2019-20 Previews: Portland Trail Blazers

Losses: Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Mo Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Jake Layman, Enes Kanter.

Additions: Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver, Nassir Little.

Likely Starters
Guard: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum
Wing: Kent Bazemore
Big: Zach Collins, Hassan Whiteside

Predicted Record: 49–33 | 9th in NBA | 6th in West

What is the power of institutional consistency? What, tangibly, do we gain through the simple fact of keeping some baseline level of ourselves the same?

When you look at this Trail Blazers roster, you see Dame and C.J., and your first thought is that this is a team that has decided to stick with the status quo. You look closer, and it is clear this isn’t the case. Of the ten players with the most minutes played for this team last season, only four are currently on the roster, and one of those players—Jusuf Nurkić—is currently injured.

So, the question here, really, is to what degree Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum count as institutional consistency at this point. The Blazers have been made it a commonplace in recent years to blow past pre-season expectations. Something here has been underrated. Has it been Dame and C.J. all along? Or, more troublingly, were players like Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless playing with a kind of hidden usefulness that we’ve been taking for granted all this time?

The obvious shift, roster wise, is that the Blazers went from being a team loaded with combo forwards (Aminu, Harkless, Layman) to a team with, at first blush, none of those guys. Kent Bazemore is game for anything, but he’s not big enough to do the versatile defensive work and rebounding Aminu and Harkless did for these guys. Rodney Hood is wonderful offensively, but he’s not helping you on the other side of the floor. Mario Hezonja has yet to prove he can play meaningful NBA basketball. Nas Little is still so green (though he’s the guy you are looking at here if you are a Blazers optimist).

Maybe it doesn’t matter. The Blazers were third in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency last season. It’s not like Aminu and Harkless were turning them into the 2008 Celtics on D. They were decidedly average. Terry Stotts has proven for years that he can get mediocre defenders to play enough defense to leverage their offense. Even Enes Kanter looked pretty good in the playoffs last season.

Maybe it doesn’t matter for an even sneakier reason. Maybe the league is getting bigger again. Is it possible that we’re moving back into an era in which the possibility of letting Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins share big minutes isn’t a non-starter? Maybe Collins has enough juice, given his youth and athleticism, that he can chase guys around on defense enough to leverage his size in other ways.

The Blazers, significantly, led the league in rebound percentage last season—it is a huge part of their success. If we assume Bazemore and Collins are replacing Aminu and Harkless in the starting lineup, then the Blazers will be smaller on the wing, but they’ll be bigger in the frontcourt. Can Collins replicate Aminu’s rebounding? Can Bazemore play a little bigger than he has in the past? Where does someone like Anthony Tolliver fit into all of this? Do the Blazers even have a way of going small at this point? Is playing Rodney Hood at the 4 for a few minutes tantamount to forfeiting the game?

The West is a bloodbath. It took 48 wins to get in the playoffs last year, and it’s not hard to argue that 10 of the teams in the conference got significantly better this season (11 if you count the Suns, who at the very least won’t be the same pushovers they were last season). What I’m suggesting is that you can think that the Blazers are likely to approach 50 wins again AND not be convinced that they are a lock to make the playoffs.

And if the institution of Dame and C.J. finally isn’t enough this season—if we are surprised to discover that Aminu and Harkless were more essential than we’d previously imagined—the Blazers will finally have to acquiesce to the conventional wisdom that has dogged them over the past seasons of this iteration of the franchise. They’ll have to take a hard look at whether Dame and C.J. is a viable combination, a meaningful allocation of resources, whatever you want to call it. If February rolls around and this team is on the ropes, seismic shifts could be coming. I can’t wait to see how they respond.

2019-20 Previews: Los Angeles Lakers

Losses: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Mike Muscala, Lance Stephenson, Reggie Bullock, Moritz Wagner, Josh Hart, Tyson Chandler, Isaac Bonga.

Additions: Anthony Davis, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso (was on a two-way contract with the Lakers last season), Jared Dudley, Dwight “Farts” Howard, Troy Daniels, Talen Horton-Tucker.

Likely Starters
Guard: N/A
Wing: LeBron James, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma
Big: Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard (unless Boogie somehow recovers this season)

Predicted Record: 48–34 | 10th in NBA | 7th in West

It isn’t easy for me to write about the Lakers. I’ve hated them all my life, and root against them with a kind of automatic fervor that feels woven into my DNA. On the other hand, I know the Lakers. The abiding attention of my hatred means I’m a keen observer. I’m familiar with the history, the long and historic run of excellence and the recent nonsense and idiocy.

As such, I’m always a little worried about the Lakers. People make fun of the idea of Lakers Exceptionalism, especially given the bumbling incompetence of entire period since they won their last title in 2010, but it’s also true. LeBron and AD are here now. The Lakers ultimately get whatever they want.

And yet more and more, as the league around them gets smarter, the mistakes the Lakers make around the edges loom larger. Consider the final years of Kobe Bryant in L.A. (a scorched-Earth disaster of wasted talent and resources) as opposed to the final years of Dirk in Dallas (it’s fine). Consider the Lakers in the context of other teams that acquired star pairings this summer. The Clippers and the Nets built actual teams around their guys; they have the flexibility to change things if they need to. The Lakers are locked in to this mess no matter what, and they are heavily relying on Dwight Howard.

Nevertheless, the Lakers got LeBron and AD, and in terms of playing basketball, it’s hard to imagine a better combination of two players. For all the problems on this Lakers roster—and wow are there lots of those—there’s a feasible way of getting to a crunchtime group of LeBron and AD surrounded by shooters that should be devastating offensively.

I used the word feasible in the previous paragraph, however, because a lineup like that isn’t inevitable. It remains to be seen what kind of team this is. Anthony Davis seems to not want to play center, which means the team has devoted all kinds of resources to DeMarcus Cousins (injured again) and Dwight Howard (Dwight Howard). The lineups they’re going to default to make no sense. Look at that starting lineup at the top of this page. Do you notice that there aren’t any guards there? I know positions are over, but who is handling the ball besides LeBron? If your answer to that question is Rajon Rondo, I have to ask whether you’ve just arrived here in a time machine from seven years ago.

It seems to me that in order to imagine this Lakers team winning 50 games (meaning: they are a write-it-in-pen playoff team in the West), you’ve got to take a lot on faith. First on that list is health for LeBron and AD, who played 55 and 56 games last season respectively. Didn’t we all head into last season imagining that there was no way LeBron would miss the playoffs? Are we so sure that Anthony Davis can keep this terrible roster afloat if LeBron misses time? What about vice versa?

The honest truth is that I have the Lakers as a playoff team right now because I can’t trust my own schadenfreude over how shitty this roster is. I keep looking at it, and it keeps looking bad. I can’t really understand how this team is going to regularly do important things—like play defense, for example—in the regular season. I don’t trust their coaches, their management, their sense of themselves. The only thing here that I trust is LeBron James, so I’m picking them to make the playoffs, but I’m telling you right now that my brain is screaming this team is going to miss the playoffs. It’s confusing, I know.

2019-20 Previews: Toronto Raptors

Losses: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Jeremy Lin.

Additions: Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Cam Payne, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher, Malcolm Miller, Devin Robinson, Oshae Brissett, Dewan Hernandez, Sagaba Konate.

Likely Starters
Guard: Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell
Wing: Pascal Siakam
Big: Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol

Predicted Record: 47–35 | 11th in NBA | 4th in East

It’s not easy to articulate what, exactly, makes Kawhi Leonard such a great basketball player. Yes, the evidence is obvious. He’s been the best player on two title teams (aside: if you agree with me that Pau Gasol won the 2010 NBA Finals pretty much by himself, that’s one more than Kobe Bryant). He’s the best defensive player in the league—an impossible combination of strength, speed, and balance. He’s a great shooter, and he’s great at finding buckets in other ways. He’s a good passer—still improving. All of this isn’t it though.

In last season’s playoffs, when Kawhi was at his best, you could feel his teammates feeding off his quiet confidence. He plays with towering grace and endless dignity. I can’t think of another basketball player more purely himself. One finds oneself talking about shit like this when one talks about sports. Ineffable confidence. Unusual combinations of skills that seem poised against one another. Kawhi’s self-possession feels to me—I’m reaching, I know, I know—like a kind of statesmanship.

The Raptors had the man for a year, and look what happened. The best players make the people around them better. Not just the players—the people. Consider Nick Nurse, who now has an unimpeachable resume exactly one season into his NBA head coaching career. Consider how much we talked about Alex McKechnie last season. I don’t mean to take anything away from these people, but you can’t possibly disagree that having Kawhi Leonard roll through your life alters the terms of your existence.

Consider, then, the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors, who will now go on without him. If you take a look at their offseason, the strategy seems to have centered around finding guys who are roughly the same physical size as Kawhi Leonard. They already had OG Anunoby. They added Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The latter, in particular, still has a kind of untapped potential and some of the sneaky bits of verve Kawhi had when he came into the league out of San Diego State. Of course, these dudes are not Kawhi Fucking Leonard. Nevertheless, I find myself admiring the strategy. It’s like finding a cardboard cut-out of a lost loved one. It makes no fucking sense whatsoever, but what are you supposed to do?

What’s left here is a fantastic basketball team, actually. That starting lineup has a nice mix of offense and defense, size and speed, spacing and juice off the bounce. There’s not going to be a lot of cheap wins against the Raptors. They’re going to make you work, and outsmart you, and beat you most nights. They’re deep and tough. One of these peripheral players makes a leap this season, and the Raptors are going to be a huge pain in the ass for some team with high expectations in the playoffs (I’m looking at you, Philly and Milwaukee).

Here in the present though, things remain a little unclear. What are the right metaphors for what happened last year? Was Kawhi like a dying star, leaving a black hole in the space where he once was here, doing his thing? Was Kawhi a comet we saw one crisp, dark night, inspiring us and leaving traces of that inspiration behind him in the form of ever slowly fading memory? Was he a dream? A mirage? Every season, every team must turn the page, so to speak, but the 2019-20 Raptors face an endlessly interesting challenge. How do we get over a momentary dalliance with fleeting perfection? A false question, I know. There’s no getting over, there’s just going on.

2019-20 Previews: Brooklyn Nets

Losses: Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, D’Angelo Russell, Ed Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Shabazz Napier, Traveon Graham.

Additions: Kevin Durant (but not until next season?), Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Garrett Temple, Taurean Prince, David Nwaba, Wilson Chandler, Nicolas Claxton, Deng Adel.

Likely Starters
Guard: Kyrie Irving 
Wing: Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs
Big: DeAndre Jordan (but it really, really, deeply should be Jarrett Allen)

Predicted Record: 45–37 | 12th in NBA | 5th in East

The 2019-20 Nets are playing in a kind of meaningless void this season while they wait for Kevin Durant to recover from an Achilles tear. It’s a shame, because this team has a lot of interesting players—many of them young and improving. For now, the central force here will be Kyrie Irving, a person for whom the term “enigmatic” probably is too kind. Kyrie will spend the year being good, sitting out a lot with assorted injuries, and delivering quotes that, if you take the time to suss them out, always will linger in the hazy blur between accountability and humility, never quite reaching either.

The Nets over the past few seasons, out of absolute necessity, tore their roster down to the studs. When they got there, they discovered something valuable: you can find good basketball players in surprising ways. They drafted and developed well, scouted the shit out of Europe, and took advantage of second draft talent like D’Angelo Russell. By 2018-19, they had a feel-good roster powered by good vibes, at least, if the talent was a little limited.

To say they pivoted this offseason is truly an understatement, but if I might immediately jump to playing my own devil’s advocate, isn’t it possible that Kyrie Irving is the perfect leader for a team playing through a lost season of existentially meaningless waiting? His style-over-substance predilections on the court—and I say this as a lifelong Celtics fan aware of all the trappings of that fact—will be delightful in a way, no? And then, when Durant returns, who better than Kyrie to bust out some sick solos off to the side while Durant goes about the deeply serious business of being truly great?

The most important moment of Kyrie Irving’s career—the shot to win the title down the stretch in game 7 against the Warriors in 2016—was exactly that sort of searing solo. The man has no fear because he has no awareness. He’s kind of on his own out there. If you haven’t had the experience of living and dying with Kyrie Irving, you can’t exactly know what I mean. When he’s at his best, when he’s really on one, his teammates and opponents and coaches are gone, and the crowd loves him, but the crowd isn’t really there either. He’s Harden without the ruthless efficiency. He’s Westbrook without the explosive competitiveness. He’s a frustrating tennis player who didn’t exactly have the career we thought he might have, he just happens to be playing basketball.

And what’s a little bit of a bummer here is that the team around him is cool. Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs, and Jarrett Allen could have absolutely been the starting five of a playoff team in the East in 2019-20. I’ve got the Nets at 45 wins this season, and sitting here thinking about it right now, if you vanished Kyrie Irving from the face of the Earth tonight and left me with no memory of him and made me rewrite this preview tomorrow, I think I might change it to, like, 44? 46?

So, in the end, I don’t really know what to tell you about the Nets. I wish things were different, and when it’s time to think about the 2020-21 Nets, I’ll be ready to do that.

2019-20 Previews: Indiana Pacers

Losses: Tyreke Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Kyle O’Quinn, Wesley Matthews.

Additions: Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday, T.J. McConnell, JaKarr Sampson, Goga Bitadze.

Likely Starters
Guard: Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb (until Victor Oladipo is healthy)
Wing: Justin Holiday (or T.J. Warren)
Big: Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner

Predicted Record: 45–37 | 13th in NBA | 6th in East

It takes a minute to notice it, but this team is deeply altered from the version that won 48 games last season behind the third best defense in the league. Evans, Bogdanovic, Collison, Joseph, O’Quinn, Matthews: these guys all logged heavy minutes last season, and they are all gone.

It takes a minute to notice because the players at the team-building center of this operation are Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis. They’re all still around, though Oladipo likely will miss most of the first half of this season after missing the second half of the last one.

Oladipo, to be clear, is a superstar. At least, he was. It’s hard to say what he’ll look like when he returns from this injury. His 2017-18 season—at age 25—was a swaggering masterpiece. It was the best possible version of a player putting everything together. He became a profound and exciting force on both sides of the ball, shooting the hell out it from all over the court, leading the league in steals, and playing with the kind of sustained ferocity only the greats ever manage to figure out how to harness.

That Oladipo—and let me say here that I will be devastated if we don’t see that Oladipo again—could be the best player on a title team someday. Building around even an injured Oladipo is a better option than most teams have at any given moment in league history. I’m glad the Pacers are sticking to the plan.

This summer, that plan involved replacing a bunch of veterans who had been on expiring contracts with younger players at the start of multi-year deals. The Pacers agreed to multiple guaranteed years—at varying amounts and through various types of transactions—with T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, Edmond Sumner, and T.J. McConnell. If you match that group up with the guys they lost, you’ll find a team that got a little smaller, a little more creative offensively.

Still, this team is going to have to find a way to keep kicking ass on defense, especially until Oladipo returns, if they plan on coming anywhere near the top of the East’s playoff picture. In order to do that, they need to figure out an answer to the most important team building question facing them: can Sabonis and Turner coexist?

Sabonis and Turner shared the court for just 429 minutes last season over 64 games. Those numbers suggest Nate McMillan prefers to keep his two bigs separate. Turner last season evolved into a top-level defensive center, a shot-blocking force who is improving at reading the floor and snuffing out actions all over the place. He’s got potential as a shooter, but that side of the floor isn’t his strength. Sabonis is a fucking monster offensively. The dude just eats glass and finds buckets, and he’s a canny screener and an excellent passer. He plays hard on the other end, but he’s a step slow; defense isn’t his strength. Neither guy is suited to playing forward, ultimately. Neither should be chasing anybody around.

This season, either something in that last paragraph changes in order to make the duo tenable for more minutes, or the Pacers brass is going to have to decide to deal one of those guys. They were both 22 last season; there’s reason to believe adaptation is possible. Nevertheless, you do start to feel like a trade might be the most likely outcome.

Any good basketball team at some point has to figure out which five guys should be on the floor when shit really gets intense. Which five guys are you going to be comfortable playing together down the stretch when things aren’t going well and the game is in the balance. It’s hard to imagine the answer for this team includes both Turner and Sabonis together, but maybe that’s the mirage of the contemporary moment. Throughout basketball history, you’d have loved to have two bigs like these guys. The Pacers are at any interesting crossroads. Should they try to build themselves in the image of the league of the moment, or should they lean into the talent they have on board? Maybe the answer is to play Turner and Sabonis together a lot. Maybe they can overwhelm teams with size.

Heading into the 2019-20 NBA season, I keep finding myself wondering if we’re in the midst of a new moment. The Warriors don’t have Kevin Durant anymore. The nightmare mismatches of today are ever so slightly different than those of previous seasons. When it comes down to it, I’m hoping the Pacers go big. They’ve already got a star. They’re loaded in the backcourt. They should be iconoclasts. Rather than building in the image of the league, I hope they stomp that image. I hope they dwarf it with the shadows of very tall men.

2019-20 Previews: Miami Heat

Losses: Hassan Whiteside, Ryan Anderson, Josh Richardson, Dwyane Wade.

Additions: Jimmy Butler, Meyers Leonard, Tyler Herro, KZ Okpala, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn.

Likely Starters
Guard: Goran Dragic
Wing: Jimmy Butler, Justise Winslow (James Johnson instead of Olynyk?)
Big: Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo

Predicted Record: 43–39 | 14th in NBA | 7th in East

You’ve got to decide how you feel about Jimmy Butler. That’s the first thing. It isn’t simple. For example, did you know that Jimmy Butler is eighth among active players in career win shares/48 minutes? He dwarfs guys like Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook. He trails only obvious hall of fame legends (and Anthony Davis, which, I mean, I don’t know). Is Jimmy Butler that great? If he is, then he’s a clear top-10 player smack in the middle of his basketball prime, and Miami is going to be dangerous this season.

On the other hand, is Jimmy Butler that great? Why haven’t his teams been all that good? By the time Jimmy Butler was making all-star teams, the Bulls were well on their way to mediocrity. Jimmy’s tenure on the Timberwolves was a disaster, and it isn’t like that team was devoid of talent. He grates on people. Is he selfish? What does selfish mean? How much does personality matter? How much does fearlessness matter? How the hell are we supposed to answer these questions.

One thing that continually surprises me is that Jimmy isn’t ever exactly the player I expect him to be. He presents himself as a winner in the idiotic, toxic, Kobe Bryant mold. Winning = pain tolerance. Winning = not being afraid. Winning means you get all the glory. Losing is because these young guys, they don’t get it. Then you watch Jimmy play, and he’s unselfish, and he’s playing defense on every damn possession, and he’s doing the little stuff. And then, when everyone actually is scared, and that toxic shit comes in handy, he’s got that too.

This summer, given the multitude of options in front of Jimmy Butler, it felt a little silly when he went to the Heat. The roster is capped-out and depleted. There’s no hope of championship contention here. The narrative was: Jimmy wants to be The Man. Why not go to the Rockets? Why not go back to Philly?

Did you know Jimmy Butler has only played eight seasons? Isn’t that crazy? He was in the same draft as Kyrie, Kawhi, and Kemba. He was in the same draft as Tobias Harris. Jimmy Butler seems ancient compared to those dudes. I think Jimmy still sees himself as up-and-coming. I think he wants as much on his back as he can get.

More than that, I think he wants to be serious. He wants to go play for Riley and Spo. He wants to be in a place where they freak out about whether you are in shape, where they buy in to every stupid cliché of what it takes to win. I think that nonsense is like a religion to Jimmy Butler, and even though I think it’s nonsense, I also get it. Go back and watch that game seven against the Raptors last year. They lost, but that game was pure Jimmy Butler. You know what his stat-line was? 16 points. 5-for-14. He was there at the end, winning the game. It took a miracle shot by a champion to beat him.

It would take a lot of luck for Miami to be good this season. They have, by my count, eight for-sure NBA players, and one of those guys is Dion Waiters. Whether or not Goran Dragic is washed is, at this point, anyone’s guess. They are going to be tough though. It’s going to suck playing against the Miami Heat. They’re big and strong and they all play hard, and they have a good coach, and they’re not going to help you beat them. If they stay healthy, they’re way too low on my list.

Ultimately, if I’m being honest, I don’t believe in Jimmy Butler. I hate his brand of macho bullshit. There’s something about his game that strikes me as smoke-and-mirrors. Is Jimmy Butler that great? Let’s see.

2019-20 Previews: San Antonio Spurs

Losses: Davis Bertans, Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter.

Additions: Trey Lyles, DeMarre Carroll, Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson.

Likely Starters
Guard: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White
Wing: DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay
Big: LaMarcus Aldridge

Predicted Record: 42–40 | 15th in NBA | 8th in West

There are 30 teams in the NBA, so if your team has a couple of the 45 or so best players in the world, you should probably be in pretty good shape. The Spurs have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, and while neither of these players gets me feeling any sort of religious basketball enthusiasm, each is capable of doing the yeoman’s work of grinding out buckets with slightly above-average efficiency. Aldridge, in particular, remains useful all over the floor; he’s huge and mobile on defense, and can absolutely be the hub of a functioning offense, too. With DeRozan and Aldridge, a basketball team shouldn’t be terrible.

Should it be good though? Probably not, right? Neither player generates easy points. They score, but not really in a way that makes things easier for their teammates. They play hard, but not in a way that lifts the spirits of the players around them. I know I’m being a little too nebulous here, but I can’t think of two players who are more ho-hum in their greatness. And really, greatness is the wrong word. I think I mean: very good-ness.

Last season, DeRozan and Aldridge shared the court for 2242 minutes, and the Spurs outscored their opponents by 0.5 points per 100 possessions. For the whole season, the team was +1.6. Basically, the Spurs were better during all the other times. Of course, these numbers are notoriously noisy, but what’s interesting is that the Spurs bench is actually fun. Or, not fun exactly, but it’s at least a little more aesthetically pleasing. You’ve got Patty Mills flying around and making plays. You’ve got more ball-movement, more creativity on both sides of the ball. DeRozan and Aldridge are a functional basketball machine that almost never breaks, but is also never churns out anything special. Just buckets at a rate slightly higher than average. The rest of the Spurs were capable of weirdness, and weirdness just might be the key to winning.

A few years ago, when the Rockets initially acquired Chris Paul, Daryl Morey talked about risk-profile. Given the fact that he had James Harden in his absolute prime, Morey understood that he needed to take some risks. Those risks might not work, but if they did, he’d have a championship contender. If the risks didn’t work, well, they wouldn’t have had even a chance of winning without them.

Our ideas about basketball, of course, are shaped around championships, but the truth is that no one wins championships. Championships are incredibly rare. When a team wins, we try to take apart the black box and do some reverse engineering, but this isn’t science. There are no repeatable experiments. Basketball is about magical synergies between groups of people. We can understand some of it through careful inquiry, and I love that inquiry with all that I am, but we can’t really understand it’s mystical heart that way.

Each year, a team becomes more than it should be on the way to winning the whole thing. In almost every case, it could have been otherwise, but wasn’t. Kawhi’s shot in round two takes one odd bounce the wrong way, and all the narratives are gone. What wins championships? What thing can you point to that can’t immediately be refuted? What NBA title, when you really start looking at it, isn’t the exception that proves the rule?

The Spurs won five of those titles over the past 20 years. Those teams all centered around Tim Duncan, one of the greatest players of all time. Why was he so great? Besides the ineffable skill known as “team defense” was there a single thing Duncan was the best at? He was incredibly great at so much, but really his best skill was that he was a deeply committed teammate. His game was perfectly calibrated to make the game easier for everyone on his side. Magic swirled around him. Think of all those incredible moments. The night Steve Kerr made all those 3s in 2003. The “Spursgasm” years of the early 2010s. Every single thing Manu Ginobili ever did in the NBA. Duncan connected all of these things.

Before he retired, I found myself wondering whether Duncan’s final act of greatness would be that the Spurs would just keep on being excellent after he left, and sure enough their downfall keeps being wrongly predicted. No longer are they running off 50 wins every year, but each year, sure enough, they’re a little better than they’re supposed to be. The reasons are mysterious, but I believe it is about the magic along the fringes, and the things you can’t understand without being out there, playing. Even then, who knows.

For this season, I’m excited to see what Dejounte Murray and Trey Lyles can make happen. They are the site of any potential upside this team holds; no doubt they will surprise us with their unexpected grace. The Spurs, most likely, for reasons I no longer can claim to understand, will continue being the Spurs.

2019-20 Previews: Dallas Mavericks

Losses: Dirk. Dirk. Dirk. Dirk. Trey Burke, Devin Harris, Salah Mejri. Dirk.

Additions: I’m putting Kristaps Porzingis here because he didn’t play last year. Seth Curry, Boban Marjanovic, Isaiah Roby.

Likely Starters
Guard: Luka Dončić (guard in spirit, wing on defense), Delon Wright
Wing: Tim Hardaway Jr., (Dorian Finney-Smith and Justin Jackson will get time at 3 & 4)
Big: Kristaps Porzingis, Dwight Powell (I tend to think Maxi Kleber ends up here sooner rather than later).

Predicted Record: 41–41 | 16th in NBA | 9th in West

Last summer, the Mavs swung a bold draft-day trade to get Luka Dončić. It altered the franchise entirely. There aren’t five young players in the league you’d rather build a team around. It is the kind of basketball transaction that feels historic in the moment it happens.

Then the season started, and Luka was everything everyone hoped and more, a lock to win Rookie of the Year from day one, an obvious franchise talent. The Mavs decided to go all-in at the February trade deadline, giving up a ton of future equity in various forms to acquire Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks. The Mavs, understandably, decided to pick up someone with star potential while they could, and I suppose it goes without saying that waiting always carries a level of risk too. Still, I can’t help but feel that the Mavs cut off a promising rebuild before it could really get started.

Porzingis, for all his talent, has limitations. His rebounding and passing seemed in many ways to regress during the three NBA seasons in which he actually managed to play, and while he’s clearly a great talent on both ends of the floor, it remains to be seen what his game looks like on a functional team that is actually trying to win basketball games.

Beyond Porzingis, the Mavs gave long-term guaranteed money this offseason to Delon Wright, Seth Curry, Dwight Powell, and Maxi Kleber. Your mileage on these guys may vary. I actually like all four as rotation pieces, but I’m not sure what happens if they are your third, fourth, fifth, and sixth best players.

With Luka already in the fold, the Mavs had a lot of options with regard to team building, but most of them required patience, waiting for bad contracts to come off the books, developing young talent. To be sure, the guys the Mavs acquired are still young, and some are good bets to improve, but they are now relatively locked in to a core that already, to me, feels a little disappointing.

As a basketball fan, you can wait your whole life for your team to get a guy like Dončić. More and more, I find myself wanting the teams I root for to take it slow, to be deliberate, to build in a sustainable way that allows them to be good for a long time as opposed to great for some short blip. Both the Lakers and the Spurs won five titles over the past 20 years, but I’d have rather been a Spurs fan than a Lakers fan, rooting for a good team every year, always relevant, always with an outside shot at being special.

Following the Mavs this summer, my takeaway is that they pushed all-in with a decent hand, but not a great one. It might work out, but it probably won’t, and on the downside there’s a reality in which we won’t get the best possible version of the career of Luka Dončić. Ultimately, what I want as a basketball fan is to see the best players reach the limits of their potential. Some players, like LeBron James, get there no matter what, but most need a little luck and a little help from their franchise. I feel less optimistic about Luka’s future than I did before the Mavs traded for Porzingis. Maybe I’ll be wrong, but I doubt it.

2019-20 Previews: Sacramento Kings

Losses: Alec Burks, Kosta Koufos, Willie Cauley-Stein, Corey Brewer, Frank Mason III.

Additions: Dewayne Dedmon, Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph, Richaun Holmes, Tyler Lydon, Justin James.

Likely Starters
Guard: De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield
Wing: Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley (Ariza?)
Big: Dewayne Dedmon 

Predicted Record: 41–41 | 17th in NBA | 10th in West

As I sat down to write this (and, actually, that’s a dumb conceit; I was already sitting and then decided to continue sitting and start writing this), I began thinking about how beholden I am to my own terrible opinions.

See, back in 2016, I had such a strong reaction to Buddy Hield’s rising draft stock that I did a bunch of research about college senior guards and wrote this column for Celtics Hub. The main point was that we tend to overvalue college seniors—guards, specifically—because we don’t take the time to compare them to other college seniors (as opposed to younger players with more “upside”). In some ways, I was right: I’d still rather have, for example, Jamal Murray or Jaylen Brown (the guy the C’s drafted) than Buddy Hield. I probably went too far when I said, in the comments, that I’d rather have Henry Ellenson or Deyonta Davis.

Buddy Hield, it turns out, is kinda great. He’s a tremendous shooter, and he’s a sneaky rebounder for a guard. He’s also a bad defender (even though he plays hard), and he’s not a good passer, either. Still, you’d be psyched to have Hield on your roster, right?

Actually, the truth is that I’m not sure. Somehow, we’ve reached a point in NBA analysis during which shooting is both overvalued and undervalued. Teams are so desperate for shooting that the Suns wasted a lottery pick (let’s not even get into the fact that they traded down from sixth to 11th) on Cameron Johnson, who is 23 and doesn’t seem to do much beyond shooting. Does shooting solve everything? Can players stay on the court if all they do is shoot? On Buddy Hield’s own team, the best player is De’Aaron Fox, a player who was drafted fifth overall even though he’s currently a better and more valuable player than anyone else in his draft class. This happened because he struggled as a shooter, and it happened even though we already knew De’Aaron Fox was a fantastic basketball player.

Shooting, obviously, is essential to any basketball team’s offensive ecosystem, and offense impacts defense, so, like, shooting: it’s important. Teams forget that shooting doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though. Would you want your team to sign a rebounder who can’t guard centers? Is it worth having a switchy wing defender who can’t attack a closeout? Skills are important in their capacity to be useful on an actual basketball court. If Steph Curry couldn’t dribble and pass the way he does, would it matter that he’s the greatest shooter of all time? What if that’s Buddy Hield? What do those 20 points per game cost you?

The Kings—and, if you’ve been wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about them: here we go—have a really talented roster. Fox and Hield are, really, a wonderful fit in the backcourt. Bagley and Harry Giles have loads of talent and potential up front. Trevor Ariza is still a useful defender and shooter. Harrison Barnes is grimly competent all over the place on both ends of the floor, I guess. Dewayne Dedmon: a deeply useful big man who can shoot and guard the paint and run around a little. Bogdan Bogdanovic is pretty awesome. There are the ingredients here for a good basketball team with Fox as the churning, beating heart of the whole operation.

On the other hand, looking at this roster one begins to get the sense that it is being held back by some of its best players. Harrison Barnes is a solid scorer who can credibly guard multiple positions, but is his presence on this team just going to mean less playing time for Bagley and Giles? Oh, and Barnes is a bad passer; is it a bad idea for him and Hield to share the floor a lot? Hield is great at shooting, but Bogdanovic is more well-rounded offensively, better at passing, dribbling, creating decent looks. Can Bagley protect the rim, or does he need to be paired with Dedmon? The questions are endless.

It’s possible the answers to them will all be something like, “Hell yes, this works.” The Kings are so young and so talented that it’s possible they’ll blow the doors off any and all projections. On the other hand, my read on this team is that there’s something messed up in the foundation. The architects were idealistic, but the plan is a little shoddy. It’s exciting, and I hope it works, but it might not work.


Isn’t this kinda great though? Isn’t this what we really want? To have all the ingredients here, ready to go, ready to be incited to genius by some cosmic combination of heat and light? Melville wrote, “God keep me from ever completing anything.” He knew. Once something is what it is, the good part is over. One critic draws blood and the rest of them start circling. They tear you to pieces. There’s no joy in the final success of the grand design, only in the design itself. The 2019-20 Sacramento Kings: here we go.