Basketball. Is. Back. I’m ranking all 30 teams and slotting them into tiers. After looking at the teams eyeing the future on Thursday, today we’re focusing on young teams with playoff hopes, plus a large group of teams standing at the crossroads of contention. The league is filled with teams that should arguably be buyers or sellers depending on how they perform.
Usually, it’s quite clear what a team should do, whether it’s go all in or blow it up. But this season is different in that there are only a handful of teams in the West without any chance of making the playoffs, and virtually every team in the East could grab an honorary playoff spot as the 8-seed. It’s the first year in a long time when there’s not an overwhelming Finals favorite, or any clarity about which 16 teams will actually make the playoffs. So what happens in games during the long regular season will matter. We will get a season with twists and turns, more big trades, and lots of drama.
On Monday and Tuesday, we’ll continue this four-part series by looking at the teams most likely to make deep playoff runs and my season predictions. I’m offering up what I think will be the major talking point, story line, or theme for each team for the next nine months. Let’s get started.
West Playoff Hopefuls
22. Minnesota Timberwolves
Andrew Wiggins is going through a breakup. Let’s all be sensitive to his feelings here. It can’t be easy ending things with a high school sweetheart, but Wiggins had to dump the early-clock midrange jumper for the betterment of his career. At least he seems to be moving on quickly. This preseason, Wiggins received a ball in the midrange early in the clock and then dribbled behind the 3-point line to attempt his shot.
That really happened!
After ranking near the top of the NBA in midrange shot frequency in his career, Wiggins made a concerted effort to rid the much-maligned long 2 from his repertoire this preseason. It’s encouraging, to say the least. Now let’s just hope Wiggins doesn’t hook back up with the midrange, or else things could get real ugly, since there’s been a teamwide push to change styles in Minnesota.
New president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas comes from the Houston Rockets, and he’s embraced Daryl Morey’s analytics-driven philosophies. In training camp, the Wolves painted shot value numbers on their practice court to train players to value layups, free throws, and 3s. The players are adapting: The Wolves are taking 42.9 percent of their shots from 3 so far this preseason, which is the second-highest difference in the league compared to last season.
Does this mean the Wolves will be good? Well, no. Simply changing where they’re taking their shots doesn’t change a team’s fortunes on its own. Wiggins is the poster boy for their new style, but he’s still one of a bunch of ordinary players on this roster; Wiggins needs to get better at everything, not just scoring. It’s Karl-Anthony Towns who will determine just how great this team can be. It’s hard to find another player on Minnesota’s roster who’s remotely a second option, unless Wiggins makes a leap or rookie Jarrett Culver steps up. Towns can stroke 3s, bang inside, flush lobs, and attack off the dribble. And in coach Ryan Saunders’s system, he could be even better by using pick-and-pops to take 3s instead of midrange shots, and more spacing could make him an even more potent post threat. But the Wolves need him to do more than score.
Saunders said he wants to run more offense through Towns, which suggests he’ll be empowered to be a playmaker. The Wolves need Towns to do it all: score, create, and defend. We’re about to find out whether he can handle the load.
21. Sacramento Kings
I don’t trust you if you don’t like the Kings. What is there not to like? De’Aaron Fox is an energizer. Buddy Hield is a flamethrower from 3. Bogdan Bogdanovic is immune to pressure. Then there’s Marvin Bagley III and a bunch of solid veterans like Harrison Barnes, Trevor Ariza, and Dewayne Dedmon. For the first time in a long time, the Kings have real hopes for making the playoffs. The hard part will be living up to the hype.
The Kings fueled their modest success last season with a breakneck pace led by Fox, but they still had the league’s 21st-ranked defense and 17th-ranked offense. That amounted to 39 wins (sadly somehow their high mark since 2005-06). They’re young and inexperienced in a loaded conference. Um, maybe competing for the playoffs should suffice? I’d bet that’s all it’s gonna be anyway.
I hope Hield keeps progressing as an on-ball scorer. Bagley needs to start defending. Even Luke Walton needs to develop as an X’s-and-O’s coach. And Fox needs to make another big leap—he couldn’t put the ball in the basket as a rookie, but drastically improved last season as a shooter and at-rim finisher. Fox still ranked only in the 33rd percentile for scoring efficiency in the half court last season, which played a big role in Sacramento’s struggles in a set offense; the team ranked 20th in scoring efficiency last season, per Synergy. The exhilarating coast-to-coast finishes give you a natural high, but it’s the stuff in the half court that leads to winning—and maybe someday, winning deep in the playoffs.
20. Dallas Mavericks
Rick Carlisle is getting funky with his new 7-foot-1 big man who shoots like a wing. Watch this after-timeout play that Carlisle designed for Kristaps Porzingis:
Porzingis sprinted through a screen, faked a cut to the basket, then popped back out for a 3. Nasty. Had the Bucks overplayed the 3, he would have kept going toward the rim and flushed a lob dunk. That’s what happened in a different set against Oklahoma City:
Thunder center Nerlens Noel started to inch over the first screen, assuming that Porzingis would go through it, and KP made a proper read to cut. Then Luka Doncic delivered a dime. Porzingis has long had the ability to shoot off of screens; the difference now is he has Carlisle, an elite X’s-and-O’s coach, and Doncic, an elite playmaker. I just spent a few days in Dallas and talked with Doncic, Porzingis, and Mark Cuban, so if you’d like to learn more about how the Mavericks are ready to compete for the playoffs, and how they’ll build moving forward, click here to read my feature on the Mavs.
19. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans went through so much drama with Anthony Davis, but the basketball gods blessed them with a second chance at a superstar in Zion Williamson. So far this preseason, coach Alvin Gentry is taking full advantage of the new opportunity.
Gentry is getting creative with Zion. In the clip above, he unleashes Williamson by having the ball handler and screener decoy a high pick-and-roll. The center rolls, then sets a screen for Zion, who curls toward the middle of the floor. Williamson is a handful to stop when he’s rumbling downhill, so the goal here is to keep him in motion toward the rim.
The interesting wrinkle to this play is that if Williamson was better covered, there would’ve been space for him to dump the ball off to his center, Jahlil Okafor. Playmaking is one of the more overlooked areas of Zion’s game, and Gentry is already putting him in position to show it off. You’ll find Williamson screening and rolling, then kicking the ball out. Once the ball is in his hands, he naturally forces the defense to rotate, and that opens up passing lanes for him to find open shooters.
Zion is throwing fastballs for strikes, even when he’s delivering the ball from an off-balance stance. His ability to pass in any direction is impressive, too; he fires one pass to Brandon Ingram toward the right corner, then the other to Frank Jackson in the left corner. Some players struggle to see and make passes in one direction or the other, but so far Williamson is showing a blend of passing velocity and vision that’s beyond his years.
Hype was already at a fever pitch when the Pelicans jumped to no. 1 on lottery night and landed Zion, but the first few glimpses of Williamson on the NBA stage have somehow raised the bar even higher. The Pelicans could make a playoff run this season, and if more good things come their way in the future, they’ll absolutely be in Finals contention for years to come.
At the Crossroads
18. Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin kicked ass last season, posted career-best numbers, and was named to his fifth All-NBA team. But I would explore trading him. Griffin’s injury history is too long, too scary, and it has already sapped him of his gravity-defying hops. He’s 30. He’ll cost $110.2 million through the next three seasons. The best time to quietly explore trading any player is when they still have value, and the risk of a major injury or further physical decline is greater than any benefit of keeping him when the Pistons are stuck in the dreaded middle.
Teams are smart and know the risks involved in trading for Griffin, so I can’t imagine there would be a ton of suitors. But if Griffin is shining again and healthy when January or February comes around, who says Portland wouldn’t want to go all in on this season? Or what if the Heat opt to target a big instead of a guard, since Jimmy Butler handles the ball so much anyway? The Clippers didn’t need to create a bidding war to get good value from the Pistons for Griffin, and neither would the Pistons if they opt to flip him to a team with a better shot of winning it all.
I doubt this will happen. The Pistons remain in win-now mode. They signed Joe Johnson, Derrick Rose, and Markieff Morris—three older veterans to help bolster their depth around Griffin and Andre Drummond. Rookie Sekou Doumbouya is barely even playing in preseason. Luke Kennard is pushed off the ball too often with Rose and Reggie Jackson taking primary shot-creation duties. Their front office moves indicate it’s more probable they attempt to flip these young guys and future picks for the best player that becomes available in a trade. I just don’t think this team is good enough for it to be worth it in the long run.
17. Oklahoma City Thunder
I know, this is a high ranking for a team that just traded away two All-NBA players and should be in tanking mode, but until they actually make some trades, they’ll be in the playoff conversation. Other than depth at forward, this team still has plenty of talent. But league sources fully expect the Thunder to explore trading Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari to continue their rebuild following the Russell Westbrook and Paul George blockbusters this summer. Trading Gallinari wouldn’t be difficult, provided he’s healthy. Finding a new home for Paul will be tough. He’s 34, has an injury history, and is owed $124 million over the next three years. That deal is terrifying. Paul can help himself and the Thunder out by excelling this season. All it takes is one team to bite.
It may not happen for Paul or OKC, which has a crowded backcourt that features Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder. My editor Chris Ryan half-jokingly calls them the “three-headed hydra,” and I actually don’t mind it. While Gilgeous-Alexander is best on the ball, it’s not necessarily a bad idea for him to get off-ball reps. Ideally, OKC would have a multi-creator offense anyway. What do we always hear about offenses? You want as many guys who can create with the ball in their hands as possible. Well, the Thunder can have three on the floor at once.
16. Toronto Raptors
Congratulations to the defending champion Toronto Raptors for the greatest one-hit season in league history. Kawhi’s gone, and soon the other veterans who made last season’s improbable run possible could follow him out the door. Masai Ujiri wanted to rebuild as soon as he took the Raptors gig in 2013, and the expectation around the league is that he will, finally, take that opportunity. Kyle Lowry has two years and $64.3 million left on his contract (after recently signing a one-year extension), while Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have just this season remaining. Could Gasol do for another team what he did for Toronto last season? And why would a team in need of a point guard upgrade—such as the Pistons or Heat—pursue CP3 if Lowry could be available?
The question really is whether Toronto will be too good to tear down. Should a high-impact player become available, why wouldn’t the Raptors be buyers? They have the aforementioned expiring salaries, plus young pieces, and all their future first-round picks to dangle in a trade. Ujiri wasn’t afraid to go for it all before. Why not do it again?
15. Orlando Magic
I’m confused by the Magic this season. On one hand, they ranked first in defensive rating over their final 37 games last season. But on the other hand, teams typically ease up in the second half of the season as they make vacation plans or wait for the playoffs. Were they not getting each opponent’s best effort? What should we make of Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors making quick work of them in the first round of the playoffs? I lean toward the Magic being really good on defense.
And as good as Orlando is on that side of the ball, Jonathan Isaac is the biggest reason. Isaac plays defense like he’s possessed by the spirit of Andrei Kirilenko. He roams off the ball like a safety in football:
Relax, man! It’s just preseason, but Isaac can’t be switched off. He’s as much of a pest in man-to-man situations, whether he’s up against guards, wings, or bigs. He’s a deterrent who not only alters shots but prevents them since he’s so long and smart. He’s rarely in the wrong position, and even when he is, he’s so athletic that he can make up for it.
Isaac slides over the screen like a guard to prevent Jayson Tatum from attacking the rim, then helps stop Gordon Hayward’s drive before heavily contesting Tatum’s shot. All-Defensive teams are in Isaac’s future.
Mo Bamba, one of the many long-armed Magic players, finishes off Tatum by swatting the ball out of bounds. Bamba, the no. 6 overall pick last year, might not be good yet, but he’s still only 21. If he makes progress, Nikola Vucevic may suddenly become a more expendable player for a piece of greater need, such as a go-to scoring guard.
We haven’t even mentioned Khem Birch, who was better than Bamba last season. Or Markelle Fultz, who still looks like he’s starring in Bird Box on offense but at least has excellent defensive potential. Or Aaron Gordon, who is one of the most underrated defenders in the game. I wrote about Gordon last month as a potential breakout player; the Magic need him to pop on offense. Otherwise, trades will need to be made using expendable pieces and picks to find a scorer. Until then, they’ll just be hard to score on.
14. San Antonio Spurs
Much like Gregg Popovich pivoting to the midrange when 3s are all the rage, I’m high on the Spurs when many others think the San Antonio dynasty is all but over. Granted, I had doubts about the Spurs just 19 months ago when I wrote an article titled “No, Seriously This Time: Is This the End of the Spurs’ Dynasty?”
In it, I detailed the imminent challenges facing the Spurs: Kawhi Leonard’s status, the lack of young talent, and an aging core. Those questions are being answered now. Kawhi is gone and the team is now rich with young talent. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are two elite defensive players in the backcourt, while Lonnie Walker IV could develop into a go-to scoring wing. Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson project as reliable role players. Trey Lyles was a low-risk, high-reward signing this summer. Jakob Poeltl is a rock-solid center. Kudos to the Spurs for going young.
We also know the Spurs won 48 games last season despite losing numerous players to injuries, most notably Murray to a torn ACL before the season began. And they won a lot by playing drastically different styles, focusing on the midrange when one or both of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan were on the floor, and playing a modernized style with their fast and feisty reserve units led by Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes.
The Spurs will be competitive again this season. Murray could elevate their defense to a typical Spursian level, and DeRozan now has a full year of experience in Popovich’s system. If the Spurs are really, really good, is there any logic to them cashing in one of their young players and assets for a high-level veteran to maximize this core? Time is running out on their best players: DeRozan, 30, has a player option worth $27.7 million for the final season of his contract, and Aldridge, 34, has only $7 million of his $24 million guaranteed for next season. Other veterans like Mills, Rudy Gay, and DeMarre Carroll can also be free agents by 2021. Or, if the Spurs slip this season, would they become a team that instead trades those veterans to build young?
There are a lack of proven stars available on the market. If the Spurs were to put, say, Aldridge on the table, why would a team not want to take a flyer on him? He’s an elite post presence and a good defender; having a true big would be a requirement to get through Joel Embiid and the Sixers, or Anthony Davis and the Lakers. Plus, Aldridge has a team-friendly contract due to his nonguaranteed salary for next year. If the Spurs want to cash in, they can become instant contenders. But if they want to cash out, they could bolster their efforts to sustain the dynasty.