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The first phase of roster restructuring during the 2018 NBA offseason is complete.
This year’s talent grab almost surely delivered a handful of difference-makers. But good luck knowing where between the first selection (Deandre Ayton) and the last (Kostas Antetokounmpo) those transformative talents will come from.
Stage two of the summer program begins shortly with free-agency shoppers able to begin their hunts on July 1 and start finalizing their purchases July 6. With names like LeBron James, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins potentially up for grabs, the bidding process could be frenzied and have repercussions for years to come.
Consider this, then, the calm between storms.
We’ll take advantage of this relatively relaxed period to update our assessment of all 30 teams with a post-draft, pre-free-agency batch of power rankings.
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Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman sees the future for No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III as “somewhere in between” Julius Randle and Amar’e Stoudemire.
That sounds like a pretty good player—perhaps potent on offense but too giving the other way—not the great one this roster so desperately needs.
Bagley’s athleticism will yield easy buckets, but half-court offense could be a grind. Couldn’t the same be said of De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento Kings’ other building block? Head coach Dave Joerger will need to be creative, both to generate non-transition scores and to juggle a potentially crowded frontcourt featuring Bagley, Zach Randolph, Willie Cauley-Stein, Harry Giles and Skal Labissiere.
Over time, the Kings could regret passing on both Luka Doncic and Michael Porter Jr. Those players seem capable of establishing a club’s identity, step one for rebuilders. Bagley looks more like a complementary piece on a roster that might have different versions of him already.
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Remember when Gregg Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer fashioned the Atlanta Hawks as the San Antonio Spurs of the East? Well, Hawks general manager and former Golden State Warriors executive Travis Schlenk has propped up the champs as their new building model.
The draft fit precisely into this Dubs Lite design—Trae Young as Stephen Curry, Kevin Huerter as Klay Thompson and Omari Spellman as Draymond Green. Maybe it eventually proves a stroke of genius; for now, it feels more like an ill-fated plan to recreate once-in-a-lifetime magic.
While Young lacked proper assistance at Oklahoma, his late-season swoon (39.3 percent shooting from January through March) is troubling. He needs to be amazing on offense to compensate for his defensive limitations.
Even if Huerter recreates Thompson’s offensive impact—a towering task since Klay’s already an all-time marksman—there’s little hope of doing the same defensively. Spellman will out-shoot Green, but the playmaking and defense will be worlds removed from the latter’s All-Star levels.
Atlanta looks like it’s laying a foundation, which is good. But there are plenty of moving pieces to shift around first, meaning the final picture could take years to come together.
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Unlike the other bottom feeders, the Brooklyn Nets don’t have a shiny new lottery pick on which to pin their hopes. Instead, they’re left praying that D’Angelo Russell emerges as a transcendent talent, despite three years of data painting him as a volume scorer and mediocre distributor.
The good news is the Nets will finally control their own first-rounder next summer. The bad news—besides that class not looking nearly as strong—is that could mean another long season in Brooklyn is imminent.
Recent acquisition Dwight Howard looks like he’s already on the way out, per ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes, meaning this roster once again will feature no one with All-Star experience. It’s hard to tell if there’s even anyone with All-Star potential, as the Nets have been denied access to lottery talents for years as a result of the previous regime.
The Timofey Mozgov-Howard swap created a path for Brooklyn to a pair of max contract slots in 2019. That might mean any addition this summer could be tied to a one-year pact, 2017 Los Angeles Lakers style. It’ll be interesting to see what the future flexibility means for the Nets’ present free agents, particularly Joe Harris, who has keeper potential but won’t be short on suitors after drilling 150 triples at a 41.9 percent clip.
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If Mohamed Bamba becomes Rudy Gobert with a jumper, we’ll all be asking ourselves how five other names were called before his on draft night.
Getting Bamba at No. 6, then, sounds like a steal—in a vacuum. Problem is, the Orlando Magic might be ill-equipped to handle a unicorn when they’ve had trouble training mere horses.
Who spreads the floor for this team? Only two players are scheduled to return with three-point percentages north of 36—D.J. Augustin, who’s overmatched as a starting point guard, and Evan Fournier, whose ceiling hovers a tick or two above mediocrity.
No one knows if Aaron Gordon is coming back. If he does, there’s a chance a frontcourt with him, Bamba and Jonathan Isaac wreaks havoc on claustrophobic fans. Will Nikola Vucevic and/or Bismack Biyombo head to the trade block in short order? Will anyone be interested if they do?
The Magic were right not to let the presences of Vucevic and Biyombo block them from getting the best player available. But now the hard work starts. This roster needs a lot of attention, quite possibly the future-focused variety.
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The New York Knicks took the long view of draft night. “Raw” was perhaps the most used term in the scouting reports of the No. 9 pick, 18-year-old Kevin Knox. And the same term snugly fits the 36th selection, Mitchell Robinson, who last played organized ball on the 2016-17 high school all-star game circuit.
It’s a more than reasonable approach given the state of the franchise.
The forecast for New York’s 2018-19 campaign looked bleak as soon as Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL in February. And since we’ve heard since February their front office wants to carefully manage the cap for 2019 free agency, per ESPN.com’s Ian Begley, it’s impossible to fathom the organization inking a difference-maker this summer.
Next season should be one of discovery in Gotham. Not only do the Knicks need to figure out what they have in Knox and Robinson, but they must also get a grasp on their point guard situation. Frank Ntilikina’s long-term future might be at shooting guard, and it’s hard to tell what lies ahead for Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay.
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The Chicago Bulls seemingly added two 2018-19 rotation players on draft night. Considering they only made two selections—Wendell Carter Jr. at No. 7, Chandler Hutchison at No. 22—it will go down as a productive night.
It probably won’t be remembered as the night they uncovered a future star, though, since Carter and Hutchison both project as complementary pieces. And that begs this question—is there a star anywhere on the roster?
It’s hard to answer in the affirmative.
Lauri Markkanen opened eyes as a freshman, but can he push his per-game marks of 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds to elite levels? Kris Dunn made a big jump as a sophomore, but even then, he only finished with a 42.9/32.1/73.0 shooting slash. And Zach LaVine looked rusty enough in his return from a torn ACL (49.9 true shooting percentage) to cast uncertainty over his restricted free agency.
“As an organization, the near universal support LaVine once had internally isn’t there anymore,” ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell wrote. “Bulls will wait to see if he can find big [money] elsewhere first and then decide if they want to match.”
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The Memphis Grizzlies are in a strange spot. It’s unclear if they should be planning for today or tomorrow.
You’d think present hopes would be dashed for any club coming off a 22-60 season, especially one that’s already over the cap. Then again, Memphis had Mike Conley available for all of 12 games, so maybe there’s hope his absence was a source of those struggles. And when both he and Marc Gasol are on the wrong side of 30, it’s not like there’s a wide window with them at the core.
But draft night added to the confusion. The Grizzlies spent the No. 4 pick on 18-year-old Jaren Jackson Jr., described by Wasserman as “young and unpolished.” They invested their other selection (32nd overall) in 22-year-old Jevon Carter, a grit-and-grind type with ferocious defense but a seemingly low ceiling on the other end.
Jackson is undoubtedly interesting. His college stat sheet shows per-40-minute averages of 5.5 blocks, 2.0 triples and 2.0 assists—numbers that shine bright under modern NBA lights. But if he’s a project, how much does that help the current club? Because bottom-third efficiency marks on offense (27th) and defense (tied for 22nd) indicate more issues than a healthy Conley can solve on his own.
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So, why is this squad positioned eight slots from the bottom?
The optimism starts with draft night. The Suns needed an interior anchor and found one in Deandre Ayton, a nightly supplier of 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds at Arizona. They scratched a three-and-D itch with the trade for Mikal Bridges, a former Big East Defensive Player of the Year and 40 percent three-point shooter at Villanova. They plugged a hole at point guard with Elie Okobo, a 6’2″ shot-maker with a 6’8″ wingspan.
Then, there’s the potential for internal growth. Devin Booker is already one of the Association’s better players to never crack an All-Star roster. His 2017-18 averages of 24.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds suggest he’s close. Josh Jackson ended his rookie year on a high note, providing 18.7 points and 5.9 rebounds after the All-Star break. Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are both 20-year-old wild cards.
Finally, there’s enough cap space to keep bulking up the roster over the summer.
“We think and hope we’ll add some veterans that will take us from 21 wins to whatever next year,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said, per Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic. “… We were aggressive (in the draft) and we’re going to continue to be aggressive as soon as free agency starts.”
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Hold off on your Kemba Walker trade proposals. It doesn’t sound like the Charlotte Hornets are ready to bite that bullet just yet.
“Going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us—not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here,” Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters.
Granted, all plans are subject to change, and comments like these are best digested with several grains of salt this year. Since Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, the Hornets must keep their ears open for any no-brainer offers.
That said, staying the course might make sense. While Charlotte is coming off consecutive 36-win campaigns, it outperformed its record both times. The Hornets’ point differential suggests they should have won 42 games last season and the year prior.
Miles Bridges should perk up a previously underwhelming forward rotation. Devonte’ Graham addresses a glaring need at backup point guard. And maybe new coach James Borrego can help the Hornets reverse their fortunes in close contests (1-14 in three-point games the past two seasons).
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If the Dallas Mavericks have anywhere near as much luck in free agency as they did on draft night, this ranking might be too low.
They came into the talent grab with the No. 5 pick and left with our highest-rated prospect, Luka Doncic. It cost them the No. 5 pick and a protected future first, but the payoff could be incredible. Doncic provides both NBA-ready skills as a 6’7″ playmaker with an improving outside stroke and star-caliber upside.
“We get a guy that we think is a franchise-foundation piece,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, per Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. “It’s a big day for us.”
Pairing Doncic with Dennis Smith Jr. gives Dallas two high-level offensive initiators. Wooden Award winner Jalen Brunson (33rd overall) could have a long career as a reserve floor general. Dirk Nowitzki still tickles twine as a 7-foot floor-spacer. And Harrison Barnes has been good for 19 points a night in Dallas.
The Mavs need more pieces—an interior anchor would be a godsend—but they have the flexibility to be major players in free agency.
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The Los Angeles Clippers needed their long-term Chris Paul replacement at point guard, so trading up for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—the last top-tier floor general available—made plenty of sense.
Spending their second and final selection on Jerome Robinson did not. He doesn’t fill a need the way Michael Porter Jr., Zhaire Smith or Robert Williams would have, and the vacuum value of Robinson didn’t justify a pick that high.
“As for first-round reaches, it’s hard to find one more glaring than the L.A. Clippers’ selection of Boston College guard Jerome Robinson at No. 13,” FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine wrote. “Robinson ranked 59th overall in the Stats & Info model, with a 44 percent chance of being a bust.”
Robinson is an undersized scoring guard with loads of offensive potency and little defense. How many of those does one team need?
This roster lacks star power and could lose its highest-profile player to free agency (DeAndre Jordan, player option). If Avery Bradley bolts too, the Clippers’ 19th-ranked defense could become even more problematic.
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How good is new Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey at solving puzzles? Because the Motor City’s current collection of pieces doesn’t form a clear playoff picture.
Andre Drummond doesn’t attempt threes, and Blake Griffin rarely makes them (career 32.4 percent). Reggie Jackson is coming off a pair of shaky, injury-riddled seasons. The developments of Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson are stalling. There aren’t many spacers in the rotation, especially if Anthony Tolliver seeks greener pastures on the open market.
There’s talent here, but does it fit together?
Casey was a smart hire—the Toronto Raptors improved every year under his watch—and draft night looked surprisingly productive. Detroit didn’t have a first-round pick and might have picked up two first-round talents in Khyri Thomas (three-and-D) and Bruce Brown (helps everywhere other than shooting).
But this comes down to Drummond, Griffin and Jackson staying healthy and finding enough breathing room on offense to make this work.
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The Miami Heat’s cap situation is so clogged, they might not be flexible enough to keep Wayne Ellington—a sharpshooter, but also a 30-year-old who’s already played for seven different teams.
Few teams are more in need of young, cost-controlled talent, but the Heat couldn’t trade into this draft. It’s unclear what, if anything, they’ll be able to accomplish this summer.
“We’re up against the tax,” team president Pat Riley said, per Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald. “We all know what the accounting situation is with us. … This could be—not a passive summer—but it might not be the kind of summer that you may think that something big can happen from that standpoint.”
So, Miami is left trying to tackle tough internal questions.
Can Hassan Whiteside be a difference-maker, or is this club stuck with a disgruntled, overpaid player? Is Dwyane Wade coming back? Is there room for him and a healthy Dion Waiters in the same backcourt? What’s the next gear for Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo? And ultimately, are there enough pieces to cover the absence of an in-prime, elite player?
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Troy Brown Jr., huh? Even if the Washington Wizards felt he was the best player available—we had him 24th—it’s still a curious way to handle the selection given their obvious needs, lack of spending money and timeline.
“While the team has glaring needs for shooting, rebounding, perimeter defense and improved athleticism at the 4 and 5 spots, Washington chose to groom a wing player who could conceivably need years to develop,” Candace Buckner of the Washington Post wrote.
Brown isn’t a shooter (32 threes in 35 games, 29.1 percent conversion rate). So how can he comfortably share the floor with John Wall, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat? If he can’t, what’s the improvement plan in the District—hope that the primary players on last season’s underperforming team don’t disappoint again?
That doesn’t leave much room for optimism, even while acknowledging there are far worse bases to build around than Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. The frontcourt’s shortcomings could be fatal flaws, and the reserve unit has lacked reliability for years.
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The Portland Trail Blazers lost eight of their final nine games last season, including each contest of their swift, humbling first-round series against the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans.
This high-priced bunch looked wobbly and desperate for win-now helpers to plug alongside a Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt that’s potent on offense and disastrous on defense. And then the draft happened. Portland somehow walked away with two unpolished, offensive-minded guards who might not contribute right away or fit with Lillard and McCollum once they’re ready (Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr.).
The only time the Blazers got defensive on draft night was when general manager Neil Olshey tried to justify his decisions, per John Canzano of the Oregonian.
- Of Simons: “This was not a need pick. This was about who had the highest ceiling.”
- Of Trent: “Anyone who thinks they’re going to find a guy with the 37th pick that’s going to step in right away and play on a 49-win playoff team ends up with a guy that’s out of the league in a year.”
The Blazers need two-way wings, a two-way center and more scoring support behind Lillard and McCollum. There isn’t money to add those things, and draft night didn’t make the 2018-19 team any better. Maybe this is the time to consider splitting Lillard and McCollum apart.
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The Los Angeles Lakers are seemingly positioned to make a splash (or two) this summer with ample cap space and the trade bullets to facilitate a blockbuster.
But it’s not all up to them. They’ll have to find interested free agents and/or willing trade partners, neither of which are guaranteed to surface.
The Lakers were swiftly rebuffed by the San Antonio Spurs when they attempted to discuss disgruntled superstar Kawhi Leonard, sources told ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne. There is “all sorts of optimism” for the Oklahoma City Thunder to keep Paul George, per USA Today‘s Sam Amick, who adds that George staying “would be widely considered a big blow to the Lakers’ chances of landing [LeBron] James.”
Things can change quickly, especially for a team with L.A.’s buying power and market appeal. But this free-agent market isn’t overloaded with elites, so the Lakers only have a few chances to attract transcendent talents. And if they don’t find what they like, they’ve discussed rolling over their cap room to make a run at 2019’s best.
This could be anything from a contender to a lottery club depending on its offseason success.
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Is LeBron James staying or going? Find that answer, and you’ll know if the Cleveland Cavaliers are ranked too high or too low.
Nabbing Collin Sexton with the No. 8 pick shed no light on James’ future. While the King’s confidants are reportedly Sexton fans, per Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon, league executives told Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger the selection has no bearing on James’ impending decision.
Take James off the roster, and this perennial finalist might be lottery-bound. He was Cleveland’s postseason leader in points, assists, steals and blocks and its No. 2 rebounder. He only sat for 144 of the team’s 1,066 playoff minutes, and the Cavs still wilted without him (minus-7.3 net rating, would have been last season’s fourth-worst).
Keep James around, though, and Cleveland might escape the East yet again. There might be a couple better rosters, but the King has had a golden ticket for eight years running. And his supporting cast could be rejuvenated by Sexton (a hyper-athletic attacker) and the youngsters accrued at the deadline (Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and restricted free agent Rodney Hood).
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Unless Victor Oladipo becomes a Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant hybrid over the offseason, the Indiana Pacers probably won’t shock the Association two years in a row.
But that doesn’t mean this group is done growing. Not when former No. 11 picks Myles Turner (2015) and Domantas Sabonis (2016) aren’t close to exhausting their potential. And not when this year’s prized pull, Aaron Holiday (23rd), could play early and often because of his perimeter shooting, defense and basketball IQ.
The Pacers need a second star to reach the Association’s next tier, but incremental progress is beneficial nonetheless for a 48-win club with a 26-year-old leader. And who knows what other additions are coming to the Circle City. Indiana should have sufficient spending money, and it might be among the most aggressive bidders, particularly for up-and-comers in restricted free agency.
There are gaps to be filled, but even with them, this team took the Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers to seven games in the opening round. The Pacers’ trajectory is pointing up, perhaps in a big way if free agency breaks right.
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The Milwaukee Bucks have an all-world talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they added the best available coach this summer in Mike Budenholzer. Now, it’s about figuring out what else they have in place.
Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon are high-level support pieces, but both fall short of stardom. Jabari Parker is headed to restricted free agency with two ACL recoveries and so-so performances alongside Antetokounmpo behind him. The center rotation needs work, as does Eric Bledsoe’s decision-making.
Donte DiVincenzo looks like an intriguing addition. He should offer microwave scoring, floor spacing and physical defense, although his ceiling is tough to gauge given his unique path to the 17th pick. He was regarded more as a 2019 draft candidate before a perfectly timed eruption in the national title game forced him onto everyone’s radar.
This season could come down to Budenholzer’s ability to maximize this roster. The Bucks have more talent than last year’s 44-38 mark suggests, but that only matters if the system takes full advantage of it.
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It’s getting harder to imagine that even Gregg Popovich’s magic wand can solve the San Antonio Spurs’ dilemma with Kawhi Leonard.
The former Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year wants out of the Alamo City, sources told ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes. He’s reportedly upset over his belief the Spurs mismanaged his quadriceps injury and seemed to publicly challenge him through the media, sources told Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski.
San Antonio will surely hold out hope this can somehow be fixed—the 26-year-old is a top-five player when healthy—but the relationship sounds irreparable.
And if Leonard goes, the smart move for the Spurs might be starting over.
They can’t contend with LaMarcus Aldridge as their solo star, and this roster is begging for more youth and athleticism. Besides, this summer could be the perfect time to cut the cord. Tony Parker, Rudy Gay and Kyle Anderson (restricted) are all free agents, and retirement has tempted 40-year-old Manu Ginobili before. Plus, the backcourt combo of Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker might be a young foundation worth building around.
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The Minnesota Timberwolves are on the rise after adding 16 wins to their total and snapping a 13-year postseason drought.
But they don’t fit the mold of a typical up-and-comer. They start a pair of 30-somethings (Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague) and a 28-year-old four-time All-Star (Jimmy Butler). Those three are among Minnesota’s five players who will earn salaries of $14 million or more next season (Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng are the others), which doesn’t include max-extension candidate Karl-Anthony Towns.
In other words, the Wolves are new to the postseason party, but their ages and expenses say this group needs to strike sooner rather than later.
That can only happen if they shore up their defense (tied for 22nd) and stop running their starters ragged (last in bench minutes). While Tom Thibodeau would surely love to see the former happen, he’s always had trouble avoiding the latter.
Minnesota will be reliant on in-house improvements to take the next step. The payroll can’t support a high-level free agent, and the draft—while productive—seemingly delivered only support pieces in Josh Okogie (20th) and Keita Bates-Diop (48th).
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If Paul George stays—admittedly a gigantic if—the Oklahoma City Thunder could be closer to contending than many realize.
Fans might be remember OKC’s 2017-18 effort as a flop, and in many ways it was. The Thunder surrounded the MVP (Russell Westbrook) with two All-Stars (George and Carmelo Anthony), then only improved their win total by one and still couldn’t get out of the opening round.
But focusing solely on the surface fails to reflect the impact of Andre Roberson’s season-ending ruptured patellar tendon. His shooting struggles have warped public perception of his importance. He had the club’s second-widest on/off split (plus-10.1 with him, plus-0.5 without), and the Thunder dominated when he played with Westbrook, George, Anthony and Steven Adams (plus-14.2 points per 100 possessions).
Depth is a concern, but not a hopeless one. Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson are still early in their developmental stages, and the draft might have yielded at least one rotation member between second-rounders Hamidou Diallo (trade), Devon Hall (53rd) and Kevin Hervey (57).
This all hinges on George’s decision. If he sticks around, OKC has a chance to be special.
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Getting Michael Porter Jr. with the 14th pick equates to legal larceny. Injury concerns and all, the one-time top-rated prospect in this class has too much potential to slide that far down the board.
The Denver Nuggets are counting their blessings—while also acknowledging Porter might not play summer league or even the 2018-19 season, per The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears.
“Michael is an incredible talent and we were surprised to see him available at No. 14,” Nuggets president Josh Kroenke told Spears. “We know the risks … but he’s an incredibly hard worker, is an outstanding young man, and we think he will fit in well with our up-and-coming group in Denver.”
If not for an overtime loss in their season finale, the Nuggets would have been a playoff team. And that’s without Porter and only 38 appearances by Paul Millsap.
Denver’s ceiling is sky-high. This team won’t play a ton of defense, but a starting lineup with Porter, Millsap, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris has a chance to lead the league in scoring. If Porter plays, few clubs will be tougher to contain than the Nuggets.
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The New Orleans Pelicans used the 2017-18 season to convince Anthony Davis his long-term future belongs in the Big Easy. They not only enjoyed their best campaign with the Brow (48-34), but they also followed it with their first postseason series win in a decade—a sweep of a higher seed, no less.
Now focus shifts to what kind of pitch they’ll make to Davis’ frontcourt partner, free-agent All-Star DeMarcus Cousins.
Davis wants him back. Head coach Alvin Gentry feels the same. But how will the front office feel about committing major coin to a 6’11”, 270-pounder who’s coming off a torn Achilles and hasn’t logged a playoff second in eight NBA seasons?
Starting point guard Rajon Rondo is another free agent with a murky market. He provided valuable playoff experience and masterful ball control (8.2 assists against 2.3 turnovers), but he’s a 32-year-old point guard averaging 0.4 threes per game for his career.
It won’t be cheap to keep everyone, but if Cousins and/or Rondo exit, the budget only allows for bargain replacements. If New Orleans can stomach a high salary, though, the top of this roster should rank among basketball’s best.
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The Toronto Raptors seem unlikely to abandon the championship chase. They just had their most successful season in franchise history with 59 wins, the East’s highest net rating (plus-7.6) and the Association’s best bench.
And yet, they sound in danger of an all-out demolition. They already changed coaches (Dwane Casey out, Nick Nurse promoted) and every player on the roster “could be in play if the return is right,” per Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star.
Their regular-season success has yet to carry over into the playoffs. Three of their last four postseason eliminations have been sweeps. Their frontcourt lacks versatility at either end, and their star-studded backcourt tandem of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry haven’t been good enough on the game’s biggest stage.
But that doesn’t erase those 59 victories or the distinction of being the NBA’s only team with top-five efficiency rankings on offense (third) and defense (fifth). The Raptors could decide they’re far enough from greatness to hit the reset button, but they’re still very good as presently constructed.
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The Utah Jazz are a brick wall with legs. No defense strikes more fear into the opposition. From Jan. 19—when Rudy Gobert returned from a PCL sprain—to the end of the regular season, Utah surrendered just 97.5 points per 100 possessions; no one else surrendered fewer than 101.1.
That said, few playoff participants have less intimidating offenses.
Donovan Mitchell was awesome as a rookie, posting only the league’s seventh 20-point average for a freshman in the 2000s. But he had almost zero assistance at that end. The second and third scorers in the regular season were Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio. The No. 2 option come playoff time was Joe Ingles, a four-year veteran with a career scoring average of 7.0 points per game.
There’s only so much that 21st pick Grayson Allen can do. His shooting and activity will make him an off-ball threat, but he averaged just 14.1 points on 43.0 percent shooting over four seasons at Duke.
Between this defense, Quin Snyder’s coaching and Mitchell’s opportunity to spring forward as a sophomore, there are reasons to buy Utah as a top-five team. But the offensive challenges give this club the narrowest margin of error in that group.
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The only way the Philadelphia 76ers could more clearly communicate intentions of making a splash is if Joel Embiid was yelling “Cannonball!” as he raced toward a pool.
“The whole notion of star hunting, star chasing, star development is at the forefront of everything we do,” Sixers head coach and interim general manager Brett Brown said, per Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier Times. “I would just like to go there to admit it to all of us. The timeline is now.”
This is the perfect time to strike.
Philly has a pair of surging 24-and-under stars with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The rest of the rotation is littered with complementary players and potential trade fillers. The organization can open cap space to sign a max player or cash in some trade chips—which include No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith, last year’s No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, 2017 stash pick Jonah Bolden and an unprotected first in 2021 (Heat)—for a star.
The Sixers could broker a blockbuster deal with minimal disruption to the rotation. That’s a scary thought considering this was the league’s second-most efficient team after the All-Star break. They don’t have quite enough shooting or two-way wings to crack the top three, but their ceiling might be as high as any team east of Oakland.
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The Houston Rockets will soon get the bill for their 65-win breakout. It’s not going to be cheap.
Chris Paul, Clint Capela (restricted) and Trevor Ariza—60 percent of the starting five—are headed to free agency. With $64.3 million tied up between James Harden, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, it’ll be tricky enough to retain the incumbents, let alone add outside pieces.
But the Rockets are “fully confident” Paul is staying put, per Sam Amick of USA Today. They can match any offer Capela receives. And if Ariza prices his way out of Houston, he’s at least the easiest to replace as a 32-year-old three-and-D guy.
The key is keeping the Paul-Capela-James Harden nucleus intact. Houston went 42-3 with a whopping plus-12.1 net rating when they played together this past season.
The Rockets don’t have as many two-way contributors as our top-two teams, but this a deep roster that might have expanded a bit on draft night. Houston only spent two second-rounders (one purchased) and still possibly found rotation players in De’Anthony Melton, an athletic defender and playmaker, and Vincent Edwards, a 6’8″ multi-positional defender with a three-ball.
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Elise Amendola/Associated Press
The Boston Celtics aren’t fair.
There’s nothing fair about losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, then Kyrie Irving in March and still following a 55-win season with a trip to the conference finals. There’s nothing fair about needing an athletic interior big and having one with lottery talent slip all the way to No. 27 (Robert Williams). There’s nothing fair about simultaneously playing for today and tomorrow without sacrificing on either end.
“The Celtics are set up to contend for at least 10 years,” ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe wrote. “The Irving/Hayward/[Al] Horford trio should carry them now. [Jaylen] Brown and [Jayson] Tatum take over later.”
Boston had last season’s top-ranked defense. If Marcus Smart (restricted) sticks around, the defense should only get better with Williams joining the fold. Its 18th-ranked attack will benefit from having a healthy Hayward, another developmental summer for Brown and Tatum and contract-year motivations for Irving and Terry Rozier.
The Shamrocks split their regular-season series with the Warriors and Rockets and then took James’ Cavaliers to seven games in the East finals. The fact that this isn’t the top-rated team on our rankings seems almost…unfair, but such is life in this NBA.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Three championships in four years, the other featuring a crushing collapse followed by the ultimate rebound of signing Kevin Durant. An 8-1 Finals record since.
And they should probably be better next season, too. Rookie Jacob Evans (28) could be a day-one supplier of defensive versatility, shot-making and ball-moving. Invest the mid-level exception in a more reliable option than Nick Young, and the Dubs could adequately address their wing deficiency.
Tack on the unlikelihood of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combining for 66 absences again, and the champs should enter next year stronger than they finished the last.
And that’s saying something.
“Golden State had more talent, more depth, more swagger and more experience than any team in the league—maybe ever,” Shelburne wrote. “That’s been the case since the Warriors added two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant to a team that won an NBA-record 73 games two years ago.”
The Warriors have reached that level of greatness where their enemies are all internal—complacency, injury, the infamous disease of more. Someone will catch up to them eventually (maybe Father Time), but for now, there are zero basketball reasons to deny them their rightful place at No. 1.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.