Biggest Winners and Losers from 2017 NBA Preseason

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 13, 2017

Biggest Winners and Losers from 2017 NBA Preseason

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    From this point on, we'll have literal NBA winners and losers. The 2017-18 regular season starts Tuesday, Oct. 17, and the games (finally!) count.

    That still leaves one last round of speculative and caveat-laden winners and losers of the figurative variety. Because even if the results of preseason contests lack meaning, they still give us information and, critically for our purposes, highlight storylines that may impact the upcoming campaign.

    Who performed well enough to inspire optimism? Who fell flat? And what broader hints did we get about the key figures of the season ahead?

    Before records start to matter, we have one final batch of preseason winners and losers.

Winner: Inevitability

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    The search for cracks in the Golden State Warriors' monolithic facade will be a full-time job this season. Twenty-nine other teams will strain their eyes, obsessively searching for tiny openings, praying for any sign of vulnerability.

    The only way the upcoming campaign features any drama is if the Warriors slip. If something significant goes wrong. If, for some reason, they descend from their celestial perch toward the plane of basketball mortality.

    Early in the preseason, following losses to the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves, the Warriors offered a faint glimmer of hope to the NBA's underclass (which, again, is every team but them; their dominance creates a two-tier system split into clubs that either are or aren't the Warriors).

    That hope, fragile and foolishly based on preseason play as it was, disappeared in roughly 30 minutes of court time. That's when, in the wee hours of the morning on Oct. 8, Stephen Curry and his team hit a gear familiar only to them. Playing the back end of a two-game set against the Wolves in China, Curry and the Dubs flashed the form that sets them apart.

    Rapid-fire tic-tac-toe passing, emphatic defensive rejections fueling the break, pull-up threes from obscene locations, drunk-on-confidence floaters over 7-footers just for fun—it was all on display as Golden State blistered the Wolves for 78 points between the second and third quarters. The final result was a 142-110 dismemberment that reminded the NBA of an overarching truth.

    As long as the Warriors can slip into these fugue states of basketball nirvana, these fever dreams where every mind-meld pass is pure and every shot is predestined to fall, they are indomitable.

    And what about improved chemistry with yet another year of the same core playing together? Added shooting from Omri Casspi and Nick Young? Greater frontcourt depth? A likely progression to the mean for Curry's shooting numbers after hitting a career-low 41.1 percent of his treys last year?

    There are possible avenues toward even more dominance. The monster may still be growing.

    At any rate, the Warriors found themselves in China, if only for a couple of quarters. It was all we needed to see to know that for the rest of the league, all is lost.

Loser: All of Us

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Hey, injuries! That'll be just about enough out of you.

    Take a hike. Scram. Long walk, short pier. Got it?

    You ruin everything, nobody likes you and you don't even wait until the games count to barge in and ravage our joyful anticipation like a drooling toddler going HAM on Lego towers. 

    You're responsible for depriving us of Kawhi Leonard for the entire preseason, and his sore quad could set back preparation for a potential MVP run. Worse than that, you've targeted the young and vulnerable—almost as if you sustain yourself by consuming optimism.

    Kris Dunn had a chance to secure a starting job in his second season. He might have redeemed himself after a bust of a rookie year. But the Chicago Bulls point guard, one of precious few bastions of hope for that rebuilding mess of a franchise, dislocated his finger and could lose a valuable month in recovery.

    Sacramento Kings rookie De'Aaron Fox bruised his lower back, which means he only got to do this once.

    Lonzo Ball sprained his ankle.

    And then there's Dante Exum, the most pitiable victim of your preseason rampage. The guy already lost his sophomore season to a torn ACL and was showing signs of progress ahead of his fourth year. But you saw fit to take him out with a gruesome shoulder dislocation. He might be done for the year, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

    What do you have planned for next year? Stubbed toes for all of the Philadelphia 76ers? Measles and tendonitis for every lottery pick?

    You've made losers of us all, cruelly picking off young talent and robbing us of players we wanted to see develop.

    Injuries, you're the worst.

Winner: Los Angeles Lakers

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    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    If you can tune out the incessant messaging from Lavar Ball's branding bullhorn, beaming thoughts into your brain that his son is the only thing in the universe that matters to the Lakers, you'll see that L.A. may have uncovered another asset of immense worth this preseason.

    Kyle Kuzma just kept producing.

    Picked 27th in the 2017 draft, the Utah product has impressed in each step of his development. He was a surprisingly strong performer at the predraft combine; he was named MVP of the Summer League title game; and he was brilliant offensively in preseason play, averaging 19.2 points on 56.3 percent shooting through his first five contests.

    Record scratch: It's entirely possible Kuzma will become a forgettable footnote.

    Who was that guy the Lakers thought would be their stretch 4 of the future but washed out after two years in the G League? Korkmaz? Kuzinz? Kazoo?

    Pertinently, The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reminds us the hot shooting Kuzma displayed in summer league and for stretches of preseason play could merely be more of his general streakiness: "Over the first 12 games of his junior season, he shot 19.4 percent from three while closing the year at 41.7 percent over his final 17 games. As a sophomore, he hit just 14.7 percent of threes through 23 games, before hitting 47.1 percent over the final 13."

    Then again, Kuzma's scoring versatility, competitiveness and clear "modern 4" profile are hard to ignore—especially with the prospect of his deep shooting being real. At some point, if the shots keep going in, it means something.

    If he's anything like the player he's appeared to be so far, the Lakers have a critical building block for their future. Kuzma is precisely the kind of guy you need to luck out on to construct a true contender. And while nobody's saying he'll be as impactful as, say, Draymond Green (35th overall), that kind of rookie-deal guy is what allows a general manager to spend huge on other acquisitions.

    If Kuzma contributes like this going forward, Julius Randle is wholly expendable—which is key because the Lakers need to dump him (and more) to clear room for two max-salary free agents next summer. More broadly, Kuzma's breakout shows the Lakers, under new management, are doing more than relying on their big-market appeal to build a roster.

    They're making their own luck.

Loser: Charlotte Hornets

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    We already hit injuries, but this one stands out enough to warrant special treatment for the way it clips the Charlotte Hornets' wings.

    Nicolas Batum's torn left ulnar collateral ligament, suffered during Charlotte's first preseason game, is an absolute killer—whether it takes him six or 12 weeks to return.

    The Hornets, despite Batum's reassurances, are not a deep team. Fully healthy, and now including Dwight Howard, they were a good bet to produce a season that resembled 2015-16, when they tied for the third-best record in the East with 48 wins. Their pieces, few as they may have been, fit together well.

    Kemba Walker would run the offense and be the star. Batum would do a little bit of everything and, critically, facilitate with the starters and reserves. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would defend, Marvin Williams would space the floor and Howard would roll to the rim (when not complaining about his lack of post-up touches).

    Tyler Zeller, Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky would bolster the bench.

    But now that Batum is down, there's nobody capable of filling the multifaceted role he was set to occupy. Charlotte's backcourt reserves are wildly unproven. Rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon aren't ready. Michael Carter-Williams had PRP injections in both knees this offseason (and is not very good). Julyan Stone has played 47 NBA games—none since 2013-14.

    Lamb can score and looked solid in the preseason, but he can't mimic Batum's feel or passing acumen.

    Walker makes the Hornets go, and losing him for any stretch would have been utterly devastating. But Batum is almost as difficult to replace.

    It's a good thing the East is a trash fire. The Hornets can still weather this.

    But losing Batum is a huge blow.

Winner: Good Sense

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    It didn't have much to do with the preseason specifically, but that's when Commissioner Adam Silver's comments about the length of the NBA season happened. So we're cramming in a winner here.

    Besides, the encouraging rationality of what Silver said deserves a spotlight.

    "There's no magic in an 82-game season," Silver told reporters. "It's not a change you're going to see in the short term, but I think when we step back and look holistically at our schedule and how playoffs are seeded we should look at the entire format."

    The league did away with stretches of four games in five nights this year, acknowledging the toll overexertion and quick-turnaround travel takes on player health and quality of competition. Silver's allusion to a possibly shortened schedule is the next logical step, albeit the toughest one to execute.

    Shrinking the game total from 82 would make every contest matter more while also further serving the interests of player health. Though it's unrealistic to expect significant trimming, anything that pushes every NBA game closer to "appointment television" status is a positive. We complain every year about the clunky feeling-out period of November, the slog of January and the tank-infested cool-down of late March.

    If there were fewer games (perhaps still spread over the usual October-to-April slate), players would sit out to rest less frequently, fans could build anticipation over longer intervals between games and each contest would have a greater impact on the outcome of the season.

    Don't we want higher stakes? Don't we want fewer injuries? Don't we want players approaching playoff intensity in regular-season games?

    Silver's comments were hardly committal, and there are a million issues preventing a shorter season. (Good luck getting team owners to relinquish gate receipts and broadcasting revenue.)

    But at the very least, they show the most progressive league in major American sports is openly questioning the sanctity of tradition and looking logically at how to put forth the best product possible. This type of thinking is exciting, even if it doesn't necessarily mean we should expect a 60-game season in the next decade.

Loser: New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Some preseason final scores mean more than others, particularly when you tie them to the bigger picture.

    In the New York Knicks' case, the broader context framing an 0-4 record with two losses to the Brooklyn Nets (one, a 117-83 demolition on Oct. 8) is this: They've fallen behind the other New York franchise—the one that hopelessly bottomed out for a half-decade and had virtually no draft assets to help it recover.

    Just...how?

    That's rhetorical, but if forced to answer, the response would have to include the facts that Nets GM Sean Marks is swinging slick deals left and right to fill the roster with inexpensive young talent, effectively hauling in lottery picks like D'Angelo Russell via trade instead of the draft. Moreover, coach Kenny Atkinson has the Nets spacing the floor and firing up threes. It's how smart, modern teams play.

    The Knicks, meanwhile, are lavishing big deals on Tim Hardaway Jr. and getting distressed assets back for disgruntled former stars.

    Even if Phil Jackson is gone, the dysfunction and haphazard planning persists.

    The obvious rebuttal here is that looking like major losers is actually a win for the Knicks. They own their 2018 first-round pick, and they clearly need a second star to pair with Kristaps Porzingis (who exited that blowout loss to the Nets with a sore hip).

    New York didn't get much financial relief from the Carmelo Anthony trade. Talent additions won't be coming in free agency for at least another year, which means lottery position is critical.

    Maybe getting out of this hole requires digging further down.

Winner: Jamal Murray

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    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    Jamal Murray had the handle, smooth creativity and versatile scoring touch of a star in his rookie season. It's just that all those shots he created didn't often go in.

    If you knew nothing of the numbers, Murray's unteachable guile and picturesque stroke would have led you to believe he was a high-efficiency 20-point scorer in his first year. But he shot just 40.4 percent from the field and 33.4 percent from long range. It made no sense.

    Fortunately for the Denver Nuggets—who were destined to finish among the league's top five offenses whether Murray's shots started falling or not—the second-year combo guard knocked down many of those quality looks in preseason play.

    He shot 42.9 percent from deep in his first four preseason games, needing just seven field-goal attempts to hang 20 points on the Lakers on Oct. 4.

    Throughout his rookie year, Murray looked the part of a dynamic scorer...right up to the point when his shots clanged off the iron.

    If the preseason is any indication, there'll be far less clanging this year. And that should help the Nuggets push toward a win total in the high 40s.

    *Additional winner: Murray's backcourt mate Gary Harris, who signed a four-year, $84 million contract.

    **Additional, additional winner: The Nuggets, who have both Murray and Harris, plus Nikola Jokic, plus Paul Millsap. Don't be surprised if these guys finish fifth in the West, ahead of more hype-laden clubs like the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Loser: Markelle Fultz

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    What even is this?

    "I think [his shoulder] is affecting him more than he lets on," Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown told Kevin O'Connor. "You can tell with his free throw, trying to get that ball up. It's far out from his body. He's been working on trying to get that thing rehabilitated. And the lack of the quantity of his three-point shooting may be a sign that it's hurting a little more than he's letting on."

    It's not cool to hope a player is injured, and it's basically unheard of when it comes to top overall picks like Markelle Fultz. But at least if what Brown says is true, there's a reasonable explanation for a stroke that went from being a little hitchy in college to one that is utterly busted now.

    Otherwise, the Sixers have a crisis on their hands.

    No matter how slithery Fultz is off the dribble, no matter how deft his handle and deceptive his in-between game is, the modern NBA demands perimeter shooting from backcourt players—if those players have any designs on stardom, that is.

    Fultz shot 7-of-24 in his first two preseason games, failing to hit any of his three triple attempts and making only two of his five foul shots. Those numbers are almost pleasantly surprising given that stroke.

    Could Philly poach San Antonio Spurs shooting guru Chip Engelland for, say, $30 million? It might be worth putting in a call.

Winner: Joel Embiid, the Sixers and Sixers Fans

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Worry not, Sixers fans!

    Well, actually, worry a ton, but maybe save it for later. Joel Embiid will be an injury risk until he retires. For the moment, it's safe to rejoice that Philadelphia had faith enough in Embiid to hand him a max five-year rookie extension.

    They must have liked what they saw in the 31 games he's played in three years.

    The commitment has strings attached, as Embiid's contract features escape routes for the Sixers if another major injury renders the big man unusable going forward, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks of ESPN.

    If things go well, which wouldn't bother the Sixers a bit, Embiid could qualify for an extra 5 percent of the salary cap in each year of his deal. All he has to do to bump his cut from 25 to 30 percent of the Sixers' available cash is win MVP, win Defensive Player of the Year or make an All-NBA team.

    There's risk on both sides, and paying Embiid as much as $176 million over five seasons is scary. Still, this is a remarkable win for the hopeful masses yearning to see Embiid deliver on his considerable promise.

    Which he did in 15 minutes of preseason action Oct. 11, scoring 22 points, grabbing seven rebounds and getting to the foul line an unfathomable 18 times.

    "Something like tonight will remind us all that's why he was paid what he was paid," Brown told reporters afterward.

Loser: Minnesota Timberwolves?

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    Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

    The question mark is a requirement because it'll be a while until we know for sure whether Andrew Wiggins' max extension is one of the worst of its kind.

    For now, all we can safely say is that it looks like it might be.

    Wiggins inked a five-year agreement with the Minnesota Timberwolves worth $146.5 million on Oct. 11. The downside risk exists mainly because Wiggins, to date, has been nothing more than an empty scorer.

    He didn't shoot efficiently while averaging over 23 points per game last year and ranked 92nd out of 93 players at his position in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus.

    He contributed anemically elsewhere, according to Kevin Pelton:

    "Despite his athleticism, the 8.8 percent of available defensive rebounds Wiggins grabbed was worse than the average for guards (10.9 percent), and his 1.3 steals per 100 plays were identical to the average for centers. And Wiggins rarely set up teammates; his 2.8 assists per 100 plays were slightly better than the average for centers (2.7) and worse than the average for power forwards (3.0)."

    Wiggins, in three preseason games, averaged 25 minutes, two rebounds and 1.3 assists.

    If that fat contract is based on the idea that Wiggins has the potential to be much more than he currently is (which it must be), he's not showing signs of growth just yet. In other words, this is a rotten deal until proved otherwise.

                    

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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