So basketball is back.
Save the date, October 17 sees the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers tip-off the 2018 season, and once you go ahead and circle that on your calendar, it’s time to get stuck into some preseason previews for the year ahead.
Trades and draft picks are the two things you need to know, but in case you’ve been snoozing since June, the NBA Championship market has received a bit of a shake-up.
This week, we’re taking a look at the Southwest Division, led by one perennial favourite, one very serious underdog, and an old dynasty that could be on their way out.
Here’s a look:
The Mavericks signed former Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan to a one-year, $24 million contract in July.
- Starting Five: Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Luka Doncic, Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan
My Name is Luka
It looked like a lengthy rebuild ahead for the Mavericks after finishing 33-49 last season, or at least that was the case up until draft day. Dallas traded up to select European sensation Luka Doncic with the third overall pick, a move that made a world of sense considering how versatile the Slovenian is.
At just 19-years old, this is the future. Expect some growing pains along the way, but there’s no question he can adjust to the NBA relatively quickly, already opening as the $3.50 favourite for Rookie of the Year.
Doncic’s 6’6 frame isn’t what we’re used to seeing at the point guard position, although he’ll likely start at shooting guard for the Mavs. This is effectively a cardboard cutout of Dirk Nowitzki, only this version could turn out to be even better.
Doncic shot 32.9% from three-point land last year at Real Madrid, averaging 16.0 points-per-game. Forget Ricky Rubio, and forget Pau Gasol, this guy is the next best thing to come from the EuroLeague.
The Mavs needed a center, and DeAndre Jordan needed a team, so this worked out alright.
Well into the later stages of his career, the Mavs will be hoping Jordan can continue to provide solid numbers as an interior defender. On the opposite side, he adds another nasty layer to Dallas’ pick-n-roll, so expect plenty of explosive lobs and dunks with Doncic and Harrison Barnes this season.
Born in Texas, this is a chance for Jordan to not only finish his career close to home, but also turn his one-year deal into something more.
Dennis Does It All
Averaging 15.2 points-per-game in your rookie year is fun, but now it’s time for Dennis Smith Jr. to really show us what he’s capable of.
Dunks came easy to the promising point-guard last year, jump shots, not so much. Smith shot under 40% from field-goal range, although he did show some promise from three-point land in the final week of the season. The Mavs need him to play with a chip on his shoulder this season, and gel from the very beginning with their two new inclusions.
Rockets guard James Harden averaged 30.4 points-per-game during his MVP season last year.
- Starting Five: Chris Paul, James Harden, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela
CP3 and What Could’ve Been
Up 3-2, the Rockets had the Warriors on the ropes in the Western Conference Finals last year. Then Chris Paul got hurt, and well, you know the rest.
It’s easy to see why Houston resigned Paul, his chemistry with James Harden proved to the entire league that two guards can indeed coexist on offense, but a $160 million, four-year contract? That’s a big gamble on an injury prone star.
Fortunately, general manager Daryl Morey traded for former Phoenix Sun Brandon Knight, a great replacement for Paul when he eventually gets hurt or needs time on the bench. It’s also great news for Harden, fresh off an MVP year that saw him become the first player to score 60-points as part of a triple-double.
The Green Machine
With Trevor Ariza departing via free agency, the Rockets now depend entirely on Gerald Green to help fill the void at the three-point line this season. The good news is Green is more than capable, shooting 40% from the field and 36% from downtown last season.
Green had a fairly quiet run throughout the playoffs last year, but his 31-point game against the Kings in the final game of the regular season is exactly what the Rockets will be hoping for now that the 32-year old occupies a starting five spot.
More Melo Mo’ Power?
Of course, the news of the offseason was the Rockets’ $2.4 million signing of Carmelo Anthony. The move provides depth and that extra spice to hopefully push the Rockets toward their first finals appearance since 1995, but what can we really expect from a now 34-year old, bench player?
If one thing is for sure, Melo needs to take his shots. Last year’s reluctance with Oklahoma City didn’t work well with Russell Westbrook, and it won’t work with Harden or Paul, either.
It’s fair to say coach Mike D’Antoni sees something in Melo though, and he might just be able to get the most out of him since his days in New York. Drive to the rim, or shoot that three, just don’t try to do too much please.
- NBA Championship Odds: $9.00
At 32-years old, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol returns for his 10th season in Memphis.
- Starting Five: Mike Conley, Dillon Brooks, Chandler Parsons, JaMychal Green, Marc Gasol
First Aid & Father Time
Health is paramount to the Grizzlies chances at success this season. Realistically, even if Marc Gasol and Mike Conley manage to stay on the court this is still a 40-win team, but Memphis need to have their two veterans on the floor if they hope to coax rookies like Jaren Jackson Jr. toward’s a bright future.
Conley averaged 20.5 points-per-game in 2016 before sustaining a season-ending achillies injury last year, making the 30-year old extremely valuable during this rebuild process.
JJJ + The Rest
Memphis’ fourth overall pick has had himself a preseason, shooting 40% from three-point range during the Summer League. Jackson Jr. also looks like a serious weapon on the other side of the ball, averaging 5.8 rebounds and three blocks a game last year at Michigan State.
Our Rookie of the Year market has Jackson at $11.00 entering the season. It’s unlikely he contributes enough on offense to win the award, but his defensive contributions are highly regarded, something the Grizzlies have been in desperate need of in recent times.
It’s a good problem to have, but head coach J.B. Bickerstaff now has a decision to make – do you start Jackson Jr. at centre or small-forward?
Gasol is good enough to control the paint, so you probably want Jackson knocking down jump-shots when he can. That, plus fellow rookie Jevon Carter, who had a fantastic Summer League averaging 11.4 points-per-game, could bring some real spark to the lineup this season.
New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis enters as the early MVP favourite ahead of the 2018 season.
- Starting Five: Elfrid Payton, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic, Anthony Davis
To the Finals, and Beyond?
New Orleans were no match for the Warriors last year, losing 4-1 in the Conference Semis. It was a harsh learning curve for this young side, one they’ll hope to build on this season.
This time last year the plan was Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins up forward, but while it might seem like Boogie leaving town hurt this team, really, it’s a blessing in disguise.
Granted, the Pelicans didn’t allow Davis and Cousins much time to gel, however it was painfully clear Cousins’ absence after sustaining a season-ending achilles injury last year was the reason this team ran so deep in the playoffs.
Simply put, there were too many mouth’s to feed on the floor, and not enough ball to go around. Rajon Rondo has also departed, which frees up even more space for All-Star Jrue Holiday to do his thing.
Now entering his seventh year in New Orleans, the veteran guard managed to get under the skin of Damien Lillard during the postseason, racking up 41-points in Game 4 against the Blazers. His presence on court can’t be stressed enough, and he’s a strong complimentary player to Davis that should take the Pelicans deep into the Finals hunt yet again.
D-Day for Davis
Anthony Davis and James Harden are chalk and cheese in comparison, but the Pelicans’ star is in a similar position to the one Harden was in last year.
If you’ll recall, Davis was in the MVP race, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year consideration. If the Pelicans made more noise in the regular season, he’d probably have won, but now we get to look forward to the coming of age of one of the best young center’s in the league.
A year after Harden entered his prime thanks to a rejuvenated roster, it’s fair to expect the same from Davis. He averaged a career high 28.1 points-per-game last season on 51% shooting from the field, and at just 25-years old, figure as perhaps the best two-way player in the league.
As the early $4.00 MVP favourite, now’s the time to jump on. Davis missed only seven games last year, so at least you know he’s reliable to put up big numbers once again.
Young and Gun
Sure, Boogie and Rondo are gone, but their replacements are extremely promising.
On one hand, there’s Elfrid Payton, who still needs to show us why he was scouted as an elite defender in the 2014 draft, and on the other, there’s Julius Randle, fresh off a very underrated year with the Lakers that saw him average eight rebounds a game.
Both players were below-average from three-point land last year, but they should fit in nicely with New Orleans’ fast tempo offense.
San Antonio Spurs
Four-time All Star DeMar DeRozan prepares for his first season in San Antonio following a controversial trade with Kawhi Leonard.
- Starting Five: Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills, DeMar DeRozan, LeMarcus Aldridge, Jakob Poetl
What goes around comes around, and after nearly two decades of dominance, the Spurs have come full circle as they prepare for what looks to be a mini (or long) rebuild.
Losing not only veteran players, but future Hall of Famers like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli stings, but it was a worthwhile move in the grand scheme. Both players were great assets off the bench last season, and although it hurts, it’s better to move forward with their best years now behind them.
On the flip side, the Spurs received DeMar DeRozan from the Toronto Raptors, losing Kawhi Leonard in the process. It was a controversial trade, one that doesn’t sit quite right with DeRozan after nine-years of loyalty in Toronto.
What the Spurs will be hoping for now is for DeRozan to leave that attitude at home, and use it as motivation on the court. Pairing up with coach Gregg Popovich could alter his career for the better, and if DeRozan plays with a ‘chip on the shoulder’ mentality this year, he may just enjoy his time in Texas.
Relevant or Regression?
Picking the Spurs to fall short has been a popular betting trend in recent years, only for San Antonio to prove everyone wrong time and time again.
This year, though, it’s Popovich’s first season since 1997 without Parker, Ginobli or Tim Duncan on the roster, and after Leonard was supposed to lead the way toward’s the next generation of winning, now, here we are.
There will no doubt be growing pains ahead as this team adjusts to life without two of its biggest stars, but there’s nothing to say the Spurs can’t find themselves in a low playoff seed in the West.
A lot relies on DeRozan’s ability to lead the way, and if LaMarcus Aldridge can see his fair share of the ball and average close to 23.1 points-per-game again, the sky is the limit.
Don’t Forget Dejounte
To the casual NBA fan, Dejounte Murray might be news to you. This 22-year old is the real deal though, becoming the youngest player to be named on the NBA’s All Defensive team last year.
A serious breakout season feels like it’s right around the corner, which is great news considering the Spurs are in a serious transition phase. Speaking of which, Murray’s specialty as a two-way player makes him one to watch on both sides of the glass this season.