mohini

30 posts

2023-24 Season

Nuggets won the 22-23 title and did so handily vs. a good Miami team. That series wasn’t about Miami’s lack of talent or shooting or size, but rather about the comprehensive impact Nicola Jokic has on games when they really matter.

The Nuggets are a lot more than Jokic of course, but he’s what makes everyone else fit into their roles. His ability to manipulate opposing defenses to his team’s advantage … very few players in history have been masterful at it in the way he’s become. And he’s only getting better. The Nuggets lost a big piece however, and while the loss of Bruce Brown may be partially offset by the addition of Reggie Jackson, it’s unlikely that they’ll have the same kind of surprise off the bench they had during their 22-23 championship run. Brown was amazing, but Porter Jr. will likely continue to improve as will Braun, and with Jokic in charge the teamwork will only get better.

So IMO Jokic is the main story going into this regular season. That’s a remarkable thing to think, and even if it’s not true by consensus it’s remarkable that he’s reached this sort of prominence as he’s just starting into his prime. And with the league stacked with both veteran and young talent like we’ve never seen (at least SIX current players are likely to be consensus top 20 all time?), he’s moved demonstrably beyond all of them in terms of his current impact on the game.

Regardless, while Jokic is the main story going in there are significant changes and many huge  improvements leaguewide. The Suns with new ownership (starting early 2023) appear to have made a mockery out of the free agent market – topping off their already offensively talented roster with the additions of Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, Jusef Nurkic and Grayson Allen while shedding the apparently unmotivated weight of the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Deandre Ayton who was shipped off to the Blazers. With the additions of Nurkic, Allen and Nassir Little the Suns become a larger and likely much better defensive team making up for the loss of Mikhal Bridges early in 2023.

Many teams are better, and one needs to see how to season plays out before appointing the Suns as the leagues best chance at becoming the Jokic Killers. The Celtics are brewing up major changes at both ends of the court, albeit with the loss of their emotional backbone comprised of Smart and Grant Williams and their outstanding rim protector/rebounder  in Robert Williams III. By adding Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingas they may very well have improved at both ends. Big time pressure is on Porzingas to deliver however, as the best teams in the league have gotten taller and physical inside play appears to be returning to the sport. Boston has a tall task this year as they need to prove they can consistently win battles vs. Jokic, Giannis, Nurkic, Looney, Davis, Sabonis, Valanciunas, JJJ and Holmgren (to name only some). If Horford and Porzingas can make it through to the playoffs while allowing the Celtics to deliver as is expected … we will see!

The Bucks gave up a lot to land Damion Lillard in a trade. They still have depth, but the replacement of Holiday and Allen with Lillard in the starting lineup … how they defend the perimeter now becomes a big question. Portis is a big part of the answer, but will his increased minutes (my guess) be enough to make the Lillard trade worth the big changes in their chemistry? Lillard will be a big part of deciding how quickly they all come together, and he may be able to succeed early and often in the East which clearly lacks the overall talent and expertise of the West.

Staying in the East it’s surprising (to me anyhow) that relative to the West there’s only one other team that is likely to be vastly improved over who they were in 22-23: The Detroit Pistons will add not only their young leader (and SHOULD have been ROY) back into the roster (Cunningham) but also drafted a solid ball moving and defensive minded stud in Ausar Thompson. They’re a young quick and potent team that, on paper anyhow, look to be the future of the East or at least contenders alongside the Celtics going forward. Other teams have improved in the East (Orlando comes to mind especially) but the off season wasn’t especially kind to many other teams that for one reason or the other appear to be standing pat with what they have currently. Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, Indiana, Philly, Knicks, Raptors all come to mind here. That’s a startling contrast to what’s happening in the West with almost just as many teams making great improvements, in many cases by pulling from talent originating in the East.

I have no comments about Charlotte because that team appears to be cursed. I don’t know what goes on there, and not sure ownership cares about winning. Bridges might not play this year. Hayward is past his prime. I don’t like their draft pick. They have Ball and Rozier and that appears to be it. It all seems like a big fail – they will need to trade Ball if he’s ok with that.

The Brooklyn Nets might deserve special recognition here as they appear to have a solid foundation. They’ve added Lonnie Walker and are poised to make more big changes in the near future, but it will likely take some time as they need to flesh out their front court and possibly find a solid leader among the ranks. Bridges and Dinwiddie seem unlikely to take on that role, and Simmons seems unfit in this regard.

I should also give more respect to the Knicks who added DiVincenzo to what is already a very scrappy team that plays hard at both ends and has one of the best floor generals in the league in Brunson. But the Knicks lack size and shooting from their best players. Expect them to be better this year because all their young players will be better, but how they can beat the top teams in the league that have size AND shooting … it’s a lot to ask.

Wizards. There. I wrote the word just to indicate that I didn’t forget them.

Now, where to start in the West now that the Nuggets and Suns have already been covered? I think you have to look at three teams that are going to really shake things up making it difficult for all the other contenders: Warriors, Kings and Thunder. It’s unfortunate that Dray Green isn’t ready to go in the season opener, but there are big reasons to expect big things out off the Warriors this season. The addition or Dario Saric brings a new look for them in the frontcourt and a question to be answered is how he and Looney might create some chemistry to become the league’s top rebounding front court. Dray can play any position, but how often will Kerr want him on the court at the same time as Looney and Saric? I think it’s only a question about injury risk if you play those three together, but it’s going to be something to watch when it happens even if only on given nights because of matchups.

Interesting stat here: Looney seems to have crushed it in the category of “offensive rating” – look at his number of games played vs. others atop this category. Big Time Studliness …

https://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2023_per_poss.html#per_poss_stats::off_rtg

The Warriors added CP3 which should be an improvement over Poole, and they’re likely to be right there with the Celtics, Thunder and Knicks as the scrappiest in the league at both ends. But they lack size and we’ll need to watch to see how they can win vs. the many much bigger teams. There are many things to watch for starting with Klay’s continued improvement at both ends and Kuminga’s ability to stay under control during his quicker athletic “power drives” to the hoop. How many minutes will he get per game? I assume this is something Kerr is trying to figure out as well. As always it will be hard to decide to take Wiggins out when he and Dray have become such anchors defensively. Kerr’s got one of his biggest challenges ahead now that the Warriors appear to be back to contending status after the disappointment of their Wiseman mistake.

The Sacramento Kings are in many ways the opposite team to the Warriors. Big huge dude in Sabonis in the center who can be the focus offensively on any given night. His passing game has improved and the chemistry with Fox appears to have clicked almost right off the bat. Also unlike the Warriors, the Kings’ formula appears to be founded on having the ball in Fox’s hands on every play, mostly to allow him to try and penetrate the defense with his drives to the hoop while always threatening the harm. Fox has become much better and looking around for his guys though, and he has plenty to choose from.  Murray, Heurter, Monk, Barnes and Mitchell. That’s a more physical bunch that can shoot and score than most PGs have to choose from. They’ve also added Duarte who can help to shore up their defense. If Fox improves on his already much improved game by patiently looking for his guys rather than choosing to drive first then the Kings will be a top team in the league and right there with the Nuggets and Celtics in their ability to end the regular season with the best record.

The OKC Thunder will be the new kids on the block this year. Last year it was the Kings with the Thunder making some noise along the way. In addition to SGA hitting his prime and being a top 5 MVP candidate, every guy on the roster improved over the course of last season. They have arguably the most physical and scrappy wings in the Williams’s, a continually improving and big physical scoring PG in Giddey and are now adding a top 2 or 3 shot blocker in Holmgren who can also score and rebound and make plays. The Thunder are a team to watch for upsetting contenders, and they’re only getting started assuming Holmgren’s body holds up. Loaded with draft picks they’re unquestionably one of the top teams of the future, and it starts with SGA who might be the most difficult player to stop going to the basket. Not that he doesn’t have a lot of competition starting with Morant.

I don’t know what to write about the Lakers other than that Reaves is a very likely top MIP candidate already going in. I admit to being worried that he’ll take over the LeBron role on a team with LeBron on it. He doesn’t touch the ball nearly enough IMO and seems like one of the leagues best threats at drawing fouls on drives to the rim a la SGA, Doncic and Tatum. Gabe Vincent is a nice replacement for Lonnie Walker. Still, can’t really write or predict much without knowing how many games AD will be at his best, and LeBron really needs to let his other guys run the show if he’s not going to load manage. I don’t know if he will though, but IMO they’re in the playoffs regardless as I don’t expect much from the Grizz or Pels or Wolves relative to the rest of the crowd in the West.

Pels … sooo disappointed in watching what appears to be a downturn in Ingram’s quality of play this summer in FIBA championships. That he was probably the weakest member of that team is a sad statement for Pels fans. Zion or no Zion, Ingram needs to be the player he was 2 years ago. Who knows what happened to him since then.

Dallas appears to be such a wild card with this new lineup. They could be the surprise of the league if Doncic figures out how to play alongside Kyrie. This looks like a well built roster now impressive even albeit not as deep or as big as many in the West.

https://www.espn.com/nba/team/roster/_/name/dal/dallas-mavericks

Kyrie, Curry, Morris, Kleber and Grant Williams mean serious fire power if Doncic finds them regularly. I think this will be the year that we discover just how smart he can be without throwing those baby tantrums. Time to grow up kid – he’s had his fun and it needs to be about contending now but they’re thin in the front court.

I won’t write much about the Grizzlies only because it’s impossible to say how they’ll look this year. Marcus Smart is there now and will start alongside Bane – a VERY tough two-some at both ends. But without a solid and consistent leader and floor general they’re likely to appear lost early this season. Stephen Adams is out for an indefinite amount of time to start the season. Luke Kennard is likely to be a bright spot for them, but without some consistency it just doesn’t look good for the Grizz with so many other teams moving forward while they appear to be pedaling backward.

Big Jazz Fan here. Big Kessler fan. Not enough depth to make a noise in the playoffs, but wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the play in. Clarkson continues to be the most underrated – seems like I keep saying that every year. Not sure how Ainge is going to flesh out this roster – OKC and Houston are leaps and bounds ahead of them while on a similar timeline. In any case, I fully expect Kessler to become a story this year. Another sign that the Big Man is back in the NBA.

Much like the Grizz, the Clippers will stay in the TBD category until we see otherwise. The load management rule change will mean something to them, but maybe it just means that Balmer pays the most in fines. I don’t know what to think about the Clipps other than that I know Kawhi can be the best player in the league on any given night. If that’s what he wants, and who knows what Kawhi wants.

I have almost nothing to write about the Wolves because I simply think they are the worst franchise in the league management and ownership wise. They just don’t seem to know what they’re doing, and it wouldn’t surprise me if as Edwards improves he sees more clearly the dead end he’s stuck in. They’ll win games and he may be an MVP candidate but they aren’t and probably won’t be contenders for a great many years to come.

Houston and Spurs fans should be hell of excited, and they’ll both be fun to watch as they’ll undoubtedly win big games against top teams this year. Having never seen a team quite like Houston I won’t rule out a play-in berth though. It’s good to be an NBA fan in Southern Texas again.

Blazers … I seriously doubt they know what they’re doing. I think the owner is playing fantasy league or is just drunk a lot of the time.

2023 Off-Season

Beal to Suns for CP3 and Shamet

Porzingas to Celtics, Smart to Grizz, Tyus Jones to Wizards

CP3 to Warriors for Poole

WEMBA

2023 NBA Playoffs

NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: Joel Embiid’s next step is playoff success
Seth Partnow
Apr 7, 2023

My guess is two of the players about whom I’m going to get the most pushback in terms of what slot they’re in are Jayson Tatum (Tier 2A, or seventh to ninth top player in the league) and Joel Embiid (1B, fifth or sixth), especially given both having seasons that will place them in the top five, and in Embiid’s case, possibly at the top of the MVP voting.

And I’m here to tell you there is literally (well, almost literally, but nobody is going ’61 Wilt or anything) nothing they could have done this regular season to move any higher. Because the questions they have to answer, and the tests they have to pass, happen in May and June, not January and February.

I’m not even saying either player has shirked or shrunk in playoffs past. But they haven’t quite overcome either.

Somehow, a narrative has developed that last season’s NBA Finals weren’t actually that close, but with a chance to go up 3-1 at home, Boston had a five-point lead with 6:30 left in Game 4. And the Celtics couldn’t close it out and didn’t win another game from there. A big reason was the degree to which the Warriors had seemingly (and finally) figured out Tatum, turning him into much more of an isolation scorer than the playmaking offensive engine who helps the Celtics purr. Over the final two games, he made only 16 of 38 shots, with nine turnovers against only 11 assists.

To put a point on it, the title was there to be won, but Boston’s offense bogged down. With Tatum the primary driver of that offense, he takes a good chunk of the blame. Maybe if the late-game offensive foibles hadn’t plagued the Celtics earlier in the postseason — they made harder work of the series against the Bucks and Heat as a result of similar breakdowns — or across the regular season wherein the Celtics were one of the worst-performing teams in the clutch of the last few decades, the disappointment would stick to him less.

Meanwhile for Embiid, there is nothing particular he hasn’t done. Other than win.

The second-round loss in 2019 to Toronto (and all the bounces of Kawhi Leonard’s jumper that it required) was a credible defeat in a hard-fought series in which there had to be a loser. The bubble sweep at the hands of the Celtics was more the result of the support on his team collapsing once Ben Simmons went down with an injury just before the playoffs. Embiid was a little banged up against the Hawks in 2021, while missing the first two games against the Heat last year.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to see reliability as a more and more important trait the higher up the Tiers we travel. And while there are explanations and extenuating circumstances for all of those losses (including series the Sixers should have won on paper in the last two playoff runs), it’s always something with Embiid and Philadelphia.

For me, the Hawks series sticks in my craw as the one a 1A player doesn’t drop. This isn’t to say that’s a permanent status, but reaching the conference finals (at least) last year would have helped!

If the above sounds nitpicky about either Embiid or Tatum, it is intended to be. The Tiers are explicitly about drawing fine distinctions between top players because, as we see every year, those little differences matter a great deal at this level. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if either Tatum or Embiid showed that those small edges are actually in their favor over the next few months. But unlike players above them, they haven’t quite proved it. Yet.

I supposed I can’t close without addressing the inevitable “But what about Nikola Jokić?” retort to the critique of Embiid. To which I would respond: Show me the series Denver (and Jokić) has lost in which they were favored? Show me where he hasn’t performed at an exemplary level across his entire playoff career, aside from a few ugly moments of poor discipline resulting in ejections.

Getting the to conference finals in the bubble, winning a series without Jamal Murray in 2021 and performing well at least on an individual level despite being the sole focus of Golden State’s game planning last year has been “proving it” relative to circumstances.

But heading into the playoffs as the top seed does put Jokić at risk. An early exit where his defensive limitations play a key part will mean at this point next year, Jokić will be the subject of this demand for proof either alongside or instead of Embiid.

NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: LeBron still shows flashes of greatness, Donovan Mitchell levels up
Seth Partnow
Apr 6, 2023

I first wrote about the possibility of LeBron James entering the decline phase of his career more than seven years ago. That season’s championship later, I’ve been a little squeamish about making that call again. But I think it’s time. This isn’t said out of malice or denigration of James’ career. It’s just a fact that every player eventually gets old. While some age more gracefully than others, they all eventually age out of Top Tier status.

Properly recognizing this slippage in real time is an enormously tricky part of the Tiers exercise, and is one of the areas where focusing on current championship equity over future career-and-contract projected value makes things more – rather than less – complicated.

If were I judging on the latter, the inevitability of the decline combined with the enormous contract and reality that a player of James’ stature will inevitably enjoy a larger role than their current skills might warrant make it easier to discount and downrate.

But if we’re focused more on the here and now it’s fraught. There have certainly been stretches this year where James has rolled back the years and looked just as dominant as ever. But those have been just that: stretches.

Flashes.

Even in those periods, it wasn’t quite the same. While he can be forgiven for not being a hustle-demon on defense as he nears 65,000 career combined regular season and playoff minutes, that can’t obscure that in his prime years he was just that. That hypothetical “What would the best and most tireless defender in the league do?” ghosts used by the Toronto Raptors to illustrate the early promise of tracking data, that was simulating LeBron.

And he hasn’t been that guy on a game-to-game basis for several years.

Defense isn’t the only evidence of slippage. Consider that his ratio of free throw to field goal attempts was .411 over his two strings in Cleveland while reaching .426 in his Miami years. Over his now five years in Los Angeles, it has dropped all the way to .288 (as of the time of this writing with a week to go in the regular season). This sort of trend is often an injury of a reduction in explosiveness or other impingements on athleticism. That James has managed to get to the basket as often as always is a credit to his skill and strength, but he isn’t creating the sorts of advantages that saw him live at the line until he was deep into his 30s.

On some level, it’s a measure of James’ greatness (for my money, he is one of three plausible candidates for GOAT status alongside Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but this isn’t the place for that debate) that I have to spend this much time explaining why I think a 38-year old is nearer the bottom than the top of the Top 10 in the league in terms of current championship-level impact.

Of course, based on my track record here, LeBron is going to reel back the years and have the Lakers storm deep into the Western Conference playoffs. While that would be a great story, it would also be contrary to expectations, at least to mine.

NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: Jaylen Brown’s, Anthony Edwards’ stock rises
Seth Partnow
Apr 5, 2023

The whole “82-game or 16-game player?” thing has been done to death. And yet there is still truth contained in the cliché. Especially in this era of pinball-like accumulation of gaudy stat lines, it’s difficult to compare and contextualize the performances of very good-to-great players against one another when most of what we’re seeing is matchups against lesser opposition.

In the playoffs, we not only get several head-to-head duels between players who might only see each other three times a season, but these contests arise in an environment of heightened preparation and attentiveness.

Evaluating head-to-head matchups doesn’t just mean series wins. A player can win the matchup but still be eliminated with a salient recent example being Kevin Durant outplaying Giannis Antetokounmpo over the seven games of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals, but the rest of the Bucks just barely overcoming that gap. Nor is one series dispositive, especially if it is closely fought.

But there are times when two standout players enter a series and it’s clear to everyone watching that one player is just flat out better than the other.

Meanwhile, the playoff environment helps differentiate between the quirky and the unstoppable. Even if a player’s left-handedness catches an opponent off guard early in a playoff series, by about the third quarter of Game 1, that edge is gone. On the other hand, players where you know exactly what is coming and can’t do a damn thing to stop them even with that information? Those are the stars.

Even within Tier 3 having that success is a separator. Why is Khris Middleton a sub-tier or two ahead of Bradley Beal? Only partially due to Beal’s failings, he hasn’t taken a playoff series and stamped his authority on it the way Middleton has with his ability to take and make tough shots at critical times.

I believe the ability to excel in the later rounds of the playoffs is, to a degree, learnable. Part of the reason teams often have to “fail before they succeed” is the need for players to experience having some of their pet moves rendered ineffective, requiring new wrinkles and counters. Without facing the adversity of poor playoff performance, the impetus to develop those wrinkles is, if not eliminated completely, at least blunted.

Of course, it isn’t a given that a player will struggle in the first exposure to the postseason. It is a function of where they rate among the league’s elite, but Stephen Curry and Nikola Jokić could operate at a high level from the first time they hit the postseason floor. Not to say they didn’t improve from there as well, but contrary to Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” lament, their s— did work in the playoffs.

And maybe that will happen for Zion Williamson or Tyrese Haliburton, as well, if and when they face this test. But that will have to wait as neither seems likely to get the opportunity to do so this season. Even should the Pelicans reach the playoffs proper, Williamson figures to have a limited role to play as he returns from a long-term hamstring injury.

While not yet having the chance to succeed in this sport isn’t the same as failure, it’s much closer to that than succeeding. As with all things in the Tiers process, advancement isn’t given; it’s taken.

NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: De’Aaron Fox, Aaron Gordon climb the ranks
Seth Partnow
Apr 4, 2023

There is no official definition or bright line separating “stars” and “role players” in the NBA. But the terms are useful shorthand for a real distinction between those who can provide value by finishing plays and those who can not only finish themselves but also create those opportunities.

Over past editions of the Tiers, as well as the reveals of the top three “pre-postseason” Tiers to come over the rest of this week, I’ve made clear that I believe the latter skill, when performed at a high level, is the most valuable, least replaceable trait in today’s league. Almost to a man, Tiers 1, 2 and 3 have been populated by above-average creators, with the only exceptions being Defensive Player of the Year-level interior players.

The league seems to agree with me, as the ability to create with the ball in hand is extremely well-compensated, even for players who have the ability to get buckets at more modest efficiencies than the true elite. In fact, for many of those players, this trait is, to my mind, overly well-compensated.

While more creation is rarely useless to a team, below a certain level of efficiency and skill, adding more on-ball juice might not help and could even hinder teams pursuing genuine playoff success. In terms of the cost in both cap dollars and the more complementary and additive skills which are being eschewed in service of more shot creation, the trade-off for “just OK” self-creation isn’t likely worth it.

This concept is often described as the difference between floor raising and ceiling raising. For a rebuilding team, anybody with reasonable creation skills helps. When starting from the ground up, there are plenty of gains to be made just in reducing or eliminating “going nowhere” type possessions. However, to run in the same circle as the league’s elite, a team needs more than mere competence. A good chunk of those chances has to become exceptional, which is where the stars come in.

The list of players who have taken a run at being able to carry star-level usage only to come up just short is long and varied. Some even manage modest levels of success — Jerami Grant in Detroit and now Portland is a recent example — but most see their shooting percentages drop nearly as fast as their teams in the standings. And I think most would agree that even a relative success like Grant, not to mention his team, would be better served in a more Aaron Gordon-like situation than as a secondary offensive option. Similarly, Andrew Wiggins’ time in Golden State has shown just how important it can be to not overtax a talented, if creatively flawed, player if an org wants to get the best out of him.

Still, it’s important for younger players to be given the chance to try and fail. The jump in value from “top role player” to “borderline All-Star” is considerable, and for any team on the rise likely worth risking an ugly shooting season on the possibility a player can thrive when given more to do. I certainly would not have expected Lauri Markkanen would not only just survive but also thrive after being given the keys to Utah’s offense, to the point where his All-Star selection wasn’t much of a surprise at all, while Jalen Brunson was one of the bigger snubs from this year’s squad after spending most of the year proving that he has much more in his bag than the “Luka’s sidekick and occasional stand in” character he played in Dallas would suggest.

The next player up to try his hand at breaking through the role-player ceiling will likely be Mikal Bridges. His scoring has been superb since being dealt to Brooklyn at the deadline, and while I expect plenty of regression — I will go ahead and guarantee he will not shoot over 50 percent on uncontested 3s over a full season — he’s shown pretty much every thing he could ahead of next season.

Brooklyn’s postseason is likely to be short and rough, the roster too callow and imbalanced to offer real threat to the teams above them in a series. So we’ll have to wait until next season to see if Bridges can reliably fill a primary or secondary scoring slot. Should he be able to do so, those skills combined with his All-League level defense will allow him to jump up into the Top 3 tiers which are typically off limits to perimeter role players.

He might not be the only one. This postseason won’t be the proving ground, but there are a few players around the league that I would like to see given the chance to do more, just to see if it works. There are reasons John Collins has been a near perennial center of trade rumors in part because of the sense that he might blossom once he is no longer a member of Trae Young’s rhythm section and can play the occasional solo himself.

But either player succeeding in breaking into the Top 3 tiers would be much more the exception rather than the rule.

Meanwhile, one of the hardest questions to answer among the players who can’t break through is when to prefer the top-level role player over more of a floor raiser who may not be quite as effective if placed in a more complimentary role.

The latter represent the players for whom I have most frequently been accused of “hating.” Which is a far cop, insofar as we are talking about the player archetype of the good-but-not-great scorer who has deficits as a defender or playmaker or both. I think that group of players more often holds a team back than helps on the way when trying to get from solid, middle-seeded playoff participant to conference-finals-or-bust contender level.

Which in a roundabout way explains why players like Domantas Sabonis or Julius Randle can make All-Star teams and end up in the same grouping as top role players like Bridges or Aaron Gordon. I’d be crazy to suggest that the second group is “better at basketball” than the first. But in terms of how players fit into the very specific competitive environment that is the NBA, sometimes you can do more by trying to do less.

NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns among top 75
Seth Partnow
Apr 3, 2023

Evaluation, much like ball, never sleeps. Life in the NBA means constantly reassessing where you are and where you are going.

This holds across all aspects of a franchise. Can this coach take us to the next level? Do we trust this front office to formulate and execute a plan to push the team forward?

But most important is the talent on hand. How good are our players now, both as individuals and as a collective? Is there a hard ceiling on this group, or is there open sky above? If the team is still growing, is our best player good enough to be the best player on a top team?

These are difficult questions, made harder by the fact that it’s a zero-sum game with moving targets. Players themselves are not fixed entities. They get better, get older, go through slumps, find better situations, figure it out and/or lose confidence. At the same time, the landscape of the league is changing. In addition to the ever-higher bar set by the league’s overall skill level, different skill sets and player types gain or lose value as the collective style of play changes. Plus, at a certain point, it doesn’t matter how good your talent is on any sort of absolute scale. Rather, are they better than the five opposite of you?

2022-23 NBA Player Tiers: Russell Westbrook, RJ Barrett among those in Tier 5

Player Tiers are the best way I know to take a snapshot in time of not just how players order relative to one another, but also to note where there are real distinctions between groups. In some ways, the entire effort is based on frustration at the tendency to want to elide crucial differences. A team might have a “Top 10 Player” leading them, but there is a real distinction between that player being on the shortlist for “best guy in the league,” like a Giannis Antetokounmpo, and one who arguably takes one of the last couple of spots in that “Top 10,” such as Damian Lillard or Anthony Davis.

Might not seem like much, but when it comes to winning a championship, that s— matters.

As I’ve written in the introduction in each of the three offseasons in which The Athletic has produced Player Tiers, I’m intentionally considering Playoff performance and viability, as the relevant definition of “Top X Player” carries an implied “towards winning an NBA championship.” There are other ways to define greatness — remember that MVP is a regular season award, for example — but that’s the rubric I’m using.

So it might seem strange to release an updated Tiers list on the eve of the playoffs. If it can all change over the next few months, what’s the point of doing it now?

In a word: anchoring.

We can get so intimately familiar with players’ games over playoff runs that it can be tempting to focus too much on particular strengths or weaknesses that may be highlighted by the matchups they end up running into. Further, most of these guys will lose their last game, and it’s useful to have that pre-playoff evaluation to buttress against overreacting. It was tempting to downrate Jayson Tatum after some of his struggles toward the end of last season’s Finals. But, it was an important counterweight to have already considered where he rated, and also remember that I shouldn’t penalize him for reaching the Finals but failing to defeat the Final Boss more than I would have if Jimmy Butler’s last second pull-up dropped in Game 7 on the Eastern Conference Finals.

Read more: NBA Power Rankings for the week of April 3

Speaking of Tatum, another benefit of updating the tiers now is identifying which players have the most to gain or lose with their playoff performance. There simply isn’t a lot more certain guys can do in the regular season to ascend higher than they have been, while those without a lot of exposure in the postseason need the level of stress-testing to which a series or run will subject them. We might have suspicions about how Evan Mobley or De’Aaron Fox will fare in that crucible, but we won’t know until we see it.

As part of the rollout of the Tiers, I will lay out some of the questions that face players, as well as identifying and discuss the player archetypes that most often confound the effort to properly rate in this way.

Before diving in, I’d recommend reading the intros I’ve done the last few years— 2020, 2021 and 2022 — to refresh yourself on the methodology. While my research has shown that the Top 125 or so players in the league are considered to have a meaningful impact on teams’ title chances, this list will be limited to the Top 4 Tiers and 75 players. Though there are certainly some guys from outside this group who could make a leap, I’m not overly concerned with deciding those last 50 spots just now.

Rating the rookies
A near universal truth in the NBA is that rookies are bad. While obviously many first- year players go on to become quite good, each year one can count those who show not just promise, but genuinely positive impact, on one hand, with the thumb and a finger or three to spare.

According to Estimated Plus/Minus (the current gold standard for single-number impact metrics) here are the rookies who have been estimated to have had a positive impact of 1+ points/100 possessions in meaningful minutes for playoff teams over the last three seasons: Jose Alvarado of the Pelicans and the Knicks’ Immanuel Quickley. That’s the entire list. Utah’s Walker Kessler is currently rated at +2.1/100, while Memphis’ Brandon Clarke managed +1.0/100 in his 2019-20 rookie season, but their teams were each just on the outside looking in.

The four players mentioned are illustrative of another factor: the few rookies who are impactful are much more likely to project as career role players than provide much star equity. Guys who have enough potential to become NBA bucket-getters tend to receive the keys to an offense right away, where they almost universally learn that scoring efficiently against NBA defense is no joke.

Orlando’s Paolo Banchero will likely win Rookie of the Year in a landslide, and deservedly so, but as of this writing, his scoring efficiency is nearly 10 percent lower than the league average, only propped up that high by his near historical level of foul-drawing for a first- year player. This is entirely normal. Players who become stars take their lumps early as they learn what they can and can’t reliably do against this level of competition, while also honing their advantages to ever sharper points.

Who leads the NBA Rookie of the Year race? Paolo Banchero? Bennedict Mathurin?

So how to account for a player who is not good now, but we suspect will very much be so in the near future? If we’re using the Tiers as a snapshot of the league landscape, simply excluding them feels blinkered. So for rookies, I have always made an exception to my general rule of rating players on a “How much will they help toward a title this year?” scale. They will almost certainly get better, and soon.

Which is why, despite his rampant inefficiency and up-and-down defense — a profile I tend to downrate to an extreme degree relative to general perception — Banchero made my top 4 Tiers based on what I think he will be soon. He joins other players for whom I have given similar treatment in recent years, such as Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Evan Mobley.

I strongly suspect that when I include Tier 5 in the offseason version, several of Kessler, Oklahoma City’s J. Williamses, Sacramento’s Keegan Murray and Indiana’s Bennedict Mathurin will appear as well. But even that is with the understanding that they are being graded on a slightly different curve than the rest of the league.

2022-23 Season

Short preliminary Overview:

Warriors won the 2022 title because of talent and experience.The younger talent not named Wiggins contributed relatively little however, so it’s not clear that the Dubs got this one because they were the more talented team. If the Bucks had Middleton available for this last championship run it’s not clear that the Dubs had enough for a 7 game series. Instead, it was Boston with not enough from Tatum in the finals. It’s very hard to believe that the 2022 Celtics were the best that the East had to offer.

Barring injuries, this year the Warriors have nothing in their way of a repeat trip to the Western Conference Finals. They are the most experienced team. They move the ball and themselves much better than any team in the league. They are now bigger with Wiseman. They are more talented with several young players that will undoubtedly improve their overall games. Getting to the finals may not be easy however. Younger teams like the Grizzlies, Pels, Suns and Wolves are all likely to improve and challenge for that other spot atop the West. Meanwhile the Nuggets and Clipps have all-star level talent returning in Murray and Leonard respectively. The Mavs are bigger with the additions of Wood and McGee and all signs point to Doncic as one of the favorites for MVP this season.

Side note: Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Ant Edwards are so young and talented that it’s impossible to know how good they’ll be by the end of the season. All three are potentially generational talents along with Luka at about the same age. While it seems we know what Luka brings every night, there’s currently no way to know how good any of these other three will become should they stay healthy. As of right now there is no way to put a ceiling on any of these three players. Incredible young explosive talents and they’re all in the West.

In the East the Bucks look stacked and ready to return to the finals. They’ll get Middleton back, Grayson Allen stepped in nicely after DiVincenzo was lost to injury (he’s now with the Kings). Conaughton and Portis are only going to get better overall while remaining tough as nails. Joe Ingles is with them now – that should add more ball movement and spacing to what was already excellent. Boston could get back to the top, but they won’t do it as a consensus best in the East. Even if they didn’t have coaching and injury issues (Udoka is out and Brogdon is coming back from a recent injury. I believe Galinari is out indefinitely with an knee injury??). Still, Boston needs Tatum to do what he didn’t come close to doing in the 2022 playoffs: he needs to lead them and close consistently against great opponents. He’s not there yet.

Eastern Conference pre-preview

The Nets should be ready to run with both Kyrie and Ben Simmons alongside KD and Seth Curry. No proof yet, but if they want to claim “best starting 4 in the game” I doubt many would argue. They’ll have to prove it, and without knowing anything about team chemistry and Kyrie’s minutes there’s really no reason to put Nets atop the East yet. They need to be hitting on all cylinders in April -May, and no reason to think that will happen. Yet.

Sixers just seem way too thin, although there are good reasons to think that Maxey and Harden will figure out the ball-movement and scoring load now that they’ve had a preseason together. Embiid should be right there with Giannis and Luka atop the MVP race. Injuries are probably everything for this team, so look for a good amount of time management.

Miami is basically the same team as last season, though the big Serbian rookie, Nikola Jovic, could be an intriguing addition.

Cleveland now has Donovan Mitchell alongside Sexton. No clue how that will look, so not worth speculating yet. However, Cleveland is a very solid defensive team that is well coached and could figure out their offense well enough to make noise in the East.

Indiana has the ascending Haliburton in charge now, and there is every reason to look at him early in the season to see where this team is headed. Will he be taking the bulk of the shots? A conventional answer would be no, because that’s not his role. Or rather it hasn’t been. But is an efficient penetrating and dishing and shooting Haliburton the best option for the Pacers? They’ve got plenty of talent and some experience. Let’s see where their new leader takes them now that they’ve had an offseason together to figure is out.

The Bulls, Toronto and Hawks look to be loaded with talent at both ends. On any given night they can outrun and outscore any team in the league.

Detroit and Orlando will be interesting to watch. Both orgs look solid but the talent is super young if not raw. Expect the Pistons to upset any team on any given night if they aren’t taken seriously for 48 minutes.

Western Conference pre-preview

mohini Post authorOctober 15, 2022, 12:45 am
I’m pretty much writing off Porland, Utah, San Antonio and Sacramento this year but if you’ve heard something that might make any of these playoff teams let me know. I’m high on Houston as a dark horse and Pels at a potential top 5 in the West regular season should Zion stay healthy.

awoodsOctober 16, 2022, 3:44 am
I wouldn’t write Sacto off. With Mike Brown as head coach, Sabonis for a full season, a likely big step up from Davion Mitchell, and a rookie who looks really good in Keegan Murray, I think they’ll be in contention for a low level playoff berth. They also picked up Kevin Huerter from Atlanta in the off-season. I don’t share your optimism about Houston. I think there still a year or two away from sniffing the playoffs.

mohini Post authorOctober 16, 2022, 2:48 pm
I agree Sac has the talent, but they also have Fox who doesn’t seem to understand how other players similar to him are transitioning to all the ball sharing and movement. Only Kyrie and Trae Young seem to be able to get away with it, and I suppose Luka to some extent (but that’s an MVP candidate so not exactly someone Fox should be emulating). On the other hand, let’s say that Fox figures it out by end of April. I don’t see how they even get into the play-in with this insane lineup in the West:

Shoe ins for the western playoffs:

Suns
Dubs
Grizz
Mavs
Wolves
Clipps

Shoe ins for the western play-in if they don’t make it into the top 6:
Nuggets
Pels

I don’t consider the Lakers a shoe in for the play-in. So Kings need to fight these teams to get into the play in tourney …

Lakers
Blazers
Thunder
Rockets
Jazz
Spurs

I agree that the Kings look better on paper, and I think Sabonis will be an all star this year over AD and Green (not betting on it of course). But Fox will have to lead them with a whole slew of new talent, and I see some teams taking the next step faster than the Kings: Thunder and Rockets for instance. I expect both to be in the play-in with the Jazz, Spurs, Blazers and Kings looking in from the outside. We will see!

REPLY

mohini Post authorOctober 16, 2022, 4:12 pm
Somehow Pels were left off the list above. I guess I erased them, but Zion or not their in the play-in and probably in the playoffs above the Wolves but too much uncertainty around Zion.

REPLY

awoodsOctober 16, 2022, 7:56 pm
Pels are on the list above with the Nuggets as a play-in shoe-in if they don’t make the top 6. I don’t have that confidence in the Pelicans simply because Zion hasn’t proved he can stay healthy. I break down the West like this:

Will be in top 6:

Suns
Dubs
Grizz

Could be either top 6 or play-in depending on health:

Nuggets
T-Wolves

Likely in top 6, but could fall into play-in territory if one key player gets injured:

Mavs
Clippers

Likely in play-in, but could get into top 6 if things go right:

Lakers
Pelicans

Likely won’t make playoffs, but could get to play-in if things go right:

Blazers
Rockets

Won’t make playoffs:

Thunder
Spurs
Jazz

REPLY

mohini Post authorOctober 17, 2022, 3:35 pm
Got it, but I put the Pels in as a shoe in even if Zion gets hurt and is out for the entire season starting on Weds. They were awesome vs. the Suns. They’re a complete team without Zion. Outstanding defensively. Ingram should be an MVP candidate if Zion doesn’t play much this year. If Zion plays most of the season this is a top 5 team in the West IMO. They are better than the Suns and Mavs with Zion and neck and neck with them without him.

Just my opinion of course, but that’s what I saw in the playoffs vs. Suns who really didn’t deserve to get past them. Pels looked like the better team to me and that was with McCollum playing less than a full season.

Your list is also reasonable IMO. I’m guessing that the main difference between us isn’t the Pels but the Thunder. I think Giddey is an all-star and will lead them to the play-in tourney.

Where do you have the Kings though? I assume just above the Rockets and Blazers.

REPLY

awoodsOctober 17, 2022, 7:01 pm
Yep missed the Kings, but you have the correct spot for them. I’d put them in the Lakers and Pelicans category.

2022 Off-Season

Warriors Win! Now onto the draft, trades and free agency. Warriors probably don’t need to do a single thing, but I’m sure they’ll make a few moves depending on the offers. I suppose the best news (personnel-wise) for the Dubs going into next season is that even if Wiseman doesn’t play a minute in 22-23 they can afford to keep bringing him along until he’s 100%. Meanwhile …

Something is terribly wrong with the Suns who have no choice but to make at least one big change. Ayton isn’t likely to stay, but it’s still possible. Whether he does or not could setup a great many dominos to fall next, starting with the draft on June 23rd.

https://www.nba.com/draft/2022/draft-board

Jazz … really seems hopeless with the current roster. The good news is that Ainge and Wade are now big time decision makers in Utah. Something big will unquestionably happen, and possibly before the draft. In fact I think it would be stupid to not trade one of their core players (not named Clarkson) to at least try for a high draft pick or a nice young player. Unfortunately, I doubt even Jerami Grant will help much. Regardless, Utah absolutely needs to go into this next season with a different roster.

Christian Wood is now a Maverick. Big time move by Cuban. West is going to be stacked more than it already is, especially if Brunson decides to stay. Now onto signing Brunson, but does he even want to stay?

Apparently the Rockets want to build around Sengun in the middle.

Pels say they’re all in on Zion now. He’s apparently saying something similar, but that doesn’t mean no moves by the Pels this offseason. Looking forward to seeing what David Griffin will try to put together around the talented core of Zion, Ingram and McCollum. McCollum has proven to be a fantastic pickup, and the Pels pass the eye test for would-be 2023 contenders with their skillful and Zion-less challenge vs the Suns in the 2nd round. They need depth, so let’s see where this goes.

Sixers – did they mortgage their future or does Morey have more smooth-operator moves up his sleeve? Hard to see how, but they need more to contend with several teams rising in the East. Does not look good at all for Harden and Embiid in their primes. Is Tobias Harris even a trade possibility? Does anyone else want him badly enough to pay his salary?

Chicago, Minnesota, Cleveland and Charlotte all appear to be off the blocks and running. The Bulls might be all set with their roster, assuming Lonzo is back and fully healthy. If not it’s very hard to see Coby White being the guy in that PG role. Do they make a move to give backup to Ball? Re. Cavs, is this the year Kevin Love moves on? Seems like it’s time to get more young and fresh blood in the lineup, and a lot of veteran teams could use Love … at a discount if possible. Wolves need one more piece and they may become the hardest offense to stop. Well … need to get by the Warriors in that dept first, and for that to happen D’Angelo Russell must go. However, as always seems to be the case at this time of year there’s no reason to expect the Wolves to make intelligent moves. It’s just so obvious though: Russell needs to go! Good reason to assume they won’t even consider it, and for me to place a bet down that they don’t. Charlotte showed signs of a young core coming together at the end of last season. They need some size, and they should be able to get that.

Is this the offseason when Beal finally puts his DC loyalty aside and signs elsewhere? Seems doubtful, hence this comment stuck down here instead of up top joining the FA headliners Ayton & Brunson.

Pacers would be all set if they didn’t lose their versatile Big Man. They could certainly use Ayton. Turner and Hield to the Suns? If Hield is a playmaker I’d expect the Suns to take a good long look at that possibility.

Lots and lots of other things coming up. Starting with OKC and their massive trove of picks and schemes. No way in hell to know what Presti will do. Might say the same about Houston, but they’ve already started the show with the Christian Woods move. We stay tuned to see what comes out of their magic hats. Portland? Something needs to happen, and it seems they’ve set themselves up for this offseason Lillard or no-Lillard. Raptors might be only one player away from jumping back into the fray. Lots of talent that can be moved at the right price. Could be interesting. Sacramento is now building around the Fox-Sabonis-Mitchell core. It’s a nice core, and maybe Fox just needs more heady wings to trust (so he doesn’t hog the ball so much). Still young enough. Time for Divac to do something smart. Knicks must make moves, but who frickin knows. What a mess.

Like the Warriors some teams really don’t need to do much. Bucks, Grizz, Clippers, Celtics and maybe the Heat? No clue what the Nuggets need if anything. Depends entirely on what is known about the health of Murray and MPJ.

Detroit and Orlando are in excellent position as young teams with no pressure to do anything but add excellent young pieces to their sound if not solid young cores. Jerami Grant may or may not move on. There’s really no hurry for that to happen but I’m sure there’s some pressure coming from somewhere to at least make Pistons consider what are sure to be excellent offers.

Nets? Well … really hinges on everything we don’t know about Simmons. Lakers – why bother even going there unless someone smart realizes that either LeBron or Davis must go. I just don’t want to think about it any more.

Personally I’m impressed with Orlando and would be surprised to see them make a single mistake this offseason. With the first pick in the draft …

?



2022 NBA Playoffs

The 2022 NBA playoffs begin Sat Apr 16. First round matchups are as follows …

East:
(1) Heat vs. (8) Hawks
(2) Celtics vs. (7) Nets
(3) Bucks vs. (6) Bulls
(4) 76ers vs. (5) Raptors
 
West:
(1) Suns vs. (8) Pelicans
(2) Grizzlies vs. (7) Wolves
(3) Warriors vs. (6) Nuggets
(4) Mavericks vs (5) Jazz
 
One week in the playoffs are shaping up as follows with these being the top stories …
 
1. Booker has a hamstring pull putting the Suns’s first round hopes to the test just as the 8th place Pelicans surge without Zion suited up. Pelicans have played outstanding defense in their first 2 games vs. Suns, and between McCollum and Ingram there appears to be scoring when they need it as well. Right now (before the 3rd game) this series is almost a toss up as long as Booker is out. The Suns should still have the edge, because of depth and overall talent especially in the middle.
 
2. Nets are losing 0-2 to the Celtics who have looked scary-good defensively in their first 2 games in Boston. Nets have had their chances though, with Kyrie doing his thing and Drummond looking like an immovable force down low when he’s in. But KD hasn’t shot well, and it’s clear that Boston is the reason for that. Even he says so! The series comes to Brooklyn for the 3rd game however and Simmons is expected to suit up for his first game after that. Regardless, the Celtics look incredible and will be very hard to beat. Nets are one team that can do it though. Must watch TV!
 
3. The Wolves can score as well as any team in the NBA. It’s early, and that statement is only true in theory right now but it’s already clear that playing the Wolves well defensively may not make a bit of difference if they can score in bunches the way that they have. And they defend too! Still, they’re young and make mistakes but it appears they have what’s needed to make this first series close vs. Grizzlies who haven’t quite figured them out yet even with the series in the Grizz favor 2-1 so far.
 
4. Tyrese Maxey has arrived. He’s arguably the Sixers best player right now, and not because Embiid has played poorly but rather because Maxey has been so active at both ends he’s dictating how the games have gone so far. Scottie Barnes has been out for 2 games however, and the Raptors have shown signs of life. However, between Harden’s assisting and everyone else kicking in at both ends the Sixers are seemingly on their way to the 2nd round.
 
5. Jalen Brunson is playing outstanding ball and leading the Mavs against the Jazz with Doncic out. Mavs look deep, and it’s especially impressive that they can beat a team with a huge rebounder/shot blocker/defender in Gobert. Dinwiddie has been impressive as well. Doncic expected back soon from his short time out, but he may not be needed at all until the second round.
 
6. Warriors are playing exactly as they should be playing vs. Nuggets and exactly as one might expect if they had been watching all season. That’s why I have them at #6 here: it’s no surprise that Poole has improved after playing all season. It’s no surprise that Green is running the offense as well as he did earlier in the season. Curry is also playing as expected albeit off the bench now that Poole has played so well in the starting lineup. MAYBE Klay Thompson’s shooting % is a surprise but it shouldn’t be. Klay is being Klay.
 
7. Chicago has shown some life vs the Bucks and has made that series exciting, but even with Middleton out for several games with an MCL sprain it shouldn’t keep the Bucks from moving onto the 2nd round in 6 games tops. Portis had an eye injury that took him out of the loss two days ago, but he’s due back which is big while Middleton sits out the rest of the series.
 
8. Capela was injured prior to the playoffs beginning, but with Miami hitting on all cylinders I don’t see how it matters. The Heat are incredibly deep and have played well at both ends. Capela *might* be back before the end of the series, so we’ll see then if he can make a difference. In any case Butler could be mentioned as the current “best player in the NBA” right now, but until he shows that he can put up huge numbers consistently I’ll leave him off the list. Butler has scored 96 points on 55%+ FG in their 3-0 series vs. Hawks.

2021-22 Season

The top stories rolling into the new season …

Kyrie may or may not play this year – the latest reason having something to with (paraphrasing) “getting the vaccine or not is about being true to yourself”, or something like that, but it’s really not possible to know for sure. He probably will play, but right now by NYC mandate he can’t play in NYC. Regardless he’s made it clear that he’ll just up-n-quit if the Nets try to trade him and KD says he’s backing his friend and won’t allow a trade. Meanwhile KD has been playing at an incredible level consistently through end of season last year, the playoffs and the Olympics. While it’s almost impossible to say who’s the best in the league going in KD has to be at least tied for first, and with Harden being just as good on any given night, a good if not great supporting cast and excellent coaching and management, the Nets are an easy pick for Eastern Conference Finals action next summer.

Giannis somehow became a better player in the finals series vs. the Suns. He wasn’t that player in the first 2 games of that series, but afterward he became perhaps the most dominant player in the playoffs that the league has ever seen. The stuff of legend. LeBron, Russell, Jordan, Kareem, Oscar, Wilt, Bird … Giannis was as good or better for at least 3 out of the final 4 games and arguably played the best game of any player ever in the final win over Phoenix. Can he sustain that improvement? It’s clear he has the drive, but will it be needed to win games and stay atop the East with an also-improved Jrue Holiday and a seemingly more assertive Kris Middleton? Bucks lost Tucker to FA, but other players stepped up for them in the playoffs and also seem improved. How good will they be this season? We’re going to find out – COVID isn’t as likely to dominate results throughout the season this year and it seems very unlikely to affect the 2022 playoffs. But the Bucks aren’t favorites to win it all going in … that billing goes to the Lakers and Nets. As if Giannis needed more motivation to get back to the finals again.

Steph Curry didn’t win MVP last year, but he could have and likely would have if the ball bounced the Warriors’ way once or twice more last year. He was phenomenal, and every bit deserving of the best player in the league status right there with the others on that short list. How good will the Warriors be when a healthy Wiseman suits up to play alongside rookies Kuminga and Moody (both will be works in progress)? Looney will continue his improving swing upward, Poole has to be the most underrated in the league. The Warriors are hungry and ready to get back to the finals, and can do just that even without Klay who’s expected back later this season.

Jokic … MVP who did it after losing weight and developing a stronger work ethic last year. How much better can he get? No one knows, but if he gets better at both ends he’s right there with the others above as best in the league. Even so, the Nuggets have holes to plug with a sort of revolving lineup with their smaller guards and wings and Murray out indefinitely with the ACL tear. They’ll need more than just MPJ and Barton coming to the rescue. Hard to see where they’ll get it early on.

Kawhi had surgery for the partial ACL tear and will be out for at least half the season, but the Clipps were a force and arguably the best team in the West before he went out in the playoffs. Even then Reggie Jackson and the rest almost got by the Suns in the playoffs. No reason to count out the Clippers and in fact maybe the best bet to come out of the West or at least right there with a handful of other teams.

LeBron has a problem this year, or maybe several of them. He may still be the best player in the league right there with KD and Steph and Giannis and Jokic and Embiid, but what does Westbrook actually do for his chances to go for another title? And beyond that all the older guys on the roster? Early on it’s very hard to see why the Lakers would be favored to win it all this year, but then … he *is* LeBron so foolish to not include him atop this list.

Embiid has a lot to prove this year. If he had played just a few more games he would likely have been named MVP. Instead Jokic was so consistent and reliable that he was the more deserving. Now Embiid gets to run it back without Ben Simmons who almost certainly won’t be part of a Sixers playoff season this time. But who will be for that matter? Jury is still out as the Sixers shore up their roster with Simmons being disruptive early on.

Are the Suns for real? No one expected them to be that good last year. CP3 is another year older, but Ayton and Booker should be in their primes. It’s almost impossible to tell how well they’ll do this year, but they should be better with their young guys all improving at both ends. Ayton especially who could be an all star this year or will at least get votes. Cam Johnson has already shown signs of being among the most consistent and reliable scorers in the league albeit on fewer shots than most others of that ilk, but is Mikal Bridges the right guy for them as their ironman yet undersized defensive wing? The Suns have lacked playmaking and size, and Bridges doesn’t help at all in those departments. It’s hard to see how he’ll be able to anchor the defense alongside Ayton with the likes of LeBron or Kawhi or George backing him down. The good news is that the Suns won’t need to worry about Giannis or KD until the finals should they get there.

The Jazz … so hard to say how good they are since Mitchell wasn’t near 100% in the playoffs last year. They showed signed of brilliance going in though, and it seemed Mitchell’s role had changed somewhat as Clarkson and Conley took over the playmaking and some of the scoring. Jazz are deep and loaded and healthy and have plenty to prove. No one will be surprised to see them atop the West again this year.

The Heat … they’re also stacked with talent and now have Kyle Lowry at the helm adding both toughness and and a winner to the composition. Will this be the year for Tyler Herro to be a consistent force? I doubt anyone will take them lightly, as they should be a top 4 defensive team that can score. A work in progress at least for the first part of the season, but a lot of reasons to be optimistic about their chances this year. Only problem: Nets, Bucks and Sixers … can the Heat somehow get past them en route to the conference finals? Can they get past the Hawks and the Celtics and the Knicks for that matter? What about the Bulls who appear to be stacked and ready for a deep playoff run if they can come together quickly.

The East looks great. At least on paper going in.

And then there’s the rest of the league where there’s simply way too much to comment on here without getting too speculative. Suffice to say there are a handful of teams that could rise to the top and few would be surprised to see it as the league is now absolutely loaded with young talent almost across the board: Zion, Morant, LaMelo, Edwards, Trae, Doncic, Tatum. And will any of the rookies help to push their teams into the playoffs? Really hard to see who and which team that might be early on, although three teams with zero expectation for success yet great potential to spoil the fun for others are the Rockets, Pistons and Thunder. That’s how deep the league is now with most teams having multiple talents able to dominate on any given night. There are only a few exceptions, but hard to see which ones early on.

2021 Off-Season

JA:

So Suns didn’t draft Haliburton. No one will care if they sign Kawhi;-)

 

AW:

That’s some wishful thinking. LOL! Suns are already over the cap, so unless Kawhi is willing to sign for the midlevel exception or a sign-and-trade deal is made–which would mean trading either Paul or Booker or everybody on the team not named Paul, Booker, or Ayton–it ain’t gonna happen. The Lakers, also over the cap, could trade Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope, and Harrell (plus draft picks) to get Kawhi. If Kawhi wants to stay home in L.A., you can bet that will get explored. The Warriors, who are way over the cap, could trade Wiggins and Wiseman to get Kawhi. Gotta think though that Ballmer ain’t gonna facilitate Kawhi going to one of the Clips’ Pacific Division rivals.

 

AW:

The Blazers have gone the get rid of the coach route. Stotts and the Blazers “mutually” parted ways today. This doesn’t preclude doing a roster makeover too, but I suspect that they will try to add a few pieces and run it back with Dame and CJ.

 

JA:

This is one time that I think management obviously made a mistake. Stotts may very well have been the reason they did so well and had a chance to advance. How is it Stotts fault that Nurkic and Covington just aren’t as good as they need to be? Or that Melo and McCollum simply don’t give them enough to support Lillard and Powell?

They’ll need to trade McCollum and Covington – it’s just so frickin obvious. Powell and Lillard are awesome, and it looks like Anfernee Simons can step into McCollum’s role. McCollum has trade value and could garner them a defensive wing that’s better than Covington at all aspect of the game. Oubre would be better for instance.

It’s a shame that Jerami Grant has chosen to stay in Detroit. A team like Portland really needs him to help get to the next level. Denver kind of lucked out to have replaced him with Aaron Gordon. Suns need Grant to advance. Mavs. Lakers. Celtics. Hot commodity if he was available. Makes me wonder if some of the 2020 draftees will grow into what Grant is now. Patrick Williams and Bey and Okoro have a chance to be that sort of guy. Who else?

 

JA:

assuming jerami grant wants to play with the Suns, and assuming a multiple team trade scenario, is it even possible if it means keeping Booker, Ayton and Johnson? I assume Paul *will* be on the Suns team next year, but if James Jones finds a team that wants Paul and the only way to get Grant is to trade Paul and Bridges in a multi team trade while keeping Book, Ayton, CJ then are there any ways to get that done or is Grant too expensive?

 

AW:

Grant for Bridges, Saric, and Jalen Smith would work salary cap wise. Can’t really use the trade machine right now to figure out a trade that would send Paul to a 3rd team because Paul is untradeable right now until he picks up his option or not.

 

2021 NBA Playoffs

The 2021 NBA playoffs begin May 22nd. First round matchups are as follows …

East:
(1) 76ers vs. (8) Wizards
(2) Nets vs. (7) Celtics
(3) Bucks vs. (6) Heat
(4) Knicks vs. (5) Hawks
 
West:
(1) Jazz vs. (8) Grizzlies
(2) Suns vs. (7) Lakers
(3) Nuggets vs. (6) Trail Blazers
(4) Clippers vs. (5) Mavericks
 
The story ahead of the games might be more unexpected than that of any prior season. Absences and injuries determined much of the season for many teams. Trades, coaching changes and player improvements resulted in leaps forward by the Nets, Suns, Knicks, Bulls and Hornets. Significant injuries will alter playoff hopes for the Celtics, Warriors and Nuggets as for each of them one of their stars won’t be available for the games which follow.
 
Denver’s star put the league on notice, and three of the greatest teamed up on the Nets. The Bucks and Sixers shored up their defenses and look to battle whatever offense comes at them. The Clippers added Rondo giving them the solid experienced leader and crafty penetrator-disher they needed to be less predictable offensively. The Warriors without Klay were led by Curry who had arguably his best season. They will play the hobbled but apparently playoff ready Lakers in a play-in to determine the 7th seed in the West. In some odd sort of symmetric way, the Wizards with Westbrook playing perhaps is best ball ever will face the hobbled Celtics in a play-in to determine the 7th seed in the East.
 
The Nets are the favorites going in, partially because the Lakers haven’t proven healthy yet. Harden will be at the Nets helm. He hasn’t played much this season due to an apparent hamstring issue, but when he has played he was masterful and consistent and MVP worthy. Durant seems to magically be the same player he was prior to the Achilles rupture, and Kyrie has played with flashes of brilliance and efficiency. If all three are healthy, this season may be the first where a champion is decided by excellent offense and below-average defense winning simply because the offense is more efficient than any prior. It’s possible, but the defenses they’ll face in the Sixers and Bucks are outstanding and whatever team comes out of the West will get there largely because of their all around games including excellent defense.
 
In their final games the Lakers look ready, but the only way to know will be to watch them in the first round assuming they can win one of their next two play-in games. We wait and see. Meanwhile Denver looks to be a Western Conference Finals contender led by Jokic’s consistent production and presence at both ends, MPJ’s outstanding improvement, Aaron Gordon’s all around game and plenty of depth at the other positions even with Murray out. 
 
Philly by virtue of outstanding defensive effort, talent, coaching and size will be a threat against any team, but always with the caveat that Embiid needs to show some consistency. Even so, the Sixers have shown huge improvements largely due to the surprising play of Thybulle and rookie surprise Tyrese Maxey. If healthy Sixers are deep and talented and complete, even if they aren’t the best shooting team in the league. If Embiid chooses to play big then Embiid will probably play big leaving opponents with no choice but to figure out the defense in at least 4 games per series.
 
The Bucks have added Jrue who has shown to be the missing piece in the starting lineup, but the Bucks look thin as DiVincenzo has apparently plateaued leaving them at a scoring and size disadvantage when he’s on the court. It may be a simple as stating that the Bucks are one shooter short of contending. That is, assuming their shooters aren’t good enough. Middleton certainly can be, and maybe that’s what it will take to get to the conference finals.
 
The Suns and Knicks are easily the biggest surprises this season and possibly for similar reasons: both teams have leaders in Paul and Randle that control the game offensively in several ways which involve teammates. both teams have been coached to enforce tight structure which leads to excellent team and perimeter defense. But the Suns have a different look than most teams, in that the idea every game is to out-execute and out-efficient the opponent at both ends while giving Booker enough rope to either quickly pull them ahead or to hang himself when trying. As Paul has had a consistent and MVP like season at both ends of the court, and the team makeup is built for consistency it will be up to Booker to decide how far they can go. The Knicks have a different look that isn’t quite as clear. No one knows what Randle’s ceiling is yet, nor how their younger players will show up. They look ready however, and there’s no reason to count them out versus anyone.
 
Utah may be the biggest question mark going in. Mitchell will play, but no one can know if he’s ready after a significant ankle injury. Regardless, Jazz have the best record in the league, the best defensive center, one of the best off the bench in Clarkson and outstanding shooting from everywhere in the half court. Mitchell at his best can get them to the conference finals. They’ll need him to be at his best, because the rest of the West will be too good in a 7 game series otherwise.