The long, arduous NBA season ended last week with the result many of us were expecting, and many also were dreading: a championship victory by the monolithic dynasty of the Golden State Warriors. The 2017-18 season did have plenty of suspense (are the Houston Rockets for real? Is Damian Lillard truly a superstar? What the hell is going on in San Antonio? Can the Boston Celtics overcome physical failings with mystical coaching? And constant Cleveland Cavaliers melodrama) for those of us who are the hardcore of basketball fans, but the causal observer would be forgiven if they just saw an inevitable Warriors stomping coming and tuned out, even if the Rockets gave them the scare of a lifetime in the Western Conference Finals.
This offseason, plans are being laid by both players and franchises, especially during this dead period between the Finals and the Draft. Plenty of high-impact free agents are available this summer, including the biggest of big fish, LeBron James. The Draft has two players who could be among their generation’s best, as well as several more with All-Star potential. Trade scenarios are being flung left, right, and center by the NBA blogosphere and Twitter, while the teams themselves are doing the same among each other. Even though I did just call this current time a “dead period,” it’s a relative term; the NBA is always active in some way nowadays. Even August, the one truly calm period in years past, was abuzz with activity last year. Just ask this guy.
The goals for each team are broadly similar depending on where they are as a franchise, but different in specifics. Some want to amass young talent and bide their time, while others might be tearing their team down soon. Some are looking to land big free agents and jump back into the title picture, and others are just trying to hang on to relevance. The Warriors are looking to pay a huge luxury tax bill to keep their dynasty together, while the teams that want to challenge them wait in the shadows, ready to pounce when the Golden State elephant gets old and wheezy.
While I will cover our Portland Trail Blazers in this series in general, I do value the concept of keeping up with the Joneses, as it were. Reminders of the Blazers’ position and standing in the league provides valuable context that some Rip Citizens (mostly the ones that keep trumpeting “Third seed! Third seed!” with Neil Olshey over and over) sorely need.
Part One will address the 14 lottery teams (or the 14 non-playoff teams, I should say, since SOME teams like giving away lottery picks like Halloween candy). Part Two will be tomorrow, on the 16 playoff teams.
Congrats, You’re the Worst!
Phoenix Suns: Owners of 2017-18’s worst record, the Suns won the Draft Lottery and will get to reap the reward for their crapitude: 7’1” center Deandre Ayton, a freak of nature that could serve as the centerpiece of the Suns’ roster for the next decade. They also have the 16th pick, good to select a role player on the wing, or take a flier on Collin Sexton if he falls that far, though that seems unlikely.
Ayton is the intriguing piece, though. New coach Igor Kokoskov is known as a player developer, and where he chooses to go with Ayton and his raw potential will be worth watching; the big man’s ceiling has been described as David Robinson with a three-point shot. Robinson is one of the best 40 players ever, so getting to draft a guy with a chance to become a better David Robinson is obviously a huge deal.
It’s on Phoenix, and Ayton, and on Kokoskov to not screw this up. If they do, the Suns will continue wandering the post-Steve Nash wilderness for a long time to come.
What in the Hell Are You Doing!?
Sacramento Kings: So Phoenix wants to draft Ayton. That’s understandable. That leaves the other consensus top prospect, 19-year-old Slovenian wunderkind forward/guard Luka Doncic, available for the Kings to pick with the second overall selection. All well and good.
The Kings are looking to trade that pick, along with players to match salaries, for the Spurs’ disgruntled superstar, Kawhi Leonard. The Kings won 27 games last year. Even with Peak Leonard, Sacramento isn’t sniffing the playoffs with him, not in the West. Leonard is also on an expiring contract, and is already angling to get out of a small-market town, and has reportedly said he wants to play in a big city. Sacramento wants to trade away their best pick in decades for a one-year rental that will put approximately 50 more butts into the seats of their new arena. Idiotic.
On top of that, if/when their Kawhi hopes fall through, the Kings’ genius backup plan is to select Duke big Marvin Bagley III over Doncic. Bagley is sort of a tweener, and has no concept of man-to-man defense. Sacramento, perennially in the cellar in every defensive metric in the league, is not an ideal place for him to learn.
Bagley could be a good player, but there’s no guarantee he’s better than the two young bigs the Kings already have (Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein). There’s also a glut of solid big men in the NBA, with more coming up the pipeline in the early 2020s according to the draftniks. Doncic, meanwhile, looks to be good now, with the potential to be a very good to great wing in a league absolutely starved for wings. Luka also has the height to play some 4, as well.
Just draft Doncic, stick him at the 3 next to De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic, and let that core marinate while Cauley-Stein/Labissiere/Future Draftee X get their crap together in the frontcourt. It’s not rocket science! Draft the white Brandon Roy!
Dallas Mavericks: This has been the pattern in Dallas for years now: gear up to sign free agents. Strike out on free agents. Trade away draft assets for middling veterans and/or draft like a 10-year-old girl. Barely make the playoffs and get crushed in the first round. Watch living legend Dirk Nowitzki get another year older and another year slower. Wash, rinse, repeat.
It’s been long past time Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle gave up the ghost, bottomed out, and started over; hell, the NBA itself made that choice for them last season by kicking their asses from one end of North America to the other for six solid months. Instead, the Mavs are trying to package the fifth pick in this year’s draft—the reward for all those ass-kickings—as the centerpiece for a star player. That is not going to work, mostly because if there’s a trade to be made, Boston or the Lakers will make it. The only assets Dallas have are the fifth pick, a grossly overpaid Harrison Barnes, and last year’s first round selection, point guard Dennis Smith Jr., taken four spots ahead of Donovan Mitchell. Woof. Some folks are saying the Mavs could win 50 games next season. Yeah, and I could bed a Kardashian.
I hope the Mavs just select Mo Bamba or Michael Porter, develop them, and honor Nowitzki as he takes a season-long bow in his 21st, and last, season. I dread that the Mavs will trade for some forgettable vets, mortgage the future, and fall further down the West’s cellar as Dirk goes out like Kobe Bryant, without all the hoopla that came/comes with Bryant.
Bare Cupboards, Full Hearts, Clear Minds
Atlanta Hawks: Sacramento’s stupidity could be Atlanta’s gain, as the Hawks have the third pick in the draft. A stud like Doncic would be a huge get, obviously, but the Hawks have such a bare roster, they’re honestly just glad to have a top-three pick this year. 21-year-old big man John Collins, 24-year-old wing Taurean Prince, and 24-year-old guard Dennis Schroder are nice pieces, but the Hawks could use a top-flight talent. There are questions about Bagley, Bamba and Porter about whether they can be that kind of superstar talent. There are fewer questions about Doncic. Jaren Jackson, Jr., might also be an option.
Still, even if the Kings smarten up and select the Slovenian, the Hawks’ player development staff is one of the best in the NBA, even without Mike Budenholzer helming their coaching staff. Anyone they take third overall will be in a good situation, and will have a long leash to develop.
Brooklyn Nets: Next year, the nightmare will be over. Next year, the poor Nets won’t have to trade for failed projects and scour the scrap heaps to fill out their roster. Next year, the intrepid tandem of General Manager Sean Marks (a former Blazer) and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson get to make like Andy Dufrene in The Shawshank Redemption, and crawl out of a 500-yard pipe full of #*$&-smelling foulness.
In 2019, the Brooklyn Nets will control their very own first-round pick! FRRREEEEEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!
Until then, it’s one more year of surviving on the margins and developing Jarrett Allen into their center of the future. Then, Marks and Atkinson will finally have some real tools to play with.
Uncertainty and Distrust
Memphis Grizzlies: Losing Mike Conley, he of the bloated $150 million-plus contract, to a heel injury for the season, getting little from the $94 million man Chandler Parsons, seeing franchise center Marc Gasol get discontented and unhappy, firing the respected David Fizdale early in the year, losing 60 games for the first time in years…Grit-n-Grind is truly dead and gone in Memphis. RIP.
There are rumblings in Memphis about trading the fourth pick, but the current roster is in a state of disarray. There can’t be any contending when your best players are an aging Gasol and two perpetually injured guys. When you have so much money invested in three vets, though, I guess there is no tearing it down; who wants to be the poor sap that has to pay Conley or Parsons? Eventually, they’ll have to see if they can get any value for Gasol, if the Grizz aren’t doing that already.
It’s only going to be an early step in a teardown that will likely take years. Things are just starting to get ugly for the Grizzlies, I fear.
Chicago Bulls: If the “Uncertainty” part of my header applied to Memphis, “Distrust” would totally be a Bulls thing. Their fans have started turning on the Chicago front office in fits and starts, and while having a big man with maybe-star potential in Lauri Markkanen salves some anxiety, the lack of development out of Kris Dunn and not really knowing what you have in Zach Lavine yet (who came to the team while recovering from knee surgery, and played 24 solid, if unspectacular games) is some cause for concern. Those three players were the spoils from the Jimmy Butler trade, a trade intended to help Chicago bottom out. It worked…until six other teams decided to tank harder.
You’d think winning only 27 games would net you a better choice than the seventh pick, but that’s where the Bulls are. It’s especially unfortunate this year, too, because seven is likely where the cutoff is going to be from “potential star talent” to “maybe a star, more likely a second banana or role player.” Markkanen and Lavine seem like solid young players, but neither one jumps out at you as a player that is going to make a few All-Star Games or sneak onto an All-NBA Team.
It’s likely that the Bulls will be continuing to search for another star after giving up Butler. Whether Gar Forman will continue leading that search probably depends on his ability to strike gold a third time, and keeping it around this time.
The Forgettable Eastern Conference Middlemen
Charlotte Hornets: Man, it seems like yesterday that 23-year-old Dwight Howard was dunking everything in sight while the Orlando Magic played four-out in the 2009 Finals. That Howard looked like a guy who was going to be an MVP candidate for most of this decade.
Instead, after years of petulance, airheadedness, cluelessness, an inflated opinion of his post-up ability (always was inefficient, mostly was trash), fathering way too many children, and basically representing every negative African-American stereotype that doesn’t involve food, Howard is now in obscurity. At 32, with years of back troubles that sapped his one bankable NBA skill (athleticism), he’s now in a position where Cody Zeller is a better center than he is. Howard’s a bunch of weight gain and one coke binge away from being this generation’s Shawn Kemp. The Hawks must be thanking their lucky stars that Michael Jordan was dumb enough to correct their own dumb mistake of trading for Dwight by…trading for Dwight.
Another note: Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time (MJ or LBJ is a debate I would LOVE to have with anyone, especially over drinks), but he is one shite basketball executive, even after buying his own team.
Detroit Pistons: Speaking of dumb trades!
I wonder if this was Stan Van Gundy’s plan all along: to trade for Blake Griffin, a talented forward who’s had more trouble staying on the court than Kanye West has staying sane, and who also has four years left on a contract that will pay him $31 million, $34 million, $36 million, and then a player option he is going to pick up no problem at $39 million. That’s a hefty price tag for a brittle short-armed power forward who shares the court with a center with no range, and will be entering his 30s next season. Yiff.
Whoever takes over from Van Gundy will be inheriting a capped-out roster full of untradeable contracts, with a small chance of making the playoffs, even in the East. They don’t even have their draft pick this year, due to the Griffin trade. Stan, meanwhile, will be chuckling to himself as he sits in his living room, alcoholic beverage of choice in hand, watching his brother Jeff make an ass of himself on ESPN.
New York Knicks: Having the ninth pick in the draft, and knowing that star player Kristaps Porzingis won’t be able to start the season after ACL surgery, isn’t the best situation for the Knicks. There are ways to turn this bad situation into a positive, but this is the Knicks were talking about. A franchise owned by the premier sports example of what I like to call Thanks-Dad Syndrome, James Dolan.
Ideally, they’d draft a big man to complement their unicorn big in Porzingis, and continue constructing a solid young core. In reality, they will draft Trae Young, and the Nuu Yawk faithful will groan each time Young gets crushed by a pick, dusts himself off after he gives up an easy basket on D, then spends 20 seconds dribbling before barfing up a step-back three that hits the backboard because he’s too short and slow to get the ball over his defender.
Suddenly, This Got Very Interesting
Los Angeles Lakers: The rumors about Kawhi Leonard being available might be a perfect storm for the Lakers. Sure, the Spurs are going to be very methodical about their situation, and that is their right. If I were Magic Johnson (president of basketball ops) and Rob Pelinka (general manager), however, I would be spamming Spurs boss R.C. Buford’s phone with calls, trying to keep his attention away from Celtics honcho Danny Ainge. Ainge is a notoriously adept dealer, and he is more than ready to use all the draft picks and intriguing young players his shrewdness gained him to swipe away another superstar.
Paul George is from the area surrounding Los Angeles (I love how people who grew up at least 50 miles from LA always say, “I’m from LA,” even though they rarely go inside the city limits. Like they don’t want to admit they’re from Anaheim, or Palmdale, or Inglewood), and LeBron James might be open to taking his talents to the desert. Trading for Kawhi would turn a PG-LBJ collaboration from second-round fodder into potentially a Warriors Antidote.
Magic Johnson just has to wait out the Spurs, and outbid Danny Ainge. No pressure.
Winning Records, No Playoffs, #WestIsBest
Los Angeles Clippers: After ridding themselves of Griffin’s 10-ton albatross of a contract and signing supersub Lou Williams to a modest deal, the Clippers find themselves at a crossroads. DeAndre Jordan, the last major player remaining from the most successful era in Clippers history, has a $24 million player option left on his contract. If he picks the option up, he becomes a valuable trade chip; a team looking for salary relief, and that wouldn’t mind coughing up first-round picks to get relief, would be an easy target for LA.
If Jordan declines the option, I doubt the Clips re-sign him, not after trading Chris Paul and Griffin in the span of a few months. They have the 12th and 13th picks in the upcoming draft, a curious situation they could take advantage of. Sacramento is liable to do something stupid, and Memphis could decide that depth is better than drafting a raw Mo Bamba or an injury risk like Michael Porter Jr.
Having a stud like Doncic or an intriguing prospect like Bamba or Porter or Jaren Jackson Jr. to build around would be more exciting than drafting Robert Williams or taking a flier on Trae Young or Collin Sexton, players that resemble Williams too much to want redundancy. They could also keep Jordan, either via his option or by re-signing him, draft two solid role players, and try to make the playoffs in the crowded West. The Clips could go many different ways here, and it’ll be interesting to see how they navigate the post-Lob City era.
Denver Nuggets: The Nuggies lost a play-in game to the Timberwolves on the last day of the regular season. While some parts of them were likely glad to not serve as chum for the top-seeded Rockets, that’s still a very brutal way to miss out on a playoff spot.
The worst part? At 46 wins, Denver would have been in sixth place in the East, comfortably in playoff position. Rough.
Denver still has some situations to sort out, like whether they bring back Will Barton, and whether they can get rid of Kenneth Faried, but the core of the team is already set. Big man Nikola Jokic, guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, and the sage forward Paul Millsap are a good start. With good health and a little more luck, perhaps Mile High playoff basketball could become a thing again.