With the 2016-17 NBA season rapidly approaching, we’ll use our division previews to take a look at a key question, play or theme that may define a team’s success.
- Is Marquese Chriss a dark horse to win Rookie of the Year?
When the Suns drafted Chriss with their second lottery pick, it was assumed they were not getting an immediate impact player. Chriss fit the bill of a project, containing athleticism, skill and upside but raw and seeming to lack a defined NBA position. But how things have changed in a few short months. On what is a young (and likely not very good) Suns team, Chriss has had a sterling preseason -- shooting 45.8 percent from the field, 37.5 from 3 (on 8 attempts), averaging over 6.2 rebounds along with adding just a shade over a block and steal per game.
What’s more interesting than Chriss’ raw numbers, is how the Suns have essentially steered into the skid when it comes to his position….by not giving him one. With Tyson Chandler mostly M.I.A. during this warmup tour, Suns head coach Earl Watson has thrown out some unique lineup combinations. Trying to suss out what traditional positional label to slap on Chriss during some stretches in the preseason would be an exercise in futility. Instead, it’d be easier to see his potential impact this season by locking in on the specific roles Chriss has filled while playing with these unique personnel groupings.
For the most part, Chriss has acted as Phoenix’s de facto center on offense. With the way the NBA is so pick-and-roll dominant these days, that means Chriss job mostly entails acting as the screener in pick-and-rolls. Given his athleticism and ability to finish explosively around the basket, let’s just say it has the potential to work out well for Chriss and the Suns:
Exciting dunks aside, what this has really done is simplify the game for a young player that hasn’t always flashed the greatest handle on his team’s playbook. When Chriss is on the court in this role, his duties are clear: screen for someone, roll to the basket, be an athlete and score. If Phoenix had tried to shoehorn him onto the wing, the added reads and responsibility of making plays with the ball in his hands would likely lead to Chriss spending lots of time on the bench. Now the Suns have benefit of trotting out a young player who does things like start a possession with a blocked shot and finish it with a 3:
Speaking of 3’s, Chriss isn’t being solely restricted to playing as a roll man. In some sets, he can be found spotting up in the corners on the perimeter and playing off his teammates -- something that will be good for Chriss’ development in the long-term. Along with sprinkling in a few post ups, which, again, are fairly uncomplicated plays for the guy getting them, Chriss will be put in a lot of situations that will help round out his game.
As far as how this relates to his ROY quest, the simple, yet varied ways Watson is showing he’ll use Chriss means he’ll play. Throw in Chandler’s annual struggle with injuries and Alex Len’s stalled development and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Chriss eventually average 25 minutes a night. That number may skyrocket as the season goes on if Phoenix struggles as expected and Watson’s chief concern becomes developing his promising, young core.
And if Chriss turns out to be an impact player from the jump, this sluggish Suns rebuild may start moving at the speed of light.
Los Angeles Lakers
- Can Julius Randle be a Draymond Green-type piece for this up-and-coming Laker team?
This is a make-or-break year for Randle, at least when it comes to his future in L.A. After two seasons ruined by injury and Byron Scott’s general incompetence, Randle will enter his third NBA campaign with an exciting new opportunity. After watching Green help propel the Warriors to two straight Finals, new Lakers’ coach Luke Walton is going to see if Randle can have a similar impact on this team.
Part of what made the Warriors so good, especially in transition, was Green’s ability to ignite and run a break by himself. That singular skill helped Golden State play at a faster pace and allow their sweet-shooting backcourt duo to simply run upcourt in search of their own offense. It’s not hard to understand why Walton is hoping Randle can do the same for the young duo of DeAngelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson.
Like Green, Randle can uniquely handle the ball despite being a large, powerful human being. While he’s partial to his natural left hand, Randle is a freight train coming at opponents full speed in the open floor. But all that size and speed won’t mean much if Randle can’t harness it. So far this preseason, there’s been an alarming number of transition forays that ended like this:
What makes Green such a special player in this role is that he’s essentially a point guard trapped in an NFL tight end’s body. His natural inclination is to move the ball rather than shoot it. Randle is the inverse of that, looking for his own offense far more than his teammates. For Randle to cement a spot as part of the Lakers core going forward, he needs to author far more plays like this….
...rather than the one above.
In general, Randle’s shot selection needs to tighten up considerably. As I alluded to before, Green is such an integral part of that Warriors team because he essentially acts as the team’s point guard. Going forward, Clarkson, Russell and eventually Brandon Ingram are going to command the touches in this offense. The Lakers aren’t going to be happy if Randle continuously cuts possessions short by taking bad shots when he has the physical ability to be a dynamic player in other ways -- something Walton is sure to emphasize to him as this season goes on.
The nice part of the Lakers current situation is that there is no pressure on them to compete right away. This will allow Walton to give Randle some leeway as he attempts to harness his potential in his new role. After all, giving Randle the chance to prove he can be an asset to this franchise four years from now is more important than how many wins the Lakers have in four months.
So if Randle is going to integral part of an exciting Laker team (or any NBA team) going forward, this year will let us know.
Golden State Warriors
- Can the young players on the Warriors step up to give the team depth behind their star-laden starting five?
The frenzy caused by Kevin Durant’s decision to join this Warriors team overshadowed a number of notable departures from a roster fresh off back-to-back Finals appearances. After the smoke cleared, five players that averaged over 10 minutes a game for Golden State last season are plying their trade for new employers. Starters Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes are now both in Dallas. Backup big man Festus Ezeli is up the coast in Portland. Mo Speights headed the other direction to the Clippers. While reserve guard Leandro Barbosa headed off to Phoenix.
To be clear, even if all those players were a direct trade off for Durant, it’s a scenario in which the Warriors come out massive winners. That doesn’t mean, however, that the absence of those five doesn’t have an impact going forward. As we saw with the Heat in the first year of the Wade-Bosh-James power trio, top heavy teams can be undermined by a lack of depth.
The Warriors made some headway with the vets they snagged this offseason. While he may not have the defensive impact of Bogut, veteran big man Zaza Pachulia should capably fill the starting center role. After turning 36 this August, it’s unlikely David West will do more than be a slightly more consistent version of Speights. But along with holdovers Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and, of course, the big four of Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, the Warriors have eight known quantities in their rotation.
Given the way the organization manages minutes and their “strength in numbers” mantra, there’s going to be ample opportunities for playing time with the collection of unproven youngsters lurking at the back end of the roster. It’s a group that includes this year’s first round pick, center Damian Jones (yet to play this preseason due to injury), last summer’s first round pick, Kevon Looney (21 total minutes played his rookie campaign), undrafted youngsters James Michael McAdoo (56 career games with the team) and Ian Clark (119 total NBA games, 66 last season with Golden State) and this year’s second round pick, Patrick McCaw.
If you combine the experience of this quintet, it barely exceeds two NBA seasons worth of games. That’s not exactly a reassuring feeling for a team that’s all-in on competing for a title. So far this preseason, this group of youngsters have seemed capable of contributing if given regular season minutes, with McCaw in particular flashing some real potential. If one or two players from this group can prove to be a bonafide rotation member of a championship caliber club, it will be a huge boost for Golden State.
Too many teams have seen an injury or two to key rotation cogs short circuit their chances -- the margins competing at the top really are that small. With four stars, the Warriors have better protection against injuries than most -- precisely why Durant’s decision to head west this summer is more than worth the turnover at the bottom half of the roster. But if their young players provide consistent production, Golden State may be rewriting the record books once again this season.
- Can the Kings keep up their much improved ball movement the entire season?
After another offseason filled with head-scratching decisions, any hope for the Kings to snap their extended playoff drought seemed to disappear. Yet despite a 3-4 record this preseason, Sacramento has looked surprisingly frisky on the court. Much of the optimism is centered around the team’s improved offensive performance -- they currently sit 5th in offensive efficiency per our RealGM rankings.
The truly surprising number of the Kings preseason, however, is their assist percentage of 63.1. It’s only a slight improvement over last year’s number of 61.2 percent, but with one key difference -- Rajon Rondo has moved onto the Chicago Bulls. The fact that the Kings might have improved their ball movement without one of the league’s most noted setup man is an interesting development.
Looking over this season’s roster, you’d be hard pressed to find too many reliable playmakers on this team. Ty Lawson, the team’s current starter at point guard, has always been an unappreciated passer, but given how his off-the-court troubles have affected his career, it was hard to know what exactly Sacramento was getting. And after Lawson, the rest of this Kings team has a serious case of tunnel vision.
The knock on Darren Collison has always been his inability to create for others. Rudy Gay has been savagely criticised his entire career for his volume scoring ways while DeMarcus Cousins temperamental approach has always hindered his ability to elevate the Kings overall performance. The rest of the roster is equally unreliable when it comes to their playmaking chops.
Yet if those three, along with newcomer Garrett Temple, kept up their preseason pace, they would all demolish their career marks for assists. In fact, Cousins found his teammates so well and so frequently this preseason he led the team with an assist percentage of 34.7 -- nearly double his career mark of 15.76. Usually new developments for the Kings make them the butt of jokes on basketball Twitter, but this one shows some serious promise.
As it usually goes, though, it’s hard to figure out whether a trend like this can last. A sudden spike over career norms typically leads to warning bells going off about regression to the mean. And while it’s true that players improve certain aspects of their games and teams can overperform predicted levels for extended periods of time, this sudden jump may be unsustainable Sacramento.
Because when it comes to the NBA, it’s important to remember that this is the time of year when coaches have the most time to influence a team’s style. Part of the difficulty of being an NBA head coach is that once the regular season gets into full swing, teams play games far more than the practice. This time of year there is a much healthier balance, giving coaches a chance to emphasize and drill things that certain rosters don’t naturally do -- like move the ball. Once the practices become scarce, the ability to stress those things with consistent repetition evaporates. Coaches must instead shift their focus on recovery, individual work and preparing the team for the next game.
That doesn’t mean that Sacramento is due to a regular season full of stale possessions and non-existent ball movement. Sometimes the combination of coach and chemistry creates a group that outperforms what is projected on paper. After all, basketball is more jazz than science. And for the Kings, they’re hoping this happy hum of ball movement can play them right into the postseason.
Los Angeles Clippers
- Will the Clippers small forward position doom their championship hopes?
While nearly every contending team has concerns, there is perhaps no championship-caliber club with a bigger hole in their roster than the Clippers. Due to the financial constraints brought on by the salaries of the team’s three megastars and J.J. Redick, L.A. has spent the past few seasons bargain shopping for players to fill their small forward role. And this off-season, the Clippers didn’t even really do that, electing instead to stand point with virtually the same underwhelming collection of cast offs.
Headlining that group (which is a generous description), is Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the utility defender with a limited offensive game. Mbah a Moute started 61 games for the team last year and is poised to take the same role again this season. But at 30 years old, the hope for the veteran forward to develop a credible 3-point shot is dwindling (So far this preseason, Mbah a Moute has attempted just four and made one). Without that, it’s hard to see him elevating the Clippers past the status quo.
That’s not to say Mbah a Moute doesn’t help. Because he can defend so many positions and happily accepts a limited role on offense, Mbah a Moute still brings plenty of value to this Clipper team. The problem for L.A., however, is that it’s nearly impossible to play him with a starting lineup that already has two bigs that occupy areas near the rim and around the elbows. Opposing coaches will basically abandon Mbah a Moute on offense to make life more difficult for the Clippers star trio. When forced to go to alternatives for Mbah a Moute is where the cracks in the Clips roster really start to show.
Wes Johnson, now 29, has long been projected as a 3-and-D type player. The problem with that description is that Johnson has never developed his 3-point shot and primarily gets credit for the “D” part because he simply looks like a prototypical wing stopper. Johnson finished last season at 33.3 percent from 3 last season, and held steady at that mark in 18 attempts this preseason, something that doesn’t inspire much hope that a 3-Point Shootout invite is in his future.
After Johnson is 39-year-old Paul Pierce, the sage vet who is riding off into the sunset after this season. Unfortunately for Pierce, it looks like his basketball legs have fallen off. He finished last year with marks of 36.3 percent from the field and 31.0 percent from 3 and was even worse in the playoffs. Pierce probably can’t hang on the wing anymore and may strictly be a smallball 4 at this point, limiting Doc Rivers’ choices even more.
Next up is veteran wing Alan Anderson, the 34-year-old who spent much of last season out with an injury. During his 13 games with the Wizards, Anderson struggled mightily, barely cracking 35 percent from the field. Of the three, Anderson has shot the ball the best this preseason but has only attempted 11 field goals in limited minutes. But if you’re a Clipper fan and finding hope in this development, it should tell you something about the state of the team’s wing rotation.
Aside from that group, Rivers has tried lineups with either Jamal Crawford or his son, Austin, in that spot. Neither of those options are sustainable for long stretches and likely would wind up posting disastrous results if utilized for extended time against teams L.A. will battle in the Western Conference playoffs.
Barring a trade, it’s hard to see the Clippers overcoming this hole in their rotation to compete with league’s best teams. But perhaps one of these veteran wings will come up with a career season at a crucial juncture for this L.A. franchise.