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: Why Teams Should Think Twice Before Tanking
Making up for the loss of a superstar is not a cut and dry, writes Spencer Davies.
Making up for the loss of a superstar is not a cut and dry affair.
If it happens, ownership and management have to choose between two options.
1) Attempt to stay competitive
2) Blow everything up and go for a high draft pick
The second choice seems to be the favorite path for executives to take as of late. After all, just look at the job the Philadelphia 76ers have done with perfecting the art of the aptly named process, “tanking.”
Former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie’s three ultra-quotable words have turned NBA fans on to see the bigger picture. Who cares if a team has to suffer through multiple seasons of losing? If it takes a couple of years, so be it. In the end, we’ll reset with younger talent to build around. Trust The Process.
Philadelphia lost a lot of games between the 2013 and 2017 seasons. It was flat out brutal to watch. With that said, it did give the organization the opportunity to draft the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and acquire a young international talent like Dario Saric.
They were extremely patient throughout this whole operation. Brett Brown remained the head coach through thick and thin. Players swore on buying into what was being preached.
Last season was a breakthrough for the Sixers. They won 52 games and made the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign. Two of the guys they drafted turned into recognizable names with their play and have sky-high potential to break through in this upcoming season.
But is this really what it takes to achieve relevancy and perpetual competition in the NBA now? Do you really have to wipe the slate clean entirely and put out an unacceptable product year-in and year-out for half a decade so that there’s a possibility of one day becoming a winning franchise?
It’s obvious that Philadelphia did its homework, but who’s to say that other front offices can function like that? The Sacramento Kings have been in the doldrums for 12 years. The Orlando Magic have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons and the New York Knicks haven’t made an appearance in five.
What it comes down to is hitting on draft picks, plain and simple. You don’t hear often about the missteps of the process. Nerlens Noel was supposed to be a key piece of the Sixers core, as was Jahlil Okafor. Both of those players were top six selections in their respective drafts.
In order to acquire Noel (along with New Orleans’ 2014 first-round pick), Philadelphia sent Jrue Holiday, Pierre Jackson and the 42nd overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft to the newly branded New Orleans Pelicans.
In hindsight, this was an awful move—no bones about it. Holiday had been coming off an All-Star season. He stood a head above the rest on a roster mixed with veterans and middle-of-their-career players. Most impressive of all, it was only his third year in the league.
The Sixers picked a gamble that did not return the results they were hoping for. Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year and Noel had his moments, but there’s no way it was worth losing a player the caliber of Holiday. But they had to abide by the process by any means necessary, right?
Philadelphia hasn’t won a championship, yet they’re heading in the right direction. They were able to overcome those bumps in the road. The three teams in Sacramento, Orlando and New York to this point have not.
Tanking may not be the wrong answer. It’s not always the right one, though. It all depends on timing. Take a different approach of re-tooling in lieu of rebuilding.
A prime example of this viewpoint is the Utah Jazz last season. After Gordon Hayward signed with the Boston Celtics, many pundits stuck a dead duck label on the Utah Jazz. Those people said that in spite of the fact that the organization was on the rise with a brilliant head coach and an up-and-coming center bordering on best defensive player in the league status.
General manager Dennis Lindsey made a few moves here or there, but did not even think about giving up on the overall progress the Jazz had attained. He kept Quin Snyder and Rudy Gobert, drafted Donovan Mitchell and began a new chapter in the same book instead of writing a different novel.
Utah opened a ton of eyes last season, not only making the playoffs—competing until the very end. And even that was fluky when injuries came into the picture.
They never had to go into the gutter. In the four straight years the Jazz missed the playoffs, it wasn’t because of a set strategy to take a nosedive. They had the wrong coach the first two and were learning how to play winning basketball under the right leader the next two.
It seems as if the Cleveland Cavaliers are taking that route instead of the usual cry to “blow it up.” This isn’t comparing the impact of losing Hayward to LeBron James. That would be irresponsible. But they’ve clearly formed a strategy for all of this and were much more prepared the second time around.
Their true plans were revealed on July 24 when Kevin Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension to stick around with the wine and gold. Confusion surfaced all around. Nearly everybody in the NBA world expected general manager Koby Altman to trade him and stock up on future assets. After all, the Cavaliers’ first-round draft pick next season only conveys if they finish as a bottom 10 team in the league. If they do not, the selection goes to the Atlanta Hawks.
While that’s a true statement, nothing is guaranteed. Anything that happens in a season can be unpredictable. Anything that goes on in a draft is unpredictable.
In one timeline, Cleveland could be as bad of a team as some are predicting with Love. In another, they could make the playoffs and shock their doubters.
We don’t know what Collin Sexton will be in this league yet. We do know that experience is irreplaceable. Why not surround the young man with talent for him to breed confidence in himself and others? It’s better than losing a ton of games because the front office is waiting for the next guy to pair him with, right?
The Cavaliers are keeping their head coach. They’re acquiring players aching for an opportunity. They’re altering their direction, but keeping the same focus.
With LeBron James, Cleveland made four straight NBA Finals. In doing so, they’ve set a standard for the organization. Even with The King going west, why would it make any sense to change that message?
Considering the talent this league already has and the “super teams” that are being built among them, there is a difference between a ball club that wins 20 games and one that wins 35. They both miss out on the postseason and have a lottery pick, however, Team A silently creates losing habits while Team B tries to instill a culture of winning.
There is no perfect method for filling a void left by losing a superstar player. Nobody is a psychic.
Maybe it’s naïve to criticize “The Process” for not wanting to be in NBA purgatory—usually somewhere stuck between a seven seed in the playoffs and the 10th team in the conference standings—but tanking is a tricky game. Precision is necessary to pull it off. If it isn’t there, you’ll be in a world of hurt.
At least when you’re in NBA purgatory, you can add to what you have or try a different coach. Championship or bust is a dangerous mentality in the current landscape of sports.
Of course, that’s always the goal, but very few understand what it takes to get to that point. It all starts with a winning attitude, a quality of most teams that have tanked do not possess.
NBA Daily: The Summer’s Most Impactful Coaching Hires
There have been a lot of coaching swaps this offseason, but there are only a select few that should impact what happens next year.
Building a successful team is like cooking a meal. The players serve as the ingredients, while the coach serves as the cook who stirs the ingredients. A championship team requires the right ingredients just as much as it requires an adept cook.
Take the Warriors for example. Mark Jackson played an important role in putting Golden State back on the map in 2013. However, after it was clear that he wasn’t capable of pushing them much further the following year, they replaced him with Steve Kerr.
That made all the difference. The Dubs went from pseudo-contender to legitimate contender, thanks to their new coach revolutionizing the team’s offense. The team went from the league’s 12th-ranked offense in the league the previous season (107.5 points per 100 possessions) to its second (111.6). Stephen Curry’s evolution into a basketball supernova led the way of course, but it was Kerr’s revisions to the team that pushed them to another level.
It all started with how he handled his rotation. Making Draymond Green a full-time starter while also transitioning Andre Iguodala into the sixth man made the Dubs all the more lethal as a team. The final touch was forming the “Death Lineup”, which consisted of Curry, Green, Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes, that made Golden State nearly impossible to stop.
Golden State had a roster built for a title. All they needed was a coach who could get them the best results. Kerr was the man for the job.
That goes to show how vital a coach is to a franchise that has high aspirations.
Because of success stories like Golden State, we saw quite a few coaching changes this summer from teams hoping to have a Hollywood ending much like the Warriors.
Milwaukee Bucks – Mike Budenholzer
Poor Coach Bud. It’s not his fault that the Hawks team that he guided to 60 wins in 2015 slowly disintegrated over the last three years. Luckily he got out of there to avoid having to take on a rebuild. So now, he gets a fresh start in Wisconsin.
Budenholzer’s stock has gone down considerably since winning the Coach of the Year three years ago. That being said, he’s shown that when he has lemons, he can make lemonade. Now that he is running the show in Milwaukee, he is coaching one of the more unique situations in the league. Coach Bud now has a superstar at his arsenal in Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is something he never had in Atlanta.
It’s true that Milwaukee has been one of the league’s frequent underachievers since they kicked the tires of the Greek Freek era, but their talent cannot be understated. Remember that Coach Bud once made the likes of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver All-Stars, statuses that they’ve never come close to regaining since. If he can do that with guys like Teague and Korver, imagine what he can do with Giannis and Co.
Milwaukee has also done a solid job building a team that fits Budenholzer’s emphasis on floor stretching. Adding Brook Lopez and bringing back Ersan Ilyasova should give a team that ranked 21st in three-point percentage more spacing. That’s quite impressive since Milwaukee had the ninth-best offensive rating in the league (109.8).
Milwaukee’s been trying to find their big break for a while now. They may have found theirs in Coach Bud.
Detroit Pistons – Dwane Casey
Nobody had a harder spring than Casey. Usually, winning Coach of the Year would be a moment worth treasuring, but in Casey’s case, it was far from it. Leading up to getting the award, Casey and the Raptors were swept by the Cavs for the second consecutive time, then he got fired shortly afterward. Casey getting Coach of the Year this season was pretty much like Dirk Nowitzki getting the MVP in 2007 after getting upset by the Warriors in the first round.
Thankfully, Casey’s illustrious resume was good enough for him to land on his feet just about anywhere. That anywhere happens to be Motown, where he’s replacing Stan Van Gundy as head coach. Detroit also has not had the most success since they’ve turned to Andre Drummond. That could be attributed to the unfortunate injuries that they’ve had to deal with in the last two years.
Despite having the persistent monkey on his back come playoff time, Casey has improved his craft in response to his failures. The Raptors saw improvement every year when Casey ran the show, and now Casey has the chance to show he can do the same in Detroit.
It will be an interesting transition going from the Raptors to the Pistons. Though not as talented as Toronto’s, Detroit’s strength should primarily come from their frontcourt. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond should be one of the league’s best frontcourt pairings on paper. Casey has a reputation for making things work, so now that they will have a full season together, they may shine more than they did last season.
One particular question that should be answered is if Toronto’s problem was Casey or his roster. That may be answered by how Detroit does this season. Oh hey, speaking of Toronto…
Toronto Raptors – Nick Nurse
There seems to be a fair amount of optimism surrounding Nurse. Supposedly, he was the reason why the Raptors’ offense improved so much last season. Casey executed it to perfection, but Nurse was the one who designed it. Now, he’s at the forefront on a team that is desperate for success now more than ever.
This is Nurse’s first gig as a head coach, and the pressure is going to be on. It’s not just that Toronto’s been trying to get past its playoff demons. Now that they have Kawhi Leonard, they have to do everything in their power to keep him around — tall order given he seems hellbent on going to L.A.
Still, Leonard is an upgrade over DeMar DeRozan. Acquiring him, along with promoting Nurse, shows that the Raptors aren’t playing around. Being the head coach for one of the league’s powerhouses is a big break for Nurse. This may be his only to chance to prove he deserves a spot in this league.
James Borrego – Charlotte Hornets
Another Popovich protegee moving up through the ranks! Borrego has had some head coaching experience, though it was with the Orlando Magic, who were not going anywhere, three years ago. Now he’s going to Charlotte, a team that’s in a pretty tough situation right now.
Right now, Charlotte is hard-capped on a roster that does not have much room for improvement. The team has not made the playoffs in two years, and it’s hard to imagine how they improve from where they currently are. However, that might be why they hired Borrego.
Instead of going for a known name like Stan Van Gundy or Jeff Hornacek, they went with a guy who has learned under the NBA’s best coach for several years. Coach Bud became a great coach after learning from Pop, so perhaps Borrego may follow in his footsteps. This is a pivotal year for Charlotte since Kemba Walker’s bargain contract is expiring. If Borrego can help Charlotte return to the playoffs, then that could do wonders for them.
Note that David Fizdale, Lloyd Pierce, and Igor Kokoskov weren’t named. It isn’t fair to include them because the teams they are running are currently in the rebuilding phase with little expectation. They could be very impactful hires down the line. Just don’t expect a lot from them right away.
Same goes for J.B. Bickerstaff, but that’s because he already was the Grizzlies’ head coach. Now he’s full-time instead of interim. Call it cheating if you want to.
As for those who have been named, these hires should have a significant impact on what happens in the Eastern Conference playoff race this season. One of these hires could very well put their team in the finals, while another could put them in the NBA lottery.
NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Looking For Rookie Season Role
Although far from guaranteed, there are five recent second-rounders who could work themselves into important roles in 2018-19.
After months of speculation, rumors and workouts, the NBA Draft and their respective summer leagues are finally well in the rearview mirror. With training camps up next, franchises can begin to flesh out their rotations and decide the early season fates of their newly-arrived rookies — even if their selection didn’t come with as much fanfare or hype.
And although draft day studs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III are nearly guaranteed to contribute immediately, much of the class’ future is still up for grabs — a statement particularly true for those that followed the first round. Whether it was a strong summer league showing or a picture-perfect landing spot, here are the five second round draftees poised to leave a mark in 2018-19.
Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18: 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting
Much as been made of the youngest Antetokounmpo’s controversial decision to come out this spring, but his faith was rewarded by Dallas with the draft’s final selection. Back in June, our Spencer Davies dove into Antetokounmpo’s time at Dayton and it’s not difficult to see why the Mavericks took a swing on the raw 6-foot-11 prospect. Over four games in Las Vegas, Antetokounmpo averaged five points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 58 percent from the floor — which, of course, is not eye-popping but could foreshadow a role moving forward.
Between Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and the ever-talented Luka Dončić, Antetokounmpo will not be called upon to carry the scoring load at any point. On a two-way deal, the Mavericks have the luxury to develop the Greek-born stopper in the G-League until he’s ready to make a difference — but for a defensive-minded Rick Carlisle, that day could come sooner rather than later. With Dwight Powell and Ray Spalding fighting for minutes at power forward, Antetokounmpo could be an option at the three, where Barnes has just Dorian Finney-Smith behind him.
For a franchise that ranked 18th in DEF RTG (107.4) last season and will strive for their first postseason berth since 2016, giving spot defensive specialist minutes to Antetokounmpo seems like a win-win partnership.
De’Anthony Melton, Houston Rockets
2016-17: 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 43.7 percent shooting
After missing an entire season due to an improper benefits scandal at USC, Melton serendipitously fell to the Rockets way down at No. 46 overall. At 6-foot-3, Melton has a shot to contribute on both ends immediately as an above-average defender and a microwavable scorer. During his Las Vegas debut, Melton tallied 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, four assists and a summer league-leading three steals across five contests — albeit at an improvable 38 percent from the floor. As a tenacious playmaker, Melton should get ample opportunity to impress with a franchise looking to avenge their brutal Western Conference Finals defeat last spring.
On top of learning from one of the best point guards in league history, there also happens to be little competition for Melton in the rotation. In July, the Rockets signed Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner that averaged just 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists in 52 games for Charlotte in 2017-18 — and, well, that’s it. For a three-point bombing franchise like Houston, neither guard fits particularly well in that regard, but Melton’s 28.4 percent clip in one season as an 18-year-old still projects better than Carter-Williams’ 25 percent mark over five years.
Chris Paul missed 24 regular season games last year, but the Rockets are still willing to head into training camp with a second-round rookie and Carter-Williams holding down the backup point guard slot — that alone says far more about Houston’s faith in Melton than anything else.
Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2017-18: 12.9 points, 4.8 assists on 39.4 percent from three
Outside of Džanan Musa and the aforementioned Dončić, the Phoenix Suns’ Élie Okobo entered draft night as the most promising overseas prospect in the bunch. Okobo, a 6-foot-2 Frenchman, could feasibly become the Suns’ franchise point guard by season’s end. The playmaking 20-year-old has just Brandon Knight ahead of him on the depth chart, a formidable NBA point guard, but one that does not fit Phoenix’s current rebuilding plan. Admittedly, his statistics won’t jump off the page just yet — 2.3 points, 3.5 assists in four summer league contests — but the potential for Okobo is certainly here.
While it’s worth noting that Okobo didn’t score in three straight contests after his impressive debut, he appears to be a suitable backcourt partner with franchise cornerstone Devin Booker. Whether he’s connecting with a backdoor cut in stride or hitting difficult running floaters, there are plenty of positives to take thus far. With a postseason appearance looking unlikely for the Suns, it’ll make sense to give Okobo the reins before long — even if they can’t move Knight’s contract worth $15.6 million in 2019-20.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
Needless to say, Mitchell Robinson could be an absolute treat for the New York Knicks.
For much of the pre-draft process, it looked like Robinson was a shoo-in first rounder, with many speculating that he even received a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 overall. Once the first 30 picks came and went without Robinson — who elected to pull out of the draft combine in May — the Knicks were more than happy to scoop him up. Across five summer league contests, Robinson averaged 13 points, 10.2 rebounds and a competition-leading four blocks per game on 67 percent from the field.
On a team-friendly four-year deal worth just $1.8 million in 2021-22, Robinson already looks like a bargain. But beyond his first-round talent at a second-round price, there’s a real chance that Robinson can contribute for New York right away. Following the recent news that Joakim Noah will be stretched if the Knicks can’t find a suitable partner by training camp, that leaves exactly two centers left on the roster: Enes Kanter and Robinson. The 7-foot-1 prospect is a natural replacement for the departed Kyle O’Quinn, while the newly-minted David Fizdale should love Robinson’s shot-changing impact defensively.
Even if Robinson shuttles back-and-forth to and from Westchester throughout the season, he could still seamlessly slide into the Knicks’ rotation from day one.
Jevon Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18: 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 3 steals on 39.3 percent from three
Earlier this week, Matt John put forth an excellent case for what should be a comeback season for the Grit-And-Grind Grizzlies — but there’s one second-rounder still currently flying under the radar. Despite a stellar final season at West Virginia, Carter dropped into Memphis’ lap and there are few that so elegantly fit the franchise’s identity without effort. As the reigning back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year, Carter should split the backup point guard minutes with newcomer Shelvin Mack, if not more by season’s end.
The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, along with renewed health from Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, will have Memphis eying the postseason once again — but Carter will likely be a fan favorite long before then as well. During his lengthy summer league initiation, Carter pulled in 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals over seven games. Although his 35 percent clip from the floor could use some restraint, he won’t need to shoulder offensive responsibilities with the Grizzlies.
Carter’s hard-nosed style of play will enhance an uncharacteristically poor Memphis defense from last season, with his years of extra experience allowing the bullish ball-stopper to drop into the rotation from the get-go.
With franchises focused on their high-ranking lottery picks, many second round draftees (and their often non-guaranteed contracts) will never carve out a consistent NBA role. But from backing up future Hall of Famers to filling a hole in the rotation, it should surprise no one if Antetokounmpo, Melton, Okobo, Robinson and Carter earn some big-time opportunities in 2018-19. Last year alone, Semi Ojeleye, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell all quickly found their niche at the professional level — so who will it be this year?