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NBA PM: Orlando Magic 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Orlando Magic, who have a lot to prove this upcoming season.

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As the Orlando Magic enter yet another season with a high draft pick on its roster, many are beginning to wonder when this team can finally become relevant in the Eastern Conference.

The team is already in its longest playoff drought in franchise history with no real answers as to when they might be able to return to the postseason. With a new front office in place, will it be enough to get the Magic back to the playoffs this season?

Let’s preview the 2017-18 season for the Orlando Magic:

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It feels like this is the final, put-up-or-shut-up year for several members of Orlando’s youth project that hasn’t really worked too well. Guys like Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon need to firmly prove they belong on a team that can contend for a playoff berth, or the Magic will have to look at the next wave of youngsters. That’s already started with guys like Jonathan Isaac, who could see quite a bit of court time this season. This team doesn’t project to be very good, and there could be lots of chances for these younger pieces to show out. There could also be some landscape changes on the horizon if it’s another lost season in Orlando. There could be enough talent here to keep them out of the cellar in the Southeast – the Hawks will give them competition there – but there isn’t a ton of high-level hope for the future at this point.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Orlando Magic’s roster features young, talented players and an assortment of veterans mostly on short term contracts. It appears as though Orlando wants to build up its young core, while remaining somewhat competitive by bringing in veterans like Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights. Maintaining financial flexibility is a good thing, but the Magic are going to have to make some tough decisions on players like Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon rather soon. It’s hard to not look at this roster and wonder how good this team could have been had Orlando’s front office not made several perplexing deals over the last few seasons. However, there is still some nice young talent in Orlando and a disciplined approach to rebuilding the team could yield results sooner than most expect. Also, the signing of Jonathon Simmons was a nice value move for Orlando. Don’t be surprised if Simmons outplays his contract and other teams regret not making more competitive offers for his services.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Both Jonathon Simmons and Marreese Speights are the type of player that I’d covet if I were a general manager of an NBA franchise, so at least newly installed general manager John Hammond has a few pieces to work with.

My biggest problem with the Magic, however, is that they are simply a team full of overlapping young pieces, and it could be argued that none of them have fulfilled their promise. Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja and Nikola Vucevic have all had their bright moments, but they have simply been too far and few between. I like both Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton, and newly drafted rookie Jonathan Isaac should be able to carve out a niche for himself on the squad.

The unfortunate reality, though, is that neither the Magic nor their young pieces have done much to instill confidence that this ship will be righted. It would appear that they will be competing with the Hawks for worst place in the Southeast Division, and I believe it’s a battle that not even the Magic could find a way to lose. So I suppose there’s something to be happy about.

4th Place – Southeast Division

-Moke Hamilton

Every year the Orlando Magic do stuff, and every preseason I step into the year believing they’ve made absolutely no progress. Jonathan Isaac was the team’s big offseason pickup, but he already has had his fair share of health issues and was one of the biggest question marks in the top half of this year’s lottery. Beyond him, this is basically the same team that went 29-53 a year ago, so even with the Eastern Conference wide open for burgeoning playoff contenders, the Magic don’t have a shot at the postseason in 2018. They aren’t as bad as the Bulls or Hawks, but it won’t be a shock if they end up with the #7 pick in the draft next June.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

In a division with three potential playoff teams, the Orlando Magic will be doing their best just to stay out of the basement of the Southeast.

After overhauling the front office, maybe successful seasons are on the horizon, but for next year, the same old song and dance look to be in play down in Orlando. With Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton in contract years, this season will be more of an evaluation process for the Magic to see if either of those players are worth an extension. Rookie Jonathan Isaac provides hope for the future, but the lanky forward is possibly a year or two or away from making a true impact due to his lack of physical maturity.

While the top half of the division should have their sights set on the playoffs, the Magic will be trying their hardest to battle out of the basement they found themselves in last season.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Evan Fournier

Fournier enters the 2017-18 campaign as the Magic’s top offensive player. In the past, center Nikola Vucevic has led the team in scoring, but Fournier’s 17.2 points per game last season was tops on the team with Vucevic second at 14.6 points per game.

With Victor Oladipo out of the picture last season, Fournier turned in a career-high 17.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and three assists per game while shooting 35.6 percent from three-point range. Fournier has proven to be a solid player capable of creating his own shot and hitting from three-point range.

While Fournier struggled shooting a bit, he appeared to have found his stroke following the All-Star break. In 45 games prior to the break, Fournier averaged 16.8 points per game and shot 34.3 percent from three-point range but he averaged 18 points and shot 37 percent from beyond the arc in 23 games after the break.

The team’s offense changed drastically after the All-Star break after trading Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Terrence Ross. Head coach Frank Vogel also moved Aaron Gordon back to power forward and the team finally began to embrace running a smaller lineup. Fournier looked more comfortable in the new offense as indicated by his improved play.

Fournier figures to pick up where he left off last season with the team likely continuing to play a similar style of offense they used toward the end of the season.

Top Defensive Player: Aaron Gordon

In a season where a lot of things went wrong, Gordon proved to be one of few bright spots for the Magic on defense. While the results were mixed with Gordon at small forward last season, his defense on the perimeter remains elite.

Gordon often drew the matchup of guarding some of the league’s elite scorers last season as he was tasked with defending the likes of James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George among others. Gordon has all of the physical tools needed to guard players of that caliber: size, quickness, strength and the jumping ability.

Last season, players like Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo were added to the roster to shore up the Magic’s rim defense. As most teams were going small, the Magic went big and the results were not positive. Ibaka was dealt to the Toronto Raptors prior to the trade deadline and the team took a step back with Biyombo on the floor.

Simply put, the Magic struggled on defense when Biyombo was on the court. The team’s defensive rating was lower than their average with Biyombo on the floor. In addition, his block rate was down, his rebounds dropped and his field-goal percentage defense dipped as well.

With Biyombo’s struggles last season, Gordon has emerged as the team’s best defender, but the team has more defensive potential on the roster. Newcomer Jonathon Simmons has shown flashes during his stay with the San Antonio Spurs as a strong defender, while rookie Wesley Iwundu was known as a capable defender in college as well.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

As the point guard, Payton is the top playmaker for the Magic. Although the team used Payton in the starting lineup and off of the bench last season, he played very effectively for the team late in the season as a starter.

Payton averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 rebounds per game last season and made headlines when he recorded five triple-doubles in a 14-game stretch from March 6 to April 1. He averaged 12.7 points, 8.4 assists and 7.6 rebounds during the month of March.

Once the Magic opted to embrace the small-ball lineup last season, Payton was one of a few players that benefitted from the change. While he struggled for much of the season before the change, he improved drastically following the All-star break. Payton often had the ball in his hands more following the change and was primarily responsible for initiating the offense when he was on the court.

He has proven to be most effective when the Magic get out and run and the team simply wasn’t able to do that with Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo on the floor. The change at the All-Star break played to Payton’s strengths and he showed flashes of being a capable starter. It seems reasonable to believe that he could continue that strong play this season if the team can continue to get out and run.

Payton enters the 2017-18 season with a lot to prove in the final year of his rookie contract. The Magic can agree to a contract extension with Payton before the start of the season, but it seems more likely Payton will hit restricted free agency next summer. There are still a lot of questions with his game, but he has an opportunity to answer them this season.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

Since Fournier is the team’s top offensive player, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see him as the best clutch player on the roster. The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Fournier was by far the Magic’s best player in these situations.

Fournier ranked 26th in the NBA with 93 total points when the Magic were either ahead or trailing by five points last season. To put that into context, notable players like Russell Westbrook ranked first in the league with 247 total points, while James Harden was 10th with 150 points and LeBron James was 20th with 112 points.

Of course, that’s not to say Fournier is on the same playing level as those players, but he proved to be extremely reliable in crunch time for the Magic. Fournier shot 46 percent from the floor (29-of-63) in those situations and 44.8 percent from three-point range (13-of-29).

Although Fournier didn’t hit any game-winning shots last season, he did help the Magic with several big shots throughout the season in the final moments of games. Some Magic fans may remember his big three-point shots against the Miami HEAT to send the HEAT to a second consecutive loss following their 13-game winning streak.

When the game is on the line this season, look for Fournier to have the ball in his hands. As he proved last season, he can be trusted to hit big shots.

The Unheralded Player: Nikola Vucevic

With so many new additions to this team, it might be easy to forget about Vucevic this season. As a player that has dealt with his fair share of trade rumors, Vucevic has continued to work and stay as a reliable scoring option for the Magic.

Perhaps most impressive for Vucevic is he’s among the best scorers at his position. While he may take some criticism for his defense (which has improved), he still remains one of the best offensive centers in the NBA.

Although his production did dip a bit last season with the arrival of Serge Ibaka, Vucevic averaged 14.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, one steal and one block per game. Vucevic ranked seventh among all centers in scoring and was 11th in the NBA in rebounds.

For one reason or another, his shooting percentages did also fall last season as well. He ranked as one of the best midrange shooters in the NBA two seasons ago, but his percentages dropped across the board last season. The Magic hope his drop in shooting was just a fluke and he can bounce back to the shooter he was two years ago.

Regardless of how he shot last season, look for Vucevic to continue to be a reliable scorer the Magic can count on this season. He might also add a few more game-winning shots as well.

Best New Addition: Jonathon Simmons

Simmons played an important role with the San Antonio Spurs last season. He initially hit restricted free agency this summer with the Spurs, but became an unrestricted free agent once the Spurs withdrew their qualifying offer.

Simmons averaged a career-high 6.2 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game last season with the Spurs. He became a key member in head coach Gregg Popovich’s rotation and earned four starts in the playoffs in place of the injured Kawhi Leonard. He came up with perhaps the biggest play of his career after drawing a charge against James Harden to help send the game into overtime in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals.

Many believe the Magic may have secured one of the biggest steals of the offseason after signing Simmons to a three-year, $18 million contract. The first two years of the deal are fully guaranteed, while only $1 million is guaranteed in the third year.

The Magic entered the offseason with roughly $15 million in cap space to work with and, by all accounts, appear to have used that money wisely. In addition to Simmons, the team also signed free agents Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights. Given his chance to immediately come in and have a large role with the team, Simmons is the best new addition of the summer.

It was reported that Simmons gained significant interest around the league once he became an unrestricted free agent and the Magic moved quickly to sign him. For the Magic, adding the 6-foot-6 Simmons will add a proven wing defender to the lineup that could compete for a place in the starting lineup.

– Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. The New Front Office:

After letting general manager Rob Hennigan go at the conclusion of last season, the Magic hired Jeff Weltman as the team’s president of basketball operations and John Hammond as the general manager.

The two have previously worked together and appear to have great chemistry in the early going in Orlando. The duo maintained after taking over that they’d make smart personnel decisions over the course of the summer and it seems as though they’ve stuck with that philosophy.

Many have pointed to the Magic as a team that has quietly put together a solid offseason. The team opted to draft Jonathan Isaac with the sixth overall pick and Wesley Iwundu early in the second round. While the team entered draft night with four total draft picks, Weltman and Hammond established that they didn’t want to add four rookies this year and opted to trade those additional two picks for future considerations.

As many teams went to work quickly during free agency, the Magic stayed quiet in the early going. The Magic entered the free agency period with roughly $15 million in cap space and knew they wouldn’t be making splashy moves, but it appears as though they spent their money wisely.

The team signed arguably the biggest steal of the offseason in Jonathon Simmons to a very team-friendly deal. They signed veteran Shelvin Mack to a one-year, $6 million deal. After those two signings, the team added Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights on a pair of one-year deals. Staying flexible in the NBA is a must for teams and Weltman and Hammond did just that by not committing long-term money to free agents this summer as the team has done in previous years.

Of course, the team has yet to take the court yet for the 2017-18 season and it’s far too early to tell how these new additions will come together, but it appears as though the team’s new front office is off to a good start.

2. Arron Afflalo:

After a two-year stint with the Magic from 2012-2014, Afflalo is back in Orlando on a one-year deal. While his most productive years appear to be behind him, Afflalo figures to add a quality veteran to a locker room with several younger players.

Since returning to Orlando, Afflalo has expressed his immense love for the city and the team. He even said during his introductory press conference that his previous stint with the Magic was by far the happiest he had been with an NBA team.

Afflalo figures to log backup minutes at shooting guard behind Evan Fournier this season. He averaged 8.4 points, two rebounds and 1.3 assists in 61 games last season with the Sacramento Kings while shooting 41.1 percent from three-point range.

He experienced his best run in the NBA previously with the Magic when he averaged 17.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 137 games. He’ll be a valuable option off of the bench for Frank Vogel and a leader off of the court.

3. Jonathan Isaac:

As the team’s sixth overall pick in June’s draft, there is a lot of intrigue with Isaac. He was viewed by many to have perhaps the highest upside of any player in this year’s draft class. He flashed a wide range of skills after averaging 12 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.2 steals and 1.2 assists per game in one season at Florida State.

Measuring in at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he has the potential to be a nightmare for teams on the defensive end. He’s a player that projects to fit right into a small-ball lineup or in a big lineup should the team opt to run that way.

Isaac showed a lot of promise in three Summer League games, but he also showed that there will be some growing pains as well. He figures to be able come in immediately and play meaningful minutes. He should be fun to watch develop this season given his physical tools.

– Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Magic went under the salary cap this summer to sign Jonathon Simmons and Shelvin Mack. The team is now slightly over with just the $4.3 million Room Exception to spend. Orlando has 14 guaranteed players with Khem Birch, Tony Caupain, Rodney Purvis and Kalin Lucas vying for the final roster spot.

Orlando is still heavily invested in players after last year’s spending spree. The team projects to have roughly $13 million in cap space next summer which is relatively equivalent to staying over and simply using the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions instead. Nikola Vucevic has one year remaining on his deal but the market for centers has cooled in recent years. Aaron Gordon is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. Mario Hezonja has a team option due by Halloween

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

As a team that has struggled to remain competitive over the past several years, there are understandably not many strengths on this team.

With some younger players on the roster, the team did manage to do a solid job of signing veteran players this summer in free agency. The team brought back fan favorite Arron Afflalo on a one-year deal. He proved to be a great locker room presence during his first stint with the team a few years ago.

In addition to Afflalo, the team also signed Marreese Speights to a one-year deal as well. Speights, who grew up not far from Orlando, said it was a dream of his to play for the Magic. As an NBA Champion with the Golden State Warriors, his resume and character will be a great addition for the team.

The team also added veteran point guard Shelvin Mack in free agency as well. Mack has playoff experience and most recently turned in one of his best seasons with the Utah Jazz. The team will surely not be lacking high-character veterans this season.

– Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

One glaring hole on this roster is the lack of star power. While Aaron Gordon has certainly dazzled at the past two Slam Dunk Contests, he still hasn’t developed into an All-Star player to this point for the Magic.

Unfortunately, the Magic just haven’t hit on any of their high draft picks in recent years. Gordon has shown flashes, as has Elfrid Payton, but the two haven’t been able to put it all together just yet. While they haven’t developed quite like the team would have expected, they are both entering just their fourth year in the league and still have time to put it together.

The reality for the Magic is until they can put together a legitimate playoff run, they likely won’t be able to sign a star player in free agency.

– Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Magic make the playoffs this season?

As the team continues its longest playoff drought in playoff history, it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Although many believe the Eastern Conference should be wide open for the playoffs, the Magic still project to face an uphill battle to reach that objective.

– Cody Taylor

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NBA

Toronto Raptors 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Raptors tinkered with an already impressive roster this offseason. Will their changes payoff? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Raptors in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

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The Toronto Raptors enter 2018-19 with high expectations. The team has been a reliably strong squad, qualifying for the playoffs in each of the previous five seasons. That success reached a peak last season, when the Raptors won 59 games in route to the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But simply reaching the playoffs isn’t enough for the Raptors and GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri parted ways with 2017-18 coach of the year Dwane Casey in favor of former assistant coach Nick Nurse. And he capitalized on Kawhi Leonard’s fractured relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, swapping DeMar DeRozan and others for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP along with Danny Green.

The Raptors enter this season with as much boom-or-bust potential as any roster in the league. The team could flourish with an upgraded roster. Or they could flounder due to injury and/or chemistry issues. Will Leonard return to form as the potent scorer and lock down defender that we last saw in 2017? Or will the trade backfire on the Raptors and set off a series of events that culminates in a complete rebuild?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Masai Ujiri took a huge gamble this offseason and the payoff could be huge. Trading for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green gives the Toronto Raptors some impressive defensive versatility. I can’t wait to see what Nick Nurse is able to do with a roster full of impact defenders and Kyle Lowry and Leonard leading the offensive attack. Having said that, there are some concerns. We still aren’t sure whether Leonard has fully recovered from his lingering leg injury. Green was limited last season by a groin injury. This team has thrived off of talent and chemistry, which may be compromised with DeMar DeRozan now in San Antonio and Dwane Casey in Detroit. This team has a high ceiling and a surprisingly low floor. The other big concern is Leonard’s long term future. He will hit unrestricted free agency next summer and several reports have him favoring a move to Los Angeles. A lot can happen between now and then, but this situation will hang over Toronto all season.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the NBA fans and analysts out there who subscribe to the “worst or first” philosophy that says you should be either competing for titles or picking at the top of the lottery for blue chip talent, this Raptors offseason was nirvana. By pushing all their chips in on Kawhi Leonard, who has just one year left on his deal and seems a real threat to bolt after a single season, they’ve positioned themselves for Leonard’s decision to dictate the franchise’s direction. If he leaves, you rebuild around a young core that’s solid but lacks a star. If he stays…well, you’re laughing. It’s hard to get a read on Leonard’s true thinking at this point, but competing for an Eastern Conference crown and perhaps even giving the Warriors a run for their money in the Finals likely couldn’t hurt their efforts toward keeping him. The Raps have a ridiculous amount of lineup versatility assuming full health from Leonard; Danny Green is an underrated part of that same trade, even if he had a down year last season. They’ll have the best player on the floor in any series against Boston if Leonard returns to his prior form, and the East’s playoffs could be extremely entertaining.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Props to Toronto for going all in. They didn’t have a second’s hesitation to trade their franchise’s best player of all time for Kawhi Leonard. If you’re a contender with a realistic chance to acquire an MVP candidate in his prime, you take it no matter what. Leonard by himself potentially gives Toronto that extra gear that they’ve been craving for the past half-decade. The Raptors were one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the floor last season, so now that they have Leonard, they can’t afford to screw this up. Leonard’s expiring contract and supposed desire to go to Los Angeles makes this a do-or-die situation for the Raps. This is the magnum opus for Toronto because Leonard will either be the beginning of a glorious era or the end of a disappointing one.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

It’s a new era in The North. Kawhi Leonard is coming to re-define Raptors basketball under head coach Nick Nurse. The organization kept the majority of its core intact outside of moving DeMar DeRozan, meaning Kyle Lowry is still going to be the man in charge of the offense. Danny Green is an underrated acquisition who came along with his former San Antonio Spurs teammate. Though Jakob Poeltl is gone, Toronto’s bench is looking to be just as effective as it was last year behind Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and veteran C.J. Miles. Coming off an impressive first season, O.G. Anunoby is the perfect understudy to Leonard as well. With all of this said, the Atlantic’s top is stacked. They’ll most likely finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference, but their division foes are just better at this point. That doesn’t mean they won’t surprise come mid-April.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

I get the logic. The Raptors were stagnating, especially in the playoffs. They needed to do something, and trading for Kawhi Leonard was maybe the right move. Too often we get caught up in next year and the future. The reality is you have to have an eye on the future. But you also have to play in the present and if the young core that was good last year takes another step and Kyle Lowry and Leonard click, then Toronto could be pretty special. But as they say, that’s an awful lot of “ifs” to bank on. If it all doesn’t work out, then the Raptors strip things down and rebuild. But at least they tried right? With Dwane Casey out, and so much change, it’s hard to peg the Raptors above Boston and Philly. They could be really good, but change at this scale is a huge unknown.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

When healthy, Leonard is a top-three player in the league – his most recent healthy season (2016-17) was capped off by him single-handedly pushing the Warriors to the absolute brink in the opening game of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The Spurs were up 62-42 at halftime behind Leonard’s offensive and defensive heroics. But Leonard sprained his ankle in the third quarter and missed the remainder of the series, and the rest is history.

That anecdote demonstrates Leonard’s influence as much as any can. He affects his team’s ability to succeed unlike almost any other active player, LeBron James included. He is that good. In his last complete season (2016-17), Leonard averaged 25.5 points, 3.5 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He finished third behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the MVP race in a season when the Westbrook averaged a tripled-double and Harden averaged 29.1 points and 11.2 assists per game. But can he recover from the quad injury that sidelined him last season and the subsequent rust that goes along with the time off? If so, the Raptors could post their best year in franchise history, again.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

In case you don’t already know, let me reiterate: Kawhi Leonard is also an exquisite defensive player. Much in the same way Michael Jordan dominated games on both sides of the ball in the late 80s and early 90s, Leonard can take over an entire game almost single-handedly – hence the two defensive player of the year awards.

Leonard’s dimensions are tailor made for defensive success. He stands 6-foot-7 tall with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. He has exceptionally large hands at 9.8 inches long and 11.3 inches wide; comparatively, fellow defensive specialist Klay Thompson’s hands are 8.8 inches long and 9.3 inches wide. Leonard weighs a sturdy 230 pounds: enough to bang with many power forwards, while maintaining the quickness and agility necessary to keep wings in front of him and elevate to block shots with ease. In 2016-17, Leonard averaged 1.8 steals and .8 blocks per game. Leonard is the rare athlete who can play passing lanes, but rarely gets beat back door. He can just as easily jump a passing land and turn a steal into an easy buck as he can chase down a fast break and surprise opponents from behind. The Raptors have a number of other qualified defenders. But when healthy, Leonard is arguably the league’s best defender.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry is an incredibly effective scorer and distributor. He is widely considered a top-10 point guard. Lowry creates space for himself and can also bully opposing point guards on his way to the rim. Despite his scoring prowess, Lowry doesn’t impose his will on games terribly often.  He understands the need to get his team involved. And he did so successfully last season, posting 6.9 assists per game. In fact, Lowry’s assist production has remained within a half an assist per game of his 2017-18 average every season since 2010-11.

But as referenced above, the 6-foot, 205 pound guard can also score the ball. He averaged 16.2 points per game last season, which was a relatively big step back predicated on the need to get others more involved. He is a rare talent who can create for himself as well as for others. With the addition of Leonard and Green, look out for Lowry to continue to build his reputation as an elite playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Danny Green

Danny Green is an excellent shooter despite what his 2017-18 averages imply. He shot 36.3 percent from three-point range, which is right in line with the league average. But most of Green’s career has been spent stretching the floor for greats like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Duncan retired prior to last season, Parker and Leonard both missed stretches with quad injuries and Ginobili was far from his old self in 2017-18. The Spurs operated with more of an egalitarian philosophy last season – a necessity, but one that hindered Green’s production given the increased attention defenses were paying to all Spurs players.

But history is on Green’s side when it comes to being clutch. Let’s not forget, Green broke Ray Allen’s NBA Finals three-point record in 2013, which included going a perfect five for five in Game 2 and seven of nine in in Game 3. 2013 was not an anomaly. He is a career 39.3 percent shooter from deep. Green can still sink shots, and he has proved he can do so in the biggest of moments. If the Raptors find themselves in tight games late in the season or in the playoffs, look for plays to be drawn up for Danny Green.

The Unheralded Player: Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas is a bit of a throwback to bigger centers of decades past. He doesn’t have the traditional pre-2000s, back-to-the-basket game that would be expected of centers from that era, but he is a powerful big, standing 7-feet, and weighing in at 255 pounds. His  7-foot-6 wingspan aids him in collecting rebounds. Valanciunas pulled in 8.6 per game in 2017-18 in 22.4 minutes. Put differently, that’s 13.8 per 36 minutes, which would have ranked third in the entire league.

But Valanciunas is more than just a big body that can rebound. Valanciunas is a skilled scorer who boasts an effective mid-range game. He shot 40.5 percent from three-point range on 74 attempts. While plenty of centers shot more attempts last season, that’s still a better percentage on more attempts than the career high of either David Robinson or Patrick Ewing, two of the best shooting centers of the 1990s.

Further, Valanciunas is primed for a bigger role with the Raptors, and deservedly so. He posted 12.7 points last season in only 22.4 minutes per game. That’s 20.4 points per 36 minutes. And yet Valanciunas has only cracked the Raptors’ top three in usage rate once. Fortunately for him, Coach Nurse appears to be a Valanciunas fan, as is evidenced by his work with and comments about Valanciunas dating back to 2013. Valanciunas is Toronto’s only real low-post scorer – a necessary facet to the Raptors’ success.

Best New Addition: Kawhi Leonard

By arriving in Toronto and instantly registering as the team’s best offensive and defensive player, Leonard is also clearly its best new addition. But the caveat is that he must be healthy. He hasn’t played competitively on a regular basis since the season before last. That’s a lot of rust to shake off. If healthy, Leonard registers as probably the best new addition of anyone across the league this offseason.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. OG Annunoby
Annunoby is the quintessential, modern-day NBA player. He is long, athletic and skilled. Annunoby runs the floor effectively and possesses an excellent motor. He is 6-foot-8 with a better-than-7-foot wingspan. He has a good build for a 21 year old at 232 pounds. His offensive game still needs work, but he did sink 37.1 percent of his three-pointers last season.

Annunoby’s potential is well supported by his per-36 numbers: 10.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and .3 blocks per game. His defensive versatility is enticing. While his defensive contributions are noteworthy, his salary is probably equally alluring to a team as cash-strapped as the Raptors. If Leonard re-signs, the Raptors will be over the salary cap for at least the next three seasons. Meanwhile, Annunoby is entering only his second year in the league and is locked into a team-friendly rookie deal for as long as the next four seasons. Annunoby is no doubt an asset, but is he a foundational piece or a role player?

2. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka is a known commodity, but that doesn’t make him any less effective. He is a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center/forward who shoots 36 percent from three-point range while averaging 2.2 blocks per game. His blocks per game were down dramatically last season (1.3) from his career high in 2011-12 (3.7), but his long-range shooting, rebounds and points per game remain mostly on par with his career averages.

Ibaka is no longer the player the Thunder chose to hang onto over James Harden, but the Raptors will rely on him as its main backup center since Jakob Poeltl was included in the Leonard trade. But as long as he blocks shots and shoots an above-average percentage from downtown, he will have a place in Tornoto’s rotation.

3. Pascal Siakam
With Ibaka slated to spend a good chunk of his time at back-up center, an opportunity exists for Pascal Siakam to back up the power forwards. The 24-year-old has decent upside and should see increased playing time given how he performed last season. In only his second season in the league, Siakam’s playing time doubled – his points, rebounds and assists per game all saw precipitous increases, as well. The 6-foot-9 Siakam boasts an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan, which further cements his place in the rotation as a defensive-minded player. And like many other big men, rumor has it that Siakam has added the three-ball to his arsenal.

4. Fred VanVleet
Fred VanVleet enters the 2018-19 season with high expectations. He had a breakout year last season, posting 8.6 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting from three-point range in 20 minutes per contest. VanVleet is a crafty 6-foot point guard who can finish in traffic. Despite having only two seasons of experience, he plays with the confidence of a veteran. VanVleet led the Raptors in minutes played in the fourth quarter in 2017-18 and began to find a nice rhythm prior to injuring his shoulder in April. VanVleet’s win share was an impressive 4.7. He has been looked over for much of his basketball career, dating back to his recruitment Wichita State, or lack thereof. But VanVleet proved last season that he can play a pivotal role for a competing team. Expectations  are high for the diminutive guard, but he seems to thrive under pressure.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

The Raptors bench was a driving force for its success in the past, including last season. The team’s next-man-up mentality is especially evident when examining point differentials. The team’s lineup was a +14.9 per 100 possessions when it had at least one bench player on the court, whereas the five starters were a +9.1. This juxtaposition is not uncommon for the Raptors, which had an even bigger contrast in its starters point differential compared to the differential of its lineup with at least one substitute in the lineup in each of the previous three seasons. In fact, last season is the first in the last four years in which the starters had better than a +3 differential. That should only continue to improve next season with the infusion of Leonard and Green.

But the bench’s point differential speaks to the team’s versatility and talent beyond its starting five. The bench boasts well-rounded players like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles, Greg Monroe and Serge Ibaka – many of whom smartly shoot a majority of their shots from three-point range or within two feet of the rim.

The versatility and confidence that each of the team’s bench players brings to the game is incredibly valuable and varies player to player. Each complements the next very nicely, from VanVleet’s creativity, to Wright’s play making, to Monroe’s post game, to Ibaka’s three-point shooting and (decreasing) shot-blocking ability.

The team’s bench is as strong as it has been in years. The Raptors featured a 10-man rotation in 2017-18 and yet only two of its starters averaged more than 26 minutes per game – the only team in the league to do so. Relying more heavily on the starting lineup is rarely a problem for a team, but it alleviates pressure on an already talented group of mostly young players; but, if the starters falter, the bench will almost certainly be ready. That is an almost can’t miss recipe for success.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

The Toronto Raptors have experienced four-straight seasons that ended in disappointment, all due to a lack of top-tier talent. That’s not to say the team wasn’t talented – they were. Just not talented enough to get past the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. While James has fled the Eastern Conference for the sunny skies of L.A., there is still elite talent back East that will prove difficult to overcome for any team – and there will most definitely be elite talent awaiting whoever the Eastern Conference champion is come June of 2019.

I am inclined to believe that the Leonard-DeRozan deal was a net-positive for the Raptors because it adds an elite player to an already capable roster. But modern-day championship contenders feature multiple top-tier contributors: the Rockets have two of the top five players in the league in James Harden and Chris Paul; the Warriors feature an embarrassment of talent with Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; and the Celtics feature Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – all of whom are stars in their own right. The Raptors have one transcendent talent and another very good player, which is not quite equivalent to the other contenders. So then, where does Leonard’s help come from deep into the playoffs?

Still, Leonard of all players understands the by-committee approach having played his entire career for Coach Gregg Popovich. And Leonard might be the only player in the league other than (and maybe not even) LeBron James who single-handedly strikes fear into the hearts of  the Warriors– see the above anecdote about Leonard’s Game 1 heroics against Golden State in 2017.

And the Raptors do have an abundance of not-quite elite players, but ones who have a role and execute it to perfection. Will the Raptors team-centric approach payoff? They could be the exception to the super team-rule, which took off following the formation of the Miami HEAT’s big three in 2010.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Leonard/DeRozan Trade Pay Off?

The Raptors swung for the fences this past offseason. They dismantled a team that set a franchise record for wins to chase championships. While the timing was ironic given how the team that had sent them home from the playoffs in each of the three previous postseasons just lost its megastar, you can’t help but respect the big-risk, big-reward move.

DeRozan was under contract for the next three seasons at $27,739,975 per year. DeRozan is an incredibly productive player, but is one of the two best players on a championship contender? We know that when healthy Kawhi Leonard is. And the trade also netted the Raptors shooting guard Danny Green, who brings defense and shooting at a time when 3-and-D players are valued highly by front offices and coaches alike.

If Leonard is healthy, there is clearly more talent on the Raptors roster entering this season’s training camp than there was this time last year. But that’s a big gamble. The team agreed to the trade without any indication from Leonard that he was willing to re-sign, and without any definitive assurances he was healthy. And Danny Green experienced a considerable dip in production last year, albeit without his superstar teammate on the court to serve as the Spurs’ focal point. Still, both are legitimate questions that need to be addressed.

Even still, were the Raptors going to advance to the NBA Finals with the roster with which it ended the 2017-18 season– past the Celtics and Sixers – let alone win a championship? Unlikely. But if this roster gels, they have the requisite talent and star power to do just that. Yes, it’s a long shot. But it’s a shot, none-the-less. And if Leonard decides to walk, the team can embrace a rebuild instead of hanging onto mediocrity for the foreseeable future. The move indicates that the team’s front office is more serious about winning championships than filling the arena, which should be welcome news to Raptors’ fans and players alike.

– Drew Maresca

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Boston Celtics 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Bostons Celtics might be the deepest team in the NBA, and if they can stay healthy might be the most formidable challenger to the Warriors in a while. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Celtics in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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In looking at the roster of this season’s Boston Celtics, the first question that comes to mind is: Can this team beat the Warriors? Boasting an elite starting five, both offensively and defensively, one can only assume this is one of the few teams in the league with that sort of ability. What makes this team even deeper is the fact that they boast a slew of high-level personnel coming off the bench. But the cherry on top? Brad Stevens. Year after year, Stevens has continued to lead almost any and all versions of the Celtics to success. We’ve already seen a number of players who thrived in Stevens’ system, only to see their play severely diminish with a different team. So essentially, this Boston Celtics team not only has an outstanding roster, but a coach that will get the best out of them night in and night out.

Brad Stevens has improved his yearly win total in each of his first five years in the league. He’s rattled off four straight trips to the postseason and two straight losses to LeBron James in the conference finals. With LeBron now out West, and a healthy Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to start the season, do the Celtics have what it takes to to make the 2018-19 NBA Finals? Let’s take a deep dive into their team and find out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Boston Celtics didn’t make any blockbuster acquisitions this summer, but they are still getting some serious reinforcements this season. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward collectively missed most of last season due to injuries, but are now on track to start on opening night. Boston was a dangerous team last season without those two star players. With Irving and Hayward back in the fold, it’s hard to not like Boston’s chances of making it out of the Eastern Conference. Head coach Brad Stevens will have to manage his players’ minutes and find a balance that keeps his stars and role players happy. With Irving, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart on the roster, Stevens will have to figure out how to balance the minutes at point guard. The same issue applies at the forward positions, with Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris all looking for heavy minutes. It’s a nice problem to have and if anyone can manage it, it’s Stevens. With high-end talent, solid role players, a strong team culture and a top-notch head coach, the Celtics are primed for a deep playoff run and possibly a trip to the NBA Finals.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

There’s true excitement in Boston headed into the season, and with good reason. A team that overachieved last year now returns multiple All-Star level talents to the fold, plus can expect major development from some of the most tantalizing young wings in the league in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Coach Brad Stevens, who has spent years getting the most out of rosters, will finally be getting one of the most stacked groups in the NBA outside Golden State. And if everything breaks right, particularly health and development from the youngsters, could this finally be the squad to challenge the Warriors? They have several lineup combinations that at least theoretically seem to match up well with the two-time defending champs, but they’ll have to prove they’re on that level on the floor first – including getting past a similarly stacked Raptors team that plays in the same division.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Ben Dowsett

For the entirety of last year, the Boston Celtics lived by the mantra, “next man up.” There is so much to look forward to with this team now that they’re starting over healthy. We know how amazing a player Kyrie Irving is. Gordon Hayward is getting stronger with every day in anticipation for his return. The rookie season of Jayson Tatum, and more importantly his performance in the playoffs, was incredible. Between those three, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and more—it’s an embarrassment of riches for the Celtics. Putting it together shouldn’t be too difficult, and it should result in an NBA Finals appearance if they can stay healthy.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

One thing’s for sure about the Celtics this season: They are no longer “cute.” It was cute to watch them wildly exceed expectations given their circumstances for the past few seasons. This time, things will be different. Now that they are coming off a surprise run to the conference finals, will get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back, and expect progress from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics should not wildly exceed expectations, but only because the bar is firmly set at getting Banner 18. It’s evident that the Celtics have one of the deepest, most versatile rosters in the league led by one of the league’s best coaches in Brad Stevens. They have so many lineup possibilities in their arsenal that it’s almost unfair with the talent they have. Skeptics have pointed out that the Celtics won’t have enough minutes for all the talent they have which could lead to inner turmoil. That is a valid concern, but if their players are willing to put their egos aside, then this team could potentially be the toughest challenger Golden State has ever faced.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

There is such thing as too much of a good thing. The Celtics are L-O-A-D-E-D, and that proved to be valuable last season when guys started to go down, but in the grand scheme how long will these young guys accept being marginalized for the sake of depth? The good news is, it’s easy to sell sacrifice when you are winning and the front runner to win the East and to get to the NBA Finals, but if the Celtics struggle – which is hard to imagine – when do the young guys want their own opportunities? That’s going to be a real thing in long-run, but for now the Celtics are loaded with all kinds of options and Brad Stevens has proven to be the coach that can maximize that. The Celtics are king of the hill in the East and if wear and tear catches up to the Warriors, maybe Boston is good enough to go all the way.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Although he missed the last quarter of the regular season and the playoffs due to a minor knee surgery, Kyrie still poured in buckets while he was healthy. He had a double-digit lead on points per game over the next Boston player at 24.4. He scored at a highly efficient mark, notching 49.1 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three. He led the team in assists at 5.1 per game. He also led the team in free throw percentage at 88.9.

Irving has arguably the best handles in the league. Not only does this allow him to land on the SportsCenter Top 10 consistently, it allows him to to free up his teammates at an elite level. He lead the Celtics in assist percentage at 28.2, and his assist to turnover ratio of 2.2 shows he is capable of taking care of the ball, as well.

Of players that had more than a 30 percent usage, only two players had a higher true shooting percentage than Kyrie. Those players were LeBron James and James Harden.

Top Defensive Player: Al Horford

Understandably, this Brad Stevens coached team is loaded with defensive talent. There are a handful of players that do a lot defensively, but Al Horford is the anchor. He helped the Celtics finish the season last year with an NBA-low defensive rating of 101.5, largely thanks to his sheer presence on the court. His versatility allows him to both protect the rim and defend the wing on switches when necessary.

Marcus Smart has long been considered one of the best defensive players on this team, but he isn’t the sole reason the Celtics dominate on that end of the court. Apart from his size and athleticism, Horford’s combination of defensive IQ and leadership allow the team to excel against just about any style of play.

Horford finished fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and understandably so. As the season progresses, he’ll look to continually make an impact for his team on both sides of the court, but it’s his defensive presence that will be felt the most. Few players in the league can defend the four as well as the five with as much success as Horford.

Top Playmaker: Kyrie Irving

Last season, a lot of the offensive burden was handled by Irving. With Hayward going down game one, Jaylen Brown still developing, and Jayson Tatum not emerging as a self-creator until late in the season, Kyrie was one of the few players on the team with the ability to create. He was still able to lead the team in assists per game, thanks in part to his ball-handling, quickness, and ample court vision.

Imagine the step he will be able to take in this category with a healthy Hayward, a much more seasoned Brown and Tatum, and a superb shooter in Horford. The less Kyrie has to focus on creating offense, the better of a playmaker he’ll become. As the players around him continue to develop, Kyrie’s playmaking ability will put them in spots they are comfortable with, allowing them to score more efficiently. The less Kyrie is relied upon to make baskets, the better this team will become.

Another interesting thing to note in regards to Kyrie as a playmaker: He averaged 23.9 points in all wins and 25.5 points in all losses. In turn, he notched 5.3 assists in all wins and 4.7 in all losses. The numbers might be close, but they definitely tell a story. In games where Kyrie isn’t relied on to score and in turn can facilitate the ball at a more efficient mark, they typically win.

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

No player on this roster has a history of clutch performances quite like Kyrie’s. We all remember his famed dagger in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, but he’s been pouring in consistent baskets at the end of close games for quite some time.

In his first season with the Celtics, Kyrie averaged 4.2 points in the clutch (last five minutes of the game within five points). This was good enough for fourth in the league counting players who participated in more than four clutch situations, putting him behind LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, and Jimmy Butler. Go back a year to his last year with Cleveland and he was still top 15 in point in the clutch, and top 10 in 2015-16.

We’ve already discussed Irving’s superhuman abilities when it comes to ball handling, but this gives him a significant edge down the stretch when players start to lose their legs. His ability to beat defenders off the dribble give him an easier lane to the basket or an open jumper, or allow him to find someone else when a defender has to slide over to help.

The Unheralded Player: Gordon Hayward

To the dismay of many Utah Jazz fans, Gordon Hayward is still incredibly relevant to the Celtics. Many have discussed the prospect of Hayward losing his spot to younger players like Tatum or Brown, but the reality is that neither of those players are even necessarily close to Hayward’s production his last year with Utah. Hayward is being listed as the Unheralded Player this year, because a lot of people are simply forgetting that he is an incredibly talented basketball player all over the floor. It’s easy to forget he’s on the roster, as he doesn’t have a “headline-grabbing” personality, but his play this upcoming year can greatly alter the success of this Boston team. The Celtics had a highly successful season with zero help from Hayward, but things look to change this year.

Until his injury, Hayward had improved his points per game in each of his first seven years in the league. He also posted a more-than-respectable mark of 39.8 percent from three his last year in Utah, his highest mark since taking over the reins of the franchise. He is a huge plus on the defensive side of the floor, but most importantly he becomes the second best playmaker on the roster. His playmaking ability will take a significant portion of the burden off of Kyrie’s shoulder, allowing their offense to open up quite a bit.

There’s a big reason why the Celtics offered Hayward a max contract slot: he is clearly a max contract player. Unfortunately, his injury sidelined him for all but five minutes last season. Regardless of the talent on this roster, let’s forget their second best player missed the entire season.

Best New Addition: Brad Wanamaker

For the last seven seasons, Wanamaker has made a name for himself throughout Europe. Apart from a small stint with the G League (then the D League), he has played professionally in Italy, France, Germany, and Turkey. This latest season he helped his team, Fenerbahçe, to the EuroLeague Final Four, losing to Real Madrid in the finals.

At 29 years old, Wanamaker is a grizzled veteran and should immediately make an impact off the bench. While he does have the ability to score, look for him to do more of the little things to stand out on the roster and earn himself some playing time. With the Celtics opting to let Shane Larkin walk, they needed another solid wing to come off the bench, so Brad Wanamaker was a solid option.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jayson Tatum

Tatum had an incredibly solid rookie campaign. Just about everyone had him in their top three for Rookie of the Year. But it was his play in the playoffs that should get Boston fans excited. During that run, Tatum led the team in points per game at 18.5, was second in plus-minus at 2.7, and second in net rating at 3.7.

He showed the ability to get buckets in isolation, and made a lot of big time plays in the clutch to help the Celtics win close games. His three point percentage was lower than what you’d like at 32.4 percent, but he shot an elite 43.4 percent from three during the regular season, so he likely ran slightly cold during their deep playoff run.

Tatum averaged over 30 minutes a game in the regular season and over 35 in the postseason. Look at him to add more aspects to his game, as Hayward coming back will help take some of the scoring load off his shoulders.

2. Terry Rozier

Having a point guard as capable as Rozier coming off the bench is a great problem to have. His tear through the playoffs was so impressive that there’s been chatter of letting Kyrie walk in free agency so Rozier can take over the reins as the franchise point guard. Let’s not jump to any conclusions; it’s safe to say that Kyrie is still the better player, but Rozier put together a really nice third season.

Averaging over 11 points during the regular season, that per game average jumped up to 16.5 during the playoffs, as Rozier saw himself in the starter role due to to Kyrie’s injury. His scoring was streaky in the postseason, but he notched 26 point in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks, then poured in 29 two days later during Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers without shooting a single free throw. His last memorable performance of the playoffs was Game 6 against the Cavaliers. Terry finished with 28 points, thanks to 6 of 10 shooting from three. One thing we learned about “Scary” Terry Rozier is that the man isn’t shy of the spotlight. He showed up night in and night out during the playoffs and put together a handful of impressive stat lines. He should be a very nice piece coming off the bench this upcoming season.

3. Depth at the Wing

This Boston team does not lack solid wing players. Here’s a list of them just in case you were doubting: Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Morris. Throw in Marcus Smart, who often finds himself on the wing, and Semi Ojeleye, coming off a solid rookie campaign and an even stronger performance in this year’s Las Vegas Summer League. All but one of these players would be starting on most rosters in the league, and Ojeleye would certainly be a coveted bench contributor for most squads as well.

In today’s NBA, positionless basketball is all the new rage and just about every player listed above fit the bill. They can all defend multiple positions, they all have the ability to create on offense to some degree, and none of them shoot at an inefficient clip (with the exception of Smart). This group of wings is elite and will help the Celtics produce consistent wins.

4. Robert Williams

Okay, take a deep breath. We’ve heard the same things you have about Williams and understand that he may be a project, both physically and more so mentally. His start to the NBA career hasn’t been pretty, between missed flights, lost wallets, and showing up late to multiple important meetings. But thanks in part to his talent and potential, many had him notched as a late lottery pick. Because many post lottery teams opted for guards, Williams slipped all the way to the Celtics picking 27th, and they may have gotten lucky. He has elite size and length, standing 6-foot-10 with a wingspan of 7-foot-6. He is very athletic as well and could easily develop into a DeAndre Jordan-esque type player. The fact that both went to Texas A&M could add fuel to that prediction. If the Celtics can help him improve his off-court issues, he could end up being a sizeable contributor off the bench this year.

5. Brad Stevens

Few coaches in this league hide deficiencies and display strengths like Brad Stevens. Like I’ve previously mentioned, Stevens has had tremendous success getting the best out of players and his track record shows. This is arguably the best roster he’s had since taking over head coaching duties.

Despite missing their two best players for the entire postseason, Stevens still managed to bring the hobbled roster within one game of the NBA Finals. That is an impressive feat and doesn’t get mentioned enough. The front office has essentially been able to retain the entire roster from the previous season, with Shane Larkin being the only significant departure. With a healthy roster going into training camp, Gordon Hayward in the system for an entire year, and an Eastern Conference that is no longer controlled by LeBron James, Brad Stevens looks to make a significant splash in the postseason.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

The biggest strength that the Celtics have going into the season is that they don’t really have any clear weaknesses. They are obviously one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, finishing first in defensive rating and third in opponent points per game last season. They are an elite three point shooting team, coming in second behind the Warriors at 37.7 percent. They have arguably the best coach in the NBA. They have a handful of players that create their own offense, be it through isolation, the pick and roll, or simply getting to open spots. Most of their core is incredibly young, as well. Tatum and Brown clock in under 21, Kyrie is 26, Hayward is 28, and Horford is the resident grandfather at 32.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

The biggest weakness the Celtics had last season was their ability to create offense. They finished in the bottom half of the league for both points per game and assists per game, ending up at 20th for both in these categories. A large part of that can be traced to injuries. It can also be traced to youth and development. Tatum and Brown were likely relied upon a little too much at times to create offense. Kyrie was likely relied upon a little too much to score. With Hayward coming back, younger players on the roster developing, and Kyrie getting healthy, offense should soon become a legitimate strength for this roster.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is This Celtics Roster Talented Enough to Beat the Warriors in a 7 Game Series?

If you look at the entire NBA, there are realistically four or five teams that have a chance, big or small, to beat the Warriors. The Boston Celtics are definitely in the mix. As discussed earlier, they don’t have too many holes in their game, and they have one of the best coaches in the association. The only problem is, the Warriors are similar. They have an offensive arsenal that is likely better than anything the league has ever seen, and a coach that puts them in the right positions defensively to be very successful. I think this Celtics team is talented and coached well enough to potentially beat the Warriors, but I don’t believe that they will. They still need another year or so to establish their championship identity, and a prayer that the Warriors core breaks up during free agency.

– Jordan Hicks

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Philadelphia 76ers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

No NBA team has arguably the potential to be exceptional quite like the Philadelphia 76ers. But while the team has the potential of three young stars, there are real issues that could hold this team back. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 76ers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year, the Philadelphia 76ers won more games than they lost for the first time since 2012, putting the league on notice of the franchise’s official reemergence. Through season after season of the often-maligned Process, the 76ers collected marquee prospects and crossed their fingers for better days down the road. But now that Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and the rest of their young roster have won a playoff series, both the franchise and fans alike are looking much higher in 2018-19 and beyond.

This summer, the 76ers retained J.J. Redick, acquired Mike Muscala, added Zhaire Smith and traded for Wilson Chandler. There are big-time expectations for Markelle Fultz once again, but they also lost Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in free agency. Additionally, Amir Johnson decided to stay put and the mysterious Jonah Bolden has finally joined the roster as well. While those re-signings and additions will majorly factor into this upcoming campaign, the pressure will fall squarely on Simmons and Embiid to push the team into conference royalty and potentially even further.

Here’s the Basketball Insiders team’s thoughts on the 76ers their upcoming season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Philadelphia 76ers have just about everything you need to be considered a legitimate title contender. They have two budding superstars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, talented role players, experienced veterans, a quality head coach and several young players who have plenty of room to keep improving. The wildcard here could be the play of Markelle Fultz. If his jump shot has truly been rebuilt in an effective manner this offseason, he could add an element to the 76ers’ roster that was missing last season. With LeBron James heading to the Los Angeles Lakers, the door is more open in the Eastern Conference than it has been in some time. The 76ers have what they need to make it out of the Eastern Conference and to the NBA Finals this season. But they face some stiff competition in Boston and Toronto.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the first time in what feels like forever, there are real, true expectations on the Philadelphia 76ers. The Process has finally reached some of its later stages, with stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ascending to their place among the league’s best young cores. The 76ers had a busy summer despite only recently hiring Elton Brand as their full-time GM – they re-signed J.J. Redick, brought in Wilson Chandler from Denver and made a few other moves around the margins. They’ll be hoping their biggest offseason development, though, has been a re-acquiring of confidence and trajectory from first overall pick Markelle Fultz; recent videos have appeared to show Fultz with a re-worked jumper and some positive signs, but we have to see it on the court first. With LeBron gone from the East and two legitimate All-NBA talents on the roster, the window is officially open for Philly.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

-Ben Dowsett

Last season was an eye-opener in the City of Brotherly Love. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have formed an elite on-court partnership that can lead this Sixers ball club to new heights in this coming year. They picked up Wilson Chandler in the summer, who is going to try and earn a payday in a contract year. Markelle Fultz’s jumper is progressing as he continues to tweak his form. Veteran J.J. Redick is back for another stab at a championship ring as well. Brett Brown’s leadership along with this talent has incredible potential to build on what happened in 2017-18. They’re in one of the most top-heavy divisions in basketball, but look out for Philadelphia.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

Bad news: Philly struck out on every high-profile player they targeted this summer, resulting in minimal roster improvement. Good news: They are still one of the most promising teams with some of the league’s best talent. Now we enter Year Two of the Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons era. Those two may very well take another step forward, but the X Factor is Markelle Fultz. Hopefully now that Fultz has gotten over whatever it was that was keeping him off the floor last season, the Sixers can find another dimension on their team that they can use to their full advantage. If he doesn’t, then Philly’s improvement might be stunted. They should be a good team, but they need that extra push from someone not named Embiid or Simmons to be great.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

On the surface, you can’t help but like everything you see about the 76ers. They have a promising young core filled with ready to break out stars and a solid coach in Brett Brown. It’s all right there. The problem is it’s tough for young teams to stay focused in the moment, especially when there are expectations. Not many outside of Philadelphia believed in the 76ers as a serious contender, and now that they have something of a target on their back. How will the young guys respond? Keep in mind the 76ers surged late in the season behind some veterans that are no longer there. That’s the big unknown for the 76ers, how do the young guys carry the load? It’s going to take something pretty dramatic for the 76ers not to be a post-season team, they showed they have that part covered. But they are going to need for their young guys to become consistent under pressure, and that hasn’t been the case yet.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Joel Embiid

We’ll get right to the point here: Joel Embiid is an other-worldly player.

Whether he’s stepping out behind the arc or toasting the opposition in the post, Embiid has become the complete offensive package. The 7-foot center’s unique blend of skills make him nearly impossible to stop and the numbers prove it. Perhaps fully unleashed for the first time in his career, Embiid tallied 22.9 points, 11 rebounds, 3.2 assists and one three-pointer over 30.3 minutes per game. If you’re searching for a boxscore with long-term implications, look no further than Embiid’s 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, seven blocks and 2-for-3 mark from three-point range he put up against the Lakers in November. In two words, that type of line should be downright terrifying.

If Embiid can improve on a 30.8 percent rate from deep — which was an offseason goal for him, apparently — then good luck on stopping an already immense talent. In 2017-18, Embiid’s 33.9 percent usage was only bested by James Harden’s 36.1, so he’s proven he can handle the workload over a complete season too. As long as Embiid stays healthy, a likely conclusion at this point, then he isn’t just the 76ers’ best offensive player — he’s one of the best scorers in the entire league.

Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington

The top nominee in this category could easily be Embiid again, but we’re going with the lockdown wing in the interest of spreading the love.

Strong and versatile, Covington has become one of Philadelphia’s most important assets, even though he doesn’t frequently earn the headlines. While his three-point shot is consistent, Covington’s tenacious ball-hawking instincts are understandably key for a franchise that boasts the makings of a defensive juggernaut. In conference play alone, Covington will likely find himself plastered on the likes of Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard, John Wall and more, all in the name of flexibility and team success.

His 7-foot-2 wingspan makes him a disruptive pest on the perimeter and his 3.9 deflections per game were tied with Paul George for the league lead. And when Covington drummed up three or more steals in a game, the 76ers’ record was 14-8. For his year-long efforts, Covington was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team this past spring — so he should no longer be an afterthought when discussing this super core. Trashing on Covington has been popular this offseason, but he’s clearly been worth every penny of that contract extension.

Top Playmaker: Ben Simmons

Standing at a towering 6-foot-10, Simmons quickly established himself as a lethal playmaker in year one. Although it was always assumed that Simmons could run a high-level offense at point guard, his immediate success has made him impossible to ignore. The 22-year-old averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.7 steals over 33.7 minutes per game — incredulously, the best is still to come. The concerns surrounding his non-existent three-point game are legitimate, but Simmons straight-up impacts the game in so many other ways that it may not even matter.

At times, the savvy court-vision and execution exhibited by the all-purpose point forward can be downright jaw-dropping. Whether he’s scoring off a one-man fastbreak or dropping a no-look, pinpoint dime to a floor-running teammate, Simmons is an architect with the rock. He’ll need to cut down on his 3.4 turnovers per game — but casual onlookers should be anxiously awaiting what Simmons has in store for the follow-up excursion.

Top Clutch Player: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric

For most star-driven franchises, the ball often rests in the hands of their go-to player during clutch-time — but for the 76ers, it wasn’t always that easy in 2017-18. Ben Simmons’ 73 points on 65.7 percent shooting were impressive but, of course, none of those buckets came from behind the arc. A bit further down the list, Saric tallied 62 points on 52.9 percent and an impressive 11-for-20 from three-point range by taking advantage of the less-focused attention from opposing defenses.

Lastly, Embiid’s point total (83) was the highest of the trio, but his percentage was the lowest (47.5). Of note, Embiid’s 11 clutch-time blocks trailed only Anthony Davis (13); while Simmons’ 14 steals were outpaced by just Jrue Holiday (16). More or less, this should be a fascinating category to watch moving forward. Will Embiid up his conversion rate? Should Saric get more late-game touches? With Simmons’ playmaking abilities, he’s the guy Philadelphia will ultimately want with the clock winding down — but that lack of a jumper right now makes him discernibly less dangerous in a handful of situations.

Best of all, this blurb could’ve mentioned Covington’s 11 clutch-time three-pointers, Redick’s extensive resume as a late-game scorer and how Fultz’s explosive scoring may impact things — but for simplicity’s sake, remember to keep an eye on this area as the season unfolds.

The Unheralded Player: Markelle Fultz

Speaking of Fultz, there’s a whole lot being written about the aforementioned trio, deservedly, and not all that much about the former No. 1 overall selection. After sitting out until late March with a broken jumper and confidence issues, Fultz’s return came with little fanfare. During the 76ers’ 16-game winning streak to close out the year, the 6-foot-4 guard was eased into the rotation and, all things considered, Fultz did just fine. In the regular season finale against Milwaukee, Fultz dropped 13 points, 10 assists and two steals on 6-for-13 shooting — a sorely welcomed sign for the rookie.

To put it lightly: It’s been a long, long year for Fultz but he was the top draftee for a reason. In his one campaign at Washington, Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks and 2.1 three-pointers on 41.3 percent from deep — only now he’ll be surrounded by the likes of some All-NBA-worthy talents. Naturally, for Fultz to breakout in 2018-19, this assumes a few things: Firstly, that he’s good to go and everything that’s troubled him is in the past. Secondly, that he’s a lock to siphon away a large chunk of Simmons’ massive usage rate. While neither of those caveats seems like a shoo-in at this point, a simply healthy, self-assured Fultz could elevate an already potent squad.

Simmons will be in contention to lead the league in assists and Embiid might become an MVP candidate soon enough, but it’s Fultz’s progress and contributions that could push the 76ers up over the top.

Best New Addition: Wilson Chandler

Over his 10-year career, Chandler has played in 590 regular season games and holds an average of 13.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists. These numbers won’t jump off the page in all likelihood, but he’s the type of gritty, defense-first veteran that this roster has badly needed. The 76ers’ 31.2 bench points per game ranked as the 7th-worst mark last year but Chandler should find himself right at home in Philadelphia. As a starter for the Denver Nuggets in 2017-18, Chandler scored 15-plus points on 20 occasions and only had three instances of three or more turnovers despite his hefty 31.7 minutes per game tally. Needless to say, finding a bench scorer that takes care of the ball like Chandler is an absolute victory any way you slice it.

Chandler rebounds well for a wing, can guard two positions and should work well alongside any combination of fellow 76ers. Considering that the front office picked up Chandler for just cash considerations, this was a low-risk, high-reward, no-brainer move. He’s not the shooter that Belinelli was but his two-way ability will likely make him a better, more productive fit in the Sixers’ rotation. Chandler’s solid perimeter defense and locker room presence should pay dividends at the cost of virtually nothing, which easily makes him the winner of our final superlative.

– Ben Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. J.J. Redick

And exhale, 76ers fans — the sharpshooting veteran is sticking around for at least one more go in Philadelphia.

The re-signed Redick’s 17.1 points per game were second-most for the 76ers and his long-range shooting helped anchor an impressive offensive bunch all season. At 2.8 three-pointers per game on an even better 42 percent clip, Redick easily keeps his place as one of the NBA’s most elite shooters. Given Belinelli and Ilyasova’s departures — 2.0 and 1.3 per game, respectively — the onus will land on for Redick to provide another reliable season from deep. While Covington, Saric and Embiid will help to pick up the slack, Redick’s off-ball wizardry will undoubtedly remain a crucial cog for Philadelphia.

Redick’s 2.8 three-pointers per game tied him with Kyrie Irving for the 10th-best average in 2017-18, while only Stephen Curry (42.3) and Klay Thompson (44) made more at a higher percentage. If Redick’s importance to this 76ers wasn’t obvious before last season began, that sentiment certainly isn’t in question now.

2. Dario Saric

Saric is good at just about everything, but not the best at any — which is why he lands here instead of in a superlative category.

Still, that’s hardly an insult for the third-year player that’s steadily improved since he joined the 76ers in 2016. Saric’s 14.6 points per game are solid — particularly as the third or fourth option on the floor to boot — but he doesn’t regularly earn the plaudits over his star-ready teammates. His two three-pointers per game on 39.3 percent were noteworthy too, but not more so than the previously-mentioned Redick. In fact, you could write that sentence about Saric in terms of most measurables statistics from 2017-18 — he chips in admirably almost everywhere, which, for now, anoints him as the 76ers third-best player.

Either way, he’s the perfect fit for the 76ers as they look to ascend to Finals contenders. Need energy? Check. Need shooting? Easy. Need somebody to take care of the ball? Saric is your guy. Every burgeoning squad needs a do-it-all glue guy and that may just be Saric given his solid skills across the offensive board. But if there’s an extra gear to the 24-year-old’s already-efficient game, the rest of the league truly is in trouble.

3. Brett Brown

For years, observers wondered why Brown kept his job during a horrific 75-253 streak over the initial four efforts — but the 76ers’ faith has been rewarded in kind. Sure, the core outside of Fultz stayed healthy for the first time in his regime, but the 76ers exceeded most expectations last season, even reaching the second round of the playoffs as an added bonus. Brown’s leadership helped Philadelphia rack up 52 wins, their highest total since the Allen Iverson-led squad reached the Finals way back in 2000-01.

The 57-year-old took home the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors in March after captaining his blossoming roster to an excellent 13-3 record, an extended streak that included wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. With his playmakers another year older and more refined, Brown could find himself in the conversation for Coach of the Year come April alongside Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr and the rest of the usual suspects.

On top of all that, Brown has been pulling double duty as the franchise’s general manager since June, where he added the athletic Zhaire Smith (plus an unprotected Miami HEAT pick in 2021) and Landry Shamet on draft night, among other positively-reviewed moves.

4. Zhaire Smith

These days, it almost seems like a rite of passage for rookies in Philadelphia to spend a large chunk of their rookie season injured. Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot following Summer League in August, but there’s a possibility he could return in the second half of the campaign if rehab goes well enough. Although the debut for the first-year professional will have to wait, he’s aiming to be a difference-maker down the road.

His showing in Las Vegas wasn’t earth-shattering, but Smith averaged 11.3 points, five rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks on 55.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from behind the arc during his single season at Texas Tech. Once he returns, Smith won’t be a top option on the floor, but he’s an athletic, hard-nosed prospect that can play within his role and contribute wherever needed, thus making him a fine supplementary selection to their budding stars.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

Last year, it was relatively cut-and-dry: Add Ben Simmons and deploy Joel Embiid in more games. Almost overnight, the 76ers jumped from the 17th-ranked defense all the way up to No. 3 overall. Somehow, given the internal development and newest additions, the 76ers might build out an even tougher unit by the springtime. Philadelphia will miss the shooting prowess of Belinelli and Ilyasova, but Mike Muscala and Chandler are two-way upgrades there. Simmons is the type of ball-stealing, court-running athlete that could end up in Defensive Player of the Year discussions soon enough and Embiid is already there.

Covington rightfully earned First Team honors and continues to be a menace around the perimeter, while there’s some potential for Fultz and Smith to step in as defensive contributors before long as well. As suffocating as Philadelphia was defensively at times last season, it could be even scarier come April — and that’s a nauseating concept for their Eastern Conference foes.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Generally speaking, the 76ers are fairly strong headed into the 2018-19 campaign. They’re young, they’re healthy and they’re developing at an incredibly rapid rate — a killer trio in today’s modern NBA landscape. Philadelphia ranked in the top ten in rebounds (first), transition points (sixth), steals (seventh), blocks (ninth), three-point percentage (10th) and came in at No. 11 for offensive rating at 107.4. There are plenty of signs that this 76ers team eventually won’t just be good, but that they’ll be great — however, there are still two alarming red flags.

Their free throw percentage was abysmal at 75.2, a mark that was seventh-worst and left the Oklahoma City Thunder as the only playoff team ranked below them. Worst of them all, the 76ers led the league in turnovers per game at 16.5, which isn’t surprising giving their fast-breaking inexperience, but they must take care of the ball to go toe-to-toe with the well-disciplined Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics in the postseason.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the NBA Finals on the table for the Philadelphia 76ers?

And that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Last year, the 76ers just wanted to stay healthy and make the postseason. They not only achieved that, but they reached 50 wins, won a playoff series and crafted the league’s third-best defense along the way. After a year like that, the bar for measurable successes gets much loftier and they certainly have the personnel to reach for it. With LeBron James out of the picture, their path gets clearer too and the remaining biggest obstacles are in that pesky Atlantic Division.

Embiid, Simmons and Saric will all be a year older and wiser, while Redick and Chandler should provide the veteran scoring punch — both with the scorers and off the bench. Covington is already an elite defender and adding Fultz into the mix full-time might turn Philadelphia into a walking nightmare for opposing teams. Since the Process began, these sections have shoehorned a cautious if-healthy forewarning into any and all predictions involving the 76ers — and, back then, they were all totally fair.

These days, it seems like those chronic injuries and lingering rehabs are in the rearview mirror, so perhaps it’s time to go even stronger in the other direction. Now that the 76ers are injury-free, hardened and, importantly, more experienced, there’s really no reason why this team can’t compete for the Eastern Conference crown in 2018-19 and beyond.

– Ben Nadeau

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