Is Kevin Porter the Cavs’ Future?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr., LeBron James

As the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season trudges along, Kevin Porter Jr. is beginning to look like the future of the organization. A top pick in the 2020 draft could change that, but of the guys on the roster, Porter has the highest ceiling and best chance at stardom. He can shoot. He’s become more decisive on his drives to the bucket. His jerky style confuses defenses and spectators. It’s hard to discern if he’s unsure of himself or probing the defense, looking for a crack to exploit (a little of both). His defense has improved. With his length and quickness he can be a good defender. His instincts are good, averaging a steal per game. Only 20, will Porter mature into a player the franchise can build around?

Darius Garland is improving in fits and starts. His trigger finger is getting quicker; he’s shooting 2 more threes a game over the last 10 contests. The questions entering the year centered on Collin Sexton and Garland and how they would play off each other. Now it seems more important to play Garland and Porter together. While it’s still early, Sexton’s future role is scorer off the bench, a la Jordan Clarkson or Lou Williams. Sexton is adept at what he does, getting downhill with the ball in his hands, attacking the basket. His defense and 3 point shooting need to improve. He doesn’t see the floor or his teammates well. Sexton can still get better, but to expect more from him is a stretch.

John Beilein began playing Garland and Porter minutes together this week. While Garland starts, he’s being replaced five minutes in with Matthew Dellavedova. He’s re-entering with the second unit, and that lineup has flourished. Garland, Clarkson, Porter, Larry Nance, and John Henson closed a 9 point deficit in Milwaukee Saturday night to one in 6 minutes together before the starters returned and the lead ballooned. It’s a small sample size, just 42 minutes together, but the group is plus 8.8 per 100 possessions. Henson is far and away the team’s best defender; his length adds a dimension the team lacks. Nance is a Swiss army knife, Clarkson is a scorer. Watch this lineup over the next few weeks.

Porter’s overall numbers are poor. His shooting percentages and defensive on/offs show a horrid NBA player. The eyes are the key metric with him, however. He looked lost the first month and a half of the season, but is improving. The constant pump fakes behind the 3 point line are becoming catch and shoots. He’s attacking the rim off the dribble instead of bouncing the ball with no purpose. He recorded 3 steals in his first nine games, total. He’s averaging 1.3 per game since. Porter is immature and played little college ball. His game fits in the NBA, however. If John Beilein can mold Porter Jr. into an All-Star level player, the franchise will consider his work a success.

Porter was indecisive here early in the year. Now it’s a catch and shoot

Cavs Quick Hits

Cedi Osman and Tristan Thompson dribble too much. Their handles are subpar; in the NBA that leads to turnovers. Both are fine when shooting off cuts or post ups. Osman is a better 3 ball shooter off catch and shoots. When they put the ball on the floor, they become turnover machines. Neither’s handles are even average, and on a better team they wouldn’t have the opportunity to dribble. Beilein needs to get the ball out of their hands.

Collin Sexton shot 40% from 3 last year, a shock to most who thought he lacked a jumper. He’s regressed this year, however, shooting only 29% from behind the line. Which shooter is the real Sexton? If he is to be a useful NBA player, it can’t be this year’s version. His quickness level is elite; he’s one of, if not the fastest, players in the league. His transition game devastates opponents, but he can struggle in the half court. Defenses are keeping him out of the lane by giving him the 3, hurting the team’s spacing. If he can’t keep defenses honest by canning triples, he’ll continue to struggle and hurt the offense.

What’s What Around the League

1.I hate 2 for 1s. There, I said it. While the math is the math, and 2 possessions at the end of a quarter should be advantageous, the execution is lacking. The result is two bad shots; a rushed heave or out-of-control drive to the rim followed by the same after getting the ball back from your opponent, who ran their normal offense and got a quality shot. Coaches seem to feel the same way. While I have no numbers to back it up, the 2 for 1s seem down this year. Again, no numbers, but running offense and getting one quality shot instead of forcing two for the sake of getting the ball on the rim leads to more points. Quantity isn’t better than quality.

2. Ja is special.

3. Devonte’ Graham is a revelation. A breakout star for a feisty Charlotte team, one many expected to be the worst in the league, Graham is the Hornet offense. Shifty and quick, with a split second release, Graham’s game is Iversony, a smallish bulldog who can score at will. His 40 in Brooklyn, capped off by a dagger 3, highlighted his importance in Charlotte. With his team struggling to find offense, Graham rained 3’s, creating space with speed and cagey dribbling. After bouncing between the G-League and the big team last year, Graham no longer spends time in Greensboro, and, while he isn’t there yet, deserves to be in the All-Star conversation. 19.9 points and 7.6 assists on 42% from 3 are take notice numbers, but can he sustain them? On a team with few offensive weapons, Graham’s next challenge will be to prove he isn’t a flash in the pan.

4. Though Ja Morant receives high praise in Memphis, the Grizzlies other rookie can turn heads too. Brandon Clarke is a springy big. His athleticism draws the eye, though the rest of his game demands attention. His post game is strong; good footwork and a quick first step are allowing him to shoot a tick below 70% three feet from the rim and 66% within 10 feet. Though he only takes 1 per game, he’s canning 50% of his threes, showing potential behind the arc. Grizzly fans must hardly be able to contain their excitement. Morant is a superstar in the making. Jaren Jackson Jr. dropped 43 against Milwaukee last week, and Clarke seems a perfect fit next to them. Memphis is a juggernaut in waiting.

5. How good can this Laker team be? The ancillary parts are what they are, but a locked in LeBron James and Anthony Davis are unlike any duo the league has seen. James has coasted since the title in ‘16, turning up only in the playoffs, a right he’s earned. Whether because of Davis’ arrival or the off-season passing of the best player torch in the media to Kawhi Leonard, scorched earth LeBron has returned. His defense, gone since his Miami days, is back, and he’s leading the league in assists for the first time in his career. Davis provides him with the most devastating weapon he’s ever possessed. His athleticism and defense provide cover for LeBron to do what he does best. He’s free to roam on defense, hunting steals and blocks. No longer the singular focus of defenses, LeBron has room to probe and survey on offense, a death sentence for the opposition.

6. James’ vision and passing acumen improve his teammates; they furnish Davis with a path to the MVP. LeBron moves defenses at will, giving AD space he never knew existed for lobs, one-on-one post ups, and open 3’s, which he’s canning at a career best 34%. The Lakers are unguardable, regardless of the 3 other players sharing the floor with these two. We know Kawhi will turn it up for the playoffs. James Harden has ghosts he needs to abolish, and Luka Doncic wants a seat at the table. LeBron and AD are just different, however. The title runs through them.

7. The Luka Doncic injury, he sprained his right ankle Saturday night, will give us more info on the Mavericks’ roster. Full of guys playing above their heads, can they continue winning, or is this a Doncic driven improvement? Kristaps Porzingis needs to become more involved, and Tim Hardaway Jr will have to carry more of the offense. A road win in Milwaukee Monday night suggests Dallas’ bench mob is for real. Check in on the Mavs in a few weeks.

8. The 76ers desperately need a point guard who can handle the rock and shoot the three at the end of games. Would the Bulls be interested in trading them Tomas Satoransky? He’s an excellent point guard on a good contract. The Bulls signed him to as a free agent this off-season, but have a promising young point guard in Coby White and adequate backups in Kris Dunn and Ryan Arcidiacono. There are protections involved, but the Sixers have their 2021 and 2022 first round picks available. With a chance to win the title, would Elton Brand consider a 37% 3 point shooter who’s averaging over 5 assists per game worth one of those 1sts? He’d take pressure off Ben Simmons.

9. Markelle Fultz is slick. There’s a good player here. Can the Magic unlock him?

10. We know as good as Kawhi Leonard is now, he’ll jump another level in the playoffs. The Clippers’ title chances, therefore, rest on Paul George. The Lakers’ duo looks unstoppable. For the Clips to beat their cross-hallway rival, George will be key. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron years ago during those Heat-Pacers series, but slumped in May with the Thunder. Injuries were a cause, as was Russell Westbrook. The Clippers will need either George or Leonard guarding LeBron at all times, a luxury for sure, but also a necessity, to beat the Lakers. If James controls playoff games in his normal fashion, the purple and gold LA squad are the champs. The Clippers All-Pro defenders must make him work for positioning on the floor. They will have to make it difficult for him to get the ball. With no answer on the roster for Anthony Davis, slowing 23 is their only hope.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Cleveland Cavaliers and Black Ice

Cleveland Cavaliers, Darius Garland, LeBron James, NBA, Tristan Thompson

A tough week for the Cleveland Cavaliers ended on Saturday night with a fun win over a toiling Portland team. Whipped in New York, Miami, and Dallas, the team needed a victory for their psyche. The schedule is brutal for a struggling team. The games keep coming and the losses can mount. Self doubt is a sickness that spreads when getting throttled by 40.

For the Cavs to win, they have to outwork their opponents. They lack in talent in almost every matchup; if the energy level is low, they will get blown out. The wins are important to sustain belief. Losing causes doubt. Doubt creates lethargy. Two game losing streaks turn into 10 game streaks in a hurry. Cleveland needs wins to prove what they’re doing can work. The coaching staff needs stuff to point to in film sessions that work. If the young guys lose confidence, they may never regain it. This is John Beilein’s toughest assignment. How do you keep spirits up when you’re losing by double digits on the regular?

To come home after the beat downs on the road and post a win, even against a struggling Blazers unit, is encouraging. Watching the beatings is frustrating, but remember where the Cavs are in the rebuild. Three 20-year-olds are playing significant minutes. A fourth (Dylan Windler) will be once he’s healthy. The improvements made by Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. occur in fits and starts. It is tough, but necessary. No perennial MVP candidate is coming back in free agency. An All-Star duo will not team up in Cleveland. Those players will come through drafts and development.

Oklahoma City is the model. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden were drafted in consecutive years at 2, 4, and 3 overall. They won 20 and 23 games in Durant’s and Westbrook’s rookie years before surging to 50 in Durant’s third year. It doesn’t happen overnight, even for the greats.

When the team is struggling, Tristan Thompson tries to put the offense on his shoulders. This isn’t ideal. Too many possessions end with Thompson dribbling 6,8, even 10 times, probing his way into the paint before turning it over or unleashing an errand shot. Thompson has been fantastic this year. His leadership and effort are a godsend for this young squad, but there’s a point of diminishing returns when he has the ball in his hands on offense. Any possession in which he’s dribbling is asking for trouble.

Thompson is vital to the success of the offense, but use him without the ball in his hands. Pick and rolls with Collin Sexton, Garland, and Jordan Clarkson play to his strengths. Those three are quick with the ball and have shown a propensity to get to the rim. TT provides an outlet if the lane is closed. Thompson has always been a fantastic rim runner, and his improved hooks with either hand give him another weapon to finish in the paint off passes from the guards. Beilein seems to favor dribble handoffs involving a big and a guard versus the traditional pick and roll. These are plays are fine. They help the guards get to the basket, but also make it harder for the big to cut because of the way the defense guards the roll man. Run the hand offs with Kevin Love. He can pop off the pick to the three point line. Give the traditional pick and rolls to Thompson, who’s more dynamic going toward the rim.

Pick and roll between Thompson and Sexton gets Sexton to the rim

While Beilein harps on ball movement and the point guard has to set that example, Darius Garland should take a few games and fire at will from all over the court. He’s still tentative, hoping to satisfy his coaches and teammates instead of playing to his strengths. It’s important for his future development that he sees the floor and gets his teammates involved, but for his confidence today he needs to be more selfish. His aggression peaked in garbage time against Dallas when he posted a career high and lead the team in scoring with 23. Garland’s shooting led the Cavs to take him 5th overall in the draft, and it’ll be the reason he succeeds or fails in the league. Allow him to gain some confidence from his shot. Once he sees his scoring numbers increase, the playmaking will open up.

What’s What Around the League

1. De’Andre Hunter is a perfect compliment to Trae Young in Atlanta. The rookie has had a big week, posting a 27 and 11 against Milwaukee followed by an 18 point performance in Detroit. He’s found his footing in the league, reaching double figures in scoring in his last seven games, with a six steal game thrown in. Most expected Hunter to be a defensive force, and while he’s struggled on that end, his offensive game has Hawks’ fans salivating. The team’s offensive rating is 12.4 points better when he’s on the floor; he’s doing everything on that end. Hunter attacks the basket, a good dribbler who sees the defense well and attacks when a crack in the defense forms for him to exploit. He’s strong when he gets to the rim, able to finish over shot blockers. He shoots 35% from 3 and can post up when smaller defenders switch onto him. With Hunter and Young in the fold, Atlanta is a future contender.

2. When Ben Simmons gets the ball in the paint, he has to shoot. For Philadelphia to be the team it wants to be, Simmons needs more aggression. Can Joel Embiid lend him some attitude?

3. Watching Luka Doncic control every aspect of each game is enthralling. Is it possible that he’s the best player in the league already? Maybe 3-4 guys are better passers, though even that seems high. He shoots 35% from three, 72% in the restricted area, and 75% from 16 to 24 feet (NBA.com). The league is witnessing the blooming of a superstar. His Mavericks are 5th in the Western Conference. He’s guiding an OK roster and has put them in contention to make noise in the playoffs as a second year 20-year-old. If you were drafting players for the next ten years, Luka is the easy 1st pick.

So quick…..and that court vision

4. Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo provided a glimpse of what’s needed from them if the Bucks hope to make the NBA Finals Thursday against the Blazers. By posting a combined 34 points, the duo provided spacing for Giannis to attack the basket while giving him a release when the defense collapsed. With Eric Bledsoe’s inconsistency and a lack of reliable playmaking from anyone else on the roster, Milwaukee has to find role players Mike Budenholzer can count on. Giannis is life changing. The contributions on the fringes will decide Milwaukee’s fate in May and June.

5. The Timberwolves are a difficult team to figure. Karl Anthony-Towns is an offensive blowtorch, scorching teams like no 7 footer in the league’s history. Averaging 26, 12, and 3 assists, Towns is shooting 45% from 3 on nine attempts a game. Just incomprehensible. His shooting chart is a stat geek’s wet dream; nearly all his shots are 3’s or within 5 feet of the basket. Now take a gander at Andrew Wiggins’ numbers. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists while also shooting the ball better than ever.

And the defense is okay; they’re 15th in the league in defensive rating. So why aren’t the T-Wolves better than .500? It’s too difficult running a team through the center. While Towns is unlike anything the NBA has seen, trying to develop flow through a big man is clunky. Wiggins has improved, but he’s not the guy you want at the end of games deciding wins and losses. Things seem to gum up on them in the fourth quarter. The potential for a good team is there. Will they put it together?

6. The 76ers rank 8th in the league in defensive rating, but when they turn the screws they become suffocating. In Jimmy Butler’s return Saturday night, a playoff-like atmosphere, Philly’s intensity on that end stymied the Heat. Once the playoffs roll around, will anyone be able to score with any consistency against Philadelphia? The 76ers continue to be the most fascinating story in the NBA.

7. A team known for outplaying expectations, the Blazers have reversed course this year. After making the Western Conference Finals last year, they’ve floundered in the first month of this season. Losing a bench core of Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, along with the underrated Al-Farouq Aminu, has hurt more than expected. Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum are still there, however, but a 5-12 start to the season has the Blazers in a hole they may not get out of. Lillard looked disinterested in Cleveland Saturday night and, while he was returning from injury, didn’t play with the passion the team needs from him to win games. Carmelo Anthony isn’t enough to shake Portland out of the early season doldrums.

8. These neon green Timberwolves jerseys burn the retinas.

9. It’s an amazing thing when LeBron James decides he wants to play defense. The Lakers are the best team in the league because of their defense and the effort exerted by James. After the title in Cleveland, he quit playing on that end of the court and his teammates followed suit. LeBron is a force of nature. If he hustles, his teams hustle. If he loafs, his teammates loaf. No one doubted his greatness, even in his 17th season. His regular season effort level was the question. This LeBron makes the Lakers the favorites and gives him one more shot at another MVP. Will he push for 82 games?

LeBron even got the refs convinced

10. Devin Booker is a “go win the game” scorer. Stuck in the mediocrity of Phoenix, the losses have mounted and questions surrounded whether Booker was a good player or just a stat sheet filler on a garbage team. With the Suns’ rise in the Western Conference, he’s proving himself All-Star worthy. Booker is one of the best pure scorers in the game and is doing it efficiently, shooting 52/45/95. When the game is on the line, he can create his own shot. At 6’5”, he has the size to shoot over defenders and the quickness to get to the rim. Despite their hot start, a playoff berth still seems unlikely. If they can sneak in, however, expect Booker to have a Kobe moment or two.

 

Western Conference Preview

Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, LeBron James, NBA, Zion

The NBA is back. Since Kevin Durant joined Golden State in the summer of 2016, the champion was all but decided before the season started. Injuries and a historic playoff run by Kawhi Leonard allowed Toronto to topple the Warriors in the Finals last June. Then all hell broke loose.

A free agent frenzy unlike anything professional sports has ever witnessed, this season is as open as any in the league’s history. Ten teams lay claim to legitimate title aspirations. Can LeBron and Anthony Davis join forces to win the King another title and restore the mystique of the Lakers franchise? Will Kawhi become the league’s unquestioned best player with another title in a third city? How will Giannis Antetokounmpo respond to his MVP season and disappointing playoff exit?


The following are my wild guesses as to the order of finish and records of the Western Conference teams. I’ll do the Eastern Conference on Monday. My extended Cleveland Cavaliers preview is here.

1. Denver Nuggets 58-24
By finishing second in the Western Conference a year ago, the Nuggets young core established themselves as a contender. Nikola Jokic is an MVP candidate. A wizard with the ball in his hands, he’s a 7 footer unlike anything the league has seen. Jamal Murray took a leap in his development in the playoffs, finding a consistency as a leader that many believed he lacked. By trading a 1st round pick for Jerami Grant, they acquired a versatile 3 and D threat at a position of weakness. The buzz surrounding Michael Porter Jr. this off season has built to a steady roar. If he’s capable of contributing, the Nuggets rise from an interesting playoff team into a title contender. The roster continuity of the 2nd seed in last year’s playoffs should allow the Nuggets to stack wins while their rivals in the conference fight early season growing pains. Tough to see them winning the title, but it won’t be a shock if they’re the 1 seed come April.

Porter Jr. Could make Denver a title contender

2. Los Angeles Clippers 55-27
The coup pulled by the Clippers in July, trading a nest egg of draft picks and up and comer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for Paul George and signing Kawhi Leonard to a free agent contract, netted them the best roster in the NBA and the favorites label for the title. Leonard established himself as a top three player in the league, willing the Raptors to the title, manhandling opponents on both sides of the ball. George is a rung below his new teammate on the NBA hierarchy, a consensus top three MVP candidate until a shoulder injury late in the year stymied his campaign. With Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley, L.A.’s defense will choke opposing offenses in crunch time. While George is out to begin the season, rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and Kawhi again scheduled to be load managed throughout the year, the win total in the regular season may suffer. The title, however, goes through the L.A. team you don’t hear about.

3. Los Angeles Lakers 51-31
The city’s other title contending team has again built a hodge podge roster around LeBron James. This year differs from last, however, because of Anthony Davis. The most skilled big man in the NBA fits perfectly with LeBron, giving the Lakers two of the top six players in the league. This L.A. team’s title chances are murkier, however. James will turn 35 this season and has shown no desire to play defense since his Cavs title in 2016. Will missing the playoffs last year and the Davis addition rejuvenate LeBron? The roster surrounding the two superstars is suspect; asking for contributions from guys like Jared Dudley and Dwight Howard is tough. Kyle Kuzma must improve while learning to play alongside Davis, and someone from the group of Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope must play with more consistency than they’ve shown in their careers. Danny Green should be helpful when the playoffs roll around. For the Lakers to max out this season, Anthony Davis needs to be an MVP candidate and LeBron must dial in for the regular season. A title is possible, but things must fall precisely.

4. Houston Rockets 50-32
The most bizarre, yet exciting, transaction of the off-season was the trade of Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. A marriage of the two most ball dominant players in the league will be fascinating. Russ must learn to do something positive on offense when James Harden has the ball for this experiment to work. The rest of the roster is untouched, though adding Thabo Sefolosha could give the team a defensive lift late in games. Expect plenty of wins in the regular season, but can Harden and Westbrook, who have struggled to advance in the playoffs, come together when the stakes are highest? I have my doubts.

5. Golden State Warriors 48-34
With the departure of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s injury, Steph Curry will be a show unto himself this year. He may lead the league in scoring and should be an MVP finalist. The Warriors roster is thin, however, after Curry, Draymond Green, and last year’s breakout All-Star D’Angelo Russell. a bench unit of Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks, and Alfonzo McKinnie will cause this team to get blitzed in non-Curry minutes. If Klay Thompson can return soon enough, say late February, to round himself into playoff form, they will be a tough out. They are champions and proved as much by pushing the Raptors to 6 games in the Finals despite the plethora of injuries they sustained. Who wants to face Steph, Draymond, and Klay in a seven games series, regardless of their teammates?

For old times’ sake

6. Utah Jazz 47-35
A underrated off-season netted the Jazz the perfect running mate to Donovan Mitchell. Mike Conley is a veteran who can run an offense, play without the ball, shoot threes, and hound point guards on defense. A team that has relied too heavily on Mitchell to score in crunch time now has another option in the fourth quarter, sacrificing nothing on the defensive end. If that wasn’t enough juice for the offense, Bojan Bogdanovic, another sly addition, gives them a third ball handler used to stepping up during tense moments. His exploits with an under-manned Pacer team in the first round of the playoffs last year against the Celtics proved as much. With Rudy Gobert, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, manning the middle, the Jazz may be more formidable on that end of the court than the Clippers. Another team with title aspirations, if they can add another shooter at the trade deadline, the Jazz will have as legitimate a shot as anyone.

7. Portland Trail Blazers 46-36
We mention the Blazers each year as a team that could miss the playoffs. They then surprise, ending the season with home court in the first round. The culture Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard have built in Portland is impressive, and a Western Conference Finals appearance last year attests to that. Lillard is underrated, a top fifteen player in the league and one of its best leaders. He and C. J. McCollum form the best backcourt in the league, non Steph and Klay division. This year’s iteration of the Blazers is heavy on guards and centers; a big with range could improve their ceiling. Watch them as a trade destination for Kevin Love.
Seven could prove too low for them. If Jusuf Nurkic can return around the All-Star break recovered from his devastating leg injury, Portland will prove pessimists wrong again.

8. Sacramento Kings 43-39
Perhaps the most exciting team in the league last year, the Kings will again be a League Pass darling. Their up tempo playing style and dynamic young back court are impossible to turn away from. De’Aaron Fox could be the best point guard in the league in five years, and Buddy Hield is an electric shooter and scorer. Can they make the leap from spunky upstart to playoff contender? Marvin Bagley holds the team’s ceiling in his hands. If he becomes a 20-10 force, the Kings will ditch their 13 season absence from the playoffs and be a pesky out for one of the league’s contenders.

9. San Antonio Spurs 41-41
Predicting the Spurs to miss the playoffs is a fool’s errand. It’s been twenty-two years since the Spurs weren’t playing in May, and it’s hard to imagine Gregg Popovich, one of the three greatest coaches of all-time, not on the bench come playoff time. LaMarcus Aldridge continues as a mid-range wizard, one of the best in the game at scoring in spots the league has shied away from. The problem for them is their other semi-star, DeMar DeRozan, thrives in the same areas. For the Spurs to succeed, their young back court of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White must flash. Murray received breakout player hype last year before tearing an ACL and missing the year. White made strides last year, topped by his 36 point effort in Game 3 of their first round series against the Nuggets. Can the duo, under Pop’s guidance, extend the Spurs ridiculous playoff streak?

10. New Orleans Pelicans 38-44
By maximizing the return the team received for Anthony Davis, David Griffin turned New Orleans into one of the most envied situations in the league. Winning the Zion Williamson lottery didn’t hurt, either. Zion is the most anticipated rookie since Davis, catapulting the Pelicans to must watch status along with the L.A. teams. Alvin Gentry’s frantic playing style will benefit both Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. While LeBron elevates many he plays with, some buckle under the scrutiny he brings (Rodney Hood). If Ingram can make the leap from good to great scorer, think 25 a game, he could win the Most Improved Player award. The trade from Los Angeles should benefit Ball as well, calming the noise and allowing him to develop. He and J. J. Redick are a perfect pair. Perhaps the most underrated point guard in the league, though, is Jrue Holiday. An elite defender, Holiday is also a dynamic scorer and distributer. If Zion is as good early as many think he will be, the Pelicans may avoid the growing pains young teams fight.

Is Zion an All-Star already?

11. Dallas Mavericks 36-46
Luka Doncic will be a perennial MVP candidate soon. His playmaking is elite; he can score at all levels. Joining with Kristaps Porzingis is a dream; they are the perfect complement to each other’s games. If Porzingis can return healthy and stay that way, the combo can be one of the best twosomes in the game. At 7’3”, Porzingis is a dominant paint defender and a knockdown three ball shooter. His ceiling is limitless, hampered only by his injuries. The roster surrounding them, however, is garbage. Tim Hardaway Jr., J.J. Barea, and Dwight Powell don’t inspire hope in a stacked conference. Dallas will be an exciting watch; just don’t expect them to win enough to crack the top eight.

12. Oklahoma City Thunder 33-49
Will Chris Paul remain here the entire season? An obvious trade candidate, his absurd contract, due 38, 41, and 44 million the next three years, scares away trade partners. Danilo Gallinari is a useful player, plagued by the injury bug however, as are Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder, though all are on disgusting contracts too. While they may surprise and win enough games to remain on the periphery of the playoff race, the Thunder dove headfirst into a rebuild this off-season, receiving a massive haul of first round picks for Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Too many to list here, the pick cache acquired by the Thunder will accelerate the rebuild whether they use the picks or package them in trades. Westbrook will always be an icon in Oklahoma, the star who wanted to stay after the other bolted. It was time for a trade, however, and each side will benefit in the long run.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves 27-55
A team that should be entering prime contention years, the young core in Minnesota hasn’t matured. Andrew Wiggins has underwhelmed, an inefficient scorer who can’t dribble and never developed into the defender most thought he was destined to be when drafted. Now being paid max money through 2023, Wiggins’ combination of contract and skill set is as undesirable as there is in the league. Karl Anthony-Towns used to be mentioned in the same breath as Joel Embiid, yet despite his dynamic offensive game, Towns hasn’t shown the propensity to play defense or lead an NBA franchise. They need an attitude adjustment in Minnesota before they can be considered playoff worthy again. The Wolves front office is hoping that rookie Jarrett Culver can become the player Wiggins has refused to, an all around scorer who defends.

7 footers don’t do this. Why aren’t the Wolves better?

14. Phoenix Suns 24-58
By acquiring the point guard they have been desperate for since ridding themselves of Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, the Suns are hoping Ricky Rubio will stabilize their young roster. Established as a potent scorer, Devin Booker must now learn to choose his spots and learn to play without the ball, as Rubio will now initiate the Phoenix offense. An athletic freak, DeAndre Ayton needs to improve defensively in his second year, becoming the disrupter in the paint he seemed to be coming out of college. Will the Suns be able to run offense through him in the post? Ayton will have to improve on that side of the ball as well, though Rubio’s brilliant passing acumen will get him easy buckets. The Suns off-season was sporadic, trading a 1st round pick for Aron Baynes and Ty Jerome for reasons unknown and reaching for Cameron Johnson in the draft. The front office seems to be flailing. Their only shot at relevancy is Booker and Ayton becoming All-Stars, a tough ask.

15. Memphis Grizzlies 18-64
With the trades of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies embraced their reality. The Grit and Grind days of Memphis basketball are over. The beginnings of the rebuild have been a success, with Jaren Jackson Jr. showing flashes in his rookie year before going down with injury. He shot the three well at 36%, and with his length and athleticism is poised to take a leap in his second year. The key to the Memphis rebuild will be this year’s second pick in the draft, Ja Morant. An outstanding playmaker, his quickness and off the dribble shooting ability will put an extraordinary amount of pressure on opposing defenses. Add in the athleticism of their second first-round pick, Brandon Clarke, and the Grizzlies are ditching their old plodding ways for a faster paced style of play. They should be a fun watch. While they will struggle this year, allowing the youngsters to develop and procuring another high draft pick will pay dividends.

Devastatingly quick and athletic, Ja makes the Grizzlies watchable