- Can one number sum up a team's outlook for an entire season? We're giving it a stab. Here's one compelling statistic (and explanation!) for each team as the 2017-18 NBA season begins.
Armed with nothing but calculators, the internet and vast data resources (okay, so a good amount of arms), Andrew Sharp and Rohan Nadkarni have attempted to give you the most important number for each team as the 2017–18 NBA season begins. What are the most important facts and figures around the league as the season tips offs? Here’s what (we think) you need to know.
Atlanta Hawks: 48.9
The Hawks parted ways with Paul Millsap, Tim Hardaway, Dwight Howard and Thabo Sefolosha over the summer. Late last season they traded Kyle Korver to Cleveland. Those five departed players were responsible for 48.9% of Atlanta’s offense. These aren’t your older brother’s Hawks. Mike Budenholzer’s whip-the-ball-around, shoot-the-three offense will be harder to run this season, and the coach’s offensive expertise will really be put to the test now that he has to rely on Ersan Ilyasova and Taurean Prince.
Millsap’s departure will hurt the most. His two-way game covered up a lot of Atlanta’s deficiencies, and switching to Ilyasova—a fine shooter, a willing charge-taker and not much else—is a massive downgrade.
Three years ago the Hawks sent four of their starters to the All-Star Game. Now it’s hard to see how this team can keep up with the top half of the conference. After years and years of being a perennial playoff participant—but hardly anything more—the franchise is easing itself into what will soon be a much-needed rebuild.
Boston Celtics: 4
After finishing No. 1 in the East and making it to the conference finals last season, Boston has only four returning players. The Celtics’ seismic moves this offseason, which yielded the since-injured Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, made the roster more star-studded. But they came at the expense of much of coach Brad Stevens’s depth.
Gone are three-and-D players Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, as well as the often boom-or-bust big man Kelly Olynyk. Each contributed significantly to Boston’s (brief) rise to the top. Bradley will be particularly missed; in addition to being one of the league’s most tenacious defenders, he blossomed into the team’s second-best scorer.
Stevens will need Terry Rozier, 23; Jaylen Brown, 20; and 19-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum to play substantial roles on a contending team. Brown and Tatum provide defense and positional flexibility—the 6'7" Brown even played some point guard in Summer League—while the athletic Rozier provides energy off the bench. How quickly Stevens can develop and trust his youngsters will determine the Celtics’ ceiling this season.
Brooklyn Nets: 33.8
Among the Nets’ many, many problems last year was terrible long-range shooting. Only three teams had more attempts from beyond the arc, and only four had worse three-point accuracy than Brooklyn’s 33.8%.
So over the summer, GM Sean Marks acquired Allen Crabbe from the Blazers, who were happy to unload the remaining three years and $56.3 million of his contract. (Crabbe got such a rich deal because the Nets signed him to an offer sheet in the summer of 2016 and Portland matched it). Crabbe hit 44.4% of his threes last year, a figure topped only by Kyle Korver.
Marks also swung a deal with the Lakers for D’Angelo Russell, who immediately becomes the most intriguing player on the roster. He shoots well from three (35.2% last season) and he’s athletic enough to be productive in the paint. Russell struggled in Los Angeles for a variety of reasons—the Kobe cloud in Year 1, a baffling roster in Year 2—but he’s still just 21, with skills that made him the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft.
As a former member of the Spurs’ brain trust, Marks knows the value of outside shooting. Now his team has some quality marksmen to justify the quantity.
Charlotte Hornets: 4.3
The Hornets won 48 games in 2015–16, tied for the third most in the East. Last season they won only 36, finishing 11th in the conference. The culprit? Charlotte’s defense was 4.3 points per 100 possessions worse last season than the year before. A team that had never finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency during coach Steve Clifford’s first three seasons dropped to 14th.
The Hornets don’t have a roster loaded with offensive talent, which is why defending well is crucial. Clifford would seem to have the pieces to put together a lockdown squad, with Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams providing length and athleticism on the perimeter. But perimeter D is what killed the Hornets; they gave up an NBA-record 950 three-pointers.
Batum in particular will need to recommit himself; his defensive rating has worsened each of the past two years, from a very good 103 in 2015–16 to a pedestrian 108 last season. One source of help is Dwight Howard, who is joining his fifth team in six years. With Howard’s rim-protecting behind them, Charlotte’s wings should be able to tighten up around the three-point arc.
Chicago Bulls: 25
Chicago will be the league’s worst team. In trading Jimmy Butler, buying out Dwyane Wade and letting Rajon Rondo walk, the front office realized that the “Three Alphas” experiment was an utter failure, and instead it opted for a full-on rebuild this summer.
So Windy City fans have just one thing to look forward to: the draft. Luckily for the Bulls, lottery reform doesn’t kick in until next season, so they will still have a 25% chance at getting the No. 1 pick by finishing with the worst record. (It would be 14% next year.) And it’s hard to imagine any other team being worse.
The athletic, 6' 5" Zach LaVine, the main piece acquired from the Timberwolves for Butler, can put the ball in the basket, but he won’t be cleared for contact until November as he recovers from tearing his left ACL last February. Robin Lopez is a hard worker, and Nikola Mirotic has a decent stroke. Aside from those three, the rest of the roster is filled with young players who haven’t flashed any star potential. They had a total of four 20-point games last year between them.
All that adds up to a huge pile of losses and, with luck, a new era starting next June.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 111.1
After a crazy offseason, the Cavaliers remain the favorites to win the East, which is good. That puts them on a path toward a fourth straight Finals meeting with the Warriors, which is bad.
When it comes to that matchup, Cleveland is still lacking in one extremely important area: defense. The Cavs’ defensive rating after the All-Star break was 111.1, the second-worst mark in the NBA during that stretch. And the D has only gotten worse. Kyrie Irving was a weak link, but he’s still better than his replacement, Isaiah Thomas, who ranked dead last among point guards in defensive plus-minus last season. Meanwhile, veteran pickups Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade, each of whom will likely see considerable playing time, have been spotty at best and awful at worst over the last few years.
The bench offers some help, thanks to wings Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith. But besides LeBron James, only 6' 6" newcomer Jae Crowder—a long power forward who is one of the game’s most versatile defenders—qualifies as a stopper. Even when Tyronn Lue puts out his best defensive lineup, expect some gaping holes.
Dallas Mavericks: 97.9
It was only a few years ago that Dallas was blinding with offense. Rick Carlisle blended an ageless Dirk Nowitzki with journeymen (Monta Ellis, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion), and they surprised the whole league. Those Mavericks weren’t contending, but they were still a playoff team and they were fun. It felt as if they would find ways to score forever.
That changed last season. Dallas averaged 97.9 points per game, the fewest in the league by 2.6—a plummet that underlined the team’s identity crisis, which for a decade had been built around Nowitzki’s brilliance. Now, with Dirk in decline—his scoring averaged dipped by 4.1 points last season—the Mavs don’t score as they once did, but they don’t defend much, either. They look young in some key places (rookie Dennis Smith, Nerlens Noel) but old in others (Nowitzki, J.J. Barea, Wes Matthews), and it’s not clear what the plan is.
Dallas will be on the outside of a crowded playoff race in the West, but maybe that’s O.K. If one more miserable year caught between two eras forces the Mavericks to commit to a new look—old or young, offense or defense—it will be a step forward.
Denver Nuggets: 30
The Nuggets have the best offense this side of the Warriors, they have the most exciting young big man this side of Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and they signed one of the most productive two-way power forwards of the past five years. It’s time for them to start winning.
Nikola Jokic, 22, is the catalyst. He’s either an oversized Magic Johnson or a 21st-century version of Arvydas Sabonis, a 6' 11" center with a deep bag of tricks as a scorer and passer. His arrival—coupled with the emergence of 23-year-old shooting guard Gary Harris—brought Denver alive last year.
For those who missed it (and there were plenty who did), the Nuggets dazzled fans over the final two months of the season, averaging 114.4 points to come within a game of the playoffs. Then in July they gave a three-year, $90 million deal to Hawks free agent Paul Millsap, who’ll slide in next to Jokic and shore up the defense.
Jokic & Co. are still waiting on national recognition, as well as local: Denver ranked 30th in the league in attendance, averaging 14,770 fans per game. But as Golden State showed, a team that shares the ball and piles up points—and wins—can build a following quickly.
Detroit Pistons: 12.0
The Pistons have an Andre Drummond problem. He looked to be a dominating force early in his career, but the shifting focus of NBA offenses has rendered the 6' 11" center’s inside–only game largely unimportant. Without impeccable back line defense, Drummond’s flashes of brilliance won’t make him worthy of his five-year, $127.2 million contract.
The numbers paint a horrifying picture: Detroit was 12.0 points per 100 possessions better with Drummond off the court. (Both his offensive and defensive splits were negative.) It didn’t help that he hit just 38.6% of his free throws and blocked a career-low 1.1 shots per game. Coach Stan Van Gundy has to figure out how to juggle his lineups when his team’s highest-paid player is making a profoundly negative impact.
Meanwhile, the Pistons’ second-highest-paid player, Reggie Jackson, saw his scoring average drop by more than four points last season. Unless Van Gundy can coax a committed defensive performance from Drummond and get consistent play from Jackson, he might find that his team is closer to a full-on rebuilding project than anyone in Detroit would care to admit.
Golden State Warriors: 91.4
At the beginning of the decade, the Spurs concocted the most efficient offense in the league, spreading the floor with three-point shooters, exploiting mismatches, moving off the ball movement and picking defenses apart with the extra pass.
The Warriors use those same principles, only with a twist. San Antonio weaponized smart role players to compensate for an aging nucleus. Steve Kerr uses Hall of Famers at the peak of their powers. The result: two titles in three years, with a record 73-win season sandwiched in between.
Expect nothing less in 2017–18: 91.4% of Golden State’s offense from last year is returning. The only significant contributor to depart was backup shooting guard Ian Clark.
Even after a summer of overhauls and all-in plays from other contenders, the Dubs remain a problem that can’t be solved. The more interesting question is how long this run will last and how it might end. Injuries? Egos? Luxury tax bills?
In the meantime, Golden State will continue with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson in their primes, playing basketball in the smartest way possible.
Houston Rockets: 5.3
There were nights last year when it looked as if the Rockets had cracked the code to basketball. They let James Harden run wild as a point guard and surrounded him with shooters bombing threes. The Vegas over-under for last year’s Rockets was 41.5 wins. They finished with 55.
The problem was the playoffs—or, more specifically, the Spurs. They ceded the middle of the key, protected the rim and smothered the three-point line. Houston had no answers.
Enter Chris Paul, the nine-time All-Star point guard from the Clippers. Paul attemped 5.3 midrange shots per game—just 1.8 fewer than the Rockets averaged. He’ll not only diversify the offense but also absorb a good amount of Harden’s playmaking load to keep the Beard fresh for the stretch run. That’s how it should work in theory, anyway.
Reality could be more complicated for Paul and Harden, two players used to total control of an offense. A year ago the Rockets found a formula for regular-season success that would have kept them relevant for years. And then they traded half the roster to go all-in for something more.
Indiana Pacers: 1,348
The Pacers lost a lot by trading away Paul George. They lost their best scorer, their best defender and their best creator. Not only will Indiana have to figure out how to make up for all of George’s contributions, but on a more rudimentary level it will also have to figure out which players will take the 1,348 shots—the fifth-most in the franchise's NBA history—that George hoisted last season.
The roster lacks a go‑to scorer. Victor Oladipo will almost certainly volunteer for the job, but as a career 43.4% marksman he hasn’t proved he’s ready for the role. In fact, he barely succeeded as a sidekick to Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City.
A more intriguing option is Myles Turner, 21, a third-year center with All‑Star potential. He significantly improved his touch last year, hitting 51.1% of his shots. While primarily a midrange threat, he also developed a three-pointer, making 40 treys, up from three as a rookie. At 6' 11" and 243 pounds, Turner also has the size to bang down low when necessary.
The Pacers’ immediate outlook is far from good, but turning Turner into the No. 1 option on offense will at least speed the way to being a foundational piece.
Los Angeles Clippers: 11–18
Though he has struggled with injuries in recent years, Blake Griffin has played like an All-Star anytime he has been healthy. Over seven seasons he has enhanced his skill set with more passing and better shooting, including a career-high 76.0% from the line last season.
Yet as great as Griffin is, every now and then his game transforms from “more athletic Karl Malone” into something even greater. His creativity from the high post turns defenses inside out, his pure shooting touch keeps defenders off-balance, and his combination of explosion and body control makes him unstoppable on the break.
With Chris Paul in Houston now, playmaking, ankle-breaking Super Blake is going to have to become a regular in Los Angeles; over the past two seasons, the Clippers are 11–18 without Paul. A good sign: Last season Griffin averaged 23.2 points and 6.4 assists per 36 minutes when Paul was off the floor, versus 22.7 and 4.8 when Paul was playing.
Danilo Gallinari will stretch defenses and Patrick Beverley will be a workplace hazard for opposing point guards. But the Clippers’ fate will be decided by how often Super Blake shows up.
Los Angeles Lakers: 29.4
Name a star to hit free agency sometime in the next two years, and there’s a rumor linking him to the Lakers. But in the middle of all this smoke, there are two players who can create fire in Los Angeles.
Lonzo Ball will be tested every night by guards gunning for his head—thanks, Dad!—and it won’t be easy to live up to the considerable hype. Still, if Ball’s passing gifts translate to the NBA, he’ll be creating easy looks for teammates all over the floor.
Then there’s Brandon Ingram. He struggled to get comfortable as a rail-thin rookie on a 26-win team, but he still checks every box for a modern All-Star. He can guard multiple positions at 6' 9", and he’s got vision as a passer, a decent handle, good athleticism. His shooting is a different story. Ingram made just 29.4% of his three-point attempts last year. If his accuracy catches up with all the other tools this year, he’ll become the sort of improving-every-month young star who makes life easier for the rest of the roster.
The Lakers won’t make the postseason in 2018, but that’s not the point. If the young players can show enough this year to attract help over summer, that will be when the real fun begins.
Memphis Grizzlies: 17
In late November the Grizzlies were in fifth place in the West, one of the season’s early surprises. Then 6' 1", 175-pound Mike Conley tried to take a charge against 6' 7", 232-pound Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Conley got the call, but he stayed on the floor; he had broken multiple bones in his lower back. He was projected to miss six to eight weeks, which supposedly spelled doom for Memphis’s season. But Conley’s broken back sidelined him for only 17 days. The Grizzlies went 7–2 in his absence; when he returned, Conley not only led them to the playoffs but also topped 20 points per game for the first time in his 10‑year career.
Call it a Grit ’N’ Grind parable. It’s relevant now because the Grizzlies once again face daunting questions. Can anyone besides Conley and Marc Gasol shoot? (Memphis was last in field goal percentage.) Can Tyreke Evans help? Will Chandler Parsons—in the second year of a four-year, $94 million deal—play more than 50 games, and if so, will he average more than six points?
It’s fair to be skeptical. In the supercharged West, the Grizzlies look like prime candidates to take a step back. But we’ve been hearing that for a long time—including last season.
Miami Heat: 35.3m
The Heat will pay Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk $35.3 million this season, which means they’re betting big on consistent success from a historically inconsistent trio. And each is locked up through at least 2020.
Waiters and Johnson joined Miami last summer and put up career-best numbers. The 25-year-old Waiters played in only 46 games and is hardly as gifted a shooter as his gunning would suggest. (He connected on less than 32% from deep in two of his first four seasons before last year, when he buried 39.5%.) Johnson is a versatile forward, but he’ll turn 31 in February, and last year was the first time he averaged double figures. Olynyk, 26, often frustrated Boston fans with his up-and-down play, and despite some playoff heroics, the Celtics let him go to make room for Gordon Hayward.
After a horrible, injury-plagued start, Miami went 30–11 in the second half of last season, thanks largely to the shooting of Waiters and Johnson. If Erik Spoelstra and his staff can continue to get the best out of them—and Olynyk—the Heat will have invested wisely. If not, Miami will be paying a heavy price for three years of mediocrity.
Milwaukee Bucks: 57
The Bucks withstood injuries to Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker to make the playoffs last season, then gave the Raptors a stern test in the first round. Thanks in large part to a suffocating defense, as well as stellar play from blossoming MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee has a very bright future.
One more promising development from the postseason was the play of much-maligned 2016 lottery pick Thon Maker. Drafted 10th despite concerns over his real age—he was listed as 19—the 7' 1" South Sudan native was a frequent DNP-CD early on. Maker appeared in only 57 games during the regular season, starting 34. This year, though, coach Jason Kidd should use him as his full-time starter.
The Bucks had a +11.9 net rating when Maker played with the rest of the regular starters last season, but that group appeared in only 15 games. In the playoffs Maker showed that his defense is a huge upgrade over Greg Monroe’s; he has also flashed potential as a three-point shooter from the corners. If Maker builds on what he showed late last season, the Bucks could become a terrifyingly strong—and long—team.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 13
Shooting guard Jimmy Butler deserved more credit than he got for averaging 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists while dragging a miserable Chicago team to the playoffs last year. Meanwhile, Karl-Anthony Towns flashed talent seldom seen from a second-year big man. Sadly, just as the Bulls’ misery obscured Butler’s brilliance, most fans had checked out on the Timberwolves by the All-Star break, after which Towns began putting up 28.4 points on 59.7% shooting with 13.4 rebounds.
Now they’re both in Minnesota, ready to make the whole league pay attention to a franchise that has missed the playoffs 13 years in a row, two shy of the longest drought in NBA history. Last season Towns, Andrew Wiggins and new coach Tom Thibodeau were supposed to bring the T-Wolves back to life. They won 31 games.
While skepticism is understandable, the 28-year-old Butler will be even better than advertised, and he wasn’t the only veteran acquisition; 6' 9" Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague, who replaces Ricky Rubio at the point, should improve execution on both ends. If Towns and Wiggins can make progress on D, there is too much talent for the streak of futility to continue.
New Orleans Pelicans: 394
When All-Star weekend ended with the blockbuster that sent DeMarcus Cousins from the Kings to the Pelicans, the deal was celebrated as a major win for a New Orleans franchise that desperately needed one. Then the games began, and the pairing of bigs Cousins and Anthony Davis was awkward. If the aim of the trade was a playoff push, it didn’t work.
While the Pelicans were 7–10 in games with both All-Stars in the lineup, it’s too early to write off their partnership after just 394 minutes, which is how long Cousins and Davis were on the floor together. With more time to get acclimated and more time for Alvin Gentry to tinker with his playbook, there’s every chance this team could unlock something much better.
They have to stay healthy. Jrue Holiday has averaged 51.5 games over the past four seasons, and small forwards have failed to stay on the court for long. Tony Allen will help off the bench, but he still can’t shoot. And Rajon Rondo is now in NOLA to continue his quest to become the picture they put next to the word mercurial in every dictionary.
It’s a strange group. But until we see more of Cousins and Davis, it’s a mix that can’t yet be dismissed.
New York Knicks: 24.3
During his breakout second season, Kristaps Porzingis’s usage rate was 24.3—which was actually lower than the rate from his rookie season. How to explain the decline? Try sharing the court with Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose, each of whom had a rate of more than 25. Now that Melo and Rose are gone, Porzingis’s rate should rise to the low 30s—but only if the Knicks are finally committed to making the 7-footer the face of the franchise.
There’s no doubt Anthony was holding back Porzingis, in part by taking most of the important late-game opportunities for himself. Porzingis should not only have the offense run through him this season, but he should also be given the chance to prove his clutch bona fides.
New York also parted ways with president Phil Jackson. But the first significant move the team made after he left, signing Tim Hardaway Jr.—whom Jackson had traded away two years earlier—to a four-year, $71 million contract is a risky one. And the rest of the roster remains loaded with iffy veterans. If the 22-year-old Porzingis is going to succeed in his new role, the Knicks need to get him the right supporting cast, quickly.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 5–18
Russell Westbrook’s Year of Vengeance ended the only way possible: With the MVP firing a hail of long-range missiles. In the finale of a 4–1 defeat to the Rockets in the first round, Westbrook put up 18 threes (and made just five).
That playoff series was a reminder that while Westbrook became the most reliably breathtaking performer in the league last season, his one-man act wasn’t sustainable. Now we’ll see what the triple double terror can do with help.
In June the Thunder swapped Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George; three months later they flipped Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott for Carmelo Anthony. With the All-Star acquisitions come new issues: Will there be enough shots to go around? Can Westbrook keep his fellow stars (and himself) happy?
Oklahoma City looks as loaded as any team outside of Golden State—don’t forget Steven Adams and Andre Roberson anchoring the defense—and the goal should be the conference finals. Westbrook’s rampage was must-see basketball last season; this summer’s pickups and plot twists make the Thunder even more riveting.
Orlando Magic: 63
Orlando had a terrible summer in 2016, acquiring too many frontcourt players without a place for them all. As a result, Aaron Gordon, one of the team’s most gifted athletes, spent the year being hamstrung as part of a mismanaged roster.
An athletic 6' 9", 220 pounder, Gordon is ideal as a small-ball center. At the very least he should be a power forward, his position in 2015–16, when he was the Magic’s most improved player. But last season Gordon played 63% of his minutes at small forward, much to the detriment of the offense, which ranked 29th in efficiency. Gordon’s lack of an outside touch—he’s a career 28.9% three-point shooter—prevented Orlando from spacing the floor.
The trade of Serge Ibaka to the Raptors last February finally allowed Gordon to get more minutes at power forward.With Ibaka gone, Gordon averaged 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds, up from 11.2 and 4.5 before the trade.
The departure of Jeff Green, who signed with the Cavs, will further ease the power forward logjam. Gordon will be a restricted free agent next summer. This year is his best chance to prove he deserves to be a part of the Magic’s future.
Philadelphia 76ers: 12.6
Center Joel Embiid played the first 31 games of his career last season before being shut down with a left knee injury. That means that Embiid has played in only 12.6% of Philadelphia’s games in the three years since he was drafted third overall.
But those 31 games were tantalizing. Embiid swatted shots, drained threes, ran the floor and threw down dunks. The 76ers were 13–18 with him in the lineup and 15–36 without him. Simply put, if they are serious about competing for a playoff spot, Embiid must be on the court.
There are other reasons to be excited in Philadelphia, starting with the last two top picks in the draft. Ben Simmons, effectively a 6' 10" point guard, will make his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a broken right foot. And he’ll share time in the backcourt with a gifted scorer and creator in 6' 4" Markelle Fultz.
Philly has to be concerned that Embiid’s body couldn’t hold up last season despite playing on a minutes restriction. When training camp opened, he was still sidelined after knee surgery. The 7-footer has come to embody the Sixers’ painstaking rebuilding approach, a.k.a. the Process. Unless he’s healthy, there is more pain to come.
Phoenix Suns: 21
There are probably some basketball fans who have luggage older than the guys the Suns were running out at the end of last season. Eric Bledsoe is 27 and he seems like a grizzled veteran. Tyson Chandler is 35, and he may as well be a character from the Old Testament. The starting five that closed the season for Phoenix had an average age of just over 21 years.
It’s not that the Suns want to rebuild forever. They pursued LaMarcus Aldridge a few years ago, and they were chasing Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap before missing out this summer. They were linked with a move for Kyrie Irving before he was sent to Boston. For now, that leaves the young guys.
At 20, Devin Booker might be the best perimeter prospect in the league. Josh Jackson, also 20, should provide some much-needed help on defense, and his off-ball movement will be a boon to Bledsoe and Booker. Marquese Chriss—yes, he’s 20, too—will have to be more consistent on both ends, but he has all the tools to be a star.
In fact, Chriss personifies the whole team. There are intriguing tools, there is talent, but at least for this season, there won’t be a ton of consistency.
Portland Trail Blazers: 14–5
The Blazers are coming off a second straight year in which they struggled initially, then made a successful playoff push in the final few months.
Help arrived last season on Feb. 12, after a trade with the Nuggets: 7-foot, 280-pound Jusuf (the Bosnian Beast) Nurkic, who’s both a brick wall when setting picks for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and a surprisingly nimble receiver on rolls to the rim. In addition to making the offense harder to guard, he provided double-digit rebounds and an anchor to the defense.
The acquisition of Nurkic unlocked some of the best basketball of the Lillard era: Portland was 14–5 with Nurkic in the starting lineup.
Is the Blazers’ late-season winning percentage sustainable? The 23-year-old Nurkic will be playing for a new contract, but he still has much to prove: While he averaged 15.2 points in 29.2 minutes for Portland, he had put up just 8.0 points in 17.9 minutes before. And Nurkic’s presence can’t entirely make up for the deficiencies of Lillard and McCollum on D: Portland was just 23rd in defensive rating.
But even if the Blazers start slowly, the past two years suggest they can make up ground quickly.
Sacramento Kings: 17.3
When All‑Star center DeMarcus Cousins was traded to the Pelicans last February, he left behind a vacuum—one that gave the rest of the Kings’ roster room to breathe. Willie Cauley-Stein looked promising at center. New arrival Buddy Hield averaged 15.1 points per game on 48.0% shooting and looked like a legitimate starter. And after a disappointing freshman year at Kentucky sent him tumbling to the 28th pick in the 2016 draft, 6' 11" Skal Labissiere had nights where he looked like the lottery talent that scouts had fallen in love with in high school. Labissiere averaged 17.3 points per 36 minutes after Cousins was traded.
Now there’s another new layer of talent. Lightning-quick rookie De’Aaron Fox will pair with the steadying hand of George Hill at the point. Small forward Justin Jackson is fresh off a national title at North Carolina. And Bogdan Bogdanovic arrives from Europe with a deadeye touch.
There are intriguing young players in Sacramento surrounded by the right veterans (Zach Randolph, Vince Carter) to help them grow. For a franchise that’s been spinning its wheels for the past decade, that’s progress.
San Antonio Spurs: 31.6
LaMarcus Aldridge saw his numbers dip across the board last year. Pau Gasol is well into the twilight of his career. Manu Ginóbili played just 18.7 minutes a game. Tony Parker is recovering from a torn left quadriceps. Rudy Gay is arriving after four lost years in Sacramento with an ailing Achilles. Even San Antonio’s free agents are aging and nursing injuries.
It may not matter. If the Spurs have more questions than ever, they also have the single best answer since Tim Duncan in his prime. Kawhi Leonard was a stabilizing force throughout San Antonio’s season, and before Zaza Pachulia’s size 17 shoe ended his playoff run, Leonard was playing the best ball of his life. After putting up a career-high efficiency rating of 27.6, Leonard’s postseason PER of 31.6 was the best in the league.
His offense has become as dominant as his D. With a combination of brute strength, flawless footwork and tightly coiled athleticism, Leonard is in a class with LeBron, Durant, Curry—and that might be it. He will be asked to do more this season, and if he is up to the task—and isn’t slowed by the quadriceps injury that cut into his preseason—he could very well walk away with an MVP award.
Toronto Raptors: –1.5
The Raptors have two talented big men in Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, but the team struggled when they shared the frontcourt. Toronto was outscored by 1.5 points per 100 possessions when the big men played together. (The margin was far worse, –9.5, in the playoffs.)
It’s unclear exactly how the 25-year-old Valanciunas fits into the modern NBA. Though he’s a willing defender, he’s vulnerable on pick-and-rolls and almost useless against teams that consistently fire from deep. On offense, Valanciunas can post up effectively, but he offers no value as a floor spacer: In five seasons he has made one three in four attempts.
Ibaka, 28, makes more sense at center. Though his defense has declined since his heyday in Oklahoma City, Ibaka can still protect the rim, and his outside touch makes him a weapon at the other end.
In the offseason Toronto said goodbye to DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson. The addition of sharpshooter CJ Miles will help, but unless coach Dwane Casey embraces a smaller, spacier approach, his team’s playoff struggles will continue.
Utah Jazz: 8.1
For almost any other young team trying to make progress in the crowded West, having a young player such as Gordon Hayward leave as a free agent would have been devastating. Hayward was the face of the Jazz—the scorer, the closer, the team’s lone All-Star since Deron Williams six years ago. But Rudy Gobert was Utah’s rock.
At 7' 1" with an eight-foot wingspan, Gobert spent 2016–17 harassing shooters like a science fiction villain, gliding from the rim to the three-point line and back. Utah broke through last season—winning 51 games, its first division title in a decade and a first-round series win over the Clippers—because of his progress, not Hayward’s. Gobert led the league in blocks per game (2.6) and was second in defensive rating (99.2). The Jazz outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when Gobert was on the floor.
Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Dante Exum, Joe Ingles and a healthier Derrick Favors will make up for Hayward’s scoring. Ricky Rubio will take over as playmaker. The Jazz be a work in progress. But in the 25-year-old Gobert, they still have a cornerstone to build on.
Washington Wizards: 77.3
Small forward Otto Porter Jr. turned a career year into a massive contract this summer. His four-year, $106.5 million max deal makes him the highest-paid player on the team until 2019–20, when John Wall’s extension kicks in. One small issue: 77.3% of the field goals Porter made were assisted last season, a high number that calls into question his value without Wall, who was second in the league in assists per game.
No one is expecting Porter to turn into an isolation sensation overnight. But as long as the Wizards have a pitiful bench—and they still do—they’ll need to rely on their starting five more than any other team in the league. And the one player in that first unit with substantial room to improve is Porter, an efficient player and a dangerous catch-and-shoot scorer who was fifth in the league in three-point percentage. (He’s also a solid defender.) If Porter doesn’t raise his game by becoming a threat with the ball in his hands, Washington’s offense may have already reached its ceiling.
The Wizards are paying Porter like a franchise cornerstone. They need him to develop all the tools to be one.