New Orleans Pelicans

  • The Time is NAW

    It’s just preseason, and in the midst of a Pelicans revival, keeping things in perspective is difficult.

    The Pelicans are 4-0 and it’s easy to think that the world has been solved for them.  It hasn’t.  But there are so many things that are going well (mostly, Zion is a monster) that it’s hard to give any individual story the attention that it deserves.  And aside from Zion, there is likely no story more important than Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s for the new-look Pelicans. NAW dominated Summer League, but that’s, erm, Summer League, but he has been equally fantastic in preseason.

    One of the most common ways to misjudge a player is to get overexcited about his scoring, particularly if it’s inefficient.  Right now, NAW is scoring at a rate of 29.3 points per 36 minutes and registering nearly a 60% TS in the process. But it’s not just that: there are several things to be excited about.

    Scoring

    The easiest start.  As mentioned before, NAW is scoring at an insanely high rate for anyone, much less a rookie.  There are several other Pelicans hovering around 30 points per 36 minutes, including Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, and Jahlil Okafor.  What is particularly surprising is how many shots NAW is taking.  He is shooting 22.5 FGA per 36, which is superstar-level usage.  Of guys in the preseason with significant minutes, this would put NAW behind just Giannis, Kristaps, Steph, Chris Clemons, Beal, and Terrence Ross.

    Common sense is that NAW will cut down on his usage some, as there isn’t much reason to believe he’d be scoring anywhere near 30 points per game.  But what is clear is that he is a very aggressive scorer despite often being played in a point guard role.  NAW has a 3PAr of over 50% and will likely start out his career as an outside-in scorer.  He isn’t explosive enough to get to the rim as his foundation and he’s seemingly most comfortable operating in pick/rolls.

    Passing

    As mentioned earlier, NAW very much appears to prefer operating in pick/rolls and hitting his teammates with live-dribble lefty passes.  What has made him special so far is that he takes what the defense gives him, and this opens up a lot for his passing.  Defenses who leave him alone watch him score and defenses who over-commit to him wind up giving up easy shots.

    NAW has cut down on some of the crazy passes that he was slinging in Summer League, which is good, because he’s not at the level to be doing that in real games yet.  Over time, he will learn when to make difficult passes and when to be conservative.  As Jason Calmes of Bourbon Street Shots says, “Turnovers are the cost of good passing,” and the bumps/bruises NAW experiences in his first few years will sometimes be ugly, but they will be worth it.

    Other

    This is a section that will be talked about least but is most indicative of what is most unusual about NAW.  He is not the first rookie in the league to be dangerous shooting or passing.  What makes him stand out is his high basketball IQ and the little things he is doing in the midst of each play to contribute.

    Spacing is often seen as “can this guy shoot or not?” but it is not that simple.  It is not just the physical shot that matters, though a decent one is clearly a prerequisite to be a threat.

    It is how a player moves without a ball, and sometimes that is in extremely subtle ways.  A great shooter also knows how to free himself for shots but also how to make small adjustments to his positioning in order to put defenses in no-win situations.  A great shooter a few feet away from his teammate can crowd him and that allows for easy doubles with minimal consequences.

    “Don’t double [said to defenders] one pass away” is only true if the player he is guarding has the breathing room to get his shot off before the defender who doubled recovers to him.

    These movements are where NAW is well ahead of his years.  Throughout the play, he is making small adjustments in his positioning to optimize his spacing.  He’s not napping when the ball isn’t in his hands.  When he passes the ball, he immediately relocates (see below)

    This sort of feel is not limited to offense.  NAW is an active off-ball defender, keeping track of his man, possessing a good feel for navigating around screens, and aggressive when opportunities arise.  His frame could use some filling-out to guard some of the bigger wings, but by all appearances, he looks like he has both the toolkit and the intangibles to be a very good defender at the NBA level.

    Moving Forward

    As discussed this summer, the Pelicans have a bit of a logjam on the perimeter, and minutes will be hard to come by.  Early on, it wouldn’t be a shock if NAW sat some games, particularly if Zion is actually hurt (please noooooo).

    What gives him a chance is that the second unit lacks anyone else who can run the offense.  If Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday are on the bench, there really isn’t any other player who can initiate the offense well enough to get the defense moving.  Given what NAW has shown so far (in limited, somewhat meaningless games), he could absolutely be that guy.

    NAW appears to be the most NBA-ready guard that New Orleans has had since Chris Paul (granted, they traded a lot of their draft picks), and everything he’s shown so far seems to indicate that he can be a high-level starter in the NBA.  If Alvin Gentry is given some latitude with the final win total this year, NAW is a guy who could wind up earning 15-20 minutes a night earlier rather than later, and if he is the player he’s been in Summer League and preseason, he absolutely deserves those minutes.

  • KingsCast: Preseason Game 5 vs Melbourne, Contract Talk

    The shorthanded Kings dominate Melbourne United at the Golden One Center to wrap up their 2019 preseason. Huge games from Marvin Bagley and Yogi Ferrell. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic were both offered contract extensions. I don’t expect Bogi to sign his at all. It seems the Kings and Buddy aren’t far apart but why that number might be significantly larger than it appears. We discuss the implications of these two contracts and what happens if one or both don’t sign them.

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  • PelicansCast: Zion and NAW’s Preseason Prowess

    Michael (@Mike_Pelicans) and Nick (@FantasyLawGuy) gush about the preseason performances from Zion Williamson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Michael makes a very BOLD prediction about NAW. The entire rotation is broken down; is there an odd man out? Finally, the guys reveal their concerns for this team based on preseason play, and take a petty parting shot at Anthony Davis.

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  • KingsCast: Preseason Game 4 Recap – Kings at Utah Jazz

    Kings win what we think is their most important game of the preseason. A big first half leads to a 128-115 victory over the Utah Jazz. De’Aaron Fox leaves the game with back soreness. Marvin Bagley’s double-double. Richaun Holmes impact. What to expect Wednesday.

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  • ClippersCast: Tomer Azarly on Superstars, Mann

    Tomer Azarly joins Brandon Marcus today, and the guys chat about Kawhi’s return, when Paul George could be back, and why Terance Mann has been the most impressive player of the preseason.

    SUBSCRIBE on iTunes and follow @HoopBallClips for Clippers updates all season long!

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  • International Spotlight: Southwest Division International Preview

    Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to our International Spotlight mini preview feature where we continue to take a look at all the international players around the league and their outlook for the upcoming season.

    Dzanan Musa has been making some noise in the preseason, showing why the Nets had no problem sending Allen Crabbe out of town in a heartbeat. The battle for the starting point guard job in Chicago has been heating up and Tomas Satoransky is poised to guide the young Bulls in a season where they will try to compete for the playoffs. Meanwhile, Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura and Moritz Wagner have all been positive contributors so far in what is going to be a developmental season for the Wizards.

    Now let’s turn the page and move to the Southwest Division where teams like the Mavs and the Spurs are loaded with international guys!

    Dallas Mavericks

    J.J. Barea, G, 35 years old, Puerto Rico

    Barea was once again able to provide deep-league value last year, finishing third in the entire league in assists per 48 minutes (13.5) for the second consecutive season. The wheels fell off eventually as the Puerto Rican suffered a devastating ruptured Achilles after playing in just 38 games. He is back with the Mavs and poised to continue contributing on the floor beyond providing leadership to his young teammates.

    Barea has always been a constant beneficiary of Rick Carlisle’s system that often puts two point guards on the court at the same time, but this year it’s going to be hard to earn minutes after the Mavs signed Delon Wright and Seth Curry, and with Jalen Brunson already on the roster. Now 35 years old and coming off a serious injury, I expect a considerable drop off in his production and he shouldn’t be on your fantasy radar until he proves he is healthy first.

    Ryan Broekhoff, F, 29 years old, Australia

    The 29-year-old sharpshooter didn’t see much action in his rookie season but the Mavs missed out on their top free agent targets during the offseason and decided to guarantee Broekhoff’s deal for next year.

    His work ethic has been deeply appreciated by the Mavs coaching staff and the Aussie will continue to remain a specialist at the end of the bench but we wouldn’t expect to see him earn major rotation minutes. Dallas lacks the necessary depth at the small forward position but simply put, Rick Carlisle will probably go with more ball handlers and Luka Doncic as their small forward instead of playing Broekhoff.

    Luka Doncic, G/F, 20 years old, Slovenia

    Luka had a fantastic rookie season, validating all the hype and delivering some serious numbers (21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.3 triples and 1.1 steals) on his way to claiming Rookie of the Year honors. After a summer in which he got some much-needed rest (Slovenia failed to advance to the FIBA World Cup) and worked on his conditioning and fitness, there is a reasonable expectation that his fantasy game will only become better.

    Poor shooting and plenty of turnovers contributed to him delivering borderline top-100 value last year while the addition of Kristaps Porzingis and more shooting around him is expected to make things easier for him on the offensive side of the ball. It will take a leap of faith to take him in the early rounds of the draft this year but I’ve seen him going even in the second round and I’m optimistic about a potential top-50 return in his sophomore year.

    Maxi Kleber, F/C, 27 years old, Germany

    Kleber has been one of the hidden fantasy gems in deep leagues the last couple years and has solidified himself as a valuable contributor whether he is coming off the bench or not. The Mavs rewarded him with a brand new four-year, $35 million deal proving how much they value the German big and he has entered this year’s training camp competing with Dwight Powell for a starting role next to Kristaps Porzingis.

    How many minutes he gets will determine his ceiling and a top-125 return is not out of question since his stat set offers the ever-valuable cash counters.

    Boban Marjanovic, C, 31 years old, Serbia

    After splitting time with the Clippers and the Sixers last year, the Serbian giant moved to Dallas this summer, replacing Salah Mejri, and he is expected to provide insurance depth in a deep frontcourt. I’m certain that Rick Carlisle will exploit potential matchups with him on the floor but Boban is only a streaming option and he can’t be relied upon for consistent production unless the Mavs are forced to play him due to injuries.

    Kristaps Porzingis, C, 24 years old, Latvia

    Mavs fans are absolutely stoked for the return of KP after a year and a half where the Latvian took the time to recover from a brutal torn ACL that put his career in jeopardy.

    Porzingis has been cleared for basketball related activities since March of last year but the team chose to be extremely careful with him, shutting down any chance of him returning late in the season.

    The “muscle watch” for Kristaps was in full effect this summer as he worked on his conditioning and he will enter the season starting with Luka Doncic in what seems like one of the league’s best young duos.

    The Mavs have added plenty of shooting around him and it’s certain that Rick Carlisle will maximize his basketball potential but fantasy managers have to consider the fact that his load will be managed, potentially limiting his season-long value. KP is a fantasy stud and he will absolutely deliver some monster lines so feel free to draft him in the early rounds, but beware the missed games.

    Houston Rockets

    Clint Capela, C, 25 years old, Switzerland

    Capela was one of the beneficiaries of the addition of a second ball-handler to the Rockets lineup last year, posting career-highs in points and rebounds while returning borderline top-25 value for managers in standard 9-cat leagues. Still, the tape was not very good as he often struggled with smaller opponents and looked fatigued at the end of games, leading the Rockets to exploring his trade value during the offseason.

    The arrival of Russell Westbrook to Houston this summer has a lot of people in the fantasy community worried and it’s reasonable to expect that his numbers, just like everyone else’s on the Rockets except from James Harden, take a hit.

    Capela played four games with his national team in the first round of the EuroBasket 2021 pre-qualifiers this summer and posted the usual double-doubles while struggling badly from the free throw line and there is no doubt that you should see him as a punt free throw guy.

    Houston added more backup insurance by signing Tyson Chandler and bringing back Nene but none of these presents a threat to Capela’s minutes and it’s likely that he still delivers top-50 value.

    Isiah Hartenstein, C, 21 years old, Germany

    The Rio Grande Valley Vipers went on to win the G-League championship last year and the German big was awarded Finals MVP honors while registering 19.4 points, 14.9 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in 26 games for the season so there is little doubt that the kid is taking steps forward.

    Hartenstein put on a show in Las Vegas this summer with a couple double-doubles, but his run was cut short as he was taken off the court in a wheelchair due to a sprained ankle. Hartenstein has made a case for himself to be a part of the rotation but it’s unlikely he gets much playing as the Rockets continue to rely on veterans who can get the job done. His stat set is very intriguing as he has shown the ability to protect the rim and stretch the floor so he’s someone that I’m keeping an eye on in dynasty leagues.

    Nene, C, 37 years old, Brazil

    Nene has been used by the Rockets as leverage in the last couple seasons in order to manufacture contracts that are attractive to trade for and they took this strategy to another level this summer, forcing the NBA and the Players’ Association to intervene.

    Prior to free agency, the 37-year-old veteran declined his $3.8-million player option for the 2019-20 season, a surprising move as he was unlikely to recoup that on the market, but the belief was that he was going to retire. When it was announced that he was returning for his 18th NBA season, it was widely assumed that it would be for the $2.6-million veteran minimum but instead, Nene signed a two-year deal with a minimum base salary that contains likely incentives that can increase his salary to $10 million in both seasons, thus producing a gem for teams willing to shed salary this year.

    The signing of Tyson Chandler validates the fact that the Rockets don’t see him as a rotation piece anymore so he shouldn’t be on your radar in any fantasy leagues.

    Thabo Sefolosha, SF, 35 years old, Switzerland

    Sefolosha was another veteran addition to the Rockets this summer in their effort to provide more depth to a relatively thin bench. He has always been a defensive specialist with the ability to hit his triples and he is looking at a similar role in Houston. A deep-league option for sure but keep an eye on him in case injuries pile up on the Rockets at some point during the season.

    Memphis Grizzlies

    Bruno Caboclo, SF, 24 years old, Brazil

    With Bruno, it seems that we have finally reached the point where the Brazilian forward is ready to become a regular contributor after notoriously being “2 years away from being 2 years away.” Caboclo ended last season strong, averaging 11.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 triples, 1.9 assists, 0.9 blocks and 0.5 steals over the season’s last 14 games, returning top-100 value for that span.

    He had a busy summer playing in Vegas and joining Brazil in the FIBA World Cup in China. There is optimism that Bruno will get the minutes necessary to make him a consideration even in standard leagues at some point as the Grizzlies are going all-in with the youth movement and they have been experimenting with him as the backup center as well.

    Memphis will likely take the year to evaluate guys like Caboclo and even though I’m not drafting him in standard leagues, he is a player I’ll have on my watchlist from Day 1.

    Marko Guduric, G/F, 24 years old, Serbia

    Serbian sharpshooter Marko Guduric will compete for wing minutes on a young rebuilding Grizzlies squad that will look to develop all their talent in the upcoming years. He is not the most athletic body and he struggles against quicker opponents but he has ideal size for the position at 6’6” and is a crafty, left-handed shooter with high basketball IQ that plays within the system.

    He is coming off a couple very successful seasons with EuroLeague powerhouse Fenerbahce of the Turkish league where he shot 47.7 percent from 3-point range in 2018-19 and won the 2019 Turkish League 3-point shootout. Another deep-league option that could present value as a scoring specialist with good percentages, he belongs to a group of players that I’m monitoring in Memphis this year.

    Jonas Valanciunas, C, 27 years old, Lithuania

    The trade of JV to the Grizzlies last year was something that his fantasy owners were desperately praying for after an underwhelming start of the season where he came off the bench in Nick Nurse’s system in Toronto before dislocating his thumb and opting for surgery. Valanciunas capitalized on the opportunity and averaged 19.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 blocks in 19 games before a Grade 2 right ankle sprain ended his run.

    While this happened with Jaren Jackson Jr. sidelined and the Grizzlies struggling to find healthy bodies at the end of the year, his usage will likely remain high on a team where he projects to be a primary offensive option. A top-50 season is definitely on the horizon and even though the youth movement is on in Memphis, the Grizzlies happily gave him a three-year, $45 million deal and they want him to be the leader for their young studs.

    New Orleans Pelicans

    Nicolo Melli, PF/C, 28 years old, Italy

    The Pelicans completely revamped their roster this offseason and they also added the 28-year-old Italian power forward who has been a jack-of-all-trades for EuroLeague powerhouse Fenerbahce in recent years, helping them reach back-to-back EuroLeague Final Fours.

    He suffered a setback in the summer playing with his national team and had to go under the knife but his recovery had been quick and he has looked in shape so far in a couple preseason games with the Pelicans.

    Melli isn’t a flashy creator but he is a sneaky athlete who can stretch the floor and make contributions on both ends due to his high basketball IQ. He is big enough to defend the paint and looks to be an ideal fit playing next to Zion Williamson while, if the Pelicans indeed decide to play at a fast pace, he will surprise many people with his ability to finish in transition.

    Melli has been one of my favorite guys playing in the EuroLeague the last few years and I expect him to even have some fantasy appeal if he’s able to solidify himself in the rotation with backup PF/C minutes.

    San Antonio Spurs

    Marco Belinelli, SG, 33 years old, Italy

    The Italian sharpshooter offered some much-needed scoring off the bench for the Spurs last season, playing in 79 games and averaging 10.5 points and 1.9 triples in a depleted backcourt. The return of Dejounte Murray, the addition of DeMarre Carroll and the need to play Lonnie Walker IV might push him further down in the rotation.

    The Spurs aren’t getting any younger and this might be the season that they are finally pushed outside of the playoff picture so I’m not very confident in Belinelli’s outlook this year.

    Chimezie Metu, PF/C, 22 years old, Nigeria

    Metu is an intriguing prospect for the Spurs and someone that I had the chance to monitor closely in the FIBA World Cup in China this summer where he showed some signs of life after a miserable rookie season where he struggled, playing mostly in the G-League. His numbers were okay with the Austin Stars of the G-League – 14.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 0.7 steals – but the tape was brutal as he looked like someone who is not a good defender and can’t shoot while turning the ball over too much (3.0 per game).

    The Nigerian forward has the size and the lateral agility for defending a wide range of offensive players, from large wings to centers, while he possesses the quickness and explosiveness necessary to stop penetration and protect the rim, but he isn’t an engaged and disciplined defender on or off the ball. With Drew Eubanks the only other reserve center in the Spurs’ roster I can see Metu getting an opportunity at some point during the season but he needs to prove that he belongs first.

    Jakob Poeltl, C, 22 years old, Austria

    Poeltl finally enters a season where he is projected to be the uncontested starter for an NBA franchise but his minutes will determine his fantasy ceiling. The Austrian big is a prefect match for the “Spurs way” with his disciplined game and above-average IQ and I’m looking forward to seeing him take the next step in his development.

    He still doesn’t have a go-to post up move and the lack of a transition game for the Spurs doesn’t help his cause as he is one of the best big men at running the court, while he doesn’t really fit the modern state of basketball with big men who are able to stretch the floor, so his upside is limited. Add to this his below-average free throw shooting and Poeltl should be treated as a blocks and rebounds specialist only.

    Luka Samanic, F, 19 years old, Croatia

    Samanic impressed NBA teams with his ball-handling and playmaking ability and he was able to validate these skills in the Summer League as one of the youngest guys to play in Las Vegas. His offensive game is skilled enough to stay on the floor and become a threat but the lack of strength is the main issue and the Spurs will likely take the time with him. I don’t expect him to see the floor too much this year but he should be stashed in deep dynasty leagues.

    Thank you for following our international preview of the season and please check us back again next week as we examine the foreign players in the Northwest Division. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.

  • KingsCast: Postgame: PS Game 3 vs Phoenix Suns

    Kings top the Suns 105-88 for their first win of the preseason. Lots of positives to take away from this game… Increased movement defensively. Rebounding. Richaun Holmes. A couple of thoughts on Phoenix and the status of Harry Giles.

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  • PelicansCast: Special Guest Jake Madison

    Michael and Nick are joined by Pelicans’ Insider Jake Madison (@NOLAJake), the host of the Locked-On Pelicans Podcast, and an old friend of our two hosts. After covering the team for a few years, Jake dishes out some little known facts about some Pelicans in the locker room and provides his takeaways from Pelicans’ training camp. The guys also give impressions on the Pelicans’ preseason opener, including what they thought about the first “semi-real” action from Zion, Jrue, Lonzo, Melli, and more.

    SUBSCRIBE on iTunes and follow @HoopBallPels for Pelicans updates all season long!

    Follow @FantasyLawGuy and @Mike_Pelicans on Twitter! And today, give our special guest a follow, as well, at @NOLAJake!

  • PelicansCast: Media Day Recap

    Michael Pellissier and Nick Guarisco recap all of the best quotes from Pelicans’ Media Day, determining their significance and giving general impressions of the interviews. David Griffin “not bowing down,” Lonzo’s “new” jumper, some Zion gushing, more 3’s for E’Twuan, players’ weight issues, and more. The guys also discuss expectations for the rookies (Zion Williamson, Jaxon Hayes, and Nickeil-Alexander-Walker) this season.

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  • NetsCast: The Brooklyn Nets Are Very Cool

    Nets Basketball is back! The guys go over the NBA vs. China controversy and how it could affect the Nets’ preseason game vs. the Lakers before diving into KD’s comments on the Knicks. Najee and Hunter talk about why Durant was right to call the Knicks uncool and also go over a couple of tweets he received from fans. Since the Nets have all-new Graffiti statement jerseys to go with their new court, the guys give their opinions on each and discuss why this was the perfect time for the Nets to re-brand themselves. Lastly, they recap the Nets’ preseason opener vs. Brazil Franca and highlight what went right and wrong during the blowout victory before teasing an upcoming series they’ve entitled “Brooklyn Biographies.”

    Follow @najeeadams_ and @hunter_jkr on Twitter – and check out @hoopballNets for all Nets-related news!

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    This show is brought to you by Hawaiian Isles Kona Coffee Company and MyBookie.ag!

  • What to watch for in the preseason: Western Conference edition

    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.

    Dallas Mavericks

    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.

    Denver Nuggets

    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.

    Houston Rockets

    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.

    LA Clippers

    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.

    Memphis Grizzlies

    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.

    Minnesota Timberwolves

    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

    Andre Roberson

    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.

    Phoenix Suns

    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.

    Sacramento Kings

    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

    Poeltl Power

    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.

    Utah Jazz

    Defensive drop-off?

    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.

  • Pelicans: We’re Back!

    Basketball is FINALLY here.  The Pelicans faced off against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday and we are officially in the Era of Zion.  The Pelicans won the game by a substantial margin, but this is, erm, preseason, and the Pelicans played the, erm, Hawks.  This is not an appropriate time to get overexcited about what we’re seeing; conversely, this is a time to start building mental data of actual, observable basketball instead of hypothetical constructions.

    Without further ado, here are some observations from the first game.

    — This is roster is full of secondary and tertiary playmakers.  Although it isn’t loaded with elite primary options to initiate the offense, once the ball is moving, this team sports a ton of guys who can make the right pass in motion based on how the defense has shifted.  This was apparent very early on and I expect that this will be a thing the entire year.  The result is the ball moving a lot, and this makes the Pelicans a fun team to watch.

    — Lonzo Ball’s shot form held up fairly well in game play and that is a good sign.  I am of the opinion that it would be preferable for Ball shoot horribly for a year or two with better mechanics than for his mechanics to fluctuate and produce slightly better short-term (and worse long-term) results.  I think Lonzo and Jrue is going to be an excellent pairing as Lonzo is a much more natural playmaker for others and it allows Jrue to be aggressive.

    — Nicolo Melli can play.  In previous podcasts and posts, I didn’t want to offer an opinion on a guy who I had never watched.  What he appears to be so far is a smart, skilled big who can put the ball on the floor and make decisions.  He is not particularly quick and this shows on defense, where his experience may put him in the right position but his lack of quickness/speed limits his ability to recover.  His shot was not falling tonight, but he was not shy hoisting them anyway.

    — Nickeil Alexander-Walker stepped behind screens several times to launch 3s.  This doesn’t matter if he winds up being bad at it, but it’s also a skill that I highly value and that the Pelicans haven’t had in some time.  NAW will have his work cut out for him to get minutes, but will be someone that we should monitor as the season goes along.  He could really turn into something, but there will be bumps and bruises along the way even if he does.  The time for those might be in the second half of the season and next season.

    — Zion Williamson had some MONSTER dunks and his explosive athleticism was on full display.  He also showed, however, that finishing against length in the NBA is much different than overpowering college athletes.  Like I’ve said for a while, this will be an adjustment.  When he gets to a launching pad, it will be less of an issue, but he will have to add some craft to finish from a standstill.  He was lost a bit on defense, but you can also tell that he is someone who is aggressive enough to possibly be a 1.8-2.0 steal per game guy as he figures things out.

    — I am still convinced that Jrue-JJ-Lonzo-Zion-Favors is the best starting lineup the Pelicans can put out there.

    In summary, it was a good game for a Pelicans team that was much deeper than the Hawks and with a few more seasoned top contributors as well. I don’t get too excited over preseason games, but the team passed the ball well, got out and ran, and was very exciting to watch.  It’s going to be a fun season.

  • What to watch for in the preseason: Eastern Conference edition

    The preseason is a sign of relief for most basketball fans. It’s not quite the real deal but it’s miles away from the sloppy, admittedly fun, anarchy of Summer League. Though some teams are getting their feet wet against inferior international competition, and with swaths of players that won’t see the court once the games start to count, preseason is the basketball world’s version of the leaves turning.

    Fun times are ahead, and this exhibition season gives folks a glimpse at drawing meaningful conclusions – the UDFA who scores 25 points might not end up playing outside of garbage time but fans will be able to sink their teeth into rotations, lineups and find out who was lying about reworking their jump shot in the summer.

    The Eastern Conference especially finds itself in a state of flux. LeBron James’ departure swung the door wide open, with Masai Ujiri’s Raptors taking some bold steps to be the first team through. Now that Kawhi Leonard is gone, the Celtics’ presumed title core has been rejiggered and the Sixers’ Big 4 approach has been altered, it’s shaping up like a free-for-all with a widening group of potential contenders.

    We’ll run through the West later in the week, but for now here are some Eastern Conference stories to watch out for in the preseason.

    Atlanta Hawks

    How NBA-ready is Bruno Fernando?

    The Hawks look to have some long-term answers at four of the five spots on the floor, with the lone exception coming at center. Alex Len showed up as a vastly improved shooter last season and will enter this year as the starter, but that’s a stopgap solution for a team hoping to ride its young core to contention in the near-ish future.

    Enter Bruno Fernando, who should immediately fit in as a rim-runner and rebounder. His pivotal role in Maryland’s offense should serve him well even if he won’t be tasked with much playmaking this season, and the question is whether Fernando’s limited offensive game can hold up in extended minutes. Defensively he’ll be able to provide rim protection, but lateral quickness could be an issue and teams will surely target him in space.

    If Fernando looks the part of a ready-made NBA center, he could quickly flip the split of playing time so the Hawks can get a better look at how their long-term pieces fit together. Don’t expect the Hawks to force the issue, but they would undoubtedly be happy if Fernando developed quickly.

    Boston Celtics

    Offense or defense at center?

    When the Celtics signed Enes Kanter, it was assumed that he would slot right in as the team’s starter, replacing Aron Baynes and Al Horford. While Kanter is coming off a solid playoff run after rotting away on the bench in New York, his game does come with extensive defensive deficiencies. Depending on how Brad Stevens wants his team to look, it’s possible that we see one of the other candidates assert themselves as a viable option.

    Robert Williams, who started the team’s first preseason contest, is the likely frontrunner of the non-Kanter field. While he fills an extremely narrow lane on offense, he would give the Celtics a potentially elite rim protector and offers the most upside of anyone in the group. Should Stevens opt for a more intimidating defensive group, Williams is the easy call.

    There’s also the notion that Kanter can be used as more of a matchup type, drawing the starts against burly centers while coming off the bench to dominate weaker opponents in other games. It’s not dissimilar to how the Raptors used Jonas Valanciunas or how the Bucks used to use Greg Monroe.

    Perhaps Daniel Theis, whose versatile game can serve as a happy medium, will stand out. He’ll require fewer offensive touches than Kanter and offers the best spacing of all the options. Newcomer Vincent Poirier will also be competing for time. The Celtics lost a ton of production at the center spot this summer and Stevens now has the chance to remold the team with a distinct new identity. Which player he chooses, assuming nobody asserts themselves entirely as a result of their play, should be revealing.

    Brooklyn Nets

    Kenny Atkinson’s ‘good problem’ in the backcourt

    The Nets have reached the mountaintop, or at least gone as high as you can without having played any games yet. They bottomed out but rebuilt the team in such a way that they could attract two superstar talents. Brooklyn has collected a number of quality players to complement its big pieces, and Kenny Atkinson’s deep rotations have helped develop a lot of players in meaningful situations.

    The Nets have received quality play from D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert, among others, over the last few seasons. While the team gets credit for helping these players blossom, they’ve all been aided by some lucky breaks. Dinwiddie first broke onto the scene when Jeremy Lin got hurt and became a mainstay when Russell went down in 2017-18. Russell really broke out last season after LeVert went down, and LeVert returned to the lineup while Dinwiddie was sidelined.

    While injuries will inevitably strike, Atkinson’s juggling task will only get tougher as each player continues to grow. With four starting-caliber guards, and the presence of Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs (and eventually Kevin Durant) soaking up minutes at small forward, the Nets will need to strike a careful balance to make sure everyone gets fed. Brooklyn’s rotation is always busy but we’ll be keeping a close eye on the playing time throughout the preseason.

    Charlotte Hornets

    Can Willy Hernangomez get it together?

    The offensively gifted 25-year-old seems to be running out of chances. The Knicks punted him from the rotation despite a solid rookie campaign, and Hernangomez couldn’t gain any traction after being traded to Charlotte. The team couldn’t afford to deal with his shortcomings last season while they were trying to make the playoffs and convince Kemba Walker to stick around, but there’s really no excuse for Hernangomez to be an occasional DNP-CD this season.

    The defense will always be problematic, but the setup is perfect for the Hornets to just grin and bear it. If Hernangomez can’t establish himself as the clear backup to the oft-injured Cody Zeller by beating out the oft-injured Bismack Biyombo, it might just be the final straw. There’s enough offensive skill to keep a rebuilding team interested, but eventually the rubber has to hit the road.

    Chicago Bulls

    The Kris Dunn dilemma

    Dunn was given the starting nod for Chicago’s preseason opener but the team’s actions point to a different long-term vision. They can pump up Tomas Satoransky and Shaq Harrison as guys who can play 1-3 as much as they’d like, but to play them anywhere other than point guard is a major disservice to both them and the team.

    That said, Dunn could very well play his way back into the mix with a strong preseason. He’ll have limited opportunities with the Bulls mixing and matching their lineups to get a good look at all four PGs on the roster but it’s not out of the question that he outplays his counterparts. A trade still seems likely at some point but stranger things have happened and we’re likely to see a highly motivated version of Dunn, who went from potential franchise guard to potential DNP-CD in a hurry.

    Cleveland Cavaliers

    Garland & Sexton

    The Cavs took a bit of a risk in drafting Darius Garland fifth overall after he was felled for the season by a torn meniscus in November. Doubly so considering they just took a point guard in the lottery, grabbing Collin Sexton last summer. How these two coexist will determine a lot about Cleveland’s future, and with both more inclined to be scorers we’ll be watching closely to see how things shake out.

    Sexton struggled mightily with efficiency last season before a strong burst at the finish, and he still needs some work in terms of shot selection. Garland offers better range and is more of a dynamic scorer in general, but neither really fits a traditional playmaking mold. It can certainly work with the two splitting that load, but how they find a groove playing side by side is going to be the story of the preseason for the Cavs. Keep a close eye on how both players manage without the ball in their hands.

    Detroit Pistons

    Christian Wood’s big break?

    It’s been two seasons of Christian Wood throttling inferior competition, and even a big finish with the Pelicans couldn’t get him a guaranteed spot. It looks as though he’ll be competing with Joe Johnson for the final spot on Detroit’s roster. It’s an interesting battle in that the two competitors provide entirely different things, so Dwane Casey may already have a good idea of who the frontrunner is even if there’s nothing being said publicly.

    There’s some dynamic talent at play, and Wood would seem to offer a bit more all-around upside than Thon Maker or Markieff Morris. If the Pistons, who are hoping to actually make noise in the playoffs, and Casey, who has historically had a hard time deviating from plans until his hand is forced, want the safe route, then Wood is going to be facing an uphill battle.

    Indiana Pacers

    Myles Turner’s shooting

    The Pacers are going a little old school with their frontcourt combo of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Most teams are riding with better shooting out of the power forward slots, but Turner and Sabonis are clearly Indiana’s two most talented big men and it’s well worth it to figure out how the pairing functions, and how they can thrive together long-term. There’s pretty clear evidence that Sabonis works best in the paint, so most of the adjusting figures to fall to Turner.

    He’ll need to spend more time outside the arc, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him cutting in and out of the paint quickly to give Sabonis room to operate on offense. Turner is a .363 career deep shooter with notable progress in each year of his career, culminating in last season’s .388 mark. Expect him to easily eclipse last year’s career-high 2.6 3-point attempts per game and look out for where those attempts are coming – Turner shot .625 from the corners last season but only took 16 attempts. He took 179 of his threes above the break, hitting at a .369 clip.

    Miami Heat

    Justise Winslow’s versatility, or lack thereof

    Winslow entered the league as a do-it-all prospect who could switch across multiple positions, which sort of left him in no man’s land on a Miami roster that had a few similar players. Eventually, the question has to be asked: if you play multiple positions but never truly excel at any of them, are you really versatile after all?

    Luckily, Winslow seemed to find his calling as the fill-in point guard when Goran Dragic was injured last season. It’s a position that he’s been vocal about playing going forward, except the Heat have been committed to Dragic as their PG for as long as he’s on the roster. That might be a little bit of lip service considering they tried to trade him this summer, but it’s unlikely that The Dragon would be shuttled aside right away. How those two split the role is going to have a big say in Miami’s results this year, and with expectations cranked up as a result of the Jimmy Butler acquisition, the Heat may face a tough decision.

    Winslow has more of a future in Miami than the 33-year-old Dragic. How much are the Heat willing to sacrifice his development at a position where he finally looks comfortable?

    Milwaukee Bucks

    Who fills the void in Malcolm Brogdon’s absence?

    The Bucks predictably found success by stuffing the roster with shooters that can play off of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s elite penetration game. Though they’re still clearly one of the top teams in the East, Milwaukee may struggle to replace Malcolm Brogdon – the team’s fourth-leading assist man and a .408 career 3-point shooter.

    Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver have been brought in but neither can fill the playmaking shoes, and the Bucks’ second units could have trouble with scoring without a clear leader and efficient perimeter scorer who can create his own shot. Perhaps Khris Middleton, who was frustrated by his new role at times last season, is asked to handle a lot of that load.

    New York Knicks

    Frank Ntilikina

    The Knicks’ brass likes to talk a lot. It’s David Fizdale who said that Lance Thomas could be New York’s version of Draymond Green, after all, so you can excuse anyone who chooses to take any audio from MSG with a big grain of salt. Allegedly, the Knicks will have a competition for the point guard spot this season. Allegedly, Frank Ntilikina is part of it.

    That’s pretty inconsistent with all the rumors surrounding Ntilikina’s future with the organization, but perhaps New York will bank on a strong World Cup performance creating enough confidence to get Frankie Smokes rolling out of the gates. Odds are that Ntilikina’s NBA career will be best-served by a move to another organization – the Knicks haven’t exercised their option on him yet, after all – but he just might be able to salvage things. New York was very quick to give up on a raw player with obvious defensive merit, and while that’s on brand for the Knicks, some quick proof of improvement could change their tune.

    Orlando Magic

    Al-Farouq Aminu’s role

    It was a bit curious that the Magic signed Al-Farouq Aminu this summer when they have Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac already in the fold, but it’s a move that made more sense after some marinating.

    The Magic became a stifling defensive team last season, and Aminu has experience taking on the tough matchups in Portland. Aminu will also provide a little bit of a boost to a team that shot .321 from deep last year and can also chip in on the glass. He’ll help bolster a bench unit that wavered in terms of impact (aside from Terrence Ross) last season and can be elevated into a larger role if need be. Simply put, he’s the sort of defender and complementary contributor that Steve Clifford is likely to love.

    His signing is a win-now move from a team that’s really buying into last year’s big step forward, and it’s going to be interesting to see if his steady play can take minutes from either Gordon or Isaac.

    Philadelphia 76ers

    Josh Richardson’s offensive fit

    Richardson is a nice get for Philadelphia, who acquired an ascendant two-way guard in exchange for sending Jimmy Butler to Miami. Over the course of his first four seasons with the Heat, Richardson rose through the pecking order and set a career-high in usage in each campaign. That figures to change in Philly, where he could be look at as the low man on the totem pole.

    Although Richardson’s game and flighty efficiency might actually shine with a more limited set of responsibilities, it will be an adjustment for a player who has been on a linear progression as a primary offensive weapon. He’ll be counted on to stretch the floor and will be a major part of the elite defense that the Sixers have assembled (on paper), but we may be able to learn a bit about the team’s offensive plans for Richardson in the preseason. Teams with lots of overhaul tend to deploy their real rotation guys the most in the exhibition season so the Sixers might provide some insightful games.

    Toronto Raptors

    The big lineup

    The Raptors have a ton of changes to work through given their high-profile departures, but despite the huge vacancies at the two and three spots it’ll be how they deploy their three best forwards that merits watching. The combination of Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam played 37 minutes together in the playoffs – after playing zero minutes in the regular season – to a 97.1 ORTG and a 101.5 DRTG, though the added size was crucial in keeping the Sixers off the glass in the postseason.

    It would be wise for the Raptors to give Siakam as many minutes as possible at different positions to find the limits of his versatility and although Ibaka found great success as a full-time center, the Raptors are likely short on the shooting that can allow him to really shine as a dump-off or mid-range option on offense. Gasol’s game is malleable enough to fit with most players, especially if a climb in the pecking order eliminates the passivity that defined his worst playoff performances.

    This is a team that will lean heavily on its defense this season. Getting their smartest defender, their best rim protector and most athletic player on the court at the same time is going to fit that vibe. At the very least it’s a lineup worth exploring further.

    Washington Wizards

    Davis Bertans, besides the shooting

    It’s already established that Bertans is one of the league’s elite sharpshooters among big men. The Marcus Morris free agency flip-flop took Bertans from a great basketball program in San Antonio, but it sent him to a fantastic opportunity in Washington. It looks as though he’ll enter the season as a starter, and the big question is how well the rest of his game can hold up.

    Although Bertans has developed nicely, it’s fair to say that there was a limit on his ceiling with the Spurs. The team was too good to tolerate potential growing pains, and they’ve had capable forwards in place for as long as he was on the roster. Washington isn’t expected to make much noise this season and it’s an environment where Bertans should be tested. The team will be able to let him play through mistakes and carry a heavier burden than he would’ve with the Spurs.

    Though his bread-and-butter skill will keep Bertans in the league for a while, he’ll be afforded the chance to shed his reputation as a one-dimensional player. If he looks like a capable defender in the preseason, expect the expectations and excitement to quietly rachet up.

  • KingsCast: Takeaways from an 0-2 Trip to India

    The Kings are back home from India with an 0-2 preseason record. What are the legitimate concerns coming out of these games? What can be chalked up to not enough practice and a lot of travel? The starting line ups and closing line ups were different. Defense is something Luke Walton will continue to have to focus on. Rebounding a problem? Honest takeaways from the trip to India and what are we looking for now?

    Rate, Review & Subscribe to The Hoop Ball Sacramento Kings Podcast on iTunes

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  • The 2019 Bruski 150