We appreciate each of you that followed along with all of our 2014-15 NBA Team Previews, as we know many of you are just as eager for the start of the season as we are. Now, we take a look at the top questions, concerns and challenges facing each team as they head into training camp. We continue our camp series that started with the Central, Northwest and Southwest divisions with today’s look at the Pacific Division:
Los Angeles Clippers
Although the Clippers have clearly shown they are no longer the lovable butt of NBA jokes over the past few seasons, they still have yet to put everything together in order to push past the semifinal round over that stretch. They’ve been far more successful and are without a doubt one of the more exciting teams to watch, but even with a remarkable influx of talent and the addition of a highly regarded coach with the resume of Doc Rivers, they haven’t been enough to truly place the Clippers into title discussion.
Can Blake Griffin take another step forward?
Griffin took a significant step forward in terms of his overall development as a player in 2013-14. The amount of work Griffin has put into his craft has been obvious, as the supremely athletic 25-year-old has improved in just about every facet of the game over his first four years. His 24.1 PPG, 3.9 APG and 71.5 percent from the line were each career highs, and Griffin even finished third in the regular season MVP voting. While still the eye-popping athlete and eternal ‘posterization’ threat, Griffin can now attack defenders in a variety of ways. He still isn’t quite the defender his athleticism and agility might lead you to expect, but Griffin has also improved on that end of the court. For these Clippers to truly take the next step, they’ll need Griffin to also do the same.
Chris Paul is without a doubt the leader in the locker room and on the court, but the Clippers need Griffin to further develop into the type of player that can be called upon for the key basket in a crucial situation when teams swarm the point guard with size.
Will Chris Paul stay healthy enough to maintain and build upon the momentum throughout the year?
No one questions whether Chris Paul is one of the tougher, pound-for-pound players in the league at this point, but that doesn’t mean he is exactly indestructible. After missing 12 games in 2012-13, the Clippers were without Paul’s services for a whopping 20 games last season due to injury. Hometown point guard Jordan Farmar’s addition could be key, but he hasn’t exactly been the perfect picture of health, either. If healthy, Paul and Farmar could very well be the best tandem at that position. In fact, when healthy, Farmar has proven worthy enough of a starter’s role; leaving Rivers with quite the favorable “problem” as a head coach. He’ll need to find the balance between keeping Paul healthy and rested throughout the year while also keeping Farmar fully engaged and sharp.
Which small forward will play the bulk of the minutes for Rivers?
Matt Barnes is currently listed as the starting small forward, but it is clear the team is still looking for answers at the position, as evidenced by the fact that the front office recently went out and acquired journeyman swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts. Last year’s first round pick Reggie Bullock has already been the subject of trade rumors and enters his sophomore season with far from any guarantees. If neither of the three are able to provide the type of consistent effort Rivers is looking from out of the position, don’t be surprised to see these Clippers engaged in further discussions to improve in that area.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors welcome in first-time head coach Steve Kerr and his new basketball philosophy into the fold. Golden State’s faithful fan base needn’t worry, as the Warriors should still be every bit as exciting as we move forward. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are fresh off their gold medal-winning contributions with Team USA and, like the Clippers, this team looks take the next step and compete for at least the Western Conference crown.
Will Coach Kerr run the Triangle Offense?
Kerr recently told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News that his offensive plans would be influenced by Phil Jackson and Tex Winter’s Triangle Offense, but we shouldn’t anticipate it looking quite like those 90s Chicago Bulls teams. With as many capable and willing playmakers in their rotation, the Triangle would certainly make a great deal of sense for Golden State. That said, as comfortable and efficient as Curry is with the pick-and-roll, expect to see plenty of two-man action as well. Basically, Kerr is most likely to eliminate much of the one-on-one or isolation action while strongly encouraging ball movement and spacing. As someone that played for three absolute coaching legends in Lute Olson (University of Arizona), Phil Jackson (Bulls) and Gregg Popovich (Spurs) during his basketball career, Kerr can certainly call upon the ample basketball knowledge that has been bestowed upon him since his freshman year at the U of A back in 1983.
Will Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green take the next step?
Each of these versatile, young players have shown promise at various times over their first two seasons in Golden State. At just 6’7, Green can shift between either forward position depending upon what size lineup they prefer. He’s a hustle and effort player that also has a more refined skill set than you might initially imagine. The 6’8 Barnes is actually agile enough to play the small forward position as well as in the backcourt against some of the larger shooting guards. Although they showed flashes at times, their roles were never quite defined under the previous regime. Each are skilled enough to shine under the presumed Kerr direction, but time will tell if they are able to work themselves into being consistent contributors on both ends of the court.
Will health be a main determining factor for Golden State once again?
Although much of the focus will understandably remain with Curry’s ankles and overall well-being, the diehard Oracle Arena faithful will tell you just as much (if not more) attention must be granted to the health of both Andrew Bogut and David Lee. Overall team health is always important, but for these Warriors to finally push forward and advance beyond the first couple rounds of the postseason they’ll finally need to have a relatively healthy frontcourt by the time we reach next year’s playoff stretch. Don’t be surprised to see a guy like Marreese Speights find a way to contribute on Kerr’s team, whether in spot duty or in extended coverage for an injured big man.
Coming off what was a surprisingly positive 48-win season in Jeff Hornacek’s inaugural season at the helm in Phoenix, the Suns find themselves attempting to actually build upon a year in which they nearly doubled their win total from the previous year (25).
How will Coach Hornacek divide the minutes in what is suddenly a crowded and talented backcourt?
No, this isn’t the reincarnation of former Timberwolves GM David Kahn, but let’s just say the Suns have an awful lot of options at the point guard position as we head into 2014-15. Sure, Eric Bledsoe is used as a combo guard, but that doesn’t account for the fact that the team had already signed free agent point guard (and previous starter in Sacramento) Isaiah Thomas and drafted a promising young point guard in Tyler Ennis over the summer. There were murmurings of reigning Most Improved Player Goran Dragic being involved in trade rumors surrounding the draft, but those whispers have since subsided, and Hornacek has quite the enviable problem of potentially having too much concentrated talent at one position moving forward. With Gerald Green coming off the best season of his career, one would also expect him to remain in Hornacek’s rotation.
Could the Suns have a future move in mind?
With all that aforementioned backcourt depth, it will be interesting to see if GM Ryan McDonough decides to see what could materialize on the trade market. Word is, the Suns are currently in favor of utilizing a three-headed attack between Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas but the existence of the roster redundancy at least makes a mid-season move a possibility. Teams could also find themselves reaching out to Phoenix regarding some of this young talent if the Suns don’t end up having quite the success they’d like to have.
Can the Suns compete for a playoff position in a tough Western Conference?
Even though their 48 wins would have been good enough to qualify for home court advantage in the first round of last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, the Suns know if they want to merely stay afloat in an ultra-competitive Western Conference it’s likely going to take more wins than that. If they can stay healthy enough in the backcourt and can somehow manage to keep everyone satisfied and engaged, then the Suns could approach a similar win total once again. Trouble is, will it be enough?
Los Angeles Lakers
It’s no secret that the Lakers are in a bit of a rebuilding period. Not only are they trying to welcome a returning Kobe Bryant back into the fold, they’re also simultaneously attempting to find a balance between his greatness and preferred style of play at this point in his career and their necessity to also develop and feature younger players and additional talent.
Can Byron Scott protect Bryant from himself, especially early in the year?
Aside from Scott being a capable coach, a likely reason why the Lakers ultimately elected to have him replace the departed Mike D’Antoni was due to his relationship with Bryant. The whole “he knows what it means to be a Laker” may sound nice to the loyal fans of the purple and gold (and may have even been a minor aspect of their search), but simply understanding and embracing the “Laker way” isn’t enough to warrant a position on its own. ESPNLA’s Max Kellerman often draws an interesting parallel between a boxing trainer being able to protect his fighter from his own desire to win while in the ring to how Scott needs to approach monitoring and in some cases limiting Bryant’s minutes and workload throughout the year. While anyone familiar with Bryant knows just how much easier that sounds in theory than in actual reality, if these Lakers are to have any success over his last couple years in the league, the key for Scott will be in getting the future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer to trust both in his strategy and the other players on the roster as much as he’s always trusted in his own abilities on the court.
Will Julius Randle be able to work himself into a starting position at some point this season?
To be clear, it is far more significant for Randle to be starting by the end of the year than it would be for him to be granted a starting position from the start of their upcoming camp. Even though the roster appears to be chock-full of power forwards, it appears the tentative plan is to play both Jordan Hill and Ed Davis at the center position in order to permit plenty of room for the growth and development of Randle. Although Randle is very nimble and agile for a player with his size and build, the rumors of him actually playing some time at the small forward position may be a bit premature until we see how his game will translate at this level. Fellow incoming rookie Jordan Clarkson is also someone the Lakers appear to have high hopes for, and is also seen as someone that may have the ability to play multiple positions for these Lakers. Bryant will remain a key component to what takes place for as long as he decides to continue lacing up his Nike’s, but these Lakers are now in the rare position of having to actively pursue the future while finding a way to respectfully permit an all-time great to gracefully walk off on his own accord.
Can these Lakers establish a defensive identity?
While some of us may be tempted to insert a Drew Rosenhaus “next question” at the mere mention of defense with this group, it isn’t beyond the realm of imagination to say this team could actually improve on the defensive end. Look for Scott to attempt to reestablish a certain toughness, intensity and personal accountability that should help, but the key could be in whether he can get the team to buy in and remain dedicated to both defending and rebounding as a unit at all times. Regardless of their efforts and willingness, it should be noted this team isn’t likely to simply develop into a defensive juggernaut overnight. Much like everything else in this game, the process of expunging the team of the most recent laissez-faire attitude toward defending while incorporating some of the younger and more able-bodied talent will be a process. Scott is charged with the somewhat unenviable task of finding a way to channel his inner-Aristotle in getting the ‘whole’ to be greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to the Lakers’ defensive efforts this season.
The Kings may have only won 28 games last season, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any positives to take from the year. The new ownership group and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson were able to keep the team in California’s state capitol, new GM Pete D’Alessandro was able bring in a talented player like Rudy Gay and first-year head coach Mike Malone was able to help DeMarcus Cousins (22.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 1.3 BPG) truly establish himself as a legitimate “face of the franchise.”
Can Darren Collison fill the void left by Isaiah Thomas’ departure?
The truth is, while Thomas was absolutely fantastic for them as more of a scoring point guard, this team doesn’t really need Collison to play quite that style to have an impact. Collison may be an above-average shooter from distance and can definitely get out in transition, but these Kings need him to focus on being a playmaker and distributor as well as being able to lock in and defend at the other end. Malone is a heavy proponent of defensive intensity along the perimeter and Collison is someone that can provide the type of ball pressure he’s looking for. The addition of Ramon Sessions in a reserve role should provide a bit of the scoring punch off the bench in the event the team still needs a boost in that department, and his size (6’3) also grants Malone the ability to use him against some of the bigger point guards if necessary.
Will DeMarcus continue to develop as a leader?
That question may have been laughed at just a couple short years ago, and even though Cousins can still be a very intense player he should absolutely be praised for the progress he’s made as a professional. He’s transitioned from being a guy that was seen as volatile to someone that is learning to utilize his intensity and emotion as weapons of motivation rather than allowing them to be detrimental to the team’s progress. Having just turned 24 during his time spent with Team USA this summer, don’t be surprised to see Cousins take yet another step forward in terms of his professionalism and leadership. That may show up in the form of increased productivity on the court, but Sacramento could most use a steady and strong voice within the locker room.
Will Ben McLemore or rookie Nik Stauskas ultimately be the answer at shooting guard?
Needless to say, if the team decides to spend the eighth-overall pick on Stauskas just a year after using the seventh-overall selection 0n McLemore, it’s clear there are no guarantees for the latter. Even though McLemore showed flashes and signs of his capabilities at times for Sacramento, his inability to find any amount of consistency with his shot had to be a concern for this coaching staff. What they need is someone who will be able to provide balance to the offense. What they don’t need is another scorer that will require in excess of 15-20 shots per night simply in order to get himself going. Offensive efficiency and a willingness to participate in a concerted effort on the defensive end will probably be the determining factors for this potential position battle.
NBA Daily: The Rich Getting Richer In LA
How will Paul George’s return from off-season shoulder surgeries affect the current state of things in Clipper Land? Chad Smith examines.
Paul George spurned the Los Angeles Lakers, not once but twice. The Palmdale, California kid grew up as a fan of the other team in town, the Los Angeles Clippers. Tomorrow night, he will make his debut for the franchise as one of their best players.
To say the Clippers were the laughing stock of the league for most of their existence would be a massive understatement. The tables have turned, and now the five-time All-NBA forward is part of a team favored by many to win the NBA championship.
Paul has been limited to non-contact drills for the last couple of months, and he has had enough of it.
“I’m tired of rehabbing,” George told reporters after practice. “It sucks.”
Following offseason surgery on both of his shoulders, the star forward has been chomping at the bit to make his return. Fortunately for the Clippers and their fan base, they won’t have to wait long.
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, George will make his season debut against the New Orleans Pelicans. With Kawhi Leonard’s load management and the recent injury to Landry Shamet, the addition of George couldn’t come at a better time for Los Angeles.
On top of that, the Clippers are finishing up a brutal seven-game stretch on the schedule. Those were games against Utah, San Antonio, Utah, Milwaukee, Portland and Toronto. They visit Houston tonight and travel to New Orleans for the second night of a back-to-back.
The Clippers currently rank 24th in three-point shooting, which is another area where Paul can dramatically help them improve. He has always been an underrated player in that department, but showed last season just how good of a spot-up shooter he can be. Even when he is not the one shooting the ball, there will be plenty of opportunities that open up for his teammates when he drives to the basket.
Paul has always been one of the premier defensive players in the league. His prowess on that end of the floor has put him in the conversation as one of the best two-way players in the game. Pairing the four-time All-Defensive player with Kawhi and Patrick Beverley is going to give opposing teams nightmares.
Working his way into 5-on-5 scrimmages, he would find himself playing against Kawhi’s team. Not only was he up for the challenge of guarding the two-time NBA Finals MVP, but he relished the opportunity.
Despite his eagerness to return to action, Paul is cognizant of the big picture. He has been through this before, at a much more frightening level. After fracturing his right leg in a Team USA scrimmage in 2014, Paul missed essentially the whole season in 2014-2015. He played the last eight games of the season with the Indiana Pacers, but it gave him great perspective. Paul stressed the importance of what pressure to put on himself, and what to avoid.
One thing Doc Rivers shouldn’t have to be concerned with is Paul adjusting his game. He has went from a young role player to an All-Star in Indiana. He averaged a career-high 28 points per game in Oklahoma City playing alongside a ball-dominant guard in Russell Westbrook. He has shared the spotlight before, and things will be no different playing with “fun guy” Kawhi.
The most mesmerizing part about the pairing of Kawhi and Paul is that they were nearly teammates in Indiana. The Pacers drafted the six-time All-Star 10th overall in 2010. A year later, they had the opportunity to select and keep Kawhi, but opted to trade him to San Antonio for local product George Hill. One major reason why Indiana made that move was that the franchise felt they were already solidified at the position with Paul.
The bond is already tight with George and his other Clippers teammates. This past Sunday, Fresno State retired Paul’s No. 24 jersey after he spent two seasons as a Bulldog. Several Clippers players showed up to surprise him, including team owner Steve Balmer. It was already a moving moment for Paul, but having his guys on hand to share the ceremony with him made it even more special.
The 29-year old forward averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals last season in Oklahoma City, where he finished third in the MVP voting. With LA’s elite role players already established, George should be able to find his groove within the team before their game on Monday, where he will face his former Thunder teammates.
The big question will be how much will Kawhi and Paul play together? With the ability to always have one superstar on the floor at all times, Doc Rivers will have plenty of options. Should Kawhi continue to rest throughout the season, Paul should be able to handle the load as long as he is healthy. His seven games of scoring at least 40 points — including a 47-point triple-double against Portland last year — should be sufficient evidence of that.
Versatility is a strong suit for LA when it comes to rotations. The lineup to start the game could be drastically different from that which closes the game. When fully healthy, they can go big or small, shifting Paul between the shooting guard or power forward positions. With Shamet likely missing some time, Paul may spend a lot of time at the guard spot. That could arguably be the best five-man defensive lineup in the league with Beverley, George, Leonard, Maurice Harkless and Ivica Zubac.
With George returning to the floor, LA will now have both of its dynamic duos intact. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have played incredibly well for the Lakers so far this season.
Should Kawhi and Paul fulfill expectations, the Battle of Los Angeles may, in fact, reward the winner with a trip to the Finals.
NBA Daily: Blazers’ Early-Season Struggles Cause For Lasting Concern
The Blazers are 4-6, and facing a rash of injuries. As the schedule gets tougher, is Portland at risk of falling way behind in the playoff Western Conference playoff race?
The Portland Trail Blazers’ silver lining has little to do with them.
The expectation coming into this season was that as many as 13 teams in the Western Conference could compete for the playoffs, propelling the number of victories needed to advance to the postseason into the high 40s. Three weeks into 2019-20, the number of teams good enough to vie for a playoff berth is smaller than anticipated. The Phoenix Suns have ascended to respectability and perhaps more, but the Golden State Warriors have been left for dead while the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans struggle.
The West is strong, of course, but maybe not so strong that a handful of objectively quality teams will be left on the outside looking in at the postseason come April.
Some expected Portland to stand a tier above that fray coming off a surprising trip to the Western Conference Finals. But any chatter that said this team was more likely to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end than hope for lottery luck was always misguided. At the crux, it was optimism reflecting last spring’s matchup-dependent outcome that ignored changes sapping them of both depth and continuity.
Less than a month into the NBA calendar, it’s not quite time to panic. Still, with Portland at 4-6 and narrowly escaping an overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, it might be time to readjust season-long expectations in the Rose City – especially given the Blazers’ upcoming schedule and rash of injuries.
Seven of Portland’s next eight games come on the road. Half of them are against teams that made the playoffs last season, including a lone home tilt versus the stoic Toronto Raptors. Merely going .500 over that stretch would be a major accomplishment for the Blazers given how they’ve fared against inferior competition thus far.
It took an extra period for them to beat the Hawks, playing without John Collins, at Moda Center, while the anonymous Warriors earned their first victory after Stephen Curry’s injury versus Portland last week. Not even a career-high 60 points from Damian Lillard, who’s reached yet another peak in the early going, saved the Blazers from a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets, who, too, are still trying to find themselves.
All of which begs the question: Just where will Portland sit in the standings when the schedule gets more palatable? Plus, the more important one: If the Blazers continue struggling over the next two weeks, will injuries prevent them from making up the necessary ground for a seventh consecutive playoff berth over the season’s remainder?
Outside of Lillard, there’s an argument to be made that Zach Collins is Portland’s most indispensable player. No roster in basketball with real postseason ambitions is lighter on forwards than the Blazers, while Hassan Whiteside’s overall lethargy and struggles to integrate offensively add to his value as a part-time center.
Collins is sidelined until March after undergoing surgery on his dislocated left shoulder. Jusuf Nurkic should make his season debut around then, too, but there’s no telling how effective he’ll be after spending nearly a full year away from the game. Any hopes he’ll immediately regain the high-impact two-way form that made him Portland’s second-best player last season should be quelled. More likely is that Nurkic will take time to fully re-acclimate to the speed and physicality of the NBA game, serving as not much more than a replacement-level player until next fall.
In the meantime, the Blazers are relying on Whiteside and Skal Labissiere in the middle, waiting for Pau Gasol to get healthy enough to play spot minutes off the bench. Lillard has already chastised Whiteside for his lack of urgency as a roll man, and it’s clear to anyone who watched Portland last season that Whiteside leaves much to be desired as a screener — a deficiency that’s plagued him throughout his career.
The Blazers, per usual, rank toward the top of the league in ball screens, despite Whiteside consistently failing to make contact with the primary defender – let alone swallow them at varied angles like Nurkic.
Whiteside has flashed more comfort as a passer from the high post and elbows in Terry Stotts’ system but is still ill-equipped to make plays in space when teams force the ball from the stars in pick-and-roll play. Labissiere, while better than Whiteside, leaves much to be desired in both regards, too. Gasol would certainly help, especially given his threat as a pick-and-pop shooter. But it’s indicative of just how thin the Blazers find themselves upfront that a 39-year-old who hasn’t played since March could give them a lift offensively.
Portland quietly finished third in offensive rating a year ago, only behind the juggernaut Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Stotts’ team currently ranks ninth in offense, scoring just over five fewer points per 100 possessions than last season. While offense is down a bit league-wide, there are signs the Blazers’ relatively slow start on that end will persist.
The franchise talked a big game throughout the preseason about prioritizing pace, a newfound emphasis that’s yet to manifest itself in more transition opportunities, per Cleaning the Glass. But the Blazers rank top-10 in pace regardless, mostly on the strength of taking a higher share of their field goal attempts in the first two seconds of the shot clock than any team in basketball. The problem? Their effective field goal percentage on those shots is 45.8 percent, fourth-worst in the league.
Portland has been just average on the offensive glass after finishing second in offensive rebound rate last season and they’re tallying over 50 fewer passes per game despite replacing Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless in the rotation with superior playmakers. Anfernee Simons has lived up to the hype in his first season playing regular minutes, but Stotts should probably scrap lineups that include neither of his star guards, especially considering his team’s lack of scheme familiarity. The Blazers’ offensive rating without Lillard and CJ McCollum on the floor is 86.2, a putrid number hardly guaranteed to improve even when factoring in the sample size.
The bright side? Three of Portland’s losses were decided in the game’s final moments, and none of them have come by double-digits. The Blazers are a few fortuitous bounces away from weathering an early-season injury storm and emerging from their first 10 games with a winning record.
But context is crucial — especially in a Western Conference playoff field that remains overcrowded — and it renders Portland’s start concerning. Other than an inevitable shot-making improvement from McCollum, who labored throughout last season before coming alive in the playoffs, just how will this team take meaningful strides not just leading up to Thanksgiving, but over the season’s duration?
It would be foolish to count Portland out entirely. Stotts and Lillard deserve every benefit of the doubt, and their teams enjoy a long track record of playing their best basketball during the second half of the season. But dreams of the Blazers being title contenders have faded entirely and faith in their presumed status as a surefire playoff team seems to be eroding in the immediate future – if not longer.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Northwest Division
This week, Basketball Insiders starts its division-by-division “Biggest Disappointments” series. Matt John kicks it off by taking a look at who that would be from the Northwest Division.
A couple weeks ago, Basketball Insiders started a series looking over who were some of the biggest surprises so far in this young NBA season. This week, we’re changing it up a bit by taking a look at some of the biggest disappointments. To start this off, we’re looking at the Northwest Division.
It’s funny how over the last few years, the biggest disappointment coming out of that division, and possibly in the entire NBA, has been Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins’ odd regression over the last few years has made the NBA public lose their faith in him as a player, so much that, when this season started, he was seen as nothing but a young bust that Minnesota was burning oodles of cash to have on its roster.
It looks like Wiggins listened to the haters because he’s been playing like a man possessed this season. Averaging almost 25 points a game on 46 percent shooting from the field would qualify as career-highs for him. Even as a playmaker, he’s made some strides as his 3.1 assists at the present time is also a career-best. The Timberwolves have come down to earth since their hot start, but at least Andrew’s doing his part.
This is relevant to a certain degree. For a while now, the man they called “Maple Jordan” was called a disappointment because his career trajectory was falling — and falling fast. Now, it looks like he’s restored some of the hope he once had. Much like Wiggins over the last two years, the following disappointments in the Northwest have time to pick up the pieces, but for now, they have been rather underwhelming in these first three weeks.
The Nuggets’ Suddenly Unproductive Offense
It sounds weird, doesn’t it? The Nuggets currently sit at 7-2, they’ve beaten some good teams in the last week or so – Philadelphia and Miami – and last year, their offense was one of the best in the entire league. That was evidenced by them having the sixth-best offensive rating, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions.
It gets even weirder knowing that nothing really changed for the Nuggets over the summer roster-wise. The only noteworthy additions to this team were Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. Those guys really shouldn’t make Denver worse – which they haven’t – and could still add another dimension to the team. Besides them, the Nuggets overall have the same construct they did last year, so what’s different?
In a nutshell, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have not performed as well as they had been expected to. As a result, they now have the 23rd-ranked offense in the league, scoring 103.6 points per 100 possessions. In order to figure out how it got this way, we need to take a look at who’s responsible.
Let’s start with Nikola Jokic. In this ever so strange subplot of weird, it may be the weirdest to rag on the Joker considering he’s coming off of two consecutive buzzer beaters over the Nuggets’ last two games, but the point still stands- Jokic has not started the year off well.
In nine games, Jokic has averaged 16.7 points on 44/24/73 splits to go with 9.3 rebounds and 6 assists. When you compare those numbers to the ones he put up last year, a.k.a. the ones that got him All-NBA First Team Honors, that’s a drastic decline. Jokic at the top of his game is the most offensively polished big in the league. The Nuggets have managed to win in spite of his struggles, but they can’t expect to keep doing so if he can’t recapture the player he was last season.
Then, there’s Jamal Murray. Murray hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t shown much improvement since last season. Jamal was just given a fairly wealthy extension over the summer, so this lack of progress is a little troubling to watch.
Averaging 18.8 points on 45/37/85 splits are good numbers for a fourth-year player, but next year, Murray’s not going to be on a rookie contract. He’ll be making just a tick less than $30 million next season. Those are numbers you pay for a guy who can put up 25-30 on any given night. Jamal’s done that at times, but as yet to show extensive consistency.
The Nuggets still going at it strong because their defense has improved by a fair margin. Allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions has made them good for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. As disappointing as the offense has been, Denver has to be feeling good about its chances since the team’s still been able to win in spite of struggles.
CJ McCollum’s Regression
The Portland Trail Blazers altogether are kind of a mess right now — although it isn’t entirely their fault. Zach Collins’ shoulder injury just three games into the season is a massive blow to a team that was already pretty thin in the frontcourt. Besides Hassan Whiteside, they are relying on Skal Labissiere to give them minutes at the five.
To compensate for the departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, they are relying on the likes of journeymen like Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja to fill in at the three and four positions. The all-around downgrade in their frontcourt has definitely played a part in the team starting out 4-6.
Their struggles have come from the offensive end, as their offensive rating has gone from 114.7 (fourth overall last season) to 108.9 (11th currently). The new guys probably have something to do with that, but the biggest culprit might just be CJ McCollum’s slump.
McCollum’s still putting up solid numbers, averaging almost 20 points per game, but that’s coming on some of the worst percentages he’s put up since playing a larger role in Portland, putting up 39/31/89 splits. McCollum has the third-highest net rating on the team, as the Blazers are plus-12.4 with him on the court, but one can’t help if those stats are skewed from playing a lot of minutes with Damian Lillard, who is off to the best start of his career.
The duo shares a net rating of plus-7, but when you compare CJ’s net rating with some of his other teammates to Dame’s, they don’t look as promising.
CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside: plus-1.7
Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside: plus-6.4
CJ McCollum and Rodney Hood: plus-0.8
Damian Lillard and Rodney Hood: plus-6.4
CJ McCollum and Kent Bazemore: minus-2.9
Damian Lillard and Kent Bazemore: plus-1.9
CJ McCollum and Mario Hezonja: plus-5.6
Damian Lillard and Mario Hezonja: plus-10.1
Knowing McCollum’s reputation as a scorer, this should get better as time goes on, but how much time is what Portland has to keep in mind. The Western Conference has been unforgiving since the dawn of time, so if CJ and the Blazers continue to struggle, that can come back to bite them when they try to get good seeding in the playoffs.
Portland’s goal this season was to exceed last year’s extended playoff run. For that to come to fruition, they can’t afford to have their other elite scorer struggle from the field for too long.
Utah’s Continued Offensive Stagnancy
Yes, the theme of this has centered around offensive struggles, and yes, you can call this cheating since this writer brought up the Jazz’ woes on that end two weeks ago, but it’s still worth talking about because nothing has changed for Utah.
Three weeks into the season, they have the 27th-best offensive rating, scoring, 102.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s even worse remembering that last season, they had the 15th best offensive rating, scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions. Their offense certainly got in the way of their playoff chances then, but at least it was mediocre as opposed to bad.
This writer doesn’t want to say what he’s already said about Utah’s continued woes on offense. Instead, let’s take a look at one of the Jazz’s big wins over the weekend against Milwaukee. Everyone should remember Bojan Bogdanovic’s one shining moment.
BOJAN BOGDANOVIC AT THE BUZZER! WOW! pic.twitter.com/EjRZrQwmN7
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) November 9, 2019
Like any buzzer-beater, it’s always so thrilling to see plays like that happen. Not just because the Jazz beat a tough foe, but because it was such a beautifully drawn play to get arguably their best shooter wide open. So where do their offensive woes factor into this? Well, let’s take a look back at where the game was with 1:30 to go.
A Donovan Mitchell jumper put the Jazz up by eight with less than 90 seconds to go. Coming back from a three-possession game to win with that little time is near impossible. Yet, the Bucks were a Khris Middleton traveling call from pulling it off. They did this because Utah’s offense failed to put the game away.
In 88 seconds, missed free throws, costly turnovers and bad shots on Utah’s part got Milwaukee to close the gap. Not only had Utah lost the lead, but the team was also in jeopardy of losing the game. They may have won the game anyway, but they should not have been in danger of losing that game.
What’s more alarming is that the Jazz can’t afford to make those mental mistakes when facing opponents as tough as the Bucks. They won’t have to worry about facing Milwaukee in the playoffs unless they meet in the NBA Finals, but Utah’s going to have its hands full with other Western Conference competitors.
Like Denver, they’re still going strong regardless of their offensive woes, but they can’t have these problems if they want to go the distance.
Apologies if these disappointments all sounded the same, but honestly, there haven’t been that many disappointments in the Northwest Division. Utah and Denver are doing about as well as we thought they’d do. Minnesota is currently exceeding expectations. Oklahoma City is right where we thought they’d be. The only team that has somewhat disappointed is Portland, and that might not have been the case if Zach Collins wasn’t hurt — or Jusuf Nurkic for that matter.
And just because they’re disappointing now does not mean that will be the same by the time 2020 starts.
There’s still plenty of time for everyone’s outlook to change for the better. Just ask Andrew Wiggins.