Quibbl roundtable: NBA Outlook Questions and Answers, Part 1

The NBA season is kicking off; Quibbl basketball writers answer top questions heading into the season.

It’s finally, finally, finally here.

After months on end of asking absurd hypothetical questions, of analyzing summer league footage that makes AAU seem interesting, of overindulging in NBA memes because there was nothing else to do, fans finally have what they’ve been waiting for. The NBA season (the real one) is kicking off.

There’s an endless amount to talk about. Quibbl’s NBA writers (and Ryan, who wanted to be part of the fun) decided to take a crack at some of the biggest debates heading into the season. In part one, they answer four questions:

  1. What team do you expect to outperform expectations?
  2. What team do you expect to underperform?
  3. Which rookie are you keeping the closest eye on?
  4. Who will dominate the MVP discussion?

Without further ado, here is part one of Quibbl’s NBA roundtable debate.

Question 1: What team do you expect to outperform expectations?

Cameron Van Hare:

The majority of NBA fans are really discounting the Cavs this year, but they have a lot of potential to shock some people. Obviously they will not be the same without LeBron, but in a weak Eastern Conference, anything is possible. People forget Kevin Love is a five-time all-star and has made the all second team twice. He is a stellar player, but for the past few years he has been demoted to a secondary or tertiary role. I would not be surprised if he picked up where he left off in Minnesota five years ago.

Collin Sexton is also an extremely exciting rookie in Cleveland this year. Sexton put up fantastic numbers in college, and thrived during the summer league with multiple 20 plus point games. His intensity on both sides of the ball could really spark the Cavs offense and defense this year. Without LeBron on the floor the role players will really be able to play to their potential. LeBron notoriously either improves the players around him or diminishes their role immensely. These role guys will be able to play with far more freedom without LeBron.

Ryan Cluett:

I’m interested in how the Pelicans will develop this season. New Orleans had a tremendous season, only to come up short against Golden State in the Second Round. Anthony Davis is been one of the elite performers in the league on both sides of the ball, and pending his health, can lead this team to great things. Davis has been on fire over the past couple of seasons, averaging 28 points/game, and putting up double digits in total rebounds. And while they did lose DeMarcus Cousins, Jrue Holiday is one of the best defensive guards in the league, and can help set the tone for the Pelicans offense. You both have mentioned the merits of Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton, and what they can bring to the table on defense. The only downside of course, is the fact that they play in the Western Conference, and I do think New Orleans will miss the playmaking abilities of Rajon Rondo. Regardless, I think we’ll see a real coming-of-age year for this Pelicans team.

Joe DeFerrari:

Let’s talk about Kemba Walker.

The Hornets missed the playoffs the last two years, but were not just good, but great with Walker in the game. The Hornets outscored opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions with Walker on the floor. That was the net rating of the 2-seed Boston Celtics last year. But the Hornets were outscored by 6.8 points per 100 possessions when Walker sat; a -6.8 net rating would have sandwiched the team between the 27th-placed Memphis Grizzlies and the 28th-placed Chicago Bulls.

So the short, nuance-less version of their story is that Walker is a pick and roll savant with a preternatural feel for the game and a dagger jumper that opens up opportunities for his teammates. They play like a top playoff seed when Walker is on the floor, and get blown to pieces when he sits. Their offense just could not figure anything out without him.

Tony Parker has dropped off significantly, but certainly has more experience running elite offenses than anybody Charlotte has had in a long time. Rookie Devonte Graham, who profiles as a high-IQ defensive-minded point guard, could also provide useful minutes. If those two can keep the team afloat while Walker sits, the Hornets could look like a serious playoff team all of a sudden.

Question 2: What team do you expect to underperform?

Cameron Van Hare:

I am not saying the Rockets will be bad by any means. But I think they could fall considerably short from where they were last season. The Rockets are returning this season with nearly the same team that brought them one game away from a finals appearance, but one key difference could destroy the entire team.

Of course, I am talking about the addition of Carmelo Anthony. Melo is incredibly inefficient and does not fit with the Rockets’ max efficiency style of offense. Melo’s insistence on shooting mid-range shots, which he is starting to apologize for, could derail the Rockets entire offense. Melo will likely clog up the offense and stop the flow of the ball, hurting Harden’s ability to run the offense. Not only is the addition of Melo bad enough, it’s the loss of Ariza that will really hurt the Rockets. Ariza was a pivotal member of the Rockets for his stellar defense and three-point shooting. Melo brings neither of those things to the table, making an already defensively weak team even worse. With the West so competitive do not be surprised if the rockets fall as low as 4th or 5th in the conference this year.

Ryan Cluett:

As a bonafide Celtics homer, I’m going with the Toronto Raptors. Kawhi is a phenomenal talent for sure, but I think one of the question marks hanging over this team is their ability to perform in the Playoffs. On one side, they no longer have to deal with a LeBron-led Cavs team, and have added one of the league’s most talented stars in Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors had to give up quite a bit to land him, including losing DeMar DeRozan, who also served as a big presence in Dwayne Casey’s locker room. Can Kawhi step-up and lead this team, especially with free agency rumors already swirling around the Raptors camp? The Kawhi soap-opera brought an unnecessary amount of attention to the Spurs last season, and could end up being the elephant in the room if things go south in Toronto. In addition, expectations have been ramped up with his arrival. The Raptors will have to learn how to cope with the pressure that comes with being a top team in the Eastern Conference.  Needless to say, I think the only Toronto team that will get close to winning a championship this season will be the Leafs

Joe DeFerrari:

Check out these stats on the Portland Trail Blazers, compiled by Matt Moore of The Action Network.

2015-16: 18-4 between Jan. 10 and March 1, 26-34 the rest of the way
2016-17: 17-5 between March 2 and April 10, 24-36 the rest of the way
2017-18: 22-5 from Jan. 16 through March 18, 29-26 the rest of the way

Wins in crazy streaks count just as much as any other wins. The argument here isn’t that the Blazers are actually just a mediocre team. A more nuanced take is that there are multiple versions of every team each year – their chemistry develops, they hit hot streaks, their focus waxes and wanes – and if you’re Portland, the gap between the different versions of your team is staggering.

They have fundamental problems. Jusuf Nurkic is a key part of their offense, but impressive shots here and there mask his inefficiency. His usage rate was in the 90th percentile among bigs, but he was all the way down in the 15th percentile among bigs in points per shot attempt, per cleaning the glass. Both numbers are consistent with his career averages. He had a career-best turnover rate last year, but was still in the 28th percentile (and prior to that, he’d never been better than the 17th percentile).

Ed Davis was an absolute monster on the offensive glass, and Damian Lillard loved playing with him. Shabazz Napier was a capable floor spacer and floor general for them. Losing those guys hurts. Thanks to their alarmingly compromised cap sheet (Evan Turner, Mo Harkless, and Meyers Leonard will earn a combined $40 million this year), they do not have the resources to bring in any additional depth.

You want to give them a break. They were the third seed last year, Damian Lillard looked like an MVP candidate, they had the 8th best defense in the league, and they played with toughness and energy throughout the year. Their Pythagorean win prediction (which uses points scored and points allowed to predict win-loss record, and is sometimes considered a better representation of how good a team is than actual win-loss record) was exactly the same as their actual record, so there’s nothing tricky going on. They were the third seed and played like the third seed.

But in a conference full of teams that are getting better, where is the next step supposed to come from for Portland? Their core guys are beyond the age where you’d expect them to make a leap. They made no significant roster changes, and nothing short of a trade of one of their stars would allow them to meaningfully shake things up. The rest of the Western Conference is eating their Wheaties, and the Blazers are just running back a group that got picked apart in the playoffs and has no clear path to improvement.

Continuity matters a lot in the NBA. Guys that play together for a long while know each others’ tendencies and, with any luck, have chemistry that extends beyond the basketball court. But at a certain point, continuity gives way to staleness. When cores are together a while and they don’t have a way to get better, the excitement can give way to angst and boredom. What if they never find that higher gear they seem to hit every single spring? What if they got a little lucky with their leap last season and they’re due for regression? With everyone else improving, it’s just hard to imagine the Blazers finishing as well as they did last year again.

Question 3: Which rookie are you keeping the closest eye on?

Cameron Van Hare:

This is probably a popular pick, but Luka Doncic will be extremely interesting to follow this year. When European stars transition to the NBA there is always an air of skepticism surrounding their hype, but Doncic feels like he could prove the doubters very wrong. Doncic won the Euroleague MVP and Championship last year. He is only 19 years old. In any league pulling that off is incredibly impressive, especially in probably the second best league in the world. Doncic’s skill set already seems league ready as well, unlike many European players who are viewed as projects. Doncic’s short and long range shooting are both already superb. Doncic’s passing is also elite for his age, in the little I have seen of him his vision and decision making are far beyond that of most rookies to ever enter the league. Not only is Doncic going to be good on his own, he has pieces around him to elevate his game even more. The Mavs squad of Dennis Smith, Barnes, Dirk, and DeAndre Jordan give Doncic plenty of passing options. Even if the skill and athleticism level of the NBA is a shock to Doncic at first, I anticipate him adjusting quickly. Not only will he adjust, but he will improve tremendously as well when faced with tougher competition.

Ryan Cluett:

Doncic and Trae Young will capture most of the attention, and rightly so. With LeBron out of the picture in LA, I’m interested in the development of the Cavs as a team. Love and Korver will be expected to step up as leaders, and I think there’s a massive opportunity for Sexton to overtake George Hill as the starting point guard.  The former Alabama star played in his first game at Quicken Loans Arena a few weeks ago in preseason against the Celtics, and wasn’t fazed by the occasion. He was the first player on either team to reach double figures, pouring in 13 points on 4-of-6 from the field in 19 minutes during the first half, as the Cavs built a 15-point advantage and won the first 24 minutes, 58-43.  He may not win ROTY, but I think he’ll become a large reason why the Cavs won’t be completely terrible without LeBron this year.

Joe DeFerrari:

I was going to try to be different and pick someone else, but honestly, Luka Doncic is just too exciting for me to write about anyone else.

Seriously, just read the kid’s resume. Three-time Liga ACB champion (2015, 2016, 2018); 2x ACB Best Young Player (2017, 2018); a EuroLeague championship (2018), and a EuroLeague MVP award (2018). He turned 19 in February.

His accomplishments were truly unprecedented for a player his age in the EuroLeague, which is typically considered the 2nd best league in the world (with talent miles ahead of the NCAA, by the way). His court vision has been described as “generational.” Watching him play is like watching a chess master several moves ahead of his opponent.

There are questions about his game, for sure. His athleticism is suspect at best, his shooting (while sound, form-wise) is not particularly efficient, he’s not great around the rim, and his defensive instincts leave a lot to be desired.

But good god, the potential is flat-out exciting. There is absolutely no precedent to look at with Doncic; we’ve never seen a teenager play this well in Europe. His scoring arsenal for a 19-year-old is impressive. His court vision and passing are simply unreal. Couple all that with a perfect pick and roll partner in Deandre Jordan and a Mavericks team that’s looking to win now, and you have a recipe for an incredibly exciting rookie season.

Question 4: Who do you like for MVP?

Cameron Van Hare:

I really like Joel Embiid this year. First of all he is exceptionally talented on both ends of the floor. Offensively he is capable of bodying defenders in the paint, beating guys off the dribble, and stepping out and hitting deep shots. Last year Embiid averaged 23 points a game, shooting 48% from the field. Those are elite numbers. Defensively he may be even better. Embiid hauls in 11 rebounds a game and two blocks a game. He is a lockdown guy, and a matchup nightmare because of his unmatched combination of speed and strength. Embiid’s health is also the best it has ever been right now. It is crazy to think about, but he has only played in two seasons of NBA basketball, and missed many games in both years. If Joel can remain healthy he should be a real contender for MVP.

Embiid’s skills are enough for him to win MVP, but his hype could really push him over the edge. Historically, the best player does not always win the MVP award. Often, a player who the media loves will win. Derrick Rose won the award in 2011, even though LeBron James and Dwight Howard had arguably better seasons than him. But Rose won because of the storyline as the youngest MVP and Chicago’s savior. Embiid is in a similar position where the media loves him. Embiid is naturally charismatic and is constantly giving the press outrageous quotes. It is hard to dislike the guy.

Ryan Cluett:

I love Anthony Davis, and the fact that he seamlessly puts up massive defensive numbers to accompany his already strong offensive numbers, but the C’s homer in me is screaming Jayson Tatum. He was a revelation in the Playoffs last season, putting up 351 points, and falling a single-point shy of tying Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s rookie playoff scoring record. Tatum has emerged as the offensive leader on Brad Steven’s young team, and I expect him to improve significantly on his 13.9 points/game this season. As a relatively casual basketball fan, he was the stand-out performer for me last year, even outside of his impressive postseason debut. Plus, he had the audacity to posterize LeBron while trailing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year, so that was pretty awesome. I’m going with Tatum or Davis…

Joe DeFerrari:

NBA fans are starting to realize more and more that Curry is the engine of the Warriors. His shooting is so transcendent that it opens up their entire offense; him running around off screens just shreds opposing defenses. With Durant off the floor last year, the Warriors had a +4.2 net rating; they played like the 6th best team in the league with Durant sittingWith Curry off the floor, the Warriors had a +0.1 net rating. They went from being a +13.2 juggernaut to playing like the Clippers or the Hornets, teams that missed the playoffs.

This year, you’re hearing more and more that they realize this thing has an expiration date. They know how incredible this is, and they know there’s no guarantee it’s going to last much longer. If the Warriors come out playing with a renewed sense of joy and find their way to 66 wins, if Curry plays with the same mind-boggling efficiency but slightly higher volume, and if it becomes clearer to voters that Steph makes the Warriors the Warriors, you have a very strong case for his candidacy right there. Everyone loves him, and voters like voting for seasons that have a magical air about them. Leave it to Steph to pull some magic out of his hat for one more transcendent, ludicrous, out-of-this-universe season.

 

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