We have heard for years that the NBA is a star-driven league, and this summer did nothing to dispel that notion. Much of the summer was hijacked by trade rumblings surrounding the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving, not to mention long-term speculation surrounding the future home of LeBron James. Things were equally out of control on the free agent market, with Blake Griffin, Gordon Heyward, Kyle Lowry, Otto Porter and Jrue Holliday each signing nine-figure contracts and Steph Curry landing a $200 million extension.
The trouble with such riches being doled out to the cream of the crop in a cap-based league is how it leaves less to trickle down through the rest of the roster. To fit within the cap, clubs find their hands tied after landing two or three big money stars to anchor the team. This means that players either sacrifice their own earnings for the good of the team - an undoubtedly rare occurrence - or clubs find themselves unable to address one or more flawed areas of their roster. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, the absolute top of the NBA hierarchy, used their elite status to land some title-hungry veterans on cheap deals, but even they had to settle for using Zaza Pachulia (Golden State) and JR Smith (Cleveland) in their starting five.
The message here is clear: if even the top two teams in the NBA have holes in their roster, chances are that your team does too. From title contenders to those already hoping for lottery ball luck next spring, each team faces vulnerable areas of weakness that could cause things to unravel this year. This weak link doesn't necessarily have to be one specific player, nor does it need to be the club's only flaw. However, it does represent the most glaringly insufficient area heading into the 2017-18 season and one that might prove to be a team's undoing regardless of how strong they are elsewhere on the court. As we near training camp, here is the key weak link for every NBA club.
You've got to give it to head coach Mike Budenholzer and the Atlanta Hawks - they certainly never gave up. In the face of what has been a talent haemorrhaging since their dream 60-win season in 2014-15, they opted to put off the inevitable rebuild in favour of running it back with a sharp-shooting roster. Lose Al Horford? Sign Dwight Howard. Trade Jeff Teague? Foster the development of Dennis Schroeder. Now, the worry is that they waited too long.
Okay, so you might as well just punch the Boston Celtics' ticket to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals now. But while the presumptive, predictable nature of the East speaks volumes of the talent-laden roster that GM Danny Ainge has built, it says even more about the deplorable state of the conference. While the Celtics are certainly a very good team with the potential to be great down the road as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum develop, they aren't there just yet.
The Brooklyn Nets continue to sorely lack for talent, as is typically the case for a perennial bottom feeder without possession of about half a decade's worth of its own first round draft choices. But credit GM Sean Marks with turning the few assets he had to work with (cap space, Brook Lopez) into a couple of pieces that at least intrigue, if nothing else. D'Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe both offer some degree of future potential, while DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov bring unenviable contracts but could be productive in Brooklyn this season.
So, with at least passable talent at four positions on the court (don't forget about Jeremy Lin at the point!), power forward begins to look like a glaring weakness. Currently, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson looks like the default starter amidst what is hardly a murderer's row of talent alongside Trevor Booker and Quincy Acy. The likeable 2015 first rounder is a favourite of coach Kenny Atkinson as a smart, defensive-minded big man, but also comes with a broken shot and a still-raw offensive game. The Nets could tiptoe around the issue by going small and moving Carroll to the four, but a front court of Carroll and Mozgov might bring the worst rebounding rate in the league.
13 Charlotte Hornets: Dwight Howard
Count the Charlotte Hornets as the latest team to have talked themselves into a possible redemption for Dwight Howard. Supporters of the Hornets' decision to trade for Howard early in the summer will point to the lack of significant assets surrendered and how the approximately $47 million left on his contract seems downright cheap compared to some of the money being doled out this summer. At the end of the day, though, it's still Dwight.
12 Chicago Bulls: Fred Hoiberg
Without the benefit of context, the Chicago Bulls look like a team on the rise. After all, in his second season on the bench, head coach Fred Hoiberg steered his team from outside the playoff picture to one of the eight spots in the East, even putting a scare into the Eastern Conference Finalist Boston Celtics in a six-game first round series. But Bulls fans know better than to let last spring foster much hope. Last season marked their second straight decrease in total wins, dropping from 50 wins under Tom Thibodeau down to a .500 record just two years later.
No, this all can't be blamed on Hoiberg, who first inherited broken down pieces in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and then had to keep the peace between Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. But one has to wonder how different things would be if the relationship between Thibodeau and Bulls management didn't sour after the 2014-15 season. Regardless of how much blame Hoiberg deserves to shoulder, the club now faces the daunting prospect of a rebuild helmed by a coach that Bulls brass can't entirely trust. Is the former Iowa State head coach the right guy to help get point guards Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne on track? Is he the leader needed to coax meaningful development out of Zach LaVine, Bobby Portis and rookie Lauri Markkanen? Right now, there are no clear answers to be had in Chi-town.
Few NBA clubs can withstand the internal turmoil endured by the Cleveland Cavaliers this off-season and still live to reign as favourites to return to the NBA Finals, but that's why its good to be the Cavs. For now, anyway. Though Cleveland will still face questions and speculation about LeBron James' long-term future moving forward, they escaped the disastrous late season trade demand of Kyrie Irving by squeezing a nice trade package out of the Boston Celtics. Not only does the addition of Isaiah Thomas keep the Cavaliers set at the point, but the trade also helped solidify the team's wing depth with Jae Crowder coming on board (to say nothing of the highly coveted Nets' pick).
If you look hard enough, however, you'll find a team that could struggle on the glass this season. Last year's Cavs finished in the bottom third of the league in offensive rebounding and, barring another roster move, don't appear poised to get any better this year. By highlighting Kevin Love as the weak link here, I'm doing so only in the context of a rebounding rate that is two per game less as a Cavalier than it was with the Timberwolves. As for the team's collective rebounding issue, there is already speculation centred around the possibility of rumoured trade candidate Kenneth Faried being in the Cavs' cross-hairs, which would just be a case of the rich getting richer.
Dirk Nowitzki isn't ready to call it a career yet, but that doesn't mean that the future Hall of Famer is the same Dirk of his prime. Once practically unstoppable as a sharp-shooting seven footer, Nowitzki is now 38 years of age and has slowed considerably, seeing his minutes drop and his usage within Rick Carlisle's offence lessen. The diminished role is a necessity to still get value out of the big German, but it becomes problematic without a wealth of viable candidates on hand to fill the scoring vacuum.
Harrison Barnes led the Mavericks in scoring last season, albeit with an underwhelming 19.2 points that placed him just 30th league-wide. At 25 years of age and with five full seasons already under his belt, Barnes simply doesn't project to be the franchise star that will assume the reigns once Nowitzki does retire. That player could be rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., but the NCSU product could endure some growing pains in year one and may have enough on his plate in learning how to run an NBA offence before worrying about becoming a No. 1 scoring option. In the short-term, it's puzzling that Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson didn't add a single meaningful piece to a group that finished dead last in scoring last season.
The July sign-and-trade that brought Paul Millsap to Denver while Danilo Galinari left the fold for Los Angeles and the Clippers. No disrespect to Galinari, but the focus in the Mile High city seemed to be placed firmly on how good a fit Millsap would be alongside blossoming star Nikola Jokic in the Nuggets front court. Indeed, Millsap signals that Denver feels ready to shift their young roster into win-now mode in the tough West. Now, is the rest of the team ready?
If the Jokic / Millsap front court is going to occupy the bulk of opposing teams' defensive attention, there will be an opportunity for the club's guards to get some open looks and stretch the floor. That opens up possibilities for the likes of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Emmanuel Mudiay and Will Barton to step up. Though all four guards have talent, none have really showcased a consistently effective shooting game at the NBA level. Veteran small forward Wilson Chandler will help in that regard, but Denver could really gain a dangerous dimension if one of the aforementioned guards, with Murray as the most likely candidate, could develop a reliable shot from beyond the arc.
11 Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson
A dark cloud lurks over the Detroit Pistons, an organization that is quickly coming up on the 10th anniversary of its last playoff victory. Even worse, their continued, decade-long funk is now soldiering along with a core that should, ideally, be enjoying its prime years. Regardless of the tinkering that GM Jeff Bower and head coach Stan Van Gundy have done, a group headed by Andre Dummond and Reggie Jackson simply hasn't been good enough, even in the weak East. Drummond, the interior force out of UConn, gets the bulk of the attention for having yet to make his team better, but it is Jackson who is the real problem.
Once a potential-laden point guard stuck behind Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder's depth chart, Jackson arrived in Motown nearly three years ago but hasn't exactly joined the ranks of other elite superstar point guards since getting the keys to the Pistons' offence. It wasn't his fault that he didn't get on the court until December last season due to left knee and right thumb injuries. He has, however, been a ball-dominant floor general with underwhelming assist totals and mediocre shooting numbers. Not only has Jackson, who still has three years and over $50 million left on his contract, underwhelmed in Detroit, but he hasn't brought out the best in teammates like Drummond, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has since signed with the Lakers.
10 Golden State Warriors: Nick Young
Could the impossibly talented Golden State Warriors be undone by Swaggy P? Probably not, but it's remarkably tough to find a chink in the armour of the defending NBA champs. Most knowledgeable folks actually see Nick Young serving as yet another weapon towards the back of the Warriors' incredibly deep rotation, just one more shooter who will no doubt benefit from plenty of open looks. The potential concern with Young is how he fits within the culture of a team so high on chemistry.
After all, Young hasn't always been known to blend in with his surroundings. As his nickname would suggest, he is a cocky, self-assured player, qualities that come out in his personality and can sometimes trickle into his on-court game as irrational confidence influences his shot selection. With the Warriors, Young probably will have neither a large enough role or a long enough leash to burn his new team with much ill-advised chucking. The risk - however marginal - is that his persona invites any kind of tension or ill will into the locker room. Still, reasons for concern here are pretty sparse.
When you talk about the current guard situation for the Houston Rockets, you are talking about James Harden and Chris Paul. That became guaranteed when Houston parted ways with seven players, including Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams, and a first round pick this past June to land the nine-time All-Star, Paul. The addition of CP3 to play alongside the club's perennial MVP candidate gives them a strong contender for best back court in the league, but even the superstar guard tandem will need some help.
Where that help will come from remains a big question mark, particularly when it comes to their new point guard. Paul is 32, has over 900 career games worth of tread on his tires and is coming off of a season in which he played his fewest number of regular season games in five years. The thumb that he had surgically repaired last season is supposedly back at full strength, but how vulnerable is he to more breakdown? You'd think that GM Daryl Morey and the Rockets would invest in on-court insurance for their floor general, but backups Isaiah Taylor and Bobby Brown averaged 13.0 and 4.9 minutes, respectively, last year and Taylor got into just four regular season games. If necessary, can reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon handle the point?
Might there be a new bottom feeder in the Eastern Conference? The Philadelphia 76ers should be poised to finally take some steps forward and even the Brooklyn Nets might be on the road to respectability after adding DeMarre Carroll and gambling on D'Angelo Russell. The new battle for the basement in the East could well be forged between the Jimmy Butler-less Chicago Bulls and the Paul George-less Indiana Pacers, neither of whom got much of a return from dealing their franchise cornerstones.
9 LA Clippers: Patrick Beverly
Something had to give with the Los Angeles Clippers this summer, as owner Steve Ballmer wasn't likely to be content sitting idly by amidst another first or second round flameout from the same veteran core. Even worse, keeping the main cast of Lob City together was going to mean investing heavily in aging, banged point guard Chris Paul. The Clippers did well to retool rather than rebuild, adding Danilo Galinari and squeezing depth pieces like Sam Dekker and Lou Williams out of Houston in the Paul sign-and-trade.
However you want to spin in, though, new point guard Patrick Beverly is no CP3. In fact, it was the uneven playmaking of the feisty defender that prompted Rockets GM Daryl Morey to turn to Paul. The switch will put additional pressure on the front court tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who will have to create for themselves in ways they didn't have to alongside Paul. Beverly may win some fans for his hard-nosed style, but there will surely be some growing pains. Don't be surprised if European import Milos Teodosic starts to inch in on Beverly's playing time as he learns the NBA game.
If that doesn't sound like much, then think about just what that involves. It means finding open looks for three-point specialist Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, getting the ball into Brook Lopez in the paint and helping facilitate the development of Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle, all the while asserting his own offensive game. Ball will also be contending with a murderer's row of Western Conference point guards to play against on a nightly basis. And with Tyler Ennis and Briante Weber primed to serve as his primary backups, it looks as though he won't have much of a safety net behind him. Ball and his family were very open about their wishes for him to wind up a Laker. Now, he is right where he wants to be and must be ready to handle the heat.
This past summer, the bill seemed to come due for the Memphis Grizzlies from their reckless spending of one year prior. Questionable max deals for Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons left the Grizz capped out, with limited leeway to re-sign their own free agents, let alone adding outside help. The tight cap squeeze forced Memphis to part ways with popular veterans Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Vince Carter. In their place, the club went bargain shopping and took flyers on potential reclamation projects in Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans while also bringing in second tier prospects Dillon Brooks, Ivan Rabb and Kobi Simmons.
The creative off-season of Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace make them an intriguing team to watch this season, given how different they will look from recent incarnations. The problem is that it leaves them woefully short on sure things outside of Conley and Marc Gasol. Up front, Memphis will be leaning on the health of Parsons, who looked like a free agent bust in year one of his $94 million contract, averaging just 6.2 points over the 34 games he could actually stay on the floor. Pinning any hopes on the health of the oft-injured sharpshooter, who has missed at least 16 games in four of his six NBA seasons, seems like an ill-advised proposition, but one the Grizzlies can't avoid with their high-priced small forward in tow.
8 Miami Heat: Dion Waiters
Waiters Island was once again a marquee destination last season, as Dion Waiters withstood two lengthy injury stints to put together his best season in five years. The 25-year-old's first season in Miami saw his shooting, scoring and assist numbers spike from his prior campaign in Oklahoma City, even as they were hampered by thigh and ankle injuries that cost him about half the season. He now enters the season healthy alongside a strong Heat rotation that includes fellow returned-to-health wing Justise Winslow.
So why is Waiters considered the weak link of a talented Heat team? After something of a reclamation year, he remains a risk to revert back to the selfish, shoot-first, chemistry-disrupting presence we've seen before. He could quickly become a dangerous liability if he is interrupting the flow of the Heat offence and taking shots away from the likes of Winslow and Goran Dragic. Yes, Waiters is a very good shooter, but he probably isn't as good as he thinks he is. Even worse, the potential exists for a clash with Hassan Whiteside, who is also an integral part of the Heat roster and, like Waiters, can be a combustible personality. Miami might actually be better off with defensive-minded Josh Richardson starting in the two-guard spot and Waiters coming in as a super-sub.
The prevailing wisdom around the Milwaukee Bucks is that the club will go as far as burgeoning superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo will take them. Last year, they pushed the reigning Eastern Conference finalist Toronto Raptors before ultimately coming up short in a six-game first round series. But regardless of how good the Greek Freak is, he's going to need some help to elevate the Bucks. Up front, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, Greg Monroe and Mirza Teletovic make for a nice group of complimentary talent. The back court, however, is another story.
Bucks point guard Malcolm Brogdon surprised observers by overcoming his second round draft status and snagging Rookie of the Year honours last season, and singling him out here is probably unfair. But the poor quality of a rookie field plagued by injuries to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons last season cannot be ignored. For as impressive as Brogdon's debut campaign was in serving as floor general for a playoff team, he doesn't appear to boast an appreciably higher ceiling than what he's already shown. Beyond Brogdon, Tony Snell is a decent three-and-D role player who will probably have to do more than he should within the Milwaukee guard rotation. Matthew Dellavedova brings plenty to the table as an on-the-ball defensive pest, but the team will need more help than just Delly.
7 Minnesota Timberwolves: Jeff Teague
Though he would probably never admit it, this had to be a weird summer for Jeff Teague. He was gifted a lucrative three-year, $57 million contract and the keys to a suddenly stacked Minnesota Timberwolves attack that features Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and new addition Jimmy Butler. But before the ink had even dried on Teague's new contract, the Kyrie Irving rumour mill churned out the T'Wolves as a potential landing spot for the point guard, citing his close friendship with Butler and a possible trade match with Wiggins. In short order, Teague had seemingly gone from major free agent acquisition to an afterthought and inconvenience.
As we now know, Irving made his way to Boston and we'll never really know how serious Minnesota ever was about adding the former Cavaliers star. But the whispers were enough to become a talking point and raise some level of question over how committed the Wolves are to their new signee. It is also fair to wonder whether Teague represents a better fit than since-departed point guard Ricky Rubio, who is not as good defensively, but boasts an edge in play-making skills, which could be a meaningful asset given all of Minnesota's weapons. Moreover, Teague will now make $5 million more this year than the Utah-bound Spaniard. Teague and the Wolves now need to put the Irving speculation behind them, with the 29-year-old poised to play a big role in what is a major season in Minny.
If HBO were to redirect their popular "Hard Knocks" series from the NFL to the NBA, would there be a more must-watch locker room to feature than that of the New Orleans Pelicans? Head coach Alvin Gentry will have his hands full with a talented but combustible roster that will now feature both DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo. Neither mercurial talent is shy about expressing themselves, but can they do so in a way that is productive and helpful to the team as a collective? Both Cousins and Rondo want to win, but they've also fallen out of favour with their previous teams, who weren't sorry to see them go.
The overall happiness of the team will likely come down to winning. Quite simply, if things are going well on the court, they will probably be pretty good in the locker room too. But in the first full season of the ambitious Cousins and Anthony Davis front court pairing, the big man tandem is mustering little excitement among fans on account of a disappointing post-trade showing that saw the Pelicans go 11-14 after Cousins came on board. Heading into 2017-18, Rondo represents the only significant off-season addition by New Orleans, so any progress will come down to Boogie and the Brow. And maybe any counsellor or therapist that the club needs to bring in, as well.
6 New York Knicks: James Dolan
You know that your franchise is in a less than ideal place when the highlight of your off-season is mutually parting ways with your former team president. Sadly for the New York Knicks, the end of the Phil Jackson era did not put an end to some of the head-scratching decisions made by the franchise in recent years. While young phenom Kristaps Porzingis is apparently no longer on the trade market, the selection of French point guard Frank Ntilikina over Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk seemed immediately questionable and doling out $71 million to bring back Tim Hardaway Jr. seemed instantly regrettable. Maybe the Knicks’ biggest problem wasn’t Jackson after all.
Owner James Dolan remains a much-maligned presence around the club, one that isn’t particularly easy to get rid of. Last season’s ugly embarrassment involving Charles Oakley marked yet another troubling sign of the bewildering mismanagement that has turned the decorated franchise into a league-wide laughingstock. The young talent of Porzingis, Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez offers hope for the future and Carmelo Anthony still has plenty to offer, either as a central star or as a trade chip. But still, it’s hard to see much of a culture change surrounding the club while things remain the same at the very top of the food chain. Maybe Dolan can take his band, JD & the Straight Shot, on the road full-time?
Few teams enjoyed as successful a summer as the Oklahoma City Thunder did. Their efforts to land a complimentary star to Russell Westbrook brought them Paul George for a series of – no offence to Victor Oladipo – decidedly lesser talents. Having suddenly become a marquee free agent destination, they lured Patrick Patterson away from the Toronto Raptors for below market value. In a vacuum, Patterson’s three-year, $16.4 million deal represents tremendous value for a reliable, defensive-minded reserve big man with three-point range. With the Thunder, however, he currently ranks atop the power forward depth chart.
Given that Patterson was last seen being less effective for the Raptors than he had been the year prior, it seems like awkward timing for the former Kentucky star to be receiving a promotion from bench player to starter on another title contender. In all likelihood, the power forward position will be the subject of some creative rotation management by head coach Billy Donovan. After all, George has spent stretches at the four back in his Indiana days and the likes of Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott can shift over in a pinch. Still, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Toronto never made much of a substantial push to retain Patterson this summer. When it comes down to the two club’s respective power forward options, each of whom has past connections with the other team, I’ll take Serge Ibaka over Patterson every time.
5 Orlando Magic: Elfrid Payton
The Orlando Magic should probably inspire more excitement and optimism than they do. The Magic roster is littered with young lottery picks who are just knocking on the door of their prime years. Unfortunately, those young players haven’t exactly fulfilled the promise that came attached with their draft slot. The “it’s still early” caveat looms large here, but none of Aaron Gordon (No. 4, 2014), Mario Hezonja (No. 5, 2015) or Elfrid Payton (No. 10, 2014) have managed to full capitalize on their lofty draft position. You’d have to figure that if at least one or two of those three top 10 picks had displayed early signs of NBA stardom, the Magic would not have undergone a front office transformation that now features president Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond at the helm.
As Weltman and Hammond take stock of what assets they have on their roster, the three aforementioned youngsters will probably be under a microscope. That could spell trouble for Payton, who as shown modest signs of improvement over three seasons in Orlando but has yet to really carve out his place as a point guard to watch. What Payton offers as a long, pesky defender, he lacks in consistency and NBA-caliber playmaking. Most teams would have shuffled him off to the bench, but Orlando simply hasn’t found another floor general to push the 23-year-old for minutes. The result is a huge question mark for the Magic at what is arguably the most important position on the floor.
For the first time in over half a decade, Philadelphia 76er fans can actually get excited about their team heading into an NBA season. That’s because the fruits of what was once Sam Hinkie’s “Process” are finally ripening and coming together. A healthy Joel Embiid will be joined by Dario Saric, rookie point guard Markelle Fultz and the ready-to-debut Ben Simmons as part of a Sixers’ core that is teeming with potential. Where it is severely lacking is experience. The four men, collectively identified by Embiid as the “FEDS” (Fultz, Embiid, Dario and Simmons), carry a total of just 112 career games under their belt.
That's where the Sixers' off-season lavishing of $34 million on one-year deals to JJ Redick and Amir Johnson come in. With the belief that the Philly young guns might be poised to contend for a playoff spot immediately in what is a fairly barren Eastern Conference, GM Bryan Colangelo and team brass decided to use their ample cap space to make a short-term splash while also addressing the leadership void. But is Redick a proven leader? He certainly wasn't a dominant voice in a Clippers' locker room that had Chris Paul and Paul Pierce. Being a 10-year vet means he comes in with plenty of experience, but also shows how far removed he is from his Duke days, the last time he led a team.
Last season in Phoenix marked the turning over of the keys to Devin Booker. The 20-year-old saw his scoring average jump from 13.8 points per game in his rookie campaign to 22.1 in a greater role during a sophomore season that also included a 70-point game. Assuming Booker's knack for scoring continues, the emphasis now shifts to building a strong young complimentary core around him. Drafting Josh Jackson was a good start, but the Suns still have a ways to go. The point guard rotation of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyler Ulis appears set for now, leaving the front court as the primary area of need.
If Phoenix is hoping to win now, the forward corps will need to be addressed. In the middle, Tyson Chandler is 34 and set to embark upon his 17th NBA season. If that doesn't raise enough questions, there's also the fact that he played just 47 games last year due to injury. If Chandler is too old, Jackson might be too young, showing potential but also inexperience last season at Kansas. The Suns had hoped to improve through the development of recent lottery picks Alex Len, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, but that remains to be seen to date. This club might be forced to lean more heavily on Jared Dudley and TJ Warren than they'd ideally like.
4 Portland Trail Blazers: Maurice Harkless
Though lacking in high ceiling star power outside of point guard Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers, through GM Neil Olshey, have actually constructed a respectably deep roster of talent across the board. Whether that makes for enough to compete in the stacked Western Conference is another question. One area that could certainly use a boost is the small forward position, where Maurice Harkless remains the best option despite not really cashing in on his potential to date.
In five years in the NBA since being drafted 15th overall out of St. John's in 2012, Harkless has failed to capitalize on a tantalizing set of tools that includes a 6'9" frame with a 7'0" wingspan and a versatile all-around game. Even after enjoying a modest breakthrough 2016-17 campaign that featured an encouraging surge in three-point shooting from 27.9% to 35.1%, the 24-year-old still only achieved career-bests of 10 points per game in 28.9 minutes. Where the Blazers probably need one more potent weapon to truly be deemed a threat in the West, Harkless hasn't shown himself to be that guy.
Let's start with the good when it comes to the Sacramento Kings. Through the DeMarcus Cousins trade and a nifty draft-day deal to turn the traded New Orleans Pelicans' pick into two later first rounders, the Kings actually came away with a trio of promising prospects in De'Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles. Kings fans may need (even more) patience, with all three men requiring time to develop and grow together. In the meantime, this is a roster without much NBA-ready talent and even less of an identity.
Armed with considerable cap space, the Kings brought in proven vets George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to help guide their young roster, but it's tough to see any of the three bringing much to the table on the court. Buddy Hield, the coveted gem of the Cousins trade, has clearly been positioned as the go-to scoring option for the new-look Kings. Up front, there's less clarity. Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein make for a serviceable tandem at center and Skal Labissiere showed flashes last year and will have Randolph to spell him in the likely event that he isn't ready for a steady starting role. At small forward, however, Malachi Richardson probably wouldn't be playing on most NBA teams, but looks like a starter here.
3 San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray
It wasn't until May 22 that the San Antonio Spurs were ultimately eliminated from the 2017 playoffs following a four-game sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. However, it was nearly three weeks earlier when things truly took a turn for the 61-win Spurs. On May 3, in Game 2 of their six-game second round series win over the Houston Rockets, star point guard Tony Parker crumbled to the court after taking a shot and needed to be carried off by teammates with what was later diagnosed as a ruptured left quadriceps tendon. Not only did Parker miss the remainder of the postseason, but now he isn't expected back in the lineup before January.
Suddenly, a lot of pressure rest squarely on the shoulders of 20-year-old Dejounte Murray. The second-year point guard out of Washington looks poised to fill Parker's starting role after averaging just 8.5 minutes of floor time per game in his rookie campaign. Murray immediately takes the helm of a veteran-laden team coached by the demanding Gregg Popovich and shouldering the expectations that come with 20 straight playoff trips and three 60-win seasons in their past four. He will have help in the form of the newly re-signed Patty Mills, but San Antonio still needs Murray to thrive under pressure.
2 Toronto Raptors: Jonas Valanciunas
It seems appropriate that the Toronto Raptors are the only NBA organization that Jonas Valanciunas has ever known considering that, in the modern pro game, he is something of a dinosaur. Now, that is probably an overly harsh assessment of a player who has averaged x points and y rebounds per game as a starter for a perennial playoff team over the past four seasons. But the ceiling for what the Kyle Lowry - and DeMar DeRozan - led Raptors can accomplish appears limited to a playoff round or two, and at least some of the blame has to be shouldered by their use of a centre without much shooting range or mobility.
Gone are the days when Raptors brass couldn't summon enough faith in the big Lithuanian to even play him in the fourth quarter of close games. However, that's not to say that Valanciunas is necessarily an asset down the stretch. He has proven to be a liability in season-ending playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers in each of the past two seasons, not offering enough on defense to compensate for being a minus offensively. There were whispers of Valanciunas being on the trade market this summer, but he survived a mini purge that saw DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and PJ Tucker all change addresses. The seven footer has never been more important to Toronto, which is a little scary if you're a Raptor fan.
1 Utah Jazz: Joe Ingles
This one will surely get some of the Utah faithful riled up. After all, Joe Ingles is something of a cult hero among Jazz fans for an endearing personality and for emerging as a key contributor despite looking less like an NBA superstar and more like a - pardon the pun - regular 'Joe'. In spite of his popularity, however, Ingles remains a role player who will be 30 before the season tips off and still has not averaged more than last year's 7.1 points per game. His modest contributions have been perfectly acceptable while serving as something of an unassuming glue guy, letting stars Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert get both the attention and the stats. This season, however, he may not have the luxury of being quite so unassuming.
Two things changed for Ingles this summer. Firstly, he benefited from a rising cap and a timely free agency, signing a four-year, $52 million deal with Utah. In doing so, he jumped from the club's 10th highest paid player to its third. More significantly, his teammate and fellow free agent small forward Hayward bolted for the greener pastures of Boston, leaving a gaping hole at the three for Utah. The depth of the Jazz affords them a few potential in-house solutions, including Joe Johnson, Rodney Hood and Thabo Sefolosha, but Ingles stands as the odds-on favorite to land the starting job. Full credit to a guy who probably never thought he'd be starting for an NBA playoff contender, but replacing the club's leading scorer brings far different responsibility than providing some respectable minutes on the second unit.
Depth was a questionable area for the Washington Wizards last season, as John Wall and Bradley Beal were clogging up a significant chunk of the team's cap space. Now that the Wiz were forced into matching a financially-crippling offer sheet that the Brooklyn Nets extended to Otto Porter, that questionable area is a full-blown weakness in the nation's capital. Washington will have about $66 million committed to the costly trio of Wall, Beal and Porter this season, a number that will soar north of $90 million in two years when Wall's contract extension kicks in.
Those eye-popping numbers left long-time Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld with precious little wiggle room to add to a roster nipping at the heels of the Cavs and Celtics in the East. He did well to add Jodie Meeks, Mike Scott and Tim Frazier to complement Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith on the reserve unit, but will need some strides from Kelly Oubre Jr., whom the club will be forced to lean on heavily, and Tomas Satoransky to come close to matching the depth of other Eastern Conference rivals. No one wants to lose a blossoming 24-year-old scorer for nothing, but time will tell whether the Wiz would have been better off letting Porter walk.
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