September 23, 2018

Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Warriors

 


By Shane Young

The most enjoyable part of the NBA offseason is forecasting the standings and awards for the following year.

At BBallBreakdown, we’re taking it a step further.

With just a few days away from the brand new season, we’re projecting the team records, point differentials, and rankings in both offensive and defensive rating.

Since there are 1,230 total games played in the regular season, the win totals for all 30 teams must equal 1,230. Point differentials work the same way. All 15 point differentials added together in the West must cancel out the sum of all 15 point differentials in the East.

I’ve also ranked each team in terms of “League Pass glamour,” which is basically just the watchability of each team this year.

Western Conference: 667 Wins

When determining the wins and average point differentials for each team, I reached a total of 667 wins for the West, with a +20.7 differential.

Here’s a look at how the West has performed in the last 15 seasons, with our new projection included:

Let’s kick things off with the wild, wild West! Each team will have a graphic with their metrics from last season. Under them will be their 2017-18 projected numbers. Enjoy!


1. Golden State Warriors:  70-12

Key departures: Ian Clark (SG)

Key additions: Nick Young (SG), Omri Casspi (PF), Jordan Bell (PF)

League Pass Ranking: 1st

Warriors

Rarely in professional sports does a team win a championship and then proceed to be a top two or three winner of the offseason. Golden State proved normal trends don’t apply to it, as they kept the core five intact.

Kevin Durant made it known all year that he wasn’t going anywhere, but there was real fear Andre Iguodala could receive a payday elsewhere. Iguodala used some leverage to earn a three-year, $48 million contract from the Warriors on a salary scale that escalates as he gets older. He’s under contract until the 2020 offseason, which may be the end of his successful career considering the long-term health concerns over his back and knees.

While re-signing Iguodala wasn’t exactly paramount for this team to remain as the West’s supreme leader — they still have four top 16 players — it will undoubtedly keep them deeper defensively and a tougher matchup in the playoffs. People forget, 33-year-old Iguodala was 26th in Real Plus-Minus (fourth overall on Golden State) last season, and 35th in RPM wins. The death lineup with Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Durant-Green is able to blister the competition because it gives the Warriors three options to throw at opposing superstar wings. Thompson, Iguodala, and Durant are extremely positive defenders, which allows them to get stops or turnovers and ignite fastbreaks.

Oh yeah, they also inked Nick Young to rescue him from Los Angeles. Quietly, at age 31, Young just had the best shooting season of his career. At a true shooting percentage of 58.8 and career-low turnover percentage (5.1), he is the perfect ingredient for the Warriors’ recipe — surround Durant or Curry with top-level shooters off the bench whenever the two stars’ minutes are staggered.

Plus, this isn’t the Lakers’ 30th-ranked defense that Young is going to have around him. His defensive mistakes are apparent every other game, but it’s been a while since he’s had defensive leaders around him to mask them. Now joining what projects to be the best defense in 2017-18, Young can learn from Green, Iguodala, and assistant coach Ron Adams. He just has to buy in.

Seventy wins is right where this team should be at the end, barring major injuries. Curry has played in 97 percent of the Warriors’ regular season games since Steve Kerr took over, with many of those eight misses being strictly for rest. Durant missed 21 games last year due to his sprained MCL, with the Warriors still going 16-5 (.762) during that stretch. It was a 62-win pace without the best scorer on Earth.

Finishing first in offensive and defensive rating would make Golden State the first team in 22 years to accomplish such a task. The 1995-96 Bulls (72 wins) led the league in both, with a point differential of +12.3.

This team should slightly eclipse that mark at +12.5, but I still have them three wins under the all-time record. The Warriors’ last six games are against Phoenix (2x), Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah. The Suns and Pacers will likely be tanking during April, and the Pelicans and Jazz will be fighting desperately for playoff spots. This would probably be the stretch where Kerr rests his main guys, resulting in a few extra losses.

We just cannot assume a second year of Curry and Durant — with added chemistry, more pick-and-roll usage, and increased depth — won’t be deadlier than the first. It’s funny how so many claim Curry had a down year in 2016-17 while somehow hitting 324 three-pointers, second all-time to only …. Curry’s 402 in 2015-16.

One of Durant or Curry is my pick for MVP runner-up. I ultimately took Kawhi Leonard as the winner, because of the steady increase in production we’re seeing year after year. The safe choice is Durant, who is leading the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook odds to capture the award. He shot 60.8 percent from two last season, shattering his highest mark in OKC.

Expecting the Warriors to have a league-average offense in clutch situations (game within five points with less than five minutes to play) again would be a mistake. They weren’t particularly amazing in close games last season, outscoring their opponents by only six points per 100 possessions in such moments. For perspective, it ranked 11th in the league — still good, but not what you would expect.

This year, they’ll just be toying with people. If you don’t appreciate Draymond Green’s boasting or cocky attitude, you’re in for a long year.

Anywhere from 70 to 73 wins and a 16-0 postseason mark is in play. The West playoffs will be a little tougher to cruise through, but they’re in a groove. If they manage 70 wins, the Warriors will be 277-51 in the last four regular seasons.

We can all go home.

2. Houston Rockets:  61-21

Key departures: Patrick Beverley (PG), Lou Williams (SG), Montrezl Harrell (C), Sam Dekker (SF)

Key additions: Chris Paul (PG), P.J. Tucker (SF), Luc Mbah a Moute (F), Tarik Black (C)

League Pass Ranking: 4th

Rockets

After an explosive first run under Mike D’Antoni — where they completely blasted my 39-win projection out of the park — the Houston Rockets had the second or third best offseason. Obviously, nothing can touch Oklahoma City’s renovation, or the Warriors simply retaining everyone and having a 89.2 percent roster continuity.

Daryl Morey will never stop swinging for the fences through free agency or the trade market. And he shouldn’t. Unless you’re the San Antonio Spurs or 2004 Detroit Pistons, the only conceivable way to chase championships is to gather superstars. It’s easier said than done, considering the pool of transcendent, superstar talent isn’t overly deep.

For the first time in the James Harden era, however, Houston was able to pair the MVP runner-up with another top 10 force. Truthfully, he may be in the top six.

Acquiring Chris Paul via trade  — while it cost them a haul of assets — was the best move the Rockets could make. Paul is fresh off a season in which he ranked second overall in RPM, ahead of Curry, Leonard, and Westbrook. Defensively, the only other point guard in the vicinity of Paul was the guy he was traded for in Patrick Beverley.

I’ll never quite understand why Paul isn’t celebrated the same way Westbrook or Curry are, just because he makes his impact known in a different way. Sure, the playoff accomplishments aren’t on Paul’s résumé, but that’s really only a fraction of his fault. Go back year after year and find the playoff series where Paul “choked” and was the foremost reason the Hornets or Clippers lost — mostly to far better teams. Then, pull up his playoff numbers in 76 games and compare them to some all-time legends. Actually you don’t have to, I’ve already compiled them here.

Taking a look at last season’s top 20 players in total assists, the best way to measure the most efficient passers is to divide their assists by passing turnovers. This weeds out the turnovers via getting stripped, traveling, or committing an offensive foul.

Paul’s ratio of assists per passing turnover not only leads the league … it laps the entire field by a jaw-dropping margin:

The combo of Harden and Paul raised some eyebrows when the trade occurred. Both are used to having the ball in their hands and Harden’s usage rate was a career-high 34.2 percent last year. With Paul rarely playing off-ball throughout his career, it was a mystery how this tandem would work in a three-point heavy offense.

People were just overthinking it far too much. When you have two outrageously smart offensive players together, they aren’t going to be stubborn and headstrong to what is best for the team. Both of them realize they’ll have to play spot-up roles more than normal. In Paul’s case, it could be something he wants to do more now, since he’s 32 and not as lightning quick as he used to be.

We typically see point guards playing off-ball more and shooting a higher amount of threes in the latter stages of their career. For Paul, that should be music to his ears. He shot a career-high 41.1 percent from deep last season on five attempts per game, also a career-high.

Breaking it down further, here’s how Paul shot from beyond the arc in terms of off-the-catch vs. off-the-dribble, as well as the amount of open space:

via NBA.com

It doesn’t matter if he’s shooting directly off a catch or pounding the ball and maneuvering around screens, he’s efficient off zero dribbles and seven-plus dribbles. Both Paul and Harden will be getting more of those zero-dribble shots.

The second chart is astounding for one reason: Paul’s shot-selection from three is purely smart. Majority of his shots come in open or wide open scenarios, which he’ll also get more of this year if Harden is penetrating the lane.

It’s safe to say we shouldn’t be concerned at all about how two future hall-of-famers will figure out a style that helps Houston win games — more than their 55 last year. Somehow, it went under the radar that Houston was one of the top 10 offenses of all-time in its first campaign under D’Antoni:

A compelling question is whether or not they will break their record in three-point makes (or attempts) with a revamped roster. They hit 1,181 threes last year, 104 more than the previous record. The attempts were even crazier — because, D’Antoni ball! — as the Rockets shot 3,306 from deep, 527 more than the next highest team.

Through three preseason games, Houston has taken 48 threes per game, nearly eight more than last season’s average of 40.3 per night. It appears ludicrous that it’s even possible, but they aren’t just chucking for the hell of it. It’s an advantageous strategy and has helped them blister majority of the league.

Defensively, Morey brought in another ex-Clipper, Luc Mbah a Moute, in addition to veteran P.J. Tucker. Both are in their early 30s with plenty left in the tank for a win-now season. While nobody currently alive can “stop” or even “contain” Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, the Rockets now have two adequate pieces that would draw those assignments. Oh, and they didn’t have to give up Trevor Ariza in any deal.

This roster is now one of the most complete and balanced in the league, with shooters everywhere you turn. Eric Gordon coming off the bench is almost a lock for Sixth Man of the Year, simply because of the numbers he’ll generate in D’Antoni’s offense. Out of nowhere, Gordon hit 246 threes last year, the 12th-highest number in NBA history for one season.

What makes this team unbeatable on most regular season nights is that all 48 minutes will be played with at least one superstar point guard. No other team can say that. In this league, that’s a huge key to 55-60 wins.

Improving nine ranks in Defensive Rating, the Rockets will be one of five teams to finish in the top 10 on both sides of the ball — joining the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, and Raptors.

Because they should be able to shoot their way to a record number of 70-point halves, they’ll also have the second-highest point differential across the league.

A 61-win season would be the first time in Rockets history they’ve eclipsed 58 wins. In the East, this projection is probably (no joke) 67 or higher.

3. San Antonio Spurs:  58-24

Key departures: Jonathon Simmons (SG), Dewayne Dedmon (C), David Lee (PF-C)

Key additions: Rudy Gay (SF), Joffrey Lauvergne (PF-C)

League Pass Ranking: 11th

Spurs

Around early September, I was about to sail to the island of “This is the year the Spurs take a hit.” After all, the loss of valuable bench contributor Jonathon Simmons and defensive anchor Dewayne Dedmon doesn’t do them any favors. Replacing Simmons with Rudy Gay, who is coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon, essentially feels like a standstill.

Then, I remembered something.

San Antonio has the baddest man on the planet. They have the man that should’ve won the 2017 MVP, after having 13.6 win shares on a 61-win team. Kawhi Leonard combined individual virtuosity with team excellence. He was the best player in the league during the last regular season, but lost the award to larger per-game averages on a considerably worse team.

After finishing second in 2016 and third in 2017, Leonard will be the 2018 Most Valuable Player for leading the old and depleted Spurs to another top-tier record.

Gregg Popovich expects Tony Parker to return in December. Parker is 35, coming off a ruptured quad. When he returns, the Spurs can’t expect him to be the same Parker he once was. Defensively and for shooting purposes, San Antonio may find out their better off with Patty Mills in the starting role. They smacked opponents around when Mills played last year, outscoring teams by 12 points per 100 possessions. This also unlocks their ability to run faster, get more possessions, and keep up with the reloaded Western Conference.

Even with Pau Gasol (bad contract aside) holding down the center spot without Dedmon for insurance, the Spurs should still be first or second defensively. When you have Leonard, Danny Green, and LaMarcus Aldridge in the same lineup, teams will just naturally struggle to easy buckets near the rim. San Antonio ranked fourth in lowest field goal percentage allowed within six feet. The only way to expose this team is to unleash havoc from the three-point arc, but Leonard and Green are disciplined and athletic enough to defend pick-and-rolls and rotate after them.

Aldridge is such a mystery. He was vastly underrated defensively last season, despite what the narrative says about him. Popovich constantly praises his defensive efforts and skill, and we all know by now that Pop will straight-up tell the media when he’s unsatisfied with something. Of course, Aldridge isn’t completely happy with the offensive system. That was expected to some degree. But he’s been insanely good at defending any type of action near the rim — guard penetration or big man post-ups.

Out of all players last year that defended at least 300 shots at the rim, Aldridge held his opponents to the third-lowest percentage (44 percent). It was on much lower volume than the two ahead of him (Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert), but he isn’t given enough credit for the work he does to keep the Spurs’ defense thriving.

The only reason they take a step back offensively in these projections is because other teams refurbished their offense with superstar talent … much like the two teams below.

All you need to know about the future 2018 MVP is that he’s only building on this achievement: He was one of three players in league history to average at least 25 points per game, have a usage rating over 30 percent, true shooting percentage over 60 percent, and be named to the All-NBA Defensive First Team.

It may seem like a lot of qualifiers and arbitrary marks, but it’s not. Just consider what it means. He’s a top scorer in the league, shoots at an efficient level, is asked to carry the Spurs’ offense every night, and does all of this while playing at a world-class defensive level.

The two other players to do it were Michael Jordan and LeBron James:

via Basketball-Reference

There isn’t anything The Klaw can’t do.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder:  56-26

Key departures: Victor Oladipo (SG), Enes Kanter (C), Doug McDermott (SF-PF), Domantas Sabonis (PF), Taj Gibson (PF), Joffrey Lauvergne (PF-C)

Key additions: Paul George (SF), Carmelo Anthony (SF-PF), Patrick Patterson (PF), Raymond Felton (PG)

League Pass Ranking: 5th

Thunder

Every year, there’s one team that makes unexpected moves to shake up the roster, leaving us with no real idea of how the on-court product is going to work and gel. Oklahoma City is now the squad everyone is chomping at the bit to see, with the surprise acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.

At first, Sam Presti seemed to be finished working the trade market, leaving their one-two punch as George and Russell Westbrook. That alone would’ve been all OKC needed to reach 50 wins and the top half of the bracket. Manufacturing a trade for Carmelo Anthony greatly elevated their regular season status and slightly improved their playoff difficulty.

Before Anthony was in the picture, I was going with Minnesota to defeat them in the first round. The Anthony card changes things a bit, even though he wasn’t a Top 50 player for either of the last two seasons. At 33, Melo needed to be put into a big three where he’s not expected to carry an offense anymore. Last year was the lowest total of win shares (4.7) Anthony has recorded in a 70-plus game season, and his defensive real plus-minus was nearly as abysmal as Brandon Ingram’s.

But as a guy that can play off of Westbrook and George, two top 15 players currently in their prime? There aren’t many other players you would rather take as your tertiary option to spot up and be a floor spacer. Over the last four seasons, Anthony shot 149-of-321 on wide-open threes (at least six feet of space). That’s 46.4 percent, and one of the deadliest figures since 2013. Plus, it’s exactly why Anthony should be used in a lot of Westbrook pick-and-rolls, as defenders will chase and harass Russ as he penetrates the lane.

Last season, 58.7 percent of Anthony’s field goal attempts came from beyond 15 feet from the basket, marking the highest proportion of his career. This happens to every volume scorer as they age into their thirties, and there’s no better position for Melo at this stage. There is no reason why he shouldn’t have the highest true shooting percentage of his career, or close to it. He shot 56.8 percent in true shooting for the 2007-08 season in Denver, compared to his unimpressive 53.5 percent last year in New York. His responsibilities on offense just got a lot easier.

Defensively, this team has all the necessary requirements to be a top 10 unit in defensive rating. Andre Roberson will have more dirty work to do now, with Melo starting at the four and being a huge liability on that end. Still, the Thunder’s two starting lineups last year (the main one being Westbrook-Oladipo-Roberson-Sabonis-Adams) allowed under 98 points per 100 possessions — a number stingier than San Antonio or Golden State’s team defensive rating.

Replacing Oladipo with George is a major positive, and it’s not like Sabonis was the second-coming of Draymond Green out there. They’ll manage to make up for Melo’s inabilities or unwillingness on defense, and we might see both George and Roberson on All-Defensive teams next April.

It’s hard not to like the additions of Raymond Felton and Patrick Patterson to improve the godawful bench. Seriously, the team went from a net positive to completely abhorrent every time Westbrook took a seat. Staggering the stars’ minutes will help tremendously too, since Donovan now has enough weapons to do it.

The three most important questions for Oklahoma City will be:

  • How does the offense mesh in the first two months of the season, with three egos that produced an average usage rate of 33.2 percent last year? Remember … LeBron, Wade, and Bosh had an average usage rate of 32.3 percent heading into the 2010-11 Heat season — nearly identical. They started off 9-8 before really figuring it out. When the playoffs arrived, they weren’t playing against defenses in the East quite to the level of the current West. Donovan has to get through to Westbrook that it’s time to tone it down a bit.
  • Who will finish games in clutch time? The starters will be Westbrook-George-Roberson-Anthony-Adams, but will they finish with Roberson on the bench? He’s a fantastic defender and cutter, but the Warriors and other juggernauts will never respect him from the perimeter. A lineup of Westbrook-George-Anthony-Patterson-Adams will amplify the offense while simultaneously making them big enough in the frontcourt to get stops.
  • Is Paul George okay with not getting the ball as much? After covering him in Indiana, I’ve noticed he always says the right things. He wants to win. However, he’s always been the main guy since 2012. OKC has to please him enough to encourage a new contract, but also has to do what’s best for the team in order to compete.

This is going to be such a strong regular season team. Improving their point differential by an average of 5.1 points should lift them to homecourt in the first round.

Nevertheless, they still aren’t close to the Warriors. Golden State has continuity, the most lethal offense in history, and despite what many fans believe, the league’s best defensive versatility. If OKC grabs the fourth seed, they’re going home in the second round.

 

5. Minnesota Timberwolves:  52-30

Key departures: Ricky Rubio (PG), Kris Dunn (PG), Zach LaVine (SG), Brandon Rush (SG)

Key additions: Jimmy freakin’ Butler (SF), Jeff Teague (PG), Taj Gibson (PF), Jamal Crawford (SG)

League Pass Ranking: 7th

Timberwolves

Count me in for year two of “crazy high expectations for a team that may not be ready yet.” Hammering the over on the 48.5 wins for Minnesota’s Vegas over-under is risky. It could come back to slap me right in the face.

At the same time, I’ll keep launching this unbelievable set of numbers from the Wolves’ 2016-17 season until people grow sick of me:

Just look at it.

Really … JUST LOOK AT IT!

Minnesota outscored its opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions in the first 24 minutes of games last year. They proceeded to get bludgeoned by 6.3 points per 100 possessions in second halves, a dramatic net rating swing of 10.8.

The only teams that performed better in first halves last season were the Warriors, Clippers, Rockets, Spurs, and Cavaliers — all teams you would expect to be in the upper-echelon. If you told a random NBA viewer the 31-win Wolves were on par with those teams in any aspect, their first reaction would be to laugh hysterically. Minnesota’s season point differential was only -1.1, which is typical of a 38 to 40-win team.

This is the ultimate example of a group that needed two things:  A veteran leader — especially on defense — and time to grow. Usually when “veteran leadership” is spewed across the league, it’s just one of many clichés that gets overblown. In this instance, however, it’s hard to argue they didn’t need someone with Jimmy Butler’s experience.

The average age of the rotation last year was only 24.5 years, with four of the players being 21 or younger. They didn’t have someone that had already been through multiple years of Tom Thibodeau’s routine, or someone that could give them defensive pointers. And holy moly, was this team an unmitigated dumpster fire on defense. I’m surprised Thibs didn’t fully ruin his larynx.

Butler is the perfect fit for this collection of young players. It should go without saying that he’s a top 10 player in the league, and was the second-best player in the East last year behind LeBron. I know it was popular to debate “Jimmy Butler or Paul George” in April when the All-NBA votes were on the line.

But, I’m here to tell you it wasn’t particularly close.

For perspective, consider their team’s records. Indiana won 42 games, while Chicago went .500 with 41 wins. Both George and Butler had similar usage ratings and were the focal point of their offenses. Both played the same amount of games.

Yet, Butler registered 17.35 RPM Wins compared to George’s 9.72 — a the difference from LeBron James to DeAndre Jordan in terms of total RPM Wins. Butler was able to drag Chicago through all the disasters last season and make them a playoff team. George had a lot more help.

Taj Gibson is going to immediately help Minnesota, as the Thunder’s Net Rating dramatically increased when Gibson arrived last year. We already know about his defensive powers and relationship with Thibs, but now it appears Gibson is willing to become a corner three-point option. He’s never attempted more than 12 threes in a season, but just pulling a defender away from the basket can do wonders for Teague, Wiggins, and Towns. We’ll have to check back on the progress of his shot once the sample size is large enough.

Off the bench, I think their issues are a bit exaggerated. It’s still not a top 10 bench unit, but it could definitely see an uptick from last year. After all, they had the seventh-lowest bench true shooting percentage, and a bottom 10 defense in the second unit.

Now, 37-year-old Jamal Crawford doesn’t help that defensively, but he can still find you a few buckets to weather the storm when Butler or Wiggins has to sit. It’s time for Tyus Jones to get more minutes, because he was quietly good last season. Gorgui Dieng, who still has four years left on his contract, is a guy Thibs loves and continues to increase his three-point attempt rate.

This will certainly be a stretchier, more versatile squad than the Wolves we saw finish dead last in perimeter shots — which made it even more impressive they finished with a top 10 offense in the league. Butler himself propels this to a top five scoring unit, behind only the Warriors, Rockets, Nuggets, and Celtics.

Pencil me in for a 21-win improvement for Minnesota. Call it premature if you want, but they weren’t as bad as advertised last year.

6. Denver Nuggets:  49-33

Key departures: Danilo Gallinari (SF-PF)

Key additions: Paul Millsap (PF), Trey Lyles (PF), Tyler Lydon (PF)

League Pass Ranking: 3rd

We’ve reached the team I’m most adrenalized for to begin the season. After Dec. 15 last year, the amount offenses in the NBA better than Denver’s was equal to the courteous things President Trump has done so far.

No team scored more on a per-100 possession level than Denver in the final 57 games — when Gary Harris returned from injury and Nikola Jokic earned a starting spot. The Warriors still shot a higher true shooting percentage, but the Nuggets incinerated opponents with an offensive rating of 113.3 during that stretch.

What some projections are failing to realize is that if Mike Malone’s team had not been banged up to begin the year, they would’ve comfortably made the playoffs. They were 9-16 (.360) in the first 25 games of the season and finished it with a 31-26 record (.544) in the final 57.

In games decided by three or fewer points, the Nuggets were 5-10. In overtime games, they were 0-3. This had all the descriptions of an extremely competitive team that just didn’t have enough defensive juice late in games. Even though they won 40 games, their season had a similar feel to Minnesota’s.

Oddly enough, their offseason felt comparable, too.

Paul Millsap and Jimmy Butler are both heading to teams that need help in clutch situations. As awesome as the Nuggets’ offense was, they struggled to score late in close games. Their offensive rating in the clutch — the last five minutes of a game with the score within five points — was a putrid 100.5. That was a huge discrepency from their production in literally any other moment or quarter.

At 32, Millsap is without a doubt the best fit of any player that switched teams. Jokic was fifth of all power forwards or centers last year in passes per game (50.8), and now he’s being paired with another unselfish big man. Millsap passed 43.7 times per game in Mike Budenholzer’s offense, another top 10 frontcourt player in that category.

It’s difficult to find power forwards smarter than Millsap, as he uses a wide array of moves to get inside position. His ability to put the ball on the floor and make a play for either himself or the many Denver cutters (hi, Gary Harris) is going to be the most valuable offensive addition. At first, I thought losing Gallinari would sting. But when you see how the Nuggets zip the ball around in the preseason and everyone has open looks because of Millsap and Jokic’s creativity, that problem looks to be solved.

Perhaps it’s asking too much for Millsap to improve the defensive rating by 10 ranks this coming season, but it isn’t inconceivable. Malone was visibly angry numerous times last year when they couldn’t consistently get stops. With how young this core was, it was no wonder they were 29th overall.

I still expect Harris to take a leap this year — on both ends — and win the Most Improved Player award. Murray is going to run into a myriad of mistakes as the team’s starting point guard, but his insane confidence and trust from the coaching staff should allow him to improve as the year progresses.

Harris recently signed a four-year, $84 million extension, which leaves Will Barton’s extension as the one looming for Denver. The deadline for that deal to be extended is Oct. 16.

Three quick things:

  • This is Mudiay’s last chance to prove he can be a net-positive for Denver. He had a -3.90 RPM last year, which followed a -3.78 RPM from 2015-16. He showed flashes of improvement in his first couple preseason games, and I’m really rooting for the kid. Malone says there will be a point guard battle in training camp, but Mudiay should just come off the bench.
  • Kenneth Faried needs to get over himself. Comments like these just scream “trade me” before the season even begins. He seriously demands to start, but doesn’t realize the Nuggets have such powerful potential in the frontcourt. Does he think he should start over Millsap? Good lord. Wait, does he want to start over Jokic? We’ve reached all new levels of crazy.
  • Their projected point differential of +3.5 seems plausible, since it would be typical of a 49-win team. This hinges on their defense not getting roasted in the loaded West.

7. Portland Trail Blazers:  44-38

Key departures: Allen Crabbe (SG-SF)

Key additions: Zach Collins (C), Anthony Morrow (SG), Caleb Swanigan (PF)

League Pass Ranking: 12th
It was a small sample size, but after Jusuf Nurkic found his way to Portland last season, the Trail Blazers were one of the six best teams in the regular season. In the final 26 games, they had a better Net Rating than the Rockets, Jazz, Celtics, and Thunder. Nurkic was rejuvenated and showed he could be a relentless beast on the glass.

General Manager Neil Olshey pinpointed something Portland needed to improve on, and he executed a trade. The Blazers were 24th in rebounding percentage throughout the first 50 games. In the last 32, they finished seventh. Nurkic took their biggest weakness and turned it into a positive.

By design, Portland relied heavily on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s scoring and playmaking. They combined to score or assist on 73 points per game, slightly below John Wall and Bradley Beal’s 79.4 per game. Lillard continues to grow as a point guard that will simply have you glued to the screen. His leadership traits are what teammates can’t stop raving about, and he deserves immense credit for not letting Portland fall out of the playoffs since LaMarcus Aldridge departed.

Only three players in NBA history have hit at least 800 three-pointers in their first five seasons. Lillard is one of them, with 1,042 made triples. The other two are the splash brothers, Stephen Curry (905) and Klay Thompson (1,060). It doesn’t feel like Lillard is on that pace until you watch him turn into a machine during crunchtime. There are very few things more exciting than Portland trailing by double digits in the fourth, with Lillard beginning to heat up microwave-style. His level of contested shot-making is right there with Kyrie Irving.

Both Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan have shown impressive flashes in the preseason, displaying great patience, decision-making, and aggressiveness in the post. Swanigan looks to be a dominant rebounder, further helping them in that department. Both young bigs haven’t been shy about testing their range from three, either. Swanigan shot 38-of-85 (44.7 percent) from deep as a sophomore at Purdue, but it’ll take some time for that to translate to the NBA.

Portland should remain the same offensively, as they’re led by Lillard and McCollum with a bunch of role players that aren’t realistic candidates for a huge breakout year. They were already sixth in three-point percentage and league-average in turnovers committed. It’s hard to see them improving much in either of those areas.

A better start to the season should give them (at least) a three-win jump. They likely have a ceiling of fifth in the West, and a floor of 10th if everything breaks the wrong way. Leaving this backcourt out of the playoffs would feel like a mistake, though.

8. Los Angeles Clippers:  40-42

Key departures: Chris Paul (PG), J.J. Redick (SG), Luc Mbah a Moute (SF)

Key additions: Patrick Beverley (PG), Danilo Gallinari (SF), Milos Teodosic (PG), Montrezl Harrell (PF-C), Willie Reed (C), Sam Dekker (SF), Lou Williams (SG)

League Pass Ranking: 9th

Life without Chris Paul has been difficult for the Clippers in the past. They were 8-13 in the 21 games Paul had to miss last year, along with a -5.3 per 100 possessions when he was off the floor in general. Blake Griffin has only played in 66 percent of the Clippers’ regular season games since the 2014-15 season. That is alarming for anyone keeping Los Angeles in the playoffs.

Oh wait, that’s kind of what we’re doing.

But never fear, Milos Teodosic is here!

All kidding aside, the amount of new faces Doc Rivers is responsible for juggling may be what knocks Memphis or Utah ahead of the Clippers. The only reason they steal the eighth spot, for now, is that we’re all aware of how dangerous a healthy, high-usage Griffin can be. He finished third in MVP voting in 2014 when CP3 had to miss 20 games.

Griffin needed to be unleashed right in his prime, and this is his age-28 season. There’s a small worry that providing him with adequate spacing could be an issue, losing Paul and Redick. The entire offense has to change, which is why a drop from fourth to 15th in points scored per 100 possessions seems realistic. Like the Jazz, they’ll need a couple months to figure out the best way to play.

DeAndre Jordan should have the best year of his career, especially if Rivers matches a lot of his minutes with Teodosic. A large portion of Jordan’s offense came from the hands of Paul, but that can be replaced by the two point guards L.A. brought in. Neither of them are shoot-first players.

Lou Williams will likely be the highest scoring guard. You know Rivers loves those sixth man scoring options that can’t play defense. If he could have kept Jamal Crawford until he turned into a skeleton, he certainly would have.

Danilo Gallinari is an interesting piece, and it surprised me that he’s still under 30. This is the small forward L.A. needed when they had their 50-win core, but obviously salaries never allowed for it.

Rivers’ biggest struggle is going to be balancing the minutes of all the big men versus knowing the proper time to play small-ball lineups. He could do a few cool things, like using Gallinari as a stretch four and letting Griffin run center for limited minutes. But then, you have to make sure your backcourt is stout enough defensively.

There is a reason the Clippers were first on Zach Lowe and Kevin Arnovitz’s “most confusing teams” list a couple weeks ago. It will take until Christmas to figure out who they are.

But for now, they appear to be the most balanced squad out of the fringe playoff teams. If history has shown us anything, they’re also the most likely to screw things up.

9. Memphis Grizzlies:  39-43

Key departures: Tony Allen (SG), Zach Randolph (PF), Vince Carter (SG), Troy Daniels (SG)

Key additions: Tyreke Evans (SG), Ben McLemore (SG)

League Pass Ranking: 24th

A lot of people want the Grizzlies to be good this season, but they will seriously be one Mike Conley or Marc Gasol injury away from hitting the panic button. Chandler Parsons has played in all four preseason games, but still looks less than ideal. In Parsons’s 34 games last year, he was one of the worst starters in the league. He scored less than one point per shot, and had just as many turnovers as made threes.

Grit and grind is now in the past — Tony Allen joined the space-lacking Pelicans and Zach Randolph took a $24 million contract with the Kings. At this point, it’s just best to pick up the pace and not run at 94.7 possessions per 48 minutes like Memphis did last year. For what preseason is worth, David Fizdale has them at 106.4 possessions, faster than everyone except the Suns, Clippers, Nets, and 76ers. Albeit, Gasol has only played in two of those games. This could be a good sign. Fizdale understands the need for pace-and-space ball in the modern era. He has a roster somewhat young and athletic enough to adapt to it.

Locking up JaMychal Green was important for Memphis. He’s efficient everywhere on the floor, can play quality defense that fits into the team’s culture, and plays well off Gasol. The starting two guard slot can either go to Andrew Harrison, Tyreke Evans, Ben McLemore, or Wayne Selden. None of the above are optimal choices, so Conley absolutely needs to have a monstrous season for Memphis to sniff 40 wins.

It’s not out of the question. Conley is at worst the seventh-best point guard in basketball, still not recognized like he should be. The contract screams “properly rated,” but I’m not sure how you can say that given how many times he’s left out of the top floor general discussions.

Out of all players with at least 300 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, Conley ranked seventh in points per possession (1.01). What’s interesting is that he was just as efficient as Kyrie Irving (46.4 percent) off screen-rolls.

The West is just too painful to survive with Conley and Gasol leading the way, when you know they’ll miss their share of games at some point. The Grizzlies are also a candidate for a mid-season explosion, in terms of blowing things up. I don’t think it’ll get that sour, though.

10. Utah Jazz:  39-43

Key departures: Gordon Hayward (SF), George Hill (PG), Shelvin Mack (PG), Trey Lyles (PF), Boris Diaw (PF)

Key additions: Ricky Rubio (PG), Donovan Mitchell (SG), Ekpe Udoh (PF), Jonas Jerebko (PF), Thabo Sefolosha (SF)

League Pass Ranking: 14th

Quin Snyder and the Jazz’s coaching staff warrant total respect. Their system — yes, it’s still slow and predicated on patience — is entertaining and nuanced. At the same time, I have no idea how you lose Gordon Hayward and George Hill, two upper-echelon players in RPM and BPM, and stay in the 6-8 range of the playoffs.

The amount of optimism surrounding Utah is surprising, considering they lost their best offensive player by a long shot.

I get it, I get it … the defensive anchors of Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio, and Joe Ingles should be able to keep them afloat. I agree! Snyder has enough tools to create one of the toughest and smartest defenses of the modern era. Their floor defensively is third overall, but they could overtake Golden State and San Antonio with the additions they made. Thabo Sefolosha arrived this summer, and this is the perfect team for him to thrive on at age 33.

Rubio is consistently a top five defensive point guard, despite how poor Minnesota was in that department for the last few years. His abilities to read passing lanes, move his feet, hound opposing ball handlers, and defend the pick-and-roll are vital. Rookie Donovan Mitchell will carve out more playing time than expected, as he’s impressing everyone within the organization and the surrounding media. Mitchell’s defense is also above average for a rookie, which will help the team thrive in the absence of Dante Exum (shoulder injury).

It’s not egregious to expect a 12-win decrease after losing Hayward and Hill, who shot a combined 243-of-607 (40 percent) from distance last season. In fact, those two accounted for 30.7 percent of Utah’s total three-point makes, and that was with Hill missing 33 games. If those two had returned, this would look a lot more like a 55-57 win team than a 39-win group.

We should be most excited about Gobert and the offensive production he could have with Rubio running the point. Gobert had a 68.1 true shooting percentage last year. Losing the spacing provided by Hayward and Hill could affect that, but having more lobs and pick-and-roll opportunities with Rubio may cancel it out.

Utah was seventh last season in pick-and-roll ball-handler usage, primarily from Hayward and Hill. Everything they brought to the team was underrated and helped their offense thrive to nearly a top 10 level.

They have looked aggressive and offensively fluid in the preseason — for what it’s worth — scoring 112.6 points per 100 possessions. What I’ve noticed (and liked) from the Jazz’s early preseason games is the depth that Snyder can work with. He can fiddle with many different lineups to see what works and what doesn’t. The flexibility of the roster allows them to stay adequate when Gobert has to rest.

As Ben Dowsett mentioned, they also have lineups that provide excellent spacing, which can help Rubio get into the lane and create:

Using Joe Johnson at the four, where he didn’t spend much time last year, will be a helpful way to replace some of the offensive firepower.

Due to the nature of Utah’s offense — 319 passes per game and based on equal opportunity — I’m not sure if Rodney Hood’s usage rating will rise much this year. But, if he’s healthy all year, it probably needs to. If he can fill some of the void, this may be a league-average offense instead of creeping into the twenties.

There will be many stretches during this season where the Jazz appear to be a playoff team and are a nightmare for teams to score on. At the same time, if there are any other injuries to huge rotation members (Exum already went down again), it could be too difficult to keep up in the intimidating Western Conference.

This Jazz core has never been lucky enough to survive a season without critical injuries, so my bet would be on them falling a couple wins short of the playoffs. It’s rare in this league to find a top three defense with two top 50 players (Rubio and Gobert) that miss the playoffs. In the East, I think they’re a lock for at least the sixth seed. They’re just in a ridiculously tough division with unbelievable star power.

Everyone understands why Hayward went to Boston. But this team was on the verge of something special. It’s disappointing to think about how much they could have grown from that 51-win season.

11. New Orleans Pelicans:  38-44

Key departures: Tim Frazier (PG)

Key additions: Tony Allen (SG), Ian Clark (SG), Rajon Rondo (PG)

League Pass Ranking: 20th

Having two of the league’s top five big men (I would take Davis, Jokic, Towns, Draymond, and possibly Gobert over Cousins) sounds appealing without putting much thought into it.

On paper, it should work.

In our hearts, it should work.

In fantasy basketball, it should work.

On NBA 2K, it should work.

In reality … it’s just not going to work.

The one path New Orleans could take to ensure it gives them an advantage is something they don’t have the necessary assets or cap space to do:  Surround Davis and Cousins with a hell of shooting core. This team sorely needs two highly-respected shooters that will play big minutes. If they could just have two of the group of J.J. Redick, Gary Harris, and Otto Porter Jr. on the wing, we may be picking them to reach 45-50 wins and a comfortable playoff spot.

It’s safe to say they don’t have anything resembling those threats. Surely Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, E’Twaun Moore, Ian Clark, Dante Cunningham and Darius Miller will help the cause!

Nope. Well, Cunningham is pretty good, but he’s a little inconsistent and it’s unclear how much he’ll play with the other bigs. His perfect role may be as a small-ball four when one of the big duo needs to rest.

Solomon Hill, who hit 94 threes at 35 percent efficiency last year, will be out until at least February. Allen is 121-of-432 (28 percent) from deep in 13 seasons and literally nobody respects him from outside. Moore is a nice shooter from distance, but the signing of Rondo mucks things up. Rondo will return from injury in 4-6 weeks, so at least Moore has chances to impress Cousins, Davis, and Head Coach Alvin Gentry.

Honestly, Rondo shouldn’t have been signed by New Orleans. The thought of starting him — Gentry’s first intention — made no sense because all three of Davis, Cousins, and Rondo on the court together smells like a disaster.

After the All-Star break last season, the Bulls had a -1.5 Net Rating with Rondo on the court, giving up 107.5 points per 100 possessions. With him off the floor, Chicago had a +6.7 Net Rating, holding opponents to just 97.3 points per 100 possessions.

That’s why it makes zero sense — the Pelicans hang their hat on being a dominant defensive team and overwhelming other units. Rondo has been distasteful on defense since he left Boston, notably being a nuisance to Dallas and Chicago.

Jrue Holiday really needs to have an incredible, healthy season. He only missed 15 games last year and even that felt like too many.

There is reason for some optimism, though. After the All-Star break — when they obtained Cousins — the Pelicans’ most-used lineups played very well:

via NBA.com

It was mainly the bench that was a dumpster fire. Hill missing most of the season definitely stings, as he was a part of all four lineups. If they had him and Gentry decided to start Holiday-Moore-Hill-Davis-Cousins, then I think they’d be set for the postseason.

There are far too many question marks than answers with this weirdly-constructed roster, and it’s a shame because Gentry can really teach awesome offensive principles.

Defensively, they should improve by a rank or two. If one of Draymond Green or Rudy Gobert aren’t going to win Defensive Player of the Year, Davis would be the pick.

A four-win increase is realistic. Anything more would be a 100 percent betting on this to work out. I also have to admit, the 19th-ranked defense projection was set before they signed Allen. That is truly the ceiling here. It could go straight down the drain in the first couple months.

And, if it does, management may be looking at trade packages for Cousins. He is set to become a free agent in July 2018. As much as he may enjoy playing with his buddy Davis, you have to imagine he’ll be wanting to (finally) enter a winning culture.

12. Dallas Mavericks:  35-47

Key departures: None

Key additions: Dennis Smith Jr. (PG), Jeff Withey (C)

League Pass Ranking: 18th

This season is all about getting Dennis Smith Jr. the necessary reps to mature. He’s the Mavericks’ future, but rookies usually aren’t very good right away. Mark Cuban and the front office were jubilant when Smith fell to them at No. 9 overall, with his athleticism and explosive style winning them over. He’ll need to improve his shooting a bit, but this situation is similar to what the Lakers have with Lonzo Ball — he immediately enters the driver’s seat of the point guard position, not having to compete with a veteran for minutes.

In what could be Dirk Nowitzki’s final season, it’ll be exciting to see lineups with Smith, Wesley Matthews, Seth Curry, Harrison Barnes, and Nowitzki at center. Last year, Rick Carlisle used that group (with Yogi Ferrell running point) more than any other lineup. It logged 257 minutes and had a +0.9 Net Rating, giving up a lot of points at the rim due to Nowitzki’s age and lack of rim protection. However, it’s fun as hell offensively with five shooters spacing the court.

This time around, it’s important that Nerlens Noel has a breakout season. With Carlisle saying on Media Day that he plans to bring Noel off the bench, that could be tough for the fourth-year big man. He turned down a lucrative deal to take the Mavericks’ qualifying offer and bet on himself — hoping to have the best season of his career and prove that he’s worth a max contract.

In reality, there won’t be many teams with the desire, or cap space, to give Noel an offer as high as Dallas reportedly did. With that said, he can still have an impressive year for Carlisle and work his way back into the starting lineup. Noel is coming off the best season of his rookie deal, shooting 59.5 percent from the field and improving his defensive awareness. With Dirk getting older and Dallas starting a rookie, he will need to play significant minutes for the Mavs stay at league average defensively.

Not much should change for this team compared to last season. Their point differential projects to be about the same, with them outperforming their expected record (33 wins) by a couple games. Barnes is going to continue getting better, and Carlisle doesn’t mind his isolations here and there. He averaged 4.7 isolations per game last year, the sixth-most in the league. Shooting a high percentage (45.7 percent) on those possessions, Barnes has definitely built his confidence level steep enough to thrive in a high-usage role.

In a couple years, Dallas should be back in the playoff mix. But that’s not the priority right now. The best-case scenario for the Mavs would be for Smith to log the most minutes of any rookie, win Rookie of the Year, and simultaneously make enough mistakes that help them lose.

35 wins wouldn’t give them the best odds to collect a top draft pick, but this team has too much talent to fall below 12th in the West.

13. Los Angeles Lakers:  32-50

Key departures: D’Angelo Russell (PG), Nick Young (SG-SF), Timofey Mozgov (C), Tarik Black (C), Metta World Peace (SF)

Key additions: Lonzo Ball (PG), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (SG), Brook Lopez (C), Kyle Kuzma (PF)

League Pass Ranking: 13th

The moment I completely fell out of my chair was when someone claimed LaVar Ball’s 50-win comment “wasn’t that crazy.”

Of course it was crazy. Ball is a lunatic when it comes to expectations for his sons’ teams. Anyone hoping for playoff contention from the Lakers will be directed back to reality once opposing point guards are roasting Lonzo Ball on a nightly basis. Offensively, he’s going to change the culture and bring back the excitement Los Angeles has lacked since Kobe Bryant’s final healthy season (2012-13). Defensively, his raw skills will get exposed by veterans looking to prove a point.

Coach Luke Walton has a lot to look forward to this season, with a terrific combination of three young starters learning the ropes and two guys that have been around for while. Brook Lopez is 29, with a reinvented style that allows him to effectively space the floor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is almost 25, providing an experienced option for Ball to share the backcourt with this season. Caldwell-Pope has impressive defensive instincts from his time in Detroit, being a crucial part of their top 10 defense under Stan Van Gundy.

It can’t get much worse than the defensive performance this team showed last year, finishing with one of the highest defensive ratings in league history. They allowed teams to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 54.2 percent, the worst in the league.

A second year under Walton should mitigate the issues a bit, but they’re still going to be a team all the contenders feast on. Finishing 24th on defense this year — ahead of the Nets, Hawks, Knicks, Bulls, Suns, and Kings — is realistic.

The single biggest question about this Lakers’ season is whether or not Brandon Ingram is ready to mold into the player he was expected to be. He had a head start on Ben Simmons, as he got to experience NBA action as a rookie. Even with Simmons missing the entire 2016-17 season, nobody expects him to be as bad as Ingram was last year.

There were only nine players — in the entire league — worse than Ingram by Real Plus-Minus evaluation. He couldn’t connect from beyond the arc, with a large portion of his shots coming off catch-and-shoot scenarios. Ingram didn’t get enough looks in one of the areas he could find success, which is off-ball screen action. Despite shooting a high percentage in situations where he caught the ball off screens, the team’s offense was more focused around the guard play of D’Angelo Russell and Lou Williams, with the blossoming of Julius Randle.

Ingram was also extremely poor scoring off the pick-and-roll, shooting 44-of-142 (31 percent) as the ball-handler in screen-roll action. He had the third-most pick-and-roll possessions on the team, and only executed at a 0.59 points-per-possession rate.

With Ball leading the way and pushing the tempo in transition, the Lakers should be a top three team in pace. They were sixth last year without him, and Walton has repeatedly said they’re looking to run as soon as they get defensive stops and rebounds. With improved shooting and more playmakers, I’m projecting this offense to finish around league average (17th overall).

A six-win jump for the Lakers would be huge, but maybe not enough to entice free agents next summer. In the East, this would translate to more wins. But in a conference that will be approaching historic levels of competition up top, this young core will be in for some more poundings until they grow.

14. Phoenix Suns:  29-53

Key departures: Brandon Knight, injury (PG-SG)

Key additions: Josh Jackson (SF), Troy Daniels (SG)

League Pass Ranking: 16th

I’d just like to put an end to all of the wild criticism of Devin Booker, or any first or second year player for that matter. All of a sudden, it seems popular to shout, “He’s not good!” when discussing Booker’s status in the league. It mainly comes from analytic enthusiasts (I love and prefer the use of advanced numbers too) who view his defensive shortcomings and determine that he hurts Phoenix more than helps them.

I’m sorry, but any 20-year-old that averages 22 points on 1.21 points per shot deserves some time to improve his defense. While he’s not exactly close to being a top 50 player right now, that doesn’t mean he can’t become a successful player. He’s not in the best position when it comes to having experienced talent around him, or quality coaching. Both of those will change with time.

Eric Bledsoe is still Phoenix’s best player and was having a career season in 2016-17 before Phoenix shut him down to tank. The “mini LeBron” had the 11th-highest PER of all point guards last year. His defensive feistiness is great for the younger Suns to see on a daily basis.

However, they’re still going to be among the worst team defenses in the league. Tyson Chandler is 36 and only played half the season last year. His health and ability to stay on the court aren’t improving with age. Chandler and Bledsoe are the only plus defenders outside of Jared Dudley, who acknowledges he may not play as much with all the youth that needs to learn through trial and error.

Due to Booker’s third-year progression and a lot of fierce scoring talent on the roster, I do believe this will be around a league average offense. A lot of teams took a step back, so the Suns should be able to win a good share of games just by outgunning opponents. Their point differential will only slightly improve, but this team is built to outperform it by winning some close games. If Bledsoe doesn’t miss much time, the path to 29 or 30 wins isn’t that cloudy.

Rookie Josh Jackson’s confidence is a lot like Booker’s. As a duo, they should be fascinating as the years go by. Jackson is already comparing his style to Kawhi Leonard, so the Suns are hoping he unlocks his two-way potential sooner rather than later. With the wing depth of Jackson, T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss, Dudley, and Dragan Bender, this team will be super fun to watch.

With this athleticism and fresh legs, they’ll catch a few top-tier teams on a bad night, or on the second night of a back-to-back. They won’t be fun for older veterans to defend.

15. Sacramento Kings:  25-57

Key departures: Rudy Gay (SF), Langston Galloway (G), Tyreke Evans (G-F), Ty Lawson (PG), Darren Collison (PG), Ben McLemore (SG), Arron Afflalo (SG)

Key additions: George Hill (PG), De’Aaron Fox (PG), Zach Randolph (PF), Vince Carter (SG), Bogdan Bogdanovic (SG), Harry Giles (PF), Justin Jackson (SF)

League Pass Ranking: 23rd

It’s 100 percent possible to have a great offseason and still follow it with a miserable regular season. When you set the bar as low as Sacramento has in the last few years, anything resembling smart offseason moves will help the team’s perception. However, the moves they made doesn’t catapult them into any playoff discussions.

Zach Randolph is coming off one of his worst seasons, with a true shooting percentage of just 49 percent and -2.1 box plus-minus rating. He was relatively healthy last year for Memphis, but his usage rating (29.2 percent) was the second-highest of his career. Should we like the sound of that, with him joining a roster full of young kids that need the ball? The Kings are still trying to figure out their identity, so I’m not sure pairing Randolph with Vince Carter and Head Coach Dave Joerger again is the best choice.

Sacramento was already 23rd in pace last year — considerably slower than George Karl’s 1st-ranked pace — and adding two old veterans to the mix isn’t going to speed them up. They have eight or nine rotation players under 25 years old, so it doesn’t exactly make sense. These young guns want to run and create an advantage off their speed, but the roster construction may not allow for much of it.

It’s understandable what Vlade Divac is trying to do. Combining youth and the right amount of veterans that have been through the trenches is supposed to help the rookies and sophomores. Randolph, Carter, and Hill all have invaluable experience on defensive units, which can be sprinkled onto the young guys for the future.

Nevertheless, it’s not going to be a winning formula this year. To take it a step further, it could have a negative effect on the team if Randolph’s presence over the next two years is preventing Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, and Georgios Papagiannis from getting their offensive chances.

Three years of George Hill is definitely nice, if he’s healthy. Hill is a low-usage, low-turnover, and high-efficiency teammate that can gel in any offensive system. He’s one of the five-best defensive point guards, too, which Quin Snyder truly loved about him. Utah was the perfect fit, but Hill (understandably) wanted the larger salary on a rebuilding team. Only five point guards were more impactful by RPM standards last year, and those were All-Star caliber guys:  Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and Chris Paul.

The biggest question is whether or not D’Aaron Fox is going to become a permanent starter right away. Hill is more valuable than anything they have on the roster, but the coaching staff has to realize this isn’t a playoff team. Fox needs to spend his rookie year making mistakes and playing with Hill, if possible. If it’s realistic to start all three of Fox, Hill, and Buddy Hield, they should try it.

For that reason, this team should be absolutely horrible defensively. That’s Joerger and Hill’s bread and butter, but not when half of the roster is as young as a college team. They are slated as the 28th-ranked defense for 2017-18, edging only the Suns and Bulls.

Maybe next year, Kings fans. At least the culture is changing.


Finally, here’s the 2018 NBA playoff field with picks in each round:


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Shane Young

Shane is a credentialed NBA writer in the Indianapolis area, primarily covering the Indiana Pacers & Los Angeles Lakers for HoopsHabit.com. After being introduced into the NBA stratosphere at age 11, he's been engrossed in the game at an unhealthy level. Enjoys deep breakdowns and all 82 games. You can contact Shane via email at: syoung@HoopsHabit.com

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