How the Pelicans failed Anthony Davis

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NBC Sports

How the Pelicans failed Anthony Davis

The clock almost hit midnight on June 30, 2015 when Anthony Davis tweeted his contract announcement with the “#6MoreYears” hashtag. Davis had just inked a five-year, $145 million extension and posted a photo of him standing with his agent, Thad Foucher, New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry and New Orleans GM Dell Demps. 

It was a moment of celebration for the Pelicans franchise. The future seemingly looked bright. They made the playoffs in Year 3 of The Brow era, improving each season in the win column. They had poached Gentry from the champion Golden State Warriors’ bench. Most importantly, Davis was in.

But that’s really when the clock began to tick on Demps and the Pelicans organization. This was their opportunity to prove that Davis, now 25, should spend his prime years and beyond in New Orleans. This coming summer, Davis will be eligible to sign a five-year, $239 million supermax extension with the Pelicans, if the Pelicans choose to offer it. But New Orleans’ financial advantage may not be an advantage at all.

“I’d take legacy over money,” Davis told Yahoo! Sports recently.

The sharks are circling. LeBron James made it known he’d love to play with him in Laker Land. The Boston Celtics have loads of assets to dangle (though a trade offer will have to wait until this summer due to a CBA quirk). The Golden State Warriors would “surely be interested,” per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, if he became available. And you can never count out Houston, who can put Clint Capela on the table starting Jan 15. As one general manager told NBC Sports, it “seems like 29 teams are in the AD chase.”

You can include the Pelicans on that list and make it 30. 

* * *

New Orleans got lucky on May 30, 2012. 

That night on national television, NBA commissioner Adam Silver revealed that New Orleans (then called the Hornets, now the Pelicans) won the draft lottery over the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets -- confusing, I know). 

It was a stunner. New Orleans had the fourth-best odds at winning the No. 1 overall pick and thanks to a fortuitous bounce of ping-pong balls, it jumped the three teams ahead of it -- Washington, Cleveland and, most surprisingly, Charlotte, which went just 7-59 in a lockout-shortened season.

With just a 13.7 percent chance, New Orleans won the day.

"Obviously, we're very excited," Demps said that night. "This is a great day for the city of New Orleans, our fans. ... This is the start of a new beginning."

Demps and the rest of the NBA knew Davis was a game-changer, head and shoulders above the rest of his 2012 draft class. DraftExpress once described Davis as “the most impressive blend of athletic tools we've seen in a big man prospect in our nine years evaluating the NBA draft.” 

For a tiny city like New Orleans, this was hitting jackpot. New Orleans is the smallest of the NBA small markets, according to Nielsen TV designated market-area research, ranking 51st among United States cities. By pure market size, New Orleans shouldn’t have an NBA franchise. Albuquerque, NM., Grand Rapids, MI., and Harrisburg, PA., are more deserving of a franchise from a TV market standpoint. 

For the franchise in the smallest of small markets, the best big man of a generation fell into its lap. What did they do with that lottery ticket? 

Not much.

Let’s say you hopped into a time machine and traveled to the morning following that 2012 draft lottery and asked NBA fans to make a prediction: Who would have a better record over the next seven seasons, through the 2018 calendar year: New Orleans or Charlotte? 

Those fans would probably say New Orleans, right? Duh, they just landed the Brow. And Charlotte just went 7-and-freakin’-59!

But take it a step further. Guarantee that Davis stayed with the team through 2018. Guarantee those NBA fans that Davis would become everything they imagined and more. Tell them that Davis would average 23.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in his NBA career before hitting his prime. Tell them that he would own the third-highest player-efficiency rating among all players since he entered the league -- only LeBron James and Kevin Durant rank higher

Tell them that, despite the occasional gripe that Davis is injury-prone, he’d play more games over the next seven seasons than other superstars like Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

Don’t stop there. Tell those NBA fans that Charlotte, coming off the worst season ever, would select Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and he’d become a solid role player, who, by 2018, would be a full-time reserve. 

Now ask them: Knowing all that, which team through 2018 would have a better record? 

Imagine their faces when you tell them that Charlotte, not New Orleans, is the correct answer. Since that 2012 lottery, Charlotte has gone 235-293 (.445 win percentage), per Basketball-Reference.com and reached the playoffs twice. The Pelicans have gone 235-295 (.443) since lucking into Davis. They’ve reached the playoffs the same number of times and gotten past the first-round once. Charlotte is one of 20 teams with a better record than New Orleans since he entered the league. 

The question is, why?

* * *

The Pelicans swept the Blazers last postseason, but aside from that brief moment in the sun, the events over the past four months must be nauseating for Pelicans fans. 

In September, Davis fired his New Orleans-based agent Foucher and hired LeBron James’ agent Rich Paul. Then, in an October profile in Sports Illustrated, former NBA commissioner David Stern took a shot at Pelicans brass when discussing how the Chris Paul trade fell apart in 2011, calling Demps “a lousy general manager … and he may lose Anthony Davis.”

With Davis rumors swirling, the Pelicans swiped back at the former de facto owner of their franchise and defended their longtime decision-maker with a public statement:

"We are very disappointed to read the inappropriate and inaccurate comments from the former NBA Commissioner regarding the New Orleans Pelicans. Our organization has the utmost confidence in our General Manager, Dell Demps. He is part of our family, the NBA family. We are excited about the direction of our team, the 3-0 start of this season, building on the success of the 2017/18 playoffs.” 

(The statement concluded with a not-so-veiled line endorsing Stern’s successor, Adam Silver.)

But shortly after beating their chest about a 3-0 start, the Pelicans lost six straight and the season began to spiral. In one of the most important seasons in franchise history, the Pelicans are currently 16-21 and sitting 14th among 15 Western Conference teams. What’s in front of them is daunting: They’d have to leapfrog six teams just to avoid missing the playoffs for the third time in the four seasons since Davis signed his extension.

To top it all off, in the week leading up to the Christmas Day games, LeBron told ESPN “that would be amazing” if Davis joined him on the Lakers. 

James’ comments led to an outcry from small market teams about LeBron tampering with Davis, but the Pelicans’ problem has nothing to do with big markets bullying small markets, tampering or LeBron James. It has to do with a team stumbling upon a winning lottery ticket and having little to show for it.

* * *

The Pelicans have tried to put talent around Davis, starting with Eric Gordon in 2012. Gordon was supposed to be Davis’ first co-star before injuries and early disagreements with the front office marred his future in New Orleans.

Demps then acquired Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins. When healthy, Holiday has played at an All-Star level and Cousins flourished alongside Davis in 65 games as a Pelican. Demps also made a shrewd trade for Nikola Mirotic and added Julius Randle on a team-friendly deal this past summer. 

But as is so often the case in New Orleans, Davis’ supporting cast largely ended up sidelined for long stretches. These things can be subject to random variation. Some years, you’re healthy. Some years, you’re banged-up. The Pelicans have been routinely banged-up for years.

With Davis’ name churning through the rumor mill, the microscope is firmly on the Pelicans now. And the long collection of injuries -- coupled with the disagreements stemming from those injuries -- do not paint a rosy picture.

Last season, the Pelicans suffered the most player games lost due to injury, per an InStreetClothes.com analysis, costing the team nearly $30 million in lost salary. The season before that, they ranked third-last in games lost due to injury. The season before that, they ranked dead-last again. Over the last five seasons, the Pelicans have lost the second-most games due to injury or illness. Only the Sixers have fared worse over the last five seasons, which has been well-chronicled.

This pattern isn’t a total anomaly if you ask rival team executives, who have long chided the Pelicans’ medical team for being run by “football guys” instead of those who have experience in the NBA. Fair or not, the Pelicans are fighting against a league-wide perception.

“The organization only cares about the Saints,” one league exec told NBC Sports.

Run by the Benson family, the Pelicans are one of three NBA teams whose primary ownership group also owns an NFL franchise (the Allen family owns the Blazers/Seahawks and the Kroenke family owns the Nuggets/Rams). But the Pelicans are the only NBA team that shares both its staffing and practice facility grounds with the football team, which many around the league see as a “corporate synergy” cost-saving measure. In 2012, the late Tom Benson appointed Saints general manager Mickey Loomis to be president of basketball operations for the Pelicans, overseeing Demps in the org chart. While the Lakers have Magic Johnson and the Celtics have Danny Ainge, the Pelicans have a football executive.

The medical staff is also filled with football résumés. The Pelicans’ head trainer, Jon Ishop, was hired in 2010 after eight seasons with the Houston Texans. When Ishop left to go to the Pistons in 2016, Demps said “an organizational decision” was made to replace Ishop with Duane Brooks, who had been an assistant trainer with the Saints before being brought over to the NBA side (This summer, the Pelicans decided to part ways with Brooks after his contract expired, sources tell NBC Sports.).

In August 2017, the Saints made national headlines after firing two orthopedists following a misdiagnosis of cornerback Delvin Breaux’s broken leg as a bone bruise. One of those fired physicians, Dr. Misty Suri, was serving dual roles with the Saints and the Pelicans. 

At the time, Saints coach Sean Payton explained the dismissal by saying, “I think it’s not one event, it probably builds up over a period of time. You’re not gonna bat a thousand here, but you’re just hoping that more often than not, you’re getting the right information.”
 
Despite being let go by the Saints, Dr. Suri maintained his position as the Director of Medical Services and Head Team Physician for the Pelicans. He has been there ever since, overseeing this rough spate of injuries.

The football-heavy influence on the training staff is something that has caught the eye of Davis’ longtime trainer, Marcell Scott, a New Orleans native who also works closely with Pelicans forward Jahlil Okafor.

“Let the Saints be the Saints,” Scott told NBC Sports. “They get all the recognition [in New Orleans] anyways. As a city, we need basketball guys with basketball guys and football guys with football guys. That’s how you get better as an organization moving forward.”

It’s not rare to see a player need multiple surgeries to correct an injury or problem area. But the Pelicans seem to deal with this more than most teams: Tyreke Evans’ three knee surgeries in 10 months; Quincy Pondexter’s multiple knee surgeries and scary battle with MRSA; two surgeries on a broken foot for 2017 No. 31 overall pick Frank Jackson; multiple knee procedures on both knees for Alexis Ajinca. 

Evans never panned out as a Pelican, and other clashes with the medical staff included players on the margins. New Orleans needed to protect players brought in to be co-stars next to Anthony Davis: Gordon, Holiday, and Cousins. Ultimately, they’ve failed in that regard. 

New Orleans fans will remember the Chris Paul trade and Gordon’s subsequent knee injury saga that kicked off his bumpy tenure with the organization. In 2012, Demps went against Gordon’s initial public wishes to leave New Orleans and matched Phoenix’s max offer for Gordon. The team physician and Gordon disagreed on the severity of a right knee injury that caused Gordon to miss training camp and the team forbade its max player from speaking to reporters, prompting Gordon to go straight to the national media himself and declare he’d be out four to six weeks. 

A series of stress fractures and stress reactions to Holiday’s right leg wiped out half his 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Stress fractures are not uncommon. But in 2015, Holiday’s long-time personal trainer Mike Guevara, in an interview with SB Nation, questioned the Pelicans’ return-to-play procedure and said that Holiday’s “minutes were not managed as well … his minutes were relatively high and in my opinion he was thrown into the fire too soon.” 

(The following season, in 2015-16, the Pelicans lowered Holiday’s minutes and Guevara was officially brought on as a sports-performance consultant by the Pelicans.)

Last season, Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon after an excessive workload just before the All-Star break. Playing on the fastest team in the NBA, Cousins also endured the most taxing month of his career from a minutes perspective, which included playing four overtimes in nine days and one game in which he played a career-high 52 minutes. His Achilles tendon snapped in the fourth quarter, his fourth game in seven days. 

In Cousins, Demps appeared to finally get his Davis co-star. But once again, the Pelicans seemed to mismanage a golden opportunity and run it into the ground.

* * *

The Pelicans have every right to be nervous about Davis’ future. 

It’s the smallest market in the NBA, which is no small thing for a global star like Davis. He fired his New Orleans-based agent and hired LeBron’s agent and then LeBron courted him, creating a media firestorm. His tenure with the organization has been marred by a poor track record with injuries and public disagreements about diagnoses. David Stern’s comment added insult to injury.

Ask any GM and they’ll rank their medical and training staff as above-average. Statistically, that can’t be true. The Pelicans internally believe they have a top-five practice facility, which is something that most teams would likely say about their own operation. A famous psychological study found that 93 percent of polled Americans believed themselves to be more skillful than the median driver. Same goes for the injury prevention industry.

Still, by the win-loss column, 20 teams, including Charlotte, have fared better than the Pelicans since Davis was drafted No. 1 overall in 2012. One can only wonder what the organization might look like if it hadn’t gotten so lucky on that 2012 draft lottery day. It’s becoming harder and harder to blame Davis if he decides to try his luck somewhere else.

Buy and sell: 2019 NBA season preview

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NBC Sports

Buy and sell: 2019 NBA season preview

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.

Watch the 2019 NBA Season Tipoff Show with Tom Haberstroh on MyTeams (Oct. 22 at 4 p.m. ET)

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. 

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.

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. 

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

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Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

Bradley Beal isn’t going anywhere.

That was the message Washington Wizards officials insisted on for months even when it seemed, from the outside, that Beal was facing an unpalatable situation, at best.

Consider the ominous backdrop. The Wizards missed the playoffs in 2018-19 despite Beal’s career year. The search to replace Ernie Grunfeld as the Wizards’ chief decision maker took nearly four months. Fellow backcourt star John Wall tore his Achilles and likely will miss the entire 2019-20 season. 

Not only that, but Anthony Davis -- who was picked two spots ahead of Beal in the 2012 draft -- just orchestrated an ugly exit from the franchise that drafted him. All the while, Beal’s name kept surfacing in the rumor mill as a potential trade target following a historic free agency bonanza that was sure to leave some teams desperate for a splashy move. 

Beal must have had his bags packed, right? 

Quite the contrary. The message I was hearing from the Wizards’ side of things was steadfast: We’re going to keep Beal -- not just for the season. He’s going to want to commit to what we’re building long-term.

On Thursday morning, that level of confidence was justified. Beal agreed to a two-year extension, first reported by ESPN, totalling $72 million through 2022-23 and lining him up for a potential record-breaking five-year, $266 million contract when he’s eligible for the 10-year pay bump in 2022, if he exercises a player option following the 2021-22 season.

This is an absolute home run for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and his revamped front office structure led by general manager Tommy Sheppard and chief operations and planning officer Sashi Brown. Selling Beal on the team’s vision going forward was the top priority of the franchise.

Not only does it mean, by league rule, that Beal can’t be traded until July 2020, but the extension avoids the sticky situation of Beal becoming eligible for supermax money next summer if he landed on an All-NBA team this upcoming season (or won MVP or Defensive Player of the Year). In 2021-22, Beal is set to earn $34.5 million, about $10 million less than he could have gotten if he inked the supermax contract, a la Wall.

Beal could have demanded a trade like his draft classmate Davis. He could have tabled talks and gunned for an All-NBA selection this season to maximize his earnings. He could have kept this hanging over the Wizards all season. But instead, he signed off on the pitch outlined by Leonsis, Sheppard and the Wizards’ front office. 

Getting Beal’s commitment wasn’t going to be easy considering the strong league-wide current pulling the other way. Beal had to be assured that things would be different going forward. Beal had, at times, been frustrated about the lack of accountability in the front office, according to sources. Those feelings reportedly boiled over in a November practice in which he levied strong words at Grunfeld.

Leonsis’ decision to promote from within was met with surprise by some around the league. While Sheppard was highly-regarded throughout league circles, he also stood loyally by Grunfeld’s side for 16 years. Could Sheppard really convince Beal in a short time that he’s not Grunfeld 2.0?

The answer to that question is loud and clear. After years of shedding longer-term assets for quick fixes, Sheppard and the front office made a play for decade-long sustainability. 

They drafted Rui Hachimura with the No. 9 overall pick and added Admiral Schofield at No. 42 via a deal with Philadelphia. What followed draft night was three shrewd cap moves to acquire talent for next to nothing. The team plucked Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones and a second-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, who needed to offload money to acquire Davis. Then, Sheppard absorbed former Spurs sharpshooter Davis Bertans when San Antonio needed to move salary in order to sign Marcus Morris, who ended up backing out of the deal to sign with the Knicks. 

To further establish a new culture, the team swapped Dwight Howard’s contract for another veteran sharpshooter who was rehabbing from injury in C.J. Miles. In a season where several contenders will likely look to add talent at the deadline, both Bertans and Miles could be moved for picks.

Sheppard and the front office weren’t done making plays with the long-term future in mind. Rather than pay big money to retain restricted free agents Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, the team moved on. They inked 22-year-old Thomas Bryant to a three-year deal for backup money after an impressive season as the team’s starting center. The final tally at the outset of free agency: The Wizards acquired seven players under the age of 23 (Jones was waived Wednesday).

Evidently, Beal was impressed with the reset, turning down the opportunity to be the biggest name on the market this season and signing for less than he could have if he made All-NBA. 

At the age of 26, Beal is a consummate franchise pillar. The two-time All-Star averaged 25.6 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds last season, one of six players to reach those marks last season. The other five -- LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Kevin Durant -- have all won MVP awards. Beal has played all 82 games in each of the last two seasons, a feat almost no one thought was possible after he battled stress fractures early in his career. 

The extension will take Beal under contract through his age-29 season, when he will be reaching the apex of his career, about the same phase that Curry, Harden and Kawhi Leonard are in now. The Wizards may not make the playoffs this season, but under revamped leadership, there’s at least a roadmap to contention. The Wizards just needed to buy some time to see it through. Beal’s extension, which at multiple points seemed unlikely, gives them that. And affirmation that the Wizards have something here.

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