The Washington Wizards enter next season with a lot of question marks about the present and the future of the team. They have one of the best backcourts in the league with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Unfortunately, Wall is out for the entire season due to a tear in his Achilles tendon and will be starting to earn one of the biggest contracts in the NBA. Beal is healthy and was an All-Star last year, but has not signed the contract extension of 3 years/ $111 million offered to him this past summer by the Wizards. Uncertain if Beal will re-sign or Wall will ever get back to playoff form, the Wizards have started developing a solid young core and brought in veterans to help with their development.
The Wizards will hope to follow their newly minted general manager Tommy Shepard’s vision for the future and get back to the playoffs after missing the postseason for the second time in five seasons with a 32-50 record. The question will be: Will the Wizards rely on their old guard, or will the young core show enough to promise to move forward without their dynamic backcourt?
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Sorry, D.C. – the Wizards are in for a long season. John Wall is unlikely to return this season, and the Bradley Beal trade rumors are only going to get louder as the losses pile up. Rui Hachimura flashed his potential in summer league and through his first few games with Japan at the FIBA World Cup (not counting Thursday’s game against the Team USA), and Isaiah Thomas should have ample opportunity to prove that he is still a contributor in the NBA. But the Wizards are going to lose a lot of games in 2019-20. Their best bet may be to fully embrace the idea of a rebuild.
5th place – Southeast Division
– Drew Maresca
It’s safe to say Scott Brooks has his work cut out for him. John Wall is sidelined with a torn left Achilles injury and Bradley Beal is about the only aspect of his squad that’s a sure thing. The rest, we’ll have to see. Thomas Bryant won’t be surprising teams anymore coming off a stellar season. There will be a lot asked of rookies Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield – it is beneficial these are upperclassmen coming in – however, the talent level is simply not there as it has been in the past. Isaiah Thomas vying for a comeback would be one heck of a story. Again though, Washington’s year all hinges on luck, quite frankly. Consider this writer pessimistic about the situation in D.C.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
The Wizards are in a state of flux right now. With John Wall likely out for the entire season, the Wizards aren’t good enough to make a push for the postseason. Bradley Beal’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors, but it doesn’t seem like the Wizards are all that inclined to trade him. That may change as the trade deadline draws closer. It’s in Washington’s best interest to hit the reset button and trade Beal for some young pieces and/or picks if they can. This season should be about playing all the young guys they have and seeing who is worth keeping around for the long haul. If his FIBA play is any indication, the Wizards may have hit the jackpot with Rui Hachimura. He should be given ample opportunity to play, as should players like Troy Brown Jr, Thomas Bryant, and Mortiz Wagner. There really is nothing to lose.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– David Yapkowitz
Any analysis of the Washington Wizards must begin with the difficult truth that is John Wall is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and is set to make $38,199,000 this season and $47,366,760 in the 2022-23 season. Ouch. After that, I cannot get past the thought that the Los Angeles Clippers approached the Wizards about trading for Bradley Beal and Washington basically said thanks, but no thanks. Beal is a star guard and moving him in a deal isn’t exactly a no-brainer. However, when you consider what Sam Presti managed to squeeze out of the Clippers in the Paul George trade, it makes you wonder what Washington may have passed up bypassing on any deal including Beal. Moving past this, however, Washington did make some crafty moves. The Wizards did manage to nab Davis Bertans in the Brooklyn Nets’ sign-and-trade of DeMarre Carroll with San Antonio. They also took on Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones from the Lakers essentially for free so the Lakers could clear extra cap space in order to acquire both Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard (which didn’t end up happening, of course). Washington also drafted Rui Hachimura, a talented prospect, with the ninth overall pick. Some believe Hachimura is a reach at ninth overall, but I am of the belief it was a solid pick for Washington. Overall, this was an okay offseason for the Wizards, in my opinion. However, the Wall contract is the albatross that will hang over this team for the foreseeable future.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Wizards kicked the tires on splashy options for new leadership but ended up promoting long-time Wizards executive Tommy Sheppard to the senior operations role of the team. Since that decision, the Wizards have made a number of changes in the front office that should better prepare them for the likely and maybe inevitable re-build they will have to embark on. As much as current leadership wants to build around All-Star Brad Beal, it seems unlikely that unless he turns into an MVP caliber guy by himself that the Wizards will have to try and convince Beal he can really win in Washington, which will be pretty hard given the size of guard John Wall’s contract and his uncertain future after an Achilles tear. The good news for the Wizards is they don’t have to cross that Beal bridge this season and, given whats a stake financially with Beal becoming Super Max eligible if he makes an All-NBA team this year, things are lined up for at least one more run with Beal as the focal point and the roster as constructed might be a playoff contender, especially if Beal stays healthy.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Wizards have worked their team salary down to below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold. Washington is trying to field a competitive team despite having $38.2 million going to John Wall ($171.1 million over the next four years, player option on the final season), who isn’t expected to play this year after an Achilles tear. The big question is Bradley Beal, who can sign an extension through the 2023-24 season for roughly $111 million. His answer sets the course for the franchise. Even though he’s under contract through 2020-21, he could end up on the trade block if he turns down the extension offer.
Additionally, the team needs to pick up the team option on Troy Brown Jr. and Mo Wagner before November.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal
Bradley Beal is entering his eighth NBA season this season and delivered the best offensive season of his career by averaging 25.6 PPG, 5 RPG, and 5.5 APG. Even with the Wizards having a down year, Beal was a shining star for the team. During the offseason, Beal was highly sought after because of his scoring ability without having the ball in his hands.
Teams like the Lakers and Rockets perused Beal to be an All-Star alongside each of those teams’ ball-dominant stars. Beal has shown that he does not need to have the ball in his hands to make a strong offensive impact, which has made him such a dynamic star alongside John Wall. Wall requires the ball in his hand to make the most of his offensive abilities. Beal has really benefitted by being a perimeter threat that can finish at the hole if pressed too tightly. With Wall out for the season, we should see Beal being more aggressive and handling the ball more. With Wall out, we saw career numbers from Beal by the end of last year.
Top Defensive Player: Thomas Bryant
Thomas Bryant will become a focal point of this year’s Wizards team on the defensive side of the ball. Despite competing with Ian Mihainmi for minutes, it is looking like he will break the starting rotation and will secure the starting job at Center. Mahinmi will come in to be a defense and rebound specialist, but Bryant has shown that he can be a threat on that end of the court as well. The Wizards looked to rely heavily on Dwight Howard last year to stabilize the defense, but he had to undergo back surgery and only played nine games last season. Instead, the Wizards relied on a tandem of Thomas Bryant and Ian Mahinmi to make up for the loss of Howard. Bryant ended up starting because of efficiency on offense and signed a 3 year/ 25 million dollar extension with the team this off season.
Bryant led the team in defensive win shares with a +2.7 rating, defensive rebounds with 10.8 per game and blocks with 2.7 per game. Bryant looks continue to build on the defensive success by cementing himself as the starting Center by not having Howard on the roster anymore.
Top Playmaker: Isaiah Thomas
For the 2018-2019 season, Thomas signed a veteran minimum contract with the Washington Wizards, where he could earn the starting point guard role. Being able to run the offense for a point guard hungry Washington Wizards team will be the ultimate opportunity for a great comeback season. Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016, but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards.
At his peak, Thomas had two All-Star seasons with the Celtics and led them to the Eastern Conference Finals by averaging 28.9 points per game. The Wizards brought Thomas and Ish Smith to compete for the starting point guard position due to Wall’s injury. If Thomas can stay healthy, he look to be able to run the Wizards offense and will have a great offensive tool with Beal. Look toward Thomas having Beal playing off of his playmaking ability and maximizing both of their talents this year.
Top Clutch Player: Bradley Beal
Beal’s stats during “Clutch Time” (during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points) were some of best in the NBA last season. During Clutch Time, Beal had the one of the best last minute field goal percentages among players who took 25 or more attempts with a 45 percent conversion rate. Beal also ranked seventh in most points scored during clutch time with 125 points.
Isaiah Thomas was the first option in many crunch time situations when he was with the Boston Celtics. If Thomas can gain the trust of the Wizards coaching staff through the season, he may steal some crunch time shots, but still look for Beal to be the primary option.
Unheralded Player: Troy Brown Jr.
With C.J. Miles healing a stress fracture in his left foot to start the season, Troy Brown Jr. has a strong opportunity to be the starting small forward on opening night for the Wizards. Being a lottery pick in the 2018 draft, the Wizards have high hopes for Brown to turn into reliable small forward in his sophomore year. Brown was quite clearly the best player on the Wizards’ Summer League roster. In his only full game, he put up 18 points and 15 rebounds, but he only shot 40.6 percent in Vegas. Brown will not have any pressure of being the focal point of the Wizards’ offense, which will make it easy to play off players like Beal or Thomas to gain some easy scoring opportunities.
Best New Addition: Rui Hachimura
Hachimura only played in three of the Wizards’ summer league games, but posted a dominant performance in his final game of the tournament, scoring 25 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Hachimura was definitely seen as a cerebral player who smoothly adjusting to the speed of the NBA and improving game-by-game. Hachimura also had a strong performance in the FIBA World Cup this summer, where he averaged 13.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and 2.3 APG. He has been hampered by a knee injury that kept him out of two games in the World Cup. If Hachimura can overcome his leg injuries, it should give Wizards fan hope he can contribute as a rookie.
– David Weissman
WHO WE LIKE
1. Free Lakers Pieces
The Wizards acquired center Moritz Wagner, forward Jemerrio Jones, guard Isaac Bonga and a 2022 second-round draft pick from the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team trade involving the New Orleans Pelicans. Wagner was selected 25th in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft by the Lakers. In 43 games with the Lakers last season, he averaged 4.8 points and 2.0 rebounds, including 11.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in five games as a starter. Bonga was selected 39th in 2018 draft and Moon went undrafted.
Wagner appears to be the most coveted one since Bonga and Jones both played sparingly or didn’t spend much time with the Lakers. Despite their lack of experience, they both have tremendous upside – Bonga being a 6-foot-9 point guard and Jones being one of the toughest defenders in the league according to Mo. The Wizards were able to get players who will be long term projects that can continue to build a solid young core.
2. Veteran Balance
Tommy Sheppard’s focus this offseason was to balance the Wizards roster by bringing in young talent. The front office focused on securing veterans leadership for the team as well. Besides signing eight-season NBA vet Isaiah Thomas, the Wizards also signed guard Ish Smith, who is entering his ninth season. The Wizards also signed guard-forward C.J. Miles, who is coming into his 15th NBA season. There is strong potential for these veterans to mentor younger Wizards and boost the team’s confidence with the help of Beal.
Thomas only played 12 games with the Denver Nuggets last year and is looking to make a strong come back from a hip injury his sustained in 2016. Smith played three years with the Detroit Pistons where he averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game last season on 41.9 percent from the field. Miles only played 13 games last year but can contribute as a stretch four, averaging 36 percent from behind the arc for his career.
3. New Management
On July 22, 2019, the Wizards hired Tommy Shepard as general manager of the team. Shortly after the team hired Shepard, he started filling out the front office by naming Johnny Rogers as Vice President of Pro Personnel, Antawn Jamison as Director of Pro Personnel, Sashi Brown as Chief Planning and Operations Officer and former Georgetown head coach John Thompson III the head of athlete development and engagement department This rebuild was organized by Monumental Sports and Entertainment (MSE) CEO Ted Leonsis after he let go of Ernie Grunfeld in April after 16 years of service.
MSE went soul searching during this rebuild and used 78 different consultants for this front office reorganization. Leonsis picked the brains of the youngest general manager in the history of major league baseball, a former NFL executive of the year who led his franchise to a Super Bowl win and even the 44th president of the United States. Leonsis made it clear that he needed help in his search for a replacement or, better yet, an entirely new system for his organization to run on. More importantly, the front office rebuild will not be a success if Shepard is unable to put together an NBA Finals contender. Though it seems that the Wizards are searching for a championship and will do anything to improve their odds.
4. Thomas’ First Fully Healthy Season
Isaiah Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016 but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards. Once an MVP candidate, Thomas’ career now hangs on whether the labrum in his hip can heal properly. The Wizards hope that Thomas has fully addressed the hip issue and can make a full recovery after his surgery. The likelihood of him fully recovering is not in his favor, but if he can manage to be the starting point guard for the Wizards, that would justify taking the risk on Thomas.
Thomas has always a narrative of being an underdog: Being picked last in the 2011 draft, having the Kings refuse to sign him after averaging over 20 points a game, to the Celtics who traded him to the Cavs after having two All-Star seasons. Thomas was all but counted out when he tore his labrum and to come back from this injury would solidify the underdog narrative.
Realistically, the most proven piece of the young core is Thomas Bryant who started 53 games for the Wizards last season and this summer got a new contract of 3 years/ $25 million. At 22, Bryant has the best resume and most upside to start at the five, especially with per-36 numbers last year of 18.2 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.6 BPG.
Troy Brown Jr. will also be an integral part of this young core. Brown played in only 52 games, 10 of which he started. He averaged under 15 minutes per game, scoring 4.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG and 1.5 APG. With an opportunity to play bigger minutes this season, Brown has provided optimism from his performance during the summer league and is anticipated to make a jump statistically this next season.
The Wizards also acquired Mo Wagner, Issac Bonga, Jemerrio Moon, Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield to bolster the youth movement on the team. Sheppard looks like he is attempting to rebuild while still maintaining Wall and Beal on the roster. Beal has been offered 3 years/ $111 million extension, but has yet to accept. If Beal walks after two seasons, the young core can hopefully supplement his absence in the future.
The one glaring issue that the Wizards face is the lack of security at the point guard position. Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on Jan. 8, 2019, to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years.
Wall is a six-time All-Star who has averaged 19 PPG, 9.2 APG and 4.3 RPG during his career, creating a glaring hole of productivity at the point guard position. The Wizards took a risk on Isaiah Thomas to try and fill the offensive productivity they are used to with Wall. As mentioned before, Thomas is coming off of a serious hip injury and may be limited himself. The Wizards signed Thomas on the veteran minimum salary, a small risk especially after having so much money tied up at the point guard position already with Wall’s massive contract.
The Wizards will probably know fairly early in the preseason about what they have in Thomas and what they can expect. If Thomas’ last season performance is any indication about his availability this season, Ish Smith will be spending a lot of time on the court. Smith averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game last season, solid for a backup point guard, but a far drop from the productivity of Wall.
The Burning Question
What Does Sheppard Do With The Future Of The Team?
As Tommy Sheppard takes over as General Manager for the Washington Wizards, he faces a tough choice that will determine the Wizards’ future: (1) Blow the team up or (2) Continue to build around John Wall and Bradley Beal. Blowing up the team would require trading away the All-Star backcourt, allowing Sheppard to focus on developing a young core featuring Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura. Building around Wall and Beal, on the other hand, would require keeping a duo together who has not had the best relationship in the past and Wall overcoming injury. Sheppard has suggested he wants to maintain the established backcourt by offering Beal a full max extension, the best approach for the Wizards’ future despite the risk of gambling on Wall’s health.
Wall had been an All-Star for the five seasons prior to the 2018-2019 season, mainly due to his athleticism and playmaking ability. In December 2018, Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on January 8, 2019 to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles, worsening the injury from December 2018. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years. Trading this incredibly expensive contract with a devastating injury attached to it is an incredibly difficult feat without giving up assets, making sticking with Wall an almost unavoidable option for Sheppard.
Trading Wall and Beal, the Wizards would start off fresh with whatever is left of a young core comprised of Brown Jr., Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. The Wizards’ hopes would rest on the young core developing into a strong foundation that could attract All-Star caliber talent and drafting well during a multi-year rebuild.
Given the difficulty of moving Wall and the uncertainty of what the rebuild can actually achieve, sticking with the current Beal/Wall duo seems like a better recipe for success in the near future. Best case scenario, Wall is able to perform at an All-Star level again and re-develops a dynamic duo in a wide open Eastern Conference with Beal.
The X-Factors: Indiana
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.
There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.
If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.
Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.
There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.
For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.
First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.
Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.
1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver
When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.
However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!
Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.
If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.
If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.
Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.
Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.
A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.
It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.
In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.
Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.
There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?
There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.
Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.
The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.
The X-Factors: Memphis
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.
Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.
Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?
We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.
Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.
So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.
After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.
Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.
While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.
The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.
Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.
Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.
Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.
Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.
But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.
The X-Factors: Brooklyn
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.
The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.
While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.
Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.
But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play? Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.
And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.
But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?
Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.
If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.
Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.
So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.
Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.
So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so, what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.
The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone. So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.
But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.
This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.
One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.
And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.