Saturday, October 22, 2016

J-Speaks: 2016-17 NBA Off-Season Review/Season Preview

As the 2016-17 National Basketball Association (NBA) campaign is underway, there is one central theme for all 30 teams. The all have something to prove. For the defending champs, they are out to prove that winning their first ever title and the first pro sports crown for their city is the start of things to come. The opponent that they defeated is out to prove with their newest edition that there are more titles in their future. Many teams in both conferences are out to prove that they are as much of a threat to win the title as their respective defending conference champs. There are some teams like in the capital city of California, Salt Lake City, UT and in the area of Walt Disney World and South Florida that their best days are on the horizon Here is my off-season review, season preview and off-season grades of all 30 NBA teams.
Abbreviation Key represents statistics from this last 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.

Eastern Conference

Atlanta Hawks: 48-34 (2nd Southeast Division; No. 4 Seed in East) 27-14 at home, 21-20 on the road. Defeated the Boston Celtics in Quarterfinals 4-2; Lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Semifinals 4-0.
-102.8 ppg-12th; opp. ppg: 99.2-6th; 42.1 rpg-24th
Two years ago, the Atlanta Hawks were the toast of the NBA with a franchise record 60 games and reached the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, but were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-0.They finished with a solid 48 wins and they got past the Celtics in the opening round in six games. Their season ended the same way the previous one did with a four-game sweep of the eventual NBA champion Cavs.
While the Hawks have made the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, second only to the Spurs 19 straight trips to the postseason, fans support has been bleak at best, especially for home games at Phillips Arena and while they have or had a batch of All-Stars leading them to be a part of the postseason party like Joe Johnson, Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Kyle Korver, they have never had a that superstar player that more often than not takes you to that level of being a consistent title contender.
This off-season the Hawks front office tinkered with the team to an extent not re-signing  Horford, who signed with the Celtics as a free agent and in a three-team deal with the Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz traded away starting lead guard Jeff Teague, who is now with the Pacers.
In free agency, the Hawks signed eight-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and Atlanta native Dwight Howard (13.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg-4th NBA, 62.0 FG% 1.6 bpg, w/Houston Rockets) to a three-year $70.5 million.
On Media Day, Howard said to NBATV’s Sekou Smith that he is very happy to be home and that he looking forward to the challenge of being the face of the franchise and reshaping his image that has really taken a hit in recent years with his former teams of the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets.
“The situations that I’ve had in my past have really molded me for this moment and I’m looking forward to doing whatever I can to really lead this team,” Howard said.
“I’ve taken a lot of steps as far as growing as a person. Changing a lot of things around me and I just want to be the best leader. The best player and the best person I can be for this city.”
The Hawks retained in free agency swingman Kent Bazemore (11.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 35.7 3-Pt.%), who turned his breakout season a year ago into a new four-year $70 million contract. The Hawks also re-signed forward Kris Humphries to a one-year, four million deal.
In the draft this past June, the Hawks looked to upgrade their perimeter attack by acquiring the draft rights from the Jazz in a trade getting the No. 12 overall pick Taurean Prince out of Utah and with the 21st pick in the draft the Hawks selected forward DeAndre Bembry.  
The new additions along with the remaining core players like Millsap (17.1 ppg-Led team, 9.0 rpg-Led team, 1.8 spg-Led team, 1.7 bpg-Led team, 47.0 FG%), Korver (9.2 ppg, 43.5 FG%, 39.9 3-Pt.%), Bazemore, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Mike Scott, Thabo Sefolosha, Tiago Splitter, Mike Muscala the Hawks did improve their team to some extent.
One area to a man that many of the players say that will be different about the team this year is that they will bring a more physical style to the court where they will be a better rebounding team, which will make them an even better defensively.
While the Hawks led the NBA in opponent’s field goal percentage allowed at 43.2 percent and were sixth in opponent’s three-point percentage at 33.8 percent, they were just 28th in the league in rebound differential at a -4.4; tied for 27th in offensive boards given up per game at 11.8 and were dead last in offensive boards per contest at 8.3.
“This year, we are super physical. Super competitive group from top to bottom,” Bazemore said. “Defensively, we were pretty good last year, but I think defense is still our staple this year and the physicality we’re going to bring every game and our competitiveness is going to take us over the top.”
Korver echoed those same sentiments by saying that, “We have bigger bodies now…, but still play with the pass and play unselfish and team basketball.”
What the Hawks led by head coach Mike Budenholzer have to prove is that they can all mesh together on the court.
Howard has to prove that he can get back to being the All-NBA First Team player that he was from 2007-2012 with the Orlando Magic, where in his eight seasons he averaged 18.4 points and 13.0 rebounds.
What helps his cause is that he is essentially the face of the Hawks, unlike with the Lakers and Rockets, those teams belonged to the recently retired Kobe Bryant and All-Star James Harden respectably. If he can just be a walking double-double, which he still averaged in his one year with L.A. of 17.1 points and 12.4 boards and 16.0 points and 11.7 rebounds in three seasons in Texas, who can also defend the paint, that will help the Hawks a great deal.
Schroder probably has the most to prove of all the Hawks this season approaches, especially after he was given a 4-year $70 million contract extension. As the backup to Teague the last two seasons, he showed flashes that he can run the show, especially when he started 16 games in his first three seasons. The question is can he do it playing 30-plus minutes per night? 
In his first two seasons, Schroder put up decent numbers of 7.5 points and 3.3 assists as the backup point guard his first two seasons. The key for him now is can he run the team at a high level for 30-35 minutes per night as the lead guard?
One area that he must improve is his shooting percentage. The 42.1 percent from the floor a season ago will not cut the mustard this season. 
What will also tip the scales in the Hawks favor is if Korver can regain the shooting touch that he had two seasons ago, where he shot 49.2 percent from three-point range and not the one that at times could not make a shot to save his life.
The Hawks have a new look, but the hope is that the new additions can maintain the style and philosophy of ball movement, player movement and playing with each other and for each other that coach Budenholzer has established in the ATL going into his four season on the sideline.
“Every season a locker room is a little bit different. Looking forward to watching our leadership grow this year,” Budenholzer said.
Best Case Scenario: Hawks make the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season. Howard game returns the form that made him an 8-time All-Star and Schroder has a solid transition as the team’s starting floor general. The Hawks meet the Cavs again at some point in the playoffs and give them a battle.
Worst Case Scenario: Hawks fall in the opening round of the postseason. Howard has an up and down season and Schroder struggles at the point.
Grade: B-
Boston Celtics: 48-34 (2nd Atlantic Division; No. 5 Seed East) 28-13 at home, 20-21 on the road. Lost to Atlanta Hawks in Quarterfinals 4-2.
-105.7 ppg-5th; opp. ppg: 102.5-13th; 44.9 rpg-6th
After an unprecedented appearance in the playoffs two years ago, the Celtics under the Head Coach-General Manager tandem of Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge, the Celtics came into last season with the question of could they make it back to the playoffs and turn their unexpected 21-11 record after the All-Star break into a consistent reality.
All they did a season ago was finish two wins’ shy of 50 and won the most games since winning 56 back in the 2010-11 season.
Starting lead guard Isaiah Thomas (22.2 ppg-Led team, 6.2 apg-Led team, 35.9 3-Pt.%) became an All-Star for the first time in his career and established himself as one of elite guards in the NBA.
Key members of the C’s young core like Jae Crowder (14.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.7 spg-Led team), Avery Bradley (15.2 ppg, 1.5 spg, 44.8 FG%, 36.1 3-Pt.%), Kelly Olynyk (10.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 45.5 FG%, 40.5 3-Pt.%), Marcus Smart (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Tyler Zeller, who re-signed for two years at $16 million really made strides a season ago.  
The big question that has been lingering for this team the past couple of seasons is could they get a prime time perennial superstar player to put them on an even playing field with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The hope was to land Kevin Durant in free agency this summer to make them a serious threat to the defending NBA champs and back-to-back East champs.
While Durant decided on signing with the former NBA champion Golden State Warriors, they Celtics landed a nice consolation prize in signing four-time All-Star forward/center Al Horford (15.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 50.5 FG%, 34.4 3-Pt.% w/Hawks), who signed a four-year $113 million deal.
“I’m very excited to be here and get started,” Horford said to NBATV’s Dennis Scott on Media last week.
“I’m going to give everything I have for the team and try to help us be in the best position that we can.”
Besides bringing a wealth of talent on both ends to the C’s, Horford brings with him a business like, it is all about winning, being a great teammate and focused attitude to practice and to the game day in and day out.
That talent of Horford consists of someone who can shoot the ball well from all angles and make plays from the perimeter in terms of shooting and passing. He is a solid rebounder and a safety valve for a team that will finally have a solid front court presence.
He also brings an attitude of winning having been in the postseason in all eight years he was with the Hawks and also helping lead his college team the Florida Gators to back-to-back National Championships in 2006 and 2007.
“He helps us right away from in the locker room to out there on the court,” Thomas said to Scott on Media Day. “He can shoot the ball. He can pick and pop. He can do a lot of things without the ball and with the ball. So it’s definitely going to take a lot of pressure off everybody else having him out there on the floor.”
In the draft, the Celtics with the No. 3 overall pick chose forward Jaylen Brown out of the University of California.
The Celtics had hope to turn this No. 1 draft pick into a proven talent, but they were unable to swing a deal to get that proven star to put them over the top.
Ainge said that he chose Brown because of his athleticism and high motor and the fact and the other advantage that he has over the likes of guards on the board like Kris Dunn, Jamal Murray and Buddy Hield, Brown at ‘6’7” is very comfortable at the forward or guard positions.
He is very likely to get some serious minutes at the small forward spot with the departure of swingman Evan Turner who signed with the Portland Trail Blazers this summer.
The C’s also selected in this past June’s draft guard Demetrius Jackson with 45th overall pick out of Notre Dame.
They will be battling for minutes with the likes of R.J. Hunter, Jordan Mickey, Terry Rozier  and James Young.
Along getting Horford in free agency, the Celtics also signed for his second stint with the team forward Gerald Green (8.9 ppg w/Miami Heat).
Green will also provide a steady veteran presence along with the likes of Amir Johnson (7.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Jonas Jerebko. 
When the Celtics said goodbye to the likes of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers four years ago, it was believed that the Celtics of being back in the postseason was going to be a long wait. That wait only lasted one year and not only is the team on an upswing on the court, but they still have assets to work with, especially controlling the next two No. 1 draft choices of their Atlantic Division rival the Brooklyn Nets the next two summers.
What they have to prove now is that they can go from a consistent playoff participant to a team that can be a serious threat to the defending champion Cavs.

This means that Thomas must become a more efficient offensive player. His 24-72 (.333) performance in the four setbacks to the Hawks in the quarterfinals of the playoffs a season ago will not cut it if the Celtics have aspirations of challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.
“We have a lot of guys that need to step up. In order for us to improve on last season and to be the kind of team that we want to be, we need all of our players to improve,” Ainge said to Scott on Media Day.
Best Case Scenario: The Celtics finish with 50-plus wins and are at the top of the East behind the Cavs. Horford and Thomas make the All-Star team. Some of the younger players emerge. Celtics reach the Semifinals.
Worst Case Scenario: The Celtics have another first-round flame out in the postseason.  
Grade: B+
Brooklyn Nets: 21-61 (4th Atlantic Division; missed playoffs) 14-27 at home, 7-34 on the road.
-98.6 ppg-26th; opp. ppg: 106.0-24th; 42.4 rpg-23rd   
Three years ago, the Nets strolled into Brooklyn from New Jersey and made themselves quite at home winning 49 games that first season. Since then they have gone from that to 44 wins the next season to 38 and just 21 games a season ago. How did they go from at one point being a title contender to the bottom of the barrel in the East?
Back on July 12, 2013, the Nets took a major gamble in trading for All-Star forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in the hopes that they could bring that championship magic to the Nets. They sent to the Celtics, who they made the deal with five other players and three first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 as well as the rights to swap a first round pick with 2017.
The furthest that the two future Hall of Famers alongside now former Nets guard Deron Williams and center Brook Lopez got was the Semifinals two years ago and falling to the eventual East champion Miami Heat led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the Semifinals in five games.
Two years ago they did make the playoffs, but were ousted by the Hawks in six games.
To put the situation of the Nets into context, they are trying to build a mansion with very few tools and materials. They do not have a true franchise player to build around for the future or players with serious upside that teams are eager to trade for. Also, they do not have they do not own their No. 1 draft pick outright until the summer of 2019. This is the bed that owner Mikhail Prokorov made when they mortgaged their future for putting a championship product on the floor immediately.
The task now making this team into a playoff perennial again and close to a title contender falls into the hands of new General Manager Sean Marks, who was named to that role back on Feb. 18 and new head coach Kenny Atkinson. 

Marks is a disciple of the San Antonio Spurs and new head coach Kenny Atkinson, a Huntington, NY native and well respected assistant coach formerly with the Hawks, who was known for his ability to develop players.
For those that do not know much about Marks, he was born in Auckland, New Zealand. He was the 44th overall pick in the 1998 Draft by the New York Knicks. He played 11 seasons with the Raptors, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers. He won a title with the Spurs as a player in 2005 and as an assistant coach with the team in 2014. He is a former GM with the Spurs Developmental League affiliate the Austin Toros.
Atkinson, who became Nets sixth coach in 2012 when he was introduced back on Apr. 17 began his pro basketball journey overseas where he played from 1990-2004. He served as the Director of Player Development for the Rockets back in the 2007-08 season. He was a assistant coach for the New York Knicks from 2008-12 and then for the Hawks from 2012 to last season.
Marks’ first of hopefully many big moves was trading forward Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers for a first-round pick, which was used this past June when the Nets selected Caris LeVert with the No. 20 overall pick out of Michigan.
Marks’ next bold move was putting a combined $125 million in front of restricted free agent guards Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe, who were young players coming off solid years for the Heat and Trail Blazers respectably. That plan failed as both teams respectably matched the offers.
Marks and the Nets did gain some tractions in signing the likes of guard Jeremy Lin (11.7 ppg w/Hornets) for three years at $36 million; forwards Trevor Booker (5.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg w/Utah Jazz) for three years at $18.3 million, Luis Scola (8.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg w/Toronto Raptors) for one year at $5.5 million and former No. 1 overall pick who has struggled to put it mildly in forward Anthony Bennett to a two-years deal at $2.1 million; guards Greivis Vasquez (5.7 ppg, 4.0 apg w/Milwaukee Bucks), Joe Harris, Randy Foye (5.9 ppg w/Denver Nuggets & Oklahoma City Thunder) for one year at $2.5 million and center Justin Hamilton for two years at $6 million.
"I think I want to bring my mental aspect to this team," Lin said of the impact he wants to have with the Nets. "I want us to have an edge. I want us to not care about what other people think or listen to what other people say and I think I want us to be ultra competitive and I want our team to want it more is really what it comes down to."
Along with the new additions, the Nets still have sharp shooting swingman from Yugoslavia Bojan Bogdanovic (11.2 ppg, 38.2 3-Pt.%); forward Sean Kirpatrick (13.8 ppg, 46.2 FG%, 36.1 3-Pt.%); second-year swingman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (5.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 45.7 FG%), who was limited to 23 games last season because of a serious ankle injury and former All-Star center Brook Lopez (20.6 ppg-Led team, 7.8 rpg, 1.7 bpg-Led team, 51.1 FG%), who sees this season as an opportunity to build toward the future and to quiet the naysayers.

"We're not looking at this season as a lost one," Lopez said. "We want to go out there, play some fun, exciting basketball, but stick to a lot of our values. We want to be a very unselfish team. A tough team and we always want to give ourselves a chance to win."
When you are team starting a rebuild from the ground up, you can afford to take chances and give some borderline good players a chance and see if you can find that needle in a hay stack that can bring the value of that player up.

That is why taking a flyer on LeVert, who had an injury hit career with the Michigan Wolverines is not as big of a risk. With that being said, he sees this as an opportunity for him to prove himself and that he can have a long career and that he is playing for something more than himself.

"It's a blessing to be out here. A blessing to get picked to a great situation like this," LeVert said during a taping of NBATV's "NBA Rooks."

"You're playing for a lot of people. You're playing for yourself, obviously. You're playing for the team, but then your playing for the community too."
That is why Lopez is very high on the addition of Lin, who the Nets hope can be anything close to what he did for New York's other team the Knicks when "Linsanity" took the NBA world and New York City by storm.
"He's just the kind of player that goes out there and makes everyone else on the floor better," he said.
"He brings out the best in his teammates. He has just a high basketball I.Q. and you really couldn't as for a better floor general for the kind of team we have. I'm just so excited to be out there playing with him because again, he's going to make me that much a better player and that's kind of the effect as leader I want to have on everyone else as well."
The only asset they have left of any value is Lopez, who was just one of three players a season ago to score over 20 points per game and shot 50 percent from the field or better more than likely will remain a Net until or unless Marks gets an offer he cannot refuse.
For the Nets this season, everyone across the board has something to prove. The front office led by Prokorov has to prove he can be patient and allow this rebuilding process to take shape. Atkinson has to prove he can bring a team to the court that will compete every night and makes strides in building winning habits. The players have to prove they are willing and focused on turning this opportunity into one where they are a part of the team when there are better days in the future, hopefully.

For a three-year period, the Nets put together a roster that was supposed to contend for a championship. Now, the Nets are looking to build their team into a consistent winner that could contend for a title down the line, but will be a perennial playoff participant.
"I think a good season for the Nets would be that Jeremy Lin looks like a real NBA starter at point guard who can run a team and they find two or three guys who they want to keep around for a few years when they do start winning some games again," Brian Mahoney, a reporter for The Associated Press said to NBATV's Matt Winer during the Nets Team Preview earlier this month.
Best Case Scenario: A season where the Nets are competitive in games more often than not. The players make the most of their opportunity and show that they can turn the Nets into a team that will be back in the postseason sooner than later.
Worst Case Scenario: A long, rough and difficult season with many losing streaks ahead.
Grade: F-
Charlotte Hornets: 48-34 (3rd Southeast Division; No. 6 Seed East) 30-11 at home, 18-23 on the road. Lost to the Miami Heat in Quarterfinals 4-3.
-103.4 ppg-11th; opp. ppg: 100.7-9th; 43.9 rpg-14th
From his time as Director of Basketball Operations with the Washington Wizards a little over a decade ago to his time as majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Hall of Famer Michael Jordan had yet to a roster together that could be a serious player in the league. That all changed a season ago as the Hornets, formerly the Bobcats under Jordan had a landmark season.
They won 48 games, their most since returning to Charlotte, NC in the 2004-05 NBA campaign and they had a great showing in the opening round versus their division rival the Miami Heat before falling in Game 7.
“We had a great season,” forward Marvin Williams, entering his 11th season said. “Battle through a lot of injuries; a lot of adversity and still made the playoffs and put ourselves in a position to actually win a playoff series.”
Starting point guard Kemba Walker felt the same way about the Hornets progress saying that the team showed great toughness last season. “We showed resiliency and we showed that we can play with anyone in our league.”
Coming into this off-season, the Hornets had some big decisions on who to bring back to maintain the progress from a season ago and who to allow to walk in free agency.
They decided to say goodbye to backup point guard Jeremy Lin, who had a solid season as the understudy to starting lead guard Kemba Walker. They said goodbye to their former offensive anchor in center Al Jefferson, who has been slowed down by injuries, especially last season. They also let guard Courtney Lee, who they acquired at the trade deadline this past February walk in free agency.
The team invested most of their money in free agency in re-signing swingman Nicolas Batum (14.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 5.8 apg-Led team, 34.8 3-Pt.%) to a five-year $120 million deal.
While many might consider it being too step a price for a player that has yet to make an All-Star team in his career or been the most important player on their respective team, the 27-year-old Frenchman is a major reason that the Hornets went from being that struggled to score from the perimeter and did not have a credible offensive presence at the small forward or shooting guard positions.
The addition of Batum gave the Hornets someone that the opposing team had to pay attention to and gave a true compliment to Walker (20.9 ppg-Led team-career-high, 5.2 apg, 1.6 spg-Led team, 37.1 3-Pt.%-Career-High), whose 22.7 scoring average in the seven-game series loss to the Heat was the fifth highest in Hornets postseason history.
Only the 22.8 average of former Hornet Glen Rice in the 1998 playoffs; the 23.8 average of Alonzo Mourning in the 1993 postseason; the 24.9 scoring output of Jamal Mashburn and the 27.7 average of Rice were higher.
“Having Nick was huge for me last season,” Walker said to NBATV’s Vince Cellini on Media Day. “Took a lot of pressure off me just cause he’s such a great play maker. He did a great job at not only getting me open shots, but he got other guys open shots. He just made the game easier for a lot of us and hopefully he can continue to do that. 
To bring into context Batum’s impact had on the Hornets, The Hornets ranked seventh in three-point percentage at 36.2 percent; ranked fourth in triples made per contest a season ago with 10.6 and were fourth in attempts at 29.4. Individually, Batum last season joined All-Stars Stephen Curry and Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors, Harden of the Rockets, LeBron James of the defending champion Cavaliers and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder as the only players to score 1,000-plus points, grab 400-plus boards and dish out 400-plus assists.
They also had enough stashed away to hold onto Williams (11.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 45.2 FG%, 40.2 3-Pt.%), who had his most productive season since 2008-09 and turned that into a new four-year $54.5 million contract.
To replace the 32.6 combined scoring average of Lin, Lee and Jefferson the Hornets acquired sharp shooting guard Marco Belinelli (10.2 ppg), a career 37.9 three-point shooter from the Sacramento Kings, who is looking to bounce back from the worst shooting season of his career where he shot just 38.7 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from three-point land.
Belinelli, gives the Hornets a floor spacer that will keep the defense honest and give Walker and Batum space to operate in the half court offensively.
The Hornets also signed guards Ramon Sessions (9.9 ppg, 47.3 FG% w/Washington Wizards) for two years at $12.3 million and Brian Roberts for one year at $1.1 million; center Roy Hibbert (5.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg w/Los Angeles Laker), who is looking to revive his career after being a shell of himself with the Los Angeles Lakers a season ago and forward Christian Wood at two years at $1.9 million.
Sessions and Roberts are solid veteran backups to Walker so he will not have to play heavy minutes and gives head coach Steve Clifford the chance to play Walker at the two-guard spot when he wants.
The addition of Hibbert gives the team an alternative on nights when their young bigs of forward/center Cody Zeller (8.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and second-year forward/center Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky III (7.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg) do not have it going.
The one welcome edition that the Hornets are looking forward to is the return of the No. 2 overall pick in 2012 draft Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whose played in a combined 62 games the last two seasons because of injuries to his shoulder.
In just seven games a season ago, the guy that his teammates refer to as MKG averaged 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds. In 55 games the prior season, he averaged 10.9 points and 7.6 rebounds.
In the Hornets dominant 101-82 victory at the Los Angeles Lakers back on Jan. 31, Kidd-Gilchrist had 19 points and 12 rebounds going 6 for 7 from the field, including 2 for 2 from three-point range. He followed that up with 11 points and 13 rebounds in the Hornets 106-97 victory over the eventual NBA champion Cavaliers.
“I think he can help us in so many ways on both sides of the ball and on the glass,” Hornets head coach, Steve Clifford, who has a 124-122 record with the team said. “I think he’ll help our fast break game. He help our cutting game, which we weren’t great at and then obviously at the defensive end. He’s an elite defender.”
For the first time in Jordan’s ownership tenure, the Hornets have an identity, a personality and a team under head coach Steve Clifford that has a direction.
They have a core of young players that are improving and some solid veterans that want to contribute to the continued success of the team.
What they have to prove starting with this upcoming season that they can handled high expectations both internally and externally. That will largely depend on the progression of Zeller and Kaminsky; consistent offensive production from Batum and Walker, who shot 42.6 percent and 42.7 percent respectably from the floor a season ago.
On paper, the Hornets have a team that should make the playoffs again, but they will have to put some major dollars to a free agent if they plan on becoming a serious title contender in the future. Just shaking the hand of the greatest player to ever play on the hardwood in Jordan is not enough proof that a game-changing player should come to Charlotte and sign.
“I think guys are really confident and really excited to kind of go out there and put ourselves in that same position and hopefully come out on top this time,” Williams said about making it back to the postseason this spring.
Best Case Scenario: The Hornets make the playoffs flirting with having home court advantage in the opening round. Walker makes the All-Star team for the first time in his career.   
Worst Case Scenario: The Hornets have another early exit in the Quarterfinals or they miss the playoffs.
Grade: B-
Chicago Bulls: 42-40 (4th Central Division; missed playoffs) 26-15 at home, 16-25 on the road.
-101.6 ppg-21st; opp. ppg: 103.1-16th; 46.3 rpg-3rd 
There is an old saying that if it’s not broke, do not fix it. In five seasons under head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Chicago Bulls were one of the best teams in not just the East, but the NBA. Unfortunately for the Bulls, injuries, inconsistent play at the offensive and seeing LeBron James whether he was with the Miami Heat or the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls could not get past his teams in the playoffs and that is why they only got as far as the Conference Finals. Two summers back the Bulls and Thibodeau parted ways and they turned to former Iowa State head coach and former NBA player Fred Hoiberg to steer them towards a championship. That changed last season was an epic fail.
The Bulls missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season and their defensive identity that became a staple under Thibodeau was gone.
After such a tough season that was filled with championship aspirations, the Bulls’ front office felt that it was time to make some changes to the roster and they did exactly that.
The team said goodbye to two major staples of their roster in center Joakim Noah, who signed in free agency with the New York Knicks and back on June 22, the Bulls traded away 2010-11 MVP and "Windy City" native Derrick Rose, whose noted injuries the last few seasons have made him a shell of the player that was not only one of the best guards, but one of the best players in “The Association” to the Knicks along with guard Justin Holiday. The Bulls received in return from the Knicks center Robin Lopez (10.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 53.9 FG% w/Knicks) and guard Jerian Grant. They also said goodbye to their most productive player the past two seasons in forward/center Pau Gasol, who signed with the San Antonio Spurs.
In early July, the Bulls signed guard Rajon Rondo (11.9 ppg, 11.7 apg-Led NBA, 6.0 rpg 1.9 spg-7th NBA w/Sacramento Kings) to a two-year $27.4 million deal.
In the most stunning signing during free agency this summer was on July 15 when future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade (19.0 ppg, 4.6 apg, 4.1 rpg, 45.6 FG% w/Heat) after 13 years and helping the Heat to three championships signed a two-year $47 million deal to come home and join the team that he rooted for as a kid.
“I’m like the new kid in class,” Wade told’s Steve Aschburner on Bulls’ Media Day earlier this month. “I feel like my kids probably feel like going to a new school.
Other new additions to the Bulls include the signing of guard Isaiah Canaan (11.8 ppg, 36.3 3-Pt.% w/Philadelphia 76ers) and in this past June’s draft with the No. 14 overall pick selected guard Denzel Valentine out of Michigan State and with the No. 48 overall pick chose sharp shooter from Germany Paul Zipser.

Earlier this month, the Bulls acquired guard Michael Carter-Williams (11.5 ppg, 5.2 apg, 5.1 rpg, 1.5 spg) from the Bucks for forward Tony Snell.
The additions of Wade and Rondo and two-time All-Star Jimmy Butler (20.9 ppg-Led team, 5.3 prg, 4.8 apg, 1.6 spg-Led team, 45.4 FG%) give the Bulls a sort of “Big Three,” but will it be enough to get them back into the playoffs.
Individually, these are three of the top players at their respective positions and all three whether they will admit have huge egos. On top of that, they are in different stages of their careers. Wade and Rondo are on the back nine trying to prove that they have plenty left in the tank while Butler is in his prime trying to prove he can be the leader that the rest of his teammates will follow. Wade and Rondo are both on record saying that the Bulls are "Butler's team." 
All three said to Aschburner during Media Day that they are willing to sacrifice to get the Bulls back to not just the playoffs, but as a title contender.
“I don’t think the individual stuff means too much to me. I still want to win a championship. I still want to win as a team,” Butler said to Aschburner.
“All egos have to go out the window and with my experience in Boston being able to sit back and witness the ‘Big Three [Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen]’ come together it was purposely meant to be and now me dealing with the situation that were in now, a lot of people expect three alphas not to mesh so well and I completely laugh at that,” Rondo said to Aschburner.
Besides the “Big Three” having to adjust, what about the rest of the roster?
The Bulls have a young roster that consist of the likes of Taj Gibson (8.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Nikola Mirotic (11.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 39.0 3-Pt.%), Bobby Portis (7.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Doug McDermott (9.4 ppg, 45.2 FG%, 42.5 3-Pt.%) to go along with Canaan and Valentine that need minutes to continue their development.
At the center of meshing all of this together on the court is Hoiberg, who had some rough moments in his first season as the Bulls head man on the sidelines a season ago. He and Butler did not always get along. At one-point last season Butler said to the Chicago media that he and his teammates needed to be coached harder like Thibodeau did in his time there.
What also should be stated is that Rondo has made it a habit in his career of questioning his coaches. No one knows that better than Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle a couple of years back when the team acquired him from the Celtics. That resulted in Rondo not being resigned two off-seasons ago.
Yes, the Bulls and newly Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Reinsdorf managed to put a roster together that on paper should not only make the playoffs, but can be a serious threat to the Cavs. For that to become a reality, they have to prove that they can mesh together on both ends. Hoiberg has to show he can coach a talented team with three head strong stars. Butler, Wade and Rondo have to prove that they can stay healthy throughout the season play well together and make each other better as well as the rest of their teammates. The rest of the team has to be willing to play their roles to perfection.
“For me a successful season is staying injury free and winning ball games. Everything else will take care of itself,” Wade said to Aschburner.
Best Case Scenario: The Bulls make it back to the playoffs finishing between the No. 5 and the No. 7 spots in the East. Butler, Wade and Rondo mesh well together while the young supporting cast development continues. They find consistent outside shooting.
Worst Case Scenario: The barely make the playoffs. The trio of Butler, Wade and Rondo struggle to co-exist and the rest of the teams struggles to find their individual niche.
Grade: B
Cleveland Cavaliers: 57-25 (1st Central Division; No. 1 Seed East) 33-8 at home, 24-17 on the road. Defeated the Detroit Pistons in Quarterfinals 4-0; Defeated the Atlanta Hawks in Semifinals 4-0; Defeated the Toronto Raptors 4-2 in Conference Finals; Defeated the Golden State Warriors in The Finals 4-3.
-104.3 ppg-8th; opp. ppg: 98.3-4th; 44.5 rpg-9th
The date of Sunday June 19, 2016 will go down as the most memorable day for Northeast Ohio sports fans. This was the night in Oakland, CA at Oracle Arena when the city’s newest sports hero LeBron James, from Akron, OH led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA title and ended a 52-year title drought.
Led by the 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and three blocks of James, the 2016 Finals MVP, the Cavs on Game 7 at the Golden State Warriors 93-89 and won Northeast Ohio’s first pro sports crown since 1964 when Hall of Famer Jim Brown led the Cleveland Browns to an NFL title.  
While James’ triple-double and the 26 points of Kyrie Irving, which included the game clinching three-pointer took center stage, it was what led to those moments that gave the Cavs the opportunity to be in that position.
Back on Jan. 18, MLK Day on national television, the eventual champs were taken to the cleaners by the then defending champion Warriors 132-98. Despite winning two staright contest after that humiliating loss, the front office felt that something needed to change.
They axed head coach David Blatt and handed things over to Tyronn Lue to get them to where they wanted to go.
While the team finished with a similar mark of 27-14, it was believed that the team was ready to make their assault on the NBA title.
One big reason the Cavs got back on track in the second half of last season and really hit their stride in the postseason was their high volume of three-point attempts and their ability to make them at a very high percentage.
Prior to the All-Star break they attempted 28.3 triples per contest and made 35.8 percent of them. Following the All-Star break, the Cavs attempted 31.8 three-pointers making 37.0 percent of them and in the playoffs shot 30.2 threes per game and made them at a 40.6 percent clip.
In Game 2 of the Semifinals versus the Hawks, the Cavaliers made an NBA record 25 three-pointers in routing the Hawks 123-98 back on May 4.
After breezing through the first three rounds pretty easily going 12-2, they had their troubles in The Finals dropping the first two games on the West Coast. After a resounding 120-90 victory back at Quicken Loans Arena in Game 3, the Cavs were beating in Game 4 108-97 to fall into a 3-1 series whole.
With their backs against the wall, James and Irving rose to the occasion in Game 5 scoring 41 points each to win Game 5 back in Oakland 112-97. They were just as good in the 115-101 win back at home in Game 6 to even the series at 3-3. James again had 41 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks while Irving had 23 points.
In the aforementioned Game 7, James had a huge block on Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala’s layup in the final minutes that put the Cavs in a position to become the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit in The Finals and they were able to capture their first title in franchise history.
This off-season James, Lue and Irving each were rewarded in a major way for a great season. James (25.3 ppg-5th NBA, 7.4 rpg, 6.8 apg, 52.0 FG%) signed a new three-year $100 million deal in the off-season.
Coach Lue, who won two titles as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000 and 2001 and as an assistant on Glenn “Doc” Rivers staff of the 2007-08 Celtics earned a new five-year $35 deal.
Irving (19.6 points, 4.7 apg, 44.8 FG%), who missed the first 29 games of last season recovering from knee surgery had the opportunity to play for Team USA in the Olympic in Rio and helped them earn their third straight Gold medal.
With another season on the horizon though, the question is can the Cavs repeat?
With the roster that they have with a couple of additions they made, they will have a major chance to do so.
The supporting cast is solid with forwards Channing Frye (6.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 38.7 3-Pt.%) and Richard Jefferson, who was re-signed for three years at $7.6 million; guard Iman Shumpert (5.8 ppg); forward/center Tristan Thompson (7.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 58.8 FG%) and new additions of center Chris Andersen, who played with James on the Heat’s 2012-13 title team and sharp shooting swingman Mike Dunleavy, Jr. (7.2 ppg, 39.4 3-Pt.% w/Bulls).
“I feel like were solid at almost every position…,” Irving said on Media Day to NBATV’s Kristen Ledlow. “We added some guys in the off-season. Some shooters. Some bigs. I feel like were in a really good place. We understand that we also have to get them acclimated to what we know and the style of play that we want to play.”
The three big issues that clouded the defend champs at the start of training camp were the backup point guard spot; guard J.R. Smith (12.4 ppg, 40.0 3-Pt.%) was still unsigned up until the middle of this month and keeping James’ minutes down so he can be fresh for another title run in the spring.
Just like a season ago when Thompson was holding out of training camp to get a new deal, the Cavs were able to re-sign Smith to a new four-year $57 million deal according to
To bring into focus the importance of Smith, who the Cavs acquired from the New York Knicks during last season, he put the clamps on the opposing team’s best perimeter player I the postseason. In the Quarterfinals, Smith held Detroit Pistons’ starting lead guard Reggie Jackson, who averaged 15.8 points in the regular season to just 13.8 in the four-game sweep. Former Hawks starting floor general Jeff Teague, who averaged 12.5 points per contest in the regular season, was held to 10.3 in the Semis. While the starting lead guard of the Toronto Raptors scored a little over what he averaged during the regular season of 15.8 per contest, he held MVP Stephen Curry, who led the NBA at 30.2 scoring average in the regular season to just a 17.7 output in The Finals.
Curry and his backcourt mate Klay Thompson combined to shoot just 37.0 percent and just 22.0 percent from long range in The Finals.
Coming into this season, only Hall of Famer, five-time regular season MVP and six-time Finals MVP Michael Jordan had logged more minutes on the hardwood in their career at 48,485 than the 46,481 of the four-time regular season MVP and three-time Finals MVP.
The backup point guard entering training camp rookie Kay Felder, who the Cavs acquired his draft rights from the Hawks who made him the No. 54 pick of this past June’s draft. The team also signed as an insurance policy veteran backup Toney Douglas. This was a major signing, especially with the fact that veteran floor general Mo Williams had retired.
As mentioned earlier James got a brand new deal and so did Lue. The third part of the “Big Three” Kevin Love (16.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg-Led team, 36.0 3-Pt.%), put to rest all the outside noise of that he needed to be traded and had a solid showing in the playoffs, especially in the aforementioned Game 7 when he scored nine points, grabbed 16 boards and made some major plays defensively in the closing moments.
This season and going forward is all about one thing for Northeast Ohio’s favorite team. Winning back-to-back championships.
That is the line in the sand that the Cleveland Cavaliers, their leader in four-time league MVP LeBron James (25.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 6.5 apg-Leads team) and team management of GM David Griffin and owner Dan Gilbert.
“I just think the position that I’m in, I’ll still have the opportunity to get better and give back to the game and while I have the opportunity to do that until I hang it up, I’m motivated,” James said to Ledlow on Media Day.
“I’m motivated by getting better. I’m motivated by being on the court and being one of the greats to ever play the game.”
Best Case Scenario: The Cavs are at the top of the East again. Win back-to-back titles and James is in the running for MVP once again as well as becomes Finals MVP again.
Worst Case Scenario: The Cavs do not make it back to The Finals
Grade: A+
Detroit Pistons: 44-38 (3rd Central Division; No. 8 Seed East) 26-15 at home, 18-23 on the road. Lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Quarterfinals 4-0.
-102.0 ppg-19th; opp. ppg: 101.4-12th; 46.3 rpg-2nd
Seven years of no playoffs in the “Motor City” came to an end when the Pistons made their first appearance in the postseason since being swept by the Cavaliers’ in the first stint of LeBron James back in 2009. Their journey back to playing beyond the start of April began at the trade deadline last season.
Back in February 2015, the team acquired 26-year-old guard Reggie Jackson (18.8 ppg, 6.2 apg, 35.3 3-Pt.%) from the Oklahoma City Thunder, who they re-signed that summer to a new five-year $80 million deal. Last February the Pistons acquired 24-year-old forward Tobias Harris (14.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 46.9 FG%, 33.5 3-Pt.%) from the Orlando Magic for basically peanuts and he averaging 16.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in 27 games on 47.7 shooting from the field, including 37.5 from three-point range.
Both players have fit in like a glove in head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy, who is expecting his team to make some serious strides this season, especially since they are no longer going to catch anyone by surprise.
“We came into last year with really no expectations,” he said. “Young team. It three quarters of the year really before our opponents started to respect us. Well now it’s different. Expectations are higher. You’re going to get more respect from your opponent. They’re going to come in a little bit more ready to play. You’re going to get their A game a little bit more, plus the teams in the East, especially the teams that were out of the playoffs last year have gotten better.”
The summer was all about re-signing their most important player in center Andre Drummond and continuing to add players that were going to fit in the mold that Van Gundy, whose entering season three with the Pistons.
The 23-year-old Drummond, (16.2 ppg, 14.8 rpg-Led NBA, 1.5 spg-Led team, 52.1 FG%) who made his first All-Star team a season ago a restricted free agent signed a new five-year $130 million deal.
To bring into focus the kind of season the No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of the University of Connecticut had, he became just the third Piston in team history to lead the league in rebounding and his 14.8 average was the best in team history. Future Hall of Famer and a part of the 2004 Pistons title team Ben Wallace led the NBA in rebounds per contest in the 2002-03 season at 15.4 and in the 2001-02 season at 12.9. Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman led the league in boards per contest with an 18.7 average in the 1991-92 campaign and an 18.3 average back in 1992-93. Hall of Famer and member of the Pistons back-to-back title teams in 1989 and 1990 led the NBA with a 13.1 rebounds per game average back in 1985-86.
Drummond posted nine games of grabbing 20-plus boards a season ago. He had four games where he pulled down 10-plus offensive rebounds; registered five games scoring 20-plus points and pulling down 20-plus rebounds and his 1,198 total boards last season are the most since Rodman’s 1,530 back in 1991-92.   
This Pistons as a team finished second in the league offensive boards per game at 12.5 as well as second in rebound differential at +3.8.
He is looking to be even better this season and wants the team to be the same way as well.
“For us as a young team, we need to take that and be ready to play each and every night,” Drummond said. “Not take nights off. Not practices. Take care of your body and everything necessary to do to be ready to play these grueling games because these teams are coming to get us now.”
The Pistons looked to add more depth to their front line behind Drummond as well as to their backcourt in the draft and free agency.
With the No. 18 overall pick back in the draft in June, the Pistons drafted forward Henry Ellenson out of the University; of Marquette. At No. 49 overall, the Pistons selected forward Michael Gbinije out of Syracuse University.
In free agency, the Pistons signed forward Jon Leuer (8.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 48.1 FG%, 38.1 3-Pt.%w/Phoenix Suns) to a four-year $41 million deal. After signing former center Aron Baynes from the San Antonio Spurs in free agency last summer, the Pistons signed another former Spurs front court player in center Boban Marjanovic to a three-year $21 million deal.
To bolster their backcourt, the Pistons signed guards Ray McCallum to a one-year $1 million deal and Ish Smith (12.6 ppg, 6.5 apg, 4.0 rpg w/New Orleans Pelicans & Philadelphia 76ers) to a three-year $18 million deal.
The signings of Smith and McCallum is a bigger deal now because Jackson will be on the shelf for six to eight weeks after having platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections to treat tendinosis and to nurse an Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in his right thumb.
Besides missing their starting lead guard, the Pistons will not have their best marksman from long range, who connected on 118 three-pointers made a season ago.
The most likely starter in his stead will be Smith, who had a break out season last year.
While the team that he was traded to on Christmas Eve of 2015 to the 76ers was terrible a season ago, he played great individually averaging 14.7 points and seven assists per contest in 50 games played. When Smith was in the lineup for the Sixers a season ago, they averaged 101.1 points, made 6.3 threes per game and had a .180 winning percentage. When Smith did not play, the Sixers averaged just 91.4 points, made 4.3 triples in those games and had a .032 winning percentage.
The key for Smith is he must show he can play at a high level for 30 to 35 minutes a night until Jackson returns and he is going to have to develop a solid continuity with the other starters Drummond, Harris, forward Marcus Morris (14.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 36.2 3-Pt.%) and shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg).

This is also the time for someone like forward Stanley Johnson (8.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) to step up and prove he can earn serious minutes. If he can be anything like he was in the playoffs last season, the Pistons bench might be improved from a season ago.
Speaks of making three-pointers, the Pistons attempted the 10th most in the NBA a season ago and were 10th in makes per game at nine, but were tied for 21st in percentage at 34.5 percent.
Back when he was coaching with the Orlando Magic at the close of the past decade, he built a team that had current Hawks center Dwight Howard in the middle and he was surrounded by perimeter shooters. In 2008-09 when the Magic made it to The Finals, falling to the Lakers 4-1, they finished second in the NBA in triples made with 817.
Van Gundy hopes that with the moves he made this summer and the last couple of years that his Pistons can have that same style with Drummond in the middle and Jackson when he returns, Morris, Caldwell-Pope, Harris and Jackson can provide that same production.
Besides the marksmanship that Jackson had from distance as mentioned earlier a season ago, Caldwell-Pope made 114 threes a season ago. Morris made 108 triples and Harris had 80.
The hope is that Smith can hold the fort along with McCallum the first two months of this season until Jackson returns.
The Pistons will not have it easy to start this season as six of their first 10 games will be on the road, including a four-game trip on the West Coast.
What will be a big help to them during this stretch and throughout the season is they must become a better foul shooting team.
When you attempt the fifth most free throws in the league a season ago, ranking dead last in percentage at 66.8 will not help win games, especially ones that are close. That is especially true for Drummond who shot an abysmal 35.5 percent from the charity stripe and is a career 38.0 percent free throw shooter.
Coming into training camp, the Pistons from coach Van Gundy to the players themselves say that last year’s playoff appearance made them hungry for more and they have aspirations of being a perennial participant and eventually a team that can compete for a championship.
“We have great aspirations,” Jackson said. “We figure why not us? Why not chase being the greatest and why not chase those that’s holding the trophy at the end of the year?
Van Gundy added, “We got a good young core. Everybody should improve. IN the off-season, we improved our talent. Our depth. Our versatility. We don’t have a single guy on our team that’s even close on the downside of their career. We’re a team on the rise so why not us?”
Best Case Scenario: The Piston contend for the playoffs and make it in the bottom part of the East and they compete well winning a couple of games in the opening round. Drummond becomes an All-Star again.
Worst Case Scenario: The Pistons get swept in the playoffs or they miss them entirely.
Grade: A-
Indiana Pacers: 45-37 (2nd Central Division; No. 7e Seed East) 26-15 at home, 19-22 on the road. Lost to Toronto Raptors in Quarterfinals 4-3.
-102.2 ppg-17th; opp. ppg: 100.5-8th; 44.2 rpg-12th
Two years ago, All-Star swingman Paul George suffered a gruesome injury to his leg that cost all but six games in 2014-15. Without their top offensive threat and defensive ace on the perimeter, the Pacers’ streak of postseason appearances ended at four on the final night of the regular season. Not only did George return to All-Star form last season, he came back better than ever and he and the Pacers took the eventual East runner-up Toronto Raptors to the brink before falling in seven games. That was not good enough for Pacers’ President Larry Bird and he and the front office were able to make some major additions that were going to make them play a faster style on offensive, which they could not a season ago, but made one major subtraction.
In a complete shocker, Bird axed head coach Frank Vogel, who since being named head coach in the middle of the 2010-11 season was lead the Pacers to the postseason every year and even have them in contention to be in The NBA Finals in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
It was a shocker to many in the NBA circle and many felt that Vogel did not deserve to be fired, but deserved a raise, especially the way he kept the Pacers in contention for the postseason as mentioned two seasons back and had them on the verge of sending the Raptors home in the First-Round for the third straight season.
If there is one thing good about this situation if any is that the Pacers found their new head coach from promoting Nate McMillian.
The Pacers are not only hired someone who has been on the coaching staff the past three seasons, but the Pacers have head man on the sidelines who has coaching experience.
He began his coaching career in the league as an assistant with the then Seattle Supersonics in 1999-00. He was head coach from 2000-05. He then moved on to be the head coach of the Trail Blazers from 2005-12. He has a 484-454 record in his coaching career entering this season.
Along with having a new head coach and a new offensive philosophy, the Pacers added some quality players to surround George (23.1 ppg-10th NBA, 7.0 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.9 spg-T-8th NBA, 37.1 3-Pt.%) and allow them to play as mentioned earlier a faster style.    
Back in June before the NBA draft, a three-team trade with the Hawks and Utah Jazz swapped Indianapolis native lead guards in acquiring Jeff Teague (15.7 ppg, 5.9 apg, 43.9 FG%, 40.0 3-Pt.% w/Hawks) for George Hill, who was sent to the Jazz. They also in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks acquired forward Jeremy Evans.
During Pacers’ Media earlier this month, Teague said that this is the closet team that he has been on and that everyone really likes each other and all that matters is winning.
“The beautiful thing about this team is we’ve all been around the league a couple of years,” Teague said. “We’re all mature and we’re all in the prime of our careers. We all want to win. If you want to win and you got the right attitude, it should work.”
Bird’s next big move was he essentially rescued forward Thaddeus Young from the rebuilding Nets and they sent a First-Round draft pick in last June’s draft. They also selected in the draft forward Georges Niang with the No. 50 overall pick out of Iowa State.
He then grabbed a very versatile forward in Thaddeus Young (15.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 51.4 FG% w/Nets).
In free agency, the Pacers signed some quality veterans in guard Aaron Brooks (7.1 ppg, 35.7 3-Pt.% w/Bulls) for one year at $2.7 million and forward/center Al Jefferson (12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 48.5 FG% w/Hornets) for three-years at $30 million. They also added forwards Rakeem Christmas and rookie Alex Poythress and center Kevin Seraphin.
The new additions along with the likes of guards Monta Ellis (13.8 ppg, 4.7 apg, 1.9 spg-10th NBA), Rodney Stuckey (8.9 ppg) Joe Young and Glenn Robinson III, forwards C.J. Miles (11.8 ppg, 36.7 3-Pt.%) and an ever improving second-year starting center Miles Turner (10.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 49.8 FG% in 22.8 mpg), who was very solid in the playoffs averaging 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and leading the league in blocks at 3.3 in postseason, the Pacers have options.
In Teague, a 2015 All-Star, they have a lead guard to can play up-tempo and quarterback the team very well in the half court, like he did with the Hawks, particularly the past two seasons. Teague should be very motivated by the fact that this is the last year of his current contract, so he is looking for a major pay day this upcoming summer.
The have major perimeter threats, which will give George more space to operate in the half court and teams will be very hesitant to send a second defender at him.
In the front court, the Pacers have many options to go to that are very versatile. In Turner they have a center that has a solid face-up jump shot and who can protect the rim and rebound with the best of the young big men in the game today. Young is a solid, no-nonsense, bring your hard hat to work each day, with the ability to score down low and a solid enough game from the perimeter that he can be a mismatch for anyone. Jefferson, while he may be on the back nine of his career, gives the Pacers a proven scorer in the low-post, especially in moments late in games when it comes down to offensive execution. On top of that, he brings a wealth of knowledge that he can pass on down to Turner.  
The one head scratching move Bird made was the addition of Evans, who so far to this point with the Jazz and Dallas Mavericks has been a bust to put it bluntly. Besides winning the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend a few years ago, he has been nothing more but a bench warmer. If the 28-year-old is going to any kind of noise in his career, it will be this season. If not now when?
For two straight seasons, the Pacers lost in the Semis and Conference Finals to the Heat and James, Wade and Bosh, who went on to win back-to-back titles. It was then that Bird said that the Pacers needed to adopt to the form that the NBA was going to a faster pace.
Bird was able to accomplish all of this without mortgaging the future of the team, which is crucial to a small market team, even with a higher salary cap.
They have a superstar player who is hungry to get his team back to being a serious contender for the championship. They have proven veterans who are all about winning at this point in their careers and they have some youth, including a center who has the potential to be one of the best in “The Association.”
The have the makings of team that could challenge the Cavs in the East. What they have to prove is that they can play at a high tempo while still defending at the rate they did under Vogel.
“We want to get up and down. Put a lot of points up, but still be mindful we kind of started this thing on the defensive end and he’s preached that,” George said on McMillan’s expectations for the Pacers in 2016-17. “He wants a lot out of us on both ends of the floor.”
Best Case Scenario: The Pacers are a Top 5 offensive team. They finish in the Top 4 in the East and they reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Worst Case Scenario: The Pacers have another early postseason exit and the experiment to play at a Pacer pace is a struggle
Grade: B+
Miami Heat: 48-34 (1st Southeast Division; No. 3 Seed East) 28-13 at home, 20-21 on the road. Defeated the Charlotte Hornets in Quarterfinals 4-3. Lost to Toronto Raptors in Semifinals 4-3.
-100.0 ppg-23rd; opp. ppg: 98.4-5th; 44.1 rpg-13th
Six summers back, the Miami Heat were in the eye of storm in the league, but for good reason because they re-signed perennial All-Star Dwyane Wade and were able to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh. That trio led the Heat to four straight appearances in The Finals and two straight titles in 2012-2013. While the departure of James came as a shock two summers ago, the farewell of the other two staples of the “Big Three” came as an unexpected shock.
For 13 seasons, Dwyane Wade has been the back bone of the Heat leading them to three titles. The hope was that he and team president Pat Riley, who coached the Heat to their first title back in 2006 could reach a deal that would allow him to join the likes of Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Jerry West “Magic” Johnson and Julius Erving who finished their careers with one team.
Despite his obvious worth to the Heat, he had never been the highest paid player on the team, partly due to the fact that he had to sacrifice to allow the Heat to sign James and Bosh as mentioned six summer ago.
Wade was not willing to make that sacrifice again and Riley was not willing to give the perennial All-Star the so-called Kobe Bryant treatment in tying millions to a player on the back nine of his career.
The writing was essentially on the wall when emerging center Hassan Whiteside signed a five-year $98 million deal and Wade chose to go home to Chicago and sign with the Bulls for $4 million less than what he would have made back in South Beach once you factor in that the state of Florida has no state tax.
As painful as that loss was, the farewell to Bosh was even more of a punch to the stomach. In late September before the start of training camp, the 11-time All-Star who last two seasons have come to an end after the All-Star break because of blood clots failed his physical back on Sept 25 after a recurrence of the aforementioned blood clots was discovered according to The South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Riley said at the start of the next week that Bosh’s time with the team is “probably over.”

On top of that, the team said goodbye to of longtime assistant coach David Fizdale, who signed to be the next head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. What did the Heat lose in Fizdale, he was a major reason why any player who came into the Heat program developed into something great or had the potential to.
“This business is tough. The personal relationships and thing that happen that you can’t control,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said about the situation last month.
“Every knows how much CB means to me and his family. I love CB dearly. It was tough to watch CB and his family go through this the last couple of years. Your heart goes out to him.
With the Wade and Bosh, who still has three years and $76 million left on his contract now gone, the centerpieces of the Heat now and going forward and mantle on the offensive end now falls to Whiteside (14.2 ppg, 11.8 rpg-3rd NBA, 3.7 bpg-Led NBA, 60.6 FG%-3rd NBA), who went from playing pickup games at the YMCA to the new face of the franchise; starting guard Goran Dragic (14.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, 47.7 FG%) and second-year swingman Justise Winslow (6.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
To put the rise of Whiteside into perspective, last season he had three triple-doubles with 10-plus blocks shots. That tied Hall of Famers David Robinson, who had three kinds of these triple-doubles in 1989 and 1990. Dikembe Mutombo who had three in 1993. Former No. 1 overall pick in 1993 Shawn Bradley had three of these triple-doubles in 1995. Former Jazz center Mark Eaton had four triple-doubles with 10-plus blocks in 1984 and Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon had that same number five years later. The leader in triple-doubles with 10 rejections or more is Elmore Smith, who had six in 1973.
While his new contract and the fact that Wade and Bosh are gone thrust him into the new face of the franchise essentially, Whiteside, who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago said to NBATV’s Vince Cellini on Media Day that this is something that he has prepared for.
“It’s just a testament to hard work,” Whiteside said. “Just knowing your priorities. Putting in the hours and every just going day-by-day. You put in the work each, it turns into weeks and weeks turn into months and months turn into years. I just really put the work in.”
Whiteside will not be on this journey alone. As mentioned earlier, he will have the likes of Winslow, Dragic, forward Josh McRoberts and guards Tyler Johnson (8.7 ppg, 48.6 FG%, 38.0 3-Pt.%), who got a new four-year $50 million deal, matching the same offer sheet offered by the Nets to the restricted free agent and Josh Richardson (6.6 ppg, 45.2 FG%, 46.1 3-Pt.%) to go on this new journey with. Richardson though will be on the shelf for 6-8 weeks because of a torn right medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his right knee.
With a lot of the Heat’s salary tied into Whiteside, they had to go into penny saver mode for the remainder of free agency to fortify the roster.
Which is why they said goodbye to veterans Joe Johnson and Luol Deng, who signed with the Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers respectably.
They signed guards Dion Waiters to a two-year $5.9 million deal; Wayne Ellington to a two-year $12.5 million deal; Beno Udrih to a one-year deal worth $980,431. The Heat signed forwards Derrick Williams to a one-year $5 million deal, Luke Babbit (7.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 40.4 3-Pt.% w/Pelicans) and James Johnson to a one-year $4 million deal. Backing up Whiteside will be free agent Willie Reed, who signed a two-year $2.1 million deal.
The Heat had enough left in their coughers to keep the one glue guy that has been there for rise to championship greatness and who was there in the tough times and that is forward Udonis Haslem, who was re-signed for one-year at $4 million.
One point that should be made right here and now is Wade will be in the Hall of Fame on his first opportunity when his career is over and when he is enshrined, Riley will be right there in the audience for that moment. He will one day have his statue in front of American Airlines Arena and the team led by Riley and owner Micky Arison will welcome him back with open arms and have a place in the organization for him just like they did for former greats Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway once their careers were over.
Going back to the prospects for this season, the Heat enter with nothing to lose and a lot to prove. Whiteside, Winslow, Johnson have to show that they can carry the mantle of being the team’s top and most visible players.
The likes of Waiters, Reed, Johnson, Ellington and Babbit have to show that they can bring a level of consistency night in and night out to the court and are willing to accept their roles that they are given.
To bring home the challenge that is in front of the Heat entering this season, the last time they won a division title without Wade on the roster was 16 years ago. In Wade’s 13 season with the Heat they won the aforementioned three championships, but they also won five Eastern Conference crowns, eight Southeast Division titles and made the postseason 11 times.
That is the challenge for the Heat and coach Spoelstra, but he is up to it and he will bring that focus to the team, even though he will always have the memory of Wade and Bosh always with him.
“In terms of my mindset as the head coach of this basketball team, the other 19 players that are going to training camp, my focus will be on them. That does not take away my feelings for CB,” Spoelstra said.
Best Case Scenario: The Heat contends to make the playoffs. Whiteside develops into a prime time player. Winslow grows into a proven offensive threat. Dragic plays like he did with the Phoenix Suns about three years ago. The roles players find their niche.
Worst Case Scenario: The team is way below .500 and Whiteside does not live up to his contract.
Grade: C-
Milwaukee Bucks: 33-49 (5th Central Division; missed playoffs) 23-18 at home, 10-31 on the road.
-99.0 ppg-25th; opp. ppg: 103.2-17th; 41.7 rpg-27th
It has been a long time since the Milwaukee Bucks made the postseason in back-to-back years. After finishing 41-41 two years ago and battling the Chicago Bulls tooth and nail in the postseason before falling in six games, the team despite having a stable of talent took a missed the playoffs for the fourth time in the last six seasons and this was especially tough after adding a solid front court player who just did not seem to fit in with the rest of the team a season ago.
Last season’s addition of forward/center Greg Monroe (16.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg-Led team, 52.2 FG%) was supposed to put the Bucks back into the playoffs, but instead, head coach Jason Kidd’s team finished eight games below the previous season.
You do not have to look no further than the defensive end to understand why they missed the postseason.
Despite being ranked seventh in the NBA in block shots per game at 5.8 and eighth in forced turnovers per game at 14.8, the Bucks were 17th in opponent’s field goal percentage at 45.4 percent. The opposition shot 35.2 percent from three-point range, which was 15th in the league. They were 21st in rebound differential at -1.3; free agency and tied for 12th in steals per contest at 8.2.
It did not help the Bucks cause that they were one of the poorest perimeter shooting teams in the league a season ago as they were ranked 21st in three-point shooting at 34.5 percent. They were 30th, dead last in attempts at 15.6 and in connections from long range nailing just 5.4 per game.
“I think when you look at our team it’s very young and a lot of times with young teams, you have individuals trying to prove who they are or trying to find out who they are and we feel that your young guys have found who they are,” Kidd said. “The next step is learning how to put those pieces together and win.”
To fix their issues from long range and to added more depth to what they have, the Bucks signed forwards Mirza Teletovic (12.2 ppg, 39.3 3-Pt.% w/Suns) for three years at $31.5 million; veteran guard Jason Terry (5.9 ppg, 35.6 3-Pt.% w/Rockets) who signed a one-year $1.5 million deal and Steve Novak, who is a career 43.1 percent three-point shooter; acquired via sign-and-trade guard Matthew Dellavedova from the defending champion Cavaliers (7.5 ppg, 4.4 apg 41.0 3-Pt.% w/Cavs) for four-years at $38.4 million; acquired from the Bulls earlier in the month Tony Snell (5.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 36.1 3-Pt.%) and in the draft this past June drafted with the No. 36 overall pick guard Malcolm Brogdon out of University of Virginia.  
They added some more depth to their front court with drafting the selection of forward Thon Maker at No. 10 in the draft this past June who was very thankful to be drafted where he did and is eager to prove himself in the league.
“It was a relief,” Maker, from South Sudan said. “The door is open, good job, but at the same time like now let’s start something special. It’s a long road and this is the beginning. I really have to find a way to improve every single day as a basketball player and as a person.”
They also re-signed forward/center Miles Plumlee (5.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) to a new four-year $50 million deal and acquired talented but troublesome at times forward Michael Beasley (12.8 ppg 4.9 rpg) from the Rockets on Sept. 22 for guard Tyler Ennis.
Even with the new additions, the Bucks' season as well as their future will be decided by the play of their core players of the aforementioned Monroe, Giannis Antetokounmpo (16.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 4.3 apg, 50.6 FG%), who just signed a new four-year $100 million extension and will be the team’s new starting lead guard this season; Jabari Parker (14.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 49.3 FG%); forward/center John Henson (7.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.9 bpg-Led team) and Khris Middleton (18.2 ppg, 44.4 FG%, 39.6 3-Pt.%).
Both the pillars of the Bucks future say that the Bucks will be better this season, especially at the defensive end.
“From day one that’s the goal,” Antetokounmpo, a.k.a “The Greek Freak,” said. “It’s all about winning. We got to sacrifice. Everybody got to sacrifice. Everybody got to be in his role and at the end of the day, we got to do what we got to do to win.”
Parker said that the team will have more grit than a season ago. That the Bucks will play at a faster pace, but it will come from their play at the defensive end.
The Bucks starting five will have a serious whole to start this season as Middleton will be on the shelf for six months after surgery to repair a ruptured left hamstring he sustained during preseason workouts back on Sept. 20.
This means that not only will the Bucks have to be better defensively, but the new additions of Teletovic, Dellavedova and Brogdon will have to provide the perimeter scoring that will be missing with Middleton down. This will also give a chance for second-year guard Rashad Vaughn to show that he is a part of this team’s future.
It is one thing to go from the basement of your league to respectably. It is another thing to continue to grow and become a perennial playoff participant. That is the position the Bucks find themselves entering this season.
If they have any hopes of becoming a consistent team, they need to become a consistent defensive team. The likes of Antetokounmpo, Parker, Monroe, Henson and Middleton, if he returns have to bring a serious level of play to the court each night.
It is nice to have talented and versatile players, but if they cannot mesh together on the court, all that talent is going to waist. Terry feels that this young talented team will rise to the occasion not just now, but in the years to come.
“I think the defining characteristic of the Milwaukee Bucks this season will be that we are young and dangerous at the core, but we do have veteran experience that will get us through the adversity that we will have throughout our journey,” Terry said.
“The skies the limit. We are full of potential. We have a young star in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker. These two guys are special.”
Best Case Scenario: Better defense and consistent shooting puts the Bucks back into the postseason between the No. 6 and No. 8 spot in the East. Antetokounmpo becomes a first time All-Star and Parker improves his game as well.
Worst Case Scenario: The defense does not improve. Perimeter shooting becomes a lingering problem and the Bucks miss the playoffs again.
Grade: C+
New York Knicks: 32-50 (3rd Atlantic Division; missed playoffs) 18-23 at home, 14-27 on the road.
-98.4 ppg-23rd; opp. ppg: 101.1-10th; 44.4 rpg-10th
It has been three years since the New York Knicks made the playoffs, which has waisted the prime years of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony. Last season started off very strong for the guys from the “Big Apple” when they were 22-22 on Jan. 20. Unfortunately, they won only 10 more games for the rest of the season. This summer, Team President and 11-time championship head coach with the Bulls and Lakers Phil Jackson went to work in putting together a roster that would get the Knicks back to the postseason.
The first move came in signing new head coach Jeff Hornacek, who went 101-112 in three seasons as the head man on the sidelines for the Suns.
The next move came on June 23 with the acquisition of 2010-11 Kia MVP Derrick Rose (16.4 ppg, 4.7 apg w/Bulls) and guard Justin Holiday and a 2017 second-round pick from the Bulls for center Robin Lopez and guards Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant.
In free agency, the Knicks signed All-Star forward/center and the 2014 Kia Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah (4.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg w/Bulls) and guard Courtney Lee (9.6 ppg, 45.4 FG%, 37.8 3-Pt.%) to four-year deals worth $72 million and $48 million respectably. They signed guard Brandon Jennings to a one-year $5 million. They also signed rookie forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas to a two-year $5.8 million deal and center Willy Hernangomez to a two-year $5.8 million deal. The Knicks also re-signed forward Lance Thomas (8.2 ppg, 44.2 FG%, 40.4 3-Pt.%) to a new four-year $27.5 million deal and guard Sasha Vujacic (4.9 ppg, 36.4 3-Pt.%) to a one-year $1.4 million deal and signed undrafted rookie center Marshall Plumlee.
The new additions, especially the new guys that bring veteran experience have given new energy to the team and a new sense of urgency to Anthony (21.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 4.2 apg-career-high) and the nine-time All-Star said as much on Media Day to NBATV/NBA on TNT inside David Aldridge.
“You need veterans. You need experienced guys on the basketball court whose been through multiple situations,” Anthony said to D.A.
“Whether it was winning situations. Whether it was losing situations… Guys understand what each possession takes. What it means. What you have to do. The commitment. The sacrifice that you have to make. I think that’s some of the things that attribute being a winning team and a winning program and being in a winning culture.”
What also helps a winning culture is having a healthy roster throughout the season. That is what the Knicks are hoping for, especially with the new additions of Noah, Rose, Jennings and even Anthony. In the last two seasons, the new additions and Anthony have missed a combined 232 games.
At first Rose was going to miss some time this season, not because of injury, but the fact he is at the center of a civil rape trial in Los Angeles, CA where he and two of his friends stand accused of gang raping his former girlfriend when she was incapacitated from drugs and alcohol. Rose has said he is innocent of the charge and he said to Aldridge that it looks like he will be able to play this season, the last of his contract.
Rose got some great news last week as he and his two friends were cleared of all charges in an L.A. federal court upon hearing a dramatic difference in the accounts of the sexual encounter that took place in August 2013. The main issue that was in play was whether the act was consensual.
With this tough chapter in his rearview mirror, Rose is looking to being a major contributor to a team looking to get back to the postseason.
“I feel like we can add to the team. We know that this Melo’s team and coming here we just have to help him win,” Rose said to Aldridge.
What would improve the Knicks chances of making the playoffs in 2015-16 is the continued progress of second-year forward/center Kristaps Porzingis (14.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.9 bpg-Led team). Unlike a lot of rookies who seem to hit a wall during the season, Porzingis got stronger as went from a 13.9 scoring average prior to the All-Star break a season ago to a 15.3 scoring per contest output after that. The key for him is he must shoot better from the field. Shooting 42.1 percent from the floor and 33.3 from three-point range won’t cut and the new additions should give him better space to operate and better looks at the hoop.
It has been a long time there was this much excitement in NYC for a Knicks season in terms of what can happen. They have the best roster in the Carmelo Anthony era and that roster consist of a lot of players with plenty to prove.
Noah and Rose have to prove that their best days on the court are not behind them. Anthony has to prove that he can still be productive offensively while sharing the load with the likes of Porzingis, Lee, Noah and Rose.
The biggest step for this team is that Jackson went with Hornacek as his choice for a new head coach, going outside his comfort zone of former assistant coaches who are familiar with the famed “Triangle offense.” How Hornacek  does will be crucial to the reputation of Jackson as he struck on getting current Warriors head coach and former player Steve Kerr and the hiring of Derek Fisher was a disaster.
For Anthony, this is the best talent he has had entering season No. 14, even going back to time with the Denver Nuggets. Now the three-time Olympic Gold medalist has to prove that he can be the kind of player than can take his team to great heights. If not now, when?
“For me, not knowing is exciting to me right now,” he said to Aldridge. “We hat we can be and how we’re going to do it… Just the skepticism of what this season can possibly be for us.”
Best Case Scenario: The Knicks remain injury free. They finish in the middle of the East playoff pact and make it to the Semis. Anthony, Rose and Noah stay healthy. Porzingis game grows.  
Worst Case Scenario: Injuries mount. The team is inconsistent and the Knicks are on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
Grade: B
Orlando Magic: 35-47 (5th Southeast Division; missed playoffs) 23-18 at home, 12-29 on the road.
-102.1 ppg-18th; opp. ppg: 103.7-18th; 43.3 rpg-17th
Since center Dwight Howard forced he way out of Walt Disney World, a.k.a, Orlando, FL, it has been a rough road back to postseason contention for the Magic. At first the organization decided to rebuild the team through the draft, but with team still stuck in the mud, the organization and GM Rob Hennigan decided to bring in some much needed veteran leadership that consisted of making two huge financial commitments; traded away a former No. 1 draft choice that seemed to be a big part of their future and made a change on the sideline.
In an unexpected move, head coach Scott Skiles stepped down as head coach back on May 12. Within seven days, the Magic agreed to a deal with former Pacers head coach Frank Vogel to be the team’s 12th leader on the sidelines in franchise history.
In Vogel, the Magic got someone who they feel can get the best out of the team, especially the young building blocks as well as someone who they can relate to. All you have to do is look at what he did in his time with the Pacers from 2010-2016.
Vogel was 250-181 with the Pacers reaching the playoffs five times in six seasons and guiding them to the Conference Finals in in 2013 and 2014. The Pacers under Vogel never finished outside the top 10 in defensive ranking.
“It’s always going to be a challenge when you take over a new team, but I feel like we’ve addressed some needs that this team needed to address in terms of our defensive talent,” Vogel said to Cellini on Media Day. “Improving our experience level and improving our perimeter shooting and I feel like we accomplished all those things.”
Many were stunned that he was not retained by the Pacers this past summer, especially getting them back to the playoffs after missing them by one game two seasons ago.
The Magic made a major move during the draft back in June trading away the rights of the No. 11 overall pick Domantas Sabonis and former No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft Victory Oladipo to the Thunder for veteran forward Serge Ibaka (12.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 47.9 FG% w/Thunder). They also added forward/center Bismack Biyombo (5.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 54.2 FG% w/Raptors) in free agency, signing him to a four-year $68 million.
With the No. 41 overall pick in the draft, the Magic selected center Steve Zimmerman, Jr. out of University of Las Vegas.
“With his versatility, I really believe that you can play big in today’s small-ball NBA if you have versatile bigs and that’s what we added with this team in Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka,” Vogel said to Cellini.
“Not only two of the best shot blocking big men in the league, but two of the best switching bigs as well. When you’ve seen all of these small-ball attacks, you got to have the ability to switch some of this stuff and those guys are going to give us that defensive versatility.”
With Oladipo gone, the likely new starting shooting guard is Evan Fournier (15.4 ppg-career-high, 46.4 FG%, 40.0 3-Pt.%), who the Magic re-signed to a five-year $85 million deal back on July 7.
On paper, these looked like solid moves by the Magic. However, they dug deep for one player who only had one solid year of production and they to be quite honest gave up on a couple of guys who many thought represented a big part of the future in Orlando.
The Magic last February traded Tobias Harris to the Pistons in a salary shredding move, only to pay Green, who has been an enigma for much of his career and Harris is far much better player and a much younger one at that.
Before last season, Biyombo had been nothing more than a role player who would give you one good game and then disappear for a few. He did have some solid moments with the Raptors last season and in the playoffs was huge for them with averages of 6.2 points and 9.4 rebounds. He really came through for the Raptors in the month of January when starting center Jonas Valanciunas was down with injury. He averaged 7.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks that month.
“You don’t win 56 games like Toronto did last year without great leadership in the locker room and Bismack was a big part of that,” Vogel said to Cellini. “He’s going to bring all those things to the table for us in Orlando and expect him to continue his journey.”  
The other quandary that the addition of Biyombo is that it has created a crowded front court that consists of him, Green, Ibaka, starting center Nikola Vucevic (18.2 ppg-Led team, 8.9 rpg-Led team, 51.0 FG%), forwards Jeff Green (11.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg w/Los Angeles Clipper & Grizzlies), who signed a one-year deal for $15 over the summer and forward Aaron Gordon (9.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 47.3 FG%).
In the case of Ibaka, over the past few seasons one of the fiercest shot blockers and rebounders in the league, with an improving post game, but over the past couple of years has become more of a three-point shooter.
Playing under Vogel, Ibaka will hopefully get back to what made him a player in this league in the early stages of his career with the Thunder, especially since his contract is up at season’s end.
“I spent a lot of time talking to him almost every day this summer and everything was about defense,” Ibaka said about his conversations with Vogel. “I think me and him we’re sharing the same mindset and that’s’ great.”
By extending Fournier, the Magic will have their best long range shooter and a player in the prime of his career for the next few seasons. The question is will second-year guard Mario Hezonia (6.1 ppg, 34.9 3-Pt.%) eat into those minutes?
While the shooting guard is very deep, the Magic are very thin at the point guard spot, which is occupied by the No. 10 overall pick from two Junes ago Elfrid Payton (10.7 ppg, 6.4 apg, 4.0 rpg).
While they have a solid backup in Augustin as well as veteran C.J. Watson, they need Payton to go from a guy who has shown in flashes he can be this team quarterback, they need to know if he is the guy they want to be their starting point guard in the future.
One area he must get better in is his shooting percentage from the floor, which was a decent 43.6 percent, but he was abysmal from three-point range at 32.6 percent.
The additions of the veterans should make this team play smarter offensively and be more in tune defensively to what Vogel wants from them. Whether they can make the playoffs is another question.
“We got the potential to do it, but it’s going to take time and a lot of hard work and a lot of focus because we have to do it every night together,” Ibaka said. “We should play at a high level every night. That’s one of the hard parts in the league in NBA. When you see those good teams, they compete at a high level every night.”
Best Case Scenario: The Magic are in more close games this season. They are battling for the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the East. The veterans provide a calming presence and the defense greatly improves.
Worst Case Scenario: The Magic have a number of losing streaks and the struggle at the defensive end continue.
Grade: C+ 
Philadelphia 76ers: 10-72 (5th Atlantic Division; missed playoffs) 7-34 at home, 3-38 on the road.
-97.4 ppg-29th; opp. ppg: 107.6-29th; 41.2 rpg-30th
It has seemed like forever since the Philadelphia 76ers have made the playoffs. It has only been just four seasons, but the incredible amount of losing they have gone through winning just 34, 19, 18 and an abysmal 10 games respectably in that span. However, this season could be a turning point for the team of the city of “Brotherly Love.”
The Sixers also selected in this past June’s draft guard Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot with the No. 24 overall pick.
With the No. 1 overall pick in this June’s draft, the Sixers selected swingman Ben Simmons, the 2016 NCAA Freshmen of the Year out of LSU. Many are comparing the ‘6’10’ forward skills to the likes of Hall of Famer “Magic” Johnson and four-time MVP of the defending champion Cavaliers LeBron James because of his ability to score, rebound, pass to the open man and his ability to see the court.
Unfortunately, Simmons will not start the season on the court because earlier this month he sustained an acute Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. He did have successful surgery on that foot in New York two weeks ago he is expected to be on the shelf for three months.
“I don’t think anybody is prepared to name a certain date,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown, entering his fourth season said about when we will see Simmons on the court this season.
“I think we’re going to play it by ear. As his foot starts to heel, but there is a very much an in depth plan in place with Ben Simmons right now.”
While the loss of Simmons is a tough pill to swallow for Sixers fans and the organization, they will finally get on the court the No. 3 overall pick in 2014 center Joel Embiid and the No. 12 pick of that same draft in forward Dario Saric, who won back-to-back FIBA Young Player of the Year Awards overseas.
This is nothing new for the Sixers as former No. 1 draft choice from 2013 out of Kentucky in forward/center Nerlens Noel missed all of his rookie season recovering from a serious knee injury and likely will start this season on the shelf because of injury also. Embiid has been on the pine his rookie and second-year because of foot and back issues and the No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor missed 29 games a season ago, including the final 23 because of injury.
It has been a tough road for Embiid whose first two seasons have been waisted by lingering foot problems. The hope is that he has the kind of career that former Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who had foot problems of his own, but manage to play for over a decade and have a very solid career.
“I’m happy to be back on the court, “Embiid said at the start of training camp this month. “Past two years, I’ve had so many people around me, just taking care of me. Coach Brown has been helping me so much. That’s been helping me a lot, knowing that I have the support from my teammates. The coaches and upstairs.”
If those injury issues are behind him, the Sixers have a player in Embiid who has the ability to be presence in the paint on both ends. He will start this season on a minute’s restriction as he works his way into basketball shape, which Brown said to NBATV’s Rick Kamla.
“We’re very cautious. We’re trying to be very responsible on how much we actually play him,” Brown said. “Once you get him on the floor, we’re starting to see signs that he’s got this tremendous potential.”  
The return of Embiid has created serious competition between him, Saric, who will finally play his first NBA season after playing overseas the past two seasons; Okafor (17.5 ppg-Led team, 7.0 rpg) and Noel (11.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg-Led team, 1.8 spg-Led team, 1.5 bpg-Led team). 
“We’re just excited to have him here,” Brown said to Kamla about Saric. “I think his future is going to be very bright. I think that if he is anything, he’s highly competitive. I feel like at age 22, his basketball experiences are rich.”
This off-season, the Sixers signed added in free agency some necessary veterans to show the younger player what it takes to have a long and successful career in the NBA.
Joining veteran forward Elton Brand is guard Jerryd Bayless (10.4 ppg, 43.7 3-Pt.% w/Bucks) to a three-year $27 million deal, but will be on the shelf to start the season because of wrist injury; guard/forward Gerald Henderson (8.7 ppg w/Trail Blazers), who signed a two-year $16 million deal; guard Sergio Rodriguez, who played the last few seasons for Real Madrid and for five teams in the league from 2006-10 to a one-year $8 million deal.
While the last three seasons have been ones to forget for the Sixers, it provided an opportunity for many players to get a chance to play and improve. Forwards Hollis Thompson (9.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 38.0 3-Pt.%) Jerami Grant (9.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg-Led team) and guards Nik Stauskas (8.5 ppg) and T.J. McConnell (6.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, 47.0 FG%, 34.8 3-Pt.%) got that chance and showed that they can play.
There has been plenty of debate about whether playing to lose is the way to rebuild an NBA team, especially when you lose as much as the Sixers have the past three years under GM Sam Hinkie, who was relieved of his duties last season and replaced by veteran Bryan Colangelo.
Hinkie did leave his Colangelo can go in many directions in turning the Sixers back into a playoff contender.
What the Sixers have to prove is that they can get Simmons, Embiid, Noel and Saric on the court and see how productive they can all be, which will allow the organization to determine who they want to keep going forward.
Best Case Scenario: The Sixers will win at least 25 games this season. Simmons, Saric Noel and Embiid show great promise in their first season together and the veterans have a major influence on the young players.
Worst Case Scenario: There is no improvement and the prospects for better days ahead become more difficult to stomach.    
Grade: B
Toronto Raptors: 56-26 (1st Atlantic Division; No. 2 Seed in East) 32-9 at home, 24-17 on the road. Defeated the Indiana Pacers in Quarterfinals 4-3. Defeated the Miami Heat in Semifinals 4-3. Lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Conference Finals 4-2.
-102.7 ppg-14th; opp. ppg: 98.2-3rd; 43.4 rpg-16th 
For two straight seasons, the Toronto Raptors set franchise records for victories with 48 and 49 wins respectably. Unfortunately, their stay in the postseason was cut short with first-round exits at the hands of the Nets 4-3 and to the Washington Wizards 4-0. The Raptors not only shattered their franchise record for wins in the regular season, but made a serious playoff run, even though they did not make it easy on themselves. Also, they kept a main piece from their team in free agency while adding two solid players to the mix.
The Raptors won a franchise record 56 games, becoming the last team in league history to win 50 games or more in the regular season.
To put their rise into perspective, the Raptors won over 45 games in their history on two occasions. Back in 2000-01 under then head coach Butch Carter and in 2006-07 under the guidance of Sam Mitchell.
This has been the best three-year stretch for the team under head coach Dwane Casey, who has improved the team win total in each of his first five seasons.
In the playoffs, the team had a serious tussle with the pesky Pacers, who they eventually took down in seven games to earn their first playoff series win since 2001 when they beat the Knicks in five games.
It took 15 years to reach the Semis and the Raptors made it count by getting past the Heat in seven games.
In the Conference Finals, they manage to tie the series 2-2 after dropping the first two games to the Cavs in Northeast Ohio. Then LeBron James took over and the Raptors fell in six games.
The back-to-back Atlantic Division champions main priority this summer was keeping All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan (23.5 ppg-T-8th NBA, 4.5 rpg, 4.0 apg, 44.6 FG%), who just days after hitting the free agent market signed a new max five-year deal worth $139 million.
The reason why this is big for the Raptors is that DeRozan that he did have a chance to test the free agent waters. Not only did he not do that, he didn’t even take a meeting from his hometown Lakers, who offered great weather, major exposure and the fact that they are in major media market.
It also helped that he has a great playing relationship with his starting backcourt made in fellow All-Star guard Kyle Lowry (21.2 ppg, 6.4 apg-Led team, 4.7 rpg, 2.1 spg-4th NBA, 38.8 3-Pt.%), who both helped Team USA capture their third straight Gold medal in Rio back in the summer.
DeRozan feels that the team can be even better than it was a season ago, even with if the win total does not match or exceed last season’s franchise record.
“Sometimes throughout the season we’re going to have to learn how to win and that may not mean 56 games,” DeRozan said before the start of training camp.
“It may mean 50 games, but if we learn a valuable lesson that can carry over to the postseason that will be more valuable.”
What has held the Raptors from becoming a big time contender in the East and the whole league is the up and down play of the rest of the cast.
Last summer, the team paid forward DeMarre Carroll (11.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 39.0 3-Pt.%) a four-years and $60 million deal for his ability to guard the best wings in the league and to provide steady three-point shooting. A knee injury limited him to just 26 games in the regular season last year and in the playoffs, he averaged just 8.9 points per contest.
Center Bismack Biyombo, who was basically a bust with the Hornets, emerged as a major force at the defensive end for the Raptors, particularly in the postseason. As his play improved, so did his asking price, especially with the inflation in this past summer’s free agent market. That is why Biyombo signed with the Magic for four years and $68 million.
To add some depth to the front court, the Raptors signed forward Jared Sullinger (10.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg w/Celtics) for one-year at $5.6 million and drafted back in June forward Jakob Poeltl out of Utah with the No. 9 overall pick and forward Pascal Siakam out of New Mexico State with the No. 27 overall pick.
Just two years earlier, Poeltl was a player that had talent, but was very raw in terms of playing the game. He went from that to being named the Player of the Year in the Pac-12 and the Raptors hope is can continue his progression in his rookie season.
In his four seasons in Boston, Sullinger made headlines more for his weight issues than his player on the court and that led to very few teams interested in signing him this past summer. He should be very motivated this season to earn a major pay day next summer when the NBA salary cap is going to go even higher.
The new additions alongside the likes of the aforementioned Carroll, Lowry’s understudy Corey Joseph (8.5 ppg, 46.6 FG%); sharp shooting forward Patrick Patterson (6.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 36.2 3-Pt.%) and second-year guard Norman Powell, who really showed well at the close of last season scoring 15.3 points per game and shooting 54.8 percent from the floor and 53.6 percent from three-point range last April.
Hate to sound like a broken record, but for the Raptors to really become a contender, starting center Jonas Valanciunas (12.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg-Led team, 56.5 FG%) and guard Terrence Ross (9.9 ppg, 38.6 3-Pt.%) have to raise their play.
Valanciunas rose his game this past postseason, where he averaged 13.8 points and 10.8 rebounds, but he injured his ankle in Game 3 of the Semis at the Heat and never got back on track.
Ross, who has shown flashes of being a solid player with the Raptors has yet to rise to the level that he was drafted when the Raptors took him at No.8 out of the University of Washington four years ago.
After the best season in franchise history a year ago, there should be optimism from a team that goes by mantra, “We the North.” They have an All-Star backcourt and a solid supporting cast. What they have to prove is that they can duplicate what they did a season ago and truly become a serious threat to the defending NBA champion Cavs.
“What we went through last year should give us a level of confidence to understand we’ve punched through, but now the hard part is to continue and maintain that level and the only you do that is commit to the defensive end,” Casey said. “Thought our guys did a good job last year of committing on that end of the floor and now we’ve got to take it to another level this coming season.”
Best Case Scenario: The Raptors surpass the 50-win mark for a second straight season and capture their four straight Atlantic Division crown. DeRozan and Lowry are All-Stars again. Raptors make it back to the Conference Finals and put a scare into the Cavs.
Worst Case Scenario: The Raptors have an early exit in the postseason, which could lead to Lowry bolting in free agency.   
Grade: B+
Washington Wizards: 41-41 (4th Southeast Division; missed playoffs) 11-16 at home, 12-12 on the road.
-104.1 ppg-9th; opp. ppg: 104.6-21st; 41.8 rpg-26th
After two straight trips to the postseason that ended in the Semis in six games, the Washington Wizards led by their young up and coming backcourt were expected to take a major step a season ago. While the team did not finish below .500 they took a major step backwards not making the playoffs. Injuries, inconsistent play and constant friction between the team’s two main stars were major factors in that. Change was made on the bench and while they did not land the biggest fish in free agency they hope some low key additions as well as a fresh start will get them back on track.
After three and a half seasons under the guidance of head coach Randy Wittman, who went 178-199, the Wizards fired him back on Apr. 13 and eight days later hired former Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, signing him to a five-year $35 million contract.
The team had hoped that they would be bringing on a player from the Thunder in D.C. native Kevin Durant in free agency this summer, but he not only decided to sign with the defending West champion Warriors, he did not even give the Wizards a meeting, which is something three-time All-Star lead guard John Wall spoke to Cellini about on Media Day.
“Well he made the decision that was best for him and his family so congrats to him,” Wall said. “All we can focus about is the Washington Wizards and how I can lead this team with new players and some of the returning guys come back and a new coaching staff.
Back to Brooks, he hopes to mold the Wizards into a team that plays with a high intensity especially at the defensive end.
“Our identity is that we want to play aggressive team defense and score off our defense and not be an offensive team that only plays defense if things are going well at the offensive end,” Brooks said.
“That is going to take a commitment from everybody and not just a few guys. Teams are built on 15 guys and we have to have a committed effort every night.”
After last season, the Wizards have to make a serious recommitment at the defensive end. While they were tied for 7th in steals per game at 8.6 and tied for third in forcing turnovers at 15.6 per contest a season ago, where they were tied for 23rd in opponent’s field goal percentage at 46.2 percent and tied for 25th in opponent’s three-point percentage giving up 37.1 percent. They were 25th in rebound differential at a -2.5 and 26th in blocks per game at 3.9.
That commitment to playing team ball on both ends has to start with the dynamic back court of Wall (19.9 ppg-Led team, 10.2 apg-3rd NBA, 4.9 rpg, 1.9 spg-T-8th NBA) and Bradley Beal (17.4 ppg, 44.9 FG%, 38.7 3-Pt.%).
For starters, the Wizards hope that Beal, who re-signed with the team for five years and $127 million in this off-season can stay healthy as he missed 27 games last season because of injury.
Wall said to Cellini that Brooks plans on using him in a lot of different ways than he has been used in his first six seasons in the NBA, which he says is a credit of him working on his game and will make him a better player in certain situations and positions during a game.
As far as his relationship with Wall, the No. 1 overall pick back in June 2010 said to Comcast SportsNet Washington in the off-season that they both have a tendency to dislike each other on the court.
As far as off the court, Wall said to Cellini on Media Day that he and Beal do hang out off the court. They go out to eat together; go bowling and to catch a movie when they can.
“We’ll be fine. We’ll be alright. We’ve had talks and it’s just something that goes when you’re playing. You have two great players that want to be great and sometimes you’re going to have bumps and bruises,” Wall said.
“I think it our competitive drive and competitive nature that get in the way sometimes and we have to find a way to put that to the side and just care about one thing and that’s just winning for our team.”
What will also help the Wizards’ cause is to get better play from the supporting cast as well as the new additions to the team.
While by the numbers, starting center Marcin Gortat (13.5 ppg, 9.9 rpg-Led team, 56.7 FG%), he did not have the kind of impact the two prior seasons.
Forward Markieff Morris (12.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg), who the team acquired at the trade deadline for a first-round pick from the Suns last February gave the Wizards a versatile forward who can score inside and can shoot from the outside, who averaged 12.4 points and 5.9 boards on 46.7 percent from the field. The hope is that he can play at an even higher level and that the baggage he came with when he was acquired last season is behind him.
At the small forward position, the Wizards have Otto Porter, Jr. (11.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 47.3 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt.%), who was the starter a season and Kelly Oubre, Jr., whose entering his second season.
While both players are very talented, neither has proven to be a primary scoring option, which they had two seasons ago with veteran Paul Pierce, who made it a career of scoring from the perimeter, especially in the clutch. This is a big season for both because at some point the Wizards have to decide to stay with both or look into trading either one to get a proven wing player that can be a serious offensive threat that compliments Beal and Wall.
The organization did find and understudy to Wall on July 7 when they acquired Trey Burke (10.6 ppg w/Jazz) from the Utah Jazz for a 2021 second-round pick. The Wizards also retained guard Marcus Thornton (9.7 ppg).  
In free agency, the Wizards signed centers Ian Maninmi (9.3 ppg-career-high, 7.1 rpg, 58.9 FG% w/Pacers) to a four-year $62 million deal, but will be on the shelf for 4-6 weeks due to a partially torn medial meniscus in his left knee. The Wizards also signed center Jason Smith (7.2 ppg, 48.5 FG% w/Magic) to a three-year $15.7 million deal; forward Andrew Nicholson (6.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 47.1 FG%, 36.0 3-Pt.% w/Magic) to a four-year $26 million deal and guard Tomas Satoransky to a three-year $9 million deal.
Last season was supposed to be a stepping stone for the Wizards. Instead it was a step backwards and Wall said, “It killed me. I was very frustrated and devastated that we did not make the playoffs.”
For them to get back to the playoffs, they must be healthy. The new additions along with the remaining cast has to bring it on both ends night in and night out. More than anything Wall has to bring his game to an elite superstar level, which is something Brooks has preached to him since becoming the team’s new head coach. On top of that he and Beal have to become one mind on the court and not just tolerate each other. 
“He wants me to be great. He wants me to go the next level,” Wall said to Cellini. “He wants me to compete on both ends for a full game and not take plays off and I think that’s something I’m willing to take the challenge and see what I can do with it.”
Best Case Scenario: The Wizards make it back to the playoffs in the bottom half of an improved Eastern Conference. They are much improved defensively. Wall becomes and All-Star again and Beal becomes an All-Star for the first time. Porter, Jr. and Oubre, Jr. solidify the small forward position.
Worst Case Scenario: The Wizards miss the playoffs again. Beal injuries problems continue and the team struggles at the defensive end.
Grade: C
Western Conference
Dallas Mavericks: 42-40 (2nd Southwest Division; No. 6 Seed West) 23-18 at home, 19-22 on the road. Lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Quarterfinals 4-1.
-102.3 ppg-16th; opp. ppg: 102.6-14th; 43.1 rpg-19th 
The 2010-11 was the high water mark for the Dallas Mavericks and star player and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki as they beat the Heat to win their first ever NBA title in franchise history. Even though they have made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, they have not gotten passed the opening round, falling in five games for two consecutive seasons. After losing out in the nabbing a prized free agent in recent summers, the Mavs and owner Mark Cuban did sign some solid players, while re-signing Nowitzki and they hope one player in particular becomes the cornerstone of the franchise in the future.
The Mavs signed Nowitzki (18.3 ppg-Led team, 6.5 rpg, 44.8 FG%, 36.8 3-Pt.%), the all-time franchise leader in points, games played and minutes played to a new two-year $50 million deal and he showed no signs of slowing down last season.
The 38-year-old, 13-time All-Star and 2007 MVP became the oldest player a season ago to average 18-plus points, shoot 44-plus percent from the floor and over 36 percent from three-point range. He became just one of five players in NBA history last season to score over 40 points in a regular season game at age 37 and older. When the 2016-17 NBA campaign begins this week, it will be season No. 19 for the German, who will join Hall of Famer John Stockton of the Jazz and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan of the Spurs to play 19 seasons with one team in NBA history. He surpassed Hall of Famer and current NBA on TNT color analyst Reggie Miller, who played all 18 seasons of his career with the Pacers.
“I signed a two-year deal because I obviously want to play for two more,” the sixth leading scorer in NBA history said to Cellini on Media Day. “I would love to get to 20 years with one franchise. It would be an unbelievable achievement. That’s what I’m working on, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I want to play this year. See how I feel. See how the body feels. See how many games I can play and how the body responds because the recovery between games gets harder and harder.”
At the end of last season, Nowitzki said that he did not want to be part of the Mavericks if they are going to rebuild. So while owner Mark Cuban did give the best player in franchise history a golden parachute payment, he did manage to bring in some solid players to try to keep the team very competitive in the West.
They acquired from the defending West champion Warriors center Andrew Bogut (5.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.6 bpg w/Warriors) and signed forward Harrison Barnes (11.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 46.6 FG%, 38.3 3-Pt.%).

The addition of Bogut gives the Warriors a solid shot blocker at the rim defensively and a stabilizer at the offensive end who is an excellent passer at the high post.

After being a third wheel behind Thompson and Curry in the Bay Area, Barnes should blossom as the Mavericks' second best offensive and hopefully their top offensive option.
In free agency, they signed the younger brother of Stephen Curry, guard Seth Curry (6.8 ppg, 45.5 FG%, 45.0 3-Pt.% w/Kings) to a two-year $5.9 million deal and forward Quincy Acy (5.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg w/Kings) to a two-year $2.2 million deal.
Along with retaining Nowitzki, the also re-signed guard Deron Williams (14.1 ppg, 5.8 apg-Led team) for one-year at $9 million and forward Dwight Powell (5.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg).
“We were fortunate to get’em,” Nowizki said to Cellini. “Both have championship experience. There great team players. Both should be fun to play with. There great system players. There great guys off the court.”
While the Mavericks and head coach Rick Carlisle are banking on big contributions from the new additions as well as those that were retained, the hope to get continued steady play from guard J.J. Barea (10.9 ppg, 44.6 FG%, 38.5 3-Pt.%), who has been solid mainly as a backup or an occasional starter in his 10-year career with the team. The other hope is that swingman Wesley Matthews (12.5 ppg, 36.0 3-Pt.%) can return to the form that made him one of the best perimeter defensive players in the NBA and one of the best three-point threats before a serious Achilles injury set him back two years ago. The also hope to get more from forward Dwight Powell (5.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg), guard Justin Anderson and center Salah Mejri.
Speaking of the Carlisle, who will be entering his ninth season as the Mavs head coach, he will surpass former NBA head coach and NBATV analyst Mike Fratello on the all-time winning list claiming the No. 20 spot. Carlisle enters this season having won 661 coaching the Mavs, Pacers and Pistons. Fratello has 667 career regular season wins coaching the Hawks (1980-90), Cavaliers (1993-99) and the Memphis Grizzlies (2004-07).  
The key for the Mavs this season is the play of Barnes. The last time he was on the court for the Warriors, he was in a major shooting slump, which cost the Warriors a chance at back-to-back titles. The former No. 1 draft choice of the Warriors in 2012 shot an abysmal 5 for 32 from the field scoring just 15 total points the final three games of The Finals.
Playing behind Curry and Thompson, Barnes did not have to be a top notch player. He will get a serious chance to become the kind of player that he was when he was this nation’s Mr. Basketball in high school in Ames, IA nearly a decade ago. Where he can be a prime-time player playing 35 minutes and becoming the face of the franchise when Nowitzki does retire remains to be seen.
The Mavericks are like the Hawks in the fact that they are a team that is stuck in the middle of being a team too good to rebuild through the draft and too limited in terms of signing or acquiring resources to make a deep playoff run. Nowitzki believes this team can be a surprise in the West and they have faith they will make the playoffs for the 15th time in the last 16 seasons.
“We always pride ourselves on making the playoffs and in the Western Conference it’s going to be really, really tough as we know,” he said to Cellini. “We’re going to be in a fight again. We’re excited, but obviously so are all the other teams, but we’ll wait to see what how it goes but we’re fired up.”
Best Case Scenario: The Mavs make the playoffs in the bottom half of the West and are competitive in the opening round. Nowitzki continues to play at a high level and Barnes emerges as a cornerstone of the team’s present and future
Worst Case Scenario: The Mavs miss the playoffs and Barnes struggles linger into this upcoming season will lose in the opening round.  
Grade: B-
Denver Nuggets: 33-49 (4th Northwest Division; missed playoffs) 18-23 at home, 15-26 on the road.
-101.9 ppg-20th; opp. ppg: 105.0-22nd; 44.6 rpg-8th
Three years ago, the Denver Nuggets under then head coach George Karl and GM Masai Ujiri in the front office were becoming a serious player in the West with a 57-win season, their most in their history in NBA. Since both of them have departed, the Nuggets have fell to the bottom of the West and have not been in the playoffs since. While most, especially this off-season wanted to build their team via free agency as well as the draft, the Nuggets, led by team president Josh Kroenke and GM Tim Connelly have built their team through the draft and developing those players, while also improving their team through trades and holding onto those assets until the right deal comes their way.
With the No. 7 overall pick in draft back in June, the Nuggets selected what many say was the best shooter and scorer off-the-dribble in guard Jamal Murray from Kentucky.

"It felt great to get to get drafted. The whole process was amazing," Murray said leading up to the draft on the NBATV series, "NBA Rooks."

"It's a good feeling. Kind of feel like I accomplished something, but I know it's just the start of something greater."

With the No. 15 overall selection, the Nuggets drafted forward Juancho Hernangomez from Spain. Four picks later, the team selected forward Malik Beasley out of Florida State.
Those new additions along with the team’s draft other young players like the 41st overall pick in the 2014 Draft in forward/center Nikola Jokic (10.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 51.2 FG%), who played very well for Serbia in leading them to the Silver medal at the Rio Olympics over the summer; center Jusuf Nurkic (8.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg); starting lead guard entering his second season Emmanuel Mudiay (12.8 ppg, 5.5 apg); guard Gary Harris (12.3 ppg, 46.9 FG%, 35.4 3-Pt.%); guard Will Barton (14.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 34.5 3-Pt.%), who finished fourth in the Sixth Man of the Year voting a year ago and was in the discussion for Most Improved Player last season and center Joffrey Lauvergne (7.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 51.3 FG%).

Mudiay really got better as the season went on a year ago. Before the All-Star break, the No.1 draft choice of the Nuggets averaged just 11.4 points per game and shot just 34.0 percent from the floor, including just 27.2 percent from three-point range, but did average 5.9 assists per contest. While his overall shooting problems continued, Mudiay rose his scoring output in the second half of last season with a 14.9 average and he rose his three-point percentage to 36.4 percent and stayed even in assists per game at 4.9. He also had eight games last season where he registered nine assists or more.

"I think around the new year to the end of the season, you saw Emmanuel Mudiay play with a lot more poise and when you consider he was only a 19-year-old starting point guard in the very tough Western Conference, Emmanuel did a lot of great things last year and going in to year two, we need Emmanuel to continue to get better," head coach Mike Malone, entering his second season with the team said of his starting lead guard.
The big difference for the Nuggets compared to other teams that are going with a youth movement is that as mentioned earlier, they have some young veteran players who are still in their prime like forwards Danilo Gallinari (19.5 ppg-Led team, 5.3 rpg, 36.4 3-Pt.%), Kenneth Faried (12.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg-Led team, 55.8 FG%), Darrell Arthur (7.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 45.2 FG%, 38.5 3-Pt.%), who re-signed for three years at $23 million; Mike Miller, who re-signed for two years at $7 million and guard Jameer Nelson (7.7 ppg , 4.9 apg).

They each bring something major to the table besides their knowledge of the game. Faried joined the Warriors' Draymond Green (9.5 rpg); the Hawks Paul Millsap (9.0) and the Pacers Thaddeus Young, when he was with the Nets as the only players at 6'8'' or under to lead their team in rebounds per game.

Nelson, Miller and swingman Wilson Chandler bring not just a combined 36 seasons of NBA experience, but 18 seasons of playoff experience. In the case of Miller, he also has two championship rings as a guy on those back-to-back Heat title teams where he made big shots in big moments.

"It's good. We have a lot of young talent mixed in with a group of great veterans," Harris, the 19th overall pick in 2014 draft said.  
A lot of what will happen to the veterans on the Nuggets whether they remain or are dangles for someone to acquire by midseason depends on how the younger players play and what the realistic expectations the front office has.
One key member of that veteran group is Gallinari, who scoring average was the best of his career. The key for him is staying healthy, as the key acquisition of the Carmelo Anthony trade back on Fe. 22, 2011 has missed 208 games in five-plus seasons with the Nuggets, which includes missing the entire 2013-14 season due to a torn left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
While there is an outside shot of the Nuggets contending for a playoff spot this season, it is very likely that head coach Mike Malone’s team is back in the lottery in May and drafting high in the draft in June 2017.
The have a very healthy salary cap. The young players they already have are developing well and the expectations of the fans is mild, especially since they have a World Championship team in the Denver Broncos of the NFL taking up most of the headlines now.
Team president Josh Kroenke said earlier this off-season that he is willing to write big checks next summer when the free agent market is better, which does not guarantee that the Nuggets will get that A-List franchise changing free agent, though they will have the money to throw at someone to make them think.
Going forward, the Nuggets have to hope they will be able to pull the trigger on a trade that and that one of their No. 1 draft choices develops into a franchise-changing player.

"There is definitely a buzz about the Nuggets," Malone said to Cellini on Media Day. "We're not where we want to be right now, but we al love the direction that we're heading in."
Kroenke once said that when the Nuggets become playoff-bound again, he wants them to become a team that has staying power and not become one that has constantly flames out in the opening round.
Best Case Scenario: The Nuggets win 35 games or more and are teetering on making the playoffs. Mudiay’s perimeter shot greatly improves and his floor game continues to mature. The rest of the young players continue to make progress and they are able to acquire a key asset at the trade deadline.
Worst Case Scenario: The young players have more low than high moments and the team has a number of long losing streaks.
Grade: C+
Golden State Warriors: 73-9 (1st Pacific Division; No. 1 Seed in West) 39-2 at home, 34-7 on the road. Defeated the Houston Rockets in Quarterfinals 4-1. Defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in Semifinals 4-1. Defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in Conference Finals 4-3. Lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in The Finals 4-3.
-114.9 ppg-1st; opp. ppg: 104.1-19th; 46.2 rpg-6th
After winning it all in 2014-15, the defending champion Warriors followed up that season with one for the ages. The most wins in the history of the regular season with 73. The most road wins in a regular season with 34. They tied the second most home wins in a regular season with 39. They made the most three-pointers in the history of the NBA’s regular season with 1,066 led by an NBA record 402 from back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry. Unfortunately, the dream season had a nightmare ending with the defend champs falling to the Cavs in Game 7 in front of their loyal Oracle Arena fans. That did not sit well with the organization and they went to work in shaping the team to make another title run and they landed the biggest fish in the free agent pond.
Back on July 7, the defending Western Conference champs signed forward Kevin Durant (28.2 ppg-3rd NBA; 8.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 50.5 FG%, 38.6 3-pt.%) to a two-year $54.2 million deal, which has an opt out clause at the end of this season.
“I had a lot of emotions,” the 2014 MVP, who put an injury riddled season two years ago behind him said to Comcast SportsNet Bay Area sideline reporter for the Warriors Ros Gold-Onwude on Media Day.
“Change for anybody is definitely difficult early on, but I’m looking forward to taking that head on and learning as much as I can and being a part of a great organization.
The perennial All-Star joins the team with the most electric backcourt in All-Stars Curry (30.1 ppg-Led NBA, 6.7 apg,5.4 rpg, 2.1 spg-Led NBA), who had a lights out season in becoming the first Unanimous MVP in league history a season ago. He joined an elusive club, the 50-40-90 club as he shot 50.4 percent from the field, 45.4 from three-point range and 91.0 percent from the charity stripe.
Curry’s fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson (22.1 ppg, 47.0 FG%, 42.5 3-Pt.%) is as good as it gets on both ends.
Durant will also be playing with the ultimate all-around player in the league last year in first-time All-Star forward Draymond Green (14.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg-Led team, 7.4 apg-Led team, 1.5 spg, 49.0 FG%, 38.0 3-Pt.%), who was second in the NBA in triple-doubles as season ago with 13.
Being able to sign Durant was not easy task as they had to say goodbye to key players on their 2015 title team like Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Brandon Rush to make room salary cap wise to sign KD.
They were able to re-sign three key reserve guys in guards Shaun Livingston (6.3 ppg), who exercised his option to stay with the Warriors and Ian Clark for one-year $980,000 and forwards James Michael McAdoo for two years at $2.2 million and forward/center Anderson Varejao to a one-year $1.6 million deal.
The front office of GM Bob Meyers and owner Joe Lacob had enough salary cap space to sign key veterans in forward David West (7.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg w/Spurs) for one-year at $980,000 and center ZaZa Pachulia (8.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg-career-high, 46.6 FG%).  
If that was not enough, the Warriors added even more talent to their coaching staff in hiring former head coach Mike Brown as an assistant and naming former NBA player Willie Green as their assistant coach of player development.
Even with the addition of Durant as well as the other new faces, the foundation of this team is still Curry and Thompson as the philosophy of head coach Steve Kerr of playing unselfishly and tough defense.
“We have a lot of guys that have high I.Q.’s on this basketball team,” Curry said to Gold-Onwude. There’s going to be opportunities for both of us [him and Durant] including Klay and Draymond to be ourselves in this position in our careers. None of that is going to change. It just a feeling out process of a new lineup that every team that has changes goes through.”
One thing that will be different for the Warriors this year as to the past two is that they are no longer the most liked team in “The Association.”
When Durant signed with the defending back-to-back Pacific Division champions, he received a lot of backlash from certain members of the public at large as well as the NBA community.
He left an organization where he was the man alongside All-Star lead guard Russell Westbrook. He had a team that had as good a chance of contending for a title. On top of that, they were in The Finals just four years ago.
With all of that being said, he spent nearly a decade with the Thunder. He and Westbrook played well together, but there were times that Westbrook was tough to play with because he more often than not shot first and passed second. He went to a team that aside from Curry, the core is signed and secure for a few years and Curry will be taken care of either during the season or next summer. Also Durant came to a team where the front office of Meyers and Lacob are on the same page as head coach Steve Kerr, who is entering his third season on the sidelines.
“Both are really, really good point guards,” Durant said about Curry and Westbrook to Gold-Onwude. “Playing with Russell for so long and coming over playing with Steph is going to be an easier transition for me than what people think. But just the matter of getting the system down. Schemes. Terms. All that different stuff. We’ll see how it works.”
One thing that will keep the Warriors from straying off course this season is that they were beaten as mentioned earlier in The Finals on their home floor by the Cavs in Game 7, where they blew a 3-1 lead. It is not about winning 70 games again this season, it is about winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
History is on their side as of the three prior teams [1972-73 Los Angeles Lakers, 1996-97 and 1997-98 Bulls] that won 69-plus games the previous season, they went on to win 60 games or more the next season and the Bulls won the title.

The good thing coming into the season is Green, Durant and Thompson got a chance to play together on the Olympic team this summer and led Team USA to Gold for the third straight time in Rio. The hope is that with Curry in the fold they can bring that same cohesiveness when the games count.
“Anytime you get a chance to add a championship to your resume, that’s huge,” Green said to Gold-Onwude about being the first team in league history to blow a 3-1 lead in The Finals and lose. “I don’t know if it’s something I’ll ever get over, but you do move on from it and look to try and to do it again, only finish it out this time.”    
Best Case Scenario: The Warriors atop the West with the best record in NBA. They make it back to The Finals and this time beat the Cavs in seven games.
Worst Case Scenario: They do not make it back to The Finals.
Grade: A+
Houston Rockets: 41-41 (4th Southwest Division; No. 8 West) 23-18 at home, 18-23 on the road. Lost to the Golden State Warriors in Quarterfinals 4-1.
-106.5 ppg-4th; opp. ppg: 106.4-25th; 43.1 rpg-20th
Four off-seasons ago, the Houston Rockets pulled off one of the greatest trades in recent memory in acquiring James Harden for basically a ham sandwich and some ice tea from the Oklahoma City Thunder. One year after that, they made another splashy signing with the addition of perennial All-Star center Dwight Howard. Led by their newest one-two punch two years ago, they made it all to the Western Conference Finals, ultimately falling to the eventual champion Warriors 4-1. Last season that harmony broke down and ended in a five-game series loss to those same Warriors in the opening round. The result, Howard bolts for a new team in the Hawks. The Rockets get a new head coach. Harden changing positions, sort of and a plethora of new offensive mad bombers in free agency.
On June 1, the Rockets named Mike D’Antoni to be their new head coach, the 14th in franchise history not retaining interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who took over very early in the season.
The first big thing that he did is naming four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA First-Team selection Harden (29.0 ppg-2nd, 7.5 apg-6th NBA, 6.1 rpg, 35.9 3-Pt.%), who had career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists was named the team’s new point guard by coach D’Antoni. Harden before training camp said he is looking forward to the challenge of stepping up and becoming more of a leader on the court and holding his teammates to a higher standard.
“Everybody is held accountable. When you get that from top to bottom. People are on the same page and we have one goal that’s to win,” he said.
From a strategic standpoint, the move is a smart one because he has been and continues to be the best player on the team and by putting the ball in his hands on a full-time basis, he will be an even more offensive threat.
The Rockets in free agency did get some insurance with the signing of guard Pablo Prigioni to a two-year $2.2 million deal and they still have last season’s starting lead guard Patrick Beverly (9.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 40.0 3-Pt.%).
A few weeks ago, they also acquired another point guard getting Tyler Ennis from the Bucks for forward Michael Beasley.
The team added players who fit better strategically with Harden and are tailored to D’Antoni’s system by adding former New Orleans Pelicans’ in forward Ryan Anderson (17.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 36.6 3-Pt.% w/Pelicans), who signed a four-year $80 million and guard Eric Gordon (15.2 ppg, 38.4 3-Pt.%) for four-years at $53 million and they also signed sharp shooting forward P.J. Hairston (6.2 ppg w/Memphis Grizzlies & Hornets), who so far in his career has shot just 29.5 percent from three-point range in his career.
Along with the new sharp shooting editions, the Rockets still have the sharp shooting and defensive skills of forward Trevor Ariza (12.7 ppg 4.5, rpg, 2.0 spg-Led team, 37.1 3-Pt.%).
“We got a lot of great shooters. So you’ll see some good shooting and their going to have to take the same spirit, the same heart and apply it on the defensive end,” D’Antoni said about what his team is trying to do this season
When the team decided not to re-sign Howard as he moved on to the Hawks, the starting position is now in the hands of Clint Capela (7.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg), who will be counted on to be the anchor at the defensive end.
The Rockets added some depth in the pivot with the signing of forward/center Nene (9.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 54.4 FG%) to a one-year $2.9 million deal and the drafting back in June of forward Chinanu Onuaku with the No. 37 overall pick out of Louisville and center Zhou Qi with the No. 43 overall pick.
Two years ago, the Rockets were one of the best defensive teams in the NBA leading the league in opponent’s three-point percentage and 12th in opponent’s overall field goal percentage. Last season, the Rockets fell to 19th allowing teams to shoot 45.9 percent from the floor and were just 21st a year ago in opponent’s three-point percentage at 36.1 percent.
If the Rockets are going to getting to where they were when they won 56 games two season ago, their defense must get better. They should not be allowing the kind of shooting numbers to their opponents when you have the likes of Beverly, Ariza and swingman Corey Brewer (7.2 ppg) on the perimeter.
Making sure the Rockets turn it around at the defensive end will be assistant coaches Jeff Bzdelik and Roy Rogers.
One thing that D’Antoni did not have or looked to find if he did have in his prior coaching stops with the Nuggets, Suns and Knicks is a deep roster. That is one thing he will have the chance to find out with the Rockets with players like forwards Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell and guard K.J. McDaniels.
When D’Antoni was hired by the Rockets, the emphasis was going to be at the offensive end. For the Rockets to as mentioned earlier to get back where they fell short by three games of being in The Finals for the first time since winning the back end of their back-to-back in 1995 is they bring that same focus to the defensive end. If they do, like Anderson said, they could a surprise in the West.
“We have the right coaching staff in place to make us a better defensive team,” he said. “I think we’re going to be firing on all cylinders and I think we’re going to surprise some a lot of teams on both ends of the court.”
Best Case Scenario: The Rockets are on the outskirts of having home court advantage in the playoffs. Their defense returns to 2014-15 form and Harden flourishes even more at the lead guard spot.  
Worst Case Scenario: The Rockets are in the bottom half of the West playoffs and their continued defensive problems leads them to another early playoff exit.
Grade: C+  
Los Angeles Clippers: 53-29 (2nd Pacific Division; No. 5 Seed in West) 29-12 at home, 24-17 on the road. Lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in Quarterfinals 4-2.
-104.5 ppg-7th; opp. ppg: 100.2-7th; 42.0 rpg-25th
The last four seasons have been the greatest in the history of L.A.’s other basketball team the Clippers. Four straight seasons of 55-plus wins and overall five consecutive appearances in the playoffs. Unfortunately, it has not equal success in the postseason as it seems that this team has always been snake bitten by something that derails their assault on the opportunity to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
In Game 4 of the opening round at the Trail Blazers back in April, the Clippers lost their two All-Star linchpins in point guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin to a broken hand and an injured knee. The Clippers eventually fell in six games.
That brings us to this season, which is the most important in team history. Why? Because Paul (19.5 ppg, 10.0 apg-4th NBA, 2.1 spg-3rd NBA, 46.2 FG%, 37.1 3-Pt.%) and Griffin (21.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 4.9 apg, 49.9 FG%) are set to become unrestricted free agents next summer.
“Unfortunately we’ve had to endure a lot of playoff losses and we haven’t gotten to where we’d like to get to,” Paul, a nine-time All-Star said. “What comes with that is experience.”
That is something that is hopefully true for Griffin, who missed 47 games last season because of injury and was suspended by the league for getting into a fight with a team employee back in January, which resulted in a broken hand that put him on the shelf for a longer stretch and tarnished his image a little bit.
The Clippers need Griffin to return to the form where just the season prior he was in the conversation of being MVP of the league. His playmaking from the power forward spot, scoring and rebounding make this team go and the Clippers need him to be healthy and focused.
“Everybody’s had individual success… After a while, you start to realize what’s most important or at least you really understand how important it is to be together in achieving that goal,” Griffin said about winning a title.
He also compliments starting center DeAndre Jordan (12.7 ppg, 13.8 rpg-2nd NBA, 2.3 bpg-2nd NBA, 70.3 FG%-Led NBA), who had a chance to show all of America what he is helping to lead Team USA to Gold in Rio back in the summer.
Thanks to this great trio, the Clippers have as mentioned at the beginning been a 50-win team these past four seasons, but have not even reached the Western Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals. One big reason for that is that aside from Sixth Man extraordinaire in guard Jamal Crawford (14.2 ppg, 34.0 3-Pt.%) and last season's prize signing in starting shooting guard J.J. Redick (16.3 ppg, 48.0 FG%, 47.5 3-Pt.%), the supporting cast around the main three has not measured up, especially in the postseason.
With very little cap room, the task of energetic owner Steve Ballmer, who bought the Clippers for and head coach/general manager Glenn “Doc” Rivers were unable last summer to bring in some much needed bench help.
Besides re-signing Crawford, who won the Kia Sixth Man of the Year Award for the third time in his career to a new three-year $42 million deal, the Clippers signed forward/center Marreese Speights (7.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, w/Warriors) to a two-year $2.9 million deal; guard Raymond Felton (9.5 ppg, 3.6 apg w/Mavericks) to a one-year $1.5; forward Brandon Bass (7.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 54.9 FG% w/Lakers) to a one-year $1.5 million deal and forward/guard Alan Anderson (5.0 ppg w/Wizards) to a one-year $1.3 million deal.
Back in June, the Clippers selected versatile forward Brice Johnson with the No. 25 overall pick out of North Carolina and acquired the draft rights to the No. 40 overall pick in center Diamond Stone from the Magic in exchange for guard C.J. Wilcox
The Clippers also retained in free agency forward Luc Mbah a Moute, who re-signed for two years at $4.5 million; guard Wesley Johnson (6.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and the son of Rivers in guard Austin (8.9 ppg-career-high, 43.8 FG%, 33.5 3-Pt.%) who re-signed for three years at $35 million. He really showed his worth in the Clippers 106-103 loss in Game 6 versus the Trail Blazers. He played a gritty game with 21 points, eight assists and six rebounds and he did it with 11 stitches above his left eye from a collision in the opening period. That eye was swollen shut during his postgame presser.
“You have to accept your role,” Rivers, entering his four season with the Clippers said about his team trying to win a title. “I think our guys understand it’s a process that you have to go through. It’s a hard process. There’s sacrifice involved and when everyone does that and there on the same page, you can turn all that into a really special group.”
For many years when you thought of basketball in the “City of Angels,” it has always been about the Lakers with their championships, tradition and all the Hall of Famers. In recent years it has been about the Clippers, who have been the better team record wise these past few seasons. For Clippers, this season is about getting over that hurdle and competing to be in The Finals. If they don’t things could be very different next year.
“We have no excuses. I think the biggest thing we have going into this season is we have another opportunity,” Paul said. “We have an opportunity to come out and really try to do something special.”
Best Case Scenario: The Clippers make their sixth straight trip to the playoffs as a Top 3 Seed in the West and finally reach the Conference Finals. The supporting cast puts the team’s needs first instead of their own and Griffin returns to All-Star form.
Worst Case Scenario: Another early playoff exit, which may lead to the exit of Griffin and Paul.
Grade: B+
Los Angeles Lakers: 17-65 (5th Pacific Division; missed playoffs) 12-29 at home, 5-36 on the road.
-97.3 ppg-30th; opp. ppg: 106.9-27th; 43.0 rpg-21st 
Last season, basketball fanatics and all that could watch got a chance to say goodbye to one of the greatest players to ever play in Kobe Bryant and in his last showing he went out with a bang dropping 60 points in the last game of his career at Staples Center. It was a perfect deodorant on a season that was the worst in franchise history and their three-year stretch of not making the postseason is the longest drought in franchise history. This up coming season will be the first time since May 2, 1996 that the "Black Mamba" will not be on the Lakers' roster. So the new era officially begins for Laker nation and it will proceed with a new head coach, talented players that have a lot to learn, but will have veterans to show them the way.
The journey of better days ahead begins with the No. 2 overall pick back in the draft in June in forward Brandon Ingram, who averaged 17.3 points in 36 games for Duke University last year. He is a forward with a great ability to shoot the ball and play making ability. The key for him this season is to be able to hold up as he has a very light frame at 190 pounds. As he matures, hopefully his body will follow.
“Everybody’s young, but everyone is very driven…,” Ingram said to NBATV’s Jared Greenberg and Rick Fox during “Real Training Camp” back in September in referring to him, guard D’Angelo Russell and forward Julius Randle. “It’s going to be exciting.”
Speaking of Russell (13.2 ppg, 3.3 apg, 3.4 rpg), he really showed some signs at the Las Vegas Summer League to the organization that he going to be a much better compared to his rookie season where he clashed with then head coach Byron Scott and he was very inconsistent both on the hardwood and off of it.
Russell’s ability to play make for others was a struggle and his ability to gain the respect of others was very tough. Let’s remember though, he was still a teenager coming into a league of grown men. On top of that he was starting his career in Hollywood.
He went to work this summer and made it very clear to the Lakers that he got serious about his craft and wants to be this team’s floor general for the long term, especially after the serious mess he got into when he recorded details of the indiscretions of teammate Nick Young.
Last season prior to the All-Star break, Russell started 22 of the Lakers’ first 53 games and averaged 12.1 points in 27.1 minutes. After the All-Star break he started 26 of the final 27 games and averaged 15.1 points per contest in 30.6 minutes. They key for him is he must shoot better than 41.0 percent from the field.
“The process of learning after the mistakes and knowing what I’ve could’ve done and what I should’ve done is completely different,” Russell, who scored 20-plus points on 13 occasions last season said to Greenberg and Fox.
That is why the Lakers did not bring in another lead guard to compete with last season's No. 1 draft choice out of Ohio State, although they did bring in veteran guard Jose Calderon (7.6 ppg, 4.1 apg, 45.9 FG%, 41.4 3-Pt.% w/Knicks) and they still have Marcelo Huertas on the roster.
The Lakers did pay his likely starting backcourt mate Jordan Clarkson (15.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 34.7 3-Pt.%), who re-signed for four years at $50 million.
Two other players the organization is expecting big things from going forward are forwards Julius Randle (11.3 ppg, 10.2 rpg-10th NBA), who himself must shoot better than what he did as season ago at 42.9 percent and Larry Nance, Jr. (5.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg).
The Lakers also have some diamonds in the rough that will get a chance to prove themselves for new head coach Luke Walton, who played eight-plus seasons for the "Purple and Gold" in forward/center Tarik Black; forwards Anthony Brown and new addition Yi Jianlian, the former No. 6 overall pick who has not played in the league since the 2011-12 campaign when he was with the Mavericks.
Besides bring in Calderon, the Lakers signed some much needed veterans to help the hopeful future core of the Lakers in how to go about their business on a daily basis.
Those reinforcements include 13-year veteran and two-time All-Star Luol Deng (12.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 45.5 FG% w/Heat), who signed a four-year $72 million deal.
The 31-year-old is expected to bring some much needed scoring from the perimeter as well as the exemplary defense he has shown throughout his career.  
“The exciting thing about it is that they are so willing and so focused on the season,” Deng said to Greenberg and Fox about the approach of the young Laker cornerstones. “Everybody on the team wants to do well.”
Along with Deng, they still have the presence of veteran swingmen Metta World Peace and Nick Young (7.3 ppg) and guard Lou Williams (15.3 ppg, 34.4 3-Pt.%).
They also added center Timofey Mozgov, who signed a four-year $64 million deal back on July 8 as well as forward Thomas Robinson.
While the signing of Mozgov, 30 years of age for the number of years as well as the amount of money that raised some eyebrows, it was just two years ago that he was a major part of the Cavs offensive attack when he was traded there and he played big in The Finals. On top of that, quality centers are becoming extinct and when you have a chance to get a solid, you pounce on that opportunity which the Lakers did.
Leading this remodeled Lakers team is going to be the aforementioned new head coach Luke Walton, who really showed that he got the chops to do this after having to be the interim head coach of the then defending champion Warriors for the first 43 games a season ago with Steve Kerr on the mend from back surgery. The team went 39-4, including getting out of the gates 24-0, a new NBA and pro sports record.
Last year Walton was coaching the leading scoring offense as well as the No. 1 three-point shooting team in “The Association” at 41.6 percent. He is taking over a team that finished dead last in the league in scoring per game as well as dead last in three-point percentage at 31.7 percent.
“I think part of this process is being real and understanding that we have to be patient,” Walton said to Greenberg and Fox. “That’s not only for the players, but the coaches. We can’t just jump ship and get away from the big view of what we’re trying to do if we lose three or four in a row. Just like if we win a couple in a row. We can’t get too excited and stop working on those little things that are getting the wins.”
In Lakers history, Elgin Baylor (1958), Earvin “Magic” Johnson (1979) and James “Big Game” Worthy (1982) have been chosen No. 1 overall and “the logo” Jerry West (1960) and Dave Meyers (1975) were chosen at No. 2 in the draft. Baylor, Johnson, Worthy and West became Hall of Famer and all won a championship or championships for the organization. The hope is that Russell and Ingram can produce those same results and bring back pride and prestige to Laker nation.
Best Case Scenario: Lakers win at least 30 games. Are a cohesive team on both ends and the core players of Ingram, Russell, Randle, Clarkson and Nance, Jr. are getting better and better in practice and in games.
Worst Case Scenario: Another rough season that includes a high number of losing streaks and the core players are not progressing at a high rate and Bryant is shelved early again because of injury and like ends his career.     
Grade: B
Memphis Grizzlies: 42-40 (3rd Southwest Division; No. 7 Seed West) 26-15 at home, 16-25 on the road. Lost to the San Antonio Spurs 4 in Quarterfinals 4-0.  
-99.1 ppg-24th; opp. ppg: 101.3-11th; 41.6 rpg-28th
They may not have gotten a lot of fan fair by the public. They may play a style that may not always make the highlights on ESPN’s “Sportscenter.” For the past six years though, the “Grit and Grind” style of the Memphis Grizzlies of playing tough defense and pounding the ball inside to All-Stars in center Marc Gasol and forward Zach Randolph equaled five straight postseason trips, which included a birth in the Conference Finals three years ago. Last season, injuries made the team realize that they need to change the roster somewhat and that is what ownership, led by Team Manager Chris Wallace did.
Back on May 29, the Grizzlies hired longtime Heat assistant David Fizdale to be their 12th head coach in franchise history, replacing Dave Joerger.

Fizdale wants to bring a more up tempo style of offense to the Grizzlies where they push the pace, get up and down the court and score buckets easily and in bunches. The difference between what he is proposing and what Joerger at one point in his time is that the Grizzlies now have the players to do so.
They re-signed starting lead guard Mike Conley (15.3 ppg, 6.1 apg, 36.3 3-Pt.%) to a new five-year $153 million deal, the largest amount for one contract in NBA history.
In free agency, they signed the long range marksman they have lacked these past few years in Chandler Parsons (13.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 49.2 FG%, 41.4 3-Pt.% w/Mavericks), to a four-year $94 million deal.
The total of $246.7 million to tie into a player who has yet to make an All-Star team in his career and another who has been shelved more often than not because he has been injured.
With that being said, when they have been right, they are as talented as any player at their position and their biggest critic is themselves.
“I put expectations and pressure on myself,” Conley said to Cellini on Media Day. “The pressure I get form outside myself doesn’t bother me. I go out there and try to perform at aa level I believe I can play at…Just set aside the money. Set aside what the media might be saying and go out there and play my game.”
They also added forward James Ennis (7.2 ppg, 47.8 FG%, 44.8 3-Pt.% w/Heat), who signed for two years at $6 million and guard Troy Daniels via sign-and-trade with Hornets.
Those additions were brought in to improve the team’s horrible perimeter attack, which was tied for 27th in the league in triples made a season ago at 6.1; 29th in three-point percentage, making it the seventh straight season they finished in the bottom five in three-point percentage. They were tied for 25th with the Spurs in attempts at 18.5 and ranked just 23rd in field goal percentage overall at 44.0 percent.
In the draft back in June, the Grizzlies selected guard William Baldwin IV with the No. 17 overall pick out of Vanderbilt and acquired from the Celtics the draft rights of forward Deyonta Davis, the 31st overall pick out of Michigan State.
Besides improving the talent level as well as add more perimeter shooting to the roster, the Grizzlies felt that they improved the depth of the team.
A total of 301 games were missed by Grizzlies players because of and illness. That was second only to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Gasol was shelved for 30 games because of injury. Last season’s signing forward/center Brandan Wright missed 70 games; Conley missed 28 games, his most since missing 29 back in 2008-09. Defensive ace and the heart and soul of “Grit and Grind” swingman Tony Allen missed 18 games last season and Randolph (15.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg47.5 FG%) missed 14 contest.
To fully bring into focus how ravaged the roster was by injury a season ago, the Grizzlies set an NBA record of suiting up 28 different players for the 2015-16 season. They beat out the 1996-97 Dallas Mavericks. They were three players better than the Indianapolis Jets back in 1948-49 and four better than the 2014-15 Minnesota Timberwolves and 76ers.
In Gasol’s (16.6 ppg-Led team, 7.0 rpg, 3.8 apg, 46.4 FG%) time with the Grizzlies when he has been healthy like he was in 2012-13 when he played 80 games, the Grizzlies won a franchise record 56 games and made it the Conference Finals, where they were swept by the Spurs. In 2014-15 when the Grizzlies won 55 games, Gasol played in 81 contest and the team made it to the Semifinals, but lost to the eventual champion Warriors.
Back in 2013-14 and last season, Gasol missed the final 30 and 23 games respectably and the Grizzlies won 50 games two seasons back, but fell to the Thunder in seven games of the opening round and were swept by the Spurs a season ago 4-0.
When healthy, the Grizzlies can be a major threat in the West. When Gasol and Randolph are right, it will allow the new additions along with the remaining cast of veteran swingman Vince Carter (6.6 ppg, 34.9 3-Pt.%), forward JaMychal Green (7.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 46.5 FG%) better.
Speaking of the guy who was once dubbed by NBA on TNT analyst Kenny “The Jet” Smith Half Man, Half Amazing, the former North Carolina Tar Heel entering his 19th season at age 39 ranks 6th all-time in three-pointers made in NBA history with 1,937; 23rd all-time in field goals made at 8,683 and in minutes played at 41,336 and is 24th in league history in points scored at 23,969.
The one constant that has been a staple of the Grizzlies has been the fact that it has been a team concept. No one is bigger than the group whether it was Lionel Hollins at the helm on the bench, former head coach Dave Joerger and now Fizdale. It is one of the reasons why one of their top players in Randolph is comfortable in coming off the bench, which Fizdale said he wanted to do this season and but Green at the starting power forward spot. It is something like that which was very noticeable to Parsons when he signed in the summer.
“There’s no egos here,” the former Florida Gator said. “These guys are so professional and these guys are so unselfish. They’ve been doing it for such a long time together… The core that they have here is really the main reason why I came here.”
On paper, the Grizzlies more than accomplished what they wanted to do this off-season. They re-signed their starting floor general, found the outside shooter and playmaker they were missing and the team returns healthy. The question is can they capture that magic they had in 2012-13 when they made it to the NBA’s Final Four. That is what they have to prove this season.
“In coach Fiz’s words, were out to win a championship and that’s it,” Conley said to Cellini. “That’s what we’re trying to do and if we believe that from day one than we have that ultimate goal to achieve and that’s it. We don’t think about anything other than that.”
Best Case Scenario: The Grizzlies get back to the 50-win mark again and are fighting for home court in the West. Conley makes the All-Star team finally. The Grizzlies are not at the bottom in terms of three-point shooting
Worst Case Scenario: The Grizzlies make it back to the playoffs, but have another early exit and the injury bug hits again, especially to Gasol.
Grade: A+
Minnesota Timberwolves: 29-53 (5th Northwest Division; missed playoffs) 14-27 at home, 15-26 on the road.
-102.4 ppg-15th; opp. ppg: 106.0-23rd; 41.6 rpg-29th
It has been 12 seasons since the Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs. Their last appearance saw them win a franchise record 58 games, perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett was named league MVP and the team made it to the Conference Finals only to fall to the Lakers in six games. Things have not been the same since, but hope came in the form of a new head coach/team president, who will be looking to turn talented young players into really great players who turn the T’Wolves into a playoff contender.
On Apr. 20, the Timberwolves hired former Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau to not only be their new leader on the sideline, but in the front office as their new President of Basketball Operations.
The T’Wolves also hired veteran front office man Scott Layden as their new General Manager.
What Thibodeau brings is a no-nonsense, we will work hard, play hard, especially at the defensive end. There will an attention to detail and that there will be no shortcuts to becoming great. Those are the same principles which made the Bulls a serious contender before the injuries caught up with them.
“I think the big thing for us is to not fool ourselves,” Thibodeau said. “We have to confront the facts. We were a 29-win team. We were 12 games out of the eighth spot.”
At Thibodeau’s disposal to close that gap will be a group of talented players, who have shown in flashes they have the potential to be great.
Leading that charge are the last two Kia Rookies of the Year in forward/center Karl-Anthony Towns a season ago (18.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg-8th NBA, 1.7 bpg-Led team, 54.2 FG%), who finished third in the NBA in double-doubles with 51 and swingman Andrew Wiggins20.7 ppg-Led team, 45.9 FG%) who won it the year before.
Towns, who was the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year last season joined future Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and the recently retired Tim Duncan of the Spurs as the only rookies to average 18-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and shoot over 54 percent in their first season in the NBA. He also set Timberwolves rookie records with 1,503 points scored; 858 rebounds and 138 blocks and he also was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for every month of the season.
Besides being very talented, Towns showed last season he can learn on the fly and he really got the message on what it takes to be a great player and championship caliber player from what he was taught by Garnett, who retired before the start of training camp.
“I thought he left me a lot of things basketball can teach you,” Towns said to Cellini about the influence K.G. had on him. “Being a great leader. Being a better human being and how to drive people through their limits.”
Surrounding these two lynchpins of the T’Wolves are guard Zach LaVine (14.0 ppg, 45.2 FG%, 38.2 3-Pt.%), who put in a lot of work on his jump shot over the summer to bring another dimension to his game; center Gorgui Gieng (10.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg), swingman Shabazz Muhammad (10.5 ppg, 46.5 FG%); starting lead guard Ricky Rubio (10.1 ppg, 8.6 apg, 4.3 rpg) and fellow guard Tyus Young and forwards Nemanja Bjelica (5.1 ppg) and Adreian Payne.
In free agency, the T'Wolves front office brought in guard Brandon Rush for one-year at $3.5 million; center Cole Aldrich (5.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg w/Clippers) for three-years at $21; and forward/center Jordan Hill (8.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg); veteran sharpshooting forward Rasual Butler and guard John Lucas III.
With the No. 7 pick in this past summer June draft, the Timberwolves selected the most NBA ready guard in Kris Dunn out of Providence.
This pick can be looked at in one way. Rubio, who has an up and down career in the “Twin Cities” is that he is being groomed to replace Rubio.
He brings the kind of makeup that makes Thibodeau smile, on those moments when he does. He will guard his man full court defensively and is a hard-nosed competitor. All of that was on display during the 2016 Las Vegas Summer League, before a concussion shelved him.
With the likes of Towns, Wiggins, Dunn and LaVine all in their early 20s or younger, there is very good reason to have optimism which has not been felt in over a decade in Minnesota. With that being said, they still have a lot to prove and so does coach Thibs.  
Thibodeau has to prove he can push his players to be great, while at the same time not wearing them down so they can compete and play the way he wants.
As far as the players go, they have to prove that they are willing to work hard each day in practice and in games to become a perennial playoff participant.
They especially have to show that at the defensive end, where they were 28th in field goal percentage allowed at 47.1 percent and 17th in opponent’s three-point percentage surrendering 35.5 percent. With all the youth on this team, it is abysmal that they were 15th in rebounding differential a season ago at -0.3; 19th in block shots per contest at 4.6; 14th in steals per game at 8.0 and in forced turnovers at 14.2.
Bringing in talent like the Timberwolves have to put them in a position for better days ahead is all the result of the organization having a plan they believe in and put their heart and soul into executing. At the head of all of this was the late head coach and GM Flip Saunders, who fell victim to cancer before the start of last season. Thanks to him, the T'Wolves have a chance to for a bright future. For that to become a reality this season and in the years to come, their have to make a serious commitment to put in the work necessary to be in a position to make that happen.  
“We know that we have to commit to improve and we have to close the gap,” Thibodeau said. “To go step by step. To jump ahead and say were going to make the playoffs des not good. We have to put the work in each and every day. Do the right things. Concentrate on our improvement and the results will take care of itself.”
Best Case Scenario: The Timberwolves win at least 38 games and are in the hunt to make the playoffs but fall short. Towns is in the running to be an All-Star and the team makes a major commitment to the defensive end. Team plays at a high level in honor of Saunders.
Worst Case Scenario: The team struggles to buy in to what coach Thibodeau wants, especially defensively and the young cornerstones take a step backwards.  
Grade: B+  
New Orleans Pelicans: 30-52 (5th Southwest Division; missed playoffs) 21-20 at home, 9-32 on the road.
-102.7 ppg-13th; opp. ppg: 106.5-26th; 42.6 rpg-22nd
Just two years ago, the New Orleans Pelicans were a team on the rise after making the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. It ended with a four-game sweep by the eventual NBA champion Warriors. The team hired off of the then champs coaching staff Alvin Gentry to be their new head coach replacing Monty Williams. Those dreams of doing big things a season ago went right up in smoke.
Injuries, poor defensive effort and the inability to grasp Gentry’s “Seven seconds or less,” offensive philosophy resulted in a losing season and a step backwards for the Pelicans.
They led the NBA in games missed due to injury, with a number of them sustained by key cogs on the roster, which will carry over into the start of this season.

To put that into clearer context, the Hornets had 42 different starting lineups a season ago, which led the NBA.
Swingman Tyreke Evans (15.2 ppg, 6.6 apg, 5.2 rpg, 38.8 3-Pt.%) missed 57 games because of knee surgery and is not expected to be back on the court until December. Davis (24.3 ppg-7th NBA, 10.3 rpg-9th NBA, 2.1 bpg-4th NBA) was shelved for 21 games because of injury and need surgery to repair his left shoulder and left knee. Center Omer Asik (4.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg), who has been nothing but a disappointment since signing with the team two seasons back missed 14 games because of injury and starting lead guard Jrue Holiday (16.8 ppg, 6.0 apg) missed 17 games a season ago.
“We had a great style in place last year, but due to injuries we could never stay together long enough to try and implement the system, but now guys are healthy,” Gentry said before training camp.
Besides Evans being shelved for the first month and a half of the season, Holiday is out indefinitely to tend to his wife Lauren who is dealing with not just being a new mom, but  surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.

Davis, who because he did not finish out the season missed out on a major cash bonus, suffered a sprained ankle in the preseason, but is expected to be ready by the start of the regular season and swingman Quincy Pondexter is still on the mend as he recovers from two knee surgeries.
To improve his chances of staying on the court this season, Davis worked a lot this summer with trainers, doctors and physical therapists to strengthen his body from his ankles and shoulders to his back. That resulted in 30 pounds of new muscle during the off-season.
“I like where I am right now,” Davis, whose missed 68 games the past four seasons said to Cellini on Media Day. “I feel a lot stronger. A lot more durable. I can’t wait to test it out and see… I think this year is going to be the year where I’m able to play a lot more games.”
With a number of key players on the mend, the Pelicans are expecting the newest members of the team to step up and embrace the moment.
Those new additions are former Pacers’ forward Solomon Hill, who signed for four years at $48 million and Terence Jones (8.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg 45.2 FG% w/Rockets); guard E’Twaun Moore (7.5 ppg, 48.1 FG%, 45.2 3-Pt.% w/Bulls), who signed a four-year $34 million deal; guards Langston Galloway7.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 34.4 3-Pt.%), who signed a two-year $10.7 million deal and Lance Stephenson (8.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 48.1 FG%). The Hornets also retained guards Tim Frazier (5.1 ppg), who averaged 13.1 points and 7.5 assists in 16 games with the Pelicans last season, for two years and $4.1 million. 
“We added new pieces. I think the style is going to fit us perfectly, “Gentry said.
The injuries also give ample opportunity for the No. 6 overall pick in the draft back in June out of Oklahoma in guard Buddy Hield, who all he did in his senior year was average 25.0 points per game, while shooting 46 percent from the field and made four three-pointers per game.
The Pelicans are a very intriguing team. They have a superstar player that most teams dream of having. Guards with tremendous skill and front court players when their minds are right can play with any front line in the league. On top of that, they have a coach that wants to play fast and move the ball like a hot potato on offense.
What the Pelicans have to prove is that they can stay healthy and defend. With a talent like Davis who can have on an effect on the game at the defensive end, they should not be ranked higher than 27th in field goal percentage allowed at 46.8 percent; 25th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 36.9 percent; 24th in rebounding differential at -1.8 and 23rd in block shots per game at 4.2.
“Our team is definitely a lot better than when we were last year,” Davis said to Cellini. “We got a lot of guys whose ready to fight. A lot of guys who come in, who just want to work hard. Who just don’t care what they do. They just want to be part of a winning team. When you have that mindset, it’s a lot easier for your team to win.”
Best Case Scenario: The Pelicans are in a fight to make the playoffs as a lower seed. They Davis returns to the form that made him a three All-Star and an in the conversation of MVP of our league.
Worst Case Scenario: The injuries mount up and the Pelicans miss the playoffs again.
Grade: C+
Oklahoma City Thunder: 55-27 (1st Northwest Division; No. 3 Seed in West) 32-9 at home, 23-18 on the road.
-110.2 ppg-2nd; opp. ppg: 102.9-15th; 48.6 rpg-1st
It has been four years since the Thunder were denied the Larry O’Brien trophy by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat, falling in The Finals 4-1. Last season, they had a chance to get back there and right that wrong. Up 3-1 in the Conference Finals, the Thunder were right on the door step of making that happen and they could not close the deal and they paid for it in a major way.
Superstar forward and the face of the franchise Kevin Durant bolted OKC and joined the Warriors, the team that denied them a chance at a title.
It changed the whole makeup of the team in the blink of an eye. The draft night deal back in June to acquire guard Victory Oladipo (16.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.9 apg, 34.8 3-Pt.%-career-high), forward Ersan Ilyasova (10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 37.1 3-Pt.%) and the draft rights to forward To the son of Hall of Fame center and former Portland Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis, Domantas Sabonis, the No. 11 overall pick out of Gonzaga from the Magic for shot blocking sensation Serge Ibaka only made sense if Durant returned.  
The Thunder lost one of the best scorers in the game and one of the best defensive players in the league.
The team is now in the hands of All-Star guard Russell Westbrook (23.5 ppg-8th NBA, 10.4 apg-2nd NBA, 7.8 rpg-career-high, 2.0 spg-5th NBA, 45.4 FG%) who led the NBA in triple-doubles a season ago with 18, which tied Hall of Famer “Magic” Johnson in a season with 18, but the question was with Durant now gone, when would he decide to skip town in free agency as well.
That decision won’t happen for a while as he signed a three-year $85.7 million extension, which does have a player option for 2018-19 season.
“It definitely different,” Westbrook said on Media Day about not having Durant and Ibaka around. “It’s not the same. We’re not just missing Kevin. We’re missing Dion, Serge…It’s different. You got different guys, but I’m happy… Ready to start camp with the new guys and embrace the moment.”
While two very important mainstays are gone, the cupboard in OKC is still full of talented players. Besides the aforementioned Oladipo, Ilyasova and the rookie Sabonis, they have forward/center Enes Kanter (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 57.6 FG%); center Steven Adams (8.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 61.3 FG%), who really came into his own in the 2016 playoffs averaging 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds on 61.3 percent shooting; centers Nick Collison and Joffrey Lauvergne (7.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 51.3 FG%), who the team acquired this summer from the Nuggets; guard Cameron Payne; perimeter defensive ace Andre Roberson and sharp shooters Kyle Singler and Anthony Morrow.
The Thunder have reached the Conference Finals three times in the last four years, but have not gotten through.
Will this be an easy transition in OKC? No. They could still be a borderline contender in the rugged West or they could fall out of the playoff picture completely. Besides still having a superstar player in Westbrook, they have a solid head coach in Billy Donovan, who is more sure about himself as a pro coach and they league going into his second season.
“Hopefully now going through the league one time, I’m starting off with some experience to draw upon after a year,” the Long Island, NY product said to Cellini on Media Day. “Our team can get better. Certainly last year was my first time really going through everything. Hopefully this year, I can improve and grow and draw upon some of those experiences from last year.”
Best Case Scenario: The Thunder make the playoffs in the middle of the pack in the West. Westbrook emerges as the team leader on a full-time basis and the supporting cast rises to the occasion of having more responsibility.
Worst Case Scenario: They do not make it back to the playoffs.
Grade: D
Phoenix Suns: 23-59 (4th Pacific Division; missed playoffs) 14-27 at home, 9-32 on the road.
-100.9 ppg-22nd; opp. ppg: 107.5-28th; 44.8 rpg-7th
It is hard to fathom that just two years ago the Phoenix Suns won 48 games and just barely missed the playoffs. It was fool’s gold as they went from a team on the rise to starting from scratch as they try to claw their way to the postseason where they have not been since 2010, where they fell two game short against the Lakers from reaching The Finals. The hope is that with former NBA guard Earl Watson on the sidelines, a trio of talented guards and a trio of rookies that the Suns have laid a foundation for better days ahead.
In the draft back in June, the Suns with the No. 4 overall pick selected Dragan Bender, an 18-year-old forward who played a season ago for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Via a trade with the Sacramento Kings, the Suns acquired the draft rights to No. 8 overall pick Marquese Chriss out of the University of Washington and in the second-round with the No. 34 overall pick the Suns selected guard Tyler Ulis out of the University of Kentucky.
All three are very talented, but are very raw. Bender is a 7’1’’ forward who can shoot the ball from distance and can create for others off his own dribble. Chriss, only 19-years-old is a freakish athlete with the ability to jump right out of the gym. Ulis, although a small guard at 5’10’’ gives the Suns another quick versatile guard, which the team has a stable of.
For all three rookies, they see this new step as an opportunity, but one that they all say is a major adjustment.
“We’re rookies, so we have to understand that everything is a process and I’m trying to fall in love with the process,” Ulis said.
“I think the biggest adjustment for me was just realizing that I didn’t have to go to class anymore. Basketball is my job now,” Chriss said.
“Biggest adjustment for me, transitioning from Europe style of life to style of play to the states,” Bender said.
What all three rookies have in their favor is some other talented player to learn from and hopefully grow with.
In terms of  who those the rookies can learn from about what it takes to prosper in "The Association," the Suns brought back a couple of members for another stint in 31-year-old forward Jared Dudley (7.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 47.8 FG%, 42.0 3-Pt.% w/Wizards), who signed for three years at $30 million and from the then NBA champion Warriors 33-year-old guard Leandro Barbosa (6.4 ppg, 46.2 FG%, 35.5 3-Pt.%), who signed for two years at $8 million.
The team also has a player who made himself into the ultimate teammate and do whatever it takes to win in center Tyson Chandler (7.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg-Led team, 58.3 FG%), who ranks third in all-time field goal percentage at 59.1 percent behind Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore (59.9 percent) and Clippers’ center DeAndre Jordan (67 percent).
The Suns also bolster some other talented front court players like forwards T.J. Warren (11.0 ppg, 50.1 FG%, 40.1 3-Pt.%) and 31-year-old P.J. Tucker (8.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and center Alex Len (9.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg).
The place where the Suns depth is strongest is in their backcourt with dynamic guards Eric Bledsoe (20.4 ppg-Led team, 6.1 apg-Led team, 4.0 rpg, 2.0 spg-Led team, 45. 3 FG%, 37.2 3-Pt.%); Brandon Knight (19.6 ppg, 5.1 apg, 3.9 rpg, 34.2 3-Pt.%) and rookie sensation from a year ago Devin Booker (13.8 ppg, 34.3 3-Pt.%), who played this summer for the Team USA select team, which is the squad of younger NBA players who practice against the senior team as part of preparations for this summer's Olympics, where as mentioned earlier captured their third straight Gold medal.
The thing about this trio of guards is that they all have had an obstacle in front of them to tackle deal with in their time with the Suns.
For Bledsoe, it’s been injuries, which caused him to miss 39 games back in 2013-14 and while he missed just one game two years ago, he missed 51 games last season because of an injury to the left meniscus in his knee that required surgery.
Since coming over from the Bucks two seasons ago, Knight has struggled to find his niche with the team in terms of knowing when to be a facilitator and when to be a scorer. With the Bucks in 2013-14 to when he was dealt, he putting up All-Star numbers.
Booker came out of nowhere a season ago where he went from averaging 10.6 points in 23.2 minutes prior to the All-Star break to a 19.2 scoring average playing 35.4 minutes afterwards. The thing with him coming into this season is how will he fair with teams putting together game plans focused on stopping him?
Having to put all of this talent together is the Earl Watson, who is now entering his first full season as the head man on the sideline for the Suns.
It has been a long journey for the 37-year-old former UCLA Bruin, who played in the NBA for 13 years with the Seattle Supersonics/Thunder, Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, Pacers, Nuggets and Trail Blazers. Was an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs’ NBA Developmental League affiliate the Austin Spurs and joined the Suns’ staff in summer of 2015 when the Knicks new head coach Jeff Hornacek was on the sidelines.
Watson plans to use a style that he learned from his father, a drill sergeant who was the first African American to integrate the Army.
“He always raised me to have discipline and focus on the moment. For us it has nothing to do with basketball. We just want to create better people and instill like a spiritual positivity into our basketball family,” Watson, who went 9-24 after being named interim head coach back on Feb. 1 said in a telephone interview with Cellini.
“That we know as building great character they’ll make better choices on the court because we deal with things off the court and how we relate and connect. Our foundation is simple. Love. Nurture. Teach.”
What the Suns and GM Ryan McDonough have in their favor is time, talent to work with, a coach they believe in, veteran players with solid track records to help mentor the young core on how to be a great pro and flexible salary cap.
If the Suns can prove that they can be patient and let this group mature while making a couple of smart moves with the assets they have, the good times can rise again in the “Valley of the Sun.”
Best Case Scenario: The Suns are competitive every night. The rookies show great progress throughout the season and they are able to make a solid trade to better their future.
Worst Case Scenario: The Suns rookies show just flashes of what they could be and they have a couple of double-digit losing streaks where they are getting blown right out of the gym.
Grade: C+
Portland Trail Blazers: 44-38 (2nd Northwest Division; No. 5 Seed in West) 28-13 at home, 16-25 on the road. Defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in West Quarterfinals 4-2. Lost to the Golden State Warriors in Semifinals 4-1.
-105.1 ppg-6th; opp. ppg: 104.3-20th; 45.5 rpg-5th
At 11-20, the Portland Trail Blazers made every prognosticator who said they would struggle after seeing 80 percent of their starting five leave via free agency or traded. They proved their critics wrong the rest of the season going 33-18 and not only making the playoffs, but beating the Clippers 4-2 all beat it due to season-ending injuries to All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and they stood toe-to-toe with the then defending champion Warriors before falling in five games. How did they do it?
It began with a backcourt in All-Star Damian Lillard (25.1 ppg-6th NBA, 6.8 apg-Led team, 4.0 rpg, 37.5 3-Pt.%) and C.J. McCollum (20.8 ppg, 44.8 FG%, 41.7 3-P.t%), who came out of nowhere to become a prolific duo who can score in bunches.
That was truly the case back on Feb. 19 when they out played the “Splash Brothers” of Curry and Thompson in the team’s 137-105 beat down of the then defending champs. Lillard had a career-high of 51 points going 18 for 28 from the field, including 9 for 12 from three-point range and 6 for 7 from the foul line with seven assists and six steals. McCollum had 21 points going 9 for 18 from the field, including 3 for 4 from long range with seven assists and two steals.
“Last year there was no expectations,” Lillard said about the losses of Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. “Nobody showed us the respect, just because we had a lot of young players and we lost so much. We lost vets. We lost some of our better players and we just stuck to the process. We worked hard. We showed up on time. We stuck together. We kept it really simple. Those small things turned into bigger things for us.”
That is the reason along with the fact he improved his scoring each hear he has been in the league, that the Trail Blazers signed Lillard to a five-year $120 million extension. McCollum’s great season earned him the 2015-16 Kia Most Improved Player Award and a contract extension of his own of four years at $106 million.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, McCollum scored 14 points more per game a season ago, the best from a season ago.
While the Trail Blazers backcourt grabbed all the headlines and it was much deserved, they did not reach the Semis because of their play alone.
It was thanks to the supporting cast of forward Al-Farouq Aminu (10.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 36.1 3-Pt.%), who had the ability to make triples at a moment’s notice, could rebound at a high rate and guard on the perimeter very well. Center Mason Plumlee (9.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg-Led team) was the reason Lillard and McCollum got so wide open to do damage from the perimeter because of his ability as well as forward Ed Davis (6.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg) to set solid screens and do the little things like rebound on both ends prevent second chances and getting extra opportunities for the Trail Blazers to score.
Two other player who really showed well a season ago was guard Allen Crabbe (10. 3ppg, 45.9 FG%, 39.3 3-Pt.%-career-high), which it earned him as a restricted free agent a four-year $75 million offer sheet from the Nets, which the Trail Blazers matched and Maurice Harkless (6.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg), who went from a benchwarmer to a starter and played very well at the close of the season with a 11.8 scoring and 6.5 rebounding average back in April and in the playoffs averaged 11.0 points and 5.2 rebounds. The team retained his services signing him to a new four-year $40 million deal.
This off-season, GM Neil Olshey and Trail Blazers made some solid additions this off-season with the signing of swingman Evan Turner (10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.4 apg, 45.6 FG% w/Celtics) to a four-year $70 million deal. They bolstered the front court with the signing of center Festus Ezeli (7.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 54.8 FG% w/Warriors) to a two-year $15.1 million deal.
The one person the Trail Blazers are looking forward to welcoming back is forward/center Meyers Leonard (8.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 44.8 FG%, 37.7 3-Pt.%). The No. 11 overall pick back in 2012 made some serious strides a season ago before should surgery cut his season to just 61 games. He made a career-high of 86 three-pointers a season ago and he averaged career-highs across the board. The hope is that good health and a new four-year $41 million contract will continue his progression.
What allowed the Trail Blazers to succeed like they did a season ago is their ability to make three-pointers at a high rate. Back in the 2012-13 season, they made 673 triples; then 770 the next year; 807 two seasons ago and 864 last season.
While the ability to strike from long range was great, their inability to defend the three-point shot is why the opposition shot 40-plus percent from long distance a season ago attempting more than 27 per game. On top of that, they were an abysmal 3-17 against teams over .500 on the road.
Last season was an unexpected one for the Trail Blazers. For them now, they have to prove that they can play at a high level when they are expected to, which is something that coach Stotts is looking forward to seeing.
“With the fact that we have 11 players coming back, I think we want to view this year as a continuation of the process we started last year,” he said.
“Last year was a reboot from the beginning of the season. We made terrific strides during the season and we just want to continue from where we left off last year.”
Best Case Scenario: Trail Blazers win the same amount of games and make it back to the playoffs. Lillard and McCollum make the All-Star team.
Worst Case Scenario: The Trail Blazers miss out on the playoffs.
Grade: B
Sacramento Kings: 33-49 (3rd Pacific Division; missed playoffs) 18-23 at home, 15-26 on the road.
-106.6 ppg-3rd; opp. ppg: 109.1-30th; 44.2 rpg-11th
The biggest difference between the good teams in the league that make the playoffs and win championships more often than not is from top to bottom from the front office to the coaching staff to the players on the court, they all want to win and nothing else matters. They do not get blinded by things outside their parameters. That is why teams like the Lakers of the past, the Warriors and Spurs of the present have title and why the Sacramento Kings have not.
The simplest way to summarize the dysfunction in the capital city of California came from a tweet by All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins (26.9 ppg-4th NBA, 11.5 rpg-5th NBA, 45.1 FG%) on Draft night back in June which said,  "Lord give me the strength."
This is certainly not the way you want to start a new era in team history with a new the Golden 1 Center, a state of the art arena that open back on Sept. 30; cost $555.6 million to build; seats 17,500 people and is the first NBA arena to feature all gender restrooms.
That is not the way to welcome new teammates in center Georgios Papagiannis, the No. 13 overall pick; guards Malachi Richardson, and Isaiah Cousins, the No. 22 overall and No. 59 overall picks out of Syracuse and Oklahoma respectably and forward Skal Labissiere, the No. 28 overall pick out of the Kentucky.
It is certainly not the way to welcome the signings via free agency, particularly veterans like guards Arron Afflalo (12.8 ppg, 44.3 FG%, 38.2 3-Pt.% w/Knicks), who signed for two-years at $25 million, Ty Lawson (5.7 ppg, 3.6 apg w/Rockets & Pacers) Garrett Temple (7.3 ppg, 34.5 3-Pt.% w/Wizards), who signed a three-year $24 million deal, Jordan Farmer (9.2 ppg, 3.1 apg, 35.6 3-Pt.% w/Grizzlies) and forwards Matt Barnes (10.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg w/Grizzlies) and Anthony Tolliver (5.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg 36.0 3-Pt.% w/Pistons).
On top of that, the team has probably the best coach they have had in quite some time in Dave Joerger, who got the boot in Memphis at the end of last season after going 147-99 in three seasons and spent nine years with the organization. He was signed as the 17th head coach in Kings history was signed back on May 9.
To bring home the situation Joerger is going into, the Kings have had five different head coaches since the 2010-11 season. Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Mike Malone, Tyrone Corbin and George Karl.
None of whom were given much of a chance by GM and former King Vlade Divac and owner Vivek Ranadive.
Besides inheriting a talented, but immature star player in Cousins, the point guard situation is unsettled. The presumptive starter was Darren Collison (14.0 ppg, 4.3 apg, 48.6 FG%, 40.1 3-Pt.%), but he is suspended the first eight games of the regular season by the league for a domestic violence incident.
At the shooting guard position, former No. 1 draft choice Ben McLemore (7.8 ppg, 36.2 3-Pt.%) has been unable to find any consistency.  
Their first-round pick, No. 6 overall last season in center Willie Cauley-Stein (7.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and forward Omri Casspi (11.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg48.1 FG%, 40.9 3-Pt.%) are players that would thrive on a championship or perennial playoff team, not in the mess in Sacramento.
The ultimate cherry on this abysmal Sunday is the fact that the Kings best perimeter player Rudy Gay (17.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 46.3 FG%, 34.4 3-Pt.%), who said back on July 26 to the Sactown Royalty, “I think it’s pretty obvious what situation is going on here. At this point in my career, I think I want some kind of consistency and we don’t have that here at all…Obviously we don’t have anything to really build on. We have a new coach. I think that’s the only thing we can really build on. New coach and seeing how it plays out.”
He also said to Kings management that he will be declining his player option for next season, essentially leaving $14 million on the table.
It is safe to say that there is dysfunction in Sacramento. That is rough for some of the most loyal fans who between the 1998-99 and the 2005-06 campaign saw the best basketball in the Kings era. They were just a win shy of being in The Finals back in 2002, where they lost to then Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant and the Lakers in Game 7 at then Arco Arena.
Owner Vivek Ranadive had hoped the Kings would be pushing for the playoffs by the time they moved into the aforementioned Golden 1 Center. Until their leader in Cousins, who showed some sign of maturity in helping Team USA to Gold in Rio proves he can match his maturity with his electrifying talent, the Kings are sunk.
“Everybody’s got to come together on our team to have one goal and one focus and that’s winning basketball games every night,” Cousins said.
“Can’t have any outside distractions. Can’t be worried about points or stats or contracts or whatever the case may be. It’s one goal and its winning the game every night.
Best Case Scenario: The Kings are in close games consistently throughout the season and they win their fair share. Cousins and Joerger get on the same page and the team just gets along becomes an All-Star again and really matures into a team leader.
Worst Case Scenario: The Kings losing ways continue. Cousins has more meltdowns and the team considers trading him.   
Grade: F-
San Antonio Spurs: 67-15 (1st Southwest Division; No. 2 Seed in West) 40-1 at home, 27-14 on the road. Defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in Quarterfinals 4-0. Lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Semifinals 4-2.
-103.5 ppg-10th; opp. ppg: 92.9-1st; 43.9 rpg-15th
Last season, the San Antonio Spurs did two remarkable things. They won a franchise record 67 games and tied the NBA record for most home victories in the regular season. Unfortunately, their drive to earn their sixth title ended in the Semis at the hands of the Thunder in six games. A month later they said goodbye to the pillar of their greatness for the last 19 seasons.
Perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan announced his retirement and he did just like he played for 19 seasons. With a simple statement without a whole lot of fanfare or fireworks. In the simplest way said he was moving on. That is why the date of Thursday, May 12, 2016 will go down as the day that the NBA world saw the No. 1 overall pick back in 1997 play his last game in Game 6 of the Semis at the Thunder where he had 19 points and five rebounds in the 113-99 loss.
The Spurs still have two of maybe the greatest version of a “Big Three” who have championships on their resume in lead guard Tony Parker (11.9 ppg, 49.3 FG%, 5.3 apg-Led team) entering season No. 15 and Manu Ginobili (9.6 ppg, 45.3 FG%, 39.1 3-Pt.%), who played for Argentina in the Rio Olympics this summer was retained on a one-year $14 million deal.
The new torch carriers for the team now and into the future in back-to-back Kia Defensive Player of the Year in Kawhi Leonard (21.2 ppg-Led team, 6,8 rpg, 1.8 spg-Led team, 50.6 FG%, 44.3 3-Pt.%), who has been groomed to be the face of the franchise the last couple of seasons and forward LaMarcus Aldridge (18.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg-Led team, 51.3 FG%), who the Spurs signed the prior summer and was solid fit a season ago and was very solid in the postseason with averages of 21.9 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Even with Leonard and Aldridge at the new lead faces of the Spurs, Parker and Ginobili’s leadership is just as valuable, as it will be this season with Duncan gone.
“It’s our turn to keep that same level. That same expectation and try to have another great season,” Parker said on Media to Greenberg.
“I think there’s going to be a lot more leadership to do between myself and Manu showing all the young guys the Spurs’ way.”
For the Spurs, it is about adding the right mixture of players to keep the Spurs in the hunt for another title, which is what head coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford did this summer.
In free agency, they signed forward/center Pau Gasol (16.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg-T-6th NBA, 2.0 bpg-5th NBA, 46.9 FG% w/Bulls), who signed for two years at 31.6 million is the perfect example of a Spurs’ player. A fundamentally sound individual, who is unselfish, plays on both ends and is coachable. While he may be 36 years of age, if he can give them what he gave the Bulls the last couple of years, which resulted in All-Star appearances, the Spurs will be fine as they always have been.
The team also brought on board former All-Star forward David Lee (7.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 53.1 FG% w/Celtics & Mavericks), who signed a two-year $1.9 million deal; center Dewayne Dedmon (4.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg), who signed for two years at $5.9 million; forward Livio Jean-Charles, who signed a four-year rookie contract for $6 million and they drafted with the No. 29 pick of the Draft back in June guard Dejounte Murray out of the University of Washington.
While the Spurs may not be lighter in terms of size in their frontcourt with the retirement of Duncan, the trading of Boris Diaw to the Jazz and letting forward David West and center Boban Marjanovic leave in free agency, it is all about being able to go against their main competition the defending conference champion Warriors and their small-ball lineup.
That is why the new additions along with the likes of swingmen Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons will very likely see their roles enhanced this season.
The team still has the sharp shooting talents of Patty Mills (8.5 ppg, 38.4 3-Pt.%) and Danny Green (7.2 ppg), who the Spurs hope can bounce back from the abysmal shooting season with a 37.6 percentage from the field and 33.2 from three-point range a season ago.
The Spurs have been the model of consistency for the last two decades, built on strong defense and their ability to adapt offensively. While the faces might be different, the standard remains the same. On top of that, coach Pop enjoys a challenge and sees it as an opportunity to prove that they can win their sixth Larry O’Brien trophy.
“For all the new faces and new blood coming in, it’s just going to be fun to see how they progress,” Popovich said to Greenberg. “Who we choose to be on the team. How they play together. How they react with each other. I’m very excited about that.”
Best Case Scenario: The Spurs win 50-plus games again and make it to the Conference Finals. Aldridge and Leonard are All-Stars.
Worst Case Scenario: The Spurs falling in the Semis.
Grade: A-
Utah Jazz: 40-42 (3rd Northwest Division; missed playoffs) 24-17 at home, 16-25 on the road.
-97.7 ppg-28th; opp. ppg: 95.9-2nd; 43.2 rpg-18th
When you decide to rebuild your team through the draft, you hope that the people you bring in can grow together and the team can grow. That was has happen in Salt Lake City and the Jazz came very close to making the playoffs a season ago. That is because they lost a lot of close games, which prompted the organization to shift their strategy and bring in some veterans to shore up some of the team’s weaknesses, especially at the offensive end.
The Jazz traded their first-round pick in this year’s draft and acquired in a three-team deal with the Pacers and Hawks guard George Hill (12.1 ppg, 3.5 apg, 4.0 rpg, 44.1 FG% w/Pacers).
They acquired from the Spurs forward Boris Diaw (6.4 ppg, 52.7 FG%, 36.2 3-Pt.% w/Spurs) and they signed All-Star swingman Joe Johnson (12.2 ppg, 3.9 apg, 3.6 rpg, 38.3 3-Pt.% w/Nets & Heat).
Each of these new additions brings some different and valuable to the table, which is something should makes things easier for head coach Quin Snyder.
“I think in addition to the experience all three of those guys are good fits with our team,” Snyder said. “I think there’s a versatility that Joe provides that’s unique. Actually George and Boris both are fairly versatile as well, particularly in today’s NBA. It allows us to play a little differently.
Hill, who is likely to be the team’s starting floor general, brings valuable playoff experience having played in 75 contest and a steady hand at the lead guard spot, which was lacking with Trey Burke, who was dealt in the off-season to the Wizards. Hill also brings to the table a lead guard who can make plays for others and the ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter. He will great for the likes of second-year guard Raul Neto and Dante Exum, who missed all of last year with a torn ACL, to learn from about what it takes to be a solid lead guard in the NBA. They also have Shelvin Mack (12.7 ppg, 5.3 apg, 44.4 FG$, 35.7 3-Pt.%), who the team acquired from the Hawks at the trade deadline last February.
“The leadership from that position that George can provide not just for those guys, but for the team is also something that we’re going to rely on,” Snyder said of Hill.
Johnson, who has played in 101 playoff games in his career will give the Jazz something, they have not had, especially last year and that is a player who can score in the clutch. Last season, the Jazz were just 14-28 in games that they were within five points in the last five minutes.
The 34-year-old Diaw, who has 108 playoff games and championship ring to speak of will give the Jazz a player who can handle the ball in the open court and make plays for others from the post and at the high post. He will also serve as a great mentor to his fellow Frenchmen center Rudy Gobert.
Both Hill and Johnson in talking with Jazz Radio commentator David Locke say that joining the Jazz so far has been a positive one and are looking forward to this season.
“It been phenomenal. This city has embraced me with the love and all that stuff,” Hill said to Locke.
“I came here with an open mind. To come here and just have fun and help these young guys along the way.”
The young core that Johnson is talking about consist of swingman Gordon Hayward (19.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.7 apg, 34.9 3-Pt.%); the aforementioned Gobert (9.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg-T-6th NBA, 2.2 bpg-3rd NBA, 55.9 FG%) and Exum; forward/center Derrick Favors (16.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.5 bpg); guards Rodney Hood (14.5 ppg, 35.9 3-Pt.%) and Alec Burks (13.3 ppg, 40.5 3-Pt.%), who the Jazz hope his shoulder and back issues are behind him and he can justify the Jazz giving him a four-year $42 million deal back in summer of 2014  and second-year forward Trey Lyles (6.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 38.3 3-Pt.%).
The Jazz unfortunately will not have the services of Hayward to start the season as a broken finger on his left hand will shelve him for 4-6 weeks.   
Besides everyone raising their level of play offensively until the former Butler Bulldog returns, the Jazz are going to have to be just as tenacious at the defensive end, which has been their calling care the last two seasons, although a year ago there was some slippage at that end of the court.
While they had the 10th best rebounding differential in the league a season ago, they ranked just 13th in field goal percentage allowed at 44.6 percent and 18th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 35.2 percent.
The Jazz have drafted very well and their draft picks have developed very nicely. What the team has to prove now is that they can win close games with better decision making and shooting at the offensive end to complement their defense.
“We have so much talent in this gym that once we start jelling and everyone gets on the same page, I think we have high expectations for one another,” Hill said to Locke
Best Case Scenario: The Jazz make the playoffs as a No. 7 or No. 8 Seed. The core players stay healthy all season and the offense improves
Worst Case Scenario: The Jazz miss the playoffs again and the offensive struggles continue.
Grade: B+
Information, quotes and statistics are courtesy of from 2015-16; NBATV/TNT Insider David Aldridge’s Off-Season Rankings: Top 10 Middle 10 and Bottom 10 from Aug.8; by Shaun Powell from Sept. 1-Sept. 30, 2015; 30 NBA teams;; 10/5/16-10/20/16 NBATV “Team Preview” of all 30 NBA teams hosted by Jared Greenberg, Vince Cellini, Rick Kamla, Kristen Ledlow, Matt Winer, Greg Anthony, Grant Hill, Rick Fox, Isiah Thomas, Stu Jackson, Steve Smith, Dennis Scott and Brent Barry; NBATV’s “The Starters-2015-16 Season Preview-72 Burning Questions” with J.E. Skeets Tas Melas, Leigh Ellis and Trey Kirby; 10/26/16 7 p.m. edition of ESPN's "NBA Countdown," with Michelle Beadle, Tracy McGrady, Chauncey Billups and Jalen Rose; 2016-17 Kia Team-by-team Season Preview by Shaun Powell, Lang Whitaker, Steve Aschburner, Sekou Smith, Fran Blinebury and Scott Howard-Cooper, and