been one of the league’s best players in catch-and-shoot situations, hitting 2.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game at a 41.7 percent clip, which is exactly what Houston needs from their supporting cast around Harden and Howard.
Houston is winning games with a +9.4 average margin of victory, and their lone loss came against the Golden State Warriors when they were without Howard, Beverley and Terrence Jones. The Rockets are playing outstanding two-way basketball and they certainly look like a legitimate contender.
What surprised you the most in the first few weeks of the 2014-15 NBA season? Leave a comment below or reach out to Alex Kennedy on Twitter (@AlexKennedyNBA).
NBA Daily: Grant Sees Breakout Coming In Year Four
Now in Orlando with a new team, Jerian Grant feels that it’s his time to shine.
After two seasons with the Chicago Bulls, point guard Jerian Grant has moved southeast. The Orlando Magic will be the 25-year-old’s third team in four years as he seeks out a permanent home in the NBA.
He’s already loved everything about the experience with his next ball club.
“I just needed a new environment,” Grant told Basketball Insiders. “I think it was good for me. I got to talk to coach [Steve Clifford] right away and went to lunch with him and we got to talk basketball. It was just a great feeling.”
The 2017-18 campaign had its fair share of ups and downs for Grant. At the beginning and middle of the year, Fred Hoiberg counted on him to fill in for an injured Kris Dunn—and he did his job during his teammate’s absence.
As a starter, Grant put up solid numbers. He knocked 37.1 percent of his threes, had a 55.9 true shooting percentage and hit 82.1 percent of his free throws.
He only got better with more floor time, too. In the 15 games he played between 30-39 minutes, Grant averaged 12.6 points, 6.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. In the lone game that he played over 40 minutes—47 to be exact—Grant scored 22 points and dished out 13 dimes to go with five rebounds and two steals.
Understanding the chance to potentially compete for a starting job with longtime veteran D.J. Augustin, the upstart Grant is banking on making this the first step to earning his spot.
“It’s very important,” Grant told Basketball Insiders. “I think 80 percent of the game is confidence and opportunity—putting those two things together and doing it well.”
Over the last few months, Grant has gotten to know Orlando’s coaching staff and the players he’ll be sharing the hardwood with. He’s looking to do “a little bit of everything.”
Perhaps unlike any of his former teammates, Grant has the luxury of youth and athleticism all around to complement his skill set. Guys like Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and hyped up rookie big man Mohamed Bamba are going to be constantly around the rim. Whether it’s a hustle play grabbing an offensive rebound or running the floor, Grant can’t wait to give one of those guys a high-handoff.
“It’s a different feeling being able to toss the ball towards the rim,” Grant told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just guys [have] to go get it and put it in there.”
Speaking for himself, though, Grant is searching for that breakout season. He has been in this league long enough to have garnered real experience. He’s racked up plenty of minutes over a career that’s still just getting started. If you’re not sure about his learning curve, allow the man to provide a stern reminder of how he handles his business.
“For me, I was never a one-year guy, one-and-done or two years and done like my brother or three years and done like [Victor Oladipo],” Grant told Basketball Insiders. “I did all four years in college, so I get better every year and I feel like this is the year where it’s time to show it.
It took some time for Grant to find his identity at Notre Dame, just like it took a bit for Oladipo to discover his niche at Indiana University. The two have been close since their days at DeMatha High School in Maryland.
To many, Oladipo caught the world’s eye last season with the Pacers. It was an unforgettable season and a terrific step towards superstardom.
As he’s watched his friend grow into this great player, Grant is aiming for a similar surge with the Magic.
It’s his time to shine now.
“I’ve seen him grow as a player and get better every year,” Grant told Basketball Insiders. “That’s just something that we do. We put in the work and we get better, so I’m looking forward to being able to show it during my opportunity this season.”
Golden State Warriors 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
The Golden State Warriors have been the top team in the West for the last four years and with year five with this core group together on deck, they are showing no signs of slowing down. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Warriors in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.
Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave all summer, you’re probably aware that DeMarcus Cousins is now a member of the Golden State Warriors. No, the Warriors didn’t trade Klay Thompson or Draymond Green to acquire Cousins. Rather, the Warriors signed him to one-year, $5 million contract as a result of the Achilles injury that sidelined him late last season and scared teams away from making significant, long-term offers for his services. Cousins will continue rehabbing for the first few months of the season. While he won’t offer any immediate help, he could be a big-time difference maker in the postseason if he is able to return to even 75 percent of his pre-injury form during the regular season.
Aside from Cousins, the Warriors re-signed Kevin Durant to a two-year $61.5 million contract with a player option on the final season. Additionally, the Warriors made some changes around the edges of the roster, while returning each of their star players. Basically, the Warriors enter the upcoming season as the overwhelming favorites to win the championship and could be more dangerous than ever with Cousins working his way back from his injury.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Adding Cousins has tremendous upside but my prediction is that he won’t have the major impact that many people expect. Even if Cousins is healthy, he doesn’t necessarily fit with the Warriors’ starting lineup. If he accepts a role as the offensive leader of the bench unit, I think he could wreak havoc against opposing second units. But it’s hard for me to imagine Cousins embracing that role if he is anywhere close to full strength. In the starting lineup, Cousins would struggle to keep up with the pace of the offense, would likely become a ball-stopper, would demand the ball in the post frequently and would take a lot of ill-advised three-pointers. I could be wrong about all of this of course. Cousins could embrace the Warriors’ pass-first mentality and make the team an unstoppable force on offense. But based on Cousins’ history, I think it’s fair to be skeptical.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
What kind of world is it to live in as a franchise when you can sign an All-Star starter from last season in free agency, and your title odds aren’t impacted whatsoever? Only the Warriors could tell us. Sure, DeMarcus Cousins is coming off a potentially devastating Achilles tear that few have ever come back the same from, but the sheer star power of this roster got even more overwhelming over the offseason. There might be rising powers in the East in Boston and Toronto, and the Rockets will try to run things back for another shot at the crown, but make no mistake: The Warriors are the runaway title favorites, and only significant injuries or other major catastrophe can change that. At this point, the offseason might be more intriguing for this franchise than the actual basketball itself.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Ben Dowsett
Need we say more about what the Warriors are capable of? Unless you’ve been living under a rock, they are the clear-cut favorites to three-peat. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson continue to be the Splash Brothers. Kevin Durant understands what he needs to do in order to win ball games on a nightly basis. Draymond Green is more than just a glue guy these days who is as suffocating of a defensive player as anybody else in the NBA. Oh, and Golden State just added a four-time All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins who is aiming for a maximum deal next offseason when he returns to the floor. Good luck to those who are trying to take down this dynasty!
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
Just when you thought the league’s best team couldn’t get any more unstoppable. The Warriors come into this season as the league’s reigning champion that somehow landed a multi-time all-star to fill in their one weakness at center. There isn’t much else to say about the Warriors that hasn’t already been said. They have arguably the most talented NBA roster of all time, playing with at least two of the NBA’s most talented offensive players of all time still in the prime of their careers. This team could slack enough in the regular season to get the eighth seed and STILL be the overwhelming favorite in the loaded Western Conference. The Warriors are so good that DeMarcus Cousins could flop badly – a real possibility coming off that Achilles injury – and it wouldn’t hurt them at all. The Warriors are that just that unfathomably good.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Matt John
It was hard to envision how the Warriors could get better, and then the unimaginable happened, a dry market place collided with a major injury to a player with a spotty and checkered past – the end result is the Warriors got an All-Star Center in DeMarcus Cousins for peanuts. Yes, he’ll likely miss most of the year, but if he’s back in the post-season the Warriors may not have a peer in the NBA. The one thing that will catch the Warriors eventually is all those extra miles. Steph Curry has logged 2,596 playoffs minutes over the last four Finals runs. For perspective, Damian Lillard played 2,670 minutes in the regular season last year. All these runs to the NBA Finals will catch up at some point, and that is a real threat. On the surface, no one looks like they can seriously challenge the Warriors if healthy, the question is can they manage the workload enough to make sure they can stay that way?
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Durant
Durant is arguably the most devastating singular offensive force in the league. He’s roughly seven-feet tall, athletic, a deadly shooter from anywhere on the court, a good passer and can get his shot off in just about any situation. You can argue that Stephen Curry has a claim as the team’s top offensive player because he orchestrates the Warriors’ offense and generates easy scoring opportunities for his teammates more frequently than Durant. However, Durant gets the nod here for being the most lethal individual scorer and unstoppable offensive force in the NBA.
Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green
On a team that features impact defenders like Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant Shaun Livingston and Jordan Bell, Draymond Green still stands out as the team’s defensive ace. Green won Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, has earned NBA All-Defensive First Team three times (2015–2017), NBA All-Defensive Second Team once (2018) and led the NBA in steals in 2017.
Green is a unique defensive player. He isn’t a towering defender anchoring a team’s defender under the rim like Rudy Gobert. He isn’t a lockdown wing defender like Kawhi Leonard. Rather, Green is a barrel-chested forward who can guard a point guard beyond the three-point line, stick with players as big as LeBron James as they attack the rim, guard opposing centers in the post and block shots as a weak side shot blocker. Green can effectively defend all five positions and is the glue that keeps the Warriors’ defense together. He even plays center for periods in the Warriors’ well-known “Death Lineup,” which is a nightmare matchup for opponents on both ends of the court.
Top Playmaker: Stephen Curry
Steph Curry may not tally the most assists per game in the Association, but he is one of the NBA’s best ball-handlers, one of its best passers and one of its top overall playmakers. Durant’s presence makes the Warriors’ offense consistently imposing, but it’s Curry who can turn it into a well-orchestrated, high octane flurry of backdoor passes, open three-pointers and layups at the rim. Curry can get a little too caught up in the moment at times and start making ill-advised passes that lead to untimely turnovers. However, with Curry you are more than happy to take the good with the bad.
Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant
The Warriors have a lot of options in this category. Klay Thompson can go off for multiple three-pointers in key moments of close games. Curry has a history of knocking down exceedingly difficult shots in clutch situations. But Durant is the guy who can pull up on a player as long and athletic as Giannis Antetokounmpo and still shoot right over him as if no one was in front of him. Durant is the guy who can’t be locked down by any individual defensive player. You can run every trick in the book to keep Durant from scoring on you in a clutch situation, but more often than not he is going to get a good look and often times bury a clutch shot over multiple defenders. I won’t argue too much if you go with Curry on this one. But with the game on the line, I am putting the ball in Durant’s hands.
The Unheralded Player: Andre Iguodala
Consider this: On a team featuring Curry, Thompson, Green, Durant and several capable backups and role players, the Warriors and their fans were fretting over the injury to Andre Iguodala that limited him in last season’s playoffs. With so much talent, it would be easy to think that Iguodala is a luxury to have but not a necessity – like icing on a cake. If you talk to the Warriors’ players, however, they would push back on that idea. Iguodala is no longer the lockdown defender he once was and is a streaky offensive player. But he executes his role on both ends of the court consistently, is a capable defender and seems to always make the right play. When it was reported that Iguodala would not be able to play in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, Steve Kerr gave his thoughts on what the team would be missing without Iguodala.
“He’s a great defender,” Kerr said of Iguodala. “He’s an organizer. He’s a guy who settles us down. He continuously makes the right play. We’ll miss all of that.” That pretty much sums up what you need to know about Iguodala and his importance to this stacked team.
Best New Addition: DeMarcus Cousins
Yes, Cousins is coming off of a devastating injury that has derailed the careers of top players in the past. For the Warriors, it doesn’t really matter. They are still adding a superstar center to a team that can thrive without him and become truly unstoppable with him if he makes a full recovery. Some are concerned that Cousins could add some toxicity to the Warriors’ locker room, but this is a team full of veteran superstars and disciplined role players. If any team can handle Boogie in the locker room, it’s the Warriors. There is just so much upside to this move that it’s hard to focus too much on the potential downsides. If Cousins has a great season and helps the Warriors win another championship, it is all but guaranteed he will get a big contract from another team and will move on after this season. That would still be ideal for the Warriors, who are happy to have his services even for just this season.
– Jesse Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Quinn Cook
After going undrafted in 2015, bouncing around the G-League and being signed and waived by several NBA teams, Cook finally found a home last season with the Golden State Warriors. Cook has shown significant improvement in every facet of his game since he left Duke and is now a very capable backup guard. He averaged 9.5 points, 2.7 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from three-point range in 33 regular season games last season. Cook filled in whenever injuries sidelined his teammates and did an admirable job. He is not an elite passer or playmaker, but he is capable of starting when necessary to do so and is a team-first player. He also is playing on an extremely team-friendly contract.
2. Bob Myers
Bob Myers is, in large part, responsible for the Warriors’ recent run of success. He was named the team’s general manager in 2012 and has been instrumental in drafting key players, executing major transactions and instilling a culture of inclusion in the Warriors’ front office, which has altogether resulted in a historically talented roster. Myers has had a lot of help along the way, but it can’t be overstated how much of a positive impact he has made as the team’s top executive. Give Myers credit for making bold moves that have paid off in a major way – the most recent being the addition of Cousins.
3. Shaun Livingston
I have followed Livingston’s career closely since he was drafted fourth overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2004. From his early career, to the nearly career-ending knee injury, to his journey through the G-League, to his championship runs with the Warriors – Livingston has always carried himself as a true pro (though he did have an unfortunate encounter with a referee last season). Livingston is another veteran presence for the Warriors and always does what the team asks of him.
Livingston is kind of an anomaly in the modern NBA. He isn’t a threat from three-point range and makes most of his offensive impact from mid-range. Livingston isn’t great at any single thing but, like Iguodala, always seems to make the right play at the right time.
4. Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr has quickly established himself as one of the best head coaches in the NBA. He is a strong tactician and strategist, communicates effectively with his players and has somehow managed to maintain balance on a team stacked with superstar talent and large egos. I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking issue with his, at times, confusing rotations. But any shortcoming with Kerr is largely outweighed by his abilities both as a strategist and a manager of a locker room featuring some big personalities.
– Jesse Blancarte
This team has more star talent than probably any NBA team ever assembled. Two All-Star players could be sidelined and this team would still probably have more star talent than any opponent it faces on any given night. And beyond the star talent, the Warriors feature several players who can effectively fill in and keep things moving along without any major setbacks.
– Jesse Blancarte
The Warriors aren’t any more susceptible to injuries than any other team. But injuries have been a concern over the last few years, especially leading up to the postseason. If this were NBA 2K and injuries were taken off, this Warriors team could probably win 75 regular season games. But in the real world, injuries could cost this team anywhere from five to 10 games in any given season.
– Jesse Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
What impact will DeMarcus Cousins have this season?
I have previously mentioned my concerns regarding what kind of impact Cousins is likely to have this season. It’s clear that if healthy, Cousins could make this team nearly unstoppable. But if injuries are a lingering concern, and if Cousins doesn’t want to embrace a role more fit for a Sixth Man, things could get awkward in Golden State. I am confident that the Warriors can handle a scenario in which Cousins becomes a distraction. But this situation will be a focal point of attention until we get some clarity on what role Cousins can and will play for the Warriors this season.
– Jesse Blancarte
Houston Rockets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
The Houston Rockets proved a year ago that they were as formidable a challenger in the West as we’ve seen in a while. Although the roster has evolved, the question remains, did they get better? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Rockets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.
Last year, it was about proving the skeptics wrong for Houston. This year, it’s about proving that they can keep it up.
A few months ago, the Houston Rockets were a half-decent three-point shooting performance from one of the biggest upsets in NBA history and their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1995. Getting the number one seed while almost toppling one of the most talented teams ever assembled would usually make their season a wild success. For the Rockets,. though, that wasn’t enough.
That brings us to this season. Bringing up what the Rockets lost this summer is pretty much beating a dead horse at this point, so let’s summarize it like this: While Houston kept its star power, it lost players who brought intangibles to the table. Who they replaced said players with has brought much doubt as to whether Houston can repeat last season’s performance, much less win a championship.
No matter what setback(s) they may have faced this off-season, the Rockets’ goal remains unchanged. They want their next title. Though the roster has gone through a little shakeup, the Rockets should still be one of the league’s best teams.
But is it enough to get them over that colossal hump that is the Golden State Warriors? Well, let’s take a look at what their team looks like.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Houston Rockets were the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors at the beginning of the offseason. However, I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. Last season, with a stable of versatile defenders, the Rockets were able to implement a very aggressive, switch-everything scheme against the Warriors in the playoffs. The Rockets’ defense gave the Warriors problems in the Western Conference Finals, but Houston couldn’t overcome the loss of Chris Paul to a hamstring injury. This summer, the Rockets lost Trevor Ariza to the Suns and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Clippers and added several new players, like Carmelo Anthony. I think the Rockets have the talent to push the Warriors in a seven-game series, but they won’t be able to use the same defensive schemes that made life miserable for Golden State. The Rockets had an okay offseason all things considered, but I don’t think they closed the gap on the Warriors in a meaningful way.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It’s hard to shake the feeling that last season might have been the Rockets’ best shot at beating the current iteration of the Warriors. The losses of guys like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute really hurt their wing depth, an area that was already somewhat thin – and also vital to any hopes of making it past the behemoths in Golden State and out of the Western Conference. Carmelo Anthony looks like a big name to help replace them, but is he really effective at this point? The Rockets will always be among the league’s elite with James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela on the roster, but Paul isn’t getting any younger and Mike D’Antoni’s rotations were already dangerously short. It feels bad to be so negative about a group that’s unquestionably one of the league’s best, but the goal has always been a title for this team in Houston, and they look further away from it than this time last year.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
The big news of the summer for the Rockets was the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. They needed to fill the void left by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, so it’s on the 10-time All-Star and James Ennis to replace them. The upside of this is Houston’s main core is still intact. Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela know each other’s tendencies and how to play off one another so well. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker are perfect for the secondary roles that they are assigned. Guys like Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss are solid additions to bolster this squad’s depth as well. Mike D’Antoni will have to experiment with rotations, but the talent is most definitely still there. We’ll see how it stacks up with the other giants in the Western Conference.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
For a moment there, Houston was in the driver’s seat to the NBA championship, but only so briefly. After all that transpired this summer, there are severe doubts surrounding the Rockets’ ability to repeat last season’s success. Their perimeter defense on paper took a hit, and Chris Paul isn’t getting any younger. Still, as long as James Harden is running things and Paul is his running mate, the Rockets will be one of the league’s best teams. Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hurts, but Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Knight can add some firepower that could make up for what the Rockets lost. If they don’t, then Houston will need to make some more moves. Because whether they like it or not, the clock is ticking.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Matt John
It is easy to look at the Rockets through a negative prism… they lost Trevor Ariza, they added Carmelo Anthony, Jeff Bzdelik is retiring. There are plenty of negatives, but when you look at the end of the day roster coming to camp, the Rockets may have traded off a little defense in exchange for a whole lot more firepower. The Rockets were tremendous last season and there is no reason to believe they won’t be tremendous again this season – the question is, will they be tremendous in the post-season? That’s a huge unknown. The Rockets are a better basketball team; it’s unclear if they’ll be good enough to derail the Warriors, but they sure are equipped to try.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: James Harden
It speaks volumes about you when you’re teammates with one of the best point guards of all time – who’s still reasonably in his prime – and you’re the obvious pick. James Harden has been in the MVP conversation in three of the last four years. This past season, he finally made it all the way to the top, getting named the league’s Most Valuable Player without much question.
His numbers continue to be outright ridiculous: 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds a game are legendary-type numbers. What makes Harden so incredible to watch is his lack of predictability. He’s an expert at getting the right shot, finding the right pass, or overall making the right decision. His style isn’t necessarily the most fun to watch – Harden is a flopper and knows how to draw fouls that slow down the game – but he knows how to orchestrate an elite offense by himself. Until Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry separate, which may or may not happen, James Harden is the league’s top offensive weapon at the top of his prime.
Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela
Houston made Capela a very rich man this summer, and for very good reason. The Swiss center has gradually become one of the league’s top rim protectors in the couple of years. Last year alone, Capela saw a gradual increase in both rebounds (10.8) and blocks (1.9). In fact, Capela’s 137 total blocks ranked second in the league behind only Anthony Davis.
What should excite Houston is that Capela is still only 24 years old who is playing in a system that suits his strengths, so his ceiling could potentially be even higher. Future star may be a stretch, but Houston could still even more improvement from Capela in the coming years. Best-case scenario: Capela winds up becoming what Houston hoped Dwight Howard was going to be.
Top Clutch Player: Chris Paul
Paul doesn’t exactly have the best resume when it comes to playing in the clutch, but he’s proven that he can step it up when his back is up against the wall. Whether it’s for the better or worse of the team, Chris Paul has never been afraid of the moment. This was best evidenced by him pretty much single-handedly beating the Warriors in an intense Game 5 during the Western Conference finals.
His statistics in the clutch are pretty solid as well. Paul only played in 21 games last season that were deemed clutch, primarily because he missed a good chunk of the season with injury and when he played, Houston’s games were rarely close. In those games, Paul has a plus-minus of +3.5, averaging three points a game and shooting 59 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three. Harden has an even shakier history in the clutch, so Houston should feel fortunate to have CP3 in crunch time.
Top Playmaker: James Harden/Chris Paul
This is is definitely one topic where everyone can agree these two are dead even. Paul and Harden are two of the league’s very best distributors, which played a huge role in Houston arguably having the best offense in the league last season.
Houston, believe it or not, ranked among the lowest in overall team assists, averaging 21.5, a game which tied for 26th overall in the league. Harden and Paul together account for 16.7 of the team’s assists, good for about 78 percent. That makes it all the more impressive that they had the league’s highest offensive rating at 114.7 points per 100 possessions. Their efforts offensively proved to be for Houston’s benefit as well. The Rockets’ offense was +8.1 when Paul was on the floor and +6.6 with Harden on the floor. As long as one of these two are on the floor at all times, Houston’s offense will be in good hands.
The Unheralded Player: Eric Gordon
Eric Gordon is evidence of the abundance of riches the Rockets have. He is perfectly capable of being the second guard on a championship team. Yet, he’s the Rockets’ third guard. Because he plays for a team whose two best players play the position as him, Gordon falls a bit under the radar, but his impact on the floor is undeniable.
Gordon gives Houston a potent offensive option off the bench who fits quite well in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and complements Harden and Paul quite well. This is evidenced by his scoring output, as his 18 points per game average last season was the best he’s had in years. Better yet, his contributions get results for Houston. Gordon’s net rating placed him first on the team among players who played at least 1,000 minutes, as the Rockets were +10.3 overall when Gordon was on the floor.
The real triumph to all of this is seeing Eric Gordon salvage his career so swiftly after all he’s been through. Hopefully, it just gets better from here on out for him.
Best New Addition: Carmelo Anthony
Even at this point in his career, who would have thought that when you call Carmelo Anthony your best new addition this summer, you have to follow that up with, “By default”?
Though not the sexy name he once was, Carmelo Anthony is still capable of putting up 15-20 points a game. Since he has experience playing with both James Harden and Chris Paul on Team USA, ‘Melo may prove to be a better fit than the skeptics give him credit for. Even if he continues to play below expectations, it’s not like Houston invested much in him. If the guy stinks, the Rockets won’t play him. If he thrives, they found another dimension to their team. It doesn’t matter what happened last season in OKC. Adding Carmelo Anthony for $2.4 million provides minimal risk.
Adding him to the Rockets isn’t really low-risk/high-reward, but rather a low-risk/high-enough-reward for the Rockets.
– Matt John
WHO WE LIKE
1. Mike D’Antoni
Even though he’s won Coach of the Year with two separate teams, D’Antoni’s best coaching of his career may have come last season. On top of having the league’s best offensive rating – surprising absolutely no one – he finally disproved the fallacy that he can’t coach defense. Houston had the league’s sixth-best defensive rating, which can be attributed to their improved personnel on the defensive end. However, having better defenders can only work so well if they are utilized properly, which was the case under D’Antoni. Offensively, the Rockets should still be top of the line, but for Houston to stay in the discussion with Golden State, D’Antoni needs to build off his success defensively despite what he lost.
2. Daryl Morey
The Rockets’ general manager never ceases to amaze. He somehow was able to find a taker for Ryan Anderson’s mammoth contract, acquired a potentially better player in Brandon Knight, and even received intriguing young talent in Marquese Chriss, whose career outlook is still up in the air. That’s masterful work for a guy who didn’t really have much to work with this summer. When people count him out, Daryl Morey always manages to have something up his sleeve. That’s why nobody should sleep on Houston. The Rockets may take a step back, but never underestimate what Morey can do.
3. Brandon Knight (or Brandon Knight’s contract)
It really is a shame to see how much has gone wrong for Knight. Because of injuries and playing on a rebuilding team, Knight hasn’t done anything relevant in the NBA since 2015. It’s important to remember that he is only 26 years old, so the potential he has on this team could be much higher than people think. If Knight returns to form, he’s going to be a fantastic addition to Houston’s high-octane offense. If he doesn’t, then he’s going to be a valuable trade asset if Houston decides to search for another wing this season.
4. PJ Tucker
So much has been made about the 3&D wings the Rockets lost. What about the one premier 3&D wing they still have? Tucker proved to be a smart investment by Houston last season, as he gave the team more needed three-point shooting and tough-as-nails defense. Tucker also gives the team a fair amount of good leadership and is a pretty good rebounder for a man of his size. Now that he’s the only proven 3&D wing they have – James Ennis could prove this notion wrong – expect Tucker to have an even bigger role.
– Matt John
The Rockets have two of the league’s best all-around guards playing under one of the league’s most brilliant offensive minds. Those three components alone make them one of the NBA’s best teams. Harden and Paul proved to be one of the league’s best backcourts, and should that lead to a title, they could be among one of the best of all-time, if they weren’t already. Also, despite all the skepticism that came from adding him, Carmelo Anthony still is another proven offensive option that could add some more pizzazz to the league’s best offense. Adding him to a team that has Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, and PJ Tucker should make Houston a great all-around team no matter what.
– Matt John
Last season may have proven that Mike D’Antoni can coach defense after all, but only if he as the personnel to do it. Houston’s defense should be fine overall, but losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hurts their perimeter defense and more importantly, their versatility. Those two aspects weren’t the main ingredient, but they played a huge role in Houston’s improvement last season. Carmelo Anthony is expected to take Ariza’s spot in the starting lineup, but he’s hardly ever been a plus defender. In a league where teams take advantage of defensive mismatches now more than ever, Carmelo is bound to get picked on. Again, the Rockets’ defense should be fine, but if it’s not elite this time, then their season may wind up in disappointment again.
– Matt John
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is this the team Houston goes with when the playoffs come around?
As long as they have their whole team healthy in time for the playoffs, Houston should still be an elite team. However, the reason why they almost toppled the Warriors was because, along with their starpower, they had players that gave Golden State matchup problems. With Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gone, that advantage isn’t nearly as strong as it once was. Adding Carmelo Anthony’s scoring and/or James Ennis’ defense could potentially soften the blow, but if it’s not enough, then the Rockets could be in trouble. Houston has to remember that Chris Paul is on the wrong side of the 30, so they have no time to waste.
There is a chance that Houston does just fine even with the hits they took, but the odds aren’t in their favor. If Houston does take a step back, then they better look for the best wing they can get on the trade market.
– Matt John