Western Conference: Lottery Bound Teams

15. Los Angeles Lakers

Additions:  Luke Walton (coach), Loul Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Brandon Ingram, Ivica Zubac, Jose Calderon

Departures: Roy Hibbert, Metta World Peace, Kobe Bryant, Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly, Brandon Bass

The Lakers did a lot right in this offseason.  They made the right call at head coach, bringing in one of, if not the most promising young assistant in the league.  Luke Walton was an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, and stepped in as interim coach for a large part of the season, going 48-4.  While he obviously didn’t build the playbook or set the rotations, he still managed games and called some plays and showed some aptitude for smart substitutions.  Beyond that, he has been their lead offensive assistant for a team that that had a revolutionary offense and won 171 games (playoffs included) in the last two years.  The Warriors went from last in passes per game to first in their transition from Jackson to Kerr, and even if Kerr was the architect for that offense, Walton was still a large contributor.  He’s also a former Laker, and could be the next long term coach for the team.

However, I don’t think that we will see much improvement in year one.  Young players don’t always grasp complicated offenses right away, and there is usually an uptick in offensive efficiency in year two of a coaching regime.  If Walton implements a system similar to what Golden State ran, which is the exact opposite of the “offense” Byron Scott ran, it might be a year or two before some of the players start making the second and third reads in a set.

This year we should start to see D’Angelo Russell emerge into a star.  He showed flashes of his vast potential last year, throwing some insane passes and hitting some ridiculous shots.  However, these events were far and few between, as demonstrated by Russell’s stat line last year (13.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists on .410/.351/.737 shooting).  He should play decently better with a literal brick wall in Timofey Mozgov setting screens, and with more ball movement he should get some better looks.  Beyond him, Jordan Clarkson should look to improve on last season, and maybe he’ll even become a decent defender now that he’s actually working on it.  We’ll see if his 34.7% shooting from three is sustainable, as he wasn’t a good shooter in college either.  He’s more of a scorer than a passer, and he could be used as a secondary ballhandler and an off ball threat in the new offense.  Clarkson could get some easy looks curling off of screens, where he can use the space created to attack the basket.

Another player with a big season is Julius Randle.  The former seventh overall pick averaged a double-double last year, albeit very inefficiently.  Randle showed some ballhandling ability last year, but also showed a ton of tunnel vision, often spinning into double teams in the paint or pulling up for ill-advised jumpers.  This year will give us a better idea on whether or not Randle can be an actual NBA contributor.  He has a lot of basketball talent, but whether or not he will be productive is another issue.  On pick and rolls, Randle is susceptible to catching, stopping, and then doing jab steps and attacking in isolation.  Under 30% of Randle’s looks were classified as “open” (closest defender 4-6 feet) or “wide open” (no defender 6+ feet).  He only shot 37% on ISOs and 32% on post ups, so he is by no means a good 1 on 1 scorer yet.  And his shooting splits from distance are:

Less than 5 ft.: 53.3%

5-9 ft.: 34.8%

10-14 ft.: 26%

15-19 ft.: 21.1%

20-24ft: 30.2%

So it’s not like he’s a great shooter either.  With Larry Nance Jr. playing very well last season and in the summer league, there could be some pressure on Randle to start playing efficiently.

The veterans Timofey Mozgov and Loul Deng should both start this year after being handed a combined $34 million a year, and while it is definitely a massive overpay,  they could be solid role players in Walton’s system.  Mozgov will be asked to set hard screens, roll to the hoop, and protect the rim.  He was a solid player two years ago and last season played poorly after coming back from injury early.   There is hope that Mozgov will be a solid big if he returns to health, but nothing is guaranteed with leg injuries to players above thirty.

Loul Deng played very well last year in Miami, especially after he was moved to the four.  He will be back at small forward this year, and we will see if he is quick enough to keep up with threes and if he can still beat them off the dribble. He’s a pretty average shooter, and despite being only being 31 he already has over 29,000 minutes on his legs.  Mozgov and Deng will be tasked with being the two best defenders in the rotation, so it is important to the team that neither significantly declines.

Even if Mozgov and Deng two are solid, dependable role players, the defensive ceiling on this team is not high.  Nance and Black have shown some promise on the defensive end, and Ingram might be a good defender in a few years, but Russell, Clarkson, Calderon, Lou Will, Ingram, and Randle all project to be minus defenders this year.  Putting a modern scheme in place will help long term, but it will still be a long learning process.

The bench this year looks promising for the Lakers.  Calderon may be a revolving door on defense, but he can pass and shoot still.  Lou Will is a volume shooter, a volatile player who’s value mainly depends on his shot falling.  We will probably see Ingram play both wing positions, especially considering Durant, Paul George, and Giannis all also spent time at the two early in their careers until they were on an NBA strength program for a year or two.  I think we will see something similar from Ingram, and it will be interesting to see if he can score over smaller defenders and get into the lane with his slight frame.  Nance and Black will give the second unit some defense and athleticism, and they are two interesting players who could be solid rotational guys for years to come.  The Lakers also recently signed Yi Jianlian, and while he is a solid midrange shooter and meh post player, I cannot see him getting much run on this team.

Overall, the Lakers have a lot to look forward to in the long term.  They have an innovative young coach and promising young team, but this year will be a lot of learning by trial and error.  Their pick is only top three protected this year, and it will be interesting to see if they tank at the end of the year to grab one more prospect from what is supposed to be an elite class.

14. Sacramento Kings

Additions: Matt Barnes, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson, Skal Labissiere, Isiaiah Cousins, Arron Afflalo, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Ty Lawson, Lamar Patterson, Garrett Temple

Departures: Rajon Rondo, Caron Butler, Marco Belinelli, Seth Curry, Eric Moreland, Duje Dukan, Quincy Acy, James Anderson

Last year, the Kings won over thirty games for the first time since the 2007-08.  They played with the quickest pace in the league, which may have actually been a detriment to them since they had an average offense and a below average defense.  They definitely upgraded from George Karl to Dave Joerger, who will bring a tough defensive mentality and has shown the ability to craft an offense around a big man and get the best out of subpar players (Memphis had 28 players on their team last year, more than any other playoff team ever).  He proved that even with replacement level players he could still play to their strengths, which is good because the Kings have a lot of really bad players.

The Kings issues start at point guard.  While Rondo wasn’t exactly good last year, they let him and Seth Curry walk and didn’t sign another point guard.  Darren Collison is a solid backup, but now he will be thrust into a starting role.  There was speculation that Garrett Temple would be their backup point guard, but with the recent signing of Ty Lawson that may not be the case.  While Lawson played very well in Denver two years ago, after his legal issues and the subsequent trade to Houston, he was a shell of his former self.  This is a solid buy-low option, but I don’t foresee Lawson contributing much this season.  Teams like the Pistons showed the value of having 48 minutes of solid point guard play, as they got killed with Steve Blake on the floor.  Alternatively, Charlotte had two starting quality point guards last year, and it propelled them to a tie for the three seed in the East.  Having a dependable ballhandler and facilitator on the floor at all times is very important in the modern NBA, and the Kings simply don’t have that (I am all in on Point Boogie though).

Boogie and Gay will give the offense between 40 and 50 points a night (although how efficiently remains to be seen).  Neither Boogie or Gay were particularly efficient in Isolation (.68 PPP and .75 PPP respectively) but despite that the two of them combined for over 400 attempts.  However, both were above the 80th percentile in post-up efficiency(combined 495 attempts), and now that there is more shooting around them they could be even better.  Their overall effectiveness will ultimately comes down to how many open looks Joerger can find them on a team bereft of passing; Collison, Boogie, and Afflalo are the only players who averaged over two assists a game last year, and none of them averaged over 4.5.

Darren Collison was a very good pick and roll ballhandler, and it will be important to see if he can continue to do so this season.  The Kings will actually have some shooting this year in Afflalo, Casspi, Collison, McLemore and Tolliver.  Provided they can get into the lane (or draw double teams on Boogie post ups) they could really open the court up to let some threes fly.  There is some concern that opposition will just overplay their shooters, as there’s no fear most of their guys will beat you off the dribble.

The Kings should expect very little from the rest of their squad.  WCS will be limited to easy finishes and putbacks, and same goes for Koufos.  Matt Barnes shot 38.1% from the field last year, and it would be hard to see him being a contributor on the offensive end.  Similarly, while Garrett Temple was an average three point shooter in Washington, but that was when he was spotting up in the corner around a spread pick and roll run by John Wall.  He’s never scored well inside the three point line, and it’s tough to envision a scenario where he’s an efficient offensive player.

Beyond that, the Kings don’t have much perimeter defending.  Arron Afflalo has long been an overrated defender because of his size and strength, Rudy Gay checks out on defense a lot, Casspi isn’t a great man defender, and Matt Barnes isn’t athletic enough anymore to lock down most wings.  Darren Collison and Ben McLemore haven’t shown much aptitude on the defensive end, and Garrett Temple figures to be the only plus perimeter defender on the team.  Behind them, Willie Cauley-Stein still misses the occasional rotations, but with his athleticism, hustle, and improving awareness he is still a plus defender.  Boogie is on and off on defense, and will struggle to guard some fours on the other end.  Cauley-Stein may be better suited to chase fours on defense, but he’s also the better rim protector so it will be interesting to see how Joerger uses them together.  Koufos was very poor last year, and we will see if he can bounce back and shore up a weak second unit on the defensive end.

The offense also presents an interesting situation.  When Joerger took over the Grizzlies, he was asked to play fast because the front office believed playing at a high pace would yield the best results.  It failed miserably, and he went back to a more advanced version of the Grit n’ Grind offense that Lionel Hollins employed before him.  He will have a similar problem here, with the front office firing Mike Malone two seasons ago before because of “philosophical differences”.  Malone played a slow paced offense around post-ups, and would not budge at the demands from the front office to play quicker.  Joerger may be in a similar situation here, most likely asked to play fast with a team  better suited to play slow.  How this dynamic plays out will be interesting, but you would have to think Joerger would not take the job and just immediately disobey management.

13. Phoenix Suns

Additions: Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa

Departures: Ronnie Price, Mirza Teletovic, John Leuer, Lorenzo Brown

The Phoenix Suns were supposed to be a playoff team last year.  Then, the season happened, and everything that could have possibly went wrong did.  Markieff Morris was openly against the franchise, and Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe, their two best players, only combined for 81 games.  Tyson Chandler also regressed horribly, and could frequently be seen (when he was playing) throwing alley oops off the front of the rim.  Ronnie Price was often tasked with running the offense, and that went about as well as you would expect it to.  They were absolutely miserable on both ends of the court (28th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defensive efficiency).  They canned Jeff Hornacek midway through the season and hired Earl Watson.  Even though the results weren’t much better, they gave Watson the job full time.  Now that he has a full offseason with the team, it will be interesting to see what kind of offense and defense he implements.

The Suns are a very interesting young team though.  Last season, Devin Booker emerged as a potential franchise cornerstone.  His percentages looked pretty meh, but that was mainly because he was initiating the offense a lot towards the end of the year.  He only hit 31.3% of his pull-up jumpers, but he did make 40.9% of his catch and shoot threes.  With Bledsoe, Knight, and even Barbosa being able to handle the ball next year, Booker can focus on coming off screens and getting some easier looks. He managed to score 30 points six times as a rookie (only Blake Griffin and Steph Curry have had more 30 point games as a rookie in the last seven years).

The injuries also helped the Suns get a better look at their other young players.  TJ Warren showed that he can score efficiently at an NBA level, and it’s not hard to see him as the second option on a bench unit.   Alex Len anchored the defense, but he showed no ability to score inside.  He played with Chandler a decent bit last year, so there is hope that opening up the court a little more will improve his field goal percentage.  He could be a good defensive anchor, but he’s a tad slow and is still out of position a decent bit.

Eric Bledsoe is entering his prime, and we will see if he can improve on the 17 points, 6.1 assists, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.6 steals.  He’s a streaky shooter, and we will have to see if he can knock down jumpers with consistency.  If he doesn’t, he’s still a great defender and absolute menace attacking the rim, but it severely limits his ceiling.  He could be a prime trade candidate since he isn’t in the same age bracket as most of their guys, and they’ve committed over $30 million a year to him and Brandon Knight.  If they think Knight could be their point guard of the future, they would be wise to move on from Bledsoe once they can rehab his value a little bit.  Knight is only 24, and he has looked like more of a shoot first point guard in both Phoenix and Milwaukee.  If he can boost his field goal percentage a bit or become a better distributor, he could be their guy moving forward.

The Suns also addressed their power forward needs at the draft, taking Dragan Bender 4th and then trading up to grab Marquese Chriss at 8.  In Bender, they grabbed a 7 foot monster with feet quick enough to guard threes but the size to guard fives.  He can shoot the three ball, and has really good instincts for someone as young as himself on both ends of the ball.  He isn’t jump out of the gym athletic, and there are some concerns he’ll never be an elite player since there appears no way he’ll be a prolific one-on-one scorer.  However, his floor appears to be very high, and even though he might not help much this year, he’s a great long term project.

Phoenix’s other top ten pick, Marquese Chriss, is about the opposite of Dragan Bender.  He’s 6’10, but wildly athletic and raw.  Chriss flew up draft boards during workouts from the late first round to the late lottery, and it’s not hard to see why.   He hit over 35% of his threes in college, impressive for someone who didn’t start playing basketball til 15. He’s a very streaky shooter though, and while he has crazy athleticism and solid instincts, he is still very foul prone.  All the tools are there though, they just need a ton of refinement.

Overall, the Suns project to be bad this year.  They severely lack any form of interior defense, and even if Eric Bledsoe is an elite defender they really don’t have another plus defender on the perimeter.  They also won’t be able to score inside, and even if they have three guards who could give them 20 any given night, that might not be enough to make up for their other deficiencies.

 

12. New Orleans Pelicans

Additions: Buddy Hield, Cheick Diallo, Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway, Terrance Jones

Departures: Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Toney Douglas, Luke Babbitt, James Ennis, Kendrick Perkins, Jordan Hamilton

I had such high hopes for the Pelicans going into the offseason.  I thought they might be a playoff team.  But then they were stricken with some terrible luck.  Tyreke Evans will be out until at least December, he’s rehabbing from an injury and had a blood clot, making his timetable for return very uncertain.  Add in Jrue Holiday stepping away from the team to be with his wife who has a brain tumor, and the Pelicans are already down two starters who also happen to be their two best ballhandlers and playmakers for an unknown amount of time.  Tim Frazier is the new starting point guard, and he has been a well below average player since entering the league.  New addition E’Twaun Moore will start at the two, and while he is a solid defender of both guard spots, he offers little on the offensive end.  The Pelicans will struggle to get to the basket with those two guards and Solomon Hill on the perimeter.  Looking to the bench, Galloway could be a solid backup, but it is concerning that Frazier is starting over him.  Lance Stephenson will see if he can work his way into the backup wing rotation at the expense of either Buddy Hield or Quincy Pondexter.  I don’t think Hield is ready for anything more than spot minutes yet, so that may open up a spot for Stephenson.

Looking down low, the Pelicans have Anthony Davis starting at the four, and he’s the total package.  Capable of playing both big man positions, Davis is a phenomenal athlete who erases shots on defense and commands tons of attention in the pick and roll and on the boards.  He’s extended his range all the way out to the three point line, and he’s a good enough passer that you can’t just throw double teams at him.  He can play the five in a (when healthy) Holiday-Moore-Evans-Hill-Davis small lineup, but with Galloway-Moore-Pondexter-Hill-Davis lineup looks much less threatening.

Starting next to Davis is Omer Asik, a traditional five with an almost non-existent offensive game.  He’s hasn’t played good basketball or been relatively healthy in two years, and even if you’re betting on a bounce back year for him he will probably be a net negative.  Backup center Alexis Ajinca is a solid post player, but he offers little else. Terrence Jones will see if he can revive his career after being one of the worst rotation players in the league last year.

Overall, I have a lot of problems with this team.  While adding Moore and Hill gave them two versatile defenders and average three point shooters, but this team doesn’t have any passing right now.  The lane will be packed, making it hard to get Davis easy looks.  Teams will be willing to run Hill, Moore, and Pondexter off the line to test their limited off the dribble games, and that will allow them to clog the lane to prevent the point guard from getting into the lane or Davis getting easy looks.  Asik is such a nonfactor on offense, and making a Jones-Davis big man lineup work for extended minutes might be important to get some space inside. Jones showed some promise two years ago, hitting jumpers, blocking shots and cleaning up the boards.  Last year he was coming off an injury, so there is some hope he rebounds from last season, but it’s very telling that he got the minimum. The fact that no team was willing to significantly invest in him in an offseason where injury prone guys like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Festus Ezeli, Timofey Mozgov and many others still got paid heavily.

Their defense also might not be great.  Asik and Ajinca stay in the paint in the pick and roll, a big problem if the ballhandler can shoot off the dribble.  Neither are also above average rim protectors, a big large problem if they’re going to let the ballhandler into the lane.  Davis can play a modern five and hedge, switch, and protect the rim, but he’ll be playing most of his minutes at the four.  Galloway and Frazier will have problems stopping opposing guards, and while Moore, Pondexter, and Hill will be solid on the perimeter, none of them are the elite lockdown defender you need to slow top tier talent.  Their defense could be about average, but that’s probably the best case scenario.  And without Evans and Holiday, there’s no chance they have an above average offense.  It might be another rough year in New Orleans.

 

 

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