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As we've learned in years past, anonymous NBA scouts do not hold back when dishing their hottest takes on opposing teams. 

In an effort to field those honest opinions about all 30 NBA teams, The Crossover spoke with scouts from around the league in advance of the 2018–19 season. Their answers, which examine all six divisions, are brutally honest in assessing all things basketball.

Central | Atlantic | Pacific | Southwest | Northwest | Southeast

Central Division


Indiana Pacers

I think they have a legitimate shot to contend in the East. They’re another team that lost to LeBron in 7 games. It was pretty damn close. . . . If Tyreke Evans is in shape, if he’s motivated, I think that’s an amazing f---ing pickup. What Tyreke did in Memphis last year was unreal. His talent overall can win you games. I think Victor Oladipo needs a guy like that in crunch time. You’re not going down to Myles Turner on the block. He’s a much-better, less-erratic, more consistent version of Lance Stephenson. The offense isn’t going to be free-flowing, but you need someone like Tyreke, when you’re down eight entering the fourth and he gets you six. I think he enhances them. . . . Doug McDermott, we’ll see if he’s worth that contract. He hasn’t had a true chance to establish himself anywhere yet. . . . With Turner, it was the body and now it looks like he’s in really, really good shape. His Instagram has me being believer now. When you have that summer where all of a sudden it clicks, he’s going to be better. I don’t know how much better statistically, but you can’t price on a guy’s motor and being consistent. How often were they playing a back to back and he’s just out of shape?. . . . Domantas Sabonis just continues to add more skill. He can continue to do everything, but I don’t think he’s a true No. 3 guy, which is where Tyreke helps. . . . Oladipo got so much better last year on both ends of the ball. They shocked everyone last year, so from a development standpoint, they’re heading in the right direction, but I think that started with Myles taking things more serious. But these guys aren’t Simmons and Embiid. They’re close, though. Tyreke should open things up so much more.... If everyone knew the answer to how Victor Oladipo could get this much better, they would have traded for him instead. He was a lot more efficient overall. His shooting continues to improve, and that’s opened up driving lanes for him even more. Early in his career you didn’t have to respect him as much as a shooter, especially off the dribble. Now you do, and it’s been steady improvement. He’s always had the athleticism and burst. That’s taken his game to a new level... McDermott: I wasn’t expecting him to get that much money but you know what you’re getting, he plays hard, he’s a high level shooter and can run off screens. He’s gonna knock down looks and will be good in the locker room, bring intangibles. It’s a safe signing and they know what they’re getting. Would I have paid him that much, maybe not, but I get it.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Collin Sexton’s a high-volume shooter, but to me he’s just Monta Ellis. I get why Cleveland selected him, but I think his upside is limited. He’ll be a solid sixth man one day, a decent starter, maybe, but I wouldn’t do it. They still have George Hill. I imagine they’ll both start this season. Those two would compliment each other nicely. . . . I’m looking to see what they get out of J.R. Smith. Does he have anything left in the tank? Young J.R. Smith was a totally different player than he was in Cleveland. Without LeBron James, does he get more freedom and opportunity to get creative. Same thing with Kevin Love. Their offense is doing a total 180. . . . Love is the guy now, but they’re significantly less talented so they have to share the ball more. I wonder how Love is going to handle everything now that everything’s out there about his mental health. He has a new contract with long-term stability. Is he in a better place now to get back to that Minnesota Kevin Love? There’s going to be more pressure on him in terms of usage rate, but there’s not nearly as much pressure to win and compete for championships. . . . Let’s see what Tyronn Lue can actually do. Cleveland’s offense was just give it to LeBron and space the floor and see what happens. Now, they’re so unpredictable. Nobody has film on this team. They’re going to run an entirely different offense. Their staff is different without assistants Jim Boylan and Phil Handy... Obviously Tristan Thompson was instrumental to their title run, but then he was out for a while, things changed. He had a down year relative to the past, but he’s only 27 and put together a few nice seasons before that. He’s big and protects the rim well. We’ll see if last year was a blip or more of a permanent thing, that’ll come down to his mentality. . . . David Nwaba has shown some flashes in preseason, Sam Dekker might be interesting depending on what his role is. Cedi Osman is a solid all-around player, not the sexiest but he gets it done.

Milwaukee Bucks

Jason Kidd was not a good coach. I think, as amazing as Giannis Antetokounmpo is, you just can’t go one-on-one with your star player like that any more. I know it’s a league of superstars, but they needed to pass the ball more and they weren’t good defensively. Mike Budenholzer’s going to be great for them because they’re going to run Spurs stuff. I don’t think Bud has ever had a player like Giannis. They’re in much better hands now with Bud. . . . They lose Jabari, but they’re still really talented. The sh---y part is all these years they were waiting for Jabari to be healthy and now he’s gone. Who can fill that void?. . . . Does Khris Middleton make another leap? Does Malcolm Brogdon step up? This was all based around Jabari coming back, what he could be as a running mate next to Giannis. . . . Is Giannis’s jump shot finally there? Most can’t take away his ability to get to the basket and finish, but he’s got to be a really damn good jump shooter if he wants to become a true MVP-caliber player, who leads his team deep into the playoffs. Every year, LeBron got better and added something. Every year, Anthony Davis added something. Every year, Kawhi added something. I want to see Giannis’s growth in the leadership category, too. Budenholzer will be good for him in that. Kidd enabled him to take over on the court, I’m interested to see Giannis as a leader. He’s still young but he’s no longer a young guy. . . .  Their bigs are not all that good. John Henson’s OK. Thon Maker’s OK. I wonder if Thon will ever get there. He has not come close to meeting the hype that came with picking him No. 10. With Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, they’ll be stretchy, but their defense is sketchy. . . . Budenholzer can’t do any worse than Kidd. They did get a lot better defensively last season when Joe Prunty took over.... I think Middleton is really good. He won’t be underrated anymore once he gets paid next summer. He’s an offense-centric player but can do a bit of everything, good shooter, he’s big and long. He’s solid and smooth with the ball and a good passer, too. Now he has the mid-post game that makes him tough to guard because of what he can do out of those looks.... I think they probably need someone else in addition to Brogdon long-term. He’s proven he can be a very high level backup point guard in the NBA but he’s gonna be 26 this year. He had a similar second season to his first. He’s good but hasn’t proven he can be an every night starter yet. Maybe he takes a leap but I don’t think we can count on it.

Detroit Pistons

Detroit has a lot of different pieces and we’re still waiting to see how do they all fit. . . . Culturally, I think it’ll be a lot better now that Stan Van Gundy’s gone. It’s up to Dwane Casey to repair things. . . . Reggie Jackson’s talented as s--t, but he has unrealistic expectations. I just don’t think a guy like that can ever be part of a successful team. Putting him and Stan together was like putting kerosine on a fire. . . . Andre Drummond has to buy in and take basketball seriously. . . . Stanley Johnson needs to become a professional. . . . How do Blake Griffin and Andre fit together? Will Reggie be OK with Andre and Blake being buddies? Will he be OK being the No. 3 option?. . . . I do think it will be a lot better. There’s a lot less pressure now. The old regime was fighting for their jobs. They’re not rebuilding, but they’re trying to structure an offense around their guys. That will require a constant buy-in from everyone. . . . Blake’s going to want to continue to stretch the floor more. With Drummond dominating the offensive glass, they could be pretty good together. They have a feel for each other after playing together last season. I wouldn’t rule them out of making the playoffs. . . . They took away the elephant in the room of all the pressure on Stan and the front office and now they don’t have to make scary decisions just to try to get into the playoffs. If it doesn’t work out this year, yes, it will be disappointment, but, no one is losing their job. It’s going to be a lot more calm in their blood pressure.... I know they like Glenn Robinson, he’s had some nice preseason moments. His talent in college was always obvious and it was more a question of if they could pull it out of him. He could be a guy who blossoms a little later in his career.

Chicago Bulls

They’re interesting. They are very injury prone between Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. I hope their medical team is good. I don’t know how the pieces all fit together, but they’re intriguing. They have four potentially really high-upside young guys, down low with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter and on the perimeter with Jabari and LaVine. . . . Is Dunn going to be their starting point guard or is he more off the ball?. . . . I’d be intrigued to see Bobby Portis’s development because he had a really good year last year. Everyone forgets that because of the Nikola Mirotic situation . . . . Denzel Valentine’s been OK. I really want to see what the bench can do because you’re going to have a lot of inconsistencies with their high-profile young guys. . . . Lauri was really good last year and obviously you want to see him continue to develop off the dribble and being more than a shooter. That’s where guard play comes in. Can they get him the ball?. . . . Jabari you don’t really know what to expect. Same thing with LaVine. There’s a lot of unknown that we haven’t seen on the actual floor with those two. . . . I wonder who’s the leader on that team and in the locker room. They still have Robin Lopez, but he can’t do it on the court at as high a level anymore. . . . They could start a really young lineup with Wendell and Lauri, or they could lean into their veterans with Lopez and Portis. . . . They have really fast perimeter guys and unique big guys who can shoot and phenomenally talented offensively. I think Wendell Carter didn’t show what he could actually do at Duke. His ball skills and ability to put it on the floor and score is high level. We saw it in Vegas a little bit. How do you play him and Lauri together? Do you put him on the perimeter exclusively and try and make him into Dirk? They’re just in a unique position. . . . Can Jabari-Lauri-Wendell play together? If so, someone’s going to have to play some three, I just wonder what direction they’re going to choose to go. I wouldn’t rule them out of the playoffs, either.... The good thing for Kris Dunn is he’s not lacking for opportunity there. He’s getting the keys to the offense and should play heavy minutes this year as a starter. They have this long, young, fresh look there, so we’ll see if he can do anything to lead this group.... Any player missing time like LaVine there is gonna be an adjustment period coming back, it depends on each individual in terms of how long it’s gonna take to get right. He’s still young even though he’s been in the league for three or four years, so his recovery should probably be a little better. The opportunity is there for him too, he’s going to be playing with new guys, so we’ll see what he’s got.... Bobby Portis is another guy who might benefit from Markkanen’s injury. They don’t have a ton of proven big guys at this stage, so he’s gonna get a chance to take advantage early in the season. He’s improved each year, he had a nice jump last season, and it’s the last year of his rookie deal. You see a lot of players take a big leap going into their second contract.

Atlantic Division


Boston Celtics

They have to figure out if Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward benefit the offense in the right way or not. Kyrie is a selfish player, that’s just who he is. He’s more scorer than point guard—not that there’s anything wrong with it. There’s something awesome about having a guy who can go for 50 any night. But with him and Hayward and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, will they be able to share the ball? . . . . People don’t have film on this whole team. With Hayward coming back, Brad’s going to have a lot of options that teams aren’t aware of and haven’t seen . . .  They have so many different lineups that they can use. The ideal starting lineup is like 2K. Do you start Tatum and Brown? Do you do small ball like the Warriors with Marcus Morris as the five? If we’re talking Golden State, that’s as good a five-man lineup as any to combat the Warriors. That’s a good matchup. They have wings to match up with Steph, Klay and KD . . . I just wonder, will Kyrie be able to run the offense the way Brad wants them to run it and will everyone get their touches? It’s not a bad problem to have, but it was a problem in Cleveland. It’s just who Kyrie is. He’s so confident, he’s so dominant, he’s so alpha . . .  Tatum, as good a year as he had, he was almost underrated. He had a phenomenal year. He has size, he’s skilled, can shoot it, play multiple positions and defend. I think he’s really gonna blossom . . . Brown, he came in as sort of a put-your-head-down penetrator, but his game has developed nicely. You’re seeing him become a more complete player. He’s always gonna be a defense-first type guy. He’s versatile with high-end physical tools and he’s smart. Last season his offense took a major jump from his rookie year. He’s so young, and all these Boston guys have a lot of upside left to fulfill. Rozier, you saw him take advantage of the opportunity in the playoffs down the stretch when Kyrie went out. It became very clear that there wasn’t much of a drop off. When you look back at his rookie year he was barely playing, when he got in he wasn’t necessarily making an impact—but fast forward two years and he’s playing at an extremely high level in his first consistent minutes, in the playoffs. There were questions about positionally what he was, if he was more of a combo. He’s still a scorer at heart, but you’re seeing that he’s a point guard now and rarely turns the ball over.

Philadelphia 76ers

I wonder if Ben Simmons can take over a game offensively. He’s got good weapons around him. They’re pretty damn close to the top tier, it’s just who’s going to be that No. 2 guy behind Simmons if Joel Embiid gets into foul trouble or gets injured. Who can create his own shot, because they have a bunch of catch-and-shoot guys. I know Ben is really good, but outside of creating catch-and-shoot opportunities, he has a lot of room to grow when you need to get a bucket. That’s where Golden State and Boston are so unique, they have a bunch of guys who can put it on the floor and shoot. They can do both . . .  That’s where the Sixers need Markelle Fultz to come in, and you have no idea what’s going to happen there. If I’m him, I embrace being the sixth man. In college, he looked like he could be a damn good player. He had it all because he could score on all levels. Defensively he was as lazy as could be. . . . Robert Covington, I love stories like him—an undrafted guy from a small conference coming out of the G League and really working himself into a player. He’s a great three-point shooter, that’s his bread and butter, but defensively he’s also now a high-level player, can guard a lot of positions, he’s extremely long and athletic. He’s a plug-and-play guy, where you throw him in with a lot of lineups and he’ll make a positive impact. The 3-and-D thing is sort of a cliche now, but he fits it to a T. . . . Dario Saric took advantage of a bigger role in his second season and proved he belonged. He made a major offensive jump. There were questions with him overseas, if he was a three or a four. He’s really settled into his role as a stretch four who battles on both ends. With the way it’s going there with their offense, he’s going to get a lot of good looks from outside. He proved last season he can knock them down at a high rate. Good passer for his position, sees the floor, another guy with a good future. 

Brooklyn Nets

They’re headed in the right direction. This is going to be the first year they have their own draft pick, but they could also compete for the eighth seed. You look at the rest of the East, they’re decent enough. They’re gonna scrap it out. The last two years that Kenny Atkinson’s been there, they’ve won a hell of a lot more than they should. They’re like that well-rounded college team that just plays the right way. They’re unselfish and have good chemistry . . . I want to see Caris LeVert become that No. 3 option. This is his second full healthy season. He probably has the highest upside of everyone on the team. He has all the physical tools. . . . Jarrett Allen’s work ethic has clearly improved. Trading for Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried just adds to a strong mix of veterans and young talent. Faried could play a Clint Capela role putting pressure on the rim—only he’s four inches shorter. . . . Rondae Hollis-Jefferson settled into this Swiss army knife defensive type role and he found his niche. With the way the league is going, that’s getting more important, having a guy who can switch pick-and-rolls and play the four. He can step out and guard, battle inside and has good physical tools. His shot is still funky and I don’t have a ton of hope that he’s ever going to become a legitimate three-point shooter. . . .  Allen Crabbe, when Brooklyn gave him a $75 million, five-year offer in 2016, a lot of teams were just victims of the moment. Everyone had a lot of money to play around with. That said, we sometimes tend to value guys based on their contract rather than how they are as players, and he’s still a contributor. They obviously love him. Moves well off the ball, good motor, good shooter, plays defense, and he’s quick.

New York Knicks

Their season needs to be about establishing an identity and a culture. Can every get on the same page? It feels like [president] Steve Miller, [GM] Scott Perry and [coach] David Fizdale are providing a uniform front. . . . Fizdale’s identity has always been toughness. Kristaps Porzingis has shown to be tough, but he’ll be out the first few months of the season. Will they be tough without him? It starts with Kevin Knox. Everyone was buzzing about his Summer League. He had way more freedom, was a way better shooter than in college. At Kentucky he looked like a stretch four, in Vegas he looked like a three. The expectations are unreal now, and he’s not a tough mother. . . .  Frank Ntilikina is certainly not a bust, but he’s not where you want him to be. They took him over Dennis Smith and Donovan Mitchell. Will he play off the ball moving forward, or do you try and develop him into a point guard? . . . They did a good job in free agency in finding guys who want to be there. Tim Hardaway—he’s a microwave. Just a gifted scorer, that’s what he is. He comes in and will fill it up. He can create, he’s quick, athletic and skilled. He does it at a high level and just looks smooth out there. You know you can bring him in and he’s going to create for you. . . . Trey Burke was a redemption story. He flamed out in Utah and to his credit was willing to go back to the G League. A lot of guys in his situation might have just gone overseas, but he stuck with it, had a great year in Westchester and got rewarded for it. He’s a score-first guard but did a nice job creating for others as well. I’m really curious to see him this year because in those late-season games, you see some strange things. The true test is going to come at the start of this year, and he’s gonna have a major role for them.

Toronto Raptors

If Kawhi Leonard is in top form, that’s a really damn good trade. DeMar DeRozan’s a really good player and his midrange game is unreal, but Kawhi fits what Toronto is all about. A two-way player. What can’t he do? Is he that much better than DeMar? Yes. People forget how dominant he can be. Off-the-dribble, catch-and-shoot. He’s unreal. He’s probably the best defender on LeBron in the league, and you’re going to have to deal with Jayson Tatum and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and Ben Simmons and Victor Oladipo. . . . The underrated thing is their bench is a year older and a year wiser. They’re a really well-rounded team if they can get 20 or 30 points out of their bench on a nightly basis. . . . Kyle Lowry’s expiration is coming, though. We’re getting to the point where you wonder how much mileage he has left in the tank. It gets tougher and tougher to keep up with conditioning, and obviously he’s not a slim guy. He’s kind of built herky-jerky. You always wonder at what point in guys’ careers, what point are they going to go down? He’s 32 now. You naturally wonder when that’ll happen. . . . Does that mean Fred VanVleet has more of a role? Will that put more on Delon Wright’s plate. Who kind of takes over more? . . . OG Anunoby was playing really, really big moments as a rookie. People weren’t talking about him. This Raptors team one through 10 is really good. Just because you couldn’t beat LeBron—OK, he’s gone now. We’ll see what this group is really made of, especially under a creative offensive mind in Nick Nurse. . . . I don’t know if the fit’s ideal with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. They’re both pretty good in a vacuum, they had some success with Ibaka at the five. Especially now with the trade they made, they even used OG a little at the four last year, they have a lot of versatility they can utilize in their lineups, so I think there’s a way they can maximize those bigs.

Pacific Division


Los Angeles Lakers

It’s hard to bet against LeBron James wherever he is, East or West. That in itself is worth getting to the playoffs and possibly getting to the Western Conference finals if they get injury help against the top two teams. LeBron will do what LeBron does anywhere. Whether they get to the conference finals will be determined by Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. . . . LeBron is still the best player in basketball and he will be an MVP candidate. They will have to play him at the four and the five given their depth chart. But when you put four shooters around him, it doesn’t matter what position you call him. That will be a good offense and the opponent will have to guard him with whoever their best defender is. . . . The Lakers roster is better than Cleveland’s last year top to bottom. The Lakers we see in the first month will look different than the Lakers in the playoffs. They’re going to try to figure out what works best as they go along. Historically, LeBron handling the ball the majority of the game, that formula has been proven. The roster the Lakers have assembled will challenge a lot of what has made LeBron comfortable in the past because they want to play at a high pace and they don’t have that much shooting. . . . Letting Brook Lopez go surprised me. He can spread the floor, I thought he’d be a great fit with LeBron. . . . . Offensively they’re going to improve because LeBron is that good. The pace is a bigger question. Where is it going to fall? You’re almost forced to play fast in the West because everybody does it besides Utah. If you’re playing smaller lineups, you want to play faster too. I don’t think they want to give up the pace because that gives their young guys more chances to create. . . . Lonzo will be a tricky fit next to LeBron. He’s almost the anti-Kyrie Irving because he’s not a great individual scorer and he’s wired so much to pass the ball. During the regular season, I think you can make the LeBron/Lonzo pairing work, but when it comes to the playoffs, Lonzo will need to shoot much better to avoid getting exposed. The Lakers have tried to rework his shot. Mechanically, he’s a mess. If you try to radically change it, you start messing with a guy’s mindset. If it looks completely wack again this year, they’ll have to tear it down from scratch. There really aren’t that many guys who have retooled their shots completely and become new shooters. . . . Rajon Rondo has found a way to be extremely effective in the playoffs. Everyone backs up and dares him to shoot but he’s so savvy, so basketball smart, that he’s found a way to be effective to get into the paint, create good shots and help win playoff games. Can Lonzo pick up on that? Rondo hits a big three every now and then too. He’s worked on it. Maybe Lonzo can take a page out of that. . . . Worst-case scenario for Brandon Ingram is that he falls into the Andrew Wiggins mold and he gets invisible during some games. The best-case scenario is he shows more incremental growth. . . . Kuzma is a cleaner fit with LeBron than the other young guys because he can play a stretch position and shoot. . . . Ingram and Ball shouldn’t be viewed as untouchable in trades. But unlike a lot of people, I wouldn’t trade them for Kawhi Leonard because I don’t see a great fit with Kawhi and LeBron. Kawhi has played a lot with the ball. Paul George would have been a better fit even though Kawhi is a better overall player. It’s tough to ask Kawhi to go from being a main isolation scorer to a situational scorer and defensive specialist. . . . 

I think Josh Hart is the guy who will wind up holding their different units together. He’s got so much flexibility and versatility, he can guard multiple positions and shoot it. I see him closing playoff games too. In a must-win game, he can guard one of the better perimeter players on the other team and knock down shots. . . . People want Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to be the new J.R. Smith but give Smith his credit. For all his faults, J.R. has a lot of moxie, he’s played in a lot of big games and hit a lot of big shots. I don’t know if Caldwell-Pope can be that. He has the potential to be a great fit next to LeBron, but he needs to prove he’s a winning player with the right mindset in close games. He’s just unproven. He’s never won a playoff game. . . . Kuzma is a prototypical fit: Channing Frye, Kevin Love. It’s a good formula for him. He can do a little attacking off the dribble. He’ll benefit the most of any player on the team from having LeBron. . . . They don’t have a single center I trust in a closing lineup. So it’s got to be LeBron. I think their best lineup in a playoff game is LeBron, Hart, Kuzma, KCP and Rondo. No Ingram and no Ball. You have a lot of thing to think about with that group. Super modern. All switchable. That closing lineup is better than Cleveland’s last year. If this team was in the East, everyone would say LeBron is going to his ninth straight Finals. In the West, they might not make the playoffs. . . . Their veterans will have an impact in the regular season. It adds protection if the young guys don’t produce or develop like they hoped. Michael Beasley is a proven scorer. JaVale McGee thrived as a roller and a rim-protector in Golden State. Lance Stephenson has shown he can be a postseason player in Indiana. They won’t be scrambling if the young guys don’t show up. LeBron always milks good minutes out of bets like Mike Miller and Kyle Korver. He will do that again.

Golden State Warriors

They’re going to need DeMarcus Cousins in certain series. Clint Capela was able to stay on the floor in the West finals; Cousins would have helped there so they could play big versus big. A team like Golden State would want a center in the Finals against Philly, Boston or Toronto, too. All those teams have size at the five. The Warriors have gotten away with Kevin Durant and Draymond Green playing the big spots but that can be shaky sometimes. . . . If I had to pick between Durant or Stephen Curry to start a franchise right now, I’d take Curry. Durant has the ball in his hands a ton, too, but Steph is a great playmaker, decision-maker and so proven through three championship runs. He’s still underrated right now. . . .  . . . I’m ready to say that both Draymond Green and Klay Thompson will be Hall of Famers when they retire. They might not have locked up spots right now, but they’ll be there in a few years even if they don’t win any more titles. Klay is undervalued overall. It’s easy to get bored with how great he is in his role. It doesn’t really matter how well he’d play in another role on a different team because he’s done it all—All-Stars, titles—in his current one. . . . There’s a chance that Cousins screws this whole thing up. Not a great chance. They’ve spent years building their foundation and their stars are high-character guys. Don’t forget: Cousins was off to a good start in New Orleans and it seemed like he was turning a corner personally. They’ll get the best version of him, assuming he’s healthy. The fact that he didn’t get a big payday helps their leverage, too. Cousins knows they won without him and they can help him change his reputation and become a winner. . . . To really match-up with these guys, you’d need a Dream Team. The Warriors Killers team would be LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Giannis and Anthony Davis. You’d need three or four MVP candidates to really match up with Steph, KD and Draymond. The only way to stop them is to force them to work all-out on the defensive end. You need people who can match their skill and also their energy. . . . There’s no doubt that age is catching up with Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, but you still see their impact dramatically in the playoffs. They coast during the season. Their know-how and experience keeps them afloat during slumps. . . . I see Jonas Jerebko as just an emergency guy. He’s nothing special. He’ll get mop up time in blowouts. . . . Quinn Cook did a nice job earning himself a job down the stretch, handling the ball and running some offense when Curry was hurt. Their collective talent really makes life easy for fringe guys, and he took advantage of the great environment. . . . Give Draymond all the credit for his postseason performance. He was a monster. Incredible defensive impact. If you take him away from the Rockets series, they lose. I think he’s going to be viewed as the best modern defensive player of this era when we look back in 10 years. I don’t think it will be close either. . . . I don’t think Durant’s leaving whether they win or lose next year. The speculation is already growing, but that’s such a nice place for a superstar of his caliber. He has a lot to lose by leaving, even if the narrative around him hasn’t been that kind to him. Why mess with a good thing?

Sacramento Kings

They have a ton of young guys who are redundant. I worry that they don’t have the veteran leadership and roster balance they need. Aside from Zach Randolph, their bigs, wings and guards are all like a farm team. . . . De'Aaron Fox’s speed plays. The health and durability weren’t there where you want them to be. His lack of shooting comes into play. I think his ceiling is still high but his floor has dropped. There’s bust potential. . . . Buddy Hield’s ceiling has come down fast. He’s shown that he’s a specialist rather than a potential star. He can shoot and fill it up, get hot for stretches, do a little off the dribble, but he’s streaky and a role player going forward. I can see him being a sixth man, offensive firepower type if he was playing for a good team. . . . I thought Bogdan Bogdanovic was their best player last year. He’s tough, he’s got good feel, he knows how to play and score naturally. . . . I would have taken Trae Young and Luka Dončić over Marvin Bagley III. The draft hasn’t been kind to them and that’s why they are where they are. They’ve gambled on a lot of high-risk, high-reward guys and come up mostly empty. [But] Bagley has a real chance to win Rookie of the Year. He can put up numbers on a losing team. . . . Their depth chart is a mess. They might have five centers on the roster. Why? . . . Willie Cauley-Stein looks like a career back-up. He can be productive in stretches and has had every opportunity to emerge as a starting center, but he hasn’t done it. . . . This will be one of the worst defensive teams in the league. None of their best core guys are really plus defenders. . . . Circle these guys as a trade team. They can take on a bad contract or someone else’s mistake and offer some young guys in return. They searched for Rudy Gay and Buddy Hield in the past and I think they’ll try to do that again. They tried to sign Zach LaVine too. I could see them chasing an Andrew Wiggins or a Blake Griffin in a trade. . . . I’m a big fan of Harry Giles. A successful season for them is getting an answer on Fox, Giles staying healthy and becoming a starter, and then Bagley looking like a foundation piece. I think all of those things could happen and they still finish last in the division and win fewer than 30 games.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns made some win-now moves with Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Tyson Chandler, but it’s no guarantee they won’t wind up tanking again. I can absolutely see them trading the guys they just signed. I think the vets have value at the trade deadline. You don’t want to have an older team where there are no young guys to push the veterans.  . . . The hole is the point guard position. I know they love Elie Okobo, so I guess they’re going to try to make it work with him unless they swing a trade. They might try to use Devin Booker like James Harden as a point guard because they couldn’t find a bona fide point guard over the summer. Ariza and Anderson both played with Harden and maybe they envision Booker being able to mimic that. . . . Asking Booker to make pinpoint passes is asking a lot. He can score with the best of them, but taking that jump into being a playmaker versus a shot-maker is totally different. They could use a Patrick Beverley type alongside Booker. A defensive-type who won’t take Booker’s shots, but can bring the ball up and guard the best player on the other team . . . They drafted the wrong guy at No. 1. I would have gone with Luka Dončić. I think there will be a lot of second-guessing on that decision all year. As much as people talk about the modern NBA, some teams are still drafting big guys. It’s really weird. . . . Teams will try to confuse DeAndre Ayton and force him into turnovers. It all comes down to space. He will roll to the rim and be a lob threat. He’s going to get smaller guys on switches and try to prove he can punish them. The next step will be whether he can make moves and score in the post on big guys. I think he’s the type of guy who will command double teams not because he’s scoring but because he’s turnover-prone. . . . Their track record in drafting over the last five or six years has been rough. Alex Len. Dragan Bender. Marquese Chriss. Could Josh Jackson be headed towards that? He’s still young, still raw enough, you can see flashes. But now he’s coming off the bench. What does he bring to the table? He’s not an offensive guy. . . . I don’t see it with Bender at all. It looks like he’s headed on the path to being a bust. Does he do anything? What’s he good at? . . . Ariza has slipped a little bit but you can still trust him in big moments. Houston was counting on him for certain roles and match-ups. Phoenix won’t have that luxury. They’ll need him for more. That could be a challenge, because you can’t ask him to bump up as a scorer and still be the same defensive player. He’s not a guy who will create for others, but he will run the floor, space the court and defend at an elite level. . . . Mikal Bridges has a lot of fans around the league. They gave up a future one for him so you know they will give him an opportunity to play. He might not have the high ceiling but the consensus is that he’s going to be a plug-and-play solid wing. . . . 

Los Angeles Clippers

Go back 18 months—who would have thought that Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan would all be gone already? They tried it with stars and hit their ceiling, and now they’re trying to go about it with a bunch of good players and no real stars. They want a blue-collar type roster. I’m not sure how long they will stick to that plan though. How patient is Steve Ballmer? . . . Every year, the NBA becomes more and more of a guard’s league. Lou Williams was born to score and he found a system that gave him freedom to do whatever he wants to do with the ball. Their other personnel required him to do everything he did because they didn’t have many creators. With Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley, you just have to assume they’ll miss a bunch of games. If they play 60 games that’s a huge win. This is a really talented and capable roster but totally unreliable. . . . Tobias Harris has a modern game. He can shoot, pass and drive. He still needs to prove he’s a playoff player. He’s a complete offensive player who can play three or four on offense. He’s not really a great defender at the three or four. . . . The Clippers reportedly offered Harris $80 million for five years. I wouldn’t have gone much higher than that. If he won’t take it, let him walk. He’s never proven anything in a winning environment. He’ll get paid by some team that misses out on the players they actually want like Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard. He’s the Carlos Boozer of 2010 when it comes to getting paid next summer. . . . Marcin Gortat really needed a change of scenery. The trade for him [that sent Austin Rivers to the Wizards] was a classic case of filling in a roster hole. Gortat gives you some skills that DeAndre Jordan didn’t have offensively, but he’s not nearly the same defender. On balance, it’s a downgrade. John Wall took a lot of crap for talking down about Gortat, but he had a point. Gortat is slipping. . . . Harrell is a nice change-of-pace guy but I’m not sure how many minutes he can play at his breakneck style. When you extend a guy’s minutes, you get diminishing results. Maybe one night he gives you 30 good minutes, but I don’t see that happening on a consistent basis. . . . Boban Marjanović is so skilled and so fun to watch for a player of his size [7'3"]. If he was in the league 10 years ago, he could stay on the floor. In today’s game, that’s a much tougher proposition. . . . They brought back Luc Mbah a Moute because Doc loves him. He’s no-nonsense, hard-worker, who will help you grind out wins and set the tone in the locker room. Smart player. He always plays hard. He’s big for their culture. . . . Avery Bradley went from underrated to overrated really quickly. His health problems changed the whole dynamic and I worry they will linger given his frame and size. I hope he gets back to where he was in Boston because he is a plus guy on offense and defense. It was a shame how far he fell off. . . . The Clippers were smart to match the Pelicans’ offer on Tyrone Wallace. Two-way contract guy who earned himself a real job. A perfect example of a diamond in the rough. Exciting, athletic, good size. . . . I don’t think most teams would give up anything of significant for Milos Teodosic. His strength is pick-and-roll passing. It would take the perfect team to find a real trade partner for him. . . . 

Southwest Division


Houston Rockets

I don’t think they win 65 games again. It’s always hard for teams that have those dream seasons to sustain it. Now the main question is the loss of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. It’ll show up in the postseason. Can James Ennis, P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green replace what those guys brought? That will ultimately tell the tale. Those guys didn’t care about scoring, guarded their men and had a proven track record of doing it. . . . I think last season might have been their window. The main guys are getting older. Chris Paul always seems to get injured at the wrong time. I don’t know if we can say they would have won the conference finals—Golden State always seems to make it work with their backs against the wall—but we’ll never know. . . . James Harden is the toughest guy in the league to guard right now because he’s so clever with the ball and can score at every level. Unbelievable finisher, shot creator, passer, he gets to the free throw line 10, 11 times a game. It’s just about sustaining his energy so he can have the same impact in the playoffs, which he hasn’t always had. He has too much on his shoulders, and that might be the only problem with their team. Harden and Paul have to distribute the ball to where other guys can get point-blank looks, they have to get their own points, and they have to do it every single night. That’s why Eric Gordon was a huge factor for them, not just scoring off the bench but being able to close games when they need him. . . . Carmelo Anthony has to be a more efficient shooter, because he’s not going to get the kind of touches he’s had his whole career. He’s going to have to buy in, give them extra effort defensively. I think he’ll be a guy who plays early, but may not play late for defensive reasons. . . . P.J. Tucker will end up with a lot of the late-game power forward minutes. In a team full of offensive-minded guys, he just takes care of all the scrappy, rugged stuff, and when he’s making corner threes, it makes them even better. . . . If Brandon Knight’s healthy, he’ll help them. He can definitely shoot it, he’s hungry because he hasn’t played, and if Paul goes down Knight is a more capable backup than anyone they’ve had. He could take some pressure off for them. . . . Paying Clint Capela $90 million over five years was a smart move. He has more value to their team than any other team, he makes their system flow when he’s running the floor and hitting the seams. He’s so coordinated as a finisher. He’s exactly what they need, and he’s only 24.

Dallas Mavericks

They’ve gotta be better. Rick Carlisle always gets the best out of those guys, and they’re going to be tougher to beat. But I still don’t think they have enough to make the playoffs. . . . I can’t wait to see Luka Dončić play. If he’s the real deal, they could scratch the surface for an eight seed right now. Ultimately, I think they need another young piece to really raise the expectations, but he’s the future. This could be Dirk Nowitzki’s last year, and I think Dončić could take the keys and run with it. . . . The other guys are kind of who they are: Harrison Barnes is a solid supporting guy. He’s not a first or second option, but they’ve been relying on him to do that. He’s still young, and he’s solid. . . . They finally got their guy, DeAndre Jordan. He’s getting older, but he’s still really useful and still productive [at age 30]. His offensive skills have never really expanded, so he’s going to need a point guard to help keep his points up. He’s not the same guy athletically as he was four or five years ago, and he’s always thrived off that more than skill. . . . Can Dennis Smith play with Luka? That’s going to be a big element this year, to see what they have, because if it doesn’t work they could move on from [Smith]. They’re both guys who are used to having the ball in their hands. Dennis isn’t a pure shooter who can play off the ball. Maybe they end up using him as a chip. . . . Wesley Matthews used to be an instant-impact guy, and since his Achilles injury he hasn’t had it. He’s still consistent, and can shoot it, but they need to get to a point where he’s coming off the bench to support the starters. . . .Jalen Brunson was a solid pick. He fits in. They’ve always gotten a lot out of smaller point guards. He helps your ball movement and shoots it. He doesn’t necessarily have speed or quickness, but he knows where the ball needs to be. . . . It’s going to be weird when Dirk retires, but it has to happen in order for them to move on. He’s always taken those friendly contracts, so it’s not hampering what they’re trying to do—and hey, he still averaged 12 points per game, he’s an efficient shooter. But it hurts me watching him try to run these days.

San Antonio Spurs

Kawhi Leonard only played nine games last year, so getting DeMar DeRozan actually adds to a team that was the seventh seed. With his production that they were missing on the wing factored in, it’s probably good enough to keep them in the playoffs. Pop will put him in positions where he can score from his spots. He’s still dynamic, it’s just getting him to buy in to the ball-moving element—and on defense. He offsets some of the mid-range shots he takes by getting to the free throw line, and hopefully his three-point shooting can continue to get better. He’s got a lot to prove. . . . LaMarcus Aldridge is still so skilled, and their offense puts guys in positions to be efficient. As long as he gets his touches, he’s happy and productive, and that was what happened last year. . . . . I think we’ll see Pau Gasol play fewer minutes to keep him fresh, maybe 18, 20. . . . Derrick White will handle everything at point guard. When White was up from the G League last year, he made an impact. He’s savvy with good size and can shoot it, and his craft really stands out. . . . . Lonnie Walker—going into their culture, guys always improve, so I think he’s going to be a fit and they got him at a good value in the draft. He’s gotta play more under control and improve his jumper. He’ll spend time in the G League, but two years from now should have a significant role. . . . Patty Mills is now the elder statesman. His energy, his shooting and his passion will always resonate. Bryn Forbes is kind of his understudy for that role. . . . Coming off the [ruptured] Achilles, Rudy Gay wasn’t the same athlete, but another year should help. . . . Marco Belinelli is a dynamic movement shooter and he’s been one of the best in the league at that for three or four years. Without Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker, this is the most change they’ve had in a long time. It’ll be interesting to see how their blueprint works without the quote-unquote ‘Spurs’ guys. They’re just like the rest of us now.

Memphis Grizzlies

When you really think about it, if Marc Gasol and Michael Conley are healthy, that’s always been what they needed to get to the playoffs. They’ve just been putting a team around them all these other years. At some point they have to turn the page, but I like some of the role players they picked up, Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple. I don’t know if they make the postseason, but they might have enough if their main guys get back to an All-Star level. . . . Jaren Jackson’s development might determine whether it happens this year. If he’s good out of the gate, they probably make it. He has the elite tools defensively and showed in Summer League that his shooting range is there right now. He needs reps, but if he defends multiple positions, hits threes and improves his skill set offensively every year, he’s going to be a heck of a player. He could end up as the best player from this draft; he’s already the best defender. . . . When Conley is healthy, he’s top-notch. He’s never been an All-Star because the West is just that tough. He has as much of an impact on games as any of those other guys. He defends, makes shots, has great speed and he’s just phenomenally consistent. . . . Guys with Gasol’s skill level tend to have elongated careers, and he’s managed his weight pretty well through the years. We saw it with Tim Duncan, with Pau [Gasol] and with Dirk [Nowitzki]. . . . Chandler Parsons has been a shell of himself since he left Houston. With the microfracture surgery, he’s just never been the same guy. The last couple years he couldn’t move at all. . . . Kyle Anderson—when you identify the guy you want, sometimes you have to overpay in free agency. But he’s a versatile 6'8" guy who can play the three or the four, who sees the floor and passes like a point guard. . . . Dillon Brooks is one of those guys where you look at him and might doubt his athleticism and quickness, but he’s got enough size and a ton of craft. You just put him out there and he makes things happen. . . . Garrett Temple, Shelvin Mack, JaMychal Green are all solid glue guys, useful backups. Their second unit should be pretty strong.

New Orleans Pelicans

If you had to pick a playoff team to take a step back in the West, it’s probably them. Is there a significant drop-off between Rajon Rondo and Elfrid Payton? That’s the biggest thing for me. If Payton can bring the same elements, they shouldn’t miss a beat. But if not, if that means two or three games, it could be the difference between making the playoffs or not. . . . They played well with DeMarcus Cousins, and then they played well without him. In a lot of ways, they were tougher to defend without him. What his value was to them was a tough question, and coming off that injury he might not have been able to give them what he gave them last year, doing the heavy lifting. It may have made sense to move on. . . . Anthony Davis showed how special he is, and all he has to do is stay healthy. He’s exceptional in every element of the game, and he’s making threes now. He’s a much better fit at center, where he’s more of a matchup nightmare, covering ground and blocking shots. Their struggles are the supporting talent and all the injuries they’ve had over the years. They had no small forwards in the rotation all last season. . . . They got a heathy season from Jrue Holiday and he showed how dynamic he is. He’s become 1-B for them. If Payton can handle Rondo’s role and allow Holiday to focus on being a scorer and defender, it’ll be huge. Not having to be a distributor really freed up his ability to make an impact on offense. It was the best year of his career. . . . The way Nikola Mirotic played for them, he showed a lot of that in Chicago, he was just more consistent. He had a great year. This is the guy the Bulls thought they were getting when they first had him, it just never clicked as often. As a stretch forward with a driving element at 6'10", he and Davis fit so well together right from the start. . . . They overpaid for Solomon Hill. His shooting numbers will have to come up for him to justify that [four-year, $48 million] contract. He does have some defensive versatility, but they need more from him. He’s the best option they have at small forward. . . . You can survive with three bigs, and they’ll rotate Julius Randle in just fine, with his motor and ballhandling at power forward. He’s tough enough to be successful as an undersized center when they need him to do that. Davis and Mirotic will space the floor, so I think it’ll work. . . . They got Jahlil Okafor for nothing. What he does is just what the league doesn’t do anymore, you know? His lack of defensive impact just negates all he can do.

Northwest Division


Oklahoma City Thunder

Their roster was broken in last year’s playoffs. I don’t think they would have beaten anybody in the first round last year. Utah was a tough match-up, but the Thunder just weren’t that good. . . . Go ahead and harp on his inefficiency but come on: Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double again last year and, big picture, that’s an historical achievement and it deserved more praise than it got. The knock is always going to be that a lot of guys struggle to play with Westbrook, and there’s truth to that. But it’s a feather in Westbrook’s hat that Paul George decided to play with him instead of LeBron James. . . . Westbrook still overwhelms people and there hasn’t been major slippage. I’m not worried about his knee surgery at all. Much ado about nothing. He’s shown that he can come back and still be the same unbelievable player. . . . I think George and Westbrook will spread their wings together and be more comfortable in their system without Carmelo Anthony there. That trade was big addition by subtraction, and they added Dennis Schroder too. . . . I think they would have won that first round series if they had Andre Roberson healthy. His absence changed their whole defensive identity. Put him and George together, and that’s one of the very best perimeter defense duos in the league. Take him away, and they’re scrambling their lineups and they’re just not as imposing. Roberson would have helped so much against Donovan Mitchell. . . . Steven Adams is underrated. Classic case of a hard-worker playing with stars and not getting tons of offensive looks or making highlight plays. Guy is a solid defensive center, great offensive rebounder, unselfish and team-first. He’s a great partner for Westbrook. He’s a traditional center who can stay on the court against basically any team. Golden State is the only roster that is really equipped to exploit his size consistently. . . . I would use Schroder as a sixth man but make sure he’s out there closing games. You need him to carry their offense during the minutes that Westbrook is off the court, but you also need his downhill attacking in late-game situations to make the offense less predictable. . . . I like Jerami Grant alright. Asking him to be a full-time starter is asking a lot. They just don’t have a great option at the four. Grant brings athleticism and energy to the floor so I can see starting with him, but I don’t love it. . . . Everywhere Patrick Patterson has been, he’s always kind of disappointed. He used to have a better reputation before every team had stretch forwards, but now he’s just another guy. He can’t exploit match-up issues as much as he could a few years ago. He’s just a minute-filler. He can add some shooting and toughness but he’s a journeyman for a reason. . . . There’s no question with Nerlens Noel’s talent. It’s sad that he hasn’t put it together yet. I’m sure they took a chance on him hoping that he can be a good fit with Schroder on the second unit and give them a more versatile five behind Adams. It makes sense on paper, but it’s made sense on paper before. . . . 

Portland Trail Blazers

It’s fair to wonder if their approach on offense is better for the regular season or the postseason. I don’t want to say it can’t work in the playoffs but they’ve got some real holes in their lineup, guys who don’t bring much to the table offensively. But this isn’t a team that you fear in April and May, even when Damian Lillard has it going. . . . Shabazz Napier was in a lot of their good five-man lineups last year. He really helped them. That’s a big loss. [Losing] Ed Davis [to Brooklyn in free agency] was a crippling loss. It totally messes with their frontcourt rotation. . . .  Outside of Russell Westbrook, I’d take Lillard over anyone in this division. Westbrook only gets it because of what he’s done in the playoffs. We’ve gotten used to Lillard’s consistency but he needs to make a deep run in the playoffs to take the next step. . . . I’m sure they want more from Jusuf Nurkic. Signing a new contract will put more expectations on him as well. He’s shown in pockets that he’s capable of more. . . . The tricky thing is whether they use Zach Collins as a four or a five. To me, he’s more of a five, but that’s Nurkic’s spot and he’s a stone-cold five. You can’t use him anywhere else. So that limits Collins to a back-up role, or it forces you to play him at the four with Nurkic, which could make for some spacing issues. I think they need to get Collins on the court as often as he can handle. If we look ahead for the next three years, I’d rather have Collins than Nurkic. . . . Nurkic isn’t really a rim protector but he showed me something on the defensive end last year. He was much more reliable and he helped Portland stick to its strategy of forcing teams into mid-range shots. Their defense was top 10 last season because of its discipline, rather than its versatility. That’s another thing that came back to bite them in the postseason. . . . I’ve given up on Meyers Leonard at this point and I bet Portland would have given up on him by now too if they could have. But now Davis is gone, so they have a hole at the fourth big spot. I can’t believe he didn’t block a single shot last year. . . . CJ McCollum is a stud on offense. He’s a dynamic scorer, can shoot it from mid-range and way beyond the arc. He’s one of the craftiest ball-handlers and pick-and-roll guys. He can get better at getting to the free throw line but he’s so crafty that he shifts away from defenders that it sometimes works against him. He’s not huge on seeking out contact. . . . I wouldn’t trade Damian or CJ. Would you rather have Jimmy Butler and his health and attitude questions or have CJ? I’d rather just have CJ and sleep easy at night. . . . One issue is that Lillard and McCollum are older and in their prime and almost their whole roster is really, really young. The front office has gone too far towards the youth movement. If I were Dame or CJ, I’d be getting frustrated with the strategy. Their time to win is now. . . . I think they’re looking at Seth Curry stepping into Napier’s minutes. He’s a better shooter, a little more dynamic with the ball. He can be a secondary playmaker. . . . Nik Stauskas is better in theory than he is in practice. He’ll get a chance with his shooting but he’s busted out in multiple different situations. Three teams have given up on him. He’s that bad defensively. . . . Gary Trent Jr. is a nice shooter. Decent pick for them. I think he’s a nice fit for Stotts’s system. He’s a guy who can take advantage of a green light.

Minnesota Timberwolves

More likely than not, they miss the playoffs. Their floor could be pretty low because their roster isn’t balanced well positionally and it has a lot of holes. They’re starting the season with major distractions, too. There’s a cloud over them all season. . . . To me, Jimmy Butler isn’t a top 10 player. He’s somewhere that 11–20 range. I like that he commits so hard defensively, but he’s very ball-dominant and needs to be the guy on offense. Sharing isn’t his strong suit. You saw how different Minnesota looked without him last year. They barely made the playoffs and they were really disjointed. . . . Remember when people were really comparing Karl-Anthony Towns to Anthony Davis? I’ll take Davis every day and twice on Sunday. . . . If I were Tom Thibodeau, I’d run the offense through Towns sort of like Denver does with Nikola Jokic. Towns isn’t that kind of a passer but he’s skilled with the ball and he just needs to get touches early in every possession. Let him make as many decisions as possible. As good as Towns is offensively, he has his major struggles defensively. . . . Some people say that Towns’s defensive issues are a result of him playing too many minutes. How many minutes do you really want him to play? Come on. He’s young, he’s the franchise guy, No. 1 pick, never been injured, he just signed a max deal. He needs to be on the floor. It’s on Towns to be in better condition. . . . Defensively, he’s not a great shot-blocker. He’s not very physical inside. I think he has issues with both his feel and his want to play defense. He doesn’t have great awareness and positioning. He doesn’t always keep the ball in front of him like he should. He has such great offensive feel and poor defensive feel. . . .  Andrew Wiggins has been so inconsistent and disappointing. He has just got to produce. No excuses. I get why Butler was getting impatient with Towns and Wiggins. Wiggins needs to play harder overall and have more force defensively. . . . I’m worried that Towns and Wiggins will get into a choppy my-turn, your-turn offense. Towns will always be aggressive to get his offense and Wiggins is a downhill player only. Wiggins just isn’t great as a playmaker or ball-mover. I think Wiggins’s numbers will go up this year but that will just be stat-padding. . . . I don’t think Thibodeau can ask Jeff Teague to do much more on offense. You might try to explore it but he’s never been an elite individual scorer. He’s better as a facilitator, a four or fifth option type running the show. As a third option, I don’t love that. . . . I really didn’t see it with Tyus Jones coming into the league and he’s proven me wrong. Heady, underrated toughness, winning player. Great defensive stats. Teams without a point guard like Orlando and Phoenix should be trying to steal him. . . . I think Thibodeau should try to run out some two or three point guard lineups to make up for their weak wing corps. Get creative, so really small and hope you can gimmick your way to some wins and better offense. Guys like Luol Deng and Josh Okogie are not going to get it done. . . . I know Gorgui Dieng’s contract isn’t great but they need someone who does what he does. Physical interior defender. He doesn’t overlap with Towns at all. Great character guy. I don’t get why you’re rushing him out the door.

Denver Nuggets

I worry a little bit that they’ll get exposed as a regular-season team. They have a lot of minus defenders in their rotation and their offense can’t perform at an elite level when Nikola Jokic goes off the court. . . . They play through Jokic, whose presence makes everything go offensively. They can play shooters or a guy like Jamal Murray who isn’t a traditional point guard because Jokic is such a good passer and playmaker. He’s right there with Pau Gaosl, Marc Gasol, Arvydas Sabonis as the best passing centers of all time. It’s not too soon to say that. . . . Losing Wilson Chandler will hurt a little bit, but they’ve got enough to make up for it. Will Barton is a nice option as a starting forward because you can put him into motion off the ball and use both him and Gary Harris as cutters off of Jokic. He’s got good change of pace and he can create his own shot. I could see him being one of their better playoff performers because of his confidence and offensive skill. . . .  Paul Millsap is their X-factor because he’s still an unknown for them. He didn’t play enough games last year to get a rhythm or an identity with that team. He still makes great sense on paper but we didn’t see it play out that way. I think with all the other weapons they’ve got, his identity will have to change from his Atlanta years. He’ll do less offensively and we’ll have to see whether he can still defend at a high level now that he’s a little older. . . . It’s fair to put Jamal Murray into the Most Improved Player conversation. Every year he’s trended upwards. This could definitely be a year where he blows up. He has the tools as a shooter to make a big name for himself there. . . . Harris is very solid both ways. He’s their best two-way player. He’s the best defender in that starting group now too. . . . Signing Isaiah Thomas is high-reward, low-risk. Super cheap contract. He can be an impact offensive player. He fits who they are and how they play. One more big-time weapon off the bench. They had a hole behind Murray too after trading Emmanuel Mudiay and moving on from Jameer Nelson. . . . Mason Plumlee is one of the best back-up centers in the league. Stylistically, they don’t have to change much between him and Jokic. Plumlee can set high screens, dive, and pass from the elbow. They can play through him, run dribble handoffs with him. . . . Michael Porter Jr. is extremely talented. Great pedigree. If he can get healthy, they’ll have to find time for him. Another smart targeted addition because he has the chance to be a home run. . . . Their defense has been bottom-five the past two years. They don’t need to overhaul on defense but they have to get up to like 20th. They just need incremental improvement from their individual guys like Murray, Barton and Jokic.

Utah Jazz

Their entire entire rotation is back. They have unbelievable continuity. If anyone is going to be a surprise top-two seed, it’s them . . . They’ll easily be top-five defensively. Even when Rudy Gobert is hurt or off the court, Derrick Favors can play a similar style defensively . . . Rudy Gobert can be a tone-setting player against 27 teams. He’s a special talent. We harp on him struggling against Golden State and Houston, but that’s not really fair. He’s an All-Star against 27 teams. The whole league is trying to crack the code on Golden State; it’s not his fault he can’t stop them by himself. He’s the top rim-protector by a mile. . . . Donovan Mitchell was the real Rookie of the Year to me. He went through the true rookie experience of growing into the NBA game rather than redshirting like Ben Simmons. Mitchell has a bullseye on his back now as their best offensive player. I like the Dwyane Wade comparisons for Mitchell, when he gets in the pick-and-roll with his explosive scoring and attack mentality. Think about this: The Jazz would never trade Mitchell to get Gordon Hayward back in a million years. How crazy does that sound compared to when Hayward left? . . . Dennis Lindsey has done an incredible job. Being a GM in Utah, you work with one hand tied behind your back because of the market. He came from San Antonio and now he’s got Utah in a better position long-term than San Antonio. . . .  Ricky Rubio plays right into their defensive identity. He’s found a great home there and the fit with Mitchell is perfect. Rubio can guard the better perimeter player and it clicked so well with that duo. . . .  Joe Ingles is starting to get his due. He’s a very complete player. Plus player on offense and defense. Quin Snyder gave him a perfect role, using him as a secondary playmaker and spot shooter. . . . Their bench is full of coach’s pets. Ekpe Udoh, Royce O’Neale, Jae Crowder. Smart coaches will find a spot for all of those guys. I could see Crowder having a big bounceback year for them. Nightmare year for him last year with the trades. He’s solid and fits exactly what they want. . . . 

Their real weakness is they can’t go to a five-out look. They don’t really have a super versatile option to play the five in smaller lineups. They have to stick to their style. That will work for them up to a point but they need to add firepower over the longer-term. I’d be interested in seeing them play three guards, a wing and then Crowder as a small ball five. . . . Don’t give up on Dante Exum yet. They know him better than anyone else and they still paid him despite all the injuries. He had major flashes in the playoffs. At times, he looks like a young Rubio.

Southeast Division


Miami Heat

They have a bunch of good players but don’t have a great one who’s going to push them over the top. They’re well-coached, have a lot of tough-minded guys who buy in and will always be a tough out, but they still need a star to get into the next tier of teams. . . . The biggest question for them is Hassan Whiteside. He hasn’t been the same and hasn’t shown the same hunger since he signed his big deal in 2016. Now he’s 29, getting paid like a big-time player, and doesn’t consistently make a winning impact even when he puts up numbers. He has to get back to where he was three years ago. A lot of times they play better with Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk out there. . . . Goran Dragic can play in any system, on or off the ball. He’s a very good starter, not quite an All-Star but they need someone else on his level from an offensive standpoint. . . . Justise Winslow kind of is who he is, he’ll always be a solid role player, and as he makes more shots from outside it’ll make him more valuable. Look at P.J. Tucker, a guy who defends multiple positions with toughness—that’s kind of Winslow’s ceiling now. He has the body to guard four positions and has started to make threes at a decent clip. He’ll play a lot of power forward so they can get all their guards minutes. . . . They want Adebayo to be a starting center, and he showed enough last year to where there’s not that much separation between him and Whiteside. He gives you consistent effort, has the agility to cover ground and block shots, he has some ball skills and shooting range and a no-nonsense game. He fits the DNA of their team. . . . Dion Waiters coming back complicates things in terms of minutes, but that’s never hurt and they find a way to get guys in there. He gives them an element of offensive creation that other guys don’t have. He can get a bucket. . . . James Johnson is super valuable now as an athletic forward who can put it on the floor and make plays defensively. He bought into their fitness emphasis and it’s helped him maybe the most of anybody on the team. They get the best out of guys like that. . . . If D-Wade comes back, it just muddies the rotation up even more.

Atlanta Hawks

This is obviously a year where they’re in rebuild mode to the highest degree. I don’t know if they’re mimicking Golden State’s original big three after their draft, with Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman—these guys are going to set the tone really for the next three to five years. . . . When you saw John Collins play last year, everything was in the paint. He’s extended his shooting range and that’s just going to make him even more dynamic as a roller. . . . Watching Trae Young, he got off to a slow start in Summer League but gradually got better and better. He’s going to be up and down this year, but I definitely thought he showed growth. Any high pick is going to have pressure, he just can’t be worried about it. He needs to be a high-level playmaker, improve his shot selection and get stronger. He might feel more heat if [Dallas’s first-round pick] Luka Dončić comes in and has a significantly better season right away, or if [Cavs first-rounder] Collin Sexton has a good year. . . . Kevin Huerter was injured this summer, but he’s going to be a big piece as a guy who can make plays off the bounce and shoot from range. . . . I think Spellman is going to be that floor spacer for them, the glue guy who’s going to take care of the dirty work and hopefully complement Collins. I think they’ll let the rookies get their warts this year—ultimately they’ll need another high-level draft pick to get them over the hump anyway. Jeremy Lin and Dewayne Dedmon will help those guys through the process. . . . Taurean Prince is a pretty good player, he’s gotten lost in the shuffle a bit, but he has the 3-and-D skill set with some added offensive upside. If he proves he can be a scorer for a winning team, more people will understand his value. . . . The quicker Atlanta can clean the slate, tear it down and go full into the rebuilding process, the better.

Orlando Magic

First of all, Jonathan Isaac is going to have to give them 70–75 games. It was kind of a lost year for him. The hope is he and Mohamed Bamba can show significant improvement by next summer. . . . They’re going to be where they are until Isaac and Bamba become the players they think they can be. Both of those guys need to get a little meaner. Watching them in pick-and-roll in Summer League, that could be incredible with their length and size. If they do reach their potential, it’ll be unreal. . . . Bamba could be like Clint Capela with more offensive upside, rolling and making jump shots. With his wingspan and athleticism, once he gets stronger, those are elite-level tools. He should bring the rim protection they’ve really lacked through the years. Now it’s about getting him reps. . . . If those guys develop quickly, Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier are young enough to where you can keep them around and build. . . . Vucevic is a really good offensive player, but his limitations on defense hurt his total impact. I mean, if he were in say, San Antonio, he’d be very, very good. He could be a trade deadline piece for them...When stuff runs through him and Fournier, that’s the IQ element of their team. Fournier can put it on the floor and shoot it, has some toughness, defends and he’s still only 25. He could fit on any team. . . . Maybe they find a point guard in the draft next year. Somehow they need to fill that spot long-term. D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant are just placeholders. . . . Aaron Gordon has found his niche using his matchup advantage at power forward. It translates better. Look at how Shawn Marion worked out for the Suns. He’s a high-energy guy, high flyer, guards all those positions, he’s improving as a shooter, they invested and he’s only 22 years old. The fact they gave up Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis [to the Thunder in 2016] still hurts, and it goes to show sometimes you have to stick with it and believe in your guys.

Washington Wizards

How is their team chemistry going to be? There are a lot of interesting dynamics. Now adding Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard to the mix? From a talent standpoint they’re probably third or fourth in the East, but they always seem to underachieve. . . . John Wall missed games last year, and then they started winning, which raised some questions. He’s still the key, the engine for everything. He’s one of the six best point guards in the league, and hopefully he gets healthy and back to where he was a couple years ago. His three-point percentage actually went up last year, and he makes a defensive impact and blocks shots. Health is big with him and Bradley Beal, but they have all the talent they need. . . . Beal can really create his own shot and now he has all the elements—the pull-up game, coming off screens, driving through contact. He’s got it all. . . . Otto Porter is worth the money [$106 million over four years] with the way he fits their team. He runs the floor, no-nonsense, very consistent and positive. He’s paid like a No. 2 guy but doesn’t have the scoring element to produce like that. . . . If Beal and Wall miss games, Rivers can come off the bench and play the one or the two, and you can trust him to help limit the other guys’ minutes over the course of the season. He’s actually a perfect go-between. Once he got to the Clippers, he got a lot better and has become consistent. I think he gets an unfair rap from playing for his dad and the way he started his career. . . . At the end of the day, Howard still puts up numbers, but doesn’t have the same winning impact he used to have. I just wonder how he acts and how his teammates view him when he doesn’t always take things seriously. But he’s still a good player. . . . Markieff Morris brings the toughness, he spaces it well. . . . Troy Brown was a solid prospect to draft and develop with his size and handling. He could be the type of guy any team can use. . . .  Kelly Oubre made a jump last year as a 3-and-D wing, good athlete, improved his shooting. They have wings, they can switch, you could see Porter or Morris sliding down a spot as the season goes on. That versatility should help them.

Charlotte Hornets

They’re stuck with all these bad contracts, that’s the biggest problem here. They had a good year in 2016, made the playoffs and then felt like they had to bring guys back. Kemba Walker is the fifth- or sixth-highest-paid player on the team. To me, they’re just kind of stuck. . . . With Tony Parker coming in and [former Spurs assistant] James Borrego taking over as coach, maybe the hope is they bring a little bit of the San Antonio culture with them. . . . At the very end of last season, Malik Monk showed what he can be for them. [Former coach] Steve Clifford didn’t really give him much of a chance—maybe he wasn’t really ready for it. What happens with his development will be key for their future. If he can be a Lou Williams-ish type scorer, if you see some positive signs from Miles Bridges, to me those are the key things this season. I think ultimately they’ll have to use Kemba as a trade piece and go young and rebuild that way. . . . Nic Batum is getting older, and his game kind of blends in and is complementary. If you’re depending on him for 15, 20 points, I mean, he’s good on a lot of levels but he’s a No. 3 guy getting paid like a No. 2 or No. 1 guy. . . . Bridges was a solid pick: some athleticism, versatility, can play both forward spots. As his shooting improves he could be the type of guy everyone is looking for these days. . . . Injuries zapped Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s ability to be an elite, athletic defender, and his offense has never really grown. He’s more of an undersized four playing on the wing, which highlights his deficiencies. He’s a reluctant shooter and defenses can sit back in the paint and wait. It seems like he’s going to be phased out. . . . They’re in no man’s land, and I don’t think that roster is good enough to get them to the eighth seed. They’re in pretty bad shape.