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Brooklyn Nets: Still Without an Obvious Cornerstone
D’Angelo Russell could fill Brooklyn’s cornerstone void if he doesn’t miss significant time for a third consecutive season. Or perhaps a stronger, higher-volume three-point-shooting version of Jarrett Allen could be the guy. Or maybe Spencer Dinwiddie will bump up his efficiency amid greater usage and more off-the-bounce work, in which case he could be the guy. (News flash: He’s still only 25.)
Dzanan Musa is a good dark-horse pick for those with patience. B/R’s Jonathan Wasserman compared the 19-year-old to Bojan Bogdanovic, but he is a more diverse decision-maker out of the pick-and-roll and has the foot speed to be an impactful defender, particularly if he packs on muscle and lives at the 4.
Because saving the best for last is fun, don’t sleep on Caris LeVert. He’s showcased a lightning-quick first step and workable off-the-dribble instincts through his first two seasons. He should be ready to initiate more pick-and-rolls this season, and his 7’0″ wingspan married with his activity in the half-court bodes well for his defensive development. He led all Brooklyn players who made at least five appearances last season in deflections per 36 minutes.
Here’s the thing: None of the Nets’ prospects are unchallenged options. They do not have an unequivocal face of the future. They may develop one, or trade for one (holla, Jimmy Butler), or sign one next summer.
For now, they remain without a sure thing.
Dallas Mavericks: Wing Depth
Not only do the Mavericks have a limited number of wings on their roster, but they seem inclined to exhaust their depth from the opening tip. Their projected starting lineup entering the season is Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Luka Doncic and DeAndre Jordan, per MacMahon.
Let us first take a moment to shower Dirk Nowitzki with praise for welcoming a role off the bench. The guy is a legend, along with someone you’d definitely want with you when posing for amusement-park-ride photos. But bringing him off the bench instead of Matthews or Doncic leaves Dallas with one playable reserve wing in Dorian Finney-Smith.
This roster and rotation makeup is dicey, especially on defense. The Mavericks do not have a conventional wing in waiting to nuke the ambiguity unless you’re a Ryan Broekhoff stan. Then again, head coach Rick Carlisle has never needed orthodox solutions.
Devin Harris spent almost half of his time at small forward last season before Dallas traded him to Denver, according to Cleaning The Glass. He’s back in town, and the Mavericks drafted Jalen Brunson, a guard who’s able to play off the ball and is used to getting his hands dirty on defense. The expected starting five could speak to a more profound investment in super-small ball.
Whether that strategy holds up defensively over the long haul is a matter best tackled after its official implementation. But the offensive returns on those lineups should be fire.
Indiana Pacers: Defensive Switchability
Although the Pacers finished eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions after last year’s All-Star break, their defense is far from a top-10 formality. They’ve doubled-down on dual-big lineups since last season. They signed Kyle O’Quinn, and Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourts will be commonplace in 2018-19.
Leaving Thaddeus Young to toil away at small forward is fine. He is one of the league’s most underrated combo-forward gnats, and he’ll be able to pitch in on stretch-big closeouts. Giving more time to the Sabonis-Turner partnership is still a risk. Indiana coughed up 113.5 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor last year, according to Cleaning The Glass.
None of those minutes came with Young, so the Pacers have that going for them. Sabonis and Turner are also more ambulatory than advertised when guarding pick-and-rolls. And both spent the summer trying to perfect their portability, as ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe noted.
“Turner and Sabonis spent the summer getting leaner and faster. ‘We want to make it work,’ Sabonis says. ‘We want the coaches to trust us.’ Turner lost weight, went all-in on yoga, and worked to make his hips stronger. ‘I want us to be interchangeable on defense,’ Turner says. Sabonis also focused on hips. Honestly, I have never heard two men talk more about their hips.
“Sabonis will have to close out on shooters without letting them blow by him. He hopes he is limber enough now to cover in one efficient step the same distance he covered in two last season, he says. Both practiced switching onto guards as a way to hone dexterity.”
Rookie Alize Johnson, who the Pacers selected at No. 50, offers more nomadic defense than Indy’s other bigs. He could feasibly leap-frog TJ Leaf on the frontcourt totem pole if given the opportunity. But maybes and possibles do not equate to assured strengths. The Pacers defense carries the burden of proof until, well, it doesn’t need to anymore.
Philadelphia 76ers: Bench Shooting/Scoring
Parting ways with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova while failing to mine gold in free agency chips away at the Sixers’ offensive depth. Their bench placed 29th in three-point accuracy and dead last in points scored per 100 possessions prior to the All-Star break. Similar struggles are back in play now.
Dealing for Wilson Chandler, signing Mike Muscala and retaining Amir Johnson were all solid moves in the face of marquee strikeouts, but none of them are offensive fulcrums. The same goes for No. 16 overall pick Zhaire Smith. Rookies are seldom saviors, and he won’t be available to start the season as he recovers from a Jones fracture in his left foot.
All eyes will be on Markelle Fultz to lead the second unit. Head coach Brett Brown can strategically stagger minutes for Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Ben Simmons to try to keep the offense on track, but Fultz is the ultimate tipping point.
If he brings off-the-bounce shot creation and three-point range to his partnership with T.J. McConnell, the Sixers won’t look the least bit shallow. If he struggles as a focal point among backups, they’ll be back to scoping out the trade and buyout markets.
Washington Wizards: Unreliable Bench
Picking on the Wizards’ bench has become an over-explored pastime. The problem is, their second-stringers deserve to remain under the microscope.
Treading water during Bradley Beal and John Wall‘s breathers is still the primary hitch. Tomas Satoransky made genuine strides last year, but Washington’s offense fell off a cliff when he played without both of them, per Cleaning The Glass. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Markieff Morris have always loomed as intriguing hubs in theory, but never in sample size or practice.
Austin Rivers might come to the rescue here. He’s more serviceable ball-handler than punchline. He joined Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul and Kemba Walker as the only players to hit at least 37 percent of their pull-up threes on 175 or more attempts. On the flip side, the Los Angeles Clippers posted a 94.5 offensive rating (1st percentile) in the 402 possessions he logged at point guard, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Turning to Otto Porter for secondary ball-handling during star-less stints is something the Wizards should try in greater volume. Their offense hummed under those circumstances last year so long as he played with either Oubre or Satoransky.