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NBA Saturday: Rockets Take Worthwhile Risks in Anderson and Gordon

After a disappointing the season, the Rockets turned to Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to get back on track

Jesse Blancarte

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The Houston Rockets entered last season with high expectations. Houston was coming off their appearance in the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the eventual Champions, the Golden State Warriors. Houston was powered by James Harden, Dwight Howard and the analytically oriented principles implemented by general manager Daryl Morey. The Rockets finished the season with the 6th best defense and 12th best offense in the league.

Following their loss to the Warriors, the Rockets made one of more the interesting moves of the 2015 offseason in trading for Ty Lawson. Lawson was in the midst of several off-court issues involving alcohol, so the Rockets made a shrewd move by trading non-guaranteed contracts and a protected 2016 first-round pick for the speedy point guard. It was a bold move that came with little risk after Morey convinced Lawson to drop the guarantees on his roughly $13.2 million salary for the 2016-17 season.

Unfortunately, Lawson was beyond ineffective in his time with Houston and the rest of the Rockets’ players were unable to recapture their success from last season, which led to the firing of former head coach Kevin McHale after the team started 4-7. The team struggled all season, barely qualified for the postseason and lost to the Warriors in the first round in five games.

“The season from the beginning wasn’t going our way,” James Harden said. “We had too many distractions, a bumpy road this entire season.”

At the forefront of the distractions was the rocky relationship between Harden and Howard. The animosity between Houston’s two top players trickled down the roster, a problem that never corrected itself.

“That’s going to happen,” Terry said regarding distractions. “I’ve been around this thing a long time. You will be faced with all types of adversities and how you come through those is a sign of the type of team you have. Our team was just not strong enough mentally to get through those adversities and learn. A lesson for [Harden] as a star of a team, you have to deal with certain issues and still be able to be mentally tough to bring your level of play up with your team and get them to where you want them to go. It happens.”

With Howard now in Atlanta, the Rockets don’t need to worry about the shaky relationship between its two top players. However, the hope is that Harden learned from the situation and will be able to be more of a unifying presence for the Rockets moving forward.

“We just didn’t have the chemistry needed,” Terry said. “It’s one thing to put the pieces together on paper, but it has to be a tight-knit bond with a group of guys to do something special, and our group just didn’t have that this year.”

While Terry had some nice insight on the team’s internal issues, he won’t be around moving forward to help turn things around. The Rockets reportedly have opted to not offer Terry a contract for this upcoming season, which is one of the smaller moves the team made this offseason.

Howard opted out of the final year of his contract and signed a three-year deal with his hometown Atlanta Hawks. Houston also renounced the rights to Terrence Jones and Josh Smith. The Rockets then hired Mike D’Antoni to take over as head coach, drafted Chinanu Onuaku (37th) and Zhou Qi (43rd) in this year’s Draft and then signed sharp shooting power forward Ryan Anderson (four-year, $80 million contract) and Eric Gordon (four-year, $52.9 million contract) in free agency. Then, in an interesting and unexpected move, the team restructured and extended James Harden’s contract to a four-year, $118 million deal with player option on final season. Our Eric Pincus recently broke the minutia of restructuring player contracts, using Harden’s as an example of how such a deal works and the logic behind it for both sides.

Houston also signed Nene to a one-year, $2.9 million contract, which is a really solid value for a big man like Nene. Houston has also reportedly lined up deals for Gary Payton II, Kyle Wiltjer, Isaiah Taylor to a two-year, partially-guaranteed $1.4 million contract and Pablo Prigioni. And while Houston has yet to re-sign Donatas Motiejunas, they have the inside track on him since Motiejunas is a restricted free agent and most teams used up a significant part of their respective cap space already.

Like the gamble on Lawson, Morey is taking a risk by signing Anderson and Gordon. Anderson, age 28, suffered a season-ending neck injury in January 2014 and it took a long time for him to fully recover from that setback. He has suffered other smaller injuries since then, including an MCL sprain in February that kept him sidelined for a significant period of time. Having said that, when healthy, Anderson is an elite shooter at power forward and should fit nicely as a pick-and-pop partner with Harden and floor-spacer next to Clint Capela, the Rockets’ young, rim-protecting center.

Gordon comes with risks and upside as well. In his first few seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, Gordon established himself as one of the best up-and-coming shooting guards in the league. However, after being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in the deal for Chris Paul, Gordon has suffered a plethora of injuries and has only managed to play in an average of 53 games per season over the last four years. However, Gordon is still just 27 years old and when healthy is one of the best knock down shooters in the league. As of March 13 last season, Gordon was shooting 46.1 percent from distance and was benefiting from a small tweak he made to his jump shot last offseason. Combine his shooting with his ability to take the ball off the dribble in specific situations, and he too could be a valuable addition for a Houston team that struggled on offense all of last season.

In fact, the Rockets shot more three-pointers than any team but the Warriors last season, yet they were ranked 19th in three-point percentage. For a team that specifically targeted an abundance of three-point opportunities, the team lacked the consistent shooters to capitalize on the strategy. Adding Anderson and Gordon means that the Rockets can now space the floor more effectively, especially in lineups where Anderson plays as a small-ball center and Trevor Ariza plays at power forward.

How the team comes together will come down in large part to how Harden manages to pull the team out from the disappointment of last season. Stars are supposed to lead by example and in that regard, Harden needs to commit himself to playing with effort on defense consistently. This is especially true since Howard is now gone, Capela is still very inexperienced and Anderson is a below average defender at power forward. The Rockets should be explosive on offense, but will need to come together collectively to maintain a league average defense this upcoming season. Harden has a huge role to play on this front.

Another important dynamic will be the relationship between D’Antoni, Harden and the rest of the team. D’Antoni ushered in the modern era of pace-and-space in Phoenix and knows how to run a dynamic offense. If he and Harden can get on the same page and utilize their bolstered shooting in a way that allows him to be more of a playmaker and less of an isolation scorer, the Rockets could improve significantly on offense. Of course, all of this is contingent on Anderson and Gordon staying on the court, which has been an issue for them over the last few seasons.

Morey took some risks this offseason after taking one with Lawson last season. These moves may not make the Rockets a legitimate championship contender this upcoming season, but they are the kind of moves a team needs to make when they are trying to climb the rankings with dominant teams like the Warriors standing at the top of the hill.

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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The Atlanta Hawks Seek To Meld Championship Cultures

The Hawks are seeking to build a new but familiar culture, writes Buddy Grizzard.

Buddy Grizzard

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Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk made no secret of his intention to borrow cultural and organizational elements from the Golden State Warriors — his former employer — while speaking to media at Philips Arena Friday morning. The spirit of collaboration he brings from Golden State shares similarities with the San Antonio-inspired spirit of his immediate front office predecessors. Another similarity is to specifically target high-character players who will always strive to reach their full potential, and Schlenk said he’s not concerned if his group overachieves and sacrifices draft position.

“We drafted Draymond Green while I was in Golden State at 35,” said Schlenk. “You can get franchise-type players and very solid players all over the draft. We’re going to be competitive. When you look at the guys we signed this year in free agency, those are guys that show up and play hard every single night. So we’re laying the foundation for the future of the Atlanta Hawks.”

Character is a recurring theme for Schlenk, who noted the Warriors as a team that was able to assemble a high-character roster without sacrificing talent.

“All the guys that we sign or look to acquire moving forward, they’re going to be high character guys as we start to build a culture here and lay the foundation for the future, said Schlenk. “When you look back when I was involved with Golden State, that’s a conscious decision we made. You look at the guys that are on that roster now and they are all high-character guys, and that’s what we’re going to mimic here in Atlanta as well.”

Another element Schlenk brings from Golden State is a spirit of collaboration among members of the front office and coaching staff to develop consensus on important decisions. While Schlenk has made some additions to the basketball operations staff, it hasn’t been a complete overhaul. Some of the key voices remain from coach Mike Budenholzer’s previous front office regime, providing Atlanta with some continuity.

“I’m very fortunate [that] when I got here, there was a great staff already in place,” said Schlenk. “Those guys are still with us and — going through the draft process with them — their organization was really, really strong. Going through free agency we were extremely prepared. That group is Jeff Peterson, who is our assistant GM; John Treloar, our director of player personnel; obviously coach Budenholzer; Mike McNeive, our director of basketball operations. Those are kind of our senior management crew and then we have younger guys that are also involved in the process.”

One of the additions Schlenk made was to bring on Rod Higgins, who was the GM in Golden State early in his career and later GM of the Hornets, as a college scout.

“He was the GM there when I was a back-row assistant coach,” said Schlenk. “I’m very comfortable with the staff we have here but I thought bringing in somebody with a little more experience could be useful for us. It’s important to have a group and it’s important that you get everyone’s opinions and they’re different opinions. You don’t want a group of people that are all going to give you the same mind unless it’s the right decision.”

While some have wondered how enthusiastic Budenholzer is to oversee a developing roster since he hasn’t missed the playoffs since his first season as an assistant in San Antonio (the season before the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan), Schlenk was very comfortable with his buy-in.

“Coach Bud, when I first got here we spent a ton of time together, getting to know each other [and] getting to know each other’s philosophies, said Schlenk. “He’s completely on board with what our plan was this summer. He’s excited about the upcoming season. He and his staff have proven that the one thing they have done very well since he’s been here is develop young talent. And so they’re excited about this venture that we have where they’re going to have a great opportunity to develop a lot of — hopefully — great players that we’re going to draft over the next few years.”

Schlenk provided some insight on one of the moves that set the Hawks up to have additional draft assets in the future, the trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Charlotte Hornets and returned Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli. Although the trade cost Atlanta 10 spots in the second round, Schlenk insisted that it set the team up for flexibility in the future.

“The way the process goes when you start having conversations with other teams, you start building out all the other things that would be involved with making the trade,” said Schlenk. “When it got down with Charlotte, there were other players that were going to be in the deal that both teams decided wouldn’t be in there. Obviously, the 31st pick was important to them.

“When we look at our roster moving forward, with the nine draft picks we have in the next two years, it wasn’t as important to us to be able to add that young player this year because we have so many opportunities with three first-round draft picks next year. And we really only slid back ten spots to 41. Obviously, we would have loved to have the 31st pick, but to be able to get that financial flexibility that we wanted for the future, it made it worth it to slide back 10 spots in the second round.”

Schlenk added that not nearly enough time has passed to evaluate the trade’s impact on Atlanta.

“Well, we haven’t played a game yet so it’s hard to say,” said Schlenk. “We did that trade for the financial flexibility. We were able to use that flexibility this summer to acquire a first-round draft pick in next year’s draft from the Clippers in the Jamal Crawford trade. So it played out well for us.”

While the Hawks will be building the product on the court from the ground up, Schlenk appears to have made the transition to new leadership in the front office as seamless as possible. While Schlenk is the final decision maker on front office matters, he strives to build consensus. In that way, the collaborative spirit he brings from Golden State is similar to the Spurs-inspired culture that already existed in Atlanta. However, with the Hawks looking at a lengthy development project, it will be a long time before we see if the melding of championship cultures can produce results similar to those achieved by the organizations of origin.

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NBA AM: Boston Celtics 2017-18 Season Preview

The Boston Celtics will have a very different look this season. The question is will it be enough to topple the Cavaliers? We look at the Celtics in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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When a franchise returns just four players from the prior season, that’s typically a sign of a rebuild, a strategy not often embraced by teams that were just three wins shy of reaching the NBA Finals. Of course, this massive roster overhaul comes after the Boston Celtics clawed their way to the Eastern Conference’s top seed with a 53-29 record, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to demoralize them in five games.

After moving down from the No. 1 overall pick (via Brooklyn) in the 2017 NBA Draft to take talented rookie Jayson Tatum, the Celtics then added Gordon Hayward in free agency and executed a blockbuster trade for Kyrie Irving. While the Celtics are still soundly one of the conference’s elite contenders, general manager Danny Ainge has effectively gone all-in for 2017-18 without sacrificing much of the franchise’s long-term potential.

The Celtics’ revamped roster has set their collective sights on a championship, but here’s how Basketball Insiders envision this season shaking out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Incredibly, the team that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season added two star caliber players and a top-three pick in the draft during this offseason.

Talk about a productive summer.

The Boston Celtics are officially a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers Eastern Conference throne after signing Gordon Hayward, adding Jayson Tatum to the mix, and ultimately parting with the Brooklyn pick and their own point guard to bring Kyrie Irving behind enemy lines.

However, this season won’t be the season they finally usurp the King in Cleveland. But, Boston fans should be overjoyed with how the immediate and long term future of their team looks now with the likes of Irving and Hayward on board alongside a bevy of young talent and assets. The return to the glory days of Celtics basketball seems to be right around the corner.

1st place– Atlantic Division

– Dennis Chambers

It is my opinion that adding Kyrie Irving was good for the Celtics. Also, that signing Gordon Hayward was good. Also, that drafting Jayson Tatum was good. Together, all of these good things added to the good things Boston already had on the roster, including last year’s big additions, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, makes for a good team. The coach is good, too. Everything here is good. Big things are on the horizon for the Celtics this season.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

After scores of people ridiculed Danny Ainge for failing to land either Jimmy Butler or Paul George, he absolutely got the last laugh by signing Gordon Hayward and executing a trade for Kyrie Irving. As a result of a fairly busy summer, the Celtics have a ton of new faces and have lost their defensive stalwarts in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. With Hayward and Irving joining Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, though, the Celtics probably have enough firepower to win the Atlantic Division.

The reasonable expectation for this team is to give the Cavaliers a good fight in the Eastern Conference Finals. My main concern with them is that they simply lack the depth that made them who they were last season. Sure, consolidation is generally a good thing when you’re adding superstars, but the Celtics probably need two more solid rotation players before I consider them to be a legitimate threat to the Cavs atop the East. That, of course, assumes that everyone remains relatively healthy.

Still, Ainge deserves an A+ for what he pulled off this summer, and the Celtics’ next reign atop the Atlantic will likely begin this season.

1st place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The summer’s most active team, the Celtics will suddenly be without three of the five guys they sent out to start Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They landed the offseason’s biggest free agency fish in Gordon Hayward, then engineered a massive blockbuster for Kyrie Irving. These moves also forced them to move on from each of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, though they also picked up Marcus Morris for Bradley. The Celtics undeniably got more talented this summer, but how will potential fit and chemistry issues clash with that improvement? It’s tough to say, though coach Brad Stevens is among the best bets in the league to work things out quickly.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Adding Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving and a top-three draft pick in Jayson Tatum is a big deal. However, we can’t simply forget that guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are no longer with the team. The Thomas hip injury is problematic and he was about to become very expensive, so replacing him with Irving, even at a high price, was probably the right thing to do. Bradley is also about to become very expensive, but his elite perimeter defense and shooting will be missed. Also, I think the loss of Crowder is going to hurt more than most people predict. Having said all of that, the Celtics are primed to compete now and for the foreseeable future. Boston has a nice mix of versatile veteran and young talent to mix and match and I’m confident that Brad Stevens is going to figure out how to best utilize it. I don’t know if Boston has enough to take down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but I think the potential to do so is there.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Simply put, Irving is one of basketball’s best offensive players without a doubt. Whether Irving is looking to create his own shot or wants to feed off of his teammates as a spot-up assassin, the 25-year-old can do it all. Although Cleveland ultimately came up short against the Golden State Warriors, Irving managed to improved in the playoffs once again, this time tallying 25.9 points to go along with 5.3 assists and 2.4 three-pointers per game. With the ball, Irving is immensely talented and creative in both pick-and-roll or isolation situations, particularly so when the game hangs in the balance.

His trade demand exhibited the desire to be a franchise’s top option offensively, a role Irving hasn’t held since LeBron James re-signed with Cleveland in 2014. The future dynamic between the Celtics’ new 1-2 scoring punch hasn’t been defined, but Irving may be headed toward his most fruitful season yet.

Top Defensive Player: Marcus Smart

Nearly by default, Marcus Smart is the clear leader in this category. With the departure of Avery Bradley this summer, Stevens will badly need a defensive bulldog to play a large role in the backcourt. Smart’s slower offensive development has kept him from becoming a star, but there’s no denying his hawk-like instincts and ruthless intangibles. Using his hulking 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, Smart hounds opposing players and aggressively takes advantage of their mistakes.

In 2016-17 alone, Smart totaled 14 games with three or more steals, even reaching an absurd tally of eight in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers just before the All-Star break. Today, Smart is an extremely versatile defender, often capable of guarding every position on the floor despite the difference in height. It’s been said every year since Smart was drafted in 2014 – he owns a career three-point mark of 29.1 percent – but if he develops a more consistent jumper, the sky’s the limit for the enigmatic guard.

Unless the Celtics and Smart agree on an extension before the regular season begins, he’ll be a restricted free agent next July. With a huge role on the table and plenty of money up for grabs, expect Smart to run with the opportunity and become one of the Celtics’ big-time glue guys, even if he’s not a starter.

Top Playmaker: Gordon Hayward

Hayward has long been on the shortlist for the NBA’s most underrated, but that will likely change in Boston this season. Since the Utah Jazz drafted Hayward in 2010, the 6-foot-8 small forward has improved in every consecutive season and posted career-highs in points (21.9), rebounds (5.4) and field goal percentage (47.1)* during his final campaign in Utah. Despite his low usage for a star (27.6), Hayward was the key linchpin behind a Jazz team that reached the playoffs’ second round for the first time since 2009-10.

As a versatile offensive wing, Hayward has blossomed into a reliable shooter from nearly every spot on the court. Defensively, Hayward was a difficult assignment in 2016-17 and he was more than happy to launch from long range (39.8 percent) or penetrate (5.9 FTA) depending on the situation. In 2013-14, Hayward averaged 5.2 assists per game and the Celtics will tap into his efficient playmaking abilities in Stevens’ fluid offense.

* If you don’t count his rookie season percentage of 48.5, in which Hayward only attempted 4.1 shots per game

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

No matter what situation, moment or deficit is at hand, nothing is impossible or too big for Irving. Even on a team that often deferred to James in the waning moments, Irving’s fourth quarter explosions were always an incredible joy to watch in Cleveland. Armed with an arsenal of ankle-breaking crossovers and an uncanny ability to finish around the rim, there’s no defender that enjoys guarding Irving as the clock ticks toward the final buzzer.

The Boston faithful fell in love with Thomas’ volume shooting late in games and his average of 9.8 fourth quarter points trailed only Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, so Irving undoubtedly has huge shoes to fill. But if Irving’s stellar track record – see Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals – is any indication, the Celtics will adore their new franchise point guard all the same.

The Unheralded Player: Al Horford

Al Horford was the Celtics’ big-time free agent coup in 2016, a precursor to this summer’s onslaught of roster changes. And yet, the four-time All-Star took plenty of criticism, even as Boston battled their way to the conference’s No. 1 seed. For $26.5 million, fans argued, Horford should be contributing more than 14 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. However, Horford’s influence on both sides of the ball extends beyond the box score.

The 11-year veteran is now on the wrong side of 30, but Horford is a Swiss Army Knife of versatility for Boston. Defensively, his ability to effortlessly switch on screens and stay with driving opponents makes him an invaluable piece to Boston’s puzzle. Rebounding is still a team-wide weakness, but Horford was Boston’s best rebounding big man last season – Bradley grabbed more than anybody else and ranked No. 2 with 6.1 per game.

Like it or not, the Celtics will need Horford’s reliable numbers after shuffling Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko out the door this offseason.

Best New Addition: Marcus Morris

Yes, Irving and Hayward are Boston’s best new additions, but in the interest of sharing the spotlight, there’s another arrival that deserves attention as well. This summer saw the departure of both Crowder and Olynyk, but Marcus Morris should be an excellent replacement for the Celtics. Morris started 79 games for the Detroit Pistons last season and averaged 14 points and 4.6 rebounds as the team’s small forward. While he’ll be asked to fill a slightly different role with the Celtics, Morris should fit in nicely on the roster and in Stevens’ offensive and defensive systems.

Although he only converted on 33.1 percent of his three-point attempts last season, Morris has developed into a reliable 3-and-D player nonetheless. For almost two years, Morris has been hailed as one of the league’s top LeBron-stoppers as James averaged just 22 points against the Detroist Pistons in 2016-17, according to Boston.com. Another tidbit worth noting: Morris has played in 399 of 410 possible games over the last five NBA seasons, a near-perfect bill of health for the hard-nosed forward.

– Benny Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Danny Ainge

Gifted a treasure trove of high-level assets by the Brooklyn Nets in 2013, Ainge quickly changed the fortunes of a franchise headed for an inevitable rebuild. The combination of hungry youngsters and the eventual emergence of Thomas jumpstarted the Celtics’ latest revival, a streak often attributed to the general manager’s overall savviness in trades and drafts. Unpredictable in nature, Ainge has been calculated in his moves thus far, looking to contend and build for the future at the same time.

When Ainge needed cap space to sign Hayward, he made the difficult decision to move Bradley instead of Crowder or Smart. While Bradley was beloved by fans and essential to the roster’s core DNA, the forward-thinking Ainge traded the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent instead of Crowder’s team-friendly deal or Smart, who will be restricted in 2018. After selecting Jaylen Brown in 2016 and moving down for Tatum this June, Ainge was comfortable enough to move Thomas, Crowder and the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder to acquire Irving.

The Celtics haven’t conquered their James-sized problem quite yet, but Ainge deserves credit for the bold direction he’s taken the franchise this summer alone.

2. Brad Stevens

Year after year, Stevens continues to build his case as one of the NBA’s brightest coaches. Stevens is lauded as a tactical mastermind and his approach to the Xs and Os helped Boston to a 108.6 offensive rating last season, the eighth-best mark in the league. Out of timeouts, the Celtics are deadly and Stevens excels at utilizing screens and deceptive movements to create easy shot opportunities. Unanimously liked in the locker room as well, Stevens is able to squeeze every ounce of talent from his roster each season.

Reuniting with Hayward is not only a fantastic storyline for the 2017-18 season, but he’s another uber-efficient talent for Stevens to weaponize as he sees fit. Truly historic results from both Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni have stolen the coaching spotlight away from Stevens during recent award seasons, but it shouldn’t be long before the well-received leader earns a trophy of his own.

3. Jaylen Brown

At this point, there’s no stopping Brown’s hype train and his expectations as a hooper have never been higher. After encouraging stints at both the Utah and Las Vegas summer leagues, many have tipped Brown as the favorite to supplant Bradley as a starter. Brown is an energetic, enthusiastic defender and his athleticism should make him a highlight machine alongside Irving.

Stevens hasn’t chosen between Brown and Smart quite yet, but the sophomore will see a major boost in minutes this season either way. As Basketball Insiders wrote last month, nobody benefitted more from the Irving-Thomas deal than Brown – now it’s time to prove it.

4. Jayson Tatum

Leading up to June’s NBA Draft, Markelle Fultz was the unanimous choice for the No. 1 overall pick. When Ainge eventually traded down for Tatum, some onlookers were initially confused. With Thomas set to hit unrestricted free agency in 2018 and openly searching for an expensive deal, Fultz would have been an appropriate replacement. But after the Irving trade in late August, Ainge’s master plan became much clearer: Brown and Tatum are the future of the franchise.

For what it’s worth, Tatum’s first summer league entry was an undeniable success and the rookie immediately exhibited an ability to score at the NBA level. His role will certainly be limited this season, but Tatum’s positional fluidity should earn him opportunities to contribute, albeit small ones. However, if an injury strikes, it’ll be interesting to see if Tatum can thrive in a high-intensity role.

– Benny Nadeau

SALARY CAP 101

The Celtics made their big move in acquiring Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team started the summer under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, landing Gordon Hayward in free agency. Now over, Boston used their $4.3 million Room Exception on Aron Baynes. Outside of additional trades, the team can only bring on additional players on minimum contracts.

Next summer, the Celtics will be over the league’s projected cap of $102 million. They’ll need to decide on the 2018-19 options for Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier before November. Marcus Smart is eligible for an extension until the start of the coming season.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

With just Horford, Smart, Rozier and Brown returning from last year’s team, it’s tough to pinpoint what exactly the Celtics will excel at this upcoming season. The onus here falls on Stevens to put together a cohesive unit as quickly as possible, but many of their strongest traits could return this winter. In 2016-17, the Celtics made 12 three-pointers per game, third-most in the league and equal to the supercharged Warriors’ total.

Thomas, Crowder and Bradley accounted for 7.4 of those 12 aforementioned three-pointers last season, but the arrivals of Irving (2.5), Hayward (2.0) and Morris (1.5) should make the Celtics one of the league’s best shooting teams in 2017-18. Despite their reliance on young talent, the Celtics should continue on as a solid defensive unit – their 105.5 defensive rating was twelfth-best in 2016-17 – even without Crowder and Bradley in tow. Hayward and Morris are underrated defenders and if the youngsters (Brown, Smart and Rozier) are able to provide quality minutes in their increased roles, they’ll frustrate opposing teams for at least another year.

– Benny Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Despite the Celtics’ intense makeover, they’re still lagging behind in the rebounding department. In 2016-17, Boston grabbed just 42 rebounds a game, the NBA’s fourth-lowest mark. It bears repeating that the 6-foot-3 Bradley was Boston’s second-best rebounder last year as well. To shore up that front, the Celtics added both Ante Žižić and Daniel Theis to the roster this summer, but the former was included in the Irving-Thomas trade. At 25 years-old, Theis is a three-time German League champion and could be a valuable pickup behind Horford.

Additionally, the Celtics signed Aron Baynes as well, a 6-foot-10 center that spent the last two seasons with Detroit and averaged 4.4 rebounds last year. Still, the two new centers are unlikely to reverse Boston’s rebounding misfortunes alone. Although Boston has taken steps to address their biggest weakness from 2016-17, they’ll likely struggle on the boards for most of the season once again.

– Benny Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Following the Irving-Thomas trade, can Boston finally topple Cleveland?

This is undoubtedly a difficult question, but we won’t have a better idea until Thomas returns from that long-term hip injury, whenever that may be. The Cavaliers coasted through the regular season in 2016-17 and ceded the No. 1 position to Boston in the process, all before annihilating them in the conference finals. Ultimately, as long as Thomas is healthy come playoff time, Cleveland remains the odds-on favorite to reach the championship for the fourth straight season.

Derrick Rose is not an equal-level replacement for Thomas, but he’ll get the job done on most nights. Crowder, on the other hand, instantly becomes Cleveland’s third-best forward behind Kevin Love and James. Even if the Celtics can’t overcome the Cavaliers this season, this won’t be the last time this burning question is asked, particularly so if James leaves in 2018.

Although Hayward, Irving and Horford will form a fearsome trio in 2017-18, the future is still incredibly bright as well. Anchored by Stevens and guided by the internal development of Smart, Brown and Tatum, the Celtics’ franchise is looking quite strong these days.

– Benny Nadeau

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NBA PM: Los Angeles Clippers 2017-18 Season Preview

After the loss of star Chris Paul, Basketball Insiders previews the LA Clippers for 2017-18.

Basketball Insiders

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Earlier this offseason, Chris Paul decided to take his talents to Houston to play alongside James Harden. With this decision, the Los Angeles Clippers we have known for the last few years came to an end. However, rather than leaving the Clippers empty handed, Paul opted into the final year of his contract, which allowed Los Angeles to trade him to the Rockets in exchange for Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, a protected 2018 first-rounder and $661,072. It’s never good to lose an elite talent, but this was as ideal of an outcome as a team could reasonably hope for in this sort of situation.

Shortly after Paul was traded, Blake Griffin re-signed with the Clippers on a five-year, $173 million contract. The deal signaled that the Clippers were not going to strip down the roster and start a full rebuild. Instead, the Clippers invested heavily in Griffin, acquired Danilo Gallinari in a sign-and-trade deal with the Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks, signed Milos Teodosic and Willie Reed and added new executives to restructure the team’s front office.

The Clippers added a lot of fresh faces, but necessarily said farewell to several key contributors and role players, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson and Brandon Bass. With a fresh new roster, based heavily around Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers enter the season with several questions, including how far this team can go in the postseason.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Clippers did an admirable job bouncing immediately back from Paul’s decision to take his talents to Houston. The team is deeper than it has been in recent seasons, though they lack the high-end talent they had when Paul was on the roster. It’s not clear how far this team can go in the playoffs, but the team has potential. If nothing else, this season will be more interesting that the last few have been. Rather than predictably falling short in the playoffs because of a lack of depth and health issues, this squad has the talent to withstand a few injuries and the chance to create a new identity. The Clippers can’t reasonably expect to overtake the Warriors this season, but they should be competitive on any given night, regardless of who their opponent is.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

— Jesse Blancarte

The days of dreaming about raising a Clippers championship banner at Staples Center followed Chris Paul to Houston. It’s over.

Even still, credit the franchise for making lemonade from their lemons; they recovered nicely from Paul’s departure. I wouldn’t be shocked for the Clips to flirt with 50 wins this season, but that’ll depend on Blake Griffin’s health and the ease with which Milos Teodosic is able to make the conversion to the NBA. Aside from that, there’s a lot to like — Danilo Gallinari is a stud, Patrick Beverly is underrated and Lou Williams is still a prolific scorer. I also happen to think that both Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans are certified NBA players, so the Clippers are one of the teams I will be paying closest attention to this season.

I do expect the Kings to be much-improved, as well, but in the end, I’d expect Doc Rivers to figure out how to put all these new pieces together and carry his Clippers to the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.

2nd place — Pacific Divison

— Moke Hamilton

Basic math suggests that the Los Angeles Clippers minus Chris Paul equals a huge step backward as a franchise, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are still in the fold, after all, and the return for Paul wasn’t bad. Pat Beverley is an elite defender at the point guard spot, and electric Euro backup Milos Teodisc brings the offense that Beverley can’t. Lou Williams can replace some of the bench scoring lost from Jamal Crawford, while there’s plenty to like still about the team’s kids — Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and even rookie Sindarius Thornwell. They lost their captain, which hurts, but I don’t see any reason why they can’t still compete at an elite level this season considering how well they restocked. I’m not out on LAC just yet.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

— Joel Brigham

Despite Chris Paul handcuffing the Los Angeles Clippers into trading him this summer, they somehow managed to turn around and receive an impressive haul for the all-star point guard.

In return for Paul, the Clippers acquired Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, and a few more pieces. By moving Paul, Los Angeles had enough money in the bank to pair Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. With this group of players, the Clippers should still be plenty competitive in a deeper Western Conference, and ultimately should find themselves in the playoff picture this season. Not bad for losing arguably the best point guard in the entire league.

2nd place — Pacific Division

— Dennis Chambers

It’s never easy to lose a consensus top-10 player in the NBA, and the Clippers acquitted themselves nicely despite being forced to send Chris Paul to Houston this offseason. Their massive trade haul with the Rockets included strong pieces like Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Lou Williams and others, and they also made some smart signings in Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic. Will a deeper, more diverse roster be enough to make up for the loss of Paul? It’s tough to say, though we have to expect at least some drop-off. The health of DeAndre Jordan and especially Blake Griffin will loom large for this bunch, and there could be a few fit issues with a guy like Gallinari, who will play a lot of small forward despite being better-suited as a four man at this point in his career. Expect the Clippers to be right there competing for the final few playoff spots in the West.

2nd Place — Pacific Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin, when healthy, is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. He still struggles with his jumper, but his combination of size, strength and skill makes him an efficient scorer and effective playmaker from the power forward position. Griffin averaged 22.8 points per game last season and shot 33.6 percent from three-point range on a career-high two attempts per game. If Griffin can improve his three-point shooting even by just a few percentage points, it will force opponents to guard him more closely on the perimeter, which could open up more opportunities to attack the basket off the dribble. Additionally, Griffin is still one of the best playmaking power forwards in the league. Last season, Griffin averaged 5.2 assists per game – a number that could easily increase this season with the exit of Paul. Griffin isn’t quite as physically explosive as he was earlier in his career, but with Paul out of the picture and a more refined offensive game, Griffin is in a position to take his game to another level. Much of the Clippers’ success this season will depend on how effectively Griffin can manage being the focal point on offense.

Top Defensive Player: DeAndre Jordan

The Clippers have, for the most part, been an average-to-good defensive team over the last few seasons – thanks in large part to DeAndre Jordan. Jordan entered the league as a raw, physically gifted center. Over his career, he has steadily improved and refined his game. The result is Jordan is now one of the most physically gifted and effective defensive centers in the NBA. He’s still prone to making a few mental errors on most nights (biting on pump fakes, failing to rotate to help a teammate, etc.), but also consistently contests shots at the rim, blocks shots, rotates effectively on the perimeter and hauls in plenty of rebounds. Patrick Beverley comes in as a close second here, but Jordan anchoring the defense from the center position is arguably more important than Beverley’s perimeter defense.

Top Playmaker: Milos Teodosic

The Clippers signed Milos Teodosic to a partially-guaranteed, two-year $12.3 million contract (with a player option on the final season). Teodosic, 30 years old, has arguably been the best player in Europe over the last few years and is one of the best passers currently playing the game of basketball in any professional league. Teodosic spent the last few years playing for CSKA Moscow of the Russian League and VTB United League. NBA fans may not know much about Teodosic and many have likely never even seen him play before. However, if Teodosic’s game translates to the NBA, it won’t take long for NBA fans to take notice. Teodosic’s passing skills and court vision remind us of players like Steve Nash, John Stockton or perhaps even Jason Williams. Teodosic will struggle on the defensive end of the court, but expect him to quickly develop chemistry with his teammates on offense, especially the high-flying Griffin and Jordan.

Top Clutch Player: Danilo Gallinari

Danilo Gallinari isn’t generally considered to be one of the NBA’s top clutch players, but he has proven himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in late game situations. Gallinari has suffered through knee and other injuries over his career but he is still a very capable scorer. He is a good spot up shooter, can score in isolation, in the post and gets to the free throw line frequently. Gallinari is also a good playmaker and is as much of a threat to create an easy scoring opportunity for a teammate as he is to score himself in a clutch situation. Gallinari probably looks to draw a foul too often in these situations, which can get him into trouble, but with the game on the line, he is probably the team’s best option to either get a bucket or create a scoring opportunity for a teammate.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Beverley

Patrick Beverley has established a reputation for being one of the grittiest, tough-nosed point guards in the league. Whether he is facing off against Russell Westbrook or Ramon Sessions, Beverley is going to give maximum effort to lock down his opponent. His box score numbers won’t blow anyone away on most nights, but he will make the Clippers a better team and will often keep his opponents in check.

Best New Addition: Danilo Gallinari

Gallinari comes to Los Angeles at a hefty price, but he addresses several areas of need for the Clippers. Gallinari is probably better suited to play the power forward position at this point in his career, but he can still manage to play small forward as well. The Clippers have been in desperate need of a quality small forward and Gallinari should help in that regard. However, Gallinari’s ability to play power forward should allow the Clippers to create some interesting small ball lineups that, in theory, should be quite effective on offense. The issue with Gallinari is his health. Gallinari has only managed to play in 70 or more regular season games twice in his career and the last time was in the 2012-13 season. Gallinari is off to a bad start this season health wise as he injured his hand in an on-court altercation earlier this offseason.

— Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jerry West

Jerry West has established himself as one of the best team architects in the NBA. West’s fingerprints are all over the Golden State Warriors, who have assembled and maintained one of the most talented rosters in NBA history. Looking for a new challenge, West agreed to join the Clippers as a consultant this offseason and his fingerprints already appear up and down the Clippers’ current roster. It can be argued that he should have opted for a complete rebuild after Paul left, rather than retooling the team’s roster on the fly. As impressive as the Clippers’ roster reconstruction has been this offseason, there’s a legitimate argument that they aren’t good enough to win a championship and too good to land into top-draft picks to rebuild with. While this may be the case, we trust West to make the necessary moves to put the Clippers in a position to be successful.

2. Patrick Beverley

The Clippers are in search of a new identity and culture, which is something Beverley can have a big impact on. Earlier this offseason, Beverley said that he hoped his effort and approach to the game would have a positive effect on his teammates and give the team a new identity.

“Me providing the leadership I provide. Trying to change the culture a little bit,” Beverley said. “You think of L.A. and you think of lights, camera, action. All of that is fun for sure. But at the end of the day, they judge you by wins and losses and how hard you play, and how you putting on for the city. If I can just be fortunate to bring my culture to the team, try to change the culture a little bit to kind of a blue collar, grit and grind kind of team and potentially make the playoffs and when you make the playoffs, anything can happen.”

The Clippers have a reputation for complaining to the officials too often and falling short of expectations. If the team adopts Beverley’s hard-nosed approach to the game and learns to stay away from the officials (or at least tone it down), their reputation across the league could transform quickly.

3. Blake Griffin

Despite the departure of CP3, Griffin returns to the Clippers on a max-contract with the hope of not only maintaining the team’s standard of play, but improving on it. It won’t be easy, however. Paul is still one of the best overall point guards in the league and has been the focal point of the team’s offense since he first put on a Clippers jersey. Griffin has the skills to thrive both as a scorer and playmaker, which will likely be on full display this season. Health has been a problem throughout Griffin’s career. With Paul gone, any time Griffin misses will be even more detrimental than it has been in past seasons (though Paul and Griffin played quite well over the years whenever the other was injured). If Griffin has better luck with health and thrives in the absence of Paul, Griffin could have a big season.

4. Sindarius Thornwell

The Clippers purchased the No. 48 pick in this year’s draft from the Milwaukee Bucks and used it on former South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell. Last season, Thornwell averaged 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.1 steals while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. Thornwell earned First-Team All-SEC honors and was named the SEC Player of the Year. Thornwell, who played four years of college ball, does not have the upside of other prospects, but he was arguably college’s most productive player last season and brings youth, athleticism and skill to the Clippers. It’s not clear how Doc Rivers plans to utilize Thornwell with this year’s roster, but if he proves to be a reliable contributor, he would be a big boost for the Clippers.

— Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Clippers stayed above the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, re-signing Blake Griffin while sending Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets via sign and trade. By acquiring Danilo Gallinari and using most of their Mid-Level Exception on Milos Teodosic, Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans, the Clippers are hard-capped at $125.3 million. They’re close to that line with 14 guaranteed players, limiting their ability to use their $7.3 million trade exception for Paul, which expires in late June.

Before next season, DeAndre Jordan can opt out of his contract. If the Clippers stumble this season, they may be better off shopping Jordan instead of risking he leaves outright as a free agent. Before November, Los Angeles needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Sam Dekker and Brice Johnson. The Clippers could have a decent amount of cap room next July (roughly $35 million) but that relies on Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, Teodosic and Jordan all opting out.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Depth. During the CP3 era, the Clippers constantly struggled to manufacture adequate depth on the roster. With three massive contracts between Paul, Griffin and Jordan, the Clippers had little flexibility to bolster the roster. Now, the Clippers have invested heavily in Gallinari and the other players acquired in the trade for Paul. The result of this is a deeper roster that doesn’t have as much top-end talent, but isn’t scrapping the bottom of the barrel for help either.

— Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

While the Clippers’ roster is deeper than it has been in years, the absence of Paul means the Clippers no longer have an elite Big 3 to build around. While other teams like the Warriors feature several superstar talents, the Clippers are down to Griffin and Jordan. Will these two be enough to carry the Clippers deep into the playoffs? It’s unclear what the duo and this new roster is capable of, but this season should be more interesting that recent seasons in Los Angeles.

— Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Should the Clippers have opted for a full rebuild rather than retooling on the fly after the loss of Chris Paul?

The Clippers had the opportunity to shed all of their major salaries and rebuild from the ground up. Rather than engaging in a Sam Hinkie style rebuild, the Clippers re-signed Griffin, invested in Gallinari and rounded out the roster with several veterans and young prospects with guaranteed salaries. The Clippers could still unload these players in trade if it’s clear this roster cannot compete with the elite teams of the league, but that doesn’t seem likely. Instead, the Clippers will likely earn a bottom-four seed in the Western Conference and will hope that moving forward they can bolster the roster through opportunistic trades, solid drafting and internal development. We will never truly know whether the Clippers would have been better off by engaging in a full rebuild, but if this teams falls flat this season, people will second guess the team’s offseason strategy to retool on the fly.

— Jesse Blancarte

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