After a frenetic summer filled with stunning free agent defections, big trades and exciting rookies, our heads are still spinning as we enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign. With so many new faces in new places, it leaves fans to wonder how things will shake out this year. RealGM will attempt to ask (and answer) 10 of the more pressing questions you may have about the upcoming season.
- Can two of last year’s top teams in the West -- the Clippers and Jazz -- approach the same heights after the loss of their star players?
At the same time a handful of teams across the Western Conference were importing stars, the Clippers and Jazz were saying goodbye to Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward. Any time teams lose players as influential as Paul and Hayward, they enter a state of flux. Unless a franchise uses a star’s departure to dive into a rebuild, they must replace the lost production. But how Utah and L.A. will do that is in different ways.
For the Clippers, the loss of a perennial All-Star like Paul is mitigated by the fact they have another on their roster. Without Paul, Griffin will be forced to shoulder a heavier load. While sometimes it’s tough predict how a player will fare with increased expectations, we’ve already seen what Griffin is capable of in Paul’s absence.
During the 13-14 season, Paul missed just over a month due to injury. Over those 18 games, Griffin responded with sterling production -- averaging 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 55.4 percent from the field. Those numbers look even more impressive when you consider the Clippers went 12-6 over that stretch.
The same thing happened when Paul once again missed a month games during last year’s campaign. During that stretch, Griffin responded with 22.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 49.5 percent from the floor and 43.5 percent from 3. Unfortunately for the Clippers, however, the team as a whole went 5-6 in the games Griffin played while Paul was out. A couple of brief stretches can’t guarantee both Griffin’s production and the Clippers future success, but those numbers are certainly reasons for optimism.
On top of that, DeAndre Jordan still resides in L.A. While there are still some questions about whether Griffin can be the Clippers offensive lynchpin, there is no question that Jordan will anchor their defense. When Jordan was on the floor last season, the Clippers posted a defensive rating of 103.7, per NBA.com -- a mark which would have elevated the team’s defense from 13th to fifth overall in the league had it been possible to, ya know, play Jordan every minute of every game.
The good news for the Clippers is that due to the ripple effect of Paul’s departure, the team won’t have to play Jordan or Griffin for 48 minutes every night in order to make up for the loss of Paul. That’s because this L.A. franchise will finally have something they lacked since Paul’s arrival: real depth! Because of the Paul’s trade and the resulting cap space, the Clippers replaced one great players with four pretty good ones -- Danilo Gallinari (free agent), Patrick Beverley (trade), Milo Teodosic (free agent) and Lou Williams (trade).
So now instead of assembling a cast of middling veterans who played well for or against head coach Doc Rivers at some point in the 2000s around their three stars, this L.A. roster will have legit 10-deep rotation filled with players who bring at least one valuable skill to the table. Despite his health woes, Gallinari is still a free throw magnet. Beverley is a dogged defender who made great strides as a pick-and-roll playmaker under Mike D’Antoni in Houston last year. Williams will join fellow volume scorer Austin Rivers as part of a bench duo that could author a handful of potent offensive outings.
Then there’s Teodosic. Even if you haven’t seen much of the veteran point guard’s work with CSKA Moscow or the Serbian national team, you’ve surely seen some his passing chops displayed all over basketball Twitter this preseason. It’s not hyperbole to say that Teodosic is likely the best passer the NBA has seen since Steve Nash retired.
In fact, Teodosic has the potential to have a Nash-like effect on this Clipper team because of his passing wizardry. And unlike say, Utah’s own ball moving savant, Ricky Rubio, Teodosic isn’t just a one trick pony. Though not a historically great shooter like Nash was, Teodosic balances out his creative dime dropping with the threat of hitting shots from deep. Last season with CSKA, Teodosic shot 38.1 percent from deep in the Euroleague and 40.6 percent in the VTB (Russia’s domestic league). Those numbers might drop a tad due to the NBA’s longer 3-point line, but Teodosic will still be a credible scoring threat thanks to his jumper.
That is a good thing because almost immediately from the start of the season, Clippers opponents will be playing Teodosic for the pass. That means instead of damn near selling out to prevent players like Damian Lillard and Steph Curry from getting shots, bigs guarding Teodosic will stick tightly to their man. This will have the ripple effect of letting help defenders sink back onto shooters, forcing Teodosic to prove to teams he can score from all levels -- 3-point territory, mid-range and the rim -- when in pick-and-roll.
There’s also a good chance that Teodosic will see teams switch onto him more aggressively, even in 1-5 pick-and-rolls. Players like Curry, Lillard and even Nash in his later years, can/could destroy opposing centers in switches. It remains to be seen whether Teodosic -- who only had seven total isolations versus a switch last year, per Synergy data -- can score enough in such spots to avoid opposing defenses from nullifying his overall effectiveness.
Any shortcomings offensively will just exacerbate the fact that Teodosic will be running around with a bullseye on his back on the other end of the floor -- something that will make the managing of a deep, but quirky roster even harder for Rivers. Without a lot of pure shooting and some real questions about fit, Rivers may have to get comfortable playing some unorthodox lineups. Most times that will mean sacrificing defense (think Griffin at the 5 next to Gallinari or three-guard units featuring defensive liabilities like Teodosic and Williams) in order to sell out on offense. It’s a real question whether Rivers can stomach a handful of truly miserable defensive possessions to stick with lineups that have the potential to outscore opponents in the long run.
The problem Rivers will face in managing the Clippers roster this season is the exact opposite Jazz head coach Quin Snyder will have with his group. After finishing in the Top 3 in defensive efficiency last year, the Jazz might be even better this season. That will be thanks in large part to two of the team’s many new faces.
Though given all kinds of plaudits for his passing, Ricky Rubio has been an underappreciated defender for a number of years now. In four of the past five seasons (the lone exception being last season), Minnesota’s defensive ranged from marginally to substantially better when Rubio was on the floor, per NBA.com data. Along with his penchant for steals -- Rubio ranked in Top 10 in steal percentage, per Basketball Reference -- Utah can certainly expect their new point guard to be a boost to their already impressive defense.
The fun part for Jazz fans is that Rubio isn’t the only new addition that could help make a stingy defense even stingier this season. Before he embarked on a detour overseas, Ekpe Udoh was developing a reputation as a plus/minus darling in the NBA. In his first two seasons in the league, Udoh drastically improved a shoddy Golden State Warriors during his time on the floor. Though his splits were less impressive with Udoh’s next team (Milwaukee), there were still evidence.
The thing with Udoh, however, is that it’s hard to spot what makes him so helpful to a team’s defense. With a 7’4” wingspan, Udoh sported some good block rates during in his previous stint in the NBA. But Udoh’s blocked shots aren’t exactly the type showing up as GIFs all over Twitter. He’s also a pretty subpar rebounder for a player that basically has operated as a center for most of his career, yet through positional savvy, anticipation and his mobility, Udoh has been a proven boost to his defenses in previous NBA stops.
So while the Clippers boosted their offense in the wake of Paul’s departure, the Jazz are aiming to make up for the loss of Hayward by doubling down on defense. Yet despite this contrast, Utah is also going to use depth to offset the loss of their star. Even with backup point guard Dante Exum expected to miss the season with a shoulder injury, the Jazz still have an incredibly deep and versatile roster. In fact, it’s a headache-inducing venture to try and comb through the rotation combinations Snyder could use this season.
Most of the uncertainty will be in the frontcourt. Once again, it will be interesting to see how much Snyder splits up Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. That decision will impact when and where Udoh and fellow free agent addition Jonas Jerebko. The rotation on the wing will also be littered with options as Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, Thabo Sefolosha and a now-healthy Alec Burks will fight it out for minutes. Only the point guard position, where rookie Donovan Mitchell’s promising preseason seems to have penciled into the rule of Rubio’s understudy with Exum now sidelined, seems to be somewhat straightforward.
Another looming question for the Jazz is going to be who replaces Hayward’s crunch time touches. Hayward was on the floor for 126 of the minutes the Jazz were either ahead or behind by five points or less in this last five minutes of a game -- by far the most on the team. Hayward’s raw numbers (39.7 percent from the field, 27.8 percent from 3 and 19 assists) during those crunchtime minutes weren’t that impressive.
One underrated aspect of Hayward’s production during those crucial possessions was that he rarely turned the ball over. In fact, Hayward posted the lowest turnover ratio (4.23) of any player during those crunchtime parameters that had a usage rate over 25 (Hayward’s was 27.2). All-Stars like James Harden (11.23) and Damian Lillard (11.47) posted marks nearly triple that of Haywards. Even if a player isn’t going gangbusters in crunchtime, avoiding mistakes in favor of shot attempts (offensive rebounds!) or assist opportunities late in games still helps teams win close games.
Sans Hayward, Utah will need to find another player to shoulder the creative responsibilities during those stretches. Johnson was phenomenal last year in those situations, but enters this season at 36 years old. Hood is another natural candidate, but the youngster has virtually no experience attacking locked-in NBA defenses late in games. In order for Utah to win their fair share of close games this season, they will have to find a player or creative offensive solutions to produce points in crunch time.
Similar questions face the Clippers in these spots. Oddly enough last season, L.A. rarely found themselves in a situation where a game was close late. As a team, the Clippers only were ahead or behind by five in the last five for 116 total minutes last season, per NBA.com. Paul was on the floor for 82 of those minutes, dishing out an impressive 20 assists while posting forgettable shooting numbers.
Though it’s clear that Griffin is the obvious successor to Paul in these spots, it’s not as clear as to how much time the Clippers as a whole will spend in them. Crunch time minutes vary wildly from season to season. Portland actually lead the league last season after spending the sixth least amount of time in the “5 with 5 left” spot the year before. How big of an issue the change from Paul to Griffin will be could very will depend on the randomness of how often L.A. is in a tight game late.
For both teams, the avoidance of close games and reliance on new crunch time focal points could be related to how well they leverage their depth. Given the grueling marathon that is the NBA regular season, depth can sometimes supercede talent due to schedule congestion and travel. With an emphasis on limiting minutes night in and night out for their core contributors, both teams enjoy more than their fair share of opportunities to roll over weary opponents that can’t field on rotations with as many quality contributors.
With some smart rotation management and injury luck, there are world’s where either (or both) the Clippers or Jazz actually exceed the 51-win marks they posted last year. For Utah, a 2013-14 Pacers team that won 56 games (albeit in a waaaaay weaker conference) behind a super stingy defense are a possible best case scenario. For L.A., an optimist could see them hitting the highs of 2009-10 Suns team that won 54 regular season games behind a superb offense spearheaded by Nash and backed by a quirky 10-man rotation featuring Amare Stoudamire.
As far as floors, it’s hard to see either of these clubs dropping out of playoff contention entirely. Considering the lost production of Paul and Hayward, that in itself is something of a moral victory for both franchises. But thanks to savvy management in the wake of their stars departures, don’t be too surprised if either the Clippers or Jazz find themselves producing real victories at a pace that keeps them near the top of the Western Conference.