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NBA PM: Has a Prudent, Patient Phil Jackson Righted the Knicks Ship?

Despite not making a splashy signing, it appears the Knicks are finally heading in the right direction…

Tommy Beer

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Phil Jackson’s first year captaining the Knicks’ ship was far from pleasant. Choppy waters worsened into a perfect storm of inefficiency, injuries and ineptitude.

However, based on what we have seen over the last few weeks, spanning from the draft on June 25th through the first day free agents can officially sign with their new teams on July 9th, has Jackson successfully navigated the Knicks out of harm’s way? Is there now smoother sailing ahead?

******

Last summer, making his first franchise-defining decision as team president, Jackson decided to offer a $124 million contract to Carmelo Anthony, which included a no-trade clause, a player option for the fifth and final season, and a 15 percent trade-kicker. Even before Anthony underwent season-ending surgery in February, it was a questionable choice, considering no other NBA team could offer ‘Melo more than $96 million.

In addition, just a day before the 2014 Draft last June, Jackson traded away Tyson Chandler (and his expiring contract) and Raymond Felton in exchange for Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Samuel Dalembert and two second-round selections.

Calderon had three years and $22.2 million left on his deal at the time. The trade was made before Jackson knew the Knicks’ 2014-15 campaign would go up in flames. However, Calderon struggled mightily, as injuries and inefficiency greatly limited his effectiveness.

As we know, the Knicks would go on to lose 65 games, completing the single worst season in the franchise’s history.

However, the upshot was the Knicks would be rewarded with a high lottery pick. They would also have upwards of $28 million to spend on free agents this summer.

Phil would have a great opportunity to right the ship after it that had drifted way off course.

The question was: Would Jackson feel pressure to immediately restore respectability to an embarrassed organization?

Phil will be 70 years old by the time next season rolls around. His reputation as an executive was on the line, according to the tabloids in Gotham. Would he be willing to be practice patience and attempt to slowly but surely rebuild the franchise the right way? Or might he be tempted to take short cuts in hopes of instantly putting a presentable (if ultimately unsuccessful) product on the floor.

In other words, after investing in Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon last summer, would Jackson be willing to reverse course and build towards the future, as opposed to searching for quick fixes in an attempt to sneak into playoffs as 7th or 8th seed?

At the start of the offseason, the answer was still a mystery. Despite a spate of interviews to print outlets and radio programs, the cryptic Jackson wasn’t tipping his hand.

Jackson and the Knicks caught a bad break in the draft lottery when they dropped to No. 4 overall. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the top tier of talent in this draft was only three deep, according to most analysts. After Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor went off the board in succession, the Knicks were forced to choose from a handful of promising players with a mix of enticing upside and worrisome question marks.

The Knicks ended up selecting largely unknown but highly-touted Latvian prospect Kristaps Porzingis. While the pick is undeniably risky due to the scary downside inherent in taking a skinny, unproven, foreign-born player – the vast upside is also irrefutable. Porzingis possesses an incredibly rare skill set for someone his size. He moves remarkably well and fluidly from baseline-to-baseline. This is noteworthy because lateral quickness is imperative for big men hoping to survive defensively in today’s pick-and-roll heavy NBA. Offensively, he dunks forcefully, yet makes it seems effortless. He needs to improve his low-block ability, but has the foundations of a solid post-up game. Still, the most impressive skill Porzingis brings to the table is his feathery touch from the perimeter. Kristaps has a flawless form that would be impressive from a shooting guard, let alone a guy measuring in at seven feet, three inches. At his size, he’ll be able to effortlessly launch uncontested jumpers from all over the floor. At just 19 years old, he hasn’t yet even scratched the surface of his vast potential.

The selection of Porzingis was also encouraging because it seemed to indicate that Jackson was thinking long-term. He wasn’t dead set on selecting a less risky, more established player (such as Justise Winslow), who was a safer bet and would provide immediate returns, but did not have the same upside as Porzingis. In addition, Phil decided not to trade the pick to move down in the draft while also acquiring a young veteran that would help the Knicks next season. Phil only has four years left on his contract. There’s a very good chance that he won’t even be in New York if and when Porzingis develops into the player Phil and Knicks fans hope he will be.

However, the Knicks draft did not end there. An hour or so after selecting Porzingis, Jackson did a masterful job getting back into the first round by trading the one-dimensional Tim Hardaway Jr. for the No. 19 overall selection, which he used to select point guard Jerian Grant from Notre Dame. Grant is a big (6’4″ with a 6’7.5” wingspan) and athletic (exhibit A) guard that should be able to contribute on both sides of the ball. In addition to being a superb scorer, he is also a gifted passer with impressive court vision. In college, Grant dished out a total of 690 assists during his Notre Dame career, which was more NCAA assists than the first 15 picks in the 2015 draft combined.

Phil’s final move on draft night was acquiring the draft rights of the 35th overall pick, Guillermo Hernangomez, from the Philadelphia 76ers. Hernangomez is a smart, aggressive 6’11” center from Spain (and a teammate of Porzingis). Heading into the 2015 draft, there were rumors that several teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, were considering selecting him towards the end of the first round. The Knicks will likely stash Hernangomez overseas for a season or two, in order for him to gain some seasoning and keep his salary off the books until he is ready to contribute on the NBA level.

Based on the draft, it appeared Phil was content eschew a quick fix, and instead look farther down the road.

Still, free agency would begin the very next week, and would obviously have a major impact on both the Knicks short and long-term future.

*****

Some Knicks fans will complain that Phil wasn’t able to land a big fish such as Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, or LaMarcus Aldridge. But those expectations were unreasonable. Simply playing in a major market is no longer enough to lure the cream of the free agent crop. Fans in both New York and Los Angeles can attest to this fact. In this new, flattened world we live in, players know they don’t need to live in a major metropolitan hub in order to become internationally famous and land incredibly lucrative endorsement deals. Kevin Durant plays for a team in Oklahoma. LeBron James is based out of Ohio. Desirable free agents in today’s NBA (Love, David West, Greg Monroe and Aldridge being the latest examples) often end up choosing their new team in large part based on which team gave them the greatest chance to win big.

Some frustrated Knicks fans were upset because the Knicks didn’t hit a grand slam this summer. However, this Knicks also didn’t strike out. Better yet, they avoided grounding into a double play.

At the start of the process, the worst case scenario for the Knicks during this free agency period was not failing to sign a single big name free agent. No, the worst case scenario would have been overpaying for marginal talent and locking up their cap space for years to come.

The understandable fear from some forward-thinking Knicks fans was that Phil would compound last summer’s mistake by going “all in” and attempting to skips steps in the rebuilding process. A focus on an immediately return to relevancy, while it may have added a few more wins to their 2015-16 record, would have likely (ultimately) ended in disaster.

NBA history lessons have taught us that it’s nearly impossible to cheat the rebuilding process. The least desirable place to be in this league is on the fringe of the playoffs, chasing the 8th seed with an aging “win now” roster.

The Knicks weren’t able to land a true difference-maker this summer, but they were able to add solid rotation pieces, while also maintaining cap space and roster flexibility going forward.

*****

Last month, there were published reports that Arron Afflalo was looking to get between $36 and $38 million over three years. That would have been too much to pay for Afflalo, who was coming off an awful season. However, it appears the Knicks will sign him to a two-year deal for $16 million, with a player option on that second season. (It is important to note that no contracts have been signed and that no deal can become official until the league-wide moratorium is lifted on July 9th). Taken in context of the market, when DeMarre Carroll and Wes Matthews will ink deals for approximately four years and $60 million, the Afflalo contract certainly seems reasonable considering his previously exhibited production and skill set.

In addition, Afflalo may become a valuable trade chip for the Knicks at the 2016 trade deadline, especially if he proves he is healthy and shows he can still produce. Remember, just four months ago (February, 19th 2015), he was traded from the Nuggets to the Blazers in exchange for a future first rounder.

The Knicks big ticket item was Robin Lopez, who will reportedly sign a four-year, $54 million contract later this week. Some fans were disappointed NY didn’t land Greg Monroe, but Lopez might actually be a better fit along the Knicks frontline. $13 million per year is a lot to pay for a player who has averaged 10 points and seven rebounds over the last three seasons, but, again, the market for starting-caliber centers had already been established.

The other positive to take away from the Lopez signing is that it’s an indication Phil Jackson and company will put an emphasis on defense. The Knicks have been near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency basically since the day Jeff Van Gundy skipped town back in December of 2001. Year after year, the NBA’s elite teams and championship contenders are those teams that defend well on a consistent basis. The proof is in the pudding: The last 14 (and 19 of the last 20) NBA champions have all finished in the top-10 in Defensive Efficiency.

The Knicks pursuit of Derrick Williams seems odd because Williams has been a major disappointment since being selected second overall in the 2011 NBA draft. He’s an impressive athlete with great physical tools, but has been relatively ineffective and inefficient on both ends of the floor at the pro level. Jackson and company must have seen something special in him and believe they can rejuvenate his career, considering they offered him $10 million over two seasons.

The Knicks best value signing of the summer will likely end up being Kyle O’Quinn. A native New Yorker (born and raised in Queens), O’Quinn was a second-round pick by the Magic in 2012. Coming out of Norfolk State, he played sporadically over his first three NBA seasons in Orlando, but performed relatively well when given extended minutes. O’Quinn has averaged 13.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per-36 minutes thus far in his NBA career. The Knicks lack depth on the frontline, so he’ll see time backing up both the power forward and center spots. He possesses limited athleticism in his bulky frame, but has a high-intensity motor and brings relentless energy on a nightly basis.

It sounds like O’Quinn will sign a four year deal for a total of $16 million. This is a smart gamble by Phil, as there is potentially a solid payoff, yet very little risk involved. Consider this: In 2016-17 season, when the salary cap will purportedly jump up to $108 million, O’Quinn will account for just 3.7 percent of the Knicks total cap space. If O’Quinn becomes even a decent role player in New York, that contract will return astonishing value.

The offseason isn’t over, as the Knicks still have their $2.8 million room exception to spend, but the lion’s share of the cap space has been invested in the four players detailed above.

At this early stage, it would be a leap to heap praise on Phil for his work this summer. Just as it would be unfair to claim the Knicks offseason was a failure. The fact of the matter is that these were just the first few steps in a long and arduous rebuilding process.

Yet, it seems these baby steps have the Knicks heading in the right direction, which in and of itself, is encouraging.

Completing out baseball analogy from earlier, Phil hit a solid double this summer. He set the table for future acquisitions and improvements. This summer will generate some much needed momentum, which gives the organization an opportunity to build on that going forward.

Phil will also have flexibility, an incredibly valuable commodity. The Knicks will have only 5 players with guaranteed contracts that extend beyond the 2016-17 season (Anthony, Lopez, O’Quinn, Porzingis, and Grant). New York is also suddenly now flush with young, athletic players with varying levels of intriguing potential (Porzingis, Grant, Hernangomez, Cleanthony Early, Derrick Williams, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Langston Galloway, Louis Labeyrie…).

*****

We will only be able to fairly and accurately grade the moves the Knicks made in the summer of 2015 once we see who they sign next July and the following summer. By that time, we should have a much better idea of exactly what kind of players Jerian Grant and Kristaps Porzingis will be. Might future free agents be impressed by the nucleus Jackson has assembled and be convinced the Knicks are on the verge of taking that next step?

Still, based on what we’ve seen from Phil Jackson and New York hierarchy these past few weeks, Knicks fans have reason to be slightly optimistic for the first time in a long time.

For 15 straight seasons, the Knicks organization has gone broke year after year chasing “get rich quick” schemes. Fortunately, it appears as though Phil Jackson is willing to patiently and prudently make sound investments that may allow the Knicks to eventually build a team capable of sustaining success.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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The NBA Ten Years Ago

With the season finally here, Matt John takes a look at what the NBA was like ten years before, and the implications it had on today’s league.

Matt John

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Here we go again!

Last year, this writer dove into what the association was like ten years before the incoming season. Now here we are again. We’re traveling back to the year 2010. Back when the iPad was first sweeping the nation, the economy was still in the toilet, and the Toy Story trilogy had concluded on a high note. Or so we thought.

Coming into the 2009-2010 season, it seemed the season itself wasn’t what everyone was paying the most attention to. What was on everyone’s minds was the upcoming free agency of one LeBron James.

Following Cleveland’s shocking playoff exit in the Conference Finals, there started to be rumblings that James’ days as a Cavalier were numbered. We all know what happened the following summer, which is worth discussing next year. At the time, however, Cleveland’s top competitor for James’ services was believed to be the New York Knicks.

Even though the Knicks hadn’t been to the playoffs in almost a decade, and were still washing off the stink of Isiah Thomas’ managerial tenure, they still had their prestige of being a legendary franchise by their side. Meanwhile, everyone else in the league was gearing up for an upcoming epic free agency period.

This may sound irrelevant now since we didn’t get our answer until after the season ended, but this hoopla all started circulating just before the 2009-2010 season started, and it would never go away. In fact, we saw several cap-clearing moves by teams in order to facilitate a potential deal for James, so how could it? As for the season itself, we still got one entertaining enough that James’ decision didn’t distract all that much.

Now last year, this started off by asking how well the team who won the championship in this specific year would do in the modern NBA. The Lakers repeated as champions in 2010 with almost the exact same team, so there’s not much use in asking if they could do it in today’s league, so we’re not going to start there.

Where we’re going to start, however, is the little change the Lakers made before they went on their road to repeating — Replacing Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest.

More Talent Does Not Equal Higher Ceiling

In the summer of 2009, we saw quite a few (declining) stars who went to new situations either to rehabilitate their career image and/or to get a ring. Ron Artest, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, and Allen Iverson all found new homes before the fall of 2009. It was so repetitive among aging stars that we were quite shocked when Grant Hill opted to re-sign with the Suns when contenders were inquiring about his services.

Because of this, the ceilings for all the teams involved — minus Memphis, who Iverson was employed with for exactly three games before his release — was projected to be even higher than they already were.

The Lakers were adding a 17-point scorer and a former defensive player of the year. The Celtics were adding a big who made the all-star the previous season that was coming off their bench. The Cavaliers were adding a reigning all-star and all-NBA center. The Magic were adding an electric 20-point scorer. The already elite teams managed to get better on paper.

But when they took the court, they weren’t. At least not really. The star-studded additions didn’t hurt the teams too much when their seasons ended, but they didn’t add any new dimensions.

Before coming to the Lakers, Artest was usually a focal point in the offense, so he was used to doing things his way. That’s what made him such an awkward fit in LA since the Lakers already had an established pecking order with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. They wanted Ron to be a 3&D wing, but he was used to being so much more. Artest would later hit two enormous shots in the Lakers’ playoff run, but he never really found his stride in Los Angeles.

Rasheed Wallace should have been a perfect third big off the Celtics bench. He had plenty of playoff experience, and his skillset alone should have made it easier for Boston to weather Kevin Garnett’s recovery following a devastating knee injury. Instead, ‘Sheed came into the season out of shape, played lackadaisical on both sides of the floor, and didn’t really try until the postseason came around. Though he gave his all when it counted, his frustrating play made him one of the least-liked Celtics in recent memory.

Of the stars that have been brought up, Vinsanity did the best for what his team asked him. Vince Carter was handed a bigger role than the previous two mentioned. He was supposed to fill in for the departed Hedo Turkoglu. He put up pretty good numbers, but he just wasn’t the same player at 33 nor could he do what Hedo did. Vince definitely tried, and he did an adequate job. In the end, Orlando acquired him just a year or so too late. Sadly, if it weren’t for Nick Anderson, these two free throws would have been the most infamous in Orlando Magic history.

As for Shaq’s time with the Cavs, well that deserves a conversation on its own, which leads us to our next topic.

Less (Shaq) Is More!

When Orlando proved in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals that they could handle whatever LeBron and the Cavs threw at them, it was clear they needed someone who could stop them, or more specifically Dwight Howard, in their tracks. The recently resurgent Shaq could definitely suffice.

Shaq was coming off of his best season in years, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds while also staying on the court for 75 games. Even at 37, it looked as if Shaq had some juice left after all. Sure, the Suns didn’t make the playoffs, but he looked like a valuable asset to have nonetheless. Cleveland thought as much when they traded for him and, best of all, he was traded for spare parts.

Unfortunately, he didn’t bring the same production as a Cavalier. In fact, Shaq was probably the last player you’d want on that team. The early James years in Cleveland were a team that relied on running the floor. A younger Shaq would have been just fine in a system like that, but the 38-year-old iteration? Not so much. He wasn’t useless when paired with James, but he could not keep up with him.

The Cavs still had the best record in the entire league, but they actually won five fewer games with Shaq than the previous year. In the end, it was all for naught because the Cavaliers never got their rematch with the Magic in the playoffs. A few months later, Shaq would leave Cleveland for the team that eliminated them — the Boston Celtics

As for Phoenix, many thought this was the end for them. Steve Nash wasn’t getting any younger, Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract was up soon and selling off Shaq for basically nothing made it seem like the Suns were Run-n-Done.

But that wasn’t what happened. With Shaq gone, Phoenix re-discovered its style. Nash and Stoudemire were free to run their pick-and-roll game again, while Hill, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley were excellent complementary pieces on the wing. Add Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, youngsters Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez and, suddenly, the Suns had an elite squad again.

With a fully healthy season from almost everyone, Phoenix worked its way to a 54-28 record, placing them third in the Western Conference. The team managed to get past the Trail Blazers in the first round, then stunned the Spurs in a sweep in the second round. The Lakers later stopped the Suns in a hard-fought conference finals.

It’s just amazing how, when you look back at both the Cavs and the Suns in 2010, Shaq, one of the greatest players of all-time, affected both of their seasons because of how badly he fit with both of them.

It’s also depressing to note that ten years later, the Suns have yet to reach the playoffs again.

About The Label “Future Star”

The 2009 draft had some studs coming out of the woodworks. They still have plenty of basketball left in them, but Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Blake Griffin have all done enough in their careers to earn a place in the NBA Hall of Fame. Even players below their tier, e.g. DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday, have had pretty impressive careers in their own right.

But, back in 2010, not much attention was put on any of those five. To be fair, Blake was out for the season was a fractured patella, while Harden was a mere bench player for the Thunder and Curry had a satisfactory rookie campaign on a crappy Warriors squad. Holiday was just a rotation player for Philadelphia, and DeRozan was highly regarded for his highlight-reel dunks and not much else.

When the 2009-2010 season came around, the players who were believed to be the future stars from the group were Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings.

Evans had one of the best rookie seasons the NBA had ever seen, averaging 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Those were numbers repeated only by the likes of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James in their respective rookie seasons. A team like Sacramento, who needed any kind of excitement after giving away Ron Artest to the Rockets the year before, needed someone who could promise a good future. Evans was exactly what the doctor ordered.

But sadly, that first year was Evans’ peak. Injuries sustained over the years halted his progress as a player and he never approached the status of a future star ever again.

In Brandon Jennings’ case, his status as a future star was even more short-lived. Jennings, who created controversy when he decided to forego college to go play overseas before the NBA, exploded when he first arrived in Milwaukee.

His first full month in the league, Jennings averaged 22.1 points on 42/49/78 splits, which included a 55 point explosion against the Warriors. Because of that, it seemed as though that Jennings would become the player we now see in Stephen Curry.

But, as it turned out, those numbers were just a flash in the pan. Jennings didn’t come close to matching those numbers throughout the remainder of his rookie season. He had a fine year, and even finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, but Jennings failed to match the hype.

No matter how good or bad a rookie may look, we never know a young player’s future until we truly see it for ourselves. It may sound odd now, but there was a legitimate belief that Evans and Jennings were future superstars because of their performances. We now know that’s not the case but, because of their stories, patience is now preached as far as player development and growth are concerned, for better or worse.

What Could Have Been

We talked about how Phoenix and Cleveland did during the 2009-2010 season. But did you know that they almost agreed to another deal at the trade deadline in which the Cavs would have acquired Stoudemire for JJ Hickson?

James and Stoudemire would have been an interesting pairing as both were set to enter free agency. Stoudemire was an offensively stout rim runner who absolutely could have dominated the fast break with James much like he did with Nash. The Cavs opted to take a half measure by trading for Antawn Jamison and retaining Hickson’s because they believed in his potential. But we’ve already gone over what happened after that.

That wasn’t the only almost trade that could have changed a lot. Before Jamison was traded to Cleveland, Washington had discussed trading both him and Caron Butler to the Boston Celtics for Ray Allen and cap filler. Jamison and Butler would have given the Celtics a lot more scoring depth. Plus, at the time, NBA players could go back to the teams that had just traded them, so adding them and getting Ray back could have pushed them over the top. As we’ve previously established, more talent does not lead to a higher ceiling.

But enough about mega-trades that fell through. What about teams that failed to reach their potential because of unfortunate circumstances?

People forget how good the Bucks were during that season. Brandon Jennings’ strong rookie campaign helped them, but Andrew Bogut coming into his own as one of the league’s best all-around bigs as well. Add newly acquired John Salmons, and Milwaukee was a team nobody wanted to face.

That was until Bogut suffered a freak elbow injury just before the playoffs started. Before that, Bogut was on his way to All-NBA honors because of his excellent play on both offense and defense. With him gone, the Bucks never recovered. Bogut himself was never quite the same. Had that injury never happened, the Bucks could have had something special on their hands, which probably would have led to a lack of Giannis Antetokounmpo for them now.

Every year, we wonder what could have been had certain things gone the other way, and the 2009-2010 season was no exception.

There were other storylines that were going on. The NBA suffered a PR crisis after the Wizards had a gun standoff between Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenden. As awful as that was, it inadvertently won them the John Wall sweepstakes. Looking back, who knows how the landscape of the NBA would look today had that not happened?

We talked about stars joining good teams, but one that falls under the radar was when San Antonio traded for Richard Jefferson. Many believed the Spurs were going to take it to a whole new level when they acquired him in the offseason, but Jefferson was bizarrely awful with Gregg Popovich. Thus, the Spurs fell apart and were swept by the Suns in the second round.

The last thing to note was that the 2009-2010 season was when Kevin Durant and the Thunder finally put it together to earn their first playoff berth. While the Lakers eliminated them in the first round, we knew that it was just the beginning for them.

Of course, everything mentioned here culminated in the infamous summer of 2010. But that will be tabled for next year.

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50 Predictions for the 2019-20 NBA Season

Drew Maresca and the Basketball Insiders team offer their annual 50 predictions for the NBA season.

Drew Maresca

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Thank god, basketball is back. And with it comes Basketball Insiders’ latest attempt to throw down 50 bold predictions. Even better, it’s this writer’s second go-around with predictions. And with that familiarity comes unwarranted confidence. So, as always, get ready for red hot takes – significantly hotter than last years – from everybody, yours truly and the broader team included.

Over the summer, the site added some new members to the team. Thusly, we’re expanding the “Predictions from Insiders” section of the article to accommodate all of our brilliant minds. Unfortunately, that means fewer picks for me — but on a positive note, bonus predictions for you! Spoiler alert: Some of my teammates’ predictions contradict mine. One of us will be right and only time will tell.

As always, we’ll revisit our predictions following the season. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@DrewMaresca) about any of the predictions — and do so with all of our staff, as well. The more feedback, the better. And with that, let’s commence with some predictions.

Awards + Other Individual Predictions

1. Stephen Curry leads the league in scoring. This is a pretty popular one. He’ll have so many more opportunities without Klay Thompson (knee surgery) and Kevin Durant. Sure, D’Angelo Russell will take some shots; Draymond Green too. But who else is going to get buckets? Curry might need to average 40.

2. And Curry will also win the 2019-20 NBA MVP. This one’s a little less common. And it hinges on my confidence in the Warriors team as a whole. But let’s be honest, the MVP race will be between Curry, Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis – and maybe Damian Lillard. Russell Westbrook and James Harden probably play themselves out of contention given the inherent stat sharing. Ditto for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

And that’s literally all of the favorites. I don’t see a world where Nikola Jokic wins MVP even though he will deserve serious consideration. Joel Embiid could get in on the fun, but I expect him to get his share “load management” with the team prioritizing winning over personal glory.

3. Rudy Gobert will repeat as Defensive Player of the Year. It’s just really hard to anticipate anyone outperforming him. I believe that Draymond Green will be asked to do a little too much in terms of guarding bigs this season. And he’s another year older. And he just got paid. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverly are all very impressive, but they’ll split the burden of defending an opponent’s best wing so it will water down their efforts. Of course, that leaves Gobert as the obvious choice.

4. But Mitchell Robinson will lead the lead in blocks. This isn’t really a hot take when you look at last year’s results, right? Robinson finished fourth last season and he played less than two-thirds as many minutes as any as the three guys ahead of him. He looked more patient in the preseason, which allowed him to remain on the court for longer periods of time. And if he can continue that, he’ll be a defensive force.

5. Spencer Dinwiddie will be named Sixth Man of the Year. It’s not that I don’t love Lou Williams. But the league tires on handing the same guy an award over and over. Williams was the winner for the previous two seasons and in three of the last five. And Williams isn’t getting any younger, either. Ultimately, it may be somebody else’s turn.

6. Jonathan Isaac wins MIP.

7. Luka Doncic is named to a 2019-20 All-NBA team

8. Trae Young will lead the league in assists. The competition will be too tight at point guard for Trae Young to qualify for an All-NBA team like fellow sophomore Doncic, but he’ll have a wildly impressive second season.

And what’s more, Young will average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game. He’ll shoot 36 percent from three-point range  — up from 32.3 percent — and he’ll break his own record for made 30-plus foot shots. This feels like multiple predictions tied into one and I got myself in trouble with these types of predictions last year… oh well.

9. Zach LaVine will be an All-Star. Look, I predicted LaVine as MIP last year – and I was wrong. So I’m doubling down. I really like LaVine’s game. He’s dynamic and super athletic, but with just enough polish. And with the Eastern Conference’s lack of All-Star-level guards, LaVine may be a shoo-in.

Rookie Predictions

10. Zion Williamson will play less than 70 games. Williamson’s unique combination of speed and power are among his best attributes. But they’re also going to be his biggest hindrances, too – at least until he’s able to lose a few pounds. Williamson simply puts too much stress on his body, enough that this may become a reoccurring theme. He’ll miss a few games throughout the season – including to kick off the year – as he needs extra rest to recover from the wear and tear of the season.

[Sorry, guys, I’m taking credit for this one because it was written at least a week before the injury was announced.]

11. RJ Barrett will win Rookie of the Year. Barrett was primed for an inefficient season following summer league. Well, fast forward a few months and he looks far more prepared for the NBA. He’s proven that he can initiate the offense, while his ability to attack the rim won’t falter as a professional. And, probably just as important, his confidence is through the roof. Already, Barrett looks like a star in the making.

12. Tyler Herro and Nickeil Alexander-Walker will both be named to an All-Rookie team.

Team + Playoff Predictions

13. The Houston Rockets will win fewer games than last season – and the highest they’ll end the year is at the No. 4 overall seed.

It’s not their fault and I’m not blaming the Westbrook-Harden pairing at all. Truthfully, injuries and depth will be the main culprits. Their starting five is actually great: Harden, Westbrook, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela. I love those five — but it falls off a cliff from there, especially after Gerald Green’s injury. Austin Rivers is a known commodity, but they’re going to struggle to generate much when they go to their bench.

14. The Philadelphia 76ers will nab the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

15. And they win the Eastern Conference.

16. But they’ll lose in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Clippers.

17. The 76ers will be joined in the playoffs by the Bucks, Celtics, Nets, HEAT, Pacers, Magic and Pistons, in no particular order.

18. The No. 8 overall seed in the Western Conference playoff race will come down to the Mavericks, Spurs, Pelicans and Kings, decided by 1.5 games or less. And the Mavericks will prevail.

19. The Clippers and Mavs will be joined in the playoffs by the Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Rockets, Trail Blazers and Warriors.

20. For the first time in 10 seasons, there will be no 60-win teams in the NBA.

21. And there will be more than 10 teams with 50 or more wins for the first time this decade.

22. All qualifying Western Conference teams win at least 50 games – a slight uptick from last season when the eighth-seeded Clippers won 48 games.

23. All eight Eastern Conference playoff teams win at least 44 games – last season, the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons finished 41-41.

Trade + Coaching Change Predictions

24. The HEAT will trade either Justise Winslow or Goran Dragic before the deadline. Miami was already star shopping this summer when they expressed interested in Chris Paul. One or both can help them get that other star. Dragic’s contract is very tradable as it is more than $19 million and expires following this season. Winslow’s contract is even more movable at $13 million per year and a team option in 2021-22.

25. Speaking of Paul, he is not traded this season.

26. The Cavaliers finally move on from Kevin Love.

27. Andre Iguodala will be traded – but not to the Lakers or Clippers. The Grizzlies will look to collect as many assets as possible for Iguodala and the two Los Angeles-based franchises have limited draft capital left to include. The Rockets are reportedly out, too, as his salary is highly prohibitive for a team that’s already in luxury tax territory.

28. I predicted Scott Brooks would be fired during last year’s go-through, so we’re doubling down here, too. He’ll be let go before the All-Star break.

29. Despite the eventual whispers about Frank Vogel’s job security, he will end the season as head coach of the Lakers.

Other Predictions

30. At least three teams will average more than 40 three-point attempts per game. Last season, only the Rockets surpassed the 40-plus mark at 45.1 per game. But as we’ve seen in recent years, teams have become even more smitten with the three-point shot. Hard to say with certainty who it will be, but…

31. Back to the Rockets, they will lead the league in three-point attempts with more than 50 per game. This would’ve sounded ridiculous just a few years ago; but since Mike D’Antoni joined the club, they’ve hoisted 40, 42 and 45 per game over the last three seasons, respectively. Predicting five more three-pointers per game is aggressive, but they can do it.

32. Moreover, teams continue to crank the pace. Franchises eclipsed 100 possessions per game last year and that trend will continue this season, ultimately ending the 2019-20 season with between 103 and 105 per game.

33. Spencer Dinwiddie’s attempt to securitize his “Athlete Investment Token” *(PAInT) is allowed by the NBA, breaking ground on a new era of investing in professional athletes.

34. And the NBA-China situation does not subside. Thus, the 2020-21 salary cap shrinks by at least 10 percent.

Insiders’ Predictions

35. Pistons trade Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond

— Matt John (@MattJohnNBA)

36. Matisse Thybulle will break the starting lineup for the 76ers and be in the discussion for All-NBA Defensive Team.

37. The Portland Trail Blazers will be the No. 3 overall seed in the Western Conference and will have a third elite scoring options to end the season.

— David Weissman (@dwize04)

38. Denver is the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference.

39. Karl-Anthony Towns becomes the seventh player ever to average at least 25 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 65.0 or better.

— Jack Winter (@ArmstrongWinter)

40. Giannis Antetokounmpo will not be the only player in the upper-Midwest to lead his team in all five major statistical categories this season as Karl-Anthony Towns will, as well.

41. Robert Covington will creep into more trade rumors than just about anybody else in the NBA, but he will not move this season.

— Doug Farmer (@D_Farmer)

42. Lonzo Ball to win Most Improved Player in 2019-20.

43. Caris LeVert is an Eastern Conference All-Star.

— Ben Nadeau (@Ben__Nadeau)

44. The Chicago Bulls win a playoff series.

45. Quin Snyder will win Coach of the Year as the Jazz secure the top seed in the Western Conference; Mike D’Antoni will not finish the season as the Rockets’ head coach.

— Chad Smith (@Chad200)

46. The Denver Nuggets will lead the league in Net Rating.

47. The Hawks will be last in defensive rating.

— Quinn Davis (@Quinn_DavisNBA)

48. Los Angeles Lakers will not be a top-four seed in the Western Conference.

49. Ben Simmons will shoot above 25 percent on three-pointers (but on less than one attempt per game).

— Jordan Hicks (@JordanHicksNBA)

50. The Celtics finish with the No. 3 overall seed in the Eastern Conference and Gordon Hayward is an All-Star.

51. The Hawks and Bulls qualify for the playoffs, but Pacers and Warriors will miss out, despite Curry’s heroics.

52. And the Denver Nuggets finish the season as the No. 1 overall seed out and the New Orleans Pelicans squeeze into the eighth and final spot.

— Shane Rhodes (@Share_Rhodes1)

53. The Raptors start off strong, but fizzle out around midseason and miss the playoffs.

54. And they trade either Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol.

— Spencer Davies (@SpinDavies)

And there we have it: another year of predictions in the books. Let’s all celebrate by binge-watching basketball for the next eight or so months. Remember, we’ll reference specific tweets in our “50 Predictions: Revisited” piece following the season, so make sure to connect with us on Twitter about how good or bad you think we’ve done.

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NBA

Three Takeaways From Preseason

David Weissman examines three key points from the preseason that could translate into the 2019-20 NBA campaign.

David Weissman

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Making predictions of a player or team’s success for the upcoming year based on how they perform during the preseason is an ill-advised approach for anyone who enjoys basketball analytics. During the preseason, most teams are working different offensive and defensive strategy, while one half of the roster is focused on making the team and the other is focused on staying healthy through the season.

Of course, there is a temptation to make bold predictions before any games have been played and to highlight the storylines that come out of the preseason that seem certain to carry over into the regular season. Here are a few of those stories.

Zion Williamson: ROY Favorite

In light of Williamson’s ill-timed injury that’ll keep him out until Christmas — he’s still probably the odds-on Rookie of the Year favorite, if he plays enough to qualify, that is.

As the most anticipated first round overall draft pick since LeBron James, Zion finished the preseason averaging more than 23 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists per game, playing just 27 minutes per night through four games. Despite finishing with the highest points per game average of any rookie in the preseason in the last 20 years, the most impressive stat was that Zion went 71 percent from the field, leading the Pelicans to a 4-0 record. Williamson even posted 92 percent (12-for-13) from the field while scoring 29 points against the Bulls during his third appearance with the Pelicans.

Zion’s highest level of efficiency was his true shooting percentage, 73.7 percent, the highest of any rookie since preseason started. In comparison, Jimmer Fredette’s true shooting percentage of 70.2 percent in 2011 and DeAndre Ayton’s 65.1 percent last year were the closest ever to Zion’s average.

Watching the Pelicans play, the biggest takeaway is how the team puts Zion in a position to succeed. Head coach Alvin Gentry used Williamson’s effectively by having him catch the ball on the move, weaponizing his athleticism. Now with Lonzo Ball running the point guard position, it has been a seamless effort to feed the ball to Zion during transition or in positions where he can attack the post. Zion’s athleticism has made it difficult on the opposition, with players forced to adapt to his strength in the paint. Going forward, opposing teams will either have to risk guarding a downhill Zion with a single player or have someone come down and help, leaving outside shooters like JJ Redick open on the perimeter.

Zion has shown that he can shoot the three-pointer when possible, but has not shown success from behind the arc yet, shooting 25 percent (1-for-4) during the preseason. It can be assumed that opposing defenses will pack the paint to discourage Zion from going to the basket. However, while playing against the Jazz, Zion was able get the best of Rudy Gobert – the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year – by attacking the paint. Zion went 9-for-12 from the field, scoring eight of those field goals on the inside. Williamson was able to show during his matchup against Gobert that even elite stoppers and rim protectors won’t always be enough to deter him.

Based on Zion’s success scoring 34 of his 35 field goals in the paint, teams are going to dare him to shoot from the outside. If he returns and is as healthy as can be, Zion has shown he will not be deterred and will look to dominate from inside first, looking to capitalize on high percentage shot opportunities. Gentry and the Pelicans know that utilizing Zion in this fashion will lead to rookie year success that should make him the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.

Steph Curry Going For MVP No. 3

For the past five years, the Warriors have been the dominant dynasty in the NBA, always certain to be the representative for the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. This year, they seem to be pedestrian with Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala gone and Klay Thompson recovering from injury. In the loaded West, Steph Curry may have to return to MVP form for the Warriors to earn a decent seed.

Steph Curry finished the preseason like it was 2015, averaging 26.8 points (second most in the NBA), 4.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game. What was especially noticeable was that Curry maintained a 43.2 shooting percentage from behind the arc, a percentage down from previous years, but on a three-point attempt total that went up by three attempts per game from last season. While the Warriors went just 2-3 in the preseason, Curry showed why many believe he could lead the NBA in scoring this season, especially with an increase in scoring opportunities via Durant’s departure and Thompson’s injury.

To make the most of Durant’s departure, Golden State traded for, and signed, Nets guard D’Angelo Russell to a max deal. Until Thompson returns to the starting lineup, the Warriors will rely on Russell to be an offensive presence and support Curry in the backcourt. Russell has shown to be capable in his new role by closing the preseason out with 29 points on 9-of-19 shooting (47.4 percent) and 6-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc (54.5 percent) against the Lakers. With Russell showing that he can be a second option for the Warriors, Curry will be the first option and could lead the league again in scoring, making him an immediate front runner for MVP.

With a revamped roster that has less experience than in years past, the Warriors might need Curry to make a run at MVP number three if they are going to compete in the ultra-tough Western Conference. Look for Curry to continue with the momentum he amassed in the preseason and become an immediate contender for MVP.

Matisse Thybulle Bound For An All-Defensive Team

Matisse Thybulle has emerged as one of the dark horses from this year’s draft to make a significant name for himself, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With only a five-game sample size, Thybulle has amassed a fairly impressive stat line, averaging 7.2 points, 1.4 assists and 2 rebounds in 19 minutes of action per game. Even with those impressive numbers, one stat stands out the most – his steals per game. Over five games, Thybulle has amassed an incredible 13 steals, averaging 2.6 steals per game (the second most during the preseason).

NBA scouts were concerned how Thybulle’s defensive game would translate to this new level of competition after coming from Washington’s zone in college, but the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year has earned his way into meaningful NBA minutes during the preseason. Thybulle actually averaged 3.5 steals a game over his final season at Washington, graduating with the 19th highest average in NCAA history.

Thybulle’s defensive awareness has secured him a role in Brett Brown’s early-season rotation. By impressing the coaching staff with his length, versatility and his ability to consistently disrupt opponents with his quick hands and reflexes, Thybulle has already established a place for himself on the team. Fortunately for the 76ers, projecting Tybulle as an elite NBA ballhawk will make him a sleeper, but a viable candidate for an All-NBA Defensive Team.

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