This week, our team at Basketball Insiders has launched the series of six things to know about each division in the league. We’ve already covered the Southeast, Central and Pacific Divisions, respectively. Today, we are going to take a look at what you need to know about the Northwest Division.
There are several story lines that could shape not only the division but also the league as a whole in the Northwest this year. The main one is the recent foot injury to Kevin Durant and how the team will handle his absence. The Portland Trail Blazers, fresh off an overachieving season, would like to use this opportunity to gain some momentum early to put some distance between themselves and the Thunder if they struggle to maintain afloat. There’s also been some player movement of note that will impact the teams involved, with the Minnesota Timberwolves trading Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Arron Afflalo returning to the Denver Nuggets. The influx of youth for the Timberwolves will play a significant part in the expectations for the team as they look at the long-term picture. Speaking of youth, the Utah Jazz are in a similar spot, but their core young pieces have played together for a few years now and, with new head coach Quin Snyder, are looking to take the next step and start capitalizing on their potential. The Nuggets, coming off a very disappointing injury marred season last year, are looking to turn things around this year during Brain Shaw’s second year at the helm. Once again the Nuggets come into the season with some health concerns that could have a significant impact on their season. The top spot for the division will likely be decided between the Thunder and the Blazers. How that plays out may alter the playoff landscape and give the victor a significant advantage when the regular season ends.
1. The Thunder will be tested with Durant out.
Six to eight weeks. That equates to approximately 19 regular season games missed. That’s the initial recovery prognosis that was given when it was discovered that the discomfort franchise superstar Kevin Durant was experiencing on his right foot turned out to be a Jones fracture and would require surgery. The Thunder have not played without their franchise cornerstone for an extended period of time like this before. This will be a big test not only for the team but also for Russell Westbrook. The All-Star point guard has long been the second option, with Durant leading the charge as the team’s primary offensive weapon. A scoring guard by nature who’s averaged over 21 points per game for the last four seasons, Westbrook is no stranger to getting buckets. That being said, he’s also been heavily criticized in the media over the years for not deferring enough to his teammates and trying to take over games. With Durant out and scoring needed, this will be his opportunity to truly be the man and run the show. How he blends his scoring with his playmaking will determine how well the team will play in Durant’s absence.
When put on the spot about how what he will do now that Durant is out with injury, Westbrook had some choice words for Royce Young of ESPN earlier this week saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about our team. I can’t win games by myself. I can’t do anything by myself. I kind of want to take the attention off me and put it more on the team. Everybody keeps asking what I’m going to do and how I’m going to change. I think it’s more about our team and what we can do.”
This time will be an opportunity for other players to step up their game. Nobody can replace arguably the best player in the league. However, one advantage the Thunder do have is the team is deep. Serge Ibaka has improved every single year he’s been in the league and although he’s best known to be a force on the defensive end, his scoring has been a welcomed part of his progression as a player. As a rookie five seasons ago he averaged a paltry 6.3 points per game and last year he averaged a career-high 15.1 points per game. He’s expanded his range and his teammates have shown confidence in his offensive skills. Reggie Jackson, who’s also coming off a career high 13.1 points per game, has been chomping at the bit to prove that he is more than just a backup point guard. He’s also looking to receive a big payday and has been in talks with the team about a contract extension. Thunder GM Sam Presti has gone on record to say that he envisions Jackson with the team for a long time regardless of whether they come to a contract extension agreement by October 31 or wait until next offseason when he becomes a restricted free agent. Look for Jackson to try and build his value during this time to give Presti something to think about.
And let’s not forget about the young guys. Steven Adams turned some heads last year with his aggressive play as a rookie and has a little better than advertised offensive game coming out of college with Pittsburgh. Through five preseason games, he’s averaged 15.2 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and 1.4 blocks per game. Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are guys that have a lot of potential and were highly regarded first round draft picks who have not had much of a chance to show what they are capable of playing on a stacked title contending team in the Western Conference. Look for both of them to get some increased playing time and get an opportunity to see if they can contribute.
2. The Portland Trail Blazers will be eager to show last season was not a fluke.
We’ve all seen the three-pointer that Damion Lillard drilled at the buzzer to advance to the second round past the Houston Rockets last season. It was amazing basketball and the culmination of a great feel good story for the Blazers’ season. Why is that a big deal? Because the last time the team made it past the first round in the playoffs was back in the year 2000 when the roster featured the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis, Detlef Schrempf, Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen. That year they lost in the Western Conference Finals. The city has been yearning for a long time for their team to return as a contender in the league. Their fans got their hopes up when they saw flashes of potential with the duo of LaMarcus Adridge and Brandon Roy showing promise and bringing the team to respectability. A few years of first round exits and Roy’s early retirement due to his knees have made it a tough road to climb back to prominence. So what’s changed? They have talented pieces that fit and they hit a home run when they drafted Lillard.
It was not too long ago that there were murmurs about Aldridge looking to do exactly what Kevin Love just did and make a fresh start with a new team. Now, 54 wins later and with a new All-Star point guard sidekick who’s just starting to scratch the surface of his potential (averaging 20.7 points and 5.6 assists in only his second year in the league), his outlook has changed.
“I’m happy to stay, happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two,” Aldridge said over the summer to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian “This has no impact on my interest in staying in Portland. I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that’s the best decision on my part.”
The Blazers were not expected to make a jump like this by many experts last year before the season began. Now that the expectations are high and with some opportunities to make some noise in the division, look for the team to show that last year was not just a one hit wonder and that they are a team on the rise. Aldridge wants to win badly and he wants to stay with the team now that things have been going well but they will need to keep showing him that the future looks bright in Portland.
3. The Utah Jazz could be a sleeper team this year.
There are many factors that can be looked at when a team overachieves their projected win total. The Utah Jazz can make a case they have several of these factors going for them heading into this year. Similar to the Phoenix Suns of last year, the Jazz have a new head coach, a new up-tempo offense that plays more to the young team’s strengths, and young players who are more likely to show increased improvement as they mature. While all these things are nice to talk about, they still have to put it together on the basketball court. That’s where things get interesting.
So far through five preseason games, the Jazz are 4-1. They’ve beaten the Blazers (twice), Clippers and Lakers. Their only loss came on their second matchup with the Clippers that was very tightly contested to the very end until a scuffle between Trevor Booker and Blake Griffin sparked the Clippers to a narrow win. Does this mean the Jazz are guaranteed to exceed expectations? No. This is just a small sample size. The Jazz were one of the youngest teams in the league last year with an average age of less than 25 years old. The new additions of 19-year-old Aussie lottery pick Dante Exum and 21-year-old draftee Rodney Hood out of Duke aren’t going to help in that regard. Young teams struggle with consistency as they learn to perform at a high level each and every night.
The Jazz were one of the worst teams in the league last season, finishing with a lowly record of 25-57. One of the things that didn’t help the team get things started on the right track was a broken finger injury that sidelined rookie point guard Trey Burke early in the season. The Jazz should be at full strength to start out the season this year and Burke has shown nice strides, averaging 15.2 points, 6.2 assists and one steal per game so far in preseason. Alec Burks has only played in two games so far, but is expected to return to action soon. Exum continues to show flashes of why he was drafted fifth overall in June. Derrick Favors looks more assertive on the offensive end and has continued to display his elite defensive potential on the other end. The re-signing of Gordon Hayward was huge for the Jazz’s continuity as he is a jack of all trades and really helps facilitate the offense. The new weapons on the team have seemed to take some of the pressure off him and he’s playing confidently with his shooting percentages so far in preseason, shooting up to an impressive 61 percent from three point range and 52 percent from the field while averaging 14.6 points per game. If the Jazz can continue to assimilate to Snyder’s free-flowing, pass-laden offense and generate chemistry as a team, look for them to take teams by surprise. They may still not make the playoffs in a tough conference, but they may give us a reason to take notice of their improvement with a leap in their win total this year.
4. The Timberwolves are young in the post Kevin Love Era.
The drama of whether Kevin Love will stay or go is over. The trade that sent the aforementioned franchise star to the Cleveland Cavaliers is complete. What now for the Wolves? In return for Love, they received some key players who will be part of the future. The first being none other than Andrew Wiggins. No longer will the young Canadian-born player be under the heavy shadow of LeBron James with the Cavs; instead, he will be able to play his natural position of small forward, which should be better for his development. He now has the opportunity to play plenty of minutes and show why he went number one overall this year. Everything that we’ve heard from him since the trade is that he has a chip on his shoulder and intends to do exactly just that.
Another fellow Canadian, Anthony Bennett, joins Wiggins in his move to Minnesota. To say Bennett’s NBA career started out in dire straits is an understatement. He had one of the worst rookie seasons in recent memory for a number one overall pick last year for the Cavaliers. He had shoulder surgery before the season started, wasn’t able to get into the type of shape coach Mike Brown was looking for, looked lost on both ends of the floor and never really found his stride rarely seeing the floor by averaging 12.8 minutes and only 4.2 points per game. With all that said, I don’t believe Bennett is the bust many have already prematurely pegged him to be. With the shoulder no longer being a concern and his conditioning much improved, when he’s played he’s averaged nearly a double-double on the floor with 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Look for him to show he has more to his game than he showed last season if given an opportunity. He has stiff competition in a packed frontcourt with Nikola Pekovic, new addition Thaddeus Young and Gorgui Dieng.
The trade aftermath also further puts the focus on Ricky Rubio to show that he can indeed lead this team. Results on him so far have been mixed. Currently in the middle of active negotiations with the team on a contract extension, rumor has it he’s looking to get paid. Nobody has questioned he’s a gifted passer and can make the game easier for his teammates as he averaged nearly 8.6 assists per game last year. However, as it stands his team has yet to reach the playoffs during his tenure. His shooting percentages continue to leave plenty to be desired three years into his NBA career at a dismal 32 percent from three point range and 38 percent from the field. I love watching him play but he has plenty to prove this season and I expect the Wolves brass to keep a close eye on his development to see where his future stands with the team.
5. Health issues with Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari can sway the Nuggets’ season.
Last season was a brutal one for the Denver Nuggets. It was an injury marred season with a win total of 36 games, and it was disappointing to say the least considering the year prior the team achieved 57 wins under the helm of the fired George Karl. Nuggets coach Brian Shaw will be looking to put his stamp on the team in his second season but he is very mindful that health will be crucial. It’s without question that Ty Lawson is the spark that drives this team. The former Tar Heel has become a fixture on the team and they’ll only go as far as he takes them. He played in 62 games last year and was a big part of why it was hard for the team to get in sync with a lack of playmakers on the roster. Hamstring issues were the primary culprit for the missed time last season for him. What’s concerning is that he missed the end of last season with an ankle injury that did not allow him to train and do his conditioning to the level that he’s used to this offseason. We’ve seen how issues like this can somewhat derail a season for teams that rely heavily on their floor general from the point guard spot (see Brooklyn Nets PG Deron Williams). Coach Shaw is trying to do what he can as Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post pointed out.
“There is some concern,” Shaw said. “I haven’t really been killing him in practice or even in games. I’m cognizant of that. But once again, it’s something that he’s going to have to work himself through.”
Lawson will already be wearing a brace on his ankle throughout the season as a precaution, and during his most recent preseason contest against the Celtics he was not able to finish the game due to hamstring concerns. It will be something to keep an eye on this year.
Another potential impact player for the Nuggets is Danilo Gallinari. He’ll be eager to make his return this season after two knee surgeries over the course of the last year and be shaking some rust off slowly to regain his form. So far in limited minutes, he’s looked solid in the preseason showing the all–around play that makes him such a versatile player for the team. He’s stated he hasn’t experienced any knee soreness since he’s been thrust back into action so far, which is a good sign. However the NBA season is a long 82-game grind and we will need to watch how his knee holds up. If both Gallinari and Lawson can remain relatively healthy throughout the season, the team can improve from a disappointing season. If health issues arise once again, look for a repeat of last season.
6. The division crown will be a battle between the Blazers and the Thunder.
The Thunder have firmly secured the top spot in the Northwest Division for the last four season in a row. They have been dominant and regardless of the Kevin Durant injury, it will difficult to knock them out of that spot again this year. The Trail Blazers are a team on the rise, and will see a chink in the armor for the Thunder and look to exploit it. The Thunder will have their work cut out for them and will have plenty of adjustments to make in order to keep the ship on track to have division title number five.
The Blazers enter the season without many health concerns and have added some pieces in Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to solidify their second unit. In addition their prize rookie last year C.J. McCollum (a Basketball Insiders contributor) looked phenomenal during summer league play, averaging 20.2 points and for the most part has looked solid during preseason play as well. The Blazers look to have continuity and health on their side, so look for the head to head match-ups between these teams to be fiercely contested. In the end, I expect the Thunder to have enough talent to maintain within striking distance long enough for Durant to return to action and lead the way for another division title, but it will come down to the wire and the Blazers will give them a run for their money.
NBA Daily: Why Teams Should Think Twice Before Tanking
Making up for the loss of a superstar is not a cut and dry, writes Spencer Davies.
Making up for the loss of a superstar is not a cut and dry affair.
If it happens, ownership and management have to choose between two options.
1) Attempt to stay competitive
2) Blow everything up and go for a high draft pick
The second choice seems to be the favorite path for executives to take as of late. After all, just look at the job the Philadelphia 76ers have done with perfecting the art of the aptly named process, “tanking.”
Former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie’s three ultra-quotable words have turned NBA fans on to see the bigger picture. Who cares if a team has to suffer through multiple seasons of losing? If it takes a couple of years, so be it. In the end, we’ll reset with younger talent to build around. Trust The Process.
Philadelphia lost a lot of games between the 2013 and 2017 seasons. It was flat out brutal to watch. With that said, it did give the organization the opportunity to draft the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and acquire a young international talent like Dario Saric.
They were extremely patient throughout this whole operation. Brett Brown remained the head coach through thick and thin. Players swore on buying into what was being preached.
Last season was a breakthrough for the Sixers. They won 52 games and made the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign. Two of the guys they drafted turned into recognizable names with their play and have sky-high potential to break through in this upcoming season.
But is this really what it takes to achieve relevancy and perpetual competition in the NBA now? Do you really have to wipe the slate clean entirely and put out an unacceptable product year-in and year-out for half a decade so that there’s a possibility of one day becoming a winning franchise?
It’s obvious that Philadelphia did its homework, but who’s to say that other front offices can function like that? The Sacramento Kings have been in the doldrums for 12 years. The Orlando Magic have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons and the New York Knicks haven’t made an appearance in five.
What it comes down to is hitting on draft picks, plain and simple. You don’t hear often about the missteps of the process. Nerlens Noel was supposed to be a key piece of the Sixers core, as was Jahlil Okafor. Both of those players were top six selections in their respective drafts.
In order to acquire Noel (along with New Orleans’ 2014 first-round pick), Philadelphia sent Jrue Holiday, Pierre Jackson and the 42nd overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft to the newly branded New Orleans Pelicans.
In hindsight, this was an awful move—no bones about it. Holiday had been coming off an All-Star season. He stood a head above the rest on a roster mixed with veterans and middle-of-their-career players. Most impressive of all, it was only his third year in the league.
The Sixers picked a gamble that did not return the results they were hoping for. Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year and Noel had his moments, but there’s no way it was worth losing a player the caliber of Holiday. But they had to abide by the process by any means necessary, right?
Philadelphia hasn’t won a championship, yet they’re heading in the right direction. They were able to overcome those bumps in the road. The three teams in Sacramento, Orlando and New York to this point have not.
Tanking may not be the wrong answer. It’s not always the right one, though. It all depends on timing. Take a different approach of re-tooling in lieu of rebuilding.
A prime example of this viewpoint is the Utah Jazz last season. After Gordon Hayward signed with the Boston Celtics, many pundits stuck a dead duck label on the Utah Jazz. Those people said that in spite of the fact that the organization was on the rise with a brilliant head coach and an up-and-coming center bordering on best defensive player in the league status.
General manager Dennis Lindsey made a few moves here or there, but did not even think about giving up on the overall progress the Jazz had attained. He kept Quin Snyder and Rudy Gobert, drafted Donovan Mitchell and began a new chapter in the same book instead of writing a different novel.
Utah opened a ton of eyes last season, not only making the playoffs—competing until the very end. And even that was fluky when injuries came into the picture.
They never had to go into the gutter. In the four straight years the Jazz missed the playoffs, it wasn’t because of a set strategy to take a nosedive. They had the wrong coach the first two and were learning how to play winning basketball under the right leader the next two.
It seems as if the Cleveland Cavaliers are taking that route instead of the usual cry to “blow it up.” This isn’t comparing the impact of losing Hayward to LeBron James. That would be irresponsible. But they’ve clearly formed a strategy for all of this and were much more prepared the second time around.
Their true plans were revealed on July 24 when Kevin Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension to stick around with the wine and gold. Confusion surfaced all around. Nearly everybody in the NBA world expected general manager Koby Altman to trade him and stock up on future assets. After all, the Cavaliers’ first-round draft pick next season only conveys if they finish as a bottom 10 team in the league. If they do not, the selection goes to the Atlanta Hawks.
While that’s a true statement, nothing is guaranteed. Anything that happens in a season can be unpredictable. Anything that goes on in a draft is unpredictable.
In one timeline, Cleveland could be as bad of a team as some are predicting with Love. In another, they could make the playoffs and shock their doubters.
We don’t know what Collin Sexton will be in this league yet. We do know that experience is irreplaceable. Why not surround the young man with talent for him to breed confidence in himself and others? It’s better than losing a ton of games because the front office is waiting for the next guy to pair him with, right?
The Cavaliers are keeping their head coach. They’re acquiring players aching for an opportunity. They’re altering their direction, but keeping the same focus.
With LeBron James, Cleveland made four straight NBA Finals. In doing so, they’ve set a standard for the organization. Even with The King going west, why would it make any sense to change that message?
Considering the talent this league already has and the “super teams” that are being built among them, there is a difference between a ball club that wins 20 games and one that wins 35. They both miss out on the postseason and have a lottery pick, however, Team A silently creates losing habits while Team B tries to instill a culture of winning.
There is no perfect method for filling a void left by losing a superstar player. Nobody is a psychic.
Maybe it’s naïve to criticize “The Process” for not wanting to be in NBA purgatory—usually somewhere stuck between a seven seed in the playoffs and the 10th team in the conference standings—but tanking is a tricky game. Precision is necessary to pull it off. If it isn’t there, you’ll be in a world of hurt.
At least when you’re in NBA purgatory, you can add to what you have or try a different coach. Championship or bust is a dangerous mentality in the current landscape of sports.
Of course, that’s always the goal, but very few understand what it takes to get to that point. It all starts with a winning attitude, a quality of most teams that have tanked do not possess.
NBA Daily: The Summer’s Most Impactful Coaching Hires
There have been a lot of coaching swaps this offseason, but there are only a select few that should impact what happens next year.
Building a successful team is like cooking a meal. The players serve as the ingredients, while the coach serves as the cook who stirs the ingredients. A championship team requires the right ingredients just as much as it requires an adept cook.
Take the Warriors for example. Mark Jackson played an important role in putting Golden State back on the map in 2013. However, after it was clear that he wasn’t capable of pushing them much further the following year, they replaced him with Steve Kerr.
That made all the difference. The Dubs went from pseudo-contender to legitimate contender, thanks to their new coach revolutionizing the team’s offense. The team went from the league’s 12th-ranked offense in the league the previous season (107.5 points per 100 possessions) to its second (111.6). Stephen Curry’s evolution into a basketball supernova led the way of course, but it was Kerr’s revisions to the team that pushed them to another level.
It all started with how he handled his rotation. Making Draymond Green a full-time starter while also transitioning Andre Iguodala into the sixth man made the Dubs all the more lethal as a team. The final touch was forming the “Death Lineup”, which consisted of Curry, Green, Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes, that made Golden State nearly impossible to stop.
Golden State had a roster built for a title. All they needed was a coach who could get them the best results. Kerr was the man for the job.
That goes to show how vital a coach is to a franchise that has high aspirations.
Because of success stories like Golden State, we saw quite a few coaching changes this summer from teams hoping to have a Hollywood ending much like the Warriors.
Milwaukee Bucks – Mike Budenholzer
Poor Coach Bud. It’s not his fault that the Hawks team that he guided to 60 wins in 2015 slowly disintegrated over the last three years. Luckily he got out of there to avoid having to take on a rebuild. So now, he gets a fresh start in Wisconsin.
Budenholzer’s stock has gone down considerably since winning the Coach of the Year three years ago. That being said, he’s shown that when he has lemons, he can make lemonade. Now that he is running the show in Milwaukee, he is coaching one of the more unique situations in the league. Coach Bud now has a superstar at his arsenal in Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is something he never had in Atlanta.
It’s true that Milwaukee has been one of the league’s frequent underachievers since they kicked the tires of the Greek Freek era, but their talent cannot be understated. Remember that Coach Bud once made the likes of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver All-Stars, statuses that they’ve never come close to regaining since. If he can do that with guys like Teague and Korver, imagine what he can do with Giannis and Co.
Milwaukee has also done a solid job building a team that fits Budenholzer’s emphasis on floor stretching. Adding Brook Lopez and bringing back Ersan Ilyasova should give a team that ranked 21st in three-point percentage more spacing. That’s quite impressive since Milwaukee had the ninth-best offensive rating in the league (109.8).
Milwaukee’s been trying to find their big break for a while now. They may have found theirs in Coach Bud.
Detroit Pistons – Dwane Casey
Nobody had a harder spring than Casey. Usually, winning Coach of the Year would be a moment worth treasuring, but in Casey’s case, it was far from it. Leading up to getting the award, Casey and the Raptors were swept by the Cavs for the second consecutive time, then he got fired shortly afterward. Casey getting Coach of the Year this season was pretty much like Dirk Nowitzki getting the MVP in 2007 after getting upset by the Warriors in the first round.
Thankfully, Casey’s illustrious resume was good enough for him to land on his feet just about anywhere. That anywhere happens to be Motown, where he’s replacing Stan Van Gundy as head coach. Detroit also has not had the most success since they’ve turned to Andre Drummond. That could be attributed to the unfortunate injuries that they’ve had to deal with in the last two years.
Despite having the persistent monkey on his back come playoff time, Casey has improved his craft in response to his failures. The Raptors saw improvement every year when Casey ran the show, and now Casey has the chance to show he can do the same in Detroit.
It will be an interesting transition going from the Raptors to the Pistons. Though not as talented as Toronto’s, Detroit’s strength should primarily come from their frontcourt. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond should be one of the league’s best frontcourt pairings on paper. Casey has a reputation for making things work, so now that they will have a full season together, they may shine more than they did last season.
One particular question that should be answered is if Toronto’s problem was Casey or his roster. That may be answered by how Detroit does this season. Oh hey, speaking of Toronto…
Toronto Raptors – Nick Nurse
There seems to be a fair amount of optimism surrounding Nurse. Supposedly, he was the reason why the Raptors’ offense improved so much last season. Casey executed it to perfection, but Nurse was the one who designed it. Now, he’s at the forefront on a team that is desperate for success now more than ever.
This is Nurse’s first gig as a head coach, and the pressure is going to be on. It’s not just that Toronto’s been trying to get past its playoff demons. Now that they have Kawhi Leonard, they have to do everything in their power to keep him around — tall order given he seems hellbent on going to L.A.
Still, Leonard is an upgrade over DeMar DeRozan. Acquiring him, along with promoting Nurse, shows that the Raptors aren’t playing around. Being the head coach for one of the league’s powerhouses is a big break for Nurse. This may be his only to chance to prove he deserves a spot in this league.
James Borrego – Charlotte Hornets
Another Popovich protegee moving up through the ranks! Borrego has had some head coaching experience, though it was with the Orlando Magic, who were not going anywhere, three years ago. Now he’s going to Charlotte, a team that’s in a pretty tough situation right now.
Right now, Charlotte is hard-capped on a roster that does not have much room for improvement. The team has not made the playoffs in two years, and it’s hard to imagine how they improve from where they currently are. However, that might be why they hired Borrego.
Instead of going for a known name like Stan Van Gundy or Jeff Hornacek, they went with a guy who has learned under the NBA’s best coach for several years. Coach Bud became a great coach after learning from Pop, so perhaps Borrego may follow in his footsteps. This is a pivotal year for Charlotte since Kemba Walker’s bargain contract is expiring. If Borrego can help Charlotte return to the playoffs, then that could do wonders for them.
Note that David Fizdale, Lloyd Pierce, and Igor Kokoskov weren’t named. It isn’t fair to include them because the teams they are running are currently in the rebuilding phase with little expectation. They could be very impactful hires down the line. Just don’t expect a lot from them right away.
Same goes for J.B. Bickerstaff, but that’s because he already was the Grizzlies’ head coach. Now he’s full-time instead of interim. Call it cheating if you want to.
As for those who have been named, these hires should have a significant impact on what happens in the Eastern Conference playoff race this season. One of these hires could very well put their team in the finals, while another could put them in the NBA lottery.
NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Looking For Rookie Season Role
Although far from guaranteed, there are five recent second-rounders who could work themselves into important roles in 2018-19.
After months of speculation, rumors and workouts, the NBA Draft and their respective summer leagues are finally well in the rearview mirror. With training camps up next, franchises can begin to flesh out their rotations and decide the early season fates of their newly-arrived rookies — even if their selection didn’t come with as much fanfare or hype.
And although draft day studs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III are nearly guaranteed to contribute immediately, much of the class’ future is still up for grabs — a statement particularly true for those that followed the first round. Whether it was a strong summer league showing or a picture-perfect landing spot, here are the five second round draftees poised to leave a mark in 2018-19.
Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18: 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting
Much as been made of the youngest Antetokounmpo’s controversial decision to come out this spring, but his faith was rewarded by Dallas with the draft’s final selection. Back in June, our Spencer Davies dove into Antetokounmpo’s time at Dayton and it’s not difficult to see why the Mavericks took a swing on the raw 6-foot-11 prospect. Over four games in Las Vegas, Antetokounmpo averaged five points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 58 percent from the floor — which, of course, is not eye-popping but could foreshadow a role moving forward.
Between Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and the ever-talented Luka Dončić, Antetokounmpo will not be called upon to carry the scoring load at any point. On a two-way deal, the Mavericks have the luxury to develop the Greek-born stopper in the G-League until he’s ready to make a difference — but for a defensive-minded Rick Carlisle, that day could come sooner rather than later. With Dwight Powell and Ray Spalding fighting for minutes at power forward, Antetokounmpo could be an option at the three, where Barnes has just Dorian Finney-Smith behind him.
For a franchise that ranked 18th in DEF RTG (107.4) last season and will strive for their first postseason berth since 2016, giving spot defensive specialist minutes to Antetokounmpo seems like a win-win partnership.
De’Anthony Melton, Houston Rockets
2016-17: 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 43.7 percent shooting
After missing an entire season due to an improper benefits scandal at USC, Melton serendipitously fell to the Rockets way down at No. 46 overall. At 6-foot-3, Melton has a shot to contribute on both ends immediately as an above-average defender and a microwavable scorer. During his Las Vegas debut, Melton tallied 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, four assists and a summer league-leading three steals across five contests — albeit at an improvable 38 percent from the floor. As a tenacious playmaker, Melton should get ample opportunity to impress with a franchise looking to avenge their brutal Western Conference Finals defeat last spring.
On top of learning from one of the best point guards in league history, there also happens to be little competition for Melton in the rotation. In July, the Rockets signed Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner that averaged just 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists in 52 games for Charlotte in 2017-18 — and, well, that’s it. For a three-point bombing franchise like Houston, neither guard fits particularly well in that regard, but Melton’s 28.4 percent clip in one season as an 18-year-old still projects better than Carter-Williams’ 25 percent mark over five years.
Chris Paul missed 24 regular season games last year, but the Rockets are still willing to head into training camp with a second-round rookie and Carter-Williams holding down the backup point guard slot — that alone says far more about Houston’s faith in Melton than anything else.
Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2017-18: 12.9 points, 4.8 assists on 39.4 percent from three
Outside of Džanan Musa and the aforementioned Dončić, the Phoenix Suns’ Élie Okobo entered draft night as the most promising overseas prospect in the bunch. Okobo, a 6-foot-2 Frenchman, could feasibly become the Suns’ franchise point guard by season’s end. The playmaking 20-year-old has just Brandon Knight ahead of him on the depth chart, a formidable NBA point guard, but one that does not fit Phoenix’s current rebuilding plan. Admittedly, his statistics won’t jump off the page just yet — 2.3 points, 3.5 assists in four summer league contests — but the potential for Okobo is certainly here.
While it’s worth noting that Okobo didn’t score in three straight contests after his impressive debut, he appears to be a suitable backcourt partner with franchise cornerstone Devin Booker. Whether he’s connecting with a backdoor cut in stride or hitting difficult running floaters, there are plenty of positives to take thus far. With a postseason appearance looking unlikely for the Suns, it’ll make sense to give Okobo the reins before long — even if they can’t move Knight’s contract worth $15.6 million in 2019-20.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
Needless to say, Mitchell Robinson could be an absolute treat for the New York Knicks.
For much of the pre-draft process, it looked like Robinson was a shoo-in first rounder, with many speculating that he even received a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 overall. Once the first 30 picks came and went without Robinson — who elected to pull out of the draft combine in May — the Knicks were more than happy to scoop him up. Across five summer league contests, Robinson averaged 13 points, 10.2 rebounds and a competition-leading four blocks per game on 67 percent from the field.
On a team-friendly four-year deal worth just $1.8 million in 2021-22, Robinson already looks like a bargain. But beyond his first-round talent at a second-round price, there’s a real chance that Robinson can contribute for New York right away. Following the recent news that Joakim Noah will be stretched if the Knicks can’t find a suitable partner by training camp, that leaves exactly two centers left on the roster: Enes Kanter and Robinson. The 7-foot-1 prospect is a natural replacement for the departed Kyle O’Quinn, while the newly-minted David Fizdale should love Robinson’s shot-changing impact defensively.
Even if Robinson shuttles back-and-forth to and from Westchester throughout the season, he could still seamlessly slide into the Knicks’ rotation from day one.
Jevon Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18: 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 3 steals on 39.3 percent from three
Earlier this week, Matt John put forth an excellent case for what should be a comeback season for the Grit-And-Grind Grizzlies — but there’s one second-rounder still currently flying under the radar. Despite a stellar final season at West Virginia, Carter dropped into Memphis’ lap and there are few that so elegantly fit the franchise’s identity without effort. As the reigning back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year, Carter should split the backup point guard minutes with newcomer Shelvin Mack, if not more by season’s end.
The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, along with renewed health from Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, will have Memphis eying the postseason once again — but Carter will likely be a fan favorite long before then as well. During his lengthy summer league initiation, Carter pulled in 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals over seven games. Although his 35 percent clip from the floor could use some restraint, he won’t need to shoulder offensive responsibilities with the Grizzlies.
Carter’s hard-nosed style of play will enhance an uncharacteristically poor Memphis defense from last season, with his years of extra experience allowing the bullish ball-stopper to drop into the rotation from the get-go.
With franchises focused on their high-ranking lottery picks, many second round draftees (and their often non-guaranteed contracts) will never carve out a consistent NBA role. But from backing up future Hall of Famers to filling a hole in the rotation, it should surprise no one if Antetokounmpo, Melton, Okobo, Robinson and Carter earn some big-time opportunities in 2018-19. Last year alone, Semi Ojeleye, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell all quickly found their niche at the professional level — so who will it be this year?