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, perhaps one of the toughest and most wide open divisions – the Northwest.
Here’s a look:
Nikola Jokic, a former second-round pick, hopes to push for an All-Star nomination following last year’s success.
- Starting Five: Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris
Defence & Deja Vu
The Nuggets cut it close last season, too close in fact. After losing their final game, Denver missed out on ending their five-year playoff drought by one game.
Take a peak at the schedule and see for yourself – the Nuggets could easily find themselves in the same boat again this season. The Nuggets have four home games this month, but then close the season against the Rockets, Thunder, Wizards, Warriors, Spurs and Jazz in the final three weeks.
And why can’t the Nuggets win?
The defence. It’s been particularly poor the last two years, ranking 23rd overall last season in defensive rating. Denver has made very few strides to try and correct the problem during the offseason, signing guys like Isaiah Thomas, who no doubt will help out on the offensive side, but is easily one of the worst transition point guards in the league.
Re-signing guys like Nikola Lucic to a lucrative five-year, $148-million contract was huge for this team, again though, Lucic is a below-average defender, especially on the pick-n-roll. The Nuggets were torched by guys like James Harden and LeBron last year, and they’ve failed to add any significant big men that can defend shots from the perimeter.
It seems like Denver are comfortable relying on a big defensive turnaround from Jamal Murray and Will Barton, but the chances of that happening seem slim.
Don’t Blink, You Might Miss It
For as awful as the Nuggets were defensively last year, they were by far one of the most exciting teams to watch with the ball in hand. Mike Malone’s team plays a high-tempo, fast-paced style of offense, which should fit in nicely with the newly acquired Isaiah Thomas and 14th overall draft pick Michael Porter Jr.
Denver has been very busy this summer, and they’ve since parted ways with guys like Darrell Arthur, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler in favour of some cap space and draft picks. That means the Nuggets attack is only going to get better, and after Jokic averaged 18.5 points-per-game last year, it’s likely we see him make a serious All-Star bid in 2018.
For Thomas, a repeat of his record-breaking 2016/17 season with the Celtics would be nice, but after a sluggish season bouncing back from hip surgery last year, let’s be realistic. Thomas is currently buried on the depth chart at the point guard spot, so he’ll likely contribute from the bench for most of the year.
As for Porter Jr., the jury is still out. The Nuggets would be wise to ease him back into the swing of things following offseason back surgery, but if he returns as advertised, he could easily help the Nuggets finish Top 10 in points-per-game again this year.
Wolves’ guard Jimmy Butler requested a trade right before training camp, adding further turmoil to Minnesota’s delicate roster.
- Starting Five: Karl-Anthony Towns, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague
Three Heads Are Better Than None
Other teams would kill for a Big 3 featuring the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler, but it’s fair to say the trio largely underachieved during their inaugural season in Minnesota, albeit for a number of different reasons.
In case you hadn’t heard, this is a pretty hostile roster right about now. Butler requested a trade earlier in August, and it’s been a long fortnight of talks between the Wolves and Miami Heat ever since. It feels like the locker room is destined for a fracca, fisticuffs, or whatever you want to call it, at some point this season.
It’s a shame really, this team could easily be a Top 4 seed in the West. Now, it feels like a midseason trade is only a matter of time unless head coach Tom Thibodeau can cool the tempers and keep the locker room civil.
Use What God Gave You
If Butler does stay in Minnesota, the Timberwolves might finally be able to reach their peak (if they can play nice).
Thibodeau is known for his defensive expertise, and as it just so happens, Butler is perhaps the most elite defender in the league. The four-time All-Star is one of the best swingmen in the NBA, averaging 4.0 defensive rebounds a game last season whilst also clocking up 22.2 points average points a night.
One quick look at the stats though, and it’s safe to say those numbers don’t always translate. The Wolves ranked 25th in the league in overall defensive rating, indicating just how hard Butler worked to carry this team on his back. It’s no wonder his knee blew out after contributing on both sides of the ball, but with a defensive mastermind like Thibs calling the shots, this team, with this much talent, has no excuse to rank anywhere outside the Top 10 this season.
Who’s Shooting 3’s?
Much has been made of the Wolves acquiring Derrick Rose and other former Chicago Bulls stars. One question remains though, who’s shooting the long ball?
For all of their talent, wingspan and height, Minnesota attempted the fewest three-point shots in the league last year. Reminder, the NBA is a three-point league now, and so far, the Wolves are yet to catch up.
Guys like rookie Josh Okogie should add some athleticism to the lineup, however one of their stars – probably Wiggins – needs to step up as a reliable three-point shooter when it matters most.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard was electric in the second-half last season, scoring the most points behind only LeBron James.
- Starting Five: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Jusuf Nurkic
Have They Learned Anything from Last Season?
No sweat if you forgot the Blazers won the Northwest title last year, it’s not like they made much noise during the playoffs.
At one point last season Portland were 22-21 before going on a serious 13-game winning streak in February/March. Despite ranking in the bottom half of the league in points-per-game, the Blazers looked destined for a deep postseason run, even clinching home-court advantage before being swept by the Pelicans.
Disappointment like that, especially in straight sets, can damage a young side, so the question now becomes – how does head coach Terry Stotts respond?
Perhaps we’ve already seen glimpses into the Blazers’ future. Portland won the NBA’s Summer League title, and after some strategic moves during the offseason, they are in a great place to make some noise in the Western Conference once again.
Bigger and Better Things
Gone are Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier. Now, the future relies entirely on Damian Lillard, although… hasn’t it always?
Some say he’s disgruntled in Portland, and even if that’s the case, it bodes well for the Blazers. A ‘chip on the shoulder’ mentality likely means another All-Star season averaging 26.9 points a game, with what should hopefully equal a much better performance in the playoffs after struggling to make shots.
Alongside Napier is the ever-reliable CJ McCollum, completing perhaps one of the best guard duos in the NBA. The six-year veteran enjoyed a fantastic season last year shooting 44% from the field, and he figures as a serious All-Star contender himself if he can play anything close to 81-games again.
But you can’t mention the Blazers without discussing Jusuf Nurkic. The big man was a rebound machine last year, nabbing 10 rebounds or more in 30-games. Look for the 24-year old to play more minutes this season to fill-in for Davis and Napier’s departure to the Nets.
The Missing Piece(s)
Again, defence. Nurkic will be called upon a lot this season, but who’s helping him out?
Zach Collins looks the part, although he’ll likely have a serious battle on his hands with Al-Farouq Aminu. Even so, the Blazers need someone to step up and co-exist with Nurkic in the paint.
For all of the talent this team holds, there’s also some big shoes to fill following Pat Connaughton’s departure. Milwaukee’s newest recruit had been one of Portland’s most important three-point shooters, a huge area that both Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas will hope to contribute in.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook averaged 25.4 points-per-game last season for the Thunder.
- Starting Five: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams
Easy Come, Easy Go
The biggest news of the offseason was the Thunder palming off Carmelo Anthony’s exxy contract on the Rockets. It’s freed up plenty of cap space, but more importantly, freed the Thunder from their offensive funk (hopefully).
After making it only as far as the first round of the playoffs last year, it looked as though Paul George had his bags packed for the Lakers. Turns out, a four-year, $137-million contract can do strange things to a man, as George opted to stay-put in Oklahoma City.
If you missed out on the Thunder’s hit and miss offense last year, lucky you. The Big 3 approach from George, Melo and Russell Westbrook just didn’t work, and as Melo started to decline, so too did the Thunder’s winning chances.
With Melo’s below average defensive skills gone, the Thunder can finally re-focus on challenging the Warriors in the West. Expect them to go on some pretty big runs this season with less mouths to feed.
The Names You Ought To Know
George and Westbrook are the All-Stars, but the Thunder quietly gained the upper hand in this division overnight.
At the same they pawned off Melo’s contract on the Rockets, the Thunder also gained Dennis Schroeder from the Hawks. The point-guard averaged 6.2 assists per-game last year in Atlanta, which should spell Westbrook nicely. Better yet, Schroeder is a serious upgrade over Raymond Felton, and although he’s hardly a good perimeter shooter, he’s a bright spark off the bench that should further quicken the Thunder’s tempo.
Alongside Schroeder, Nerlens Noel also prepares for his first season in OKC. It’s okay, you’re not supposed to know who that is, but the former Mavericks power forward should replace Steven Adams off the bench whilst also helping out in the paint.
Brodie the Ball Hog?
Talk of Westbrook taking too many shots is a constant debate among NBA fans, but should it be?
There’s no doubt Westbrook jacked up too many during the final game of the playoffs against the Jazz, 18 to be exact. That would be fine if Westbrook came good on more than 41% from the field, but realistically, when you average a triple-double for the second-straight year, you can basically do whatever you like.
With Melo gone, there should be plenty more “good” opportunities for Westbrook to score this season. Spacing was an issue for OKC last year, and if one thing is for certain, it should be fun watching George and Westbrook play off each other freely this season.
The Jazz will be hoping for a healthy year from back up point guard Dante Exum after missing most of last season recovering from shoulder surgery.
- Starting Five: Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert
The Exum Factor
It’s easy to look back fondly on last seasons success, but keep in mind, there was a time when the Jazz looked in serious danger of a Top 10 draft pick.
Winning games in the West is hard enough, and it becomes even more difficult when your big stars aren’t even on the floor. Rudy Gobert played in only 56-games last year, an absence that cost Utah in the first three months of the season.
Aussie Dante Exum also missed significant time, and while Ricky Rubio is capable of playing heavy minutes, the Jazz would prefer their back up point guard to be fit, healthy, and ready to provide some points from the bench.
Exum’s second and third years in the NBA have been a far cry from his rookie season when he played in 82 games. Last year he appeared in only 14 after undergoing shoulder surgery in October, but it looks as though the hamstring injuries that plagued him late last season are finally over.
Now entering his fourth season healthy, Exum could hold the key to the Jazz’s future success. Defence, particularly in the playoffs, was an issue last year, and the Aussie has been of the best shutdown perimeter players in the league.
The Yin Yang of Rudy Gobert
No question, Utah’s star center is one of the best in the league when it comes to creating shots and opportunities. Gobert’s forte is driving to the rim, forcing defenders to over-commit, and then kicking the ball out to Donovan Mitchell for a wide open look.
That works wonders for the Jazz, and it helps having a player like Mitchell who can focus solely on scoring. But what Gobert struggles with at times is speed and agility, as was the case during last year’s Western Conference Semi’s against the Rockets.
When faced with an elite player like James Harden or even Chris Paul, Gobert found it tough. Houston and Golden State are two of the best teams in the league when it comes to spreading the court, and after a very quiet offseason that sees the Jazz carry the same roster from 2017 over to 2018, there could be plenty of good and bad ahead.
Who’s Helping D-Mitch?
He arguably deserved the Rookie of the Year award last year, and now entering his sophomore season, Mitchell will look to carry the Jazz all the way toward’s the Finals.
After averaging 20.5 points-per-game, it’s an achievable goal, but if Mitchell struggles to receive help from his teammates this year, Utah’s season could go south quickly.
On a personal note, Mitchell needs to tighten up his ball handling. He averaged close to three turnovers a game last season, and the Jazz would like him to attempt more than 3.8 free-throws a game. As for the team, it’s tough to see the scoreboard consistently ticking with guys like Gobert, Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio all averaging under 15.0 points-per-game last season.
Since the Jazz made zero moves during the offseason, this could snowball into a big problem very quickly. Trading Rodney Hood last year, a big offensive contributor, hurt the Jazz in the playoffs, and after drafting a defensive prospect like Grayson Allen in the draft, Utah certainly hasn’t helped their cause.