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Philadelphia 76ers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

No NBA team has arguably the potential to be exceptional quite like the Philadelphia 76ers. But while the team has the potential of three young stars, there are real issues that could hold this team back. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 76ers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year, the Philadelphia 76ers won more games than they lost for the first time since 2012, putting the league on notice of the franchise’s official reemergence. Through season after season of the often-maligned Process, the 76ers collected marquee prospects and crossed their fingers for better days down the road. But now that Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and the rest of their young roster have won a playoff series, both the franchise and fans alike are looking much higher in 2018-19 and beyond.

This summer, the 76ers retained J.J. Redick, acquired Mike Muscala, added Zhaire Smith and traded for Wilson Chandler. There are big-time expectations for Markelle Fultz once again, but they also lost Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in free agency. Additionally, Amir Johnson decided to stay put and the mysterious Jonah Bolden has finally joined the roster as well. While those re-signings and additions will majorly factor into this upcoming campaign, the pressure will fall squarely on Simmons and Embiid to push the team into conference royalty and potentially even further.

Here’s the Basketball Insiders team’s thoughts on the 76ers their upcoming season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Philadelphia 76ers have just about everything you need to be considered a legitimate title contender. They have two budding superstars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, talented role players, experienced veterans, a quality head coach and several young players who have plenty of room to keep improving. The wildcard here could be the play of Markelle Fultz. If his jump shot has truly been rebuilt in an effective manner this offseason, he could add an element to the 76ers’ roster that was missing last season. With LeBron James heading to the Los Angeles Lakers, the door is more open in the Eastern Conference than it has been in some time. The 76ers have what they need to make it out of the Eastern Conference and to the NBA Finals this season. But they face some stiff competition in Boston and Toronto.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the first time in what feels like forever, there are real, true expectations on the Philadelphia 76ers. The Process has finally reached some of its later stages, with stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ascending to their place among the league’s best young cores. The 76ers had a busy summer despite only recently hiring Elton Brand as their full-time GM – they re-signed J.J. Redick, brought in Wilson Chandler from Denver and made a few other moves around the margins. They’ll be hoping their biggest offseason development, though, has been a re-acquiring of confidence and trajectory from first overall pick Markelle Fultz; recent videos have appeared to show Fultz with a re-worked jumper and some positive signs, but we have to see it on the court first. With LeBron gone from the East and two legitimate All-NBA talents on the roster, the window is officially open for Philly.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

-Ben Dowsett

Last season was an eye-opener in the City of Brotherly Love. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have formed an elite on-court partnership that can lead this Sixers ball club to new heights in this coming year. They picked up Wilson Chandler in the summer, who is going to try and earn a payday in a contract year. Markelle Fultz’s jumper is progressing as he continues to tweak his form. Veteran J.J. Redick is back for another stab at a championship ring as well. Brett Brown’s leadership along with this talent has incredible potential to build on what happened in 2017-18. They’re in one of the most top-heavy divisions in basketball, but look out for Philadelphia.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

Bad news: Philly struck out on every high-profile player they targeted this summer, resulting in minimal roster improvement. Good news: They are still one of the most promising teams with some of the league’s best talent. Now we enter Year Two of the Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons era. Those two may very well take another step forward, but the X Factor is Markelle Fultz. Hopefully now that Fultz has gotten over whatever it was that was keeping him off the floor last season, the Sixers can find another dimension on their team that they can use to their full advantage. If he doesn’t, then Philly’s improvement might be stunted. They should be a good team, but they need that extra push from someone not named Embiid or Simmons to be great.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

On the surface, you can’t help but like everything you see about the 76ers. They have a promising young core filled with ready to break out stars and a solid coach in Brett Brown. It’s all right there. The problem is it’s tough for young teams to stay focused in the moment, especially when there are expectations. Not many outside of Philadelphia believed in the 76ers as a serious contender, and now that they have something of a target on their back. How will the young guys respond? Keep in mind the 76ers surged late in the season behind some veterans that are no longer there. That’s the big unknown for the 76ers, how do the young guys carry the load? It’s going to take something pretty dramatic for the 76ers not to be a post-season team, they showed they have that part covered. But they are going to need for their young guys to become consistent under pressure, and that hasn’t been the case yet.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Joel Embiid

We’ll get right to the point here: Joel Embiid is an other-worldly player.

Whether he’s stepping out behind the arc or toasting the opposition in the post, Embiid has become the complete offensive package. The 7-foot center’s unique blend of skills make him nearly impossible to stop and the numbers prove it. Perhaps fully unleashed for the first time in his career, Embiid tallied 22.9 points, 11 rebounds, 3.2 assists and one three-pointer over 30.3 minutes per game. If you’re searching for a boxscore with long-term implications, look no further than Embiid’s 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, seven blocks and 2-for-3 mark from three-point range he put up against the Lakers in November. In two words, that type of line should be downright terrifying.

If Embiid can improve on a 30.8 percent rate from deep — which was an offseason goal for him, apparently — then good luck on stopping an already immense talent. In 2017-18, Embiid’s 33.9 percent usage was only bested by James Harden’s 36.1, so he’s proven he can handle the workload over a complete season too. As long as Embiid stays healthy, a likely conclusion at this point, then he isn’t just the 76ers’ best offensive player — he’s one of the best scorers in the entire league.

Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington

The top nominee in this category could easily be Embiid again, but we’re going with the lockdown wing in the interest of spreading the love.

Strong and versatile, Covington has become one of Philadelphia’s most important assets, even though he doesn’t frequently earn the headlines. While his three-point shot is consistent, Covington’s tenacious ball-hawking instincts are understandably key for a franchise that boasts the makings of a defensive juggernaut. In conference play alone, Covington will likely find himself plastered on the likes of Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard, John Wall and more, all in the name of flexibility and team success.

His 7-foot-2 wingspan makes him a disruptive pest on the perimeter and his 3.9 deflections per game were tied with Paul George for the league lead. And when Covington drummed up three or more steals in a game, the 76ers’ record was 14-8. For his year-long efforts, Covington was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team this past spring — so he should no longer be an afterthought when discussing this super core. Trashing on Covington has been popular this offseason, but he’s clearly been worth every penny of that contract extension.

Top Playmaker: Ben Simmons

Standing at a towering 6-foot-10, Simmons quickly established himself as a lethal playmaker in year one. Although it was always assumed that Simmons could run a high-level offense at point guard, his immediate success has made him impossible to ignore. The 22-year-old averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.7 steals over 33.7 minutes per game — incredulously, the best is still to come. The concerns surrounding his non-existent three-point game are legitimate, but Simmons straight-up impacts the game in so many other ways that it may not even matter.

At times, the savvy court-vision and execution exhibited by the all-purpose point forward can be downright jaw-dropping. Whether he’s scoring off a one-man fastbreak or dropping a no-look, pinpoint dime to a floor-running teammate, Simmons is an architect with the rock. He’ll need to cut down on his 3.4 turnovers per game — but casual onlookers should be anxiously awaiting what Simmons has in store for the follow-up excursion.

Top Clutch Player: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric

For most star-driven franchises, the ball often rests in the hands of their go-to player during clutch-time — but for the 76ers, it wasn’t always that easy in 2017-18. Ben Simmons’ 73 points on 65.7 percent shooting were impressive but, of course, none of those buckets came from behind the arc. A bit further down the list, Saric tallied 62 points on 52.9 percent and an impressive 11-for-20 from three-point range by taking advantage of the less-focused attention from opposing defenses.

Lastly, Embiid’s point total (83) was the highest of the trio, but his percentage was the lowest (47.5). Of note, Embiid’s 11 clutch-time blocks trailed only Anthony Davis (13); while Simmons’ 14 steals were outpaced by just Jrue Holiday (16). More or less, this should be a fascinating category to watch moving forward. Will Embiid up his conversion rate? Should Saric get more late-game touches? With Simmons’ playmaking abilities, he’s the guy Philadelphia will ultimately want with the clock winding down — but that lack of a jumper right now makes him discernibly less dangerous in a handful of situations.

Best of all, this blurb could’ve mentioned Covington’s 11 clutch-time three-pointers, Redick’s extensive resume as a late-game scorer and how Fultz’s explosive scoring may impact things — but for simplicity’s sake, remember to keep an eye on this area as the season unfolds.

The Unheralded Player: Markelle Fultz

Speaking of Fultz, there’s a whole lot being written about the aforementioned trio, deservedly, and not all that much about the former No. 1 overall selection. After sitting out until late March with a broken jumper and confidence issues, Fultz’s return came with little fanfare. During the 76ers’ 16-game winning streak to close out the year, the 6-foot-4 guard was eased into the rotation and, all things considered, Fultz did just fine. In the regular season finale against Milwaukee, Fultz dropped 13 points, 10 assists and two steals on 6-for-13 shooting — a sorely welcomed sign for the rookie.

To put it lightly: It’s been a long, long year for Fultz but he was the top draftee for a reason. In his one campaign at Washington, Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks and 2.1 three-pointers on 41.3 percent from deep — only now he’ll be surrounded by the likes of some All-NBA-worthy talents. Naturally, for Fultz to breakout in 2018-19, this assumes a few things: Firstly, that he’s good to go and everything that’s troubled him is in the past. Secondly, that he’s a lock to siphon away a large chunk of Simmons’ massive usage rate. While neither of those caveats seems like a shoo-in at this point, a simply healthy, self-assured Fultz could elevate an already potent squad.

Simmons will be in contention to lead the league in assists and Embiid might become an MVP candidate soon enough, but it’s Fultz’s progress and contributions that could push the 76ers up over the top.

Best New Addition: Wilson Chandler

Over his 10-year career, Chandler has played in 590 regular season games and holds an average of 13.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists. These numbers won’t jump off the page in all likelihood, but he’s the type of gritty, defense-first veteran that this roster has badly needed. The 76ers’ 31.2 bench points per game ranked as the 7th-worst mark last year but Chandler should find himself right at home in Philadelphia. As a starter for the Denver Nuggets in 2017-18, Chandler scored 15-plus points on 20 occasions and only had three instances of three or more turnovers despite his hefty 31.7 minutes per game tally. Needless to say, finding a bench scorer that takes care of the ball like Chandler is an absolute victory any way you slice it.

Chandler rebounds well for a wing, can guard two positions and should work well alongside any combination of fellow 76ers. Considering that the front office picked up Chandler for just cash considerations, this was a low-risk, high-reward, no-brainer move. He’s not the shooter that Belinelli was but his two-way ability will likely make him a better, more productive fit in the Sixers’ rotation. Chandler’s solid perimeter defense and locker room presence should pay dividends at the cost of virtually nothing, which easily makes him the winner of our final superlative.

– Ben Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. J.J. Redick

And exhale, 76ers fans — the sharpshooting veteran is sticking around for at least one more go in Philadelphia.

The re-signed Redick’s 17.1 points per game were second-most for the 76ers and his long-range shooting helped anchor an impressive offensive bunch all season. At 2.8 three-pointers per game on an even better 42 percent clip, Redick easily keeps his place as one of the NBA’s most elite shooters. Given Belinelli and Ilyasova’s departures — 2.0 and 1.3 per game, respectively — the onus will land on for Redick to provide another reliable season from deep. While Covington, Saric and Embiid will help to pick up the slack, Redick’s off-ball wizardry will undoubtedly remain a crucial cog for Philadelphia.

Redick’s 2.8 three-pointers per game tied him with Kyrie Irving for the 10th-best average in 2017-18, while only Stephen Curry (42.3) and Klay Thompson (44) made more at a higher percentage. If Redick’s importance to this 76ers wasn’t obvious before last season began, that sentiment certainly isn’t in question now.

2. Dario Saric

Saric is good at just about everything, but not the best at any — which is why he lands here instead of in a superlative category.

Still, that’s hardly an insult for the third-year player that’s steadily improved since he joined the 76ers in 2016. Saric’s 14.6 points per game are solid — particularly as the third or fourth option on the floor to boot — but he doesn’t regularly earn the plaudits over his star-ready teammates. His two three-pointers per game on 39.3 percent were noteworthy too, but not more so than the previously-mentioned Redick. In fact, you could write that sentence about Saric in terms of most measurables statistics from 2017-18 — he chips in admirably almost everywhere, which, for now, anoints him as the 76ers third-best player.

Either way, he’s the perfect fit for the 76ers as they look to ascend to Finals contenders. Need energy? Check. Need shooting? Easy. Need somebody to take care of the ball? Saric is your guy. Every burgeoning squad needs a do-it-all glue guy and that may just be Saric given his solid skills across the offensive board. But if there’s an extra gear to the 24-year-old’s already-efficient game, the rest of the league truly is in trouble.

3. Brett Brown

For years, observers wondered why Brown kept his job during a horrific 75-253 streak over the initial four efforts — but the 76ers’ faith has been rewarded in kind. Sure, the core outside of Fultz stayed healthy for the first time in his regime, but the 76ers exceeded most expectations last season, even reaching the second round of the playoffs as an added bonus. Brown’s leadership helped Philadelphia rack up 52 wins, their highest total since the Allen Iverson-led squad reached the Finals way back in 2000-01.

The 57-year-old took home the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors in March after captaining his blossoming roster to an excellent 13-3 record, an extended streak that included wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. With his playmakers another year older and more refined, Brown could find himself in the conversation for Coach of the Year come April alongside Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr and the rest of the usual suspects.

On top of all that, Brown has been pulling double duty as the franchise’s general manager since June, where he added the athletic Zhaire Smith (plus an unprotected Miami HEAT pick in 2021) and Landry Shamet on draft night, among other positively-reviewed moves.

4. Zhaire Smith

These days, it almost seems like a rite of passage for rookies in Philadelphia to spend a large chunk of their rookie season injured. Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot following Summer League in August, but there’s a possibility he could return in the second half of the campaign if rehab goes well enough. Although the debut for the first-year professional will have to wait, he’s aiming to be a difference-maker down the road.

His showing in Las Vegas wasn’t earth-shattering, but Smith averaged 11.3 points, five rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks on 55.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from behind the arc during his single season at Texas Tech. Once he returns, Smith won’t be a top option on the floor, but he’s an athletic, hard-nosed prospect that can play within his role and contribute wherever needed, thus making him a fine supplementary selection to their budding stars.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

Last year, it was relatively cut-and-dry: Add Ben Simmons and deploy Joel Embiid in more games. Almost overnight, the 76ers jumped from the 17th-ranked defense all the way up to No. 3 overall. Somehow, given the internal development and newest additions, the 76ers might build out an even tougher unit by the springtime. Philadelphia will miss the shooting prowess of Belinelli and Ilyasova, but Mike Muscala and Chandler are two-way upgrades there. Simmons is the type of ball-stealing, court-running athlete that could end up in Defensive Player of the Year discussions soon enough and Embiid is already there.

Covington rightfully earned First Team honors and continues to be a menace around the perimeter, while there’s some potential for Fultz and Smith to step in as defensive contributors before long as well. As suffocating as Philadelphia was defensively at times last season, it could be even scarier come April — and that’s a nauseating concept for their Eastern Conference foes.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Generally speaking, the 76ers are fairly strong headed into the 2018-19 campaign. They’re young, they’re healthy and they’re developing at an incredibly rapid rate — a killer trio in today’s modern NBA landscape. Philadelphia ranked in the top ten in rebounds (first), transition points (sixth), steals (seventh), blocks (ninth), three-point percentage (10th) and came in at No. 11 for offensive rating at 107.4. There are plenty of signs that this 76ers team eventually won’t just be good, but that they’ll be great — however, there are still two alarming red flags.

Their free throw percentage was abysmal at 75.2, a mark that was seventh-worst and left the Oklahoma City Thunder as the only playoff team ranked below them. Worst of them all, the 76ers led the league in turnovers per game at 16.5, which isn’t surprising giving their fast-breaking inexperience, but they must take care of the ball to go toe-to-toe with the well-disciplined Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics in the postseason.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the NBA Finals on the table for the Philadelphia 76ers?

And that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Last year, the 76ers just wanted to stay healthy and make the postseason. They not only achieved that, but they reached 50 wins, won a playoff series and crafted the league’s third-best defense along the way. After a year like that, the bar for measurable successes gets much loftier and they certainly have the personnel to reach for it. With LeBron James out of the picture, their path gets clearer too and the remaining biggest obstacles are in that pesky Atlantic Division.

Embiid, Simmons and Saric will all be a year older and wiser, while Redick and Chandler should provide the veteran scoring punch — both with the scorers and off the bench. Covington is already an elite defender and adding Fultz into the mix full-time might turn Philadelphia into a walking nightmare for opposing teams. Since the Process began, these sections have shoehorned a cautious if-healthy forewarning into any and all predictions involving the 76ers — and, back then, they were all totally fair.

These days, it seems like those chronic injuries and lingering rehabs are in the rearview mirror, so perhaps it’s time to go even stronger in the other direction. Now that the 76ers are injury-free, hardened and, importantly, more experienced, there’s really no reason why this team can’t compete for the Eastern Conference crown in 2018-19 and beyond.

– Ben Nadeau

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NBA

Charlotte Hornets 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Charlotte Hornets are now a team in re-build mode, the question is will this be a quick re-build or a long protracted rebuild that costs leadership their jobs? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Charlotte Hornets in this 2019-20 NBA Season preview.

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A new era has finally dawned for the Charlotte Hornets. Facing another half-decade of sustained mediocrity, Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak elected against re-signing the beloved Kemba Walker, giving the Hornets a much-needed reset but ridding the roster of the only player who ever really propelled them to success.

The rebuild, for the long-term better and short-term worse, is here. But the track it follows will largely depend on the development of several young players, any of whom it’s easy to envision ultimately coming into their own elsewhere.

Will this season mark the infancy of Charlotte’s next playoff team, or merely serve as year one of a lengthy, laborious process that ultimately takes multiple forms? Either way, the Hornets won’t be winning many games in 2019-20, a blueprint toward future contention this franchise unfurled a bit later than it should have.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The 2019-20 season looks bleak for the Hornets. They passed on extending Kemba Walker, and swapped him for Terry Rozier. There are lots of overpaid players on the roster like Nic Batum and Marvin Williams, and some unproven younger ones like Malik Monk. The few bright spots on the Hornets roster appear to be Miles Bridges and rookie P.J. Washington – and maybe Rozier depending on how you define a bright spot. The Hornets flirted with the playoffs for a few years – even qualifying in 2016. That won’t be the case this season.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

To say the Hornets had a poor offseason would be kind of an understatement. Not only did they lose franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker, they didn’t really do anything to pick a firm direction they want to go in. With Walker gone, a rebuild seems to be the best option moving forward, but they kept all of their high-priced veterans around. Of course, it could be that there isn’t a market for any of them. After all, a team needs to be willing to trade for those players/contracts. The signing of Terry Rozier is a bit of a head-scratcher, as they gave him quite a bit of money for a player that isn’t of Walker’s caliber but is expected to replace him. The one thing they may have going for them though is some of their youth. Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon and P.J. Washington are a start. Not a very confidence-inspiring start, but a start nonetheless. Expect the losses to pile up for the Hornets this season.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

For the first season since 2011, the city of Charlotte will not have Kemba Walker suit up on opening night. It’s never easy losing a star player, but this one especially hurts. There’s a question of who will be the one to step up. What the question should be is who will be the *ones* to step up. You can’t replace somebody like that with one player. Terry Rozier can have a career season, and he’s bound too, yet it’ll still take a collective effort and strong performances all around to keep this group afloat. Miles Bridges will have to grow up fast. The same could be said of Dwayne Bacon, Malik Monk and even rookie forward P.J. Washington. The mental toughness of the Hornets will be tested this season and the near future. How James Borrego handles this type of adversity will be paramount to the team’s direction.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

It’s hard to understand what Charlotte’s goal was going into this offseason and what the long-term vision is at this point. First, if the Hornets were not going to offer Kemba Walker a max contract, then they should have traded him before he hit free agency. Charlotte hasn’t been anywhere close to contention in recent seasons and should have foreseen Walker moving on if the team was not going to offer a max contract. Second, in response to Walker opting to move on, the Hornets engaged in a sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics, sending Walker and a 2020 second-rounder to in exchange for Terry Rozier on a new three-year, $56,700,000 contract. That is a lot of money for Rozier who is talented, but is unlikely to live up to this contract. Third, they let Jeremy Lamb go to the Indiana Pacers for what turned out to be a very reasonable contract (three-year, $31.5 million). Lastly, I’m just not a big fan of what the Hornets did in the draft. A few years down the road, it may turn out that P.J. Washington (12th), Cody Martin (36th) and Jalen McDaniels (52nd) were all good selections for Charlotte, but I am not counting on that. Its just difficult to see what the strategy is here for the Hornets and it’s hard to get past how big of a mistake it was to not trade Walker when he was still under contract for young talent and future assets.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Charlotte Hornets are a team poised for a re-build, although one could argue that if anyone on the roster steps up to an All-Star level things could get interesting in Charlotte. In fact, the Hornets are returning a lot of the same core that won 39 games last year. It’s clear there is no one on the roster of former Hornets star Kemba Walker’s stature, but if a combination of guys step up or have the expected internal growth, they could be better than most seem to be thinking. That said, the Hornets still look like a team more likely to lose 50 games than win 50, which will put them in the lottery and likely sellers of any meaningful veterans they have on the roster come the trade deadline in February.  James Borrego is a quality coach – it is just unfortunate that he’ll have to skipper another roster thats not likely to be playing for much at the end of the season.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

When Kemba Walker chose the Boston Celtics, the Hornets opted to facilitate a double sign-and-trade transaction landing Terry Rozier on a three-year $56.7 million contract. That move locked in a hard cap for Charlotte, limiting the team to $138.9 million in total salary. That shouldn’t be an issue, the team will likely enter the season with a payroll at roughly $125 million.

If needed, the Hornets still have $8.1 million of their Mid-Level Exception remaining (partially used on Cody Martin) and their full $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception. But don’t expect the franchise to exceed the $132.6 million luxury tax threshold, let alone reach the hard cap.

Before November, Charlotte needs to decide on the team options for Malik Monk and Miles Bridges.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Nicolas Batum

As much as anything else, Batum’s status as Charlotte’s best offensive player is an indicator of just how lacking this roster is for talent compared to the rest of the NBA. He was always overstretched as the Hornets’ secondary scorer and playmaker under Steve Clifford, and indeed seemed more comfortable last season after first-year coach James Borrego shifted him down to small forward, allowing the veteran to play a more ancillary offensive role as he entered his thirties.

Batum bumped his true shooting percentage comfortably above league average for the first time in six years, sacrificing mid-range jumpers for threes and making a career-best 39.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples, per NBA.com. Both his usage percentage and amount of touches dipped considerably, while his share of assisted baskets ticked all the way up to 67.2 percent – far higher than in any of his previous four seasons with the Hornets.

As a jack of all trades and master of none, this is the role for which Batum has long been best suited. The problem is the value of dependent offensive players, especially one with natural court sense like Batum, correlates to the quality of their teammates, and no team in the league is in more dire need of a talent influx offensively than Charlotte.

Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Kidd-Gilchrist was another benefactor of Borrego embracing a more modern style of lineup construction last season. Finally playing the right position, power forward, he re-established himself as an ultra-versatile difference-maker defensively.

Kidd-Gilchrist led the Hornets in both defensive rating and net defensive rating, per NBA.com, evidenced by his ability to switch across four and sometimes five positions. He was Charlotte’s only player other than Cody Zeller with a defensive real plus-minus above 1.0, and held offensive players to a lower field goal percentage than expected from everywhere on the floor, too.

Dreams of the former No. 2 overall pick becoming a positive player on the other side of the ball are long gone, and a relative deficiency in short-area quickness has kept him from fulfilling expectations as a stopper of historic order. But Kidd-Gilchrist has natural defensive instincts and always competes, while his effectiveness holding up at power forward – occasionally even small-ball center, too – unlocks crucial flexibility for the Hornets they would otherwise lack.

Top Playmaker: Terry Rozier

Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak have placed a lot of faith in Kemba Walker’s replacement – too much, in fact, by almost any measure. It’s unclear who Charlotte was bidding against when it offered Rozier a three-year, $58 million deal in free agency, ultimately acquiring him from the Boston Celtics via sign-and-trade. But unless he shows far more capacity as a floor general with the Hornets than he ever did with the Boston Celtics, Rozier is poised to disappoint – and hamstring his new team’s arduous rebuilding efforts.

It’s unclear how Borrego will tweak an offense that last season used more ball screens than any team in the league but the LA Clippers, per NBA.com, but he’ll have to with Rozier in Walker’s place. Charlotte’s new franchise point guard is more accurately described as a ball-handler than playmaker. He lacks high-level passing vision, and doesn’t threaten the defense enough by attacking the rim or with his pull-up jumper to create the space needed to consistently compensate for that weakness.

The Hornets need a point guard who can make his teammates better if he can’t drive them to success by himself, and neither description fits Rozier based on his career to date. But he’s also the only guard on this roster with the physical tools and eroding potential to play either role should he suddenly take a major step forward.

“Offensively, I’ve got to get him more comfortable right now in our system,” Borrego said of Rozier, per Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. “He’s got a lot to prove — the first time he’s out there as a starting point guard.”

The viability of Charlotte’s offense won’t hinge on Rozier nearly as much as it did Walker, but unless he shows court sense and an ability to manipulate the defense that he’s yet to thus far in his career, the responsibilities he’ll be asked to shoulder will almost certainly prove too heavy regardless.

Top Clutch Player: Malik Monk

Monk has virtually no track record of crunch-time success in the NBA. He took 15 shots in those situations last season, making five of them, and was on the court for less than a third of Charlotte’s 158 minutes in the clutch, per NBA.com. Needless to say, thats not exactly the resumé of a player normally tasked with serving as his team’s alpha dog when it matters most.

But Monk could fit that bill this season anyway for the Hornets, who are otherwise bereft of the shot-making talent necessary to score under the pressure cooker of crunch time. Rozier, even considering the overblown hype of “Scary Terry” in the 2018 playoffs, isn’t a reliable enough off-dribble shooter. Batum just isn’t that type of player. Miles Bridges definitely isn’t ready to be Charlotte’s top offensive option when the game is on the line, and likely never will be.

That leaves Monk, whose blend of explosive athleticism, wiggle with the ball and flammable scoring skills has long prompted Lou Williams comparisons. The problem? Monk’s ability to drain difficult pull-up jumpers is mostly theoretical at this point, and he doesn’t navigate ball screens with enough knack and subtlety to crease the paint when defenses dare him to shoot. Just like the Hornets, he’s still very much still a work in progress – which is all the more reason why they should force-feed Monk touches in the clutch to help figure out how he fits in the organization’s big-picture plans.

The Unheralded Player: Cody Zeller

Death, taxes and Charlotte faring better when Zeller is on the floor. Ever since his rookie year in 2013-14, the Hornets have put up a positive net rating with Zeller in the lineup. Last season, the six-year veteran was the only player on his team to notch an on-court rating better than 1.0, per NBA.com.

Zeller’s influence comes in the margins. He racked up screen assists at a rate higher than any other player in the league, evidence of his speed running into picks and comfort flipping the angle and direction of screens at a moment’s notice. He’s adept in the dribble hand-off game, too, and creates several easy scoring opportunities per game for his teammates simply by sprinting the floor in transition and diving hard to the rim, sucking in defenders. Zeller’s short arms limit him as a rim-protector, but he’s almost always in the right position, using his instincts and quickness to routinely cover for teammates.

Unfortunately, a penchant for injury has prevented Zeller from staking his claim as one of basketball’s best role-playing bigs. He’s played a total 82 games over the past two seasons due to knee and hand injuries, and has appeared in more than 62 games just twice in his six-year career.

Best New Addition: P.J. Washington

Washington isn’t sexy.

He has good physical tools for a power forward, with impressive quickness and overall coordination, and possesses more than enough length and strength to play small-ball five. He shot 42.3 percent on over two three-point attempts per game at Kentucky last season, the most significant of across-the-board improvements made compared to his freshman campaign.

The rough outline of a productive NBA player is here. But unless Washington gleans a much better understanding of how to play when he’s not involved in the primary action on both sides of the ball, it seems likely his decided dearth of natural instincts will keep him from reaching his potential as a switch-proof big man with nascent three-point range who can put the ball on the floor in space.

Washington’s selection here, like most, says more bad things about the Hornets than it does good things about him. Charlotte punted on free agency other than Rozier, whose contract is one of the summer’s most head-scratching, and has no plans to change that approach going forward as it transitions to life without Walker.

“Free-agent signings, for us, are not something we need to concentrate on going forward. We’re not going to get the ‘Big Fish,’” Kupchak said, per The Observer. “We have to create a culture where those kinds of players would want to come here. And, quite frankly, we’re not there yet.”

– Jack Winter

WHO WE LIKE

1. Charlotte Finally Embracing The Future

Even during this organization’s most successful seasons under Clifford, there was a clear cap on just how high the Hornets could rise in the Eastern Conference. A team with Walker as its best player, as dynamic as he is on the floor and inspiring he is off it, was just never going anywhere meaningful. In that vein, moving on from the homegrown star made sense for the Hornets.

What didn’t, and is fully deserving of the widespread criticism it sparked, was Kupchak insisting Charlotte would do “everything” possible to re-sign Walker in free agency, only to extend him a a five-year, $160 million final offer that fell well below the max. Kupchak’s recent concession that the Hornets’ plans were complicated by Walker making Third Team All-NBA, thus qualifying for the super-max, doesn’t make the optics any better.

Regardless, staying the course was never the best plan for Charlotte, as difficult as the circumstances surrounding Walker’s departure were. There’s no telling where this team ultimately goes from here, and it will almost surely be a bottom-dweller in the standings this season. But the mere prospect of real contention going forward – way forward, to be clear – is a more hopeful position than the Hornets have been in since 2016.

2. Dwayne Bacon

Playing in Charlotte could cost Bacon a lot of money this summer. There aren’t many 6-foot-7 wings with workable athleticism, a plus wingspan, thick shoulders and fledgling three-point range who could remain relatively anonymous in league circles, especially just one season ahead of restricted free agency. But that reality applies to Bacon as 2019-20 approaches, and unless his development continues at the accelerated rate it did last season, could save the Hornets some cash next summer.

Bacon’s impact as a rookie in 2017-18 was almost impossible to distinguish. He’s not quite good enough defensively to be considered a true stopper, and isn’t disruptive enough on that end that his presence alone makes a positive difference. But coupled with an adjusted shot chart that prioritized the rim and the arc – where he shot 69.4 percent and 43.7 percent, respectively, last season – Bacon’s utility as a solid, versatile, scheme-sound defender takes on a whole new level of value.

One caveat: Bacon’s newfound prowess from deep came on just two tries per game, and he shot only 25.2 percent in the G-League last season, albeit on a much more aggressive diet of attempts than he’ll ever need in the NBA. He definitely isn’t the marksman his three-point shooting percentage from last season indicates, basically. But if Bacon proves himself a player who must be guarded beyond the arc in 2019-20, a substantial payday likely awaits, one that could cement him as a viable rotation player for years to come.

3. Devonte’ Graham

Every team needs a reserve guard who can competently run the offense, make the defense pay when given air space from beyond the arc and compete defensively. Graham, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, has the makings of not just fulfilling that archetype, but potentially overgrowing it.

No numbers from Graham’s rookie season suggest either possibility is imminent. He shot 34.3 percent overall and 28.1 percent from deep, and posted the worst on-court rating of any player on the roster othan than Bismack Biyombo. Equally discouraging? An average leaper with a still-developing floater game, Graham shot 37.5 percent on drives, per NBA.com – fifth-lowest in the league.

Ignore specific takeaways from those damning statistics for now. Graham has just enough size to be used in two point-guard lineups and plays with a natural sense of pace, effectively changing speeds to get where he wants to go. Most optimism about Graham, though, stems from his fearless nature at Las Vegas Summer League, where he took nearly nine threes per game – with many coming off the bounce – and hit them at a 38.5 percent clip.

Graham won’t ever be a star, and very likely nothing more than a spot starter. But the league could always use more tough, smart guards who will take and make tough shots to sop up minutes behind stars, a role it’s easy to imagine him eventually playing at a worthwhile level.

4. Miles Bridges

The Bridges hype, even to the understated extent it exists, seems a bit overblown. He has average length for his position, and he lacks the hip fluidity needed to consistently keep up with dynamic ball handlers or even elite off-ball shooters after switches. He won’t ever be anything approaching a primary option offensively, but his shot-put stroke doesn’t suggest he’ll ever be a knockdown three-point shooter, either.

Even if Bridges reaches a more modest appraisal of his ceiling, it seems pretty clear he’ll fall short of being an All-Star. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But his jaw-dropping vertical oomph, rare aerial body control and passing-glance positional versatility has led some to believe he has legitimate star potential, and there was little to indicate as much during his rookie season save for so many highlight-reel finishes.

Still, the Hornets’ clearest path back to respectability involves Bridges establishing himself as a pillar of their rebuild – even if that means he’s ultimately more impact role player than secondary star.

– Jack Winter

STRENGTHS

Charlotte is finally playing the long game. The roster obviously isn’t where it needs to be in terms of overall talent, but the Hornets will at least employ a style this season that should position them well for rapid growth when the necessary pieces are in place.

That’s reflected in several aspects of Borrego’s overall philosophy: a preference for playing two ball handlers, his pointed decision to slide several players down a position and an offensive scheme that prioritizes space and quick-hitting ball movement. Though the Hornets aren’t the Moneyball Houston Rockets, the early takeaways of Borrego’s style indicate they’ll rely on modern offensive tenets now and going forward.

A more tangible immediate strength is Charlotte’s defensive flexibility. Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Batum, Bacon and Bridges can all guard three or more positions, and Borrego took semi-frequent advantage in 2018-19 by yanking all traditional bigs off the floor. Defense will be the source of the Hornets’ success this season far more often than offense; their enviable lineup and stylistic versatility should be the biggest reason why.

– Jack Winter

WEAKNESSES

Most teams have multiple players they have reason to feel confident in as lead ball handlers. Charlotte, depending on how you feel about Rozier, may not have any. More debilitating might be its shortage of players who can create unscripted offense for themselves and their teammates.

Bottom line: The Hornets have the worst collection of offensive talent in the league, and it’s not particularly close. Even if young players eventually scrape their realistic ceilings, they’ll still need to add multiple prospects with high-level offensive upside to be playoff-caliber on that side of the ball in the future.

– Jack Winter

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is there a surefire long-term building block on this roster?

In an illuminating interview with The Observer that finally ended their silence in the wake of Walker’s departure, Kupchack and Borrego full-throatedly endorsed a youth movement. Stalwart veterans like Batum and Williams will have their playing time cut to make room for younger players; even Kidd-Gilchrist, just 25, will likely fall prey to that stark shift in organizational priorities.

An unabashed rebuild has been long-awaited in Charlotte. The issue is that it’s unclear which of these incumbents will be able to show enough to have seen it through to the finish.

Even believers in Rozier know he won’t top out as anything more than a league-average starter. Monk’s high-outcome destiny as a microwave scorer is tantalizing, but accompanied by inherent questions of roster fit and cap resources. Bridges projects as an elite role player at best, and so does Washington.

The Hornets have ample time to find the star power they need to ultimately contend. Kupchak will be picking near the top of the lottery for the foreseeable future, and the seemingly imminent firesale of veterans midseason – in February 2020 or 2021 – will further stock Charlotte’s stable of draft assets. But holdovers from the Walker era aren’t good enough by themselves to foster a healthy environment of growth, and top-five picks won’t serve as that immediate panacea, either.

As the Hornets lose game after game, many by double digits, how are Rozier, Monk, Bridges and Washington supposed to make an inarguable case as cogs of this franchise’s long-term prospects? The more damning question for Charlotte’s future is whether or not they’d even be able to under more stable and rewarding circumstances.

– Jack Winter

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Detroit Pistons 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Detroit Pistons made the post-season last year, but getting back isn’t a guarantee. The Pistons have the talent to be a solid team in the East, the question is can they stay healthy enough to make noise? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Detroit Pistons in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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For all intents and purposes, the first season of the Dwane Casey era in Detroit went according to plan. The Pistons went 41-41, made the playoffs and were trounced by Milwaukee in a sweep in the first round.

This is the space Detroit finds themselves in: A middling team with slim, top-heavy talent that could as easily sneak into the postseason as they could find themselves out of it. But in a league that’s shown competitiveness where overall competence can be a vehicle for drawing free agents, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

If there is a time to strike when the league least expects it, it’s now. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond’s first year-and-a-half together has revived this Detroit group back into a playoff team. Dwane Casey’s done this with the Raptors before, and we could be seeing a quicker transformation in the Motor City. Reggie Jackson finally seems to be getting back to himself after multiple seasons of hampering injuries. Luke Kennard should be a popular candidate to make a significant jump as one of the better tertiary scorers in the game. The team brought in Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris and Tony Snell to bolster its depth as well. This writer would be surprised if Detroit doesn’t finish somewhere in the top eight in the East for a second straight season.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Pistons underwhelmed in 2018-19. But at least Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin made it through an entire season without an injury. Entering 2019-20, they definitely added some nice pieces like Derrick Rose, Tim Frazier, Markieff Morris and rookie Sekou Doumbouya. But their roster didn’t have enough star power in the 2018-19 season to get them beyond the first-round of the playoffs – and they’ve added no new star power since. There is far too much depth and parity in the East for the Pistons to expect too much success. Their best bet might be a self-initiated rebuild. Andre Drummond has a player option for 2020-21. I’m sure most people in the Pistons’ front-office are already praying he opts out to try his hand in free agency.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Drew Maresca

The Detroit Pistons had a pretty solid offseason, in my opinion. I think drafting Sekou Doumbouya at 15th overall in this year’s draft was a nice move. Signing Derrick Rose to a two-year $15 million contract and Markieff Morris to two-year $6,560,000 contract (player option on final season) is a good value overall. I also like that the team claimed Christian Wood off waivers. And while Michael Beasley hasn’t turned out to be the player he was projected to be coming out of college, he could add some scoring off the bench and was signed to just a one-year, $2.2 million deal. The Pistons don’t have the overall talent or depth of the Milwaukee Bucks or Indiana Pacers, but they are a solid Central Division team and could be a tough matchup on any given night.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Pistons seem to be stuck in “no man’s land.” That is, a team that’s good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to actually win anything significant once they’re there. They do have Blake Griffin, a player 29 other teams would love to have. Griffin has expanded his game to the point where he’s one of the best all-around big men in the league. Another bright spot for Detroit is the fact that Reggie Jackson played in all 82 games last season and shot a career-high 36.9 percent from three. Andre Drummond also had a resurgent season this past year. The three of them from the Pistons core group. They also have some intriguing young players. Bruce Brown became a starter as a rookie, and Sekou Doumbouya is an interesting prospect. In the East, the Pistons are pretty much a lock for the postseason, but unfortunately for them, their prospects of advancing past the first round seem rather slim.

3rd Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Pistons are one of those teams that has everything they need to be a playoff contender. They have two All-Star level guys in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, they have solid guards, some depth on the bench, quality coaching. There is no reason the Piston’s shouldn’t be a playoff team… except for injury concerns. Durability is the Pistons big unknown. Blake Griffin, who is basically everything to this team has missed 10-15 games (or more) a year since 2013. Last year was maybe his best year, where he logged 75 games but was hobbled going into the playoffs, ultimately requiring another surgery. The Pistons are good enough when healthy, but that’s not the same variable for the Pistons as it is for virtually everyone else, mainly because of the core players have missed serious time over the last few years making them hard to believe in.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Pistons are flirting with the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line with $130.8 million in guaranteed salary towards 14 players under standard contracts. The team will reportedly sign Michael Beasley to a make-good deal. If he or Christian Wood lands the final roster spot, the franchise will be right up against the tax.

By using most of their Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions on Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris, Detroit has a hard cap of $138.9 million. Before November, the franchise needs to decide on the team option for Luke Kennard. Thon Maker is extension eligible before the start of the season.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin is far and away the best offensive player on this Pistons team. In 75 games last season, Griffin averaged a career-high in points at 24.5 per game while adding in 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists. As some of his athleticism has faded due to age and nagging injuries, Griffin has accordingly reinvented his game over the past three-and-a-half seasons. This culminated last year when Griffin shot 36.2 percent from three on seven attempts per game (also a career-high), on his way to his highest effective field goal percentage since 2013-14. This new wrinkle in his game has allowed Griffin to remain a top player and elite on the offensive end. Assuming his left knee holds up, he will continue to produce at the level he always has this season.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Drummond

Death, taxes and Andre Drummond controlling the Little Caesars Arena paint. Drummond enters his eighth year having played at least 78 games in all but one season. He’s led the NBA in rebounds per game in three seasons, including the last two. He’s led the NBA in total rebounds four straight seasons, and in offensive rebounds for six straight. His career average in blocks per game is 1.8, steals per game is 1.6 and he’s been number one in defensive win shares for two years in a row. Enough said.

Top Playmaker: Blake Griffin

One of the more underrated things in the NBA over the last 10 years is Blake Griffin’s playmaking ability. While most dedicated basketball fans have been aware of it for years, it feels like the general public doesn’t recognize how much Griffin holistically brings to an offense. Despite not being a primary ball-handler, Griffin has averaged right around five assists per game for the last five seasons. And while that number may not jump out at you, in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass, Griffin had an assist rate of 26.9 percent, putting him in the 99th percentile compared to the rest of the league. In fact, he hasn’t had an assist rate outside of the 95th percentile for his entire career.

Griffin’s proficiency from anywhere on the floor has been extremely obvious since he became a competent three-point shooter. That playmaking ability is even more pronounced in Detroit where the Pistons desperately need him to do so.

Top Clutch Player: Blake Griffin

There’s no reason to look anywhere else. Griffin is Detroit’s best offensive player and playmaker. His ability to shoot from three makes him the go-to player in any late-game situation the Pistons could find themselves in. The only other potential answers are Reggie Jackson or newly-acquired Derrick Rose, and you’d be hard-pressed to convince many people they’re better options than Griffin at this point in their careers.

The Unheralded Player: Luke Kennard

Kennard gets the nod here primarily because he’s the only capable shooter on the roster outside of Griffin and Reggie Jackson. No one else outside of Tony Snell really takes threes, and Snell will never shoot at a high enough volume to move the needle. Kennard is a 40 percent guy you expect to stay that way even when his attempts go up. He was also very good in Detroit’s first-round playoff series loss last season, where he averaged 15.0 points per game and was 9-15 from three in four games.

Best New Addition: Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose! After some light talks of a Chicago reunion, Rose ultimately chose to sign a two-year deal with Detroit. Rose has been somewhat of a repetitive story over the last five seasons; seasons full of injuries and uneven play. However, Rose’s memorable 50-point effort in this past season gives Detroit hope that he still has something left in the tank. Production similar to last season would be a welcome addition to the Pistons.

– Drew Mays

WHO WE LIKE

1. Reggie Jackson

While oft-maligned, Reggie Jackson is still an assertive guard teams have to account for. Last season, Jackson played all 82 games and posted career-highs in three-point percentage and three-point attempts. He finished third on the team in scoring behind Griffin and Drummond and is capable of making something happen at any moment. With Griffin operating as a point-forward and Rose now in the fold, Jackson will hopefully be able to direct his energy towards playing away from the ball and attacking accordingly. That’s what’s best for him individually and the Pistons as a team.

2. Markieff Morris

When you think of the Detroit Pistons, you think of hard-nosed, grind-it-out basketball. This began with the Bad Boys and rolled into their championship season in 2004, but the essence still exists in 2019, and Markieff Morris fits that vibe. Morris is a tough veteran who will look to provide frontcourt depth behind Griffin and Drummond.

3. Tony Snell

Throughout a six-year career, Tony Snell has become a Central Division staple. Snell spent three years in Chicago followed by three years in Milwaukee and now enters his first year in Detroit. Snell is the ultimate role player, a long-armed wing who is a career 38.2 percent three-point shooter. He will fit in just fine, likely playing 20 minutes per game as he did for Detroit’s division foes.

4. Sekou Doumbouya

Detroit’s first-round pick may have been the youngest prospect in the draft, but he has the most professional basketball experience of anyone selected this past June. Doumbouya began playing pro basketball when he was 15 and spent 2018-19 playing in a league in France. Though it will take Doumbouya time to develop, he’s a skilled 6-foot-9, 229-pound forward who gets to learn from Blake Griffin every day. There’s plenty of reason to expect exciting things from him this year.

– Drew Mays

STRENGTHS

Last season, Detroit was a relatively weak offensive team. Without much in the way of offseason additions, that will likely be true again this season. Accordingly, the offensive strengths for the Pistons are Blake Griffin and their offensive rebounding. Barring injury, Griffin can carry this team offensively. He’s still that good.

Regarding the offensive glass, the Pistons were sixth in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate. What is a great way to boost an otherwise struggling offense? Get more chances. Any team with Andre Drummond will be good with that.

Defensively the Pistons were solid. They finished 12th in the league in both points allowed per 100 possessions and turnover rate and will need to at least repeat those numbers to vie for the playoffs.

– Drew Mays

WEAKNESSES

The offensive talent around Griffin. Detroit has been in the bottom third in points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage the previous three seasons. Reggie Jackson will need to be more good Reggie than bad Reggie, Kennard will need to build upon last year’s playoff performance, Rose will need to be effective and healthy and Doumbouya will need to add something. Of course, if Griffin’s knee flares up for an extended amount of time, it may not matter how everyone else plays.

– Drew Mays

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Pistons return to the playoffs in an improved East?

Even if Blake Griffin misses time, it still feels like the Pistons will slog their way to 38-40 wins. That’s just what they do. The question is, will that be enough to once again make the playoffs in a revamped East?

This writer’s guess is no. Every team above Detroit in the Eastern Conference last year will be relevant again this year, and several teams have legitimate reasons to believe they can be playoff teams. Detroit’s roster is thin. Coupled with the injury history of their core, it seems wise to take the field for that final playoff spot.

– Drew Mays

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Sacramento Kings 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Sacramento Kings are loaded with young talent ready to break out, but will any of them power the franchise to the postseason or will this be another almost-good season? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Sacramento Kings in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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Last season was a big step forward for the Sacramento Kings. And for Kings fans, it was a long time coming. For years, the forgotten sons of California have been the poster child for mediocrity in the NBA. They’ve had lottery finish after lottery finish with nothing to show for it — but that all changed last season.

Through the first couple of months of the season, the Kings even held a winning record. They ultimately finished the season at 39-43, but it was their best finish in over a decade and good enough for ninth in the Western Conference, just outside the playoff picture.

Still, no matter how you slice it, there were plenty of reasons for optimism in Sacramento — mainly, that De’Aaron Fox emerged as a budding superstar. In his second season, Fox firmly established himself as the Kings’ point guard and franchise cornerstone of the future. Marvin Bagley III also emerged as a core piece of the foundation, thus giving Sacramento two draft lotteries in a row that they seemingly got right.

The midseason acquisition of Harrison Barnes also showed that the front office is firmly committed to winning and changing the losing culture that has been prevalent in Sacramento. It should be another season of growth for the Kings and we should know a little bit more about them once this season gets underway.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Shockingly, the Kings are one of the sweethearts of the NBA. They’ve got a great deal of young talent including Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles III, that latter of which is still somehow only 21. There is also strong support around them with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Trevor Ariza. But no one is more important to the Kings’ success than De’Aaron Fox – and if he continues to improve, they very well may qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2006. But the Pacific Division will be super unforgiving and coming away with a division crown is next-to-impossible for 2019-20.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Drew Maresca

The Kings finally showed signs of growth this past season, finishing just one spot short of the playoffs. They actually had a winning record at one point during the season. After years of being in the lottery and having nothing to show for it, it appears that they finally struck gold the past two drafts with De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III. Their recent free-agent signings and trades have also made a lot of sense, something that couldn’t be said about the Kings for over a decade.

The real question is going be can they build off the success from last season and continue their upward trajectory. Even though their roster should be improved, there’s no guarantee that they make the playoffs or finish above .500. On paper, they should be able to build upon last season’s win total, but it’s possible that they might still be on the outside looking in. As long as they don’t take a step back though, that’s all that matters. But the Kings should be able to finish at least at .500 — that alone would be a huge victory for a growing franchise.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– David Yapkowitz

The excitement in Northern California is palpable when it comes to their Kings, as it should be. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield make up one of the most dynamic backcourt duos in all of the NBA. Their pace is fast and calculated, scoring in bunches while also involving teammates. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III will bring the energy that’ll give everybody fits. Though the make-up of their rostered core has essentially stayed the same, they’ve added veteran presences to bolster the experience level. Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon, and Cory Joseph will help not only with development but also in the win column. Head coach Luke Walton’s stint with the Lakers didn’t go as planned like it once did with the Warriors — but we’ll see if Sacramento is the right fit with this promising group of players.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

The Sacramento Kings signed Harrison Barnes to a new four-year, $85 million contract. This is the biggest move the Kings made this summer in what was a relatively quiet offseason. That is admittedly a lot of money for Barnes, but I will give Sacramento credit for frontloading the deal so that Barnes will be making just $18,352,273 in the 2022-23 season, the final year of his contract. Sacramento has a surprising amount of depth and has balanced out the roster with an interesting mix of young and upcoming talent, along with some notable veteran players.

Adding Trevor Ariza is a nice move if he has some gas still left in the tank, especially considering only $1.8 million of his salary is guaranteed for next season. I also like the additions of Dewayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph. Between these three, the Kings have added some defensive punch, which the team was in serious need of. However, the team still lacks the top-end talent to contend for anything more than a bottom-end playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It has been 13 seasons since the Kings last made the postseason, think about that for a minute. Top draft picks like Brandon Roy, Andrew Morrison and Andrea Bargnani were the names being talked about in the draft when the Kings last saw a playoff game. It is time. The Kings have so much young talent ready to burst on to the NBA stage as stars, so it is time. Sacramento has a head coach now that should make it work. It is time. De’Aaron Fox should be an All-Star level guy this season. Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes are exactly the right counter punches to Fox — plus they have size and athleticism, and added some solid veterans to anchor the team. It is time. With the Warriors hobbled with injury, there is a window for the Kings. It’s time.

3rd place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Kings used cap room to add veterans like Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon to a young team that wasn’t far from making the playoffs in the Western Conference last season. The team still has $4.8 million to spend via the Room Exception. Sacramento has 14 guaranteed players, suggesting the final standard roster spot will be fought for by Tyler Lydon, Isaiah Pineiro and Eric Mika.

Looking ahead, the Kings need to pick up team options on Marin Bagley, De’Aaron Fox, Caleb Swanigan and Harry Giles before November. Buddy Hield is eligible for a contract extension before the season, which is reportedly under discussion. If Hield does get a sizable deal, the Kings may not have significant cap room next summer.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Buddy Hield

Buddy Hield struggled a bit when he was first traded to Sacramento, but now he’s developed into one of their major building blocks. Last season, his third in the NBA, Hield had his best year yet. He started all 82 games while putting up 20.7 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 42.7 percent from the three-point line, plus 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

When the Kings initially traded for him as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, owner Vivek Ranadive famously proclaimed that he had Stephen Curry potential. Now Hield is no Curry, of course, but he’s a talented offensive player in his own right. He’s expanded his game to the point where he’s more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble. Entering his fourth season, and with a potential contract extension looming, look for him to take another step forward and establish himself as one of the league’s top perimeter scorers.

Top Defensive Player: Dewayne Dedmon/Trevor Ariza

I’ve got to go with two players for this category. Both new additions, Dedmon and Ariza will bring plenty of value to the Kings, especially on the defensive end. Dedmon is likely going to be the starting center and a good fit next to Bagley in the frontcourt. He isn’t particularly quick, but he is mobile enough to be a deterrent at the rim when opposing guards attack the basket, plus a decent man defender in the paint.

Ariza may be getting up there in age, but he is a veteran guy who still can be a positive on the defensive end and cover multiple positions. It’s currently unclear how much Ariza will actually be deployed, but what the Kings really need from him is to be a defensive leader. Or, Ariza’s role should be someone who will help set the tone defensively and cause a ripple effect trickling down to the rest of the team. He spent last season shuffling between lottery teams in Washington and Phoenix and, now on a team looking to win, his defensive mindset should really stand out.

Top Clutch Player: De’Aaron Fox

Hield may be the Kings’ best offensive player at this moment — but with the game on the line, there’s nobody else on the team who you would want the ball in the hands of over Fox. Two years ago as a rookie, Fox hit several game-winners and stepped up in late-game moments. He proved he wasn’t afraid of the moment and he’ll continue to be the player the Kings will trust with the game on the line.

Part of what makes him so dangerous in crunch time situations is that he can make the right play. In the clutch, the correction option isn’t necessarily shooting the ball. Sometimes the best move is reading the defense and making a play for someone else on the team. Fox is a solid playmaker and, in late-game situations, he’s that much more difficult to defend in that he could create a shot for himself or find a teammate for a better look. Look for him to continue his growth and cement a reputation as one of the league’s best clutch players.

Top Playmaker: De’Aaron Fox

Just like the Kings will want the ball to be in Fox’s hands late in the fourth quarter, they’ll also want the ball in his hands throughout the majority of the game. As mentioned before, Fox has the ability to make the correct play whether that’s as a scorer or as a facilitator, and the young guard is always willing to get his talented teammates involved.

One area that Fox excels in is in transition. He’s incredibly quick on the break, and he’s constantly got his head up looking to see who’s running with him. If you get out on the break with Fox, there’s a high chance he’ll find and get you an easy look at the rim. He averaged 4.4 assists per game as a rookie, and he almost doubled that last season with 7.3. He’s got all the tools to solidify himself as one of the NBA’s elite playmakers.

The Unheralded Player: Marvin Bagley III

It’s hard to imagine a player who was a top-two pick in the draft being unheralded, but here we are. While Luka Doncic, and to a lesser extent, Trae Young, dominated the top rookie conversation last season, others, including Bagley, had great years. He may have been hit with injuries at key times last year, but he still averaged 14.9 points per game on 50.4 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds. And that was with him coming off the bench.

Bagley should be the team’s starting power forward from day one. He is already a solid scorer in the paint, but where he stands to improve is his shooting. He’s a pretty good shooter from mid-range, but he can really add another dimension to the Kings offense by becoming a more consistent three-point shooter. He could also become a better player on the defensive end of the floor, where he has the tools to be a player who can guard multiple positions. With increased minutes this season, expect him to take a bigger leap in year two.

Best New Addition: Cory Joseph

The addition of Joseph was big in that he gives the Kings a legitimate backup point guard who can give Fox a breather. Throughout his career, Joseph has been solid. He’s a player who knows his role and doesn’t try to overstep that. He runs the offense with the second unit and he provides a defensive spark off the bench. Needless to say, that’s all the Kings will likely ask him to do.

Fox hasn’t really had a reliable backup and now he does. Although facilitating and defense will be the main things he will be asked to do, Joseph can score if necessary. He’s a decent shooter from both mid- and three-point range. The Kings have a couple of other options offensively with the second unit, so Joseph will do a solid job quarterbacking them when the starters need a rest.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Harrison Barnes

Barnes is just a solid player that plays hard on both ends of the floor. When the Kings acquired him at the trade deadline last season, he immediately made an impact. His scoring might have dropped slightly from Dallas, but he wasn’t asked to do as much on the offensive end as the Mavericks needed him to do. He shot pretty well with the Kings too, 45.5 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three-point range. Along with Fox and Hield, Barnes helps form a very good perimeter trio. He’s also capable of playing power forward in some small-ball lineups.

2. Richaun Holmes

Holmes has quietly become one of the better backup centers in the league. All teams need solid second units and the Kings did a good job this summer of solidifying their bench. Holmes is very active around the rim both offensively and on the defensive end. He’ll crash the glass for second shot opportunities, always ready to catch a lob. Defensively, he can protect the paint and alter shots when opposing players attack the rim. On the cheap, that’s an absolute win for Sacramento.

3. Harry Giles

Giles is the real wild card here on the roster. His potential development could be the key for Sacramento to really take another step forward. Of course, Giles missed his entire rookie year with an injury and then he started off predictably slow as he adjusted to the NBA game last season. As the campaign went on, however, he started to show glimpses of the player who was once considered a highly-touted prospect. He has a very versatile skill set that is perfect for a big man to thrive in today’s NBA. Alongside Bagley as well, the Kings are in a great position for youthful big men.

4. The Kings’ Front Office

The Kings’ front office was once synonymous with incompetence. And even in the early days of Vlade Divac, both as the general manager and president of basketball operations, they still made some very questionable decisions. But in the past two years or so, they’ve actually put forth some great moves. Even better, their drafting has seemingly been spot-on. Their free-agent acquisitions have been wise and thrifty. The trades they’ve made have made sense. Hope springs eternal in Sacramento and this front office led by Divac is a big reason why. The Kings finally showed improvement on the court last season — let’s see if it will all continue in harmony.

-David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Wing scoring, that’s a major point of strength for the Kings. The trio of Fox, Hield and Barnes have the potential to be one of the most lethal scoring units in the league out on the perimeter. All three shoot at 45 percent or better from the field, as well as 37 percent or better from the three-point line. They all can create their own shot, and Hield is rapidly improving in that regard. Simply put, they’re players that you can give the ball to and be comfortable as they try to generate some offense. Best, all three are relatively young too with their best basketball ahead of them. Laugh now, but don’t be surprised if we’re talking about this group quite a bit this season when it comes to perimeter scoring.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

Defense was still a major issue for the Kings last season, and they’ll need to improve in that regard if they want to seriously enter into that upper echelon in the Western Conference. Thankfully for them, some of their new additions should help in that regard. Ariza, Dedmon, Joseph, and Holmes are all capable defenders. They’re also going to be coming off the bench, with the exception of Dedmon who will likely start. Barnes is a good defender in the starting lineup, but it’s going to take a collective effort from each starter to be a better defensive team.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Kings finish with a winning record?

Sacramento actually had a winning record early in the season. They only finished two games under .500. With continued development from their core guys and the impact of their new free-agent additions, yes, the Sacramento Kings will finally finish the season with above .500 for the first time in over a decade. Will it be good enough, however, to make the playoffs? That remains to be seen as the Western Conference has plenty of good teams. But an injury here or there on another team and that winning record could come with a Sacramento appearance in the postseason.

-David Yapkowitz

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