David Thorpe watches preseason

Notes on every team

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24 games into the 2021-2022 NBA preseason, every team has played, and … some things that have caught my eye:


Ben Simmons’ absence will do terrible things to the 76ers’ defense. But it’s the offense that I’m watching—Simmons was the team’s only real ball mover, and the cause of most of their transition buckets. How will the team score when Joel Embiid sits? The answer in Game 1 was “with great difficulty.” This was barely a top-15 offense last year. To stay above average this season, Doc Rivers and his staff will have to coach like crazy. Good news: things looked better in Game 2, where the Andre Drummond signing looked smart. Provided he passes when he can’t get within 24 inches of the rim, he can play Embiid’s role in many of the team’s favorite actions.


Anthony Davis doesn’t have to do anything to have opponents think “oh we are in some trouble tonight.” Physically, he looks incredible. Also: Kendrick Nunn and Malik Monk could be incredible additions. The Lakers are old as hell, BUT, those two guys (plus Talen Horton-Tucker) are not. Energy and athleticism matter hugely as players fatigue come late spring, so if the Lakers can build trust in two of those three, their title chances go way up. 


In their first game, the Nets sat their five likely starters and Patty Mills, and still killed the Lakers—mostly because the Lakers were hacking like it was 1999 and the Nets shot 40 free throws. Still, there is a culture of passing the ball and making easy plays that exists beyond Kevin Durant and James Harden and stems from last season. The offense is butter. The defense is not.


Joshua Primo, the youngest player in the NBA, scored 17 second-half points and did so with a sweet-looking perimeter shot plus some nifty craft finishes inside. But it was the whole Spurs effort that has me intrigued—they are loaded with young talent and some good veterans. I don’t know if Ben Simmons would play there but they have a mix of players who could help the 76ers right now, with potential to be better than ever. Not many teams can combine good starters (Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl), talented but not ready to win young players (Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, Tre Jones, Joshua Primo), and a pick with lottery potential. 


Utah sat a number of guys, but Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley played. Much has been made of their second-round demise, with lots of reasons given, but I think one of the two most important factors was Conley’s rusty late playoff return and Mitchell’s injury, which kept him from being the playoff killer he has been. Getting those two off to a good start come the regular season is a great priority, provided Rudy Gobert is what he was last year—the most underrated star in the league.


I’m sorry, Blazers fans, but I can’t watch this team and think a major trade won’t be happening this year. Damian Lillard wants to be on a better team than what this team projects to be. Given that, I do like how the Blazers used Jusuf Nurkic in their “get game,” as a facilitator as the ball pings around. He’s good at it and it’s a wise way to good looks that aren’t from Dame and CJ McCollum's iso-talents. Nurkic got himself into trouble when he worked hard to score for himself (that’s where four of his five turnovers occurred). It’s something we’ve seen before (11 turnovers his final two games last postseason), and if it does not change, if he doesn’t start to see helpers come down to strip him, or if he doesn’t stop knocking guys over as he pivots, it’s easy to see management target him for a trade. Lillard wants someone who can jump to nearly 13 feet while sitting in the dunk spot on offense, along with a high jumping rim protector on defense. Before insisting on a trade, might he suggest a new center? (No, not Cody Zeller.) 


Miami has to be happy with Tyler Herro. Not his 26 points—he’s shown that he can get hot. It was the way he ran the team as the primary ball handler. In the first quarter he made four floaters from just outside the first box, three in a row, while working with screeners and reading the defense. If he can serve as more than a designated shooter his value to the team skyrockets. He looked the part against the Hawks.


Cam Reddish holds a big part of the Hawks’ future in his hands, either as a primary scorer or as trade bait for one. It’s too early to know what he will become—he could still be a Duke senior right now—but in the Hawks’ first preseason game he played hard and his talent has always been evident. I will keep watching, wondering if and when he’ll become a consistent high-level NBA contributor. 


Since being drafted second overall—ahead of Luka Doncic and Trae Young—Marvin Bagley III has been mostly injured, and otherwise generally a bad player. It’s a sad story, and the player deserves the lion's share of blame, but I can’t forget he’s playing for one of the NBA’s worst franchises. Still, in Monday’s preseason win over the Suns, you could see why he was drafted so high. He’s got the physical tools to be special. Two nice scores with his off hand around the rim showed me he isn’t just an “all-left” finisher. I assume nothing, but IF Bagley is on track to be a long-term NBA starter, the Kings’ future gets rosier by the minute; they have a ton of perimeter stars in the making. 


Draft experts were confused when the Suns drafted Jalen Smith tenth in 2020 above some very highly rated guards/wings. Last season, some could argue, he was the worst player in the NBA. But one game into the preseason, I love him. He fought to make plays around the rim on both ends and showed his shooting abilities extend to the 3-point line. He also played with a lot of energy, a must for someone coming off a bad rookie season. I don’t anticipate Smith helping them this Spring, but what a wonderful talent to have in the pipeline. 


One of the benefits of having a son playing in the ACC is how aware it makes me of all the good players in that conference. On draft night my son raved about Virginia’s Trey Murphy III. Well, after a great summer league, Murphy has not slowed down. Six of 10 from 3 and 21 points plus six rebounds in his first ever pro game. There is a lot of talk about where Zion one day might play, but if Brandon Ingram and Trey Murphy flourish as the starting wings combo, the Pelicans would be hard to leave. 


If Minnesota is finally going to take a meaningful step forward, Karl-Anthony Towns has to make the jump into the “top centers in the game” conversation. So skilled, he should also use his big body like a battering ram more often. Plays like this don’t just set a tone for a quarter or a game, they help forge an identity. 

A lot of players thought the play was over, as the ball sailed out of bounds. Scottie Barnes, #4, did not think the play was over, and created a preseason highlight for Precious Achiuwa.


On Scottie Barnes:


Big guys tend to develop later. It’s just a basketball fact, and something to keep in mind when watching the Magic’s 7-1 center Mo Bamba. Bamba had 13 points and 10 boards, plus four blocked shots, in a tight game against the Celtics. Everyone is excited about Jalen Suggs, and for good reason. But Bamba’s emergence could matter as much on a team that is desperate for good players. 


About 14 months ago Dennis Schroder was OKC’s most unguardable player in the postseason bubble. After a so-so season with the Lakers, and turning down a huge extension so he could be a free agent this summer, he signed a one-year deal with the Celtics for $5.8 million. He was just 1-7 in what was a competitive game. He’s better than that and there is no reason to panic. Still, it bears watching how this unfolds. The Celts need his explosive quickness with the ball and overall scoring talents, and he needs to find what he had in Oklahoma City to recover at least some of the huge money he turned down.


Everyone in northern California is excited to see Klay Thompson back. I even heard a broadcaster say he will be fighting tears, knowing how hard Klay has worked to return. But to think he will play well is just a huge reach—it’s been since June 2019 that he last played a game. Which is why Otto Porter Jr. is so important. After signing a huge deal with the Bulls, he was Injured and stuck on a bad team. Now he’s making the minimum on a well-run team in the Bay. He has always been a cerebral player. He looked so confident as a shooter, and there is no question he will take to the Warriors’ systems well. They added Nemanja Bjelica and have Andre Iguodala back as well, giving this play-in team three wise veterans they didn’t have last year. Porter, though, should have the biggest impact if opening night is any measure. It’s a far deeper team than last season, whether Thompson is all the way back or not. 


Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, the Nuggets late first round pick, has the best nickname on the team. And he can score, evidenced by the 19 points he scored in his first preseason game. As a rookie, he’s just not ready to fill in for the injured Jamal Murray. Bol Bol, though, is another story. In season three, he has to show there is at least some hope for him to contribute to winning. In limited minutes, he’s been atrocious on both ends of the court. That’s why his five blocked shots in the Nuggets’ first game had to spark interest from Nuggets executives and coaches. Tied for 20th in blocked shots last year, it’s the one thing they don’t get from superstar MVP Nikola Jokic. If serving as a backup rim protector can get him on the court as an upgrade to their defense (and he’s far from being a sure thing in that right now), that’s a big step for him.


Terance Mann should be the biggest beneficiary of Kawhi's absence this season. 


A huge question for the Thunder: Can lottery pick Josh Giddey emerge as the perfect backcourt partner for future all-star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? Giddey had a nice opening night. He has a lot of LaMelo Ball in him, a slick passer who is a dynamic driver downhill in transition. He also had a suspect shot in pre-draft, but it’s clear he has been working on it, which is incredible to create space for SGA. He hit two of the four 3-pointers he attempted, with a stroke that’s mechanical but certainly repeatable.


To go from play-in qualifier to playoff team, Gordon Hayward has to play—a lot. That’s been a problem for him the past four seasons. The Hornets have some interesting parts, all young guys, but Hayward is their ticket to the next level. He moved well in game one, showed some bursts of quickness that I didn’t expect. The team must prepare for his eventual departure, so seeing rookie scorer James Bouknight go for 20 points on 12 shots was a reminder that without Hayward, the Hornets have a stable of talents that can make their mark in the next few years. 


There’s a lot of buzz nationally about the Rockets’ rookie class, led by scintillating guard Jalen Green and super-skilled big man Alperen Sengun. But Houston fans know Kevin Porter Jr. is going to be their most exciting and productive player this season. Formerly the final pick of the first round in 2019, he found a home in Houston last year and put 50 on his former team, the Bucks, late in the year. Against the Wizards Tuesday night, the 21-year-old showed his range of offensive talents, hitting 5-10 from 3 while weaving his way inside for buckets too. His 3-point percentage has been in the low 30s—if this season brings a leap forward in accuracy, he’s going to be a dynamic scorer for a long time. If that backcourt grows as it should, the Rockets project to be outstanding on offense, which is why this year it’s important for them to show growth on last year’s 27th-ranked defense.


It’s hard to envision Bradley Beal in a Wizards uniform all year, but if his goal was to play on a team with promise, he’d have to stay. The Wizards have a lot of good or “will be good soon” players, even when high-potential players Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, and Thomas Bryant sat out against the Rockets. The Wizards are a deep team. And they have Spencer Dinwiddie, back from an injury and looking sharp. He looked as fast as ever when he pushed coast-to-coast, settled with a dribble on the wing, then exploded into a straight line drive. He finished the game with 14 points, five assists, and just one turnover. The 28-year-old should bring a healthy balance of scoring and leadership to this young team and it will be fun to watch them grow. In about four years a Rockets-Wizards game might mean something.


Chicago Bulls fans might be the luckiest people in the league. They get to fall in love with Alex Caruso’s crazy hard play. In 20 minutes, he had 10 points, 10 assists, and a lot of promise. 


I’m already concerned about Evan Mobley in Cleveland. Maybe I shouldn’t be—he’s averaging nine points and 10 rebounds over his first two preseason games. I hope the franchise and Evan learned something from year three for Deandre Ayton in Phoenix. He got much better by narrowing his game, getting more focused on protecting the paint on defense and pulverizing defenses inside it on the other end. Mobley is a gifted and versatile teenager who will want to show off his slinky dribble-drive game. And his perimeter shot too. But he is also very tall, long, and bouncy, so there’s a cost to spending time away from the rim. The Cavs started him at power forward next to Jarrett Allen, so he will have some physical advantages over lots of defenders, especially when teams switch “one through four,” as is typical. Taking advantage of that now is a good first step toward a productive year, but it will take some careful thinking from the organization to build the foundation of what should be a great career.


Ja Morant is a bundle of energy combined with great skill and athleticism. And he simply loves to play, it is evident every moment he’s on the court. Get used to reading about him often here, because he’s about to have a monster season.


The champion Bucks may have lost P.J. Tucker, but they’ve added four guys who can earn playoff minutes:

  • Donte Divincenzo, was injured for the postseason but is expected back soon. 

  • Grayson Allen came over from Memphis and while he is best known for his dirty plays while at Duke, he’s actually a solid NBA player who plays well on both ends. Plus he hit 39 percent from 3 as a starter for a playoff team. 

  • Jordan Nwora, another wing who can defend and shoot (45 percent from 3). 

  • George Hill, a veteran and former Bucks guard. 

Allen and Nwora both looked good in the Bucks’ debut, which suggests the Bucks could play 10-deep. 


Most preseasons there is a team or two that plays defense well enough for me to think “well we know how they organized their priorities last week at camp.” Two days into the pre-season, it’s the Knicks who had me reacting like that. It wasn’t their six steals, a low number for a pre-season game, but rather their on- and off-ball awareness. They still defended the ball urgently, and rotated around it well, as if we were 30 games into the season. The Knicks were the fourth-best defense last year while missing Mitchell Robinson. Adding Kemba Walker will likely take a toll on that ranking but they can make up for it collectively, which was plain to see against the Pacers. The East is better this year, so the Knicks will have a major fight to finish top four again, but they’re off to a great start.


It’s hard to see the Pacers as a threat when they are missing Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren. But they have Myles Turner (led the league in blocks), Domantas Sabonis (one of four big men who averaged at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists), a quality point guard in Malcolm Brogdon, a coach who’s a lock for the Hall of Fame, and scorers who will be back at some point. This is one of the most intriguing teams of the season—and a team with a lot to offer in a Ben Simmons trade.


The question for the first half: Is Kristaps Porzingis an All-Star? Luka Doncic is good enough to take almost any team to the postseason, but the West is too loaded to expect series wins without another top stud. Last season, Porzingis’s stat line was impressive (20 and 9 on 38 percent from 3) but his overall impact was, well, meh. That’s largely because he’s easy to score on. Last year players made 49.5 percent of the shots they took when KP was considered the primary defender. For comparison’s sake, Bam Adebayo’s opponent made 44.3 percent, Giannis allowed 42.7 percent, DPOY Rudy Gobert 41.9 percent. Porzingis moved fine in his first game and it’s not fair to judge what he will do on defense in a pre-season game against mostly Jazz backups and third stringers. But that’s what we need to watch going forward, and if it doesn’t get better, expect some movement to happen. 


Josh Jackson played for the Memphis Hustle two seasons ago, and I watched every game. He was a scintillating athlete who played hard but without any discipline. He showed positive flashes last season and made people think that, just maybe, he was figuring out how to be an effective player. In his first preseason game this year, he started out under control. Then he made a few shots, and … reverted right back to old Josh, forcing shots off the dribble (once when a teammate stood alone at the top of the key clapping his hands to get Jackson’s attention). It's sad—in the game he scored both creatively and off screens for jumpers the way Rip Hamilton used to. But to earn trust from his coaches, he still has to prove that he knows when he should shoot or pass. He’s 24, it’s getting to be now or never.

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