The NBA bubble is in full effect.
Continuing our NBA season preview, today we look at the teams running through the West with their woes.
Once the conference’s staples of success, the Lakers and Suns are in the middle of youth projects, still at the stage where there’s going to be some long-term pain before there’s any long-term gain.
The Kings are everyone’s favourite debacle and the Pelicans are already mired in health issues … again. The Nuggets, meanwhile, are the feel good story of this group, a team deep enough in competence that they could be in the mix to sneak into the eighth seed … and then get swept by the Warriors and lose every game by 40 points. We start, though, with a franchise trying to remember greatness.
15. Los Angeles Lakers
Last season: 17-65, last in the West
Predicted record: 25-57
The good news is that the Kobe Bryant circus is over and the Lakers can finally focus on real basketball again. The bad news is that they have to focus on real basketball again.
What’s there isn’t pretty. The Lakers were able to use their cap space to sign two starters. The problem is that those starters are a 30-year-old Timofey Mozgov and a 31-year-old Luol Deng who are making a combined $136 million over the next four years.
The Deng move is one you make if you’re ready to contend. The Mozgov one is one you make if you’re drunk. The Lakers are not ready to contend.
L.A. fans will point to their young core of D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson as hope for the future. And there is hope there. But it’s outweighed by doubt, and worries about how Randle’s skillset translates to the modern NBA (what position is he, again?), how Ingram’s slight frame will develop, and whether Clarkson and Russell are a clean fit together.
The youth is exciting, though, and the transition from Byron Scott to a competent human being in Luke Walton might be worth seven or eight wins in itself. But all the oddities on this roster are putting the young talent on the back foot out of the gate.
Between Lou Williams, Jose Calderon and Nick Young, the Lakers might have the worst reserve backcourt defence in NBA history. Mozgov has made it past 46 games in a regular season in two out of his eight seasons in the league, and one of them was last year when he was a shadow of a shell of himself.
The Lakers are going to be bad this year, real bad. And instead of Kobe Bryant, one of basketball’s greatest figures, to distract them, this season they’ve got Yi Jianlian, one of basketball’s greatest stick figures. Go team.
14. Phoenix Suns
Last season: 23-59, 14th in the West
Predicted record: 27-55
Strange things are happening in the desert. Phoenix might be the weirdest team in the NBA – outside of Sacramento, of course, almost an implied caveat at this stage – and that’s probably the best thing that they’ve got going for them. They’re loaded with young talent, but almost all of it comes with drawbacks.
Eric Bledsoe is a borderline All-Star when healthy, which is almost never. Brandon Knight has skills, but they might be good-stats-bad-team skills. In fact, they’re almost certainly that.
It feels like Alex Len should be good but he just isn’t, and T.J. Warren needs to show something this season. Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss were lauded picks in the draft, but their basements are as low as their ceilings are high.
Devin Booker is the one shining light, a dynamite offensive weapon, elite marksman, and Phoenix’s best shot at a franchise cornerstone.
Surrounding all this youth is an oddly deep core of veteran reinforcements in Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker and homecoming duo Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa.
Nothing makes sense about the Suns. There’s far too much positional overlap and the marriage between youth and experience is as complementary as one between chocolate cake and a broken pickaxe. It’s not clear whether their coach Earl Watson knows what he’s doing either – playing Alex Len and Tyson Chandler together last season was either a tanking masterstroke or immediate grounds to be fired.
The talent is there, though, and if a few of the Suns many lottery tickets can hit, they could be exciting.
13. Sacramento Kings
Last season: 33-49, 10th in the West
Predicted record: 34-48
Ah, the Kings. God bless them. The NBA’s favourite farce, a team that looks to be flirting with the vague notion of competence and then goes out and drafts a pair of centers in the first round, which would be fine if they didn’t already have three on the team, including their franchise player.
That, really, is where the discussion begins and ends for the Kings. They have five freaking centers on the team, all expecting playing time. What the hell is going on?
DeMarcus Cousins, Kosta Koufos, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Georgios Papagiannis are all best suited to playing the five. That’s a problem, because there’s only 48 minutes available for that position.
The essence of NBA roster construction is that you build around your best players. Steph Curry isn’t a great defender so you keep Klay Thompson next to him instead of trading for Kevin Love. These are the things smart teams to do, they play to their strengths and address their weaknesses.
The Kings didn’t do that. They’re crafted a reality for themselves where they’re just not allowed to have nice things – nice things like intelligence.
Cousins is a centre, and a damn good one at that. This team will live and die with his talent, and when they use their high draft picks on players who play the same position as him, they are going to die quickly, but painfully all the same.
It’s a shame, because the rest of their offseason was perfectly fine. Dave Joerger might be the most likeable coach in the league, and he’s the best coach the Kings have had since Rick Adelman. It’s not clear if George Karl was awake last season (infamously, on a Zach Lowe podcast last season he raved about Rudy Gay’s defence on Kevin Durant … in a game that Durant didn’t play in) and the jump from him to Joerger is going to be similar to the one from Scott to Walton.
Arron Afflalo, Matt Barnes and Anthony Tolliver were all savvy signings, and taking a flier on Ty Lawson is exactly the kind of thing that a nothing-to-lose team like the Kings has to make.
Cousins is a superstar and there’s enough talent around him for the Kings to compete for the eighth seed. But the fit of the talent is a catastrophe, and you can’t help but feel that a lot of the season is going to be memes of an angry, confused Cousins, staring out into the crowd after another loss, starting to question for the first time, is this really ‘God’s plan’?
The marathon of incompetence continues.
12. New Orleans Pelicans
Last season: 30-52, 12th in the West
Predicted record: 36-46
How does a team with Anthony Davis finish with just 36 wins? By potentially starting Dante Cunningham, Omer Asik and Langston Galloway next to him.
That’s the Pelican reality right now, with Jrue Holiday sidelined for the start of the season to be with his health-stricken wife.
While Holiday focuses on things bigger than basketball, New Orleans will have to focus on their worrisome basketball situation without him.
Davis is a superstar, a transcendent, generational talent, but Holiday is his only above-average running mate. A very generous case could be made for Tyreke Evans, but Evans will also be absent the start of the season, and possibly longer. Coach Alvin Gentry speaks about Evans these days in something approaching the past tense, and his degenerative knees mean that he can’t be relied upon in any rational conception of the Pelicans’ future.
What do the Pels have beyond Davis, Holiday and Evans? Not a great deal. Galloway, E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill were nifty little signings, but these are back-ups we’re dealing with. Rookie Buddy Hield will give this team some much needed shooting from the perimeter, but his ceiling is limited, and one suspects New Orleans will lament the decision to select him over Jamal Murray.
Lance Stephenson and Terrence Jones are clever no-risk bets (no financial risk that is – the risk of locker room dissention and fisticuffs springs eternal) that the Pelicans have to take with their thin roster. But both players have glaring holes in their games and their attitudes, and there was a reason both were available for nothing.
Everything went to hell for the Pelicans last season – the type of hell where Nate Robinson starts on opening night and then gets waived a fortnight later – and the brilliance of Davis dragged them to 30 wins. Things can’t go quite as badly this year – we pray – and with the likes of Galloway, Moore, Hill and a hopefully healthy Quincy Pondexter, there’s some competence in the ranks that was absent last season. If Holiday doesn’t miss too much time and the knees of Evans and Pondexter hold up, New Orleans can push for the playoffs.
More likely, though, we’re looking at another lost season in Davis’s prime, another year where nothing comes comfortably in the Big Easy, where the shine of his brilliance is blackened by the harsh realities of poor roster construction, mismanagement, and ill health.
11. Denver Nuggets
Last season: 33-49, 11th in the West
Predicted record: 37-45
The Nuggets are like the sober, responsible adult version of the Suns. Their roster is strange, an odd mix of veterans and youth, with pieces that may or not fit. But the mesh is a little cleaner, the veterans are closer to their primes, and the youth is slightly more exciting. Where Phoenix’s path to relevance is shaky and hopeful, Denver’s is steady and self-assured.
In Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Garry Harris, Will Barton and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets have the future already on their roster. What’s troubling is that there doesn’t appear to be a superstar ceiling on any of those players – some may hold out hope for Mudiay and Nurkic – but the blessing of this collection is that the basement is high. All these players have a clear role to play in a winning NBA team.
Complementing the youth is the veteran know-how of Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Jameer Nelson, Darrell Arthur and the returning Wilson Chandler. Denver are the rare team that’s rebuilding and can already claim depth as one of its strengths.
With leaps from Mudiay, Nurkic and Harris, continued excellence from Jokic, and healthy seasons from Gallinari and Chandler, the Nuggets could push for the playoffs. That seems a little fanciful though, and more likely this is a team that finishes with a high 30s win total.
That’s fine for now, and if the Nuggets can find value for Gallo, Faried and Chandler in trades, they could become Boston West, a team loaded with assets, ready to broker a trade for the next superstar that becomes available.