The NBA has not gone quietly into the offseason. It’s been just over a month since the Golden State Warriors completed a ho-hum sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals, and yet already so much has changed. And for those who like to complain about outcome predictability in the superteam and, more specifically, Warriors era, the happenings of this offseason only added fuel to their fire.
For the strongest team to both get stronger with the smart, completely fair, and even more frustrating (for everyone else) acquisition of an All-NBA center AND watch all of its closest competitors suffer at the hands of the reality of player movement in the 2018 NBA is a very tough look for the 2018 NBA. Aside from Boston, most of the Warriors’ true competitors failed to improve their usurping position and other theoretical competitors failed to come to fruition. After Paul George re-signed in OKC, I tweeted this:
Great night for GS (but w/ a lot more mystery to come). PG won't join LA/Bron and Ariza to PHX, hurting HOU's best lineup. Now can confirm similar road to this year, adding (at best) Kawhi-Boogie-Bron. 1-seed (btwn HOU, GS, LA) will be coveted to avoid 2nd-Rd series vs. superteam https://t.co/I60wgbpw0U
— ZB (@NBAZachB) July 1, 2018
The “mystery to come” ended up being more of a fantasy for Golden State. Houston lost two of its key wing defenders, one of whom (Ariza) was absolutely vital for their ability to match Golden State’s versatility in the playoffs. LeBron ditched Cleveland for sunny Los Angeles, indeed furthering the imbalance of power towards the Western Conference and bringing the Lakers back into the thick of things. Yet, he brought no superstars with him, rendering the Lakers’ championship threat to the Warriors in the next calendar year a paltry one at best.
Elsewhere, Kawhi Leonard and DeMar Derozan swapped situations and neither seem to be pleased about it. Yet, neither of them and most importantly Kawhi, teamed up with another “guy” to form a team capable of true title contention. Oh, and Golden State just fucking went ahead and signed Boogie Cousins because apparently nobody else wanted him. The achilles’ tear is rightfully causing concern among twitter talking heads who want to remind you how smart they are, but you’re adding 25-13-5 to one of the best teams in league history. Even those who are the most radically skeptical of counting stats (myself included) can’t deny the power of that addition. Boogie is flat-out raw when healthy. Sign me up.
Enough about the Warriors, though. After all, I guess that’s what everyone is complaining about — that every single move in the NBA is made in their shadow, every single piece of analysis anchored in their context, and the aspirations of every other team largely feeling unimportant when covered by a second-place ceiling. For now, though, this is where we stand.
Here are a handful of other teams that I believe made serious upgrades this offseason and deserve more respect in perception heading into next season. Especially within our gambling perspective, these are teams towards which I’m prepared to show more respect in handicapping than I did a year ago — and, of course, why I think you should as well.
Notable Additions/Keeps: Aaron Holiday (Draft), Thaddeus Young (Opt-in), Tyreke Evans (1y/$12m), Doug McDermott (3y/$22m), Kyle O’Quinn (1y/$4.5m)
Notable Losses: Lance Stephenson (Lakers), Glenn Robinson III (Pistons)
I really like what Indiana did this offseason as, even in the absence of a major move, they managed to improve their roster around the edges and added a ton of lineup flexibility with just a few additions. Victor Oladipo will need to build on an unbelievable season this past year as he solidifies a role as the star of this team. Indiana has put nice pieces around him and should expect to push towards home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The rotation is coming together quite nicely for this Pacers group, as they retained their entire starting 5 from a year ago while adding significant pop to their bench in the form of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott. Both of those guys are high-quality bench options… especially Tyreke, who quietly averaged 19-5-5 for Memphis last year and will thrive both as a 6th man and as a potential secondary ball-handler in their “finishing 5” next to Oladipo in the backcourt.
These additions were more than necessary, however, and should significantly improve Indiana’s 48-minute performance next year. With Oladipo on the floor last year, Indiana had a +6.4 Net Rating. With him on the bench, they had a -7.3 Net Rating. And with Oladipo staying under 35 minutes per game in the regular season, that’s over a full quarter of play during which the Pacers had to trudge through an efficiency drop of 13 points per 100 possessions.
As a Pacers bettor, one will see this team be much more reliable this year, better equipped to handle (and hopefully mitigate) the dip in performance when Oladipo sits. The additions of Evans and McDermott should help to ease the load on Oladipo and lead the team through a far less stressful stretch of minutes when he’s out of the game.
In an era of basketball where it is more important than ever to both have access to and be effective in multiple different looks, the Pacers are certainly making over their roster to the times. What they lack in roster “pop”, they make up for in roster depth and versatility. With a true Center in Myles Turner and multiple true four’s (of both the stretch and post variety), they can pretty much do whatever they want on any given night.
In fact, Oladipo is really the only guy that I’d lock into their crunch-time lineup. Between Cory Joseph, Bogdanovic, Thad Young, McDermott, Sabonis, Tyreke Evans, this team has options and can either match or counter any opponent’s play-style out there. I’m not a huge Turner guy, but Turner at the five with a stretch four and any three ball-handlers works perfectly. Or, they can slide Thad Young to the five and go super-small and switchy in a lineup that would likely be pretty unguardable. They are one of the rare teams who can afford to “get cute” in tinkering with lineups as they have switchable bodies up and down the roster.
Notable Additions/Keeps: Jaren Jackson Jr. (Draft), Jevon Carter (Draft), Kyle Anderson (4y, $37m), Garrett Temple (Trade), Omri Casspi (terms not disclosed)
Notable Losses: Ben McLemore (Trade to Kings), Tyreke Evans (Pacers)
Memphis will make the playoffs this season. No longer expected to tank with the return of Conley and Marc Gasol from injuries of both the real and we’re-trying-to-lose-tonight variety, this franchise got a much-needed restart this offseason and I expect them to be back in the thick of things in the Western Conference.
People forget just how lethal of a duo Gasol-Conley has been when surrounded by halfway-decent options at the 2, 3, and 4, which is exactly what Memphis injected into this roster during this offseason. They’ve put together a group of solid veterans who are committed to winning, with a nice little batch of young talent coming off the bench. If Conley and Gasol can stay healthy, I expect this team to win 45+ games and be right in the mix in the back half of the Western Conference.
Competency Around Conley and Gasol
The presence of Conley and Gasol alone is enough to ensure that this team will play hard, smart, and unselfish. The two have anchored a winning culture together for years and, despite last year’s aberration, kept this team going to the playoffs, year after year. Of course, they are still missing the talent necessary for a real run in the Western Conference, but this is one of a few teams in the league that is still willing to compete along the “treadmill of mediocrity.” They’ve embodied the Grit N Grind culture for years and this offseason’s acquisitions reek of a newfound commitment to that very cultural identity.
Kyle Anderson is a solid, do-it-all combo forward who will love playing smart basketball alongside Gasol and Conley. He is a gifted passer who shot 50%+ from the floor last year in San Antonio. The counting stats don’t pop off the page, but it should be noted that he had just a 13% Usage Rate in a very fluid role. Now, with the confidence of playing within an organization who just paid him, I expect Slo-Mo to be more aggressive and try to prove himself worthy of the unexpected long-term payday he received. He should be a very solid piece of Memphis’ group. Similarly, the acquisition of Garrett Temple is one that just jumps off the page, screaming “I’m a competent NBA starter!”. He will be exactly that next to Conley — a gritty defender who can knock down threes and play within a system.
Combine these four and JaMychal Green with the promising young group of Dillon Brooks (who had a great rookie year and should improve as a 3/4), Carter (who will be BELOVED in Memphis), and JJJ (a few years away but still will be asked to contribute off the bench this year), and you have a legit 8-man rotation. Hell, maybe even Chandler Parsons can give them something. But in preparing for this upcoming season by considering some of the things that we’ve learned about the NBA in this decade, one that I keep coming back to is Conley, Gasol, a competent roster, and Memphis’ culture typically results in a playoff spot. Just ask seven of the last eight years.
Grit N Grind Once Again
I don’t think Memphis will be great this year, but they’ll be a heck of a lot better than the 2nd-worst team in the league, which is where they were a year ago. I consider this offseason a MAJOR upgrade for Memphis, who should be competing for a 5-8 playoff spot in the West. Grit N Grind was never just about Tony Allen diving on the floor and being a defensive-minded team. It’s so much more than that — it’s committing to a winning culture in a small market, always fighting to compete in the face of teams with superior on-paper rosters, and giving an all-out effort every time they step foot on the floor.
It’s about gritting and grinding your way through the absolute gauntlet that is the process of building a contender in a small market in this modern era of the NBA. That is, at least, where Memphis will stand this year, and I think they’re going to be highly underrated in the Win Totals market. Again, this is a team that had made the playoffs every year this decade leading up to last season. So I’ll be looking to hammer the over on Wins and what I expect to be friendly pricing on Y/N to make the playoffs.
Notable Additions/Keeps: Moe Wagner (Draft), Svi Mykhailuk (Draft), LeBron James (4y/$154m), Lance Stephenson (1y, $4.5m), Rajon Rondo (1y, $9m), Javale McGee (1y, vet minimum), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1y, $12m)
Notable Losses: Julius Randle (Pelicans)
When you add LeBron James… well, you add LeBron James. Not much else needs to be said to argue that the Lakers ought to be upgraded this season, but I actually think the Lakers’ mixed bag of an offseason makes them better prepared to exceed the expectations of the general public than they would have been had they gone out and traded for/signed a second big fish to pair with LeBron. Though they very well may go ahead and do just that, expectations, for now, seem to have been tempered slightly by the relative inexperience of this roster and a rather curious batch of free-agent signings.
The positive energy brought by LeBron’s signing was met with equal backlash at the signings of Lance, Rondo, and Javale, and the team’s decision not to part with young talent in pursuit of a superstar in the short term has drastically changed the climate of opinion surrounding this team. Now, most have taken the pressure off of LeBron and his Lakers, buying into the “this is a four-year plan” argument that is serving as a free pass for the Lakers to be, say, the 5-seed this year and not really push Houston or Golden State until another star makes the famed pilgrimage to Hollywood.
That being said, I love the young talent on this roster and believe that, with an energized LeBron, they’re gonna be a fucking problem on a nightly basis in this league. How will fun a Lonzo-Hart-Ingram-Kuzma-LeBron lineup be? Relative success within the 82-game schedule is often determined by marginal factors like energy, motivation, and passion — this Lakers group, full of youth and with the chance to play 41 games in front of what will be a rejuvenated Staples Center crowd, will have plenty of all three.
Less Pressure, More Fun
The Lakers didn’t make a huge splash outside of the LeBron signing. The rest of the basketball universe saw this as a sign of them being at least a year away, and attention has turned elsewhere. I love the Lakers, though, in somewhat of a pesky dog role this year, with the best player in the world surrounded by a group of hungry young bulls who will surely not back down to anyone in the league. The fewer people believe in them, the more I love this team to outperform expectations. Ingram and Kuzma are legit scorers who can take some of the offensive burdens off of LeBron, and Lonzo and Hart are both fantastic role players who both always make right the play and can occasionally make the highlight play.
That five, combined with Rondo, Stephenson, Javale, and Moe Wagner, is going to be such a fun group. Is there any question that this Lakers roster is a major upgrade over the Cavaliers’ one that LeBron just carried into the finals? Not really. Sure, it was the East and this is the West, but we’re talking about LeBron James here. The group around him isn’t perfect, but it’s damn good compared to Jordan Clarkson and some of the worst playoff minutes I’ve ever witnessed, Tristan Thompson’s loyalty to his baby moms, and J.R. Smith’s insistence that “weed and Hennessy don’t really affect me” after ingesting both during halftime of Game 1 of the Finals.
Fading him has never really seemed to work out for anyone, and I don’t expect that to change this season. Despite what rosters may tell us “on paper”, I still have a hard time believing LeBron will lose a playoff series to any team not named Golden State. At the end of the day, it’s LeBron. He has done and will continue to do things we’ve never seen before. I’d rather have my cards with him than against him.
I like this Lakers team a lot, especially in the context of tempered expectations after they resisted the urge to trade motivated youth (who will be extra hungry to prove this front office right for keeping them) in exchange for the folly of win-now mode.
Other Teams, I’ve Upgraded
They’re adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into a team that made the Western Conference Finals. Marcus Smart looks to be back in the fold. Expectations are high, but this team should be very, very good this season. I’m taking them over Philly and/or Toronto any day of the week
DeAndre Jordan and Luka Doncic are great additions and should help this team climb back up, similarly to Memphis, from the depths of the tankers to the back half of the playoff chase in the West. DSJ and Doncic will be a young but very talented backcourt that has a chance to pop, especially given they’ll be surrounded by above-average shooting, a true rim-finisher in Jordan, a true rim-protector (also Jordan) to make up for their inexperience and vulnerability defensively, and one of the best leaders in basketball in Dirk Nowitzki. Again, this is a situation I see as quite similar to that of Memphis. They aren’t gonna be elite this year, but they sure as hell will win more than 24 games.
This team added Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Trevor Ariza, and reasonably-sized pressure to win now. I will be very, very surprised if this team is the worst in the league once again. The Suns should take some steps forward and be far more competitive if they’ve been, even if only for the fact that tanking is no longer an option for them.
While I am not a huge fan of Zach LaVine or Jabari Parker’s game, the Bulls’ roster got a whole lot better this offseason based on pedigree alone. They have a legit young talent at every position on the floor, and if the chemistry comes together, I have them as a sneaky pick to make the playoffs in the back half of a quite weak Eastern Conference. They’re certainly a few years away from doing anything real, but I don’t see much separating them from the rest of the East outside of a handful of teams at the top.