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.

2019-20 Previews: New Orleans Pelicans

Losses: Anthony Davis, Solomon Hill, Julius Randle, Stanley Johnson, Elfrid Payton, Cheick Diallo, Ian Clark, Christian Wood.

Additions: Derrick Favors, J.J. Redick, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Nicolo Melli, Josh Hart, ZION WILLIAMSON, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Likely Starters
Guard: Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball (hard to imagine Redick coming off the bench, but...)
Wing: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram
Big: Derrick Favors

Predicted Record: 41–41 | 18th in NBA | 11th in West

This summer, the Pelicans leveraged the desperation of the Lakers into an historical haul for Anthony Davis, a player who was likely going to leave after another wasted season anyway. In return, the Pels received a kind of Rebuild Your Team Home Kit. They got elite second draft guys in Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. They got a solid, young contributor in Josh Hart. They got whatever they wanted of the Lakers’ draft assets for the foreseeable future. So, like, that was one of the summers the Pels had this summer.

This summer, the Pelicans had cap space. They used that space not to sign one elite free agent but more creatively. They used cap space to acquire Derrick Favors from the Jazz for two second-round picks (originally belonging to the Warriors). They used cap space to sign J.J. Redick (he got $26.5M over two seasons). They signed Italian forward Nicolo Melli with their room exception (since they were operating under the cap). That was another summer the Pels had this summer.

This summer, the Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery and acquired the first overall pick in what many experts considered a draft with exactly one future superstar: Zion Williamson. The Pelicans also got back the fourth overall pick from the Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade. They spun that pick into the eighth, 17th, and 35th picks (plus a future, heavily-protected first round pick). With those picks, respectively, they drafted Jaxson Hayes (incredibly athletic center), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (big guard, had a great summer league in Vegas), and Marcos Louzada Silva, a wing from Brazil. All together, the Pelicans brought in a ton of talent through the draft. That was another summer the Pels had this summer.

If you were counting, that was three (3) summers. The Pelicans acquired a ton of young talent, but they also picked up veterans who fit well together. They managed to work towards building around Jrue Holiday while also putting together a young core that can grow around Zion. They have an outside chance to make the playoffs while developing tons of talent. All things considered, there is a lot of optimism around the Pels at the moment.

That said, it is instructive to think about how we got here. After all, when this team won the 2012 lottery, it seemed like they had hit a huge jackpot in getting Anthony Davis, so even when you get a surefire superstar, the issue isn’t exactly decided. The Pelicans over the duration of AD’s career have been a case-study in rushing a rebuild. They panicked into acquiring mediocre talent, or they misread the present and mortgaged the future in service to it.

Jrue Holiday, for example, is awesome, but the assets they gave up to get him and the timing of his acquisition made the transaction, back in the summer of 2013, the first disaster. More followed. Solomon Hill. Omer Asik. E’Twaun Moore. Again and again, the Pelicans devoted major assets to players worth less than those assets. Individual moves were often more or less defensible, but in the NBA you have to maximize everything, and then you have to get lucky even beyond that.

It’s such a human problem, isn’t it? We imagine that our greatest successes are the result of our careful planning and hard work, but most of the time they had just as much to do with the whims of the wind. We try to learn from our successes, but they are just as likely to steer us wrong. See, the problem is time. We are always older, always different, always incorrect somehow, someway.

For these reasons, I find myself optimistic about the Pelicans, who had a summer steering away from conventional wisdom. They traded down from a top-5 draft pick. They resisted the urge to trade Jrue Holiday for a more extreme rebuild. They eschewed big money free agents for quality veterans like Redick and Favors. Still, it worries me that everyone seems to be praising them. They seem to have a plan, and for now it feels like a smart one, but plans are always formed in the ever-disappearing present. Could we have missed some important detail? I wonder.

2019-20 Previews: Oklahoma City Thunder

Losses: *deep breath* Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson, Ray Felton, Markieff Morris.

Additions: *even deeper breath* Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mike Muscala, Justin Patton, Darius Bazley.

Likely Starters
Guard: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Wing: Terrance Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari (Maybe Andre Roberson at some point?)
Big: Steven Adams 

Predicted Record: 40–42 | 19th in NBA | 12th in West

Sometimes, when a relationship ends, it comes as a relief. You see, suddenly, how bad things really were; you see the ways in which you were sleepwalking through your life, acquiescing to whatever, going through the motions. Other times, when it’s over, it crushes you. The space where you live feels like a haunted house full of sacred artifacts carrying unspeakable sadness.

I am a sentimental person. These artifacts take on so much power in my consciousness I end up putting them out of sight, which means my living space always has drawers I try not to open, boxes tucked away in closets, file folders stuffed into the back of stainless steel cabinets. Obviously, out of sight does not always mean out of mind. I’ve come to realize over the years that trying to ignore something often gives it a kind of power that is more profound and more intractable.

A few years ago, I mentioned to my therapist that I’d recently found myself fumbling through a box of things I had from an ex-girlfriend. I had been thinking about her all the time, missing her, wondering why she didn’t want to be with me, blah, blah, blah. I had this stack of sentimental items—cards, notes, little gifts, etc. I was describing to my therapist the endless sadness of these things, and she made a surprising suggestion.

“Burn it,” said my therapist. “Have a fire. Make it a little ritual.”

“Whoa,” I said. I thought about it. I had thought about throwing the stuff away, but that was impossible. In the garbage it would take on even greater power. It would be out there in the world, absolutely itself, but I’d have no access to it, no way to deal with it. Burning it was a different idea. If I burned it, it would be gone in a different way, irrevocably altered, chemically changed. It would be something else.

It took me a while to do it, but later that summer I was getting ready to move to a new town, and packing up my stuff, and as I found myself avoiding the mystical box of sad ex-girlfriend artifacts, I knew I had to do it.

And then I botched it entirely. I decided, inexplicably, to have a fire in my driveway in broad daylight. I became so self-aware and embarrassed while I was doing it that the fire I made was meager and small. Pieces of paper burned slowly and other objects just got kinda disgusting and sooty. Eventually, I managed to not necessarily burn but at least ruin everything. I remember laughing out loud. I must have looked like I was losing it.

When it was over, amazingly, I felt better. I grabbed a plastic bag and wrapped up all the leftover crap and threw it in a dumpster. The stuff was gone. Or, at least it was more gone.

The thing is, I never get over anything. I still think about her, and about everyone else for that matter, constantly. It helped to destroy the physical objects, but it didn’t solve the problem of the past entirely.

The 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder actually have a chance to be decent. That starting lineup up at the top of this page? It’s pretty good. Those pieces fit. Unfortunately, this is not really a basketball team. It’s a breakup. It is an entity in a state of loss and grief.

When you fall in love with someone, it’s all hope. Anything is possible. When it is over, you aren’t just sad about the ending, you are sad about the dashed hope. You are maybe a little embarrassed you got your hopes up. You are maybe a little ashamed that you didn’t take care of it, that it wasn’t everything it could have been. You are aware that at least some of this is your fault, which hurts, and you are also aware that at least some of it is beyond your control, which hurts and is also terrifying.

Imagine what it was like to fall in love with Russell Westbrook over these past 11 years. Will you ever meet anyone that exciting again? Will anyone ever look at you like that again?

I’m not saying Thunder fans (or Russ fans, for that matter) should burn anything. I’m not suggesting anything anyone should do. I’m only saying that this season for this team is going to be played in a different world. I don’t know exactly how many games they will win and lose, though I have my guesses. What I know is that these results will all be filtered through the experience of being in the aftermath of an ending. Sometimes, you have to lean into that. Sometimes, you lose a year when you lose a love.

2019-20 Previews: Orlando Magic

Losses: Timofey Mozgov, Jerian Grant, Jarell Martin. They are…um…running it back, so to speak.

Additions: Al-Farouq Aminu. That’s kinda it. They’ve got a few guys on Exhibit-10 minimums and two-ways, but really, they just lost a bunch of guys who didn’t matter and added Aminu, who they probably don’t need. For the record, this sounds bad, but I’m actually optimistic about these guys.

Likely Starters
Guard: D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier (maybe Markelle Fultz sneaks in?)
Wing: Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon (but both should probably be bigs?)
Big: Nikola Vucevic 

Predicted Record: 39–43 | 20th in NBA | 8th in East

Man Ray, André Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Max Morise, Exquisite Corpse, 1928.

What we’ve got here is an exquisite corpse of a basketball team. The monster in total has no responsibility to its constituent parts. Formal chaos. Its attributes are devastating and impressive—profound size and athleticism on the one hand, off-kilter joints and seized limbs on the other. On top of its huge body sits a tiny head. What do you make of this beast? You try to address it, but it stares back at you in silence, and when it walks away, you feel a lingering sadness. To be sure, the creature was hideous, disturbing, troubling; and yet, was the creature not, come to think of it, somehow also beautiful?

Basketball teams need players with all kinds of different skills, but part of what makes the sport so interesting is that these skills mesh together in strange ways. A team needs one-on-one scoring, shooting, ball-handling, passing, rebounding, perimeter and interior defense, leaders and followers, levity and focus; unfortunately, these skills don’t come as one-offs. It doesn’t work to have one guy who can shoot, one guy who can pass, etc. A player needs to be able to do a little bit of everything, or to be so good at one thing that a team can survive that player’s shortcomings.

When I was a kid, there were a couple of summers during which I spent a week at the Wayne Embry Basketball School in Nashua, New Hampshire. I remember there was this guy, Dave Hopla, who came to do a shooting clinic each year. Hopla would lecture us while wandering around the court, always shooting. The whole time he was talking to us, he was getting up shots. He took shots from close in, shots from the midrange, shots from way out beyond the 3-point arc. At one point, he would put on a baseball hat with a cut-out of a hand hanging down from the brim; he wanted to show us that you had to learn to shoot with a hand in your face. These shots—all of them—kept going in. Over the course of an hour, he’d take hundred of shots. He’d miss, like, 10–20 of them, maybe. It was shocking when he missed. His form, his balance—everything was perfect. He was, without question, the best shooter I have seen or will ever see.

Even Dave Hopla, who is better at shooting the ball than any player who has ever been in the NBA, was never good enough at basketball to be in the NBA. Basketball, in the end, is not about individual skills; rather, it is about a kind of harmony of form. In order to leverage an elite skill, a player needs to have other skills too. Being a great shooter doesn’t mean much if you can’t guard your position, if you can’t attack a close-out, if you can’t swing the ball to an open teammate when you’re covered.

The Orlando Magic have a ton of elite skills. Nikola Vucevic is one of the best post scorers of the past decade or so. D.J. Augustin is an incredible shooter. Aaron Gordon is among the best athletes currently in the league. Mo Bamba has impossible height and reach. Al-Farouq Aminu can effectively guard pretty much every position on the floor. I could go on.

The problem is that the Magic don’t have any players who bring a complete game without any major holes. I’m a lifelong Celtics fan, and one of the great things about having Al Horford on the team was that he was good at literally everything. He shoots, but he also scores around the hoop. He passes out of the post, but he also brings the ball up the floor. He protects the rim, but he also switches out and guards on the perimeter. He’s willing to look to score, but he is also deeply unselfish. Name a thing you want a basketball player to do, and Al Horford is willing and able to do that thing. He’s not necessarily elite at any of those things, but if you can pull an A- or a B+ in all your classes, that’s a pretty good report card. The Magic, as a team, get A’s in a lot of their classes, but they get a lot of D’s and F’s too.

When it all comes together, as it did in game one of their first round playoff series against the Raptors last spring, it looks pretty sweet. When it doesn’t (games two through five), you find yourself turning away, disgusted.

What this means is that the Magic need to find a player or two who puts it all together. They need someone to tie everything together so that it makes coherent sense. They need a player who can cover for the skills his teammates lack. They need, desperately, for that player to be Jonathan Isaac.

Isaac is a wonderful prospect. At 6’10” and with great athleticism, he’s got the speed and strength to guard all over the floor, including in the paint. Offensively, much of his skillset is still theoretical, but he showed a willingness last season to bring his range out to the 3-point arc and to take shots from out there; as the season progressed, more of those shots went in. He showed enough improvement over the course of last season that further improvement seems likely. If Isaac is just a raw athlete who shows flashes of better play, the Magic should hover around .500, make the playoffs, and lose in the first round. If Isaac is more than that—if he can make the kind of leap we saw a player like Pascal Siakam make last season, for example—the Magic might be much more.

There are more holes for this team to consider, of course. D.J. Augustin should probably top out as a backup point guard, not a key cog on a playoff team; upgrading to a better point guard would totally change this team’s potential. Could they trade for Chris Paul? Could we see the version of Markelle Fultz that was an obvious first overall pick just a couple years ago? Aaron Gordon still seems to be playing out of position. Will he become a more reliable shooter? Can the team find minutes for him at center? Is he willing to alter his game to the particulars of his unique skill set? There are endless opportunities for improvement on this team because the players, while talented, have so many obvious flaws.

On the whole, none of the other stuff is as important as Isaac, who has the most potential of any prospect the Magic managed to draft over their many recent years in the lottery. Over the course of this iteration of this roster, the team will only be as special as Isaac. He’s the one person who could turn this creature into the best version of itself. It’s up to him to bring the exquisite corpse to life.

2019-20 Previews: Detroit Pistons

Losses: Jon Leuer, Ish Smith, Glenn Robinson III, Wayne Ellington, Jose Calderon, Zaza Pachulia.

Additions: Tony Snell, Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, Christian Wood, Tim Frazier, Sekou Doumbouya.

Likely Starters
Guard: Reggie Jackson (Derrick Rose?)
Wing: Luke Kennard, Tony Snell
Big: Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond 

Predicted Record: 38–44 | 21st in NBA | 9th in East

There are 30 NBA teams. That’s a lot! One thing you can say about the 2019-20 Detroit Pistons: they are one of those 30 teams. Miserably competent, the Pistons have been within four games of .500 in each of the previous four seasons (after a string of six seasons in which they were demonstrably worse than that). In my expert opinion, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond are two of the most depressing players in the league—talented and capable of stellar moments, but generally unable to access the upper reaches of their potential selves.

For Drummond, in particular, things just never seem to break right. Prior to the Pistons’ acquisition of Blake Griffin during the 2017-18 season, Drummond was starting to become a sneakily effective playmaker, and the Pistons were having a little success running the offense through him. Blake’s presence as a far better playmaker pushed Drummond back into a lesser role, and Drummond has never managed to turn himself into the elite defender his rebounding and athleticism suggest he should be.

You can understand, of course, why the Pistons made the play for Griffin’s monumental contract. He’s a tremendous basketball player, and he has been working his ass off to evolve with the NBA over the past few years. Griffin’s elite combination of usage rate, 3-point rate, and free throw rate last season was equalled only by James Harden and Luka Doncic—basically, Griffin has fully evolved into an entirely different kind of offensive hub than he was earlier in his career. He creates shots for teammates, too. He has completely modernized his game, and while he seems like an awful fit next to Andre Drummond in 2019-20, the Pistons (per nba.com/stats) were +5.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when those two shared the floor (as opposed to -0.3 overall).

Still, you have to wonder whether the Pistons are missing an opportunity to unlock the potential of Griffin in a Draymond Green-type role as the only big on the floor. Griffin played (per nbawowy) as the only big on the floor for just 55 minutes last season, and the Pistons were outscored 152-137 over those minutes, which doesn’t look great, but surrounded by the right kinds of defenders and deployed against the right kinds of lineups, maybe it could work? Maybe it wouldn’t, but what, exactly is at stake?

In a larger sense, the Pistons are a team in desperate need of some desperate thinking. Going .500 every year isn’t inherently bad—of course, there are teams that have been far worse—depending on what it suggests. There are occasional bright spots; for instance, they snagged a promising rookie in France’s Sekou Doumbouya with the 15th pick in this summer’s draft. In the bigger picture though, hovering around 41-41 each year means the Pistons are perpetually out of the running for truly game-changing stars. They need some stylistic inspiration. They are playing bully ball while the league is getting faster, bouncier, and more versatile, and they don’t seem to be doing this out of some contrarian (read: Spurs-ian) ethos, but rather because they are stuck in the past.

Instead of pushing towards anything new, Detroit’s big offseason splash was signing Derrick Rose, who tops out at this point, as far as I’m concerned, as a slightly worse version of Reggie Jackson. They lost Wayne Ellington and added Tony Snell. Maybe Svi Mykhailiuk pops? Maybe Thon Maker is something? Bruce Brown’s solid defense last year was a nice story. You look at all of this, and it feels endlessly boring, and instead of creating a new system around their one special player—Griffin—they’ve decided to just run it back, hope to sneak in the playoffs, and…what, exactly? Maybe they’ll luck out, somehow be better than the Orlando Magic, and get swept by the Bucks in the first round again!

Paul Valéry ponders the implications of putting Blake at the 5.

The French poet Paul Valéry once wrote, “It would seem that one risks losing one’s talent in attempting to explore its infernos. But what of it? Would we not discover something else?” You get the sense, sometimes, that NBA teams are afraid of losing what they have—even when they have nothing. The Pistons are about to have another season where they are entirely average, and Blake Griffin is 30 years old. It’d be nice if they’d see if they might be able to discover something else for a while.

2019-20 Previews: Minnesota Timberwolves

Losses: Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Tolliver, Tyus Jones, Luol Deng, Derrick Rose.

Additions: Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Shabazz Napier, Traveon Graham, Jordan Bell, Tyrone Wallace, Jarrett Culver, Jaylen Nowell, Naz Reid.

Likely Starters
Guard: Jeff Teague, Josh Okogie
Wing: Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington
Big: Karl-Anthony Towns 

Predicted Record: 37–45 | 22rd in NBA | 13th in West

Without looking it up, guess how old Jeff Teague is. Go ahead, guess. Okay, I’ll tell you the answer: he’s 31. Can you believe Jeff Teague is 31? When I started looking at the Timberwolves and thinking about what kind of team they might be this year, I had this moment where I was like, “Maybe Jeff Teague will be better this year?” Jeff Teague, though, is not going to be better this year. Likely, he’s going to be worse.

Jeff Teague’s general 31-ness, metonymically, is a pretty good way of thinking about the Timberwolves in general. They seem to have this wide open future ahead of them, but when you really look hard at what is happening here, it might already be all over.

The success or, more likely, failure of this team this season and beyond will depend not on Jeff Teague, of course, but on Karl-Anthony Towns and, more terrifyingly, Andrew Wiggins. A few years ago, these two had been the first overall picks in subsequent drafts, and the Timberwolves seemed to be an inevitable basketball juggernaut over the next decade. Now, Towns is a guy who constantly falls tantalizingly shy of our expectations of him (lackadaisical defense and an absence of relentlessness on offense), and Wiggins is an untradable albatross under contract for roughly $120M over the next four seasons.

Perhaps no team in the NBA currently has a wider possible range of short term and long term outcomes for their current core roster. You can squint at these Wolves and see Towns as an MVP-level hub surrounded by the varied skill sets of guys like Robert Covington, Jordan Bell, Josh Okogie, brand new lottery pick Jarrett Culver, and maybe even a miraculously revitalized (or, like, just vitalized?) version of Wiggins. That’s an interesting team, capable of playing good defense on one end and scoring in multiple ways at all levels of the floor on the other.

On the other hand, instead of squinting, you can just look at what’s here. Towns is inattentive on defense, and there are entire halves of basketball games during which it seems like he isn’t even out there. Wiggins has shown no inclination whatsoever towards any sort of winning habits on a basketball court. Robert Covington and Josh Okogie are awesome, but they are awesome role players, not primary hubs. At times during this past season at Texas Tech, Jarrett Culver was the astonishing, all-court, organizing principle for his team; at other times, he was going 5-for-16 in the title game while his teammates made endless big plays to keep them afloat.

You know how, in movies, there’s always this moment where the main character, who has been through some sort of harrowing conflict, finally thinks things are turning around, and is driving down the boulevard, good music on the stereo, improving vibes swirling in the atmosphere, and then—BAM!—gets bulldozed by oncoming traffic while pulling through an intersection? I couldn’t help but think of that kind of moment when I was listening to head coach Ryan Saunders talk about his optimism for this team on Zach Lowe’s podcast earlier this summer. I just can’t help but feel at this point that any optimism about this particular iteration of the Timberwolves is foolish. There’s a wreck on the horizon.

Ultimately, the only way out of this mess is Wiggins. Any scenario in which Wiggins continues playing listless, sad basketball for the Timberwolves is a nightmare. If they can trade him to a team that talks themselves into the mirage (remember how many teams traded for Jeff Green over the years?), that’s a possible way out. If Wiggins by some inner grace heretofore invisible manages to become a competent basketball player, that’s another way out. More likely, the Timberwolves will be late to the realization that all of the hope they thought they saw on the horizon was really just another busted ship off in the distance. Sometimes one rebuild presages another.