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.
Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA
David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.
Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.
But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.
“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”
Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.
He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.
VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.
Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.
“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”
VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.
Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.
“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”
The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.
Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.
“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”
NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard
On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.
Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.
In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.
Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.
Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.
Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.
Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.
For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.
“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”
Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.
Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.
Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.
“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”
After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.
During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.
Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.
For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.
“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”
New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.
On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.
After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.
Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.
“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game, more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”
It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.
“I know it’s coming,” he said.
When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.
“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”
NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers
The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.
With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.
Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.
However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.
“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”
Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.
In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.
“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”
Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.
The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.