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Dunc’d On: Preseason Week One Thoughts

Nate Duncan shares his impressions from the first week of the preseason.

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With a week’s worth of preseason games in the books, it is possible to make a few observations about the teams I have seen a bit of.  Obviously given the sample and the preseason, anything here is only of limited utility.  But there are some legitimate takeaways so far, especially on player’s health or fitness going into the season.

Chicago Bulls

–The biggest takeaway for the Bulls is that Derrick Rose looks excellent.  His defense has been outstanding, and while he is not quite the athletic force he was getting to the rim, that may be more a function of him being 26 instead of 23 when we last really saw him.  Granted, Rose had trouble translating his preseason success into the regular season early last year before his injury, but this preseason has provided about as many positive signs as Bulls fans could have hoped for.  The only issue so far has been his midrange jumper, which as Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry noted has declined precipitously.  Rose does not appear to be rising on balance very well, as he almost always lands with his body oriented in a different direction.

–Nikola Mirotic has been a mixed bag. He showed *Marv voice* the entire repertoire in the opener against the Wizards, but has struggled offensively since.  He has been a little shy taking open spot up threes, looking to drive even when he has plenty of time to get the shot off.  That may just be a relic of his play in Europe. There, his driving game was more effective due to a lack of shotblockers, and there is also a little bit more of an unselfish ethos.  He should be a very effective offensive player once he adjusts, because he has a very high skill level.

Defensively his team defense has been encouraging. Mirotic has more quickness in rotations than anticipated, and his quick hands and length have provided a solid deterrent in the paint despite the fact he is not a leaper.  One-on-one he has struggled a bit more because he does not get into a deep enough stance and does not have a ton of quickness laterally.  And, the defensive boards have been a sore spot as well.

A plus though is that Mirotic appears in great cardiovascular shape.  He runs the floor hard, competes for offensive rebounds and still gets back on D.

–Joakim Noah is clearly still working his way back from offseason knee surgery.  Interestingly, we never found out precisely what that surgery actually was other than a “clean-up.” But the fact that Noah reportedly only resumed basketball activities for training camp after a May surgery would indicate that it was more than a small meniscus trim that a “clean-up” would normally imply.

Noah will eventually be himself on defense, but his offense will be something to keep an eye on as his athleticism declines with age—he turns 30 this year.   He can be an effective midrange shooter when wide open, but his slow and low release means that teams can stray very far off him and still recover.  They have not been guarding him at all in the preseason, and that is a problem when Pau Gasol is trying to post up.  Some of Noah’s scoring shortcomings have been mitigated by having the ball in his hands so much the last two years, because the man with the ball generally must be guarded. But with Rose and Gasol in the lineup now we will see less of Noah facilitating this year, so he must be a threat off the ball.  It may be that this is much ado about nothing, but it is something to keep an eye on as the regular season begins.

–Jimmy Butler looks to be in absolutely outstanding shape.  It seems clear that wear and tear and a toe injury sapped his athleticism a year ago, but he is now jumping out of the gym the way he was back in 2012-13.

Butler is attacking the basket hard on cuts and getting to the free throw line off passes from the Bulls’ skilled big men.  The only thing we have yet to see is his three point shot.  Butler has taken only one in three games, which is really going to hamstring the Bulls’ offense if he can’t at least be a consistent threat out there.

–Gasol has looked excellent defensively, as he is functioning as the center with Noah at power forward.  He has eight blocks in three games.  On offense his midranger has been effective, but he has not been particularly effective posting up, perhaps in part due to the lack of spacing.

–One thing to watch is coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotations.  He has a history of extreme rigidity, which has hurt the Bulls in the past.  Thus far in the preseason, Thibodeau has started Noah and Gasol, who are both really centers.  Rose, Butler and Mike Dunleavy fill out the starting lineup, which has played well despite a relative dearth of shooting.  But the bench units have been disappointing.  Granted it is preseason, so we may see more mixing and matching of starters and reserves when the real games begin.

My suggestion would be to play Gasol in three stints, like the Mavericks and Spurs often deploy Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker.  Taj Gibson for Gasol early would allow him to return for Noah and play with the second unit when Rose sits.  This second stint could give Gasol minutes with Mirotic, who could space the floor for postups and allow Gasol to work as a go-to option.  It would also behoove the Bulls to try a few minutes each half with Rose and Mirotic to run spread pick-and-roll, as Mirotic’s shooting would facilitate Rose’s drives.

To really compete for a championship, this Bulls team needs to get to the top 10 in offense this year.  With the offensive talent on hand, that type of finish seems possible.  But, Thibodeau is going to need to find the right mix of players in his regular units to make that happen.

Golden State Warriors

–Andrew Bogut is shooting free throws left-handed now!  To my knowledge, this was something no one had reported on at all until he unveiled it against the Lakers on Sunday night.  After shooting a miserable 34 percent last year, perhaps Bogut came to the conclusion that the after-effects of his awful elbow injury in 2010 would prevent him from shooting passably with his natural right hand.  He started 1-4 with the new approach.

–The Warriors’ offense already features much more ball movement than under Mark Jackson.  The problem with Jackson’s approach was not merely his fondness for iso-ball, but the fact that little movement occurred off the ball during those isos and postups.  That defect has been remedied as of the first two games, although it remains to be seen how the Warriors will look against a defense that is not the Los Angeles Lakers.  How the Warriors play offensively without Curry could be the biggest key (non-health division) to whether they can reach the high 50s in wins.  With Kevin Durant’s injury, a top three seed appears a bit more realistic for a lot of teams in the West.

–Brandon Rush has looked excellent so far.  He cut quite a bit of weight from his nadir in Utah a season ago, when he was probably about 15 pounds too heavy and struggled with his confidence.  He is looking like a viable rotation piece as a three and D player, and potentially an excellent signing for the minimum.  Despite the “Splash Brothers” moniker, the Warriors could really use another shooter on the wing aside from Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.

–Backup center is the only real weakness to emerge for the Warriors.  Festus Ezeli still has yet to make his debut after a setback with shin discomfort, and Ognjen Kuzmic has not impressed offensively and looks pretty limited athletically.  Mareese Speights’ weakness executing the system defensively has been well-documented, so the Warriors do not have a great in-house option backing up the injury-prone Bogut.

–This play was perhaps my favorite so far of the preseason.  As the Lakers were getting blown out of the gym, Kobe put Ronnie Price on Harrison Barnes and tried to pressure up Stephen Curry.  This was the result.

Los Angeles Lakers

–I have seen all three of the Lakers’ preseason games. After an encouraging start against the Nuggets, the Warriors have put their weaknesses in stark relief.   We knew this team would struggle defensively without a single above-average defensive player on the roster aside from the limited Ronnie Price.  But as Stephen Curry roasted Steve Nash to start Sunday’s game, it was apparent that the Lakers really didn’t have a superior option.  Bryant is not a stopper at this point in his career, although he is better on-ball than off.  Jeremy Lin was injured and has never been great on D, and Wesley Johnson is probably too slow.  It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Lakers avoid the bottom five in defense this year.

–Another underappreciated Laker weakness was highlighted by Byron Scott’s comments earlier this week that he wanted the Lakers taking less than 15 threes per game.  That seems like lunacy in today’s NBA, but L.A. really doesn’t have three-point shooters aside from Nash until Ryan Kelly returns from a hamstring injury.  Against Golden State, they took a mere three from downtown, making none.  On a related note, the Lakers managed 75 points.

–The good news for the Lakers is that Kobe Bryant has looked about as good as could be expected so far.  Unlike his abortive return a year ago, he looks to be about the same weight as he finished 2012-13.  Despite the torn Achilles and the knee fracture, I wouldn’t say he looks much worse than might have been expected with another two years of aging had he stayed healthy.

Brooklyn Nets

–The encouraging news for the Nets is that Brook Lopez looks like he is back.  Lost amidst the Nets’ horrible start last year was Lopez’s injury, and the fact that he was on pace for a wonderful individual offensive season.  He looked like his old self against Sacramento in China early Sunday morning.

–Lionel Hollins gave Mason Plumlee and Lopez a few minutes together, but it is hard to imagine that pairing working well with Plumlee’s limited shooting range and Lopez’s penchant for posting up.  Plumlee also struggles out on the floor against power forwards despite his athleticism.  It is a bit of a conundrum for coach Hollins, as Lopez, Plumlee, and Kevin Garnett are all best at center at this point in their careers.

–Garnett looked great in the few minutes he played, looking quite spry as he skied for a defensive rebound and a goaltend.  Maybe we just caught him on a good day (which can be fewer and further between as players age), but it was good to see.

–The Nets were very effective posting their smalls a year ago.  With the departures of Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, that strategy will be deployed a bit less this year, but Joe Johnson and Deron Williams can still be lethal in that role.  They may want to try it with Lopez out of the game though, as he had trouble finding a spot to avoid gumming up the spacing.  It may just be rust hurting his timing for cutting to the basket, but the small postups were ineffective when he played.

–Deron Williams looked relatively spry and canned a few jumpers, but he was not particularly successful getting into the paint against Sacramento’s usually porous defense.  I did not see enough to posit whether he will be significantly improved after procedures on his ankles in the offseason, although reports from previous games and camp have been positive.

–Sergey Karasev spent the summer in relative limbo before being traded to the Nets as the Cavs cleared space for LeBron James. There appears to be almost no chance he will be in the rotation, which is not a surprise with the veteran wings the Nets have.  But it would be nice if he had improved his body some in the offseason.  Instead, he looked to have extremely high body fat for a young 20 year old wing.  Considering athleticism is his biggest roadblock to success in the NBA, it is disappointing.

Sacramento Kings

–Ramon Sessions was a very underrated signing late in the summer.  He is probably the best passer the Kings have rostered since Brad Miller, and has also showed an ability to keep the defense honest with his jumper so far.

–Nik Stauskas is going to get attacked defensively, as he noted the other day.  A typical sequence saw Deron Williams wave off a pick-and-roll to isolate against him, although he missed a reasonably tough jumper since the help was waiting behind Stauskas.  The good news for the Kings is Stauskas can shoot, dribble and pass.  It turns out those skills are pretty important for basketball.  Moreover, Stauskas looks like he belongs out there athletically.  He certainly isn’t going to help the Kings’ defensive woes, but I would expect him to supplant Ben McLemore as the starter by season’s end, especially with Darren Collison’s playmaking limitations.

–The reports that Omri Casspi had slimmed down appear accurate.  I had noted it would really help him to do so after he looked a little heavy down the stretch with Houston a year ago, and he is much quicker getting to the basket and asserting himself in the floor game.

–The Kings are another team  that somehow does not have a single high-minute player on their roster who projects to play above-average NBA defense.  It is really difficult to see how they are going to improve on last year’s point-prevention, and that is a problem since the offense could take a step back without Isaiah Thomas.

Washington Wizards

–With the unfortunate injury to Bradley Beal, we are going to find out whether Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. can play.  While that may torpedo Washington’s hopes of getting home-court in the first round, determining whether a long-term in-house solution is available at the three is a silver lining.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst, salary cap expert and attorney. He has also written for Sports Illustrated & ESPN, and a host on #NBACast

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