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NBA Saturday: Five Teams on the Rise

Whether through free agent deals, the draft or internal development, these five teams are on the rise.

Jesse Blancarte



The Golden State Warriors will likely be even better next season than they were in 2015-16, which is a scary proposition. Adding Kevin Durant to a team that won 73 games obviously makes the Warriors a team on the rise, but considering they were already top-level contenders, we won’t include them here.

1. Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz were a better team last season than their record would indicate. Injuries to Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors limited the Jazz, who were already playing without second-year guard Dante Exum (who tore his ACL during the offseason).

This summer, the Jazz acquired George Hill from the Indiana Pacers, Boris Diaw from the San Antonio Spurs and signed Joe Johnson to two-year contract.

Utah was in need of a solid point guard who could facilitate the offense, spread the court with his shooting and play tough perimeter defense. In Hill, the Jazz get all of those things and a veteran who can mentor Exum. In Johnson, the Jazz get a veteran forward who can shoot from deep and score in crunch-time situations. Johnson isn’t the explosive scorer he once was, but he still can score in isolation situations effectively, which is something Utah has needed. Furthermore, Diaw adds positional versatility and a wealth of experience from playing under head coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs.

With these new pieces, Utah has addressed some areas of concern and has created a roster that can put together some interesting lineups. With a lot of length, strong defenders, added shooting and more veteran experience, Utah is well positioned to make a big leap next season. This is especially true if Exum comes back close to 100 percent healthy and if Gobert and Favors can avoid the injury bug.

2. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers had an interesting offseason. First, team president Larry Bird decided not to retain head coach Frank Vogel – a move that many people questioned. He then replaced Vogel with Nate McMillan, who was an assistant under Vogel.

Next, the Pacers went out and aggressively restructured their roster. They traded George Hill to the Jazz in a three-team trade, which landed them Jeff Teague from the Atlanta Hawks. Teague was born in Indiana and despite struggling last season, he is a solid point guard who can both facilitate an offense and shoot from distance. It was just two years ago that Teague was an All-Star.

Then, the Pacers traded the 20th overall pick in the draft to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Thaddeus Young. Young is one of the more underrated forwards in the league and should be a nice addition to Indiana’s frontcourt next to Paul George.

The Pacers also added veteran center Al Jefferson to improve their scoring in the post. Jefferson is a throwback center who can score with his back to the basket. Jefferson doesn’t necessarily fit into the up-and-down style of play Bird seems so interested in, but there is value in having a center who can score in bunches coming off the bench (something we see with Enes Kanter in Oklahoma City).

The Pacers did lose some players, such as Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill and Solomon Hill. However, with Paul George playing at a high level, Myles Turner showing great promise in his development and an infusion of quality veterans, the Pacers could make some noise in the Eastern Conference next season.

3. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t have a splashy offseason, but they do have one of the best cores of young talent and a budding superstar in Karl-Anthony Towns. The Timberwolves added to that young core with the additions of Kris Dunn (the fifth pick in this year’s draft), Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill.

Dunn is 22 years old, which makes him older than Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. However, this is why he’s been described as one of the most NBA-ready rookies in this incoming class. He played four years in college and should add a steady hand at point guard and defensive intensity at the position as well. Dunn showed flashes of his skills on both ends of the court at the Las Vegas Summer League and seems well positioned to be an immediate contributor for the Timberwolves as the backup to Ricky Rubio.

However, despite these nice additions, the biggest acquisition for the Timberwolves this offseason was the hiring of head coach Tom Thibodeau. In hiring Thibodeau, the Timberwolves now have one of the best defensive coaches in the league running the show. Thibodeau is a tough coach who demands discipline and cohesion from his players. If he can mold this young, talented team into a focused defensive unit, this squad can make a big leap sooner rather than later. With a transcendent talent like Towns anchoring the middle, elite athletes like LaVine and Wiggins on the wing and an underrated floor general in Rubio running the show (and a great perimeter defender in Dunn playing under a defensive genius in Thibodeau), the Timberwolves should be a team to keep an eye on next season.

4. Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics have exceeded our collective expectations since Brad Stevens took over as the head coach. Now the Celtics are collectively older, more experienced and have benefited Stevens’ excellent coaching.

However, more than anything, talent determines how good a team can be and the Celtics are finally getting a marquee player in Al Horford. Despite the disappointment of not landing Kevin Durant, the signing of Horford means that the Celtics addressed their biggest weakness in the frontcourt. Horford is a very intelligent big man who can play both ends of the court very effectively. His ability to anchor a defense will be a big boost for the Celtics and will give Stevens a new focal point from which to structure his defensive schemes.

The Celtics also added Jaylen Brown with the third overall pick in this year’s draft. Brown is a an athletic forward who may be physical enough to play as a small-ball power forward in certain matchups. He needs to work on his shooting from distance, but he is a nice addition who should get a decent amount of playing time next season.

The Celtics also still have a glut of young, developing players in Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, Marcus Smart and Brown and a treasure trove of assets and salary cap flexibility. It’s no secret that Danny Ainge has been trying to add another star to put alongside All-Stars Horford and Isaiah Thomas.

With a disciplined group of young talent and the addition of Horford, the Celtics will likely continue to exceed expectations and perhaps become one of the better teams in the East.

5. Phoenix Suns

For the last few seasons, the Suns have been stuck between rebuilding and trying to compete for the playoffs. However, things have finally shifted toward more of a rebuild with the team adding some nice pieces in the draft, staying away from overspending in free agency and bringing in some familiar faces to mentor the team’s younger players. While the Suns may not be much better next season and certainly could miss the postseason, they make this list since they have finally chosen a path toward competing at a high level and are no longer caught between two competing paths.

The Suns drafted Dragan Bender (No. 4), Marquese Chriss (No. 8) and Tyler Ulis (No. 34) and then signed Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa in free agency. In Bender and Chriss, the Suns are getting two long and skilled forwards who are raw, but could be big-time contributors in the future. Bender, in particular, may have the tools to be a special talent in the NBA considering the size and skill he already has at the age of 19. Ulis is a nice addition in the second round, as he can control the floor, shoot the ball effectively and defend particularly well for a player standing 5’9. He was a standout performer at the Las Vegas Summer League and could eventually be viewed as a steal if he plays to his full potential.

The Suns will also benefit from bringing back Dudley and Barbosa, who both spent some of their best years in Phoenix. Dudley, in particular, could be a valuable addition at power forward with his ability to shoot the long ball. Dudley and Babosa will be excellent locker room presences as well, which is important since it’s always good to put strong leader and consummate professionals around a young core as they develop.

The biggest bright spot for the Suns at this point is second-year guard Devin Booker. Booker showed tremendous skill and poise in his rookie season and proved in the Las Vegas Summer League that he has the intensity and confidence to push his game to another level this upcoming season.

The Suns still have some issues to sort out with their roster and they may have a tough upcoming season, but their collection of young talent is quite impressive and could make them a very intriguing team down the road.


Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.


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NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode

With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.

Dennis Chambers



After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.

Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.

First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.

Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.

In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having  Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.

Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?

Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.

The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.

Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.

“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”

That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.

Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.

After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.

At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.

The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.

In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.

An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.

It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.

Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.

Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.

Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.

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Fixing The Detroit Pistons

David Yapkowitz looks at how the fading Pistons can turn things around moving forward.

David Yapkowitz



We wrap this week up with another installment of our “Fixing” series here at Basketball Insiders. The next team up is the Detroit Pistons.

The Pistons came into this season with playoff aspirations after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them regress instead of building on their playoff appearance the season before. To begin the season, they looked like they were on their way to accomplishing that objective. Then Reggie Jackson got hurt and the season began spiraling out of control.

They tried to inject some life into the team by trading for Blake Griffin, but it hasn’t worked out as expected. The Pistons have gone 8-12 since acquiring Griffin and the postseason looks like a pipe dream at this point.

What Is Working

Not a whole lot. Despite trading for a superstar player, the Pistons have tumbled down to the point where playoffs are looking extremely unlikely.

If there’s one thing that’s a welcome sight, it’s the bounce back of Andre Drummond. After being named to his first All-Star team in 2015-16, Drummond had a bit of a let down the following season. This season, he was once again an All-Star while putting up career-highs in rebounds (15.7) and assists (3.2). Drummond is still only 24 years old and has his best basketball years ahead of him.

The Pistons have also received encouraging signs from rookie Luke Kennard. A lottery pick in last summer’s draft, Kennard he’s been one of the few bright spots at times for the Pistons. About a week ago, his playing time had diminished some and he racked up a few DNP’s, but Stan Van Gundy has since reinserted him into the rotation.

They’ve also gotten solid production out of Reggie Bullock. When Bullock came over to the Pistons in a trade with the Phoenix Suns almost three years ago, he was little more than a seldom-used wing with the potential to become a solid 3&D guy. This has been his year, however. He’s the best shooter on the team at 43.5 percent from the three-point line. His numbers, 10.8 points per game and 49.1 percent shooting from the field, are career-highs.

What Needs To Change

Quite a bit. Acquiring Griffin was a move the Pistons needed to make. On the verge of losing control of the season, they needed to make a move to try and turn things around. It’s been a disaster thus far, however. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and although they’re in ninth place, they’re falling farther and farther away from eighth.

Who the Pistons are really missing is Reggie Jackson. Ish Smith, who has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an NBA player, just isn’t Jackson. They desperately need Jackson’s playmaking abilities to help take the pressure off everyone else. Even if he returns this season, it’s already too late. The Pistons need to focus on getting him healthy and ready for next season.

The Pistons also need to improve their offense. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both points per game (25th) and offensive rating (24th). A big part of that is Jackson’s absence, but they could also benefit from additional outside shooting. Right now they have one long-range threat on the roster and that’s Bullock.

Focus Area: The Draft

To make matters worse, the Pistons will likely give up their draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Griffin trade. The only way the Clippers wouldn’t acquire the Pistons’ pick this year is if it falls in the top four, and that’s not going to happen.

The Pistons will have a second-round pick though. The draft is never 100 percent guaranteed, and the second round is even more of a crapshoot, but talented players can definitely be found. That’s what the Pistons’ main objective in the draft should be. It sounds silly, but they truly need to buckle down and do their homework in hopes of finding that one overlooked guy in the second round. That’s pretty much all they have to look forward to come draft night.

Focus Area: Free Agency

The Pistons are going to have a couple of minor decisions to make this summer regarding their free agents. Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, and Anthony Tolliver are all unrestricted free agents. Out of the three, Ennis has given the team the best on-court production, but it isn’t necessary that any of them are brought back.

Bullock and Dwight Buycks have non-guaranteed contracts, and those are the two guys that the Pistons should work towards bringing back in the fold. Both should have their contracts guaranteed for the following season. Bullock is their only three-point threat. Buycks began the season as a two-way contract player splitting time between the Pistons and the Grand Rapids Drive of the G-League. He’s since been converted to a standard NBA contract and has done enough to earn his spot on the team next year.

In terms of adding new players to the roster, as mentioned before, the Pistons need outside shooting. Marco Belinelli and Wayne Ellington are possible options that the Pistons might be able to afford. Joe Harris is another option, but it will be interesting to see what the market is for him after the strong season he’s been having in Brooklyn.

It’s tough to gauge the Pistons’ true potential without Jackson. If he returns before the season ends, it will be too small a sample size to accurately assess the team. There are only 14 games left. Although things look pretty bleak right now, it can’t be argued that injuries haven’t played a big role in the Pistons disappointing season.

The team deserves a shot at seeing how a healthy Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond trio looks on the court together. If they start off next season the same way despite all three being healthy and in the lineup, then it would be time for serious changes.

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Fixing The Chicago Bulls

Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.

Spencer Davies



Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.

In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.

Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.

There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.

What Is Working

If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.

The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.

Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.

Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.

Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.

What Needs To Change

Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.

Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.

As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.

Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.

Focus Area: The Draft

Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.

Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.

Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.

If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.

Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.

The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.

Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.

Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.

There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.

All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.

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