BY DAVID THORPE
We all know what it’s like to be new. First day at a new school, or at a new job. The feelings are a little off, things happen clunkily. There’s not a lot of, shall we say, flow.
After the NBA’s wildest-ever summer of free agency, half the league’s stars are new somewhere. Which makes this season delightfully unpredictable for us fans.
Less so, for players, especially this year. They simply won’t have long to find their way. Not if they expect to contend. This year so many are in the mix. A slow start from the Clippers, say, or the Lakers or Rockets could mean a violent tumble in the standings.
And, newly, that could be fatal to title chances. A funny thing has happened in the world’s best basketball league: as much as the nature of home court advantage has been evolved with the 3-pointer (and maybe dating apps) in last year’s playoffs home court advantage meant almost everything. I believe it’s a trend that will continue this year, simply because we are due to have a tremendous number of tightly bunched contenders, amplifying small edges.
In last year’s playoffs’ 15 series:
Teams with home court advantage won 13 of 15.
Those 13 winning teams went 33-10 in their home games.
The year before, higher seeds went 11-4. The NBA has a lot of superstars, but very few of them have carried their teams to upsets over the past two seasons: Anthony Davis (once), LeBron James (twice), Damian Lillard (once), and Kawhi Leonard (once). (And the Jazz beat the Thunder two seasons ago, but you could argue that was largely because Russell Westbrook made only 64 of 161 shots.) Simply put, even having a superstar is rarely enough to overcome the disadvantage of being a lower seed. The best strategy is to have home court advantage.
Meanwhile, right now almost half the league—14 teams—has a new superstar or key starter, to work into the mix. It’s a ready excuse for a slow start. But it could also be doom.
Some of them aren’t expected to contend and can afford a little time to feel their way. In this category are the Heat, Mavericks, Pelicans, Nets, and Thunder. We will discuss them in a moment.
But here are the nine contending teams expecting to win in a hurry, with thoughts about how they can fit the pieces together quickly:
Three teams face the biggest challenges and the most pressure
Rockets: Russell Westbrook
The good news: Westbrook and Harden have played together before at a very high level, and have a genuine friendship. The bad news: their skills don’t match. At all.
Harden proved to be the King of the Iso last year, blowing by defenders, or shooting over or around them from behind the 3-point line. His ideal partner would be a primary ball-handler who can shoot the lights out—the better to draw defense away from Harden. Meanwhile, Westbrook is essentially the worst shooter of all superstars. (Maybe that will change this year. It’s possible.) Unless Westbrook is very carefully deployed, his man will constantly be searching to get into Harden’s driving lanes, allowing his defender to press extra-close to him to bother his shot.
Westbrook, on the other hand, craves pace. He is among the all-time best at flying up the court and making a play for himself or a teammate. No, he isn’t what he used to be, but his legs can still race. This is a curious mix with Harden, who prefers to walk the ball up, getting his rest possession to possession, often only initiating real offense after half the clock is cooked.
This is not synchronicity. And in general, this roster has issues that could take a long time to solve. But there are some ways the Rockets could get things going quickly:
One of the most lethal ways a great shooter can get open is by trailing the break. Defense is typically at its weakest in transition, with either bad matchups, bad “starting position” (where each defender is in context to where the ball is and their man), or both. So when Westbrook is flying, drawing defenders toward the paint, Harden can quietly jog behind and get the easiest shots of his night. Remember, the other Rockets players are either shooters or Clint Capela, who can dunk from anywhere in the paint. Zach Lowe spoke about this on his “The Lowe Post” podcast last week and I was nodding my head as I heard him. 3-point shooters LOVE to trail the ball, it requires less energy to earn wide open shots. Harden may earn more catch-and-shoot 3s than he ever did playing with Chris Paul.
There are places where Westbrook must be guarded, and thus can help Harden create space for others to operate. We suggested the Rockets play Westbrook in the high post. But he doesn’t just have to post up to have some gravity. The Rockets used to have a Harden-centric offense, with a single point of attack. It might be time to ditch that for something more like the offense Golden State uses. The Warriors use cuts and screens off the ball to occupy help defenders, so players with the ball have more space to operate. That can also lead to easy layups and dunks for those cutters and screeners when their defenders get too focused on the ball or the next pass. If the Rockets operate more like the Warriors, Westbrook could be tremendous as a cutter/screener/sealer inside—and he’d demand attention every second. It’ll make Harden’s job of reading the floor tougher; he has had it easy looking at eight guys standing still. But he is experienced and brilliant enough to do it. Come mid-November, if we are writing about how “no one has figured out how to defend Houston’s offense,” mission accomplished.
The biggest key, as we saw in Miami and Golden State, is acceptance. The system that’s best for the team will mean a little bit of sacrifice. As Stephen Curry just told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols: “We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.” Dwyane Wade took a step back for LeBron. Curry proved to be humble enough for Kevin Durant to shine. All four men stayed focused on the ends and not the means, to fantastic effect. If Westbrook says early on, “I’m enjoying letting James carry us more now and finding my spots to help us along the way,” or even if he makes a joke about how he did all the work in OKC back in the day and now it’s James’ turn, consider the trade a success.
If it goes the other way, and Westbrook is brooding and testy, win or lose—it won’t end well. The strength of the West, with at least eight contenders, gives the Rockets duo very little time to get this right.
Lakers: Anthony Davis, Danny Green
LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the league’s best duo, and they can play brilliantly together. Anthony Davis will have no problem adjusting to LeBron. None. The challenge won’t be with these two Lakers. It will be with all the other players, and winning enough to keep the team together amid incredible pressures.
A giant problem: Anthony Davis has long been clear that he does not enjoy playing center. Not long ago, that didn’t seem like such a big deal. Then DeMarcus Cousins got hurt.
Now the choices are hard. If Davis will soften his stance, the Lakers can field a killer lineup—a total no-brainer—with LeBron and Kyle Kuzma as the forwards. That lineup could roll. LeBron is the single best forward of all-time, getting buckets at a high, efficient rate WHILE continually creating easy scoring opportunities for teammates.
If Davis doesn’t like that idea, though, it’s a hornet’s nest. Ivica Zubac is gone, meaning the Lakers will only go as far as Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee can manage to go with them.
Think about how much the Lakers have given up for Davis, and how long they have worked to get him. The fruits of that labor will to large extent hinge on how well Howard and McGee play.
You can see why coach Frank Vogel might be tempted to lean on Davis to play long minutes at center. But talking him into something he doesn’t like comes with its own perils: if he isn’t happy, he could leave in free agency next summer. And not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but if the Lakers lose Davis, LeBron will soon follow. It could take a decade for the Lakers to recover if that happens.
Anything short of magnificence could cause overwhelming distractions for this team.
Clippers: Paul George
No current contender risked more this summer than the Clippers. After beating the Warriors twice last postseason on the road with some very young players, they saw a chance to win a title now, and took a giant gamble, trading away a team’s worth of young talent and picks.
As with the Lakers, making the conference finals is almost a must. Heavy pressure indeed. On court, there shouldn’t be any problems with how Kawhi Leonard and Paul George play. Each enters this season already expecting to carry a little less of the load than last season. That’s part of the attraction. Their usage rates can fall, happily—if the win totals rise.
Importantly, Kawhi is a significantly improved passer, and George has long been able to excel next to high-usage talents, like Westbrook and Monta Ellis. Leonard will be George’s best offensive NBA teammate ever, and they are both elite defenders. That is a beautiful pairing. Like the Lakers, it’s the surrounding pieces that have to fit. Unlike the Lakers, I don’t foresee holes. The pressure will come from the expectations and the dramatic consequences that come with losing. That happens when a team goes all-in, like the Clippers have, and then hit some losing streaks (like the Celtics last year). Considering I picked them to finish first in the West, I believe they can handle that extra pressure.
Other contenders with new big names
Pacers: Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren
The Pacers are quiet contenders, thanks to their defense. In recent years, their offense has killed them. Brogdon and Warren should both fit in well. The first comes from a contender and earned the nickname “Mr. President” for his high character. The other is fresh off the Suns and must be so thrilled to join a good team; he will do anything to win.
Celtics: Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter
Kemba has the kind of “It’s about we, not me” demeanor that will embrace the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They will form a dynamic trio on offense. On defense, coach Brad Stevens will have to earn his money. Kanter is not known for his work on that end; Al Horford’s shoes are hard to fill. Stevens has proven he can scheme up ways to keep his team in the league’s top 10 on defense; this may be his toughest test. Perhaps the morale boost that comes with Kemba, instead of Kyrie, can invigorate some team-centric spirit.
Jazz: Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanović
This should be seamless. Both Conley and Bogdanović bring strengths the Jazz sorely needed, most importantly shooting, without ego or baggage. Bogdanović is coming from the Pacers, who are, identity-wise, the Jazz of the East—hard-nosed and defensively focused. Conley now gets to see if he can do what his old partner Marc Gasol did in Toronto; leave a mess in Memphis for the ring at the next stop.
Warriors: D’Angelo Russell
There is no upside to Klay Thompson’s being out for much of the year with a torn ACL. Except, maybe: it at least lets newcomer D’Angelo Russell have extra time and touches to find his way in the Warriors’ offense. There will be pressure to win. The Warriors will absolutely want to prove Kevin Durant messed up. They have earned a ton of pride in San Francisco.
Russell will now be a playmaker in the offense we at TrueHoop coined “The Cuisinart” last season. He’ll use ball screens to create shots for himself or his teammates, with Curry on the other side of the court. Curry’s defender then has to make a choice: stay locked onto him or help solve the problem of Russell attacking a screen set by Draymond Green or Kevon Looney. Russell is long, rangy, and brilliant in the pick-and-roll game; his talent will enhance that offense.
I see this team as far different than the previous few Warriors teams, mostly because this time around it will make no sense to coast through the first half of the season, knowing they have the talent to turn it on when it matters. The staff and the stars have no doubt given this a lot of thought, the idea being if “we can be a top six seed before Klay returns, we can get to the top four by April.” If they’re outside the playoff mix when Klay returns, though, it’ll just be too taxing to catch up. Going all out to get into the playoffs, and then being an underdog every series … it’s almost impossible to contend that way.
Sixers: Josh Richardson, Al Horford
As the Bucks are basically “running it back” with last year’s roster (they finished much of the regular season without an injured Brogdon), the Sixers are the only true East contenders working in big names. As a baseline: JJ Redick will be sorely missed. Very few men on earth can shoot off screens like Redick can, so that won’t be a part of the offense anymore. Richardson can help; he can live off plays made by Ben Simmons and the gravity of Joel Embiid inside.
Horford is a Swiss army knife, capable of pretty much anything. He can operate on the perimeter and help feature Embiid inside, which is where the Sixers know he is most effective. Horford, as a shooter and passer, joins Simmons to give Coach Brett Brown two elite playmakers. Horford has averaged more assists than Embiid (4.2 to 3.7) with fewer than half of the turnovers (1.5 to 3.5). Horford will help both Simmons and Embiid read the game and make disciplined decisions. Remember, when Simmons and Embiid were still in high school, Horford was the anchor—and an All-Star—on a 60-win Hawks team, having already won two national titles in college. He is the most accomplished player either has ever played with. That counts.
Blazers: Hassan Whiteside
Portland just needs their new big man to hold down the fort until Jusuf Nurkić returns sometime in 2020. Whiteside has never shown the ability to pass the ball like Nurkić. I don’t expect the Blazers are worried about keeping him happy—starting for a very good team with great culture should be enough for Whiteside. The team will run whatever is best for their short-term success and not spend time wondering if Whiteside feels “part of the offense.” Instead they will demand he compete and help them win. The Blazers are in an interesting spot. A conference finalist, they have Damian Lillard, a clear superstar in his prime who is also a universally beloved team leader, as well as talented young returners with huge upsides. Lillard, McCollum, Anfernee Simons, and Zach Collins are the future, along with a fully recovered Nurkić. Whiteside must adjust to that or the team will just move along without him.
These teams can take a longer term view of things:
Heat: Jimmy Butler
It’s a perfect cultural match. The team that hangs its hat on work ethic, matched with the player-from-nowhere who outworked his way into stardom. Unfortunately, there isn’t reason for real optimism outside of that franchise’s brand, their coach, and their new star. If Butler can help marshall a career year out of Justise Winslow and get Bam Adebayo into a must-watch center, there is a promise of a better 2021.
Thunder: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari
It’s impossible to know how long Gallinari and Paul will be in OKC. Both have real value around the league, though Paul is much harder to move because of his salary. The Thunder have a good starting five, but it’s hard to see a real effort at cohesiveness when the trade deadline is due to blow this roster apart. If Chris Paul wants to get back on a contender though, winning in the early season and playing well helps his cause hugely. The same can be said for Gallinari and center Steven Adams.
Mavericks: Kristaps Porziņģis
Porziņģis and Luka Dončić will be a top duo for years. The trick is not to rush it. They will be sharing the court for the first time, and it would be enormously beneficial for this proud franchise to let them take their time before heaping expectations and timetables on them. Porziņģis will need time to play his way back to full strength given his knee injury (torn ACL in February, 2018). There should be no rush in that endeavor.
Pelicans: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, JJ Redick, Nicolo Melli, Zion Williamson
Zion is the only 2019 draft pick mentioned among newcomers because, well, he is Zion. The Pelicans have given him an incredible gift. There are a half-dozen players whom he is compared to, but only one name comes to my mind now that the Pelicans have made the decisions to bring in so much veteran talent: Kawhi Leonard. Forget for a moment that Kawhi was drafted 15th, and focus on the players he developed alongside: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginóbili. Coach Pop called Kawhi the future face of the franchise with three Hall of Famers daily demonstrating productive, efficient, smart, winning basketball.
Kawhi’s teammates were better than these Pelicans. But then again, Zion is better as a prospect than Kawhi was. Significantly so. The veteran Pelicans that Executive VP David Griffin has assembled are winners and total professionals. They will help Zion deal with the enormous expectations. Griffin announced this summer that this was “Jrue Holiday’s team.” He said that for a reason: to relax Zion and let him just focus on getting better. This is a deep team with very little postseason buzz attached to it, which sets up beautifully. Whatever the external expectations, in-house (like the Warriors), they expect greatness. They will be dangerous.
Nets: Kyrie Irving (Kevin Durant is likely missing the bulk of or the entire season)
Like the Clippers, the Nets broke up something promising. And it might not work. If things start slowly, Durant’s injury gives them a perfect excuse—every critic will include in their piece, “we will see what happens when Durant returns.” Ideally, this will give the team a certain freedom in the early days. But they will need to live up to high expectations eventually. On the court, Kyrie is not hard to play with, and has similarities to D’Angelo Russell: ball dominant but gifted as a passer and packed with skill. He is enigmatic off court, though, and his leadership will be tested. Being a better player than Russell necessarily means he will be expected to help his team win more. That hurt him in Boston, when they couldn’t find a winning groove that lasted long.
Thanks for reading TrueHoop! A little something from Brad Stulberg, co-author of The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance: