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Preseason Logjams to Watch

Tommy Beer analyzes some of the logjams around the NBA as the 2016-17 season approaches.

Tommy Beer

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The NBA preseason is underway, which means we can start analyzing actual games.

Many teams seemingly have their rotation all set, but there are still a number of fluid situations just two weeks before the start of the regular season. Below, we take a look at few of the more interesting logjams across the league.

Philadelphia 76ers Frontcourt
The Sixers have three young centers on their roster: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. All three were drafted in the top half of the lottery. Now that all three are (almost) finally healthy, coach Brett Brown has to figure out how he will distribute minutes in an attempt to keep them all happy. Noel let his feeling be known on the eve of training camp, when he told reporters: “I don’t see a way of it working. It’s just a logjam. You’ve got three talented centers that can play 30-plus minutes a night and three centers can’t play 30 minutes a night. That’s that. Things need to be situated. Obviously, somebody’s got to be moved around. It’s a tough situation, but I can only say so much because I have no say and no power.”

Fortunately for the Sixers, Embiid has looked terrific in the limited minutes he has played. In addition, Okafor is ramping up his workouts and is in the final stages of rehab after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Is a trade inevitable? Ben Simmons being sidelined will open up minutes at power forward if Philly wants to attempt to play two bigs together, but that seems unlikely. As for the PF spot, Dario Saric has been impressive in the preseason and appears to be the favorite to start at the four spot on opening night.

Chicago Bulls Power Forward
The Bulls brought in big names Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo this offseason, but the issue in Chicago is long-range shooting. In today’s NBA, it’s more important than ever to have shooters who can space the floor and knock down threes. Last season, the Warriors and Cavaliers led the league in three-point attempts in the regular season. However, Rondo and Jimmy Butler attempted just 378 three-pointers combined last season. (In contrast, Steph Curry made 402 threes). Thus, the Bulls would ideally prefer to have Nikola Mirotic start alongside Rondo, Wade, Butler and Robin Lopez, with Taj Gibson coming off the bench. Mirotic was the only Bull to make more than 110 threes in 2015-16. However, Nikola has struggled this preseason and been outplayed by Gibson. Mirotic is shooting below 35 percent from the floor and 26.7 percent from behind-the-arc.

Bobby Portis has worlds of potential, but it is probably too soon to ask the 21-year-old to assume starter’s responsibilities. We’ll see whether coach Fred Hoiberg ultimately decides to start Gibson or Mirotic.

New Orleans Pelicans Backcourt
As Jrue Holiday takes time to deal with a heartbreaking personal matter, the starting point guard spot is up for grabs. Tim Frazier was the favorite at the start of the preseason, and has only increased the odds in his favor due to his stellar play. He’s averaging over eight points, eight assists and five rebounds per game, while shooting 66.7 percent from the floor. Langston Galloway will likely backup Frazier.

A nice competition is playing out at shooting guard as well. Both E’Twaun Moore and Buddy Hield have shot the lights out this preseason. Moore is averaging a team-high 17.7 points per contest, while shooting 61 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three-point territory. Hield is second on the team in scoring, pouring in 17 points per game with a 52 percent/40 percent/100 percent slash line. The Pels may opt to start the veteran Moore, if only to ease Buddy’s rookie transition into the NBA.

Cleveland Cavaliers Backup Point Guard
When Mo Williams announced his retirement last month, the battle for the backup minutes behind Kyrie Irving began. After an impressive showing in the Las Vegas Summer League (15.3 PPG and 3.9 APG), 2016 second-round pick Kay Felder has picked up right where he left off. Felder is averaging nearly 26 minutes per game and 11 points per contest this preseason. He started on Monday night, scoring 15 points and dishing out six assists. The Cavs signed Markel Brown last month, but it appears Felder has secured the spot. However, if the Cavs fail to re-sign J.R. Smith, Brown and Jordan McRae could see minutes at off-guard behind Iman Shumpert.

Milwaukee Bucks Shooting Guard
Khris Middleton is slated to miss six months after tearing his hamstring, which leaves a gaping hole in the Bucks backcourt. Unproven youngsters Rashad Vaughn and Malcolm Brogdon are competing to be the starter. However, neither has shined in the preseason and they will likely end up splitting minutes, with both Michael Carter-Williams and Jason Terry also seeing some time out of position at the two-guard.

Miami HEAT Power Forward and Shooting Guard
Josh Richardson played well as a rookie and was expected to keep his starting gig this season; however, he partially tore his MCL on September 9 and may not be available at the start of the season. It was assumed the newly signed Dion Waiters would fill in should Richardson miss any time, but it was actually Tyler Johnson who started at shooting guard in Miami’s first two preseason games.

With Chris Bosh’s career potentially over, power forward is also an unknown at this point. It will likely either come down to Derrick Williams or Josh McRoberts. James Johnson and Luke Babbit could also earn some time at the four.

Memphis Grizzlies Power Forward
Head coach David Fizdale announced last month that JaMychal Green will be the team’s starting power forward this season, sending veteran Zach Randolph to the bench. Green hasn’t been overly impressive in the preseason, so we’ll see how long this lasts if Green struggles out of the gate or if Z-Bo is unhappy being the Sixth Man.

Boston Celtics Backcourt Backups
Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley are set as the starters, but with Evan Turner in Portland, Terry Rozier is looking forward to an uptick in minutes. Rozier hasn’t done much since being drafted 16th overall in the 2015 draft, but he’s hoping to make his mark in 2016-17. Marcus Smart has already established himself as an elite defender; he is now looking to prove he can contribute offensively as well, by shooting/scoring efficiently and distributing the ball as a playmaker. Rookie Jaylen Brown will also attempt to earn some playing time on the wing behind Jae Crowder. These three young bench players could play an important role in determining whether or not the C’s can unseat the Raptors as champs of the Atlantic Division.

Denver Nuggets Power Forward
Kenneth Faried has long been a fan favorite in the Mile High City. However, Denver’s front office and coaching staff doesn’t seem to hold the same affection for the burly big man, due primarily to Faried’s defensive limitations. The Nuggets have a glut of forwards (Jusuf Nurkic, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler), and the best resolution for all parties would likely be to trade Faried out of town, if they are able to get back something they like. It will be interesting to see if Denver is willing to start the promising Nurkic over Faried.

New York Knicks Final Roster Spot
The Knicks have 15 players with fully guaranteed contracts, but point guard Chasson Randle is not among those 15. This is significant because the Knicks currently only have two point guards on their roster. Furthermore, those two point guards (Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings) have had injury issues. Do the Knicks feel comfortable going into the season with such limited depth at such an important position? If Rose were to miss time due to either injury or his current trial, Sasha Vujacic would be New York’s back-up PG. For that reason, the Knicks may choose to waive a big, such as Lou Amundson or Marshall Plumlee, in order to clear space for Randle.

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

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50 Predictions for the 2019-20 NBA Season

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

Awards + Other Individual Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Jonathan Isaac wins MIP.

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

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

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

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

Rookie Predictions

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

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

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

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

Team + Playoff Predictions

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

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

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

15. And they win the Eastern Conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trade + Coaching Change Predictions

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

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

26. The Cavaliers finally move on from Kevin Love.

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

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

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

Other Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

Insiders’ Predictions

35. Pistons trade Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond

— Matt John (@MattJohnNBA)

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

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

— David Weissman (@dwize04)

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

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

— Jack Winter (@ArmstrongWinter)

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

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

— Doug Farmer (@D_Farmer)

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

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

— Ben Nadeau (@Ben__Nadeau)

44. The Chicago Bulls win a playoff series.

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

— Chad Smith (@Chad200)

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

47. The Hawks will be last in defensive rating.

— Quinn Davis (@Quinn_DavisNBA)

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

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

— Jordan Hicks (@JordanHicksNBA)

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

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

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

— Shane Rhodes (@Share_Rhodes1)

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

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

— Spencer Davies (@SpinDavies)

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

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Three Takeaways From Preseason

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

David Weissman

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

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

Zion Williamson: ROY Favorite

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steph Curry Going For MVP No. 3

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

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

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

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

Matisse Thybulle Bound For An All-Defensive Team

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: Opening Night Matchups To Watch

The NBA is finally back with two exciting matchups to start the season. Quinn Davis takes a look at some interesting subplots that could determine the outcome of each game.

Quinn Davis

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Opening Night is finally here. After a tumultuous offseason featuring player movement and foreign diplomacy, real NBA games will finally be played tonight.

The first contest of the two-game slate lost some of the usual buzz when it was announced that Zion Williamson would be out 6-to-8 weeks with a torn meniscus. That, combined with the Raptors not being considered a true contender this season after losing Kawhi Leonard, makes this game feel relatively mundane compared to opening night in years past. 

Luckily, the second game of the night has enough star power and storylines for all five hours of basketball as the revamped Clippers and Lakers will do battle in the Staples Center. 

Each game will be full of interesting matchups on the court. Here is a look at a few of these battles that could determine each game.

Jrue Holiday vs. Kyle Lowry

Game one features two of the league’s premier defensive point guards likely guarding each other for the majority of the contest.

Lowry, who recently signed an extension to stay with the Raptors through the 2020-21 season, should begin this season with a larger offensive role. While Lowry was relegated to mostly a spot-up shooter last season with Leonard in the fold, he should have more opportunities to handle the ball and run the pick-and-roll with Marc Gasol.

This will put a spotlight on Holiday’s defense, which has been spectacular throughout his career. Holiday has been particularly excellent guarding the pick and roll. He most notably displayed this skill when he shut down Damian Lillard and the Blazers in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.

Holiday will also need to stay focused off the ball, where Lowry’s incessant and intelligent movement can be tough to track.  

On the other end, Lowry must stop Holiday from getting into the paint. Holiday has a knack for getting to the rim as he attempted 40 percent of his shots there last season, putting him in the 84th percentile for his position per Cleaning the Glass.

The combined veteran savvy and craft that the two guards possess should make for an exciting chess match in the first game of the NBA season.

The Pelicans-Raptors Turnover Differential

The way each team manages to take care of the ball could largely determine the outcome of this matchup.  

On the Pelicans’ side, they may have trouble generating points against a stout Raptors defense in the half-court, so transition opportunities could be the path to an efficient offense in this game. The best way to generate transition opportunities is to force bad passes and create steals, so look for New Orleans to be aggressive on the defensive end.

Not having Williamson will somewhat diminish what should be a dangerous transition attack this season, but the Pelicans will still have Holiday and Lonzo Ball to push the ball and find big man running to the rim.

The Raptors will also need to force turnovers  — not just this game but all season — as they lack true playmakers or isolation scorers after the departure of Leonard. Generating steals would allow them to create open looks at the rim and beyond the arc.

Last season, the Pelicans allowed the fourth-most points in the league off of turnovers, so transition defense will be a key area for them to clean up this season.

The Lakers’ Points in the Paint

The second game of the night could be determined by the Clippers’ ability to defend the paint against a new-look Lakers team that does not lack rim punishers.

There is, of course, Lebron James, who throughout his career has been one of the premier finishers and attackers in the painted area. Last season he attempted 48 percent of his shots at the rim, and finished 70 percent of those attempts, per Cleaning the Glass. If Lebron is rejuvenated after a full offseason of rest, those numbers could even increase.

The Lakers also feature Anthony Davis, who has his own pedigree around the basket where he also finished 71 percent of his attempts last season.

The gold and purple also will employ Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee as rim-running big men that both excel at finishing lobs high above the basket. 

The Clippers were 23rd in the league for opponent points in the paint last season, so this is an area that has caused some concern in the past. Leonard should help remedy some of the issues, as he can guard the opponent’s best perimeter player and stop them from penetrating.

The area that may be the most thorny for the Clippers is in the pick and roll defense against opposing big men. The big man rotation of Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac leave a little to be desired in the verticality department, so this is an area the Lakers may look to exploit.

The Clippers’ Success in the Pick And Roll

On the other end, the Clippers will need to create points out of the pick and roll game on offense. Last season, the Clippers ran the pick and roll on 22.8 percent of their possessions, the highest rate in the league per NBA.com.

This was predominantly due to Lou Williams, who developed a nice chemistry with Harrell in these sets over the course of the season. With those two still on the roster and Leonard now manning the wing, the Clippers should remain near the top of the league in pick and roll frequency.

One of the Lakers’ biggest weaknesses this season could be their perimeter defense. They added Danny Green, a solid on-ball defender who will probably be tasked with guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. Outside of Green, they will rely on aging veterans like Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, plus a few wings like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Quinn Cook.

The Lakers will have the talents of Anthony Davis, who can use his ridiculous length to disrupt pick and rolls at the point of attack and recover to protect the rim.  It will be interesting to see how Davis impacts the Clippers’ gameplan and strategies during the very first game of the season.

The NBA is officially back and these first two games are an exciting start to what should be an incredible season. In an offseason of crazy swaps, signings and trades — the two Los Angeles-based teams underwent more change than most of the league combined. Tonight, albeit early on, two hopeful contender will take their first big swings of the campaign — so, at long last, let it begin.

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