All posts by Ben Zeltser

Premier League Top Four: The Contenders

September is almost here and the new Premier League season has finally kicked off. Several teams have strengthened their squad in the transfer window with hopes of securing a UEFA Champions League spot, awarded to the top four teams in the table. As time winds down, here is how competitive teams will stack up.

Fighting for a Spot in Europe

Leicester City: The Foxes’ competitiveness in 2020 all depends on how they will cope with the sale of Harry Maguire. The 2016 EPL champions made £80 million for the English international, a world-record fee for a center back. Still, Maguire’s presence on the back line was key to Leicester’s chances of breaking into the top four, but the Foxes have enough talent on their roster to change their identity following his departure. Leicester probably overpaid for attacker Ayoze Perez from Newcastle when they coughed up £30 million, but they know what they’re getting from the EPL regular. He will play behind Jamie Vardy in a supporting forward role upon Shinji Okazaki’s departure and Kelechi Iheanacho’s underwhelming performances.

ipanews_1efe5db3-fe35-4216-9894-f5d6033049a0_1.jpeg

Perhaps Leicester’s most important move of the summer was signing Belgian international Youri Tielemans to a long-term permanent deal after a successful loan spell at the King Power stadium in 2019. The midfielder was receiving interest from top clubs in England, but Leicester still managed to secure his signature. Ricardo Pereira proved himself to be one of the signings of last summer at the right back spot, and Ben Chilwell could be the future of England at the left back spot. Wilfred Ndidi is no Ngolo Kante, but has an extremely bright future as one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League, and showed his quality last weekend with a goal against Chelsea. The young James Maddison could be the club’s next maestro, as big clubs in England were looking to snatch him away from the King Power. Leicester has enough to finish in the upper half of the table, and could challenge for an even higher spot if a center back steps up in Maguire’s place.

Wolverhampton: After being promoted last season, Wolves put every team on notice with consistency in every position. Their heavy Portugese squad influence made headlines in last year’s transfer window, and the chemistry certainly paid dividends as they finished in the seventh spot and with a winning record against the EPL top six. They sealed the transfers of Leander Dendoncker and Raul Jimenez this summer, who both impressed in their loan spells last season. Jimenez, a Mexican international, is not flashy but loves to put the ball in the net at a consistent rate, while Dendoncker will likely start for the Belgian Red Devils in the future, being able to play as a center back and also as a defensive midfielder.

2019-04-24T210828Z_1482313414_RC1CA2B794E0_RTRMADP_3_SOCCER-ENGLAND-WLV-ARS-1-960x450

The biggest headline by far for Wolves has to be the signing of Patrick Cutrone for £23 million from AC Milan. The young Italian striker is about to enter the prime of his career, and showed high-level promise at the San Siro. At the age of just 21, Cutrone has already made 90 caps for Milan, scoring 27 times primarily as a substitute. Wolves should give him plenty of opportunities to shine, and this is just the type of signing that manager Nuno Espírito Santo needs in order to break into the top six. Wolves played very well against the Premier League’s best teams last season, and look to continue that form following a draw against Manchester United this past weekend.

West Ham United: Every transfer window, West Ham spends like a top European club and ends up finishing mid-table. This window, the Hammers decided to be a bit more selective on their transfers, while still spending money where they deem acceptable. Longtime strikers Marko Arnautovic and Andy Carroll have departed the club – while they would have done well to receive more than just £20 million for Arnautovic, the player was forcing the move and there was not much that could have been done. Luckily, West Ham quickly replaced the Austrian international with Sebastian Haller, who had a strong season for Frankfurt. The tall French striker played second fiddle to Luka Jovic in Germany, but still managed to score 15 times in 29 caps in 2019, also tallying nine assists. Only Robert Lewandowski had more goal involvement in Germany last season, so there are high hopes that Haller lives up to the £45 million price tag that the Hammers agreed to pay. Pablo Fornals joins West Ham from Villareal, and shows plenty of promise from the attacking midfield spot. He is still young and will take some time to develop, but adds another dimension to West Ham’s attack. West Ham is dangerous in 2020, coming off of stellar seasons from Felipe Anderson on the wing and Lukasz Fabianski in goal. If Issa Diop and Declan Rice continue developing, West Ham could be a serious threat. It will also be interesting to see what Andriy Yarmolenko does with a full season and if Jack Wilshere can break into the squad.

Everton: The other team in Liverpool has been threatening to spend big on a player that will take them to the next level this transfer window. Everton lost Idrissa Gueye to PSG for almost £30 million, who was one of their three best players last season, next to Lucas Digne and Richarlison, but replaced him with Manchester City veteran Fabian Delph and Mainz CDM Jean-Philippe Gbamin. Delph is certainly a downgrade, but brings championship pedigree and will potentially make a difference in changing the team’s mentality. While they know the consistency that they’ll be getting from Delph, Gbamin offers a ceiling that is close to Gueye’s, giving the Toffees some flexibility. Lucas Digne had a career-changing season at LB after failing to make a real impact in previous stints at PSG, Roma and Barcelona.

0_GettyImages-1168643410.jpg

Richarlison solidified himself as the real deal after an impressive year with Watford the season prior, scoring 13 times in the league with Everton in 2019. They look to provide some goal-scoring support for the Brazilian international, which will be further bolstered by additions of Moise Kean from Juventus and Alex Iwobi from Arsenal. After failing to secure Wilfried Zaha’s signature, Everton managed to buy Iwobi on deadline day to round out a dangerous front three that features Bernardo and Richarlison. Kean is an affordable and the smart long-term move, especially considering that the purchase did not include a buy-back clause. Everton solidified a permanent move for Andre Gomes from Barcelona, who had a successful loan spell for them last season. Losing Ademola Lookman to RB Leipzig definitely stung, but they made over a 200% profit on a player who only scored four times for them in 48 caps. The Toffees have made the signings that they need to give themselves a chance of breaking into a spot that ensures European football.

Chelsea: Like Arsenal, initial expectations of an uneventful transfer window have been transcended. Their activity has naturally been limited by transfer ban, but they managed to do as well as they could considering the circumstances. Mateo Kovacic signed on full-time for Chelsea after a decent loan spell last season; they may not have made this move permanent if they didn’t have the transfer ban, but the attacking midfielder showed promise all season. Christian Pulisic joins from Borussia Dortmund after Chelsea agreed to purchase him in January, following a loan move to finish the year at Dortmund. He has shown plenty of ability in preseason, but is far from a Hazard replacement. The club also extended Callum Hudson-Odoi after fighting off interest from Bayern Munich, which was key in solidifying the future of the club. The teenager was showing plenty of promise prior to suffering a long-term injury at the end of 2019. Still, the winger has plenty of time to recover and return to form.

0_GettyImages-1168777387.jpg

Perhaps the most successful signing came in the form of their manager, as Chelsea appointed former club legend Frank Lampard. This was a great managerial signing for the London giants, but it may have come a bit early, as they didn’t have the opportunity to find a Hazard replacement. Given Chelsea’s history of sacking managers after just one unsuccessful season, Lampard may have been unintentionally set up to fail. The club has good players, especially with the heaps of loanees on their books – but Lampard needs to decide on a striker following Gonzalo Higuain and Alvaro Morata’s departures. Olivier Giroud is a decent option, but would serve the club more efficiently by coming off of the bench. Michy Batshuayi has been very effective in the opportunities that he has been given, but has been shown little belief in his abilities by Chelsea. Lampard has expressed a desire to go with the young Tammy Abraham, who scored 25 goals in 37 caps playing for Aston Villa in the Championship last season. Former Derby attacker Mason Mount has been shown plenty of trust in Lampard’s time so far, given that the gaffer coached him last season. After initially receiving plenty of hate, he was praised for his performance against Leicester City this past weekend after scoring a tenacious goal in the opening ten minutes. The options are there, but without Hazard to bail Chelsea out this season, they are in danger of losing a top-six spot without an elite player on the roster (aside from Ngolo Kante).

Manchester United: In classic Manchester United fashion, the Red Devils were linked with pretty much every big player on the planet, with little to show for it. After being linked with Toby Alderweireld since January, United decided not to bid for the Tottenham defender while his release clause was only £25 million. After the release clause was nullified, United decided to look to Harry Maguire to rebuff their lacking defense. His quality is unquestionable, but Leicester requested a world-record fee for his services, making for extremely high expectations. Maguire was eager for a move to Manchester and will look to secure the captain’s band. Eric Bailly has once again been injured for an extended period of time, leaving United with Maguire and Victor Lindelof to fill out the back line. Backup options of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have proved unreliable, leaving some doubt over the team’s depth. The Red Devils were in talks with Paulo Dybala and Bruno Fernandes, and both would have been excellent signings. Dybala originally began talks with Tottenham over a transfer, but United quickly became the favorites to sign him after Juventus showed interest for a swap deal involving Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian striker looked set to leave United for Juve after just two seasons with the club, but eventually signed with Inter Milan on an expensive deal.

de7f1a0b40805e478ecec05656489acc

Their other successful transfers were Aaron Wan-Bissaka of Crystal Palace and Daniel James of Swansea. James showed plenty of promise in the Championship last season, but may not be ready for Premier League football just yet. His early-season goal may prove to be a curse, given that it should give him more playing time in too early of a stage in his career. Bissaka, on the other hand, put himself on the map last season as one of the world’s most promising right backs, and should come in immediately as a season-long starter. His £45 million is a little bit too steep for a player with only one good season under his belt, but has shown enough quality during the preseason for United fans to rest easy. Like Arsenal, their hopes to finish in a Champions League spot are hinged on how well their defense plays.

Guaranteed Top Six Finish

Arsenal: Arsenal’s transfer window started with an announcement that they would only have £40-45 million of spending money for the entirety of the summer, distressing Gunners fans around the world. Luckily, Arsenal’s board allocated them more funds, allowing them to seal a big money move for winger Nicolas Pepe for a club record fee of £72 million. Dani Ceballos joins the Gunners on a loan move from Real Madrid after he looked poised to join Tottenham on the other side of North London, and heavily impressed with a MOTM-caliber performance in his regular debut. They also signed promising center back William Saliba for £30 million. He will surely be a staple of the Arsenal defense for years to come, but returns to his previous club St. Etienne on a one-year loan deal to start. The French club likely would not have let the deal go through without the Gunners loaning him back, which spells bad news for their defense in 2020. Luckily, they secured David Luiz on a cheap signing; Luiz will look to make an impact in the starting lineup immediately, as the rest of their defensive options are comprised of Sokratis, Mustafi and Rob Holding. Their final signing of the transfer window came in the form of Celtic wingback Kieran Tierney, for whom they were negotiating during the entire summer. He should start immediately, but still needs to prove himself.

h_55405771

Captian Laurent Koscielny has moved on to Bordeaux, leaving the dressing room without their leader. Players will have to step up and show their love for the shirt in order to fill this spot. While Arsenal’s front three now looks elite, they needed to spend more on their main position of need. The glaring weakness in their roster could leave them susceptible to falling short of expectations, which could mean a finish outside of the top six. Still, this team is going to score plenty of goals, and looks like a much better squad than Chelsea or Manchester United after the first few games.

Manchester City: City’s roster depth is unprecedented in the EPL. Guardiola’s squad purchased Rodri from Atletico Madrid early into the transfer window, solidifying the deep-lying midfield position as Fernandinho and David Silva grow with age. They let Fabian Delph sign for Everton for £8.5 million, and although they could have gotten more money for the first-team regular, he was never in Guardiola’s long-term plans. Vincent Kompany has ended his long stint with the club as its captain, returning to his Anderlecht, his boyhood club, as player-manager. Bayern Munich tried to snatch Leroy Sane away from City for the entirety of the transfer window, and despite confidence from pundits in Germany, the deal never went through. Sane’s major injury in preseason likely played a large part in his lack of movement away from the club, but City will still miss his speed on the wing. The incumbent champions head into the new season as co-front runners with Liverpool to win both the EPL and the Champions League.

Liverpool: Liverpool’s roster features the EPL’s best wingers, wingbacks, goalkeeper and center back. They clearly did not need to edit their squad very much, and Jurgen Klopp had been quoted stating that they didn’t expect to make any big-money transfers during the window. The truth is that they didn’t need to. Sure, they would benefit from bringing on another center back to pair with Virgil van Dijk (young transfer Sepp van den Berg may not be ready), but Fabinho has shown plenty of ability to successfully fill that spot in worst-case scenarios. Selling Dominic Solanke in January for around £20 million was a revelation, given that he only scored once in a Liverpool shirt in 21 appearances as a striker, and they will look to make the same kind of unprecedented profit from selling Welshman Harry Wilson in the next window. With Daniel Sturridge’s contract coming to an end, the Reds opted to turn to Divock Origi as a backup for Roberto Firmino, who scored several important goals at the end of last season. His natural position probably falls on the wing, but his speed and tenacity work well within the Reds’ system. The Champions League winners are ready to compete with Manchester City for the title, and bringing back almost the same team from last season will pay off in regards to the team’s chemistry.

liverpool-19-20-home-kit-1.jpg

Tottenham: While Spurs have retained Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld at present, they still have plenty of work to do. Eriksen seemed destined for a big money move to a powerhouse club willing to splash the cash, but he found himself in an awkward position of not being any team’s primary target but also being too good for Spurs to accept any unsuitable offer. Alderweireld could have gone for as little as £25 due to a contractual short-term release clause, until that clause expired at the end of last week. Spurs now value the consistent CB between £40-45, and he seems more willing to re-sign than Eriksen. With one year left on each of their deals, Spurs must make it a priority to re-negotiate their contracts. If the Danish CAM continues to refuse signing an extension, they must consider selling him at a cut-price to avoid losing him for free.

Adding Tanguy Ndombele is surely viewed as a great success, given that he was on plenty of big clubs’ radars and that he was Tottenham’s premier transfer target. He provides the type of quality and creativity from a deeper-lying midfield position that Tottenham has been missing since Moussa Dembele’s departure, and even before then. However, it seems as though chairman Daniel Levy could be up to his same old tricks, refusing to financially commit himself towards moving Tottenham into the elite category. They missed out on top players like Wilfried Zaha and Paulo Dybala amid competition from Everton and Manchester United respectively, and lost to Arsenal on transfer targets like Dani Ceballos and William Saliba earlier in the window. Teams who cannot even promise Champions League football should not be winning the signatures of so many players who have an option to join Tottenham, but therein lays the issue.

TELEMMGLPICT000205626513-xxlarge_trans_NvBQzQNjv4Bq8Asj1eHb3tSpQqwok7bWexrbWN3CuVK8AntL72VRN5Q

Spurs supporters were sad to see Kieran Trippier leave for Atletico Madrid, but we all knew that he was not the long-term solution, especially after taking a step back last season. Kyle Walker-Peters is a much better wingback than people give him credit for, while Serge Aurier is quality on his day. Pochettino also fancies Juan Foyth in the right back spot, as he impressed from this position for Argentina in Copa America, and should see time at wingback upon his return from injury. Still, none of these players should adequately satisfy the side; Dani Alves was rumored with Tottenham in July, but chose to join Sao Paulo in Brazil. Spurs finally tied the knot on their seemingly inevitable transfers of Giovani Lo Celso and Ryan Sessegnon, but failed to sell Danny Rose, leaving Sessegnon with competition. Lo Celso needed to be signed to a permanent deal, but the club only managed to successfully agree on a loan move. Although their current squad would likely produce European competition in 2021, Spurs would have done well to finish the transfer window in aggressive fashion if they were hoping to catch City and Liverpool in the race for the title.

Table Prediction

  1. Manchester City
  2. Tottenham
  3. Liverpool
  4. Arsenal
  5. Wolverhampton Wanderers
  6. Everton
  7. Manchester United
  8. Leicester City
  9. Chelsea
  10. West Ham United
  11. Bournemouth
  12. Burnley
  13. Watford
  14. Crystal Palace
  15. Aston Villa
  16. Newcastle United
  17. Brighton
  18. Sheffield United
  19. Southampton
  20. Norwich City

 

2019-2020 NBA Regular Season Predictions

In a complete turnaround from the summer of 2016, the recent events of 2019 free agency has leveled the entire NBA out to foster some unpredictable competition. Super-teams laden with three or more All-NBA caliber players have been dissipated due to a combination of injuries and newfound resolves, from KD’s decision to team up with Kyrie in Brooklyn, to Kawhi’s steadfast aspiration to play at home. The NBA’s ratings are about to blow up, mostly because for the first time since before LeBron’s decision to take his talents to Miami in 2011, there is no clear championship favorite. NBA Draft Lottery changes responsible for Zion Williamson’s landing in New Orleans have limited the pool of tanking teams in 2019-2020, such that less than five teams in the league will look to prioritize development over making the playoffs. It’s a great time to follow the NBA, and here are my predictions on what the regular season standings will look like at the end of next April.

Eastern Conference

  1. Boston Celtics

Notable Additions: Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford
Notable Losses: Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes

As far as talent is concerned, the Celtics have undoubtedly worsened. Regardless, plugging Walker into Irving’s role will likely produce positive results, given that Kemba’s playing style involves his teammates more so than Kyrie’s style does. This will translate into Boston’s young talent being fully utilized – a synergy that the team hasn’t experienced since the 2018 playoffs. With a more defined go-to group in Jayson Tatum, Jalen Brown, Walker and a healthier Gordon Hayward, the Celtics should have more of a clear game plan and more of a unified locker room. They’re going all in on letting their players participate on Team USA, giving the Celtics their own unique training camp on the international stage. Their top seeding won’t necessarily translate into playoff success, though; this talented roster just screams second round elimination to me.

kemba2.jpg

  1. Philadelphia 76ers

Notable Additions: Al Horford, Kyle O’Quinn, Raul Neto, Josh Richardson, Trey Burke
Notable Losses: Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick, TJ McConnell, Boban Marjanovic

The Sixers did well to preserve some shooting by keeping Tobias Harris on a long-term deal, but the loss of Jimmy Butler could certainly put a stain on their championship aspirations. They did manage to snatch Al Horford away from Boston on a surprise deal, which should create major defensive problems for their opposition, while also solidifying their starting five as the tallest in the NBA. It will be interesting to see how Philadelphia stacks up against smaller lineups, and the loss of JJ Redick should be taken very seriously. Look for the Sixers to heavily recruit shooting talent throughout the season, and look for Ben Simmons to improve on his jump shot. Joel Embiid will be putting everything into this upcoming season, so 2020 will tell us a lot about the young stars of Philadelphia.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

Notable Additions: Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, Jon Leuer, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Dragan Bender, Frank Mason III
Notable Losses: Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell, Pau Gasol

Lots of NBA analysts see the Bucks continuing their regular season Eastern Conference dominance, but I see them sliding down the standings by a few spots. Losing Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic should prove to be challenging for the Bucks to deal with. Brogdon gave Eric Bledsoe a perfect simultaneous running mate and backup depending on how Milwaukee wanted to line up, and there will be plenty of pressure for Bledsoe (who is about to hit 30) to repeat a stellar defensive season. He will almost surely regress from his First Team All Defense status, while Mirotic gave them a great combination of size, shooting and defense. This team can prove me wrong if Giannis develops his shot at a faster rate than I would have expected, but I expect Milwaukee’s shooting core to streakily lose hold of many close games next season; there’s no way that Brooke Lopez has the same success from three next year, either. Their small market status forced them into handing Khris Middleton a sizable contract, and it’s hard to see this team stay atop the East when the rest of their competition (except for the Raptors) only got better.

  1. Brooklyn Nets

Notable Additions: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler, Taurean Prince, David Nwaba
Notable Losses: D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis, Jared Dudley, Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, Allen Crabbe, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

The Nets have built a roster that rivals the Clippers for the deepest roster in the NBA. They truly have an extensive rotation with over 10 players legitimately deserving of regular minutes, and Kevin Durant’s injury gives them a perfect opportunity to define their core. Expect Caris LaVert to take the step in his career that he was about to make last season before an injury put him on the sidelines and turned D’Angelo Russell into an All-Star. Kyrie Irving has adopted a public NBA image of being a difficult teammate and this season will show the fans that this has been yet another idea driven by the media and by a difficult situation in Boston. With so many players hoping to take a step in their career last year after a successful playoff run without Kyrie, the New Jersey native was doomed to fail in a scenario of having too many mouths to feed. Now, with an opportunity to make the team his own while Durant sits out and on a roster where players have openly accepted their roles, Irving is going to take Brooklyn by storm.

i.jpeg

  1. Indiana Pacers

Notable Additions: Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, TJ McConnell, TJ Warren, Justin Holiday
Notable Losses: Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Wesley Matthews, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Kyle O’Quinn

In a season that was pretty much forfeited after Victor Oladipo had a season-ending injury, the Pacers turned heads by staying competitive. Sixth man of the year candidate Domantas Sabonis took a big step last season, and the team added some key future contributors in Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb. Lamb and TJ Warren slot in as perfect replacements for Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young, while Brogdon certainly provides Indiana with an upgrade at point guard. While they can still certainly bolster their depth on the wing, Indiana should be a team that competes on a nightly basis, with at least three players looking to elevate their game into All Star territory.

  1. Detroit Pistons

Notable Additions: Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, Tony Snell, Sekou Doumbouya
Notable Losses: Wayne Ellington, Ish Smith, Glenn Robinson III, Jon Leuer

I am a huge fan of the Detroit Pistons in 2020. They may not have made any huge alterations to their roster, but each of their additions added a layer to their team that they certainly needed. Derrick Rose comes in to back Reggie Jackson up at the point guard position, which will push Jackson to take his game more seriously. Rose adds the kind of grit that Blake Griffin has been longing for out of his teammates, and it looks like Detroit got a steal when they selected Doumbouya late in the first round of the draft. This team will wear their opposition out for 48 minutes, and head coach Dwane Casey should be pushing his team toward success all season long.

D-V52tCW4AELzyb.jpg

  1. Toronto Raptors

Notable Additions: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, Matt Thomas, Cameron Payne
Notable Losses: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green

On one hand, these guys just won the NBA title, so who cares about the fact that they lost their Finals MVP? On the other hand, with big money owed to aging ex-All Stars like Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry, this team’s window may have closed for the near future. Toronto showed me enough when Kawhi was rested last year for me to believe that they will still find a way into the playoffs, with Fred Van Fleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby continuing to develop into NBA mainstays. However, the amount of noise they’ll be able to make will certainly be limited. This team shapes up as a worse version of the Conley-Gasol Grizzlies.

  1. Miami Heat

Notable Additions: Jimmy Butler, Meyers Leonard, Tyler Herro
Notable Losses: Josh Richardson, Hassan Whiteside, Ryan Anderson

Miami has been working towards softening the financial hole that they dug themselves into. They have made significant progress on this front, moving Hassan Whiteside and waiving Ryan Anderson. Granted, they still fall almost $6 million above the luxury tax bill, but managing to acquire Jimmy Butler in the midst of this situation is certainly a win. They should be continuing to work on a Goran Dragic trade to put them under the luxury tax threshold, but have built a competitive roster in the meantime. While Justise Winslow hasn’t completely lived up to his potential, he is still a solid contributor and the Heat is poised to benefit from a full season of Dion Waiters and a bigger role for Bam Adebayo. Miami got a steal in the draft in Tyler Herro, whose shooting will surely be coveted by Miami, giving him plenty of minutes. Miami should sneak into the playoffs after narrowly missing out last season.

Jimmy Butler.jpeg

  1. Atlanta Hawks

Notable Additions: Jabari Parker, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Evan Turner, Damian Jones, Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe
Notable Losses: Vince Carter, DeWayne Dedmon, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince

Atlanta is poised to make a big jump this season, perhaps a bit more quickly than people may have expected. After a hugely successful draft in which their two top-ten picks translated into De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, the Hawks have young talent at pretty much every position. They’ll miss Taurean Prince, but Trae Young showed All-Star ability in the second half of last season and John Collins is one of the league’s best up-and-coming big guys. Jabari Parker comes in with plenty to prove and nothing to lose, but the Hawks should fall just short of a playoff appearance. The team still needs a bit more, as they are taking the opportunity this year to collect more assets and take on large contracts since their best players are on their rookie deals. Atlanta should be this season’s Brooklyn Nets, as they gear up to compete at an even higher level in 2021.

  1. Orlando Magic

Notable Additions: Al-Farouq Aminu, Chuma Okeke
Notable Losses: Jerian Grant, Timofey Mozgov

Orlando continues to tread in no-man’s land, compiling mid-level talent in every position that isn’t a guard. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic are nice complementary pieces, but putting them at the head of a team is a recipe for disappointment. The team did well to re-sign Vucevic and Terrence Ross, but may have paid too much to keep players that will get them a low seed in the playoffs at best. Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba remain promising prospects, but the team really needs a quality ball handler to take them to the next level. Orlando took on Markelle Fultz, gambling that he could potentially reach the prospective level that made him the number one overall pick, which was the right move considering the lack of attention that Orlando gets from big-name free agents. However, I would have loved to see them go harder after a player like Terry Rozier, who signed a contract with Charlotte. If Fultz gets good, they could surprise some people.

  1. Washington Wizards

Notable Additions: Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith, Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Davis Bertans, CJ Miles, Jemerrio Jones, Jonathon Simmons, Rui Hachimura
Notable Losses: Bobby Portis, Jabari Parker, Trevor Ariza, Tomas Satoransky, Jeff Green, Dwight Howard

The Wizards just recently announced Tommy Sheppard as their new GM, which could explain the lack of direction shown from all of the moves that they have made prior to his appointment. Aside from Bradley Beal, Washington essentially lost every good thing that they had going for them to free agency. Portis, Ariza, Satoransky, Parker and Green were probably the five next best players on the team last season in that order, and they would have done well to at least keep two of them. On the bright side, Rui Hachimura is a promising upcoming rookie who should get plenty of minutes right away, and if Isaiah Thomas truly feels as good as he says he does, we could be looking at a dangerous backcourt tandem. It puzzles me that Washington went and signed players like Davis Bertans and CJ Miles, who are probably done developing and belong on a playoff-bound roster. Perhaps they are simply building up assets and plan to make some trade deadline deals to offload them for picks. Regardless, their financial flexibility is stunted by John Wall’s massive contract, who continues to make money for sitting on the bench due to his injury. The Wizards may need to consider trading Bradley Beal and pressing the reset button soon.

Isaiah_Thomas_admits_it_s__weird_to_say_that_I_am_a_Washington_Wizard_.jpg

  1. New York Knicks

Notable Additions: Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, Ignas Brazdeikis, Marcus Morris
Notable Losses: DeAndre Jordan, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, Luke Kornet

The Knicks won’t be THAT bad in 2020. The future could certainly look brighter, but their rotation is deep and coach Fizdale will make sure that they’re fun to watch. At PG, Dennis Smith Jr. will get another chance to convert his athleticism into All Star ability with backup from the long Frank Ntilikina. At the two, RJ Barrett comes in with pundits brashly declaring him a surefire future All Star, with the fearless Alonzo Trier coming off the bench with something to prove. Last year’s top pick for the Knicks, Kevin Knox, will look to take a big leap while second round rookie sensation Iggy Brazdeikis hopes to solidify his spot in the league. At the four, the Knicks have a wealth of options, as Julius Randle looks to take his game to the next level, while having Taj Gibson provide veteran bench presence and having Bobby Portis play the sixth man role. DeAndre Jordan going across town to the Nets opens up more time for Mitchell Robinson at the five. Past these players, New York paid Marcus Morris after he had second thoughts about signing with the Spurs, which didn’t really make sense for the fit of the team, but made sense in regards to recruiting the best available talent. The Knicks’ season will likely be a better version of what they did last season, staggering minutes so that everybody gets a chance to shine, playing the hot hand on a night-to-night basis. This provides an opportunity for all of Fizdale’s players to grow, but also limits the time that certain players have to stand out. This team still needs a few years but I don’t know what everybody’s crying about – at least their money isn’t tied up in trash.

  1. Chicago Bulls

Notable Additions: Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky, Coby White, Luke Kornet
Notable Losses: Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday

The Bulls didn’t waste time adding any useless players this offseason. They signed Tomas Satoransky to a affordable multi-year deal in a move to give rookie Coby White some competition at the point guard position, which gives them some depth at every position. Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen round out their immediate rotation, giving Chicago a fun roster that could challenge opposing teams every night. Though Chicago is not yet ready to make a playoff push, this young team is certainly on its way up and could become a contender for free agents in 2020 if they show some promise this season.

thaddeus_young_swap.jpg

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Notable Additions: Kevin Porter Jr., Darius Garland
Notable Losses: David Nwaba, Marquese Chriss, Channing Frye, JR Smith

Cleveland still has plenty of bad contracts on its books from the LeBron era, and their lack of cap flexibility has kept them from adding any meaningful free agents in 2019. Their biggest additions come in the form of rookie talent, with two first round studs in Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. Those two look to team up with a young core made up of Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman and Larry Nance Jr. in a race to lose as many games as possible. Even when the Cavs do indeed free up cap space, it will be difficult to recruit free agents to come to Cleveland, so their best chance is to trade Kevin Love at some point this year and continue to build their collection of assets. This team will likely own one of the top three picks in next year’s draft.

  1. Charlotte Hornets

Notable Additions: Terry Rozier, PJ Washington
Notable Losses: Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky, Tony Parker

The Hornets decided that giving Kemba a max deal and wallowing in mediocrity for the foreseeable future was not for them. There is little that Charlotte could have done to advance their roster, given that they have so much money tied up in players like Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (almost $86 million). Surely none of them figure into their long-term plans, leaving the future of the franchise to a young trio of Rozier, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges. Charlotte would do well to tank their season away and contend for the a top spot in the draft lottery.

060815rozieronline1.jpeg

Western Conference

  1. LA Clippers

Notable Additions: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Maurice Harkless
Notable Losses: Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tyrone Wallace

There is about to be a war in Los Angeles. This team has few defensive shortcomings, with a core group of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverly and Montrezl Harrell. Reigning sixth man of the year Lou Williams adds some legitimate offensive firepower off the bench. Leonard and George have both confirmed that they will not be taking games off this season due to “load management”, so we can expect this team to bring a fully-loaded attack every night. The Clippers get the nod over the Lakers because of their depth and because their star players also shoot threes at a high clip. The Lakers may still top the Clippers come playoff time, but the regular season is almost undoubtedly theirs.

  1. LA Lakers

Notable Additions: Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Danny Green, Troy Daniels, Jared Dudley, Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, Kostas Antetokounmpo
Notable Losses: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Isaac Bonga, Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, Mike Muscala, Reggie Bullock

The Lakers managed to do very well with the cap space that was left over after they signed Anthony Davis. DeMarcus Cousins may not currently be the player that he used to be, but there is star potential every time that he is on the basketball court. Danny Green is one of the best three-and-D players in the league, and they did well to bring Rajon Rondo back. This team will likely forfeit some games in the regular season in an effort to keep their stars rested, but will be firing on all cylinders come playoff time. If Kyle Kuzma makes a jump this year, it could make the difference in this team running away with an NBA title.

Screen Shot 2019-07-29 at 7.46.39 PM.png

  1. Utah Jazz

Notable Additions: Mike Conley Jr., Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay
Notable Losses: Ricky Rubio, Raul Neto, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen, Derrick Favors

Donovan Mitchell suffered a bit of a sophomore slump in the first half of last season, but certainly picked up the pace at the end of the year. The young star is certainly on his way to superstardom, and there may be no better veteran point guard to guide him there than Mike Conley. Conley is notoriously underrated and certainly a step up from Ricky Rubio, and gives the Jazz a top five backcourt in the NBA. Bojan Bogdanovic had a sneakily good season in 2019 and provides shooting, size and defense on the wing in a lot of the same ways that Joe Ingles provides those things. Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay provide the Jazz with energy and athleticism off the bench, while Ed Davis comes in as a cheaper version of Derrick Favors. Not to mention that their starting center, Rudy Gobert, is coming off of his second DPOY trophy, capping off an elite defensive team roster.

  1. Houston Rockets

Notable Additions: Russell Westbrook, Tyson Chandler, Anthony Bennett, Ben McLemore
Notable Losses: Chris Paul, Iman Shumpert, Nene Hilario, Kenneth Faried

I think that this is going to work. Russell Westbrook has been through enough storylines to fill an entire career, and he has to be exhausted with the noise. He will look to put any accusations of stat padding away this year as he teams back up with James Harden, who started his career as a sixth man in Oklahoma City. My main concern for this team does not have to do with ball dominance, as the rest of the league seems to expect; this was the same concern that we had for the Rockets when they signed Chris Paul, and they seemed to do much fine. Westbrook knows Harden well, and will be willing to split duties of bringing the ball up the court accordingly. Rather, my concern lies with Westbrook’s openness to letting Harden be the number one guy. Harden is far and away the better scorer among the two, but in their last stint together, he was the third option. Westbrook must come to terms with the fact that Harden’s offensive game has surpassed his own, and that his main role on the team is as a distributor. Still, the intensity that Russ brings to the court every night is one of a kind and will be the key to pushing Houston over the hump that Chris Paul was never able to do. Paul is a great defender, but he gives up much more size than Westbrook does, and is about a quarter of the athlete that he is. The Rockets have great shooting, which Westbrook has never had from a supporting cast, and many of their shooters are also exceptional athletes. This Rockets team will undergo an adjustment period to start, but will be locked and loaded for the playoffs. They’re also my extra-early prediction to lead the Western Conference standings in 2021.

1157815530.jpg.0.jpg

  1. Denver Nuggets

Notable Additions: Jerami Grant, Bol Bol
Notable Losses: Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles

Denver hasn’t added many contributors in the offseason, but bring back the same exact core that took them to a second seed in the West last season. This young squad can only be optimistic as Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic get another offseason of development. They did well to sign Gary Harris and Jokic to extensions in 2017 and 2018 respectively, allowing them to ensure two of their three most important players long-term while not having to pay 2019’s inflated contractual norms. They also bolstered their young core through the draft by stashing a steal for the second consecutive year. Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol’s success in the NBA may be a mystery, but with one of the deepest rotations in the west, Denver has the luxury of being able to give them two of their 15 roster spots. They fall from second to fifth in the west, simply because of the competition.

  1. Golden State Warriors

Notable Additions: D’Angelo Russell, Glenn Robinson III, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alec Burks, Omari Spellman, Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham
Notable Losses: Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook, Damian Jones, Jordan Bell, Shaun Livingston

Golden State will be lining up very differently from how they lined up this past season. I actually think that the Warriors did a decent job of recouping assets after Kevin Durant’s departure. This season marked the end of the Warriors dynasty for many core players like KD, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, with other promising players looking for new homes and expanded roles as well. Many NBA fans half-expect the Warriors to trade D’Angelo Russell elsewhere after Klay Thompson returns from injury, despite signing him to a max deal. In this scenario, Golden State has put together a roster that could compete in Thompson’s absence, still fielding three all-stars. Thompson signing his max deal means that the Warriors now have three guards under max contracts. They could theoretically deploy Thompson at the wing given his size, but that still leaves two ball-dominant guards and leaves no wiggle room to finance their frontcourt. Draymond Green will be expecting a payday at the end of the season, so it will be interesting to see how long D-Lo stays on this team. As for their regular season success – it seems to hinge on Steph Curry’s performance. Many expect the two-time MVP to put up video game numbers this year, which would surely merit a playoff spot. Regardless of ball dominance, D-Lo proved himself to be an elite shooter last season, which could amount to a new set of splash bros in the bay area.

Screen Shot 2019-07-09 at 1.44.15 AM.jpg

  1. Portland Trailblazers

Notable Additions: Hassan Whiteside, Mario Hezonja, Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, Nassir Little, Pau Gasol
Notable Losses: Seth Curry, Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Enes Kanter, Evan Turner, Jake Layman, Meyers Leonard

I love the moves that Portland made this offseason, but this team will take the brunt of the fact that the West is stacked. The only reason that this team isn’t higher in the standings is because of how good the other teams are. Portland is better than Denver, but it’s hard to play at Denver’s home court, so they’ll end with a better regular season record. I don’t expect there to be a huge gap between playoff team records in the West, so this is a deceptive seventh seed. Hassan Whiteside provides a high-level fill-in for Jusuf Nurkic as he recovers from injury, and it is good to finally see Portland move past their horrible wing depth. While Kent Bazemore’s contract is equally as bad as Evan Turner’s deal, at least it provides a fresh face and a more athletic skillset. Mario Hezonja showed flashes of promise in New York last season, and Pau Gasol is a perfect veteran to discipline Whiteside. They also got a steal in the draft in Nassir Little, and Anfernee Simons had an incredible Summer League. They’ll miss Seth Curry, but Rodney Hood can more than fill his role and it’s important that they got rid of so many players who are good enough to be in the rotation, but not good enough to contribute to winning. Portland is still one player away from contending for the Western Conference title, but they are definitely on the right track.

  1. San Antonio Spurs

Notable Additions: Trey Lyles, DeMarre Carroll
Notable Losses: Davis Bertans

The Spurs had a very Spurs-y offseason, which could translate to success in the regular season. We all expected Gregg Popovich to regress into retirement after his big three left San Antonio, but his resolve is as strong as ever. The DeMarre Carroll addition adds much needed shooting depth to the most mid-range-heavy roster in the NBA. The Spurs front office is also extremely eager to finally get Lonnie Walker IV and Dejounte Murray back from injury, as well. Murray was supposed to make a massive jump last year, so expect him to slot in as the second or third offensive option and one of the best defenders on the team. With a mix of veteran players like Rudy Gay and promising young players like Derrick White, continuity should play a large factor in this team’s success.

  1. New Orleans Pelicans

Notable Additions: Zion Williamson, Jaxon Hayes, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, JJ Redick, Derrick Favors, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Nicolo Melli
Notable Losses: Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Solomon Hill, Stanley Johnson, Cheick Diallo

This team recouped their losses in the best way after Anthony Davis requested a trade. Their haul from the Lakers, coupled with their stellar draft night gives them a hyper-talented roster with several options at each position. Zion Williamson is obviously a generational talent, but people aren’t talking enough about Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, their other first round draft picks this past summer. They performed very well in Summer League, and will get a chance to continue their development alongside Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram. I’m a Lonzo believer; his perimeter defense is elite and his speed, vision and passing is also among the NBA’s best. Ingram is still 22, giving him plenty of time to keep filling out his body. Players like Derrick Favors, JJ Redick, Jahlil Okafor and Nicolo Melli provide plenty of high-level support, while Jrue Holiday is still a top-ten two-way guard in the NBA. This team will challenge for a playoff spot right away, but will need to build a bit more experience before they get over the hump.

getty-images-1155998084.jpg

  1. Sacramento Kings

Notable Additions: Trevor Ariza, DeWayne Dedmon, Corey Joseph, Richuan Holmes, Tyler Lydon
Notable Losses: Willie Cauley-Stein, Alec Burks

Sacramento improved in the offseason, but the problem is that so did the rest of the NBA. I would liken this 2020 roster to that of the LA Clippers last season; it’s not like they have an electric sixth man as their scoring focal point but what they do have is heaps of talented players who have something to prove. Much like the Clippers, the team will look to continue developing their core while staying competitive and making a playoff push. Players like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Harry Giles can easily reach higher ceilings, especially with veterans like Harrison Barnes, Cory Joseph, Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon to direct them. Vlade Divac knew who he wanted early on in free agency, and decided to focus on lower-level free agents and secure them right away. This was a smart move, given that Sacramento would struggle to compete for the same level free agents as some of the bigger name NBA teams. This could mitigate their future cap space, but this team already has plenty of young talent to build around. The Kings will continue to show the energy and speed that they showed last season, as Fox continues to make his case as my favorite player in the NBA.

  1. Dallas Mavericks

Notable Additions: Delon Wright, Seth Curry, Boban Marjanovic
Notable Losses: Kostas Antetokounmpo

Lots of NBA analysts have the Mavs as their dark horse to sneak into the playoffs in 2020 with a late seed. I believe the hype that the duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are quietly attracting, but I think that they’re one year away from showing their talent. Porzingis won’t be his dominant self this upcoming season because he is still recovering from a torn ACL, and Luka’s supporting cast doesn’t have enough to support a playoff run. Seth Curry was a nice pickup after he solidified himself as a starting-caliber player in his time with Portland, and Jalen Brunson showed flashes of talent last season. Delon Wright’s contract gives Dallas a solid long-term backup for a good price, but their flexibility is limited because of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee’s contracts. They also didn’t need to pay Dwight Powell eight figures. Expect this team to show promise and expect Luka to take another step, but it could be a year until they start seriously competing.

usa_today_9905379.0.jpg

  1. Memphis Grizzlies

Notable Additions: Ja Morant, Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, Solomon Hill, Miles Plumlee, Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, Tyus Jones, Andre Iguodala
Notable Losses: Delon Wright, Mike Conley Jr., CJ Miles, Chandler Parsons, Avery Bradley

I am loving the project that is going on in Memphis. This team has been building a roster of gritty players that are tough to play against every single night. Despite being a few years away from contending, the Grizzlies will be very pesky on both ends of the floor and look poised to be that high-energy team that exceeds expectations. Jaren Jackson Jr.’s rookie season showed a ton of promise, and Jonas Valanciunas put up some of the most impressive late-season numbers in 2019 when he was shipped to Memphis in the Marc Gasol trade. They took low-risk high-reward gambles when they picked up Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton and Grayson Allen, and picked up some elite wing defenders in Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala. The Grizzlies want to trade Iggy, but will not buy him out, meaning there is a chance that he stays put. This rag-tag squad is rounded out by second overall pick Ja Morant, who has a chance to truly be special. I’m very excited to watch this team surprise people with their rapid ascension as 2020’s version of the 2019 Sacramento Kings.

  1. Phoenix Suns

Notable Additions: Ricky Rubio, Frank Kaminsky, Aron Baynes, Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric, Cheick Diallo
Notable Losses: Richuan Holmes, Troy Daniels, Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, TJ Warren, Tyson Chandler, Dragan Bender

The Suns are getting there, but it’s taking much longer than Devin Booker would have hoped. Phoenix’s frontcourt is coming together, as DeAndre Ayton is expected to continue progressing, while Dario Saric opens up their spacing. They got Kelly Oubre Jr. back on a two-year deal, giving them a short-term solution on the wing. They still need more from that position, as good wing play has become a key to success in the NBA. Phoenix and Minnesota were expecting to fight over D’Angelo Russell before he surprised the league with a move to Golden State. This meant that they had to fall back on Ricky Rubio, who is nobody’s first option as a free agent pickup, but will – again – do the job. To make the playoffs in the West, the Suns need more than just guys who will sufficiently fill a space; they need dynamic contributors. With Booker inked to a max deal, the Suns are in no rush to win now, but would like to show some progress if they don’t want their young star to hand in a trade request.

rubio-primg.jpg

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves

Notable Additions: Jake Layman, Jarrett Culver, Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Bell
Notable Losses: Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Tyus Jones, Anthony Tolliver, Dario Saric

I believe that the success of this team depends on – Andrew Wiggins. We’ve been looking for Wiggins to take that leap his entire career, and we are still waiting. Despite his young age and room for development, Karl Anthony-Towns has convinced me that he will never be better than the third best player on a championship team, or the second best player on a playoff team. He has a diverse skillset, but his demeanor and approach to the game tells me that he cannot be a centerpiece. However, if Wiggins finally turns his career around and performs the way that he needs to, the Wolves can certainly compete for a late seed. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee this coming to fruition, given the lack of progress we have seen thus far from the 2014 top pick. Minnesota lost key contributors in Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Dario Saric, and failed to acquire a top-tier free agent. Robert Covington’s return is good news, but don’t expect this team to win many games in 2020.

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Notable Additions: Danilo Gallinari, Mike Muscala, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul
Notable Losses: Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Markieff Morris, Jerami Grant

This team isn’t nearly bad enough on paper to merit a last place finish in the Western Conference, but we also know that this team will not be staying together. There is never pleasure in losing two all-stars, but Sam Presti managed to generate double-digit returns in future first-round picks, giving OKC reason to be optimistic. The Thunder will look to trade Chris Paul’s lucrative contract for more assets, and as the team shows a lack of competitive ability, they will continue to trade their veterans. Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams are solid players, but they are also overpaid for their production and are likely to be traded as well. The one current bright spot on the roster is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who showed on the Clippers last season that he can play. This team gives him a better development opportunity than he had in LA, but don’t expect them to win many games. From a pure talent perspective, this roster is no worse than the Magic’s roster, but their placement in the stacked Western Conference doesn’t do them any favors.

Best Free Agents Still Available

Point Guard: Jerryd Bayless, Jeremy Lin, Jerian Grant, Shaun Livingston, Shane Larkin, Devin Harris, Jose Calderon, Raymond Felton, Chasson Randle
Shooting Guard: Iman Shumpert, Lance Stephenson, Vince Carter, Jamal Crawford, Jodie Meeks, Monta Ellis, Joe Johnson
Small Forward: Lance Thomas, Corey Brewer, Thabo Sefolosha, Carmelo Anthony, Justin Anderson, Luol Deng, Sam Dekker
Power Forward: Ryan Anderson, Kenneth Faried, Marquese Chriss, Luc Mbah a Moute, Jonas Jerebko, Dante Cunningham, Amir Johnson
Center: Timofey Mozgov, Nene Hilario, Joakim Noah, Zaza Pachulia, Amar’e Stoudemire

cut.jpg

There is plenty of veteran locker room leadership still available on the market, and many of these players are still serviceable on the court. Players like Shaun Livingston, Jamal Crawford and Iman Shumpert could provide any contending team with a strong rotation piece who knows his role, while players like Shane Larkin and Marquese Chriss still have the potential to develop their game. I’m also interested to see which NBA veterans successfully make a comeback to the league, with guys like Joe Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, Monta Ellis and Amar’e Stoudemire looking to revive their careers. NBA fans will also look forward to Vince Carter’s decision on where he wants to end his lengthy career.

10 Trends to Keep an Eye on in the Second Half of the 2019 Premier League Season

1. Fullham’s Relegation Battle

Claudio Ranieri returned to the Premier League to take over as Fullham’s manager on November 14, 2018. Despite picking up a quick victory in his first match, Ranieri has amassed a total record of 2-3-7. While Fullham was just promoted, the footballing world expected the Lily Whites to compete right away, especially after spending £100 million this summer. Now, sitting in the 19th spot and seven points away from surviving relegation, it is time to panic for Fullham FC. It is difficult to imagine that any potential new January signings would provide a form-changing boost, though the Ryan Babel signing from Beşiktaş looks promising. Aleksandar Mitrović proved early into the season that he is a legitimate Premier League striker. Ryan Sessegnon must live up to his wonder-kid status, Jean Michaël Seri must live up to a price tag that had top six clubs looking for his signature this summer, and André Schürrle must show his Dortmund pedigree. Any hope of escaping relegation will depend on Ranieri’s ability to galvanize his group of talented players for the second half of the season.

jean-michael-seri-fulham-v-celta-vigo-pre-season-friendly_1atpeb526o3at1j5m0uqfvyr9h.jpg

2. Wolves’ Top 6 Challenge

Wolverhampton Wanderers have proven to be the most interesting team in the Premier League this season. In nine matches this season against the top six, they hold a 3-3-3 record, showing that they can compete with any other team in the league. They currently sit in 8th place, but could find their way out of a 12-point deficit from the top 6 with only four difficult fixtures left on their EPL schedule. Additionally, after defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup, they face an easy 4th round draw to move on in the competition. Manager Nuno Espírito Santo has effectively gotten all of his players on the same page after overhauling their roster coming into the Premier League, which is unsurprising given his Portuguese background combined with the eight Portuguese players that they have listed on their 24-man roster. This includes key contributors like Diogo Jota, Rúben Neves, Rui Patricio, João Moutinho and Hélder Costa. This unique combination of team chemistry and natural talent could make for a surprising run for the Wolves in 2019.

3. Homegrown Player Rule as a Factor for Less January Transfer Activity

In an effort to make the EPL more competitive for clubs that don’t have as many funds as the high rollers and in hopes of bringing up more homegrown talent, the Premier League mandates that a maximum of 17 non-“homegrown” players could be on a 25-man roster at a time. For a player to be considered homegrown, they must have spent a significant amount of time at an English or Welsh academy, and/or be English or Welsh. For example, players like Paul Pogba and Hector Bellerin spent two years in an English club’s academy, meaning they can be considered homegrown. This has proven harmful in transfer activity, as teams are able to take advantage of other clubs’ ability to pay large amounts and necessity for English talent. This past summer, Aston Villa tried making Tottenham overpay for Jack Grealish, which they were unwilling to do. This January, history is repeating itself as we see players like Callum Wilson of Bournmouth being labeled with a £40 price tag. Given the stingy nature that we have recently seen from teams like Spurs, Manchester United and Arsenal, we may be in for an uneventful transfer window.

912747880.jpg
Chelsea target Callum Wilson (right) has a far greater price tag than his play would dictate.

4. Manchester United’s Manager Sweepstakes

Caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s success since taking over has made it difficult to look elsewhere for a long-term manager solution. Names like Mauricio Pochettino, Zinedine Zidane, Massimiliano Allegri and Gareth Southgate have caught the attention of United’s front office, but how could they demote a manager with a perfect record after half a season of turmoil? Higher ups are likely looking for any reason to demote Solskjær, so we can only expect him to keep the reins if other candidates refuse or if he continues his unfounded streak. Given the club’s current success, the best course of action would be to wait and see how things play out.

5. Is Sarri the Answer for Chelsea?

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri may have deflected his recent woes with the sale of Álvaro Morata and purchase of Gonzalo Higuaín, but it remains to be seen if Higuain has enough left in the tank to regularly contribute for a top-flight Premier League club. Sarri’s possessive footballing strategy has its drawbacks, and his lack of a consistent striker leaves him to rely offensively on Eden Hazard too frequently. While his fullbacks have quality, they lack the requisite pace to play on the wings simultaneously, which opens the pitch up for opposing wingers. A wide attacking team like Liverpool would surely expose Chealsea’s faults, which is why Antonio Conte played César Azpilicueta at the center-back position in his tenure as manager. Chelsea is trending downward, but Higuain’s arrival could hopefully change that. Please stop loaning Michy Batshuayi.

maurizio-sarri-190119.jpg

6. Manchester City’s Cup Involvement

It comes as no surprise that, aside from Liverpool, their biggest competition is themselves. Manchester City is still contending in the Carabao Cup, the FA Cup, the Champions League and the Premier League. While the prospect of winning four cups in one season seems exciting, its completion would surely take a toll on the fatigue of the club’s players. A deep run in the Champions League appears likely, but could impact the fitness of the team’s top players for the Premier League. City must keep winning domestic games to keep up with Liverpool, and this could prove difficult if Pep Guardiola doesn’t get his tactics right.

7. Liverpool’s Wonder Season could Still End as a Flop

Call me a pessimist, but I can’t help but think about the possibility of Liverpool finishing without any silverware this season. Liverpool have crashed out of both the FA Cup and Carabao Cup, leaving a Champions League matchup against a formidable (but Müller-less) Bayern Munich squad and a league lead of four points. A Champions League fallout would likely mean a strong domestic finish, so it is hard to believe that Liverpool will not walk away with ANYTHING at the end of May. Still, it could happen. The team has shown flashes of lacking defensive options, having had to sub in a teenager against Wolves after a Lovren injury, and having had to play Fabinho is the center back role in the following games. Still, a world-class front three, a top-three center back and goalkeeper and an electrifying manager should keep them in contention both domestically and in the Champions League.

Liverpool-vs-West-Brom.jpg

8. Tottenham’s Stadium Move

Dele Alli and Harry Kane are both out of commission until March, and Hueng Min Son is away on international duty. Lucas Moura is also dealing with an injury, leaving Spurs with very few attacking options at the moment. Fernando Llorente has scored more domestic goals for other teams this season than for Spurs, so they would do well to pick up an offensive threat before the January transfer deadline ends. However, it is difficult to expect Daniel Levy to reach into his pockets given the stingy attitude that he showed over the summer. The only hope for Tottenham’s next few months of fixtures is for their form to take a positive turn. This could take effect through a move to their new White Hart Lane, which has continuously pushed forward its grand opening date. Spurs have grown accustomed to calling Wembley their home over the past few seasons, but a move to their new stadium could provide the spark that Spurs need to continue challenging in all four levels of competition.

9. Özil’s Arsenal Involvement

Unai Emery’s squad is starting to show some life this season, but watching their play through 90 minutes makes it obvious that this team is missing the requisite creativity and flair in the middle of the pitch to take their team to the next level. The problem with fielding Mesut Özil as the playmaker of the team is that it often seems as though the team rides or dies with his performance. If Özil picks out the right pass for a goal off of the counterattack, the team will be successful. However, if he overthinks a simple ball, it could produce a costly turnover. This kind of make-or-break quality is shared by players like Paul Pogba who are involved on so many parts of the pitch that their level of play is integral. The truth is that Arsenal do not have the quality to finish in a Champions League spot without Özil’s influence in the middle, but if Unai Emery is unwilling to take that risk, he may very well find his team regressing in the final stretch of the season.

skysports-unai-emery-mesut-ozil_4389637

10. The VAR Discussion Escalates

Everybody knows that VAR will eventually be instituted in all high-level footballing competitions – the question is simple when. Managers like Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho have spoken out about different problems that they have with VAR, scaling from the extra time that should be given due to its implementation, to the effect that it would have on the emotion of the game. Other managers have expressed a disinterest or ambivalence in the subject, expressing their understanding for the technological development of sport. Some managers have even expressed their enthusiasm for its institution. While providing video review for key moments in matches would certainly increase the percentage of correct calls, it does indeed disrupt the flow of the game and present its own issues that some fans would have initial issues with. In light of recent calls in the Premier League, it will be interesting to see how soon its implementation will come.

The All NBA Overpaid Team

The NBA operates on a soft salary cap, which has translated into several ludicrous contracts in recent history. This not only attributes to inflation, the latest collecting bargaining agreement and ownership’s necessity to put out a successful product, but it also speaks to the shifting power dynamics within the league. Players in basketball have more bargaining power than ever, which has understandably resulted in some players earning far beyond their worth. This not only shifts the power imbalance within the league, but it also compromises the amount of flexibility that a team may have. A team deep into the luxury tax without legitimate winning aspirations (Wizards, Cavs, etc.) faces few options in reversing its fortune, rendering it stagnant and forcing a rebuild. Players will then be traded for less than their market value, further deepening the cycle of loss, as the team hopes to strike gold in the draft lottery. These kinds of concerns reflect the importance of paying players adequately, and cutting costs where possible.

Players who are on the last years of their deal or with a team option have been left off the list. Additionally, while some NBA stars are being tremendously overpaid, their value and usage as players will usually make for a better deal than that of a player who gets paid a bit less but never plays. Without further ado, here are the 15 most overpaid players in the league, with some honorable mentions at the end.

First Team

Otto Porter Jr. (WSH): $27m owed for next 2 years + 1 year PO for same amount – When it comes to Otto Porter, the Wizards trapped themselves in a deal that could very well be the reason for their lackluster season. As a restricted free agent in 2017, the Brooklyn Nets offered Porter 4 years, $106 million – and the Wizards matched the offer sheet. Given that this happened later into free agency, the Wizards had few options to replace his production, especially as a promising young player who is prototypically catered for today’s game. Don’t get me wrong; Otto Porter is a good player who can catch and shoot, play efficient basketball and get back on defense. Unfortunately, Porter seems to be showing some signs of regression after improving in each of his previous seasons, and he is simply not worth three more years of $27 milion.

OttoporterDMVSN.jpg

Nicolas Batum (CHA): $25.5m owed for next 2 years + 1 year PO for same amount – While the Hornets are currently surging behind big performances from Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum slows down their development as a relevant team in the East. In 2016, Batum signed a 5 year, $120 million extension with the Hornets after posting solid career numbers in his first year with MJ’s team. Charlotte backloaded this deal so that they had to pay less of it in the first few years, which will come back to hurt them in these important upcoming seasons. As Kemba continues to prove his ability, the Hornets will be sure to make some moves as to make room for his max contract, while also improving their roster, meaning that Batum could be on the move.

Chandler Parsons (MEM): $24.5m owed for next 2 years – This is likely the worst contract in the NBA. Since signing a max deal worth 4 years, $94.8 million in 2016 with Memphis after posting encouraging stats in Dallas, Parsons has shown that he has nothing left in the tank. He hasn’t been able to return to his previous form since coping with injury, which has resulted in only 73 games in the past three seasons, having been unable to eclipse 20 MPG or 8 PPG. Memphis is stuck paying a backloaded sum for the next two years, for a player with no trade value.

Memphis Grizzlies v Washington Wizards

Ryan Anderson (PHX): $18m owed for next 2 years – Houston was finally able to offload Ryan Anderson this past offseason after agreeing to pay him $80 million over 4 years in 2016. This deal is not as bad as it initially seems, because the Rockets front-loaded his salary, and Phoenix only owes him $15.6 million next season. The Suns can also afford to absorb the $20.4 million payout that he is owed this season, given their wealth of young talent. Anderson has only played 20 MPG this season and is averaging less than 5 PPG on horrible shooting.

Timofey Mozgov (ORL): $16.4m owed for next 2 years – Mozgov is a product of one of the most head-scratching deals in recent history. In the 2016 offseason, the Lakers signed Mozgov to a four year, $64 million deal. This money came completely unprecedented, given that Mozgov was averaging 6 PPG and 4 RPG in 18 MPG the year before. Unsurprisingly, this deal was quickly labeled a mistake, and the Lake show immediately traded him to Brooklyn a year later. Today, Mozgov gets paid more than Clint Capela, yet hasn’t played a single minute in Orlando. I’d be surprised to find this man playing more than 10 MPG in the NBA ever again.

Timofey-Mozgov-surprised-by-trade-from-Hornets

Second Team

Tristan Thompson (CLE): $18m owed for next 2 years – Whether it was a result of scrambling or a result of courting LeBron, the Cavs offered a bevy of players ludicrous contracts in the past decade. One of these players is big man Tristan Thompson, who signed a 5-year, $82 million deal in 2015. Since the deal, the big man showed little signs of improvement, showing a lack of versatility. This most recently culminated in his being dropped down in the Cavs’ rotation this past postseason, seeing his MPG decrease to 22. Thompson still produces, averaging a double-double for the league’s worst team in the league, but this is likely due to the fact that Kevin Love has been injured. Expect Thompson to be a role player for the rest of his career.

George Hill (CLE): $18.5m owed for next 2 years – The Sacramento Kings signed Hill to a 3-year, $57 million deal in 2017, with plans for him to mentor then-rookie D’Aaron Fox. With multiple promising young guards on this roster, Sacramento eventually offloaded this deal to the desperate Cavs amidst their mid-season rebuild to keep the Cavs in contention for a playoff run and keep LeBron. Cleveland eventually made the Finals, but Hill proved to be underwhelming. Neither the Kings nor the Cavs were able to replicate the production he had for the Jazz in the season prior to his deal, putting Cleveland in the unfortunate position of owing star-level money to an average point guard.

hill-george-04212018-usnews-getty-ftr_1xddhnmvuog8w1oznyk62jxa6b.jpg

Evan Turner (POR): $18m owed for next 2 years – Turner was always a solid defensive two-guard who thrived in a bench role with the Celtics in 2016. That, coupled with a 17.4 PPG season in 2014 with Philadelphia gave Portland enough confidence to offer him $70 million over four years. Turner has played an integral bench role for Portland over the years, but his overall performance and lackluster shooting certainly does not merit the price tag.

Allen Crabbe (BKN): $18.5m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – As a restricted free agent in 2016, Crabbe leveraged Brooklyn’s 4-year, $75 million offer to get his Portland Trail Blazers to match a lofty offer sheet. Just as the Nets did to the Wizards, Portland was left to overpay another bench player. Crabbe eventually found his way onto the Nets anyway, but has started less than half of his games this season and is shooting a .306 FG% on 8 PPG. After completing this deal, Crabbe will likely be a bench guy for the rest of his career.

allen_crabbe

Hassan Whiteside (MIA): $25.4m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – There was a time when it seemed like Whiteside was worth every penny of this four-year max deal. He re-signed after a 14 PPG, 12 RPG, 4 BPG season on extremely productive shooting, but has shown little character after collecting his paycheck. A promising first season of the deal was followed by a 2017-2018 season full of disappointment, even being benched in fourth quarters. It seemed as though Whiteside had taken a step back in his career, and while this season looks like an improvement from last year, much remains to be sought after. Whiteside finds himself on this list because despite still putting up a respectable 13 PPG, 14 RPG and 3 BPG this season, his shooting is less productive than ever, he has been committing more fouls than ever, and his character in the locker room is simply not worth the talent.

Third Team

Tyler Johnson (MIA): $19.2m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – The Heat overpay plenty of players, and none of them are more unknown than Tyler Johnson. This man is a mystery to any NBA fan who lives outside of Miami. In reality, Johnson is a solid two-guard who brings plenty of energy and speed. These qualities are hardly worth the lofty price tag, and despite being young and having plenty of time to turn his career around, there is little expectation that he lives up to the money. Johnson hasn’t started this season after only starting half of the Heat’s games last year, and has seen his minutes and production consistently decrease since signing a four-year, $50 million offer sheet with the Nets, which was matched by the Heat. This deal was heavily backloaded, and Johnson is owed almost 80% of the money over the next two years.

tyler-johnson.jpg

Gorgui Dieng (MIN): $16m owed for next 3 years – Dieng signed a four-year, $64 million contract for the Timberwolves in 2016 to keep him through 2021. Minnesota essentially gambled on Dieng’s development as a player, and lost. A defensive specialist who sets good picks and has some range, the Senegalese international has declined in his last two years because of his offensive limitations. Dieng gets paid big money to play backup to KAT, and will likely continue to play a bench role for the rest of his career.

Ian Mahinmi (WSH): $15.9m owed for next 2 years – This veteran has averaged more than 20 MPG in only one season in his NBA career. Washington decided to give him the same contract as Dieng after averaging 9 PPG, 7 RPG and playing hard defense for the Indiana Pacers post-Roy Hibbert. The big man wouldn’t see the floor on any other team in the NBA, but has been forced into action this year because of Washington’s lack of big men. Still, he hasn’t had less minutes since 2011, and gives the Wizards zero wiggle room when it comes to cap space.

Ian_Mahinmi_Wizards_2017_AP.jpg

JR Smith (CLE): $15m owed for next 2 years – Everyone’s least favorite player re-signed with Cleveland in 2016 following their NBA title and a lengthy contract dispute. The deal came to four-years, $57 million, keeping an aging locker room distraction who is on the decline for much more than he is worth. The detrimental effects of these contracts have only become evident upon LeBron’s departure, when his presence would guarantee a constant inclusion in the finals, and therefore a justification for the payouts.

Bismack Biyombo (CHA): $17m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – Biyombo’s payday came as a product of his performance in the 2016 playoffs with the Toronto Raptors. His rim-protection was highly coveted by the Magic, enough for them to offer him a whopping four-year, $72 million deal. As a combination of seeing his minutes decline in Orlando, the drafting of Jonathan Isaac in 2017 and Mo Bamba in 2018 and the play of Nikola Vucevic, Biyombo was dealt to Charlotte in a deal that swapped him with Mozgov. This deal was likely done as a favor to Biyombo, who could potentially revitalize his career with the Hornets. Unfortunately, the Congolese international has been unable to pass Cody Zeller and Willy Hernangomez on the depth chart.

Bismack-Biyombo.jpg

Honorable Mention

Brandon Knight (HOU): $15m owed for next 2 years – Hasn’t played all year, part of Houston’s dump of Ryan Anderson, could potentially see minutes when healthy.
Solomon Hill (NO): $12.7m owed for next 2 years – Has barely played in last two seasons with low production, but contract isn’t big enough to make the list.
Marvin Williams (CHA): $14.5m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – Long time NBA journeyman, hasn’t been bad (career 10.5 PPG)
Miles Plumlee (ATL): $12.5m owed for next 2 years – Averages 12 MPG for one of the worst teams in the leauge, solid defender and relatively efficient on offense, but one dimensional and a dime a dozen. Hawks don’t really need the cap space though.

usa_today_10763957.0

Meyers Leonard (POR): $11m owed owed for next 2 years – Great size but stopped developing after getting paid. Hasn’t played 20 MPG in three years.
Matthew Dellevadova (MIL): $9.6m owed for next 2 years – Contract is a product of his hard play in the playoffs on the Cavs, lacks high athletic ceiling, hasn’t played much.
Cristiano Felicio (CHI): $8.1m owed for next 3 years – Only 15 MPG on a bad NBA team, doesn’t look like he will get much time over next three years when he is on contract.
Harrison Barnes (DAL): $24.5m owed for next year + 1 year PO for same amount – Gets paid like a star but could never be better than the fourth player on a championship team. Still, didn’t make top 15 because he has averaged 18 PPG since joining the Mavs.

4e8c8a_f7e729e2ef5e4ef58a4bd7766dd8fe21_mv2

10 Bold Predictions for the 2018 NBA Regular Season

My favorite time of year is nearing; a time in which baseball is dormant, and everybody’s sights are set on NBA basketball (with some football and hockey sprinkled in). After the first two days of the regular season, some inklings have been solidified as a solid possibility, while other outcomes seem more unlikely. Here are ten outcomes that you should keep your eye on throughout the year.

1. New Orleans will finish as a top three seed in the West.

In addition to the Pelicans looking really good, the Rockets (their biggest threat besides the Warriors) don’t look to hot. I can definitely see them missing the defensive intensity that Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute brought every night, and New Orleans has tons of weapons that can go off on any given night. Four players totaled more than 20 points last night, and Elfrid Payton turned in a triple double. Combining a savvy passer like Payton with a dominant player like AD maximizes Payton’s skillset and makes it seem as though Rondo never left. Nikola Mirotic is streaky, but Julius Randle can provide relief that is just as productive as that of the sharpshooter from Montenegro. We haven’t even mentioned Jrue Holiday, who proved last year to be among the NBA’s elite defensive guards. Lastly, expect Davis to be among the top three in MVP voting, further boosting New Orleans’ chances.

920x920

2. Andre Drummond will be a top ten player this year

Drummond has been slowly but surely working on every facet of his game, and it has translated into results that nobody had ever thought possible. Coach Dwane Casey has given Drummond the OK to shoot threes this year, and after improving his free throw percentage by nearly .250 last year, Drummond has become one of the most versatile bigs in the league. Combine this with likely the best rebounding in the league, and you get a top ten NBA player. Look out for the Pistons to sneak into the playoffs and develop into legitimate contenders once they can get rid of that Reggie Jackson contract.

3. Meet the new Raptors Big 3: Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and… Pascal Siakam

My Canadian housemate has been raving about this guy for weeks, and I didn’t want to believe him. However, Siakam won the starting job over Serge Ibaka on opening night, and made sure not to waste the opportunity. There are rumblings that Siakam has tailored his game to that of Draymond Green this season, playing a hard-working defensive supporting role that helps keep the ball moving while making plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. The man has range, a great eye for making passes, a complete defensive skillset, and a competitive mindset. Expect him to turn in an extremely productive season that gets him the respect that he deserves.

image.jpg

4. The Brooklyn Nets make the playoffs

The Nets lost by three to the Pistons last night, but Brooklyn fans have to be optimistic. I don’t want to jump the gun on Caris LeVert being a star, but Jarrett Allen certainly looks like one. I’m optimistic that D’Angelo Russell will turn in a productive season, and Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the most underrated guards in the league. With Allen Crabbe, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Demarre Carroll all returning at different points in the season, it will be interesting to see how Brooklyn looks at full strength – they have seven or eight solid players throughout their rotation that should make them competitive on a nightly basis. Welcome back to the playoffs, Brooklyn.

5. Devin Booker will be an MVP candidate

At just 21 years old, Booker already looks like a seasoned veteran. The Kobe comparisons are very legitimate, and truthfully, the man already put up MVP numbers last year. The reason that Booker wasn’t in the conversation or even an all star was because of the Suns’ abysmal record. That should change this year with an extremely interesting roster led by some young studs with some solid veterans mixed in. Booker will have the ball in his hands frequently with very few options at point guard for the Suns, which should translate to incredible usage. Expect Booker to be a dark horse MVP candidate this season, and to be a potential 30PPG scorer.

book-620x370

6. Washington Wizards will be a top four team in the East

After the Wizards finished with the eighth seed this past season, people have been quick to write Washington off. The narrative for this team last season was dominated by the drama between Marcin Gortat and John Wall along with John Wall’s injury and whether the team is better without him. The undeniable truth is that the Wizards need Wall, and with a more unified core this season, they are sure to improve. Washington improved their backcourt by adding proven starter Austin Rivers, and solidified their front-court by adding Dwight Howard, who is coming off of a resurgent season. Toronto, Boston and Philly are essential locks for a a top four finish in the East, and the Wizards’ main competition will likely come in the form of Milwaukee. I’m betting on the all star duo of Beal and Wall to beat out an MVP candidate in Giannis and a fringe-all star in Middleton to take that fourth spot in the East.

7. The second leading scorer for the Cavs this year will be… Cedi Osman

Osman is coming off of a lackluster rookie year, but showed many signs of promise with several postseason appearances. The Turk put up a solid stat line of 17-10-4 from the small forward position in the first game of the season, and also played the second most minutes on the team. His production will surely benefit from the lack of wing players on this team and the surplus of guards. Osman also worked out with LeBron and friends in the offseason, so he is sure to have a few new tricks up his sleeve. Look for Cedi to establish himself as one of the most reliable foreign players in today’s game.

Cedi-Osman-600x400

8. The San Antonio Spurs will comfortably make the playoffs with 50+ wins

Despite the lack of playing experience in San Antonio, DeMar DeRozan looks completely at home in San Antonio. Pop will surely maximize his abilities on the floor and tighten his defensive skillset to make him another MVP candidate this season. With Dejounte Murray out for the year, DeRozan will surely have the ball in his hands more frequently. LaMarcus Aldridge has shown that he can still play at a high level, and Rudy Gay continues to produce consistent offensive results. Keep in mind that the Spurs made the playoffs last year without Kawhi, so the addition of DeRozan puts them at another level.

9. Portland won’t make the playoffs, forcing a rebuild

The Trailblazers dug their own grave when they decided to pay Myers Leonard, Evan Turner and Mo Harkless the big bucks. These guys are decent players, but none of them should make more than $10 million annually, if that. It doesn’t help that they drafted two guards and spent their offseason adding, what do you know, another guard. Considering that Lillard and McCollum should each play at least 33 minutes per game respectively if they want a shot at greatness, that does not leave much time for the rest of their young prospects to develop or for Seth Curry to make a difference. Should they go with a smaller lineup, they will be consistently manhandled by western teams loaded with players that have freakish wingspans. Zach Collins, their lottery pick from last year, looks like a flop and sits behind Jusuf Nurkic at center to highlight an especially weak group at the forward positions. Portland will need to offload one of their stars in a deal that frees up cap space for them, and barring any interesting moves, it looks like they are headed for disaster.

20150121_mjr_su5_043

10. Terry Rozier will be traded before the deadline

Scary Terry put himself on the map last season, and with Kyrie verbalizing his long-term commitment to Boston, it doesn’t seem like the Celtics will be able to hold on to Rozier much longer. Marcus Smart has proven to be a serviceable backup and just signed an extension. Boston will look to get value out of Rozier before he leaves for nothing in the next offseason, and with teams like Phoenix, Denver, Orlando and Indiana still looking for a long-term solution at point guard, they could get some great assets in return.

 

Let’s Talk About the Western Conference: Too Much Talent

It is unbelievably difficult to predict the outcome of this upcoming Western Conference regular season. A few certainties come to mind, but only two teams seem unwaveringly destined to miss the playoffs. The Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks are not ready to make the jump yet, with promising times ahead, and the rest of the conference is a crapshoot. On the top end of the standings, we can confidently say that the Warriors and the Rockets will capture the top two spots, but as we saw in the standings this past year where three wins differentiated the third seed and the ninth seed, we are guaranteed to see an extremely close battle. Here is how things may pan out:

The Favorites

Golden State Warriors:

Boogie won’t be ready for an NBA return until at least after the All-Star break, but that won’t stop a team of four more all-stars from remaining atop the league. The team will experiment with interesting rotations all throughout the season as they prioritize keeping their Hamptons Five lineup healthy, which could result in some surprising losses. This will come as no reason for worry, given that the Warriors are sure to step up come playoff time. Today’s NBA dynasty should have no problem continuing their reign.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS DEMARCUS COUSINS PRESS CONFERNECE

Houston Rockets:

Last year, we saw the Rockets finish seven wins higher than the Warriors in the regular season, amassing the best record in the league by far. While the title for best record may be in jeopardy based on the nightly competition that they should face in comparison to the Celtics, Houston should still finish comfortably in first or second in the West. As long as they re-sign Clint Capela and add Carmelo Anthony to fill the void left by Trevor Ariza’s departure, the Rockets should continue to be the team with the best chances of taking down Golden State.

Formidable Challengers

Oklahoma City Thunder:

Less is more for OKC, who certainly got a lot better by getting rid of Melo. While their roster is currently noticeably devoid of shooters, the talent on the team is certainly undeniable. On paper, the Thunder should have no problem being among the league leaders in defense (Westbrook, George, Roberson, Patterson, Noel, Adams), and added an underrated NBA point guard in Dennis Schroder. Props to GM Sam Presti for making a stagnant Thunder team better while also monumentally decreasing their luxury tax bill. If this team finds its stroke, they could certainly make a run that we would’ve expected last season.

westbrook_carmelo_paul_george_comfortable_fb.jpg

Los Angeles Lakers:

Any team with LeBron James on its roster immediately becomes a contender. The best player in the world has possibly his most interesting supporting cast ever going into this season, and one can only imagine that this season is serving as a setup season for the Lakers. The King has committed long term, and LA has several wildcards on one-year deals (Beasley, Rondo, Stephenson, KCP, McGee). Couple that with possibly the most promising young core in the game (Ingram, Kuzma, Ball, Hart), and we will surely see some intriguing basketball coming out of LA this year. It remains to be seen how far LeBron can take this rag-tag bunch come playoff time.

Portland Trail Blazers:

We can’t overlook the fact that Portland took the third seed in the West last season, but I’m not a big fan of the moves that they have made in the offseason thus far. The Trail Blazers are limited in the players that they could attract to such a small market, but they have stockpiled (undersized) guards and completely ignored their needs at the wing. Sure, it’s reassuring to have so much backup for Lillard and McCollum (Curry, Baldwin IV, Stauskas, Trent Jr., Simons), but in a constantly improving Western Conference, I’m not sure a starting lineup that includes Al Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless will be enough. Look for Portland to underperform despite their lofty expectations, thus forcing a full rebuild come next offseason.

874730142_jpg_0.jpg

On the Rise

Utah Jazz:

I love the identity of this Jazz team that prides itself on defensive stability. This team has solid depth but lacks star power and a scoring punch. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are certainly all-star caliber players, but Gobert is somewhat of an offensive liability and Mitchell lacks experience. That didn’t stop the latter from making a ton of noise in the playoffs last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him lead his team to yet another playoff berth.

New Orleans Pelicans:

The Pelicans’ commitment to position-less basketball is one of the most refreshing aspects of any NBA team. Elfrid Payton has plenty to prove this season, while AD looks poised to be one of the league’s most likely MVP candidates. The dominance that he showed in the playoffs last year speaks to the fact that he could be the next best player in the NBA. Mirotic and Randle each have the requisite ability to make up for the talent lost when Boogie decided to ruin the NBA, but New Orleans will have to fight on a nightly basis if they want to come out of the West in the toughest conference we have probably ever seen in the NBA.

916754554_jpg_0.jpg

Minnesota Timberwolves:

When we talk about the Timberwolves, we need to think about the healthy Timberwolves. When Jimmy Butler wasn’t sitting on the sidelines, this team was slotted in as the third seed in the West. After his injury, they fell down the standings, but Butler is expected to stay healthy this upcoming season and KAT is looking to take another step in his career. Minnesota may be a bit less deep than they were last season, but they bring back all of their starters and could make some noise in the West with a legitimate big three.

Denver Nuggets:

The Nuggets missed out on playoff contention this past season in dramatic fashion, but they should find their way back into the race this upcoming season. This team has had probably one of the most successful free agencies, extending Jokic, drafting MPJ, and bringing on Isaiah Thomas. Their young core should continue to develop nicely and I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw Isaiah revitalize his career in Denver. Paul Millsap also missed most of the past season, and will be looking to find his rhythm in a comeback season. Expect big things coming out of Denver.

maxresdefault

Wildcards

Phoenix Suns:

This Phoenix roster certainly has the talent to compete, but we don’t know how quickly they could be making that jump. With a bevy of young talents (Booker, Ayton, Jackson, Bender, Chriss, Bridges, Okobo), Phoenix certainly has a bright future; the question is, how long will it take them to develop into contenders? With excellent veteran presence coming from Tyson Chandler and Trevor Ariza, we could see a huge jump in wins coming out of Phoenix. Sadly, however, it likely won’t be enough to beat some of these other powerhouse teams into the top eight spots.

Memphis Grizzlies:

Many teams are likely counting the Grizzlies out given their nightmare of a season in 2017-2018, but we forget about how much Mike Conley means to this franchise. Their window continues to shrink as Marc Gasol continues to age, but new recruits like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson could turn this team around quickly. Nobody really knows what to expect from the Grizzlies this upcoming season, and despite being in prime position to improve on last year’s win total, they should still fall short of playoff contention.

mike-conley-mike-conley-injury-update.jpg

Los Angeles Clippers:

The Clippers have a ton of above average players, with not a single player who can be labeled as a star. They’ll surely be extremely difficult to play against on a regular basis, featuring some of the best depth in the league at pretty much every position. However, if they have any chance of making the playoffs, they need a player like Tobias Harris or Danilo Gallinari to step up and provide more of a scoring punch. They won’t be earning a spot in the top eight with Lou Williams as their leading scorer. Despite so many “if’s”, it is also worth noting that the Clippers were one of the most injured teams last season, and could be much more successful this year if healthy.

San Antonio Spurs:

We can never count the Spurs out when Pop is coaching. This team obviously lost their best player recently, but has retained depth at every spot on the floor. In addition, keep in mind that this team won 47 games last year essentially without Kawhi, so technically, DeMar DeRozan is surely an upgrade. Expect the Spurs to contend until the very end of the season, where they could just barely miss out on contention on the fact that their team is simply less talented than the other ones.

Pau-Gasol-and-LaMarcus-Aldridge

Western Conference Standings Projections

1. Houston Rockets

Houston will once again care more about the regular season than Golden State will, which will therefore result in the first seed. When Chris Paul is healthy, the rockets are arguably unstoppable, and present a legitimate threat at dethroning the Warriors.

2. Golden State Warriors

We must remember how late Boogie will come back, leaving GSW relatively thin at the center position for most of the regular season. They’ll still probably win more than 55 games, though, if not 60.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

The friendship that Russell Westbrook and Paul George have developed speaks for itself. I think that without Melo, this duo will exhibit incredible chemistry to lead them to a resurgent season where they capture the third seed. Keep in mind that the team underperformed last year, and still got the fourth seed.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota simply needs to live up to their talent. Questions about Butler’s long-term commitment to the T-Wolves still remain, but winning solves everything. If Andrew Wiggins can finally make that next step and Karl Anthony-Towns keeps developing, the potential of this team is limitless.

5. New Orleans Pelicans

AD for MVP, I’m calling it now. Anthony Davis is going to will this team all season long; they likely won’t have much success in the playoffs, but they’ll sure be a fun team to watch during the season. I’m excited to see how Julius Randle fares on his new team, as he showed some stellar play in his contract year with the Lakers.

6. Utah Jazz

Despite finishing fifth last season, the Jazz will likely take a step back next year once they see that the rest of the West has come to play. Regardless, they’re sure to be in the playoff picture. Look for Utah to offer max money next offseason after they’re butted out in the first round.

7. Los Angeles Lakers

How about a first-round matchup between GSW and LeBron? The King is notorious for taking it easy during the regular season and stepping it up come playoff time. LeBron’s Cavs finished in fourth place in the East last year, and in a more competitive conference, he could drop even further. This team is built to take on the Warriors, not to beat the rest of the league. Keep in mind that I’m expected seeds 3-10 to be incredibly close, as well.

8. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets could finish higher depending on how well Isaiah bounces back, but the fact remains that their best passer is their center. The Nuggets will easily be among the league’s best in points per game, but could also improve on the defensive end. However, it is undeniable that their team is tailor made for today’s NBA, and it’ll be interesting to see how high Nikola Jokic’s ceiling really is.

 

Why the Spurs Should Be Okay with Kawhi Leaving

Uncertainty with his Condition

Regardless of whether Kawhi will return to the court completely healthy, the Spurs organization likes to maintain a handle on its entire operation. They have done their utmost to keep rumors to a minimum, but they would highly benefit from keeping damage control out of their main agenda. Additionally, if Kawhi is indeed a different player than he was before the injury, the Spurs would do well to gain as many assets as possible on his behalf as long as the opportunity still stands. It seems as though his trade value currently puts San Antonio in the position to receive three major pieces in exchange for his services. This would likely include a first round draft pick and two promising young players (at least), which would perfectly set the Spurs up to groom a complete roster.

kawhi-leonard-usnews-062318-ftr-getty_gdlsfkgpk51j1lu0wnxp5skww.jpg

Being Above Average does Nothing for Franchises in Today’s NBA

Gregg Popovich showed us last season that he can take a slightly above average roster to the playoffs, even in the West. Teams like the Nuggets and Clippers seemingly had talented rosters, but Pop’s tutelage makes anything possible. Regardless, there is only so much that wondrous coaching can do, and even Brad Stevens’ awe-inspiring playoff run last season came to an end when it was time to face star power. The same goes for stacking up against teams like the Warriors, Rockets and Lakers. The Spurs have made it abundantly clear that they will not be tanking any time soon, and I do believe that this is the right decision. They will likely wait until Pop’s retirement to even consider doing so, and a team with such a historically savvy front office can certainly pull off a trade that gets them the right assets to continue contending. I don’t think San Antonio has a prayer in 2018, but the same cannot be said for the forthcoming year, when tons of promising free agents hit the market. If they can muscle out one season of mediocrity while prioritizing the development of the rest of their roster, San Antonio can surely take big steps in bringing their organization back to the forefront.

gettyimages-683967466-7151a674-275c-4eb6-a3d8-05fbf16d2094.jpg

Thinking Long Term

In order to understand why the Spurs would benefit from trading Kawhi, we must understand the assets that they will receive in return. This will likely include talented young players on attractive contracts, setting the team up to experiment next season. They did well to retain Rudy Gay on a one-year deal, who can easily slot into Kawhi’s position and continue to improve on the progress that he showed last season after coming back from an Achilles tendon tear a season prior. Danny Green and Manu Ginobili each have one more year on their deals, and they will prove to be helpful mentors for Lonnie Walker IV who fell to them in the draft. The Miami product has a high basketball IQ and finds himself in a perfect situation heading into the future. These three, along with the return of Marco Belinelli gives them plenty of shooting depth to fully embrace the emerging high scoring style of the NBA. At point guard, Dejounte Murray is now set for heavy minutes at a bargain price as he continues to develop. Pau Gasol will be overpaid in 2018-2019, but this year will surely work more as a period of transition in which San Antonio can afford to give him the money. Only $7 million of his $16 million deal is guaranteed for 2019-2020, giving them flexibility in their frontcourt. Lastly, LaMarcus Aldridge revitalized his career last season, and should continue to produce at a high level as he poises himself for another year as the go-to player on offense. Essentially, most of the Spurs’ mediocre players (Gay, Ginobili, Green, Gasol) will either find a different home next offseason or take salaries that give San Antonio plenty of options in the future. Many stars will be looking for a payday next summer, and the Spurs will be one of the franchises who will be able to afford to do so.

800

Surely, Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the NBA when healthy, and it is not the ideal scenario to have to let him go. However, his relationship with the Spurs seems more irreparable with every coming day, and with two years on his deal remaining (the last year being a player option), he still commands plenty of value on the trade market and can set San Antonio up with a promising roster for the future. The key is that they must be patient in waiting on a trade offer that adequately suits their needs, while also making sure to not miss out on their window of opportunity to get something out of Kawhi’s hope for an exit.