When the Thunder rampaged over San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals, it felt a bit like the league had found its championship matchup for the next three or four seasons. The Spurs and Celtics were aging, the Lakers had peaked again as a second-tier team, Derrick Rose was set to miss most of 2012-13, and a bunch of would-be contenders — Memphis, Dallas, Denver, New York, the Clippers — were a notch or two below with no clear path for improvement. Flash forward a few months, and the league looks very different. Three stars, including perhaps the league’s second-best player in Dwight Howard, changed teams in one trade, with the Lakers also nabbing an All-Star point guard. The Celtics reloaded despite little cap flexibility, while Brooklyn joined the Knicks as starry teams with big ambitions. It was a noisy summer. Let’s take a step back and look at how things changed, in the short- and long-term, amid the NBA’s championship hierarchy.
The Real Title Contenders
Perhaps the strongest repeat favorite since the heyday of Shaq-Kobe. It took a potentially franchise-destroying injury to Chris Bosh at nearly the worst possible time, but the Heat discovered in May and June that their version of small ball, with LeBron James at power forward, should serve as the foundation of the team’s identity rather than as a change-of-pace tactic at the start of the second and fourth quarters. The alignment change, coupled with James’s new comfort as a post-up threat, took Miami’s offense up another level without compromising the defense in a significant way. Miami let this development guide its offseason, signing two perimeter threats (Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) and precisely zero traditional big men guaranteed to be part of the team’s rotation in high-leverage moments.
There are challenges to come. Erik Spoelstra will play trial-and-error with lineups, and Miami cannot risk overtaxing James in the regular season. That might mean less small ball than the Heat end up using in the playoffs, and some banging against power forwards for Shane Battier and Lewis. Dwyane Wade’s knee will probably act up again, and the Heat may not have the luxury of going through the last two rounds of the playoffs without facing a team equipped to punish them on the block. But they enter the season as the clear favorite.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The big steps are done, but sometimes the smaller steps are the hardest — the subtleties of defensive positioning, lineup choices, and balance on both ends of the floor. The Thunder made progress on all fronts during the playoffs, when their offense nearly set records, the team remembered James Harden was actually on the floor in crunch time, Scott Brooks leaned more (but not enough) on his most productive small lineups, and the team’s aggressive defense at least limited the unstoppable Spurs. Getting Eric Maynor back should help more than Maynor’s individual numbers might suggest, since he allows Brooks to play small lineups featuring four threatening perimeter players instead of just two or three. The other young guys are only going to get better, and Serge Ibaka has shown glimpses of morphing into a more multidimensional pick-and-roll player.
But Miami overwhelmed this defense in the Finals. It has to be better, and if that improvement comes from playing Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha more, the Thunder won’t dethrone the champs.
Los Angeles Lakers
A team whose offense failed them early last season and whose defense failed them late has added the game’s very best defender and perhaps the NBA’s single greatest offensive force of the last decade-plus. There are questions, of course. There is no off-the-dribble dynamism among the backups for Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, and Nash is just about a 30-minute-per-game player at this point. The Lakers are counting heavily on Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison, and perhaps Earl Clark at some point, to hold the fort when the stars sit, and it’s unclear if they can do so on either end. Bryant and Nash, both iron men, are well into the stage of their careers in which age- and injury-related declines are scary possibilities. Pau Gasol isn’t far behind. Fit and chemistry might be uneven as the stars learn the team’s new hybrid Princeton offense. Bryant, a gifted cutter and passer, must dial back his shot selection and tendency to stop the ball. How they respond to Oklahoma City’s dynamic small lineups in a potential conference finals matchup is unclear.
But holy hell: These four stars should be able to be on the court together for 35 minutes per night in high-stakes playoffs games, with all but Nash capable of logging many more than that. And Mike Brown’s staff should be able to stagger minutes so that no single star is left to carry too heavy a burden on bench units. They don’t get the favorite’s perch right away, not even in their own conference, but a team that had declined to second-tier status should happily accept something like co-favorite in the West.
San Antonio Spurs
It’s fine if you want to slide them into the next tier. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are old, and neither is quite capable of serving as a full-time go-to scoring centerpiece against dialed-in defenses. The Western Conference Finals had the feel of one team figuring out how to beat the other, in part because the brilliant Ginobili, the Spurs’ best all-around player, couldn’t score big on a night-to-night basis.
But Duncan and Ginobili stay productive every year, and the Spurs could find enough incremental internal improvements to offset any Ginobili/Duncan drop-off. Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter should get even better, with Leonard perhaps developing into a top-shelf defender and a wing more capable of working off the dribble when the ball swings his way. Boris Diaw has a full season to help Gregg Popovich find the right balance in his big-man rotation, and Stephen Jackson is around to shoot and present small-ball options should that ideal big-man rotation never emerge. Nando de Colo and Patty Mills provide healthy competition for Gary Neal and could help Popovich limit Ginobili’s minutes.
And again: This team outscored opponents by an unthinkable 15 points per 100 possessions over 30-plus games last season, per NBA.com’s stats database. That kind of dominance earns some preseason respect, even if the Thunder left the Spurs’ defense and rotation in tatters.
A Puncher’s Chance
Boston knows it went about as far as it could with the league’s best defense and an offense that ranked 24th in points per possession. Score at that rate, and it’s very hard to beat just one top team four times in seven tries — even when that top team is missing Bosh and has yet to figure out the best way to optimize its talents. Boston overcame its own injury issues, but those setbacks didn’t have the same impact of Derrick Rose’s ACL tear and Bosh missing the first four games of the conference finals.
Jason Terry is a borderline elite offensive player, the rare guard who combines star-level long-range shooting and off-the-bounce creativity. Avery Bradley will be back soon, and Boston’s starting lineup with Bradley in Ray Allen’s place scored at a league-best level. Courtney Lee is a solid two-way player who is money from the corners, and Jeff Green, bloated contract and all, might help in the right matchups.
This is a team built to face Miami — to play varied small lineups, have Green share LeBron-guarding duty with Paul Pierce, and hope its offense can score enough to give it a chance to win late. But it’s an old team, one vulnerable to injuries, and one that must prove there is anything better than a league-average offense here. If that’s all there is, they’ll still need some luck to upset Miami.
Dreaming of a Puncher’s Chance
It shouldn’t feel over, but it almost does, especially with the Lakers passing Memphis in the race for the league’s scariest two-man frontcourt behemoth. The Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol tandem is still here, and if Randolph’s knee is healthy, we may finally get to see what Memphis can do with its four-man core all near 100 percent. The team outscored opponents by six points per 100 possessions last season — double its overall mark — when Randolph and Rudy Gay played together, a sign that the two can mesh just fine. They’ll play top-10 defense and force a ton of turnovers, and if Darrell Arthur recovers from his latest leg injury, he and Marreese Speights form a very nice backup big-man duo.
But this shooting-challenged team, starved for spacing, will miss O.J. Mayo’s off-ball movement and semi-threatening 3-point shot. It’s unclear if any of the backup guard brigade, both new and old, is ready to play heavy productive minutes. If Randolph can only return to something like 90 percent of his magical 2011 playoff form, Memphis needs Gay to step up as a passer and defender. The Grizz’s first-round loss to the Clippers last season was discouraging on both fronts.
Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin make a top-five offense almost on their own, and the Clippers addressed two major needs at once (defense and backup small forward) with the acquisition of Grant Hill. The two-guard situation remains dicey, and it’s fair to wonder if the Clips missed a chance to slot Lee there in order to placate Paul with the Jamal Crawford/Chauncey Billups pairing. Both can be productive players, especially Billups, but they’ll have trouble defending the best wings among the West’s elite (Bryant, Ginobili, Harden) and will cut into Eric Bledsoe’s time.
But that’s not necessarily a fatal weakness. An uncertain big-man rotation beyond Griffin would be. The Griffin/DeAndre Jordan combination was mostly a confused mess on defense last season, and the Clippers compensated by playing the all-defense, no-offense Reggie Evans/Kenyon Martin duo more than is healthy for any team’s scoring rate. Lamar Odom holds promise as a two-way backup other teams might actually have to guard, but it’s unclear where he is mentally and physically, and whether he and Griffin can form a credible defensive front line if Jordan falters again.
Exciting Upside, Too Many Questions
New York Knicks
It isn’t just that Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t work well together. It’s also that the Knicks scored only 98.5 points per 100 possessions — roughly equivalent to 25th in the NBA — when those two shared the floor with Tyson Chandler, and that the number actually got worse when that trio played with Jeremy Lin, per NBA.com.
The Knicks have to repair this frontcourt fit issue before even considering loftier expectations, and they’d have had a much better chance had they nabbed Jason Kidd as an organizer even just two seasons ago. But Kidd’s game is in sharp decline, and the Knicks’ other key signings are either ancient or league-average types who don’t really move the needle. The good news: This team defended at a top-10 level all season, including under Mike D’Antoni, and sported a point differential roughly equivalent to that of a 50-win club. Depth on the wing should give Mike Woodson a chance to play Anthony more at power forward, where he can torch slower defenders and fares better on defense. This should be a solid playoff team, but it’s hard to see more.
There are folks around the league actually projecting this team to miss the playoffs. It’s a minority view, and one with which I disagree, but it’s out there. We have no idea if this capped-out-in-perpetuity bunch can stop anyone, or if it will get reliable bench play from someone outside C.J. Watson and MarShon Brooks. Mirza Teletovic holds promise, and the Nets have other guys who can sop up minutes, but they’re not guys you really want sopping up minutes.
This team will score, and the size of Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace gives Avery Johnson the ability to play some smallish lineups. But a Brook Lopez–Kris Humphries frontcourt is a minus defensively, and minus defensive frontcourts generally don’t get you deep into the playoffs.
The League Pass crowd’s wet dream, and with good reason. Denver plays an exciting run-like-all-hell style, with significant substance below; the Nuggets took the fewest long 2s in the league last season despite their breakneck pace, and their point guards — especially Andre Miller — rank right at the top of the league in terms of producing assists that lead to 3s and dunks. Danilo Gallinari is due to combine good 3-point shooting and playmaking in the same season, and the Nuggets are a huge pain when he plays power forward.
But placing this team anywhere near the championship conversation feels premature. Kenneth Faried is the only reliable traditional power forward on the entire roster, and he struggled to guard in space last season — to say nothing of his nonexistent jumper. The center position is a mystery; JaVale McGee looked wonderful in exactly two playoff games against the Lakers and was a more stable player in Denver overall, but he has a much longer history of hurting his team whenever he steps on the floor. A lack of 3-point shooting will be a problem unless Gallo finds his stroke.
Let’s see how some of this stuff shakes out, and how much Andre Iguodala can help a porous, switch-happy defense, before anointing this team a real threat.
Andrew Bynum + shooters + two creative guards should be a reliable recipe for a top-10 NBA offense, a nice tonic for a team that couldn’t score after a hot start last season. But the pouty Bynum, an uneven defender, has never been the centerpiece of a team, and the Jrue Holiday/Evan Turner combination has always worked with another perimeter security blanket — Iguodala or Lou Williams, both elsewhere — around to create shots. Holiday and Turner both have nice potential, but neither has shown anything like lead-dog playmaking ability — something the Sixers will still need, even with Bynum dominating down low.
Spacing might be an issue for the starting lineup, and the front line is overstocked with center types now that Elton Brand’s departure leaves Thaddeus Young and the center-ish Lavoy Allen as the only true non-rookie power forwards on the roster. Young is making noise about possibly playing some small forward, but the Sixers have long thrived with him as an energetic small-ball four. Doug Collins and his staff will find some of the right answers, but it’s hard to see a contender here. The real mystery comes in the next couple of offseasons, when cap holds for Holiday and then Turner could take up most of Philly’s projected cap space — assuming they bring back Bynum at the max.
Solid Playoff Teams, But What’s the Plan?
This isn’t an insult. The Pacers are a very good team, clearly better than some of the teams listed in the above “sexy but uncertain” tier types. They finished in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession last season, a rare feat, and they return a starting lineup that absolutely blitzed the league. Their bench will probably be better than the group that consistently torpedoed the Pacers last season.
And yet: What’s the ceiling, both this season and going forward? Roy Hibbert can only play 30 minutes per game, they’re on schedule to regret the George Hill contract by the new year, Tyler Hansbrough shot 41 percent last season, Danny Granger may have peaked, their injury good luck may not repeat this season, and David West’s deal expires after this season. Bring West back on the wrong end of the age curve, and the Pacers might trap themselves with a team that just isn’t dynamic enough, on either end, to topple the Miami juggernaut. Let West walk, and where is Indiana finding that second big man? They’d have cap space in that scenario, but cap space guarantees nothing.
The hope for more clearly lies in Paul George and the possibility that this team’s defense moves a few ticks closer to Boston/Chicago territory. Let’s see if the timing works on either front.
In the last 10 seasons, only one team has finished in the top five in points allowed per possession and missed the playoffs: the 2010-11 Milwaukee Bucks, who put up one of the half-dozen worst scoring seasons in NBA history. Heck, 91 of the 100 teams who finished in the top 10 in points allowed per possession in that stretch made the playoffs, and of the nine who missed, eight ranked 27th or worse in scoring.
In other words: It’s very hard to play defense the way Chicago has under Tom Thibodeau and miss the postseason. The Bulls lost two key defenders in Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer, but both were backups, and this defense should remain stout as long as Thibodeau, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson are around. Gibson and Carlos Boozer functioned well in limited minutes together last season, and the Bulls could lean on that pairing or go small more often to minimize the pain of Asik’s departure. If Derrick Rose is playing at 80 percent of his peak level in April, this team will be a tough out. The bigger questions are still to come, since giving Gibson a fair-value extension before October 31 would obliterate Chicago’s cap space until the summer of 2015, which raises the question: What if this core just isn’t quite good enough to win it all, and 2011 was as good as it’s going to get?
An influx of off-the-dribble creativity and functional size should help Dallas bounce back from a miserable offensive season in which the Mavs ranked at or near the bottom of the league in shots at the rim and free throws. Rick Carlisle and his staff, especially defensive coordinator Monte Mathis, have proven they can break out all sorts of hybrid man-zone principles to build an above-average defense out of disparate parts. Still: Teams will test the Dirk Nowitzki/Chris Kaman front line when Elton Brand, the best defender of the three top bigs, is on the bench.
But Dallas hasn’t added an obviously above-average offensive player among its pile of signings and trade acquisitions, and it’s just hard to see this team toppling one of the powerhouses above it in the pecking order. There just still isn’t quite enough perimeter dynamism. They will have cap room to sign one max player this summer, and the slate is basically clean after that. Is a true rebuild coming?
Dreaming of No. 8 in the East — and a Much-Needed Leap
After back-to-back no. 9 finishes, and with both starting guards potentially headed to free agency, it’s playoffs-or-bust for the Deer. The team’s defense fell to bottom-five levels when Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings shared the floor last season, and Ellis’s poor technique and habits are far more problematic than his size.
Still: Ellis is an underrated passer who gets his teammates good looks near the basket, and Milwaukee’s offense jumped into top-five territory after the Ellis–Andrew Bogut swap. There are long-armed stoppers young and old waiting to clean things up on defense, but with Ersan Ilyasova entrenched as a floor-stretching power forward, the minutes competition among the bigs will be tough. That may push Tobias Harris and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, potential small-ball fours, to near full-time wing roles, which in turn could crunch the team’s spacing. This roster feels ripe for a trade, and brings a ton of questions. The biggest one is Jennings, who must get into the lane more often and broaden his interior passing repertoire in order to justify a big-money contract.
Milwaukee’s toughest competition for no. 8, with Dwane Casey building a decent defense, Andrea Bargnani healthy, and Kyle Lowry on hand to add the kind of high-speed dribble penetration Jose Calderon can’t provide. Toronto’s offense died when Bargnani was out last season, but its defense dropped off when he played. Good news: The advanced stats at NBA.com show that defensive drop-off wasn’t happening early on, before Bargnani’s calf injury, and Jonas Valanciunas gives Casey a new frontcourt puzzle piece. If the Raps get more consistency from somewhere — a big man, DeMar DeRozan, etc. — they’ll be trouble.
Don’t laugh, or at least laugh quietly. Detroit played .500 ball after a 4-20 start last season, and improved on both sides of the floor as the year went on. Brandon Knight will be better, and the fact that he shot 38 percent from deep as a rookie is very promising. Greg Monroe is already a star on offense, and Rodney Stuckey can work just fine as second or third option on a .500-plus team. Lawrence Frank can coach, and someone among their weird forward types should exceed expectations.
It probably still won’t be enough. There is no veteran backup for Stuckey, and defense is going to be an issue until someone emerges as a viable partner for Monroe. Also: Most of those weird forward types — Corey Maggette, Tayshaun Prince, Charlie Villanueva, Austin Daye, and the solid Jonas Jerebko — haven’t been very good of late.
Starting without John Wall and possibly Nene is enough to sink Washington’s already tenuous playoff hopes. It’s hard to see how Washington can create effective looks without those two, especially Wall, for whom this is an enormously important developmental year. Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza should turn this bunch into a league-average defensive team, but they’ll struggle to score and inevitably fall off when all the young guys come in. But if some of those young guys, especially Bradley Beal, Jan Vesely, and Kevin Seraphin, show some promise, this season will be a success.
The Sneaky Good Team, in Their Way
They’re a bit shallow and small on the wing, and those size issues mean they probably won’t be one of the league’s half-dozen or so stingiest defenses again this season. But people are sleeping on Atlanta if they think the Joe Johnson trade opened up an easy playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Few teams start a frontline combo as dynamic, on both ends, as the Josh Smith/Al Horford duo. If that’s the foundation of your roster, even if it’s just a one-year stopgap roster, you’re off to a good start.
The combination of more Jeff Teague, Lou Williams, and a dramatic increase in accurate outside shooting should make up for the loss of Johnson’s scoring ? and give Larry Drew the chance to build a faster, more varied offense. The small forward position is an issue, but Drew should be able to cobble together a night-to-night wing rotation out of Williams, Devin Harris (when paired with Teague), Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver, John Jenkins, and even DeShawn Stevenson. Don’t be shocked if Atlanta is playing in — and losing — the no. 4/no. 5 series in the first round.
In the League’s Most Exciting Race … for No. 8 in the West
Golden State Warriors
With Ricky Rubio recovering from ACL surgery, the Warriors walk in as the high-intrigue candidate for no. 8 in the ultracompetitive Western Conference. The theory here is spot-on — a boatload of shooting around a solid big man (Bogut) whose decline on offense since his gruesome arm injury won’t matter as much with David Lee next to him. Bogut will take up space on offense, both in the post and on the pick-and-roll, while hopefully anchoring a defense that has been an annual embarrassment. Bogut is one of the league’s half-dozen best defenders when healthy, a transformational player who can lift a defense to league-average levels on his own.
Carl Landry, Brandon Rush, and Jarrett Jack — a nice little last-minute snatch — provide very solid depth. If Bogut and Stephen Curry are healthy, this team should mesh well.
A clear playoff team if Rubio were healthy from the get-go. Minnesota was in the playoff race a year ago before successive injuries to Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Love (among others) took the team out of it. The Wolves managed that level of play despite the worst wing rotation in the league and heavy early-season minutes for both Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic.
The wing isn’t barren anymore, and Rick Adelman should be able to find both Andrei Kirilenko and Derrick Williams at least a few minutes a night at power forward by sliding Love to center. But without Rubio’s passing and defense, they’ll have to scrap for the bottom playoff seed — unless Brandon Roy provides something big.
Maybe the incumbent no. 8 seed deserves to be the favorite here. Heck, they could even leapfrog the Mavericks if things go well; there was very little difference in the big picture between Utah and Dallas last season, and the Jazz youngsters, especially Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, should make significant progress. Favors is especially tantalizing — a potential game-changing rim protector who could mitigate Al Jefferson’s slow-footed pick-and-roll defense if Tyrone Corbin pairs them more often. Utah allowed just 97.5 points per 100 possessions in the 455 regular-season minutes Jefferson and Favors played together, about one-quarter of which came as part of surprisingly effective ultra-big lineups that also included Paul Millsap masquerading as a small forward.
How Corbin juggles those three bigs, plus Enes Kanter, will be fascinating; the Jazz need Millsap’s spacing and off-the-dribble game, especially if Favors’s offense remains raw, but they also need to upgrade their interior defense if they ever want to make serious noise. They should be able to maintain a top-10 offense with more shooting and a deeper wing rotation via the acquisitions of the Williamses, Mo and Marvin.
In the Lottery, With Comfort
Discussions about Cleveland pushing for the no. 7 or no. 8 seed are premature. Kyrie Irving will emerge by the end of this season as one of the league’s 15 best players, Anderson Varejao will help improve a bottom-five defense (if they don’t trade him), and the young guys will develop. But this team is still really green, and its most important veteran import (C.J. Miles) hasn’t even cracked 40 percent from the floor combined over the last two seasons.
There is promise, including a bonanza of future first-round picks courtesy of Miami, the Lakers, and Sacramento. The larger internal debate is how Cleveland uses Varejao, those picks, and $10 million in leftover cap space on the trade market this season. The Dwight Howard deal took away one target the Cavs discussed — Andrew Bynum — so perhaps they’ll sit tight.
New Orleans Hornets
There’s a lot to like here, even if it won’t translate into a playoff team this season. New Orleans has three very good young players in Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson (on a fair deal), and Eric Gordon, the best young coach in the league in Monty Williams, some other interesting young pieces, and a very clean future cap sheet. Get on the bandwagon.
It’s fair to ask whether Orlando took the best possible package for Howard, since they swallowed nearly the equivalent of Brook Lopez’s long-term salary in the Arron Afflalo–Al Harrington combination. (Yes, Orlando fans, that takes into account the partially guaranteed nature of Harrington’s deal.) But the process of asset accumulation and rebuilding has started. There are some solid veteran pieces here, especially J.J. Redick on an expiring deal, and the Magic will listen if teams call. Look for Rob Hennigan to get this team on the cutting edge of player evaluation and scouting very fast, and for the Magic to struggle on both ends of the floor this season without any sort of tentpole player. They’ll work hard, but it won’t be enough to keep them out of the lottery.
They’re going to be bad, but you can’t accuse them of tanking now. They were ready to make offers for Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, and other free agents; they signed Brendan Haywood off the amnesty scrap heap to provide some interior defense; and Ramon Sessions is on the books for two years as a youngish mentor for Kemba Walker. Mike Dunlap, their new coach, is talking up the importance of shooting 3s instead of long 2s, and he has a long record as a defensive innovator. Bismack Biyombo is going to be a League Pass must-watch. Another year, another high pick, oodles of cap room as far anyone can project — plus an extra first-rounder from Detroit to make up for the one Michael Jordan coughed up for Tyrus Thomas.
In the Lottery, Defined by Uncertainty
The stars of the offseason are in for a rough season on the floor, even if they’ll start the year as League Pass darlings. Young teams, in terms of NBA experience, are usually both exciting and bad. The Rockets are going to be very young, especially if they deal Kevin Martin at some point — a task that isn’t easy given his salary and the tricky fit on rosters featuring assets Houston might want.
We know the Rockets want a star, and they hold a lot of the right assets — one net extra first-round pick, cap flexibility (though not as much present-day space as anticipated after signing both Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin), and young talent. It’s time to start asking: What happens if they never get that star?
There’s nothing fatally bad going on here, but aside from snagging an extra first-rounder from the Wolves in the Wesley Johnson–Robin Lopez–Hakim Warrick–Brad Miller trade, it’s hard to see a lot of long-term vision. Again: Nothing’s fatal. The Suns can work their way to max-level cap space as early as this summer. Goran Dragic is a solid starting point guard. Luis Scola is a post-up savant and toughness role model at a bargain rate. And dealing Lopez, a nice backup center, makes some sense if it’s true — as rumored — that he would only sign the one-year qualifying offer with Phoenix, which would have rendered him essentially untradable.
But $6 million is a bit much for Michael Beasley, even if this team urgently needs an injection of creativity on the wing. Beyond that, they look like a sieve on defense, and it’s hard to win that way unless you have a top-25 overall player. Phoenix will have the cap space to make a run at one, but is the surrounding talent right, as Lon Babby, the president of basketball operations, seems to think?
Portland Trail Blazers
You can see the vision here: LaMarcus Aldridge as the top-20 overall centerpiece, with Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews working the wing and Damian Lillard orchestrating. In the big picture, it’s unclear if the talent mix and the developmental timing will work well enough to keep Aldridge happy over the last three years of his deal. Batum or Lillard will have to make a leap, and fast, for that to happen, since Matthews — a solid player — appears to have hit something of a developmental ceiling.
Every player beyond those four is either totally unproven as an NBA commodity, or proven as a bad one. Portland will have to turn down options on just about all of their young guys to have meaningful cap room in either of the next two summers, so it’s unclear how they’ll find impactful help.
The names are big, but the results never seem to be, which means the Kings have some very fundamental questions to answer about the talent on hand. Talk to folks around the league, and Tyreke Evans is either on track for a $10 million contract or an O.J. Mayo–style $4 million deal. What kind of talent is Evans? And in what context does he need to be in order to thrive? You could ask the same of just about everyone here, and if DeMarcus Cousins weren’t 6-foot-11, you could ask it of him, too. Cousins made huge strides last season, but he still shot just 45 percent and played a plodding, reaching, lazy sort of defense away from the rim. The Kings have some interesting pieces and a real worker for a coach in Keith Smart, but where is this all going?