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Predicting the NBA’s Western Conference

Basketball Insiders’ writers take a close look at the West and make some predictions.

Basketball Insiders

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Yesterday, several of Basketball Insiders’ writers took a close look at the Eastern Conference and made their predictions. Today, we take a look at the Western Conference and make some picks:

 

Top Point Guard

Lang Greene: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. Listen. Chris Paul has the prototypical approach and Russell Westbrook is more explosive, but at the end of the day Curry should emerge as the Western Conference’s top point guard in 2014-15. Curry can score from anywhere on the floor and has improved his playmaking in recent years. Sky is the limit.

Nate Duncan: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. This might be the toughest call on the board for me, a three-way race between Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Curry was the most valuable last year because he played the most games, and he actually would appear to be less of a health risk than the other two now that he is two years removed from ankle problems. I think he is also the best offensive player of this group because his shooting ability off the pick and roll requires so much defensive attention that it opens things up for others–something that was manifest in the massive difference in the Warriors’ offense when he was on and off the court. Westbrook was amazing in the playoffs, but he is not quite at the level where he basically creates an above-average offense by himself the way Curry does. Paul was probably the best of the group on a per minute basis last year, especially once including his defense, but at age 29 he may start to slow down a bit. Curry is the pick, by a nose.

Jessica Camerato: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry garner attention for their flashiness and high scoring ways. Tony Parker, however, takes home top honors for being a winner. What better point guard than one who can lead the team to the title?

Joel Brigham: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers. Energized by new ownership and an even more talented group of teammates, Paul should pretty easily be the Western Conference’s best floor general. He may even garner a respectable handful of MVP votes before it’s all said and done.

Moke Hamilton: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers. There are a select few who critique Chris Paul for his teams’ relative lack of success in the playoffs over the course of his career. Shame on them for not being able to enjoy one of this generation’s best point guards and one of the game’s top floor generals to take the court over the past 20 years. Paul is so clearly the top point guard in the league in my opinion, I put all of about five seconds into selecting him here.

 

Top Shooting Guard

Lang Greene: James Harden, Houston Rockets. Harden has no real interest in defense and if you have him outside of your top 10 that’s likely the reason why. But the man is one of the most prolific scoring forces the league has seen over the past 20 years and he’s just getting started.

Nate Duncan: James Harden, Houston Rockets. Harden has been much-maligned for his defense, and it has been a problem. That said, the videos highlighting his foibles have overemphasized the issue in the public consciousness. Harden is so far beyond any other two-guard offensively that his defense doesn’t dislodge him from a comfortable seat atop this list. The ability to efficiently create shots for oneself and others is the rarest and most important skill in basketball. Harden has it, and that is far more important than his defense.

Jessica Camerato: James Harden, Houston Rockets. Key word here is “shooting,” and there’s no doubting James Harden’s offensive abilities. He is one of the most dangerous players with the ball in his hands. There is no telling how high he can run up the scoreboard on a given night.

Joel Brigham: James Harden, Houston Rockets. There’s not a more versatile scoring guard in the NBA right now. The guy is just deadly from everywhere. He’s so good, in fact, that it doesn’t matter he’s so brutal defensively.

Moke Hamilton: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers. Gordon Hayward might be paid like he’s the best, but I’ve got both Klay Thompson and James Harden ahead of him and agree that an argument can be made for Monta Ellis. But at this point, Kobe Bryant is still the top shooting guard in the conference, in my opinion. In short, that designation is based on the expectation that we have not seen the last of Bryant at his best. We can only hope that to be true.

 

Top Small Forward

Lang Greene: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The only thing left for the reigning league MVP to accomplish is winning his first NBA championship. Durant’s ascent to stardom comes as no surprise, but the true respect will come after he hoists his first Larry O’Brien trophy in the air at season’s end. Will this be the year?

Nate Duncan: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. Next.

Jessica Camerato: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant is right behind LeBron James when it comes to player rankings. James is the best in the NBA at this position, and Durant rules the West. There is no doubting his dominance at small forward and on the court in general.

Joel Brigham: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The reigning MVP is a scoring machine built by the gods on Mount Olympus specifically to assist basketballs into orange netted cylinders. He improved nearly everywhere last year—as a defender, rebounder and distributor—and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be even better this year. How frightening is that? Yes, Kevin Durant could get even better.

Moke Hamilton: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder will not win a championship with Durant unless they manage to find him a low-post force, but that doesn’t mean that Durant isn’t the top small forward in the conference. He is today and may be for the next seven to eight years. What I’m more interested in seeing is whether or not Russell Westbrook ever realizes that in order for the Thunder to be great, he needs to evolve just a little bit.

 

Top Power Forward

Lang Greene: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. Sure there are bigger names you could place here out of respect or if you’re playing it safe, but Davis is on a mission and it’s perfectly fine if you acknowledge it now. Just 21 years old, Davis is already an All-Star, Gold medalist, coming off a 20/10 season and led the league in blocks per game in 2014. Respect now or respect later.

Nate Duncan: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. This comes down to Davis and Blake Griffin. Davis was actually better than Griffin a year ago based solely on his box score stats, but scored very poorly in plus/minus-based systems. I expect that to change this year, if his defense during the World Cup is any indication. Griffin will likely be a superior offensive player, but Davis will probably be a top-three defensive power forward this year, which puts him over the top. Honorable mention to Dirk Nowitzki, who is still a tremendous offensive force but is now a major liability on defense and the boards while playing a lot fewer minutes.

Jessica Camerato: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers. Aldridge will be one of the more intriguing players to watch this season. He established himself as a double-double threat and has the sky-high potential. With Kevin Love playing in the Eastern Conference, expect Aldridge’s performances to shine even more in the West.

Joel Brigham: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers. While plenty of arguments could be made in favor of Blake Griffin here, Aldridge pushed himself into another stratosphere last season by bolstering his defense, improving his rebounding and proving that he can be the team’s primary scoring option (or at least share primary scoring duties with Damian Lillard). The Blazers are great because he’s on the roster; take Griffin out of the picture in L.A. and they don’t lose as much as you think.

Moke Hamilton: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers. I actually had LaMarcus Aldridge here but opted to anoint Blake Griffin after considering that, while Aldridge is probably a better shooter, Griffin has the rare ability to handle the ball and not only create scoring opportunities for himself off of the dribble, but to do the same for his teammates and execute the final pass that leads to the score. Aldridge’s back-to-the-basket game is far superior, making this a tough call, but in the end, I’ll take Griffin, though I do acknowledge that he and Damian Lillard probably couldn’t win 54 games.

 

Top Center

Lang Greene: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings. Cousins either does it for you or he doesn’t, but he is undoubtedly one of the most prolific scoring and rebounding big men in the game today. After spending the last portion of the summer winning a Gold medal with Team USA in Spain, Cousins may be ready to take his game up a level – an All-Star level.

Nate Duncan: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets. Lost in the Rockets’ disappointing loss to Portland was Howard’s monster series. It was the closest he has looked to Orlando Dwight since his back surgery. Howard and Patrick Beverley single-handedly propped up Houston’s defense to acceptable levels during the regular season, and Howard is still a force finishing inside or punishing certain matchups in the post. Tim Duncan is a close runner up in this category, but does not play enough minutes or score quite well enough one-on-one anymore to eclipse Howard. DeMarcus Cousins was actually far above each player based on his box score statistics, but until he improves his defense (essential for a center) and efficiency he won’t be better than Duncan or Howard.

Jessica Camerato: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. It’s time to show ‘em what he’s got. This should be a breakout season for Anthony Davis, who has very quietly emerged as one of the top big men in the league. He has flown under the radar given the New Orleans Pelicans’ record, but expect him to be making plenty of noise.

Joel Brigham: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets. Still one of the most physically intimidating players in the league, Howard is a defensive powerhouse with more-than-respectable offensive skills. He has dunked and blocked his way into Houston’s hearts, showing that his slow year with the Lakers was just an anomaly.

Moke Hamilton: Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies. Dwight Howard probably impacts a game more than Gasol does, but in terms of skill, Gasol has a proven ability to stretch the floor as a center, consistently find teammates, play with his back to the basket, guard multiple front court positions and, of course, make free-throws. If I could only choose one player for my time, I’d take Howard, but if you’re asking me which of those two are the “better” player, overall, I’m taking Gasol.

 

Top Sixth Man

Lang Greene: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. The two-time Sixth Man of the Year award winner is without question one of the league’s best reserves. Expecting anything different for the 2014-15 campaign would simply be foolish.

Nate Duncan: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs. There are a ton of worthy sixth man candidates in the West, including Isaiah Thomas, Ryan Anderson, Reggie Jackson and Draymond Green. Also, watch out for Gorgui Dieng as an emerging bench player if he can build on what he did at the end of last season. But Ginobili has aged exceptionally well and was the best of these players per minute again last year. Note that I did not include Jamal Crawford. He too has aged well, but his defense is horrendous and he takes enough bad shots that he keeps the ball out of the hands of more efficient options for the Clippers when he plays with the starters.

Jessica Camerato: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. Until someone else steps in and yanks this award out of his hands, Crawford continues to be the most reliable sixth man in the game. This is his honor to lose.

Joel Brigham: Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix Suns. It’s hard to gauge how the minutes will play out with Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe all tussling over playing time at the point guard spot, but there may not be a more potent scoring point guard in the league coming off of someone’s bench. Jamal Crawford and Manu Ginobili will likely be in the conversation here (because they always are), but Thomas is younger and arguably more talented at this point, which is why he gets my vote.

Moke Hamilton: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. If I thought hard enough, I could probably think of one or two guys (like, perhaps, Manu Ginobili) that merit consideration here, but the truth of the matter is that Crawford has made a career out of being a proficient bench-scorer, just like J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks. Crawford also happens to be a two-time Sixth Man of the Year Award winner—the most recent coming last season. Clearly, I’m not the only one that feels this way.

 

Top Head Coach

Lang Greene: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. While Rick Carlisle has done a remarkable job in Dallas over the years, when it comes to Western Conference sideline generals Popovich is at the head of the class – especially coming off another championship season.

Nate Duncan: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. This is his spot until further notice. I’m guessing that is what everyone else wrote too.

Jessica Camerato: Gregg Popovich. The man of few words doesn’t require many to demonstrate his coaching greatness. His championship-winning record speaks for itself.

Joel Brigham: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. Until proven otherwise, he’s impossible to bet against. He’s maybe the only guy in the league with a real balance between actually being a good coach and knowing how to handle a roster of NBA egos. Perhaps more importantly, he also knows how to rest his most valuable players.

Moke Hamilton: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. Seriously, though, is this something we even have to consider? You do realize that after Popovich, the second-longest tenured Western Conference head coach is Rick Carlise? He took over in 2008—12 years after Popovich. That says all you need to know.

 

Top Executive

Lang Greene: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. The moves aren’t the flashiest. The transactions don’t create mainstream headlines. But the decisions coming out of the Spurs’ front office has kept the franchise relevant even as Father Time has caught up to the core group.

Nate Duncan: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. The West has some very solid front offices, but Buford has managed to assemble a consistent 60-win team and championship contender without anyone who qualifies as a superstar at this point in their career. Most NBA observers believed that was almost impossible.

Jessica Camerato: Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers. Doc Rivers took a stand this summer in the Donald Sterling situation and reaffirmed his commitment to his team and the Los Angeles Clippers community. Rivers has a long-standing reputation as a top coach and in his role with the Clippers, he already has made positive impressions in the front office.

Joel Brigham: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. Usually when a team wins a championship with a lot of soon-to-be free agents, as the Spurs just did, it’s impossible to get everyone to re-sign since inevitably someone will have played himself into a bigger contract elsewhere. Somehow, Buford and Popovich figured out how to keep all the important pieces of this championship squad together despite the recent ring. That, and Buford’s ability to constantly make smart trades and brilliant draft picks, keeps him at the head of the pack in the Western Conference.

Moke Hamilton: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. It wouldn’t be fair to give this designation to anyone but R.C. Buford, but you want to know who I considered putting here? Donnie Nelson of the Dallas Mavericks. Nelson has been there with Mark Cuban tearing down and building up team after team, played an integral role in acquiring Dirk Nowitzki and eventually helped construct the 2011 title team that pulled off one of the biggest NBA Finals upsets ever. You have to go with Buford, but Nelson is nipping at his heels.

 

Top Rookie

Lang Greene: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. With all due respect to Julius Randle, who will have a great opportunity to shine in Los Angeles, Wiggins is the most hyped rookie in the class and he has the game to back it up. The question is if he’s assertive enough to bring it each and every night. Minnesota will give him every opportunity to live up to the hype and I believe the young man gets it done.

Nate Duncan: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. I have not been very high on Wiggins’ potential as a superstar, but he should be able to defend (at least individually) right away and should start at one of the wing positions. Nobody else drafted in the West projects as a surefire starter, so he has to be the pick. If the Lakers wise up and develop Julius Randle over their other dead-end frontcourt options, he could emerge as the pick here. Nik Stauskas is another dark horse if he wins the starting shooting guard spot in Sacramento.

Jessica Camerato: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. A top pick who has already been traded? Sounds like chip-on-your-shoulder motivation to me. Wiggins already had the talent, now he has the extra drive since being traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Kevin Love deal.

Joel Brigham: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. There’s zero risk in taking the top overall selection as the best rookie in his conference, but looking at the other candidates this really doesn’t even look close. Wiggins will have the opportunity to develop however Flip Saunders deems necessary on what should be a pretty bad Wolves team, and as we saw last year with Michael Carter-Williams, good players on bad teams put up pretty big numbers.

Moke Hamilton: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. I could easily go with Julius Randle here, but we simply do not know how Byron Scott is going to utilize him or how Carlos Boozer will affect him. Aside from that, Wiggins has two-way NBA talent and will have the opportunity to be “the man” in Minneapolis from day one. Wiggins may be the top rookie, but not necessarily the top sophomore. Stay tuned.

 

 

Top Sophomore

Lang Greene: Trey Burke, Utah Jazz. The Jazz handed the keys to their offense to Burke last season and the guard showed promise. In the season’s final month, Burke averaged 15.6 points and nine assists per game, potentially foreshadowing what’s to come down the road.

Nate Duncan: Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder. This is a four-way race between Adams, Trey Burke, Gorgui Dieng and possibly Rudy Gobert if his summer league and international performances are for real. But Adams is the only one of these players who might actually start for a playoff team. Without any stars in this mix, he is the pick.

Jessica Camerato: Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves. It is always encouraging when a player ends his rookie season on a note as high as Dieng did. The big man quietly recorded back-to-back double-doubles (12 points-20 rebounds, 21 points-14 rebounds) toward the conclusion of his rookie year. How will he kick off his sophomore season?

Joel Brigham: Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves. The overwhelming majority of last year’s best rookies were (and still are) housed in the Eastern Conference, with Dieng only one of two Western Conference players to make either of the NBA All-Rookie teams. Dieng had some huge games in the second half of last season, and with Kevin Love now out of the picture he’ll get plenty of minutes to build on his success.

Moke Hamilton: Trey Burke, Utah Jazz. I absolutely loved what I saw from Trey Burke last season. He has a bright future in this league as a point guard, which makes the drafting of Dante Exum a bit more questionable, but that’s a discussion for another day. Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder may be a close second here, but I’m taking Burke.

 

The Sleeper Team

Lang Greene: Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are a team to watch in the Western Conference this season. The franchise was derailed by a plethora of injuries last season, but heading into training camp should be in much better shape. There’s plenty of depth and talent in Denver, so keep an eye on this team.

Nate Duncan: New Orleans Pelicans. I stated the Pels’ best case was 53 wins in our season preview (along with my reasoning), and if they stay healthy they can get close to that level. With Anthony Davis and Omer Asik, the defense should be outstanding after ranking in the bottom quartile a season ago.

Jessica Camerato: Portland Trail Blazers. The Portland Trail Blazers were one of the feel-good stories of the playoffs last season. Now is their time to show they are legitimate contenders, not just a look-how-far-they-made-it fluke. Behind Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, that is a very doable mission.

Joel Brigham: New Orleans Pelicans. While it’s true that they play in the toughest division in basketball, the Pelicans are sure to seriously improve on their 34-48 record from a year ago. Anthony Davis is primed to take a huge leap this season as a legitimate MVP candidate, and the addition of Omer Asik gives them arguably the most intimidating defensive front court in the league. The guard corps offers plenty of talent, as well, giving them more than enough of a chance to break through not only as a playoff team this year, but as a team that can do some damage once they actually get there.

Moke Hamilton: Dallas Mavericks. I feel like I’ve been talking about the Mavericks for the past few weeks. My taking them so seriously in the Western Conference assumes that Tyson Chandler simply had a bad season last year and that he will bounce back. It also assumes (much more safely) that Chandler Parsons will mesh with Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki. If this team still had Vince Carter, I would give them a much better chance of doing something special. For now, they have to hope that one of the key cogs of the San Antonio Spurs breaks down. With some good fortune, though, the Mavericks could surprise a lot of people this season if they themselves stay healthy.

 

Who Wins the Conference?

Lang Greene: San Antonio Spurs. As Ric Flair once quipped, “To be the man, you have to beat the man,” and this holds true in the Western Conference. The Spurs are the unquestionable top dogs. The road to the NBA title runs through San Antonio.

Nate Duncan: Oklahoma City Thunder. Given their ages, this projects to be the best combined year for Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams should have enough experience to contribute, and Anthony Morrow provides the deadeye shooting they have never had outside of Durant. Almost everyone important on the Spurs aside from Kawhi Leonard will be a year older, and the Clippers still don’t quite have the horses on defense. Despite the Thunder’s assiduous avoidance of the luxury tax and the concomitant cost-cutting over the years, I’ll pick them to come out of the West in a very close race with the Spurs and Clippers.

Jessica Camerato: San Antonio Spurs. The San Antonio Spurs have the fundamental talent and consistency to defend their title. Sure, their veterans will be another year older, but isn’t that what people were saying last season?

Joel Brigham: San Antonio Spurs. Every year I assume their time has come and gone, and every year I’m wrong. I won’t pick against them again until Tim Duncan retires.

Moke Hamilton: Los Angeles Clippers. At some point, the Spurs have to stop being the best, right? This may be the year. The Thunder, obviously, will be there in the end and there are scores of other teams out West that can win it. Choosing one is difficult, but I look at the talent that the Clippers have, the upgrades they have made this offseason, the coach they have patrolling the sidelines, the fresh energy of a new owner and the fact that they were closer to toppling the Thunder last season than the 4-2 series loss lets on and it’s clear that there is a case to be made for the Clippers. Things need to break right and they need to stay healthy but I simply don’t know what more they need to get it done, so they are as safe a choice as anyone, really.

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NBA Daily: A New Beginning Or The Beginning Of The End?

The Toronto Raptors made some bold moves this off-season, but will those moves be the beginning of something new or the beginning of the end of Raptors run in the East?

Steve Kyler

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A New Beginning Or The Beginning Of The End?

The Toronto Raptors were clearly at a crossroads after being swept unceremoniously by the Cleveland Cavaliers in May. It was a microcosm of their situation – good enough to win the East in the regular season, but not good enough to win in big playoff games.

The Raptors went on to fire Dwane Casey as head coach, despite him ultimately being named Coach of The Year. The idea behind the firing wasn’t an emotional reaction to the swept; it was the acceptance of the reality that Casey wasn’t going to evolve as a coach, at least not the way management had hoped.

Casey’s ouster wasn’t the only change; the Raptors also traded away franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan in a “dare to be great” trade with San Antonio for forward Kawhi Leonard.

From a pure talent standpoint, Leonard is an upgrade in almost every way to DeRozan, a multi-time All-Star in his own right. The problem with Leonard isn’t what he is as a player, its what he’s become as a person. No one saw the divorce in San Antonio coming, nor the lengths his camp would go to force an exit and leave countless millions on the table for a new start.

The problem for Toronto is the new start Leonard was seeking never included them. So, much like the Oklahoma City Thunder did a year ago with Paul George, the Raptors are hopeful that a long and successful courtship of Leonard could win him over and into a new long-term deal. If that sounds like a pipe dream, it probably is.

Let’s be real about a few things.

Toronto is a beautiful and passionate basketball city, but is that enough to sway a kid from Southern California to stay? The Raptor faithful will point to DeRozan as an example of yes; he did exactly that when he signed his current deal. But is the situation ideal for Leonard, again the answer might be yes, especially if he is fully recovered from the quad injury that sidelined him for most of last season.

There is no doubting that the Raptors are built to win right now. They won 59 games with arguably the same roster and will enter an Eastern Conference that no longer has LeBron James in Cleveland.

Sure, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are formidable challengers for supremacy in the East and let’s not forget about the Indiana Pacers, who could be in that same pack of teams vying for the top spot. But are any of them far and away better than the Raptors in terms of proven in their prime players?

The script seems to be written for the Raptors to either explode and cement themselves at the top of the East or implode on their own decisions.

New Raptors coach Nick Nurse is as a good as they come from the assistant ranks. He is a bright basketball mind, and he knows his players and has relationships with most of them. The question is will he be as good as advertised? If he not, this dance could be over before it starts.

Leonard has so much to prove after orchestrating his exit from San Antonio. If he gets back to MVP form in Toronto how can the Raptors not be considered the front-runner for the East? Yes, Boston is going to be really good too, but if you were betting on two players – MVP version of Kyrie Irving or MVP version of Leonard, who are you taking?

The problem for the Raptors is what if Leonard isn’t that guy again? What if all the negativity becomes too much? What if not being coddled and sheltered by the Spurs is a problem? No, Leonard isn’t a baby that needs mothering, but if you have followed anything about Leonard, he’s not this rock of a person that can handle anything. It’s a real question only he can answer with his play on the floor.

Equally, what if the quad isn’t fully healed or he goes Isaiah Thomas and tries to come back on to make it worse and needs surgery?

These are not easy questions to answer.

If the Raptors come out on top of most of these decisions – Nurse and Leonard are what people hope them to be — then things could swing in a very interesting direction for the Raptor franchise.

That’s what makes the “dare to be great” move interesting.

Thunder GM Sam Presti made news when he was quoted in Paul George’s ESPN docu-series, saying one of his favorite Lyrics was from Tribe Called Quest – “Scared money don’t make none” — in rationalizing his all-in approach to George.

It seems like Raptor president Masai Ujiri may have stolen a play from the Thunder playbook, because the franchise is now all the way in on the make or break moves of this off-season.

This could be the beginning of a new chapter for the Raptors, or it could end being the moves that cratered something special.

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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.

Spencer Davies

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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.

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NBA

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.

Matt John

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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.

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