After earning the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs — all behind the strong play of Nikola Vucevic — the Orlando Magic should have the optimism to improve during the 2019-20 season. The Magic were able to maintain stability within their ranks entering this year, keeping a large part of their core roster from last year. The biggest move the Magic made was to re-sign their aforementioned All-Star center to a four-year, $100 million deal ensuring that he finishes his prime playing years in Orlando.
The Magic added some intriguing new players to their roster with Markelle Fultz and Al-Farouq Aminu, players that could be difference-makers throughout the campaign. Aminu is a hard-working low post role player that will provide efficient scoring while contributing on the defensive end. Fultz will, hopefully, come back from his various shoulder injuries and display the promise upon, at long last. The Magic lack depth at the point guard position and Fultz can challenge a 31-year-old D.J. Augustin for the starting position. Look for the Magic to earn another playoff appearance again this season, with the goal of earning a higher seed and winning their first series since 2010.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Magic are the second-best team in the Southeast Division, but that shouldn’t conjure up too much excitement in Orlando. The Magic still lack direction pertaining to their ongoing rebuild – which feels like it’s been underway for a decade. They are still in dire need of a point guard, but instead, they continue to collect big men. They should be active in the trade market this year in pursuing a point guard if one becomes available. And, in exchange, they have incredible depth upfront, but not enough playing time to go around. There is the recently re-signed Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba, as well as Jonathan Isaac and 2019 free agent-signee Al-Farouq Aminu.
And to make matters worse, the Magic went back to the well and drafted 6-foot-8 Chuma Okeke this past June. Even if they don’t make a move, the Magic will still end the year around .500 and probably qualify for the playoffs again. But they won’t progress far forward until they find a point guard around whom they can build.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Drew Maresca
Steve Clifford’s first go-round as head coach of the Magic went better than some had expected. He got the best out of Nikola Vucevic in a career year, utilized the size of Jonathan Isaac on the defensive end and put Terrence Ross in the perfect situation to succeed as the leader of the second unit. Coming into this campaign, Orlando hadn’t lost any core pieces and actually gained a vastly underrated one in Al-Farouq Aminu. The conundrum will be finding ample playing time for the plethora of forwards on their roster while lacking a star point guard necessary to take the next step. It’s asking a lot out of D.J. Augustin to repeat what he did in one of his best seasons as a pro. And as far as Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon are concerned, the status quo may be good – but in this league, good isn’t good enough. Improvements must be made. With that said, they should be in playoff contention — but how far they can go remains to be seen.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
The Magic took a big step last season when they finished with a winning record and made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They even managed to steal Game 1 of the first round from the eventual champions in Toronto. Aaron Gordon has taken a big leap forward and has emerged as a borderline All-Star talent. The Magic also have some intriguing young players in Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and, yes, Markelle Fultz, whom they just picked up the contract option on. The real test for Orlando though is going to be to prove that last season wasn’t a one-year wonder and that this team is ready to be a perennial playoff contender. They even appeared to be the top team in their division until the HEAT acquired Jimmy Butler this summertime. Even though it’s the Eastern Conference, it might be a little difficult for them to replicate last season’s success. They’re going to need some real growth from their young guys to show they actually are headed in the right direction.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Magic may be the biggest “what if” team in the East. What if Markell Fultz can be the guy he was championed to be in the draft? What if Aaron Gordon takes the next step to All-Star status? What if Jonathan Issac can be the future star he looks to be? What if Mo Bamba can play valuable minutes all season? The great thing for Orlando is that if any of those things happen, then they should be better than the 42 wins they had last season. If two of them happen, they could be scary good; but if three happen, they could have home court. The downsize is the Magic still don’t have the franchise guy they coveted and desperately need to be considered a real contender. So if the “ifs” don’t pan out, the Magic do have lots of attractive trade chip if that star becomes available in trade. Overall, the Magic should be better. They found a solid identity down the stretch last year and have kept the core together, which should help them pick up where they left off.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
Orlando is a team I just can’t quite figure out, which may explain why the Magic will be one of the non-California teams I will be keeping a close eye on this upcoming season. Aaron Gordon keeps improving and could be set for a big season. I don’t know what to make of the collective power forward-center combination of Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu, Nikola Vucevic and Mohamed Bamba but if either Isaac or Bamba takes a leap, things could get very interesting. And that doesn’t even include what this team can become if Markelle Fultz overcomes the issues that have plagued him early in his chaotic career. Orlando didn’t make any out of the box or completely unexpected moves this offseason, but did what was necessary to move forward with what is becoming an increasingly competitive team in the Eastern Conference. The team still has a ways to go to become a true contender, but there are some interesting parts in Orlando and I would not be surprised if the Magic exceed expectations this upcoming season.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Magic remains the only team yet to sign their 2019 first-round draft pick as Chuma Okeke (16th) recovers from an ACL tear, reports are he may red-shirt in the G-League.
Orlando is close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold, with $129.7 million in guaranteed salary. Okeke would earn at least $2.1 million as a rookie (80 percent of scale, when the norm is 120 percent), which might explain the delay. Look for the Magic to explore a cost-cutting trade at some point throughout the season if they do end up above the tax line.
The team has a hard cap at $138.9 million, after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Al-Farouq Aminu. The team isn’t especially close to that limit but still may not use its Bi-Annual Exception of $3.6 million, with tax concerns. (edited)
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Nikola Vucevic
Nikola Vucevic earned his first NBA All-Star selection this past season as he averaged a career-high 20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. Vucevic has always shown strong offensive capabilities during his career but he took it to a new level during the 2018-19 season. Vucevic also dominated from behind the arc last year as his percentage on two-point attempts, 54.9 percent, was the highest of his career. He also converted on 84 total three-pointers, averaged 36.4 percent from three-point range and earned a 51.8 field goal percentage
As the centerpiece of Steve Clifford’s offense last season, Vucevic was the first option and often had pick and rolls or post-up plays go through him, but it was his improved passing that helped the team’s perimeter game. Vucevic averaged a career-high in assists last year with 3.8 per game.
Vucevic draws a lot of attention because of his ability to score on the block but he scored just 0.93 points per possession on post-ups. Despite being one of the most-frequent post players in the league, Vucevic may need to improve points per possession in the post to become a more dangerous threat. Regardless, Vucevic will continue to be the focal point of the offense and has shown tremendous growth in the position last year.
Top Defensive Player: Jonathan Isaac
During the 2017 NBA Draft, Jonathan Isaac was a solidified lottery pick after one season at Florida State University, where he was seen a project player. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and good lateral mobility, he has an incredible defensive upside. Isaac struggled through injuries in his rookie season but is back on track after a solid sophomore season that saw him improve defensively as the season progressed.
Up until the All-Star break, Isaac’s opponents shot 45.5 percent and 39 percent from three-point range. After the break, Isaac’s opponents shot just 42.8 percent from the field, 32 percent from behind the arc and held the third-highest defensive win-shares on the roster.
Despite Isaac’s slender frame, he has become a more versatile defender both on the perimeter and in the paint. Isaac finished 20th in the league in blocks last season and 17th in Block Percentage. Moreover, the talented rotation piece finished the season with a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.02 this season, well above average for his position. He was even more impressive in the limited sample size of his rookie season, ranking 14th among 83 qualified power forwards with a DRPM of 1.78.
Top Playmaker: Terrence Ross
Last season, the Magic — and their overall shooting prowesses — relied heavily on the first guy off the bench, Terrence Ross. His reputation for reckless shot selection hasn’t materialized during his time in Orlando. Ross attempted seven three-pointers per contest, even averaging a three-pointer every 3.5 minutes he was in the game. He made 38.3 percent of those attempts and they accounted for over 55 percent of his total shot distribution. No player has ever made as many threes in a season while playing exclusively in a bench role as he did — and he finished with 217 made three-pointers.
In 2019-20, he delivered the best and most consistent season of his career. He was a clear-cut candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, averaged 15.1 points per game and made 38.3 percent of his three-pointers. As part of the Magic bench, he was the guy they ran almost all their offense through.
Ross has always been considered streaky in his scoring and has not had reliable output. Ross’ ability has never been questioned, especially after scoring 51 points in a game during the 2014-2015 season. But Ross can go extremely cold when it matters, like, for example, when he averaged 13.2 points per game and shot just 37 percent from the field during last season’s playoffs. Look for Ross to work on consistency, an aspect he improved tremendously through the season last year.
Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier
During the fourth quarter (or overtime), with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points — aka known as “Clutch Time” — the Magic have consistently relied on Evan Fournier. In the 2018-19 season, Fournier led the team with 32 points in 29 games played during these pressure-filled moments, converting on 11 out of his 20 shots and three of the nine attempts from three-point range.
Over the past three years, Fournier has scored 83 points in 74 clutch games, making 27 of 53 shots (50.9 percent) and 10 of 27 three-pointers (37 percent). Terrence Ross may be a secondary option for these clutch situations with 22 points on 7-for-20 shooting (35 percent), but he only hit three of his 12 three-pointers in those instances last season. Fournier has exhibited a knack for performing in these moments and will be the primary option going into the 2019-20 season.
Unheralded Player: D.J. Augustin
Acting as the only spark of offense in the playoffs last season, D.J. Augustin scored 19 of his 25 points in the first half of Game 1 in the first round against the Raptors, thus forcing head coach Nick Nurse to adjust his defense. By acquiring Markelle Fultz last season, the Magic have made it apparent that Augustin is only a short-term solution until they can develop the younger version to take over the offense.
Throughout the prior season, Augustin notched 11.7 points per game and 5.3 assists per game with a 56.6 percent effective field goal percentage. Augustin rarely turned the ball over and that composure helped the Magic through some tough games. By providing a steady hand and consistency, Augustine will be seen as a stabilizing force for the inexperienced team and an unheralded part of the Magic this season.
Best New Addition: Al-Farouq Aminu
With first-round pick Chuma Okeke expected to red-shirt the season in the G-League, Al-Farouq Aminu gets the nod as the best new addition.
Aminu has been seen as a wing that can shoot at an efficient level while defending against some of the best scorers in the league. Better, Aminu has shown versatility on the defensive side of the court by playing center and stretching the floor as a power forward on offense.
The Magic offered Aminu a three-year, $29.2 million deal despite having a “log-jam” at the power forward position. Aminu, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac all have incredible, athletic upsides that have not been fully developed and, in turn, make their skillsets slightly repetitive. Each are lengthy wings that lack some technical skills and shooting ability, but each provides value in different ways.
The Magic already had the eighth-most efficient defense in the league last year. so Aminu will only contribute to the strong defense as he has ranked as a top-15 power forward in RPM over the past four years. What Aminu provides in the present is security for the team, a way to shore up the defense and provide depth to the frontcourt that has talent but little consistency. Aminu has only missed 35 games over the past four years, making his durability and stability an insurance policy for Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba.
– David Weissman
WHO WE LIKE
1. Keeping The Gang Around
Orlando’s president of basketball operations, Jeff Weltman, repeatedly said the team wanted to bring back Vucevic. The Magic re-signed Vucevic to a four-year, $100 million deal even though they could have offered him as much as a five-year, $189.7 million contract. Vucevic also had other options as another franchise was willing to offer him a four-year, $140.6 million deal.
The Magic also signed Khem Birch to a two-year, $6 million contract to add to the depth behind Vucevic. When Bamba went down with a season-ending leg injury last year, Birch helped the Magic earn a defensive rating of 102.7 when he was on the court during the regular season, making him the perfect insurance policy should Vucevic or Bamba fall victim to injury. Best of all, Birch is currently considered the best defender of the three.
One primary focus the Orlando Magic honed on this summer was bringing Terrence Ross back. They accomplished their goal by signing Ross to a four-year, $54 million contract, thus continuing the great fit with the added bonus of his veteran leadership. Last season, Ross averaged 38.3 percent from deep and became the first player in league history to make over 200 three-pointers without ever starting a game.
2. The Young Core
The Magic fielded the youngest starting line up in the playoffs last seasons with six of the players in rotation under the age of 25. With Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz all considered possible starters for the upcoming season, the Magic are sending up signals that their focus is on the future. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Magic have one of the most dynamic young cores in the league.
Using the CARMELO projection system and WAR figure, each of which evaluates a multi-season future forecast based on a player’s history and determines the number of wins above replacement over the next five seasons for every player on each team’s roster, the Orlando Magic rank 11th-best in the league. Aaron Gordon ranked highest with a 16.2 rating, but the rest of the young core looks more unpredictable, despite the hope that they will develop into starters on a playoff team.
Issac and Gordon have proven to be capable of starting on the Magic, but have not shown the dominance and game-changing play that made them both lottery picks. Fultz and Bamba have not played a lot, but are looking for a fresh start this season.
3. Magic Players In The FIBA Basketball World Cup
With the closing of 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, the United States disappointed fans by finishing in seventh place — theIR worst showing in Team USA history. That is due, in part, to the newfound distribution of basketball talent at the global level. The Magic saw four players represent their national teams, with some of them even using their NBA experience to help bring down Team USA.
Evan Fournier captured his third bronze medal with the French national team, by defeating Australia in the third-place game. The 26-year-old averaged 19.8 points per game throughout the tournament, fourth-best among current NBA players. Fournier also helped France break the Team USA’s streak of 58 straight wins in international tournaments and was named to FIBA’s All-Tournament team.
Nikola Vucevic represented Montenegro in his first-ever FIBA World Cup. Vucevic was solid for his country, despite only winning one of the five games during the competition, and averaged 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.
Nigeria finished the 2019 FIBA World Cup as the highest-ranking African team and will go onto play in its third consecutive Olympics. Al-Farouq Aminu was arguably Nigeria’s most-stifling defender and was often his team’s secondary or tertiary playmaker. Despite only scoring 8.2 points per game, his experience in the NBA translated to his play in the tournament, thus helping Nigeria win three of five games.
With a large amount of their talented Canadians sitting out the FIBA World Cup, Khem Birch was able to have a prominent role with the team. Birch averaged 11.6 points on nearly 58 percent shooting from the field and seven rebounds per game. Despite his performance, however, Canada was not able to make it out of the first round.
It is clear that the Magic provided the world with a bevy of talent, especially Fournier. After the impressive showings that these players had during the FIBA World Cup, the Magic will hope that their international players continue to grow heading into the 2019-20 season.
4. Solidifying The Center Position
The whole offseason for the Orlando Magic revolved around Nikola Vucevic. The Magic had two options this offseason: (1) resign Vucevic, focus on re-signing Terrence Ross and retaining the same core of their roster; or (2) let Vucevic walk, leaving the team to find a way to fill the center position, but staying competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Magic, rightfully, went with option one.
Despite his overwhelming potential, Bamba still has a lot of growing to do, especially adding weight and developing strength. Experience will come with time, but taking the starting role from Vucevic will be a difficult task. After signing Vucevic to a four-year deal, it is clear that Orlando feels as Bamba’s development will take a few years. The team will look to Bamba to become a future starter but, for now, there is no pressure for him to be that guy.
– David Weissman
With the acquisition of Al-Farouq Aminu and the drafting of Chuma Okeke, many Magic fans felt confused by the number of frontcourt players that the team currently has on the roster. Pundits call the power forward situation a “log-jam,” but that take appears overblown.
Aminu will be the perimeter player with defensive versatility, similar to the sets that both Gordon and Isaac possesses. With Okeke set to spend all season in the G League, that rotation becomes a little bit leaner. Despite the notion that there may be a “log-jam,” the Magic can keep a versatile defender at power forward at all times while maintaining the ability to switch up to the small forward position.
The Magic played that way most of the year, with Isaac playing small forward and Gordon at power forward. That pairing raised some questions before the season began, but when both shared the floor last year, the Magic had a +1.7 net rating (108.3 offensive rating and 106.6 defensive rating).
– David Weissman
During the playoffs, the Magic tried to work through Nikola Vucevic — but the hard-nosed Raptors were able to swarm the center, close off his usual passing lanes and stymied his flow on offense. Then and there, the team’s biggest weakness was apparent. The Magic had no one who could break the Raptors’ defense down off the dribble.
The Orlando Magic have lacked that type of talent since the departure of Victor Oladipo, but they may look to Markelle Fultz to fill that role. Despite past injuries, he has already recorded a triple-double and is still an effective scorer off the dribble. Gordon and Isaac both have shown glimpses of perimeter penetration skill and can be alternatives to Fultz this season. Because the Magic lack perimeter playmaking last year, the team’s shooting was also negatively impacted.
Furthermore, Clifford must create an offense to cover up their shooting woes at the forward position. Shooting is still a major flaw for all three players there as Aminu shot 34.3 percent from beyond the arc last year, Isaac went for 32.3 percent and Gordon made just 34.9 percent.
Overall, the Magic shot 35.6 percent from beyond the arc, the 11th-best mark in the league last season, so there are signs of life there.
THE BURNING QUESTION
What will Markelle Fultz become this year?
D.J. Augustin was a solid point guard for the Magic last year and will continue to provide stability as, ideally, the Fultz Era begins in earnest. As a steady veteran, Augustin was able to pace the team and provide perimeter offense creation. He was effective getting the team into its sets and working the pick and roll with Nikola Vucevic. He was a game manager, playing over 28 minutes a game with only 1.6 turnovers.
The Magic once had a strong playmaker with Victor Olidipo but, unfortunately for the Magic, he became an All-Star only after he left town. The Magic then acquired Elfrid Payton to fill Olidipo’s offensive production, but he did not live up to expectations. During this transition in point guards, the Magic relied on Augustin to maintain the offense, while also never considering him as a long-term solution.
Fultz now has the NBA world thinking that he may become the biggest bust since Anthony Bennett was drafted No. 1 overall in 2013. Fultz will be with the Magic for at least two seasons as they picked up his fourth-year option for the 2020-2021 season.
Even in a draft that produced Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma, Fultz was seen as a tremendous athlete whose speed is rare even by NBA standards. The mere chance to add that kind of talent, even in a compromised state, was enough for the Magic to take on the financial risk. Fultz has played only 33 NBA games in two years for reasons that aren’t clear. He was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last season, but that is a vague diagnosis that is made largely through the process of elimination. Many have attributed his struggles to the yips, a situation that the Magic can help resolve.
But if Fultz is even half of what he came advertised as, Orlando could take their biggest step as a budding franchise yet.
NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.
The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.
The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.
But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.
After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.
“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.
“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”
One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.
They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.
With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”
In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.
“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”
A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.
He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.
“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”
NBA Western Conference Bright Future Watch
The Western Conference is loaded with talent this year, but who will be the teams that dominate it in the future? Zach Dupont takes a look at which teams have the brightest future in the Western Conference.
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the current season as we head towards the climax of a great race for the Western Conference title. But there are already reasons to look past this year and get excited about the teams who could dominate the Western Conference past 2020-21.
Who are the teams that could strike next year? And who has set themselves up to have a bright future in the Western Conference?
The Denver Nuggets are primed to become a force in the Western Conference for years to come and could easily be the favorites heading into next year. The Nuggets’ four best players, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, are all under contract for next season, and all of them are younger than 26-years-old. Jokic has proved himself to be one of the best players in the NBA over the past few seasons and has emerged as a favorite for the MVP award this year. In 2020-21, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. Jokic’s wingman Murray is no slouch either, posting the best numbers of his career with 21.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 41.2 percent shooting from three. Combine Jokic’s MVP play and Murray’s high-end scoring ability with the shooting and potential of Porter Jr., and the defensive ability of Gordon and the Nuggets emerge as a clear threat in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets also won’t be lacking for depth next year like many of their rivals. Monte Morris is locked up for the next few seasons, and Will Barton and JaMychal Green have player options for next season that they could easily accept. The Nuggets can also keep Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier for next season, as both are on non-guaranteed contracts. There are also younger players on the roster who have shown some promise and could be a factor next season. Zeke Nnaji showed potential as a stretch four in limited showings this year, and Bol Bol is still an exciting talent. Denver will even have some money to play with in free agency this offseason, although the looming extension they will owe Porter Jr. will make options limited. Paul Millsap will no longer be on the books at near $15 million a year, and if either Barton or Green decided to decline their player options, that would give the Nuggets more cap flexibility.
The Nuggets have the most intriguing mix of high-end talent and youth in the west, and while they’re already a threat this season, next season, they may be the favorites.
The Grizzlies may not be where Denver is as a team now, but long-term, they are equally as exciting. The Grizzlies are loaded with young talent up and down the roster, and they already have one of their stars of the future. Ja Morant has been a sensation since entering the league last season, and with another year of experience under his belt, the league should be worried about the Grizzlies’ potential. Morant is averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Morant is joined by fellow youngster Jaren Jackson Jr., a two-way big with loads of potential. Jackson has yet to see the floor this year, but he showed the ability to protect the rim like an elite defender and knock down a high volume of three-pointers in his first two seasons of action.
The Grizzlies core may be focused around Morant and Jackson, but what makes Memphis more exciting than other teams out west is the roster’s pure volume of prospects. Brandon Clarke was a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft and has already shown to be a great center who can impact the game on both offense and defense, De’Anthony Melton is one of the league’s most underappreciated defensive players at just 22-years-old and Desmond Bane is already knocking down over 45 percent of his three-point attempts in his rookie season. From top to bottom, Memphis has exciting young talent. Together with their established talent like Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas, you’ve got a team primed to compete in the Western Conference in 2021-22.
Memphis may not be a title favorite next year, but their ability to acquire talented youth will only make them better and better every season.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have some major decisions to make this offseason, but they are a team to watch out west next year no matter what they do. New Orleans has maybe the most exciting young talent in the NBA in Zion Williamson, who has emerged as one of the most efficient and dangerous scorers in the league this season. Williamson is putting up 26.3 points per game this season on an absurd 62 percent shooting and 66 percent true shooting. At just 20-years-old Williamson is already an All-Star, and he will inevitably improve over the next few seasons with his ceiling being as high as anyone’s in the NBA. New Orleans has managed to pair Williamson with another All-Star level player in Brandon Ingram, who has averaged nearly 24 points per game in each of the past two seasons. The Pelicans’ big decision this offseason will be what to do with their point guard, Lonzo Ball. Ball has always been a talented distributor and defender since entering the league, but this year he has taken a step forward as a scorer, averaging a career-best 14.5 points per game and 38.4 percent shooting from three. Ball is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it’s not a given that he will be back next year.
New Orleans already has a core to build around, and they have young depth pieces to add to the already exciting potential of the roster. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis are a pair of young point guards who have shown a lot of potential and could fill in nicely for Ball if he departs this summer. Alexander-Walker is putting up more than 10 points per game in his sophomore campaign, and he has shown glimpses of being a defender and shooter in the same mold as Ball. Lewis is a speedy rookie out of Alabama who has found playing time hard to come by, but if either Ball or Eric Bledsoe find themselves not in New Orleans next year, he has showcased skills that could put him in the conversation for major minutes.
If Zion takes another step next year, and the whole team cleans it up defensively, the Pelicans could become serious players in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers may not be full of young players with high-end potential like other teams on this list, but they still represent the West’s most dangerous threat when healthy. Every season the question “when will he finally slow down” is asked about LeBron James, and every season LeBron shows he is still one of the most dominant players in the NBA. LeBron Is 36-years-old, and this season he has put up 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game and, before getting injured a few weeks ago, was one of the favorites for the MVP award. LeBron’s running mate, Anthony Davis, is equally dangerous and could be considered the NBA’s best two-way player. The Lakers have both Davis and LeBron locked in for next season, and the presence of those two players alone makes them a title threat in the west regardless of the team put around them.
One benefit of having superstars like LeBron and Davis is that it becomes much easier to sign role players. The Lakers will already have the services of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marc Gasol next season, and Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 million player option for next season. But the draw of potentially winning a championship will bring the Lakers role players on cheaper contracts than they would have signed elsewhere, as evident by Gasol, Andre Drummond and Wesley Matthews’ contracts.
The Lakers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of bright futures, but LeBron and Davis will keep the Lakers’ future bright for as long as they remain in LA.
NBA Coach of the Year Watch – April 14
With the final quarter of the NBA season here, a few names have emerged as the favorites for Coach of the Year; who are they? And what are their chances of winning the award come the end of the season?
The NBA season is hitting its final stretch, and teams are gearing up to make a run at the postseason. With the season nearing its conclusion, who is in the running for the NBA end-of-season awards are becoming clearer and clearer.
Today, Basketball Insiders will take a look at the four candidates that have become clear favorites for Coach of the Year and break down why they’re in the running.
The Utah Jazz’s Quin Snyder currently appears to be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award. Snyder has led the Jazz to the best record in the Western Conference and the NBA at an astounding 40-14. Snyder has become a favorite because he is doing this with nearly the same roster as last season, a team that went 44-28 and was the six seed in the Western Conference.
The Jazz have emerged as dominant on both offense and defense, holding the fourth-best defensive ranking and second-best offensive rating in the NBA. Snyder has been instrumental in the improvement of the young players on his roster. Donovan Mitchell is having the best season of his career, averaging 26.3 points and 5.3 assists per game and Rudy Gobert himself is one of the favorites to win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s also managed to get top-tier production from Jordan Clarkson, who seems like a runaway favorite for Sixth Man of the Year, putting up 17.2 points per game in 51 bench appearances.
While there are other coaches with solid resumes, at this point, it’s Snyder’s award to lose. If the Jazz keep the foot to the throttle for the last quarter of the season and remain at the top of the NBA, it’s hard to see Snyder losing to anyone.
The other person who has a good shot at winning the award is the coach of the NBA’s second-best team, Monty Williams. Williams – the coach of the Phoenix Suns – has had an equally impressive season as Snyder, leading the Suns to a 38-15 record, good for second in both the Western Conference and the NBA. Williams gains points because he is coaching an exceptionally young team; Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges are 24-years-old and Deandre Ayton is just 22. That’s a lot of wins for a team starting three players under 25 nearly every game.
Williams loses some points, however, due to the Suns just not having as impressive a statistical team. The Suns are behind the Jazz in both offensive and defensive rating, seventh in offense and fifth in defense. Both excellent marks, but not at the same level of excellence as Snyder’s Jazz. Williams also gets docked some points because, unlike the Jazz, the Suns made a major offseason pickup, grabbing veteran point guard Chris Paul from the Thunder. Paul’s presence has been a game-changer for Phoenix, and his play has elevated the games of all of his young teammates.
Williams has a real shot at winning Coach of the Year, but as of now, Snyder marginally has the edge. But there is still plenty of time left in the season, and Williams could snatch the award from Snyder if the Suns make a late push or the Jazz find themselves faltering.
Steve Nash deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done in his first year as the Brooklyn Nets head coach. Nash has helped keep the Nets not only competitive but elite despite all three of James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving missing significant time this year. The Nets are second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 36-17 and are considered one of the favorites to win the NBA Championship, if healthy.
Despite Nash’s great work as a first-year head coach, he is a bit less of a favorite than both Williams and Snyder. The trio of Durant, Harden and Irving has a combined 27 All-Star appearances, 18 All-NBA appearances and two MVPs; excellence was the expectation for this group. Nash has done a great job keeping the Nets afloat despite injuries and many, many off-court dramas, but his roster alone compared to those of Williams and Snyder, makes it a touch more difficult for him to win the award. Nash is also at the helm of one of the worst defenses in the NBA, with the Nets clocking in at 25th in the league in defensive rating. While the Nets offense could very well be the best in the league, it’ll be difficult to win the award with a defense performing that poorly.
Nash is still a contender even if he isn’t at the same level as those listed above. Nash just needs things out of his control to happen to get him back in the running. If both the Jazz and Suns struggle down the stretch, and the Nets thrive, Nash could find himself winning Coach of the Year in his rookie season.
It’s been a hell of a renaissance for Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers. Rivers had a tough stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, ending his seven-year run there with an embarrassing second-round playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets. Now in Philadelphia, Rivers has coached the 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 37-17. Rivers has turned the 76ers into a defensive juggernaut, rocking the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, a 107.2. Their defense is anchored by MVP candidate Joel Embiid and three-time All-Star Ben Simmons. Rivers has also gotten major contributions from Tobias Harris – who looked lost in his past few seasons in Philly – and former Dallas Maverick Seth Curry.
Rivers has done a great job helping turn around a team that looked like a mess just at the end of last season, but like Nash, he too falls a bit short of Snyder and Williams. Working against Rivers is the 76ers offense, which just hasn’t produced at the same level as both the Jazz and Suns. The 76ers have the 14th best offensive rating in the NBA of 112.2, while not bad, it’s also not good. Rivers also has a disadvantage through no fault of his own, having already won the award before and being an established name in the league for over a decade now, voters are just more likely to vote for the fresher names.
Rivers isn’t out of the race yet, and with a good push – and some help from other teams – Rivers could end up as the Coach of the Year come May. But, the 76ers will have to take a step forward on offense, or that will never become a reality.