At last, after a long summer of player movement, speculation, rumors, and general BS, the NBA regular season begins on Tuesday. The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics will kick us off at 5 PM, and those of us who’ve been starving for actual basketball that actually matters will break a four-month fast.
While watching Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons try to figure out a way past the impossibly deep Celtics squad will be highly entertaining for the likes of me (as will watching Kevin Durant face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the nightcap), I know most of you reading this are Rip Citizens. Sadly, we must wait for the Portland Trail Blazers to open their 2018-19 season until Thursday.
They might be playing a team most of us have heard of, and a guy that everyone has heard of….
While Portland’s season is getting ready to start, I’d like to take this time to give a rundown on every team in the Association, including the Trail Blazers. This is a Blazer-specific website when it comes to professional basketball, but I’m a firm believer in keeping up with the Jonses—especially whenever Portland is in the mix for a playoff spot.
One thing I want to point out: These are not power rankings. Everybody likes them, but everybody does them, and I have better things to do with my week than spending an hour ruminating on whether to put the New York Knicks at 22 or 23 in my next rankings. This is a guy who knows something about the NBA sharing his thoughts for your viewing pleasure, and for your eventual mockery on Twitter.
Part 1 is today, and Part 2 is tomorrow.
Let’s get stuck into it!
Wandering the Desert, With No Plan, No Map, No Hope
Sacramento Kings: The issues with this team start with the brain trust, and because that brain trust has made many braindead decisions over the last few years, we eternally get a messy hodgepodge of washed veterans, clueless rookies and underdeveloped players in their prime on the Kings’ roster. It’s difficult to blame the players much for the poor product on the court—unless you’re George Hill and Zach Randolph and signed there on purpose.
From owner Vivek Ranadive’s eternal impatience and meddling, to GM Vlade Divac (a Kings legend in his playing days) being severely underqualified to run the basketball operations of an NBA team, to the coaches making terrible rotation choices while constantly looking over their shoulders for the scythe that Ranadive will eventually swing at them, the Kings are a scrambled mess.
There isn’t any excuse to not run a well-oiled front office in these days of information overload, smart young men littering scouting departments and front offices the world over, and almost every player giving themselves every chance to succeed. It should be very hard to muck things up. Instead, Ranadive is telling the entire city of Sacramento to hold his beer—and build him a shiny new arena for his s*** sandwich of a squad to play in.
The fact that their prized rookie, Marvin Bagley III, stinks of Julius Randle (a big who can’t shoot or protect the rim) while the kid they passed up, Luka Doncic, is getting everyone excited in Dallas, is just the crap-covered peanut on the top of this triple-decker fecal sundae.
Orlando Magic: The former regime was ousted because their plan failed, the players they drafted didn’t pan out, and their coaches couldn’t coach the local rec team. This happens in the NBA quite often; front-office and coaching tenures can be brutally short. Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts in Portland are very much exceptions to the rule.
So, in comes John Hammond, fresh off a tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks. Hammond is best known for drafting guys with really, really long arms who had no clue how to play basketball beyond running and jumping. The Bucks are fine only because one of those long-armed wonders, Giannis Antetokounmpo, developed into a top-five player, a true superstar. The Bucks never had a guard capable of being a competent distributor, but they have the option to play five-out with Antetokounmpo at the point of attack.
The Magic, meanwhile, aren’t so lucky. The team was derided constantly for trumpeting the fact that Shelvin Mack, a career backup and replacement-level player, led their team in assists last year. If Mack is your best passer, you’re screwed; in the same vein, if John Hammond is your GM, don’t count on finding a good passer. Drafting Mo Bamba is only going to create a logjam in the frontcourt, and Aaron Gordon lacks the skills as of now to help make up for the dearth of shot creation in Orlando.
Hammond has a plan, but it might lead them to a dead-end instead of an oasis. And this time, there won’t be a Greek Freak to cover for Hammond’s Jay Bilas-esque fetish for dudes with really long arms.
Callow and Hollow
Atlanta Hawks: There are two reasons why the Hawks aren’t in the above section: They have a plan, and they’ve only been bad for a couple years, while the Kings and Magic have stank since Dwight Howard was good. Atlanta has tailored its roster to suck on purpose, but there isn’t going to be the kind of extreme blowback that the Sixers suffered during “The Process.”
Flattened lottery odds and an apathetic fan base full of transplants will shield GM Travis Schlenk and his front office from criticism, for the moment.
Schlenk is from the Golden State Warriors’ front office. I mention this because he traded the third pick of the 2018 Draft, Doncic, for a future first-rounder from Dallas and the fifth pick, point guard Trae Young—a kid that faintly resembles Stephen Curry. Schlenk also drafted a guy named Kevin Huerter in the first round, then drafted Omari Spellman in the second round. Huerter is known as a knockdown shooter, while Spellman is a tweener big who roughly resembles Draymond Green.
It looks like Schlenk is trying to re-create Golden State in Atlanta. Not only does it show a startling lack of creativity (why not just take Doncic and build around him? Or get a better haul for the third pick than Young and another pick?), it is very likely to fail. Schlenk is falling into the same trap that GMs across the league fell into from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s; while Schlenk is trying to build the next Warriors, the NBA of 20 years ago was obsessed with finding the next Michael Jordan.
The only ones who came close to Jordan were Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Kobe needed Jordan’s coach and a steady parade of incredibly skilled big men to win his five titles, while LeBron would be 1-8 in the NBA Finals if it weren’t for Ray Allen and Kyrie Irving making the two greatest shots in NBA history—and Green punching him in the daddy bag.
Atlanta is looking to build another Golden State. The Hawks will fail.
Phoenix Suns: It’s a shame that Devin Booker got hurt early, but at least we get to see what Deandre Ayton can do without Booker around to jack up 25 shots. Let the big fella get comfortable going solo, then try to form a duet with the explosive guard that could be the core of a contender in a few years.
Now, if only Robert Sarver could get out of the damn way….
Chicago Bulls: You can’t help but feel for Fred Hoiberg. The man fought through a heart attack, toiled in the Big 12 hinterlands (and the Big 12 isn’t exactly a basketball powerhouse outside of Kansas) for years, built competitive college teams from the scraps and leavings of the recruiting world, and finally achieves his dream of coaching in the NBA. Except….
His Bulls tenure has been one challenge after another. From Jimmy Butler undermining him as much as possible (oh, we’ll get to Jimmy later, just you wait), to the Bulls front office handing him talent that can’t play the way Hoiberg wants his teams to play, to the pressure of a win-now mandate giving way to the embarrassment of a bunch of youngsters watching Butler basically dump on Hoiberg’s chest on his way out of Chicago, it’s been a long slow nightmare for the embattled Bulls coach.
It feels like a lame-duck season for the former NBA player. Hopefully, Hoiberg can pocket all that sweet NBA cash and use that NBA cachet to score a good college job soon—where he can pick his own players and not have someone like Gar Forman completely ignore him then blame him for not succeeding.
Wait till Next Year
New York Knicks: There have already been some injury bummers before the season, but Kristaps Porzingis’ continuing recovery from knee surgery ranks near the top, if not at the top. Four more months of waiting to see how he’ll mesh with prized rookie forward Kevin Knox…sigh.
Even in the shallow Eastern Conference, the Knicks don’t have enough to compete for a playoff spot—which is totally fine! Play some games with and without your unicorn, see how much Frankie Smokes and the other youngsters progress, get another good draft pick, and hope that Kevin Durant feels like riding into Madison Square Garden on a white horse next summer.
Sounds like a plan to me.
Playoff Contenders: Stuck in the Boonies Edition
Dallas Mavericks: On one hand, the Mavs have plenty of motivation to make a push for the postseason. Owner Mark Cuban is very hungry for a return to the playoffs (to be honest, Cubes is the kind of guy who’s in varying states of hangry at all times), coach Rick Carlisle is a master of his craft who’s getting tired of coaching to teach instead of coaching to win, Dallas signed DeAndre Jordan two seasons too late but still while Jordan has use and living legend Dirk Nowitzki is likely calling it quits after this season. Maybe.
Dirk did give us the fake this summer. He may move about as fast as a drunk snail these days, and it takes about four hours for him to get ready to play 10 minutes (his words; he’s an unusually self-deprecating guy. Unusual for a basketball legend, anyway), but with that smooth jumper Dirk can play until he’s 45.
On the other hand, Doncic is 19 and guard Dennis Smith, Jr. is 20. Smith might benefit from playing with Doncic, and Doncic might be as good as everyone says he is, but it’s really difficult to win in the absurdly stacked Western Conference when the combined age of your starting backcourt doesn’t match the age of Dirk Nowitzki.
Something to watch in the months to come is the transition of Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a fruitful yet strange career; going from young starter on a Golden State Warriors championship team and the team that set the single-season record for wins, to the top guy on awful Dallas teams while the Warriors chugged right along with Kevin Durant, to shifting over to a small-ball 4 role as the keys get handed to the young backcourt—and replacing the franchise icon in that starting lineup—is one hell of a road to walk. How well he adjusts to his new/old role could determine how the Mavs fare this season.
Memphis Grizzlies: Marc Gasol is healthy. Mike Conley, Jr. is healthy as well (we’ll see how long that lasts…). Jaren Jackson, Jr. could be the athletic beast of a 4 that Gasol needs to play alongside as his career starts to wind down. And yet, there is reason to doubt this team.
The Grit-n-Grind era is dead and gone, replaced by two franchise cornerstones past their primes and a callow teenager. This roster is built on a foundation about as sound as a hollowed-out redwood. The depth of the Grizzlies is pretty shallow, as well.
Still, if good health finally prevails in Memphis and Triple J grows up real fast, we might get a return to the days of constant 48-52-win seasons. The reason the Grizz are down here is all that’s a big ask.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker is a one-man show at this point. It’s a helluva show, don’t get me wrong, but one guy is not enough these days in the Association—even in the craptastic East. Maybe the Hornets get decent production out of Nic Batum (remember him?), Cody Zeller, Malik Monk and the rest of the crew. If they do, Charlotte could buzz into the postseason and serve as a light snack for Toronto, Boston, or Philly.
If things go belly-up quickly, however, Michael Jordan may look to trade Walker and start a teardown that the fiercely competitive GOAT is very loath to begin.
Brooklyn Nets: Look, the Nets aren’t going to make it into the postseason. If your best player is either young big Jarrett Allen, scrap-heap point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, or the overpaid Allen Crabbe, the playoffs are not going to be in your future. D’Angelo Russell is still trying to find himself.
That hasn’t stopped some pundits from at least floating the possibility of Brooklyn squeaking into the postseason with a couple months of .500 basketball. (The East is really bad, if this point hasn’t been made clear by now.) This team plays hard, has inventive coaching and is aching to prove itself from the front office all the way to the 12th man on the bench. They also control their own draft pick for the first time this decade—only for Adam Silver to decide that this was the year he’d flatten the lottery odds to deter tanking. Bad luck, Sean Marks!
The All-Star break will be crucial for the Nets. If they’re within a few games of the eighth seed (or in the eighth seed; basketball is weird, man), they will probably try to push through a tough end-of-season slate to make it. If the Nets are somewhere around 20-38 by the break, Marks will tell coach Kenny Atkinson to rev up the Shermans.
Cleveland Cavaliers: They lost LeBron and have a Kevin Love in his thirties, a rookie Collin Sexton and a mishmash of players who can only play a game of cohesive ball when the best player in the world is dominating everything. What do you think their chances are?
Even Minnesota Love was only good for about 30 wins a year, and the Cavs as of right now are just as bad as the teams Love played on in the Land of Lakes. They’re in the same boat as the Nets; they could make the East postseason with a couple decent months. Given Love’s history of Good Stats Bad Team Syndrome, I’m more willing to bet on Brooklyn.
L.A. Clippers: I like to call this team the Miami Heat of the West, except without the crippling cap situation and whiny man-child center. The Clips were able to unload Blake Griffin’s humongous contract onto the Detroit Pistons, ditch the son of coach Doc Rivers—Austin—and cobble together a team that looks both fun to watch and a pain to play against.
This season is largely immaterial to the Clippers in the grand scheme of things, however. With owner Steve Ballmer wanting to move the team to a new arena in Inglewood (where the Lakers’ old Forum is at, funnily enough) and the front office preparing for the big Summer of 2019, there isn’t much pressure of expectation on this season’s Clippers. Ballmer does expect the team to compete, but they lack a star talent to center their attack around.
L.A. won’t be a factor this season, but keep the Clips in the back of your mind. Especially if your team has a star player on an expiring contract. (*cough* Kawhi Leonard *cough*)
San Antonio Spurs: So much change hit the Spurs last summer. They hardly seem recognizable. Tony Parker is in Charlotte. Manu Ginobili has joined the Spurs’ other all-time greats in the pasture. Kawhi Leonard pulled a power move, forcing what was once thought to be the most competent and self-assured front office in the NBA to ship him out of town in exchange for DeMar DeRozan.
But, while all the change and uncertainty surrounding the storied franchise is disconcerting, one figure remains amidst the wreckage: Gregg Popovich, the legendary coach and executive who guided and masterminded the Spurs’ two decades of excellence. Even though young point guard Dejounte Murray was lost for the year to a torn ACL, Pop still has the dependable LaMarcus Aldridge, as well as a DeRozan, that is going to assault the entire NBA with the wrath of a scorned lover.
I can understand why people would discount the Spurs, rule them out of the playoffs. Some are floating the idea that if San Antonio were to miss the playoffs, Pop would bow his shaggy head, resign his posts, and slink away to the nearest vineyard to live out the rest of his days.
I know better, though. I will believe that this team will find a way to succeed until the moment I finally see it fail. The Spurs as we knew them are finished. The Spurs of the future will be built by someone other than the elderly Popovich. They will be done eventually. But not this season.
Death, taxes, Spurs.