October 9, 2019, 2:47 pm
With a few preseason games under our collective belts, you can feel actual basketball getting closer and closer. Earlier this week we took a look at some things to watch for in the Eastern Conference, and now we’ll shift our attention to the new-look West.
The Warriors’ dynasty is done, the Lakers and Clippers have added major starpower, the Rockets reunited old friends and the Jazz have finally added an elite point guard to the mix. That, and there’s plenty of young teams gunning to assert themselves, ranging from current contenders like Denver to up-and-comers like Sacramento and Dallas. Despite all the player movemnt this summer, the West reigns supreme in terms of quality and it figures to be a dogfight as teams jockey for playoff spots, let alone seeding.
True superteams may be gone for the moment but there are more than enough dynamic duos to tide us over in a season that figures to be pretty unpredictable.
Fifth and final starter
Delon Wright, Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and Dwight Powell appear to be locked in as four of the Mavs’ starters. The versatility of that group means that Dallas can go in a couple of different directions with the last starting spot.
If Doncic ends up playing shooting guard the Mavs have a few intriguing small forward options. Justin Jackson got the nod in the team’s first preseason game, but he’s never really emerged as an impact player despite providing passable, invisible minutes. Rick Carlisle favorite Dorian Finney-Smith has held down the starting role in the past but the Mavs may want to maximize his utility as a do-it-all bench option.
If shooting guard is the open spot and Doncic starts at the three, Tim Hardaway Jr., who is recovering from another stress reaction in his left leg, might be the choice. He would also be a valuable primary scorer for a second unit, however, and might not have the defensive chops to fill a complementary 3-and-D role alongside high-usage stars as a starter. Seth Curry or Jalen Brunson could start if the Mavs want a two-PG look, and Wright’s defensive versatility would make it a workable situation.
What’s on the table for Will Barton?
This probably isn’t what Will Barton envisioned when he signed a four-year, $53 million contract. Elevated into the starting lineup, Will The Thrill’s 2018-19 season was marred by an early injury and he was unable to find a rhythm on a well-oiled machine of a Nuggets team after returning in the midst of a tight playoff race. That injury, of course, allowed players like Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig to step up and cement themselves as real contributors, which leads us to today.
Craig is rumored to be the favorite to start at small forward and is a nice defensive fit with Denver’s four obvious starters. While the competition is still on, Barton may be used in the super-sub sixth man role that led to his big contract in the first place.
The question for Denver probably lies further in the future – with cheaper alternatives in relative abundance, the Nuggets already over the cap and set to watch Jerami Grant, Beasley, Craig, Juancho Hernangomez and Mason Plumlee hit free agency, how much can they afford to allocate to Barton? Keep an eye on his deployment throughout the exhibition slate. The Nuggets undoubtedly believe in him as a player but there are plenty of other paths for the team to take if Barton can’t recapture his old form.
Golden State Warriors
How do the Warriors reshuffle their defense?
As you might’ve heard, the Warriors will look different this season. Though D’Angelo Russell won’t be a straight replacement for Klay Thompson on offense (something we’ll dig into more closely soon), the big questions come on the defensive side of the floor.
The Klay-Russell swap is a massive downgrade there, but Golden State will also be without Kevin Durant’s endless length and Andre Iguodala’s institutional knowledge. Sacramento soured on Willie Cauley-Stein because of his defensive lapses. A team whose defensive units used to move on a string will be decidedly different this year.
Add in the potential need for Golden State to work rest into Draymond Green’s schedule, and we might see some very funky lineups over the course of the season. Keep an eye on how players like Cauley-Stein, Alfonzo McKinnie and Jacob Evans hang on defense in the preseason, otherwise we might see Steve Kerr engage in some schematic retooling.
Do the Rockets have a real bench or just situational contributors?
The Rockets continue to swing big, this time swapping Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. Although they continue to boast one of the league’s most talented backcourt, one can’t help but wonder whether the depth problem will rear its ugly head once again.
Last season Houston dealt with a number of injuries that left them severely shorthanded in the early going, and although the Westbrook-Paul exchange should generally ensure fewer missed games, the Rockets’ bench isn’t exactly a strength.
The group of Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, Gary Clark, Thabo Sefolosha, Tyson Chandler and Nene has plenty of weak spots. Though their minutes will be limited in the postseason, can the Rockets assemble a cohesive bench unit that can get them through the regular season without leaving the starters overtaxed? It’s easy to think of scenarios where each of those bench players can play an important role, but there aren’t a ton of second-unit groups that you can throw out comfortably in any matchup. Anyone who can turn in a strong preseason might be able to distance themselves from the pack for a team that’s dying for secondary contributors.
Landry Shamet’s point guard minutes
Doc Rivers has cited Landry Shamet’s past work as a lead guard when discussing the fact that Shamet will play some point guard this season. The uncertainty of Paul George’s timeline means that the Clippers will be down one of their primary ball-handlers for at least the first few games of the year, and that’s not inconsequential on a team with one true point guard.
Lou Williams can handle some of those minutes behind Patrick Beverley but he’s better suited in a scoring role. The Clippers have already been forced to get a little creative, letting rookie Terance Mann play backup point guard in training camp as well as the preseason opener. If Shamet can play a capable PG, that would certainly ease the burden on everyone else. Any value that Shamet provides beyond spacing will count as a major win.
Los Angeles Lakers
What does Dwight Howard have left?
After a nine-game campaign and dwindling on-court effectiveness in the years prior, it’s safe to declare Dwight Howard a completely unknown quantity. The Lakers seem to be going out of their way to replace JaVale McGee after a surprisingly productive season, and the Howard move and reported camp battle is the largest affront in a series of decisions.
If Howard can still play, even in a 20-minute role, and that’s a big ‘if,’ he’ll give the Lakers an athletic rim-runner that provides a big boost on the glass. That’s not inconsequential for a team that had to add the ancient Tyson Chandler last season. If he can’t, it’ll be a lot of unnecessary drama for nothing. It should be interesting to see how Howard is used, and how much he can make of his time on the floor.
Can Brandon Clarke force his way in?
Ever since the draft, Brandon Clarke has been impossible to ignore. He was borderline dominant in Summer League and has continued to impress throughout training camp, and the rebuilding Grizzlies have to be overjoyed with his play so far. If there’s one dark cloud on the horizon for Clarke it’s that Memphis has two frontcourt pillars in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas locked into the starting five.
Although JV may not be a 30-minute per night player, he will start, and he will be a featured offensive player when he is on the floor. That, plus the presence of power forward types in Jae Crowder and Bruno Caboclo, will put playing time pressure on Clarke as he tries to carve out a role. That won’t be a monumental task given Clarke’s play so far and Memphis’ trajectory, but he can start to explore his ceiling quickly with a big preseason.
Robert Covington: Power Forward?
The Wolves are prepared to hand the starting shooting guard job to either Jarrett Culver or Josh Okogie, which will push everyone down a position. Barring a stunning bench demotion for Andrew Wiggins, that means we’re looking at Robert Covington opening the season as Minnesota’s starting power forward.
With the backdrop of Covington’s balky knees, it’s going to be a big challenge for a player who might need to add a little muscle to make it work in every possible matchup. Additionally, that might be suboptimal deployment for a player who has proven to be an All-NBA defender at the wing position. It’s at least a worthy experiment for a team that’s unlikely to make the playoffs while trying to find proper complements for Karl-Anthony Towns.
New Orleans Pelicans
Who loses out on the wings?
There’s an undeniable sense of excitement around the Pelicans this season as David Griffin has done his best to put together a roster that will thrive in an up-tempo attack. Though most of the attention has rightfully fallen to Zion Williamson, New Orleans is facing a bit of a logjam with all of their new acquisitions.
This is Jrue Holiday’s team, which means he’s locked into big minutes split between point guard and shooting guard. With Lonzo Ball in town, he’s likely to start at point guard, with Holiday opening games at the two. That figures to leave J.J. Redick out in the cold, unless the Pelicans opt to go super-small and move Brandon Ingram to the bench. Any way you slice it, someone who is used to starting will be forced to come off the bench. While you’re watching Zion jam on everyone, remember to keep an eye on Alvin Gentry’s rotations.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have plenty of minutes available on the wings, which means that a healthy Roberson will have a great opportunity to reestablish himself as an elite defender. It has been over a year since he took the court thanks to a devastating injury and multiple setbacks, but his health could have a surprisingly large effect on the bottom half of the playoff bracket.
If the Thunder focus more on development than scrapping for a low playoff spot, Roberson’s presence can still help the team in a number of ways. Perhaps he plays himself into the team’s future plans, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander likely to slide back over to point guard as soon as Chris Paul leaves town (if not before). It’s possible that Roberson becomes a sought-after trade target as the arms race develops, with contenders itching to acquire a lockdown defender. Above all else, it’ll just be good to see him back on the court – it’s hard to root against someone so close to the end of an arduous road.
Power forward battle
The Suns and a faint sense of hope: a tradition like no other. Phoenix went out and added a real point guard, as well as one of the top coaches on the market. Forward progress is being made but there remain a lot of questions to be answered about the team’s power forward rotation, and while there are a couple sensible choices there are a few options that would be Classic Suns.
In all likelihood the job will fall to either Dario Saric or Mikal Bridges. Young, talented players with versatility and upside. Perfect! With Kelly Oubre Jr. at small forward, however, it’s going to be a cramped rotation with these three, who would all benefit from extended minutes. That’s all well and good but the Suns also reached on forward Cam Johnson in the first round, and the organization may force him onto the floor to try and prove outsiders wrong. Mix in talk that newcomers Frank Kaminsky and Cheick Diallo could play some power forward as well (with Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes consuming the entire center rotation), and it quickly becomes a mess.
Saric and Bridges need as much playing time as possible, but will they get it? And who will get the lion’s share? If Saric can take advantage of Bridges’ knee bone bruise, he can right the ship after a rocky campaign split between Philly and Minnesota.
Portland Trail Blazers
Reworking the forward rotation
The Blazers surprised pundits yet again last season, making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals despite losing Jusuf Nurkic amidst an outstanding campaign. While Portland will always carry a chip on its shoulder, it’s tough to see them authoring a repeat performance – even if Hassan Whiteside shows up on his best behavior and blossoms. Though most of the talk is centered on the improvement of other teams, the Blazers have some serious questions to answer at the forward positions.
Between Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless and Jake Layman, the Blazers will need to fill 70 minutes per game and 167 combined starts, exclusively at small forward and power forward. The addition of Kent Bazemore figures to help, though he has a mixed track record of success as a small forward. In 2015-16, he played 79% of his minutes at SF and was solid with 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 threes per game on .441 from the field and a plus-2.3 net rating.
The following year saw him take a step back with 58% of his minutes coming at SF, as he produced averages of 11.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.7 threes on .409 from the field with a minus-1.7 net rating. Bazemore has primarily been a shooting guard since, only appearing as a small forward in 4% of his minutes last season per Basketball-Reference.
The largely untested Zach Collins is expected to start at power forward, and teams will be targeting him as a perimeter defender early and often. Offensively, his .331 mark from distance falls short of Aminu’s .343 mark, and teams will probably dare him to become a volume 3-point shooter with Whiteside dominating the interior. Behind Collins and Bazemore are Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver. Portland will be tested against the West’s all-world collection of small forwards and Terry Stotts might need to get creative.
Trevor Ariza’s playing time
For the second straight season, Ariza has chosen to sign on with a team in the bottom half of the West. Last season you could make the case that he was trying to combine a big paycheck with his playing time needs, but this year looks like the beginning of a steep decline. The Kings have added a couple centers and re-signed Harrison Barnes to start at small forward, and Ariza will not be a threat to Marvin Bagley’s minutes at power forward.
Ariza has not averaged fewer than 33.9 mpg since an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, and was over 32.9 mpg in the three seasons prior to that. Unless Luke Walton shoehorns him into a rotation at the expense of younger players (which has caused rifts with Sacramento’s front office in the past), Ariza is going to have to accept a drastically diminished role. That can be a tough adjustment for a guy who can clearly still handle big minutes, as well as one who may be more of a natural fit at small forward than a higher-paid teammate. Keep an eye on how Walton juggles the forward group.
San Antonio Spurs
Jakob Poeltl’s season featured plenty of ups and downs. A training camp battle for the starting center spot didn’t go his way, and he would actually sit out three of the Spurs’ first six games, logging just 54 seconds in one of those appearances. Through the end of January Poeltl averaged 14.7 minutes per game. For a player who was thought of as the sort of cerebral hard worker that would fit the San Antonio system, it was a struggle.
Poeltl was able to gain some traction in the wake of Pau Gasol’s foot injury and subsequent release, averaging 19.7 minutes (and 1.3 blocks per game) from February onwards. Though he may always have trouble defending larger players, Poeltl has great rebounding and rim-protecting instincts and can move in space better than a lot of his peers. If he can hit the ground running this season it would be a big development for the Spurs, and it could even be his ticket to the starting lineup. Last season Poeltl averaged 3.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 0.2 blocks in 17.4 mpg through five preseason contests – let’s see if he can do better this time around.
The Jazz are undoubtedly a title contender after adding Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic to round out what was already a strong core. They’re far more dangerous offensively and now have a number of ways to topple opponents rather than grinding them down on defense and leaning on Donovan Mitchell for scoring. Although Utah will still hang its hat on defense, this offseason did bring some changes that could leave the Jazz somewhat exposed.
That largely occurs at the power forward spot, where an effective thunder and lightning combo of Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder has been replaced by Jeff Green and some miscast players. Beyond Green, the most likely candidates to see meaningful minutes at the four are Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles. Though Basketball-Reference credits Ingles with 66% of his minutes at the four spot last season, Bogdanovic and O’Neale check in at 4% and 2%, respectively. With rumors of Ingles moving to a sixth man role so Bogdanovic can start, that would put a pretty heavy burden on either the 33-year-old Green or a player who has extremely limited experience.
Quin Snyder is one of the league’s top coaches and there are few doubts that the Jazz will get it figured out, but the team’s defense might not be on autopilot this season. The preseason should be illuminating in terms of how that unit will need to adjust.