Observing The New Contenders

When the preseason hasn’t been the other half of much needed training camps for ad libbed rosters, there have been captivating moments to observe the resultant squads of what I consider the zaniest offseason I have experienced as a fan. Media availability has also hashed out some details comprising the initial plans for the fresh faces. Without getting too carried away with a couple of scrimmages (nevermind, I did get carried away), here are some outlooks focused on championship-contending teams that experienced significant roster turnover.

 

The Cavs’ Frontcourt

The bizarre Kyrie Irving trade to Boston provided the means to a LeBron James power forward conversion that many, myself included, had hoped for following the non-competition that was the NBA Finals. Ty Lue then further stoked the plan when he mentioned he would consider starting Kevin Love at center, and bumping Tristan Thompson out of the starting lineup to make room for Jae Crowder. Sure enough, when Cleveland played Atlanta, Love started at the 5, and Thompson came off the bench.

LeBron has been nursing a tweaked ankle, but will join Crowder and Love in the frontcourt once he feels ready to go. The trio forms a fascinating defensive alignment with Crowder likely to match up with the most demanding wing, Love on the primary screen-setter and protecting the basket, and LeBron lurking as a help defender. Crowder ranks as one of the better perimeter defenders in all of the league, and should hold down the responsibility commendably. Love has worked very hard to be less of a matador guarding pick-and-rolls, but still leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive end. That could be concerning, but the idea of LeBron having the opportunity to replicate Draymond Green’s defensive brilliance, in a similar role, is distracting enough to stomach Love at the 5. We saw Lue play Love major minutes at center against Zaza Pachulia in The Finals, and Love’s rebounding ability stands out as a great reason to have him closer to the basket. Perhaps the most convincing numbers for the change are the on/off splits of Love and Thompson from last year. Not only was there a greater rebounding margin lost when Love wasn’t on the court, but Cleveland wasn’t even a full point better when Thompson was on the court.

If this Cavs unit can get stops at a decent rate, the floor really opens up for them going the other direction. There are serious offensive and defensive issues starting Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade, but the transition threat of Love or LeBron hauling down a defensive rebound and threading it ahead to Rose and Wade on the break could be special. When possessions stall into the halfcourt, this lineup will also be very hard to match up with. Love picked apart Dewayne Dedmon (otherwise a defensively-sound center) as a floor spacer, immediately hitting two 3’s after the opening tip of the Atlanta game. Regardless of if Lue decides to start Rose and Wade together, or opts for J.R. Smith in one of those spots, opening up the floor for the slashing and cutting prowess of Rose and Wade makes a lot of sense.

Kevin Love’s offensive opportunities have never settled into a stable role during his Cleveland tenure. Love is, of course, a skilled post scorer, but incorporating that talent into the masterplan has been a clunky effort. Not only are post-up plays inefficient in general, Love’s 0.86 points-per-possession was only good for the 45th percentile of that play type last year. It’d be one thing if Love was primed to pass out of the post for other actions (something LeBron is clearly better at), but his protocol has been to get buckets down there. With bigger defenders on him, less apt to deal with his shooting and mobility, this lineup could hopefully mark a downtick in post-ups for Love.

 

The Rockets’ Backcourt

The potential ego-clash of two dominant lead ball-handlers (as well as Chris Paul only having one year remaining on his contract) held back many from believing Daryl Morey had hit a homerun with the Chris Paul trade. Harden just capped off an unbelievable transformation into an unstoppable hybrid of Manu Ginobili and Steve Nash as the lead guard of Mike D’Antoni’s infamous offensive system, and now they were bringing in the offensive autocracy of Chris Paul.

Until we see some serious clashes, I’m not about to believe the Beard-CP3 duo will be anything but an offensive flamethrower. When the Rockets debuted against Paul George and Carmelo playing their first game in Oklahoma, I gawked at the progressions of Rocket possessions. The chemistry of Harden and Paul, who played a number of exhibitions together this summer, was anything but superfluous. When D’Antoni chooses to play them together, it may naturally bump Harden back towards the off-ball 2 guard spot a little, but the moving triple threat qualities of each individual, layers dimensions onto an already historically great offense. One of the most spellbinding characteristics of both Paul’s and Harden’s game is the speed they process a defensive coverage to make a passing or shooting decision.

D’Antoni could very well end up using a Harden and Paul minutes-stagger similar to the one he used in the OKC game: take one of them out pretty early in the half, allow them to leapfrog with various bench units, then pair them together at the end of the half. We’ve seen Harden do damage with the majority of these surrounding pieces. Paul has played with plenty of good shooters throughout his career, but they’ve never attempted them at the rate Houston does. Luc Mbah a Moute joins Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon as Rockets that hit 3’s above the league average of 35.8% last season, and Paul hit 41.1% himself; P.J. Tucker was a hair under at 35.7%, and Ariza could improve from 34.4%.

Whether it’s Capela or Nene as the roll man, Harden and Paul will have everything they need at their disposal, when manning the ship alone.

 

The most profound impact may be seen when the two are on the floor together. You could catch glimpses of Harden being in more of an off-ball role against the Thunder. There will certainly be more opportunities for Harden to spot-up, but when the Rockets’ offense isn’t about the throttled, shapeshifting chaos, we may see Harden bring his newfound abilities back to the original role he played for the Rockets as a shooting guard. Rather than running the tireless pick-and-rolls of D’Antoni’s system, he might get more touches after receiving off-ball screens, allowing him to attack from a catch. If this is the case, it would be an interesting application of his scoring and passing abilities. Not having to take as many contested 3’s off the dribble could also boost Harden’s 3P% above league average from his 34.7% mark last season.

 

Boston’s Team

Danny Ainge and the Celtics were at the epicenter of the wild 2017 summer, when they traded away the #1 overall pick, and pillars of their roster stability, to acquire Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, and a future first round pick. Isaiah Thomas’ health was, and still is, of concern, and this team was about to be capped-out by the contracts they would offer to re-sign the likes of Thomas, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. Keeping Thomas, Bradley and Crowder would have made it increasingly harder to find time for their overflowing reservoir of young talent, and nabbing Irving and Hayward establishes a slightly better timeline that can see past the blinding horizon of the Warriors’ golden era (Giannis looms in that vision, however).

With so many new factors to account for, it was nice to temporarily forget about the Kyrie-LeBron hoopla, and get a glance at how this Boston team will function. With no Marcus Morris, Brad Stevens opted for the starting lineup of Kyrie, Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Aron Baynes. Horford stuck out as a leader to the evolving teammates right out of the gates. Stevens commonly places Horford beyond the 3 point-line so he can distribute dribble handoffs, sneak bounce passes to cutters, and keep the opposing big honest with his shooting. Many possessions featured a strong-side trio of Horford, Hayward and Brown running corner actions. If this failed to yield an open cut or handoff, Irving and Baynes anticipated a swing pass to dive into weakside ball-screens. Stevens is a master of moving parts, and this approach makes it very difficult for opponents to assemble their help defense properly.

Kyrie is already one of the best 1-on-1 players in the league, and slashing opportunities only free him up to do what he’s best at. If he is on some conquest to prove he’s an advanced distributor, or simply didn’t feel comfortable doing so in Cleveland, he can become even more dynamic in a more fundamentally equitable system. As good as Kyrie is, it’s crazy to consider how difficult it would be for him to achieve what Isaiah Thomas did last year. But even in saying that, this Boston team is different, and shouldn’t have to lean on Kyrie like they did with Isaiah.

I was admittedly low on Boston’s signings of Horford and Hayward. It’s not so much that they aren’t excellent high-character, team-first players with few weaknesses, it’s that both felt like an overrated consolation prize to each of the last two free agent classes. In those terms, and in a vacuum, I find it harder to justify them under the standard of a max-salary player; but then again, as we’ve seen with someone like Otto Porter, the selective economics of an off-season dictate the value of a player, and Horford and Hayward fell precisely on that max-salary fringe. Briefly forgetting that opinion allowed me to appreciate the rare synthesis of Horford and Hayward’s passing calibers. Though he’ll play plenty of power forward this year, Horford ranked 4th among centers in assist percentage at 23.9% last year. Hayward also ranked in the top-15 for assist percentage among forwards at 17.9%. Outside of Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, and the new pairing of Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, there wasn’t another forward and/or center combo that matched Hayward and Horford in combined assist percentage last season.

It isn’t the strongest analogy, but I found myself appreciating the Kyrie-Hayward-Horford trio in the model of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan. When reports surfaced that Kyrie was in favor of a trade to San Antonio, I immediately started to see the similarities between him and Tony Parker, and how Kyrie could thrive in the Spurs’ offense. Parker has never been a pure point guard, and many of his greatest moments have been nuances of his unconventional approach, despite playing in a highly developed system. Hayward is on track to have a comparable career to Ginobili, and their play-styles are more similar than I immediately recognized. The analogy falls apart with Horford and Duncan, but the label of a “poor man’s Duncan” has long been attached to Horford’s niche. Horford will never be the post scorer, rim protector, or defensive rebounder that Tim Duncan was. Duncan was easily one of the best players I have ever watched, and I’m doubtful that Horford makes the Hall of Fame. But if we can get past that, and see more of the team culture similarities between Popovic’s and Stevens’ teams, the analogy isn’t worthless. In true musketeer fashion, the Spurs have defied the marketable star power of the league by neglecting individual accomplishment in favor of the greater good. The Celtics have the right pieces to access an elevated chemistry as a full team, long into the future.

The Warriors certainly own the greatest odds to winning the 2018 NBA Finals, but the 2017 offseason spit out the makings of a highly entertaining season. Even if none of these teams, or the Spurs, Thunder, or Wizards get within striking distance of the Warriors, there will be a plethora of compelling team developments to track during the upcoming season.


Tommy Driscoll

@drizmasterflash

tommy@dimetheoryhoops.com

 

All stats from Basketball Reference and NBA.com