It’s not often that a mid-tier playoff team loses its top two nightly scorers in free agency and still retains a puncher’s chance at the playoffs, especially not in the West, but the Utah Jazz could be one such team. Gordon Hayward and George Hill both went elsewhere this summer, but with arguably the game’s top defender in Rudy Gobert still in town and a smart offseason following those departures, Utah should still be squarely in the playoff picture out West.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Utah’s worst nightmare became a reality this summer when franchise player Gordon Hayward opted to join his old college coach Brad Stevens in Boston.
Along with losing Hayward, George Hill also opted to move on from the Jazz, leaving a core that had surprised many in the NBA last season and looked poised to rattle the cages of the Western Conference’s powerhouses this year a shell of what it once was.
However, despite the losses, Utah did manage to make a deal for Ricky Rubio to assume their point guard duties. Donovan Mitchell also showed an impressive skillset in Summer League play, suggesting maybe that he could become a cornerstone in the next Jazz core.
Unfortunately, the loss of Hayward and Hill, coupled with the heightened intensity of the West may be too much for the Jazz to overcome and could leave them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture this season.
5th place — Northwest Division
— Dennis Chambers
It’s hard to imagine the Utah Jazz getting better in the wake of losing George Hill and Gordon Hayward, but they still managed to come away from this offseason looking like a team that plans on being a pain in the rear end to every other team in the toughest division in basketball. Ricky Rubio has joined the crew, for example, and rookie Donovan Mitchell looked in Summer League like one of the steals of the lottery. There still is everything to love about Rudy Gobert, but the real question for Utah’s potential success this season is how much better Rodney Hood can be in an expanded role. Like it or not, he’s sort of the new Gordon Hayward, and those are big shoes to fill.
5th place — Northwest Division
— Joel Brigham
The Utah Jazz lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill from last season’s squad. To be sure, these are two big losses for Utah. However, the team added Ricky Rubio and have a few candidates to step in and fill the void left by Hayward. The team is still surprisingly deep but injuries have plagued Utah in recent seasons. With some better luck with health and some internal improvement from players like Rodney Hood and Dante Exum, Utah could still be a dangerous team in the Western Conference. Defense will be the foundation of this team’s success, especially with the additions of Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha. However, we can’t pretend like the loss of Hill and Hayward in particular isn’t a big deal. How Utah responds to these departures will say a lot about the character and resiliency of this young, talented squad.
4th place — Northwest Division
— Jesse Blancarte
Even after managing the loss of their two highest nightly scorers last season reasonably well, the 2017 offseason counts as a gut punch for the Jazz. Both Gordon Hayward and George Hill chose elsewhere to play their ball moving forward, gutting a core that some predicted was capable of making a conference finals appearance. The Jazz did well in their stead, trading for Ricky Rubio and making some smart signings in Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh – they should once again be one of the deepest teams in the NBA. Rookie Donovan Mitchell impressed at summer league and could be ready to contribute right away off the bench, and guys like Dante Exum and Alec Burks are eager to prove their worth in vital seasons.
4th place — Northwest Division
— Ben Dowsett
I don’t think I have much of a choice but to pick the Jazz to finish as one of the two lower seeds out in the Northwest. The Thunder and the Timberwolves have each improved immensely this offseason, while I simply think that the Blazers are more talented than their .500 record last season suggests, especially with the addition of Jusuf Nurkic.
I will say this: I grossly underestimated these guys last season and didn’t expect them to escape the first round against the Clippers. I was wrong then and could certainly be wrong now, but I simply don’t think they’ll be as good. In the end, whether the Jazz can replicate last season’s success will depend in large part on whether rookie Donovan Mitchell (who lit up the summer league) and Rodney Hood are as good as everything thinks they are. Hood will be carrying a lot of weight, but if Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha can each stay healthy, I’m pretty sure these guys still make the playoffs.
4th place — Northwest Division
— Moke Hamilton
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Rodney Hood
The argument could be made for Rudy Gobert here after a thoroughly excellent and underrated offensive year last year, but as the Stifle Tower takes the cake in our next section easily, we’ll leave him for a moment. Hood, on the other hand, badly needs the kind of breakout year Gobert had last year. He’s shown the skills to be a primary NBA scorer since he entered the league as a rookie, but his issues have always been about consistency – both in his play and his health.
Now he needs to put it together for a full season, and he needs to do so without a guy like Gordon Hayward often next to him on the wing. Hood has proven capable as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and as a spot-up shooter, so he should work well in lineups with Ricky Rubio. How he fares this year could go a long way to defining Utah’s season.
Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert
Not much needs to be said here. Coming off a second-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting and consistently ranking near the top of the league in every reliable defensive metric, Gobert is one of the league’s most complete and terrifying defenders. He’s the best rim protector in the league, and has worked hard the last couple years at adding enough mobility to his game to survive in the movement-heavy modern game. He could be in for an even bigger year defensively after Utah’s summer additions, particularly Ricky Rubio – one of the first elite-level point guard defenders Gobert will have had the chance to play with.
Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio
Speaking of Rubio, the Jazz will look to him to fill the void filled by Hill – and when it comes to a playmaking role, to add to it. Rubio actually averaged double Hill’s per-minute assist total last year, and while some of this speaks to their respective roles, Utah will be hoping he can bring the kind of primary playmaking they’ve been without for quite a while. His pick-and-roll prowess should improve the quality of looks for bigs like Gobert, a tantalizing thought given that Gobert already led the entire league in True Shooting percentage last year. Rubio should also open up Utah’s running game a bit in transition.
Top Clutch Player: Joe Johnson
Despite the presence of Hayward and Hill on the roster, Iso Joe was far and away Utah’s most reliable clutch option last season – and one of the most consistent in the entire league. He posted an outrageous 53-62-100 shooting line in the final five minutes of games with the score within five points, per NBA.com. For those unfamiliar with shooting lines, that means 53 percent from the field, 62 percent from three, and 100 percent from the free-throw line.
Johnson was one of Utah’s only guys capable of creating his own look consistently, a role that will only grow with Hayward no longer in the picture. His presence in crunch time lineups means at least one other well-known name is likely on the bench, but how can coach Quin Snyder leave him off the court in these moments after last year?
The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors
Lost in a successful year and a crazy offseason was Favors, who as recently as 18 months ago was considered by many to be Utah’s best player on a team that still featured Hayward and Gobert. Favors just couldn’t get healthy last year, with a series of maladies keeping him either off the court or well below 100 percent. He’s spent the offseason working his tail off, though, plus honing a three-point shot that should keep him on the floor if spacing gets cramped with guys like Rubio and Gobert on the floor. He’s in a vital contract year, one where he has to prove he’s both healthy and skilled enough to continue making a big impact. If he’s good physically, don’t be shocked to see his name in the Most Improved conversation come midseason.
Best New Addition: Thabo Sefolosha
We could give this one to Rubio, Jonas Jerebko or even first round draft pick Donovan Mitchell, but Sefolosha gets the nod. He’s a versatile, talented wing defender who will fit right into Snyder’s schemes and provide a big upgrade at the point of attack defensively. Sefolosha has become a capable mid-30s three-point shooter, a fact that makes him a good candidate for small-ball lineups where he, Johnson or Joe Ingles plays the power forward position (these could be some of Utah’s best lineups, as they were last year). He’ll be a primary cog in some of Utah’s most versatile lineups.
– Ben Dowsett
WHO WE LIKE
1. Joe Ingles
Ingles didn’t show up for any of our sections above, but there’s a good reason for that: His best talent is likely his versatility. Jingles did a bit of everything last year: He was one of the league’s top spot-up three-point specialists (he shot 46 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, per SportVU data – in the league’s top 10); he ran pick-and-roll sets patiently and efficiently; he was perhaps Utah’s top perimeter defender, a trump card Snyder loved to use in unorthodox situations, including against point guards; he led the team in steals on the year. After signing a deserved extension in the offseason, Ingles will be counted on to continue all this while also providing his unique brand of leadership in a locker room that needs it.
2. Quin Snyder
Entering his fourth season at the helm in Utah, Snyder has consistently shown an ability to get the most out of his rosters. He’ll have another challenge this year after Utah’s offseason departures, but if anyone is up to it, it’s this guy. His defenses are consistently among the most disciplined in the league, and his offensive sets make lemonade even when there are limited lemons available. It will be fascinating to see how much, if at all, his offense changes with guys like Hayward and Hill gone and Rubio now in town.
3. Donovan Mitchell
Utah’s summer sensation was Mitchell, who was selected 13th in the 2017 Draft after a draft day trade and then lit it up at summer league. Mitchell should step right into the NBA as a plus defender, with a fantastic 6-foot-10 wingspan that sneakily makes him more than capable of checking bigger wings – he completely shut down Celtics draftee Jayson Tatum in Jazz Summer League despite giving up nearly half a foot in height. He’s a strong, energetic presence sure to endear himself to the Jazz fanbase, and already has a fantastic potential future as a shooter. If he can refine some of his decision-making and shot selection as a ball-handler over the next few years, he could be a borderline star. For now, he should fit in as a great two-way option who adds some more versatility in Utah.
4. Dante Exum
It’s put up or shut up time for Exum in Utah as he enters his fourth season, and last under his rookie contract. The Aussie has had a tumultuous developmental curve since entering the league, but after finally having a full offseason to train with Jazz coaches and get his game to a new level, the Jazz are expecting big things. Exum has the profile to play both guard spots with elite defensive chops, and he showcased an improved handle and jumper at summer league. He’ll likely enter the season without a rookie extension in place, meaning how much he can make in restricted free agency may depend on what he can show this year.
5. The Depth
Despite their offseason losses, the Jazz are once again positioned to be one of the deepest teams in the league. Guys like Sefolosha, Exum, Mitchell, Jerebko, Alec Burks, and even Raul Neto all have either played quality minutes in the NBA or shown the legitimate potential to do so, and each of these names should be coming off Utah’s bench. The Jazz will hope for better injury luck than they’ve had in recent seasons, of course, but they’re reasonably well-positioned to deal with any losses (besides Gobert) should they arise.
– Ben Dowsett
SALARY CAP 101
The Jazz dropped under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap to sign players like Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko, after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency to the Boston Celtics. The team used most of their Room Exception on Ekpe Udoh, leaving just $1.1 million to spend. All three signings have non-guaranteed salary for the 2018-19 season. Prior to July, Utah acquired Ricky Rubio via trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, they’re at $109.7 million in payroll with 15 guaranteed contracts (along with non-guaranteed Raul Neto and Naz Long, both of whom have long odds of making the roster). Before the start of the season, both Dante Exum and Rodney Hood are eligible for extensions. Next summer, the Jazz can get to roughly $27 million in space, assuming they cut their non-guaranteed players and let both Exum and Hood walk as free agents.
— Eric Pincus
Defense and depth are the two primary strengths for this team. They’re heavy favorites to finish with a top-five defense as long as Gobert is healthy, and as we noted above, they can withstand just about any other injury for at least a short period. They’re also a stronger shooting team than people might realize – in Ingles, Hood, Johnson, Burks and likely Mitchell, they’ve got five strong spot-up shooters, at least a couple of whom should be on the floor at all times. Coaching is another strength for the Jazz, with Snyder growing more comfortable in his role each year.
– Ben Dowsett
Gobert is a star whether people prefer to call him that or not, but Hayward’s departure did rob the Jazz of their go-to offensive option. Utah is definitely weaker when it comes to high-level creation, even with the additions they made over the offseason. They’ve traditionally been a very bad team in offensive transition as well – how much that changes this year, and whether Snyder chooses to emphasize it more, could have a large effect on where they finish the year offensively.
– Ben Dowsett
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can depth, coaching and defense offset Utah’s big summer losses and keep them in the playoff picture?
The Jazz lost nearly 40 points a night from last season when Hayward and Hill bolted town. They did a lot of great things after that point, but it’s fair to question where that production will come from and whether the additions are enough to offset it. The defense should still be excellent, but it can afford zero slippage if this is going to be a playoff team. Can Rubio and Gobert plus a healthy Favors and Hood propel Utah to something close to a league-average offense to supplement it, or will they fall closer to the bottom-10 range? This is what will ultimately define their season, and could determine whether they make the playoffs in a loaded West middle. There are a ton of variables at play in Utah this season. It’ll be fascinating to see how they play out.
NBA Daily: Six Pointers For The Season
On a night that is sure to be full of hot takes, highlight videos and overreaction, Spencer Davies has some pointers that you should take into consideration for the upcoming season.
It’s time to celebrate, NBA fans.
We are officially one sleep away from tipping off the 2018-19 season. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, two heavy Eastern Conference title favorites, will square off first, followed by the defending champion Golden State Warriors hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder.
On a night that is sure to be full of hot takes, highlight videos and overreaction, here are some pointers headed into the year that you should take into consideration within the grand scheme of things.
Reminder: There Are 82 Games
The first week of the NBA season is under a gigantic microscope. Some teams are going to look unbeatable, others may not look quite as good and a handful might seem downright awful. We have to remember that a lot of these ball clubs have a different energy about them. Whether it’s a new front office, a new head coach, roster turnover or simply needing time to jell, not everything is going to be sunshine and rainbows from the jump—and even if it is, that could be short-lived.
Don’t Fall For Fake Accounts
One time or another, everybody has been bound to fall for a complete farce. Everybody is susceptible to seeing a fake account on Twitter and immediately reacting without checking the validity of the source. It’s a natural response. But make sure that if you’re following along with a trade rumor and/or developing event, the information is coming from a reliable reporter with multiple confirmations. This is especially important on trade deadline day.
Surprises Happen: Good Or Bad
With 30 squads loaded with the best basketball talent in the world, it’s truly an “any team, any night” kind of league. There are going to be upsets and there are going to be blowouts. Aside from the teams on the wrong side of the rout too many times, most of these won’t matter with the bigger picture intact. If a ball club makes the playoffs and is set to contend, they ultimately won’t care about a lopsided defeat from November.
Rookies Will Have Ups And Downs
Arguably the best part about the start of a new NBA year is seeing fresh talent hit the hardwood. They are living a real-life dream and, for most of them, you see the true love they have for the game through their play. In any case, they are getting used to an unfamiliar stage and a higher level of basketball. There will be flashes and struggles, but more often—inconsistencies. It’s hard to find out if a player is the “next ________” just as it is dubbing a rookie a bust right away. Give these guys time to mature and enjoy it.
Watch For Quotes Taken Out Of Context
This happens a ton in the world of sports. When reading what a player says ahead of or after a game, make sure you’re getting the full story. It’s easy for a video to get chopped and edited to create a juicy narrative and rile things up. While we do have plenty of feuds in the league stemming from what happens in between the four lines—in addition to an abundance of intriguing stories—there’s a lot of something made out of nothing situations that are best to just ignore.
Referees Are Not Out To Get Your Team
Last season was an especially complicated one for the NBA officiating contingent. Criticism came from all angles, from media to players to coaches, as it does almost every season. Part of it is warranted, but let’s not forget how difficult the job is. The frantic pace of the game is evolving with each year, and the bang-bang plays are growing tougher to determine because of it. Missed calls and anticipated calls are a killer for momentum in any case, but the stripes are here to do their job the best they can. It’s fine to look at tendencies, but don’t come up with conspiracy theories because your team isn’t getting a favorable whistle.
These pointers arent’ meant to be a buzz kill, of course. This league is all about entertainment and enjoyment for its fans, so have fun with it. That’s what it’s here for.
There’s much more to a season, but we’d figure to pass along some tips as we await for another great year of NBA action.
NBA Daily: The NBA Ten Years Ago
With the 2018-2019 season on the horizon, Basketball Insiders’ Matt John takes a trip down memory lane to look at where the league was ten years prior.
It’s time to take a trip down memory lane – all the way back to 2009.
It was a different time then. The country’s first black president was inaugurated, Swine Flu was petrifying the nation and Justin Bieber was an innocent teenager just trying to make a name for himself. It was a time to be alive, particularly for NBA junkies.
There were some interesting storylines going on in the NBA, like the somewhat growing concern of ballplayers preferring to play overseas after Josh Childress went to Greece. Or the Seattle Supersonics switching cities to become the Oklahoma City Thunder under certain circumstances. However, the 2008-2009 season overall served as a transitional year for the players.
Some of the NBA’s youngest stars such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success, as individuals and in the team setting. They were becoming the present face of the league while established veterans – such as Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter – were becoming the past. Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade had already shown themselves as two of the bright young stars in the league, and Kevin Durant was right around the corner. The 2008-2009 season was when the new generation of young NBA stars started making its mark.
Having said that, looking back at today, what should the 2008-2009 season be remembered the most for? Well, several things.
The NBA Champion
As you probably remember, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 15th NBA title in 2009.
The LakeShow deserved it. Detractors will make excuses – which I’ll get to – but the Lakers were a well-crafted team that was difficult for every team in the league to stop. Ten years later, only one question remains about them: Would they have worked as well in today’s NBA?
There’d be little reason for them not to. They had a top-10 NBA talent of all-time still at the top of his game in Kobe Bryant. However, while Kobe may have been their best player, the dirty little secret about the 08-09 Lakers was that their frontcourt was what made them tough to stop. They had one of the best offensive centers in the league in Pau Gasol, one of the NBA’s most versatile players ever in Lamar Odom and a promising young big in Andrew Bynum. The one commonality between these three: None of them were floor spacers.
Back then, stretching the floor wasn’t as much of a necessity as it is now. Also, teams didn’t value small ball nearly as much as they do now. Could that Lakers frontcourt have broken the trend, or would the league’s shooting evolution have limited their effectiveness? We’ll honestly never know, but it’s something worth pondering.
If X Team(s) Had Just Been Healthy…
Every season has that one team that many wonder what would have been had a certain player not gotten hurt. In 2009, the obvious injury to turn to was Kevin Garnett’s. The Celtics that year looked as good as ever until Garnett went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Boston did well without him, but Garnett’s injury left fans with unfulfilled desires. Perhaps the Celtics could have won it all had Garnett been available, but his injury was on them. Reportedly, the organization knew Garnett had bone spurs in his knee before the season started and played him hoping he’d be fine. Had they been more cautious, maybe they’d have 18 banners right now. This shows that when you’re a contender, you should take proper precautions for when the real games begin.
Besides, the Celtics weren’t the ones victimized the most by injuries. The ones that came the closest to beating the Lakers were, and that team was the Houston Rockets.
Many forget that the Rockets were expected to be title contenders leading up to that season. They had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming leading the way, but after they stole the player formerly known as Ron Artest from the Kings, expectations were sky high in H-Town.
It didn’t take long for things to go south. McGrady’s knee was so troublesome that it knocked him out by mid-season. Hope was not lost, though. The Rockets managed to snag the fifth seed in the Western Conference without T-Mac and even advanced to the second round.
After splitting the first two games with the Lakers, Yao’s broken foot in Game Three of the conference semi-finals put the final nail in the coffin. The Rockets still fought until there was no fight left in them, as the Lakers eliminated them in seven games. The Rockets pushed the eventual NBA champs to the brink despite losing both T-Mac and Yao. If there’s one team that was robbed of their potential that doesn’t get enough credit, it’s the 2008-2009 Rockets.
The Deal That Could Have Changed So Much
If you thought the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers could have altered the entire landscape of the NBA, wait until you hear about this nixed trade that happened in 2009. On Feb. 18, New Orleans agreed to trade Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox. Basically, the then-Hornets were dumping Chandler to the Thunder. That was until Chandler’s “turf toe” raised enough red flags to convince OKC to rescind the trade.
After all that’s happened since then, it’s amazing wondering what could have been. The Thunder were one of the league’s worst teams when they traded for Chandler, so who knows what they would have done with him that season. His presence could have impacted whether they got James Harden in the draft that year. Serge Ibaka came over the following season, so imagine what he and Chandler would have looked like together. Trading for Chandler would have meant that he wouldn’t make it to Dallas, which probably meant no title for the Mavericks in 2011. It also would have meant the Thunder trading Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins would be nixed, too.
So much could have been different had OKC rolled the dice with Chandler. Maybe they wouldn’t have lost Durant. Maybe they would’ve formed a dynasty. Maybe LeBron nor the Warriors wouldn’t have won any titles this decade. All of that could have come from one rescinded trade. It’s understandable that the Thunder didn’t want to take the risk with Chandler’s toe, but at times like those, the potential outweighs the risk.
Pull The Plug! Or Don’t!
One of the seasons more prominent storylines was the fall of the Detroit Pistons. After being among the Eastern Conference’s powerhouses for several years, Detroit’s downfall came when they agreed to swap Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson.
While the Denver Nuggets reaped all the benefits from this deal, Detroit crumbled from one of the top seeds to the eighth seed in the conference. In hindsight, the Pistons underestimated how much Billups had left in the tank and overestimated how good their opponents were. When you consider that the Orlando Magic was the reigning Eastern Conference Champion at the time – and the Pistons beat the Magic the previous year in a five-game playoff series – maybe the Pistons would have had a chance.
When you have a window of opportunity, even if the outlook isn’t great, you take advantage of it until you can’t anymore. The Pistons instead folded early and have never recovered since. This trade would have been forgivable had the Pistons used the cap space they got from Iverson’s expiring deal wisely.
Instead, they used it on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva the following summer. Woof.
“Success Is Fleeting”
It was mentioned earlier that Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success both for themselves and for their teams. Both played in the ideal situations for them.
Howard played for a team that had reliable shooters who spread the floor along with smart playmakers who could run the pick and roll with him. Howard may have been a shot-blocking terror, but he also benefited from having agile defenders on the wing. Howard’s dominating presence down low made it difficult for defenses to figure out who to cover, which helped the Magic power their way to the NBA Finals.
Anthony played for a team that had an MVP candidate for a starting point guard in Chauncey Billups. “Mr. Big Shot” knew exactly where to find Anthony which greatly helped ‘Melo’s efficiency as a scorer. Carmelo also played for a team whose frontcourt finally got past its injury issues. With everything going Denver’s way, they had one of their most successful playoff runs in years, pushing the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals.
When the Magic and the Nuggets went on their playoff runs in 2009, Anthony was only 25 while Howard was 23. Making it that far into the playoffs is terrific when you’re that young, but little did they know, that was far as they would get in their primes.
Looking at where they are at now, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard will more likely than not be Hall-of-Famers, but they’ll be remembered for being two superstar talents who could have done so much more in their careers had their hubris not gotten in the way. As their careers unfolded, both infamously burned bridges because things had to be done their way, which in turn, hurt their opportunities for success.
One can’t help but wonder if the success they had in 2009 played a role in their egos. Whether it did or not, young players coming into the league need to know that maintaining success in the NBA is not a given no matter how good you are. You never know when the glory days will be taken away from you.
The 2008-2009 season was remembered for many other things as well. LeBron had finally taken the reins as the league’s indisputable best player, a label he still has yet to relinquish, as he went on to win his first MVP award. It was also the one and only year we got the closest resemblance to a full season from the injury-plagued Greg Oden. Hilariously, it was also the year when we realized that maybe fans had a little too much power in all-star voting, as Iverson and McGrady were voted in as starters purely on reputation.
There are many other reasons to remember the 2008-2009 season. Ten years from now, what will the 2018-2019 season be remembered for?
NBA Daily: Six Breakout Players To Watch – Central Division
With LeBron James in Los Angeles, the Central Division will be looking for a few players to break out and make a name for themselves in 2018-19 — here are Ben Nadeau’s top six candidates.
While the Central Division likely won’t feature any of the Eastern Conference’s biggest powerhouses, there are plenty of franchises here with postseason aspirations. In order for those teams to rebuild or reach new heights, they’ll need a cast of different characters to ascend into bigger, more important roles. Out in Indiana and Milwaukee, two darkhorse contenders, it’ll take more than just Tyreke Evans and Brook Lopez in order to challenge the likes of Gordon Hayward and Joel Embiid — but who fits the bill?
For Detroit and Chicago, the pressure will be on to avoid a lottery-bound fate once more by leaning on two up-and-comers — no matter the massive difference in their contracts. But Cleveland will undoubtedly have the toughest task of all: Replacing LeBron James. With each franchise staring down a difficult benchmark, breakouts must come in all shapes and sizes, by veterans, new arrivals and budding stars alike — so what will this season bring?
Whether through an opening in the rotation or an offseason acquisition, these are six of the Central Division’s strongest candidates to leave a lasting mark in 2018-19.
Bobby Portis — Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ fourth-year man is a solid, if not unspectacular, contributor whenever he gets regular playtime. Last year, Portis suffered an immediate setback following his preseason scuffle with former teammate Nikola Mirotic, but he bounced back stronger than ever. The forward made good on his uptick in minutes and nearly posted career numbers across the board thanks to his relentless motor and desire to compete. Averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists on 47.1 percent from the floor, Portis frequently excelled as a change of pace rebounder off the bench.
This season, he’ll have an even bigger opportunity to shine. With Lauri Markkanen sidelined until November at the earliest, it looks like Portis will earn significant minutes and maybe even a legitimate shot at the starting power forward position. In his first start of the preseason on Wednesday, Portis dropped 20 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in just 21 minutes. If he comes off the bench, Portis could become an underrated Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But even if he just starts until Markannen’s return, he’ll be well on his way toward earning a lucrative offer sheet in restricted free agency next summer.*
*Portis is eligible to sign an extension until Oct. 15
Zach LaVine — Chicago Bulls
For a hot minute, it looked like Zach LaVine might end up in Sacramento during his own trip to the restricted free agency pool this summer. Ultimately, he’s staying in Chicago to the tune of $78 million over the next four years — which, officially, will put the pressure of an entire franchise squarely on his shoulders. Naturally, the high-flyer will not be alone, joined once again by Kris Dunn, the aforementioned Portis and Markkanan, plus newcomers Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter Jr., but LaVine will deservedly receive grander-than-ever expectations.
He struggled after returning from his torn ACL in January — but before he got injured, LaVine was on the cusp of a breakout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Through 47 games in 2016-17, LaVine was averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 45.9 percent from the floor. With all that in the rearview mirror — the injury, the trade, the contract — LaVine will have a clear path forward for the first time in years. Certainly, LaVine’s defense still needs work, but given the Bulls’ presumed fate outside of the postseason and their unproven collection of talents, there’s a stellar chance that the hyper-athletic scorer will make his big leap now that he’s back at full health.
Pat Connaughton — Milwaukee Bucks
By far, Pat Connaughton has the least spectacular case on this page — but when the opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to ignore the call.
Connaughton played in all 82 games last season and averaged 5.4 points, two rebounds and 1.1 assists on 42.3 percent from the field — all career-bests. Of course, those 18.1 minutes per game came behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the league’s best backcourt duos. After the Trail Blazers did not extend his qualifying offer, Connaughton was free to explore other destinations, eventually signing with the Bucks for two years and $3.4 million. For the Bucks, he’ll likely join rookie Donte DiVincenzo as the backup guards, looking to space the floor at the perimeter and set up his teammates.
Of note, Connaughton played 20-plus minutes in 37 contests and exceeded his points per game total in 25 of them. It’s a somewhat basic lens through which to examine Connaughton’s impact, but when he gets the minutes, he typically rises to the occasion. Connaughton has some serious bounce and playmaking skills that should fit seamlessly with Milwaukee’s long, athletic rotation immediately. The fourth-year professional even has some experience at small forward as well — so if he can facilitate for others, hit some open three-pointers and scrappily defend, this will be Connaughton’s best season yet.
Luke Kennard — Detroit Pistons
After an up-and-down rookie season, there are lofty expectations brewing for Luke Kennard as he heads into his follow-up campaign. At first, there was some disappointment that the sweet-shooting lefty was picked ahead of Donovan Mitchell, but as the season went on, the Detroit faithful grew fond of the former Blue Devil’s nuanced play style. Over the final 19 contests of the year, Kennard averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, even reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those games. Assuming that his role grows under the tutelage of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, Kennard could be a standout sophomore in 2018-19.
Even craftier, the Pistons had planned to use Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee tempered those expectations for now. Kennard can play three positions, flexible enough to compete on both offense and defense already. His potential from three-point range is not without merit either, as Kennard averaged 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from deep during his final season in college, marking him as one of Division-I’s most elite shooters. At 6-foot-5 and just 22 years old, it looks like we’re just scratching the surface on Kennard’s budding future.
Doug McDermott — Indiana Pacers
Perhaps the most interesting case on the list is that of Doug McDermott.
Dangerously close to joining the rank of journeyman, McDermott landed a three-year deal worth $22 million in July — a contract that left many onlookers initially puzzled. But now that he’s there and entrenched in the Pacers’ preseason rotation, it’s clear what type of impact he might bring off the bench. Although Indiana will be McDermott’s fifth team since he was drafted in 2014, he’s excelled as an above average three-point shooter thus far. Sporting a career tally of 1.1 three-pointers per game on 40.3 percent, he could fill a serious void for the Pacers if they let him loose.
Between New York and Dallas last season, McDermott had 26 multi-three-pointer outings, including a blistering 5-for-7 effort against the Clippers in November. Admittedly, he’s not really a consistent contributor anywhere else, but the recent long-range renaissance means that there will always be room in the NBA for a sharpshooter like McDermott. Most importantly, then, is Indiana’s desperate need for not just bench three-point marksmanship, but shooting in general. In 2017-18, the Pacers only made nine three-pointers per game (their bench contributed a woeful total of 2.4), which left them tied for the fifth-worst mark in the entire league.
Even if McDermott doesn’t see a major uptick in volume, he’ll join the Pacers as their fourth-best three-point shooter at the very worst, only trailing Darren Collison (1.4), Bojan Bogdanovic (1.9) and Victor Oladipo (2.1) from deep. His track record may not be exhilarating on just numbers alone, but given his above-average percentages and his forthcoming opening, this may be McDermott’s biggest chance to breakout yet.
Cedi Osman — Cleveland Cavaliers
Everybody loves Cedi Osman.
Not much was expected of the 23-year-old when he joined the Cavaliers last season as an end-of-bench piece. But as the season grew longer, Osman got an honest shot at the rotation and he made the most of his unexpected fortuity. From February on, Osman tallied five or more points in 13 of his 22 appearances, even reaching double digits in six of them. During an uneventful win against the Atlanta Hawks, Osman notched 16 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two three-pointers over 38 minutes — more or less, the kid can play.
Everywhere you look, the people surrounding Osman can’t stop gushing about his love for the game, his desire to get better and the impact he may have this season. During his two Las Vegas Summer League contests, Osman exploded for 20 points, eight rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and one block per game — a salivating preview most definitely. Although the team is undoubtedly Kevin Love’s now, he’ll need some backup and Osman — a grinder, slasher and do-it-all-glue-guy — has the skill-set to take a leap in 2018-19 and beyond.
Needless to say, there are some intriguing storylines developing in a freshly LeBron-less landscape. Can the mid-tier teams join the conference’s current royalty? Can the division’s two lottery members reach the postseason conversation? Surely, if anything, the Cavaliers won’t make their fifth straight NBA Finals — but can the efforts of Osman keep them from falling out of the playoff race completely? Answers will come sooner rather than later, but all these teams will need some breakout players to help lead the way this season.