Don’t forget to check out Part I here.
Charlotte Hornets — Mark Williams, free at last
It took nearly the entirety of his rookie year, but Mark Williams finally received some steady playing time at the end of last season. He didn’t disappoint.
Williams uses his Supersaurus length (a 7’6” wingspan!) to contest shots all over the court. He also has quicker feet than opponents expect, which can result in some hilarious blocks. Poor Trae Young had no idea what was about to happen:
I do not have any data to back this up, but it sure feels like Williams keeps an unusual number of his blocks in bounds, creating turnovers instead of a reset for the offense.
As you’d expect, Williams’ rebounding was a strength, and there’s room to improve. He’s so long that he can grab rebounds from over people’s heads even with poor positioning, but a little more lower-body strength will do wonders for his box-outs.
Offensively, Williams was mostly a rim-running pick-and-roll center with a bit of a floater game. The healthy return of LaMelo Ball should do wonders for Williams in that regard, but he has more to him than just dunks and teardrops. Williams showed nice touch from the midrange while at Duke, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him dabble with some face-up jumpers this season. The Hornets should encourage him to stretch the boundaries of his game.
Atlanta Hawks — a full offseason for Quin Snyder
I am a big believer in Quin Snyder (as a regular-season coach, at least.) I wrote in-depth about his takeover when he signed with Atlanta, and it all still holds.
Sorry, Grant Williams Batman. The Scarecrow is back! After resigning from the Utah head honcho position after last year’s disappointing playoff exit, Snyder took his time surveying the field to decide where he wanted to go next. I’m a little surprised Atlanta was the choice (Snyder has long been rumored to be Gregg Popovich’s successor in San Antonio), b…
Snyder’s hallmark is his ability to design systems that maximize his best players’ strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. In Utah, that meant building around Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. In Atlanta, that will mean figuring out how to get the most out of Trae Young and an offense that, while successful, leaves a lot of fruit hanging low to the ground.
Atlanta has always been a heavy pick-and-roll team, but they often settle for midrange jumpers and floaters due to the proclivities of their lead guards. With an entire offseason, Snyder should be able to tweak the team’s shot chart to emphasize getting up more threes.
Defensively, Snyder shows his Popovician roots: after Snyder’s hire, we saw the Hawks’ defense foul significantly less and rebound much better (though they still weren’t getting many stops). That trend should continue.
Even after jettisoning John Collins, Atlanta’s roster still contains plenty of high-end talent, although they didn’t add much in the offseason. Snyder is a tinkerer and clever tactician, and I think the Hawks have a bit of a rebound season in them. If things go right, they could even avoid the play-in.
Miami Heat — Josh Richardson is back and a better fit than ever
As the league waits to see what happens with Damian Lillard, the Heat quietly addressed a major need in free agency. Josh Richardson’s first go-round with the Heat was reasonably successful, even if it didn’t quite meet expectations. But his ability to do some of everything will mesh even better with the team now that he’ll be lower in the pecking order.
Richardson is older and a bit slower now, but he’s still a lanky guard with plus defense, a decent shot (37% on a respectable 4.0 catch-and-shoot threes per game), and some playmaking and ballhandling chops. Miami’s roster has a surprising paucity of well-rounded players — most of the rotation is comprised of one-way players who perform their roles within a system that masks their weaknesses. Richardson’s positional flexibility will let him plug any number of gaps when Miami suffers the inevitable wave of injuries.
Erik Spoelstra must be ecstatic to have more versatility on the roster.
Orlando Magic — Paolo playing USA ball (and Mosley coaching!)
Magic fans get to shake off the summer doldrums a bit early.
Paolo Banchero will represent the USA in the FIBA World Cup next month on the senior squad, and coach Jamahl Mosley will be coaching the junior “Select” team.
Many of today’s best NBA players have credited their international experience on Olympic and World Cup teams as a major reason for their success. Playing with and against the best players in the league should help Banchero see firsthand the work ethic and processes that the world’s best use to improve.
Given the way the roster is constructed, Banchero seems likely to earn significant minutes, too, as the only other big men are Walker Kessler, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Bobby Portis. We won’t know how the rotation shakes out until the World Cup begins, of course, but it wouldn’t shock me to see Paolo playing a lot as the first big man off the bench.
There is plenty of scoring on this team already, so Paolo will be asked to work on the ancillary parts of his game — his playmaking and frontcourt passing will be a fantastic fit, while his defense will be tested.
I expect big things from Paolo next year, and this opportunity to train alongside other young stars could jumpstart his development.
Coaching benefits are harder to quantify, but Mosley will be exposed to various talented assistants and should benefit from a meeting of the minds. It’s good for coaches to get some practice with as many different players and situations as possible; like with players, reps matter. It can’t hurt Orlando Magic prospects for Jamahl Mosley to develop some relationships with other young stars.
Washington Wizards — Corey Kispert, scoring machine
In his second season, Corey Kispert quietly developed into one of the most efficient scorers in the league.
The distance shooting was his draft calling card, and he delivered. Kispert’s quickened release freed him to shoot from a variety of actions, and he’s an excellent and active off-ball mover. 43% from deep (sometimes way deep) on good volume is no joke.
But the interior scoring has been a wonderful surprise.
Kispert ended the season shooting nearly 64% on twos and a superb 74% at the rim, elite numbers (albeit on low volume) that mirror his rookie-year marks. He’s become adept at using the threat of his shot to blow by desperate closeouts, and his size (a legitimate 6’7” and 225 pounds) helps him keep defenders at bay until he gets to his preferred floater range. His straight-on banked teardrop has become a signature move:
Kispert entered the offseason needing to improve his handle, although that’s one of the easiest things for young players to develop. His defense will always be a question mark, too, but the offensive contributions may force coach Wes Unseld to keep Kispert on the court.
A team with Jordan Poole and Kyle Kuzma may not have a ton of free shots to go around, but the Wizards would be smart to earmark a handful for Kispert each game. Kispert’s next step is to increase the volume of shots he takes; Washington needs to discover if he can retain effectiveness when taking more and tougher attempts. I’m a believer, and I think Kispert should make a big jump into the mid-teens for points per game this season.
Utah Jazz — A deep, versatile front court
The Jazz are in the fun position of being young, on the rise, and flush with assets. The frontcourt, especially, is filled with exciting young players.
Walker Kessler was a sensation as a rookie, looking a whooooole lot like the gangly Frenchman they traded away despite making just 6.9% of Rudy Gobert’s salary. Lauri Markkanen was last year’s Most Improved Player and became one of the best scorers in the league. Danny Ainge added 24-year-old John Collins for one measly second-round pick and unwanted veteran Rudy Gay; Collins could thrive away from an Atlanta team that he’d grown to despise. With time, rookie Tayler Hendricks could turn into one of the league’s premier 3-and-D players, and Kelly Olynyk is still here to fill holes and open up the floor with his passing and shooting.
It’s a crowded rotation, but there are enough minutes to go around that everyone should be able to eat.
All eyes will be on Markkanen and Kessler to see if they can maintain or improve their production from the previous year. But Collins’ potential is real, even if his fit is a little awkward. I can’t wait to see if he comes out and sets the league on fire this season.
Portland Trail Blazers — Scoot is a real one
Not many teams have the luck to gracefully transition (albeit increasingly less so) from a superstar like Damian Lillard to a young stud like Scoot Henderson at the same position.
Scoot can learn from Lillard while the latter is still on the team. Once Lillard is gone, however, we’ll see Scoot take over. Portland likely won’t win many games, but Scoot should put up eye-popping counting stats.
Henderson has already shown a phenomenal ability to control the pace of a game. Unlike most rookies, he doesn’t go 100% all the time. Instead, he pokes and prods a defense until it finally gives him what he wants. Scoot settles too often for his midrange jumper, but when he finally unlocks his full athleticism and realizes nobody in the league can stay in front of him, he’ll become unstoppable.
Despite whatever bad taste is lingering from the Lillard drama, Portland fans should be excited to know they have their franchise cornerstone for the next iteration of winning Trail Blazer basketball.
Oklahoma City Thunder — It’s winning time
No more messing around. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be coming at people’s necks this year, and I think they have a chance to shock the world and escape the play-in entirely.
I’m halfway through a big OKC piece, so I will keep this brief. But if Chet Holmgren can live up to even 90% of his potential as a rim-protecting, three-point-bombing defensive center, OKC’s stingy defense from last year should become borderline murderous. And with 30-point scorer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander flanked by talented young offensive weapons like Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey, the offense should be fast and fun.
More to come on the Thunder, but I’m very, very excited.
Denver Nuggets — The champs, back again
Denver’s title run was so dominant that many people, myself included, looked at the loss of practically their entire bench unit and collectively shrugged. As long as the Jokic/Murray/Gordon trio is out there, the Nuggets can and should be the favorites to win any playoff series.
The Nuggets’ championship validated so much: their patience with Jamal Murray after he missed two straight postseasons recovering from an ACL injury, their belief in Nikola Jokic’s ability to anchor a championship defense,
their inability to air games on local TV, the heretofore-unseen willingness to pay the luxury tax.
The Nuggets’ core could be around for years to come, and as long as Jokic, a certified playoff assassin, is there, they are always a threat. Without the pressure of needing to live up to his stats and regular-season accolades, we may see an even more relaxed and confident Joker in next year’s playoffs.
Minnesota Timberwolves — An unusual amount of youth for an all-in team
Oh, man. I can feel it. I’m going to enter this season unreasonably excited about the Minnesota Timberwolves for what feels like the tenth season in a row. Someone send help1
One of the factors not talked about enough in Minnesota’s all-in trade for Rudy Gobert last offseason is that the Wolves still have plenty of young talent on the roster to develop.
Anthony Edwards, the team’s clear best player, is still just 21 somehow (for a few more days, anyway). Jaden McDaniels, who I believe was robbed of an All-Defensive team nod, is 22. He closed last season on an absolute offensive tear, hinting at untapped potential on that side of the ball. Newly re-signed big man Naz Reid and defensive-minded guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker are 23 and 24, respectively. They even found a rookie, Leonard Miller, who looked fantastic in Summer League.
That’s all without mentioning the 27-year-old offensive superstar Karl-Anthony Towns, who may or may not remain with the team past the trade deadline.
The point is: Minnesota failed last season, thanks to a combination of injuries, lack of chemistry, and disappointing play. But unlike most teams going all-in, they can reasonably expect most of their rotation — including several of their best players — to improve.
Last season went down like sour milk, but Minnesota’s future is still bright. This time, for sure.