Welcome to Part 2 of a random guy’s not-so-random thoughts about the National Basketball Association. (As an aside, I love how the league’s analysts refer to the NBA as “the NBA” or “the league.” Much better and more tolerable than the NFL’s talking heads, who tirelessly refer to the NFL as ‘THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE,” practically screaming the words. Former players are especially apt to this habit; I have too much taste to make the joke most of you are probably thinking of right now.)
Part 1 is here, and probably also still on the OSN homepage, if you feel inclined to give it a look-see.
What in the Actual #&$^….
Minnesota Timberwolves: The Jimmy Butler saga has been plastered all over the sports media outlets for a while now, but it reached a new level last week. Butler has wanted out of Minny for months now and openly declared his desire for a trade during the offseason. Tom Thibodeau, the overbearing coach who also happens to run the Wolves’ basketball operations, is dead set on keeping Butler—demanding a king’s ransom for a non-top-10 player who’s on an expiring contract.
Thibs’ demands are so extreme that the president of the Miami Heat, the legendary Pat Riley, broke off talks despite his team’s desperate need for a star; he called Thibodeau the kinds of names I can’t even make references to, a sign that no one in the NBA is wanting to make a deal for Butler right now.
That league-wide reluctance to trade for Butler was amplified by the player himself last week, as he stormed into the Wolves’ practice facility, cursed out Thibodeau and his front-office underling, Scott Layden, called the young stars of the team (Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins ) soft, and took a bunch of scrubs on his team—with which he then proceeded to reportedly wallop the starters, including Towns and Wiggins.
Now, I admire Butler’s fierce competitiveness; in this era of buddy-buddy dynamics (and fake buddy-buddy stuff driven by team politics), his Michael Jordan-like single-mindedness is strangely refreshing. Unfortunately, he’s now toxified two NBA teams to the point of no return; no one will want a guy like that on his team for the Wolves’ asking price, no matter how good he is. Until Thibs relents and drives his asking price down (or is fired), it seems like Jimmy is stuck being a Timberwolf for the time being.
As for their chances this season, on paper they totally have the talent to contend for a playoff spot. The team chemistry is now irrevocably poisoned, though. Even if Butler plays the majority of his season in Minneapolis, I think they won’t make it.
The Ninth Level of Salary-Cap Hell
Detroit Pistons: Trading for Blake Griffin, a very talented forward with an injury history longer than the Amazon, felt like the ultimate troll-job by the Pistons’ now former coach-president, Stan Van Gundy. Even after he was fired for failing to make the move work, Van Gundy now gets to chill on his couch as his successors struggle to deal with the capped-out aftermath of his short-sighted meddling.
There is talent to make the playoffs on this team, with Griffin and center Andre Drummond forming a solid frontcourt tandem. This season for Detroit will be decided on the wings and at the point, though. They desperately need either Stanley Johnson (who’s basically Detroit’s Meyers Leonard) or Luke Kennard (drafted one spot ahead of Donovan Mitchell last year…ouch) to make an impact on the wing, and it’d be nice if Reggie Jackson could get his knee and groin back in shape—and stop sulking long enough to be even a league-average point guard.
Miami Heat: As mentioned above, Riley’s team desperately needs an impact talent. The Heat’s roster is full of solid rotation players, but Dwayne Wade is 36 and planning to retire this summer, and their $98 million center, Hassan Whiteside, is damn near unplayable at times. He’s also very childish, a trait I personally wouldn’t want in a guy who’s soaking up a quarter of a team’s cap space.
The postseason was especially trying for the Heat in 2018; as Whiteside whined and moaned about not being “utilized according to his talents,” Miami floundered as the Philadelphia 76ers used speed and length to smother their offense. It’s a scene that will continue to play out for Miami as they project to be first-round fodder again this year.
Watching Joel Embiid outclass Whiteside with his modern game had to be especially painful for Riley, a man who coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Patrick Ewing. The septuagenarian executive is predictably having trouble unloading Whiteside in a trade, and due to the bloated contracts he gave out a couple years ago, his team can’t sign any top free agents. As many of the NBA’s top players enter free agency next summer, the Heat have to watch from the sidelines, unable to use the twin lures of South Beach and Ringzzzzz to land the big fish they need to return to relevance.
Portland Trail Blazers: The summer of 2016 was bad for many teams, but outside of Miami, Portland got hurt the most by it. The deals Neil Olshey gave Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard don’t sound so bad in a vacuum—Portland is not a free-agent destination, being cold, rainy, and full of white people—but giving a combined $114 million to Turner, who possesses one of the worst plus-minus ratings in all of basketball, and Leonard, a lottery washout, still has costs outside of pure dollars.
Those contracts cost the Blazers the chance to retain Ed Davis, a solid rotation player, this last offseason. They will likely cost Portland the chance to retain Al-Farouq Aminu, another solid rotation player who also starts for them, this upcoming summer once his contract expires. As Damian Lillard plays through his prime years—and as his frustration with Olshey mounts—the capped-out Blazers can ill afford to replace quality players like Davis and Aminu with scrap-heap crap like Seth Curry and Sauce Castillo.
If the Blazers fail to make the postseason, the team will likely fracture. They better make it.
This Tastes Like a Strange Brew
Washington Wizards: Adding Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers to a locker room that already seems to hate each other sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the Wiz are getting desperate. John Wall’s prime is running out with every jump, twisted ankle, and banged knee, while Bradley Beal is just starting his. Risks need to be taken for teams in Washington’s position, even if they seem like bad ones.
There is reason to both doubt and justify the addition of both players. Howard seemed like he was on the fast track to the Hall of Fame after his Orlando Magic peak, guiding the team to the 2009 NBA Finals. After falling out with Van Gundy (who was the Magic’s coach back then), he was traded to the Houston Rockets. After a feud with James Harden and a stubborn refusal to play the kind of rim-running role that he was tailor-made for, Howard was dumped via trade, again.
Now on his fourth team in as many seasons, Howard will try to be an upgrade over Marcin Gortat. He did average a double-double for Charlotte last year, but this is still a huge comedown from his peak 10 years ago.
Rivers, meanwhile, will try to prove that his transition from being a lottery washout in New Orleans to a serviceable NBA player in Los Angeles wasn’t just due to his father, Doc—who happens to be the coach of the Clippers. Accusations of nepotism and being a generally insufferable person have earned him near-universal hatred among the NBA’s players—quite the achievement when the league is littered with so many nice guys and genial giants.
Austin Rivers may be the best backup guard Wall and Beal have ever played with in the NBA, however. (Though I admit, that’s a LOW bar to clear.) If he can give the Wiz about 25 capable minutes a game, that would go a long way toward preserving Wall for the postseason.
Howard and Rivers are high-risk players with the medium reward of serving as depth for the Wizards. In a conference where Washington is still a tier below the Atlantic three-headed monster in Boston-Toronto-Philly, and with the Wiz being a shallow team in recent years, these are the kinds of things you need to do if you want to give yourself a chance to compete with the big boys.
It will probably still blow up in their faces. Nothing ventured….
Playoff Contenders: Suburban Edition
Denver Nuggets: Most of the teams here are hardly better candidates for playoff spots than the likes of Memphis, Detroit, or Portland; indeed, if some of these teams fell out of the race altogether, I wouldn’t be surprised. That said, I do like Denver’s chances this year.
The group of Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Trey Lyles and the remains of Isaiah Thomas is a solid mix of vets and young guys with potential. The defense will likely continue to barf up points despite Millsap’s best efforts, but the offense should be a thing of beauty. If Denver can get just enough stops, the passing wizardry of their star big man Jokic, accompanied by the scoring of Murray, Harris and Barton, may finally get them over the hump.
Keep in mind that the Nuggets and Blazers were separated by only three games at the finish of last season; Portland was No. 3, while Denver was No. 9. If a few balls had bounced the Nuggets’ way and the Blazers had caught fewer breaks (or if Millsap were healthy for most of the season), their positions could easily have been reversed. The margin for error in the West is razor-thin.
Los Angeles Lakers: A LeBron James team is not missing the postseason, sorry. Not even in the West, and not even with this clown college Magic Johnson built around him for this season, and this season only.
Even though the team will be reset in time for the upcoming summer (making this season a push, basically), the Best in the World is not watching the likes of Steph Curry, Paul George, and James Harden play playoff basketball from his couch. The Lakers look to finish in the fifth/sixth seed range this season; it’s 2019-20 when things get serious from a basketball standpoint.
Milwaukee Bucks: This feels like a huge year for the Bucks—maybe the biggest season they’ve had since a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and an old Oscar Robertson were destroying teams in the land of beer, brats, and cheese.
Their new arena is set to open (and it looks freakin’ GORGEOUS), they got a well-respected coach in Mike Budenholzer to run the show, they ditched some dead weight in Jabari Parker (have fun paying him $20 million a year, Chicago!) and their superstar unicorn Plastic Man, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is starting to reach the height of his near-infinite potential. James just left for the West, while Toronto and Philly both have some flaws to work out.
There is a world where Milwaukee makes the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis pours in 30-7-7 with seven 5×5 games, the Bucks are in the top ten in three-point shooting, and they show the world who really is on top in the East. There’s also a world where the Bucks fall on their faces again, Budenholzer fails to get more out of this team than Joe Prunty, and Giannis asks for a trade.
Where this team will end up this year is somewhere in the middle of both worlds, but that middle ground shrinks with each year that ticks off the Greek Freak’s contract. It’s pretty much time to put up or shut up for the Bucks.
Indiana Pacers: While they lack the potential of the Bucks or the talent of the three contenders in the East, Indy has a roster full of guys who know their roles, and want to always find a way to get better. Myles Turner lost some weight. Tyreke Evans was brought in after salvaging his career in Memphis. Domantas Sabonis (yes, son of the Sabas we know and love) is committed to playing the 4 or the 5, and with Turner.
Victor Oladipo, the star of this grindy group, is perhaps the hungriest player I’ve ever seen; even after making the All-Star team, winning Most Improved Player, and immediately reviving a Pacers franchise that traded Paul George after he twisted their arms, he still wants it. Oladipo is still miffed that the Magic gave up on him so easily a couple years ago, and wants to make sure that they still regret it—and that the rest of us keep laughing at Orlando for doing so.
Indy is your classic low-ceiling/high-floor playoff team. The best they can do is win the Central Division a couple times before Antetokounmpo and pals make it their playground and give some Eastern powerhouse a tough seven-game series in the second round. After the George situation, and after Larry Bird retired from their front office, the Pacers will take it.
Utah Jazz: The Jazz are basically a mirror of the Pacers in the West, with a few differences.
One, they didn’t get anything back after Gordon Hayward left in free agency. Two, their immediate savior came through the Draft in Donovan Mitchell. And three, where the Pacers use a balanced approach to the game, Utah stifles its opponents with swarming perimeter defense and the massive Rudy Gobert protecting the rim.
It also feels like the Jazz have a higher ceiling than Indiana, mostly because of Mitchell. The kid is electric; I’ve seen him play live, and there is a bit of Russell Westbrook in his game. He is an aerial gymnast at the rim, with the off-the-dribble chops and shooting stroke required to be a top option on a playoff team.
The Jazz might be my favorite team other than the Blazers in the NBA right now: Mitchell, Ricky Rubio’s slick passes, Gobert making grown men piss themselves whenever they encounter him near the basket, Jingles doing Jingles stuff, Quin Snyder’s motion offense, Snyder’s hair, the lovely alternate uniforms. There’s so much to like about this team.
They should be challenging for home-court advantage this season. I think the Thunder edge them out for the Northwest title and the third seed, but the Jazz look to be the best of the rest in the West.
(That was poetic.)
New Orleans Pelicans: On the other hand, if Anthony Davis carries over his domination of the Blazers in the 2018 Playoffs into this upcoming season, the Pelicans might break into the home-court conversation. This team wants to play fast, shoot heaps of threes, wrap opposing point guards in a walking straitjacket named Jrue Holiday (we’re still trying to untangle Damian Lillard), and rely on a top-five superstar in his prime to close out games.
Davis has no physical equal right now in the league; he can either go around, shoot over, or overwhelm any single defender that’s on him. He’s like some mutant hybrid of Dirk Nowitzki and Kyrie Irving, with the defensive ability of Kevin Garnett.
With good health and a fast pace, New Orleans stands a good chance of not only making the playoffs, but making some more noise once they get there. Davis and Holiday are very injury-prone, though; if one or both get hurt, the Pels will tumble in a hurry.
Playoff Contenders: High Rent District Edition
Oklahoma City Thunder: The early knee troubles of Russell Westbrook, and the setback for the heir to Tony Allen, Andre Roberson, from ACL surgery recovery hurts for Oklahoma City. If this is a sign of things to come, the Thunder will slip down a tier.
Paul George and Steven Adams are a good combo, though, and Westbrook won’t stay on the shelf for long. Once everyone gets back healthy, the Thunder will get back to playing stifling defense while relying on their two top-10 talents to juice their scoring.
Some things never change, do they?
Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers have a deep team filled with potential, but there are three questions Philly must answer before they are ready to ascend to the NBA’s elite tier: Can Ben Simmons shoot beyond 15 feet? Can Joel Embiid play 65 games and improve his conditioning? And can Markelle Fultz give them the perimeter creator and shooter to play off of Simmons and help feed Embiid?
The Sixers must find positive answers to those questions—or make progress toward those answers—before they can really fight amongst the heavyweights. Boston exposed them badly in the playoffs last season; they need to learn from that, and grow.
Boston Celtics: The best team in the Eastern Conference right now, for my money. This team is legitimately 11-deep in players who could start for some teams, have three stars in Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward, two more stars in the making in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and one of the best coaches in the world in Brad Stevens.
Add in the canniest GM in the league in Danny Ainge, and you have a franchise poised to take over from the Golden State Warriors as the top dog in the Association should Kevin Durant ditch them. This team might suffer from having TOO much talent, but as long as Stevens can balance the egos properly and everyone accepts their roles, this is the team to beat out East.
Toronto Raptors: While Boston and Philadelphia are contenders now and look to stay that way for the near future, the Raptors and their boss Masai Ujiri are pushing all their chips to the middle right now. With the trade for Kawhi Leonard and his expiring contract, Toronto is all-in on this season.
Leonard reportedly wants to play in his native Southern California; while a lovely and cosmopolitan city, Toronto is about as far from SoCal in terms of climate as you can be while staying in habitable parts of the globe.
Even if the Raptors’ dreams come true and they make the NBA Finals, Leonard could still ditch them. After all, he already has a ring and a Finals MVP. Unlike most players, even those of his equivalent superstar stature, he’d be perfectly fine going to a non-contender if it fits the way he wants to live his life.
Let’s be clear—the Raptors won’t be devastated if Leonard dips. They have many intriguing young players, and Ujiri is one of the finest basketball minds out there. However, their championship window stays open only as long as a healthy Leonard is on their team. This is the only chance for that elusive Finals berth they’ll have for a long time—or at least, they have to play like it.
Houston Rockets: Replacing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute with Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Knight (and others) seems like a lateral move at best, and a move that will tank their defense at worst. This season, I wouldn’t worry so much; this was always a team that would try to outscore opponents, and Clint Capela is a capable rim protector. As long as they give up fewer threes than they make, the Rockets should still be a comfortable number two in the West, and probably the NBA as a whole.
Last season, they were this close to knocking off the Warriors. Looking back now, it feels like James Harden, Chris Paul and Co. fired their best shot and failed to strike the heart of the werewolf with their silver bullet. Anthony and Knight, or any of their new guys, won’t be much help against a Warriors team that retained every major piece and will have Demarcus Cousins back well before the playoffs.
We’ll see how things go as the season progresses—Daryl Morey is the kind of GM that will wring every advantage he can from any angle, and he’s obsessed with beating Golden State. The Rockets may modify their team further on the trade market.
As constructed right now, if they played the Warriors in another series, I’d say Golden State in six.
And STILL Your Reigning, Defending, Undisputed NBA Champions of the World…
Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant may or may not leave next summer. If he leaves, the Warriors become beatable; formidable, but beatable. If he stays, they might approach 1960s Celtics levels of title hoggery.
Next year is next year, however. This season, the Warriors are the alpha and the omega of the NBA world.