Welcome to Part Two of my NBA kinda-maybe Power Rankings thing, where we look at who’s good, bad, or just doesn’t matter. We got the chaff and offal out of the way yesterday, and the good stuff comes up today. Including, if you’ve paid attention, our very own Portland Trail Blazers.
If you like punishment, Part One is here.
The Gooey Middle (Western Edition)
Utah Jazz: After losing Gordon Hayward to Boston during the offseason, coach Quin Snyder and crew are looking at guys like Rodney Hood to step up and help replace Hayward’s ballhandling, shooting, and command of NBA offense.
Hood can score, and will score; he’s got the classic look of a 20-point scorer night in, night out. The question for the Jazz is, who else can put the ball into the hoop? Ricky Rubio is a facilitator of the first degree, and he’s used to playing with offensively inept layers, but he himself is a horrid shooter; the NBA as a whole is getting smarter about playing against guys with a glaring weakness.
Utah will be stingy and Rudy Gobert will make at least a dozen dudes pee themselves when they encounter him in the lane this year. If they can score enough while defending at a Warriorsian level, they could sniff 50 wins and the postseason.
Denver Nuggets: Paul Millsap is a great defender. The Nuggets were a trash defensive team last season. As solid as Millsap is in most areas of the game, his defensive abilities are the main reason why Denver broke the bank for a 32-year-old power forward, who is joining a team stocked with power forwards and is a decade older than the other core pieces of the team.
It’s a big gamble that will decide the Nuggets’ season. Nikola Jokic and his passing wizardry (my friend Bryant Knox loves this kid), Gary Harris and his sneaky cutting, and Jamal Murray’s shooting stroke form the heart of a potential offensive machine. If Denver can defend at a not-awful rate, they will be playing in late April.
Minnesota Timberwolves: After acquiring Jimmy Butler and accelerating their rebuild, the Wolves now face the kind of crushing expectations and pressure that comes with dealing young players for players in their prime. President/Head Coach Tom Thibodeau got impatient with the young players’ inability to focus and play the kind of defense he demands, so he punted a part of the future to get closer to being good now. And he kept both his blue-chippers, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
The thing is, Butler and veteran big Taj Gibson both played for Thibodeau in Chicago. Coaches or GMs bringing over their old familiar hands mostly doesn’t turn out well; Thibs’ mentor Doc Rivers has been doing that in Los Angeles for years now, with limited success. True, Butler is a player that you always make that deal for, but it doesn’t come without risk. One of the reasons why the Wolves gave Wiggins half of Fort Knox a couple weeks ago was to make him feel less irrelevant, since Butler does the things he does better.
Thibodeau wants to have his cake and eat it too, being competitive now while still setting up to be a force in the future. Other than 2020-21, this season is going to be the most important one in the Wolves’ timeline as currently constructed. Either they make the playoffs, give a good account of themselves, and establish some positive vibes, or they miss the playoffs (or get the eighth seed and lose to Golden State in four straight), and the house of cards Thibs built starts to wobble.
Portland Trail Blazers: While Utah’s path to the playoffs is simply offense, Denver’s goal is better defense, and the Wolves are hoping their studs grow up real fast, the Blazers’ path to the playoffs is less concrete and arguably less attainable. They have a triumvirate that can rival most in the NBA in Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. However, who is going to step up their game and do something to help the Big Three?
Evan Turner is looking to rebound after a putrid 2016-17 campaign, and everybody else on the Blazers is either average or young. When Nurkic wasn’t on the court, their defense was almost as bad as Denver’s, as well.
Nurkic is the most important player in terms of potential impact (for we know what Lillard and McCollum can and will do), but I think Turner, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and whomever emerges from the morass of big men to back up Nurk will have almost as much to say about where Portland goes this season. If they are able to contribute, Portland will make the playoffs again, this time in a hellacious Western Conference playoff scene.
If it’s basically “Dame, CJ, and the Damettes” in 2017-18, the Blazers will be watching the postseason from home. Unacceptable for a team as capped-out as this, by the way.
New Orleans Pelicans: One name is all that matters here: Demarcus Cousins.
Yes, Anthony Davis is still a top-five/10 player with room to grow, and Jrue Holiday just got a ton of money to be a slightly above-average point guard in a league chock-full of great ones. Cousins, though, is the key.
If the Pelicans make the playoffs and Cousins fits alongside Davis, he could re-sign there and help Davis dominate the league for a while. If New Orleans flops and Cousins clashes with people (something he did much of in Sacramento), Cousins will walk, and everyone that works as a coach or front-office executive for the Pellies is fired. No pressure.
Memphis Grizzlies: Like everyone else in this tier, the Grizzlies area playoff question mark. The path these guys have to take, though, may be the most treacherous of them all.
Other than Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the Grizz have youngsters and incomplete veterans to rely on, as well as the perpetually-injured Chandler Parsons, he of the $94 million contract. The Grizzlies have consistency and good coaching, but lack explosion or the potential to be something other than a 45-win team, at most.
If most of the teams above them fix their issues, Memphis won’t be able to keep up.
Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul, the pouty and demanding superstar point guard, has been traded to Houston, taking whatever faint, dying title aspirations the Clippers had with him. Los Angeles won’t be winning any championships, but they’ll likely have more fun without the sourpuss Paul around, scowling whenever they miss a defensive assignment or clank a shot.
They will also miss JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford, though. And DeAndre Jordan might struggle offensively without the greatest passing savant outside of LeBron James feeding him easy lobs. The drama surrounding Austin Rivers, son of coach Doc Rivers, is still hanging around, though Austin improved his play last season.
Power forward Blake Griffin will get a chance to take the skills he’s learned over the years, put them into practice, and hope his knees don’t implode. If he can’t stay healthy, the Clips will be in the lottery, a fate unthinkable as recently as a year ago.
See Ya Next Year
Boston Celtics: Before the Gordon Hayward injury, I had the Celtics up with the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, squads integrating very talented new teammates in a quest to slay the giants. I was looking forward to watching the most successful franchise in NBA history try to get back to the top, try to do what no Eastern team has done since the Pierce-Garnett-Allen C’s were in their prime: defeat a LeBron James team in a playoff series.
But, when Hayward suffers what people are calling a “gruesome” leg injury, when James and Isaiah Thomas—two of his opponents—take the time to visit Hayward afterwards, when you have Paul George (who suffered a very similar injury playing for Team USA a couple years ago) say publicly that he was “devastated” and “I was, like, nauseous watching it,” all those aspirations go out the window. Boston will still be a good team, mind you, but this is a horrific blow.
There’s been no official update on Hayward as of this writing (4:30 Wednesday night), but given the evidence, he’ll likely miss the entire regular season, and likely the playoffs as well. Year One of Danny Ainge’s grand experiment will be a punt, less than a couple quarters of a game into it. At least Jayson Tatum will get more run.
Toronto Raptors: Everybody’s favorite regular season winners turned playoff underachievers. The Raptors say they’ll open up the offense, shoot more threes and get out of the isolation-heavy offense that LeBron ad Co. can snuff out in their sleep, and what the Milwaukee Bucks almost smothered with ridiculous length before their inexperience caught up to them.
That talk is going to be just talk in the end, I think. All-Star DeMar DeRozan got to where he is by being a taller, less skilled Dwayne Wade; he isn’t going to start lobbing threes and passing the ball just because his coaches and critics want him to. Kyle Lowry is on the wrong side of 30, and Serge Ibaka has always been too passive on offense. Norman Powell is more bulldog than surgeon, and Toronto has been trying to trade the anachronistic Jonas Valanciunas for years.
When it comes down to it, the Raptors are going to do the same old Raptors thing, which is win 46-49 games, struggle through a tough first-round series, then get summarily executed by a more versatile team in Round 2. They’ve hit their ceiling, at least for the next couple seasons; they still have some young guys in the pipeline.
Washington Wizards: Washington, on the other hand, feels like a team that would make a series with Cleveland feel less like a formality and more like a challenge. They’ve tantalized with their potential before, but John Wall’s knees, Bradley Beal’s ankles, Otto Porter being inconsistent, and the team chemistry being toxic hampered them. Last season signaled that a turnaround might be coming.
Wall is one of the most exciting players to watch in the league, and now that Porter has found himself, things should be going good, health permitting. With the Hayward injury, the Wizards now are the top challenger to the Eastern supremacy of LeBron. I don’t think they’ll actually beat Cleveland, but we’ll see. Stranger things have happened, and James losing in the East just before heading West in the offseason would be a juicy narrative for jerks like me to spout about.
Loading the Slingshot, Taking Aim at Goliath
Oklahoma City Thunder: Getting Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in separate trades for young players and overpriced contracts is like trading piles of spare parts for a sports car and a vintage ‘50s convertible. Whatever happens, GM Sam Presti deserves an Executive of the Year award, the benefit of the doubt, and Russell Westbrook’s trust, the latter of which was solidified by Westbrook signing the richest contract in NBA history a week before the season started.
There will be growing pains, questions about fit, concerns that the Thunder will fall into “your turn, my turn” stagnation, and Westbrook, fresh off averaging a triple-double and winning the MVP, will have to recalibrate his approach while still keeping that balls-to-the-wall IDGAF mode in reserve in case of emergency. It will take time to achieve continuity, time that is in short supply since George is on an expiring contract, and Anthony has a player option he’ll likely decline in order to get his last long-term deal.
They have the offensive firepower to challenge the Warriors a tiny bit. The thing is, between Andre Roberson being useless on offense and Anthony being bad on defense, Golden State has weak spots to pick at. Out of the Rockets, Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs, I believe Oklahoma City is the weakest challenger to the Warriors. It’s still refreshing to that some teams are still trying to win, not taking the Warriors’ all-consuming dominance lying down.
Houston Rockets: Acquiring Chris Paul, a supreme talent approaching the twilight of his career and a noted control freak, to pair with James Harden, who’s the closest thing to a Charles Barkley-type freelancing artist we have today, should be worth the price of admission all on its own. The first time Paul barks at Harden for lazing through a defensive rotation, and the first time Harden gets frustrated with Paul’s slowpoke tendencies, will be big tests and high drama for another team that’s looking to challenge the Titans, instead of meekly getting devoured Attack on Titan style.
The Rockets are deep, and they’re the team best suited to play the Warriors at their game. Trouble is, the Warriors have been playing Warrior ball longer, and they do it better. Even if the Rockets improve their defense while maintaining their historic offensive production, they’ll be playing a team that does everything they do, just better.
Houston would make a potential series exciting, entertaining, and dramatic, like an Attack on Titan episode. Unfortunately, the Rockets seem likely to be snatched out of the air, be slowly raised up to the mouth of the hungry Titan, and either chomped in half or crammed into the gullet and slurped down like spaghetti.
San Antonio Spurs: Gee, if Kawhi Leonard hadn’t gotten hurt….
The proud, stubborn Spurs have asked that question ever since Leonard stepped on Zaza Pachulia’s foot in Game 1 of the West Finals last May, and they choked away a 20-point lead on the way to getting swept. They didn’t do anything dramatic to improve, like the Rockets and Thunder, but the Warriors have never seen their best version, either.
They might end up suffering the same fate as the rest of Golden State’s victims, all the same. San Antonio has flaws like everybody else that’s not the Warriors, and there will come a time when the legendary Gregg Popovich will decide he’d rather retire to the nearest winery, sip on an expensive red wine, and pontificate about whatever it is rich, distinguished old men like him pontificate about, instead of continuing to run the Spurs.
Cleveland Cavaliers: This feels like LeBron James’ last season with the franchise he was drafted to, put on the map, left in the dumps, and won a championship for. You can feel it in the air, like a slight chill: the inexperienced GM trying his best to both appease the Best in the World and prepare for the future, the owner that’s friends with the president LeBron has publicly dumped on (and deservedly so), the roster that got reshuffled and maybe a bit worse depending on whether Isaiah Thomas’ hip injury heals properly, most of the league getting better and going West.
It’s interesting that the likes of George and Anthony would rather go out West and face perhaps the greatest team of all time, rather than stay in the East and try to go through LeBron James. That speaks to the level of dominance that James has maintained in the East (he hasn’t lost a series to an Eastern team in the playoffs since 2010).
I believe that Cleveland is still the prime challenger to the Warriors, because LeBron James plays for them. Given that the Warriors made roadkill out of him and his whole team last year, I’m not sure that’s going to matter.
And Your Reigning, Defending, Undisputed, NBA Heavyweight Champions of the World….
Golden State Warriors: If you’re a WWE fan, and you didn’t read that in Paul Heyman’s voice, I’m mildly disappointed in you.
The Warriors aren’t really competing with the Rockets, Spurs, or LeBron. They’re competing with the 1960s Celtics, 1980s Lakers, and 1990s Bulls. If they win the title this season, they’ll complete the most dominant stretch of play since the 1996-98 Bulls, against a league that has much, much, much more talent that the late 90s-early 2000s. That would be three championships in four seasons, with a league-record 73-win regular season sandwiched between them.
It’s the Warriors versus the field. Pray for the field.