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NBA PM: 2015 Draft is Best in Recent Years

With a ton of talent and depth, the 2015 draft may be one of the best in recent years.

Alex Kennedy

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Admittedly, it takes years before one can accurately judge an NBA draft class. However, there is something to be said for first impressions and the 2015 rookies have lit up the league in their first NBA season.

It’s somewhat surprising how effective this group has been in year one, since many of the top players in this draft were selected based on their long-term potential rather than their track record or NBA-readiness. Eleven of the 14 lottery picks were one-and-done college players or international teenagers, so immediate results weren’t really expected. However, a number of players from this class are ahead of schedule and already making their presence felt.

townsporzingis3Eight rookies – Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Emmanuel Mudiay, Myles Turner and Nikola Jokic (who was drafted in 2014, but is a rookie this year) – are averaging double-digit points.

To put this into perspective, consider that last year’s rookie class featured just five players averaging 10 or more points, and none were averaging as many points as Towns (18 points per game) or Okafor (17.5 points per game). The 2013-14 class and the 2012-13 class each had just four players averaging double-digit points.

The only rookie in recent years to average more points than Towns and Okafor was Damian Lillard, who put up 19 points a night in his first year with the Portland Trail Blazers and went on to win that season’s Rookie of the Year award. But unlike Towns, Okafor and many of the other top prospects in this class, Lillard had spent four years in college, so he was expected to enter the league and contribute at a high level right away.

The fact that this year’s super-young rookies are already doing so well suggests that this could go down as one of the better drafts in quite some time. As previously noted, it does take time to thoroughly evaluate and properly assess a class. But if these early indicators progress and this draft produces a solid batch of stars, that would be excellent for the NBA because, quite frankly, it’s been awhile since there has been a class that’s star-studded and deep.

It’s too early to judge the 2014 class, although one could argue that it has been a disappointment thus far – outside of Andrew Wiggins – just because it was so hyped up and there are still so many question marks surrounding a lot of the players.

It may be too early to write off the 2013 draft too, but as of now, it has been pretty underwhelming. That draft has yet to produce a single All-Star and the No. 1 pick – Anthony Bennett – is currently out of the NBA after being cut by his hometown Toronto Raptors. The best players from the class were pleasant international surprises who exceeded all expectations after being picked outside of the lottery (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert). The next-best from that class are C.J. McCollum, Nerlens Noel and Victor Oladipo – all of whom are very solid players, but not bona fide stars (at least not yet).

The last draft to produce a number of stars was 2012, as it yielded Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Draymond Green and Bradley Beal. However, the draft wasn’t very deep and many of the non-star players from that class are now out of the league or are journeymen.

The best draft in recent memory was probably 2011, which produced game-changing stars and plenty of talented role players who will also have long, successful careers. Ironically, that class was criticized as being very weak leading up to draft night. In fact, some reporters covering the draft in New York even asked prospects how it felt to be part of a class that seemed so bad on paper. Well, now that draft looks terrific. It produced five All-Stars in Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Isaiah Thomas. It also included Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Jonas Valanciunas, Chandler Parsons, Tobias Harris, Kenneth Faried, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Nikola Mirotic, Alec Burks, Iman Shumpert, Donatas Motiejunas, Cory Joseph, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Bojan Bogdanovic, Derrick Williams, Bismack Biyombo and Shelvin Mack, among others.

The point is, it’s been a few years since the NBA had a loaded draft class (and, unfortunately, some experts are projecting that the 2016 NBA Draft will be relatively weak as well). So if the 2015 class could produce a batch of stars as well as a group of talented contributors, it could help restock the league’s cupboard.

It’s looking like Towns, Okafor, Porzingis, Russell, Mudiay, Booker, Turner and Jokic could be stars if they continue on their current trajectory and reach their full potential.

This class also features high-upside players like Mario Hezonja, Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, Trey Lyles, Cameron Payne, Kelly Oubre Jr., Rashad Vaughn, Jarell Martin, Chris McCullough and Kevon Looney. It also includes older players who could contribute sooner than later if given the opportunity such as Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Jerian Grant, Bobby Portis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Delon Wright, Justin Anderson, R.J. Hunter, Richaun Holmes and Josh Richardson (who has been getting more minutes in Miami lately and is playing very well).

Towns seems poised to win Rookie of the Year, leading all rookies in scoring and rebounding. Despite just turning 20 years old in November, he’s averaging 18 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting 54.6 percent from the field and 81.1 percent from the charity stripe. The most impressive thing about Towns’ rookie year is that he has 41 double-doubles in 70 games. That obviously leads all rookies (no other first-year player has more than 18 double-doubles), but it’s also the sixth-most double-doubles among all NBA players. Just to put this number in perspective, Towns has more double-doubles than veteran All-Stars Anthony Davis (36), Chris Paul (34), Draymond Green (27), Kevin Durant (26), LeBron James (24) and Carmelo Anthony (22) among many others. He has also been incredibly efficient, with a 22.87 PER that ranks 15th in the NBA among all players (higher than a number of All-Stars). Towns has been so good this season that one could make the case that the 2015 NBA Draft has already produced its first star.

Okafor has been extremely impressive as well, even if the Philadelphia 76ers have struggled mightily. Okafor is averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting 50.8 percent from the field. Earlier today, he underwent an arthroscopic procedure to address a slight tear of the meniscus in his right knee, which hopefully doesn’t limit him at all going forward. Prior to that injury, Okafor was looking like a cornerstone for the 76ers. He’s years ahead of where most centers are offensively when they enter the NBA, showing the post moves, footwork, patience and basketball IQ of a veteran. He improved as the season progressed, and it was clear that he benefited from the 76ers trading for veteran point guard Ish Smith, who could run the offense, set him up for easy baskets and put him in position to be successful. Towns has Ricky Rubio dishing him passes, which is a huge advantage for him, but Okafor made the most of his situation and supporting cast in Philly and still posted very good numbers. He had some off-court trouble, but nothing major. While his behavior must improve, he is an intense competitor who was frustrated with all of the losses given his life-long success on the court. He’ll have to show more maturity off the court going forward, but there’s no question Okafor could emerge as Philly’s franchise player. It’s going to be fun to watch Towns and Okafor develop (and battle one another) for years to come.

Porzingis was the biggest surprise out of the top prospects. Everyone knew he had a high ceiling, but very few people thought he’d be one of the New York Knicks’ best players from day one. He is currently averaging 13.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. He’ll have to improve his shooting percentages (41.5 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from three-point range), but that’s just nitpicking since Porzingis is such a unique player who can contribute in so many ways. He’s an athletic freak, he can shoot threes, he can defend at a high level and he breaks all of the stereotypes traditionally associated with overseas players. Carmelo Anthony is the star of the Knicks right now, but soon they’ll be building around Porzingis. Phil Jackson has been criticized for some of his decisions since taking over as Knicks president, but he hit a home run when he drafted Porzingis fourth overall. Nobody in New York is booing the kid now.

Russell has been criticized quite a bit since he was drafted ahead of Okafor and is under the microscope as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, but he still has star potential. The way head coach Byron Scott has developed Russell this season has been baffling – from limiting his playing time to making negative comments about the rookie to the media. Still, it seems like Russell is starting to gain some confidence and showcase his talents. On the season, he is averaging 13.3 points, 3.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 27.7 minutes. In March, Russell has averaged 18.8 points and seems more comfortable running the Lakers’ offense and taking over when necessary. Russell may not be lighting up the league like some of his fellow rookies, but the potential is there and he’s making strides slowly but surely. It’s assumed that the Lakers will make a coaching change this summer and Russell could really benefit from that.

Rounding out the list of immediate-impact rookies are Denver’s Mudiay (12.1 points, 5.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and one steal); Phoenix’s Booker (12.5 points, 2.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds while being a terrific shooter); Indiana’s Turner (10.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks despite still being just 19 years old); and Denver’s Jokic (10 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and one steal in 20.8 minutes, while shooting 51.1 percent from the field). Again, it’s very possible that years from now, players like Johnson, Winslow, Hezonja, Payne, etc. could also be considered stars; that’s just a testament to this class’ talent and depth.

Now, it’s always possible that the early numbers posted by some of these rookies could just be a fluke and they’ll come back down to earth. It happens – sometimes due to injuries, a change of scenery or just simply regression. One example of this is 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, whose production has decreased each season since he won the award and is now on the Milwaukee Bucks. Left hip surgery recently sidelined him for the remainder of the season, but he was coming off of the bench prior to the injury, showing how far his stock had dropped.

Even with that said, there’s no denying that the early returns are promising for this year’s group – especially because they are so young. In talking to people in NBA circles, there’s a lot of excitement to watch this draft class develop over the next decade. The thought is, if they’re already playing this well now, how much better can they be several years down the line when they’ve been in a development program, have some professional experience and, in some cases, a better supporting cast?

Since many of these players were drafted largely because of their high ceiling, their best basketball is almost certainly ahead of them. It’s still early, but years from now we could look back on this draft as one that significantly changed the landscape of the NBA and provided the league with a number of new stars.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA PM: Utah Jazz 2017-18 Season Preview

Can the depth of the Jazz keep them in contention in a very tough Western Conference? We take a look.

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It’s not often that a mid-tier playoff team loses its top two nightly scorers in free agency and still retains a puncher’s chance at the playoffs, especially not in the West, but the Utah Jazz could be one such team. Gordon Hayward and George Hill both went elsewhere this summer, but with arguably the game’s top defender in Rudy Gobert still in town and a smart offseason following those departures, Utah should still be squarely in the playoff picture out West.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Utah’s worst nightmare became a reality this summer when franchise player Gordon Hayward opted to join his old college coach Brad Stevens in Boston.

Along with losing Hayward, George Hill also opted to move on from the Jazz, leaving a core that had surprised many in the NBA last season and looked poised to rattle the cages of the Western Conference’s powerhouses this year a shell of what it once was.

However, despite the losses, Utah did manage to make a deal for Ricky Rubio to assume their point guard duties. Donovan Mitchell also showed an impressive skillset in Summer League play, suggesting maybe that he could become a cornerstone in the next Jazz core.

Unfortunately, the loss of Hayward and Hill, coupled with the heightened intensity of the West may be too much for the Jazz to overcome and could leave them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture this season.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

It’s hard to imagine the Utah Jazz getting better in the wake of losing George Hill and Gordon Hayward, but they still managed to come away from this offseason looking like a team that plans on being a pain in the rear end to every other team in the toughest division in basketball. Ricky Rubio has joined the crew, for example, and rookie Donovan Mitchell looked in Summer League like one of the steals of the lottery. There still is everything to love about Rudy Gobert, but the real question for Utah’s potential success this season is how much better Rodney Hood can be in an expanded role. Like it or not, he’s sort of the new Gordon Hayward, and those are big shoes to fill.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

The Utah Jazz lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill from last season’s squad. To be sure, these are two big losses for Utah. However, the team added Ricky Rubio and have a few candidates to step in and fill the void left by Hayward. The team is still surprisingly deep but injuries have plagued Utah in recent seasons. With some better luck with health and some internal improvement from players like Rodney Hood and Dante Exum, Utah could still be a dangerous team in the Western Conference. Defense will be the foundation of this team’s success, especially with the additions of Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha. However, we can’t pretend like the loss of Hill and Hayward in particular isn’t a big deal. How Utah responds to these departures will say a lot about the character and resiliency of this young, talented squad.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

Even after managing the loss of their two highest nightly scorers last season reasonably well, the 2017 offseason counts as a gut punch for the Jazz. Both Gordon Hayward and George Hill chose elsewhere to play their ball moving forward, gutting a core that some predicted was capable of making a conference finals appearance. The Jazz did well in their stead, trading for Ricky Rubio and making some smart signings in Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh – they should once again be one of the deepest teams in the NBA. Rookie Donovan Mitchell impressed at summer league and could be ready to contribute right away off the bench, and guys like Dante Exum and Alec Burks are eager to prove their worth in vital seasons.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

I don’t think I have much of a choice but to pick the Jazz to finish as one of the two lower seeds out in the Northwest. The Thunder and the Timberwolves have each improved immensely this offseason, while I simply think that the Blazers are more talented than their .500 record last season suggests, especially with the addition of Jusuf Nurkic.

I will say this: I grossly underestimated these guys last season and didn’t expect them to escape the first round against the Clippers. I was wrong then and could certainly be wrong now, but I simply don’t think they’ll be as good. In the end, whether the Jazz can replicate last season’s success will depend in large part on whether rookie Donovan Mitchell (who lit up the summer league) and Rodney Hood are as good as everything thinks they are. Hood will be carrying a lot of weight, but if Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha can each stay healthy, I’m pretty sure these guys still make the playoffs.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Rodney Hood

The argument could be made for Rudy Gobert here after a thoroughly excellent and underrated offensive year last year, but as the Stifle Tower takes the cake in our next section easily, we’ll leave him for a moment. Hood, on the other hand, badly needs the kind of breakout year Gobert had last year. He’s shown the skills to be a primary NBA scorer since he entered the league as a rookie, but his issues have always been about consistency – both in his play and his health.

Now he needs to put it together for a full season, and he needs to do so without a guy like Gordon Hayward often next to him on the wing. Hood has proven capable as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and as a spot-up shooter, so he should work well in lineups with Ricky Rubio. How he fares this year could go a long way to defining Utah’s season.

Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert

Not much needs to be said here. Coming off a second-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting and consistently ranking near the top of the league in every reliable defensive metric, Gobert is one of the league’s most complete and terrifying defenders. He’s the best rim protector in the league, and has worked hard the last couple years at adding enough mobility to his game to survive in the movement-heavy modern game. He could be in for an even bigger year defensively after Utah’s summer additions, particularly Ricky Rubio – one of the first elite-level point guard defenders Gobert will have had the chance to play with.

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio

Speaking of Rubio, the Jazz will look to him to fill the void filled by Hill – and when it comes to a playmaking role, to add to it. Rubio actually averaged double Hill’s per-minute assist total last year, and while some of this speaks to their respective roles, Utah will be hoping he can bring the kind of primary playmaking they’ve been without for quite a while. His pick-and-roll prowess should improve the quality of looks for bigs like Gobert, a tantalizing thought given that Gobert already led the entire league in True Shooting percentage last year. Rubio should also open up Utah’s running game a bit in transition.

Top Clutch Player: Joe Johnson

Despite the presence of Hayward and Hill on the roster, Iso Joe was far and away Utah’s most reliable clutch option last season – and one of the most consistent in the entire league. He posted an outrageous 53-62-100 shooting line in the final five minutes of games with the score within five points, per NBA.com. For those unfamiliar with shooting lines, that means 53 percent from the field, 62 percent from three, and 100 percent from the free-throw line.

Johnson was one of Utah’s only guys capable of creating his own look consistently, a role that will only grow with Hayward no longer in the picture. His presence in crunch time lineups means at least one other well-known name is likely on the bench, but how can coach Quin Snyder leave him off the court in these moments after last year?

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

Lost in a successful year and a crazy offseason was Favors, who as recently as 18 months ago was considered by many to be Utah’s best player on a team that still featured Hayward and Gobert. Favors just couldn’t get healthy last year, with a series of maladies keeping him either off the court or well below 100 percent. He’s spent the offseason working his tail off, though, plus honing a three-point shot that should keep him on the floor if spacing gets cramped with guys like Rubio and Gobert on the floor. He’s in a vital contract year, one where he has to prove he’s both healthy and skilled enough to continue making a big impact. If he’s good physically, don’t be shocked to see his name in the Most Improved conversation come midseason.

Best New Addition: Thabo Sefolosha

We could give this one to Rubio, Jonas Jerebko or even first round draft pick Donovan Mitchell, but Sefolosha gets the nod. He’s a versatile, talented wing defender who will fit right into Snyder’s schemes and provide a big upgrade at the point of attack defensively. Sefolosha has become a capable mid-30s three-point shooter, a fact that makes him a good candidate for small-ball lineups where he, Johnson or Joe Ingles plays the power forward position (these could be some of Utah’s best lineups, as they were last year). He’ll be a primary cog in some of Utah’s most versatile lineups.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

1. Joe Ingles

Ingles didn’t show up for any of our sections above, but there’s a good reason for that: His best talent is likely his versatility. Jingles did a bit of everything last year: He was one of the league’s top spot-up three-point specialists (he shot 46 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, per SportVU data – in the league’s top 10); he ran pick-and-roll sets patiently and efficiently; he was perhaps Utah’s top perimeter defender, a trump card Snyder loved to use in unorthodox situations, including against point guards; he led the team in steals on the year. After signing a deserved extension in the offseason, Ingles will be counted on to continue all this while also providing his unique brand of leadership in a locker room that needs it.

2. Quin Snyder

Entering his fourth season at the helm in Utah, Snyder has consistently shown an ability to get the most out of his rosters. He’ll have another challenge this year after Utah’s offseason departures, but if anyone is up to it, it’s this guy. His defenses are consistently among the most disciplined in the league, and his offensive sets make lemonade even when there are limited lemons available. It will be fascinating to see how much, if at all, his offense changes with guys like Hayward and Hill gone and Rubio now in town.

3. Donovan Mitchell

Utah’s summer sensation was Mitchell, who was selected 13th in the 2017 Draft after a draft day trade and then lit it up at summer league. Mitchell should step right into the NBA as a plus defender, with a fantastic 6-foot-10 wingspan that sneakily makes him more than capable of checking bigger wings – he completely shut down Celtics draftee Jayson Tatum in Jazz Summer League despite giving up nearly half a foot in height. He’s a strong, energetic presence sure to endear himself to the Jazz fanbase, and already has a fantastic potential future as a shooter. If he can refine some of his decision-making and shot selection as a ball-handler over the next few years, he could be a borderline star. For now, he should fit in as a great two-way option who adds some more versatility in Utah.

4. Dante Exum

It’s put up or shut up time for Exum in Utah as he enters his fourth season, and last under his rookie contract. The Aussie has had a tumultuous developmental curve since entering the league, but after finally having a full offseason to train with Jazz coaches and get his game to a new level, the Jazz are expecting big things. Exum has the profile to play both guard spots with elite defensive chops, and he showcased an improved handle and jumper at summer league. He’ll likely enter the season without a rookie extension in place, meaning how much he can make in restricted free agency may depend on what he can show this year.

5. The Depth

Despite their offseason losses, the Jazz are once again positioned to be one of the deepest teams in the league. Guys like Sefolosha, Exum, Mitchell, Jerebko, Alec Burks, and even Raul Neto all have either played quality minutes in the NBA or shown the legitimate potential to do so, and each of these names should be coming off Utah’s bench. The Jazz will hope for better injury luck than they’ve had in recent seasons, of course, but they’re reasonably well-positioned to deal with any losses (besides Gobert) should they arise.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Jazz dropped under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap to sign players like Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko, after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency to the Boston Celtics. The team used most of their Room Exception on Ekpe Udoh, leaving just $1.1 million to spend. All three signings have non-guaranteed salary for the 2018-19 season. Prior to July, Utah acquired Ricky Rubio via trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, they’re at $109.7 million in payroll with 15 guaranteed contracts (along with non-guaranteed Raul Neto and Naz Long, both of whom have long odds of making the roster). Before the start of the season, both Dante Exum and Rodney Hood are eligible for extensions. Next summer, the Jazz can get to roughly $27 million in space, assuming they cut their non-guaranteed players and let both Exum and Hood walk as free agents.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Defense and depth are the two primary strengths for this team. They’re heavy favorites to finish with a top-five defense as long as Gobert is healthy, and as we noted above, they can withstand just about any other injury for at least a short period. They’re also a stronger shooting team than people might realize – in Ingles, Hood, Johnson, Burks and likely Mitchell, they’ve got five strong spot-up shooters, at least a couple of whom should be on the floor at all times. Coaching is another strength for the Jazz, with Snyder growing more comfortable in his role each year.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Gobert is a star whether people prefer to call him that or not, but Hayward’s departure did rob the Jazz of their go-to offensive option. Utah is definitely weaker when it comes to high-level creation, even with the additions they made over the offseason. They’ve traditionally been a very bad team in offensive transition as well – how much that changes this year, and whether Snyder chooses to emphasize it more, could have a large effect on where they finish the year offensively.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can depth, coaching and defense offset Utah’s big summer losses and keep them in the playoff picture?

The Jazz lost nearly 40 points a night from last season when Hayward and Hill bolted town. They did a lot of great things after that point, but it’s fair to question where that production will come from and whether the additions are enough to offset it. The defense should still be excellent, but it can afford zero slippage if this is going to be a playoff team. Can Rubio and Gobert plus a healthy Favors and Hood propel Utah to something close to a league-average offense to supplement it, or will they fall closer to the bottom-10 range? This is what will ultimately define their season, and could determine whether they make the playoffs in a loaded West middle. There are a ton of variables at play in Utah this season. It’ll be fascinating to see how they play out.

-Ben Dowsett

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Cleveland Cavaliers 2017-18 Season Preview

Despite three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers open the season with a lot of new faces. What will it mean for their quest for another title?

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The defending Eastern Conference Champions and NBA Finals runner-ups are looking to return to the big stage in what could theoretically be LeBron James’ final season with the organization. Changes over the summer have tinkered with the roster quite a bit to make the team deeper and more versatile. With multiple assets at their disposal and a team ready for a run at another title, the Cavaliers are arguably in a better position than they were before.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

When the final buzzer sounded to end the 2017 NBA Finals, I can’t imagine LeBron James thought his starting point guard this season would be Isaiah Thomas instead of Kyrie Irving.

In fact, I don’t think anyone could have imagined that. However, here we are.

The new look Cavs will still be their familiar selves when it comes to dominating the Eastern Conference, because they still have the best player on the planet. Throw in Thomas, Jae Crowder, and now even that tantalizing Brooklyn Nets pick, and for the first time in the James Era, Cleveland may be in a decent position should James decided to take his talents elsewhere once again.

But, for this season at least, the Cavs are still the cream of the crop in the East.

1st place — Central Division

— Dennis Chambers

So, what happens if Isaiah Thomas ends up hardly playing this season? We all know that LeBron James is good enough to will any garbage dump of a roster to the playoffs, and the Cavaliers are pretty far from garbage dump status. Kevin Love is still there, after all. So are J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert. They also added Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon to shore up that backcourt while Thomas heals, and nobody doubts that Jae Crowder will be an asset. I’m just not sure they’re the East’s best team without Kyrie Irving or Isaiah Thomas. Boston and Washington are going to nag at them all season long, making the Eastern Conference more wide open than it ever has been.

1st Place – Central Division

– -Joel Brigham

Nothing like a quiet offseason, right?

There never seems to be a shortage of drama in The Land, and the summer of 2017 was no exception. Kyrie Irving is gone, replaced with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a vital Nets 2018 pick. Thomas’ hip is a huge question mark, with no clear answers emerging about when – or if – he might be 100 percent. Loud rumors are swirling about LeBron James’ future in Cleveland once again. Meanwhile, the Warriors only got better over the summer. Most of the big questions in Cleveland won’t be answered until spring, but they’ll be a fascinating group to watch all year long. One thing to watch from the start: How does youngster Cedi Osman perform on the wing in his rookie season?

1st Place – Central Division

— Ben Dowsett

Kryie Irving is now a Boston Celtic and Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose now man the point guard position for Cleveland. Thomas’ hip injury is problematic and it’s not clear when, or if, he will ever make a full recovery. Rose has been inconsistent in recent seasons and is always a risk to miss time with injuries. However, Cleveland added Jae Crowder in the deal, which should be a big boost for the Cavaliers on both ends of the court. Crowder is a solid three-point shooter and a versatile defender. Crowder can plug effectively into small ball lineups and take on tough defensive assignments, which should help preserve LeBron throughout the season. The Cavaliers will miss Irving, but if Thomas can overcome his hip injury and Crowder maintains his usual level of play, Cleveland will likely be as dangerous as last season, if not more so.

1st Place – Central Division

— Jesse Blancarte

With Kyrie Irving’s talents having been sent to Boston, the Cavaliers enter the 2017-18 season as potentially assisting their own demise. The squad has won the Eastern Conference three years in a row, and although most would expect them to make it four, the Celtics will likely have something to say about that.

Until then, though, there probably won’t be much drama in the Eastern Conference.

Despite everything that has transpired over this offseason, the Cavs are probably entering the season as a team that has been weakened without Irving, but one that may be better equipped for long-term success. While that will depend upon the extent to which Isaiah Thomas is able to replicate Irving’s production, most of the new faces brought in to Cleveland—Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green—address an area of weakness for the team.

Even if this does end up being LeBron James’ final season in Ohio, there’s no doubt he’s walking away with another division title, if not a lot more.

1st place — Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LeBron James

Pointing out the obvious, the four-time MVP led the Cavaliers to their third straight championship appearance by breezing right by the East. Due to constant nagging injuries to key pieces during the season, James once again had to bear the responsibility of leading the wine and gold.

He didn’t disappoint. In his 14th year as a pro, LeBron averaged a team-high 37.8 minutes per game over a 74-game span and put up some ridiculous numbers in the process. As he’s gotten older, the 32-year-old superstar has evolved into deadly shooter beyond the arc in addition to his elite scoring ability driving to the hole. With his former right-hand man off to literal greener pastures in Boston, there should be plenty of motivation for James to continue his tear and prove that there won’t be a drop-off in his game anytime soon.

Top Defensive Player: Jae Crowder

Is there any question who takes the cake here? For a number of years now, Cleveland has desperately lacked a true wing to offer a threat on both sides of the floor. Crowder fits that bill to a tee.

Ranking 20th in ESPN’s real plus-minus system, he was an essential part of Brad Stevens’ best defensive units. In his final season with Boston, the versatile forward led the team in net rating. While Crowder was on the floor, the Celtics were 7.8 points better per 100 possessions. When he sat, that number was -3.9, which is a whopping difference of 11.7 points per 100 possessions just by whether Crowder was on the court or not. The Cavaliers have never had anybody with that kind of impact defensively at forward or any position, for that matter. His arrival might be the most important return from the Kyrie Irving trade considering the depth and impact he will provide.

Top Playmaker: LeBron James

Let’s be real—LeBron has to be in at least two categories at the top of the list. Putting it simply, the man makes everyone around him look great on the floor. His presence influences all of his teammates and it shows on the hardwood.

As the best player in the world, he has a beautiful basketball mind that allows him to make split-second decisions in an instant. James also has the physical attributes and skills to execute those thoughts going through his head. That’s a deadly combination to possess. Whether it’s scoring in isolation, feeding his guys, grabbing rebounds, playing the passing lanes, or sprinting the length of the floor for a chase-down block, LeBron is as versatile as they can possibly come.

Top Clutch Player: Isaiah Thomas

Losing Irving is a punch to the gut, but replacing him with Thomas actually gives Cleveland a slight improvement when the lights get brighter. Most NBA enthusiasts can recall a ridiculous stretch in the wintertime when the All-Star point guard was all of a sudden dubbed, “King of the Fourth.”

In crunch time, he was on a mission. The 5-foot-9 scoring assassin averaged 9.8 of his career-high 28.9 points per game in the final quarter and was relentless in getting to the free throw line, where he shot 89.3 percent. Thomas has no fear when the palms get sweaty and, once healthy, should provide some memorable moments again down the stretch.

The Unheralded Player: Channing Frye

Sample sizes matter, but statistically speaking, Frye was the only one to put forth a true shooting percentage (61.2) on par with James regarding playing the same amount of games. Always a reliable sharpshooter from deep, Frye was once again a key factor for Tyronn Lue’s second unit.

His defensive reputation must’ve played a factor in his lack of playing time deep into the playoffs and against Golden State. It certainly couldn’t have been his offensive output because he led the Cavaliers with a 51.3 three-point percentage in the postseason. Frye stepped in and started 15 games last year when the team needed him as well. The willingness of the veteran big to do his job while being a vital presence in the locker room is a testament to his professionalism.

Best New Addition: Brooklyn’s unprotected first round draft pick in 2018

There were plenty of moves over the offseason that helped Cleveland within the realm of the game itself, but if there has been a true improvement for the organization, it’s establishing a direction for the future.

Everybody is aware of the headlines and speculation regarding what LeBron will do after this season is over. The validity of these reports is unknown, but it’s clear as day that owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman are preparing for life without their franchise darling. Acquiring a surefire top-six pick to bring in young talent in next summer’s NBA Draft is a good way to ensure a potential rebuild starts off on the right foot. And should James commit to staying, there will be a lot of value attached to such an asset for a possible big move to keep the Cavaliers a contender. Either way, it was a job well done by the front office to be proactive in case the worst scenario happens.

— Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Kevin Love

It’s amazing how little love (no pun intended) a consistent double-double player like Love gets from people. He’s coming off a great season with the organization and seems extremely comfortable with his teammates, on and off the court. Entering his fourth year with Cleveland, it’s now apparent he’ll be even more involved as a focal point of the offense with new personnel. Lue has told reporters he expects Love to have potentially his best campaign since joining the Cavaliers. The team is going to run a lot of sets through the 29-year-old big man. As far as how much time at center he’ll see with Tristan Thompson holding it down, that’s up in the air. But if Crowder has enough synergy with LeBron, we might get a glimpse of Love at the five in the starting unit eventually.

2. Koby Altman

When the franchise announced it was parting ways with then-general manager David Griffin, there were a lot of question marks about what in the world the Cavaliers were going to do. After a drawn-out process, they found somebody in-house to help clean things up. Altman has done yeoman’s work in making this Cavaliers team better in free agency under difficult constraints. Through one-year veteran minimum deals, he was able to bring in three respectable players that are proven at this level. The rookie executive also completed a blockbuster deal that changed the direction of the organization and kept it a contender in the same breath. If this summer is an indication of what’s to come with Altman in charge, things are looking up for Cleveland if they need to make more moves.

3. J.R. Smith

Earlier this summer, Basketball Insiders ran a series of sleepers throughout each division. Smith was number one on the docket for the Central. Due to injuries and missing training camp over contract discussions, last season was a bit of an anomaly for the fan favorite. Until the playoffs, he never really got into the groove everyone had been used to seeing. Going into this year, Smith has a clean bill of health and is ready to get back to his usual self. Expect him to let it fly more often when he touches the ball.

4. Cedi Osman

The 22-year-old Turkish sensation is the crown jewel of the Cavaliers’ draft in 2015. Based on potential alone, he’s already one of the more exciting pieces of the future. Recently in the EuroBasket tournament, he made waves as one of the more athletic and aggressive wings in the field of FIBA talent. Osman is a highly touted, raw talent who is expected to be a versatile, two-way wing with size and thrives in the open floor. Nobody’s really sure about how much playing time he’ll see in his rookie year, but he’s definitely somebody to keep an eye on.

5. Jeff Green

Before Crowder came into the picture, it was assumed Green would be the one backing up James at the small forward position. Now that there’s a little more depth at forward, it should allow all three men to flourish in their roles. Green may not have had the best time in Orlando, but he never was really a good fit there. As a part of a championship-caliber squad, Green can provide a boost off the bench as a solid defender and a veteran that can space the floor. He’ll help in transition, too.

— Spencer Davies

SALARY CAP 101

The Cavaliers are deep into the luxury tax with at least $135.6 million invested in 17 players. Edy Tavares is non-guaranteed but $456,529 of Kay Felder’s $1.3 million is locked in. As a repeat-tax offender, Cleveland is looking at in the neighborhood of $50 million in penalties. While the Cavs have $2.6 million of their Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception left, along with multiple trade exceptions ($5.8 million the largest), the additional tax burden may inhibit further spending. The franchise is clearly in win-now mode but for how long, given LeBron James can opt out his contract after the season?

Without James, even if Iman Shumpert opts out of his $11 million deal next summer, the Cavs won’t have any significant spending power under the projected salary cap of $102 million. Additionally, Isaiah Thomas will be looking for a sizable raise as an unrestricted free agent next July.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Cavaliers are one big collection of players that thrive from the three-point line and in fast break situations. Lue is a huge proponent of playing with pace and puts more of an emphasis on the offensive side of the floor. They take and make efficient shots at a high clip. The acquisitions made over the summer have really bolstered the depth of the team as well, and it should allow starters to get a breather without worrying about falling into a hole. There’s a ton of rotational combinations possible now, which should serve well in dealing with different matchups.

— Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

Point guard is a huge question mark at this point and we’ll get to that next. Other than that, Cleveland needs to improve defensively as a unit. The new additions should help, but ranking in the bottom 10 of the NBA in defensive rating won’t cut it trying to dethrone the Warriors. A below league-average free throw percentage of 74.8 won’t get the job done, either.

— Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Derrick Rose fill the void of Isaiah Thomas until he’s healthy?

The concerns surrounding the short and long-term health of Thomas are very real. During the introductory press conference, reporters were hammering away at Altman and the player himself about a timetable for a return to the court. The truth is, the Cavaliers are going to take their time to ensure he’s 100 percent before joining the team, whenever that may be.

Until then, it’s on Rose to be the starting point guard. There has been a lot of chatter about how he won’t be able get the job done and numbers don’t tell the real story about his true value. Critics can have their opinions about him, and adjusting to a new system will likely take getting used to. But consider this—has he ever experienced being teammates with a player the caliber of LeBron James? The answer is no. We’ve known for almost his entire career that “The King” makes players around him better, so who says can’t he do the same for Rose? Playing with championship-caliber teammates on a team that has won a title can do wonders for a career.

Lue certainly understands the former MVP’s finishing abilities underneath and success in the mid-range pull-up game should help open things up in certain sets. The one-on-one defense leaves a lot to be desired because of those knee injuries, but as far as him being a stopgap starting point guard goes, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about for the Cavaliers. All you have to do is ask Thomas.

— Spencer Davies

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NBA

NBA AM: Taxation Without Title Contention

Nine teams are over the luxury tax heading into the 2017-18 season, but how many are title contenders?

Lang Greene

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It’s possible to ball on a budget. We’ve all been there—needing to stretch a few dollars out until the next flow of revenue is deposited into the coffers. There’s no shame in principled spending. But for some, budgets aren’t an issue.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, there are nine teams currently over the luxury tax threshold of $119.3 million. But how many of these teams are truly title contenders? How many of these squads really have 50-win potential? How many of these teams will be enjoying the playoff festivities from their couch come April 2018?

Today we’ll take a look at the top 10 highest team payrolls heading into the season and identify which teams are truly elite.

Franchise Total Salary
Golden State Warriors $138,797,751
Cleveland Cavaliers $137,889,758
Washington Wizards $128,850,208
Oklahoma City Thunder $128,827,539
Portland Trail Blazers $124,484,918
Los Angeles Clippers $123,664,492
Toronto Raptors $120,928,989
Charlotte Hornets $119,763,564
Houston Rockets $119,357,882
Milwaukee Bucks $118,898,623

 

Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Status:
Title Contender
2016-17 finish: NBA champions

The Warriors are roughly $20 million over the luxury tax with a payroll approaching $140 million, but the team is the prohibitive favorite to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season and hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy for the third time in this span.

The band is essentially back together from last year’s championship squad with the addition of sharpshooter Nick Young, veteran wing Omri Casspi and promising rookie Jordan Bell. It appears the only things that can stop this juggernaut is injury or ego.

Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Status:
Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Lost, NBA Finals to Golden State Warriors

Listen, LeBron James is still at the height of his powers, but the Cavaliers enter the campaign with more questions than answers. Will James re-sign with the franchise next summer in free agency? Can Isaiah Thomas replace Kyrie Irving without missing a beat? How long will it take for Thomas to return to full strength after a hip injury suffered at the end of last season? Will the team keep the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first round pick? Is Kevin Love off the trading block? The Cavaliers have the talent to compete at the highest of levels, but the team’s fabric could hanging on by its last thread.

Washington Wizards
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Wizards currently have five players earning over eight figure paydays this season. The center combination of Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi are making a shade less than $30 million combined. With Cleveland and Boston at the top of the Eastern Conference, Washington doesn’t have a clear shot to title contention but they do have a team poised for another playoff run.

Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

Oklahoma City Thunder fans have to be on pins and needles. On one hand, the team features two of the best players in the game in Russell Westbrook and Paul George. On the other, both guys could bolt in free agency next summer – sound familiar? If George and Westbrook mesh, the Thunder have the tools to give teams fits every night, but what’s the long-term outlook for the duo?

Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Blazers have elite talent in the backcourt led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, the supporting cast hasn’t been enough to push this team into the next tier. Defensively, the Blazers struggle to contain consistently and the team often finds itself in shootouts. That’s fine during the regular season, but as the club found out during last year’s playoffs versus Golden State, another gear is needed.

Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Status:
Playoffs are not a guarantee
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Clippers enter the season with plenty of questions. Key rotational players from recent years—Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick—are all in different uniforms. The team will rely heavy on forwards Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari, who have both been injury prone over the years. If one or both of these guys miss significant time, the Clippers could be on the outside looking in of the playoff chase.

Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

Some may brush off the Raptors as a legitimate threat, but one thing the team has going for it is team chemistry. While Cleveland and Boston will need time to incorporate new faces, the Raptors’ core is already familiar with one another. The Raptors have struggled tremendously in the playoffs, but sooner or later may experience the breakthrough.

Charlotte Hornets
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Missed Playoffs

The Hornets finished 10 games below .500 last season but believe the acquisition of former All-Star Dwight Howard will sure up their defense and get them back into the mix. Banking on Howard, now past his prime, is a gamble, but head coach Steve Clifford has worked with the big man before to solid results. Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum are solid talents at the top of the Hornets’ lineup, making a return to the playoffs a possibility this season.

Houston Rockets
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

Can the duo of All-Stars Chris Paul and James Harden work together in the backcourt? This is one of the most intriguing storylines entering the 2017-18 campaign. If the tandem works, the Rockets will compete at the top of the Western Conference.

Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Bucks are an enticing unit. But a lot of the team’s upside depends on the return of forward Jabari Parker from a knee injury. The team has length, youth and plenty of potential, but the unit is likely two to three years (and a couple of pieces) away from making big time noise in the postseason.

Competing that the highest level in the NBA costs, but simply spending a lot of money doesn’t guarantee results. In the case of these nine big spenders, however, their franchises hope it does. Time will tell.

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