20 Things to Watch This Season

Welcome back! Today is the return of the wonderful existence that is the NBA. Here are my annual thoughts, predictions, and some things to look forward to watching this season.

This will be my fifth season writing about the NBA. As always, I’d like to say thank you in advance to those who are committed readers and supporters. Please continue to share, as well as following if you don’t already.

This season I have a goal to post more than I ever have before. It’s going to be tough, but I’m up for the challenge.

Without further ado, in no particular order:

The Jimmy Butler Saga

Bananas. The Jimmy Butler news that broke last week was absolutely bananas.

Before I tear into Butler, I will say that there are two sides to every story.  For Jimmy’s sake, we have to admit that he’s not only immensely talented, but also right.

There’s an argument to made that he’s somewhere, roughly, between the 13th and 22nd best player in the NBA.

Before Butler got hurt last season, the Timberwolves were holding onto the three seed in the loaded Western Conference. In the 23 games that Butler missed, the Timberwolves were a disappointing 11-12 without him, and finished as the eight seed. They DO in fact need him to win games.

This was never supposed to be an overnight project. Butler was brought in to be the guy who would tie together the loose ends, while showing Towns and Wiggins how to conduct themselves as leaders. As they grew older, they’d attract talent, and win with Butler being their catalyst.

It wasn’t too long ago when Butler said, “Somebody has got to take the blame, I’ll be that guy. I’m okay with it.” at his introductory press conference.

Rather than staying true to what he said, he’d rather pretend to be Tony Montana.

Obliterating those around you for an entire offseason isn’t going to help the situation. Even though he isn’t wrong, Butler has come off this summer as a superior dick.

Butler has routinely mentioned that the Wolves are missing the passion and heart needed to become a top-tier team. They’re also missing leadership, which includes Butler. Yes, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan treated teammates like this. But the difference is that he’s not Kobe Bryant, and he sure as hell isn’t Michael Jordan.

Four career All-Star appearances and a sub par playoff series are far away from offsetting the actions Butler has committed this summer.

Despite “wanting to win”, it’s interesting that he’d list the Knicks, Nets, and Clippers as his preferred trade destinations. I’m sure that it’s only a coincidence that those teams can afford to pay him the $195 million max contract he continues to hint at.

Butler was a locker room issue in Chicago, has remained one in Minnesota, and will be one wherever he ends up playing. The truth is, Jimmy Butler might not be worth the headache that comes with his talent.

Of course, the Timberwolves dysfunction isn’t solely Butler’s fault.

Last season, the Timberwolves switched on screens at a rate that had them near the bottom of the league. The top teams in the NBA promote efficiency, versatility, and the ability to switch/defend multiple positions. Thibs still rolls out lineups that carry two traditional bigs, an offense that shoots the least amount of threes in the league, and a defensive philosophy that was relevant in 2010.

It’s effective in sports to zig while others are zagging, but not when that means you’re going to implement as much of a roster as you can from a team that’s a decade old.

 

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Photo Credit: @BullsTimber

The Timberwolves have holes, that’s no secret. Fans are counting on Wiggins to make an overdue leap, Towns to be more focused on the defensive side, and collectively, find a different offensive and defensive identity.

The most important thing is that Towns is locked up for the long haul. The Butler experiment hasn’t worked, but it did break a 14-year playoff drought. For those upset that the Wolves don’t have a Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Andrew Wiggins, Lauri Markkanen, Karl-Anthony Towns lineup — don’t be. That team is giving up 140 points each night.

Minnesota is closer now without them than they would be maxing Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine. With or without Butler, the culture needs to change. Maybe this will wake up the organization.

LeBron in Los Angeles

Do I really need to explain why it’ll be exciting to see LeBron in Los Angeles? The passing on this team is going to be phenomenal.

Rekindling The Rivalry 

Los Angeles and Boston have both went through their rebuilding stage and are feeling the championship aspirations — one more so than the other. There’s a universe that exists where something happens to Golden State, or even a massive trade, and the Lakers win the Western Conference.

Lakers vs. Celtics. Celtics vs. LeBron. Rajon Rondo vs. Boston. Brad Stevens vs. LeBron. Jaylen Brown vs. Brandon Ingram. Lonzo Ball vs. Jayson Tatum. And, of course, Kyrie Irving vs. LeBron James.

This is a matchup everybody should want.

A New Finals Matchup

Thank God we aren’t getting Cleveland vs. Golden State Part 5. No matter what happens, we will see a different Finals matchup for the first time in four seasons.

The Return of Bleacher Report’s ‘Game of Zones’

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eastern Conference King

“Watching Giannis dominate a game with the same ability as Marcus Smart to knock down an outside jump shots is bizarre. In the final minutes of the game, with a spread floor, he is almost as terrifying as LeBron because of his length, giant-sized strides, and finishing ability.

Even with great defense, his arms extend the way a fire truck’s ladder does so that he can get the angle he prefers on his shot. Naturally, this gives him an argument as the best transition player in the league, along with the origin of his nickname.”

Those were two passages that I wrote at the start of last year’s postseason before Giannis and the Bucks were bounced in a seven game series.

Coming into this season, Giannis is expected by many to make a jump to MVP contention. A freakishly gifted player, with a frame sculpted by Donatello, will be a fun chess piece for offensive wizard Mike Budenholzer.

When looking at the entire landscape of the NBA, there’s maybe a handful of players who are better at setting up their teammates than Antetokounmpo. A handful. That ability under the tutelage of Budenholzer will help Giannis become the best player in the Eastern Conference for several years to come.

Finding open shooters will be even easier than before with the addition of teammates like Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, and Donte DiVincenzo. Having two bigs who can space the floor, will open the paint for Giannis more than it ever has before. It wouldn’t be surprising if he was a hair away from averaging a triple double after a 27-5-10 average in  last year’s campaign.

Giannis has been able to dominate the NBA without relying on an outside jump shot. He’s too long and too strong for defenders to stay in front of his explosive, gigantic strides. He has never needed it. By the time a defender is trying to recover, he’s hanging on the rim. Giannis makes the hoop look like it’s 9 feet high. The only knock on his entire game is his lack of shooting.

It’s unlikely that Giannis will ever reach the level of an elite shooter, but with each offseason, the growing confidence behind his stroke will only improve his percentages. If this preseason pull-up three ever becomes the regular, look out.

Underrated Players Making a Difference

Fans of sports love the term “underrated”  — hence the title of this blog. Players are usually labeled as underrated because they play in an unappealing location or have someone else very good on their team and are naturally forgotten. Sometimes players are seen as underrated because they’re very, very good, but are just unable to make an All-Star roster.

Either way, there’s a lot of room for debate when determining who’s underrated, overrated, etc. In my opinion, these are two of the more underrated players in the league, and two that I really enjoy watching.

Tobias Harris — Once he joined the Clippers, Harris put up 19.3, 5.3, 3.1 while shooting 41.4% from deep in 32 games. The mainstream view towards the Clips is that they’re a garbage team. In reality, they have fun pieces and a phenomenal wing scorer in Harris. Are they going to be a league darling? No, but they’re a fun team to watch late on a Tuesday night.

Few teams had to battle with the amount of injuries that the Clippers sustained last season, but Harris kept their ship afloat in life post-Griffin.

Khris Middleton —  Each postseason there is a player who emerges to a level that fans didn’t know he could get to. Last season that was Middleton. He had made his talent clear the past couple of seasons, but the trouble he gave Boston in the first round was truly unexpected.

He has a chance to compete for an All-Star spot this season and will be vital for Milwaukee to have success. He’s going to average between 20 and 25 per game this year. When he gets hot, he’s one of the league’s top flamethrowers. The amount of impossible shots he makes is sickening. His playmaking and shot creation is such a joy to watch.

Boston’s Young Wings

The work of Danny Ainge is amazing. Both selections of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were heavily scrutinized by the NBA media, but now we’re here and the belief is that you can’t separate these players for anything.

Whether it was shooting commercials, magazine covers, training with Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Penny Hardaway, speaking to Harvard grads, attending concerts, fashion shows in Paris, or anything else, these two were everywhere this summer.

Each of the pair averaged over 18 points per game while dragging the Hospital Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals before facing their demise. Before a trip to The Finals was compromised, they proved they’re the best young duo in the league by checking all the boxes under the brightest lights.

At only ages 21 and 20, both players hold a major impact on one of the best teams in the NBA.

It seems that the majority of basketball fans are much more confident in the career of Tatum, rather than Brown. It’s widely believed that Tatum will become one of the future faces of the league due to his grossly mature ability to score the rock.

While it’s silly to compare the two players, it’s important to remind fans how damn good Jaylen Brown is as well. In relation to second seasons, Jaylen is on a very similar trajectory as the great Kawhi Leonard.

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Photo Credit: Basketball Reference

Brown has quickly become one of the better three-and-D players in the NBA thanks to his defensive versatility and near 40% shooting. Whether he or a teammate snatches the ball from an opponent, he shoots himself out of a cannon at a speed opposing teams can’t adjust to in transition. Pairing that with his athleticism at the rim, it’ll be exciting tracking his improvements this season. There’s a scenario where Brown is the one who takes the massive leap that many are expecting from Tatum. Regardless, big things are coming for Boston.

That First Wizards Locker Room Blow Up

If there’s anything that hasn’t been talked about enough this offseason it’s the fact that Dwight Howard has been added to THAT roster.

Throwback Uniforms

Nike adding hardwood classic uniforms for many of the teams this year was one of the biggest wins of the offseason. A few of my favorites:

James Harden’s Creativity 

Year after year James Harden comes back from the offseason with another trick or two in his bag. By doing that, he also sends NBA followers up in arms as they reach for their pitchforks to complain about almost any area of his game that they can.

Fans never cared when Manu made the euro-step his signature move. Once Harden began doing it, fans wanted a travel called each time he drove to the basket.

Kevin Durant and Chris Paul have been sweeping through defenders arms to draw fouls on their three-point attempts for years. Once Harden began doing so the NBA made a rule change to avoid rewarding that play.

Last season, Harden added his controversial step back — that the league studied and deemed legal — and fans lost their mine as they watched him torch defenders over and over and over and over until he won the league MVP.

This season? He showed his new move in a preseason game, and, well…

Once again, the league officials studied this move and deemed it legal. At some point fans need to recognize Harden for being an offensive genius and appreciate his creativity, rather than officiating the game.

Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

How many wins will it take to make the Playoffs? Last season, the magic number was 43 in the East and 47 in the West.

It’ll be something to keep an eye on. With LeBron leaving the Eastern Conference, I see the eight seed getting in with 41 wins.

Golden State Double Toss

A roster with Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, and DeMarcus Cousins should see multiple double ejections this season, right? I feel like we can count on at least two. However, the technical foul record might be shattered.

Denver Making the Playoffs

Last season, the Nuggets missed the playoffs after losing game 82 to the Timberwolves. This season, Denver won’t let it come down to the 82nd game.

The talent in Denver is for real and Jamal Murray is going to take over the league this season. He’s my choice for Most Improved Player. I see him taking a similar step forward that Victor Oladipo did last year. Murray will eventually be one of the better offensive players in the game, and he’s already one of the league’s top shooters.

Murray is particularly good at using screens. He changes his speed a lot when trying to get loose from defenders. When he sees his screen, he explodes around it, tightly, and usually does a nice job reading whether to curl or stick.

Having the luxury of adding a talent like Michael Porter Jr. (when he’s ready) to their offense is disgustingly sick. He can already do it all on the offensive side, but having great creators in this offense will help him adjust to NBA defenses that much easier.

I’m not positive what we’re going to see from Isaiah Thomas. He’s lightning in a bottle if he’s healthy. They could really use that bench spark night in and night out. If he’s solid, Murray takes a step, and they stay healthy, it’ll be hard not to love watching this team.

Markelle Fultz Comeback Szn

I’m not positive anybody knows exactly what happened with the Fultz situation last year. All of the talk before the draft was how he’s going to be the number one pick and was a transcendent talent (we do this every year, by the way) drawing comparisons to James Harden.

Reports from last summer say that he was out of shape, forgot how to shoot, changed his shot, hired a new shooting coach, inured his shoulder badly, practiced and changed his shot because of the shoulder, and more. It was an absolute travesty. While Philadelphia made it to the second round of the playoffs with their exciting young core, Fultz mostly watched from the bench.

Now, reports are that he’s going to start opening night, and it really does feel like his rookie season. What I know is that he’s explosive driving down hill, he has an array of unorthodox moves to score, and the hesi pull-up jumbo still might be light on the jimbo. Regardless, I think Fultz is going to be a difference maker for Philadelphia eventually. Maybe not this season, but down the line this kid is going to be a nice player.

From all accounts, he spent nearly the entire summer working out with Drew Hanlen three-four times per day.

Ben Simmons Winning Rookie of the Year

I had to.

Kyrie Irving Ridiculous Combo Moves

A healthy Kyrie Irving is a terrifying thing for defenses. During the Celtics preseason broadcast, Brian Scalabrine said, “Another level. From who I’ve talked to, they say Kyrie is at another level right now.”

Irving is 26-years-old, healthy, and entering the prime of his career. Uncle Drew was already an elite talent, but with arguably the most talented team he has ever had, the best coach in the NBA, Irving is going to be a certified bucket machine.

First Time MVP 

Heading into this season, it doesn’t feel like there’s a favorite to win the MVP. Each of the usual suspects don’t fit the bill in my opinion — Curry and Durant will steal votes from each other, Harden won his first last season (when it should’ve been his second or third), Westbrook and LeBron likely won’t have the amount of wins to be separated enough from the previously listed names. There’s no sexy storyline for the award this season, other than LeBron winning it as a member of the Lakers.

Not that it really matters anyways because we come up with a new definition for the award each season. Regardless, I think the award goes to someone who has never won it before.

Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Kyrie Irving.

The first two are going to put up gigantic statistics and carry their team to playoff births, while the other will be a basket killing leader who has a path directly to the most wins in his conference. Any of these three could win, but I’m picking Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Year Two Standouts

This year’s rookie class is exciting, but I’m more interested to see what happens between Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum this season. All three had tremendous rookie campaigns and look to be perennial All-Stars.

Simmons was the best rookie throughout the entire regular season. Mitchell was a close second, but was voted by his peers as the best because of the controversy that surrounded Simmons. Yet, it was Tatum who probably had the best over playoff success of the three. Without his two best players, it was Tatum and Horford that the Celtics leaned on to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

Coming into this season, I’m anxious to see where each of them are at, and how they’ve improved their weaknesses.

The Demise of the Warriors

At some point, all good things have to come to an end. I’m not saying it’s happening this season, but I’m not, not saying it.

While many said they simply weren’t interested in competing last season, they looked vulnerable during the Western Conference Finals. It took a Chris Paul injury and a shooting performance that happens 1 in every 72,000 times to defeat Houston. While Houston is running back, I think Boston could create a legit series with Golden State.

 

 

 

 

 

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