By Adam Rich
With the NBA season a mere week away, the main storyline is the Golden State Warriors, and the developments related to their domination throughout the league. Coming off of an NBA Championship and seeking to win their third title in four years, most fans and executives alike expected teams to back down in the wake of the juggernaut Warriors. To the surprise but delight of many, teams bulked up instead. The Thunder added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, while Houston added Chris Paul. The Spurs stood pat, but remember they held a twenty-point lead against the Warriors in game one of the Western Conference Finals before Kawhi got Zaza’d. On the other side of the country, Boston stocked up on talent, adding Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, although at the cost of beloved Celtics Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley. Cleveland always remains a threat so long as they posses Lebron James, and every team listed above could be a Steph Curry ankle sprain from a championship. But there’s intrigue on the bottom half of the league too, as many teams that have been tanking in recent years continue to build towards the post-Warriors era. While fans of most expected-to-be lottery teams know their team won’t be competing for a title this season, they can rejoice in their quest to build for the future, particularly fans of these four young and exciting teams.
The Lonzo Ball effect is real. While the Lakers probably won’t crack the playoffs (sorry Lavar), they’ll definitely be worth the watch. Ball will invigorate the franchise and has the potential to launch them into a wildly successful and prosperous post-Kobe era. While Ball isn’t expected to light up the game with his shooting, he is more than capable from deep despite his awkward form (41% in his lone season at UCLA), and will likely develop into an above average threat from beyond the arc. Ball will mesh seamlessly into Luke Walton’s spacing and ball movement system alongside Brandon Ingram. For Ingram, who struggled at times last season adjusting to the length and speed of NBA players on both ends of the court, he will have much to prove this season. Ingram focused much of his attention this offseason on the defensive side of the ball, while continuing to harness his sweet stroke. Although his shot did not translate from Duke last season, Ingram has the potential to become a 20+ point per game scorer in the near future. His form is excellent, and his combination of height, handles, and quickness will give him an unparalleled advantage on offense when his skills reach their potential. Opposing wings can’t contest his shots easily, and opposing fours can’t keep up chasing him around the perimeter. Ingram also has an improving low post game to complement his well-honed perimeter skills. Outside of the two main Laker stars, expect Julius Randle to make a jump in his fourth professional year, in addition to Summer League star Kyle Kuzma. The elite athleticism of Larry Nance Jr. and the free agent addition of talented two way wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope add to the intrigue that comes with the drafting of Lonzo Ball, and should have Laker fans buzzing for weeks until December once they realize their team isn’t competing this season and return to being Clipper ‘fans’ for another year or so.
The Process has arrived. Rather The Process got paid. Joel Embiid that is. Fresh off of signing a five year, 148 million dollar deal (albeit with many injury provisions) as a result of his tantalizing talent, the questions still remain. Can Embiid stay healthy enough to anchor the Sixers for years to come? In three years in the league, Embiid has played a mere 31 games total. But those 31 games were enough to entice the Sixers into locking him up early and enhancing an already strong relationship between the two sides. Embiid’s ability to anchor the defense last season was apparent immediately, as the Sixers actually won a few games before he was shutdown for the year. Picturing a healthy Embiid (sadly doubtful to actually happen) alongside budding stars and fellow first overall picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz is incredibly exciting, and should turn endlessly stubborn Philly fans into eager supporters. The Sixers now have two capable ball handlers to initiate the offense, in addition to the option of having Embiid kickstart it out of the low or high post. While Simmons is not a talented shooter, the team will space the floor with Fultz (41% although the team is tinkering with his shot...yikes), sharpshooter J.J. Reddick, and either Amir Johnson, Robert Covington, or Dario Saric at the four (all above-average shooters). Also coming off the bench will be the spunky T.J. McConnell, an interesting piece in Nik (Sauce Castillo) Stauskas, and talented big Richaun Holmes. With their cache of young talent and influx of veterans to guide them, The Process will keep on rolling, and has the potential to nab one of the East’s back end playoff spots.
Forgot The Process, here comes The Timeline (credit SB Nation’s BrightSideoftheSun). With the youngest roster in the league, the Phoenix Suns will be a bottom five team again, but they are not without intrigue. Phoenix features two of the best young talents in the league, and perhaps the two most complementary to each other. At the 2 guard is budding superstar and microwave scorer Devin Booker. While a lethal scorer from inside the arc, Booker still has a ways to go from downtown (a mere 34%) before he enters the upper echelon of NBA scorers. Currently, Booker employs one of the silkiest shots in the league, along with a deadly arsenal of dribble moves, pull ups and finishes around the rim that have enabled him to score at will in his first two years in the desert. Based on the rest of his offensive game, there’s no reason to believe Booker won’t reach his 50-40-90 offensive potential. Alongside Booker is fellow 20 year old Josh Jackson, the rookie out of Kansas. Jackson’s athleticism was unparalleled in the rookie class, and Jackson was in the discussion to go first overall throughout the college season, making him a steal for the Suns at 4th overall. Jackson smothers guards on the wing with his imposing wingspan and lightning quick foot speed. Jackson also has the ability to hold his own in the post should the Suns choose to go small with Jackson at the four due to his 205 pound frame. While not touted as a shooter, Jackson did close the year with a stretch where he shot above 40% from deep. If jackson’s shooting winds up nearly half as strong as his defense, the Suns are in for a treat. From the front office side, the role of Eric Bledsoe should fascinate NBA fans. Playing on a relatively cheap contract (14.5 million) and coming off of a transcendent (albeit quiet because he plays in Phoenix) year, Bledsoe could be dealt either this season or offseason to pave the way for Serbian darling and soon to be top pick Luka Doncic. The Suns will feature promising but flawed big-men Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss in the frontcourt alongside seasoned vet Tyson Chandler, in addition to young role players T.J. Warren, Tyler Ulis and the high-flying Derrick Jones Jr. The accumulation of young talent in Phoenix within Earl Watson’s run and gun system makes the Suns worth the watch come October.
No, I am not joking. The Nets will be really fun to watch this year. After acquiring D’Angelo Russell from the Lakers, the draft pick depleted Nets finally have a potential star to build around. Although his tenure in Los Angeles never got far off the ground (thanks Byron Scott and Magic Johnson), D’Angelo still has superstar potential. Russell has shown flashes of excellence in the past, but needs to become more consistent in his decision making and effort to become a legitimate threat on a basketball court. With only 2 nationally televised games this season (both NBAtv), Russell will be out of the spotlight despite being in New York, and will have a chance to grow as a leader and playmaker. While Russell alone should be enough to entice viewers, he’ll have a chance to share the court with Caris Levert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Jarrett Allen, all recent picks. Despite not having their own pick in recent years, the Nets have managed to acquire young talent by taking on unwanted contracts. All three players fell in their respective drafts (due to age, one-dimensionality, and injury respectively) to the delight of the Nets. While none of the three will develop into stars, they all have the potential to be high caliber NBA starters with the right coaching and players around them. Levert improved last season from his rookie year, and RHJ’s value greatly increased once Kenny Atkinson slid him over to the 4. For Allen, he was a beast at Texas last season, although it did not translate to team success. The team also rosters the versatile Spencer Dinwiddie, who shined in Brooklyn last season as their starting point guard. Dinwiddie’s ability at 6’6 to see and shoot over opposing defenders has helped him settled into the league, and will be a key factor in his development just three years removed from an ACL tear while at Colorado. Also employing the always entertaining Jeremy Lin, the Nets have a shot at being mildly relevant this year should most breaks go their way, and best of all this is their last season owing their first round pick to another team (Thanks again Billy King)!