Media day has come and gone. The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets have returned safely back to the United States. Coaches are valiantly holding onto their offseason beards. JaVale McGee is making 3s.
The season must be around the corner.
It’s great to have the NBA back. With plenty to look forward to this season, let’s run through the top storylines and play a little buy or sell backed by some statistical insights.
SELL: James Harden and Russell Westbrook will be “scary” for opponents
Stat to know: Westbrook averaging 7.5 turnovers per 36 minutes this preseason.
Westbrook didn’t hold back at media day when he was asked about his reunion with James Harden in Houston, claiming, “It’s going to be scary, that’s all I can tell you. It’s going to be scary -- not for us.”
I’m scared for the Rockets. I was worried about the Houston offense when the trade broke, and nothing in the preseason qualmed my concerns. Westbrook has always played like the runaway bus in “Speed” that can’t go under 50 miles per hour without exploding. Expecting him to settle down and play a surgical halfcourt game is unrealistic. He is not Chris Paul, for better or for worse.
More concerning is the fact that Westbrook has turned the ball over a whopping 21 times in 100 minutes of action in the preseason, where defense is often optional. That’s not a good sign. The bulk of those miscues have come in transition, which has quietly been a problem spot for Westbrook, too. Last season, Westbrook ranked last in transition efficiency among 27 players with at least 250 transition plays, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Preseason or not, the “Why not?” mentality steers him wrong too often on the court.
I was expecting Westbrook to dial it down a bit now that he joined Harden and the Rockets’ offense that ranked second overall last season in efficiency (OKC ranked 17th). But opponents aren’t terrified of this version Westbrook. Case in point: Even with Paul George, one of the most efficient scorers on the planet, the Westbrook-led Thunder ranked 21st in halfcourt points per possession last season, per Synergy Sports tracking.
With Westbrook turning 31 years old following another knee cleanup (that also caused him to take some precautionary games off this preseason), it’s fair to wonder how effective he can be in his change-of-pace role. If Westbrook doesn’t polish up his game in the open court, it’s going to be a long season in Houston. And not in a good way.
BUY: Zion Williamson should make the All-Star team
Stat to know: 24 of Williamson’s 35 baskets have come off the dribble.
*Admittedly, this prediction doesn’t seem smart after Williamson suffered a knee injury in his last preseason game. But even if Williamson misses a month, I think his talent alone makes him a top-25 player, which lines up with All-Star status. Williamson’s rise has been incredible. A year ago, he wasn’t even the consensus No. 1 overall pick, and now he’s making Rudy Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, look like the one who just turned 19 years old. Just look at this clip.
Zion lays it in over Gobert 💪 pic.twitter.com/gW684KbtKh— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) October 12, 2019
We can talk all day about Williamson’s leaping abilities, but his NBA-ready handle has been the biggest revelation of the preseason. He’s not just a bull on supercharged pogo sticks. The guy can put the ball on the deck and slice through a defense like few bigs can. This crossover and-one shouldn’t be possible for a guy who might be the biggest alley-oop threat in the league.
Crossover and quick feet from Zion to blow by a 3/4 pic.twitter.com/Qb5FOXC50B— Teddy Blythewood (@SayItAintTed) October 12, 2019
I charted his preseason performance and found that of his 35 baskets, 24 have come off the dribble, nearly 70 percent of his field goals. Some of them were power dribbles just before throwing down a thunderous dunk, but often times, he purposefully uses his handle to dart around unsuspecting defenders and finish off the glass with seasoned touch. Multiple times I let out an audible gasp after what he did to Jacob Poeltl on the perimeter. It’s clear Zion is more Giannis than he is Shaq.
If Williamson can keep his health in check, he promises to have one of the best rookie seasons ever. I liked the New Orleans Pelicans’ chances to crash the postseason party heading into the preseason, and Williamson’s confident display of guard-like handle has only bolstered their chances. He’d probably be a lock for All-Star in the Eastern Conference and the buzziest player there. How can we make this happen?
SELL: Ben Simmons has officially added a 3-point shot
Stat to know: Fourteen of Simmons’ 17 career 3-point attempts have come with fewer than two seconds left on the game clock.
Yes, Ben Simmons looked comfortable when he hit that 3-pointer against the Guangzhou Long-Lions. Yes, he drilled it from deep, 27-feet deep to be exact. That shot, no matter how much space he was afforded, is no layup.
And it was fun! Who wouldn’t want to see Simmons with a reliable jump shot? (Besides the rest of the NBA, of course.) He’d be nearly unstoppable with another devastating tool at his disposal, like Superman adding the ability to control time.
But I think we need to pump the brakes a bit. Putting aside that it came against a Chinese team that wouldn’t hold a candle to G-League teams, the shot came with 1.2 seconds left in the second quarter of a 38-point game. It had almost zero cost.
That’s notable because Simmons has shown almost no interest in taking 3’s in the flow of the offense when there’s real weight in the shot. He has taken 17 3-pointers in his career. Amazingly, fourteen of those 3-pointers have been quarter-end heaves. The other three 3-point attempts? Two came within the first 70 seconds of a half just as each team is warming up. The third came in a 16-point game late in the fourth quarter back in late March of his rookie season.
Until Simmons steps into 3-pointers in the flow of the offense, I’m not expecting him to pull a Brook Lopez and become a prolific shooter. Worth noting: When Lopez unveiled his 3-point shot for good in the 2016-17 season, he fired up 12 of them in that preseason; Simmons has taken one. And none since that game against the Long-Lions.
Maybe Simmons just needed to see the ball go in once to have the confidence to unleash it full-time. I hope that happens. While it’d make the NBA a whole lot more compelling, I’m not holding my breath that it’s here to stay.
BUY: Stephen Curry will reclaim the scoring title
Stat to know: Curry is averaging 48.1 points per 36 minutes this preseason.
Surprise, surprise: Curry has been on fire this preseason. You should have seen this coming. For the last few years, Steph has been MVP-level Steph -- but only when Kevin Durant left the floor. I wrote about this phenomenon in 2017-18 when Curry was blistering opponents to the tune of 53.9 points per 36 minutes when Durant was off the floor. Yeah, 53.9 points.
Now that Durant has left for Brooklyn, we’re going to see a whole lot more “vintage” Curry this season. He erupted for 40 points in 25 minutes against a real NBA defense last week even though most of those minutes came while sharing the ball with D’Angelo Russell. While Draymond Green led the charge, six different Warriors teammates assisted Curry’s buckets in that game, underscoring how much they’re going to rely on and seek out No. 30 this season.
One trend to watch is Curry attacking the paint. Twelve of his 37 buckets in the preseason have come in the painted area. The thinking was that the paint would be more clogged with Durant and Thompson not out there to spread the floor, but the Warriors have still found pockets for Curry to exploit.
SELL: Kawhi Leonard won’t have “aggressive” load management program this season
Stat to know: Kawhi Leonard has rested for 207 of the Clippers’ 240 minutes this preseason.
If this preseason is any indication, NBA bettors and fantasy players will be in for quite the headache this season getting a grip on Leonard’s status. The talk out of training camp was that Leonard was finally healthy and wouldn’t rack up DNP-Rests like he did last season. This wasn’t like last season, when he was coming off an injury-riddled 2017-18 campaign in which he played just nine games.
But Leonard has rested more than any healthy player this preseason. He sat out the first two games of the preseason and then the team ruled him out for Thursday’s game against the Denver Nuggets before Leonard surprised everyone and decided to play. All of 11 minutes.
Leonard has played just 33 minutes in two preseason games, resting in the other three. Last preseason, Leonard played three of the Raptors’ five preseason exhibitions, logging 22.7 minutes per game. This is something different.
If anything, the Clippers are holding him out more, not less. It doesn’t seem like Leonard is ready to play everyday, or close to it. Here’s what Leonard told ESPN after his 11-minute game: "I mean, I haven't played no type of contact basketball, no pickup at all. Normally don't do that. Really wasn't able to work out like I wanted to this summer, but it's always rest if you are not playing. It's a long season.”
With Paul George expected to miss the first month of the season, the sense here is that the Clippers take a cautious approach this season with its two stars. After a media day brimming with optimism, reality has begun to set in. I’d be surprised if Leonard plays more than 60 games this season.
SELL: The Lakers need a third star to step up
Stat to know: Zero teams have a healthy trio of reigning All-Stars.
By trading for Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James, the Lakers have, in my book, the best duo on the planet. Now sure, after DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending torn ACL, the dropoff from James and Davis to the Lakers’ next-best player is steep. But I don’t think that’ll be a problem this season.
Look around the league. There are no more superteams in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (when his shoulders heal) will be a dominant duo, but there isn’t a Warriors-like juggernaut right now. One could argue that the Warriors have four All-Stars in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, D’Angelo Russell and Draymond Green. But Thompson can’t play, Russell was an All-Star fill-in in a weak conference and Green didn’t make the team last year.
The pressure will be on Kyle Kuzma to become the Lakers’ third star, but I don’t think he’s ready. Physically, I’m worried about the stress fracture in his left foot that sidelined him all preseason and also kept him out of the Team USA trip. It’s the same problematic foot and ankle that prematurely ended each of his last two seasons, making this more of a chronic issue than an isolated one. Skill-wise, I think he’s better suited as a Lou Williams-type off the bench.
Even if Kuzma struggles to ascend to star status, the Lakers should still be able to tread water in the regular season and step on the gas come April, May and June. With the flattened landscape of contenders, every team is searching for that third bonafide star. The Lakers’ championship viability rests purely on James and Davis being healthy when April rolls around. If another contender springs for Kevin Love or Bradley Beal at the trade deadline, that calculus might change. But for now, the Lakers’ shouldn’t sweat their top-heavy roster.
BUY: Jayson Tatum is making the leap
Stat to know: Jayson Tatum has a 29.8 usage rate this preseason.
After a disappointing sophomore campaign, Tatum appears ready to take over as the No. 1 option for the Celtics. Coming off an injury-shortened stint with Team USA, Tatum looks nothing like the player that lurked in the shadows last postseason alongside Kyrie Irving.
The Celtics have been waiting for this version of Tatum since the 2018 playoffs ended. This preseason, Tatum leads the team with a 29.8 usage rate (percentage of team possessions used by player while on the floor), while Kemba Walker (22.2), Jaylen Brown (18.0) and Gordon Hayward (15.5) have taken an early back seat. Putting aside Hayward’s alarming deference, Tatum’s role has expanded significantly thus far, blowing past his 2018-19 usage rate of 21.8.
Most notably, Tatum is trading mid-range jumpers for 3-pointers. Last preseason, Tatum took nine 3-pointers in 79 minutes. This preseason, he has taken 16 in 63 minutes, about double his rate from the 2018-19 regular season (9.1 vs. 4.6). By contrast, he has settled for just three shots in the mid-range area (16 to 23 feet). Though he’s only connected on 31.3 percent of his 3-balls this preseason, I’m not worried about him losing his touch from deep. His assertiveness was what held him back from climbing into the All-Star discussion.
Tatum still needs to draw contact and get to the free throw line more, but his confidence level after the Team USA experience is promising. If Tatum keeps this up, the Celtics should be knocking on the Milwaukee Bucks’ and Philadelphia 76ers’ doors at the top of the East.
BUY: Utah Jazz are a title contender
Stat to know: Jazz were plus-303 last season with Rudy Gobert as the lone big on floor.
The Utah Jazz are a trendy pick to crash the Western Conference finals party, and I’m here for it. The additions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic will certainly help take some of the scoring burden from Donovan Mitchell. But the main reason I’m bullish on the Jazz is their shift to the modern NBA and putting four ball-handlers around Rudy Gobert.
Gone are the days that they would play Derrick Favors alongside Gobert in a forced twin-tower formation. It’s about time. Last season, the Jazz were plus-303 in the 1,838 minutes (plus-7.9 per 48 minutes) that Gobert played without another conventional big on the floor and plus-81 in 739 minutes (plus-5.3 per 48 minutes) in all other lineups, per pbpstats.com. Gobert and Favors worked fine, but not at the highest of levels. It’s worth noting that the Jazz’s lone win in the Houston Rockets series, Game 4, came in the only game that Gobert and Favors never shared the court together.
Now you add Bogdanovic as the stretch four and things get really interesting. They may trot out Jeff Green or Royce O’Neale as the nominal starting power forward to keep players fresh, but a closing lineup of Conley, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic and Gobert will be a tough out for any team.
The Jazz haven’t been sharp this preseason, but I’m expecting them to eat up some leftover “load management” wins and be right near the top of the West. If you’re not sold on the Jazz’s championship viability, the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors (plus-1850) had longer odds to start the season than this current Utah team (plus-1600). Get on the bandwagon.
SELL: The Milwaukee Bucks will retain the No. 1 seed.
Stat to know: Eight different teams have been the East’s No. 1 seed over the last eight seasons.
I’m down on the Bucks for a few reasons. One, I think the Philadelphia 76ers had the best offseason of any East power and will take their spot atop the East. Second, I see them missing Malcolm Brogdon’s ball-handling and shooting more than they expect. And lastly, I’m nervous about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s burnout factor this season.
Keep in mind, it’s hard to stay atop the East. Here are the last eight regular-season winners, starting with the most recent: Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Cavs, Hawks, Pacers, Heat and Bulls. No East team has repeated at No. 1 since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. In that sense, the Bucks falling back a bit would be completely normal.
Also, while most NBA superstars took the summer off, Antetokounmpo crisscrossed the globe with a dizzying itinerary. In a three-week span, he accepted the NBA MVP award in Los Angeles, flew to Greece to launch his new signature Nike Zoom Freak 1 shoe, visited Vegas Summer League and accepted ESPY’s Man of the Year in Los Angeles in the same day and then jetted to Milwaukee to celebrate the NBA MVP award in front of 20,000 Bucks fans. After that, Antetokounmpo flew to Greece for warm-up tournaments in Athens for his national team, flew to Shanghai, China, for another exhibition series, jetted to Nanjing for a pair of games and then was off to Shenzhen for two more games.
A few weeks later at media day, Antetokounmpo talked about his fatigue: “It was obviously a really short offseason. Obviously, I was tired physically and mentally. We had the long season and then we had a lot of things to do with Nike, with my family and national team also. But I’m excited (for the season).”
The Bucks have unsurprisingly rested their MVP in two of their four preseason games. (Antetokounmpo looked unstoppable this preseason, including a 34-point, 11-rebound performance in just 23 minutes against Dallas.) But with the potential supermax extension looming over the season combined with his non-stop summer, I’m worried about Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ ability to shoulder all of the expectations. Antetokounmpo’s workload skyrocketed over the past 12 months as he became a global icon and it may be nothing compared to this upcoming season under the national spotlight.
10. SELL: Markelle Fultz is back back.
Stat to know: Fultz is 0-for-15 on shots outside 15 feet this preseason.
I’m a sucker for a good redemption story, but put me in the wait-and-see category on the Fultz comeback in Orlando. He’s playing on a new team with playoff expectations. His last regular-season game was 11 months and one undergoing thoracic outlet surgery ago. Teams are still begging him to shoot. And the results still aren’t pretty.
Only Fultz knows how much of his issues last season were physical, psychological or situational, but the on-court problems are very real. While Fultz still has his bouncy, quick-twitch handle that can help him pierce opposing defenses, defenders are deliberately sagging five to ten feet off of him on the perimeter and daring him to launch from deep. He has missed all six of his 3-pointers and nine of his long 2s beyond 15 feet. Mechanically, he still has a ways to go before he resembles the University of Washington star that warranted being the No. 1 overall pick in 2017.
Then again, the Magic don’t seem to mind. Back in September, before seeing him play a game this preseason, Orlando picked up its 2020-21 team option that guarantees Fultz $12.3 million, making him its defacto point guard of the future. It’s genuinely good to see him out there playing basketball, but it’ll be interesting to see how much leeway he’ll get as Orlando tries to reach the postseason again.