Reasons for every team to feel optimistic, Part I (Pacific and Southwest Divisions)

We’re entering the dog days of the NBA offseason, that too-long period between the end of Summer League and free agency and the start of training camps. Most people enjoy this time; I get antsy after about a week.

It’s time once again to take a look at something for each team’s fan base to get excited about. For some reason, basketball writers always start with the Eastern Conference, so like that one middle-school teacher who did the seating chart with the “Z’s” in the front row, I wanted to zag and start with the West.

Houston Rockets — Accountability at last

Drafting a bevy of talented young players is always nice. But putting them in stable situations isn’t just about maximizing their ability to succeed; it’s about the organization evaluating if players can contribute to winning basketball.

Too often in the last few years, the Rockets have been content to let a roster full of near-kindergarteners do whatever they wanted on the court. While the kids showed plenty of promise, it’s unclear if any of them will ever be able to do more than put up empty stats. It’s not the players’ fault. But with so many young guys vying for playing time, touches, and money, and so few level-headed veterans showing the youngsters how to manage an NBA life, the result was disorganized, selfish, chaotic basketball on both ends.

That changes this year.

It starts at the top, where the no-nonsense Ime Udoka takes the reins. The Celtics essentially fired Udoka for unsavory off-court behavior despite his coaching success, and although the hiring was icky, the basketball fit in Houston is apparent. Udoka had no problem publicly calling out players, stars included, for complaining to officials or losing defensive focus. He’ll have no problem doing the same to unproven 21-year-olds, which will be a welcome change.

You might quibble with how much money Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks got from Houston, but their presence provides a new level of intensity and professionalism in the locker room, practice, and games. VanVleet has never shied away from criticizing younger teammates (*coughScottieBarnescough*), and Brooks’ competitive spirit has never been a question. They will command major minutes, and younger players will be forced to up their games to stay in the rotation.

Nobody expects the Rockets to turn into a playoff team this year. But there’s a world of difference between being a bad team and a developing team, even if it doesn’t show in the records. This will be the year Houston makes that pivot.

New Orleans Pelicans — Trey Murphy III is about to be the team’s third-best player

What’s not to love about a tree-limbed pogo stick who happens to be one of the best shooters in the league?

Murphy is a smart cutter, reasonable defender, transition cannonball, and deadeye sniper in one 23-year-old package. He was a few layups away from hitting 50/40/90 percent shooting splits as a second-year player, and he might crack that mark this year with some added strength and expected ball-handling improvement.

With CJ McCollum aging and Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram forever unhealthy, the Pelicans will need someone to pick up the offensive load. Murphy looks primed for a breakout third season, and it’s not insane to think that he could average 20 points per game given the opportunity. He might be capable of hitting the high teens even if everyone stays healthy.

I’m not sure where Murphy’s ceiling is, but I’ll be watching closely this season to find out. If things go well, Murphy could become the team’s clear third-best player.

Memphis Grizzlies — The team finally took a worthwhile swing

Grizzlies fans have mixed feelings about the trade for Marcus Smart, but I’m more optimistic than most. Like the outgoing Dillon Brooks, Smart has struggled with his shot selection, but unlike Brooks, Smart is also a good passer capable of running an offense while Ja Morant serves his suspension. Smart is undoubtedly a willing enough shooter to share the court in an off-ball assignment with Morant, too, and he will take over the difficult wing or perimeter defensive assignments.

I’m higher on Brooks than most, and I still think this is an absolute upgrade for a team that has finished second in the West two years in a row. Whatever you want to say about his leadership qualities (I think he’s been a little overrated in that regard in the past), he’s certainly a willing leader, and he can combine with Steven Adams to bring a little order to a locker room that needs another respected veteran presence.

Memphis needed a jolt. There’s no guarantee the Smart trade moves the needle, but it’s an absolutely worthwhile attempt that should reap benefits both on and off the court.

Dallas Mavericks — Grant Williams is a perfect fit

Williams is the switchy, strong defender Dallas desperately needed. While he’s not a true lockdown artist, he’s well above average in an area of need and brings excellent three-point shooting.

While Williams’ capabilities seemed somewhat limited in Boston, it was difficult to tell how much of that was due to the system and hierarchy he played in. With Luka setting the table, Williams may unlock a heretofore-unseen part of his game.

Williams had a bit of a rocky postseason with Boston last year, but he has a long history of playing big minutes on a team that goes deep into the playoffs every year. Reliable role players who don’t need the ball are difficult to come by, and the Mavs were able to snag one of the best on the market.

San Antonio Spurs — C’mon, really?


Los Angeles Clippers — Kenyon Martin Jr. brings the fun

As the NBA world settles in for what could be a protracted resolution to the James Harden trade demand (he wants to go to the Clippers; 76ers president Darryl Morey doesn’t particularly care), Clippers fans might feel a little restless.

Kenyon Martin Jr. gives some reason for optimism.

Last year’s Clippers team lacked youth, athleticism, and joy. The squad was saddled with high expectations and hampered by the usual injuries. They could be a slog at times.

KJ is a 22-year-old dunktastic joy machine. Last season, his third, saw Martin average a career-high 12.7 points per game on 57% shooting from the field despite playing in a horrific Houston system. Although his three-point accuracy dipped, he’s shown signs of having a functional jumper in the past and is a clever cutter.

He’s a strong positional rebounder and should turn into a good defender with a better system and teammates around him (evaluating the defensive skills of any Rocket last year is an exercise in folly).

And, again, he can do things like this:

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I’m not sure how many minutes Martin will receive if everyone’s fully healthy. Still, assuming one of Paul George or Kawhi Leonard is hurt at any given time, he should see enough run to become a fan favorite quickly.

Phoenix Suns — Top-heavier and deeper

The Suns pulled off some neat tricks this offseason.

Out went the aged and perpetually-useless-when-it-matters Chris Paul. Out went tough-nosed Torrey Craig. Out went shooter Landry Shamet and backups Jock Landale and Cam Payne.

But in came Bradley Beal, who quietly had a nice bounceback season for Washington last year. In came Eric Gordon, who might be more valuable than Chris Paul straight-up (he’s at least likelier to play in playoff games). In came Drew Eubanks, who is a bigger, meaner center than Landale. In came Keita Bates-Diop, who may start, lanky wings Chimezie Metu and Yuta Watanabe, and defensive pest Jordan Goodwin.

The Suns even changed coaches from Monty Williams to Frank Vogel, which likely represents a lateral move in a vacuum but should help the team’s defensive identity (and specifically benefit disgruntled big man Deandre Ayton).

I can’t remember the last time we saw a contender get better at the top and the middle of the roster the way Phoenix did this summer. Craig will be missed, but other than that, the team improved at every single position except point guard, where Bradley Beal and Devin Booker are more than capable of carrying the burden (and if they falter, well, it’s not that hard to pass the ball to Kevin Durant and get out of the way).

The superteam era has faltered in recent years, but the Suns have taken a fun new approach (add young cheap role players instead of ancient cheap vets!). We’ll have to wait until the spring to see how it pans out.

Golden State Warriors — Back on a single timeline

The jettisoning of James Wiseman and Jordan Poole and the additions of Chris Paul, Dario Saric, and Cory Joseph bring Golden State’s focus back to the present and only the present. Curry was as good last year as he’s ever been, and Draymond had a lovely bounceback season. Klay Thompson, too, showed he has plenty left in the tank. The surrounding cast, filled with unseasoned (and untrusted) youngsters or largely useless veterans, was a massive disappointment.

This year, the team hopes that third-year players Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody are ready for bigger roles and that Gary Payton II can recapture the form he showed during their championship run. Andrew Wiggins will (hopefully) be back from his personal matter and fully engaged once again.

New additions Saric and Joseph are both solid veterans who can soak up as many or as few minutes as coach Steve Kerr requires. Chris Paul’s fit with the starters will be interesting, but he adds a different element to the Warriors’ offense. He should instantly stabilize the second units that have traditionally struggled without Steph Curry.

Golden State’s roster may not have improved that much on paper, but the team’s focus has narrowed. Any moves made now will be made to win. Whether they picked the right guy or not, Golden State amputating Jordan Poole from the team in favor of Draymond Green will undoubtedly improve team chemistry. And they can’t possibly be as bad on the road again this year, right?

I expect Golden State to reclaim their status as a serious Western Conference contender.

Sacramento Kings — Solid foundations

The Kings, for the first time in a literal generation, are entering the season hoping to build upon success. Last year’s third-seeded team took the defending champ Warriors to seven games. This year’s team is aiming higher.

Domantas Sabonis is back on a massive new deal, and with an offseason to heal his thumb, he should be better than ever. De’Aaron Fox is the reigning Clutch Player of the Year. Harrison Barnes and Trey Lyles re-signed, and defensive-minded center Nerlens Noel (long a favorite of mine) can add a different dimension to the Kings in short spurts.

The team also traded for Indiana’s Chris Duarte and signed EuroLeague MVP Sasha Vezenkov; both should be exciting additions to a club that loves to bomb from deep.

The team still doesn’t have many defensive-minded players, but another year under coach Mike Brown and strong continuity mean the defense almost has to improve by some amount.

In short, the Kings’ entire rotation should be better and deeper than last year’s team while still building on the core’s chemistry. Sacramento had a lot go right last season, but it feels like they are better positioned for playoff success than before.

Kings fans felt cautious optimism before last year, but any hope was simply that: hope. Now, we’ve seen this team in action, and we know they’re good. This year, they should be even better.

Los Angeles Lakers — Good moves on the margins

I’m still not entirely comfortable praising Rob Pelinka, who has had an uneven performance as the lead executive. I’m not even 100% sure he understands the salary cap rules.

But ever since the Russell Westbrook trade, Pelinka has made all the right moves on the margins. Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves were last year’s best role players; they both are back, with Reaves on a very team-friendly deal. D’Angelo Russell can at least score points in the regular season, while newly-added Gabe Vincent may well replace his minutes in the playoffs. Taurean Prince is a great option as a cheap 3-and-D wing.

I have zero faith in Cam Reddish, but he’s worth a shot on a minimum. Same deal with Jaxson Hayes.

In short, the Lakers have prioritized adding shooting and defense around LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the first time in their tenure. Everything still revolves around James and Davis’ availability and effectiveness, of course, but at least the pieces fit in a way they haven’t before.

I’m not sure how much credit Pelinka really deserves; he’s made major mistakes in the past (like adding Russell Westbrook in the first place). But he seems to have finally figured out appropriate roster construction principles, and that’s something for Lakers fans to feel good about. 

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.