2019-20 Previews: Utah Jazz

Losses: Ricky Rubio, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh, Raul Neto, Grayson Allen.

Additions: Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Nigel Williams-Goss, Miye Oni.

Likely Starters
Guard: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell
Wing: Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic
Big: Rudy Gobert

Predicted Record: 55–27 | 4th in NBA | 3rd in West

Today is Mike Conley’s 32nd birthday. He’s had a really interesting career. He arrived in our basketball consciousness as Greg Oden’s Friend, accompanying the big guy the Ohio State. That year, as a freshman point guard who couldn’t really shoot from outside, Conley was the guiding principle that carried Ohio State to the championship game (they lost to the Joakim Noah/Al Horford Florida Gators).

Memphis drafted Conley 4th overall, and there were a few years during which that pick felt like a reach. He slowly improved, and in 2010—coming off a season in which he averaged 12 points and five assists per game with a PER below the league average—the Grizzlies extended him to an extension worth $45 million over five years. He slowly improved. Get used to reading that sentence. He slowly improved. He slowly improved.

It’s hard to imagine this now, but people questioned that contract. It seemed like a lot to give a mediocre point guard. It ended up being the central force in the last decade of the Grizzlies’ franchise. With Conley locked in at a bargain rate (he slowly improved), it was possible to maintain a good core around him. Even better, he slowly improved, and as he did, so did Marc Gasol, and the two of them turned into a ferocious, severely competent pair on both ends of the floor.

Eventually, a couple years ago, Gasol started looking old. The end of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies loomed. You can guess what happened with Mike Conley: he slowly improved. Last season, lugging around a garbage roster, Conley—at age 31—implausibly averaged a career high in points and field goal attempts. He did what he could to try keeping a sinking ship afloat. And now, for the first time in his NBA career, Mike Conley’s on a different team.

Conley’s whole game just begs to be underrated. He’s a pure point guard in the classic sense—a game-manager who is willing to be a killer when things get desperate. He knows where his guys want the ball; he knows how to get it to them. He’s rock-solid on defense. One thing I love about Conley is that early in his career he always hovered around the league-lead in steals, and then suddenly, right around the middle of his career, his steal-rate plummeted. My theory is that he realized something like: steals are risky, and I’ve got Tony Allen with me and Marc Gasol behind me—let’s just grind the other team until they fuck up.

Famously, Conley has never been an All-Star. He’s played in the West during the dominance of the West—during the era of Paul and Westbrook and Harden and Curry and Lillard and on and on. When someone becomes great slowly, you barely notice it. It’s like the fable of the boiling frog. Conley, today, on his 32nd birthday, might still be improving, because that’s what Mike Conley does. Again and again, he gets better. Who is a better basketball player: Mike Conley or Kyrie Irving? Mike Conley or Russell Westbrook? Who would you rather have on your team? Who is more likely to help you win?

This Utah Jazz team presents a new situation. The starting lineup heading into this season has a kind of offensive potential that goes beyond anything Conley has ever played with before. Rudy Gobert will be rumbling down the middle, Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic will be spreading the floor and bullying switches, and Donovan Mitchell is a downright fireball. Conley’s a chameleon, and I’ve never seen him in this environment. In what glorious complexion will he dress himself?

This team is deep, and beyond the 1-5 combination of Conley and Gobert, everybody is multi-positional and versatile. This roster has an answer for everything. There’s a reason the sportsbooks currently have them right around the top of the West. Gobert and Mitchell are the eye-catching stars here, just as Greg Oden was the star on that Ohio State team back in 2007. Nevertheless, we know who is driving the car. It’s Conley, incrementally approaching his destination, a little better all the time, doing what he does.

2019-20 Previews: Philadelphia 76ers

Losses: Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick, Boban Marjanovic, Jonathon Simmons, James Ennis, T.J. McConnell, Amir Johnson.

Additions: Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Trey Burke, Kyle O’Quinn, Raul Neto, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle.

Likely Starters
Guard: Ben Simmons
Wing: Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris
Big: Al Horford, Joel Embiid 

Predicted Record: 51–32 | 5th in NBA | 2nd in East

Let’s start with the obvious: this team is going to be a pain in the ass to play against. They are gigantic, athletic, and skilled. Everyone in their starting lineup except for Tobias Harris is an absolute monster on defense. They’re full of guys who can play bully ball. They are going to get every rebound, clog up the whole court, slow things down, and make life hell.

Everything in that previous paragraph is good for the 76ers. That shit makes them title contenders—no way around it.

If you’re feeling a big ol’ but coming on, you’re right. Yes, this team was within a sniff of winning the whole thing last year (honestly, if Kawhi missed that shot in game 7, I think that’s where we may have been headed), but that team had Jimmy Butler and that team had J.J. Redick. This team has Al Horford and this team has Josh Richardson, and while I’m not sure how I feel about that as a two-for-two trade, I’m pretty sure that in terms of basketball fit, it is going to be complicated.

When the 2018–19 76ers needed a big bucket, they most often went to Jimmy or let J.J. and Embiid work in the two-man game. Those options are gone now. There isn’t anyone on this roster as adept as Jimmy Butler at scrounging a bucket out of nothing, and there isn’t anyone scary enough as a shooter to make sure Embiid gets clean post-ups. Can Embiid keep his turnover rate low without Redick around, and with a more crowded court around him in general? I’m honestly not sure. His turnover rate skyrocketed in the playoffs last season, which feels like an ominous sign.

Ultimately, the Eastern Conference is so bad that this team might be able to bulldoze its way to The Finals regardless. Still, there is a reckoning coming, because it feels inevitable that at some point the fact that Embiid and Ben Simmons are a bad fit is going to be impossible to ignore. Simmons needs to be able to push the pace with the floor spread around him. He’s at his best in the open floor. Embiid is at his best grinding out possessions, making the opponent deal with him each and every time down the floor; he might not have the stamina at this point to play the way Simmons needs to play. And Embiid is the star here. He’s the unprecedented, gravitational force. He’s the one you build around.

I love what Ben Simmons could be, but it’s hard to imagine him getting there as the giant point guard in a lineup filled with mediocre shooters and slow-footed behemoths. Without question, Brett Brown will be able to find minutes for him in lineups that make sense (a Simmons, Zhaire Smith, Shake Milton, Tobias Harris, Mike Scott lineup would singe some eyeballs for sure), but ultimately, when it is time to shove the chips into the middle, Simmons is likely to be stuck in the dunker spot, frowning.

And if this was a league without a salary cap, I’d be all for keeping Simmons. He’s a tremendous talent, and it would be heartbreaking to draft him and then see him play elsewhere. But in 2020–21, Simmons + Embiid + Horford + Harris = roughly $120m in a league where the cap is projected to be $116. They’ll be approaching the luxury tax just paying their starting five. If your starting five is a great fit that puts you in contention, that’s great. If you have an obvious, glaring problem, you might have to, like, deal with that.

If they ever get around to it, Simmons will have enormous value on the trade market. I know his contract currently makes it tough, since his extension doesn’t kick in until next season. I’m not saying this stuff is currently possible. Still, think about the following pipe dreams. Simmons for Bradley Beal: who says no? Wouldn’t Philly be much better tomorrow if that trade happened today? Would C.J. McCollum, Anfernee Simons, and Zach Collins get it done? Some version of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter, Jr.? Could you get Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam for him and make a run at the title right now?

I’m a Celtics fan. I’m rooting for these guys to mess this up. I’m telling you: I’m praying they hold on to Ben Simmons. I’m terrified of every one of these fake trades. At some point, I think Philly has to pull the trigger. I just hope they wait one more year.

2019-20 Previews: Boston Celtics

Losses: Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier, Guerschon Yabusele.

Additions: Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards.

Likely Starters
Guard: Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart
Wing: Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum (Gordon Hayward?)
Big: Enes Kanter 

Predicted Record: 51–32 | 6th in NBA* | 3rd in East

Love. Who can know its mysterious corridors, its secret, locked rooms, its vaulted chambers full of light and fragrant air? Just when it seems most familiar, it changes again. You’re dreaming of a future with Kyrie Irving and some even better, as-yet-to-be-named superstar, and then one day he feels differently, and then you feel differently, and one dream turns into another. It’s a different future, but it’s in the future, so you don’t have to do anything differently in the present. Or anyway, you can’t. It’s all in your mind. Isn’t that strange?

It has been a weird couple of years for those of us who love the Celtics. We had a glorious future ahead of us, full of possibilities, and over time those possibilities eroded into a clearer present moment. That’s how time works. Every day you live is a day in which you could have done something else and didn’t. You did what you did, and having been done that, the doing becomes a solidified past; and since you are going to die someday, every day the future gets a little smaller, a little more narrowed down.

And so all those possibilities—all those hypothetical trade packages for Anthony Davis, Mike Conley, etc.—have become a core of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward. There are some more future assets—that pending pick from the Memphis Grizzlies still looms large—but fewer than there had been. Any growth that happens is likely going to be internal.

What that means, more than anything, is that this team is going to go as far as Jayson Tatum can take them. That’s a scary thought if you are a C’s fan. Tatum seems to be largely getting a free pass for last season. Specifically, it is alarming that he went from getting to the line with some regularity as a rookie to getting there hardly at all. He didn’t compete; he didn’t improve. Still, you can see the talent. It’s right there, on the surface.

On the other hand, there’s a comfort in knowing what you’ve got. For the first time in a few years, I know what I’m rooting for as a Celtics fan. I’m not focused on trades or on salary cap mechanics. My thoughts are all about basketball.

Last night, the C’s played their first preseason game against the woeful Charlotte Hornets. The C’s eked out a win despite their starters all finishing with negatives in the plus/minus column. Still, I found myself thinking about player development and strategy. Robert Williams was really hitting people as opposed to slipping screens. Jaylen Brown was using his strength to bully his way to the rim and finishing with control when he got there. The C’s struggled when Charlotte blitzed their high pick-and-rolls, and then, especially with Carsen Edwards in the game, they ran some stuff to adjust. In previous years, I might have been thinking: who cares? All of this is moot until we trade for AD. Things are different now. I’m living in the moment with this team.

Of course, it remains to be seen how good they’ll be. The frontcourt defense is a joke. There’s still a logjam at the forward spots, and possibly too many mouths to feed on offense. Jaylen Brown is playing for a new contract, and that’s going to get complicated if he feels marginalized. Nevertheless, I love the C’s, and for the first time in a while, I know who they are. They’re not going to win the championship, but they’re going to play basketball. It’s gonna be great.

*I know the C’s aren’t better than the Warriors or the Rockets, but playing in the East this year is a major boon to a projected win total.

2019-20 Previews: Golden State Warriors

Losses: Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook, Damian Jones, Jonas Jerebko, Jordan Bell, Andrew Bogut.

Additions: D’Angelo Russell, Willie Cauley-Stein, Omari Spellman, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, Andrew Harrison, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall, Alen Smailagic.

Likely Starters
Guard: D'Angelo Russell, Stephen Curry
Wing: Alfonzo McKinnie
Big: Draymond Green, Kevon Looney

Predicted Record: 50–32 | 7th in NBA | 4th in West

This is wildly ungenerous of me, but it is my firm belief that your feelings about the Warriors acquisition of D’Angelo Russell are an accurate stand-in for your attitude about basketball in general. Somehow, even though D’Angelo Russell just last season—at age 22 for crying out loud—made an enormous leap from underachiever to NBA All-Star, the prevailing narrative around him is that he is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, trade fodder, an acquisition of cold calculation.

And yeah, it’s true that he isn’t your traditional high-efficiency scoring guard. He does not get to the line or the rim at all, and survives on a large diet of floaters and runners on which the degree of difficulty is basically off the charts. If you were teaching someone to play efficient basketball 20 years into the 21st century, you wouldn’t show them tape of D’Angelo Russell. I get it.

On the other hand, he carried an offense last season that wasn’t heavy on great scoring options. He had an enormous usage rate and an enormous assist rate. He was absolutely a go-to guy, and his team, while no great shakes, managed to hover around league average, make the playoffs, and keep everybody happy all year. He’s an imaginative and productive passer. He’s a good teammate. He’s about to start this season at age 23. Are we sure he’s a finished product? He’s about to play alongside Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Not sure you know them; they’re quite good. We’re ready to just assume that he’s a bad fit?

I’m going the other way. I think something is about to get unlocked in D’Angelo Russell, a profoundly unique basketball player who has kinda never had a great teammate before.

Okay, here’s something else:

Remember the Finals? They happened a few months ago? Well, in that series, you may recall that Kevin Durant was injured and barely played, and although the Raptors ended up winning, it definitely seemed like the Warriors might win right up until Klay Thompson got hurt.

Then Durant left, and we all decided the Warriors were done. Why did we decide that again? I don’t want to offend anyone, especially future Hall of Famer Andre Iguodala, but the guys they lost aside from KD were pretty much washed. I know it looks like a shallow roster, and I know that (even though everyone keeps inexplicably saying they’ll be in the market for buyout guys) this team is hard-capped and has no flexibility this season whatsoever. Still, they’re the Warriors, and Klay’s going to be back down the stretch, and they are going to be dangerous as hell.

Frankly, I’m excited to root for them again. The Kevin Durant era: it was rough, emotionally. I love basketball, and I’d love it even if the outcomes were set in advance, but the past few years certainly tested that love. I’m excited to see the creative control ceded back to Steph; I’m looking forward to the rebirth of his particular brand of wild kindness.

Let me return to D’Angelo Russell. I think you either believe that teams equal the sum of their talent, or you understand that talent coheres in ways both mundane and profound. Teams are never exactly what they are. They are always either more or less than they should be. D’Angelo is a weird ingredient; we’ve seen his ability to hold together a more or less average meal. What happens when you drop him into the Dubs’ sublime stew? I think it might be something magical.

2019-20 Previews: Houston Rockets

Losses: Chris Paul, Iman Shumpert, Kenneth Faried.

Additions: Russell Westbrook, Ben McLemore, Tyson Chandler.

Likely Starters
Guard: Russell Westbrook, James Harden
Wing: Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker
Big: Clint Capela

Predicted Record: 49–33 | 8th in NBA | 5th in West

Back in the early part of this decade, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade teamed up in Miami, it took a little while for the combination to work. At first, it felt like two lead guitarists in a supergroup taking turns noodling. The crowd was wowed. Games were won. Nevertheless, something was lacking. When a team is playing at its peak, players add up to more than the sum of their individual talent. Miami, at first, was winning off individual talent alone.

Eventually, LeBron and Wade figured it out. They became a kind of cyclone of devastation. They leveraged the outsized attention each of them required of opposing teams into outright impossibility. Eventually, they overwhelmed everyone for a couple years, culminating in two championships, a 27-game winning streak, and loads of memorable moments.

During LeBron’s first season in Miami, he was 26. Wade was 29. LeBron’s best years were still ahead of him, and Wade was still squarely in the middle of his prime. I found myself thinking about that first Heatles season this summer when Daryl Morey traded for Russell Westbrook. Like LeBron and Wade, Westbrook and James Harden are offensive systems unto themselves. They have been, in recent seasons, the primary options on their respective teams to an alarming, insane degree. Each has set records for usage while posting gaudy statistics, and each has been thwarted in the playoffs when individual heroics weren’t enough.

Allow me to admit here and now that I have no idea whatsoever how Russell Westbrook and James Harden are going to coexist on a basketball team at this point in their careers. I wrote about this earlier in the summer, and I haven’t managed to come to any conclusions in the intervening months. The versions of themselves that have existed over the past few seasons will absolutely not work together. They can’t just stand around with their arms crossed when they’re not actively dribbling the ball. They are going to need to exercise skills that may have begun to atrophy. You can’t really understate the degree to which these two dudes have been living in isolation these past few seasons. We have literally never seen anyone play like this before. We’ve certainly never seen two players like this come together, because two players like this haven’t ever, like, existed.

Ultimately, this makes them compelling. We always have questions about how basketball players are going to function in the context of a team, but this iteration of the Rockets poses questions I’ve never considered before. When superstars team up, they always have to alter their games, but not like this. Ray Allen was still running around screens like a maniac when he got to the Celtics in 2008. He still got his points in similar ways; he just had to accept a smaller role in the offense than he was used to. This is different. We need to find out if Harden, a dude who just set an all-time record for unassisted 3-pointers made in a season, can function as a spot-up shooter. We need to find out if Westbrook, the most useless off-ball player in the league in recent seasons, can be a supercharged hybrid of, I dunno, Marcus Smart and Allen Iverson?

Probably, this won’t be a clean fit. There will be problems, and there will be angst. Still, this team has undeniable talent. They’re versatile and tough. They’re going to come at you in waves. I have them as the 8th best team in the league, but they’re the first team I’ve written about this summer, going from worst to best, that I believe has a shot at winning the title. I haven’t been this excited about a basketball experiment in years. If it works, it’s going to change everything about how we think about two of the greatest players of the past 25 years. Isn’t that great?