Ah, the NBA preseason. A perpetually paradoxical annual event, where the common discourse amongst fans and experts alike is incredibly bipolar. First, you have the initial rush of excitement, that palpable sensation that your favourite sport is back. Then, almost immediately, the realisation that NBA preseason is but a distant relative to the regular season, and more closely resembles its younger brother, the NBA Summer League. This is an almost daily routine for fans as we awake with that unbridled joy at a fresh slate of games to consume, digest and discuss. Often the excitement subsides rather quickly, replaced by the horror of the actual product.
Unfortunately, for every exciting moment or game you have Toronto and New York shooting a combined 7 for 30 from the field in the first quarter, Ronnie Price trying to defend with his shoe or the Lakers making no three’s for an entire game.
However, there are little rays of sunshine that can be found within an NBA preseason. You have your first chance to get a look at rookies within a genuine NBA system with real teammates. You get to see whether the frequent boasts of “I’m in the best shape of my life”, “I’ve been working on this all Summer” or “I’ve added this to my game” are real or fabrication. Moreover we find what new wrinkles coaches have brought to their offensive and defensive schemes and we get our first real look at returning players such as Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose. Most of all, it’s just good to have real basketball back, preseason signals that the new season is nigh, and here’s what I’ve liked thus far.
The Cavaliers Offense
The jury is still out on whether they can carve out a top-10 defense, which is essential to winning a title, however, there will be no qualms as to their ability to produce a top-10 offense.
This Cavs team, especially their NBA 2K starting five, is the definition of spacing in basketball. Holy moly. The Love and LeBron tandem appears set to destroy the hearts and minds of every NBA coach this season. If the defender helps off Love for even a microsecond, LeBron is firing his patented cross-court pass to Love, and he’s setting his feet and hitting that three. Even the game Kyrie Irving missed showed the flexibility and ingenuity in Blatt’s offensive system. With the tough but rugged Dellavedova in his place, the Cavaliers didn’t appear to suffer any reduction in spacing. Despite Dellavedova not possessing anywhere near the shooting or off the bounce creativity as Irving.
Perhaps the biggest positive out of preseason so far for the Cavs has been the play of Dion Waiters. Add all the clichés about preseason you like, yes I know we’ve got to temper our expectations and everything produced comes with the caveat that it’s only preseason. But he’s passing the eye testing with flying colours, his catch and shoot jumper looks vastly improved and the increasing spacing will do wonders for his game. Think of Goran Dragic and to a lesser extent Gerald Green, and what the pace and spacing of Phoenix’s offense did for their careers. The ball isn’t sticking in his hands and the number of bad shots he takes seems to have been reduced, expect gainful improvement out of Waiters this season.
This might seem like a curious choice as they still project to be a lottery team and one of the bottom few in the Western Conference. However, Quinn Snyder has this team playing an intriguing brand of basketball, and he’s added a few wrinkles into the offense that makes them fun to watch.
Firstly, they’re shooting a ton of threes; seriously, they’re launching them at a breakneck pace. Everyone is encouraged to shoot them, even Enes Kanter. The pairing of Snyder and Gordon Hayward appears to be a great one, with Hayward already showing more efficiency than he did under Corbin. The burden seems to have been lifted of Hayward’s newly muscular shoulders and he’s playing with greater freedom. Trey Burke also looks like he’s made strides offensively; he’s shooting the three extremely well and finding the open man, showing off improved court vision.
However, it’d be a stretch to suggest that any one of the current starting five morphs into an All-Star calibre player. Favors and maybe Hayward could get close, but to be a championship team in the future, they’re going to need bona fide All-Stars. Enter Dante Exum and to a lesser extent Rudy Gobert.
While Exum has been predictably inconsistent this preseason, he’s done nothing to dispel the air of mystery, hype and unlimited potential that surrounds him. In fact, he may have added to it.
Often his passing, particularly out of the pick and roll, looks crisp; he sees the floor like a true point guard. The three-point stroke has been a pleasant surprise. The knock on Exum was his jump shot, and so far it’s been better than advertised. When it’s falling, the rest of his game opens up, he’s able to drive the lane more consistently. Conversely, when it’s not falling, he does struggle to make an impact. He still shies away from contact once he gets himself into the paint and is a little too passive in remaining on the perimeter, but the flashes of brilliance are exhilarating. Overall, Exum is probably still 2-3 years away from really making an impact in this league, but his ceiling hasn’t been lowered, if anything it’s been raised.
The other All-Star hope for the Jazz is a man whom Exum is rapidly developing a strong chemistry with, Rudy Gobert. The obscenely long and athletic Frenchman is progressing along nicely, well, that’s actually an understatement. In a short period of time this offseason, between playing well for France at the FIBA World Cup and dominating the Jazz training camp, Gobert has lifted the roof of his ceiling. Honestly, is defensive player of the year a ridiculous assertion for Gobert? The way he can protect the paint is astounding, as is the way he rebounds the ball. Gobert has learnt the nuances of the pick and roll, and is near impossible to stop on the roll as you can throw it up anywhere and he’s got the length to catch and finish it.
Nurkic faced an uphill battle to secure minutes this season on this deep yet unspectacular Nuggets roster. However, Shaw has gone on the record to say Nurkic is above JaVale McGee on the depth chart, at least to begin the season. The combination of McGee’s slower than anticipated recovery from injury and the surprisingly strong play of Nurkic has dictated this decision.
Nurkic is an absolute mountain of a man, and it’s not hyperbolic when I say he will secure all the rebounds. Seriously, the guy is just enormously strong and he’s not even 21 yet. It’s not ludicrous to think that he will lead the league in rebounding some day. Between Nurkic and Faried, Denver projects to dominate the offensive glass for many years to come.
He still has some kinks to work out in his game, and defense will be suspect early on, as it is for most young big men. I don’t think many people would’ve expected Nurkic to already be making an impact, but he is.
One of the quickest draft picks to be labelled a bust in history, the oft-ridiculed Anthony Bennett is rolling to start 2014. Bennett struggled mightily in his rookie season, due to a combination of factors not just limited to his health issues. Bennett started late due to shoulder surgery and simply never caught up in terms of conditioning. All that is behind him now as he’s looking svelte, healthy and more explosive.
It all started at the Summer League with the Cavaliers, with Bennett turning heads with his body transformation and more importantly, his game. Being traded from the championship contending Cavaliers to the youthful Timberwolves should also prove fruitful for Bennett. Despite his reformed game, Bennett may have struggled to carve out a significant role in Cleveland.
For Minnesota, Flip Saunders has repeatedly labelled Bennett as the Wolves most impressive performer at training camp. Moreover he’s got a legitimate role as the backup 4 behind Thaddeus Young. Thad Young’s contract expires in two seasons; if Bennett keeps trending upwards he could find himself starting for a super intriguing young squad.
Playing with Rubio will increase his output and if he keeps running the floor as he done thus far, he’ll find himself being rewarded with a sweet array of Rubio dishes.
Klay wants that money. Due for a contract extension, Thompson and his agent are reportedly looking to secure a max deal. Judging from his Team USA form, coupled with his play in preseason, he’s building a pretty good case.
The question will be whether this Klay is real or a mirage. As a shooter, it’s pretty easy to look good on Team USA against inferior opposition. His play in preseason needs to be taken with the usual caveats.
However, it’s still impossible to ignore his play. For the most part, the endless string of isolations and post-ups appear to be gone with the wind. That will do wonders for his efficiency; he’s playing far more efficiently and doing so in the flow of the offense. Perhaps the best development has been his improvement as a passer – Klay had notoriously struggled to create for others.
He does have a legitimate case for being the best two-way shooting guard in basketball. Wade and Kobe no longer try on defense and Harden and Waiter’s defensive limitations are firmly entrenched in Internet folklore. Bradley Beal may be his only real competition and Klay simply has more runs on the board than Beal.
Whatever happens this season, somebody is maxing Klay out, and I’d be baffled if it wasn’t by Golden State.
After Durant went down injured, the Thunder desperately needed some positive news to emerge from its preseason. Enter Steven Adams.
Taking advantage of a groin injury to Kendrick Perkins, Adams has put forth his argument to start in bold, capital letters and with exclamation points. Brooks is regularly ridiculed for his inflexibility, his stubborn desire to continue the Perkins experiment despite a steep decline in productivity, and never developing any semblance of an offensive system. However, this decision has essentially been made for him, through a combination of Adams upswing in play and the Durant injury.
As Brooks has been so reliant on the offensive genius of Kevin Durant, he’s never really put in place any real offensive system or scheme. Thus, the Durant injury places a significant stranglehold on the OKC offense. Basically, he was the offense.
The tools are there for OKC to develop a well above-average offense while Durant recovers, but it’s reliant on Brooks getting more creative. Otherwise they’re at risk of Russell Westbrook breaking the record for most shot attempts per game.
The Westbrook/Ibaka pick and pop should provide the Thunder with enough easy buckets to survive. However, if they want to truly stay afloat in the brutal Western Conference, the Westbrook/Adams pick and roll is their next best offensive weapon.
Westbrook and Adams have been developing a strong chemistry thus far this preseason, with Adams proving to be a deft pick and roll finisher. Even flashing ambidextrous ability in his rapidly developing post game. Adams is a notoriously strong rebounder and is already building a reputation as one of the league’s toughest screen setters. A rugged, high quality defender, Adams has significant scope to become one of the league’s better interior defenders. He’s also an underrated passing big man which should give him strong chemistry with fellow front court mate Serge Ibaka.
The only true negative aspect of Adams’ game at the moment is being overly prone to foul trouble. He must seek to do a better job of avoiding foul trouble whilst maintaining his defensive aggressiveness.
Michael Kidd Gilchrist and his Shot Transformation
One of the more earnest, likeable characters in the NBA, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also happened to have one of the worst jump shots in NBA history. Seriously, it was the kind of jump shot that just made you wince watching it.
It’s the kind of jump shot that severely limits a prospects ceiling, ensures they may never make the leap from good to great. Kidd-Gilchrist already being one of the league’s most renowned hard workers and high character guys, immediately began with Charlotte coaching staff and reforming it.
This off-season we’ve been given our first glance at the reworked jump shot, and it looks light-years ahead of where it was this time last season, bearing no resemblance to his past jump shot and that’s a glorious thing.
So far, the returns have been somewhat inconsistent, but for a guy who seemed deathly afraid of even shooting a jumper last year, the fact that he has the confidence and the belief in his new form to even take them is a great thing.
Already one of the league’s most promising young perimeter defenders and slashers, simply possessing a jump shot of a league average standard would do wonders for his game and potential. Kidd-Gilchrist is relentless in attacking the rim, already a standout at drawing contact. Possessing a workable jump shot would ensure that defenders couldn’t back off him as they did last season.
Hats off to MKG and the Hornets coaching staff for putting in the work, hopefully they both get the rewards they deserve.
Andrew Bogut and Left-Handed Weirdness
So, Andrew Bogut shot 37% from the charity stripe last season. That is a ghastly number by any stretch of the imagination. Even Shaq and DeAndre Jordan are looking at Bogut like damn…
Unfortunately, his horrendous elbow appears to have caused irreversible damage to his shooting stroke, particularly affecting his free throw stroke. Bogut isn’t just content to continue his woes from the stripe; he’s willing to try anything to rectify the issue. Even switching hands.
Bogut has always had good shooting touch from both hands so the decision to try shooting free throws with his left isn’t without rhyme or reason. It’s produced mixed results thus far but it’s surely worth persisting with.
More importantly, Bogut has looked absolutely phenomenal this preseason. Fit, healthy and decidedly trimmer, his infusion into the Steve Kerr offense has been seamless. Running a more motion, pass-heavy offense, Bogut and his underrated ball handing and passing skills have thrived in the system.
Traded from Sacramento to the Knicks, the man with energy to rival Patty Mills and a beard that even James Harden is impressed by, looks set to be starting for one of the most storied sporting franchises.
The man is of course Quincy Acy, who for all intensive purposes was just a throw-in to a cap clearing trade. A hamstring injury to likely starter Andrea Bargnani simply opened the door for Acy to prove himself. Outplaying all bigs on the Knicks roster, Melo not included, Acy’s energy, rebounding and defensive tenacity has endeared him to the coaching staff. His offensive game, while rough around the edges, is predicated on said energy. Acy has a workable NBA jump shot, a crucial component for a big in the triangle offense. Most of his buckets will be dunks, put-backs or the result of hustle plays, but if Acy can hit the elbow jump shot with some regularity, he might see out the year as a starter.
This isn’t regarding the reported 4-year, $53 million extension for Nikola Vucevic nor does it pertain to the looming extension for Tobias Harris. Just quickly, many will argue that the Magic overpaid for Vucevic, I’d counter that the new TV rights deal that comes into effect in 2016-17 will ensure this deal is fair value.
No, the Orlando Magic are preseason winners thanks to their two shiny new toys in Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. While it is extremely, ridiculously early, both picks look like potential studs.
Payton is of the bulldog breed of point guards, possessing a shaky jump shot, but his significant size for the position gives him several advantages. Defensively, he’s one of the best in this draft class, able to use his size and athleticism effectively on the perimeter. As a scorer, he uses said size and bulk to bully his way into the paint and manages to finishes well with contact, demonstrating soft touch. Arguably his greatest NBA skill will be his passing and court vision; Payton sees the court like a true floor general.
The Magic has also found the perfect running mate for Payton in Aaron Gordon, an absurdly athletic combo forward. Gordon is a bit of a tweener and given his complete lack of a jump shot, there were concerns over his true position in the league. Orlando was banking on youth and potential when they picked him, early signs are they made the right call.
Gordon has looked better than expected thus far in preseason and might earn more minutes because of it, thus accelerating his development. He has been able to effectively use his insane athleticism both offensively and defensively, to score and get stops in a variety of ways. Even better for Orlando is he’s shown flashes of possessing some semblance of a workable jump shot.
Elfrid Payton would be my sleeper Rookie of the Year pick and Gordon looks like a stud, the future is bright in Orlando.
Not the most obvious winner in our list, but a winner nonetheless. Davis is a former lottery pick who was just starting to figure things out for the Raptors when he got traded to Memphis. Unable to truly earn the trust of the coaching staff at Memphis, Davis never carved out a role.
In free agency this year it appears Davis had the choice of either signing with the contending Clippers or the Lakers. Signing well below his worth at $1 million per season, with a player option for a second, Davis opted for the Lakers as it presented the greatest platform to prove himself.
Thus far, that looks like being the right call. Davis has been the Lakers best performed big man this preseason. No, that’s not saying a lot when he’s competing with Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre, Carlos Boozer and a rookie. But it counts for something.
Davis is clearly the best defender of that group and his offensive game is catching up, with the lefty looking more refined with each outing. Significantly, Davis has already been able to develop chemistry with the incumbent starting point guard Jeremy Lin. The duo has been dynamite together on the pick and roll; Davis has been effective in utilising his length to finish around the rim.
Starting for the first time in the final preseason contest, Davis made a compelling case to join the starting unit. Finishing with a monster double double, he still likely projects to be a backup big this season with Byron Scott seemingly staunch in his desire to start both Boozer and Hill. Of the current group though, Randle and Davis are the future.
Phoenix and its Three-Headed Monster
The Suns are looking to revolutionize the NBA with the first point-guard only starting five.
In all seriousness, the Suns are determined to play at the fastest pace in basketball, and the inclusion of Isaiah Thomas into their dynamite duo of Bledsoe and Dragic was a stroke of genius. Thomas is one of the quickest, most dynamic young point guards in the league and should genuinely compete for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
We haven’t seen a ton of the trio playing together, which Phoenix has threatened to roll out, instead they’ve opted to stagger their minutes, playing two of them at the same time.
Throughout preseason, all three has contributed significantly in their own unique way, Thomas has particularly fitted in seamlessly as a scorer off the bench. Whether it’s enough to offset the loss of Channing Frye and catapult the Suns to the playoffs remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that they’re going to must-watch basketball.
The preseason has finally drawn to a close, and the NBA opening night is only a day away. Let me know in the comments section what caught your eye this preseason.