January 18, 2018

 Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

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By Vivek Jacob

20. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Over the past five seasons, Damian Lillard has proven himself to be one of the best scorers on the planet.

His career-high 59 points on 34 shots against the Utah Jazz, one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, encompassed all the nuances of his game: the slithery cat-and-mouse games in pick-and-roll, creating just enough room to drain one of his nine three-pointers; the right-to-left crossover into a Euro step to get to the free-throw line (16 attempts on the night); and even a hesi-pull-up jimbo to keep them honest.

He’s also proven himself to be a leader. There are stories of him driving a rookie to practice on an off-day or inviting the whole team out for bonding.

But no matter how high Lillard elevates his game, there appears to be a ceiling on his Portland Trail Blazers.

Last season, Damian Lillard averaged career-highs in points (27 per game) and True Shooting Percentage (58.6) while the Trail Blazers stagnated. Portland’s problems mostly stem from a defense stressed by playing two small guards together. The Trail Blazers had a disconcerting 109.0 defensive rating and 23-33 record at the break before acquiring Jusuf Nurkić, finishing the season 18-8 with a 105.4 defensive rating over that stretch.

A .692 winning percentage seems an unlikely pace to maintain a Western Conference now stronger at the top. No matter how high Lillard elevates his status as Dame D.O.L.L.A., certified score and man of the people, the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder have placed a cap on the Trail Blazers’ ceiling.

Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

19. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Like a musician in a trance, Nikola Jokic’s artistic mastery of passing leaves spectators astounded, captivating their most innate senses.

Like Arvydas Sabonis and Vlade Divac before him, Jokic delivers most effectively with the slow kill. There’s a deliberation to his game that goads opponents into forcing the issue, allowing him to complete a read he’s made two steps before. His passing from the high post is complemented by his ability to take big men off the dribble or finish in the post. Disrespect his range and he’ll knock down the three-pointer.

To start last year, the Denver Nuggets attempted to pair Nurkic and Jokic—a combination that mixed like oil and water.

Even with Jokic’s great passing vision, open spaces were hard to find with Nurkic clogging up the middle. Something had to give and the Nuggets made the eco-friendly choice. In 51 starts at center, Jokic averaged 19.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists and almost a block, steal and three-pointer each.

From Jan.1 through the end of the season, the Nuggets finished with a 113.2 offensive rating, second only to the Warriors’ 113.2.

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By year’s end, Nikola Jokic was sandwiched between Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook in Win Shares Per 48 and tied with DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Chris Paul in V.O.R.P.

With Paul Millsap now next to Jokic, the Nuggets can go inside-out, outside-in, and five-out, creating mismatches most teams will struggle to keep up with.

It’s the other end of the floor, where Jokic can be a homebody treading water, where he’ll have to improve to make his next leap. He’s completely out of place away from the paint, where flat feet and an upright defensive stance leave him exposed in pick-and-rolls and isolations. Having Millsap to alleviate some of those pressures should help. Avoiding a lazy, upright defensive stance would help more.

Watching Jokic explore the depths of his potential will be among the most fascinating storylines of the season. His fit with Millsap, chemistry with Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, and development as the leader of this franchise will have their respective ebbs and flows. Eventually, the music will stop on the Nuggets’ season. The senses, however, will continue tingling.

Mike Conley, Grizzlies

18. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies

For years, Mike Conley has labored along in Memphis as the good soldier, sacrificing gaudy numbers for a grit that often validated the 82-game grind.

Over his first nine seasons, Conley averaged 13.6 points per game, clinging tightly to the concept that point guards focused on making their teammates better and ceding touches and fame to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol—even if Conley’s unique skills meant possessions might have been better ending with the ball in his hands.

Head Coach Dave Fizdale realized this when he aimed to invigorate the offense, getting a career season from the former fourth overall pick, with Conley besting his career scoring average by nearly seven full points with a 60.4 True Shooting Percentage, finishing sixth among point guards in offensive real plus-minus. That put him ahead of the likes of Damian Lillard, John Wall and Kyrie Irving, and just a shade behind Kyle Lowry. Overall real plus-minus? He was fifth at his position.

Take that for data.

In many ways, Conley is only now beginning to get comfortable in a scorer’s skin. There’s a chance he can do even more damage this year on a roster in desperate need of it with the departures of Randolph and Vince Carter.

A healthy Chandler Parson and Tyreke Evans might even free him up to further explore a potent off-ball game.

Among players who qualified, Conley led the league in scoring off screens with 1.34 points per possession, well ahead of second-placed Steph Curry at 1.18. He was used in these scenarios just as frequently as Isaiah Thomas at 8.7 percent, but there is room for growth here considering Curry was used off screens 14.8 percent of the time.

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In what will likely be a dog fight for the final few playoff spots in the West, Conley has the skill to tip the edge. Maximizing his skill as a scorer and recognizing it as an increasingly important aspect of helping his team will be fundamental to the Grizzlies’ new analytical approach.

Gordon Hayward, Celtics

17. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics

If Gordon Hayward wanted a legitimate shot at going deep into the playoffs to solidify his reputation as one of the league’s best swingmen, he made the right move.

He’ll have to take the good with the bad though, and the pressures that come with playing for a sports city like Boston can take its toll.

The Celtics will be favored in the East against anyone not named Cleveland, and any slipups against challengers like the Wizards, Raptors, and Bucks will not be looked upon too kindly.

I’ll admit, from an individual standpoint, I was more excited for Hayward before the Kyrie Irving trade. This is largely due to the uncertainty of Irving the distributor, and the different ways Hayward could be utilized in Brad Stevens’ schemes as the primary ball handler. Over his seven years in Utah, Hayward has developed into a two-way player that checks all the boxes teams look for.

He can initiate the offense in pick-and-roll scenarios (0.98 points per possession), run defenders off screens as a catch-and-shoot guy (1.12), and continues to improve off dribble-handoffs (0.90).

Defensively, he won’t quite provide the same on-ball hawk-like suffocation as Avery Bradley, but he does provide more size and strength, increasing the interchangeability between him and the forward positions. He possesses strong lateral quickness and is willing to contest with either hand, which takes away that extra split-second that an offensive player may have when creating a hint of separation. Less time on the ball and a lower dependency than his Utah days will afford him the energy to focus even more on this end of the floor.

The dynamic between Irving and Hayward is an intriguing one that will play a pivotal role in determining where their careers go from here. Coming over from Cleveland, escaping the shadow of LeBron James and with the advice of Kobe Bryant, Irving’s intentions are clear.

Choosing Boston over Utah and Miami shows G-Time valued winning (and maybe Stevens) above all else. He hardly seems the type to complain about playing second fiddle (who knew Irving would), but as Irving “perfects his craft,” it’s hard to imagine Hayward will have the opportunity to do the same.

 Rudy Gobert, Jazz

16. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

As one door closes, another opens. While Hayward’s departure to Boston certainly lowers Utah’s projections, the dependence on Rudy Gobert is about to reach full tilt. The Frenchman had a stellar 2016-17 campaign, providing traditional big defense at a level unseen since the days of peak Dwight Howard.

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He’s springy with his rim protection, able to contest, land and contest again. Gobert is a nightmare secondary defender coming over from the weakside, courtesy of perfect timing. And rather than just contain off the pick-and-roll like most big men, Rudy Gobert is able to dictate an offense’s reads based on his positioning alone. That he contested a fourth-best 14.2 shots per game is more impressive when you consider the fact three players ahead of him (Robin Lopez, Kristaps Porzingis, Brook Lopez) don’t come with nearly the same level of intimidation.

George Hill is a very good defender when healthy, but the combination of Ricky Rubio and Gobert in pick-and-roll defense can only elevate Gobert’s lofty heights.

If that isn’t enough, Gobert’s interior threat only increases alongside Derrick Favors. Now, we can’t pretend the playoff series against Golden State didn’t happen, where Kevin Durant abused Gobert off the high screen, but that is the exception. The Warriors offense is one of a kind, and Durant is a freak that can break the backbone of any defensive system.

Going into detail about only his defense would be a severe disservice to a player that has grown by leaps and bounds on the offensive end. Gobert has become an elite finisher around the basket, shooting 73.1 percent from within three feet of the basket. He is a mean screen-setter and led the league in screen assists at 6.2 per game. He has a sneaky knack for blowing by his man when looking to facilitate from the high post and showcased a good understanding of interior passing angles by either moving parallel to the ball handler of pick-and-rolls or slotting into the perfect position when trailing as the roller.

In all, he upped his scoring by five points a game to 14.0 last season and finished 12 games with at least 20 points. It’s a stretch to expect that level of growth once again, but increased usage in the absence of Hayward could see him creep up another couple of points or so. Rubio will only serve to further this cause with his slick passing.

Unfortunately for Gobert, the ratio of the impact of defense relative to offense has altered over the past few seasons, and that will make it very challenging for the Jazz to compete for a playoff spot. Utah’s volume scoring options are limited, and they have a point guard with a history of being on the mend. Slippage on the defensive end would be a surprise, but perhaps what will help most is if Gobert can further delve into his ability to facilitate and reignite an offense looking to move forward.

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Vivek Jacob

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