This week, Basketball Insiders’ staff will be ranking the teams in each of the NBA’s divisions, starting with the Pacific today. While this is generally the time of year when folks tend to get up in arms about perceived slights and misjudgments about their team or new acquisitions, the reality is that all anyone can at this point is establish a predictive pecking order based on the limited information that is available.
Anytime the defending conference champions somehow turn around and land the summer’s prize free-agent addition, that makes deciding the division’s top team a bit easier. However, it also forces other front offices to adjust their approach for the near future as they compete with the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. While some teams within the division are trying to finally break through and at least reach the next plateau along the general NBA ladder of success, others are showing great promise on the horizon and seem to have the potential to speed their development process along somewhat sooner than expected if certain players produce. Here is our look at the Pacific Division:
#5 – Los Angeles Lakers (17-65 last season)
Key Additions: Brandon Ingram (yet to sign), Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Jose Calderon, Ivica Zubac, hired head coach Luke Walton and staff
Key Subtractions: Kobe Bryant, Brandon Bass, Robert Sacre (unsigned), Ryan Kelly (unsigned), parted ways with former head coach Byron Scott and staff
Fans of the team may not like to see them in this spot once again as we head into the season, but it will be important to remember what newly hired head coach Luke Walton told Shaquille O’Neal on The Big Podcast With Shaq just a few weeks ago: “The expectations, to me, aren’t going to be wins and losses, right now at least. It’s about having an edge when you play. It’s about competing every single time on offense and defense. It’s about playing the right way.”
Walton was speaking as much to an understandably rabid fan base as he was to his players with that message. He went on to specify more direct goals for certain players and about setting a new foundation for the future, but he also knows that has to happen in conjunction with folks being able to limit expectations on the team’s winning percentage for another season or two. For example, say everything goes well and the Lakers win as many as 12-15 additional games in 2016-17 – a feat that would be remarkable. That would still put their win total in the high 20s or low 30s in a conference that isn’t getting any easier to compete within. Walton knows that even with all the promise and intrigue of a young core that features the last two No. 2 picks of the NBA draft in Brandon Ingram (2016) and D’Angelo Russell (2015) to go along with the recently re-signed Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr., it is going to take some time to not only teach and implement his preferred style of play and overall basketball philosophy, but to also continue preparing such an inexperienced mix for what it truly means to be a successful professional at this level.
They’re headed in the right direction, so after a few seasons of essentially having to “hope” for losses due to the protected draft picks, you might as well allow yourself to enjoy the process of watching a young and talented core develop without the burden of unrealistic expectations.
#4 – Phoenix Suns (23-59 last season)
Key Additions: Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, removed interim tag from head coach Earl Watson
Key Subtractions: Mirza Teletovic, Jon Leuer, Ronnie Price, Chase Budinger
Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight might be the veteran leaders of the team, but there’s at least a chance second-year guard Devin Booker eventually proves to be the team’s best player if he takes the next step in his development and improves upon what was an impressive rookie season. Bledsoe and Knight should still be main contributors if healthy, but the Suns appear poised to focus on a core that could potentially center around Booker, Bender, Chriss and even the reportedly (finally) healthy Alex Len as much as either of those veterans. In fact, much like the Minnesota Timberwolves, L.A. Lakers and Denver Nuggets, the Suns have one of the more intriguing young cores in the Western Conference.
As is always the case – but particularly with Phoenix’s roster – player health and availability could significantly impact how quickly fans in the ‘Valley of the Sun’ start to see tangible results. Still, they should have plenty to be excited about along the way as Booker, Bender and Chriss continue to adjust to life in the NBA.
It should also be interesting to see whether Coach Watson elects to lean on three-guard sets or is ultimately forced to make a decision with one of the vets currently slotted to play ahead of Booker. Barbosa’s addition and return to the organization is another positive, but if Booker starts well, the Suns could be in a situation where a trade to free up space while ideally shoring up another roster concern could be necessary sooner rather than later. In the event that happens and general manager Ryan McDonough tests the market on his veteran backcourt, Knight’s current contract happens to run a year beyond Bledsoe’s (through 2019-20).
#3 – Sacramento Kings (33-49 last season)
Key Additions: Arron Afflalo, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Cousins, Bogdan Bogdanovic (draft rights), hired head coach Dave Joerger and staff
Key Subtractions: Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy, parted ways with former head coach George Karl and staff
Feel free to stop us if this phrase sounds familiar for the Sacramento Kings: franchise player DeMarcus Cousins is set to begin next season with a new head coach and system…
Of course it does, because this is now the sixth head coach that the Team USA center will have played for in his seven years in the league. Regardless of the reasons or which side has been at fault, it is time for the league’s best center to be a part of something successful beyond his Olympic endeavors. Coach Joerger has a short, but somewhat proven track record at this level and is generally well-received by his players from all accounts. The time has come for Cousins to turn some of his personal dominance into more overall success for his team.
While some might question or even snicker at the idea of having Barnes in that locker room, Joerger had him in Memphis and obviously feels comfortable enough with him as a potential influence for the younger players. Barnes, along with some of the other vet additions, can really look to insulate Cousins from having to shoulder so much of the leadership burden at times. Adding Afflalo as another option as a wing defender should help, but they could really use a year of him shooting in the low-to-mid 40s from beyond the arc as he’s done at times in the past.
Drafting two more frontcourt players was a bit perplexing, but that doesn’t mean Papagiannis and Labissiere aren’t each intriguing projects. The Kings were actually closer to the postseason than they were to the cellar in 2015-16 and seem to have a better fit in terms of their roster and style of play moving forward, so don’t be shocked to see them continue to inch toward that .500 mark this season if general team health permits.
#2 – Los Angeles Clippers (53-29 last season)
Key Additions: Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Brice Johnson, David Michineau, Diamond Stone
Key Subtractions: Jeff Green, Cole Aldrich
Even though the Clippers didn’t have much flexibility or cap room once they re-signed their own preferred free agents (Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute), the front office did a solid job of acquiring some bargain veterans like Speights, Felton, Anderson and Bass and guys they were targeting in the draft.
As far as the prospects go, Johnson gives them another athletic big man who can run the floor and finish at the rim and has decent touch on his shot from the mid range. He also managed to shoot 78.3 percent from the charity stripe (4.6 attempts per game) as a senior for North Carolina last season. Stone and Michineau may still be projects even if they were to make the regular season roster, but each have at least shown potential. Doc Rivers has particularly mentioned Michineau’s defense and possible ability to play both backcourt positions, while Stone was one of the draft’s more intriguing (yet clearly unpolished) young bigs.
The real questions that remain about this team will be whether they are at least relatively healthy as a collective unit when the playoffs come around and whether Coach Rivers can find the right blend of rest and roster management throughout the year to help with the concern. For as much as the Warriors deserve the spotlight for the team they’ve managed to put together, there have to be at least some within and around this organization – the fans aside – who feel as though their time to put everything together and play to their full potential.
Will the re-signed Mbah a Moute finally be the right piece at the small forward position with this crew? The Clippers have been looking for a viable option at that position for years and while the 6’8 veteran is long and rangy enough to defend scoring wings, he is hardly the three-point shooter (career 30.2 percent on .6 attempts) they’d like to have in order to create a more balanced floor for their talented scorers. Felton gives the team a veteran floor general behind Chris Paul, Anderson strengthens what looks to be talented second unit, and the combination of Speights and Bass add depth in the frontcourt depth. Speights, in particular, seems like an important addition with his ability to space the floor alongside either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan.
While the constant ring-count referencing and hyper-critical eye that we currently consume NBA basketball with may be a bit unfair or unrealistic to players at times, it isn’t beyond the scope of reason to expect more from the Clippers at some point. Although some might naturally place the San Antonio Spurs into that “best of the rest” category in the Western Conference, you’d hope to see a group as talented and multifaceted as Paul, Griffin, Jordan and J.J. Redick finally compete in a Conference Finals series and perhaps beyond.
#1 – Golden State Warriors (73-9 last season)
Key Additions: Kevin Durant, Zaza Pachulia, David West, JaVale McGee (non-guaranteed), Damian Jones, Patrick McCaw
Key Subtractions: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli
No need to bury the lead with this one, as adding Durant to such a talented blend of players still sounds about as crazy as it did back in early July. While there’s an absolute responsibility to remind you of all the other roster and rotation changes and how that could and almost certainly will impact team comfort and chemistry in the early going, there’s no point in denying the reality of the situation: Once they settle in and make the necessary adjustments, this team will be good. Scary good.
We shouldn’t expect them to really challenge last season’s record-setting regular season pace given all the necessary adjustments, but this unit does still have the chance to be historically great if Coach Steve Kerr and Co. can make the parts fit and players are truly willing to embrace the addition of such a great talent into their mix. It may sound somewhat silly to all of us rushing to crown them the paper champs, but chemistry is about as significant in the NBA as any other professional sport. The good news is, they have the type of culture and locker room that appears to be perfect for such a shift. If we’re being completely honest, Barnes, Ezeli and Speights were far less effective as the playoffs wore on during last year’s run to the Finals.
Although they aren’t likely to push for a regular season record in 2016-17, especially with the inevitable target that will remain on their collective backs on a nightly basis, look for these Warriors to really hit their stride over that final 35 games and into the postseason next spring. If team health permits, this will continue to be the most exciting stretch of professional basketball Oakland (and the surrounding area) has ever seen. Neither games nor titles are won on paper or during the summer months, but be prepared for at least a playoff-like atmosphere on a fairly routine basis this season whether the Warriors are playing at home or on the road.
Do you agree with these rankings? Leave a comment below!
Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?
Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.
After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.
Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.
The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.
What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.
Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.
Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.
Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.
We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.
Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.
As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.
Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.
Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.
Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.
Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.
Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.
If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?
It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.
2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players
Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.
The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.
But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.
The Top Dogs
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).
To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.
Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.
With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.
While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.
Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.
D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.
Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.
Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.
The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.
Best of the Rest
Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.
Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.
Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.
Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.
NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers
The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.
Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers
While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.
It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.
So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.
Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.
The Potential Future All-Stars
DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters
Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs
Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players
Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs
The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust
Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs
Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.
If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.
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