By Bryan Toporek
30. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
If Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue is to be believed, Kevin Love will reach new heights in The Land this coming season.
“Kevin is going to have the best year that he’s had here,” Lue told ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe. “I thought he was great anyway. You keep bringing up [Chris] Bosh. What did Bosh average in Miami? Kevin averaged almost 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] with two other All-Stars. If you are on a championship-caliber team, you have to sacrifice. But this year is going to be a big opportunity for him. We’re going to play through him more. He’s going to get those elbow touches again.”
The Cavaliers are setting the stage for Love’s resurgence by shifting him over to center and moving Tristan Thompson to the bench, which allows them to squeeze the newly acquired Jae Crowder into their starting lineup as well. While Love’s lack of rim protection could force them to abandon that new-look starting five at some point, the offensive dividends may outweigh the defensive downside.
Without Thompson clogging the paint alongside him, Love will torture opposing ground-bound centers with his floor-stretching ability. He knocked down 39.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts last season and shot 37.3 percent from deep overall, so plodding bigs must respect his long-range stroke and clear the paint when he wanders outside. That’ll open more driving lanes for LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Co., which should result in plenty of easy buckets and drive-and-kick outlets.
If Lue’s talk about getting Love more elbow touches isn’t just lip service, it’ll make Cleveland’s offense that much more deadly. During his first season with the Cavaliers (under then-head coach David Blatt), Love had just 2.9 elbow touches per game, a drastic downgrade from the 11.6 he averaged in his final year with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He jumped up to 3.7 per game in 2015-16 before falling back down to 2.8 this past year.
While Love’s career average of 2.4 assists might not reflect it, he’s one of the better-passing big men in the game, as evidenced by the 4.4 dimes he averaged with Minnesota in 2013-14. Running offense through him in the high post will allow Rose and Wade in particular to take advantage of their ability to slash to the rim while playing off the ball. From there, it’ll be on Love to fire a pinpoint pass for an easy deuce.
The comparison between Love and Bosh falls short, as Bosh reinvented himself as an above-average defender upon shifting to center in Miami alongside Wade and James. While Love may never become an ideal two-way third banana next to James and Isaiah Thomas, unlocking his full potential on offense will give Cleveland its best shot of getting back to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season.
29. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
In discussions of the NBA’s top big men, Al Horford often falls to the periphery. Unlike DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns, Horford isn’t likely to erupt for 25-plus points on a given night. He’s a mediocre rebounder as well, having averaged a career-low 6.8 boards during his first season with the Boston Celtics last year.
The Celtics couldn’t ask for a much better No. 3 option to pair alongside Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, though.
Horford flourished under Celtics head coach Brad Stevens last season, setting new career-high marks in assists (5.0) and three-pointers (1.3) to go with his 14.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 32.3 minutes per game. Among players 6’10” and above, only Milwaukee Bucks do-it-all point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged more assists (5.4) and assist points created (13.5) than Horford (12.0).
Much like former Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, Irving doesn’t need the ball in his hands on every possession to thrive, so Horford’s role as a complementary playmaker should be safe. In fact, Irving shot nearly 10 percentage points better on catch-and-shoot three-pointers (48.2 percent) than Thomas did last season (39.9 percent), meaning Horford could be in line for yet another uptick in assists this coming year.
Though the big man’s per-game numbers don’t jump off the screen, the Celtics were 4.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than when he was resting last season. His under-the-radar defensive awareness helped contribute to that success.
“I would say, on the court, people probably don’t realize what an unbelievable help defender [Horford] is,” Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga told ESPN.com’s Chris Forsberg. “You might see a blocked shot at the end of games, but it’s how he is in the right position, always. He’s covering for teammates constantly. I think people see how unselfish he is, offensively, but he is equally unselfish defensively, and has an equal impact on his teammates’ performance.”
While Irving and Hayward shoulder much of the scoring burden for the Celtics this coming season, Horford will serve as a dynamic hole-filler down low. His lack of impact on the glass is a concern for Boston team that ranked 27th league-wide last season in total rebound percentage, but he makes up for that deficiency with his complementary scoring and playmaking.
28. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
If Joel Embiid proves he can make it through a full NBA season without suffering a major injury, he’ll be about 10 spots too low here.
The Cameroonian big man made his long-awaited debut last year after missing his first two seasons to recover from back-to-back foot injuries, and he quickly proved the wait was worthwhile. Embiid became the first rookie in NBA history to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds, one three-pointer and one block, and he did so in only 25.4 minutes per game. The Philadelphia 76ers had a net rating better than all but six teams with Embiid on the floor (3.2), but their minus-7.9 net rating sans Embiid would have ranked dead last league-wide.
The question with Embiid has never been his talent, though. Had he not suffered back and foot injuries in the months leading up to the 2014 NBA draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers likely would have selected him first overall instead of Andrew Wiggins. (That’s a fun butterfly effect to imagine, isn’t it?) Instead, doctors discovered a stress fracture in Embiid’s right foot just days before the draft, which sent him tumbling to the in-no-hurry-to-win Sixers at No. 3 overall.
Between a slower-than-expected recovery from the initial foot injury and an aggravation of it that forced him to miss the entire 2015-16 season as well, Embiid appeared to be headed down the career path of Greg Oden, Sam Bowie and so many other cautionary-tale big men. His upside was undeniable, but the downside appeared to be winning out. Mired in a rebuild, the Sixers had no incentive to rush him back early, but it was fair to wonder whether he’d ever live up to his sky-high potential.
Embiid thankfully avoided another foot injury during his debut campaign, but he wasn’t able to stay ailment-free. During a mid-January game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the big man came down awkwardly after a dunk and hobbled off the court. The Sixers allowed him to play in a nationally televised contest against the Houston Rockets a week later, but that wound up being the last time he suited up in 2016-17. The team later discovered a bone bruise and a meniscus tear in his left knee which shut him down for the season.
Embiid just participated in his first full-court five-on-five drills Thursday, more than five months removed from his surgery, which begs the question of whether he’ll be in game shape by the Oct. 18 season opener. He already admitted he doesn’t expect to play in all 82 games this season, although the Sixers have yet to provide concrete details about what restrictions he’ll have on his playing time.
The Sixers will need Embiid to stay healthier than ever for them to have a legitimate shot at a playoff berth this year, even in the downtrodden East. They expressed their faith in him by giving him a five-year, $148 million max extension, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but another injury-ravaged season in 2017-18 could cause them to soon regret that decision.
27. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
Do we have DeMarcus Cousins ranked 10 spots too low here? Probably. (Let the record reflect: I had him 17th on my personal list. Blame my BBALLBREAKDOWN colleagues for this one.)
Perhaps attitude concerns caused Cousins to slip in these rankings, but his on-court talent is undeniable. Before the Sacramento Kings shipped him to the New Orleans Pelicans during All-Star Weekend, Boogie was in the midst of a career year, having set new personal highs in points (27.8), assists (4.8) and made three-pointers (1.7) while chipping in 10.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks in 34.4 minutes per game. Upon his arrival in the Big Easy, he still managed 24.4 points on 45.2 percent shooting, 12.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.1 triples, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks per game despite splitting touches with Anthony Davis.
Much like Horford, Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez, Cousins’ three-point proficiency is a recent development, but it makes him that much more dangerous on offense. He’s long been one of the NBA’s most unguardable forces of nature in the paint, having ranked among the top fifth of the league in terms of post-up efficiency last season. Him turning into a legitimate catch-and-shoot threat—he went 110-of-298 on such shots from three-point range in 2016-17—will cause countless sleepless nights for opposing defensive coordinators this season, especially with New Orleans touting two legitimate facilitators in Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday.
As the rest of the league zigs toward smaller lineups, the Pelicans zagging toward a twin towers approach is a fascinating gamble. On paper, Cousins and Davis are two of the NBA’s most talented, versatile big men, which gives New Orleans the league’s deadliest frontcourt duo on paper The Pellies outscored opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions during the 394 minutes in which Brow and Boogie shared the court last season, a marked upgrade from their season-long net rating of minus-1.6. That sample size isn’t large enough to draw any grand conclusions about the long-term feasibility of such a pairing, however.
Volatility threatens to thwart the Boogie-Brow tandem before it ever fully takes off, as Cousins is due to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018. If the Pelicans get off to a slow start this season, will they get cold feet about Boogie’s impending choice and ship him out prior to the trade deadline rather than risk losing him for nothing next summer? If Davis gets injured early in the year and misses considerable time, can they commit to Cousins in 2018 without knowing how well he pairs with the Brow?
That’s to say nothing of Cousins’ defensive shortcomings and off-court temperament, both of which should be legitimate concerns for New Orleans heading into the year. His effort on the point-preventing end of the court waxes and wanes at a moment’s notice, leading to a handful of head-scratching possessions each night. He has also ranked among the top five in technical fouls every year since entering the league in 2010-11, including four times atop those standings in the past five seasons.
If Cousins manages to keep his cool this year and meshes with Davis, the Pelicans could build around the Boogie-Brow duo for the next half-decade. The caustic elements in their locker room create major potential for fireworks, though.
26. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Unleash the Point Blake!
With Chris Paul now a Houston Rocket, the Los Angeles Clippers no longer have a ball-dominant point guard through whom their entire offense needs to run. That should enable Blake Griffin to tap into more of his playmaking abilities and serve as a de facto point forward at times.
As Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer noted in June, Griffin is one of 13 players in NBA history 6’9″ or taller to have a season with an assist rate higher than 25 percent. Among those 6’10” and above, he was tied with Al Horford for the second-most assist points per game created last season (12.0), and he was tied with Nikola Jokic for third in assists (4.9). Griffin has chipped in at least three helpers per game in each of his seven NBA seasons, and he averaged 5.1 over the past three years.
Griffin is oft-maligned because he and the Clippers perpetually underachieve in the playoffs, but one can only wonder whether head coach Doc Rivers wasn’t taking full advantage of the big man’s unique skill set. With Paul gone, Rivers told reporters ball movement will be a hallmark of the team this season, which implies Griffin could be in line for another career-high mark in dimes.
“There will be times when Blake is the tallest guy on the floor,” Rivers said in late September. “We want him to be an aggressive player, an attack player. He’ll bring the ball up at times. He’ll be one of the guys we use as a facilitator.”
Beyond using Griffin more as a playmaker, the Clippers can only hope he joins the three-point revolution and becomes more consistent from beyond the arc. The Oklahoma product knocked down a career-high 38 triples on 113 attempts last season (33.6 percent) after going just 42-of-155 from deep over his first six years combined, but his career hit rate of 29.9 percent leaves much to be desired. He drilled at least one three-pointer in each of his first two preseason outings against the Toronto Raptors this year, lending hope to that perhaps becoming more of his offensive repertoire.
Griffin’s rebound rate has plunged over the past few seasons, but that’s largely a byproduct of fellow big man DeAndre Jordan swallowing every board in sight. The bigger area of concern for Griffin—aside from fluke hand injuries from punching team staffers—is whether he can build upon the defensive strides he made last season. For the Clippers to have any chance of snapping their hopelessness against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, they’ll need Griffin to become a dominant two-way force rather than just an offensively minded sieve on the other end.
After two straight first-round playoff exits, the Clippers felt compelled to shake up their core and choose to build around either Paul or Griffin moving forward. It’s up to the latter to prove in 2017-18 that L.A. made the right choice.
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