Here are my observations and crystal ball revelations, ranked from least surprising to most surprising. I wrote this on Friday night but had too many things to do over the weekend (tailgating! Go Bruins! and Sunday football) to finish up. Everything in small italic type represents my additional comments after absorbing the weekend highlights and results.
These were my original projections after free agency started:
For NBA fans, the Christmas season officially started on July 6th
Forget about the NBA Summer League. Forget about Wimbledon. Forget about baseball, soccer and college football — the…
TIER 1: The eye test confirmed some off-season projections.
#1: The Bucks won’t be as good as last year.
For Milwaukee, losing Brogdon is a killer.
Wesley Matthews is a good player, but still a downgrade. He’s older, slower, and doesn’t shoot as well. But the worst thing is that he makes the kind of mental errors that will cost a team a playoff game. He made a horrible decision in crunch time against the Rockets, jacking up a 3-point shot early in the clock on a 1-on-3 fastbreak. He took an inexcusable game last year with Dallas that cost them the chance to beat the Lakers.
I don’t trust Matthews or Bledsoe, so it’s up to George Hills to continue his resurrected career for the Bucks to be competent at guard.
I don’t see them getting past Philadelphia in the East.
The biggest disappointment was how bad their defense looked against Houston, trailing by 66–50 at halftime. They needed help, as the Rockets shot 5 for 26 on three pointers in the second half, while Harden shot 1 for 8 for the game. Also, they were out rebounded by Houston. Last year, the Buck were a top 5 rebounding team, which is necessary to get a stop and then initiate a fast break. (This year, through three games, they dropped to #9.)
#2: The Rockets will sputter and eventually crash.
Before the start of last season, the Rockets’ defensive coordinator retired. Houston’s defense cratered and the team went 11–14. They wooed him back, and the defense turned around by December.
He’s not coming back this year, and their defense will never be the same. Not only is Russell Westbrook not as good a defender as Chris Paul, he is the worst kind of defender possible for Houston’s system.
He’s that guy who gambles on steals, or tries to play super aggressive for a couple of possessions, only to allow an opponent to get to the rim.
Harden does a lot of the same things, even though he doesn’t put out the same effort as Westbrook.
A team can’t have two gambling guards and be a good defense.
The other problem is the lack of outside shooting on Houston. The team has never been an elite 3-point shooting team, but their system of letting Harden break down a defense and create wide open shots for his teammate 40 times per game seemed almost fool proof.
After all, what are the chances of them going 0 for 27 in a crucial playoff game?
Westbrook, Sefolosha and Rivers look like they could go 0 for 27 from deep in every game.
#3: In spite of their superstars, the Warriors will be a historically bad defensive team.
The Clippers are a team of junk yard dogs who scrap and battle. They are built to defend and grind opponents down with Kawhi Leonard iso plays that end up in a high percentage short jump shot.
Against the Warriors, the Clippers scored 141 points, made 18 3-pointers and show 62.5% from the field.
Look at the shot chart from the game. The inside of the paint looks like it a murder scene, covered in red from the Clippers scoring there at will.
In my projections, I thought they could hang around until Klay Thompson came back. The earliest he is expected to come back is after the All-Star break.
The problem is the Warriors will have played 57 games by that time and might be so far out of playoff contention they could go all in on tanking.
(Since I wrote this column, the Warriors got blown out by the Thunder. Ouch!)
TIER 2: The eye test provided a pleasant surprise that exceeded my off-season projections.
#4: Philadelphia looks like the best team in the East and the only team with a chance to beat the Clippers.
Watching the 76ers beat up the Celtics in crunch time answered a few questions:
- How can Philadelphia win close games when Joel Embiid gets hurt or has to rest?
- How could Josh Richardson ever feel Jimmy Butlers’ shoes?
- How will they survive the loss of JJ Redick’s outside shooting?
- How can Bret Brown avoid getting outcoached at the end of every close game?
The answer is Al Horford.
Just plug Horford into any situation, and every question comes back with the uniquely Philadelphian answer “Ain’t youse got a pair of eyes? What the hell’s wrong with youse?”
With Horford, Philadelphia has the right personnel to play Godzilla small ball, with no player smaller than 6' 5" and a center who can still guard any dominant center (including his own teammate, Embiid) in the league.
With Horford, Philadelphia can surround Ben Simmons with shooters, allowing him to do a pretty decent impression of a young LeBron James.
With Horford being a mobile rim protector and rebounder, the 76ers defensive core of Horford, Simmons and Richardson is going to be so good it doesn’t matter whether Bret Brown plays a shooter who can’t defend like Korkmaz, or a defender who can’t shoot, like Thybulle.
And it certainly won’t matter if Brown hasn’t prepared for a Brad Stevens ATO play.
#5: The Lakers were able to recover — in spite of everything that went wrong last year — and this year’s team has the potential to be really special:
- Frank Vogel may not be as bad a coach as I thought. After getting embarrassed by his substitution patterns in the opening loss to Doc Rivers, Frank Vogel let Alex Caruso play in the second half of game 2 — it took Luke Walton 34 games to reach that same conclusion last season. (The Caruso Effect: Caruso started the second half against Utah, and the team was +7, building a 13-point lead; against Charlotte, the team was +13, building a 15-point lead.)
- There’s a reason Danny Green had an insane On/Off Net Rating with Toronto last year: he’s really, really, surprisingly good. His contained Kawhi Leonard to something like 4 for 11 shooting. Against Utah, he had five points, two rebounds, an assist, two steals, a block and a couple of deflections in the first quarter, while harassing Donovan Mitchell.
- Avery Bradley may prove to be the best player traded from last Memphis Grizzlies. Bradley can defend and shoot, which is all the Lakers need from their point guards. He outplayed the aging Mike Conley in the Utah game, and didn’t cost three players, a draft picks and $67 million over the next two years.
- LeBron James stayed on script tonight and showed he can still be a top 3 player in the NBA. When single covered, LeBron did his part by bullying his way to the basket all night, ending up with 32 points on 61.1% shooting on two-point shots. He also played more pick and rolls as a ball handler for Davis, and as the screener with the guards. By taking what the defense was giving him, LeBron had 10 assists to only 1 turnover (unlike his bad game against the Clippers where he had 5 turnovers).
- Davis finally played center in some smaller lineups and the Lakers ripped the Jazz apart. While he still needs work on his shot selection (settling for too many fall away mid-range jump shots), Davis was incredible as a help defender with five blocks.
- No other team in the West (besides the Clippers) has the roster to stop a lineup of LeBron, Davis, Green, Bradley and Caruso. While the guards don’t supply much shot creation, they are the best Lakers defenders and only need to hit an occasional outside shot to keep defenses from committing everyone to stop LeBron and Davis. The only way other teams will have a chance to compete is by shooting great from beyond the arc.
TIER 3: These games confirmed my greatest fears.
#6: The Clippers might be so good, they will not only win the NBA title, but would be favored against the 2017–2018 Warriors.
Considering the 2016–2017 Spurs had a 2–1 regular season advantage and were up by 25 points in Game 1 of their playoff series when Kawhi Leonard got hurt, I’m beginning to wonder if we overestimated the Warriors’ strength.
Kawhi Leonard is the only non-member of the Marvel Comics Universe to defeat both LeBron and Durant in their primes in consecutive playoff series, when he won the Finals MVP in 2014. And he is a better player now than he was then.
When I look at these lineups, I don’t think it’s crazy to think this year’s Clippers could be the better team:
Kawhi ≥ Durant
George ≥ Iguodala
Curry ≥ Beverly
Thompson ≥ Shamet
Clippers bench >>>>> Warriors bench
It’s not that they beat the Lakers in the season opener, it’s because of the way their roster is constructed. They have five wings (Leonard, George, Harkless, Green, Patterson) and a junk yard dog (Beverly) who can put a body on the most valuable players of the top teams in the NBA (Giannis, LeBron, and Simmons).
They are exhausting to play, not only because of their defense, but the way they spread the floor and allow Leonard and Williams to carve up mismatches.
Against the Lakers, Kawhi made 6 straight shots during the 6:30 Danny Green was on the bench, and the Clippers went on a 32–22 run.
Not only did Leonard kill the over-matched KCP who was trying to guard him, but when the defense tried to send help, Leonard found teammates for dunks or wide open 3-point shots.
The Clippers made 11 of 12 shots while Leonard was on the floor during their run, and 15 of 16 when Lou Williams came in to destroy Avery Bradley and Quinn Cook.
Even if we assume the Lakers’ coach will be smarter about mirroring Leonard’s time on the court with Danny Green, and shadow Lou Williams with Alex Caruso, remember the Clippers will always have the advantage on defense, on hustles plays, and in coaching.
And then, they’ll get back Paul George.
There may not be one team in the league with the depth and variety to stop Leonard, George and Williams. (Philadelphia may come the closest, but at the cost of sitting Embiid in favor of someone who can guard a small ball 5 like Jamychal Green.)
The only thing that could possibly stop the Clippers is their weakness at center.
However, their roster construction is so good, I’m sure they could work a deal for the right defensive big who could complete their team.
#7: The Celtics will not be as bad as I hoped because of their wing players.
There’s a reason almost all the best players in the NBA are point forwards (Giannis, Kawhi, LeBron, George, etc.). They have the size to defend, and can score from all their levels of the court.
While the Celtics wings (Tatum, Brown, Hayward and Smart) are not at the All-NBA level, they did enough to turn around a close game against Toronto. Toronto’s lack of an effective big guard means that their success will be limited by VanVleet’s outside shooting.
#8: The young ex-Lakers are not as good as I hoped they would be In New Orleans.
Brandon Ingram was 25–8–3 on 50% shooting with 3 turnovers (-11 +/-).
Lonzo Ball was 15–8–5 with 2 steals, but shot poorly (-14 +/-).
Josh Hart was 16–9 with 2 steals and shot 55% (-5+/-).
But they keep making key mistakes on defense and lose games they could have won.
Part of this is Alvin Gentry’s coaching style — he’s a disciple of Mike D’Antoni, not Steve Kerr. These guys run all game and eventually they give up easy baskets, while missing shots in transition.
With All-NBA defensive player Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans should have a great defense, but they’ve given up 253 points in two games.
TIER 4: These games shocked me.
#9: Could the Jazz be bad?
Everybody was talking about the Jazz winning the West. So far, they barely beat the Thunder, who won’t be great (how did they lose to Washington?) and they got blown out by the Lakers. Those results don’t make a great argument for the Jazz being an elite Western team, but I think the rosters changes may have weakened the Jazz far more than we realize:
- The defense is worse. Rubio is a bigger, better defender than Conley. Favors seemed to work well with Gobert. And Crowder was the only guy on the Jazz who had a chance of guarding the elite players like LeBron and Durant. Joe Ingels tried to guard LeBron and it was an disaster.
- The offense (so far) is much worse. While this might change if Conley starts making shots, are Jeff Green and Bogdanovic really going to be a significant upgrade over Crowder and Favors?
- Mitchell is really good, but still not ready to be the best player on the floor at a championship level. I was shocked to see how much Danny Green affected his game. He came back later when guarded by weaker defenders and scored most of his points in the third quarter, when the Lakers built up a 19-point lead.
I’m not saying they’re bad like they’ve miss the playoffs. I’m just saying that there is a gap between the Clippers and the Lakers and another gap between the Lakers and the Jazz. Utah is looking a lot more like a #4–5 seed, competing with Denver and Portland, than the winner of the West.
#10: Could the Suns be good?
Once again this comes down to the difference a couple of players can make to balance out a team. Add Rubio and Saric to the starting lineup, and suddenly a bench of Baynes, Bridges, Kaminsky, Diallo and Tyler Johnson is looking competitive.
With Rubio and Saric, the Suns can play a little defense, a huge shock.
Even with the suspension of Ayton, the Suns went to Denver and went into overtime.
That sounds even crazier than the Sun being good.
Devin Booker has been ignored the last few years by fans and writers because he plays no defense and is a ball hog.
Over the years, he has improved as a passer besides being a scorer. Last year he averaged almost 7 assists per game. This year he is averaging 8.5.
I wrote this about Booker last season:
Here are the 4th season stats of Booker and another player:
Booker: 26.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 6.8 apg, .9 stl, 7.1 FTA, .467 FG%, .326 3P%, .521 eFG%, .584 TS%
Player X: 22.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.6 stl, 6.1 FTA, .468 FG%, .319 3P%, .488 eFG%, .546 TS%
The only difference is the other guy’s rebounding and defense. As a matter of fact there are only 19 players who put up at least 22/4/4 with over .540 TS% in history.
Booker is in the top 10 all time in points, assists and TS%, but dead last in win shares because he plays for a terrible team. 16 of the 19 players are already in or destined to be in the Hall of Fame.
Player Season Finder | Basketball-Reference.com
The following stats are available for all player seasons as of the season noted G: 1946-47 GS: 1981-82 MP: 1951-52 FG…
(BTW, I didn’t mention the identity of the “other guy” is Kobe Bryant.)
Kelly Oubre is a good shooter, and Saric could be a deep threat.
Add in Ayton on the inside to go with the guards and suddenly I wonder if they could be the story of the year.
(Of course, the game after I wrote this, the Suns beat the Clippers and now everyone will think I just jumped on the bandwagon, like 538.com.)
#11: The Kings have no crown and it’s on the coach.
People write about the importance of continuity in the NBA all the time. Well, there’s another form of continuity: the coach.
This was Sacramento’s core from last February when the team lost by two points at Denver, Golden State (at full strength with Durant, Thompson and Cousins) and a one-point overtime against Milwaukee:
Barnes, Fox, Hield, Bogdanovic and Cauley-Stein, with Bagley, Giles and Ferrell coming off the bench (Bjelica had a DNP).
Now, Sacramento’s core after getting blown out by the Suns to open the season:
Barnes, Fox, Hield, Bagley and Dedmon, with Bogdanovic, Bjelica, Joseph and Ariza coming off the bench (Ferrell played only 4 minutes, Giles is injured).
How can a team bringing back six of their top seven players go from playing even with the top three teams in the league during the regular season to getting blown out by the Suns? (I know I asked if the Suns could be good, but that didn’t mean reaching-the-NBA-Finals good.)
The injury to Marvin Bagley in the first game was a major setback to the team.
He’ll recover, but I can’t say the same thing for Luke Walton’s terrible substitution patterns.
D’Aaron Fox may be the fastest player in the league, and instead of speeding up the pace, Walton has given major minutes to the four oldest players on the roster: Joseph (28), Dedmon (30), Bjelica (31) and Ariza (34).
When Walton was the Lakers’ the first two years, I had great hope in him.
Then I thought the problem was he couldn’t implement the Warriors’ style because of LeBron slower pace of playing.
Boy, was I wrong.
All those close losses, terrible lineup decisions and poor offensive movement rested squarely on Walton’s shoulders.
Magic did the Lakers two huge solids by firing Luke and then falling on his own sword.
TIER 5: Just call me crazy
#12 Could Dallas be a playoff team this year?
Replacing the Kings as this year’s up-and-comers are the Mavs.
Dallas has the best young duo under age 25 in the league. No other team has a Rookie of the Year and a former All-Star (Embiid is 25).
I watched them come back and win in the closing minutes at New Orleans — the trait of far more experienced players.
Part of that is coaching and system, but most of it is decision-making under pressure.
Two nights later, Doncic and Porzingis combined for 61 pts, 21 reb, and 14 ast in a close loss Portland.
Lillard and McCollum combined for 63 pts, 9 reb, and 9 ast.
That’s how close Dallas is to being a really good team.
In the game against Portland, the Mavs took 50 3-pointers and got to the line 41 times. That’s a highly efficient formula for playing in today’s NBA.
Unfortunately, Doncic, Porzingis, Curry and Hardaway — the Mavs’ best 3-point shooters — combined to shoot only 7 for 33 (21.1%).
Even shooting a dismal 30% on these shots would have won a game like this.
#13: Dwight Howard could win Comeback Player of the Year?
Every Lakers fan dreaded the loss of Demarcus Cousin because it meant signing another backup center with no cap space.
The choices were Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard.
In spite of averaging 16.5 ppg and 12.5 rpg in his last healthy season with Charlotte, Dwight Howard’s locker room reputation was so bad for the last six years, Lakers fans actually wanted to sign the corpse formerly known as Noah.
He responded to this second chance in L.A. with humility and hard work.
The Lakers crowd cheered him wildly as he fought for rebounds and blocked shots.
Dwight Howard could win Comeback Player of the Year. It’s crazy, I know, but he hasn’t played with this much energy and discipline since he was in Orlando.
I know this is crazy, and the honeymoon could end after 20 games, the All-Star break, or even tomorrow but Howard has been an unbelievable role player.