As the jockeying for playoff position, tanking for lottery ping-pong balls, and strategic “load management” goes on during the final three days of the NBA regular season, it seems like a good time to reflect on the 2018-19 season for each team of the Association.
For those of you not familiar with the formula I use, I basically spout a quick opinion/review of a team, add in some cheeky comment, and see if I can make you spit your coffee onto the monitor.
This season has been strange in many ways—LeBron James missing the playoffs out West after eight straight years ruling the Eastern Conference (AKA the Junior Varsity), whatever the hell is going on in Boston, the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic making the postseason after being flaming piles of hot garbage for most of the 2010s, James Harden bending and breaking the rules of basketball like Neo in the Matrix—and the league is set up for a huge shakeup during the free agency period coming up in July.
During the coming months, while I’m on a ladder picking ripe cherries, watching my blueberries mature, seeing my gooseberry shrubs establish themselves, and observing my cucumbers getting swole, I expect my rapturous reveries in the garden to be rudely interrupted by the news that Kevin Durant has signed with the New York Knicks, and is bringing super friends with him. Anthony Davis will get traded, and it’ll be interesting to see if the strong-arm tactics Davis used to pressure New Orleans will get him what he wants, of if the Pelicans will do what the Spurs did with Kawhi Leonard and ship Davis to the team with the best deal available regardless of what their former golden boy wants.
Those decision points, and whoever wins the Draft Lottery (and the right to pick Duke phenom Zion Williamson), will likely reshape the NBA as the 2020s begin. But that’s a discussion for another time. We still have to award another NBA Championship to the Golden State Warriors before Durant ditches them out of boredom and tries to be the latest sap to save the incurably inept Knicks.
15 teams will be covered today, with the other half coming Wednesday.
Save Us, KD! (And Kyrie! And AD! But not Zion!)
New York Knicks: In a vacuum, the Knicks’ plan seems pretty good: Sign Durant, then convince Kyrie Irving that he should play alongside another ball-dominant forward two years removed from ditching LeBron, winning the Lottery, and trading Williamson to New Orleans for Davis. The top center, a top-three wing, and a top-five point guard would be an insane haul…but this is the Knicks we’re talking about here. They’ll Knicks this up somehow, especially with all the ifs being thrown around.
I do believe Durant ends up going to New York. Irving might follow him there; the looks he gave Durant during the All-Star break reminded me of a hungry dog eyeing a juicy steak. Kyrie looked at Durant like a man longing for something, and I just can’t shake the suspicion that where KD goes, Irving will follow, even if his history suggests he doesn’t want to play a secondary role to anybody again.
It’s winning the lottery that would be the undoing for the Knicks. With the flattened lottery odds, having the worst record in the NBA (which New York just clinched) no longer matters as much, with the odds going from 1-of-4 to about 1-of-6. And even if New York wins the lottery and can dangle Zion, the Pelicans might not take that bait—Boston could offer Jayson Tatum, and a deeper pool of prospects than the bare-bones Knicks can surrender. That would matter for the Pelicans, a small-market franchise stuck in Football Country that’s about to trade away the best player they’ve ever had, and probably will ever have. They want to get to competitive status ASAP, and Boston would better facilitate that goal than New York, even if Williamson ends up as the best overall prospect/player out of all potential trade targets.
Without Davis, the Knicks would have Durant, Irving, a group of youngsters headlined by Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, and a bunch of perimeter players that can’t shoot. That should be good enough for a playoff spot in the East, but you never know—Durant and Irving are two very moody guys, and it’s easy to imagine a scenario where they totally implode and Madison Square Garden becomes the Thunderdome with 20,000 New Yorkers chanting “Two men enter! One man leaves!”
So yeah, the Knicks are about to have the most interesting offseason in the history of sub-20-win franchises. I dread them getting everything they want. I expect them to do what the Knicks do best, and cock this up in hilarious fashion.
The Young and the Horrendous
Chicago Bulls: The plus side of the Bulls: Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Zach LaVine finding a jump shot, Robin Lopez finding a post game (seriously, who’ve thought RoLo would ever be a semi-effective high-usage post player?), finding some guys on the margins (like Shaquille Harrison, a defense-first point that will stick if he can throw the ball somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Michigan), trading for Otto Porter Jr.
The minus side of the Bulls: Carter’s injury woes, LaVine being an empty-calories, black hole scorer, Robin Lopez finding a post game (if you’re having RoLo shoot 20 times a game from the post, I’m sorry, that’s blatant tanking—no matter how much he’s improved), Kris Dunn being a bust, the Jabari Parker experiment failing, Jim Boylen being a damn drill sergeant coach in 2019, Gar Forman still heading basketball operations.
The Bulls still need a couple more pieces, and some luck. A coach who doesn’t cause near-mutinies with two-hour practices would be a big help, as well.
Phoenix Suns: The Suns have an advantage over the Bulls, Cavaliers, and Hawks because they have Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton—two future studs, instead of one for the other teams (and perhaps none for Cleveland). They also have a major disadvantage, unfortunately—they play in the West.
For the first 10 weeks of the season (or basically the rest of 2018), the Western Conference had 14 teams within a few games of each other. Even though it was early in the season, it was cannibalism at its peak; it wasn’t like the Western teams were just pummeling the East over and over.
The odd team out in the 15-franchise conference? The callow, inexperienced Phoenix Suns.
A league-average point guard would be ideal for the Suns, someone to share ball-handling duties with Booker. Playing Mikal Bridges more, re-signing Kelly Oubre Jr., and banishing Josh Jackson to the depths of G-League hell are other moves they could make.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The team with the least amount of hope. Their best player is a pudgy white guy north of 30 years old who missed most of the season due to injury, and their second-best player is a rookie point guard on a crappy team; rookie point guards on crappy teams don’t develop well unless they’re otherworldly gifted, and Collin Sexton lacks those gifts.
I hope Kevin Love enjoys that fat contract he signed last summer. It’ll be his only source of solace.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks have been fun and almost average since the All-Star break, taking advantage of their youth and exuberance when the rest of the league is either tanking or saving their old age and treachery for the playoffs.
(My late father would always tell me during games of Risk that old age and treachery always beats youth and exuberance. By “treachery” he meant “I’ll just hole up in Australia, let you kick your little brother’s butt, then come charging out with a 70-army mass and seize Asia and North America.” If he were anybody else but my father, I’d have called him a pussy.)
The fateful trade of Luka Doncic for Trae Young is going to be judged accurately 15 years from now, but knowing our society nowadays, both players will be judged every year, every month, every game, every damn dribble. Young will be especially scrutinized, since the Hawks surrendered Doncic—the Slovenian wunderkind who tore up European pro leagues as a teenager—for Young and a future Mavericks first-rounder.
As far as the trade goes, the rookie year is about even on the scorecard. Doncic has been every bit as good as advertised, almost making the All-Star team and being the likely Rookie of the Year. But Young has been a passing marvel all season long. Even when he struggled getting off his shot against NBA players, he found ways to stay a net positive on offense. He’ll spend his entire career getting targeted and pummeled on defense, which will make maintaining a deep stable of long, rangy wings a top priority for any team employing him.
With Young’s shot falling during the second half, he’s starting to look more like the next Stephen Curry—which he’ll have to be in order for the trade to pay off in full for Atlanta. Doncic is that good.
Like I said, though, Young and Doncic Round One is a draw. I can’t wait to see how the rest of their careers shape up.
A Prison of Their Own Making
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal is a stud—sure. And the Wiz finally fired Ernie Grunfeld! The man that gave John Wall $40 million a year for five years is no longer running a basketball team! Progress!
Unfortunately for the Wizards, they will have to pay Wall $40 million a year, right after Wall injured himself so severely he’ll miss next season and may be limited as a player forever. Which is Year One of that mammoth five-year deal, by the way.
Whomever Washington hires is going to do his/her job with a 10-ton millstone draped around their neck, a millstone so crushingly heavy that the Wiz may not even be able to afford to re-sign their stud shooting guard in Beal. A broom won’t be enough to clean up this mess; hell, a pound of C4 probably isn’t gonna do it.
New Orleans Pelicans: Speaking of messes!
I’ve said enough about the Pelicans above, but it bears repeating. They better get a decent return for Anthony Davis, or the solvency of the franchise itself may be called into question.
Still Cleaning House…or Are They?
Memphis Grizzlies: The constant flip-flopping about whether to keep Mike Conley or trade him is getting obnoxious. The Grizz failed to deal him at the deadline, then he goes on and has a really good stretch of play, and now Memphis has a double-edged sword in hand. Conley playing well makes him a more valuable trade piece (and his contract has one more year plus an Early Termination Option to go), but it also makes him more valuable to the Grizzlies on the court.
Since it’s highly doubtful that the Grizz will be playoff contenders next season, and since they’re going to surrender a first-round pick to the Boston Celtics eventually (they hope it’s this season, so their path becomes a little clearer), I would cut bait with Conley and deal him to the first team that calls about him.
The point guard market is saturated, but there are a few teams that could really benefit from his steady veteran leadership. Utah has long been linked to him, but my favorite potential landing spot might be Phoenix. The Suns may be young, but Conley can be a secondary playmaker, spot up for open threes, has tons of experience playing with a star big man, and is the very definition of a professional. His expiring contract is the cherry on top of the sundae, ensuring that either he or the Suns can cut bait with relative swiftness if it doesn’t work out.
How to Build Around a Young Superstar
Dallas Mavericks: I’m gonna mention the Kristaps Porzingis case just in passing; it’s a sordid affair that I admit disgusts me, and this is not a dirt sheet or a rumor mill, and I’m not a lawyer. The basketball part of it is a concern, but it’s very, very secondary right now.
As for Doncic, the young superstar the Mavs want to build around: He’s gonna eventually be an All-NBA caliber wing, but to experience the kind of team success he had in Europe, he may already have to think about ditching Dallas. The Mavericks failed to build around Dirk Nowitzki after they dismantled their 2011 title team in a fit of cheapness I never expected from Mark Cuban, and the same may happen to Doncic, no matter what happens to Porzingis.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The Wolves have less flexibility cap-wise than Dallas does, but interim coach Ryan Saunders (son of Flip, who was Minnesota’s coach until he passed away) has brought a fresh perspective and approach after Tom Thibodeau was tossed out the door.
That fresh approach: give Karl-Anthony Towns the ball, and get the hell out of his way.
After Thibs was fired and Jimmy Butler was dealt to Philadelphia, Towns looked and played like a man who just crawled through 500 yards of s***-smelling foulness and emerged into a tropical paradise, complete with mimosas and topless ladies. He destroyed the NBA after the All-Star break, and maintaining that momentum going into 2019-20 is Priority No. 1 for Minny.
The roster around him is a mixed bag. Josh Okogie, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington are ideal players to put around Towns, but Jeff Teague has regressed badly, and the immensely expensive Andrew Wiggins is so disinterested on the court he looks like he’s doing his taxes or sitting in the dentist’s office instead of engaging in a world-class athletic contest.
If the Wolves want to get back to the playoffs, they have to find ways to complement Towns better—and convincing the big Dominican that defense is a thing he should do more often.
Los Angeles Lakers: Seeing the Lakers fail to qualify for the postseason the first year after acquiring LeBron James had to feel good for a certain section of Rip City that still burns effigies of Kobe Bryant and David Stern every May. Just when everyone thought that THE LAKERS were back, the basketball gods gave LeBron a horrible Christmas gift by tugging on his groin, watching him collapse to the ground, and hitting all the bandwagon fans with a big fat “NOPE!”
The good news for the Lakers is that they can essentially start from scratch; all the veterans they signed last summer are playing on one-year deals or partially guaranteed contracts the Lakers can wipe away like a bird turd on a windshield. The bad news would be the blood clots Brandon Ingram is dealing with, making him untradeable. Lonzo Ball sat out two months with an ankle sprain, which smacks of banishment—his daddy is also starting to mouth off again, now that LeBron has left the team and is no longer holding him hostage.
Los Angeles signed LeBron James, couldn’t trade for Kawhi Leonard, struck out on Paul George, and decided to just punt the season away after James hurt his groin. With their older guys on mercenary deals, their young guys having their confidence shattered by constant trade rumors (the A-holes chanting “LeBron’s gonna trade you!” to the younger Lakers during road games also didn’t help), and their star player showing minimal effort on defense, Year One of the LeBron Era will go down as a disaster.
How they recover will be talked about and dissected on ESPN about four million times this summer, and I couldn’t care less.
Kings, Not Kangz Anymore…Right?
Sacramento Kings: The Kings have stumbled upon a young, fun, and promising team this season, and it’s given the long-suffering fan base there some real hope to go with that shiny new arena they paid through their noses for.
Sacramento played hungry this season, and looking at the backstory of each of their principal players, you can understand why they went so balls-out on every possession. De’Aaron Fox was forgotten about as a rookie, shunted to one side as Donovan Mitchell stole the spotlight. Buddy Hield was ridiculed for being the main return the Kings got for DeMarcus Cousins—and for Kings owner Vivek Ranadive calling him “the next Steph Curry.” Harry Giles suffered multiple knee injuries in high school and wanted to show what he could do when healthy. Marvin Bagley wanted to silence the critics who said Sacramento should have taken Doncic instead of him.
While the Kings fell just short of the playoffs (losing out to the Clippers, another overachieving team), as long as their young guys continue to stay this hungry and driven, they will be an absolute pain in the rectal regions to play against—hell, they already are. I guess it’s more about transitioning from “annoyance” to “contender.”
Scrapping for the Right to be Sacrificed by the Greek Freak
Detroit Pistons: The Pistons are currently in the driver’s seat for eighth in the East, which is either an achievement or a symbol of mediocrity. For Detroit, it’s both.
The Pistons have been dying to make the playoffs since they first laid plans to move downtown, yet they have sacrificed their future draft capital and their cap space just to run the treadmill. They’re going nowhere, no matter how good Blake Griffin is.
The depressing part for the Pistons is this could be as good as Griffin will ever be for them—and he’s been good enough to make an All-NBA team this season—and the best they can do in the weak East is spend the final two days of the season holding off two other teams for the right to be Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first-round appetizer. I hope Detroit’s downtown revival included some decent breweries; there are some basketball fans there in need of a stiff drink.
Charlotte Hornets: You know your team has had a season of “meh” when the highlight is seeing the hometown hero, Kemba Walker, play in the All-Star Game in Charlotte.
If I were the Knicks, and Irving was playing coy with me, I’d call up Kemba on July 1, tell him I have KD on the way, and ask if he’d like to sign up for four years and $90 million. Kemba, who’s a native New Yorker, might relish the chance to play in MSG, with a talent like Durant, and maybe get a chance to win some games for a change. At least he’d bring about 85-90% of Irving’s package with 2% of Irving’s attitude, mercurial disposition, and general weirdness.
Miami Heat: Another team that’s going nowhere, the Heat have spent the season celebrating the career of the great Dwyane Wade, a Miami icon who’s been a part of all their Finals teams, including three championship squads. A prolific player who brought a rarely-seen versatility to the shooting guard position (which, as the name implies, is the primary perimeter shooter on the team), Wade is, in my opinion, the fourth-best shooting guard of all time, behind Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Jerry West, and just ahead of Clyde Drexler and Sam Jones.
(If you want to call the Iceman George Gervin a shooting guard, I’d say he’d be one TODAY [I mean, Brandon Ingram is built exactly like him and is considered a 2], but back then he was a small forward. … Speaking of forwards, Paul Pierce got his silly ass plastered on the ESPN Hot Takes Hall of Shame by saying that his career was better than Wade’s. Paul, go f*** yourself. Sincerely, All Non-Biased Basketball Historians.)
The present for the Heat may be as bleak as ever, but at least they had a distraction in the form of Wade’s retirement tour and are now one step closer to ridding themselves of all the ill-advised contracts they handed out in 2016.