The Crossover spoke with scouts from around the league in advance of the 2019–20 season. Their answers, which examine all 30 teams, are brutally honest in assessing all things basketball.
Jim Boylen didn’t have a lot of time to implement his stuff [after Fred Hoiberg was fired in December]. He’s had a full offseason, full camp. This is his chance to put his imprint on the team. . . . Zach LaVine is not super committed defensively, but offensively he’s really hard to go against. He’s a Lou Williams type. He tried a little harder after the mutiny last year. He’s not the most wiling passer. Teams will continue to trap him to make it hard. . . . With Lauri Markkanen, the talent is there. Is the toughness going to be there? He looks like he added weight. If you physically feel strong, it becomes easier to be mentally strong. If he is willing to compete, you can throw him at the five and cause havoc. . . . Wendell Carter Jr. had the right disposition last season. He played hard and didn’t back down. He showed flashes of a post game, he can put the ball on the floor. . . . Swapping out Jabari Parker for Otto Porter was a huge upgrade. In Washington, there were times Porter was the best player on the floor. He’s a great transition guy. If they want to play with speed and pace, he’s a weapon. . . . If Carter can shoot the ball, Thaddeus Young will be pretty effective beside him. You can play him as a five offensively and have him guard fours. To me they will have to figure out how they want to play offensively with two big guys. I assume they’ll do a fair amount of five-out, dribble handoffs, creating gaps and stretching the defense.
They’re in a tough position having all this money tied up; they have good young players, but I don’t know if it’s enough to slide into the playoffs or not. They’re caught in that spot where they’re building for the future but don’t have that flexibility in terms of money. . . . The big factor here is Andrew Wiggins. What does he do? Does he have the mentality to take a team to the next level? Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be good. I don’t know if you can measure everything by pure numbers. He’s an All-Star, he’s really good. But in terms of leadership and things between Wiggins and Towns—do they have the mentality to be able to will a team? . . . It’s nice that Jeff Teague comes off the books next year, and eventually Gorgui Dieng will, and then they’ll have a little flexibility. But if Towns and Wiggins are your top two guys, are you gonna get a free agent to come? It’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to grab somebody else. Jimmy Butler was the perfect guy to help at times, but then he rubbed them the wrong way because they’re not built like that. . . . I like these young guys. Jarrett Culver will be a good fit for them, and I’ve always liked Josh Okogie. I’m a big fan—he’s solid gold. Jaylen Nowell could even add value for them. Robert Covington is still solid. But it’s such a tough year in the Western Conference, and if you don’t have the guys to give you that edge night in and night out, it’s going to be tough.
Because of their depth, and with Pascal Siakam’s development, I can see them having another good regular season. They don’t have a true No. 1 option, but they have a few really good No. 2s. . . . Siakam could be an All-Star. He is a two-way, impactful player. The nonstop motor is what stands out. I don’t know who to compare him to. He’s going to have to show he can catch-and-shoot. He’ll get better because the opportunities will be there. . . . Kyle Lowry has been through everything. He’s so tough. He is going to be asked to carry them more, and I don’t know if he can do it. He’s lost a step. . . . A full season with Marc Gasol will help. Marc is very similar to Al Horford, where you can play a lot of offense through him. He’s going to have to pick up some of the playmaking that Kawhi did. Early on they may have to watch his workload, like all those guys that played in the World Cup. He’s older, but Marc’s game will decline smoothly. . . . Serge Ibaka is still a solid complementary guy, but he’s more of a small five now. They had the lineup to match up against big teams and small, and Ibaka was a big part of that because he can shoot. . . . I’m not a huge fan of OG Anunoby. He’s strong and projects as a three-and-D guy, but I don’t know how dynamic he is with the ball. . . . We’re going to see what Fred Vanvleet is capable of. He showed great grit in the playoffs. He’s not a tremendous playmaker, but the shooting, the confidence, the swagger—that really rubbed off on them.
How many games is Jimmy Butler playing? He’s not going to play 82. They gave up so much depth to get Jimmy, he got paid, and there’s nothing for him to prove now. The question I’ve kicked around is, Is this team better than Jimmy’s last team in Chicago [in 2016–17]? And that team was an eight seed in the East. Jimmy cannibalizes possessions. When he’s your top guy, I don’t know how good you are. I’m surprised nobody’s coined the term Jimmyball: You win with Jimmy, you lose with Jimmy. . . . I have so much respect for Erik Spoesltra. They played more zone than anyone last year, and it just helped them junk up and get wins. They’re gonna win games they’re not supposed to. . . . I really like Tyler Herro. He can shoot, and he knows how to read defenses. All the stuff they ran for Wayne Ellington, they can just plug Tyler in. They do a better job than anyone when it comes to freeing up shooters with screening action. . . . Bam Adebayo is such a physical presence. You can tell he’s not afraid of the moment. He can handle a little bit. He can take a couple of dribbles and pass it up. In the half-court he’s a little more skilled than [last year’s center] Hassan Whiteside. I don’t know if Bam has the skill-set to get into the elite, elite center conversation. He’s just not quite big enough to be the defensive dominant guy to get into the Gobert/Towns/Embiid/Jokić sector, but he’s next on that list. You’re happy he’s on your team.
Giannis’s passing was better. He was more willing and definitely more accurate. His rebounding improved, but part of that was Brook Lopez. A lot of guys have career rebounding years playing alongside Lopez because all he does is block out. . . . Early last year Giannis was playing more like a big, then they basically said, “F--- it, let him handle more and attack.” They ran a lot of small-on-big pick-and-rolls. George Hill was good at it. He was with LeBron, he knew how to play that way. . . . Khris Middleton was consistent in his effort to defend. That team can win with him as a No. 2. Giannis is that good. His gravitational pull is immense. It’s like the sun. Everything tilts towards him defensively. . . . I don’t think losing Malcolm Brogdon is a big hit. He was great in the playoffs, but he was getting the fifth-best defender most nights. Defensively he is a big body and is smart, so they do have to replace that. . . . Wes Matthews didn’t look great last year, but it’s hard to say when you play in situations like Dallas and New York. . . . Kyle Korver looked like he was nearing the end. Maybe he has a new life playing for a coach who believes in him. . . . Eric Bledsoe is going to have nights when you wonder where he is. They have a chance to play for something big. Does that matter to him? His finishing was at an extremely high level last season. I’ll be interested to see if he plays with the same effort. He cruises a lot. And when he does, he’s a liability.
Swapping Bojan Bogdanovic for Malcolm Brogdon is a downgrade. Brogdon just isn’t that kind of scorer. Nate McMillan does a good job keeping the offense simple. You are not going to see Brogdon running off screens like Bogdanovic. When they get Victor Oladipo back, the two together should work out decently. But it’s asking a lot if you want Brogdon to be a top scorer. . . . At times Domantis Sabonis and Myles Turner worked well together. When Sabonis comes in, they can play five-out and have him as a facilitator. It diversifies the offense. But if they are together, one of them has to be a perimeter threat. Otherwise it doesn’t work. . . . You don’t realize it, but Sabonis is really strong. Super skilled, but his strength makes it really hard to go against him. When he puts his body on you, it’s a challenge. . . . Jeremy Lamb is super soft. He’s kind of a tease. He’s a good shooter but not a great shooter. He probably had about as good a year as he could have last season. He bails out of plays when there is a chance to show some toughness. . . . It’s clear with Nate: You’ve got to guard here. If T.J. Warren does that, he can be a weapon for them offensively. Midrange has been his thing, but he shot the hell out of the ball from three. He has a little more ability to get to the rim, bang home threes, shoot those pull-ups. . . . Last year you started seeing defenses try to take Oladipo out of things. But he [got] better going to his left and better handling traps.
The bulk of the ballhandling responsibility lies with Blake Griffin now more than Reggie Jackson. The biggest thing for Jackson has been inconsistency. He shows flashes for a week, then you don’t hear from him for about two. He has shown he can be a good on-ball defender. When he’s good, he’s a middle-of-the-pack starting point guard. . . . The Clippers played through Blake a little, but Detroit took it to the next level. He was really like a point guard. It was successful. He will still show you the athleticism in spurts, just not as consistently. He shoots the three with confidence, there is no hesitation. Offensively he’s the total package. . . . They’re one of the few teams that plays really big. Andre Drummond is a great defensive player. They encouraged him to shoot more threes, and that will probably continue this year. . . . Derrick Rose had to reinvent himself after being an MVP; that was something. This guy used to be dynamic, explosive, out of this world. He needed to become a better shooter, and he has. You don’t try to run him off the line, because you have to respect his first step. . . . The interesting thing to me is the Bruce Brown-Luke Kennard dynamic. They both can’t start. Brown took the challenge of guarding the best perimeter player. They saw him as a fit playing next to Blake and Drummond. He has to show more offensively. Kennard is good with the ball, he can shoot, he’s dynamic, and he can play pick-and-roll.
It’s going to be tough for John Beilein. In college you have 42 days, 30 practices before the first game. In the pros you have, like, two weeks of practice. . . . They have those two young guards, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, who are not passers or facilitators, and they will probably play together. I think it’s going to be bad. It’s a really misshapen, we’re-trying-to-lose type of roster. . . . Sexton made some improvements as the season went on. I didn’t see point guard play out of him. He was a scorer who had a ball in his hands a lot. Nobody cheered for himself more in blowouts than Collin Sexton. . . . If Larry Nance were on the right team, he could be a huge asset. He can guard multiple positions, he fits in well in almost any offense. To me, the next step is improved shooting and being able to drive on a closeout. . . . Garland was great in individual workouts. He had some people believing he could be a big-time shotmaker, with a Lillard/Kyrie–type dynamic game. Can he make good decisions? We’ll have to find out. . . . Jordan Clarkson can come off the bench and score. You can run plays and offense for him. He can help you win close games. Pair him with a good point guard, it helps a lot. . . . Kevin Love is still a pretty tough cover. He can shoot, he can score downstairs. His mobility isn’t great. When he played last year, he could still impact the game. Is he going to be able to carry a team? That’s a stretch.
Evan Turner probably hurts them. He’s a name, Jabari Parker is a name, but you lose more when they play. If you post Jabari up from 18 feet, it will stunt John Collins’s development. I don’t think either of those guys help you win. . . . It’s hard to compete when you’re playing young guys, but that’s the right thing for them to do. I hope they play Cam Reddish down the stretch rather than Turner. . . . Collins and Trae Young sure are talented. Trae can play pick-and-roll, he can shoot, he can pass with both hands, pass high, pass low. With Collins improving his three-point range, that was one of the harder pick-and-roll tandems to guard last season. Defensively they’re probably going to struggle. . . . They got rid of all their role-playing vets and replaced them with rookies. De’Andre Hunter I really, really like. I like his demeanor. I like his size. I’m sure the Virginia pedigree will help him. In the national championship game he hit shots. . . . They’re gonna have three rookies in their rotation. I’ve seen the most talented rookies in the NBA, but you don’t win with them. You don’t want to play them on a Wednesday of a road trip. They’re gonna fly around and jack shots, and if they’re hitting, they can beat you. . . . There’s a lot of optimism around there. I call them the Baby Warriors. You’ve got Kevin Huerter as Klay, Trae as Steph, Collins plays the Draymond role and Hunter has the Iguodala role.
They’re on the cusp. They have enough pieces that they could maybe get to the conference finals, sneak past someone. If they were in the East, I’d maybe have them as the favorite to get to the Finals. . . . Rudy Gobert, to me, that’s the hesitation I have. He’s an All-NBA talent, don’t get me wrong, but is he the type of center you need to take that next step and win it, or do you need an Anthony Davis type who stretches the floor and can be a threat handling the ball? Toronto won with Marc Gasol, but he had to sit out at times [in the playoffs], and they went small to be more dynamic offensively. If you have to play four-on-five offensively [with Gobert], does that keep you from getting over the hump? . . . Their backcourt could be just as good as Portland’s. Donovan Mitchell is so competitive and tough, works harder than everybody else, athletic and long. Now you give him Mike Conley. . . . Maybe it’s just the market he played in, the style of play, but there’s no reason Conley shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame–type guy. All the games he’s won, he’s always been behind people getting All-Star nods. It’s a shame, and it doesn’t make any sense. . . . They’re still lacking a big wing who can score and defend but they have everything else—a rim-rolling center who protects the basket, great guard play, shooting. . . . Ed Davis will be solid. I like Jeff Green. Bojan Bogdanovic is a little overpaid, but he’ll be great for them.
They’re gonna be bad. They might be the worst team in the NBA. Terry Rozier will put up a lot of points, but I don’t like him at all. I just don’t know what he does well. He makes tough shots every now and then and kind of plays hard on defense. But he was like the eighth option in Boston playing against backups and now he’s going to be the guy? . . . I just don’t know where this roster’s going. None of their young players excite me. You got nothing for Kemba [Walker], and that’s just sad. [Owner] Michael Jordan is attached to North Carolina players and guys he really likes, and it’s really bad. I feel for James Borrego. Let him have a personal touch. If the idea is they’re going to build culture and style of play, will they be O.K. with losing and playing young guys? Does it give JB a chance to put in a system and develop it? That’s my lipstick on the pig. Last year they just kind of balled and let Kemba shoot every time. . . . I’ve always had a little bit of a crush on Willy Hernangomez. I’m a sucker for big guys with footwork. . . . PJ Washington seems like he’ll play hard, but how are they gonna be able to use him? . . . When do they finally move Nic Batum? Who wants that contract [$52.7 million for two years, including a player option next year]? . . . Marvin Williams is a great locker room guy. He could be a trade piece. A team could get him into their program, then get him in on a long-term deal as a nice backup shooting four.
They didn’t make a lot of moves in the offseason—they have their hand and they’re just gonna play it. If Paul Millsap is healthy and with Nikola Jokic being who he is, I imagine them being right there at the top again. . . . I do like the pickup of Jerami Grant, who gives them some interesting versatility up front. . . . It wouldn’t shock me if Jokić won MVP. He’s gonna put up numbers, and it doesn’t make any sense how he does it. He is such a unique talent that he’ll be fine even though he can’t guard on the perimeter. . . . They’ve taken big swings in the draft with guys people have almost forgotten about and don’t realize how talented they are. If Michael Porter Jr. is back to who he was [after missing last season with a back injury], he’s a starter. I’ve seen him do some stuff when he’s locked in. He was my No. 1 [pick] at one point; he’s that good. Very good rebounder, can shoot it and handle it. . . . They’re the perfect regular-season team, but in the playoffs you need a perimeter guy you know can go get a bucket, bail you out and make plays. Jamal Murray has the potential. Gary Harris is a very good player, but he’s not that guy. . . . I like Mason Plumlee. He passes it well and, man, if he could just shoot, he’d be at a whole different level. He’s a versatile center, athletic, just doesn’t make a ton of noise scoringwise. . . . They can play a lot of ways. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re a top-two seed, but they still have to make that championship leap.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
It just seemed like [executive VP] David Griffin kept turning stuff into stuff into stuff, and man, they increased their athleticism by 100%. I really like their young guys, then they get the trio of Lakers [Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram] who have had some experience and some high points. . . . Derrick Favors is going to be a talented veteran influence for them, and JJ Redick, too. Man, they have like five guys from Duke. . . . Zion Williamson will have to stay in shape and work on his jump shot. I’d expect him to be productive immediately just because of how explosive and powerful he is. He can put up numbers in his sleep with the minutes he’ll get. . . . Favors will play strictly the five. In Utah they started him, but he was really the backup center with the second unit. Putting him with Jaxson Hayes will be a good combo. Hayes is a big-time athlete—he’s ridiculous. I loved watching his film. . . . It’ll be good for Ball to get out of California and start his own path. He needs to make more shots, but I’m more concerned about the injuries piling up. He’s always going to get the ball in the right hands, he does a lot of subtle things offensively and defensively. In the NBA community, people know he has winning qualities. . . . Ingram is the rare guy who can handle and create stuff off the bounce with his size and pull-up game. He still has to get stronger and be more of a threat from outside. But you saw when LeBron was hurt, Ingram stepped up.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
They did a good job [trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook]. They’ll win a good amount and be competitive, and they have riches [in the draft] moving forward. . . . I don’t know if that team could have won it with PG and Russell anyway. Instead of being a four or a five seed, now you strip it down, and at least you’re rebuilding. They’re not stuck in between. . . . [It will be hard to] get rid of Chris Paul’s salary [$124 million over the next three years]. Chris has an understanding of who he is, and he’s going to compete and help you win as long as he’s healthy. He just can’t do all the stuff he used to do. . . . He’ll be a mentor for their point guard of the future. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has improved [his shot] so much from high school, where you thought it was completely broken. It’s a work in progress, but I don’t know if people understood his maturity, his toughness, versatility. He’s the prototypical NBA guard if that shooting develops. . . . Steven Adams is O.K., but I don’t know if he’ll ever be worth that amount of money [$53 million for two years]. He’s elite defensively, but he limits the way you can drive and space on the offensive side, and maybe you can pay someone $20 million less to give you a lot of that. . . . Danilo Gallinari has shown he’s still a very good player, and Andre Roberson is still a good defender if he’s healthy. Justin Patton is a nice swing. You never know—he’s very talented but has to get his act together.
There is a lot of pressure on Kyrie Irving. His reputation has reached the point where we forget that he made that shot in the  Finals. We only think of him as the guy that f----- up Boston. This team is very similar to the Celtics, with a lot of young guys. Do Caris Levert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen take steps back? If they do, Kyrie will get blamed for it. . . . Kyrie is arguably the best ballhandler in our league, and maybe the best finisher. They will be a big space-and-pace team. They have always wanted to play like a different version of Houston. Is Kyrie going to be like Harden? . . . Allen is a modern-day five. He can switch, block shots, competes at the rim. He has all the winning traits. . . . The greatest skill in our sport is shooting, and Joe Harris shoots at a high level. They use him as a floor spacer. For them, having him standing in the corner is good enough. The playmaking, that’s icing on the cake. . . . LeVert is dynamic with the ball. He should be better without the defenses keying on him. His catch-and-shoot game needs to improve. . . . Dinwiddie can get hot and carry you for quarters. What we have seen from Toronto and Golden State in recent years is the more playmakers you have, the better. . . . Kenny Atkinson will go at you in practice. Kyrie is known to not go full speed in practice. I’m curious to see how they coexist. Kyrie should welcome that kind of coaching. He chose Brooklyn. He knew what he was getting into.
Luka Doncic will have to avoid the sophomore slump, but he’s well beyond that. He was a seasoned vet out of the gate. I think he’ll duplicate what he did last year. He does it all at that size [6' 7", 218 pounds]. What he lacks in athleticism he can speed up with his IQ and his strength and his shooting range. He never seemed to have a down month, he just powered through. . . . The biggest key to their season is Kristaps Porzingis’s health and whether he can perform like the rising star he was a couple years ago in New York. Dallas will be less of a distraction—now he can focus on basketball. Dirk retires, and they get a guy who’s kind of like him—it’s pretty lucky. I don’t think they gave up too much for Porzingis. I’m not high on Dennis Smith Jr., and if you get the best player in the deal, to me, you won. . . . They have to figure out what young guys fit around those two moving forward and who to keep when they decide to spend money again. They definitely need a third guy at some point. . . . I like Delon Wright as a bench role guy. They have some nice parts, but they need more heft in the starting lineup. Even Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber have had some moments. Seth Curry is coming back, but they need more firepower in the starting lineup. . . . I’d put them lower than Sacramento and New Orleans as far as making the playoffs, unless their guys are just so dynamic together—which could still happen.
The sole goal for this year should be getting Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson on the court together, building chemistry and figuring out how all the supporting guys fit around those two. . . . Jaren looks like he’s going to be a big-time player. He didn’t have the numbers, but he had the impact of a higher-caliber guy, and without all the missed games he could have been a factor for Rookie of the Year. With his ability to possibly switch five positions and score inside-out, he’s the ideal power forward for today’s game. Being around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol last season will only help him. . . . Morant will just have to adjust to the speed of the NBA. He doesn’t lack confidence, he comes across as a team-first guy and he has a do-it-all skill set. There’s going to be a learning curve, and his efficiency and turnovers will be the things he has to prove and solve going forward. . . . Jonas Valanciunas is solid and played well for them; it can’t hurt keeping him around. . . . Brandon Clarke really stands out with his athleticism and ability to guard multiple positions. He’s a hell of a finisher. . . . They have a lot of talented young guys who are definitely going to have to take a step up. Grayson Allen, Dillon Brooks coming off injury, Tyus Jones still proving himself, Bruno Caboclo had an under-the-radar effective season. Josh Jackson is trying to rebuild his career, Ivan Rabb is still young. Of those six, maybe three step up, and those can be the guys you roll with.
NEW YORK KNICKS
I thought Frank Ntilikina could be a good defender, but I haven’t seen that. I thought he could handle the ball, but I haven’t seen that, either. The shooting, I don’t know if that will kick in. We never worried about him when we played those guys. . . . RJ Barrett is raw. He looks like the type of guy who could get hurt. He plays in super straight lines. He’s going to get contact. He’s got to be a better shooter so he can avoid all that. . . . They are pumping it up that Kevin Knox has added strength. I’m not seeing it. He was a below average shooter last year. . . . Mitchell Robinson’s athletic talent and ability to finish was impressive. He was like Shawn Kemp—just get it up there and go get it. It’s really hard to handle pick-and-rolls with him two-on-two. You have to bring a third guy in to protect. Now the weak side is open and you are into rotations. . . . Julius Randle is a really tough offensive player. And he often looks like he couldn’t give two f---s about defense. In an ideal world, if he can make some shots, he would be able to be a four. Then you have him and Robinson. If he can’t, you have to play him at the five, and that pulls Robinson out. . . . I don’t see Dennis Smith as a point guard who is a leader. He’s a good finisher, a guy you have to keep out of transition, go under in his pick-and-rolls, force him to shoot. You let him get to the rim, he’ll kill you. . . . They could have an all-toughness team with Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
It just depends on Klay Thompson. If he only misses half the season and comes back, with the championship DNA they have, anything can happen. . . . D’Angelo Russell has proved he can score; he’s just not the defender Klay is, and that’ll be noticeable. We’ll see how Russell adapts to their ball movement and cutting-based system, where you have to know how to do things off the ball. Maybe Steve Kerr will gear things in his direction and let him run more pick-and-roll. The last few years they’ve run less than anyone in the league. . . . In the playoffs Steph Curry had to do too much when the other guys were hurt. That wore him down, and the other teams could just focus on him. If they feel like they have a chance to go for it, they’ll probably load Steph up again, but if the season starts off rough, I’d guess they’ll tone down his minutes. . . . Draymond Green’s assist numbers may skyrocket this year with Klay out and Green playing off these guys who can really make shots. . . . Kevon Looney was a key signing [at three years for $15 million]. He’s shown that he can be trusted and productive under pressure, and bringing him back at that price was a boon for the team. . . . They got a value deal with Willie Cauley-Stein [two years, $4.5 million]. He’s talented, but he’ll have some issues fitting into a system where you have to know how to play. They had to just manufacture a team that could stay competitive.
It’s just a dumpster fire. What did they do this summer? I really like Tomáš Satoranský, and they just let him walk [to Chicago] and replaced him with Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas. Yikes. Everyone loves Ish—he plays the right way. But Isaiah’s going to be thinking about Isaiah. . . . The starting center is Thomas Bryant. He’s a good young big, but he’s thinking about his next deal. I saw him in the G League and was like, O.K., that kid plays hard. But if you’re going to suck, I’m all for letting Bryant run. And if you develop him, you have a really, really good backup center. . . . I like Rui Hachimura. He just seemed solid [at the FIBA World Cup]. Some of the stuff he was doing, you’re like, Wow that guy can really be something. He can score and will develop three-point range. He seems like a good kid with good skills and good positional size. I hope they use him correctly—let him play on the perimeter, shoot threes. Have him take it off the glass, bring the ball up. . . . What will they do with Bradley Beal? He’ll score 30 a game, but at the end of the year, they were dreadful. Because he’s new, [GM Tommy Sheppard] can buy himself some time to make a trade. They have to get to a point where they say, “As great a franchise player as Brad is, we’re past our window. We need to move on.” He’s a great guy, hard worker, good teammate—but when do you start over? . . . It seems like a tank year. They’re going to be picking in the top five.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
For LeBron James and Anthony Davis, guys who are well-established, they have a lot to prove. I think they’ll be formidable quickly. . . . This will be a really good fit for AD and LeBron. AD likes to play off guys, and now he gets to play with one of the best facilitators in the game. In the two-man game, in pick-and-roll or dribble handoff, they’ll be able to draw so much attention that it’ll open the floor up for other guys. . . . LeBron is still really competitive and aware of his place in history, and he’ll be focused on trying to push them to another championship. Even though he’s up there in age, if anyone can overcome that, it’s probably him. . . . They have a really interesting mix of role players, guys who have been legit starters like Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Kyle Kuzma is emerging and can really score. He’s probably not a perfect fit with LeBron, but he’s so talented. If he can hit the spot-up shots better, it’ll give him a chance to have much better synergy. . . . Danny Green was a huge pickup because he’s so used to playing in pressure situations. He should be a great fit next to LeBron. . . . Signing Dwight Howard was an interesting gamble. Obviously he can still be productive when he plays, and they seem to have made it clear that if it’s not working, they’ll cut ties quickly, so it’s a low-risk proposition. . . . They’ll be in the top half of the West, but I can see them winning a championship or taking an early playoff exit.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
They pried away the guy who was the best player in the playoffs, so that obviously gives them a certain standing. Kawhi Leonard is definitely in the conversation as the best player in the league. His dominance on both ends, playing defense and creating shots at a high level—those are nice qualities. . . . It’s great having wings in a wing game, but [pairing Leonard with Paul George] doesn’t offer the same floor balance as, say, the Lakers pairing LeBron, who’s a wing, with Anthony Davis, who’s a big. If [Leonard and George] clustered together on the wing, there’s some overlap, that could take a little bit away from them. . . . The team has a lot of hard-playing, aggressive role guys who are productive. Lou Williams never seems to age [he’s 32], and he can still score at a high clip. He’s done it every year, and I wouldn’t expect it to stop. That’s a big weapon. . . . Landry Shamet is a smart guy who can make a shot and knows how to fit with other good players. Those are qualities that let you contribute sooner rather than later. On one hand his rookie year was surprising, but he has such a mature game that, on the other hand, it made sense. . . . Ivica Zubac has shown some promise but isn’t there yet, and Montrezl Harrell has been in a backup role playing starter minutes, so handling the five will be a challenge for them against some of the bigger teams. . . . Jamychal Green should fit well. He can play a more important role than people realize.
With the signings they made and the progress of their young guys, they expect to be in the playoff race. They have a real galvanizing guy in De’Aaron Fox. Everybody has benefited from his burst and ability to attack the paint. He has All-NBA potential; it’s just a question of how fast he gets there. . . . They have a mix of younger and older guys now, and it’ll be a challenge for Luke Walton to figure out what his best units will be. . . . Marvin Bagley is a dynamic finisher and was really impressive training with Team USA this summer. He has to get stronger and probably play some small-ball five. If they can get away with playing him up front, it could make them much more explosive getting up and down the floor. . . . With Trevor Ariza and Harrison Barnes and Bogdan Bogdanovic they have a bevy of wings they can play together. . . . Buddy Hield has established himself as one of the best shooters in the league. With Fox that’s a really nice fit. They’re going to have to find a way to retain Buddy next summer just because his shooting is that important. . . . Barnes has been durable, and he’ll give them a lot of minutes, but he doesn’t blow you away in any one aspect. . . . Harry Giles has the big-time pedigree, but it’s hard to know if he’ll get a chance to play with Dewayne Dedmon and Nemanja Bjelica. . . . If they can squeeze into the eighth seed, they should feel bullish about the future. But if they fall short, they’ll have to take a step back and look at things.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
They’ll be at the top of the West again just because Damian Lillard is a unique talent. Few guys are wired the way he is in terms of competitiveness, high IQ, not being afraid of the moment. He’s elite shooting off the dribble, and that puts so much pressure on defenses because of his range. It’s almost a Steph Curry effect where you’re so worried where he is that it opens so many opportunities up for everybody else. You just feel him all the time on the floor. . . . He has a great sidekick in CJ McCollum. I’m not as high on him as the numbers and his contract say, but he’s still pretty good. . . . Hassan Whiteside will probably put up some decent numbers. Jusuf Nurkic is pretty good, but there’s a lot of weight on that [left leg, which he fractured in March and will keep him sidelined until February]. . . . Kent Bazemore is fine. Rodney Hood is talented, but it’s hard to know what you’ll get day in and day out from him. . . . Not a lot of free agents are coming to Portland, but they’ve drafted well. Anfernee Simons, man, he’s really talented. At summer league he was ridiculous. He and Zach Collins are going to be great. . . . Gary Trent is pretty good, but he just shoots too much. They’re missing that bigger wing, a dynamic scorer who can handle, shoot and defend, and you hope Hood can be that. That’s what they need to get over the top. . . . They’re in a similar boat to Denver—a really good team that will win a lot of games and get past the first round. After that, things get dicey.
They have the pieces to win it all. They might lead the league in defense. You won’t find better size, length and athleticism in a starting five. . . . They have gone all in on Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Some games it looks like the perfect pairing; some games it looks awful. The things Ben does, he does at an elite level—his passing, the tempo he plays with. But he has to trust his shot more. You can point to the fundamentals: His feet are turned different ways, his elbow is not in the right spot. What I see is a total lack of confidence. . . . Embiid is an unstoppable force. With his skills and back-to-the-basket game, if he is not the best center in the league, he’s 1A. You play him to settle for the three but he’s making it now. . . . They lose some moxie without Jimmy Butler. They’ll look to Al Horford for that now. He’s someone Boston went to when they needed a bucket. His shot selection is excellent. It’s his biggest strength. . . . Josh Richardson is going to get a lot of open shots. If he hits 37, 38% from three, they will be thrilled. He’s not the playmaker you would want, but he will be a good fit with the starting five because he doesn’t need the ball as much. . . . I like Tobias Harris more at the four than the three because he gets more mismatches. . . . I think they’ll start Horford then sub him out quickly. Alternate him with Embiid for most of the game. They can play high-low with him and Embiid. Defensively, they can stay big down the stretch.
The team revolves around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, and how much they develop will determine how much upside they have in the short and long term. They went and got veterans—Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, and Frank Kaminsky—to shore up the culture for them. . . . Booker has figured out how to be productive, which is really hard to do in the NBA. Having Rubio next to him, Booker won’t be as ball-dependent. He hasn’t shot it as well as he’s capable of sometimes because he’s had it in his hands too much. . . . Ayton averaged a double double as a rookie, which is also tough to do. He’ll be an upper-tier big, but the question now is how committed he’ll be on defense and whether he’ll do the dirty work—setting screens and rebounding. Will he be the physical presence his body suggests he should be?. . . Mikal Bridges doesn’t need the ball to be effective. He can guard multiple positions and make a shot. I think that’s what they were hoping for when they drafted Cam Johnson as well. . . . Point guard has been such an issue for them in recent years, and with Rubio and Ty Jerome, they tried to address that. . . .Dario Sarcic is gritty, plays hard—they wanted guys like that with a feel and toughness. Kelly Oubre was a bright spot in a tough season. He’s athletic and versatile, and they don’t have as many players like that as in the past. . . . If they can just be steady and have the young guys make progress on defense, you can call it a successful year.
Last season you could see a disconnect on the floor. The body language was bad, there was a lack of communication. . . . They take a huge step back at center. Al Horford [now with Philly] and Aaron Baynes [Phoenix] are elite defenders. Enes Kanter is one of the worst. He’s not a bad post defender. It’s the pick-and-rolls where you attack him. . . . If you took a poll of coaches in the league, Jayson Tatum is in the top five of young players. He is an incredible pure scorer. But for a player who gets the touches he gets, the playmaking—the assists, the hockey assists, that’s the next progression. . . . Most people see Jaylen Brown as a tier below Tatum. But you can argue that he is a better all-around player. He can average 16, 17 points. His defense plays every night. . . . Boston is the perfect system for Kemba Walker. The offense is very structured. He is going to have the ball in his hands a lot, and he makes good decisions. The pick-and-roll offense should be really good. Kemba shoots it at a high level. He’s very reliable. . . . Marcus Smart is an elite defender. Draymond [Green] might be the only wing player better. Maybe. I wouldn’t hesitate to put Smart on a center. The last seven minutes of a game, he’s the best guard defender in the league. . . . Gordon Hayward is a wild card. I don’t know if he ever gets back to that player we saw in Utah. But you could see his body come around toward the end of last season.
The only thing that scares me with them: Does Nikola Vucevic punt now that he has money [after signing a four-year, $100 million extension]? I know people who’ve spent time around him and think he might take his foot off the gas. . . . They have a talented roster, but it’s very weird. They added Al-Fariuq Aminu. The last thing they needed was more long, nonshooting fours. But he’s a really good player. They’re a team that at the deadline could really help another team. Aminu’s very, very movable. . . . Jonathan Isaac was really good at the end of the year, just doing little things defensively in rotations. He can guard centers in pick-and-roll and fours on the perimeter. . . . Aaron Gordon has his warts, but he’s good. [Criticizing his] shooting consistency is low-hanging fruit, and he’s continuing to improve there. He needs to realize: I’m a four, I’m not a three, but I can use that to my advantage and create for others by breaking down defenses and really passing. He just doesn’t exactly fit with the rest of what they have if he’s a wing. Defensively, he gives effort, but can he be a lockdown?. . . D.J. Augustin is a pro. He’ll continue to run the show and get guys fed. . . . I’m not really relying on Markelle Fultz. I know a lot of people are like, What the hell are they doing picking up Fultz’s option? I think you have to. This is the best way to find a star. This is the best way to turn this middle- of-the-pack team into a contender.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Getting Dejounte Murray back is like adding a big free agent. The emergence of Derrick White is going to help them bring along Dejounte [from his right ACL tear] at a more balanced pace. To me that’s their upside; as long as their guys are healthy, their system is just going to breed wins. . . . You can definitely play Murray and White together, especially because White can shoot it, then slide DeMar DeRozan to the three. We’ll see how confident Dejounte is in his shot after working on it while he was hurt. That’s the next phase for him. . . .Bryn Forbes was a great value last year. He has a lot of the same qualities Patty Mills offers. They find guys. . . . Trey Lyles is basically a poor man’s stretch four with the size to play some center. He’s had pockets of seasons where he’s been productive. He’s a wild card. . . . They’re so good at getting their best players in positions to succeed. LaMarcus Aldridge can shoot it so easily; they get him to his spots and can be really efficient. Even Rudy Gay. I mean, he’d never shot 50% before. . . . You need one guy who can take and make tougher shots late in the clock, and that’s DeRozan. He doesn’t shoot the three but is still efficient because he gets to the line. . . . With all their guys, you see the second-year jump in summer league, and it usually translates to a 15–20 minute role. White and Kyle Anderson are good examples. So I’m interested to see how Lonnie Walker develops.
This will be one of the more interesting dynamics to watch, because when Russell Westbrook and James Harden were in OKC, Westbrook was more the face of the franchise, and now that’s completely flipped. How is he going to respond to that? . . . Still, for me the surrounding cast isn’t as strong as it was two years ago. Having a guy like Trevor Ariza was so huge—it allowed players like P.J. Tucker to come off the bench. They’re relying on guys who are one step out of the G League, like Danuel House. . . . Westbrook and Paul George each had super high usage [in OKC] last season, so this could be like that dynamic. Obviously Westbrook has to be way more efficient. Having Harden as a ballhandler might actually help him late in games, which has been a weakness for Westbrook’s teams. . . . Russ is still more of a dynamic player at this point in his career than Chris Paul, and Russ is a primary assist guy too. I think he’ll get to the rim and do stuff with Clint Capela. Paul was only going to go down in terms of performance. . . . How are they going to use Eric Gordon? Is he going to be a sixth man or will he start? I’d bring him off the bench for a little more firepower. . . . To me, they’re still a tier below the Clippers, Denver and Utah because of the supporting cast. I mean Harden had to do historic things just to get them into fourth last year. When they get to the playoffs, how much are they going to have in the tank?