Monday, October 16, 2017

J-Speaks: 2017-18 NBA Off-Season Review/Season Preview


It was an explosive off-season in the NBA. Eight of the last nine regular season Kia Most Valuable Players (MVP) will be on teams with another former MVP. Four teams made blockbuster trades this off-season, with one team acquiring two All-Star players for the equivalent of a pack of bubble gum, and another deal between last season’s Eastern Conference Finals opponents. A load of expected franchise changing rookies make up the 2017 Rookie class.  So, this begs two questions as we enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign.  Who are you? That are the question is what will be tackled in the 2017-18 NBA Off-Season in Review, and Season Preview.
Abbreviation Key, which represents statistics from this season: ppg-points per game; rpg- rebounds per game; spg-steals per game; bpg-block shots per game; FG%-field goal percentage; 3-Pt.%-three-point percentage; opp.-opponent’s, and T-tied.

Eastern Conference 
Atlanta Hawks: 43-39 (2nd Southeast Division; No. 5 Seed East) 23-18 at home, 21-20 on the road. Lost to the No. 4 Seeded Washington Wizards 4-2 in East Quarterfinals.
-103.2 ppg-22nd; opp. ppg: 104.0-10th; 44.3 rpg-9th
Only the San Antonio Spurs have more consecutive playoff appearances with 20, than the 10 straight by the Atlanta Hawks. While the Spurs have won five titles in that stretch, the Hawks only have a 60-win season to speak of in 2014-15, which they had four All-Stars, and the Coach of the Year in Mike Budenholzer, and an Eastern Conference Finals berth.  All that remains is Budenholzer, and the organization under new General Manager Travis Schlenk, and owner since 2015 Tony Ressler decided to revamp the roster with a young cast, and in a cost-effective manner, as well as the front office. 
Schlenk, who came over from the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors front office, and Ressler, who paid over $800 million for the Hawks in 2015 let All-Star forward Paul Millsap, guards Thabo Sefolosha, and Jose Calderon walk in free agency. They did not match the boat inflated four-year, $71 million offer sheet by the New York Knicks for restricted free agent guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. Dealt All-Star center Dwight Howard to the Charlotte Hornets, along with the No. 31 overall pick in June’s draft, for center Miles Plumlee, guard Marco Bellinelli (10.5 ppg), and the No. 41 overall pick in the draft, which they used to select guard Tyler Dorsey out of the University of Oregon. 
Schlenk then stripped Coach Budenholzer of the title of team president, and demoted prior GM Wes Wilcox. Those moves came about because the Hawks got no compensation for All-Stars in Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague, and Al Horford, and solid forward DeMarre Carroll each departed via free agency, or were traded the prior two seasons. The Howard experiment was a complete failure in one season. 
To keep their cap space manageable going forward, the Hawks signed in free agency former Spurs center Dewayne Dedmon (5.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 62.2 FG%) to a two-year, $14 million deal; forward Luke Babbit to a one-year, $2.1 million deal; re-signed forward Ersan Ilyasova (13.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg 35.3 3-Pt.%) w/Thunder, 76ers, & Hawks) to a one-year, $6 million deal, and forward/center Mike Muscala (6.2 ppg, 50.4 FG%, 41.8 3-Pt.%) to a two-year, $10 million deal. 
Schlenk, who spent 12 years with the Warriors, and the last seven as an assistant to GM Bob Meyers played a major role in them drafting the likes of two-time MVP Stephen Curry, All-Star Klay Thompson, now Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes, and All-Star forward Draymond Green, and wanted to bring that same kind of smart decision making to the Hawks. 
“You can feel the passion they have for the organization, and not just the organization, but the community of Atlanta, Schlenk said to NBATV’s Vince Cellini, Mike Fratello, and Sam Mitchell about when he met with Ressler, and the rest of the minority ownership group of the Hawks. “Having ownership that’s invested not only in the organization, but the community. That’s the base to building a great franchise, and we have that here, and I felt that during the interview process.”
At No. 19, the Hawks selected high energy forward John Collins, who played two seasons at Wake Forest University. 
The 19-year-old showed some flashes of brilliance in the 2017 Las Vegas Summer League, with averages of 15.4 points, and 9.2 boards, on 59.3 percent shooting his solid footwork; the ability to get after it in the paint, where he tried to dunk on anyone that was between him, and the basket.  
While he may be raw in some areas, the foundation for him to be a solid NBA player is there, and with little to no expectations for the Hawks this upcoming season, Collins will be allowed to play through his errors, and try to build some chemistry with second-year forwards Taurean Prince (5.7 ppg), and DeAndre’ Bembry, who will be on the shelf for 6-8 weeks because of an injured tricep; and second-year guard Malcolm Delaney (5.4 ppg).
“I think it’s just really about being a sponge. Soaking up as much information as possible,” Collins said about how he’s approaching his rookie season. “Once you solidify yourself as a real solid pro, and consummate professional that something you get a lot of respect from not only players, but front offices around the league.” 
There was a guy who also went to Wake Forest that had some of the same ability, and humility that Collins has, minus the athleticism. If he comes to anything close to Hall of Famer, and five-time NBA champion Tim Duncan, the Hawks will be over the moon, especially Budenholzer, who was with the Spurs when they won four of their five titles.
Prince said to NBATV’s Rick Kamla over the off-season that he views himself as a future All-Star. He’ll have a chance to show that this season, and he will better his chances if he can improve his shooting from the 40 percent averaged he had during the regular season in 2016-17, to the level he had in the 2017 postseason, where he averaged 11.2 points, and 5.3 rebounds on 55.8 from the field, in the six-game setback in the opening round to the Wizards. 
The two key players for the Hawks going forward are, starting lead guard Dennis Schroder (17.9 ppg, 6.3 apg, 45.1 FG%) and forward Kent Bazemore (11.0 ppg) whose mindsets need to go from the backups they were on that previously mentioned 60-win Hawks team, to the front runners. 
Shooting just 40.9 percent from the floor, and 34.6 percent from three-point a season ago will not cut for Bazemore, who signed a four-year $70 million deal he got last summer.
The 24-year-old Schroder, who averaged a team-leading 24.7 points, and 7.7 assists in the 2017 postseason at times a season ago looked like one of the best floor generals in the NBA, especially at the basket, where he led the NBA in 2016-17 with 3.4 field goals made off drives a season ago. That was more than 3.3 of All-Stars Isaiah Thomas, now with the Cavs; the 3.1 of All-Star DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors; and the 3.0 of All-Star lead guard Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers and now guard of the Cavs Derrick Rose.
There were also times where Schroder looked for his own offense and did not make plays for his teammates. While his 512 layups a season ago is great, he had the second most layup attempts blocked with 113, and averaged just 3.3 assists for every turnover.
The Hawks as a result went from second in the NBA in assists; No. 6 in three-pointer made per contest, and No. 7 in attempts two years ago to 10th in assists per game at 23.6; 20th in three-pointers made, and 16th in attempts from behind the arc. 
According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Hawks lack of ball movement resulted in the league’s third biggest increase in turnover rate. 
“I think he’s just going to continue to grow as a leader,” Budenholzer, who is 189-139 in his first four seasons as Hawks head coach said about the growth of his lead guard. “I think understand how he can impact his teammates. How he can impact a practice.” 
Above all, the Hawks need Schroder German to be more mature off the court and not be in situations like the one where he was charged with misdemeanor battery in the early morning hours in late September at a hookah bar in Brookhaven, GA where he lives. 
“We are aware of an incident involving Dennis Schroder earlier this week. We are still gathering information as it pertains to the situation, and out of respect for the legal process, we will have no further comment at this time,” the Hawks’ organization said in a statement. 
Building for the future is the best way to describe the Atlanta Hawks as we enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign. Schlenk along with building a team that wants to come to the gym every day to get better, he said to Cellini, Fratello, and Mitchell that he wants to create an environment that is player friendly, like it was in Golden State. Where the family of the players feel like an extended part of the organization.
While it is likely that the Hawks string of 10 straight postseason appearances will conclude this April, the reconstruction of hopefully a new string of playoff appearances, and the hopes of winning the team’s first title since 1958, when they were the St. Louis Hawks is underway. The one good thing that the Hawks have in their favor during this reconstruction is the right coach in Budenholzer, who will be on his team to play the right way every night from moving the basketball offensively, and being connected as one defensively.
“I think we’re excited about where we are,” Budenholzer, who is 189-139 as Hawks head coach said about the prospects for this season. “They all have been working, and improving. We feel like they give us something to be excited about going forward.” 
Best Case Scenario: The Hawks win close to 35 games. Schroder is a better floor general, and even better person off the floor. Collins, Prince, Delaney, and Bembry show that they are major parts of the future. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Hawks fall completely flat in year one of their reconstruction, and the highs, and lows of Schroder continue.  
Grade: D
Boston Celtics: 53-29 (1st Atlantic Division; No. 1 Seed East) 30-11 at home, 23-18 on the road. Defeated the No. 8 Seeded Chicago Bulls 4-2 in East Quarterfinals. Defeated the No. 4 Seeded Washington Wizards 4-3 in East Semifinals. Lost to the No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1 in Eastern Conference Finals. 
-108.0 ppg-7th; opp. ppg: 105.4-15th; 42.0 rpg-27th
The Celtics magical carpet ride of 2017-18 ended at the hand of LeBron James, and the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games of the Conference Finals. So, GM Danny Ainge took a blowtorch to his roster, and drafted one of the best scorers in college basketball this past season; filled that superstar void with the addition of a former Butler Bulldog; acquiring a top-level lead guard, and filling out the roster with some solid role players. 
The first big move by the C’s was trading the No. 1 overall pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for their 2017 First-Round pick, No. 3 overall, and a conditional First-Round pick in 2018, or 2019. 
The Celtics used that No. 3 pick to select forward Jayson Tatum in June, who brings an all-around offensive game where he can score inside as well as outside, and he demonstrated that all during the Utah, and Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 18.7 and 17.7 points, and 9.7, and 8.0 rebounds respectably. 
“You earn respect by just showing that you have what it takes to be in this league,” the 19-year-old, who will be a big part of the C’s present, and future said about how he will become a great player in the NBA. “Just focus on basketball, and what got you here, and not worry about outside distractions, and just keep doing what you’re doing.” 
They also drafted forward Semi Ojeleye at No. 37 overall out of Southern Methodist University; guard Kadeem Allen at No. 53 out of Arizona; and guard Jabari Bird at No. 56 overall out of California. 
In the early part of July, the Celtics traded starting shooting guard Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons for forward Marcus Morris (14.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg w/Pistons), and a 2019 Second-Round pick, who the Celtics hope brings that same toughness, grit, and versatility on both ends. 
That move created enough salary cap space to finally sign an All-Star to the roster, which the Celtics did on July 14 inking forward Gordon Hayward (21.9 ppg-career-high, 5.4 rpg-career-high, 3.5 apg, 47.1 FG%, 39.8 3-Pt.% w/Jazz), to a four-year $128 million deal, and reuniting him with his college head coach at Butler University in Brad Stevens.
In late August, C’s swung a deal with the defending Eastern Conference champion Cavs dealing All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zicic, and the 2018 unprotected First-Round pick from the Nets trade a few years ago, for All-Star guard Kyrie Irving (25.2 ppg, 5.8 apg, 47.3 FG%, 40.1 3-Pt.% w/Cavs). 
The deal hit a snag though when it was revealed via a physical that Thomas’ hip that he played through until after Game 2 of the Conference Finals will keep him on the shelf until January. The Celtics threw in a 2020 Second-Round pick to close the deal.  
Not only do the C’s get a player who went to The Finals the last three seasons in a row, and hit the shot that won the Cavs their 2016 title in Game 7 of The Finals at the then defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, but they get a dynamic scorer, ball handler, and playmaker, whose 25-year-old, and eager to prove he is more than just a supportive “Robin” to James’ “Batman.”
When asked by NBATV/NBA on TNT’s David Aldridge during Media Day in St. Canton, MA on Sept. 25 about whether he cares about explaining why he left the Cavs, he said, “Honestly I don’t even care.”
“I feel like it was at a time where no one expected it, that’s when it came at a big surprise, and then everyone wanted answers… I’m not here to answer all those questions because it’s literally coming from a place that has zilch to do with two hoops, and a basketball.”  
What Irving will also bring is the ability for Hayward, and last season’s prize free agent signing Al Horford (14.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 5.0 apg, 47.3 FG%) to be comfortable in their roles. Horford, who is the team’s lone starter from last season, is someone who plays to his strengths, and does not try to do any more than what is asked of him. 
The most important thing that Irving, who has two years left on a five-year $94 million deal he signed back in 2014, must do is balance being a real lead guard, as well as a scorer. 
The 4.4 isolation field goal attempts he averaged a season ago with the Cavs will not fly in a system where Coach Stevens believes in ball movement, and player movement. The Celtics averaged 25.2 assists per game in 2016-17. 
“The biggest challenge is understanding how much of a difference it is between a good, and a great team,” the four-time All-Star elaborated to Aldridge about what it will take for this team to have a chance to win it all. 
With the trade of Bradley, it will be up to guard Marcus Smart (10.6 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.9 rpg, 1.6 spg-Led Team), and second-year forward Jaylen Brown (6.6 ppg, 45.5 FG%), whose just 20-years-old to cover up for Irving, who too has had his struggles in guarding his man one-on-one in his six-year career. 
For the past three seasons under Stevens, the Celtics have been a team of scrappy, relentless, get after it, group of players that a lot of people gave up on for some reason. 
They especially showed that attitude in the pressure cooker winning 25 games (25-29 mark) in 2016-17 after trailing going into the fourth quarter, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, which is more than any of the other 29 teams in the last nine seasons combined. It helped that they had Thomas, who had the second-best scoring average in the fourth quarter of 9.8 a season ago. 
A lot of those players are gone now to make room for Irving, and Hayward to join the team, Stevens will need them, Smart, Morris, Tatum, Brown, and guard Terry Rozier, the other new additions in center Aron Baynes, who signed a one-year, $4.3 million deal; guard Shane Larkin, who signed a one-year $1.5 million deal; forward Daniel Theis, who signed a one-year, $2.19 million deal to perform at the level on both ends that Thomas, Crowder, Bradley, forward/center Kelly Olynyk, forward/center Amir Johnson, forward Jonas Jerebko, and center Tyler Zeller night in, and night out.
“There’s definitely going to be high expectations for us. I think that’s new for me as a player. I’m excited about that,” Hayward said to Aldridge back in late September. “For us, we’ll talk about that a lot probably today, and then after that, it will just be how can we get better each day, and everything will take care of itself.” 
They specifically need to rebound the ball a lot better than they did a year ago. It will take all the Celtics, including last season’s prize signing Al Horford than the 27th ranked team they were a season ago. 
Being ranked 27th in rebound differential at -2.5 is a major reason they lost the way they did in the Conference Finals a season ago to the Cavs who dominated them on the glass. 
The Boston Celtics come into the 2017-18 NBA season with expectations, thanks to winning 53 games, capturing the Atlantic Division title away from the Toronto Raptors, and making it to the Eastern Conference Finals a season ago. The third youngest team in “The Association,” is geared up with two stars in Irving, and Hayward. Young talents in Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Rozier, who are between 19, and 23 years of age. A dynamic, and smart head coach in Brad Stevens, and a shrewd GM in Ainge, who still has a war chest of assets in draft picks, and players to work with, the Celtics are primed to take the East by storm over the next few years. The question for them is do they have enough this year to take down the back-to-back-to-back Conference Champion Cavaliers, and LeBron James this season? 
We might get some indication of where they stack when last season’s Finalists of the East meet up on opening night, on Oct 17 at 8 p.m. in Cleveland on TNT.
Best Case Scenario: The Celtics are the No. 1 or No. 2 Seed in the East. They beat the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, but fall to the Warriors in The Finals. 
Worst Case Scenario: They do not make it back to the Conference Finals
Grade: A+
Brooklyn Nets: 20-62 (5th Atlantic Division; missed the playoffs) 13-28 at home, 7-34 on the road. 
-105.8 ppg-12th; opp. ppg: 112,5-25th; 43.9 rpg-10th    
Four summers back, the Brooklyn Nets took a major gamble in acquiring All-Star forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Celtics, and sent their Atlantic Division rivals three No. 1 draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. They have been paying for it ever since, and have had to use every trick in the book to bring in young talent, and draft picks to get them out of the East cellar. 
Nets’ General Manager Sean Marks two days before the 2017 draft on June 22nd traded All-Star center, Brook Lopez, and the No. 27 pick in June’s draft to the Los Angeles Lakers for No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft D’Angelo Russell (15.6 ppg, 4.8 apg, 35.2 3-Pt.% w/Lakers), center Timofey Mozgov (7.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 51.5 FG%), and the remaining three years of a head scratching four-year $64 million deal. That No. 27 pick was forward Kyle Kuzma out of Utah, who has shown in the preseason that he’s a keeper for the Lakers. 
“It’s been amazing. Team’s been great for me. Open arms since day one. That’s all I can ask for,” Russell, said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg. 
While the addition of Russell is the centerpiece of this trade, Mozgov will be of importance in the early part of this upcoming season, along with Tyler Zeller, who signed a two-year in September, because center Jarrett Allen, who the Nets chose at No. 22 out of the University of Texas back is nowhere close to being ready to be the team’s starting center.
While the former Texas Longhorn, who did not play in Summer League because of a hip injury, he bring an athleticism, ability to block shots, and to run the floor, he is still a project that needs time, and instruction to be groomed into a solid center, which the Nets have plenty of time to give him. 
While that is taking place, Mozgov will be slotted into the pivot for head coach Kenny Atkinson, and he is an asset the Nets can use at the February trade deadline to acquire another draft pick. 
In another off-season trade with a division rival during, the Nets acquired veteran forward DeMarre Carroll (8.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 34.1 3-Pt.% w/Raptors) from the Toronto Raptors, who injuries, inconsistent play on both ends, and the emergence of a much younger Norman Powell made him, and the final three years on a four-year, $120 deal. They also got a 2018 First-Round pick.
In both the prior, and this summer, the Nets signed offer sheets to restricted free agents Crabbe, Tyler Johnson, Donatas Motiejunas, and Otto Porter, Jr. for $270 combined million. The Nets were only able to get Crabbe (10.7 ppg, 46.8 FG% w/Trail Blazers), who brings the remaining three years on a four-year $75 million deal from the Portland Trail Blazers, for forward Andrew Nicholson. 
The 25-year-old from Lakers’ country showed last season that he can get hot from the outside, ranking second in the league in three-point percentage at 44.4 percent a season ago.
His stellar marksmanship from distance should improve the Nets’ No. 25 rank in three-point percentage at 34.0 percent, despite being ranked No. 4 in attempts at 31.6. The question for Crabbe is can that stroke become consistent if he is given starters minutes? 
The Nets also hope Carroll provides great perimeter play as a shooter, and wing defender, and serves as a role model, along with veterans in forwards Quincy Acy, and Trevor Booker; and guard Jeremy Lin (14.5 ppg, 5.1 apg), who hopes to put an injury riddled season in the rearview mirror, and click with his newest backcourt mate in Russell.  
“I feel like we’re attacking guards. So, going in every night, playing off each other is what we trying to do,” Russell said to Greenberg about the dynamic he, and Lin bring. 
The Nets hope that Russell, who has all the talent a young player can ever ask is ready to come in, and work his tail off in becoming their point guard of the future. 
His first two seasons in Hollywood were below average to say the least, mainly due to a lack of maturity, and inability to lead. 
He showed some signs in March with averages of 18.6 points, and close to five assists, but it was not enough to save his bacon, as new Lakers’ President Earvin “Magic” Johnson sent him backing in the previous mentioned trade for Lopez, and threw some parting shots as well to him on his way out the door.
The Hall of Famer said about Russell in the Lonzo Ball introductory press conference saying of the addition of the No. 2 pick in June’s draft, and the departure of Russell that he needed a, “leader.” 
“I needed somebody also that can make the other players better, and also that players want to play with.” 
As he enters this next chapter of his career, Russell can be bitter about those parting shots by the Hall of Famer, and one of the best lead guards to ever play, or be humbled by those words, and use it as a career-changing moment that will make him a great pro, that is efficient as a shooter, then the 40.8 percent from the field, and 35.2 percent from three-point range he shot a season in the league.
The one area that will tell right away if the Nets have a star in the making if they take care of the basketball, where last season they were outscored by 4.4 points per game off turnovers, the worst differential of the last five years, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. 
Lin missing 46 games due to injury did not help matters, inexperience playmakers like rookie Isaiah Whitehead took centerstage, and had the league’s biggest increase in turnover rate in a campaign where that statistic league wide was at an all-time low. Whitehead had the league’s highest turnover rate among guards who played at least 1,000 minutes. 
As a team, the Nets led the NBA in live ball miscues, and the opposition took 55 percentage of their shots, the highest rate in the NBA in the first 12 seconds of the 24-second shot clock.  
The Nets will use this season to see if are assets to keep, and build with or pawn off to accumulate draft picks. 
The Brooklyn Nets enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign as a team trying to develop. To develop a talented group of new additions of Crabbe Russell, and Allen, along with the likes of swingman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who the team says will be their starting power forward this season; guards Spencer Dinwiddie, Sean Kilpatrick, Caris LeVert, and Isaiah Whitehead into a team that can play well together from practice to game time, and eventually into one that can win enough games to be in competition to make it back to the postseason.

What the Nets have in their favor is a head coach in Atkinson, who has cut his teeth in his coaching career in player development, which is the route the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs under head coach Gregg Popovich, and his former boss Mike Budenholzer with the Hawks, who’s a former Spurs’ assistant used to develop players. This task of developing the Nets’ young players will be assistants, and player development coaches Jacque Vaughn, Chris Fleming, Bret Biermaier, Adam Harrington, Jordan Ott, Mat Batiste, and Travon Bryant.  
“I’m tired of trying to put standards, and stuff like that on situations,” Russell said to Greenberg about the Nets goals for the 2017-18 season. “I’m really just looking forward to going out there, and playing, and competing every night. Surprising people, or whatever we may do. But, really just taking care of our business, and whatever happens, when it comes that time, it can either be ‘I told you so, or we can our game speak.’”

Best Case Scenario: Russell develops into the Nets’ lead guard of the future. The likes of Crabbe, Hollis-Jefferson, LeVert and Allen become core pieces going forward. The young players respect, and adhere to the lessons of the veterans, and Coach Atkinson. 
Worst Case Scenario: There is no improvement, and a lot of losing streaks dominate the Nets season.   
Grade: D-
Charlotte Hornets: 36-46 (4th Southeast Division; missed the playoffs) 22-19 at home, 14-27 on the road.
-104.9 ppg-16th; opp. ppg: 104.7-13th; 43.6 rpg-16th 
While the Hornets’ lead guard became an All-Star for the first time in his career last season, the rest of the team around him, especially two key wing players that were paid the prior off-season struggled, and that resulted in the Hornets missing the playoffs. The hope is the selection of a sharp shooter in June’s draft, and the acquisition of a player that thrived under the Hornets now head coach will earn them a return trip to the postseason. 
Last season, Kemba Walker (23.2 ppg-Led team, 5.5 apg, 39.9 3-pt.%), break out season garnered him his first All-Star appearance of his career making the East All-Star team. He said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg that he wanted to improve his consistency this season, which is very important to him. 
“I’m the point guard, and I’m the team leader,” he said. “Guys look to me. Each, and every day, not only on game days, but practice days, off days, whatever. I want my team to know that I want to win, and I want them to follow.” 
Swingman Nicolas Batum (15.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.9 apg-Leads team), and Marvin Williams (11.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg) who earned big pay days the prior summer of a five-year, and four-year deals, worth $120 and 54.5 million deals respectably, shot an abysmal 40.3 percent from the field overall, and 33.3 percent from three-point range. Williams, whose had his most productive season since 2008-09 shot just 42.2 percent from the field, and just 35.0 percent from three-point range. Their struggles really highlighted the losses of guards Courtney Lee, and Jeremy Lin in free agency. 
The Hornets especially felt those losses a season ago when they had a league-high 22 setbacks after leading in the fourth quarter, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, and one of two teams with a positive point differential, but a losing record. The Hornets also were just 13-26 in games decided by seven points, or less. 
The hope is that their 12th lottery pick in the last 14 years, in the No. 11 overall pick sharp shooting guard Malik Monk out of the University of Kentucky is the answer to their shooting woes. 
The 6-foot-3 Monk comes from a program that has been known for producing prospect that at least being a solid player in the NBA, and the Hornets hope he can have a better impact than that of another former Wildcat in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (9.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 47.7 FG%), who beyond the intangibles that do not show up in the box score, has been injury prone, and has an unrefined offensive repertoire unexpected from a No. 2 overall pick, which he was back in 2012. 
Monk had an ability to attempt shots from anywhere on the court, with a 39.7 percentage from three-point range and the Hornets hope he can bring that same explosiveness he had on offense for Wildcat head coach John Calipari, and give the opposition something to think about. 
The Hornets will especially need that to start the season as Batum will be out 6-8 weeks due to a torn ligament in his left elbow, that fortunately won’t require surgery.  
It also brings into question what to do with guard Jeremy Lamb (9.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 46.0 FG%)? Since signing his four-year, $21 million deal back in Nov. 2015, Lamb has not yet solidified himself as an important cornerstone of the team, but if he can ever play consistently, he, Monk, Batum, Walker, and second-year stretch forward/center Frank Kaminsky (11.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who hopefully raises the percentages of 39.9 from the floor, and 32.8 from three-point range that he shot in his second season last year, the Hornets will be back to the offensive team that they were two years ago. 
The day before the draft in June, the Hornets acquired eight-time All-Star center Dwight Howard (13.3 ppg, 12.7 rpg-5th NBA, 66.3 FG%-4th NBA), from the Hawks, in exchange for center Miles Plumlee, guard Marco Bellinelli, and the No. 41 pick in June’s draft. 
“I think he can contribute in all three areas,” Hornets head coach Clifford, whose has a record of 160-168 said about what Howard can contribute to the team. “He’s a terrific defender. Rim protector. Shot blocker, defensive rebounder. He’s very bright offensively. I think he does a lot of things that help other people play well at that end of the floor.”
That coming from Coach Clifford, who spent parts of six seasons as an assistant coach with the former Defensive Player of the Year with the Orlando Magic, and a cup of coffee with the Lakers, lasted just one season playing in his hometown with two years left on a three-year, $70.5 million deal has made more headlines for what he wanted to do, instead of what he needs to do in his recent stints with the Lakers, Houston Rockets, and Hawks. His relationship with the Hawks really was turned on its head after he made a fuss about sitting on the sideline in the fourth quarters with head coach Mike Budenholzer in their six-game playoff loss to the Wizards.  
In a time where big men being the No. 1 option at the offensive end has passed, Howard is still a great rebounder, can still be an intimidator at the basket, and is one of the best divers to the hold off the pick-and-roll. 
The reason Howard is on the spot with his new team that the owner in the great Michael Jordan, and head coach Steve Clifford, who was an assistant on then head coach Stan Van Gundy’s staff have put their faith, and trust in him to get back to be that dominant rim protector, finisher at the basket, and relentless rebounder that made him an All-Star during time with the Magic.  
Walker particularly could care less about what happened to Howard in the past, and he is over the moon to have him as a teammate, and that he will make sure he gets the basketball. 
“Everybody’s talking about Dwight, and I’m not really hearing too many good things about him, but getting a chance to be around him thus far, he’s a great dude,” Walker said about his interaction with Howard so far. “He works extremely hard, and I’m looking forward to having a great year with him, and he’s going to help this team so much, and I’m excited.”
It will also give them some serious depth in the pivot, and allow last season’s starting center Cody Zeller (10.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 57.1 FG%) in certain situations to play on the floor together with him at power forward.

Last season, Zeller when he played, the Hornets were 33-29 when he played, and just 3-17 when he was out with injury.  
The other deal of significance by the Hornets over the summer was signing a new understudy to Walker in guard Michael Carter-Williams, who since winning Rookie of the Year in 2013 with the Philadelphia 76ers, MCW’s career, has fizzled out in his last two stops with the Milwaukee Bucks, and Chicago Bulls, thanks to his in ability to shoot from the perimeter ball has held him back. 
The Charlotte Hornets enter the 2017-18 season with a chip on their shoulder. This team was just one win away from the Semis two years ago. The losses of Al Jefferson, Lin, and Lee really had an impact that the Hornets did not overcome. They hope the additions of Howard, Monk, Carter-Williams alongside Walker, Batum, and Williams can return the Hornets to the postseason. Other than the defending three-time East champion Cavs; last season’s No. 1 Seeded Celtics; the Toronto Raptors, and division rival Washington Wizards, the other four playoff spots are up for grabs. 
“I think we have some great players, and I think we belong in the playoffs,” Walker said to Greenberg about the roster, and their chances of making it back to the postseason. “Last year was a little bit disappointing, not getting in the playoffs, and being at home watching the playoffs. It kind of drives me, and my teammates as well. So, we just want to everything we can in our power to get back.”
Best Case Scenario: The Hornets make it back to the playoffs in the bottom of the East. Walker is an All-Star again. The new additions have a serious impact. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Hornets miss the playoffs for a second straight season, and they entertain moving Howard. 
Grade: C
Chicago Bulls: 41-41 (4th Central Division; No. 8 Seed East) 25-16 at home, 16-25 on the road. Lost to the No. 1 Seeded Boston Celtics 4-2 in East Quarterfinals.
-102.9 ppg-23rd; opp. ppg: 102.4-6th; 46.3 rpg-3rd    
The Chicago Bulls all the optimism possible when they signed future Hall of Famer, and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade, and All-Star lead guard, and champion Rajon Rondo to join forces with All-Star Jimmy Butler in “Chi-town” one summer ago. The chemistry was off right from the start, and even though they made the playoffs, they lost the last four games of their opening round to the Celtics. A major trade on draft night back in June, and the buyouts of Wade, and Rondo signaled that the Bulls were in rebuild mode. 
On draft night, the Bulls traded Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, along with the rights to the No. 16 overall pick in center Justin Patton out of the University of Creighton, for guards Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and the rights to the No. 7 overall pick in forward Lauri Markkanen out of the University of Arizona. 
That was followed by a headshaking move sending the rights to the No. 38 overall pick in forward Jordan Bell out of Oregon to the Warriors for $3.5 million in cash considerations. 
Eight days after the draft, they paid Rondo $3 million dollars, and waived him, and before the start of training camp in late September, the Bulls bought out Wade’s contract, and he signed with the Cavs, more on that later. 
Another big move the team made on Sept. 19 naming former Bulls’ head coach, and longtime television analyst for NBC, TNT, and ESPN in Doug Collins Senior Advisor to the team president John Paxson. 
The next person who might be on his way out at the February trading deadline is veteran center Robin Lopez (10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 49.3 FG%), whose ability to defend, and rebound will be something that a lot of teams, will covet at the trade deadline.
The Bulls in there rebuild wanted to add quantity in rebuilding their roster. So, they re-signed unproven center Cristian Felicio a new four-year, $32 million deal; signed former New York Knick Justin Holiday to a two-year $9 million deal; acquired off-injured swingman Quincy Pondexter from the New Orleans Pelicans; and claimed off waivers guard David Nwaba, and center Diamond Stone.
The one person with the potential to be the Bulls next supposed star is LaVine, who along with Dunn come to their new team with something to prove. Unfortunately, Dunn will be on the shelf 2-4 weeks due to a dislocated left index finger.
Dunn, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 draft was expected to supplant then starting lead guard Ricky Rubio as the new floor general of the future. The former Providence star was a disappointment, shooting an abysmal 37.7 percent shooting from the field, and 28.8 percent from three-point range. 
Unlike most lottery picks, Dunn is a mature 23-year-old, who spent four years at Providence, and can still have a productive career, starting this season. 
LaVine, who season ended after 47 games a torn ACL, rehabilitation has had no setbacks, and is expected to be back on the floor by November. 
“Feel good every time I get done working out,” LaVine said about his rehab. “It’s just a process going through it every time. Trying to get back. Trying to do stuff. Trying to come back better than what you were before. Work on things that you’re already good at, and then also, you have time now to work on things that you weren’t as good at. 
If LaVine, can show he has regained that athleticism that won him two Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend, and he continues to show marked improvement on his jump shot, he can become a 20-plus per game scorer that Bulls fans will fall in love with.
“He can score with the best of them. That’s his job on the team is to put the ball in the hoop, and I think he can do that at a high level,” Dunn said about LaVine. “When a guy loves the game, it makes you want to work even harder. As a person, he’s a good dude. He’s always smiling. He means well. That’s the kind of guy everybody wants to be around.”
The Bulls’ No. 1 pick in Markkanen is a seven-foot jump shooting big man who has been projected as the “Next Dirk,” in reference to future Hall of Famer of the Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki. He was solid in his only season at Arizona, and while he averaged 14.0 points in the Las Vegas Summer League, and nine boards, he shot just 29.3 percent from the field. 
He did make some serious strides playing for overseas in the FIBA Eurobasket championship, he was remarkable with averages of 19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds in six games, on 53.3 percent shooting.
If there is one thing that this off-season did for the Bulls is now it gives head coach Fred Hoiberg, who GM Gar Foreman chose to succeed then head coach Tom Thibodeau, now with the Timberwolves to run the pace-and-space offense he wanted to install when he arrived in the “Windy City,” two years ago. 
He will have this season, and the next two, on a five-year, $25 million deal he signed, to see if he can mold this offensive style around new additions in Dunn, LaVine, Holiday, and Markkanen, along with the likes of forward Paul Zipser, second-year swingman Denzel Valentine, forward Bobby Portis, forward Nikola Mirotic, and guards Jerian Grant, and Cameron Payne. 
One person who should be looking forward to all of this should be Mirotic, who put in a lot of work this summer in reshaping his body, and reflecting on the fact he did not generate any interest from other teams as a restricted free agent. 
That humble pie the 26-year-old from Montenegro, is what reportedly got him in the weight room, where he added on 25 pounds of muscle so he can become a better inside scorer on the post, and in the paint overall. While he did get a new two-year deal, worth $27 million, this experience will hopefully will make him realize that being a great player with tremendous upside means that in order to become great takes work, and commitment. A player of his caliber should be able to shoot at the mark of 39 percent from three-point range he did two seasons back, and not the 34 percent he shot a season ago. 
The best way to describe the 2017-18 Bulls is a team in a search; to identify six players who can become the core of the team they can build around; a style of play that will bring the best out of the team, and learning how to become a professional in an unforgiving league.
The players showed during a workout together for a workout at a local track out in Chicago during the off-season is that they are willing to put in the work, to build the kind of chemistry they will need to get through this upcoming season.  
“In order for us to be good, we have to push each other,” Dunn said. “Once we push each other, and build that chemistry, and that comradery, I think we’ll have the positivity. The mentality to compete with other teams, and all the other great players.” 
Best Case Scenario: The Bulls find a way to be competitive every night they take the floor. LaVine does comeback, and show signs he can be a major part of the Bulls future, along with Dunn, and Markkanen. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Bulls losing takes a toll on their work habits, and willingness to get better. 
Grade: D-
Cleveland Cavaliers: 51-31 (1st Central Division; No. 2 Seed East) 31-10 at home, 20-21 on the road. Defeated the No. 7 Seeded Indiana Pacers 4-0 in East Quarterfinals. Defeated the No. 3 Seeded Toronto Raptors 4-0 in East Semifinals. Defeated the No. 1 Seeded Boston Celtics 4-1 East Finals. Lost to the No. 1 Seeded Golden State Warriors 4-1 in NBA Finals.
-110.3 ppg-4th; opp. ppg: 107.2-20th; 43.8 rpg-12th
After winning it all in 2016, the Warriors made quick work of the then defending NBA champions defeating them in five games. Coming into this off-season, it was quite clear that some changes had to be made, but no one expected what transpired over the past two months.
Their off-season began with Owner Dan Gilbert firing then GM David Griffin, and eventually chose 34-year-old Koby Altman to take his place. 
That move, along with re-signing sharp-shooting guard Kyle Korver (10.7 ppg, 48.7 FG%, 48.5 3-Pt%-2nd NBA) to a new three-year, $22 million deal; 2011 MVP guard Derrick Rose (18.0 ppg, 47.1 FG%, 4.4 apg w/Knicks), to a one-year, $2.1 million; veteran guard Jose Calderon, to a one-year $2.3 million deal; forward Jeff Green (9.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg w/Magic), to a one-year, $2.1 million deal, and forward Cedi Osman to a three-year, $8.3 million deal put the Cavs not in the best position to win it all. 
That all changed at the end of August, when Altman pulled a major rabbit out of the hat in acquiring two-time All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas (28.9 ppg-3rd NBA, 5.9 apg, 46.3 FG%, 37.9 3-Pt.%) w/Celtics), along with forward Jae Crowder (13.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 46.3 FG%), center Ante Zicic, a protected 2018 First-Round, and a 2020 Second-Round pick from the Celtics. 
The catch though, the Cavs sent All-Star guard Kyrie Irving to “Beantown,” meaning that the organization traded the guy who hit the game-clinching three-pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals to win the city’s first title in 52 years. 
Four-time league MVP, and three-time Finals MVP LeBron James (26.4 ppg-8th NBA, 8.6 rpg, 8.7 apg, 54.8 FG%) said at Media Day on Sept. 25 that he experienced a ton of emotions when he heard that the guy he developed a serious bond with in Irving wanted to be dealt. 
“I was wondering if something I could’ve did better to make him not want to be traded,” James said on Media Day in late September. “Is it the way the season finished? Was it me coming back in the first place? Was it the coaching changes? Or the GM change?” 
James also said from the moment he came back to home to the Cavs in 2014, he did everything in his power to make him Irving to the best player he could be. To be a better vocal leader, better scorer, better floor general, better defender, and better passer. 
The only thing that upset James was that Irving will take that blueprint James showed him, and use it turn the Celtics into a champion. 
“Other than that, I wish the kid great health,” James said of Irving, who helped lead the Cavs to The Finals the past three years.
The trade did give the Cavs another three-point threat, and that much needed wing defender in Crowder, which will take some pressure off James. They have a dynamic scorer in Thomas, who will be shelved at least until January as he rehabs a hip injury that he played throughout this past postseason with.
It is that uncertainty is why the Cavs insisted on getting that unprotected 2018 pick from the C’s, which they got from the Nets as part of the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce deal.
The signing of Rose is now a major move by the Cavs, because they now have a starting lead guard that can run the show until “I.T.” returns, and Rose said he is eager to get back into the playoffs, having not been there the past couple of seasons. 
“I’m back in a winning environment,” he said. “Every day, you have to bring it, and that’s something I’m used to. These last two years, I haven’t been in the playoffs. That’s cool, but just being in a winning environment, and just bringing that intensity not only to the games, but to practice every day.”
While he will start this season on the shelf, Thomas said to NBATV studio host, and “NBA: Inside Stuff,” host Kristen Ledlow that he is excited about playing with the best basketball player on planet Earth in James, and learning from him what it takes to win a title. 
“He’s arguably the best player to ever play,” the former No. 60 and final pick in the 2010 draft said. “Anybody whosever been on his team, he’s made better, and he’s made play at a level that they hadn’t played at their previous years, and I’m excited for that opportunity. I’m excited to be able bring something to the table that they haven’t had in previous years…I think I can help them reach a level that they’ve reached before, and they can help me reach a level that I haven’t been at, and the opportunity is just amazing.”
The Cavs in the late stages of September added even more depth with the signing of Dwyane Wade (18.3 ppg, 3.8 apg, 4.5 rpg), who was bought out of his contract with the Bulls, and signed a one-year, $2.3 million deal. 
“Cleveland believes in my talents, and what I can bring to a championship contender both as a player, and leader,” the 12-time All-Star, who cleared waivers on Wednesday said. “I look forward to reuniting, and playing alongside my brother LeBron. We’ve already won two championships together, and I hope we win a third.” 
James, who played with Wade, and perennial All-Star Chris Bosh from 2010 to 2014 with the Miami Heat, making four straight Finals appearances, and winning two straight titles, was overjoyed at being reunited with his good friend, and knows his value he will bring to Northeast Ohio. 
“I think he brings another championship DNA. Championship pedigree,” James said. “Brings another playmaker to the team, who can get guys involved. That can make plays, and also, just has a great basketball mind.”
The Cavs over the weekend traded veteran forward Richard Jefferson, guard Kay Felder, two Second-Round picks, and cash considerations of $3 million to the Atlanta Hawks for the draft rights to forward Dimitrios Agravanis, and guard Sergey Gladyr. 
The trade created two trade exceptions, of $2.6, and $1.4 million respectably, that the Cavs have one year to use them, and the removal of those salaries also will save $12.8 million in luxury tax. 
The new additions, along with the remaining cast of All-Star forward Kevin Love (19.0 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 37.3 3-Pt.%), guard J.R. Smith (8.6 ppg, 35.1 3-Pt.%), forward/center Channing Frye (9.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 45.8 FG%, 40.9 3-Pt.%), guard Iman Shumpert (7.5 ppg, 36.0 3-Pt.%), and Tristan Thompson (8.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 60.0 FG%) give the Cavaliers a much deeper, and versatile roster than they have had since James returned three seasons back. 
"We got a lot of new guys. A lot of new pieces. But, our main focus to is going to be defensively I think to start the season," Cavs' head coach Tyronn Lue, said to Ledlow. "I think we have a team now that's built for that. I think having a lot of players that are very versatile."
To put this into clearer context, in 2008-09 the Cavs made a franchise record 656 three-pointers in that season. It has gone up in the three seasons James has been back, with 826 triples in 2014-15. That number increased to 880 the next season, and they became the third team in league history to make 1,000 three-pointers in a season with 1,067 connections from distance. 
Of those 1,067 makes from long range, 353 of them, out of 850 tries were from the corners that is the most by any team in the 21-year history of the tally of shot location data, according to NBA.com writer John Schuhmann. That is a percentage of 41.5.  
James assisted on almost half of his team’s corner three-point makes a season ago, and his 162 assists tally from long range were 31 more than any other player has registered. 
The Cavs made 15 triples or more 27 times during the 2016-17 regular season; ranked 2nd in the league in three-point percentage at 38.4 percent a season ago. Their bench was No. 2 in the league in three-point percentage at 39.5 percent. 
A full commitment to the defensive end will certainly improve the Cavs chances, who last season had a 46-5 record when tied, or leading going into the fourth quarter, but were just 5-26 when they trailed after three quarters. 
The Akron, OH native understands that fate of the Cavs this season and their future rest in the hands and a big part of his motivation during the off-season was watching his 12-year-old and 10-year-old sons play AAU basketball, and their teammates inspired him to get in the gym and work on his craft, which is a scary thing for the East, and the rest of the NBA. 
“We’re trying to win a championship. I have time to give advice to other guys,” James said of his, and the team’s only focus this season. “Either you with us, or against us.” 
If the Cavs make it to The Finals for a fourth year in a row, it will be the eighth straight appearance for James, which would tie him with Celtic Legends K.C. Jones, and Frank Ramsey. The only two players, according to the Elias Sports Bureau with more appearances than the first non-Celtic are current Celtics' color analyst Tom Heinsohn, and fellow legend Sam Jones with nine, and the legendary Bill Russell with 10.
The best way to describe the Cleveland Cavaliers as we enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign is versatile, deep, and motivated. They now can put a big lineup on the hardwood, or a small lineup. They have a to be a team that can shoot from distance, attack the basket, and they have playmakers galore to where they should be able to be one of the top assists teams in the NBA, and no longer be a team that relies on slow down isolations with James facing up on the perimeter or posting up in the half court. 
How this season ends will determine a lot of what happens going forward in Northeast Ohio. The Cavs win the championship; bring James back, and try to entice Thomas, who is a free agent at the end of this season as well to stay and try to win more titles. They could lose in The Finals to supposedly the Warriors again, or perhaps not make it at all, and then it is up in the air if James stays or goes, which makes that unprotected pick the Cavs got in the Irving trade even more valuable.
Best Case Scenario: The Cavs are in the Top 2 in the East Standings, winning north of 55-plus games. They defeat the Warriors in The Finals for their second title in four years. Re-sign James, Thomas and try to win more titles. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Cavs lose in The Finals again to the Warriors. James leaves, and the Cavs break the team down, and begin a new.
Grade: A+
Detroit Pistons: 37-45 (5th Central Division; missed the playoffs) 24-17 at home, 13-28 on the road.
-101.3 ppg-26th; opp. ppg: 102.5-7th; 45.7 rpg-4th Two years ago, the Detroit Pistons put their salary cap chips on the table to re-sign center Andre Drummond, and starting lead guard Reggie Jackson. Both had off seasons a year ago; the Pistons missed the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight seasons; could not make an offer to their starting shooting guard, who was a restricted free agent; said goodbye to their starting power forward, and a backup center. As they enter a new era moving back to downtown Detroit, MI, the Pistons behind their two highest paid players; a sharp shooting rookie; and the acquisition one of the best defensive guards in the NBA hope to return to the playoff mix this spring.
Last season, Jackson (14.5 ppg, 5.2 apg, 36.6 3-Pt.%), missed the first 21 games of the season having platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections to treat tendinosis and to nurse an Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in his right thumb. The Pistons were 11-10 without him, and he never got his game on track, shooting just 42.0 percent from the field, 35.9 percent from three-point range. 
It got to the point where the team wanted his understudy Ish Smith (9.4 ppg, 5.2 apg), to be the starting lead guard because he brought a cohesion, and better offensive flow when he was the starting floor general. 
Center Andre Drummond (13.6 ppg, 13.8 rpg-2nd, NBA, 1.5 spg-Leads team, 53.0 FG%), who signed a new five-year $120 million deal as a restricted free agent the prior summer had a solid season by numbers, ranking No. 9 in 49 double-doubles, but the impact not had the kind of impact on the game like he did the season prior, when he averaged 16.2 points, and an NBA-leading 14.8 boards and was named an All-Star for the first time in his career. 
His struggles from the charity stripe have been well documented, hitting just 38.1 percent for his career, but his attempts went from 7.2 free throws two seasons back, to just 4.4 a season ago. The Pistons as a team went from 24.3 tries at the foul line in 2015-16, to just 19.3 last season.  
Their salaries of Jackson, and Drummond are a big reason they could not re-sign starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and backup center Aron Baynes, who signed with the Lakers, and Celtics respectably in free agency.  
When Jackson, and Drummond were on the floor together, according NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Pistons were a -170, and their net rating was -8.3 points per 100 possessions in their 1,135 minutes. When they both were on the sidelines for 1,260 minutes, the Pistons were +8.1 points per 100 possessions, a mark better than every other team other than the Warriors. 
That is not good for the Pistons, who have most of their salary committed to going forward, that they cannot get things when they share the floor. 
Jackson was one of seven players in the league last season, that shot less than 50 percent on at least 150 field goal attempts in the restricted area. 
Since taking on being both Head Coach, and President of Basketball Operations back in 2014 has made a variety of moves, only to fall short of finding that star to get the Pistons back among the NBA elite. They have had a bunch of pretty good players, but none have emerged to lift the team that calls the “Motor City” home to elite status.
“Our players expected to just sort of go from 44 wins, and move on from there, and as much as we talked about, ‘You got to start over from ground zero,’ I’m not sure mentally we ever did that,” Van Gundy said about his team’s focus a season ago. “We just weren’t ready for how hard it was going to be. I don’t think we were quite as hungry as we were in the 15-16 season. Our approach was never fully right.” 
His latest addition was guard Avery Bradley (16.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 46.3 FG%-career-high, 39.0 3-Pt% w/Celtics) from the Celtics, who was acquired for starting power forward Marcus Morris, and a 2019 Second-Round pick back in July 7.
Bradley will bring a very consistent shooting stroke, and a great value as an on-ball defender to the starting two-guard spot, where he has made the All-Defensive team twice and it would be three had he not missed 27 games in 2016-17 because of injury. Only Houston Rockets All-Star guard Chris Paul, with nine; New Orleans Pelicans swingman Tony Allen with six, and the newest addition Minnesota Timberwolves in Jimmy Butler with three have more All-Defensive team selections among active guards than Bradley. 
“I think Avery’s first of all one of the elite perimeter defenders in the league,” Van Gundy said. “The most important thing he brings is he does those things on a nightly basis. He’s a very consistent guy. You get it day, after day. Game-after-game. I think that will be contagious.” 
The fact that Bradley is in the last year of his contract is a good thing because he will be at his best all season long, and bad in the fact that he could be one-and-done in Detroit because he will want to get paid.
“I feel like I’m a guy that you can rely on, on the defensive end, and a guy that understands his game on the offensive end,” Bradley said about being a defender first, and an offensive player second. “I definitely feel like I understand my identity, and what I bring to each team, and I feel like I’m going to help us on both ends of the floor, and this is going to be a special year for the Detroit Pistons.” 
The Pistons with that in mind signed veteran guard Langston Galloway (7.9 ppg, 39.0 3-Pt.% w/Pelicans & Kings) to a three-year, $21 million deal, and drafted guard Luke Kennard at No. 12 overall out of Duke University in June’s draft.
While he did not enter the league with the same kind of hype that J.J. Redick did 11 years ago, Kennard over the course of his sophomore season developed into a 44 percent of his triples for the Blue Devils, which led him to be a First-Round pick. He backed that up with solid play in Orlando Summer League, where he averaged 17.2 points, shot 46.5 from the floor, and 47.8 percent from three-point range. That marksmanship from long distance should earn him a lot of minutes from Van Gundy, who has a history of not playing rookies a great deal in his time with the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and with the Pistons. 
“Growing up, that was kind of one of my strengths,” Kennard said about his ability to make shots from distance. “I think for me, just continuing to improve my shot, it’ll translate to the NBA game, because three-point shooting is a key in the NBA today. I look forward to transitioning that into the league.” 
Kennard also said that he loved watching fellow three-point marksman, and two-time NBA champion Ray Allen, and back at Duke he watched a lot of Warriors All-Star long-range sniper Klay Thompson. If he ever becomes as prolific as they have been, or are from three-point range, Kennard will play for a long time the Pistons. 
He, Bradley, and Galloway should help the Pistons become a better three-point shooting team across the board in 2016-17, where they were ranked 27th in makes at 7.7; 26th in attempts at 23.4; 28th in percentage at 33.0; and 27th in percentage of shot that were three-point attempts at 26.3. When the Pistons made 11, or more triples last season, their record was 9-3.   
The addition of Bradley at the starting two-guard, and sliding in Tobias Harris (16.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 48.1 FG%, 34.7 3-Pt.%) into Morris former spot at power forward will give the Pistons on paper at least one of the best starting quintets in the NBA. The question for them will be like two years ago, do they have enough off the bench to spell the starters so they do not wear down during the season?
Galloway, and Kennard, along with forward Jon Leuer (10.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 48.0 FG%), the previously mentioned Smith, the return of Anthony Tolliver (7.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 39.1 3-Pt.% w/Kings), for his second stint with the Pistons on a one-year, $2.3 million deal seem like solid understudies, but will the likes of forwards Stanley Johnson, and the re-signed Reggie Bullock, on a two-year, $5 million deal; centers Boban Marjanovic; forward Eric Moreland, who signed a three-year, $5.4 million deal or second-year forward Henry Ellenson develop into a major rotation player. 
The 21-year-old Johnson fell into the doghouse with Coach Van Gundy because he came into his second season out of shape, and when he did play, he showed on consistency. He will have a chance to redeem himself in 2016-17. In his rookie season, he showed that he has the boldness to be a solid wing defender, and he will have to display that kind of focus against the likes of 2017 Finals MVP Kevin Durant, 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs, and 2012, and 2013 Finals MVP LeBron James. 
The Detroit Pistons come into the 2017-18 as a team seeking redemption. Moving into their new home Little Caesars Arena, playing in downtown for the first time in nearly four decades. They should draw well because of the honeymoon period that accompanies the grand opening of a new arena. 
That said, the team enters the upcoming season with a roster where there is no flat out All-Star, and a head coach/president in Van Gundy who in three seasons with the Pistons has won 32, 44, and 37 games in his first three seasons. 
In the prior three-year regimes in team history dating back to the 1987-88 season, the Pistons with Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas at the lead guard spot were 176-70, winning titles in 1989, and 1990. The early stages of the Grant Hill era, the Pistons went 137-109, but no appearances in the Semifinals from 1995-98. Under the guidance of then lead guard, now ESPN basketball analyst Chauncey Billups, the Pistons went 172-74, making it to the Conference Finals in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, winning the third title in franchise history in 2004 beating the Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant led Lakers in The Finals 4-1. The Pistons under Van Gundy have gone just 113-133, with just one playoff appearance, where the Cavs swept them 4-0.  
Best Case Scenario: The Pistons win north of 40 games, and inch into the playoffs. Drummond, and Jackson have bounce back seasons. The create a home court advantage at the Little Caesars Arena. The bench is productive. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Pistons miss the playoffs for the eighth time in the last nine seasons. 
Grade: C-
Indiana Pacers: 42-40 (3rd Central Division; No. 7 Seed in East) 29-12 at home, 13-28 on the road. Lost to the No. 2 Seeded Cleveland Cavaliers 4-0 in East Quarterfinals. 
-105.1 ppg-15th; opp. ppg: 105.3-14tht; 42.0 rpg-26th 
From the second half of this past season, the major question for the Pacers was, will they going to trade Paul George before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2018? With little chance of competing for a title as presently constructed, the Pacers made that tough choice with their face of the franchise the last five seasons makes when they are backed into a corner by their face of the franchise.
On July 6, the Pacers traded the four-time All-Star to the Oklahoma City Thunder, for former Indiana Hoosier guard Victor Oladipo (15.9 ppg, 44.2 FG%-career-high, 36.1 3-Pt.%-career-high w/Thunder), and forward Domantas Sabonis (5.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, w/Thunder). 
“It feels good to be back home,” Oladipo said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg. “I went here obviously for college, and to come back here, and see familiar faces. And to come back here, and see familiar places is a great experience, and it’s a great feeling to, and I’m looking to forward to representing this state well.”
The other collateral damage of the deal was then team president Larry Bird resigning from his position, and being replaced by Kevin Pritchard, who called George’s trade request a “gut punch.”
There was no guarantee however, that George, who flirted the idea he was going to sign with the Lakers next summer, and those chances were even more bleak when he did not make the First, Second, or Third All-NBA teams. 
When the Pacers traded George, they decided to let lead guard Jeff Teague walk in free agency; bought out the contract of shooting guard Monta Ellis, the same day they traded George; and traded sharp shooting swingman C.J. Miles to the Raptors, for backup guard Cory Joseph (9.3 ppg, 3.3 apg, 45.2 FG%, 35.6 3-Pt.% w/Raptors). 
The spotlight now is one the very skilled third-year center Myles Turner (14.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.1 bpg-3rd NBA, 51.1 FG%, 34.8 3-Pt.%), the potential new face of the franchise. 
“He has seen the things that it takes to be a good player in this league, and all of a sudden, this has become a big part of his team,” McMillan said about the 2015-16 All-Rookie Team selection to NBATV’s Rick Kamla. “He has taken on that leadership role. He wants to take that next step as far as leading the Indiana Pacers in the future.”
Alongside Turner, Oladipo, and Sabonis will be veterans Al Jefferson (8.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 49.9 FG%), Lance Stephenson (6.8 ppg, 3.3 apg, 45.0 FG%), who averaged 16.0 points, and 5.3 rebounds, on 50.9 percent from the floor against the Cavs in the six-game setback, and Thaddeus Young (11.0 ppg, 6.21 rpg, 1.5 spg, 52.7 FG%, 38.1 3-Pt.%), who will be counted on to provide leadership, grit, and toughness to help Coach McMillan steady the ship through some expected tough waters in 2017-18.
In Oladipo, who signed a four-year $84 million contract extension 11 months back, the Pacers have a guy who will become a crowd favorite with his high-flying athleticism, and his embraceable personality. 
He made great progress with his outside shot, going from 0.9 triples, and shot 32.7 percent from three-point range back in his rookie season of 2013-14, to a career-high of 1.9 makes from distance, hitting a career-high 36.1 percent of them. The next part of his evolution is to be even more efficient from the outside; become a better defensive player, and bring a level of focus, purpose, and determination to the court in practice, and in games. He said as much to Greenberg. 
“I feel like my past couple of years, I was concerned about so much that kind of consumed by talent. Concerned about what people may think about me. What others are saying. Worrying about stuff that I can’t control. I’m just done,” Oladipo said. “I’m just focused on going out there, and dominating, and doing whatever it takes for my team to win.”
Sabonis, the son of former Portland Trail Blazers’ center Arvydas Sabonis, was very inconsistent in his first NBA season with the Thunder, largely in part of the log jam in the front court positions of power forward, and center. He, like Oladipo will have plenty of opportunities for playing time, and it will be up to the Pacers’ coaching staff, led by head coach Nate McMillan to find out how he, and Turner can forge some chemistry on the floor. 
Along with getting Joseph, the Pacers signed guard Darren Collison, to a two-year, $20 million deal, for his second stint with the Pacers, giving the team two excellent options for the starting point guard spot. 
The Pacers also signed sharp shooting forward Bogan Bogdanovic (13.7 ppg, 44.5 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt.% w/Nets & Wizards) to a two-year, $21 million deal, and drafted with the No. 18 pick in June’s draft stretch big man T.J. Leaf out of UCLA, and guard Glenn Robinson III (6.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 46.7 FG%, 39.2 3-Pt.%), who will be sidelined until mid-December following surgery to repair his injured left ankle. The Pacers also drafted his collegiate teammate with the No. 47 pick, and acquired the draft rights to the No. 52 overall pick guard Edmund Sumner out of Xavier University from the New Orleans Pelicans for cash considerations.  
The new additions should provide the Pacers better efficiency from long distance as according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Pacers in 2016-17 were the only team I the NBA a season ago that ranked in the Top Five in three-point percentage, ranking No. 4 at 37.6 percent, and in the Bottom Five in the percentage of shots that were three-pointers, ranking No. 26 at 27.2. 
The Pacers were also one of only five teams that played at a slower pace, and took a lower percentage of their shots from the restricted area, and three-point range last season, than the prior season.
The Indiana Pacers come into the 2017-18 season as an altered franchise. With the loss of the best player they had since Reggie Miller in George, the hope is that Turner, and Oladipo can elevate from being complimentary players, into the Pacers’ best players. They hope that their front court talent like Sabonis, and Leaf can develop as solid compliments to Turner in the front court. 
“It is a huge transition for us, but we’re excited about it,” McMillan said to Kamla. “We feel that we have some young guys that are hungry, and have some things to prove. We’re excited about this new roster. The young guys we have.” 
Best Case Scenario: The Pacers win 35-plus games, and are in the hunt for the No. 8, and final playoff spot. Turner, and Oladipo become the Pacers’ 1-2 punch of the future. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Pacers struggle to win games, and Turner, and Oladipo have some rough moments in their maturation as leaders of the Pacers.  
Grade: C- 
Miami Heat: 41-41 (3rd Southeast Division; missed the playoffs) 23-18 at home, 18-23 on the road. 
-103.2 ppg-21st; opp. ppg: 102.1-5th; 43.6 rpg-15th
After an 11-30 start, the Miami Heat final finished last season 30-11 record, becoming the first team in NBA history to finish at .500 after that 11-30 beginning. They just missed making the playoffs, because the No. 8 Seeded Bulls won the head-to-head regular season series. When the attempt to sign Gordon Hayward came up short, the Heat decided that to bring back the two players who revived their careers in South Beach; selected perhaps the sleeper of this June’s draft, and signed a key role player that was a major part of the Celtics postseason run a season ago. 
They re-signed Dion Waiters (15.8 ppg-career-high, 4.3 apg, 39.5 3-Pt%), and James Johnson (12.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.6 apg, 47.9 FG%, 34.0 3-Pt.%) who turned career years into a combined $107 million in new contracts this off-season, and the addition of former Celtic Kelly Olynyk, who became a casualty of the addition of Hayward brought that total shelled out by the Heat to $152 million. Not bad for three players that made a combined $10 million a season ago.  
 “Dion Waiters proved to us last season that we have found one of the best two-way guards in the NBA, and we are happy today to be able to sign Dion to a long-term contract,” Heat President Pat Riley said back in July of Waiters, who declined a $3 million player option, and signed a new four-year, $52 million deal.
“We love his game, and his competitiveness. He is an attacker, and an excellent three-point shooter, as well as a defender. He is a player that has no fear in taking the last shot, regardless of the outcome. We believe that continuity has shown to be one of the important things that we do by keeping a team together. Having Dion back in the fold is a big factor in keeping that chemistry together. 
When he was in the lineup, the Heat were won more than they lost. In 20 games Waiters was out from Nov. 28, 2016 to Jan. 3 with a groin injury the Heat were just 5-15.
When Waiters returned to the lineup, he played some of the best basketball of his four-year career, with averages of 16.6 points and 19.3 points per game in January and February respectably. 
He really showed out on Jan. 21 when he tied a career-high with 33 points on 12 for 18 shooting, including 4 for 8 from distance as the Heat won versus the Milwaukee Bucks 109-97. Waiters tied that his career-high of 33 points, going 13 for 20 from the floor, which included 6 for 8 from three-point range, with the last being the game-winner as the Heat won versus the defending champion Warriors 105-102. 
Johnson earned a reportedly new four-year $60 million deal thanks to leading the Heat in scoring off the bench 27 times; in assists 43 times; in block shots 38 times; in rebounds a team-high 31 times; and in steals 28 times. He also posted nine games of 20-plus points off the pine, which was the fourth most in team history.  
He, and his teammate Tyler Johnson (13.7ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 37.2 3-Pt%) became the only set of teammates in the league to record at least 600 points, grab 250 rebounds, and dish out 200 assists off the bench in 2016-17. 
“James Johnson epitomized everything that the Miami Heat is about,” Riley, said of Johnson, who dropped 40 pounds the prior summer, and resulted in his breakout season. “He came in, made a promise to us, and then fulfilled that promise by becoming a world class athlete, thus leading to the best season he has had in the NBA. Today, he is being rewarded for the fulfillment of that promise. We will continue to push him to get him to an even higher level. His signing today, for me personally, and the coaching staff is one of our happiest signings. We are happy for James, and his family as we look for him to have an even greater year next season.”
When Olynyk’s (9.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 51.2 FG%, 35.4 3-Pt.%) spot on the Celtics’ roster was sacrificed to make room to sign Hayward, the Heat pounced and signed him to a reported signed a four-year deal, worth $50 million. 
In late July, they re-signed forward, and Florida native Udonis Haslem to a one-year deal, meaning one of the most popular and respected players in Heat history will finish his career where it began.
The Heat traded the off-injured forward Josh McRoberts to the Mavericks for center A.J. Hammonds, and a 2023 Second-Round pick. 
One area that Waiters, Johnson, and the Heat really used their hot streak at the start of the new year was their ability to shot from three-point range, and defending the long ball. 
They ranked second in the NBA in three-point percentage in wins at 41.0. The Heat were fifth in opponent’s three-point percentage in the fourth quarter; No. 8 in catch, and shoot three-point makes at 8.1, and No. 7 in three-pointers made in victories at 11.4.
In the Heat’s first 41 games, they were ranked No. 26 in three-point percentage, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. They turned that around to reaching the No. 2 mark in the league over the final 41 games of last season. 
While Waiters, and Johnson had break out seasons, so did starting center Hassan Whiteside (17.0 ppg, 14.1 rpg-Led NBA, 2.1 bpg-4th NBA, 55.7 FG%-8th NBA), who was in the same position as they were three years ago. He got his chance with the Heat, got paid two summers ago, and has continued to make himself into one of the best centers left in the NBA, and was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year as season ago. 
In 2016-17, Whiteside had a Heat franchise record of five games where he scored 20 points, and grabbed 20 rebounds. He also set the team record with seven 20 rebound games, and tallied 58 double-doubles, which was tied for fourth in NBA a season ago. 
The biggest area that made him into a primetime center in the NBA last season was his ability to get the ball in the low post, and score. Then on the defensive end, continued his growth as a shot blocker, and intimidator in the paint. The next step for him is to improve his ability to hit free throws, where he shot just 63 percent a year ago. 
In the draft, the Heat might have found the forward to play alongside Whiteside in selecting forward/center Bam Adebayo. The No. 14 overall pick out of Kentucky had some a lot of solid moments over the summer. 
In the 2017 Orlando Summer League, Adebayo averaged 17.5 points, and 8.3 rebounds. In the Las Vegas Summer League, he averaged 15.7 points, and 8.7 rebounds. 
While his offensive game needs some work, Adebayo brings a high motor, and a willingness to learn that should give him a chance to be a major part rotation, especially when the Heat decide to go small with him, and Olynyk on the court together. They will bring an attitude, and a physicality to the second unit. 
Two players rejoining the Heat this season are third-year guard Josh Richardson (10.2 ppg), and forward Justise Winslow (10.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.7 apg), who were limited to just 53, and 18 games respectably because of injury. The hope is both can return to form, especially Richardson, who they re-signed to a new deal, reportedly is for four years at $42 million. 
Along with that, the Heat need their starting lead guard Goran Dragic (20.3 ppg-Led team, 5.8 apg-Led team, 47.5 FG%, 40.5 3-Pt.%) to play at the level he did this summer in leading Slovenia to a Gold Medal at the European Basketball Championships.
“I think the only way to give it proper perspective is it would be similar to the lowest level of Division I program winning the NCAA Tournament,” is how Spoelstra described to Greenberg what his starting point guard did in leading Slovenia to the title over Serbia.
“Goran put that national team jersey on, and he stepped up to a tremendous level. Put the country on his back. They beat Serbia, which is fitting for a Hollywood movie in The Final. He’s half Serbian, and to take home the MVP Trophy, I think is tremendous. I think he’s ready for an All-Star year. Last year, he had an All-Star season. Nobody noticed because of our record. But I think he can play at an even higher level to earn that this year, and his teammates want that for him this year.” 
The Miami Heat enter the 2017-18 season with perspective. While they finished last season strong, their rough start put them behind the eight ball with poor play, and injuries to key people. 
The two best things about the Miami Heat organization that has made them one of the best over the last two-plus decades under former head coach, and now front office man Pat Riley is the fact that they preach defense, and a culture of improving players on and off the court. They also have an incredible leader in Coach Spoelstra, who stands 14 wins of tying Riley for the most wins by a head coach in Heat history that understands that this is a whole new season on the horizon, and it will bring a different set of challenges that the Heat will need to meet if they want to make the postseason in the spring. 
“We like the opportunity that we’ll have in front of us. There are still some very good teams in the East,” Spoelstra said to Greenberg. “We probably would’ve made the playoffs last year if we were able to beat some of those teams going down the stretch. There’s been so much narrative of everybody going West. There’s still some very good teams in the East, and we hope to be one of them.”
Best Case Scenario: The Heat make the playoffs as a No. 7 or No. 8 Seed. Whiteside, and Dragic are in consideration for the All-Star team. Winslow, Adebayo, and Richardson become key cogs in the Heat rotation. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Heat miss the playoffs again.  
Grade: B-
Milwaukee Bucks: 42-40 (2nd Central Division; No. 6 Seed in East) 23-18 at home, 19-22 on the road. Lost to the No. 3 Seeded Toronto Raptors 4-2 in East Quarterfinals.
-103.6 ppg-20th; opp. ppg: 103.8-9th; 40.4 rpg-29th 
While some teams made bold off-season moves via free agency, trades, or the draft, others like the Milwaukee Bucks, who had their first winning season since 2009-10 stood pat, expecting improvement from within. They enter this season with a budding superstar; last season’s rookie of the year; their backup center in the last year of his contract; and hopefully a return of a forward who was really coming on before another knee injury cut his season short again.
The Bucks hired 34-year-old Jon Horst as their new GM, replacing John Hammond, who moved on to the same position with the Orlando Magic. They re-signed veteran swingman Tony Snell to a four-year, $44 million deal, and Jason Terry; drafting forward D.J. Wilson at No. 17 overall out of Michigan, who fits in with the team’s long athletic big man style; acquired the draft rights guard Sterling Brown at No 46 out of Southern Methodist University, and traded the draft rights to guard Sindarius Thornwell to the Los Angeles Clippers for cash considerations. 
The Bucks continued progression from perennial playoff participant to actual contender will rise, or fall with the remarkable, and eyepopping upside of All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was named to the first of hopefully many All-Star selections last February. 
“The Great Freak,” was is the only player in the NBA as season ago, to lead his team in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6) and blocks (1.9-6th NBA) per game, joining Hall of Famers Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, and future Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James.
Along with averaging career-highs in posts, field goal percentage (52.1), rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, the 22-year-old Greece native ranked in the Top 20 in total points, boards, assists, steals, and blocks. He had 33 double-doubles in his first three seasons, and compiled 32 in 2016-17. Antetokounmpo had two career 30-plus point performances entering last season, and produced 18 games scoring 30 or more a season ago.  
“I want to be the MVP, of this team,” Antetokounmpo said of the challenge 2007 league MVP, and future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant issued him for his fifth NBA season. “I got to be the MVP of this team, before I be the MVP of this league. I got to do whatever it takes for my team to win. Because without winning, you can’t be MVP. Without doing whatever it takes for your team to be successful, you can’t win that trophy.” 
The other reason that the Bucks stayed intact this off-season is because of their second, and third best player Khris Middleton, and Jabari Parker, who will basically be new additions because injuries had them on the shelf for most of 2016-17. 
Middleton, whose torn hamstring in Sept. 2016 shelved him for the first 51 games of last season, showed flashes of the player that garnered him a huge contract extension the summer before, averaged 14.7 points, and 3.4 assists on 43.3. percent from three-point range in just 29 games played last season. 
Only Mike Dunleavy, Jr., and Dale Ellis shot higher percentages from three-point range in team history at 41.6, and 41.3 percent respectably than the 40.8 percent from distance Middleton has shot in his Bucks’ career.
The hope is that a full off-season of training, and being a full-go for training camp will get 25-year-old fully back to the guy that was the Bucks best player two years prior to the emergence of Antetokounmpo. Without Middleton, the Bucks were just 23-30, and 19-10 with him in the lineup. 
The Bucks hope the same for their other cornerstone in Parker, who was having a break out season alongside Antetokounmpo, with a 20.1 scoring average, and 6.2 rebounds, hitting 49.0 percent of his shoot, and 36.5 percent of his three-point attempts in 51 games, before going down with his second knee surgery to repair a torn ACL he suffered in the Bucks 106-88 loss versus the Heat on Feb. 8. Ironically it was the same game where Middleton returned to the lineup. 
What is in Parker’s favor is that he is just 22 years of age, but the team has a financial decision to make on him, as he will be a restricted free agent the following summer, where he will be eligible for a contract extension. 
Kidd said to Greenberg that Parker’s rehabilitation is going well, and he knows what he needs to do to get back on the court, and that he will be even stronger because of this.
Until Parker’s expected return near the 2018 All-Star break, the Bucks will count Middleton; second-year forward Thon Maker, who really came on at the end of last season, and in the postseason against the Raptors; 2017 Kia Rookie of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon, and his understudy Matthew Dellavedova. 
“I don’t think we we’re surprised,” Kidd said about how Brogdon, whose nickname is “The President,” performed a season ago. “Just the way he carried himself on the floor, and off the court. He’s very confident. He understands how to play the game the right way, and I thought he fit our system perfectly on the offensive end, and the defensive end. He’s not afraid. He wants to be good. He works extremely hard on his craft, and he’s just starting his journey of understanding what it takes to be one of the top point guards in this league.
The wild cards for them is center Greg Monroe, who is in the final year of his three-year, $50 million deal, and his understudy John Henson. Monroe, who was been linked in most trade rumors kept soldiering on, giving the Bucks low-post scoring, efficient rebounding, and an uncanny ability to find the open man off the bench. His days might be numbered though, even if he performs well this season, because the Bucks may want to use that money to go out, and get a bonified player to be at the point guard spot, and the fact that they will have to address Parker’s future with them. 
Henson for much of his five-year career with the Bucks has flashed moments of being a difference maker on both ends with his ability to rebound, and shot blocking. However, it has come in flashes, and not consistently. He will have to put it all together eventually, especially if they decide to trade Monroe in season. 
For the Bucks, along with being a better rebounding team, finishing better at the basket, their biggest evolution must be their perimeter shooting. 
While they were ranked 10th in three-point percentage at 37.0 percent, and shot 38.5 percent on catch, and shoot threes, and were ranked No. 9 at 41.1 percent on right corner triples a season ago, the Bucks were just 24th in the NBA in three-pointers attempted at 23.7, and just 22nd in makes at 8.8. 
While Snell, Brogdon, Middleton, Mirza Teletovic Terry, Maker, Rashad Vaughn, and Parker had their moments a season ago, the Bucks must become a more prolific from long distance, where they keep the opposition honest, while at the same time continue their effectiveness in the paint, where they were 27-15 last season when they scored 50-plus points in the paint, and 15-25 when they scored less than that, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. 
While Antetokounmpo, ranked No. 2 in the NBA in points in the paint, was one of the worst perimeter shooters in “The Association,” shooting just 27 percent on his three-pointers a season ago.  
The Bucks enter the 2017-18 season as a team with a sense of urgency. After slipping to 33 wins the prior season, they made the 2017 postseason, and had a great showing in the six-game loss in the opening round to the Raptors. 
“When we did make it to the playoffs that first year, we took away the vets, and we wanted the younger guys to grow, and we took a step back, but it was a good step back in the sense of putting guys in different situations.,” Kidd said to Greenberg about the team’s growth back into a playoff team last season. 
“To go through that experience, and I thought that helped us last year when things were going bad, we stayed together as a team, and we found a way to win some games. I thought we played well in that Toronto series, to say we could’ve won it if a shot went in here, or there. But, I thought we gave a great fight, and we learned in that series what it takes to win.”
Best Case Scenario: The Bucks shoot for home court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Antetokounmpo is in the MVP conversation. The Bucks become a more efficient offensive team. Parker returns to have an impact. 
Worst Case Scenario: Bucks are fighting to make the postseason, and their offensive highs, and lows continue. 
Grade: B
New York Knicks: 31-51 (3rd Atlantic Division; missed the playoffs) 19-22 at home, 12-29 on the road. 
-104.3 ppg-T-18th; opp. ppg: 108.0-23rd; 45.2 rpg-5th
The worst thing for any sports franchise to be is dysfunctional, which is what the New York Knicks have been the last three seasons under team president Phil Jackson, whose could not waive that same magical wand in the front office that made him the legendary head coach that won 11 titles with the Bulls and Lakers. After their fourth straight season not making the playoffs, there was a complete upheaval from the front office on down, where the franchise is now in the hands of a player referred to as, “The Unicorn.” 
The Knicks and Jackson parted ways on June 28, but before he was relieved of his duties by owner James Dolan, he and the team brass drafted with the No. 8 overall pick a teenage prospect out of France in guard Frank Ntilikina, who was voted MVP of the FIBA Under-18 championship. 
Jackson’s three-year tenure, where the Knicks were an abysmal 90-171 concluded this summer was his constant disrespect to All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, and even the player he drafted two off-seasons back in forward/center Kristaps Porzingis (18.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.0 bpg-Led team, 45.0 FG%, 35.7 3-Pt.%), who skipped out on his season-ending meeting with Jackson, and went home to Latvia in the press. 
At Media Day though, the Knicks’ new star face said to NBATV’s Rebecca Haarlow that he gave thanks to the man who drafted him three summers ago. 
“I’m thankful for what Phil did to me, and he’s the one who drafted me, and gave me the opportunity to play here in New York, which was a dream of mine,” the No. 4 overall pick said. 
It also did not help Jackson’s cause that he could not let go to the triangle offense that he insisted that each coach the Knicks have had these past three seasons run that offense or they would be shown the door. 
On top of that, some of the moves he made like adding former Bulls in center Joakim Noah (5.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg-Led team, 49.0 FG%), and Derrick Rose were complete busts. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal last summer will be out of the lineup the first 12 games of this season as he will continue the 20-game suspension handed down by the league for using a banned substance.
After Jackson was sent packing, long-time front office man Steve Mills became the team’s new president, and they hired former front office executive with the Sacramento Kings, and Orlando Magic Scott Perry was hired. 
The organization also hired as their Vice President of Player Development former Oregon State University Men’s Basketball Coach (2008-14), and the brother-in-law of the 44th President of the U.S. Barack Obama, Craig Robinson, whose sister is the former First Lady Michelle Obama. Promoted scout Gerald Madkins to Assistant GM; Former Orlando Magic Scout Harold Ellis as Director of Player Personnel; Michael Arcieri, as Director of Basketball Strategy, and former Knick Fred Cofield as scout. 
Now, head coach Jeff Hornacek can go into his second season can run the offensive, and defensive system he wants to run. 
The last piece of business of the off-season for the Knicks was trading Anthony, and the weekend right before the start of training camp, the Knicks finally traded the 10-time All-Star to the Oklahoma City Thunder, for forward/center Enes Kanter (14.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 54.5 FG% w/Thunder), forward Doug McDermott (9.0 ppg, 44.7 FG%, 37.0 3-Pt.%), and a 2018 Second-Round pick, thanks to him waiving his no-trade clause, which was perhaps the fatal mistake by Jackson, when Anthony signed his five-year $124 million deal back in summer of 2014. 
While Perry may be in charge now, he is entering a team that made a couple of questionable moves in the final days of Jackson’s time as team president. 
Besides drafting Ntilikina, who is very young and raw, Mills gave a four-year $71 million deal to guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. (14.5 ppg, 45.5 FG%, 35.7 3-Pt.% w/Hawks) to return to the franchise that drafted him four seasons back. What made a lot of eyebrows be raised about this deal is that it was made before a new GM was signed. The deal also includes a 15 percent. 
"Bringing back Tim to his original NBA home is an exciting time for him, and this franchise," Mills said about the No. 24 overall pick out of the University of Michigan in 2013. 
"As a versatile wing whose game continues to improve, he will fit right into the core players that make up a roster emphasizing athleticism, accountability, and unselfishness."
While Hardaway, Jr. showed stellar improvement with the Hawks last season, his trajectory going forward gives the suggestion he will be a solid role reserve who can come off the bench at times, and be a solid scorer. His signing also signals is that they are not happy with Courtney Lee, who the team signed for a lot of money the prior off-season.
With Anthony no longer in the picture for the Knicks, this is Porzingis’s show, and in the hot seat with him is Kanter, McDermott, Willy Hernangomez (8.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 52.9 FG%), Ron Baker Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Ntilikina, Lance Thomas, and Kyle O’Quinn (6.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 52.1 FG%). 
The Knicks also brought in some veterans to show the young players the way in new additions Michael Beasley (9.4 ppg, 53.2 FG%, 41.9 3-Pt.%), Ramon Sessions, and Jarrett Jack. 
The 2017-18 Knicks can be described as one that will be different. Porzingis is now the face of the franchise moving forward. The team hopes that some of the young players emerge as building blocks for the future; that the drama that has been around the past few seasons is gone, and that they only make headlines for what takes place on the hardwood. 
“I believe I’m ready,” the 22-year-old Porzingis, who played overseas during the summer said to Haarlow. “I worked really hard this summer. I’m excited about the season, but as I said before. It’s not one guy on the team. There’s going to be 15 guys on the team, and everybody’s going to contribute, and help the team win. I’m going to enjoy the role of being the No. 1 option, and try to be the leader of the team.  
Best Case Scenario: The Knicks are competitive night in, and night out. Porzingis establishes himself as an elite up-and-coming player. They find their lead guard of the future. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Knicks have many nights where they get blown out, and Porzingis does not improve his game.
Grade:
Orlando Magic: 29-53 (5th Southeast Division; missed the playoffs) 16-25 at home, 13-28 on the road. 
-101.1 ppg-27th; opp. ppg: 107.6-22nd; 43.2 rpg-20th
Not to sound like a broken record, the Orlando Magic are still in recovery mode from the nightmarish departure of All-Star center Dwight Howard. Four head coaches, including their current one Frank Vogel, and an uncertainty if that franchise torch carrier is even on the roster. With a new front office in place; the selection of a raw, but skilled big man; and the recommitment to develop the young talent, gives a sense of hope for the team that calls Disneyworld home. 
The Magic ousted GM Rob Hennigan, and assistant GM Scott Perry, who is now with the Knicks, and replaced them with John Hammond, who the organization hopes can bring that Midas touch from the Midwest that helped him build an intriguing up, and coming playoff roster in Milwaukee around budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, and head coach Jason Kidd.
Taking over as President of Basketball Operations is Jeff Weltman, who was the right-hand man with the Raptors, and their GM Masai Ujiri. They turned the Raptors into the top dogs in the Atlantic Division, winning for four straight seasons, until the Celtics overtook them a season ago. 
The team also brought back one of its own, hiring recent Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady, who played four of his 15 seasons in the league with the Magic as special assistant to CEO Alex Martins.
Their biggest will be to remake the roster as much as possible, with a small amount of assets available to them. That is front office speak that this will be a long three to four-year slog of more lottery picks, and plenty of player movement at the midseason trade deadline, and over the next couple of off-seasons.
The first big move draft wise for the new regime was the selection of forward/center Jonathan Isaac, who went from a known, to the No. 6 overall pick in a very deep draft in June draft out of nearby Florida State.
While he has very raw, the former Florida State forward brings a versatility to play multiple positions on the front line, which will give him a chance to be a menace in the paint on both ends with his freakish length. There is even a belief amongst the Magic front office that the 19-year-old is still growing, and could reach seven feet in time.
Isaac really showed well during Summer League, but the fact that he needs to add muscle to his skinny frame, and the fact that the Magic front court is very crowded, he’ll will not be thrown into the fire right away, and how much he is feed, must be handled properly so when he is counted on to be a cornerstone, he will take that opportunity and run with it. 
The Magic also used June’s draft to gain assets for the future in acquiring a conditional 2019 Second-Round pick in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies for the rights to the No. 35 pick in forward Ivan Rabb out of University of California. They received a conditional 2020 First-Round pick, and a 2020 Second-Round pick from the 76ers for the rights to the No. 25 overall pick in center Anzejs Pasecniks out of Spain.
That previously mentioned loaded front court consists center Bismack Biyombo (6.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 52.8 FG%), who came to the Magic on a four-year, $72 million deal, who showed last season that he’s still a defensive guy with no offensive game to speak of. 
Biyombo’s inconsistency, as well as then forward/center Serge Ibaka at the defensive end was a tough pill to swallow for Coach Vogel, whose when he was with the Pacers from 2010-2016 never finished outside the top 10 in defensive ranking. On top of that, they lost a league-high eight games a season ago by 30 points or more.
Fourth-year forward Aaron Gordon (12.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 45.3 FG%), who was drafted No. 4 overall in the 2014 draft came with a lot of talent. While he made some strides late last season, with averages of 16.7 points, and 6.2 rebounds on 50.0 percent from the field in March, and April combined, the former Arizona Wildcat has not taken that massive step to becoming a core player on this team. 
In a contract season, where an extension may not come before the Oct. 16 deadline is where the answer will come if Gordon is a major piece of the team going forward, or just a piece.  
“He’s got to just continue to grow,” Vogel said to Greenberg about Gordon, can improve. “He’s got great defensive versatility. He’s worked diligently on his three-point shooting, to add that as a piece of his offensive attack, and the shot selection that goes along with that. He has a chance to be a dynamic player, and we need him to make that step.” 
When he came to the Magic a few years ago in the Howard deal, center Nikola Vucevic developed into a double-double machine that the Magic planned to build around. Over the past two seasons, especially in Vogel’s first season, he really struggled, and has been involved trade rumors. 
Vogel said to Greenberg, that while there will be times that Vucevic, and Biyombo will play on the floor together, it is not an ideal look for the new style they are trying to implement. 
“I firmly believe that you need 48 minutes of solid center play, and both of those guys are going to be major, major contributors for our team this year,” Vogel said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg.  
Two other lottery picks that have been inconsistent have been starting lead guard Elfrid Payton (12.7 ppg, 6.5 apg, 47.1 FG%), and supposed sharp shooting guard Mario Hezonja, who was drafted No. 5 overall in 2015. 
The 22-year-old Croatian Hezonja came in with a lot of hype, but has been nothing but a disappointment in his first two seasons, and his development going forward will tell a lot about if the new regime is working. If he can improve, he and fellow sharp shooter Evan Fournier (17.2 ppg, 35.6 3-Pt.%), who shot just 43.9 percent overall from the floor a season ago, can make life a lot easier for the Magic with their ability to make perimeter shots, and make plays for others.
Payton, who like Gordon is in the final year of his rookie contract has had the worst luck any young player can ever have to start his career, with consistent turnover of the coaching staff, and indecision by the front office of what kind of player they want him to be.
Last season he showed major improvement with averages of 14.6 points, 8.4 assists, and seven boards on 50.8 percent from the field after the All-Star break, with five triple-doubles mixed in. The biggest thing that Payton needs this season, and going forward is for Vogel to give him the proverbial keys to the car, and let him lead the Magic. It would also help if he can become a better three-point shooter. While he did improve his percentage from distance from 26.8 before the All-Star break, to 31.8 after that, he needs to become the kind of shooter that can keep the defense honest.
Even with not a lot of salary cap flexibility, the Magic make some solid signings the likes swingman Jonathon Simmons, who came at a very nice price of three years, $18 million on July 14. He an athletic wing player, who improved a great deal for the Spurs a season ago, and was very impressive during their playoff run, particularly against the now defending champion Warriors when their star player Kawhi Leonard was lost to an ankle injury. 
“It means a lot. Just hearing people talk about the Spurs. Just fans of the game, it means a lot,” Simmons, who signed his multi-year contract on July 14 said to NBATV’s Matt Winer about the respect players, and front office people have for the Spurs, and their winning culture. “Definitely a high volume of value there, and expectations probably from me that I have to live up to coming from there going to Orlando.”
They also added veteran guards Arron Afflalo, who signed a one-year $2.3 million deal for his second stint with the Magic; Shelvin Mack, to a two-year, $12 million deal; and forward Marreese Speights, a Florida native to a one-year, $2.1 million deal. 
These additions, to go along with guards Terrence Ross, and D.J. Augustin will hopefully infuse the roster with perimeter shooting, depth in the frontcourt, and backcourt, and some much-needed veteran wisdom for still a young locker room. 
“All three of those guys are going to have great opportunities to help us win this year,” Vogel said about his lead guard in Payton, and his understudies in Mack, and Augustin. “I think the days of only playing one point guard are far behind us. There’s a lot of situations within the game, or within the season where two point guards are playing together on the floor at the same time in today’s small ball era. All those are going to have opportunities to help us.”
The Orlando Magic enter the 2017-18 season with a better direction. With new leadership in the front office with Hammond, and Weltman, the hope is that the Magic have the kind of captains that will continue to reshape this roster into one that Vogel can work with. Until then, has to shape this current roster into one that has a system that displays the best of their talents. 
“I really think we have to have a one-game at a time mind set,” Vogel said to Greenberg. “We got to build something that our guys feel good about, and we made some progress towards the second-half of the season last year. Those changes are going to pay dividends this year. We planted the seeds for it last year. We had some success with it, and I see it carrying over into this year.”
Best Case Scenario: The Magic are competing for that No. 8 and final playoff spot in the East. Gordon, and Payton have break out years. Isaac, and Hezonja emerge as key contributors.
Worst Case Scenario: The losing gets the team to a point they tune out Vogel. 
Grade: D- 
Philadelphia 76ers: 28-54 (4th Atlantic Division; missed the playoffs) 17-24 at home, 11-30 on the road. 
-102.4 ppg-25th; opp. ppg: 108.1-24th; 42.8 rpg-23rd    
After a rebuilding plan that many in the pro sports world considered extreme, the Philadelphia 76ers are on the precipice of going from what they dubbed “The Process,” to just seeing if they can make progress with young talented players that are finally healthy, and ready to get the organization back to consistent winning. 
Before the NBA Draft on June 22, the Sixers, and GM Brian Colangelo made his first bold move of his tenure by swinging a deal garnering the No. 1 overall pick from the Celtics, sending the No. 3 overall pick, and future First-Round pick to “Beantown.” 
They selected guard Markelle Fultz out of University of Washington, and he will team up with last year’s No. 1 overall pick in swingman Ben Simmons, who missed his rookie season a year ago because of surgery to repair an acute Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, that was sustained before training camp.
The Sixers were so cautious with the former LSU star, that he did not even play in Summer League this off-season. He did say to NBATV’s Rick Kamla recently that he feels great, and is ready for his inaugural season in the NBA. 
“I feel great. Ready to go. I’m excited to be on the floor and playing,” Simmons, who had six points, seven boards, and nine assists in 22 mins in his preseason debut said to Kamla.
So, as we begin this new NBA campaign, the Sixers really do not know what they have in Simmons, the 2016 NCAA Freshmen of the Year. 
Fultz, who can play either point guard, or shooting guards, brings a versatility, and a upside, which he showed in the Utah Summer League putting up averages of 20.0 points on 46.9 percent from the floor. 
Fultz will share the ball handling responsibilities with Simmons, which will compensate for his inconsistency of shooting from the perimeter. 
“Wherever you put me on the court, I’m able to play,” Simmons said to Kamla about being this team’s floor general when called upon. “It’s not much of a change for me. Just better competition.”
The Sixers appear to be set at the center position with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft Joel Embiid (20.2 ppg-Led team, 7.8 rpg-Led team, 2.5 bpg-Led team, 46.6 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt.%).
Fultz, Simmons, and Embiid will also have a talented group of role players to take this journey with in second-year forward Dario Saric (12.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg,); sharp shooting forward Robert Covington (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.9 spg); forward Richaun Holmes (9.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 55.8 FG%); guards Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (6.4 ppg), Justin Anderson (7.1 ppg), and T.J. McConnell (6.9 ppg, 6.6 apg, 46.1 FG%), and center Anzejs Pasecniks, the No. 25 overall pick out of Spain, whose rights were acquired from the Magic for a conditional 2020 First-Round Pick. 
Good health has been an issue for two of the Sixers “Big Three,” as Embiid, who missed the first two seasons of his career because of injury, played in just 31 games in 2016-17, and was shelved in the final 37 games due to meniscus surgery. The Sixers were just 11-26 without their starting center
According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, when Embiid was on the floor a season ago, the Sixers outscored their opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked No. 2 in the East over a full season.  
Despite being outscored by 467 points a season ago, but they were a +67 with Embiid on the floor, then the -534 without him. 
“He’s a beast on the court, but off the court he’s so much fun to be around,” Simmons said about Embiid. “He’s a great person, and he’s a hard worker. That’s definitely one of the guys you want to have leading the team.” 
The organization, and head coach Brett Brown hopes that he can remain healthy this season, and beyond, as they signed him to a five-year $148 million supermax contract extension last week, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. 
One Sixer whose future is right now in limbo is forward/center Jahlil Okafor. The former No. 3 overall pick of the Sixers two years ago is no longer among the Top four options for the team as this new season approaches. 
He plays the same position as Embiid, and the weaknesses he entered the NBA with still linger in terms of his ability to defend, and that he is not athletic as Embiid is. On top of that, the Sixers signed veteran forward/center Amir Johnson, to a one-year $11 million deal to add depth to the front court.  
The Sixers tried to trade Okafor over the summer, but the team could not find any takers, as the league is moving away from having a low-post presence as part of their offensive attack.
The other quandary for the Sixers coming into this season is that Fultz, Simmons, and Embiid have had a taste of what it means to win. In Fultz’s lone season with the Huskies, they had a losing record, and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Simmons lone season in Tigers’ country in 2015-16, they to failed to reach the equivalent of the NCAA’s postseason. Embiid, even though he had a talented teammate in now Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Andrew Wiggins, he did not lead the storied Kansas Jayhawks program to a National title, but to be fair, he was dealing with injuries. 
That was then however, and for the Sixers as a team, it is about the future, and turning this squad of young talented players into a team that learns how to win consistently. 
“Our goal is to win,” Simmons said to Kamla. “We set our individual goals to the side, and put the team first. I believe that is how you win. As long as we do that, I think we’ll be fine.”
That is why along with the signing of Johnson, the team in free agency signed sharp shooting veteran guard J.J. Redick (15.0 ppg, 44.5 FG%, 42.9 3-Pt.%), to a one-year $23 million deal.
While the Sixers ranked 10th in “The Association” in three-pointers made a season ago, they were just 25th in percentage at 34 percent, and have ranked 30th, 29th, and 24th the past three seasons dating back to the 2013-14 campaign at 31.2, 32.0, and 33.9 respectably. 
The team supposedly thought they had their consistent sniper from distance in former lottery pick Nik Staukas, who has been a bust since being acquired from the Sacramento Kings last year. 
Redick’s addition will not only make the Sixers a better three-point shooting team, he will be a shining example to the young players on the kind of work ethic, and focus it takes to become a true pro. 
What will really help the Sixers become a better three-point shooting team is when they decide whether Simmons will operate the offensive from the low post, where he can draw double teams, and kick out to the open man, or been in the open floor, where he can draw attention when he drives to the basket, and he can find the open shooter?
After years of hoping, and wishing for progress, the word to describe the Philadelphia 76ers as the 2017-18 season nears is enthusiastic. 
While setting a high goal of making the playoffs may be too bold dream, as plenty of young teams like the Sixers figure out, having that positive of an outlook after what they have been through these past four seasons is a great thing. 
 “Our goal is the playoffs. Definitely, and that’s everyone’s goal in the locker room from coaches, to the water boys, to everybody with the Sixers” Simmons said to Kamla. “That’s our goal, and we’ll try to get there.”
Best Case Scenario: The Sixers make the playoffs as the No. 8 Seed in East. Simmons, and Embiid are healthy. Fultz, and Simmons are in the hunt for Rookie of the Year. 
Worst Case Scenario: Simmons, and Embiid have more injury issues, and the Sixers miss the playoffs for the sixth year in a row. 
Grade: A-
Toronto Raptors: 51-31 (2nd Atlantic Division; No. 3 Seed East) 28-13 at home, 23-18 on the road. Defeated the No. 6 Seeded Milwaukee 4-2 in East Quarterfinals. Lost to the No. 2 Seeded Cleveland Cavaliers 4-0 in East Semifinals. 
-106.9 ppg-10th; opp. ppg: 102.6-8th; 43.3 rpg-18th  
Last season, the Toronto Raptors on 51 games, marking the first time they had back-to-back seasons of 50-plus wins in franchise history. Unfortunately, their dream of competing for a championship was ended at the hands of the reigning back-to-back-to-back East champion Cavaliers in six games in the Semis. After going all in last season to beat the Cavs, the Raptors resigned their starting lead guard, and their starting power forward in another attempt at to reach The Finals. 
At first, the team that goes by the mantra “We the North” was reluctant to re-sign starting All-Star lead guard Kyle Lowry (22.4-career-high, 7.0 apg-Led team, 4.8 rpg, 1.5 spg-Led team, 46.4 FG%) to a five-year, considering that it would keep him there until age 36, which also scared off other teams.
To reach a happy medium, Raptors’ Team President Masai Ujiri, and Lowry agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal, to keep one of the best starting backcourts of him, and All-Star DeMar DeRozan (27.3 ppg-5th NBA, 5.2 rpg, 3.9 apg, 46.7 FG%) intact, it gives Lowry, native of Philadelphia, PA a contract with a great value of dollars while having another crack at free agency at age 34. 
“Chemistry. The comradery. Everything that plays a part of being a good team” DeRozan, All-NBA Third-Team selection for 2016-17 said NBATV ‘s Sekou Smith earlier in Training Camp. “That was something that was big for us to try keep intact, and we did. Now it on us to try, and take advantage of that.”  
The Raptors also re-signed forward/center Serge Ibaka (14.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 48.0 FG%, 39.1 3-Pt.%), who they acquired at the February trade deadline from the Magic to a three-year $65 million deal. Ibaka averaged 14.2 ppg, 6.8 boards in 23 games with the Raptors after the trade in the regular season, on 45.9 percent from the floor, and 39.8 from three-point range. 
While he has become a much better three-point shooter as his career has gone on, his shot blocks have gone from a career-best of 3.7 in 2011-12, to 1.4, his lowest since his rookie season. For the Raptors to have a fighting chance at winning the East, they need the Ibaka from his time with the Thunder where he was a relentless shot blocker, and rebounder.  
Recently, they also signed guard Norman Powell, who averaged 11.7 points, hitting 44.1 percent from three-point range in the 2017 playoffs (8.4 ppg, 44.9 FG%) to a four-year, $42 million contract extension. 
That pretty much signaled the end of forward DeMarre Carroll, whose inability to stay healthy; to provide secondary scoring, and perimeter defense made him expendable. So, Carroll, along with the final two years left on his contract, at $30 million were dealt to the Nets for center Justin Hamilton, who the Raptors waived, and a 2018 lottery-protected First-Round, and Second-Round pick.
In June’s draft, the Raptors with the No. 23 overall pick chose forward OG Anunoby out of Indiana University.  
The new contracts to Lowry, Ibaka and Powell put a burden on the Raptors salary cap, and as a result, they said goodbye in free agency to the likes of Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker, who they also acquired at the trade deadline.  
Ujiri had to get creative, and he did trading Lowry’s understudy, and Canadian native Cory Joseph, to the Pacers, for sharp shooting forward C.J. Miles (10.7 ppg, 41.3 3-Pt.%), who also agreed to a new three-year, $25 million deal, which will include a player option on the third year. He declined a $4.8 million with the Pacers for the upcoming season in May, which signaled his days with the Pacers were numbered.
Even with all the Raptors have done in the off-season, for them to be a serious contender for a title, they need the likes of second-year backup center Jakob Poeltl; Lowry’s understudies in Delon Wright, and Fred VanFleet to develop into major parts of the team’s rotation. 
“We definitely want to get my minutes down,” Lowry, who missed the final two games of the Semis against the Cavs because of a sprained ankle sustained in Game 2. “I have to learn to sit back, and relax a little bit. We got to trust our backups to go out there, and do their job, because there’s no way for them to get the experience without them being on the floor. There going mean a lot to us, and were going to need them.
More than anything, they need starting center Jonas Valanciunas (12.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 55.7 FG%) to finally step up, and be a valuable scoring option down low, a consistent nine-plus per game rebounder, like he was a season ago, and a shot blocking presence alongside Ibaka. 
The Raptors as a team need to adapt their style of play to one where ball movement, player movement, and three-point shooting are a major part of their offensive approach. 
Last season, the Raptors were dead last in assists per game at 18.5, and according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, they assisted on just 47.0 percent of their field goals a season ago, the lowest assist rate of any NBA team in the last 27 years. Only the 1978-79 San Diego Clippers at 41.4, and the 1989-90 New York Knicks had a lower assist rate in the last 40 seasons than the 47.2 assist to field goal rate of the 2016-17 Raptors.   
While the Raptors ranked 13th in three-point percentage at 36.3 percent, they were 22nd in attempts from distance at 24.3, and tied for 21st in makes at 8.8. 
DeRozan, who for his career has shot 44.6 percent from the floor, has made just 236 triples, on 28.1 percent in his career, and last season took the fewest three-point attempts among the Top 30 scorers in the NBA at 1.7 per contest. 
It’s great that he wants to improve his three-point shot, but the three-time All-Star had a career year because he stayed true to who he is. Taking mid-range jumpers, where he took 160 more pull up two-point jumpers than any other player in “The Association,” a season ago, according to Schuhmann. DeRozan’s break out season was in large part in getting to the free throw line, which he was fifth in attempts a season ago at 8.7, and made 84.2 percent of those chances. 
He also led all NBA wing players in drives per game in 2016-17 at 10.5. That is more than the 9.5 of LeBron James; the 9.4 of Minnesota Timberwolves newest addition Jimmy Butler; the 8.7 of the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo; and the 7.1 of the T’Wolves Andrew Wiggins.
“I’ve always prided myself on trying to always comeback better,” DeRozan said to Smith about improving as a three-point shooter. “That’s the next part for me going into my ninth year. Being able to do that, because at the end of the day, I’m not getting no faster. I’m not jumping no higher. It’s other things that I want to add to my game that I can rely on.”
The three-point shooting to be left to Lowry, who according to Schuhmann was the NBA’s highest volume shooter on pull-up threes, Miles, who made a career-high 41.3 percent as a Pacer in 2016-17, and Ibaka, on occasion.  
If he can improve as a passer out of double teams, and get his teammates open looks, that will take him to an even higher level, and make the Raptors an even better team.  
Resetting their expectations is the best way to describe the Toronto Raptors entering the 2017-18 NBA campaign. On the front end of their four straight postseason appearances, they were knocked out in the opening round losing to the Nets, and Wizards in four, and seven games respectably. They have gotten out of the First-Round in the past two years, but were taken down by the Cavs in six games in the Conference Finals in the 2017 playoffs, and were swept 4-0 by them in the Semis. 
It’s easy to be content of winning 50-plus games and hoping to make a run in the postseason. Competitors do not think like that, and neither do the Raptors. They have high expectations, which is why they paid Lowry, Ibaka, and Powell this off-season, and DeRozan the prior one. The rest of the supporting cast has to seriously develop though if the Raptors want to have a chance to compete for a championship. 
“We need a cultural reset here,” Ujiri said back on May 9. “Yeah, there’s been some success, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to win a championship here. To me making the playoffs is nothing…Now, we have to figure out how we can win in the playoffs. That’s the goal.”
Best Case Scenario: The are a Top 4 team in the East. They reach the Eastern Conference Finals, but fall to the Cavs again. 
Worst Case Scenario: They fall in the Semifinals. 
Grade: B+
Washington Wizards: 49-33 (1st Southeast Division; No. 4 Seed East) 30-11 at home, 19-22 on the road. Defeated the No. 5 Seeded Atlanta Hawks 4-2 in East Quarterfinals. Lost to the No. 1 Seeded Boston Celtics 4-3 in East Semifinals. 
-109.2 ppg-5th; opp. ppg: 107.4-21st; 42.9 rpg-22nd
After a 6-12 start under new head coach Scott Brooks, the Washington Wizards had their best season in nearly 40 years, and came within one game of being in the Eastern Conference Finals. The hope is that by keeping the team intact, especially re-signing their great starting small forward that they will make it one step closer to competing for a championship.
The shift began with All-Star guard John Wall (23.1 ppg-career-high, 10.7 apg-2nd NBA, 2.0 spg-2nd NBA, 45.1 FG%) who had double knee surgery the season prior, made himself into not just an elite guard, but into a top tier player in “The Association” a season ago, and he was rewarded with a four-year, $170 million player veteran exception extension that begins in 2019, and will keep Wall in D.C. through at least 2022.  
Along with the growth of his game, his leadership, and command he had of the team grew tenfold in 2016-17, and so did his relationship with his backcourt mate Bradley Beal (23.1 ppg, 3.5 apg, 48.2 FG%, 40.4 3-Pt.%). 
“I’m happy here, and I’m happy to see all you amazing people here still supporting me for the next six years, and this is the team I want to be with the rest of my career,” Wall said over the summer. 
“So, hopefully we can get that done, and I’m not going to stop until I get a jersey retired here, and a banner here for a championship.”
After getting a new five-year, $128 million contract last offseason, Beal’s game grew a season ago to where he became a better ball handler, playmaker, and defender. It also helped he stayed healthy for the first time in his career, playing a career-high 77 games in 2016-17.
“We all know what our team goal is to play defense first. Get out in transition. Space the floor, and knock down shots,” Wall said. “We’re our biggest critics. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves individually than what the outside world does. We want to be great. We want to be the best backcourt in the league. We want to win a championship here in D.C.,” Beal said. “This is my sixth year. This is his [Wall] eighth. We’ve been together a long time, and our legacy is constantly getting better.”
What impressed Coach Brooks in being around them in his first season was the fact that Wall, and Beal work extremely hard at their craft, and take great pride in it.
“You have to be able to lead the group that you have, and I think they did a good job last year, and I think they’re going to improve in that area,” Brooks said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg about the leadership growth of his starting backcourt. “Brad is one of the best two-way guards in the league, and he really showed that in the playoffs. He can guard, and he can score, and that’s a great asset to have on your team. He also makes his teammates better.”
The breakout season from restricted free agent Otto Porter, Jr. (13.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.5 spg, 51.6 FG%, 43.4 3-Pt.%-5th NBA) earned the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 Draft a new four-year, $106 million deal, that the Nets’ first offered, and the Wizards matched. 
To put Porter’s new deal into context, his $26.6 million salary this season will make him the third highest paid small forward in the league, according to Sportrac.com. Second to him is the newest Celtics’ small forward Gordon Hayward at $32 million, and the highest is LeBron James at $33.3 million. 
While James, and the fourth highest paid small forward in 2017 Finals MVP Kevin Durant have established themselves in the NBA, Porter Jr., game is still growing and he has grown his game from year one to last season.
Think of him as former Phoenix Suns’, Los Angeles Lakers’ small forward Cedric Ceballos, who can defend, and has a jump shot, especially from three-point range.
“Otto has developed into a vital part of our young core, which is why we made it clear that our priority was to keep him here to maintain continuity, and build on the success of this group heading into next season, and beyond,” Wizards’ President Ernie Grunfeld said in July. 
“His versatility, basketball I.Q., and three-point shooting combine to make him a great fit for us on the floor, while his character, and work in the community show why we’re so pleased to have him as a cornerstone of our franchise.”
Speaking of making triples, the Wizards a season ago were No. 8 in “The Association” in three-point accuracy a season ago at 37.2 percent. However, they were just 20th in attempts at 24.8, and 16th in makes at 9.2. 
Last season, Beal led the team in three-pointers made at 223, and connected on 40.4 percent of his attempts. Porter made 148 triples a season ago. After those two however, the next best marksman from distance was Wall with 89 connections, followed by the 71 of Morris, and the 54 from Oubre, Jr. While Morris made 36.2 percent of his three-point attempts, Wall, and Oubre, Jr. made just 32.7, and 28.7 respectably.
One way they can become a better three-point shooting team is getting in the open court with Wall at the controls finding open shooters on the break. In the half court, the team as has to make a commitment at moving the ball better. 
Every team wishes they had three players the caliber of Wall, Beal, and Porter, who are still young, talented, and want to get better. Those players though cost a lot of money to keep, and while they earned those shiny new deals over the last two summers, that left very little room for the Grunfeld, and Owner Ted Leonsis to work with. 
That resulted in them losing sharp shooting forward Bojan Bogdanovic, who the team acquired at the trade deadline, and was a solid fit coming off the bench for the Wizards in the second half of last season. The Wizards also did could not bring back Wall’s understudy the second half of last season in Brandon Jennings.
That perimeter shooting, and scoring punch that Bogdanovic brought of the Wizards’ pine will now be the responsibility of guard Jodie Meeks (9.1 ppg, 40.9 3-Pt.%), who the team signed in free agency to a two-year $6.7 million deal, and forward Mike Scott, to a one-year, $1.7 million deal. They also acquired guard Tim Frazier (7.2 ppg, 5.2 apg) from the New Orleans Pelicans for their 2017 Second-Round pick, to be the understudy to Wall.
Wall, Beal, Porter, starting center Marcin Gortat (10.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg-Led team, 57.9 FG%-5th NBA), and the other starting forward Markieff Morris (14.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 45.7 FG%, 36.2 3-Pt%) comprised one of the best starting quintets in the NBA a season ago, compiling 1,347 minutes. That is 467 more minutes than any other lineup in the league, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. 
The starters missed just 17 games total last season, and neither Wall, Beal, Porter, Gortat, or Morris missed more than six. This was the ninth best of the 46 league wide lineups that played at least 200 minutes together. 
That really caught up to them at the close of the Semis against the Celtics in the Semis a season ago and that is why they lost in seven games. 
If the Wizards plan competing with the likes of the Cavaliers, the Celtics, and Raptors in the East, their starting five must get consistent complimentary play from Meeks, Scott, Frazier, Jason Smith (5.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 52.9 FG%, 47.4 3-Pt.%), and center Ian Mahinmi (5.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 58.6 FG%). They also need one of their young players like forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. (6.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg), guard Thomas Satoransky, or forward Chris McCullough to really develop and become a part of Brooks’ rotation.  
They will be very important to start the 2017-18 campaign as Morris will be on the shelf for six-to-eight weeks after undergoing successful surgery to repair a sports hernia.
The best word to describe the Washington Wizards as the 2017-18 NBA campaign begins is confident. It has been a long time since you can say contender, and Wizards in the same breath. That is the case now with the dynamic backcourt of Beal, and Wall. A solid compliment in Porter, Jr., whose game is growing, and great compliments in Gortat, and Morris, when he comes back. If their second unit can find its way, consistent ball movement becomes a part of their offensive philosophy, play better defense, and win on the road, they can make some noise in the East. 
Best Case Scenario: Wizards win the Southeast Division, and 50 games for the first time since 1978-79. They reach the Eastern Conference Finals. 
Worst Case Scenario: Wizards fall again in the Semis.  
Grade: B-

Western Conference
Dallas Mavericks: 33-49 (5th Southwest Division; missed the playoffs) 21-20 at home, 12-29 on the road. 
-97.9 ppg-30th; opp. ppg: 100.8-4th; 38.6 rpg-30th  
Despite making the postseason in four of the last six years, and in 15 of the last 17 under the direction of Owner Mark Cuban they have been on the brink of having to make the decision of either go into full rebuild mode, or put together a team good enough to make the playoffs and fall in the opening round. They have begun to start the process of rebuilding, with a dynamic new lead guard, and a future Hall of Famer who helped them become a winning organization for nearly two decades.  
With their first lotter selection in the Cuban era, the Mavs selected freshmen lead guard Dennis Smith, Jr. at No. 9 overall out of North Carolina State. 
In the few games that Cuban watched the fifth lead guard of this June’s draft, Smith, Jr. dazzled at the Las Vegas Summer League, displaying the kind of poise, command of a team, and production of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on 45.7 from the floor by the 19-year-old Smith, Jr. in those six summer league games that is rare for a rookie at the most important position on a basketball team. 
The production of, should give head coach Rick Carlisle the green light to start him right from the jump.
Unlike a lot of rookies, who enter a situation with the cupboard barely full of real pros, let alone talented players, Smith, Jr. is entering his first season with great owner in the previously mentioned Cuban; a great head coach in Rick Carlisle and a future Hall of Famer in Dirk Nowitzki, who was in the same shoes as Smith, Jr. is entering.   
Nowitzki (14.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg-Led team, 37.8 3-Pt.%), who many argue is the greatest Maverick to ever play who help turned the Mavericks from one of the worst teams in the league in the 1990s, into a playoff perennial with 15 appearances in Nowitzki’s first 19 seasons, which includes an NBA champions six seasons back over the Heat. Along the way, he made himself into an MVP winner in 2006-07; a 13-time All-Star; 12-time All-NBA selection; and Finals MVP in 2011. 
On Mar. 7 versus the Lakers, he became just the sixth player in NBA history to reach 30,000 points, and is 1,160 points shy of passing the late Wilt Chamberlin to become the No. 5 on the all-time scoring list. 
When this season tips off in the middle of October, Nowitzki will tie future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant of the Lakers for most career seasons with one single team in NBA history with 20. 
“Honestly, I’m fortunate. Blessed to represent the Mavericks for this long,” Nowitzki said in an interview with NBATV’s Jaren Greenberg about his amazing career. “It’s means I was lucky to stay injury for the most part, and I was fortunate with people around me here. With the owner, whose been a great supporter, and fan with Mark. It’s been a pleasure. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it…Here at end, I’m trying to enjoy myself, and still try to help the guys win. Show them a little bit of leadership. Space the floor for them, and hopefully we can have a good year.”
Smith, Jr. will also have a supporting cast that the Mavericks hope will be their nucleus in the years to come in Harrison Barnes (19.2 ppg-Led team, 5.0 rpg, 46.8 FG%, 35.1 3-Pt.%), who went from being the No. 4 or No. 5 option in the Warriors offensive attack, to the top offensive option in “Big-D” and showed that he was more than excelled in that role a season ago. 
Guard Seth Curry (12.8 ppg, 48.1 FG%, 42.5 3-Pt.%-8th NBA) who had fought tooth, and nail to prove he was more than just the brother of two-time MVP Stephen Curry of the Warriors, proved that he can play this game from a shooting and playmaking standpoint. Unfortunately, he will be out indefinitely due to a stress reaction in the left tibia of his leg.
Undrafted rookie guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell (10.0 ppg, 3.7 apg, 38.6 3-Pt.%) in a small sample size showed that he can score and play make for others. Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers, who he lit up for He earned that opportunity by having performances like the one he had on Feb. 3 with a career-high of 32 points, hitting 11 for 17 from the field, including 9 for 11 from three-point range to go along with five assists in helping the Mavericks to a 108-104 victory in a late night national television tilt on ESPN. 
Other players that the Mavericks hope develop in a major way to be a part of their future are second-year forwards Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell (6.7ppg, 4.0 rpg, 51.5 FG%), and forward/center Nerlens Noel (8.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 59.5 FG% w/76ers & Mavericks), who the team acquired from the Sixers at the trade deadline in February. 
The No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 draft showed flashes that he could be a great player, but not enough to require GM Donnie Nelson to break the bank to re-sign the restricted free agent, and he got very little attraction from anyone else. Which is why on Aug. 28 he re-signed with the team on a one-year, $4.1 million deal, and will become a free agent next summer. 
Another undrafted player on the roster that Smith can learn a great deal from about making it in the NBA is sharp shooter and perimeter defensive ace Wesley Matthews (13.5 ppg, 36.3 3-Pt.%), who showed he is regaining some of that toughness and shooting stroke that he had before a serious Achilles injury he had two seasons ago with the Portland Trail Blazers. 
While the rest of the supporting cast may be average at best, veterans like J.J. Barea (10.9 ppg, 5.5 apg, 35.8 3-Pt.%), and Devin Harris (6.7 ppg,), forward Josh McRoberts, who the team acquired from the Heat bring a professionalism and focus to the floor that has made valuable with the Mavs.
For that promise of making it back to the postseason to come to fruition, the Mavericks must become a better offensive team than what they were a season ago. While they were ranked in the middle of the pack in three-point percentage at 35.5 percent, they ranked 27th in assist per game at 20.8, and 29th in field goal percentage at 44.0 percent.
In a league that has emphasized the three-point more, the Mavericks have kept up in that area, tied for fifth in three-pointers made at 10.7 last season, and sixth in attempts at 30.2.
The most efficient ways to score are at the rim or getting to the foul line. Last season, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Mavericks scored 467 fewer points combined in the restricted area and at the free throw line than any other team. Their 35.8 percentage on shot attempts in the painted area was the lowest in the last 20 seasons, and they were dead last in free throw attempts in the league at 18.5 a season ago. 
The lack of free throw attempts by Nowitzki, who has become more a jump shooter late in his career, and Barnes, the Mavericks ranked 29th in free throw rate a season ago. That inefficiency of shots and lack of free throws is why the Mavericks had their worst offensive season in the 19 seasons Nowitzki has been in “Big D.” 
Coming into this season, the Mavericks are a team of hope for the future. They hope Smith, Jr., Powell, Barnes, Curry, and Noel become the foundation of that turns the Mavericks into a playoff perennial that is solid both offensively and defensively. The big plus for them is they will have veterans like Nowitzki, Harris, Barea, and Matthews to lean on to show them the way. 
Best Case Scenario: The Mavericks are competing for the No. 8 and final playoff spot. Smith, Jr. is the Rookie of the Year. Nowitzki is healthy and has a strong end to his career.
Worst Case Scenario: The team struggles again, and Smith has more downs than ups in his rookie season.
Grade: C+ 
Denver Nuggets: 40-42 (4th Northwest Division; missed the playoffs) 22-19 at home, 18-23 on the road. 
-111.7 ppg-3rd; opp. ppg: 111.2-27th; 46.4 rpg-2nd
The 2016-17 Denver Nuggets really showed that they were ready to get back into the playoffs, thanks to the emergence of their Serbian big man, who was the head of their great offensive attack. they hope that they can take that final step in making the playoffs, after a four-year absence. 
While they failed to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season, the Denver Nuggets were right in the thick of being in the postseason before losing out on that No. 8 and final playoff spot to the Trail Blazers.
A big reason for them being in the thick of the playoff scene in the tough West was the stellar improvement from year one to year two of center Nikola Jokic (16.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg-Led team, 4.9 apg, 57.8 FG%), who went from 16 double-doubles the year before, to 39 a season ago. He went from zero triple-doubles the season prior, to six in 2016-17, all coming in the second half of the season, where he averaged 17.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 6.1 assists, on 57.5 percent from the field. That includes the last 30 games of 2016-17, where Jokic averaged 18.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 6.1 assists in 30.8 minutes, garnering five of his six triple-doubles in that stretch.
Since he became the team’s full-time starter at center on Dec. 15, 2016, they ranked second in assists (27.0); third in points per game at 114.4, and fourth in rebounds per contest at 45.1.  
“It speaks to his skill set. His unselfishness. His style of play,” Malone said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg on Media Day on Sept. 26 about the impact of Jokic’s improvement. “Once I think we a lineup change Jared on Dec. 15, putting Nikola in the lineup as a center. From that point on, we had the best offense in the NBA, and Nikola was a big part of that. He’s unselfish. He can score, and he makes everyone around him better, which I think is a true mark of a great player.
In an era where teams have made three-point shooting a major part of their offensive attack, the Nuggets are no different, ranking fourth in catch, and shoot three-point percentage at 39.4 percent a season ago; fifth in catch, and shoot triples made at 8.3; and No. 10 in three-point percentage in their victories at 40.3. Their 870 connections from distance in 2016-17 were No. 7 in the NBA. 
The Nuggets, and head coach Michael Malone hope those numbers are even better this upcoming season alongside the Nuggets prize addition in four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap (18.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.7 apg, 44.2 FG%), who signed a three-year, $90 million deal in the off-season. 

They added another veteran in forward Richard Jefferson, who was traded from the Cavs to the Hawks, and was waived. 
A team full of talented, but young players, the Nuggets signed an interchangeable forward who has a solid enough perimeter game to play at small forward, and a rugged enough game to post-up, and athletic enough to take his defender to the bucket to play power forward.
To put Millsap’s productive career in recent years into context, for the exception of one season, he has never averaged less than 16.6 points per game, and seven boards. 
Along with that, if you look up the definition of consistency, you will see a picture of Millsap’s face. He brings a toughness, and leadership where everyone around him from where he started with the Utah Jazz (12.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 51.6 FG%, 27.4 mpg) his first seven seasons in the NBA, to the last four with the Hawks (17.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg 46.3 FG, 33.2 mpg) he was someone his new Nuggets teammates will respect, appreciate, and trust both on ends. He too has also improved his ability to shoot from the three-point line, going from 27.4 percent with the Jazz, to 33.5 percent with the Hawks.  
Just his presence alone will help a Nuggets team that a season had a league leading 31 different starting lineups a season ago, and missed the playoffs by just one game. 
“We all know that they made the playoffs 10 years in a row. Now we’ve missed the playoffs for four,” coach Malone said to Greenberg about the Nuggets playoff drought. 
“We came very close. We came within a game of making it last season, and we hope to take that momentum from last year into this season, and I think adding a guy like Paul Millsap can help us get over the hump.” 
The addition of Millsap meant that the days of the very popular forward, and last season’s leading scorer Danilo Gallinari were number, and he dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of a three-team deal, where he also signed a new three-year, $65 million contract. The Nuggets received a 2019 Second-Round pick from the Hawks, via the Washington Wizards. 
While Jokic, a.k.a. “The Joker” came into his own a season ago, the Nuggets need some of their other young players to really grow if they want to make the playoffs this upcoming season.
The player specifically under the microscope is third year guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who had a solid rookie season, where in 68 games averaged 12.6 points, and 5.5 assists in 30.4 minutes. A back injury shelved him in February, and limited him to just 55 games, where his numbers dipped to just 12.0 points, and 4.8 assists, in 25.6 minutes.  
Mudiay’s inability to consistently make jumpers, as evidenced by his shooting averages of 36.9 from the field, and 31.7 average from three-point range in 2016-17, is why 34-year-old veteran guard Jameer Nelson started a great deal at lead guard a season ago. It is also why you kept hearing the Nuggets linked to the Cavaliers about acquiring All-Star guard Kyrie Irving. They had a solid mix of quality veterans, and promising young players to put a potential package together, but nothing materialized. 
That is why coming into training camp, Mudiay is competing with second-year guard Jamal Murray (9.9 ppg) for the starting lead guard spot, with Nelson still in toe. Murray though also has to improve his overall shooting, as he shot just 40.4 percent overall from the floor, and 33.4 percent from the three-point line. 
Mudiay is also competing for playing time with improving third-year guard Gary Harris (14.9 ppg, 50.2 FG%, 42.0 3-Pt.%), and Sixth Man of the Year candidate guard Will Barton. 
The team tried this summer to give the former Michigan State guard a contract extension, but nothing materialized, until October, when the team signed Harris to a four-year, $84 million contract extension, a league source told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. 
In June, the team traded their No. 1 pick to the Utah Jazz for ‘6’10” forward Trey Lyles, and with the No. 24 overall pick in the draft, the Nuggets selected forward Tyler Lydon out of Syracuse will add depth to the Nuggets front court, which consists of veteran forwards Darrell Arthur, newest addition Josh Childress, and Kenneth Faried; swingman Wilson Chandler; Sixth Man of the Year candidate Will Barton(13.7 ppg, 37.0 3-Pt.%); center Mason Plumlee, who the team acquired in February from the Trail Blazers for center Jusuf Nurkic, and re-signed the restricted free agent to a new three-year, $41 million deal, and second-year forward Juan Hernangomez, the brother of Knicks’ second-year center Willy. 
One way that coach Malone said to Greenberg about how he will know that the Nuggets have made that jump to becoming a serious playoff contender is if they make the commitment to playing defense each night they take the hardwood. 
While the Nuggets ranked No. 2 in rebound differential at +5.6 in 2016-17, they were next to last, No. 29 in opponent’s field goal percentage at 47.7 percent; No. 28 in three-point percentage allowed at 37.5 percent; tied for 27th in blocks shots per game at 3.9; No. 28 in steals, and tied for 29th in forced turnovers at 11.5. 
“That’s only going to happen if every, and every player fully commits. Buys in, and holds each other accountable,” Malone said to Greenberg about the Nuggets chances of making the playoffs in 2017-18. “I’ll know if were a playoff team, or a competitive team by how well we defend every single night.”
The Denver Nuggets enter the 2017-18 season as an intriguing unit. They have a potent offensive, led by A budding star in Jokic, and a cast of young players that seemingly developing nicely. They added a veteran in Millsap who is productive, and brings a leadership presence that will make the Nuggets’ players understand how to go about their business throughout this season. If they plan to make the playoffs in the stacked Western Conference, they must make playing defense a priority.
“My main objective is to make sure we are improving,” Malone said to Greenberg. “You’re even getting better or getting worse. You never stay the same. We went from 33 wins, to 40 wins, and hopefully we can get up to the mid-40s this year.”
Best Case Scenario: The Nuggets defense improves. Jokic is in the running to be an All-Star. Mudiay really improves, and the Nuggets make the playoffs as a No. 8 Seed. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Nuggets defense struggles again, and they miss the playoffs.
Grade: B
Golden State Warriors: 67-15 (1st Pacific Division; No. 1 Seed West) 36-5 at home, 31-10 on the road. Defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 4-0 in West Quarterfinals. Defeated the Utah Jazz 4-0 in West Semifinals. Defeated the San Antonio Spurs 4-0 in West Finals. Defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1 in NBA Finals.
-115.9 ppg-1st; opp. ppg: 104.3-11th; 44.4 rpg-7th 
After the epic collapse in the 2016 Finals where they fell in seven games, the Golden State Warriors in the off-season snag the prize of that free agency in 2014 MVP, and perennial All-Star Kevin Durant. While they had some adversity to overcome last season, they managed to win the Pacific Division, and the Top Seed in the West for the third year in succession. Swept the first three rounds of the West Playoffs, and made short work of the Cavaliers in The Finals. The off-season was about re-signing all their key personnel, while adding a couple of new pieces. 
They re-signed then reigning back-to-back Kia MVP Stephen Curry (25.3 ppg-10th NBA, 6.6 apg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 spg-T-7th NBA, 46.8 FG%, 41.1 3-Pt.%) to a long overdue super max deal of five years, at $201 million dollars. 
“We know what the bar is when it comes to being a championship winning team, but there are going to be totally different challenges when it comes to the competition,” Curry, whose entering his ninth season in the NBA said to NBATV’s Ros Gold-Onwude at Media Day on Sept. 25. “You got to stay in the moment because nothing in this league is guaranteed, and you can’t take it for granted.”
Durant, the 2016 Finals MVP (25.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.6 bpg-9th NBA, 53.7 FG%, 37.5 3-Pt.%) who had career-highs in field goal percentage, rebounds, and blocks per contest, took less money so that the gang could be all brought back together, signing a two-year deal worth $51.3 million. 
That move allowed General Manager Bob Meyers, owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber to re-sign swingman Andre Igoudala (7.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 52.8 FG%, 36.2 3-Pt%) to a three-year, $48 million deal; backup guard Shaun Livingston to a three-year $24 million deal; starting center ZaZa Pachulia (6.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 53.4 FG%) to a one-year $3.5 million deal; center JaVale McGee to a one-year, $2.3 million deal, and veteran forward David West to a one-year $2.3 million deal. 
It is that act of selflessness why the Warriors will be a tough team to beat again, and Durant plans to bring a focus, and ability to fit in and grow with the team. 
“I just got to continue to approach the game the way I’ve always approached the game. Willing to learn, and be a great teammate,” Durant said to Gold-Onwude. “I may talk a little bit more, cause I’m a little bit more familiar with what we’re doing here. Other than that, I’m still be the same. Approach the game the same way I always did.”
There was enough left in the coffers to sign two more impact players in guard Nick Young (13.2 ppg, 40.4 3-Pt.%) to a one-year, $5.2 million deal; forward Omri Casspi to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. 
They even traded back into this June’s draft to acquire the rights to the No. 38 overall pick in junior forward Jordan Bell out of Oregon, who was drafted by the Bulls, and dealt for cash considerations. 
While on the surface the Warriors seemed to have things go their way in 2016-17 finish, which concluded with a 16-1 finish in the postseason, a 94.1 winning percentage, the best in NBA playoff history, they did have to overcome some adversity on their way to their second title in the last three seasons. 
In the team’s 112-108 loss at the Wizards on Feb. 28, Durant suffered a knee injury that would shelve him for 19 games. His initial absence would shake the Warriors, who lost three nights later at the Bulls 94-87, which ended their league-record regular season streak of two straight defeats at 146 contests.
Even with consecutive victories at the Knicks, and Hawks in their next two games, three straight losses versus the Celtics, at the Minnesota Timberwolves, and at the San Antonio Spurs, the team had sustained three losses in their last five outings, which is something they were unfamiliar with the past three seasons. 
A hard fought 106-104 win versus the Sixers on Mar. 14 began 13 game winning-streak that got them back on track, and they finished the season winning, 14 of their last 16 games. They also got Durant back in the second to last game of the regular season. 
During the winning streak, the sports nation, and NBA fans were reintroduced to the greatness of Curry, his fellow All-Star “Splash Brother” in Klay Thompson (22.3 ppg, 46.8 FG%, 41.4 3-Pt.%), the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year in All-Star forward Draymond Green (10.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.0 apg-Led team, 2.0 spg-Led NBA), as well as Iguodala, Livingston, Pachulia, West, and then rookie Patrick McCaw.
While they made short work of the No. 8 Seeded Trail Blazers in the opening round of the postseason, they lost head coach Steve Kerr earlier in the series after he was overcome by symptoms from a May 5 procedure at Duke University a spinal fluid leak that was from back surgery he had the summer of 2015. 
After sweeping the Jazz in the Semis, the took on the mighty five-time champion Spurs in the Conference Finals and had them on the ropes for much of the opening half in Game 1. The game and the series changed when Pachulia closed hard on a corner three-point attempt by MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard, and he landed on the Pachulia’s foot, and sprained his ankle. 
The Warriors came back to win Game 1 113-111, and Leonard would not play another game in the series, and the Spurs would be swept out of the series 4-0. 
Coach Kerr returned to the sidelines in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, which the Warriors won 132-113 on June 4, and would clinch as mentioned their second title in the last three seasons on their home floor eight days later. 
To achieve what the Warriors have the past three years, it comes down to having an identity, and believing in it. 
Their identity is set around being able to share the ball offensively; to play consistent, and focused defense, and that they play for one another. That is how they led the NBA in assists per game a season ago at 30.4; in field goal percentage at 49.5 percent; and were No. 3 in three-point percentage at 38.3 percent.  
Speaking of their marksmanship from long range, the Warriors 15 or more triples in 17 games last season, and achieved a record of 16-1 in those contests. 
To put this into better perspective, Curry, and Thompson have made 200-plus three-pointers in the last five consecutive seasons, which is first all-time. Before that, future Hall of Famer Ray Allen had three straight seasons of making 200 triples or more from 2000-03. He was tied with last season’s runner-up for league MVP in James Harden of the Rockets, who made 200-plus threes from 2014-17. 
Curry in four of the last five seasons has set new bench marks for threes made in a single-season with 402 threes in 2015-16; 324 in 2016-17; 286 in 2014-15; and 272 in 2012-13. In fourth place is Thompson, who connected on 276 threes in 2015-16. 
That is why they had a 70.5 percent of field goals made that were assisted on, the second highest of all-time, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. Only the 2002-03 Utah Jazz had a higher mark of 72.7 percent, and the Warriors 68.0 percent mark they achieved the third highest mark the season prior, where they won an NBA record 73 regular season games. 
Durant, who as mentioned had one of the most efficient seasons of his 10-year career, going from 36 percent of his jump shots off the catch to 46 percent. He went from a team in the Thunder that ranked last in passes per possession, to the 10th best in the Warriors, despite having the shortest possessions on average. 
Defensively, the reigning NBA champions led “The Association” in field goal percentage against, surrendering just 43.5 percent to the opposition. Their rebound differential was ranked ninth in the league. They were No. 1 in block shots per game at 6.8; in steals at 9.6, and tied with the Wizards in forced turnovers per game at 14.8. 
The word to describe the Golden State Warriors as the 2017-18 NBA campaign approaches is focused. 
That is how they have compiled the most regular wins in a three-year span in NBA history with 207. That is for more than the Hall of Fame tandem Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen led the Bulls to from 1995-98, and is 15 more than the Hall of Fame Trio of Larry Bird, NBATV/NBA on TNT analyst Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish led the Celtics from 1983-86. 
To a man, they know that this season will not be the same as the previous one, but if they can summon anything close to the laser focus they had a season ago, their chances are great at repeating. 
Green said that this season is about being as closed to focus as they were a season ago. Thompson said it about the Warriors not getting complacent, staying hungry, and healthy. Coach Kerr put it best though when he said to Gold-Onwude that he is confident that his team will keep that edge they had last season, but that will be a major challenge for a team that has made three straight trips to The Finals. 
“Part of the challenge is keeping the edge. Keeping the focus, and preparing, and almost pacing ourselves at the same time. It’s an interesting balance.”
Best Case Scenario: The Warriors make it back to The Finals for a fourth consecutive year, and defeat the Cavaliers again to capture that third championship in four seasons. 
Worst Case Scenario: They lose in The Finals.  
Grade: A+
Houston Rockets: 55-27 (2nd Southwest Division; No. 3 West) 30-11 at home, 25-16 on the road. Defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 in West Quarterfinals. Lost to the San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in West Semifinals
-115.3 ppg-2nd; opp. ppg: 109.6-24th; 44.4 rpg-8th 
The addition of new head coach Mike D’Antoni, and his offensive system turned the Rockets into one of the best offensive in the league, and James Harden went from not making any of the three All-NBA teams, to the runner up for league MVP for the second time in the last three seasons. Unfortunately, the Rockets fell to the more experienced Spurs in the Semis in five games, which prompted GM Daryl Morey to overhaul the roster of young players, to bring in a perennial All-NBA floor general, along with players with defensive grit, and toughness. 
On June 28 when the Rockets acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers nine-time All-Star Chris Paul (18.1 ppg, 9.2 apg-4th NBA, 5.0 rpg, 2.0 spg-3rd NBA, 47.6 FG% w/Clippers), for guards Patrick Beverly, and Lou Williams, forward Sam Dekker, forward/center Montrezl Harrell, G-Darrun Hilliard, forward Kyle Wiltjer, a 2018 First-Round pick, and cash considerations. 
“He’s obviously such a great talent. A great leader. A veteran,” Sharp shooting forward Ryan Anderson said about what Paul brings to the team to NBATV’s Steve Smith on Media in late September.  
Paul, who had the choice to opt out of his deal and become a free agent this off-season, said to his former employer, after a conversation with someone Paul knew well on the Rockets, he wanted to be traded to “Clutch City.” 
“It was time. It was time for a change. Not only for me, but maybe for that organization,” Paul, a seven-time All-Defensive First-Team selection said to Smith about leaving L.A, and coming to Houston. “After talking to this guy [Harden], and looking at what they had here. Long conversation with Trevor Ariza, this is the place I wanted to be.”
Harden (29.1 ppg-2nd NBA, 11.2 apg-Led NBA, 8.1 rpg-Led team, 1.5 spg, 44.0 FG%, 34.7 3-Pt.%), whose game exploded across the board with career-highs in nearly every category a season after being moved to the point guard spot, said that this new dynamic with Paul will work because of the time they spent this summer playing pickup ball, and through a lot of conversations with each other. They also understand that it is all about winning and doing the little things now to win, and not worrying about the individual accolades. 
“You put two high-IQ guys that are willing to pass, and willing to sacrifice to do whatever it takes, and quite frankly you got the same goal in mind, and that’s to win a championship, it’s definitely going to work,” Harden, a three-time All-NBA First-Team selection said to Smith. 
The beneficiaries of those passes from Paul, and Harden will be the sharp shooting forward combination of Anderson (13.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 40.3 3-Pt.%), and the previously mentioned Ariza (11.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.8 spg-6th NBA, 34.4 3-Pt.%), who should be getting wide open triple attempt, after wide open triple attempt, with the ability of their backcourt to draw the defense on drives to the basket, or off pick-and-rolls. 
Last season’s Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon (16.2 ppg, 37.2 3-Pt.%), who was healthy for the first time in years, should also have an even more productive season playing with Paul, and Harden. 
“I think he’s one of the best play makers of all-time, and he’s very creative. So, he’s going to make it easier for all of us during crucial moments in the game,” Gordon said about Paul’s playmaking ability to Smith.
Starting center Clint Capela (12.6 ppg-career-high, 8.1 rpg), should have the same sky-high field goal percentage he had a season ago at 64.3 percent third in the league with Paul giving him one lob attempt after another; receiving as pass off a rim run in the open court.
To improve their defense, the Rockets in free agency signed guard P.J. Tucker (6.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 35,7 3-Pt.% w/Suns & Raptors), to a four-year $32 million deal, and forward Luc Mbah a Moute (6.1 ppg, 50.5 FG%, 39.1 3-Pt.% w/Clippers), on a one-year $2.1 million deal; and center Tarik Black to a one-year, $3.3 million. 
The Rockets also re-signed center Nene (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 61,6 FG%), and guard Troy Williamson (9.7 ppg, 38.1 3-Pt.%), to new three-year, $11 million, and $4.69 million deals respectably. 
While the Rockets were tied for third in three-point percentage allowed at 34.3; fifth in steals per game at 8.2, and seventh in forced turnovers per contest at 14.4 a season ago, they only ranked 14th in rebound differential at +0.3, and 23rd in opponent’s field goal percentage, surrendering 46.3 percent. That why Harden mentioned to Smith that the signing of Tucker and Mbah a Moute were as big as the acquisition of Paul, who made the All-Defensive Team nine times in his career. 
“It gives us a lot more versatility. Maybe if we want to switch, or just a little bit more dog at the defensive end, and I think that’s going to help us out as well,” Harden said to Smith.
“What I like about the group that we have this season is we do have so much more veteran leadership, and guys that are going to be more vocal,” Anderson also said to Smith about how the team’s communication in just the early workouts in training camp, which have been led by Paul.   
Even though most of the NBA teams play at a high-octane level at the offensive end, turning the ball over 14.5 times per game like the Rockets did last season, which was tied for 25th a season ago must improve, and having Paul should do just that.
The Rockets hoped to bring in another star player in Carmelo Anthony, who was traded to the Thunder prior to Media Day. Unfortunately, the teams could not make the deal happen, but said that he’s excited more for “Melo” to have a chance to go to a team with chance to win. 
“I don’t think disappointment is the word at all, because we have a great team,” Paul said to Smith. “To see him happy, that was the ultimate thing. For him to be going to OKC, it is what it is. We’ll see him when we see him. The biggest thing at the end of the day is that he’s in a better place.” 
The other thing that the Rockets need to establish coming into this season is will they continue the style of shooting three-pointers early and often this season, while also getting to the rim, and the foul line, or will they have to tweak their offense to where on occasion, they take some 15 to 17-foot jump shots?
Over the last five seasons, all but the 2015-16 campaign have the boys from “Clutch City” ranked No. 1 in three-point attempts in the NBA, which includes an NBA record 40.3 launches from distance in 2016-17. 
They made an NBA record 1,181 triples a season ago; set a new NBA records with 73 games where they hit 10 threes or more, and 10 games where they made 20 three-pointers made. Harden, Gordon, Anderson, and Ariza ranked in the Top 14 for threes made in 2016-17.
According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, after the All-Star break last season, Paul attempted 149 shots from mid-range. The Rockets as a team attempted 147. Paul over the past three seasons has been the league’s second best mid-range shooter, connecting on 48 percent of his shots between the painted area, and the three-point line. In that time also, Paul has taken 42 percent of his shots from mid-range, while the Rockets have reduced their percentage of mid-range shots to eight percent a season ago. In the last five seasons, the Rockets ranked 30th, dead last in shot attempts from mid-range.
In late August, the Rockets put up a for sale sign, and on Sept. 5 had a new owner in Tilman Fertitta. Fertitta, who owns Landry’s Inc., and whose estimated net worth, according to Forbes is $3.1 billion, bought the team from Leslie Alexander for an NBA record $2.2 billion. 
“We've had a wonderful life, and a wonderful family, and lots of good things have happened to me, and I got to a point where I said, 'Gosh. If I laid my head down on the pillow for the last time, the one thing that I've never gotten to accomplish was owning a team in my hometown," Fertitta said on Oct. 10.

"I've looked at other teams in the last few years, but it's just not the same. You just can't own a team, not in your hometown as far as I'm concerned." 
The best way to describe the 2017-18 Rockets is confident. After their collapse against the Spurs in the Semis, where Harden had a rough finish in Game 5 and was invisible in Game 6, to the tune of 10 points on 2 for 11 from the floor. The addition of Paul should free up Harden to do other things, and he will keep Harden engaged, even when things are not going well. They also now have a owner, who said to ESPN's "NBA: The Jump" Rachel Nichols who is all in with his GM Morey, and Coach D'Antoni on winning a title. 
They want to take down the Warriors and whoever is in front of them to win the franchise’s third title. You do not acquire Paul, who has never appeared in the Conference Finals, and will be a free agent at season’s end, or give Harden, scored, or assisted on 4,538 of the Rockets points a season ago one-point shy of Hall of Famer Nate "Tiny" Archibald's record in the 1972-73 season, and signed a record four-year $228 million extension through the 2022-23 season if you are not trying to unseat the Warriors.
“Since his arrival in Houston, James exhibited the incredible work ethic, desire to win, and passion to be the best that has made him one of the most unique, and talented superstars in the history of the game,” Rockets former owner Leslie Alexander said about Harden’s extension on July 8. 
“Additionally, the commitment he has shown tour organization, the city of Houston, and the Rockets fans all over the world makes him a perfect leader in our pursuit of another championship.”
Best Case Scenario: Rockets reach the Conference Finals and take the Warriors to seven games. 
Worst Case Scenario: Rockets fall in the Semifinals again. 
Grade: A-  
Los Angeles Clippers: 51-31 (2nd Pacific Division; No. 4 Seed West) 29-12 at home, 22-19 on the road. Lost to the Utah Jazz 4-3 in West Quarterfinals. 
-108.7 ppg-6th; opp. ppg: 104.4-12th; 43.0 rpg-21st  
The past six seasons have been the best for L.A.’ other pro basketball team with six straight trips to the playoffs, with five of those consisting of 50-plus victories in the regular season. Those six seasons have ended in heart break with injuries to All-Stars Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin, and never reaching the Conference Finals. Last season’s seven-game loss to the Utah Jazz was tough one to stomach, and Clippers made two big decisions on their roster, as well as rearranged the front office personnel. 
On June 28, the Clippers traded Paul, a nine-time All-Star, and four-time All-NBA selection to the Rockets for guards Patrick Beverly (9.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.2 apg, 38.2 3-Pt.% w/Rockets), and Lou Williams (17.5 ppg, 36.5 3-Pt.% w/Lakers & Rockets); forward Sam Dekker (6.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 47.3 FG% w/Rockets); center Montrezl Harrell (9.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 65.2 FG% w/Rockets), a 2018 First-Round pick, and cash considerations.
The team also revamped their front office, with head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers surrendered his as President of Basketball Operations after a conversation with energetic owner Steve Ballmer, and replaced him with Mike Winger, who worked under Sam Presti with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They also added Trent Redden, formerly of the Cavs front office, and Mark Hughes, formerly with the Knicks. In addition, former assistant coach Lawrence Frank moves into the role as President of Basketball Operations, and Hall of Famer Jerry West, “The Logo,” was added as a consultant on June 14. 
"I've owned the team for three years now, and I really better understand what an owner's responsibility is, and it turns out that running a franchise, and coaching are two enormous, and different jobs. The notion that one person can fairly focus one them, and give them all the attention they need isn't the case," Ballmer said on why he stripped Rivers of his front office duties. 
To add depth to the lead guard spot, the Clippers signed European guard Milos Teodosic to a three-year, $20 million deal. The six-time All-EuroLeague selection averaged 16.3 points, and 6.5 assists with CSKA Moscow in 2016-17.
While Griffin (21.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.9 apg,49.3 FG%) opted out of the last year of his deal to become a restricted free agent, and had a meeting with the Phoenix Suns, the Clippers gave the five-time All-Star five years, and $173 million reasons to return where he has played his entire career. 
“We’ll lean on our guys that have already been here, and know our system to really help our guys that haven’t, and I think that will help move us along a little faster as well” Griffin, who has missed 83 games the past three regular seasons, and six playoff games the past two seasons because of various injuries. 
When healthy, he is one of great all-around talents in the NBA, as only the late Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlin, and 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell have averaged more assist per game in their careers, than the 4.1 of Griffin.
The Clippers signed in free agency center Willie Reed, to a one-year $1.5 million. He and Harrell will be called upon to provide rebounding; presence on the defensive, and offensive glass, and hopefully added rim protection, which should be a big help to starting center DeAndre Jordan (12.7 ppg, 13.8 rpg-3rd NBA, 1.7 bpg-Led team; 71.4 FG%-Led NBA). 
The only issue with Jordan, and Harrell, who the Rockets did want to include in the Paul deal are not good foul shooters, at 39.0 percent for Jordan, and 62.8 percent for Harrell respectably a season ago. That could be a major problem for the Clippers, especially if either or both are on the floor in the closing moments of games. 
The Clippers also added that much needed small forward, by acquiring forward Danilo Gallinari (18.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 44.7 FG%, 38.9 3-Pt% w/Nuggets) in a three-team deal that involved the Nuggets, and Hawks, sending center Diamond Stone, three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, and a 2018 protected First-Round pick to the Hawks. Gallinari before the trade, signed a new three-year $65 million deal.
The Clippers hoped that the injury history of Gallinari was behind him, but the 28-year-old sustained an injured right thumb when he slugged the Netherlands’ Jito Kok in a European exhibition game while playing for the Italian national team over the summer. It did not keep him out of training camp. 
In June’s draft, the Clippers acquired the draft rights of guard Sindarius Thornwell, the No. 48 overall pick out of South Carolina from the Bucks for cash considerations. 
“I think we’re deeper. I think we have more talent than we did last year overall,” Glenn “Doc” Rivers, whose entering his fifth season as the team’s head coach said about his team entering training camp. “But, we’ll see how it fits, and how it works.” 
While replacing Paul, who 9.8 assists per contest has led the NBA since he was traded to L.A. prior to the 2011-12 campaign will be a difficult task to say the least, Beverly, Teodosic, and Austin Rivers (12.0 ppg, 37.1 3-Pt.%), head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers’ son each bring a major skill to the table that will be beneficial to the Clippers. 
Beverly, a 2016-17 All-NBA First-Team selection brings a defensive minded, get after you, agitate, and disruptive attitude to the floor each night. Tedosoic, a three-time All-Euroleague First-Team selection, and led Serbia to the Silver medal in the Rio Olympics last year, brings an uncanny ability to pass the basketball, and can shoot the ball very accurately. Rivers brings an ability to defend, and shoot from the perimeter, as well as play make for others. 
“Our goal is to come out of camp, coming out of preseason with our chemistry made up,” Austin said. “Chemistry right now with us is already setting in place. So, I can’t for it to start to work on the floor.”
According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, no NBA team had a bigger drop off from its starting five to its reserves than the Clippers, with the starters having a plus-9.6 net rating, and the bench a -3.8. That is a 13.4 difference. 
The Los Angeles Clippers enter the 2017-18 season as an organization with a new outlook, and motivation. 
“Everybody is going to have to pick up the load a little bit more, especially the guys that are returning. Myself, and D.J., “Griffin said to NBATV’s Sekou Smith. “We’re both going to be asked to take on a bigger leadership role. That’s something we’re both very excited about. Having a chance to put your imprint on the team is very exciting, and I think that’s something we’re looking forward to.” 
They had six wonderful years of Chris Paul as their floor general. They had great success in the regular season, but could not cash in during the postseason. Whether the changes in the front office, a deeper roster and the hopefully rise in leadership from Griffin, and Jordan leads to more fruitfulness in the playoffs for the Clippers is a major question, especially with a deep Western Conference. 
Best Case Scenario: The Clippers are in the playoffs as a middle-seeded team in the West. Griffin remains healthy. The bench is productive, and they reach the Second-Round. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Clippers miss the playoffs; Griffin has injury problems again, and they consider trading Jordan.
Grade: B-
Los Angeles Lakers: 26-56 (4th Pacific Division; missed the playoffs) 17-24 at home, 9-32 on the road. 
-104.6 ppg-17th; opp. ppg: 111.5-28th; 4
In the first 65 seasons of the storied history of the 16-time NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, dating back to their 12 seasons in Minneapolis, MN, they had a .618 winning percentage, with just three 50-plus loss seasons, and missing the playoffs a total of five times. The last four seasons though have been a real stinker with four consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs appearances, losing 50-plus games, and garnering a win percentage of just .277 during that time. Changes in the front office, a solid draft, which included the selection of a once-in-a-lifetime play making Southern California teen with superstar potential has given a sense of hope of better days ahead in Southern California. 
Lakers’ Governor Jeanie Buss on Feb. 21 hired Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson and his famed 90-watt smile as President of Basketball Operations, and then on Mar. 7 hired longtime agent Rob Pelinka as the new GM. 
Their first was trading the head scratching contract of center Timofey Mozgov to the Nets, along with former No. 2 overall pick in 2015 guard D’Angelo Russell for former All-Star center, Brook Lopez (20.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 47.4 FG%, 34.6 3-Pt.% w/Nets), and the Nets’ No. 1 pick, which the Lakers used to draft forward Kyle Kuzma out of University of Utah at No. 27 overall in June. 
While a certain new lead guard stole the show at the Las Vegas, more on that in a moment, Kuzma introduced himself to the Lakers very well. He displayed his athleticism, and showed a decent stroke from three-point range.
That move not only free up money the Lakers can use to possibly sign a A-List free agent or two next summer.
With the No. 2 overall pick, the Lakers selected Southern California native, guard Lonzo Ball out of UCLA.
The 19-year-old Ball brings an ability to see the floor, and find open teammates that breeds confidence into the team. That is the kind of playmaking that will make his new teammates in second-year forwards Larry Nance, Jr. (7.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 52.6 FG%), and Brandon Ingram (9.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg), who did not receive a First, Second, or Third place vote for Rookie of the Year; Jordan Clarkson (14.7 ppg, 44.5 FG%), Ivica Zubac (7.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 52.9 FG%), and Julius Randle (13.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 3.6 apg, 48.7 FG%) even better. 
“That’s the point guard’s job,” Ball said to NBATV’s Sekou Smith, and Dennis Scott during Real Training Camp. “Know everybody, and know all the plays. Basically, a coach on the floor. To get everybody to click, and work together. Best unit is going to play together, and try to get as many wins as we can.”
To put into perspective how he has taken the league and the country by storm, people flocked to the Las Vegas Summer League to watch him in action. 
Those fans got their money’s worth, as Ball averaged 9.3 assists per game in the 2017 Las Vegas Summer League, in helping the Lakers win the championship. 
If Ball can display that this upcoming season to become just the fourth player in league history to be 6’6” and taller to average nine-plus assists for a single season, which includes his new boss “Magic” Johnson, who did it 10 times. Former All-Star guard, and Turner Sports sideline reporter Reggie Theus did for the Sacramento Kings in the 1985-86 season, and the most recent to do it was then New Orleans Hornet Greivis Vasquez in the 2012-13 campaign.   
While his perimeter shot needs work, and he displayed that in Summer League, Ball has an ability to attack the rim, and unbelievable court vision that will make the Lakers’ wing players, and big men run harder in the open court; make crisper, harder cuts to the basket, and set better, and harder screens to get people open to get shot attempts on the perimeter, and at the rim in the half court. 
Ball will more than anything will add an entertainment value that bring the fan base out to the Staples Center. 
“We know it’s going to be a challenge, especially playing in the West,” Ball said to Scott, and Smith. “We just trying to focus on ourselves right now. Playing a lot of defense right now, and running. That’s what we want our identity to be, So, that’s what we’re working on.”
Along with selecting Ball, the Lakers also acquired the draft rights to the No. 30 overall pick in guard Josh Hart out of Villanova, and the No. 42 overall selection in center Thomas Bryant out of the University of Indiana from the Jazz for center Tony Bradley out of North Carolina. 
While the trade of Russell, and Mozgov provided the Lakers with a solid veteran presence in Lopez, the fourth best scoring center in “The Association,” in 2016-17, he will give head coach Luke Walton a low post threat in the half court. He will also provide another perimeter threat, as Lopez led all centers with 134 triples made in 387 attempts in 2016-17, very different from the 3 for 31 he shot in his first eight seasons combined. On top of that, he only has one year left on his contract, which helps the Lakers maintain salary cap flexibility. 
That is the reason the Lakers signed free agent guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (13.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 35.0 3-Pt.%) to just a one-year deal at $17 million; retained guard Tyler Ennis on a two-year, $3.1 million deal; and center Andrew Bogut on the veteran minimum of one-year at $2.3 million. 
The one contract that the Lakers would love to get off the books is the three years at $17 million per left on veteran forward Luol Deng’s (7.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg). 
Both Caldwell-Pope, and Bogut, like Lopez will bring a veteran presence to the locker room that the young core should feed off. KCP will also provide perimeter defense, and a streaky three-point shooter, whose game might rise playing alongside Ball. Bogut, and Lopez should provide the Lakers deterrents in the paint, as well as for their leadership, particularly at the defensive end.   
According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Lakers allowed 19.6 points per game in transition 2016-17, the highest mark in the NBA. Over the last two seasons, the Lakers have allowed 841 fast break points in the first quarter, almost 100 more than any other NBA team. The Lakers were 30th in opponent’s field goal percentage, and 27th in block shots at 3.9.
Building for the future is the perfect way to describe the 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers. They want to save as much cap space as possible to lure an A-List player in free agency next off-season, like Paul George, who was traded to the Thunder earlier this summer, and will be a free agent at season’s end, or four-time league MVP of the Cavaliers LeBron James, who will also be a free agent at season’s end. 
“Well it’s a new time. We got to build around a lot of young, exciting players,” Johnson said to Scott, and Smith about the state of the Lakers currently. “What we had to do is strip is just strip it all down, to build it all up.” 
While there will be some growing pains along this journey, if Ball can come anywhere close to living up to the hype he has garnered from his play in the Las Vegas Summer League, where the Lakers won the championship, that along with the money will attract free agents, and eventually get the Lakers back into becoming a playoff perennial, and hopefully competing for more titles. 
“The dream is here now. No more dreaming now. You got to go get it, and get after it,” Ball said to Scott, and Smith. “Just in here trying to work every day. As long as I put in the work I feel is right, and use the tools that I have around here, I think I should be okay.”
Best Case Scenario: The Lakers win over 30 games. Ball is Rookie of the Year, and the likes of Ingram, Randle, Kuzma, Hart, Nance, Jr., and Clarkson develop into the core of the future. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Lakers show no progress, or improvement, and they have a couple of double-digit losing streaks. 
Grade: B
Memphis Grizzlies: 43-39 (3rd Southwest Division; No. 7 Seed West) 24-17 at home, 19-22 on the road. Defeated by No. 2 San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in West Quarterfinals.  
-100.5 ppg-29th; opp. ppg: 100.0-3rd; 42.8 rpg-24th
While some teams know what their identity will be this season, some teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, who made some changes to their roster this off-season will have to figure that out. 
For the past seven seasons, the team’s moto has been “Girt-N-Grind.” With exits in the opening round for two straight postseasons, the question for them is can they still live by that mantra, that has carried them to seven consecutive playoff appearances with some new players in the fold? 
Last summer, the team made Mike Conley the highest-paid player in NBA history when he re-signed a new five-year, $153 million deal, and signed then free agent forward Chandler Parsons to mega contract of four years at $94 million. The total between those two was $244 million. 
While Conley (20.5 ppg-Led team, 6.3 apg, 3.5 rpg, 46.0 FG%, 40.8 3-Pt.%) put up career-highs across the board for first-year head coach David Fizdale, and back it up with averages of 24.7 points, seven assists, and 1.7 steals, on 48.5, and 44.7 from the field, and three-point range respectably in their six-game setback to the Spurs in the postseason, the 28-year-old Parsons spent more time in Los Angeles rehabbing another knee injury, than making an impact on the hardwood a season ago. 
Since playing 76, and 74 games in 2012-13, and 2013-14 respectably with the Rockets, Injuries in his time with the Mavericks, and last season with the Grizzlies have limited him to just 66, to 61, to just 34 games. 
He was supposed to be the necessary medicine for the Grizzlies, who throughout the “Grind House” years lacked consistent scoring at the forward, and guard position. Instead, Parsons, who shot career-lows of 33.8 percent from the field, and just 26.9 percent from three-point range a season ago.
Last season, it was center Marc Gasol (19.5 ppg-career-high, 6.3 rpg, 4.6 apg-career-high, 45.9 FG%), and Conley that provided most of the three-point attempts for the Grizzlies, with 419 attempts from distance for Conley, and 268 for Gasol, earned a new five-year $100 million contract in the summer of 2015. The prior three seasons, Gasol only attempted 31 triples, and attempted 268 in 2016-17. Of those 31 attempts, he made just 10, but made 104 threes last season, and shot 38.8 percent. Conley shot 419 three-point attempts a season ago, a new career-high, after 215, 277, and 291 his first three seasons.
Gasol, and Conley, who earned every cent of those massive contracts, but were a big reason the team could not re-sign forward Zach Randolph and the ageless swingman Vince Carter, who left in free agency to sign with the Sacramento Kings, or perimeter defensive ace Tony Allen, who signed with the New Orleans Pelicans. That is over 3,000 games of experience that left Memphis, TN. 
The also said goodbye to guard Troy Daniels, who was dealt to the Phoenix Suns right before training camp in late September, along with a 2018 Second-Round pick, in exchange for a their 2018 Second-Round pick.
Randolph, and Allen in particularly were the heart and soul of the Grizzlies mantra the “Grind House,” which was the nickname for their home court FedEx Forum, that made those seven straight postseason appearances under then head coach Lionel Hollins, Dave Joerger, head coach of the Kings, and now Fizdale. 
“It’s unbelievable,” Conley said about the all the changes the Grizzlies went through this off-season.  “We’ve been here a long time, and we knew at some point, transition was going to have to happen we’re going to be in, and out. We can’t keep everybody forever. For guys like me, and Marc, we’re just going to have to be ready to face the challenge.”
Randolph, whose nickname throughout his career is “Z-Bo” personified the hard work, lunch pail personification of the Grizzlies the last five seasons, where they way they played was not always pretty to see, but kept the elite squads in the West on their toes. 
He really showed that a season ago, where he was asked to come off the bench, and let forward JaMychal Green (8.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 50.1 FG%) start at power forward. Randolph did so without making a peep, and he had a solid season in that new role.
That earned the restricted free agent a new two-year deal, worth over $17 million in late September. Not bad for a guy that went undrafted out of University of Alabama, and played two seasons in the G-League before signing a three-year deal with the Grizzlies in 2015. 
The small amount of cap space the Grizzlies had available, the signed in free agency guards Ben McLemore (8.1 ppg, 38.2 3-Pt% w/Kings), and 2010 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans (10.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.1 rpg w/Pelicans & Grizzlies) to two and one-year deals, worth $10, and $3.2 million respectably. They also signed for his second tour of duty former Heat guard Mario Chalmers, to a one-year, $2.1 million deal. 
McLemore was among the best prospects when he was drafted No. 7 overall by the Kings four years ago, but never found his footing with them, and they simply gave up on him. He hoped to have a fresh start with the Grizzlies, but a broken foot sustained during a summer workout in L.A. will shelve McLemore for up to 12 weeks. 
Evans, who had such a promising start to his career, which also started in the capital of California. But injuries to the 2010 Rookie of the Year, that averaged 20.1 points per game, and played his collegiate years at the University of Memphis has played in just 65 games the past three seasons, including just 40 a season ago with the New Orleans Pelicans, and only got one offer for just one season. Shooting just 40.5 percent from the field in 2016-17 did not help his cause either. 
Chalmers, who played a major role when the Heat made it to The Finals four straight seasons, from 2010-14, will bring oodles of playoff experience, but he is on the back nine of his career, and he too has an injury history, as he missed all last season with an Achilles issue.
In the draft, they acquired from the Magic, the rights to the No. 35 overall pick forward Ivan Rabb out of California, and the right to the No. 45 overall pick forward Dillon Brooks out of Oregon. 
These new additions, along with second-year guard Wade Baldwin IV; second-year center Deyonta Davis; forward James Ennis III (6.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 45.5 FG%, 37.2 3-Pt.%); guard Andrew Harrison (5.9 ppg); forward Jarell Martin, and Wade Selden need to make serious jumps in their games, and become important parts of the Grizzlies rotation this season and for the future. 
One area the Grizzlies need to be better at is being able to defend without putting their opposition near, or in the bonus early in quarters. 
Last season, the Grizzlies were No. 2 in the NBA in fouls per game a season ago, drawing the whistle from the referees on an average of 22.4 times, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. While the Grizzles had a Top 10 Defense for the sixth time in the last seven years, but allowed 2.4 more points per game at the free throw line than the league average. 
If there is one thing that Fizdale brought with him from being a longtime assistant with the Heat is a competitive, stand up, take no prisoners mentality of no retreat, no surrender, and he will expect that from his team in his second season on the bench. All they need to do is look at the tape of the presser of their head coach after the Grizzlies Game 2 loss in the First-Round at the Spurs in the 2017 Playoffs. 
“We don’t get the respect that these guys deserve, cause Mike Conley doesn’t go crazy. He has class, and he just plays the game. But I’m not going to let them treat us that way. I know “Pop” [Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich] got pedigree, and I’m a young rookie, but the they’re not going to rook us like. That’s unacceptable. That was unprofessional. My guys dug in that game, and earned the right to be in that game, and they did not even give us a chance. Take that for data.” Grizzlies get off to a rocky start this season, and it looks like their run of consecutive postseason appearances looks like it will not continue, they might consider trading Gasol. 
The 2017-18 Memphis Grizzlies enter the season as a team in transition. They thankfully have Gasol, and Conley, who coach Fizdale will lean on to guide the Grizzlies to an eighth straight postseason appearance. They will need Parsons to play at the level of the money he is being paid, providing three-point shooting, and to create offense for others. 
With Randolph, Allen, and Randolph gone, the likes of Ennis III, Davis, Green, rookies Rabb or Brooks must emerge as important rotation players, while playing their game, not trying to be Randolph, or Allen. 
“What we cannot do is expect any of the new guys, or other guys to be those two guys,” Gasol said of the other Grizzlies players to be Randolph, or Allen. “The things they brought to the table. Who they were to the team, and the community. Those shoes cannot be filled by any of those guys.”
Best Case Scenario: The Grizzlies make the playoffs as a lower seed. Parsons has a bounce back season. They put up a fight in the opening round. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Grizzlies consecutive postseason streak ends at seven. The supporting cast struggles again. They consider trading Gasol. 
Grade: C-
Minnesota Timberwolves: 31-51 (5th Northwest Division; missed the playoffs) 20-21 at home, 11-30 on the road. 
-105.6 ppg-13th; opp. ppg: 106.7-T-18th; 42.4 rpg-25th
It has been 13 years since the Minnesota Timberwolves were in the postseason. When Tom Thibodeau was hired as head coach/ President of Basketball Operations last off-season, there was hope that dubious drought would conclude last season. It did not, so Thibs added some veterans, with a couple being former players of his from his time as Bulls’ head coach. 
The first former Bull to come to the “Twin Cities” was three-time All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler (23.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.5 apg, 45.5 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt. w/Bulls), who they acquired back on the night of the NBA Draft back in June, along with draft rights to the No. 16 overall pick in center Justin Patton out of Creighton from the Bulls, for guards Kris Dunn, and Zach LaVine, who were dealt to the Bulls, along with the rights to the No. 7 overall pick in forward Lauri Markkanen out of the University of Arizona. 
“We pursued it, and we felt we were very fortunate to be able to get him,” Thibs said about the addition of Butler. “The fact that Jimmy is a two-way player. He obviously came into the league being great defensively, and he’s become great offensively, but the fact that he’s also a very unselfish player. A playmaker, and a great closer. We felt those were things that we needed.”  
Besides providing a great offensive skill set, Butler brings instant credibility, and a get after it attitude at the defensive end, which he honed under Thibs’ leadership with the Bulls. He also brings a work ethic that will toughen up the Timberwolves players instantly, and an ability to work with start players, which Butler did in the early part of his career with now Cavs’ guard Derrick Rose when he was MVP six seasons back, and with Dwyane Wade a season ago. 
That will allow him to mesh with the prior No. 1 overall picks, and the 2015 and 2016 Rookies of the Year in guard Andrew Wiggins (23.6 ppg, 45.2 FG%, 35.6 3-Pt.%), who finally signed his contract extension of five years at 146.5 million, and superstar center in waiting Karl-Anthony Towns (25.1 ppg-Led team, 12.3 rpg-6th NBA, 54.2 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt.%). 
From the time that the extension was offered to Wiggins back in August, Wiggins had fired his agent, and had a face-to-face meeting with Owner Glen Taylor before saying yes to the new-deal. 
“It’s a relief. It’s a relief,” the 22-year-old Canadian said. “That’s some money that most people don’t see in a lifetime. So, I’m just thankful for it. My family is going to be forever in a good position. So, it’s a blessing.”
Along with adding Butler, the T’Wolves another former Bulls in forward Taj Gibson (10.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 51.5 FG% w/Bulls & Thunder), who signed a two-year, $28 million deal in the off-season. 
They also signed veteran guard Jeff Teague (15.3 ppg, 7.8 apg, 4.0 rpg, 35.7 3-Pt.% w/Pacers), who will take the place of former lead guard Ricky Rubio, who was dealt on June 30 to the Jazz for a protected future First-Round pick from the Thunder, to a three-year $57 million deal; and three-time Sixth Man of the Year recipient Jamal Crawford (12.3 ppg, 36.0 3-Pt.% w/Clippers), to a two-year $8.8 million deal. The team also added veteran guard Aaron Brooks, and guard Marcus Georges-Hunt. 
"I know the West is going to be tough, but I think we're building a team right now where we can really compete," Teague said about the T'Wolves prospects for this season. "Being in the playoffs every year of my career, I expect nothing less." 
Gibson, brings an ability to impact the game on both ends, whether he starts, or comes off the bench. Teague, who will replace former lead guard Ricky Rubio, brings a steadiness, where he can score at the rim, from three-point range, can make plays for others, and does not turn the ball over.
The biggest thing that Butler, and Gibson bring is an ability to translate the message that Coach Thibs is trying to relay to his team through the bells, and whistles that he screams out in practice, and especially in games. 
“I think the most important thing is guys have to understand your going to hear Thibs’ voice. All the time,” Butler said to Aschburner. “But, I may be able to put it into context a different way what he is trying to get across. Yeah, he’s yelling at you right now, but it’s because he really, really, really, really wants you to do this, this way. And, so now I can come in, and say, ‘Hey. This is what he’s saying, it’s just like a 1,000 percent right now. But this is what he means.’” 
Butler, the 30th, and final overall pick in the 2011 draft, and Gibson, No. 26 overall pick in the 2009 draft also bring an understanding of what it takes to make it in the NBA. They were not high draft choices, and they flat out worked their tales off to gain the confidence of coach Thibodeau was they flat out worked, especially at the defensive end. 
As “NBA: The Jump” host Rachel Nichols put it on Sept. 28th edition on ESPN about Butler, and Gibson, “They like work. Thibs likes work, and their mission is to spread that to the team.”

"His shell is so hard, but once you finally break into his shell, he's an awesome guy," Gibson said of Thibs' style of coaching. 
That is what they are especially going to have to sprinkle over the two pillars of the T’Wolves in 21-year-old Towns, and 23-year-old Wiggins, who according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann scored 46 percent of the Timberwolves points in 2016-17, the biggest percentage of a team’s points any tandem in the league score
Even with the new additions, along with the remaining supporting cast of center Cole Aldrich, forward Nemanja Bjelica (6.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg) center Gorgui Gieng (10.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 50.2 FG%), and the recently re-signed restricted free agent swingman Shabazz Muhammad (9.9 ppg, 48,2 FG%), the success of this team will rest on the shoulders of Towns, and Wiggins.
While individually they have put up great numbers, Wiggins, and Towns have not taken that next step in their maturation in turning the T’Wolves into a perennial playoff participant. 
The hope is that Butler, Gibson, Teague, Crawford, and Brooks bring some stability, and pose to a club that on 25 occasions a season ago had a lead in the fourth quarter and lost. In games in which they were within five points with five minutes remaining, the Timberwolves were just 15-19. 
“I think that we have a team that has great veteran ship,” Towns said to Aschburner. “This is a team that really has the experience needed, and knows what it needs to do to be in the playoffs. Not only to be in the playoffs, but make it deep in the playoffs as well.”
The addition of Butler will relieve Wiggins of those late game pressure moments. He, Teague, and Crawford will bring some needed perimeter shooting to a team that ranked 20th in three-point percentage; 30th in three-pointers made per game at 7.3, and dead last in three-point attempts with just 21 per game a season ago. 
Even with that, the T’Wolves, must become a better defensive team. In Thibodeau’s five seasons with the Bulls from 2010-14, the Bulls were ranked twice No. 1, No. 5, No. 2, and No. 11 in Defensive Rating. The T’Wolves were ranked 26th a season ago, the worst rating of a Thibodeau coached team.     
The word to describe the 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves is accountability. As mentioned earlier, it has been 13 years since they made the playoffs. This blogger was in his second year at Howard University when that happened, where they lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. 
“You have to set standards for yourself,” Towns said to Aschburner about not just making the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons. “A standard is not just to make it. You want to go in there, and we want to fight. When you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen.” 
Best Case Scenario: The Timberwolves end their 13-year playoff drought by clinching the No. 8, and final playoff spot. Towns, and Wiggins are in the mix to become All-Stars. They become a Top 10 Defense, and a better three-point shooting team. 
Worst Case Scenario: The defense does not improve. Towns, and Wiggins do not make their teammates better, and they miss the playoffs for the 14th year in a row. 
Grade: A  
New Orleans Pelicans: 34-48 (4th Southwest Division; missed the playoffs) 21-20 at home, 13-28 on the road.
-104.3 ppg-18th; opp. ppg: 106.4-17th; 43.7 rpg-13th 
Last season, New Orleans, LA was the site of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. That w0as the lone highlight for the New Orleans Pelicans in a season that consisted of a blockbuster deal that netted them a talented big man, to alongside their other All-NBA First-Team star, and fellow Kentucky Wildcat. The hope for this season is that the re-signing of their All-Star lead guard, and a former NBA champion guard will get them back into the playoffs this season.
Back in February, the Pelicans swung a deal with the Sacramento Kings to acquire All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins (27.0 ppg-T-6th NBA, 11.0 rpg-9th NBA, 4.6 apg-career-high, 45.2 FG%, 36.1 3-Pt.% w/Kings & Pelicans), and then forward Omir Casspi for guards Tyreke Evans, Langston Walker, and Buddy Hield, a First-Round, and Second-Round pick in this past June’s draft. 
On paper, Cousins, and superstar Anthony Davis (28.0 ppg-4th NBA, 11.8 rpg-7th NBA, 2.2 bpg-2nd NBA, 50.5 FG%). While they did put up great numbers on the court, the team went just 11-14 after the trade, and hope their workouts together over the summer can turn that tide in the win column. 
“Last year DeMarcus came in, it was tough for us,” Davis said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg on Media Day Sept. 26. “Both of us can shoot. So, we were both picking, and popping, or playing when somebody was supposed to dive. The chemistry was not there.”
Cousins said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg on Media Day on Sept. 26 that he really dedicated himself into being in the best shape possible entering this season. Specifically, he wanted to be quicker a foot so he can play better on both ends of the court, where he said guard all five positions.
That is job No. 1 for head coach Alvin Gentry, who’s gotten a lot of criticism from the fan base in the “Big Easy.”  
While the Pelicans have not played well under Gentry’s guidance, it has not helped them that a total of 353 total games were lost by Pelicans’ players due to injury two seasons back, which led the NBA, and 177 a season ago, which was No. 4 in the league. Prior to last season where he played a career-high 75 games, Davis had a history of missing games because of injury playing in just 67, 68, and 61 games the three seasons prior.
Davis is one of the best big men in the game at cutting to the basket, but he must become a player when he has a smaller guy guarding to take him to the basket and scoring when he has that mismatch. Also, he must get to the free throw line more consistently, as well as become this team undisputed leader, where when something needs to be said, it must come from him first, and then maybe Cousins, followed by the team’s newest floor general. More on that in a moment.

While his game has evolved to where he can take, and make the three-point shot, Cousins attempting the average of five per game a season ago is too much. He must make being in the low post his bread, and butter, and leave the consistent jump shooting to the perimeter guys. 
Those adjustments by the All-Star tandem should make the Pelicans a team that ranks in the Top 5 the league at points in the paint, and not the 13th rank one they were as season ago.  
The most important thing on the Pelicans to-do list over the summer was to re-sign All-Star Jrue Holiday (15.4 ppg, 7.3 apg, 3.9 rpg, 1.5 spg, 45.4 FG%, 35.6 3-Pt.%). They accomplish that, but it was a hefty price tag of a five-year $126 million deal. While Holiday has been solid, but has been only an All-Star once. 
Besides the loss of their First-Round pick in the Cousins deal, the Pelicans were unable to improve their team via the draft back in June, and they are still saddled with the contracts with players from past off-seasons that have not made them a playoff perennial in the rugged West. 
The supporting cast of centers Omer Asik, and Alexis Ajinca; forward/guard Solomon Hill, and guard E’Twaun Moore have been serviceable in their time in “The Big Easy,” the contracts they signed signaled they were supposed to make major contributions. They have only contributed to the team being $19 million over the salary cap. 
The result, no cap flexibility to go after free agency, and they will have to wait for the summer of 2018, or 2019 before they have cap relief, more on that in a moment.
What makes this news even tougher is that Hill will be out of the lineup about six months because of a left hamstring tear he sustained over the summer during workouts. A team that was lacking in consistent perimeter shooting to start with at the swingman position just got worse. 
They were able though to make a couple of moves in signing veteran guard Rajon Rondo (7.8 ppg, 6.7 apg, 5.1 rpg) to a one-year $3.3 million deal; guard Ian Clark from the World Champion Warriors to a one-year deal, and forward Darius Miller to a two-year, $4.3 million deal. 
The hope is that Rondo, who has been an average jumper shooter at best, Jordan Crawford (14.1 ppg, 48.2 FG%, 38.9 3-Pt.% in 19 games w/Pelicans) and Clark.
The addition of Rondo does come with some risk because he has had a history of clashes with his teammates, and head coach in each from the team that drafted him in the Celtics, to his time with the Mavericks, Kings, and last season with the Bulls, where he openly questioned the leadership of then teammates Dwyane Wade, who is now with the Cavs, and Butler, who was dealt to the T’Wolves. 
That said, Rondo turned in a vintage performance in the first two games of their opening round series against his former team. When he was lost after Game 2 with a broken thumb, the Celtics lost the next four games, then the series.
Unfortunately, Rondo will be on the shelf for 4-6 weeks following sports hernia surgery on Oct. 10 according to a report from ESPN. 
The hope that when Rondo does return, the great bond he developed with Cousins in their lone season together with the Kings two years ago, and head coach Alvin Gentry hope that the bond is more strengthen by the fact that the two, and Davis starred at the University of Kentucky.
“We are different, but I think we’re special in our own way,” Davis said to Greenberg about being able to play with a traditional lineup of two big men. “You got of the best bigs in the NBA, and just because a team is going small, we’re going to go small. We’re going to punish them on the inside.”
Rondo’s addition also means that Holiday can play off the ball, and that will give the Pelicans a dynamic backcourt that can make plays for others with their uncanny ability to find open people, and be disruptive at the defensive end with their ability to get steals that should leave to fast breaks opportunities. 
Speaking of perimeter defense, the Pelicans bolstered that with the signing of veteran swingman Tony Allen (9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 46.0 FG%) back on Sept. 15. 
Davis said to Greenberg that Rondo in the early practices has his new Pelicans teammates doing all kinds of defensive drills. He even challenged both bigs to be on the All-Defensive First-Team this upcoming season, and for one of them to challenge for Defensive Player of the Year.
Last season according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Pelicans ranked in the Bottom 10 in defensive efficiency in the first four seasons of Davis’ career. They took a huge step on that end of the floor a season ago with a minus 2.3 differential going from a 107.3 average in points allowed per 100 possessions to 104.9. They played better defense down low, on the perimeter, and fouled less often. 
While the Pelicans were tied for No. 4 in “The Association” in block shots at 5.5 per game as season ago, and ranked 11th in opponent’s field goal percentage giving up 45.0 percent, they were 29th in rebound differential at a -4.6, even with Davis, and Cousins.
“We’re taking on that challenge, and we’re going out here to try to do whatever we can on the defensive side knowing that offensively we’ll be okay,” Davis said to Greenberg.
The major hope is that they can make enough perimeter shots to keep the defense honest. Cousins, and Davis will draw double teams, and it will be up to those two, and the rest of the perimeter players to knock down shots. 
“We have enough shooters where we can knock down shots,” Davis said to Greenberg. “We added Ian Clark. Darius Miller. Guys who can shoot the ball. If they do double team, then we’re able to kick it out to our shooters who we know can make shots.” 
In the draft, the Pelicans acquired the draft rights to the No. 31 overall pick in guard Frank Jackson out of Duke, sending the rights to the No. 40 overall pick guard Dwayne Bacon of Florida State, and cash consideration to the Hornets. The Pelicans also received cash considerations when they dealt the No. 52 overall pick guard Edmund Sumner out of Xavier to the Pacers.
The description for the 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans is hopeful. Hopeful that the tandem of Davis, and Cousins meshes together better than it did a season ago. That Rondo makes coach Gentry’s job easier, and he, and Holiday provide stability on the perimeter on both ends. Hope that the supporting cast is good enough to compliment Davis, and Cousins. 
While Davis has three years left on his deal, and is not in danger of being another superstar player want to go elsewhere. Also, Davis has done nothing but speak highly of the Pelicans’ front office, as well as the city of New Orleans itself. We’ve heard that same thing from the likes of Paul George, and they did an about-face and want out a year prior to free agency. 
If Cousins leaves in free agency at the end of this season, Davis might sound that alarm sooner than the Pelicans think if they miss the playoffs again. Joining him might be GM Dell Demps, who might have saved his bacon by acquiring Cousins a season ago. Coach Gentry. 
“Guys are working their tails off,” Cousins, who has yet to be in the postseason in his career said to Greenberg about the Pelicans approach to the 2017-18 NBA campaign. “Guys have comeback in great condition. Guys have taken their game to the next level. The mindset, and the focus of guys this year is on a whole other level… We believe it could be a special season. It’s just about going out there and putting it all together.”
Best Case Scenario: The Pelicans make the playoffs as the No. 7 or No. 8 Seed in the West, and have a good showing against the Warriors. Davis, and Cousins mesh well, and prove two big men can play well together. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Pelicans miss the playoffs again. Cousins leaves in free agency, and Davis ask to be out as well, but does it quietly.
Grade: C-
Oklahoma City Thunder: 47-35 (2nd Northwest Division; No. 6 Seed West) 28-13 at home, 19-22 on the road. Lost to the Houston Rockets 4-1 in West Quarterfinals 
-106.6 ppg-11th; opp. ppg: 105.8-16th; 46.6 rpg-3
With the loss of Kevin Durant in free agency the summer prior, the Oklahoma City Thunder became perennial All-Star Russell Westbrooks team, and all he did was set a new single-season record for triple-doubles with 42, passing Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson’s 41 in the 1961-62 season, in leading his team back into the playoffs, and winning league MVP for the first time in his career. It was not enough to take down a more complete Rockets in the opening round of the playoffs a season ago. This off-season, Sam Presti worked his magic and acquired two perennial All-Stars for basically a wrench, and a screw driver, not to mention some complimentary players as well to help Westbrook. 
On July 6 the Thunder acquired four-time All-Star forward Paul George (23.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.6 spg, 46.1 FG% w/Pacers) from the Pacers for guard Victor Oladipo, and forward Domantas Sabonis. 
If that was not enough, they pulled an even bigger blockbuster deal on Sept. 25, acquiring from the Knicks 10-time All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony (22.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 35.9 3-Pt.% w/Knicks) for forward/center Enes Kanter, forward Doug McDermott, and a 2018 Second-Round pick.
“I’ve stayed with teams in situations because of contractual reasons, and money, and not wanting to leave money on the table,” Anthony said to NBATV’s Dennis Scott about being traded on Media Day on Sept. 26. “It came to a point where, ‘Okay. Now I really need to get serious about my career.’ I’m not getting younger, and the only thing I’m missing is winning, and kind of just getting that joy back. Getting that feel back, and kind of feeling refreshed, and I feel like that now.”
In the middle of these two blockbuster deals, the Thunder signed forward Patrick Patterson (6.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 37.2 3-Pt.% w/Raptors) to a three-year, $16.4 million deal, and guard Raymond Felton (6.7 ppg, w/Clippers) to a one-year, $2.3 million deal. They re-signed perimeter defensive ace in guard Andre Roberson (6.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 46.4 FG%) to a new three-year $30 million deal, and re-signed forward Nick Collison to a new one-year, $2.3 million deal. 
For Westbrook, who joined Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double for a season in NBA history, with averages of 31.6 points (Led NBA), 10.7 boards (10th NBA), and 10.4 assists (3rd NBA) will have the opportunity to garner more triple-doubles a lot easier with the new additions, to go along with the remaining cast of starting center Steven Adams (11.3 ppg-career-high, 7.7 rpg, 57.1 FG%), Jerami Grant (5.4 ppg, 46.9 FG%), and Kyle Singler.
Westbrook, who had two streaks of seven straight triple-doubles, and set a new single-season record with eight 40-plus triple-double performances, both NBA records made it very clear that he wants to win a title in Oklahoma City, signing a super max extension of five years at $205 million dollars on Sept. 29. 
“Just an unbelievable blessing from the man upstairs, and I’m just truly honored, and blessed to be here,” Westbrook said to Fox Sports Southwest Antonio Daniels, and numbers of Thunder fans on that Friday before the team’s Blue, and White scrimmage.
“You guys took me in. I came here when I was 18 years old. Been here for 10 years. Obviously, I’m going to be here for a lot longer as well, and I’m just happy to be here…We have the best fans in all sports, and I’m truly happy to play in front of you guys.” 
One thing Westbrook, Anthony, and George understand right from the jump is the need to sacrifice some of their individual games, so the team can have a chance of success. 
One area the Thunder should be better is making three-pointers, where they were No. 30, making just 32.7 percent of their shots from distance; tied for 26th in three-pointers made per game at 8.4, and 26th in total triples made in 2016-17 with 692. George, by himself finished 152h in the league with 195 threes made and Anthony connected on 151 triples last season, where both shot 39.3, and 35.9 percent from the three-point line respectably. 
“Anytime you’re taking a guy like Russell, and Paul George, and Carmelo, and putting the three of them together, there’s going to be a process that we’re all going to have to go through to complement one another. To make each other better, and also allow in certain situations for all those guys to be at their best.” head coach Billy Donovan, who is 106-62 entering his third season said to Scott. 
“But, I think Russell being the point guard, he’s always been in my opinion very, very responsible in trying to find ways to make the group better.” 
According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, in the 194 minutes that Westbrook was on the floor in the opening round against the Rockets, the Thunder were a +15 (442-427) with their floor general on the floor. In the 46 minutes the league MVP was on the sideline, the Thunder were a -58 (137-79).  
The other reason this new marriage with Westbrook, Anthony, and George will work is they understand is their willingness to take the challenge to becoming a consistent defensive team night in, and night out. George said to Scott that defense will be the Thunder’s biggest strength. 
“Russ is a matchup problem on the defensive end. Roberson is one of the best defenders. Myself. Melo is savvy with it on the defensive end, and what I think the most underrated big men on the defensive end is Steven” he said. “The game should come easier for us if we can turn defense into offense, and we should have fun with that.” 
Two years ago, the Thunder fell one game shy of making their first appearance in The Finals since 2012, where they lost to the Heat in five games. It seemed hard to fathom that after Durant leaving they would ever compete for a title again. Well Thunder GM Sam Presti, who will be a candidate for Executive of the Year gave his team that chance with the additions of Anthony, and George, who will be, or in the case of Anthony have the chance to be a free agent this summer, if he opts out of the last year of his contract. 
The best way to describe the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder enter this season is intriguing. Westbrook has not had this kind of help around since Durant, and Harden in the beginning part of his career. When this season concludes, Anthony, and George should walk away having to think about their decision to stay in OKC. If Westbrook puts his best foot forwards, and raises the level of the Thunder becoming an even more willing passer, there is a good chance Anthony, and George stay.  
“We shouldn’t let the outside on contracts, or free agency come close to breaking what our goal is and that’s to win,” George said to Scott. “If we just have the mindset of that we going to get the best shot, and the best look, regardless of whose shooting it. Just let the game dictate whose gets the shots.”  
Best Case Scenario: Thunder win the Northwest Division. Finish with over 50 wins, and are a Top 4 Seed in West. They reach the Semifinals. Anthony, and George stay in OKC.
Worst Case Scenario: The “Big Three,” are inconsistent. The Thunder fall in the opening round of the playoffs.
Grade: A+
Phoenix Suns: 24-58 (5th Pacific Division; missed the playoffs) 15-26 at home, 9-32 on the road. 
-107.7 ppg-9th; opp. ppg: 113.3-30th; 45.0 rpg-6th
The Phoenix Suns have a team full of young talented players. The question for them, and their front office brass of Owner Robert Sarver, and GM Ryan McDonough, can they along with head coach Earl Watson turn this talented group into one that can eventually win? 
The one proven cornerstone they have is sharp shooter Devin Booker (22.1 ppg-Led team, 36.3 3-Pt.%), who became just the sixth player in NBA history to reach 70 points, going 21 for 40 from the floor, 4 for 11 from three-point range, and 24 for 26 from the free throw line in the Suns 130-120 setback at the Boston Celtics on Mar. 24. It also was the most points scored against the Celtics ever. 
Booker became the youngest player ever, according to the Elias Sports Bureau to score 60-plus points in NBA history, topping legends, and Hall of Famers Jerry West, who scored 63 points at the age of 23 on Jan. 1, 1962; David Thompson, who dropped 73 points at the age of 23 on Apr. 9, 1978; and the great Michael Jordan, who at 24-years-old scored 61 points twice on Mar. 4, 1987, and Apr. 16, 1987. 
Booker growth in his first two seasons has gotten the attention of three of the best to ever play on the hardwood. 
“I love Devin Booker man… You better watch out for that boy because he is nice. He next-I’m telling you,” is how 2017 Finals MVP Finals MVP Kevin Durant of the Warriors described the sharp shooter. 
Four-time league MVP of the Cavs LeBron James said, ‘If it’s someone who is under the radar right now that I believe is going to be really, really, really good, All-Star player in the league-It’s Devin Booker.” 
Future Hall of Famer, and five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant said of the sharp shooter, “I think he’s fantastic…I think he has the right attitude. He has the right competitive spirit.”
“Devin, his game is just untapped, and he’s getting better, and better,” Suns’ guard Eric Bledsoe said to NBATV’s Kristen Ledlow about Booker, who averaged 24.6 points, 4.2 boards, and 4.1 assists in the 22 games after the All-Star break. 
The player the Suns are leaning on to get them out of the West cellar was on hand during the 2017 Las Vegas Summer League showing support to some of future Suns teammates. 
He just didn’t show up to sit in the audience, he was fully engaged, and cheering his future teammates on.  That is the kind of commitment one makes to making the team around him better. That is also the kind of a commitment a player, who joined James, Celtics new All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, Durant, and current NBA on TNT studio analyst Shaquille O’Neal as the only players in NBA history to average 22 points in a season before the age of 21. 
Aside from the No. 13 overall pick in 2015 out of the University of Kentucky, the rest of the roster still is a question mark. 
Bledsoe (21.1 ppg-career-high, 6.3 apg, 4.8 rpg), whose scoring and assists averages have improved in all four of his seasons in the “Valley of the Sun,” has not risen the Suns out of the West basement. 
“That is how second-year guard Tyler Ulis (7.3 ppg, 3.7 apg) got a chance to play late in the year, and was productive with averages of 11.9 points, and 7.9 assists in March, and 20.7 points, and 6.8 assists in April. 
The team even entertained the thought of acquiring All-Star guard Kyrie Irving from the defending three-time East champion Cavs over the summer for Bledsoe. 
“I just got to be a better leader,” Bledsoe, who will turn 28-years-old later this season said to Ledlow. “It’s definitely time for me to win. In order for me to win, I got to lead this team. We got a bunch of young players, but it’s still basketball. It’s something we love to do, and we just got to be confident, and don’t back down to nobody.”
The Suns did not bite, because the Cavs wanted dynamic forward Josh Jackson, who the Suns drafted at No. 10 overall out of the University of Kansas in June. 
Jackson show his out of this world athleticism on both ends, as well as his high-IQ that was different from past young athletic wings during the Las Vegas Summer League, where he made chase down blocks, and assaults on the rim a routine during those games, while also displaying graceful movement with, and without the basketball. 
“Josh surprised me. I didn’t know he could play make as well as he can,” Bledsoe said to Ledlow about Jackson, who averaged 14.0 points in Summer League.
That covered up the 41.7 percent from the floor that the third Jayhawk to be selected in the draft in the Top Three since 2014, joining No. 1 overall pick in Andrew Wiggins in 2014 by the Timberwolves, and the No. 3 overall pick in that same draft Joel Embiid shot from the field. Hopefully he will put major work throughout this season to fine-tune the form on his perimeter shot, because being a player who gets his points in the open court, and around the rim in today’s game will not cut it. 
“This game means everything to me,” Jackson said. “The best way to earn respect is just to come in, and show the guys that you are serious. You want to work hard, and you’re a team player.” 
The biggest difference with Jackson entering his rookie season, he stood out during Summer League, unlike last year rookie class of front court players Marquese Chriss (9.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Dragen Bender, who played just 43 games a season ago because of injury. 
Chriss though really came on after the All-Star break with averages of 12.7 points, 7.3 rebounds. Bender, who played well in Summer League, must stay ready when his number is called, and when it is, he must perform.  
The only consistent front court player for the Suns a season ago was forward T.J. Warren, with averages of 14.4 points, and 5.1 boards on 49.5 percent from the field that earned the No. 14 pick in the 2014 draft out of North Carolina State University a four-year, $50 million contract extension over the summer. 
One player who really improved as last season went on was second-year forward/center Alan Williams (7.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 51.7 FG%), who went undrafted out of UC Santa Barbara. The Phoenix native really came on to close last season with averages 11.4 points, and 9.1 rebounds, on 51.4 percent shooting, earning a three-year, $17 million extension. 
“Alan embodies what it means to be a Phoenix Sun on and off the court,” McDonough said of the 2016-17 Dan Majerle Hustle Award recipient. “We’ve enjoyed watching him become a very valuable part of our team over the past few years. We’re excited that we were able to reach a deal to keep a native Phoenician home, where we know ‘Sauce’ will continue to make a significant impact, both on the court, and in the community.”
Unfortunately, Williams had right knee surgery last month, and is out indefinitely with no timetable to return.
One player the Suns hoped would become a major part of their team is center Alex Len (8.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 49.7 FG%), whose only competition during this time has been veteran center Tyson Chandler, who has played more minutes, as well as averaged twice as many rebounds as the No. 5 overall pick in 2013 out of Maryland. 
This was a guy that was taken ahead of Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum, and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, and both have become established starters for their respective teams, which is how they have gotten hefty contract extensions, and why the Suns’ center, who is a restricted free agent was offered just a one-year $1.4 million offer from the Suns. The fact that nothing has happened since then from another team making him an offer, or that he has not signed the deal is a bad look for him, and the organization.
It also no help that guard Brandon Knight (11.0 ppg), who the team was hoping to use in a trade to acquire more assets will be on the shelf for the entire upcoming season after tearing his ACL in his left knee while playing basketball near his South Florida home, earlier in the off-season. 
Two players that the Suns can use to acquire players on healthy contracts, along with draft picks besides Bledsoe are the previously mentioned Chandler (8.4 ppg, 11.5 rpg-Led team, 67.1 FG%), and Jared Dudley (6.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 45.4 FG%, 37.9 3-Pt.%). 
These are two pros in every sense of the word, who could be a major help to any team on the cusp of a title. If that is not in the cards, they will continue to be a help to the young Suns, who have a lot of room to grow both on, and off the court. 
If there is one bright spot for the Suns is they were one of the best offensive teams in the NBA a season ago, ranking second in fast break points. However, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Suns were the least effective jump shooting team in the NBA a season ago with an effective field goal percentage of 43.9 from outside the paint. Reason for that is they were one of seven teams that took more mid-range shots than three-pointers, and they ranked in the bottom in passer per possession, were one of two teams to recorded assists on less than half of their field goals.  
Another season of player development is how to describe the Phoenix Suns, entering the 2017-18 NBA campaign. 
When Sarver bought the Suns from Jerry Colangelo 13 years ago, for then an NBA record $401 million, the Suns led by future Hall of Famer Steve Nash made two trips to the Western Conference Finals. Since then they have fallen to the basement of the West. 
He has acknowledged recently that the team, which has missed the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons is in its current position due to his inability of being impatient during this rebuilding process under McDonough’s first four seasons as GM. 
Hopefully this season the young players will show signs improvement, and that there are better days ahead, where they can their high-octane offensive, with a serious commitment to playing defense. 
Grade: D
Portland Trail Blazers: 41-41 (3rd Northwest Division; No. 8 Seed West) 25-16 at home, 16-25 on the road. Lost to the No. 1 Seeded Golden State Warriors 4-0 in West Quarterfinals.  
-107.9 ppg-8th; opp. ppg: 108.5-25th; 43.7 rpg-14th
The prior summer, the Portland Trail Blazers, and their billionaire owner Paul Allen opened his check book to re-sign, and sign a few players who they thought could help them move up in the rugged West. The team entered the summer of 2017 projected to pay $40 million in luxury taxes, which was a steep price to pay after a 24-35 start a season ago. A major deal with the Nuggets brought them a big man, whose emergence saved their season, but got them into the playoffs, that resulted in a four-game sweep in the opening round against the eventual champion Warriors. This off-season, the Trail Blazers went on a budget, adding two big men they drafted, and dealt away a very price, but productive backup guard. 
The Trail Blazers biggest off-season move was dealing guard Allen Crabbe, who signed a four-year $75 million deal two summers back to the Nets, who ironically signed him to that same offer sheet when he was a restricted free agent the prior summer. 
By the Trail Blazers matching that offer, they had to wait one full year, under league rules to include the former California Bear into a deal with the Nets, which they did, and acquired forward Andrew Nicholson, who they waived, along with the rest of the three years, and $20 million left on his contract. The team also through a stretch provision eased the luxury tax hit, and generated a $12.9 million trade exception in the deal as well, which will expire next off-season. 
The other reason they let Crabbe go is that the Trail Blazers were paying $56 million dollars combined to him, and their starting backcourt of All-Star Damian Lillard (27.0 ppg-T-6th NBA, 5.9 apg, 37.0 3-Pt.%), and CJ McCollum (23.0 ppg-career-high, 48.0 FG%, 42.1 3-Pt.%), who while explosive offensively, are the exact opposite on defense. 
To put into perspective the kind of career that Lillard, who rap nickname is “Dame Dolla,” his is the first Trail Blazer to make 1,000 three-pointers in his career. He is the 10th player in NBA history to score 8,000-plus points, and dish out 2,000-plus assists in his first five seasons. He and Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler are the only Trail Blazers to average 25-plus points in multiple seasons, and Lillard has scored in double-digits in all 31 career playoff games.  
McCollum last season joined the two-time MVP Stephen Curry of the Warriors in 2014-15, and future Hall of Famer and 2006-07 league MVP Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks as the only players to average 23-plus points, shoot 48-plus percent from the field, 42-plus percent from three-point land, and 91-plus percent from the free throw line in a single-season.
“CJ plays a very efficient offensive game,” Lillard said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg on Media Day in late September about the other part of the second-best scoring duo in the NBA in 2016-17.  “I’m still looking to improve my efficiency as an offensive player, especially with so much responsibility, but not only we will give ourselves opportunity to improve in that area, maybe not having to waist so much energy on offense trying to score, or trying to get into the paint, and make a play. To where we might be able to be better defenders. We might be a better defensive team if we’re able to do that.”
Last season, the dynamic backcourt averaged 38 shots per game combined, but just 10 assists. It would help a great deal if Lillard, and McCollum’s understudy’s in Evan Turner (9.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg), who struggled shooting at 42.6 percent a season ago from the floor, and maybe Shabbaz Napier, or Pat Connaughton can emerge, and take some of the pressure off them offensively. 
The other reason for dealing Crabbe was to have enough cash in the coffers to pay center Jusuf Nurkic (10.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 50.7 FG%, w/Nuggets & Trail Blazers), who averaged 15.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in his 20 appearances with the Trail Blazers after being acquired from the Nuggets for forward/center Mason Plumlee is eligible for an extension before next season. 
To bring into context how efficient he was, only 54 of 534 shots Nurkic took were outside of 10 feet a season ago. They hope he can expand that range a little bit, while still being a dominant force on the block, that helped the Trail Blazers close last season with a 17-6 mark. 
The trade also saved the skin of GM Neil Olshey, whose team was 27-35 before the acquisition of Nurkic. The team’s finish also earned him a contract extension this summer through the 2020-21 NBA campaign. 
“Last year was a tale of two seasons,” head coach Terry Stotts, whose 223-187 as Trail Blazers head coach said about their down, and up 2016-17. “We had a very disappointing first half of the season. Obviously after the trade, and getting Nurk, we got healthy, and we had a lot of guys playing well, and we made a great run to get into the playoffs.”
Another great season from Nurkic, will command the kind of contract equal to the extensions that Lillard, and McCollum, the second highest scoring tandem in the league a season got, in the range of $100 million. 
“He really complimented myself, and CJ, but it’s a completely different season,” Lillard, a two-time All-Star said on Media Day in late September to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg on Nurkic’s continued development from last season.
“He has to still come in, and he has to back it up. A lot of us in the league can play good over stretches, and in spurts. But, to be able to sustain it, that’s what we’re looking forward to, and that’s going to take more than just saying, ‘We did it last year.’ We got to come out, and put up. We got to show it, and I think that’s one of the things I’m most excited about.” 
If the Trail Blazers could have a do-over, they would not have broken the bank for Crabbe, forward Mo Harkless (10.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 50.3 FG%, 35.1 3-Pt.%), Turner, and center Meyers Leonard. They all got paid, but their play did not match the hefty contracts they signed two summers back, at least not to the point where they could shift their team to the point that they rely heavily on the Lillard-McCollum combination, and now Nurkic. 
It did not help that their best wing defender Al-Farouq Aminu (8.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg), who shot just 39.2 percent from the field, and just 32.9 from three-point range missed time early in the season because of a calf injury. 
Lillard, who is entering his sixth season in the NBA said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg on Media Day in late September, that the next step for him, and McCollum in their growth as a backcourt is to get their teammates more involved in the game offensively, and making the game simpler for them. 
“The more we can allow them to impact the game, and affect the game, then teams will maybe soften up on us, and maybe we can make the game easier for ourselves,” Lillard said to Greenberg. 
The Trail Blazers got into this pickle because of their upset in the opening round of the 2016 postseason, defeating the Clippers, who lost their All-Star duo of Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul to injury.
To improve their team, the Trail Blazers turned to the draft, and to improve their front court, traded the No. 15, and No. 20 overall picks in forward Justin Jackson out of the University of North Carolina, and center Harry Giles out of Duke University to the Sacramento Kings to move up to the No. 10 spot, and chose center Zach Collins out of Gonzaga. 
While he had his struggles in summer league, the team is upbeat about the potential of the 19-year-old seven-footer, who is a shot blocker, and can make perimeter shots. 
The Trail Blazers are very high on their selection at No. 26 overall in forward Caleb Swanigan out of Purdue. He played very well over the summer, and his great showing could either get him minutes in the rotation over Leonard, Noah Vonleh, and Ed Davis, or provide option for the team to use in a possible trade. 
In a moment of desperation, or an attempt at a joke or possibly a combination of the two, the McCollum tried to convince then Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony to waive his no-trade clause to be dealt to the Pacific Northwest. 
McCollum used social media to try and recruit the 10-time All-Star citing the charm of “Rip City,” and that he would be a huge addition to their team. 
The attempt failed as Anthony did not reply, and he was dealt to the Thunder before the start of Training Camp in early September. 
The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2017-18 NBA season as a one hoping for growth from within. 
The silver-lining for the team is the roster is the second youngest entering this season. Their starting backcourt of Lilliard, and McCollum are one of the best in “The Association.” Nurkic looks poised to pick up where he left off a season ago. Above all, they have continuity in Coach Stotts. The problem for them is the Pelicans, are better this season, and so is the team they beat out for the No. 8, and final playoff spot in the West in the Nuggets. 
“I think the takeaway from last year will be the last 25 games where he had a nice stretch, and we’re feeling very good about ourselves,” Stotts said. “Obviously losing to the eventual NBA champions is you don’t want to lose. But, my takeaway is we have to build on what we did the last 25 games, because the West is going to be tough.”
Best Case Scenario: The Trail Blazers fight to make the No. 7 or No. 8 spot in the loaded West. Lillard, and McCollum continue to be a dominant scoring duo. Nurkic continues to be a presence on both ends. The supporting cast is consistently productive. 
Worst Case Scenario: The Trail Blazers miss the playoffs, and the supporting cast performs below expectations again. 
Grade: C
Sacramento Kings: 32-50 (3rd Pacific Division; missed the playoffs) 17-24 at home, 15-26 on the road. 
-102.8 ppg-24th; opp. ppg: 106.7-18th; 41.1 rpg-28th 
Only the Timberwolves with 13, have the longest playoffs drought than the 11 straight seasons by the Kings, which includes this past season. From an excellent draft in June, to the signing of veterans in free agents, it seems like the Kings finally got things together, and have some kind of direction. 
The reconstruction of the Kings began at the trade deadline when they sent the talented, but at times difficult All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans to create a more positive vibe in the capital city of California.
In return, the Kings got now second-year guard Buddy Hield (10.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 39.1 3-Pt.%), who showed flashes that he could be a core player for the Kings going forward, with a 15.1-point average in 25 games with the Kings, on 48.0 percent from the field, and 42.8 from three-point range.
In this past June’s draft, the Kings selected who they hope will be the face of the franchise in guard De’Aaron Fox with the No. 5 overall pick out of the University of Kentucky. The Kings then acquired the draft rights to the No. 15 overall pick in forward Justin Jackson out of the University of North Carolina, and the No. 20 overall pick in forward Harry Giles out of Duke University. At No. 34, the Kings selected guard Frank Mason III out of the University of Kansas. 
This draft class not only consist of some of the best incoming talent the Kings have had in quite a while, but all three came from strong collegiate programs that were in the National title conversation, and they played big roles in that journey. 
Fox brings a level of speed and quickness to the lead guard spot that is uncanny. He has jump shot that must be honored; he can get to the basket with the best of them; can rebound at his position; find the open man with ease; and has a competitive spirit, and love for basketball that is second to none. He showed that in the Sweet 16 in March when he lit up the No. 2 overall pick by the Lakers Lonzo Ball for 39 points in their victory over UCLA.  
That competitive spirit will come in handy when he goes up against the elite floor generals in the game like Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and Damian Lillard to name a few. 
Jackson is crafty forward, with size that allows him to score in the paint; is deadly in the pick-and-roll; to play make for others; and has an excellent mid-range jump shot. 
Giles, has freakish athleticism, a high motor, and is an excellent shot blocker. The issue with him was staying as he had torn both his knees going back to high school and his one year at Duke. The Kings decided recently to shelve him until January so he can get his knees as healthy as possible. 
These new additions, complimented with Hield, center Willie Cauley-Stein (8.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 53.0 FG%), centers Kosta Koufos (6.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 55.1 FG%), and Georgios Papagiannis (5.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 54.9 FG%) and forward Skal Labissiere (8.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 53.7 FG%), give the Kings a young core of players for head coach Dave Joerger to build a winning team. 
In free agency, the Kings and embattled GM Vlade Divac wrote a check for $72 million to sign in free agency veteran guard George Hill (16.9 ppg, 47.7 FG%, 40.3 3-Pt.% w/Jazz), who signed for three years at $57 million; forward Zach Randolph, at two years, for $24 million, and the ageless forward/guard Vince Carter (8.0 ppg, 37.8 3-Pt.% w/Grizzlies) to a one-year, $8 million deal. 
These are the kind of veterans, who combine bring 181 games of combine playoff experience not only will allow Kings to compete night in, and night out, but they will serve as excellent examples for the young players under head coach Dave Joerger, who is reunited with Randolph, and Carter of the kind of work you must put in from practice, to shootaround, to the hardwood on game day.  
“We have a lot of high character people, that come from great places. Great families, and great programs that we’ve added into our Kings team,” Joerger, whose entering his second season as Kings head coach said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg on Media Day. “So, you know you want to come to work with people that you want to work with every day, and that’s a joy to be around, and that have great energy, and a smile on their face.”
Hill will bring a steadiness to not just the court, but the locker room, and he will be an excellent mentor to Fox, and allow the organization to not have to press him into the starting lineup right from the jump. Joerger can also play the two together at times because Hill is an excellent player with, or without the ball in his hands. 
Carter, and Randolph, along with Hill, and guard Garrett Temple (7.8 ppg, 37.3 3-Pt.%) not only have plenty of gas left in the tank, but they will bring a plethora of experience, and cautionary tales for the likes of centers Willie Cauley-Stein (8.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 53.0 FG%) and Georgios Papagiannis, Hield, forward Skal Labissiere (8.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 53.7 FG%), center Kosta Koufos (6.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 55.1 FG%), and guard Malachi Richardson. 
That would include one where Randolph was arrested on Aug. 9 at a Los Angeles housing project on the suspicion of possessing marijuana with intent to sell. 
Randolph, who spent eight seasons with the Grizzlies, was charged with misdemeanor drug possession, and resisting arrest, and ultimately was sentenced to 150 hours of community service in early September. 
Joerger said to Greenberg that he has known Randolph in the time he has coached him in Memphis to be a big-hearted guy who has given millions of dollars back to the Memphis community. That he is someone who will give you the shirt off his back, and that the incident that happened in Vegas over the summer is what it is. 
He also said that Randolph was a guy the young players on the Grizzlies when he first came aboard gravitated towards, and he became like their big brother. On court, he could get you a bucket down low, especially in the closing moments of a game, as well get rebounds in traffic without even jumping off the ground. 
“Zach is that way on the court, and Zach is that way off the court, and the young guys love that,” Joerger said.  
The Kings also signed the 2017 Turkish League MVP Bogdan Bogdanovic to a three-year, $26.8 million deal, who averaged 14.6 points per game in the Euroleague, who a rival scout called the best shooter in Europe a season ago. 
The Kings enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign as a team that reset itself once again. They have made major moves in past years, only to have most of them fall flat, and set the franchise back. 
Sacramento performed another cosmetic procedure to their roster that would make the best plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills, CA green with envy. Only 32 percent of their roster from a season ago, equating to just seven players will be returning to the team this season, which is 30th in NBA. 
This season though will be about how the young players develop. Early on, the likes of Hill, Carter, Randolph, and Temple might play a great deal but as the season progresses, and they are out of playoff contention, Fox, Jackson, Labissiere, Hield and the rest of the young players will be given a chance by coach Joerger, and it will be up to them to show that the Kings can become a perennial playoff participant in the years to come. 
“We might take some losses, but we’re going to go out, and we’re going to compete” Joerger said to Greenberg. “We’re going to learn how to compete together. We’re going to learn how to work together, and hopefully when you come into a practice in January, you won’t know if we’re 20-20, 10-30, or 30-10. There’s just that vibe in there that when you come to work, we’re going to get out work in, and we’re going to have a good time doing it.”  
Best Case Scenario: The Kings win around 34 games. Fox is in the running for Rookie of the Year. The veterans have a positive impact on the rookies, and young players. The team make the Golden 1 Center a tough place to play. 
Worst Case Scenario: Less than 34 wins. Fox struggles to adjust to the NBA, and the veterans do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of minutes. 
Grade: B- 
San Antonio Spurs: 61-21 (1st Southwest Division; No. 2 Seed West) 31-10 at home, 30-11 on the road. Defeated the No. 7 Seeded Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 in West Quarterfinals. Defeated the No. 3 Seeded Houston Rockets 4-2 in West Semifinals. Lost to the No. 1 Seeded Golden State Warriors 4-0 in West Finals. 
-105.3 ppg-14th; opp. ppg: 98.1-2nd; 43.9 rpg-11th
Some of the best teams that are in the conversation for winning championships know who they are, and when they add to their puzzle, they add people that will live up to that standard. That describes the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, who put a scare into the current NBA champions in the Conference Finals. 
In the team’s first season without future First-Ballot Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, they won over 60 games for the seventh time in franchise history, behind All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard (25.5 ppg-9th NBA, 5.8 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.8 spg-T-7th NBA, 48.5 FG%, 38.0 3-Pt.%), whose third-place finisher in the MVP balloting in 2016-17 was at the top of his game in the postseason with averages of 27.7 points, 7.8 boards, 4.6 assists, and 1.7 steals in 12 games, on 52.5 percent from the field, 45.5 from three-point range, and 93 percent from the charity stripe. 
He, and the Spurs were on the verge of taken homecourt advantage away from the favored Warriors in the first game of the Western Conference Finals back in May. Then Leonard sprained his ankle in the third quarter, and that was all she wrote, as the Warriors swept the Spurs, on route to their second title in the last three seasons. 
Along with not having their offensive anchor on the floor the rest of the West Finals in Leonard, the disappearance of their supposed second-best player in five-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg 47.7 FG%) who averaged just 15.5 points in the Conference Finals, and shot a horrific 41.3 percent from the field. 
The biggest question with Aldridge is has he reached the ceiling of what he can be at the offensive end? 
Aldridge, and Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich had a heart-to-heart conversation over the summer about the Texas’ native being unhappy with his role. 
“I feel like I wasn’t really fitting into the system as best I could,” Aldridge said to ESPN’s Michael C. Wright. “I kind of just spilled my heart about how I felt about how things were, and how things had been going. I think he was kind of caught off guard.”
Apparently, that conversation must have gone well, because the Spurs and Aldridge have agreed on a three-year, $72.3 million contract extension at the start of this week, according to a report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. 
The Spurs will need Aldridge to return to the form that made him an All-Star, because guards Tony Parker (10.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, 46.6 FG%), and Manu Ginobili, who re-signed for season No. 16 are not the same players they once were, although they have proven to still be very effective. 
At the start of camp, the Spurs got some very good news as Parker, who season ended in the Game 2 of the Semis versus the Rockets when he sustained a quadriceps injury that required surgery. The team originally thought he would be shelved until after the All-Star break in February, but he said on Media Day that he could be back as soon as late November. 
However, Leonard, who has missed all the preseason because of a quad injury, will not be available for the Spurs' opening game versus the Timberwolves on Wednesday night. Popovich said that Leonard is still rehabbing, and added, "When he's ready, he'll be ready."
Even if they were without Parker for the first half of this season, the Spurs were solidified at the lead guard spot with Patty Mills (9.5 ppg, 3.5 apg, 41.4 3-Pt.%), who was re-signed to a four-year, $50 million deal, and second-year guard Dejounte Murray, who gives the Spurs an athletic guard who can make things happen in the open floor and can attack the basket in the half court. 
The big thing for Murray though is developing into a player that head coach Gregg Popovich can trust to take care of things, especially against tougher competition. 
Murray does not have to look no further than Danny Green (7.3 ppg, 37.9 3-Pt%), Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, Kyle Anderson, the recently departed Jonathon Simmons, and second-year forward Davis Bertans, who all developed into players that head coach Gregg Popovich trust, know their roles, and perform their roles on both ends of the court effectively, and consistently.
The Spurs did make a few moves, beginning with selecting at No. 29 overall in the draft guard Derrick White out of Colorado. Signed forward Rudy Gay (18.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.5 spg, 45.5 FG%, 37.2 3-Pt.% w/Kings) to a two-year, $17.2 million deal, providing another wing player who can score, and defend on the perimeter, even though he is coming off an Achilles injury that ended his 2016-17 season early. They also signed forward/center Joffrey Lauvergne (5.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg), to a two-year, $3.1 million deal, and guard Brandon Paul, to a two-year, $2.1 million.
They tried to acquire All-Star Chris Paul, which is why they did not re-sign All-Star and future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol (12.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 50.2 FG%, 53.8 3-Pt.%-Led NBA) or Ginobili at first. When Paul was dealt to the interstate rival Rockets, they did re-sign Gasol to a three-year, $48.8 million deal, as well as Ginobili. 
Nowhere do they measure how good of a team that they are then their bench brigade, which according to NBA.com writer John Schuhmann has been the best in the NBA in three of the past four seasons. In three of the last five seasons, the Spurs had the best bench net rating, which was a +8.9 a season ago. They had a +9.1 rating in 2013-14, which was a big reason they captured title No. 5.
The Spurs had to remake that second unit with the departures of Simmons, forward David Lee, and center Dewayne Dedmon, but the return of Ginobili, and Mills, and the additions of Gay should give the Spurs a lethal group of reserve players once again. 
The word to describe the Spurs heading into the 2017-18 campaign is consistent. That consistency has equated to the longest active postseason streak in the NBA with 20 straight appearances; an NBA record 18 straight seasons of 50 wins or more; six 60-plus win seasons, and the icing on the cake five NBA titles. 
That consistent comes starts with head coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford, who have had drafted the right players who respect, and bare the foundation of the organization from Hall Famer David Robinson, to Tim Duncan, to Ginobili, Parker and now Leonard. A supporting cast of players that player hard, together, and consistent on both ends. They have always added the right mixture of players around their star or stars. 
The Warriors are the defending champions, and deservedly so. The Spurs hope to get another crack at the defending champions, and produce a different result. 
Best Case Scenario: Spurs are in the Top three in the West again with 55 wins or more. Win their 23rd Southwest Division title in franchise history. Make it to the Conference Finals against the Warriors. 
Worst Case Scenario: They finally drop off in the West standings, and have an early exit in the postseason.
Grade: B+ 
Utah Jazz: 51-31 (1st Northwest Division; No. 5 Seed in West) 29-12 at home, 22-19 on the road. Defeated the No. 4 Seeded Los Angeles Clippers 4-3 in West Quarterfinals. Lost to the No. 1 Seeded Golden State Warriors 4-0 in West Semifinals.   
-100.7 ppg-28th; opp. ppg: 96.8-1st; 43.2 rpg-10th   
They won their first Northwest Division title since 2008. Made it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, and won their first playoff series since 2010. Things were looking promising for the Utah Jazz. Even with their new additions, which includes one of the elite passers in the game today, their main objective this off-season was to resign their leading scorer, and face of their franchise. Unfortunately, the pull of rejoining his college head coach in the Northeast was too big of an opportunity to pass up. 
July 14, 2017 will be a tough one for the fans in Salt Lake City, UT as first time All-Star a season ago Gordon Hayward signed with the Boston Celtics. 
The Jazz lost their leading scorer, their top playmaker, a more than willing rebounder at the small forward spot, and a guy who really grew as a leader of the team. 
They acquired guard Ricky Rubio (11.1 ppg, 9.1 apg-5th NBA, 1.7 spg-9th NBA w/Timberwolves) from the Timberwolves, for a Top 14 protected 2018 First-Round pick, who will be the Jazz’s starting lead guard, replacing last season’s starter George Hill, who departed for a bigger paycheck with the Kings.
“We think Ricky Rubio is going to be a 2017 facsimile of Jason Kidd, and I could see him leading the league in assists,” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said in July. “We have a point guard with something to prove.”
They retained backup guard Joe Ingles (7.1 ppg, 45.2 FG%, 44.1 3-Pt.%-4th NBA), who re-signed a new four-year, $52 million deal. His ability to make a high percentage of three-point shots, along with Johnson’s 41.1 percent, and the 37.1 of Rodney Hood are why the Jazz were No. 9 at 37.2 percent from distance. 
In Rubio, the Jazz have the purest pass first lead guard since Hall of Famer John Stockton was running the show. His presence should instantly create scoring chances for his new teammates in the half court, and his ability to get out in the open floor, should ignite many fast breaks, which has been lacking in Utah. His jump shot still is the biggest weakness in his game, and if he can provide the kind of scoring he did in the second half of last season with averages of 16.0 points, 10.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and hit 35.3 percent of his three-pointers, that will make the Jazz offense that much better. 
To put into perspective the improvement the Jazz could make offensively, while they averaged 1.22 points per possession in transition, that led the NBA a season ago. However, nine percent of the Jazz’s possession were in transition, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, which 29th in the NBA in 2016-17. In each of Coach Snyder’s first three seasons with the Jazz, they have ranked last in pace, but either first, or second in passes per possession. 
The addition of Rubio should get the Jazz out in transition more, where league wide effective field goal percentage in 2016-17 was highest in the first six seconds of the 24-second clock, and the lowest in the last six seconds. The Jazz a season ago ranked last in percentage of shots that came early in the shot clock, and first in percentage of shots that came late in the clock. 
In free agency, they signed forward Jonas Jerebko, to a two-year deal, worth $8.2 million, who will provide smart play, toughness, and perimeter shooting. The addition of forward/guard Thabo Sefolosha, at $11 million for two years will bring another veteran who can still guard some of the most lethal perimeter scorers in the NBA. Forward Ekpe Udoh, at two-years for $6.5 million, and swingman Royce O’Neal, at $3.8 million for two years will give this team depth in front court. 
With the loss of Hayward, the Jazz will now be looking for some of their young core players to emerge, like guard Dante Exum but he sustained a separated left shoulder, as well as ligament damage from a fall on a drive to the hoop in Friday’s 112-102 preseason loss versus the Suns on Oct. 6, and could have his season end before the regular season for the second time in the last three seasons. He missed the 2015-16 campaign after tearing his ACL playing for the Australian national team that summer. 
His loss means that the understudy to Rubio will be either be second-year guard Raul Neto, or the No. 13 pick back in June Donovan Mitchell out of Louisville, whose rights were dealt from the Nuggets for the rights to the No. 24 pick in forward Tyler Lydon, and third-year forward Trey Lyles. 
Mitchell really showed his stuff in the 2017 Las Vegas Summer League, and with Exum likely down for the upcoming season, will get minutes right from the jump for head coach Quin Snyder. 
“I’m truly excited to go out here, and just be a part of this organization,” Mitchell said in an interview over the summer. “It’s definitely a blessing, and honor to go out there, and just being able to be who I am in front of all of these people, and let them accept me for who I am, and it’s great, because you go out there, and play your game, and let the rest take care of itself.”
The Jazz will also need center Rudy Gobert (14.0 ppg-career-high, 12.8 rpg-4th NBA, 2.6 bpg-Led NBA, 66.1 FG%-2nd NBA), who was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year a season ago, and proved he was worth every bit of the $100 million extension he got two Halloweens back. 
They will need even more rim protection, board work, and more scoring from the All-NBA Second Team selection in 2016-17 this season if the Jazz want to even sniff a chance of making the playoffs.
His sidekick forward Derrick Favors (9.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 48.7 FG%) has emerged as a tough big man, who can score in the low-post, developed a mid-range jumper, and can block shots since being acquired six seasons back for then lead guard Deron Williams. He has had injury problems in his time with the Jazz, and knees issues limited him to 50 games a season ago. His contract is up at the end of the season, and if an extension cannot be reached, he could be dealt before the end of the season. If he remains, his health will be crucial to the Jazz’s success, or lack their off in 2017-18. If he is traded, the Jazz have the No. 28 overall pick in center Tony Bryant, whose rights were acquired in June’s draft from the Lakers for the No. 30 overall pick in guard Josh Hart out of Villanova, and the No. 42 overall pick center Thomas Bryant out of the University of Indiana waiting in the wings.
Two other players, who have their share of injuries problems themselves in Hood (12.7 ppg, 37.1 3-Pt.%), and Alec Burks (6.7 ppg), who has been limited to 100 games the past three seasons due to knee, ankle, and left leg issues will be counted on to provide perimeter scoring, and playmaking alongside Rubio.
“This summer’s been big for me,” Hood, who wants to the Most Improved Player this season said about the work he put in during the off-season to one day be an All-Star. “I got a lot better. Just stepping up, and trying to be the guy, offensively. Trying to lead the team. I believe I can do it. Obviously, I don’t think I’m going to get it right away, but I think I can grow into it, and it’s going to be a transition period, but I think I’ll get the hang of it.” 
The Jazz will also need veteran Joe Johnson (9.2 ppg, 43.6 FG%, 41.1 3-Pt.%) to work the kind of magic he did early, especially early in the season when he signed on a season ago. 
The two things that the Jazz have in their favor entering this season without Hayward is Snyder, who is entering his fourth season on the Jazz sideline is his ability to develop his player, and develop a system that will put the team’s best face forward.  
Hayward, when he was drafted in 2010, at No. 9 overall went from a known into a first time All-Star a season ago. Gobert, whose nickname is “The Stifle Tower,” in reference to being French was No. 27 overall pick in 2013, went from a backup into one of the elite pivot men in the game on both ends. 
To put the rise of “The Stifle Tower” into context, in Gobert’s second and third seasons in the league, had 25 and 20 double-doubles respectably. He has 41 so far, this season, ranked fourth in “The Association.” 
Along with the emergence of the core Jazz players last season, a big reason they won 51 games, despite a lot of injuries was their ability to defend. Teams shot just 44.3 percent against them a season ago, which was No. 2 in the entire league. They were fourth in rebound differential at +3.0, and tied for ninth in block shots per contest at 5.0, thanks to Gobert.  
The best way to describe the Utah Jazz heading into 2017-18 is a team trying to survive. Losing Hayward in free agency was a punch to gut that the Jazz are still feeling now, and have the look of a team that will be on the outside of the playoff picture at season’s end. 
The core players of Gobert, Favors, Hood, Burks, must stay injury free, and play at career-high levels this season. It will be a major bonus if Rubio’s jump shot making is average at best, and the rookie Mitchell can play anywhere near solid. 
With Snyder on the sidelines, one thing is for sure, the Jazz will bring the effort. Will it be enough though to carry them to the playoff finish line? 
Grade: D+
Information, quotations, and statistics are courtesy of 6/22/17 7 p.m. NBA Draft, presented by State Farm on ESPN, with Rece Davis, Jalen Rose, Michael Wilbon, Jay Bilas, Allison Williams, Jeff Goodman, Tom Penn, and Jay Williams; www.nba.com/draft/2017/teams#/; www.nba.com/morning-tip-da-2017-offseason-rankings-top-middle-bottom-10-teams#/;www.nba.com/30teams-30-days-2017#/www.espn.com/nba/teams; www.nba.com/2017-18-season-preview-team-index?cid=EMA_NBA_daily&uniquell; 6/30/17 ESPN Bottom Line news crawl; 7/6/17 ESPN 2 Bottom Line news crawl; 7/6/17 news from ww.nba.com; 7/8/17 ESPN Bottom Line news crawl; 7/6/17 www.nba.com article “Proving Himself Nothing New For Utah Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey,” by Scott Howard-Cooper; 7/8/17 www.nba.com article, “Houston Rockets Sign James Harden to Reported Record Contract Extension,” by Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press; 7/9/17 7 a.m. edition of "Sportsnite," on SNY, hosted by Taylor Rooks; 7/10/17 news from NBA.com; 7/26/17 news from www.nba.com 9/6/17 10 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Jared Greenberg, and Rick Fox; 9/25/17 NBA Media Day on NBATV from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. with Matt Winer, Isiah Thomas, Kevin McHale, Kristen Ledlow, David Aldridge, Steve Smith, Dennis Scott, Rebecca Haarlow, and Jamie Maggio; 8/8/17 news from www.nba.com; 8/21/17-9/19/179/22/17 11 p.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Matt Winer, Steve Smith, and Dennis Scott; 9/26/17 1-5 p.m. 2017 NBA Media Day coverage on NBATV, with Matt Winer, Isiah Thomas, Kevin McHale, Kristen Ledlow, Steve Smith, Dennis Scott, David Aldridge, Jamie Maggio, and Rebecca Haarlow; 9/27/17-10/13/17 6 & 6:30 p.m. NBATV’s “Team Preview,” of all 30 teams with Casey Stern, Rick Kamla, Matt Winer, Kristen Ledlow, Isiah Thomas, Kevin McHale, Steve Smith, Brent Barry, Dennis Scott, Stu Jackson, Sam Mitchell, Rick Fox, Mike Fratello, David Aldridge, Sekou Smith, Ros Gold-Onwude and Rebecca Haarlow; 9/28/17 3 p.m. edition of “NBA: The Jump,” on ESPN, with Rachel Nichols, Israel Gutierrez, and Stephen Jackson; 10/3/17-10/13/17 NBATV’s “The Starters: 2017-18 Season Preview: 82 Burning Questions,” with Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, Leigh Ellis, and Trey Kerby; 9/30/17 1:30 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Kristen Ledlow, and Chiney Ogwumike; 10/4/17 7 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Matt Winer, and Mike Fratello; 10/7/17 ESPN Bottom Line news crawl; 10/16/17 3 p.m. edition of "NBA: The Jump," on ESPN 2 with Rachel Nichols, Ramona Shelburne, and Kevin Arnovitz; 10/16/17 ESPN Bottom Line news crawl; and www.google.com .