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Whose NBA Team Is This, Anyway? Part 2

Determining the alpha personalities on each NBA team

Elias Stein/AP Images/Getty Images
Elias Stein/AP Images/Getty Images

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at a bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?

The NBA is in such high flux that it’s hard to keep an eye on the alpha in every locker room. Each new face in a new place carries the potential for new beef with new peeps. Every basketball team has a natural hierarchy, but discovering one’s particular shape takes time. Identifying the job descriptions is the easy part. The GM makes the trades and targets the free agents. The coach designs the system. And the players play. On every team, though, there’s one person whose influence, whether he wields it or not, transcends organizational demarcations.

On the court, one crucial team dynamic is determining who takes the final shot. The figure whose presence influences that decision the most — whether it’s the player calling his own number, the GM crafting a roster, or the coach scribbling out the play — is the person whose team it is.

Often these chains of command are clearer from the outside. When LeBron took his talents to South Beach in 2010, it was obvious, to any unbiased observer, that the Miami Heat were his team. But it isn’t hard to imagine Dwyane Wade, having spent his career in Miami (at that point), thinking that he and James were, at least, equals.

So how do we decide whose team it is? Quick ground rules:

We’re looking at players, coaches, and GMs only. If we extend the list to owners, the answer to “whose team is it?” would always be the owner.

On Tuesday, we looked at the Eastern Conference. Today, Wednesday, it’s the Western Conference. For a more detailed account of the scoring system, check out Tuesday’s post.

Portland Trail Blazers

Whose team is it? Damian Lillard

Lillard is the Blazers’ best player, the engine of a top-10 offense, and the subject of longform articles about what an amazing leader he is. Which must be awesome. I sometimes daydream about becoming an inspiring figure to the youth, of helping unestablished colleagues — taking them shopping for suits, mentoring them, then dropping 25 and 7 in an NBA game while they cheer me from the bench. I imagine having pieces written about what a great person I am. But, honestly, who has the time for that? Damian Lillard, apparently.

“When they think about leadership, most people think you just follow one person,” Lillard told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz. “But you build a tribe. You give people something to believe in. You give them hope. They don’t become a follower. They join your tribe.”

I’m ready to run through a wall for Dame right now.

Oh, and he’s got nice stats. Last season, Dame averaged career highs in points (25.1), assists (6.8), and PER (22.2). He made his second All-NBA Team in 2015–16, triggering the CBA’s “Derrick Rose Rule” (AWKWARD NAME FOR A RULE, I THINK WE ALL AGREE). Lillard is also the best rapper in the NBA. (No disrespect to Iman Shumpert, though; he delivered a baby using iPhone headphones, and he should get into the Hall of Fame for that.)

Leverage: 3
Lillard plays at the most talent-stocked position in the league and has a contract that’s not easily tradable.

Standing: 4.5
I want to join Damian Lillard’s tribe.

Power: 3
Dame can put real weight behind any theoretical intrateam beef. But Dame’s power score is undermined by the fact that the Blazers have so much experience dealing with malcontented players and personnel drama.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Whose team is it? Karl-Anthony Towns

Karl-Anthony Towns, a.k.a. KAT, a.k.a. Yung Tim Duncan, a.k.a. The Don of Park Place, a.k.a. the Hakeem Olajuwon of Adolescent Basketball, is only in his second year. What he’s accomplished, in that short time, is amazing. He’s built a potent brand as a future MVP-level player, dunked on the concept of Anthony Davis as the best young big in the league, and launched a Twitch account where he streams himself playing Monopoly. A bizarre choice, considering Towns is also a Call of Duty freak, but it’s this kind of off-kilter choice that makes him one of the brightest lights in the NBA.

Leverage: 4
Every team in the league could use a future MVP.

Standing: 4
He’s the best thing to happen to Timberwolves fans since Kevin Garnett.

Power: 4.5
If KAT were to say, “I can’t play for Tom Thibodeau,” it would be ugly, but Thibs would get fired.

Utah Jazz

Whose team is it? Gordon Hayward

The Utah Jazz have been the astute NBA watcher’s official “team that will make a leap this season” pick for three years running. BUT THIS IS THE SEASON IT WILL ACTUALLY HAPPEN! We just need Gordon Hayward to continue being The Man for Utah.

Not that Hayward had a choice in the matter last year; a parade of injuries thrust the likes of Raul Neto and Jeff Withey (owner of the unlikeliest NBA social media scandal ever) into starting roles. Hayward averaged 19.7 points, five rebounds, and 3.7 assists last season. He averaged 15 shots per game, a career high. Though his shooting percentages sagged a bit under the increased scoring load, Hayward showed himself capable of being Utah’s primary option. Only 26, he’s probably the best player people haven’t watched a lot of. He’s certainly the best player in the league whom people know about only from BuzzFeed.

Leverage: 4
6-foot-8 Swiss Army knives who can switch on defense are in demand for some reason. Not sure why. I’ll look into it.

Standing: 4.5
Realest-possible talk: He’s a handsome white guy who’s a very good basketball player, and he plays in Utah.

Power: 3
Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, and Rodney Hood are nice young players, and at some point, Utah will have to pay them. Derrick Favors will hit free agency the same summer as Hayward. Gordon definitely has the conch, but you can imagine a situation where Utah decides that trading him, for the greater good of the island, is the right move.

Denver Nuggets

Whose team is it? Mike Malone

When he was younger, Mike Malone worked at a Foot Locker and cleaned offices. Those are certainly the second- and third-worst jobs Malone has ever had, after working for the Sacramento Kings.

As coach of the Denver Nuggets, Malone has to work several angles at once. He has to develop Denver’s young core of Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic, and Jamal Murray, while keeping seasoned dudes like Danilo “The Rooster” Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried happy and productive, i.e., tradable should an enticing deal materialize. It won’t be easy. The Nuggets will freaking suck this season, but they’ll be fun to watch. Mudiay is electric at times, Jokic was one of the surprises of last season, and Nurkic is due for a bounce-back campaign. At least Malone knows better than rapping his scouting reports.

All that said, Malone doesn’t have the Nuggets on lock. Mudiay just has to score 20 points with eight assists in three consecutive games and it’s his team.

Leverage: 1.5
I’m a fan of Mike Malone, but he needs to show he can help build this team for his leverage score to increase.

Standing: 2
He’s not Brian Shaw.

Power: 1.5
Malone works under his former Kings GM Pete D’Alessandro, and they apparently hate each other.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Whose team is it? Russell Westbrook

Thunder versus Warriors on November 3 is going to be incredible; it’s the NBA’s version of Hannibal versus Rome — a lone charismatic figure, fueled by a lust for revenge, cutting a ragged swath through the heart of an empire, leading a campaign that is utterly doomed. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams play the elephants.

How devastating will Russell Westbrook be this season? Will he average a 40–15–15 triple-double? Will he be the first 40–40–40–40 (40 points, 40 percent usage rate, 40 percent shooting, 40 minutes) player in NBA history? When does Russ finally slap a reporter? Will Russ and KD ever smooth things over? (Please, god, no.) Will Russ and KD ever throw hands or at least have to be separated?

At what point this season will Durant respond to a question about Westbrook by saying, “Man, I don’t know, but did you see the way Steph and Draymond were moving the ball around tonight?”

Are “Did you hear what this guy said” questions from reporters pure weak-sauce snitchery, or only partial snitchery? More importantly, do we ever want them to stop using this construction?

These are all open questions. What is not up for debate: The Thunder are Russell Westbrook’s team. Set your calendar alerts for November 3.

Leverage: 4.5
Russell just signed a three-year, $85 million extension to give the Thunder an extra year to assemble a team around him before he hits free agency.

Standing: 5
Russell is being inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame on November 17 by Michael Jordan.

[Extremely Alex Jones/Infowars sidebar.] The Oklahoma Hall of Fame is a fake organization. Sam Presti created it two years ago as part of his plan to keep Durant from leaving the Thunder. Everyone involved with the group is an actor. Jordan is being paid billions in under-the-table natural-gas rights to act as a shill.

Power: 4.5
If Westbrook says, “I will re-sign with the Thunder, today, for four years, if Sam Presti is fired, his home ransacked and burned to the ground, and all his earthly possessions, including his drum set, are sold to the highest bidder,” then Sam Presti deadass better pack up and flee the state.

Golden State Warriors

Whose team is it? Steph Curry

Kevin Durant may be the new superstar in town, but the Warriors will still be Steph’s team. His current contract, which expires at the end of this season, is the microcosm of how injuries shape luck and affect winning in the NBA. Steph’s 2012 extension paid him $44 million over four years. By any measure, it’s a ludicrously cheap deal — $11 million a year for the reigning MVP and the greatest shooter ever. But that’s what happens when a player’s long-term prospects appear hampered by ankles that are made of Cheez Doodles. Steph makes $5 million less a year than Timofey Mozgov.

The Bible sayeth unto us that the love of money is the root of all evil, and Steph is a godly man, but that doesn’t mean he’s happy about his salary continuously blowing 3–1 direct-deposit leads. “I had to make a conscious decision and remind myself over and over [to let it go],” Curry told Yahoo Sports last year. “I could’ve had a different perspective and said, ‘I want to get everything that I could get, wait it out, test free agency that next year — and who knows what would’ve happened?” Curry will — finally — get to test unrestricted free agency after this season.

Leverage: 4
The addition of Durant hurts Steph’s leverage. If Curry misses games due to injury, and the Warriors machine keeps chugging … well, you can just imagine the conjecture that will follow.

Standing: 5
Steph Curry is beloved in the Bay Area. His humble “I guess it’s fine that I make $11 million a year, and please don’t ask me about social issues” demeanor is crucial to the team’s chemistry.

Power: 3.5
See leverage. With so much firepower on the team, it’s not a sure thing that Curry would win “him or me” battle with the likes of Draymond or even coach Steve Kerr.

Phoenix Suns

Whose team is it? Devin Booker

It wasn’t that long ago that “combo guard” was something of a basketball pejorative; the backcourt version of “tweener.” Devin Booker’s emergence last season is emblematic of the continued blurring of traditional notions of positionality. On one hand, Booker is a baby-faced killer in the Kobe mold. He can spot up, take defenders off the bounce, and score from all over the court. But Booker has flashed legitimate point guard chops when injuries to the back line elevated him to the lead guard spot. And he’s got a nasty streak — on The Ringer NBA Show, host Chris Vernon mentioned that Booker talked all kinds of wild trash at Tony Allen and crew when the Suns played the Grizzlies last year. Booker may not yet realize that Phoenix is his team — but it is.

Interesting sidebar: Suns owner Robert Sarver hates millennials and “millennial culture” (but probably loves this season of Survivor). Meanwhile, Booker, who will turn 20 soon, looks like a Snapchat story depicting a zygote turning into a fetus turning into a baby turning into Zayn Malik.

Leverage: 2
Booker is on his rookie deal. Who knows, maybe last season was a fluke. (It wasn’t.)

Standing: 3
Fans always invest themselves emotionally in players whose emergence is a surprise.

Power: 2
This goes to three by the middle of this season.

Los Angeles Clippers

Whose team is it? Blake Griffin

The power struggle between Chris Paul and Blake has been just under the surface during the past two seasons of Clippers basketball. You could make a case for either being the team’s alpha dog. Paul is one of the greatest two-way point guards ever. Griffin is a force of nature with an ever-expanding offensive arsenal and a canny feel for the game. Both players have demonstrated an ability to carry the team in the absence of the other. Both can be free agents after this season. But Paul is 31, and increasingly prone to nagging injuries, which always seem to pop up at precisely the wrong time, and has a penchant for looking really, really sad.

Blake is 27, and is in his prime. He’s been mostly healthy, except for a handful of notable instances that read like the content from a WebMD random injury generator (missed his rookie season with a broken kneecap, missed several weeks in 2015 due to a staph infection in his elbow, broke his hand on his friend’s face outside an [extremely Billy Joel voice] Italian restaurant). And you know he’d love to stay in Los Angeles, due to the thriving comedy scene and easy access to the Hollywood UCB theater.

Leverage: 4
Griffin has been floated in several trade rumors, with the Celtics and Thunder mooted as destinations. (The former? A lot of SNL writers came out of Harvard, so maybe. The latter? No way he wants to go to Oklahoma City.)

Standing: 4
Along with Paul, he’s the greatest Clipper ever.

Power: 3
At the end of the day, Roc Divers (Doc Rivers’s alias when acting as GM) holds all the cards.

Sacramento Kings

Whose team is it? DeMarcus Cousins

Yes, the Kings are Vivek Ranadivé’s team. The Kings majority owner’s reign has been defined by his successful bid to keep the franchise in Sacramento, and by a leadership style that swerves wildly in tone from burnt-out absentee patron (not wanting to fly up from San Francisco to meet with Rudy Gay because it was inconvenient) to TED Talk on LSD (the whole 4-on-5 thing, which he now says was overblown; letting cameras in the draft room; crowdsourcing the draft, etc.).

But owners are out of bounds for this thought experiment. The Kings are Boogie’s team. He’s their best player and, because of the transitive property, the object of Vivek’s favor.

Ranadivé, by all accounts, loves Cousins and has stopped the organization from trading him. Instead, the Kings just keep finding new guys to tell him what to do. With Dave Joerger in the fold, Boogie will play for his sixth coach in seven seasons.

Leverage: 2
Cousins is an offensive beast who plays defense when he wants.

Standing: 2.5
Certainly, Boogie is the most trusted figure in the Kings organization.

Power: 2
His name has been a constant presence in trade rumors going back several seasons. That said, Cousins has outlived six coaches, the last of whom, George Karl, actively tried to get him traded.

Los Angeles Lakers

Whose team is it? Luke Walton

Being alive to witness Luke Walton’s ascent from SoCal stoney bro to head coach and leader of men, in the space of a mere 10 years, has been one of the joys of my life. Last season, during Steve Kerr’s extended recuperation from two back surgeries, Walton took over the whiteboard duties for the Warriors and I began a recurring Twitter bit about a character I call Coach Luke.

They are fun to write. Even more fun is getting responses from people who allegedly know Luke.

Anyway, the Lakers are Coach Luke’s team only until D’Angelo Russell wins Western Conference Player of the Week.

Leverage: 2
That funny feeling you get when watching Luke Walton on the sideline is the psychic vibration of every other coach in the league wanting him to fail.

Standing: 3.5
Walton seems like he came out of the womb swaddled in a Lakers car flag. Following in the footsteps of Byron Scott certainly helps here.

Power: 3
If Phil Jackson couldn’t have his way, how much say can Luke really have?

Houston Rockets

Whose team is it? James Harden

Free of the noxious atmosphere emitted by Dwight Howard, James Harden is about to put up video game numbers. Mike D’Antoni, in a move reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo, has set about recreating his Seven Seconds or Less spread offense with Harden in the Steve Nash role.

“With James you make a joke he’s a ‘points guard’ because he’s going to score some points,” D’Antoni said.

Last season, Harden averaged career highs in points (29) and usage rate (32.5 percent). This season, the ball will be in his hands to start almost every possession, and there’s every reason, especially without Dwight standing in the paint with his hand up screaming “Jaaaaaaaaaames, pass it to meeeeeeeeeee,” to expect he’ll put up stats that will seem borderline pornographic. The Rockets may score 120 a game, which is good since, with Eric Gordon and James Harden in the backcourt together, they’ll probably give up 116.

Leverage: 4
Harden signed a surprise four-year, $118 million extension this July. The best thing about this deal was John Wall allegedly being “rankled” by it. Rankled!

Standing: 3
This will go to four if he appears in less than 10 “bad defense” viral videos this season.

Power: 4
He won his loser-leaves-town match with Dwight Howard.

Memphis Grizzlies

Whose team is it? Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Tony Allen

R.I.P. Grit ’n’ Grind. It was a good run. The heart of the team will still be the uncommon relationship between Conley, Gasol, and the city of Memphis. But with Zach Randolph set to come off the bench, and recruiter-in-chief Chandler Parsons in the house, the style of play is going to be very different. New head coach David Fizdale is installing a pace-and-space offense that is shockingly modern compared to the rock-fight basketball the team is known for.

Seriously, look at this:

WHO ARE THESE GUYS? The Grizzlies are going to need another nickname.

Leverage: N/A
It’s impossible to calculate what these players mean to Memphis.

Standing: N/A
In order of importance it’s: Conley, Gasol, Allen, Z-Bo, Bongo Lady, Parsons.

Power: N/A

San Antonio Spurs

Whose team is it? Gregg Popovich

Pop is the most respected coach, of the most respected team, in the NBA, a five-time champion, and, now, the coach of USA Basketball, the most influential non-NBA position in the sport. With Tim Duncan now retired, Pop is, unquestionably, the man in San Antonio, as LaMarcus Aldridge may soon discover.

Leverage: 4
I can’t see Pop ever coaching anywhere else. But retiring would be, truly, the end of an era.

Standing: 5
Pop is a legend. His brand is ornery. He’s normalized being a dick to people on air, and we accept it because it’s Pop. When he was nice to Craig Sager, everyone acted like that was amazing instead of wondering why it’s not the default state of behaving.

Power: 5
Interesting thought experiment — I’m pretty sure that if 1999–2003 Tim Duncan said, “I won’t play for Pop,” Pop would have been let go. What would have happened if 2015–16 Duncan refused to suit up for Popovich?

Dallas Mavericks

Whose team is it? Dirk Nowitzki

The answer is Mark Cuban, but, again, that’s not allowed. So it can only be Dirk. It sure as hell ain’t Harrison Barnes’s team.

Leverage: 2
Dirk is 38 and he moves like his own statue.

Standing: 5
He is the greatest player in franchise history, one of the greatest players ever, and the progenitor of a signature move, the one-legged fadeaway.

Power: 3
But it is Mark Cuban’s team.

New Orleans Pelicans

Whose team is it? Anthony Davis

Before the various injuries — which include, now, a Grade 2 ankle sprain suffered in Beijing — and before the emergence of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, a.k.a, “The Brow,” was the consensus best young big in the game. He’s 6-foot-10 with a wingspan that could blot out the sun, a face-up game, a low-post game, and a developing 3-point shot. In only his second season in the league, Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds, and a league-leading 2.8 blocks per game to go with a PER of 26.5. Unfortunately, he’s on a New Orleans team that’s been bedeviled by injuries to key players and that’s run by a front office lacking direction. Tom Benson, the elderly owner of the Pelicans and the Saints, is mired in a struggle for control of the teams with his family members, some of whom he alleges “tried to kill” him. Meanwhile, Davis has been reduced to posting an ad on Craigslist for a personal assistant. Get your shit together, New Orleans.

Leverage: 3.5

Davis signed a five-year, $145 million contract extension with the Pelicans in 2015.

Standing: 4

He’s literally all the team has. No shots at Buddy Hield.

Power: 3

Should be at least 4, but the chaos from the Benson court case dilutes Davis’s organizational muscle.