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.
Portland Trail Blazers
- How will Evan Turner fit in with this emerging Portland team?
When the Blazers lavished Turner with a $75 million deal to play alongside their dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, it raised a few eyebrows. Though he hasn’t reached the lofty standards projected for high lottery picks, Turner has firmly established himself as a viable NBA player. He can handle the ball well enough to be a team’s de facto point guard and has enough playmaking and mid-range juice to keep defenses honest.
The concerns with Turner, however, are well documented. For Turner to be the best version of himself, he needs have the ball in his hands because his limitations as a catch-and-shoot player make Turner a complete non-factor off-the-ball. Yet while Turner is at his best with the ball, it remains to be seen whether a team’s offense is. Because of his overreliance on his mid-range game, Turner often undermines his ability to help offenses function at level greater than the sum of their parts.
This is why Turner is such an awkward fit for a lot of rosters. Yet there is hope Portland can be one of the teams Turner can find a comfortable niche with if he continues to make adjustments to his game. Their quirky, circular offense that sends Lillard and McCollum running off screens as frequently as they handle the ball in pick-and-rolls has the need for a player like Turner. When Turner takes the right approach, he can shift a defense before throwing back to Lillard or McCollum as they quickly get into another action. Turner can also use the attention those two draw and the Blazers fun, misdirection sets, to make plays for his teammates like this:
In general, Turner needs to continue to slash his use of his mid-range game. For some of the bright spots Turner has shown over his career and this preseason in Portland, there are possessions like this….
…that give serious pause to whether Turner will mesh with his new team.
Those two plays basically illuminate the two competing forces for Turner's productivity in Portland. If the Blazers see more of the former, it will make their offseason investment look rather smart. If the latter occurs more frequently, it may become increasingly difficult for Portland to have success with Turner on the court.
- What role is Tom Thibodeau going to find for Karl-Anthony Towns on offense?
Make no mistake about it, Towns is primed to be the NBA’s next truly great player. Minnesota’s big man is versatile on offense, capable of anchoring a defense and already producing at an All-Star level. The scariest thing for future opponents, however, is that he is far from a fully formed player.
That’s what makes this marriage with Thibodeau so interesting. With Towns still in his formative NBA years, his current head coach will have a big impact on what he eventually becomes. Given Thibs' defensive reputation, there’s no doubt will see Towns become a complete backline defender and lynchpin of his head coach’s new scheme.
Offensively things are a bit murkier. Thibodeau doesn’t have a reputation as being an overly creative offensive mind. In fact, his Bulls teams often ran bland sets where their bigs often acted as fulcrums to better options. That clearly isn’t in the Timberwolves' best interest when a potentially dominant big man like Towns sits on their roster.
In the preseason, we have seen Towns fill the standard roles of an NBA big man in Thibodeau’s scheme. From cleaning up missed shots while lurking along to baseline to popping and rolling to the rim in pick-and-rolls, Towns shows he can turn standard NBA actions into nightmare actions for opponents. But what really stands out from Minnesota’s preseason are the occasional possessions where Thibodeau puts Towns in positions to do things like this:
A set with an option read to either post up or come off a pin down is something you’d run for one big man: Dirk Nowitzki. Very few bigs in the NBA are anywhere close to matching Nowitzki’s unique, versatile and brutally effective game. And yet here is Thibodeau, a coach noted for his controlling, no nonsense style, adding Dirk-like elements to his offense in order to fully utilize Towns’ immense skill set.
What’s even more terrifying is that in his prime, Nowitzki might not have been able to pull off the move -- cutting off the screen, using a fake before driving to an “And’ 1” floater -- in the above clip. What we could be witnessing is Thibodeau helping Towns turn into something of a supercharged Nowitzki. Which is pretty awesome for anyone who likes watching NBA basketball.
And a season in which Towns becomes one of the league’s most dominant and unique players will be a welcome relief for a Minnesota fanbase currently dealing with NBA’s longest playoff drought.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Who will emerge as Russell Westbrook’s most complementary backcourt partner?
With Kevin Durant now relocated to the Bay Area, the Thunder are finally Russell Westbrook’s team. Instead of dissecting how Westbrook and Durant worked together, the microscope will now shift to how OKC surrounds their unquestioned leading man.
While the frontcourt rotation is more defined, figuring out who is best suited to share the backcourt with Westbrook remains a work in progress. Auditioning for the role is an eclectic group of young guards, all of whom seem to have a fatal flaw that could hold them back from creating true synergy with Westbrook in the Thunder backcourt.
The player with arguably the best resume on the roster is newcomer Victor Oladipo. Acquired from Orlando in a draft day trade, Oladipo’s arrival gave the Thunder a dynamic, attacking guard that could help ease the burden on Westbrook. In a perfect world where Durant had stayed in OKC, Oladipo’s role would be a lot more clear.
With Durant in tow, it was easy to envision Oladipo in the supersub role, spelling Westbrook off the bench by putting pressure on defenses in similar (albeit, far less effective) ways. If his 3-point shooting came around, Oladipo’s defensive ability could have also likely earned him minutes closing out games between the two Thunder superstars. It would be a role that, at least at this stage of his career, seemed to be a perfect fit for Oladipo.
But in obvious observations, Durant’s departure both opened up more minutes and changed the dynamics of what OKC needed from the players around Westbrook. Instead of settling into a secondary role, likely off the bench, Oladipo may now be required to provide consistent minutes. And when it comes to player types to fit alongside Westbrook, Oladipo doesn’t really fit the bill.
While the aforementioned defensive ability helps, Oladipo is definitely a player at his best with the ball in his hands (how good a team can be when that’s the case is a different story). With Westbrook next to him, spending a lot of time with the ball is just not something that will happen for Oladipo. That puts more pressure on him to improve a shaky jumper, which, given his 22.2 percent mark from 3 this preseason, still seems to be a major work in progress.
If Oladipo can’t lock down a spot next to him, it will open the door to a host of other players all containing at least one serious reservation about their games. Andre Roberson can (sort of) defend, but can’t shoot. Kyle Singler can shoot (and was lights out from 3 this preseason) but isn’t going to be capable of sliding down a backcourt spot and tracking the smaller, more dynamic players -- like CJ McCollum - popping up at the shooting guard position around the NBA.
After those two are two wild cards as well as a player with a clearly defined flaw stopping him from serious contention. The wild cards are youngsters Josh Huestis and Alex Abrines. Huestis is a college power forward working himself into becoming an NBA wing and perimeter threat. In limited minutes this preseason, Huestis shot the ball well (37.5 percent from 3) but hardly proved beyond a reasonable doubt he’s a viable rotation wing.
Abrines, on the other hand, was lights out from 3 -- 60 percent on 3 attempts per game during their warmup tour -- lacks the reputation as a wing stopper. Plus, Abrines has exactly 0 NBA minutes to his credit. Anthony Morrow, the final player I alluded to, has played 515 career NBA games and has one of the sweetest shooting strokes in the league. But Morrow’s defensive limitations have prevented him from locking down a rotation spot under nearly every coach he’s played for.
If the Thunder continue to hang around the upper echelons of the West, one of these players will have to overcome one of their limiting factors -- experience, defense or shooting -- and play a key role alongside Westbrook.
- Is Quin Snyder’s offense a good fit for the Jazz or is it holding them back?
Entering year three of his tenure as Utah’s head coach, this is far and away the best roster Snyder has had at his disposal. The Jazz are virtually 15 deep when it comes to viable (and at least semi-proven) rotation players. The addition of George Hill this offseason has plugged a major hole at the point guard position. With such a stocked cupboard, this should be Snyder’s first year helming a team that finishes in the top half of the NBA in offensive efficiency.
But the offensive scheme Snyder relies on is one of the more unique systems in the league. The Jazz play at a snail’s pace -- they’ve finished last in the league in both of Snyder’s seasons -- and have a huge variety of plays containing multiple reads and counters. Perhaps no team in the NBA has more mindless reversal passes and non-penetrating dribble hand-offs in their base system. It’s those concepts that cause the Jazz to eat up so much of the shot clock every possession.
In general, Snyder’s offense relies very heavily on false action -- basically decoy movements that hide the possessions real goal. But what often happens during Utah’s offensive possessions is that this emphasis on shifting the defense before getting to the core element of the play leaves the team with precious little time on the shot clock to find good looks. By procrastinating so long before getting to the meaty part of their sets, the Jazz have little margin for error when it comes to avoiding tough, bailout shots.
Yet given these critiques of Snyder’s system, it’s hard to tell if it’s really all that limiting. For all the talent on the roster, there isn’t a single player who can run at a set defense and consistently create good looks. Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and the newly acquired Joe Johnson are all, skilled versatile wings, but they’re not LeBron James. Hill represents a massive upgrade at point guard, but he is not Chris Paul.
Those players are all best suited for the role of second-side operators -- players that can successfully navigate a defense after some previous action has caused their opponent to be pulled out of position. And the team’s bigs, while improving their offensive skills, aren’t striking fear into the heart of opposing defenses when they post up, roll to the rim or spot up looking for open jumpers. That’s why, in theory, the endless dribble hand offs, ball swings and elbow touches may be necessary to generate good looks for this group.
Up to this point, that “theory” is essentially the only thing we’ve had to go on when critiquing Snyder’s offensive approach. Because in the first year of his tenure, Snyder took over a team in transition while his second season was undermined by the personnel limitations at a crucial NBA position (point guard). Those outside factors made it hard to truly evaluate if more could be done to boost Utah’s middling offensive production.
Even with Hayward out to start this upcoming season, there is now enough talent on this Jazz roster to get a better feel for the strengths and shortcomings of Snyder’s system. If Utah continues a steady climb up the offensive efficiency rankings, it should take the pressure off Snyder to change up his approach on that end of the floor. But if the Jazz fail to show improvement on offense this year, it could stall their efforts to establish themselves as bonafide contenders out West and start to raise serious questions about Snyder’s approach.
- Will one of the young players of Denver's backcourt emerge as a genuine foundational piece this year?
Over the past three drafts, Denver has selected four guards among the top 20 picks: Garry Harris (19th) in 2014, Emmanuel Mudiay (7th) last season with Jamal Murray (7th) and Malik Beasley (19th) joining the ranks this summer. While Murray and Beasley are obviously in the infant stages of their career, the none of this young Nuggets look like they are on the verge of taken the NBA by storm.
The senior member of the group both in age and experience is Harris. After an underwhelming rookie campaign, Harris rebounded in his sophomore season to post more than respectable shooting percentages of 46.9 from the field and 35.4 percent from 3. An excellent finisher in transition, Harris has yet to find his calling card in the halfcourt. That’s not to say Harris is a liability, but there is definitely room for growth in a number of areas. Continuing to improve his 3-point shot would be hugely helpful to him in closeout situations -- where defenders must run at him after helping a teammate -- given his athleticism and finishing ability.
Beasley was one of the youngest players in the draft this year and struggled badly in the preseason. His 15.8 percent mark from 3 is particularly worrisome given shooting was kind of supposed to be his thing coming out of Florida State. It brings to mind a comparison to Milwaukee’s Rashad Vaughn -- a young player in his draft class who has really struggled to keep up in the NBA so far.
Mudiay and Murray are two players that have the exact opposite problem. Mudiay can pass, but can’t shoot or generally score efficiently. Murray is a shooter that desperately needs more playmaking balance in his game. It’s part of the reason his preseason numbers -- 35.5 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from 3 -- were so dreadful. If you merged Mudiay and Murray into the same body, they’d be make the perfect point guard.
Until then, Denver has to to hope that one of these young players fixes a fatal flaw and emerges as a cornerstone piece to a championship contender.