The Sacramento Kings are in the midst of an 11-year playoff drought, which is very unlikely to end this upcoming season. Last season’s team was built around DeMarcus Cousins, a lot of veterans and a few younger players – a group that was not talented or deep enough to have a realistic chance of earning a playoff seed in the deep western conference. Vlade Divac, vice president of basketball operations and general manager of the Kings, traded Cousins during All-Star weekend to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a 2017 first-round pick and a 2017 second-rounder.
Now that the Kings have moved on from Cousins, the team can start focusing on bolstering and developing its younger players. The Kings signed veterans George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to significant contracts, who will likely serve as the team’s veteran leaders. The team is also bringing in De’Aaron Fox, Frank Mason, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson and Bogdan Bogdanovic. However, despite adding a lot of young talent and quality veterans, the Kings are still a long way from being a true playoff contender.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
I like the Kings a whole lot more than I did a year ago, but that still doesn’t change their standing in the Pacific Division, apparently. No rebuilding team makes a massive jump in the first full year of the rebuild, though, so some growing pains are to be expected from what is pretty easily the slickest batch of rookies in the league this year outside of Philadelphia. There are vets on this roster, too, which should help stack a few more wins on the season, but they aren’t ready for the playoffs just yet, no matter the injection of talent. Check back in two or three years.
5th Place — Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
The Kings have quietly done a solid job of reassembling their core in their post-DeMarcus Cousins days, and they could also quietly be in line for a few more wins this year than we normally expect from a Sacramento franchise. Solid core pieces like Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere are joined by Kentucky standout De’Aaron Fox plus UNC upperclassman Justin Jackson – and on top of that, the Kings went out and got veterans in George Hill and Zach Randolph. Combine all these with some decent role players like Garrett Temple, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kosta Koufos, and at the very least it seems like the Kings won’t be in direct contention for the cellar in their division or the conference. How many games they win will depend in part on the health of guys like Hill and Randolph, and on whether they’re in a position to tank later on in the season, but they seem like a near-lock for third in the Pacific Division for the third straight year.
3rd place — Pacific Division
– Ben Dowsett
For as long as we can remember, all the Kings seemed to have going for them was DeMarcus Cousins. In their first full season without him, it’s almost impossible to think that their prospects could be better than they ever were with him. Call it crazy, but I like what I see in Sacramento. I’ve been high on Buddy Hield for a long, long time and have similarly high expectations of De’Aaron Fox.
Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and George Hill are a trio of veterans that will fit in nicely with a group of youngsters that includes Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Justin Jackson. If Harry Giles becomes an everyday contributor, the Kings just might be in business.
Even without Chris Paul, the Clippers should be able to keep a hold on the second spot in the Pacific Division. The Suns will likely pick up the rear while the Kings and Lakers battle for the third and fourth spots. At this point, I’d give the benefit of the doubt to the Lakers, only because I think they have the more talented players of the bunch. However, I do think that the days of the Kings being a laughingstock are over. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and surprisingly, it looks brighter than it ever did with DeMarcus Cousins.
4th Place — Pacific Division
– Moke Hamilton
Generally depicted as the laughingstock of the NBA, the Sacramento Kings actually have some promise heading into this season for the first time in a long time.
After hitting what appear to be home runs in June’s draft with De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles, the Kings have a slew of youngsters with big time upside. Their 2017 draft haul, which also includes former Naismith Player of the Year Frank Jackson, accompanies the likes of Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein as under-25 talent on their roster.
However, even with the signings of proven veterans like George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter, the Kings won’t be much more than regular season feisty this season. Barring some rapid progression amongst their young guys, Sacramento will be on the outside looking in of the playoff picture. But, the old heads should do their part in helping bring along what appears to be a large batch of young talent for the next era of Kings basketball.
Next season still appears to be pretty dim in Sacramento, but the long-term future looks bright.
3rd place — Pacific Division
– Dennis Chambers
The Kings finally decided to move on from DeMarcus Cousins and, surprisingly, the long term future suddenly looks rather bright in Sacramento. De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein make an interesting mix of young talent that should improve with the guidance of veterans like Hill, Carter and Randolph. The Kings made an interesting move by bringing in three expensive veterans. Sacramento could have brought in solid veteran personalities who cost less and wouldn’t require as much playing time, which would have allowed the Kings to maintain more financial flexibility. The young players would have had more time on the court and the Kings could have extracted extra assets from teams looking to dump salary. However, the Kings did well to bring in more veteran leaders and could ultimately move them in deals if contending teams are looking for that last piece to get over the hump. This year’s Kings aren’t going to make the playoffs, but the future is brighter than it has been in some time.
4th place — Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Zach Randolph
Randolph has been in the NBA since 2001 and is no longer capable of scoring 23 points per game like he could earlier in his career. However, entering his 18th NBA season, Randolph is still one of the most skill offensive big men in the league and is able to score in bunches. From backing opponents down in the post, sweeping across the lane for a hook or knocking down a 15-footer with a hand in his face, Randolph is a versatile offensive weapon that has been tormenting defenders for nearly two decades. Randolph will likely play fewer minutes this season than he has in the past, but he scored 20.7 points per 36 minutes last season – the third highest mark in his career. Unless Randolph loses a significant step this season and someone like Buddy Hield takes a step forward, Randolph should be Sacramento’s top offensive player this upcoming season.
Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein
The Kings have a surprisingly high amount of capable defensive players, but Willie Cauley-Stein has the best tools to be a premier defensive player. At age 24, Cauley-Stein has the length and athleticism to be a high-impact defensive anchor at center. Cauley-Stein’s rebounding numbers are problematic and is something he is certainly going to have to address. But his mobility, timing and ability to even check wing players on the perimeter make him a versatile defender who could hit another stage as he continues to develop and gain experience.
Top Playmaker: George Hill
George Hill has never been an elite playmaker or passer, but he is the best the playmaker the Kings have this upcoming season. Hill is a strong ball handler who can often take his opponents off the dribble and attack the rim effectively. Hill is good at drawing in help defenders and finding open teammates either cutting to the basket or open behind the three-point line. Hill found a nice chemistry with his Utah Jazz teammates, often finding cutters like Gordon Hayward under the basket or bigs like Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors for lobs. Hill has a much different cast of supporting talent to work with this upcoming season, but he still should be able to generate the same kind of opportunities in Sacramento that he did in Utah.
Top Clutch Player: Vince Carter
Vince Carter is now 40 years old and isn’t the high-flying dunk machine he once was. But Carter has aged like a fine wine and is still capable of knocking down three-pointers and hitting big shots in big moments. Earlier in his career, Carter made a number of difficult game-winning shots, including a few incredible dunks. Carter can’t jump over his opponents anymore or create the same level of separation in isolation situations. But if Kings head coach Dave Joerger can design some plays to get Carter an open shot in big moments, that will probably be about as good of a result as the Kings could hope for with the game on the line.
The Unheralded Player: Garrett Temple
Garrett Temple is a solid shooting guard who do a little bit of everything. He is a good shooter who can play off the ball, knock down three-pointers and make crisp passes when he isn’t open. However, if the Kings need him to play the point guard position for a few minutes here and there, he can do that as well. He is also a strong defensive wing that can slow down some of the better wing scorers in the NBA. Temple isn’t going to lock opponents down the way Kawhi Leonard can, but he is an underrated defender and should provide nice wing depth for the Kings this upcoming season.
Best New Addition: De’Aaron Fox
The Kings are bringing in several new players (Carter, Hill, Randolph, Frank Mason, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson, Bogdan Bogdanovic), but Fox is the most significant addition of them all. Selected with the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, Fox is positioned to be the Kings’ point guard of the future. In one season at Kentucky, Fox averaged 16.7 points, 4.6 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 29.6 minutes per game. Fox was selected to the First-team All-SEC, SEC All-Freshman Team and also won SEC Tournament MVP award.
Fox struggles with his shooting and will need to have a few shooters to space the floor for him in order to make the most of his significant skill set. With the right lineups, Fox could make a nice impact as the backup point guard for the Kings this season. With Hill serving as a mentor, Fox projects to be a big time contributor for Sacramento for years to come.
– Jesse Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Skal Labissiere
Labissiere is incredibly raw but has enormous potential. At 6-foot-11 with a huge wingspan, Skal has potential to be an impact player on both ends of the court. He needs to fill out his frame and needs to get a better overall feel for the game, but he has star potential. Worst case scenario, Skal becomes a floor-running big who creates easy scoring opportunities in the open court and off of lobs. Best case, he maximizes his notable skill set and physical tools and becomes a complete player on both ends of the court and a matchup nightmare in general. Nothing is certain with Skal, but his potential is tantalizing.
2. De’Aaron Fox
A crafty point guard with a versatile skill set and decent shooting mechanics, Fox has the makings of a future franchise point guard. He’s too slender to effectively guard the league’s best point guards on a nightly basis, but he should put on size over time. If he straightens out his shaky jumper and becomes an effective floor general, he could be the Kings’ long term solution at point guard.
3. Buddy Hield
Hield has been chastised for being the foundational piece in the Cousins trade, but he came on in a big way at the end of last season. His shooting comes and goes, but when Hield is on, he’s a tough cover. He’s not an elite athlete, but seems more than capable of using his size and craftiness to create space from some of the better wing defenders in the league. Hield also has some ball handling skills and can offer up some spot minutes as a playmaker. Hield may never get to the point where he should have been the foundational piece in a trade for Cousins, but that’s not the standard he should be held to. If Hield can become a lights out shooter and consistent defender, he will be a valuable long term member of the Kings.
4. George Hill
Hill comes at a steep price, but he is a very solid veteran point guard who can guide Fox in his development. Hill has some injury concerns, but if he stays healthy and plays up to his usual standard, he could become nice trade bait at some point in the future. The Kings invested a great deal into Hill, which limits what they can do with their cap space in the short term. But if Hill becomes a unifying leader for the Kings, that will be more significant than whatever he may produce on the court in the short term.
– Jesse Blancarte
SALARY CAP 101
The Kings invested in George Hill, Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic with most of their cap room. Bogdanovic is the third-highest paid player on the team, earning roughly $9 million a season for three years. Sacramento still has up to $4.3 million in cap space along with their Room Exception for another $4.3 million, but the roster is currently full with 15 guaranteed players.
Assuming the team picks up options on Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson and Skal Labissiere before November, the Kings can get to roughly $29 million in salary cap space next summer, provided Kosta Koufos and Garrett Temple out of their contracts prior to July of 2018.
– Eric Pincus
Youth. The Kings suddenly feature one of the more interesting and talented young cores in the NBA. Some of these prospects may fall short of expectations, but if even a few of them come close to maximizing their potential, big things may be in store for the Kings in the not so distant future.
– Jesse Blancarte
Institutional stability. The Kings front office, including owner Vivek Ranadivé, have made some questionable decisions over the last few years. Between the draft and bringing in some talented veterans, it could be argued that the Kings’ front office is showing signs of progress. However, if Hill, Randolph and Carter fall short of expectations and have no tangible impact on the team’s culture or the young players’ collective development, we may start wondering whether the Kings were better off saving that cap space to opportunistically acquire more assets.
– Jesse Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will The Kings Stay The Course With This Young Core?
We’ve seen teams in the past enjoy their own unexpected success a bit too much, which led them to trading off key young pieces for veteran talent in an attempt to expedite their rebuilding process. The Phoenix Suns did this not too long ago and are still toiling in an extended rebuild. If the Kings win more games than most people expect, will they mortgage their future by shipping off young core players in exchange for more veteran depth? Doing so would be a mistake that could have long term consequences. The Kings had an encouraging offseason. Now it’s time to see if they have the discipline to stay the course.
– Jesse Blancarte
NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th
Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?
As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.
Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.
Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.
The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.
Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.
So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?
Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.
The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.
Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.
Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.
As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.
In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.
Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.
In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.
And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.
As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.
But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.
NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses
With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.
It’s official: basketball is back.
It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.
But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.
In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.
Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.
So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?
The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.
But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.
Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.
It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.
Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.
An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.
But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?
But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.
With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.
And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.
Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.
And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.
They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.
It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.
Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.
Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.
But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.
The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.
Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.
At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.
And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.
NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts
Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.
It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.
We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.
“Defense? What’s that?”
Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.
It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.
Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high
Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good
There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.
In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.
In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.
Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.
What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.
Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions
Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.
Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:
- An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
- One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
- A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
- A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)
Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.
Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.
About That Last Spot In The West
Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.
Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.
The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.
It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.
After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.
Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.
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