- NBA scouts are real truth-tellers. As is tradition, they were brutally honest when sizing up opposing teams for The Crossover.
There's no NBA truth-teller quite like an anonymous scout.
As tradition, Sports Illustrated spoke with anonymous scouts around the league to preview all 30 teams for the upcoming 2017-18 season. And as the tradition, they were brutally honest when sizing up opposing teams.
We begin SI.com's NBA Preview Week with an examination of all six divisions.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron is a marvel
LeBron James is such a physical marvel. I think as he ages, he’s going to be more capable of playing different positions, whether it’s as a ballhandling four or a point guard, so he can operate between the free throw lines. There are so many ways you can use him even when he starts to lose a step. . . . Isaiah Thomas can really help them [when he recovers from his hip injury]. He’s infinitely tough, willing to take big shots, but he gets a little exposed in the playoffs because of game-planning and his size. . . . Kevin Love’s year was one of the more underappreciated things last season. The guy was superefficient and as good as he can possibly be defensively. It’s huge having a weapon who can shoot, doesn’t need post ups and is comfortable playing off LeBron. . . . Even if Tristan Thompson wasn’t playing with LeBron, he’d be successful. He had a terrible Finals—there’s no avoiding it—but his spirit is so strong, he’s a warrior and has completely accepted his role coming out of college: as a tough pick-and-roll guy who gets everything he can off the offensive glass. . . . I’ve heard a narrative that Jae Crowder wasn’t good defensively last year, but the guy’s what every team is looking for and on an unbelievable contract [$6.8 million this year]. Now LeBron won’t have to guard, say, Kevin Durant in the Finals. If LeBron stays, Crowder’s still valuable, and if he leaves, he’s a real trade chip. . . . Because he’s accepted that he’s a defensive player and three-point shooter, J.R. Smith is a very valuable guy too. They really have a lot of toughness and shooting on the roster.
Milwaukee Bucks: They have a star in Giannis
They have a star player in Giannis Antetokounmpo and have done a really good job surrounding him with the right kind of guys. You can play Antetokounmpo all over the floor, he can guard all these different positions, and his potential is off the charts. He’s gonna be 23 this year! He has no ceiling, only how he limits himself. If he can become a 33% or 34% three-point shooter, he’s pretty much unguardable. . . . Thon Maker was never Kevin Garnett or Kevin Durant—whoever was saying that was so stupid. But the guy’s big, he cares, he plays hard, and he can probably be a three-point shooter. That’s a win. . . . Malcolm Brogdon is going to play for a long time, but generally you see a Rookie of the Year and say he’s going to be an All-Star or something. I’m not sure that’s the case with him. He might just be in a really good spot as a really good player. He guarded, played tough and is incredibly intelligent. . . . Khris Middleton is one of the more underrated guys in the league, with his size and length and shooting. These two-way wing types are what everyone is looking for. They kind of turned Tony Snell into that, too, and rebooted his career. They can play Antetokounmpo at center and surround him with four 6'5"-plus guys, switch everything and make threes, run and gun. That just gives them so many options. . . . In a playoff game when their offense is sluggish, that’s where Greg Monroe’s value comes in. He’s really tough, he’s really physical, and he’s proved capable of being able to score.
Detroit Pistons: Luke Kennard will succeed
People look at the roster and say they’re trying to replicate what Stan Van Gundy had in Orlando, but that doesn’t take into account how good Hedo Turkoglu was. The Pistons don’t have a frontcourt player like that who can initiate offense and shoot around 40% from three. Jon Leuer’s not that caliber of player. Tobias Harris is more of a scorer and shooter than a playmaker. . . . So much is going to depend on Reggie Jackson. If he’s healthy and they’ve let bygones be bygones, the team can be good. . . . Andre Drummond has potential to be a two-way player—he’s not a zero. If he can get to 50% free throw shooting, continue to be a leading rebounder and be more of a shot blocker, that’s great, because he can move his feet on the perimeter and guard pick-and-rolls. Just don’t throw him the ball on a post up. He’s got to be a roll guy and feast on the offensive glass. . . . Avery Bradley will help them because he’s a more consistent shooter than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. . . . The fact that they traded Marcus Morris is a signal they still have high hopes for Stanley Johnson because of the role he played in the playoffs as a rookie [in 2015–16]. But the clock is ticking. All he has to do to make good money is make open threes and guard. In the past he’s tried to do too much. . . . Stan is so good at putting guys like Luke Kennard in positions to succeed. He’s not strictly a spot-up shooter; he’s a playmaker. They can play him with Langston Galloway, get Galloway running off the ball and let Kennard handle it. There’s a lot of fun ways they can use him.
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls will be... interested
Lauri Markkanen is pretty interesting. He’s 7 feet, he can shoot fast, he has a better handle than he showed at Arizona, and every team in the league is looking for a big guy who can shoot. I mean, Ryan Anderson’s making $20 million a year. Markkanen has his issues, but they’re gonna be able to cover for him a little bit. . . . Zach Lavine benefited from taking a lot of shots last year for a Minnesota team that was bad. Is he a foundation piece? No. But I think they looked at it from the standpoint that he’s 23, he can help us win now and he’s talented enough. At minimum he can be a good defensive player. . . . Does Nikola Mirotic fit what they want to be and do? He’s made 363 threes in three years, and I always thought he had a little more to his game than he’s shown. He was slotted as a three-point shooter early in his career, so that’s what people think he is. . . . Robin Lopez could be a tradable guy at the deadline for a team that wants to play with size in the playoffs or wants to be heavy on the offensive boards. He’s out of place right now given the direction they decided to go. . . . Denzel Valentine is so challenged athletically. Can he be a spot-up three-point shooter? I think so, but it’s hard to see him as a starter on a deep playoff team. . . . They have some pretty good international scouting, and Cristiano Felicio has been a good get for them. He may be a tradable piece too. . . . Bobby Portis is probably a really good three-point-shooting center. That’s what he’s got to start to get his head around.
Indiana Pacers: Does anyone pay attention to Lance?
The Pacers looked at the Paul George trade like, Well, we’ll send the guy to the other conference so we don’t have to play against him this year. But Victor Oladipo will help them. He’s shown us about what we can expect from him. He’s a solid player, a little undersized as a two guard. He gets by on his grit and toughness. . . . They tried to rush Domantas Sabonis in OKC and made him shoot threes—the first two months of the season he didn’t shoot a free throw. It was ridiculous considering his greatest asset at Gonzaga was being around the basket, playing at the elbows. So I think there’s some untapped ability there. . . . This is the year we’re going to find out how good Myles Turner is. Was he a beneficiary of playing with George and other good players, or was he really a heavy participant and driver in their success? . . . With Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph they have some solid pieces, but they’re going to have to decide which guys to go forward with so they don’t block the progress of ones they believe in. They could trade Young or Joseph or Darren Collison—teams always need backup guards at the deadline. . . . Glenn Robinson III got better last year. He accepted his role and really fought defensively, worked hard and then he made shots. They have to think, O.K., this could be a guy for us going forward. . . . Does anyone pay Lance Stephenson attention anymore? The last time he was good was the year he was trying to get paid, and since then he’s been almost more trouble than he’s worth.
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.
Warriors: It's impossible to compete with Golden State
It’s hard to even build a starting All-Star team to match up with them. Mine would be Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even with those five, I’m not confident. . . . No one has solved their small-ball look: too much versatility on the defensive end, five playmakers on offense. Most teams can’t get away with five playmakers because one or two won’t be able to guard well enough. The Warriors still don’t have a weak link. . . . Klay Thompson was not bad during the playoffs; he was playing elite defense against great players. What he does for Steph Curry is priceless. He takes the best perimeter player, whether it’s a point guard or a two guard. Plus, even if he’s not making shots he’s a threat. It’s not like you can leave him. . . . Nick Young has been a volume shooter his whole career. He won’t get those touches, even in the second group. How does he react if they take him out or cut his role? . . . Kevin Durant bought into the off-ball movement that we hadn’t seen in OKC. By the end of the season it looked beautiful. You could tell he was energized by not needing to create every single shot. His defensive intensity and focus were better, and his activity on offense was way better. . . . Draymond Green was my Defensive Player of the Year. He takes on guards and bigs—that sets him apart. He gets slap steals all the time. . . . The bench guy who excites me the most is Patrick McCaw. His growth will be important after they lost Ian Clark. He can slash, shoot, score with consistency from the wing.
Lakers: The worst is over
The worst is over. Lonzo Ball gives them real momentum, and they’ve got legitimately intriguing young guys. . . . They’ll have one of the worst defenses in the league again. They’ll just try to outscore you and make it a track meet. . . . Ball is my favorite for Rookie of the Year. I don’t think he’ll be better than a hot-and-cold shooter, but I’d rather have Ball than Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz to start a franchise. Ball has that old-school feel. He does more for his team than other young prospects, and he fits cleanly into lineups. It’s not crazy to say he could finish in the top five in assists. . . . I like the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope signing for two reasons: Ball’s passing and tempo should help him slide into a more comfortable offensive role, and Caldwell-Pope’s defense should really help cover for Ball. . . . Brandon Ingram is a great breakout candidate because all eyes are going to be on Ball. Luke Walton made Ingram earn his starting spot last year; he earned it, and he’s ready for more. His confidence is growing and he’s got a deep package of moves. We might still be one year away from him being a show-stopper. . . . This is a gigantic year for Julius Randle. I’m still not convinced he’s going to get it. He’s not a good team defender. He can’t shoot. He doesn’t play above interior defenders. I don’t think he can grow out of some of those limitations. All of Randle’s best plays come in the open court. When the game slows down in the playoffs, what does he do for you?. . . . Kyle Kuzma looked like a steal in Summer League. His shooting and energy were exciting.
Clippers: No team will look more different
They will look more different this year compared to last year than any team in the league. . . . For years their biggest problems have been small forward and depth. They solved those by adding Danilo Gallinari and improving their bench, but losing Chris Paul creates an even bigger problem. . . . Patrick Beverley’s life is about to change. It’s a big drop from playing with James Harden to playing with Austin Rivers. He will be exposed offensively. He’s better as a spot-up guy, but it’s hard to do that playing off Rivers. . . . Blake Griffin has been slipping athletically. They just committed to a [five-year, $173 million] contract that says, “We need you to be better than you’ve ever been before.” I’m not sure he can do that. It’s going to be a lot harder with defenses keying on him. . . . DeAndre Jordan will miss Paul more than anybody. He’s depended on him for his offense for most of his career. They definitely should look at trading Jordan before the deadline. . . . Milos Teodosic is a magician with the ball and a matador on defense. Late in games, I could see them going to offense/defense substitutions with their point guards, swapping him and Beverley in and out. . . . If Gallinari has to play most of his minutes at small forward, he’ll find it harder to exploit matchups. But they’ll have a hard time going smaller with Griffin at center and Gallinari at power forward because both guys will struggle defensively. . . . Lou Williams needs to have a huge year for them. He’s going to have a major, major responsibility as a scorer.
Kings: Sacramento is free of Boogie
I love that they enter this season fresh without DeMarcus Cousins’s trade and free agency talk hanging over them. They can play free and happy. Cousins is talented but it wasn’t worth turning over their franchise’s direction to him. . . . I understand people who question how good they can be if George Hill is their best player. But he’s a good two-way player and a leader, which they needed. I like that he can run the point and he can play alongside their rookie, De’Aaron Fox. . . . Fox has All-Star potential long-term, and I don’t see anyone else on this roster who you can say that about. His speed gets compared with John Wall’s, but that’s unfair for any rookie point guard. With his size, I’m worried about how long he can stay on the court. He needs to build out a jumper and prove he can run an offense. . . . Buddy Hield will be better this year because he can settle into a role. Their offense is going to come from lots of different sources rather than just leaning on him. . . . Justin Jackson had a good Summer League; he’s always up to stuff. I don’t see a huge ceiling for him, but he can be a solid, steady pro for 12 years. . . . Bogdan Bogdanovic is a great shooter. He’s ready to hit the ground running. He’s a really good catch-and-shoot player. If he gets a clean look, you think it’s going in. . . . Willie Cauley-Stein isn’t as experienced as Kosta Koufos, but he’s the guy you want to groom as the center of the future. His offensive game is very limited but he’s active, and he gets up above the rim to challenge shots. You want his motor in the middle of your defense.
Suns: What is their direction?
I don’t see a direction for them. They added a lottery pick in Josh Jackson, but that was their entire summer. It’s like they want to be forgotten. They’re just praying that Devin Booker becomes a top five shooting guard. This is a pretty hopeless situation. . . . It’s hard to put together one single five-man lineup that gets you excited, mostly because their frontcourt is so thin. They can’t stop anyone. . . . Among the young prospects at his position, I think Booker is the best all-around scorer. He can score out of pick-and-rolls and isolations. He can catch-and-shoot. He has all those levels and layers. . . . How many guys really complement Booker and can be part of the core? Jackson, I guess, but not really anyone else. Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are both question marks after shaky rookie years. I’m not even a big Jackson fan. His defense, size and athleticism will help, but his shooting motion is a mess. . . . We’ve reached the point where you have to conclude that Eric Bledsoe can’t be the main guy for a winning team. He’s probably their best trade piece, but Brandon Knight falling off a cliff and getting injured again killed their ability to move Bledsoe. . . . Chriss and Bender both look disinterested at times. They’re too young to be checking out. Bender will have to play center; defending on the perimeter is a huge challenge for him. Chriss has a better body and physical tools, but I’d bet both are busts. Chriss has to improve his basketball IQ and awareness to have any shot. An unstructured environment like Phoenix was the worst place for him.
Boston Celtics: How will this team mesh?
Just to see how the team jells and reacts is going to be interesting because they traded the majority of their identity: Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder. Some of the personalities they’ve added aren’t known for their leadership qualities. . . . They’re expecting Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown to replace what they lost. That’s gonna be tough. It looks like Smart is going to start at two guard to begin the season, and that’s the protection component for Kyrie Irving. [Smart] will just defend the more difficult matchup. Terry Rozier is so talented, he’s going to start wanting to be out there in key moments to prove himself. . . . Brown has the talent to star on the defensive end; he can guard up a position, he can guard down. If they close games with him and Gordon Hayward and Al Horford together, that’s a switch at every position. . . . Jayson Tatum and Kyrie are isolation scorers; their value comes out more in the playoffs. Kyrie has the opportunity to shine and carry a heavy load, but he’s not going somewhere devoid of talent, which would have been difficult. He just has to keep doing what he’s been doing. . . . Hayward is now basically the point guard, while Kyrie is the two guard. Hayward’s stats could have an uptick because they played so slow in Utah. He’s an underrated guy because of all he can do: He can play the four, handle the ball, shoot, score, and he’s one of the better passers at his position. He’s not the guy who carries the franchise, but with their young core, you just need a group that has versatility. And that’s what they have.
Brooklyn Nets: They've established a culture
They’ve established a culture and an identity. They play hard, they shoot threes and play fast. They led the league in pace, and it’s an aesthetically pleasing style. They just have to add pieces. . . . D’Angelo Russell can make pull-up threes off the dribble, and that’s a valuable skill. He’s also an accomplished pick-and-roll player. The mistake was thinking he’s a point guard. . . . Jeremy Lin has been good for them. There could be an opportunity to flip him to a team that needs another shot creator for the playoffs. . . . I’m curious to see how they allocate playing to all their wings. Do they play some out of position to try to create some mismatches? That could happen. . . . How much of Allen Crabbe’s success was based on the position he was in in Portland? Will he get as many open shots? How does he react when defenses are geared on stopping him? But take his money out of the picture, and he’s turned himself into a pretty good role player. . . . Playing the four is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s only chance because of his shooting, but I wouldn’t underestimate him. He can rebound and push and create a shot for someone in transition, and that’s how they want to play. . . . Timofey Mozgov was the price to get Russell, but at least he’s serviceable. He’s a great guy, great teammate and he can protect the basket when necessary. . . . I thought DeMarre Carroll was a good risk too, another culture guy. He can shoot, play the three or four. [Acquiring him from the Raptors in a salary dump] was a no-risk thing and they got [Toronto’s first-round] pick out of it.
Philadelphia 76ers: Who gets the ball down the stretch?
There are a lot of things to work out, like who’s going to have the ball down the stretch, Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz? Is Joel Embiid always going to be healthy enough? . . . Embiid can be the best player in the league, definitely the best defensive player. He’s so dominant, he can switch on a guard. He’s unstoppable, man, he’s a two-way player. . . . Optimally, Simmons is their point guard because he needs the ball to be effective, to create shots for other guys. Because his shooting’s going to be a problem. . . . Fultz, that guy is a super talent. He’s going to have an ability to create shots in pick-and-rolls and in isolation. . . . J.J. Redick is really good with young players. I don’t think that’s said enough. He’s vocal, he’s tough, he’s got his routine and he’s very dedicated. . . . Dario Saric, he made 100 threes too. He comes off the bench and can play a bunch of different roles. He’s so tough. . . . You’re hopeful for Jahlil Okafor because he was picked so high [No. 3 in 2015], but the league has changed. The thing is, I don’t think he’s been fully utilized. He’s a very, very good passer, he can get his own shot in iso situations, he can command a double team. If you have that, even in short minutes, it’s valuable. But he’s got to be a better defender and rebounder. . . . Look at their transaction logs from four or five years ago, it’s crazy, and they mined Robert Covington out of that mess. He’s got size, can make threes, guard all over the floor. He never dribbles, and he only shoots threes and layups. Playing with Simmons and Fultz, he can be a really good piece.
New York Knicks: The future is bright for them
They definitely have the right leadership in place. They have veteran front office personnel, people who have experience winning and experience in their positions. So I would contend that the future is bright for them. . . . Frank Ntilikina is better than people think, and it’s too bad he’s getting put in this bucket of “Phil [Jackson] took him for the triangle, and now he’s gone.” That’s the most lazy, stupid comment of all time, because that kid is big [6' 5"], he’s skilled and he likes to play defense. He wasn’t playing at a superhigh level in the French league, but the team went to the finals and he contributed to that. It was the right pick, because it was a swing for the fences based on talent, and he’s got a lot of it. . . . Willy Hernangomez is another solid young piece. I don’t think people understand how good he can be either. He’s not playing just because he’s big. . . . Ron Baker is a nice, solid player, but if he was on a very good team he’d probably be the fifth guard. . . . Courtney Lee is still valuable but not on a team that’s building. He needs to go to a playoff team to be maximized, like he was in Charlotte. . . . I don’t know what the motivation was behind signing Michael Beasley. . . . Is Tim Hardaway Jr. really that bad? He’s gonna get smashed because he got signed to that contract this summer, but what is he supposed to say no? Wings are really, really valuable and there’s not a lot of them. The guy made 149 threes last year, he’s durable, he’s tough and he plays defense. It’s not an untradable contract.
Toronto Raptors: They've had a good run
There’s still a chance to win the conference with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They’ve had a really good run here, and those guys are really tough and have a lot of playoff experience. . . . C.J. Miles was a good pickup; they needed some more shooting, and he knows how to play. . . . With Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, at least they have two guys who can really protect the basket. Not everyone has that. They’re not going to have the advantage in every matchup, but the other team won’t have that either. They’ve got shooting and shot blocking in Ibaka, and Valanciunas can score, and he’s just so big. . . . I think O.G. Anunoby was a good pick where they got him [23rd overall]. They can turn him into a defensive-oriented player with his switchability and strength. He’ll go through their program, which generally turns out pretty good players. They have a good understanding of what it takes to have success late in the draft, and I wouldn’t put it past them to slip one by everyone with the Anunoby pick. . . . Norman Powell could take a step forward, as long as he’s in the right role where he’s not asked to do too much. If they get to the playoffs, how is he used? Is he defending LeBron? Is that fair to him? Or is he defending a two guard, in a position to succeed? You can add him to the list of guys they’ve turned into solid NBA players. . . . Bruno Caboclo—I watched him in the D-League. If he’s gonna do it, it’ll be this year or it’ll be time to move on. [If he fails], it’s not going to be because of his physical tools, that’s for sure.
Houston Rockets: Will Paul and Harden mesh?
It’s a knee-jerk reaction to think that if you add Chris Paul, you can’t get worse. But history shows you that if you don’t find a way to integrate everything, these moves aren’t going to have the desired result. That’s one of the big question marks: Are Paul and James Harden going to be able to mesh? . . . Everything last year was predicated on Harden’s breaking down the defense, but Paul needs the ball in his hands. It’s going to be a big challenge. However, with Mike D’Antoni, there’s so little stress on defense and you get so many possessions in their offense, maybe that’s the way you get it done. The more offensive possessions there are, the more satisfied the guys can be. . . . Clint Capela is never going to be a polished offensive player, but that fits the profile of the team: Only a few guys need to have plays run for them. . . . There are definite holes in Ryan Anderson’s game. [But] how many stretch fours out there are good defenders and rebounders? . . . The ability of P.J. Tucker to reinvent himself as a shooter at this stage of his career is pretty rare. He’s known as a good defender, and in this era of positionless basketball, he’s not a wing or a four. He’s just a player. . . . Luc Mbah a Moute is a great person and very aggressive defender. These are limited pieces, but personality-wise they can work. You surround your stars with accepting role players. . . . Eric Gordon can give you 17 points per game right there. He’s so laser-focused as a scorer—I’m gonna get my buckets, I’m gonna draw a foul, I’m gonna use my strength. I’m gonna rise up in your face.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard is the ultimate winner
Kawhi Leonard is an ideal winner: a guy who knows when to step up and when to accept the development of other players around him. . . . They made minimal changes this offseason, but I think that almost works to their advantage, just having a year-to-year understanding. They’re almost in a class by themselves because of that. I look at matchups against them and I still don’t feel completely comfortable. They could have eight guys averaging between eight and 18 points. . . . We look at the average, but Pau Gasol understands when he needs to score 22 points on a given night. I was watching Pau at EuroBasket—this guy just gets it. . . . Rudy Gay is such a maligned player. There aren’t many guys who score so effortlessly and get less respect. I don’t think it’s a huge request for him to compromise his offense and fit in. He’s not a rabble-rouser. He’s a good dude. I just get the feeling he will accept his role and take his foot off the accelerator a bit—kind of like Kevin Martin. . . . Certainly Tony Parker’s leadership is critical, but they’ve got players who will be able to make up for his absence [due to an injury that could sideline him until November]. That will benefit them in the long run, conditioning those players to look for other aspects of their game. . . . Kyle Anderson has his limitations, but he can pass. He’s got a really good feel for the game. . . . Dejounte Murray is a great raw, individual talent.
Memphis Grizzlies: Can Conley reach another level?
Marc Gasol is such a fun guy to watch because he’s got no athletic superiority whatsoever. What he’s become is a huge credit to him. . . . It’s been hard for Mike Conley to penetrate the top tiers of point guards. It’s a little telling that he’s never been an All-Star. At what point does his game flatten out? Conley is going to be 30 and coming off his career high in scoring. And I’m not saying it’s an unwilling 20 points per game, but that’s more than three points higher than any season before. Do we really expect him to go to a higher level? You’ve got Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard out there—guys who play with such flair and scoring bravado. I never saw Conley as that guy. Maybe that’s because of the talent around him or the defense-first mentality there, but maybe it says something about him. . . . Tyreke Evans—there’s some individual talent, but it can be hard to blend a ball-dominant player like that. There’s a certain fear that he could go off for 30 points at any time, but is that going to be in a winning effort? . . . Whenever you’ve got a guy who’s got the physical tools that Ben McLemore has and who has demonstrated he can be a threat from the perimeter, you’re tantalized. You give him the opportunity because physically he has stuff that other guys will never have. . . . JaMychal Green was given the perfect opportunity to shine and took advantage of it. There’s just nothing special. I don’t see a continual developmental curve. He’s an accepting role player, but I don’t think he’s perched on the ledge to move up in the league.
New Orleans Pelicans: Two players don't make a team
After the DeMarcus Cousins trade I looked at their lineup and thought, “Oh, my God, we’ve gotta play them? We’ve gotta play against that frontcourt?” But there’s so much more to the game than individual talent. I think this team needs to learn how to win first. It’s an identity thing. The teams above them in the pecking order clearly have that understanding. . . . If Cousins and Rajon Rondo are on the same page, that dynamic could click. I don’t really see Jrue Holiday as a guy who’s running your team. So if Rondo can do that while playing with Holiday and he’s also [in sync] with Cousins, that’s something to fear. . . . The wing rotation maybe has a chance if Holiday can sustain 33, 34 minutes a game. But it’s going to take a lot of development, and a lot of things are going to have to correct themselves for that to happen. There’s such a lack of fear for opponents as far as these wings are concerned. . . . Cousins does so many things well. He can pass the ball too. Anthony Davis as a face-up shooter has become so good. But your team is not just two twin towers that are remarkably versatile. It’s the integration of all that individual talent. Is it Rondo who’s going to pull that off? Is he going to be on the court long enough? Is he going to connect with everyone? . . . I’d love to see Davis playing with a Chris Paul type. Davis does so many things well as a finesse player. There’s not a lot of power to his game. Is there enough grit and toughness? He’s got such great length, but I want to see him play with a top backcourt player.
Dallas Mavericks: Who is Dirk's heir?
A successful season will be linked closely with the play of Dennis Smith. After the draft there were some question marks about him. Was he the right guy to take? Is he going to start? But at Summer League, everyone saw that he can play at that level. If he can develop quickly, he could be a top 30 player by his second year. This is a star-centric league, and they need a star. . . . NBA coaches like to be safe. If anything holds back Smith, it could be that. Yogi Ferrell is a safe player. Seth Curry is a safe player. J.J. Barea is a safe player. Smith is more like a wild card that could win a lot of pots for you. . . . I don’t see Harrison Barnes as a willing alpha. It hasn’t been his personality, going back to high school. He’s not a great passer. He’s not a great rebounder. He’s a decent defender. I just don’t see him with that dog in him, and he doesn’t really fill a stat sheet. . . . Dirk Nowitzki is a watered-down version of what he used to be. We do player comps and say that some other guy plays like Dirk, but like a bad version of Dirk. That’s almost what he is now. I think you have to keep him on the floor 24 to 28 minutes a game—it’s not as if there are better options. I don’t think Dirk has some understudy on the roster. . . . Nerlens Noel is so limited offensively. He can hit a face-up jump shot once in a while, but nothing is effortless for him. He needs a major polish upgrade. . . . Wesley Matthews is a good player. He hits jump shots, he can score, he’s a decent defender. But when I’m game-planning, I’m not worried about him.
Washington Wizards: On the rise?
When guys play one year of college, you want them to get from Point A to Point E quickly, but they do stop at B, C, and D along the way. It took John Wall a while, but I do think he’s figured out how to blend distribution with scoring. He understands how to put a team on his back and when to defer to his very talented backcourt mate in Bradley Beal. He’s maturing very well. ... Beal has always played the game with such composure. He has a good, solid build and he doesn’t waste energy, even while playing both ends of the floor. And he’s unselfish. Beal is a pretty complete player for a guy who doesn’t have other-worldly athletic superiority. ... What’s the window of opportunity with Marcin Gortat? He could be getting to the point where his game is on its way down. Still, he’s their best starting option. Gortat’s got consistency and fluidity. Ian Mahinmi, by contrast, has never been a comfortable scorer at all. ... I can’t see Otto Porter Jr. ever being a No. 1 or No. 2 option, but at least he plays both ends of the floor. He’s never going to score 20 a game, but maybe they don’t need that from him. ... They have a bunch of players who have gotten better every year: Beal, Wall, Porter. Maybe Kelly Oubre Jr. is ready to take that next step too. His value is more on the defensive end right now. To his credit, he’s discovered that he doesn’t have to be an elite scorer to impact the game. ... Tomas Satoransky defies positioning. Sometimes you just have to take a step back and say that he’s simply a basketball player. That’s why I like him so much as a prospect.
Orlando Magic: Will anyone step up?
This has to be the year that Elfrid Payton shows that he’s capable of orchestration. He’s had streaks. At the end of last year he was putting up triple doubles, and I thought he might finally be getting it. I’m curious how Payton is going to generate his scoring. Is he going to be a slasher? How much can he improve his shooting? It’s not just that he can’t shoot. He doesn’t shoot. ... Nikola Vucevic would remind me of Brook Lopez if he could rebound better. He’s going to fill the scoring void and can shoot a reasonably high percentage, but how much you can contribute is limited when you can’t defend. ... Bismack Biyombo is going to be limited offensively forever. If you could take Biyombo’s defense and Vucevic’s offense, you’d have an All-Star. ... Evan Fournier is just a crafty, smart player. He can handle the ball, he can initiate some offense, but the bottom line is that he just produces. He’s not an elite athlete, but he plays under control and that makes him consistent ... Aaron Gordon has so much raw ability. The dunks are just a manifestation of his athletic superiority. Some guys are difference-makers the minute they step into the league. Then there are guys, like Gordon, who get incrementally better each year. If they can establish a positionless system at times, Gordon can flourish. ...You want more from Mario Hezonja, but he’s never demonstrated—even overseas—that he’ll regularly attack the rim. I don’t think he knows what his NBA identity is going to be yet and by Year Three, that’s kind of important.
Charlotte Hornets: Can they overachieve again?
Dwight Howard is maligned, but I’m often overtaken by his physicality. I think to myself, 'How can this guy not be one of the best centers in basketball? He’s a walking double double. Why isn’t he a better version of Hassan Whiteside?' Howard, to me, is a very big conundrum. ... I’ve always been a Kemba Walker fan. He has a chip on his shoulder but is not a high-maintenance player at all. He’s got this joie de vivre when he’s out there, and he gets better every year. He’s not one of those guys looking for his next endorsement deal. Kemba is just a plain ol’ baller, man. ... Nicolas Batum is a versatile offensive talent and a great passer. On the defensive end he just leaves a little bit to be desired. ... Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is such a good defender. I thought that because he’s a diligent worker his offense would eventually take root. It just hasn’t. It’s tough. The combination of Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum on the wing isn’t good enough to be an upper-level team in the conference. ... Never could figure out Marvin Williams’s game, to be honest. ... Cody Zeller could play a little bit alongside Howard; he can face up and shoot. They’ve got a similar player in Frank Kaminsky, who finished the season pretty strong. It’s tough to figure out how to make all those guys fit. ... There’s very little chance Malik Monk is going to play point guard in the NBA. He always reminds me of Lou Williams. He’s just a natural, fluid, athletic, under-sized scoring two guard. He’ll be instant offense.
Miami Heat: 'Waiters is coming to score'
I never knew Goran Dragic was so good until his play last season and this summer at Eurobasket. He checks the box at point guard. If he can continue to shoot this well, I really like him. ... I know there’s a cost [on offense] associated with relying on Hassan Whiteside, but there are so many teams out there that would just die for a guy who can protect the rim like that, an effortless athlete who just flows. So much of the game comes from natural ability. From that standpoint, there are few guys out there like Whiteside. ... Justise Winslow is another guy who understands the critical importance of defense. He’ll defend twos and threes and some fours, but what are you going to do with him on the offensive end? ... Whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, Dion Waiters is coming to score. I don’t know if you can get him to defend, but his points per minute will be among the tops in the league. ... Kelly Olynyk is enough of a low-maintenance guy to make sense here. The ability to fit in without standing out is almost a skill unto itself. ... Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson don’t have elite athleticism, but they play hard, defend and hit shots. With Waiters in the lineup there’s not necessarily room for either to be a bigger scorer, but you value these overachievers because they fit in so well. ... If James Johnson is able to duplicate what he did last year, that would be big for Miami. But for a player to continue to climb this deep into his career is rare. ... You have to consider Miami’s season last year as evidence of really good coaching.
Atlanta Hawks: This is pretty ugly
Looking at their roster, I’m wondering, Can we please play them six times this year? Wow, man. Dennis Schröder is your best player. He played really well at Eurobasket, but man. I’m glad I’m not a season-ticket holder there. ... When you [lose] the locker room presence and solid foundational pieces like Al Horford and Paul Millsap, it almost creates a vacuum. ... How quickly can we figure out if DeAndre’ Bembry is a starting two guard? How quickly can we get John Collins going? This team could be in for a long season. ... I think Kent Bazemore is a bench guy, but on this team he’s going to have to average 14 or 15 field goal attempts per game. I just don’t think he’s a natural offensive guy. He’s always been a really good defender, but he’s making $16.9 million this season and last year shot 41% from the field. Geez. ... If you’re a really good team, I don’t know that Taurean Prince is playing more than 18 minutes a game for you. There’s nothing to really sink your teeth into with his game. ... Atlanta’s centers are just all different looks. Mike Muscala is a finesse player who has kind of grown into the position, but there’s not much physicality to him. Dewayne Dedmon can rebound, block shots and play defense. If you could [combine] the three different centers they have there, you’d have a really good player. You could take Dedmon’s defense and Muscala’s footwork, and you could use Miles Plumlee’s face-up shooting. But individually, none of those three are really bona fide starter material.