The Crossover spoke with scouts from around the league in advance of the 2021–2022 season.
New York Knicks
I definitely think Julius Randle’s production last season is sustainable, and I think the reason why is just because he's an elite worker and I think they've built it around him, the roster and the team, even though they added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier and RJ Barrett kind of growing, and then Mitchell Robinson, but I think he's the first option. I think going through the struggle probably helped him last year. I think that first year with expectations with that team, and just him playing at an All-Star level, it just happened a year later and I think the year before really helped his development. … I don’t know if Kemba’s knee is going to hold up. No one does. I don't know how they're going to manage him. If you're getting peak Kemba, obviously that's a great point guard and a great second option to Randle. … With Barrett, everybody loves to see it right away and some guys take longer than others. Two years is not long. I think you saw the lottery pick, talent, potential kind of start trending upwards. I think he might not take huge leaps from Year 2 to 3. Maybe it's three to four, four to five, but if he just keeps trending upwards, I think he's going to be a really, really good player in this league for a long time.
Brooklyn, it just comes down to injuries and health. It just does. With their Big Three and an All-Star Hall of Fame crew that they've put around those guys, it's all going to come down to health and if they're going to be healthy in the playoffs. They were one foot away from beating Milwaukee in that series. Probably would have won the whole thing without Irving and with Harden in and out of the lineup. ... Durant looked like he never left, man. He's unbelievable. I think he's the greatest player in the world. I think he showed it once again. Just a scorer. He’s going to go down as one of the top scorers of all time, top shooters of all time, top players of all time. I think it was great to see, it's great for the game, great for him that he just looked like his injury never happened.
With Ben Simmons, it’s easy to say, "Dump him," but my thing has always been, who else are you going to get? One, he's an elite defender. I think at the point guard position, he was probably the most consistent defender the whole season. I don't think that gets talked about enough, even though I know more people talk about it, but he's an elite defender at his position. His offensive weaknesses show up and they show up during playoff time. If it is the end, which it looks like it's going to be, my question is what you get back in return, and whatever you get back in return, it might not be a better player than Simmons, but it's got to be a better fit around Joel Embiid, if that's the direction you're going to go. … Embiid and Simmons aren’t a championship duo. They've lost in the playoffs, and they did it with Embiid basically playing like the MVP. They still couldn't get it done in the playoffs.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, they've both gotten better every year. They both have gotten better as perimeter wings, defenders. But for the first time it feels, from the outside, like Boston is scrambling with its roster. It always felt like they had a core group of six or seven guys that had been together for a while and now, bringing Al Horford back, and it just feels like they're in scramble mode now, trying to build around those two guys. Signing Marcus Smart will obviously help, but I don't know if you see it without another guy there, how far they can go. … Tatum’s next step is carrying a team. I think carrying the team deep into the playoffs consistently. I think he's shown, offensively, he's really shown no weaknesses. He needs to take the challenge of being a better defender, a better rebounder and a better playmaker. He's a true scorer.
There are real issues with Pascal Siakam. I don't know what it is, but I think Siakam, just the past 18 months, has just been trending downward. Obviously them losing Kyle Lowry, them handing over the keys to Fred VanVleet, I think VanVleet's a great player, but I think they need Siakam to be really good. I could see them, if he gets off to another rough start, them trying to send him somewhere for another All-Star–type player. Who that player is, I don't know, but it'll be interesting to see if we get the Siakam that everybody fell in love with.
Detroit will still struggle. I would imagine you'll see a lineup at least to start the year of Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant and Isaiah Stewart to start games. You'll see a lot of switching from them defensively. Offensively it still doesn't really give them a playmaker. I think Bey will be a nice NBA player but right now is a little bit overrated. … Jerami Grant to me was one of the most overrated players all year. If you look at how the season went for him, he had the really good start when Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose were still there taking away some of the attention. … I don't see Hayes being a starter in the league. He's soft. He can't shoot. He's slow and he's arrogant. Cunningham seems like he's got a chance to be the real deal, but he's still a rookie who's got to figure it out.
Milwaukee needed Giannis to be able to deliver against really good teams and he did that. Khris Middleton had played better than I think everybody anticipated there. I mean, he was exceptional in a number of games in the playoffs, but Giannis delivered pretty much every game in the playoffs. That allowed those other guys to put in only two really good games or something like that. I knew they were going to try to switch some more than they did in the past. That obviously helped them some. … I would like to see Giannis shoot free throws and jump shots better than he did. I mean he was awful. Phoenix let him play one-on-one a fair amount. Brooklyn let him play one-on-one the entire time. Other teams in the past, that is one of the things like Toronto when they beat him, Toronto trapped him in the post every time. As a one-on-one player, I think he's been exceptional, but to me, the free throw shooting and the jump shooting obviously are things that he can add to his game. But beyond that, offensively, I don't see a ton more coming. Defensively, he's slowing down and will continue to slow down. To me, I would imagine you'll start seeing him at the five a little bit more and a little bit more as each year goes by.
Chicago improved offensively. I don't know how much they improved defensively. To me defensively they look like they're going to be pretty f------ bad again. You know, they all play hard. I guess Lonzo Ball is a good defender. To me they added another good scorer, but I don't know how good DeMar DeRozan is. He's good enough to start. I don't know that he's a top-line guy, but he's still pretty good at the end of games. He can get shots off. He can make tough shots. Now you've got him and Zach LaVine, who can both get some s--- done. The one question I still have with them is who's going to lead the charge in terms of this is how we play every night. They didn't have much leadership last year. LaVine's not that guy. Who is it for them? That'd be the big question I have with them. LaVine is a top-level scorer, but he's not a leader.
I think Collin Sexton is a backup and an a--hole. None of his teammates like him. I like Darius Garland. I actually like Garland. I think he plays hard. He puts pressure on you because he can shoot, he can pass, and he's a much more willing passer. He's not out there trying to f------ get his stats and go home in the same way that Sexton is. I don't think they can play those two small guards together and get a ton out of them. I thought they were on the right track last year until they traded for Jarrett Allen and basically told Andre Drummond we're not bringing you back, because defensively they were hanging around that top-10 area. … Evan Mobley, to me, seems like he's the real deal in terms of his talent, his skill set. Again, he's a rookie who floated some in college so we'll see how that goes. Not a big Jarrett Allen guy. He's fine but nothing crazy. Isaac Okoro seems like he's got the potential to be a pretty damn good defender, but I don't know how much more than that.
Well, defensively, Domantas Sabonis needs Myles Turner. He covers his a--. Offensively it hasn't really been great. Partly because Turner's a guy who can make a shot, but he's not a knockdown shooter. Sabonis offensively is pretty f------ gifted, I would say. They missed Nate McMillan holding those guys accountable, clearly. It's not great. I like Caris LeVert a lot. I think he's really talented. I liked him a lot in Brooklyn, too. That's a guy that they can use as a weapon. Malcolm Brogdon, he's fine. Good player but he's not a leader. He’s not a guy who can carry your team.
LaMelo is a star. He’s Jason Kidd, with a better jump shot. He’s among the best passers in the NBA already. He showed leadership last season that I didn’t expect from him. You saw the way that team fell apart when he went out. He has a chance to be an All-Star this season. He’s going to have to adapt to being at the top of every scouting report, but there is great talent there. … They need Gordon Hayward to be healthy. He’s the second-best playmaker on the team, behind Ball. Without him, the ball just stops.
Orlando is rebuilding. They are going to try to play up-tempo, but every team that doesn’t have half-court scorers says that. I’ll be interested to see how the backcourt comes together. Jalen Suggs looked like the real deal in Summer League. He will be a two-way player. But can they play him next to Markelle Fultz? Cole Anthony was a surprise last year, but that was a bad team. They love Jonathan Isaac, but he has had two serious leg injuries. I don’t know what to expect from Isaac this season. At his best he is a versatile, springy forward. But I don’t know how close he will be to his best. I don’t know how you look at this team and see anything but one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Everybody is excited about Kyle Lowry, but is he that big of an upgrade over Goran Dragić? Dragić could score and he had great chemistry with that team. Lowry is a leader, but he has a lot of miles on him. He takes a lot of contact, a lot of charges. I worry about injuries with him. Jimmy Butler is a stud. There aren’t many guys in the league I’d want to have the ball in key situations more than him. He needs to be more of a playmaker with this group. They don’t have a lot of shot creators. Butler has to be one of them. Duncan Robinson has to get his swagger back. He played with unbelievable confidence in 2020. I didn’t see that same confidence last season. I think he felt some pressure. Maybe now that he has his contract, he’ll play more relaxed. Same thing with Tyler Herro. He has to get back to the guy we saw in '20. The starting lineup is great. The bench is weak.
I like the direction of the Wizards. Spencer Dinwiddie is a better fit alongside Bradley Beal than Russell Westbrook was. And they have done a nice job collecting pieces, all around the same age, with potential. Kyle Kuzma will play well. He was unhappy in L.A. He didn’t like his role. He will get a bigger one in D.C. with plenty of opportunities to score. … This team should compete for a playoff spot. But the question is, will that be enough for Beal? Most of the league will be keeping an eye on Beal this season.
Atlanta is definitely a team on the rise. Trae Young is the real deal. He’s sort of mastered that Chris Paul ability to draw contact in the paint, which sends him to the free throw line a lot. He could be an MVP candidate this season. There are so many really good young players on this roster. And Nate McMillan is the right guy to coach them. He’s brought discipline to that team. You can see it in how they play. And when they don’t make mistakes, they are really hard to beat.
The Jazz are knocking on the door. I think they have a Phoenix-like run for the Finals in them. They are a model of consistency. Their full team is coming back. They were the No. 1 seed last year, and you can see them being the No. 1 seed again. … Donovan Mitchell can be the top guy on a title team. I don’t know why he gets criticized. I think he took a step toward doing that last season. His development is very similar to Devin Booker. He's proven that in the playoffs; he's a prime-time guy and he's carrying his team deep into playoffs. He’s gotten to a certain level, which a lot of these players have, especially a lot of these young players where their expectations skyrocket and we get spoiled with what they do in the regular season and we just want to see it in the playoffs. I think that's the tier that Mitchell falls under now. … A big question: Can Gobert stay on the floor in the playoffs? They committed to him. They've doubled down, and they believe that he can play in the playoffs and play in the crunch time minutes. He couldn’t against the Clippers. He is going to have to prove he can play against smaller lineups. But he’s such an elite defender, rim protector, with a little offense, and you just live with some of his weaknesses. … I think if they get the right matchups, I think they can go to the Finals. But I wouldn't be surprised if at the end they're the No. 1 seed and go into the Finals.
Nikola Jokić is Denver’s high-volume player like Luka Dončić, or Durant and James Harden. He handles the ball a majority of the time. His usage is off the charts. His creativity is his greatest strength. He's the best passing big in our league. He did it at the highest level. He plays at his own pace and he's comfortable. It's very similar to Dončić. They just find a way to do it with angles. They play at their pace. They play with the ball. They're great passers. I just think his IQ is off the charts and he doesn't seem to get rushed. His touch around the rim, it's guard-like. It's top three in the league. … Jamal Murray is a superstar. I hope he comes back healthy. I think you could put him right next to Mitchell. I think he's a special talent, an elite talent, and I think he had momentum from the bubble and he carried over to the year.
Portland Trail Blazers
I'm a fan of the Damian Lillard–CJ McCollum backcourt. I think the team struggles says more about the guys around them than those two guys. I don't think they've done a great job of surrounding those two with the players needed for them to succeed. … They've missed a lot on guys that they've tried to bring in and try to build around those guys. The clock is ticking over there. … I don't think they make the playoffs. The West is loaded again. As special as Lillard is and how good McCollum is, I just don't like the roster they've put around, the depth that they built. The roster is super thin.
Karl-Anthony Towns isn’t a No. 1 guy. He just hasn't proven it on a winning team. You could say, "Well, they haven't had a good team." But he's been given the opportunity and if you love the roster or not, he just hasn't proven that he could carry the load to win aside from getting his numbers. It seems like he always gets his numbers and they're monster numbers some nights, but it just doesn't seem like he impacts winning. As a defender, he really doesn't give you much. He doesn't give you rim protection. He's a true five. He's a great offensive five, but he's a below-average defender at the five. … I’m a big Anthony Edwards fan. He has the talent, the potential, the mindset. He can definitely be an All-Star here in the near future. He might be the guy that emerges as the lead man on that team. … I still think they have a lot of questions. New ownership group coming, I think that adds another layer of questions: what's going to happen there, what's going to happen with the players if they don't get off to a good start. You can hear Towns's name on the trade block.
Oklahoma City Thunder
I'm a huge fan of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. I think he's as good as a young point guard that we have in our league. His pace is great. He's an improved shooter. He’s special. … They have a lot of interesting young guys. Aleksej Pokuševski, Darius Bazley, the first-round pick, Josh Giddey. But who knows if any of them are any good? This is a bad team. The question is do they shake it up midseason. They have more assets than any team in the league. There are a lot of things they can do. But if they don’t, they will probably be pretty bad.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are swinging for the fences. Russ is a boom-or-bust kind of deal. On one hand you've got three super talented guys, you've got a guy in Westbrook, who has a history of just going on runs where he just wins you games by how he plays and with his intensity. But on the other hand I don't see how that works when it really matters. There's a ton of questions that are going to be really tough for those guys. AD's health, LeBron's age, the lack of shooting, Westbrook, his decision-making and play, for a guy who's a great player, at the end of games, how many dumb decisions does he make? Not to mention, how many guys do they have that are really old, over 35? It seems like a lot. I never really even want to doubt LeBron, because I think he's really f------ good. And if he hadn't gotten hurt last year, they're on their way to the one seed or two seed and probably in the Finals, but he does and now it totally changes. I'm a little skeptical, I guess I would say, The argument for it would be you get as much talent and star power as you can, and then you figure out the rest. ... To me, you could see them winning a significant amount of games and just overpowering you. But it just seems like they got to really thread the needle for that to happen.
Phoenix will be close to what they were last year, above the top half of the West kind of team. Especially if CP's healthy, probably very similar because they were good defensively. They're good offensively. They've got multiple guys who can shoot. The thing I thought that was pretty underrated with them was they had a good mix and a good group of young guys that, they won a lot of games at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter, because they had guys that could score a little bit and then they surrounded them with guys who could all shoot and defend and keep rotating and playing hard. They have a chance to get out of the West. But I don't think that I'd say they're the best team in the West, either.
Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry was all-world last year. He was pretty remarkable. … Draymond Green defensively was really impressive. Obviously when he was on the floor, they were very good defensively. If he's got Curry and Klay Thompson, his offensive game is pretty good, too. If he doesn't have both of them, it changes things so much for them. He needs shooting around him to be an effective offensive player. ... With Klay Thompson, I would assume the shooting is still going to be there. It's just how well does he move without the ball and shoot on the move? The other thing, too, is if he's really pushing to be back and he's not fully ready to go, does he break down again? We've seen that with a number of guys, they're like, "I'm ready to go," and then one injury leads to an injury somewhere else because they overcompensate. So that would be the question I have, 'cause just hearing him talk and hearing the people out there, he wants to play opening night and they're trying to push him back till the new year somewhere or thereabouts.
With Sacramento, I like Tyrese Haliburton. I generally like De’Aaron Fox. I love Fox’s talent. But he doesn't bring it every night. It's hard to be a No. 1 guy if you're not bringing it every night. The big-time players in this league to me, the true No. 1 guys are going to give you 65–70 games of pretty good basketball and they're going to deliver. And he hasn't done that. … Make or break year for Marvin Bagley. The injury piece has obviously been big with him. I've always wanted to like him, but I haven't seen it, with the injuries. You just don't know how good he is or isn't right now. So yeah, I'd say this is about time for him to put up or shut up.
Los Angeles Clippers
Paul George is going to have to be a big part of what the Clippers do with Kawhi Leonard out. And then to me, the question is, where are they going to get some of their playmaking? You know, they had a ton of shooting last year. I think they'll still be a good shooting team; the playmaking piece is going to be the big question mark. Reggie Jackson is not that; Luke Kennard is not that. I don't know who their playmaker is going to be.
I think Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porziņģis complement each other perfectly. A pick-and-pop big that can roll some and he's got a guard skill set. I think that's really textbook for a guy to play with Dončić. I don’t know if they are super close off the court, but on the court, I think that they complement each other really well. … I don’t know what to expect from Jason Kidd. If you go with what his experience was with Brooklyn and Milwaukee, is he going to be closer to that than he was just as an assistant with the Lakers? I think quietly, I think that might be one of if not the biggest kind of coaching changes that we're going to see because with an MVP candidate like Dončić, getting out of the first round is almost becoming like a must there.
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Memphis is a team that continues to trend upward slowly. They play hard every night. And I think they showed a lot of grit. Ja Morant, I think if he can improve his shooting, I think he becomes a top-seven point guard. But he’s got to become a more consistent shooter. … I’m a big fan of Jaren Jackson. I think he's a modern big. How he plays is going to be the difference for them in taking the next step. I think they've done a good job of kind of mixing and matching guys around that team. But I think for them to take that next step, I think into the next round of the playoffs, I think he's got to become a consistent second-best option on that team.
New Orleans Pelicans
When Zion Williamson was on, he had a stretch there that you could argue he was the MVP. He was just an unstoppable force. He’s a special talent. Saying that, they had a tough time finishing games. And to be honest with you, I think the Pelicans have got more question marks than anyone, just because of how they fit together, how those players fit together with Brandon Ingram and with Williamson and the guys that they have. You kind of would go down their team and you would kind of see who's the perfect player for them? And I would always go back to Jrue Holiday being a perfect player for them. And then they traded him. I think they're the most interesting team going into the season.
Christian Wood had a good season on a bad team. Whatever. The question is can he do that in a winning environment? I liked their draft pick, Jalen Green. I think he's going to be a really good player. And they're kind of building slowly. Wood is a modern big where he can pick and pop and roll. And I think he did a lot of good things. It's going to be interesting if Wood can have that kind of production on a winning team. … I'm not a big fan of Kevin Porter Jr. I understand the talent and I understand a lot of people like him. To me he is just another guy who can put up numbers on bad teams. I have more confidence in Wood being able to do it in a winning environment than I would to Porter.
San Antonio Spurs
I think everyone just thinks about the old San Antonio teams, but they haven't been really good recently. They just haven't. They're going to play hard every night, but again, what floor and ceiling they have, I think they're both kind of low. I think Dejounte Murray is a good player. I think they have some pretty good players on that team, but I just think where did they go? What direction is it? Derrick White is a good player and a lot of people like Keldon Johnson. I think Lonnie Walker gets talked about a lot. They signed Doug McDermott and Bryn Forbes, but they signed Zach Collins. I think at what point, it's just as a team that's never going to bottom out, so they'll never get high into the lottery to maybe get a difference-maker. I think it's just going to be another season where they're just kind of playing for the sake of playing game.
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