- The Crossover's NBA scouts analyze the Northwest, touching on the Thunder's chemistry, Michael Malone's place in Denver and more.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Will the Thunder trades work?
I’m lukewarm about them even after the Carmelo Anthony trade. Last year they were three pieces away. Now they’re still one piece away. Paul George and Anthony will make Russell Westbrook’s life easier, but they still need one more two-way wing to match up with the best teams. . . . George will be getting squeezed from both sides because Anthony is going to take lots of shots. If Anthony doesn’t get them, he’ll check out and the whole plan will fall apart. I could see them trading George before the deadline if the chemistry doesn’t click. . . . I think Westbrook will be the back-to-back MVP. He’s not that traditional pass-first guy, but he attracts so much attention that everyone else benefits. His aggressiveness sets them up. . . . Andre Roberson is a very good defensive player, but he kills an offense. We’ll be here in five years waiting for him to learn to shoot a basic jump shot. . . . There are some matchups where Steven Adams is at risk because he’s a traditional center, but he gets by better than most 7-footers. He stays very busy on the offensive glass, which helps a lot. . . . Patrick Patterson is a glue guy, but he can’t make plays for you in the playoffs. He will disappear. . . . Raymond Felton is really important for them. I can see them playing him with Westbrook just to balance the load and make sure that Felton can help keep George involved offensively. . . . Their bench is just specialty guys who make you cringe when they’re on the court. Jerami Grant is fun in transition but worthless in a half-court game. Kyle Singler is making good money to wave a towel.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Can they compete in the West?
I wonder about their shooting a lot. Their main perimeter guys—Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague—aren’t great shooters, and they don’t have a stretch four that I really trust. Spacing issues are bound to pop up. I wonder if they have all the right pieces to play Tom Thibodeau’s grind-it-out style—and whether that style will even work against tougher competition in the West. . . . They have too much hype for the second straight season. I worry how their younger players handle that if things start to go sideways again. . . . Butler and Karl-Anthony towns are a phenomenal pairing, but I question how well everyone else meshes with them. It starts with Wiggins. He needs the ball and wants to play isolation and slash. He’s a worse and younger version of Butler. Wiggins’s physical talent is undeniable, but can he adjust in major ways to be a complementary guy? . . . Teague isn’t a huge step forward from Ricky Rubio, but I can see why they moved on after losing so many close games last year. Having a point guard who commands some respect with his shot is easier to work with. . . . Towns is a monster—shooting, range, length, power, polish. Total package. I’d rather have him offensively than Anthony Davis. Defensively, he needs to be a center, and that could still take some time. . . . I think Thibodeau will be most comfortable playing Taj Gibson with Towns down the stretch. Starting and finishing big. Thibodeau needs to prove he can adapt with the times. Most of the best teams in the West close with one big, not two.
Utah Jazz: Will their defense keep them afloat?
They’re a slow, low-possession, clock-control team that prides itself on defense, toughness and making the other team’s life miserable. They can be the best defensive team in the league, and with an average offense—that puts them into the playoffs for sure. . . . Rodney Hood is their X-factor. They absolutely need him to take that big jump to fill Gordon Hayward’s shoes. The opportunity and timing are great. They don’t need him to score 30; they grind out wins and just need him to get it done late in games. Hood definitely has more to his offensive game than he’s shown. He’s confident and patient on the ball, he can run some pick-and-roll, and he can shoot. . . . I like the fit for Ricky Rubio. They play to his strengths by emphasizing defense—he’s strong on the ball—and they aren’t a team that absolutely needs shooting from his spot. That said, some of Minnesota’s late-game struggles could travel with him. He’ll help keep their ball movement up in the half-court and he should pair well with Rudy Gobert on pick-and-roll. . . . Derrick Favors probably needs to get traded to a team where he can be the starting center rather than a guy who splits times at two positions and winds up stuck in mismatches. . . . Donovan Mitchell was the most impressive rookie at Summer League. He’s crazy long for a two guard. . . . Another reason they might be better than people think is that Hood, Favors, Dante Exum and Alec Burks all under-performed last year, mostly due to injury. Give them average health, and all of those guys are quality contributors.
Denver Nuggets: Malone might be on the hot seat
Michael Malone is on the hot seat. They have expectations this year after they spent the money on Paul Millsap. The front office hasn’t done Malone that many favors with the roster composition. It always seems like they’re stockpiling power forwards. . . . That said, their best five-man lineup is really intriguing and well-balanced: Millsap, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler and Nikola Jokic. . . . I like Chandler better as a power forward than a small forward, so they’re still a wing or two away. I like him as an isolation scorer, but I don’t think he’s the best spacing option at the small forward. . . . Jokic is so, so skilled with his passing and scoring efficiency. He impacts his team’s attitude like a point guard. I question his ceiling as a star because I don’t think he’ll ever be able to be an impact defender with his size and trouble covering ground. . . . Signing Millsap was the biggest move they’ve made in years. He should play really well off Jokic offensively because he’s unselfish, he can score, he moves well and he’s smart. . . . Harris is a hidden gem. Great cutter, great shooter, can guard both backcourt spots. . . . It’s time to take the training wheels off Murray. I actually think he has more long-term All‑Star potential than Jokic because he fits how the point guard spot is being played, with his shooting range and off-the-dribble threes. He will be a really tough cover once he grows up. . . . It’s easy to forget Emmanuel Mudiay exists, he had such a bad season. He’s probably best as a third guard where he can just focus on his own scoring.
Portland Trail Blazers: Lillard doesn't have a weakness on offense
They had a really quiet summer. Their continuity should help them get a fast start, and they showed they could play winning basketball after the Jusuf Nurkic trade. . . . I don’t think the Allen Crabbe [trade to the Nets] is addition by subtraction. It’s just subtraction. There are more minutes and clearer roles for Moe Harkless and Evan Turner, but they needed Crabbe’s shooting. It’s O.K. to overpay for shooting, and he was part of their best five-man lineup. . . . Damian Lillard doesn’t have any weaknesses on offense. He hits big shots, runs an efficient offense, shoots from deep, he’s a caretaker. It’s all on his shoulders. . . . Lillard deserves a lot of credit for finding a good balance with C.J. McCollum; there’s no real jealousy or push-and-pull between the two of them. It’s seamless how they play off each other. They both get naturally more aggressive when the other one is on the bench. . . . McCollum’s midrange game is a big-time weapon. His handle and his craftiness and his ability to play in pick-and-rolls are all pluses—he can score at all three levels. He can hit you at any moment. . . . All the concerns about Turner’s fit came to fruition. He kills their spacing both for the guards and around Nurkic inside. There’s nowhere to hide him. His contract is so, so bad. . . . It’s never going to happen for Meyers Leonard. He doesn’t believe in himself, so why should anyone believe in him? . . . Zach Collins was struggling everywhere in Summer League. Even when he improves, I’m not sure he has a position. That looks like a bad pick.