Every NBA Team's Biggest Flaw as Training Camps Open
Training camps are a time for NBA teams to bask in unencumbered optimism. Pretty much everyone is going to shoot more threes, has packed on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle in all the right places and can't wait to have the best, healthiest, most drama-free year ever.
Enjoy this unimpeded idealism while it lasts. Reality checks are inbound.
Not every player is headed for a career year. Not every squad has the manpower or talent to exceed expectations. They all have their flaws—plural. Even the comfiest situations aren't perfect.
Some of these faults are laughably inconsequential. Others are understandable symptoms of a franchise starting over or slogging through a rebuild. A select few may even disappear as the season wears on courtesy of internal development.
Teams will be sorted into tiers to account for varying degrees of weaknesses. We'll start with those who won't at all be undone by their most glaring flaws and work our way up the urgency ladder.
Boston Celtics: Shooting Specialists
I vomited immediately after writing this. Finding a flaw for the Celtics verges on impossible. On paper, they're the NBA's most balanced team. But penciling in "They're perfect!" wasn't an option, so here we are.
As NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted in July, the Celtics have only one player who ranks among the top 50 of high-volume three-point accuracy (minimum 500 attempts) over the past three seasons: Kyrie Irving. This doesn't come off as a damning concern. Every other member of Boston's starting five is an above-average shooter, and neither Jaylen Brown nor Jayson Tatum has been in the league long enough to establish themselves as sustainable long-range supernovas.
Still, the Celtics aren't exactly overrun with shooting specialists. They have star power—perhaps even too much. Breakouts from Brown and Tatum complicate the offensive totem pole as Irving and Gordon Hayward work their way back from injuries.
Not sold? I'm with you, to be honest. The Celtics finished eighth in three-point-attempt rate and second in long-range accuracy last year. But aside from Tatum, who began his career under the guise he wouldn't be Boston's No. 1 option, is there anyone on this roster you'd 100 percent trust to both thrive within and welcome a predominantly catch-and-shoot role?
Golden State Warriors: Second-Unit Shooting
Too many perceive the Warriors to be three-ball chuckers. They aren't. They ranked 16th in three-point-attempt rate last season, behind such luminaries as the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons. While the Warriors led the league with a 39.1 percent clip from downtown, their consistency from beyond the arc began and ended with a star-stuffed starting five.
Golden State's bench finished dead last in three-point-attempt rate and 28th in outside accuracy. Both numbers should climb if Andre Iguodala plays with more than cursory interest before April. Beyond that, the Warriors didn't do anything to boost their second-unit spacing.
Failing a demonstrative leap from Quinn Cook, they might actually be worse off. Nick Young was bad last year, but he still canned 37.7 percent of his triples.
The Warriors won't give a damn. They're drowning in All-NBA talent. Head coach Steve Kerr can stagger the minutes of his superstar quartet to preserve floor balance. Even if he errs on the side of trial-and-error experiments with bench-heavy mobs, Golden State remains a virtual lock to finish with a top-two offense.
Houston Rockets: Declining Defensive Versatility
"I think we're definitely a better team," Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta told reporters Monday during media day. "I think we're good enough to get to the Western Conference Finals, and then you need a little luck. Anything less than the Western Conference Finals would be a big disappointment."
Easy does it there, Big T. Getting back to the Western Conference Finals is a plausible goal for the Rockets. To say they're better than last year's 65-win squad that placed second in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency ignores how much they lost over the offseason.
Cutting ties with Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute should translate to a noticeable drop-off on defense. James Ennis will help to fill some of those gaps, but he has never averaged more than 23.5 minutes per game. Defending at a high level while replacing Mbah a Moute's (25.6 minutes) or Ariza's (33.9) court time is a tall task. Ennis is not going to solely negate the absences of both.
Houston is facing an unfamiliarity complex even in the best-case scenario. Clint Capela, James Harden and Chris Paul logged only 85 possessions last season without both Ariza and Mbah a Moute on the floor, according to Cleaning The Glass. The defense imploded during that time, and life will only get harder as the Rockets plan around Carmelo Anthony's playing time and the retirement of assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who implemented the team's successful switch-heavy scheme, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Championship contention should remain the standard in Houston. And who knows: Maybe Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams will provide ample defensive aid without hurting the offense. But at the bare minimum, it looks like Rockets are bound for defensive regression—and a less convincing stand against the Warriors because of it.
Toronto Raptors: Small-Ball Rebounding
Holy friggin' nitpicking.
Toronto does not have a lot of potential flaws from which to choose unless you're convinced Kawhi Leonard won't recapture his 2016-17 form. And presuming the demise of a top-five player is more out there than claiming the Raptors are closer than not to near-perfection.
Squint hard enough, and you can envision a scenario in which this team's greatest strength works against it. The Raptors will probably roll out Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas as the starting frontcourt on most nights, but their small-ball arrangements figure to be a frequently used crutch—as they should be.
Lineups that feature Leonard, OG Anunoby, Danny Green and Kyle Lowry with Ibaka or Pascal Siakam give off a cheat-code vibe. But rebounding during these stints could be an issue. Toronto struggled on the boards last year whenever Anunoby played the 4 or Ibaka manned the 5, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Units with Siakam jumping center fared well, but most of those minutes came in tandem with Ibaka. The party changes when subbing him out for a wing like Anunoby or Leonard. That won't deter the Raptors from leaning into small-ball mismatches. It will, however, be interesting to see what happens when they try to neutralize bigger squads with five-out hybrids.
It's Probably Not the End of the World
Denver Nuggets: Absence of Bigger Wings
Denver doesn't need a larger wing to weaponize its offense. Nikola Jokic is one of the best passing big men in league history, and he's surrounded by first-rate complements who can dabble in shot creation when called upon.
Replacing Wilson Chandler in the starting lineup with Will Barton and bringing Isaiah Thomas off the bench gives this group an outside shot at unseating Golden State's NBA-best scoring machine. But the defense will have a hard time topping its bottom-five finish without someone who can hang with star wings.
Gary Harris works his tail off and can navigate those assignments for more than a few beats. He is also 6'4" and has a limited wingspan. Counting on Barton to survive against the 6'7" to 6'9" class when he's 6'6" himself is not sustainable. Malik Beasley will run into the same caveat—if he plays. Torrey Craig is better off switching onto point guards than graduating from swingmen to explosive wings. Juan Hernangomez will only hold up against slower non-bigs.
The numbers bear this out. Denver's defensive rating never came close to average with any of these players at the 3, per Cleaning The Glass:
Barton didn't even register as a small forward last year; he spent more of his time as the de facto point guard. A fully healthy Paul Millsap should give way to marginal improvement. Jokic's defensive rebounding is much more of an asset next to someone who can chase around mobile bigs. But Millsap shouldn't be consigned to guarding in space willy-nilly. Rotating him on to wings is not a sustainable model.
Unless Michael Porter Jr. gets healthy and immediately contributes on defense, the Nuggets will have to hope their offense is transcendent enough for this not to matter. And it might be.
Los Angeles Lakers: Shallow Center Rotation
JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and—well, would you look at that: The Lakers are out of centers.
Specific designations are overrated and unnecessary. We all know it. But, like, damn. Size still matters. And the Lakers don't have much of it.
Michael Beasley and Kyle Kuzma could—read: should—see time in the middle for L.A. this season. Moritz Wagner probably needs to get his NBA legs alongside a second big, but the Lakers don't have the personnel to cast a 7-footer at power forward.
LeBron James is definitely getting run at center. The Lakers have made that clear. Five-out lineups with him and Beasley or Kuzma trading off big-man coverage will bulldoze most opponents into submission, but this retains a believe-it-when-you-see-it feel. And even if James and the Lakers commit to high-volume small-ball, they'll still be at risk of getting steamrolled by select squads rolling out rangy bigs.
Milwaukee Bucks: Backcourt Depth
Milwaukee's rotation is no longer overwhelmingly top-heavy.
Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez bring depth to an otherwise shallow frontcourt in more ways than one. They ensure the Bucks stretch two replacement-level options deep at both frontline spots, and having Ilyasova at the 4 increases the likelihood of success for the disappointing Giannis Antetokounmpo-at-the-5 iterations. (Thon Maker should benefit, too.)
No such depth exists in the backcourt. Milwaukee will be working with some combination of Matthew Dellavedova, Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton and rookie Donte DiVincenzo. Delly is the only one of the bunch who's partially qualified to grab the offensive reins when both Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe are on the bench, although that isn't saying much. The Bucks barely pumped in 99 points per 100 possessions when he played without them last season, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Pulling Malcolm Brogdon from the starting five would alleviate the offensive slippage, but it compromises the second-unit defense if Tony Snell supplants him. Using both as backups forces Milwaukee to promote Brown, Connaughton or DiVincenzo. Brown found some success next to last season's other four starters, but not over a telltale span (under 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass).
Talent at the top will continue to carry the Bucks. They don't need a platoon behind the starting backcourt to contend for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That doesn't entirely excuse the shallow well of second-stringers. They'll need a surprise showing from someone to maximize their regular-season standing and augment their playoff rotation.
New Orleans Pelicans: Wing Depth
Burning their free-agency exceptions on Julius Randle (mid-level) and Elfrid Payton (bi-annual) is not something for which the Pelicans must apologize. Randle soups up an already supersonic offense alongside Anthony Davis and as a small-ball 5 in bench mobs, and starting point guards do not get cheaper than Payton, an advanced-metric enigma with counting-stats cachet.
But investing that money in the frontcourt and backcourt left the Pelicans largely unable to beef up their wing rotation. Moving beyond Solomon Hill's defense and Darius Miller's shooting will demand improvisation.
Nikola Mirotic should get run at the 3 in triple-big arrangements with Davis and Randle. E'Twaun Moore's days as a guard are behind him. Jrue Holiday-at-small-forward setups could become a staple.
New Orleans has nothing to worry about on offense. Most of its alternative makeups will get buckets in overabundance. The defense is at risk of dipping below league average. Moore is nothing if not a fighter, but wing minutes allocated to Holiday, Mirotic and even Miller threaten to surrender points as fast as they accumulate them.
Utah Jazz: Steady No. 2 Scoring
Take this recycled hair-splitting as a compliment, Jazz fans. Your team remains so deep and well-balanced, an indisputable No. 2 scorer is all that separates it from the Association's heaviest hitters.
Ricky Rubio was second on the team by an appreciable margin last season in pull-up attempts per game, and the Jazz ranked 29th in efficiency on shots that came after using between three and six dribbles.
Utah won't even feel the ill-effects of its committee offense during the regular season. Mitchell will eclipse the absence of an every-night second in command if he shoots better than 34.6 percent on pull-up jumpers, and head coach Quin Snyder's screen- and cut-heavy offense manufactured wide-open looks with league-best frequency last year.
Combined with a Rudy Gobert-anchored defense, Utah has the tools to crash the race for the West's No. 2 seed. But the playoffs are a different beast. Defenses have more time to tailor game plans. From-scratch shot creation is essential, and the Jazz don't have enough of i.
This Might Fix Itself
Brooklyn Nets: Still Without an Obvious Cornerstone
D'Angelo Russell could fill Brooklyn's cornerstone void if he doesn't miss significant time for a third consecutive season. Or perhaps a stronger, higher-volume three-point-shooting version of Jarrett Allen could be the guy. Or maybe Spencer Dinwiddie will bump up his efficiency amid greater usage and more off-the-bounce work, in which case he could be the guy. (News flash: He's still only 25.)
Dzanan Musa is a good dark-horse pick for those with patience. B/R's Jonathan Wasserman compared the 19-year-old to Bojan Bogdanovic, but he is a more diverse decision-maker out of the pick-and-roll and has the foot speed to be an impactful defender, particularly if he packs on muscle and lives at the 4.
Because saving the best for last is fun, don't sleep on Caris LeVert. He's showcased a lightning-quick first step and workable off-the-dribble instincts through his first two seasons. He should be ready to initiate more pick-and-rolls this season, and his 7'0" wingspan married with his activity in the half-court bodes well for his defensive development. He led all Brooklyn players who made at least five appearances last season in deflections per 36 minutes.
Here's the thing: None of the Nets' prospects are unchallenged options. They do not have an unequivocal face of the future. They may develop one, or trade for one (holla, Jimmy Butler), or sign one next summer.
For now, they remain without a sure thing.
Dallas Mavericks: Wing Depth
Not only do the Mavericks have a limited number of wings on their roster, but they seem inclined to exhaust their depth from the opening tip. Their projected starting lineup entering the season is Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Luka Doncic and DeAndre Jordan, per MacMahon.
Let us first take a moment to shower Dirk Nowitzki with praise for welcoming a role off the bench. The guy is a legend, along with someone you'd definitely want with you when posing for amusement-park-ride photos. But bringing him off the bench instead of Matthews or Doncic leaves Dallas with one playable reserve wing in Dorian Finney-Smith.
This roster and rotation makeup is dicey, especially on defense. The Mavericks do not have a conventional wing in waiting to nuke the ambiguity unless you're a Ryan Broekhoff stan. Then again, head coach Rick Carlisle has never needed orthodox solutions.
Devin Harris spent almost half of his time at small forward last season before Dallas traded him to Denver, according to Cleaning The Glass. He's back in town, and the Mavericks drafted Jalen Brunson, a guard who's able to play off the ball and is used to getting his hands dirty on defense. The expected starting five could speak to a more profound investment in super-small ball.
Whether that strategy holds up defensively over the long haul is a matter best tackled after its official implementation. But the offensive returns on those lineups should be fire.
Indiana Pacers: Defensive Switchability
Although the Pacers finished eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions after last year's All-Star break, their defense is far from a top-10 formality. They've doubled-down on dual-big lineups since last season. They signed Kyle O'Quinn, and Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourts will be commonplace in 2018-19.
Leaving Thaddeus Young to toil away at small forward is fine. He is one of the league's most underrated combo-forward gnats, and he'll be able to pitch in on stretch-big closeouts. Giving more time to the Sabonis-Turner partnership is still a risk. Indiana coughed up 113.5 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor last year, according to Cleaning The Glass.
None of those minutes came with Young, so the Pacers have that going for them. Sabonis and Turner are also more ambulatory than advertised when guarding pick-and-rolls. And both spent the summer trying to perfect their portability, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe noted.
"Turner and Sabonis spent the summer getting leaner and faster. 'We want to make it work,' Sabonis says. 'We want the coaches to trust us.' Turner lost weight, went all-in on yoga, and worked to make his hips stronger. 'I want us to be interchangeable on defense,' Turner says. Sabonis also focused on hips. Honestly, I have never heard two men talk more about their hips.
"Sabonis will have to close out on shooters without letting them blow by him. He hopes he is limber enough now to cover in one efficient step the same distance he covered in two last season, he says. Both practiced switching onto guards as a way to hone dexterity."
Rookie Alize Johnson, who the Pacers selected at No. 50, offers more nomadic defense than Indy's other bigs. He could feasibly leap-frog TJ Leaf on the frontcourt totem pole if given the opportunity. But maybes and possibles do not equate to assured strengths. The Pacers defense carries the burden of proof until, well, it doesn't need to anymore.
Philadelphia 76ers: Bench Shooting/Scoring
Parting ways with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova while failing to mine gold in free agency chips away at the Sixers' offensive depth. Their bench placed 29th in three-point accuracy and dead last in points scored per 100 possessions prior to the All-Star break. Similar struggles are back in play now.
Dealing for Wilson Chandler, signing Mike Muscala and retaining Amir Johnson were all solid moves in the face of marquee strikeouts, but none of them are offensive fulcrums. The same goes for No. 16 overall pick Zhaire Smith. Rookies are seldom saviors, and he won't be available to start the season as he recovers from a Jones fracture in his left foot.
All eyes will be on Markelle Fultz to lead the second unit. Head coach Brett Brown can strategically stagger minutes for Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Ben Simmons to try to keep the offense on track, but Fultz is the ultimate tipping point.
If he brings off-the-bounce shot creation and three-point range to his partnership with T.J. McConnell, the Sixers won't look the least bit shallow. If he struggles as a focal point among backups, they'll be back to scoping out the trade and buyout markets.
Washington Wizards: Unreliable Bench
Picking on the Wizards' bench has become an over-explored pastime. The problem is, their second-stringers deserve to remain under the microscope.
Treading water during Bradley Beal and John Wall's breathers is still the primary hitch. Tomas Satoransky made genuine strides last year, but Washington's offense fell off a cliff when he played without both of them, per Cleaning The Glass. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Markieff Morris have always loomed as intriguing hubs in theory, but never in sample size or practice.
Austin Rivers might come to the rescue here. He's more serviceable ball-handler than punchline. He joined Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul and Kemba Walker as the only players to hit at least 37 percent of their pull-up threes on 175 or more attempts. On the flip side, the Los Angeles Clippers posted a 94.5 offensive rating (1st percentile) in the 402 possessions he logged at point guard, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Turning to Otto Porter for secondary ball-handling during star-less stints is something the Wizards should try in greater volume. Their offense hummed under those circumstances last year so long as he played with either Oubre or Satoransky.
Hey, Rebuilding Happens
Atlanta Hawks: Frontcourt Defense
The Hawks haven't done anything wrong here. Except maybe pass on the opportunity to draft Jaren Jackson Jr. if they weren't sold on Luka Doncic. A Jackson-John Collins frontcourt is the kind of promising base that would have given Atlantans another reason to get up in the morning.
Other than that could-be hiccup—which says more about their faith in Trae Young—the Hawks are right on schedule. They're trying to be bad, and by golly, they should be bad. They might even be that awkward type of bad, in which they don't contend for the postseason but win way more games than they want. Collins, Young, Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Jeremy Lin and Taurean Prince have the makings of a not-terrible outfit.
We digress. The Hawks need another frontcourt pillar—preferably one with strong defensive stewardship. Dedmon and Collins are an interesting duo in the interim, but the former is entering a contract year and is no-brainer trade bait.
Holding out hope for that frontline stopping power to materialize in-house is OK. Collins has the bounce and hustle to impose his will at the rim, where Atlanta ranked 18th in opponent field-goal percentage. Omari Spellman is cut from a comparable mold. The Hawks could luck into some stingy small-ball lineups with one of them operating alongside Prince—combinations that had more holes last year than Louis Sachar's 1998 novel.
New York Knicks: Ambiguous Offensive Pecking Order
This concern is not specific to the Knicks' No. 1 option.
Kristaps Porzingis will be at the center of everything whenever he returns from his torn left ACL injury. From the sound of things, Kevin Knox will be given the latitude to assume focal-point duties in his absence. As the rookie told Vice Sports' Michael Pina:
"[Head coach David Fizdale] wanted me to get in shape, which I did. I ran every single day. So, I mean, just being able to play out the post. He wanted me to play a lot in the post and off the elbows in situations. He feels like that's where I'm gonna get the ball a lot. And be able to make the right reads out of pick-and-rolls. He also wants me to work on jump shots, corner threes, I mean we've really just been working on a lot of different stuff. He wants me to play everywhere on the court."
Giving the Knicks the benefit of the doubt with Knox's usage—they deserve it, relative to their lack of involvement in the Jimmy Butler rumor mill—still leaves questions about how the food chain will unfold behind him.
Will they let Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke sponge up touches and shots that are better off going to Frank Ntilikina? Do they have the guts to curb Enes Kanter's playing time in favor of Mitchell Robinson? How invested are they in 23-year-old Mario Hezonja? Is he a big-picture piece worth featuring? Or is he a one-year placeholder they'll allow to fire away, potentially at the expense of volume for Knox and Ntilikina?
New York has plenty of control over this nebulous pecking order and appears genuinely bent on grooming its kiddies. But old habits die hard. A fuzzy chain of command or tacit commitment to veterans would cap the development in which they claim to be so invested.
Phoenix Suns: Unproven Point Guard Rotation
It might be unfair to file the Suns under "Hey, Rebuilding Happens." They're clearly trying to accelerate their position in the Western Conference. They're overpaying Trevor Ariza, and they traded for Ryan Anderson with the intention of starting him, per Wojnarowski.
But no one outside the Phoenix organization is purchasing stock in this team's playoff chances. The Suns even have to know their place in the ultra-wild West is a foregone conclusion. They still skew toward the younger side, their starting lineup will probably include two rookies and a sophomore, and oh, they don't have a lick of experience to spare at point guard.
Letting Elfrid Payton walk (smart) and trading Brandon Knight (whatever, really) has left them with Shaquille Harrison, De'Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo—two rookies and a sophomore with under 400 minutes of game action. Phoenix can and should trot out positionless lineups with Devin Booker and Josh Jackson as the primary ball-handlers, but that doesn't profile as a forever blueprint.
Tapping into the unknown is always exciting. The Suns have three worthwhile options to test out. But not one of them is considered a top-shelf prospect. Stashing them in the "This Might Fix Itself" tier is a little too generous for anyone who isn't banking on the acquistion of Damian Lillard or Kemba Walker.
Feel Free to Worry
Charlotte Hornets: Small-Ball Unfriendly
Eking out small-ball lineups is almost a non-option for the Hornets. Each of their primary bigs—Bismack Biyombo, Willy Hernangomez, Frank Kaminsky, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller—could receive regular playing time, and on the rare occasions they're driven to play four non-bigs, their playmaking 4 candidates won't invite much fanfare.
Charlotte forfeited 125.0 points per 100 possessions last season in the short time Nicolas Batum spent at power forward, according to Cleaning the Glass. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's spurts at the 4 were far more productive, but a majority of those minutes came with Treveon Graham, now a member of the Nets.
Miles Bridges will bring some much-needed relief to this dynamic, either as wing support or a small-ball power forward himself. The Hornets can protect their defensive integrity even further by ticketing Williams or Zeller as the center in these setups rather than Biyombo, Hernangomez or Kaminsky.
Will they make an effort to unleash these lineups with so much built-in size? And will these combinations be effective if they do? The Hornets have a lot to figure out if they want to keep up with today's stylistic trends.
Los Angeles Clippers: Excess of One-Way Players
After years of grappling with shallow supporting casts, the Clippers have finally cobbled together some real depth. It comes on the heels of Lob City's death and at a time when the franchise is inexactly straddling the line between competing and rebuilding. But hey! The Clippers depth chart is stacked with playable bodies. That has to count for something—roughly 34 to 39 wins.
Professional mood-killers like myself will point out this roster is more volume than substance. Los Angeles is steeped in non-stars and placeholders. And that works with the front office's plan to carve out two max slots for next summer's free agency.
Some more two-way players would still be nice. The Clippers have very few—maybe none at all.
Patrick Beverley's status is a mystery this side of another right knee surgery. Avery Bradley's defensive reputation has been picked apart, and he's coming off a season in which he notched a bottom-20 effective field-goal percentage among the 153 players to attempt at least 500 shots and 100 three-pointers.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will get there but probably not as a rookie. Board the Tyrone Wallace hype train with cautious optimism. Luc Mbah a Moute could qualify depending on how well he shoots threes and puts the ball on the floor outside Houston's space-drunk offense.
To be clear: The Clippers are not a hopeless cause. They have plenty of talent, fluid books and ready-made blockbuster trade offers. Their capacity to catch the West by surprise as currently constructed is just a little overblown.
Memphis Grizzlies: Not Enough Volume Wing Shooters
Let me reiterate my previous thoughts on the Grizzlies:
"Half-court spacing still profiles as a hairy wart. The Grizzlies have not added a knockdown shooter. They can talk themselves into [Jaren] Jackson [Jr.] and [Garrett] Temple posting above-average clips, but neither is a volume guy. Jackson might be someday—just not now. Temple has only cleared five three-point attempts per 36 minutes twice in his career.
"[Kyle] Anderson is waiting for his outside touch to find him. His mid-range game is down pat, but he's a career 33.8 percent shooter from deep on afterthought volume.
"Expecting Dillon Brooks to fill this role for extensive stretches will attach unnecessary urgency to his learning curve. Something about relying on MarShon Brooks feels wrong."
Nothing has changed. The Grizzlies are stuck on this tricky loop. Adding Anderson and Jackson will transform their defensive versatility, but shaky spacing threatens to undo some of the offensive upside.
Anderson specifically needs room to work in the half-court, and Mike Conley's return to form alone doesn't guarantee he'll have it. Be it Jackson, Temple, Dillon Brooks, MarShon Brooks, a surprisingly healthy Chandler Parsons or Wayne Selden, Memphis needs one or two more players to rival the off-the-dribble spacing Tyreke Evans took with him.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Dearth of Off-Ball Shooters
Moving on from Carmelo Anthony will inject some clarity into the Thunder's offensive structure. Everyone else can now work to fit around Paul George and, once he recovers from knee surgery, Russell Westbrook.
The benefits may not be felt from the outset. Oklahoma City posted 110.1 points per 100 possessions when George and Westbrook played without Anthony compared to 113.7 with him. But the defensive advantages that come from sprinkling in other wing options will be clear right away, which would make similar offensive numbers or something close to them an upgrade.
This presumes the Thunder have the spacing within their defensive talent to float a care-free scoring machine. They might not. Check out the efficiency on spot-up threes last season from this year's most notable shooters:
- Paul George: 41.7 percent
- Alex Abrines: 40.4 percent
- Raymond Felton: 39.4 percent
- Patrick Patterson: 36.5 percent
- Terrance Ferguson: 35.8 percent
- Russell Westbrook: 34.2 percent
- Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot: 32.6 percent
- Dennis Schroder: 27.7 percent
- Jerami Grant: 27.6 percent
- Andre Roberson: 23.5 percent
The word you're looking for is unspectacular. With the exception of George and Abrines, even the Thunder's more stat-friendly players engender concern. Their numbers came on minimal volume.
Oklahoma City's offense should be fine in the regular season. George and Westbrook promise that much. But the offense will be solvable in the playoffs without better off-ball accuracy.
San Antonio Spurs: Three-Point Shooting
The Spurs never fancy themselves free-flinging snipers. Good thing, too. This year's group can't be.
Look no further for evidence than San Antonio's projected starting five: Dejounte Murray, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. DeRozan, of all people, led this gaggle in three-point makes per 36 minutes with 1.2—a mark that came on 31.0 percent shooting and ranked 160th in the league, just behind...Dewayne Dedmon.
Adhering to rock-bottom volume isn't going to fly this year. The Spurs won't have a top-five defense on which to fall back. Gregg Popovich deserves more Coach of the Year fuss than usual if they do. Three of their most important defenders are on new teams (Kyle Anderson, Green, Leonard), DeRozan is a career liability, and Gasol should start collecting Social Security any day now.
Fixing this flaw isn't as simple as launching more threes. The Spurs need attempts to fall for a calculated uptick to mean anything, and they're predominantly working with question marks, non-spacers and low-volume shooters.
Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills are no strangers to letting three-balls rip, but their minutes will hamstring a defense already on an apparent decline. Davis Bertans will help only so much. Lonnie Walker IV and Derrick White have to-be-determined roles. Any team betting on Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter is not in good shape.
Blind faith in the Spurs remains acceptable currency, but they have their work cut out for them if they're yet again, for the umpteenth time, going to defy regressive forecasts.
Look, They Wouldn't Be Good Anyway
Chicago Bulls: Perimeter Defense
Kris Dunn is a veritable defensive monster. He can get a little foul happy, but Chicago will take that when his hands move at warp speed. Among the 374 players to clear 1,000 minutes over the past two seasons, no one has a higher steal rate than Dunn. And he forced turnovers on 23.0 percent of the pick-and-rolls he guarded last season—the fourth-highest mark of the 77 players to face at least 200 such possessions.
The Bulls' defensive integrity on the perimeter ends there, with Dunn. Justin Holiday is the closest they come to having a true wing, and at 6'6", he's not built to cover the bigger 2s and 3s or small-ball 4s.
Stretches in which head coach Fred Hoiberg plays Zach LaVine at shooting guard and Jabari Parker at small forward will be absolutely terrifying for all the wrong reasons. The Bucks only once notched a defensive rating below 112.0 when they used Parker at the 3—in 2014-15, his rookie season, according to Cleaning the Glass. And they always deployed a viable collection of length and switchable wings. The Bulls don't have that brand of support.
Limiting how much time Parker spends at small forward and beside LaVine will help a little bit. It is not a gateway to an average defense. Chicago will have overachieved if it avoids finishing in the bottom five of points allowed per 100 possessions.
Orlando Magic: Lack of Point Guard Prospects
Trading for Jerian Grant doesn't get the Magic off the hook. He turns 26 in October and has never flashed the playmaking chops required to pilot an above-board offense for an extended period of time. The soon-to-be 31-year-old D.J. Augustin does nothing to inspire long-term confidence.
Orlando is rebuilding, which infers a certain leeway. But the absence of floor general projects has trickle-down effects that cannot be ignored. Chief among them: Aaron Gordon's square peg-in-a-round hole development. He's being groomed as a quasi-wing, with a face-up green light he hasn't earned. He shot under 30 percent on waaay too many pull-up jumpers last season.
Jonathan Isaac could end up in the same boat as the Magic expand his usage alongside Gordon. Their point guard situation will necessitate an uncomfortable reliance on him, Evan Fournier and Jonathon Simmons. Generating offense will only get more difficult as Mohamed Bamba eats into Nikola Vucevic's minutes.
Head coach Steve Clifford should help this team earn its defensive stripes. Bamba-Gordon-Isaac lineups forecast as stifling. But the offense will remain stagnant without the presence—or surprise emergence—of a go-to table-setter.
Sacramento Kings: Big Man Logjam
Kindly holster the "How could the Kings not add more wings?" dismay for this exercise. Their shoddy offseason approach is well-established. The truth is, they could have evaded some criticism while making the same moves, right down to pointlessly paying the 30-year-old Nemanja Bjelica, had they remotely tried to deconstruct their big man pileup.
Instead, the Kings added Marvin Bagley III and a healthy Harry Giles III to a 4-5 carousel that already included Willie Cauley-Stein, Kosta Koufos, Skal Labissiere and Zach Randolph. Signing Bjelica only exacerbated the logjam.
Ditching some of the surplus would have at least opened the door more undersized lineups—perhaps some three-swingman combos with Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield and Justin Jackson. Good luck finding time for that creativity now with a jillion and one bigs in tow.
Sure, the Kings could just ignore many of the older heads and conduct more spread offense-friendly experiments. Good luck trusting them to do that, either. Bjelica's arrival suggests they're still prepared, on some level, to work in players who don't jibe with their timeline.
Smells Like a Downfall
Cleveland Cavaliers: Off-the-Bounce Shot-Making
Turning Kevin Love loose as the No. 1 option could work wonders for his individual stock. He'll find teammates out of the post, and his scoring numbers should surge with an increase in touches, shot attempts and playing time. Even at his peak, though, Love was never a dribble-and-fire dynamo.
In 2013-14, his last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, fewer than 20 percent of his looks came on pull-up jumpers, on which he shot 33.3 percent. More than 65 percent of his made baskets were assisted, and he subsisted on plenty of catch-and-shoot opportunities teed up for him by Ricky Rubio.
The Cleveland offense wants for that element. Off-the-dribble playmaking was a problem before James left for Los Angeles. It is going to be a problem now.
George Hill isn't that guy. Rodney Hood is supposed to be, but he's erratic when ordered to work off others. Jordan Clarkson and JR Smith aren't going to cut it. Collin Sexton has the aplomb to try, but he hit just 36.4 percent of his two-point jumpers at Alabama, according to Hoop-Math.com. Cedi Osman has never been given that sort of elbow room.
The Cavaliers have players who won't shy from getting shots up. That helps. Kind of. Their best options aren't particularly good ones, and early-season attempts to stay in the East's playoff race will invariably prevent their younger guns from growing into the co-scorer and lead ball-handler roles Love needs.
Detroit Pistons: Floor Spacing
Reggie Bullock, Luke Kennard and Glenn Robinson III arm the Pistons with a measure of outside shooting to counteract the spacing lost to the Reggie Jackson-Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond trio. And Detroit can hope for long-range improvement from Jackson and Griffin, along with, apparently, a dash of three-point volume from Drummond.
Is that really enough? The safe answer is no. The Pistons' most reliable floor-spacers are not certainties. Bullock only started getting actual minutes last season, and neither Kennard nor Robinson has 220 three-point attempts to their NBA resume.
Detroit buried 36.8 percent of its deepies after the Griffin trade, but injuries arguably inflated that efficiency. Drummond, Griffin and Jackson tallied just 44 minutes across four games together, during which time the Pistons nailed 31 percent of their threes.
Small-sample B.S. is real. So, too, is the concern. Bullock and Kennard may not eclipse 40 shooting percent from behind the rainbow. Griffin and Jackson could dip further below the league average instead of inching closer to it. Playing Stanley Johnson with those two and Drummond might torpedo the offense. The Pistons' postseason eligibility is contingent upon them extracting boilerplate spacing from a roster potentially unfit to deliver it.
Miami Heat: Dwindling Star Power
Awkward question: Do the Heat have a top-50 player on their roster?
Dwyane Wade is years removed from that territory. Hassan Whiteside may never have been there during his truncated apex. Goran Dragic is a fringe case at age 32 and coming off a season in which he registered the fourth-lowest effective field-goal percentage of his career while having negligible impact on the offense.
Josh Richardson is close. He should crack the top 50 by year's end if he's not there already. He might not be given the license to ascend much higher. He's a defensive stud who can face off against point guards through some power forwards, but his share of the offense will be eternally capped if he's forced to cede touches to so many other ball-handlers—Dragic, Wade, James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters, even Justise Winslow.
That doesn't say much about the Heat or their immediate future. One, maybe two top-50 names with a luxury-tax payroll doesn't get them anywhere. That explains their "aggressive" pursuit of Butler, per Wojnarowski. He's the superstar they don't house—and one they'll have little hope of getting if another suitor dares to put their best foot forward.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Internal Disconnect
Feel free to focus on the Timberwolves' nonexistent wing depth. We already did. But the disconnect between coach-president Tom Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden and their boss, owner Glen Taylor, is the more pressing matter.
Butler's trade request and the ensuing soap opera have thrust a spotlight onto an organization in disarray. Consider what Wojnarowski reported:
"As the trade process grinds along, some interested teams are working to bypass Layden and go directly to Wolves ownership with trade offers. Teams dealing with Minnesota describe an unusual level of confusion. Some have heard separately from Taylor and the Layden/Thibodeau management team, with little apparent coordination between the two levels of Minnesota's organization. There have been bubbles of optimism that Taylor has convinced Layden and Thibodeau to follow his edict to trade Butler soon, but those have so far given way to renewed uncertainty and hazy chains of communication."
Never mind what this does to Butler negotiations. He's a goner. The Timberwolves have no choice other than to move on. How this uncoupled franchise handles its response to his departure is the larger concern.
Will Taylor and Thibs be on the same page about Minnesota's direction? Is Thibs willing to see through a rebuild if a lackluster return on Butler's services displaces the Timberwolves from postseason contention? Are he and Taylor in lockstep with how to treat the youth—not just Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins but Keita Bates-Diop, Tyus Jones, Josh Okogie and, eventually, Justin Patton?
Promising talent doesn't always rise above the fray on poorly run teams. Minnesota may be about to find out why (again).
Portland Trail Blazers: Overreliance on Difficult Shots
The Pelicans exposed the Blazers offense during last season's first-round sweep. They went at Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Jrue Holiday barely gave Lillard room to turn his head. Portland needed others to make plays. Aside from Al-Farouq Aminu, no one did.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise. The Blazers depend on Lillard and McCollum to a fault. Only the Rockets attempted a greater share of their shots after seven or more dribbles, and just six teams relied on heavily contested looks more frequently.
This problem will persist into 2018-19. The Blazers didn't—and still don't—have the cap space or trade assets to address it. And they don't have the off-ball possibilities to reinvent their offensive portfolio.