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NBA PM: Aaron Jackson Set to Leave His Mark in China

Aaron Jackson discusses playing in Europe, scheduling difficulties, transitioning to China and more.

Cody Taylor

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Aaron Jackson was sure glad his free agency overseas wrapped up quickly. After all, it’s a process that he very much dislikes.

Jackson wrapped up his season with CSKA Moscow in early June after a trip to the Euroleague Final Four and a subsequent championship in the Russian VTB United League. By early July, Jackson signed a two-year contract to play with the Beijing Ducks.

As most are familiar with the free agency process in the NBA, things overseas can be quite different. Players in the NBA have the luxury of being governed by the Players’ Association, while Jackson described free agency overseas as a nightmare.

“There needs to be something where they can regulate it,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders. “Players get signed in the season; there’s no set date. Agents come at you with different deals; back door deals. There are so many different ways and hard ways to stay focused especially during the season when you hear so many rumors.

“It’s not the NBA where you say, ‘Okay, these rumors mean nothing because you can’t talk to anyone or nothing means anything until July 1.’ These rumors are coming and it can happen. It can be a back door deal and you can be signed right away and you’re still on a team. You have agents in Europe that have connections with teams and they push their players.”

Jackson established himself as one of the top guards in Europe playing with a talented CSKA Moscow team that also featured Milos Teodosic, Nando De Colo, Cory Higgins and Kyle Hines. Jackson averaged 7.9 points, 3.8 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 66 games last season.

Once it became clear that Jackson wouldn’t return for a sixth season with CSKA Moscow, Beijing moved quickly to sign him. As crazy as Jackson described the overseas free agency process, he was happy to sign so quickly.

“They said everything I wanted and what I needed,” Jackson said. “It happened real quick. Every time I was at CSKA, I was the first player off of the market and it happened in China where I was the first player off of the market in China. Everything happened so fast where I did a good job to avoid the situation of having total chaos and I got off the market quick.”

*****

Jackson remembers having a conversation with a teammate back in February where the two discussed the upcoming offseason. But it didn’t occur to Jackson at the time that the earliest the two could return home was four months later.

Between the team’s schedule in the VTB United League and in the Euroleague, the earliest possible date Jackson could return to the U.S. was June 12.

“June 12?” Jackson asked. “No way!”

By this point, Jackson had been with his team since August 20, practicing every day. Playing for a team like CSKA Moscow, expectations area always  high. The team is supposed to win the Euroleague each year, so the pressure is on the players to perform at a high level.

As Jackson weighed his free agency options, he replayed that February conversation when he made his decision to leave Europe.

“I looked at him and said this is going to be my last year playing Euroleague,” Jackson said. “There is no way. I’m either going to come in October and November when they’re cutting players or I’m just going to go try the NBA. Then China came up and it was a great opportunity for me.”

Jackson has been among the many players in the Euroleague to voice their opinion on the schedule issue. Players like Nikola Kalinic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kyle Hines, Matt Janning and Keith Langford have all voiced their displeasure with the current schedule format.

It shouldn’t be surprising to hear some describe the Euroleague as being tougher than the NBA because of its grueling schedule.

“When you’re overseas, they don’t believe in rest,” Jackson said. “It was just that first year doing the new format of the Euroleague. I think the coaches and the owners didn’t really understand how to put rest into it so the players suffered. The NBA is about rest; players first. They even sit out some games. Last year in CSKA, we played something like 68 games.”

By signing to play in China this season, Jackson will return to somewhat of a normal schedule. Jackson says his old teammates will be reporting to Russia this week, while he doesn’t join his new team in China until the middle of September.

“I’m finished mid-April,” Jackson said. “It’s much better. I get to see my family.”

Although Jackson is understandably happy about his upcoming schedule this season, he was grateful for his time in Russia.

“I played five years for CSKA and won a championship,” Jackson said. “I had individual success, team success and left a legacy there. I have friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

*****

The Beijing Ducks, Jackson’s new team, are in a bit of a transition phase. The team has parted ways with Stephon Marbury after six seasons as the two sides reportedly disagreed on Marbury’s role for next season.

The team wanted Marbury to coach, while Marbury, 40, still wants to play. Marbury helped the Ducks to three Chinese Basketball Association championships and has a statue outside of the team’s arena. Marbury averaged 21.4 points, 5.5 assists and four rebounds in 36 contests last season for the Ducks.

The Ducks have now turned to Jackson and fellow American Justin Hamilton to assist in its rebuilding effort. While the Ducks have moved on from Marbury, Jackson says there is no replacing what he did.

“Stephon Marbury is literally the King James of China,” Jackson said. “He’s the LeBron James of China. He’s the best player of all-time in China. He did so much for that league so there’s no way I can replace that. I just want to get over there and play my best basketball and hopefully get close to what he did.”

As Jackson left his legacy with CSKA Moscow, he wants to leave an impact in China as well. He believes the pressure that was placed on him and his teammates in Russia can help him lead the Ducks to continued success in the CBA.

“I’m excited to get over there and just play basketball and just do whatever it takes to win,” Jackson said. “They’ve put a lot of pressure on me and Justin. I think I played with that pressure up in Europe and now it’s an individual pressure which excites me more.” 

Given his championship experience from the Euroleague, the Ducks may have found their next leader after moving on from Marbury.

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

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NBA PM: Los Angeles Clippers 2017-18 Season Preview

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

Basketball Insiders

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

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

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

FIVE GUYS THINK…

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

2nd Place – Pacific Division

— Jesse Blancarte

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

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

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

2nd place — Pacific Divison

— Moke Hamilton

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

2nd Place – Pacific Division

— Joel Brigham

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

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

2nd place — Pacific Division

— Dennis Chambers

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

2nd Place — Pacific Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin

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

Top Defensive Player: DeAndre Jordan

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

Top Playmaker: Milos Teodosic

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

Top Clutch Player: Danilo Gallinari

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

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Beverley

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

Best New Addition: Danilo Gallinari

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

— Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jerry West

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

2. Patrick Beverley

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

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

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

3. Blake Griffin

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

4. Sindarius Thornwell

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

— Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

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

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

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

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

— Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

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

— Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

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

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

— Jesse Blancarte

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NBA

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.

Basketball Insiders

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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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NBA

NBA PM: Oklahoma City Thunder 2017-18 Season Preview

The Thunder were very good a season ago, could they be even better this season? We explore the Thunder in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Oklahoma City Thunder were dealt a crippling blow last year when Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area. Considering where the franchise was around this time last year, the historic season Russell Westbrook put together and the strong moves the front office made this season, Thunder fans have plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic about the team’s prospects both for this upcoming season and beyond.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

So, Oklahoma City having just one top-10 player in the league didn’t last long, as the Thunder acquired Paul George from the Indiana Pacers to pair with the league’s MVP, Russell Westbrook.

With Westbrook set to hit free agency next summer, general manager Sam Presti is pulling out all of the stops to try and ensure another homegrown superstar doesn’t fly the coop for greener pastures. However, despite the addition of George, the Thunder still lack the depth to truly compete with the big dogs of the Western Conference. One step further, OKC may not even have enough firepower to be the best team in their division. The boys in Minnesota will have plenty to say in that regard.

2nd place – Northwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Thunder’s consolation prize for losing Kevin Durant a year ago was apparently an MVP campaign for Russell Westbrook and the one-year rental of Paul George, acquired over the summer for a middling former lottery pick and an overpaid wing. George makes the team immediately better, but the Thunder have the misfortune of playing in the most competitive division in the NBA. I don’t see a whole lot of distance between any of the five teams in the Northwest this year, but I do have a feeling OKC will eke out the top spot by the time everything wraps up. This really is a good team, if not quite a contender.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Much of the attention when it comes to the potential for topping the world champion Warriors out West has gone to the Rockets this offseason, and rightfully so. But don’t overlook the Thunder, a team that, at least conceptually, might match up a little more organically with the Dubs. In Paul George they now have one of the few bodies on earth who can hope to credibly match up with Kevin Durant for a full game or series, and also a guy who can relieve some of the offensive burden on Russell Westbrook. Guys like George, Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines and even Jerami Grant can do a reasonable amount of switching on the perimeter, an absolute necessity against a beast like the Warriors. Whether they have enough firepower to make this matchup sneakily more entertaining than we’d assume remains to be seen, and a lot has to go right fit-wise. But if there’s any group that can give the Warriors trouble (and we aren’t sure if there actually is), don’t sleep on the Thunder.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Oklahoma City Thunder had the best overall offseason of any NBA team. The Thunder fleeced the Indiana Pacers in trading Victor Oladipo and Damontas Sabonis in exchange for Paul George. George could walk away for nothing in return after this season but the deal was such an absolute steal that it was still a no-brainer for Sam Presti. The Thunder shed long term salary in the deal, bolster their prospects for the upcoming season, give Russell Westbrook a legitimate star to play next to, and, even George walks away, the Thunder are in a solid position to move on and rebuild (depending on what Westbrook opts to do). The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and signed Patrick Patterson on a team-friendly deal – an underrated move that could have a bigger impact for Oklahoma City than most people realize. In short, the Thunder took care of their short term and long term interests this offseason and are now one of the most capable teams of matching up with the Golden State Warriors.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The thing I love about the Thunder more than anything else is the fact that Russell Westbrook is entering what will likely be the final year of his contract and that the Thunder have tendered him a $200 million extension that he hasn’t signed. As the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, it’s amazing that this hasn’t become a much bigger storyline, especially with Russell’s hometown Los Angeles Lakers armed with some major cap space next summer.

Anyhow, focusing on the here and now, the Thunder have gotten much stronger this offseason. They lost one of my favorite players in Taj Gibson but brought in Paul George and some much-needed backcourt help in Raymond Felton. They walked away from the draft with the highly-regarded Terrance Ferguson and re-signed the impactful Andre Roberson. All things considered, they enter this season as a much stronger team than they were last year, at least on paper. What I’ll be looking for more than anything else is whether and to what extent Westbrook and George’s status as pending free agents impacts the team. Aside from that, though, based on what Sam Presti has done with the roster this past offseason, there’s no reason to think that the Thunder won’t pick up where they left off and that they’ll be competing for the Northwest Division crown again.

Winning it, though, certainly won’t be a walk in the park. It’s the toughest division in the league this year.

1st place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul George

Paul George is one of the most complete offensive talents in the NBA. He can run his team’s offense as a point forward, score in isolation, knock down three-pointers and score from just about any area on the floor. Russell Westbrook could also be slotted in as the team’s top offensive player but George is more of a natural scorer and doesn’t need to dominate the ball quite as much as Westbrook to be an elite offensive contributor. How George and Westbrook share the ball and play off of one another is going to be one of the more interesting dynamics to follow and monitor this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

There are a lot top-tier defenders on the Thunder’s roster, but we give the nod here to Roberson. He may not be at the level of Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green but he isn’t that far off either, which says a lot. There are other lock down wing defenders in the league, but few can match the consistent impact of Roberson. For an excellent breakdown of Roberson’s defensive skills, check out this article by Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook doesn’t rack up assists the way more traditional point guards like Chris Paul does or the way Steve Nash used to. However, this isn’t a criticism of Westbrook. Westbrook is an athletic freak who attacks his opponents relentlessly off the dribble, which forces teams to switch, send help and leave his teammates open. Few players can generate gravity like Westbrook, which comes about as a result of his high octane, relentless style of play. Westbrook, arguably, doesn’t have the elite vision or passing abilities that some of the best lead guards in the NBA have or had, but he averaged 10.2 assists last season for a reason. Paul George is likely to take on some of Westbrook’s playmaking responsibilities this upcoming season, so don’t be surprised if Westbrook’s assists numbers fall off a little bit.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook

Some may be tempted to think George should get the nod here, but this isn’t even close. Westbrook had one of the most clutch seasons in NBA history last season and singlehandedly willed the Thunder to several wins in late-game situations. Westbrook was truly incredible as he went on several scoring outbursts late in fourth quarters with his team down by what seemed to be insurmountable deficits. Every opponent knew Westbrook was going to have the ball in his hands and was the person who was going to take the game-winning attempt and they still couldn’t stop him. Westbrook was an unstoppable force in clutch situations last season and earns the top clutch player designation here.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Patterson

How did the rest of the NBA miss out on signing Patrick Patterson to a competitive contract? The Thunder managed to sign Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million contract this offseason, which is a great deal for Oklahoma City. Patterson’s per-game statistics won’t blow anyone away, but he is a 27-year-old power forward that shot over 37 percent from three last season, can defend multiple positions and was almost always a positive contributor for the Toronto Raptors last season. For less than $6 million a season, the Thunder addressed their starting power forward position (which was one of their biggest holes last season) and bolster their defensive personnel. No team can truly stop the Golden State Warriors, but the Thunder have a handful of versatile defenders, including Patterson, that are necessary to have a shot of even slowing the Warriors down. So we ask again – how did the rest of the league let Patterson slip to the Thunder on such a team-friendly deal?

Top New Addition: Paul George

Yes, Paul George can walk away at the end of this season. It’s a real concern for the Thunder. However, the deal to acquire George was so lopsided that there was no downside in acquiring the star forward. The Thunder shed long term salary and get a shot to pair George up with Westbrook. Ideally, the pairing will be so effective that both George and Westbrook decide to commit to playing in Oklahoma City together long term. However, even if that doesn’t happen, the Thunder still have the young talent and financial flexibility to retool or rebuild on the fly.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Sam Presti

Sam Presti, to some extent, will always be haunted by the deal that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Presti has also made some other deals over the years that didn’t exactly work out. Nevertheless, Presti seemingly had little to work with this summer and yet ended up with Paul George without giving up draft picks, unloaded the bloated contract of Victor Oladipo, re-signed Roberson to a reasonable contract, signed Patterson to a team-friendly deal and overall had the best offseason of any general manager. If there were any doubts as to Presti’s abilities as a front office executive, they were put to rest this offseason.

2. Russell Westbrook

He’s coming off a historic MVP season and seems primed for another epic year. The only concerns with Westbrook are whether he will gel with George and whether he will ultimately commit to the Thunder long term.

3. Paul George

As previously mentioned, George is a complete offensive talent. Additionally, he is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league and one of the few players that has any shot of matching up with Kevin Durant defensively. I for one am hoping to see the Thunder face the Warriors in the postseason to see how well George can matchup with Durant over a seven game series and to see how well the Thunder’s stingy defense can slow down the Warriors’ offensive attack.

4. Steven Adams

It goes unnoticed, but Steven Adams put together a career-year last season. Adams has developed into a top-level defensive center and does all of the little things to make it possible for players like Westbrook to focus on scoring and filling up the box score. Whether it’s hauling in offensive rebounds, setting hard screens, finishing a lob or anchoring the team’s defense, Adams does everything he can to help his team win.

5. Patrick Patterson

As previously discussed, Patterson comes to the Thunder on a team-friendly deal and is likely to fill a role the Thunder desperately needed to address. From the power forward position, Patterson can play off the ball, stretch the floor and move the ball within the team’s offense when he’s not open for a shot. Defensively, Patterson has the strength to guard bigger players in the post and the mobility to switch onto wing players when necessary. That sort of skill set usually garners a hefty contract in free agency. Fortunately for the Thunder, they nabbed him on a favorable deal.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Thunder reportedly have a $207.1 million extension on the table to Russell Westbrook but the MVP has yet to sign it. If he waits until next summer, opting out of his final year at $30.7 million, he’ll be eligible to sign a new contract for the exact same figure. The benefit of inking now is locking in long-term security but then he won’t know if Paul George, who can opt out of his $20.7 million for 2018-19 is going to re-up. If only one stays, Oklahoma City won’t have the cap room to add in a replacement star.

If both do leave in free agency, along with Enes Kanter, who can opt out of his final year $18.6 million, the Thunder can get to roughly $42.8 million in cap space. The team can also give Doug McDermott to an extension before the start of the 2017-18 season. Oklahoma City also has to decide (before November) on Josh Huestis’ option for 2018-19. In the meantime, the Thunder are over the luxury tax threshold ($119.3 million) by at least $6 million for a bill of about $10.5 million.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Thunder’s defense should be top-notch this season. The lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams should make life miserable for opposing offenses. This lineup has the collective skill, size, mobility and experience to take on the league’s best offenses – perhaps even the Warriors. The Thunder’s offense may falter at times, but the defense should be a constant asset for Oklahoma City.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The Thunder don’t have many weaknesses, but one concern is how Westbrook will adapt to life with Paul George. Westbrook maintained an absurdly high usage rate last season and his teammates even seemed to facilitate his run for the triple-double record. George similarly needs the ball in his hands to maximize his skill set and likely won’t be interested in helping Westbrook break records. Finding a proper balance and adapting the team’s offense to be more inclusive is of tantamount importance. There will be times where Westbrook feels the need to take matters into his own hands. It might become a problem if he feels inclined to do so too often and at the expense of George and his other teammates.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Paul George and Russell Westbrook convince one another to partner up long term in Oklahoma City?

Both Westbrook and George have the ability to take their talents elsewhere after this season. If the duo quickly develops chemistry and finds a recipe for competing with the Warriors, they may be convinced to stay put and team up for the long term. However, if it becomes clear that the two cannot coexist and that they each have better opportunities elsewhere, the Thunder will be left without their two star players and will have to quickly restructure on the fly. With Sam Presti in charge, Thunder fans should take solace in the knowledge that he and his staff are likely fully prepared for that worst case scenario. Still, Thunder fans will be on edge all season wondering what will ultimately happen with the team’s two best players.

– Jesse Blancarte

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