The Hustle: Week Three – Most Interesting Teams

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Paul Mitchell: The NBA season is nearly upon us, and the preseason previews are completed and posted. Throughout the process, which has been the most difficult team for you to get a grasp on? Alternately, which team(s) do you feel comfortable in assessing entering the season, and which are you the most interested in watching compete in 2016-17?

(It’s almost here!)

Chris St. Jean: We are mere hours away, Mitchell! Can you taste it?

Two teams I’ve been struggling with all off-season, flipping back and forth on how well I see their seasons playing out, are Houston and Atlanta.

There’s this underlying assumption that somebody – either James Harden or Dwight Howard – had to have been the cause, the cancer, that destroyed Houston’s season last year. Depending on how you fall on that argument seems to reveal which team you feel more positive about this season: Harden with D’Antoni and the Rockets, or a version of the Atlanta Hawks featuring Dwight Howard.

But honestly, I think both Harden and Dwight deserve part of the blame for Houston’s disaster season. But at the same time, I’m strangely optimistic for both Houston and Atlanta this season.

We’ve been singing Mike Budenholzer’s praises as he implemented what we’ve described as a Spurs-lite system. But if he’s truly a disciple of Popovich, he’ll display the Spurs’ most important core attribute this season: adaptation.

The Spurs have always adapted their system to their personnel’s strengths. With the Hawks bringing in Howard and handing the keys to Dennis Schroder, I think it’s safe to say the Hawks will need to make some adjustments to their playing style to highlight the strengths of those players.

Last season, for all the criticism Dwight got in Houston, he adjusted his game to focus on playing defense and rebounding, and worrying less about post touches as those may have been a lost cause in that guard-dominant offense. I can see Dwight being coachable for Budenholzer and this seemingly oddly-constructed roster exceeding expectations in the East.

Of course, I can also see Dwight bogging down an offense predicated on space and ball reversals, leading to more finger pointing at Dwight.

In Houston, having James Harden as the lead guard in a Mike D’Antoni system and surrounding him with shooters will lead to amazing offensive results. I firmly believe James Harden will lead the league in assists this season. In some ways, he may be even better suited for this role than Steve Nash because of his size.

This doesn’t absolve Harden for his part in last season’s issues, but I can see this playing out with a return to MVP candidacy for Harden.

That’s mostly due to my own belief in Mike D’Antoni. He deserved another shot in the league after a few questionable fits in New York and Los Angeles.

Speaking of the Lakers…

This is difficult for me, Mitchell.

Are the Lakers a top-5 League Pass team?

It’s been forever … literally not in my lifetime that I’ve been especially excited to watch the Lakers play (the preseason of the Nash/Dwight season may be the last but that lasted about five games).

Despite their lackluster offseason, in bringing in Deng and Mozgov, I can’t help but be excited to see D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram play together. Julius Randle and Larry Nance are fun young fillers as well.

This is uncharted territory for me, Mitchell. Help me out here.

Mitchell: I’m sorry, the Los Angeles Lakers?! We need this regular season to get here already…

(/removes my kelly green-tinted glasses)

I mean, of course the Lakers! Dynamic young guards, plus a potentially dynamic young coach in Luke Walton, along with a fun crowd and bright court aesthetic… what’s not to love?! D’Angelo Russell is capable of making a huge leap in his second season and building upon his terrific preseason, while Brandon Ingram looks to be a devastating potential two-way player once he finally discovers In N’ Out Burger. For me, however, there’s still too much of Julius Randle bulldozing his way to the basket and too many holes in the roster to safely invest my League Pass time into them, despite Marcelo Huertas’ best efforts and the presence of Larry Nance Jr. (see above)

I see you, though, young Lakers. Get back to me in a season or two, or after the Jim Buss era is at an end.

The “young” team I honestly can’t wait to watch this season might be the Utah Jazz, however. Enough has been made about their veteran additions, but injuries dismantled this roster a year ago, and all of a sudden positions of weakness last season – namely point guard – are overflowing with capable players. The days of Raul Neto and Joe Ingles running amok in Jazz starting backcourts are mercifully over, after bringing in George Hill and Joe Johnson over the summer and returning Dante Exum and Alec Burks from injury.

Head coach Quinn Snyder now has legitimate weapons to play with as he hopes to alleviate the team’s poor play in close-and-late situations, with the flexibility to run some different lineup combinations due to versatile additions like Hill, Joe, and Boris Diaw. There’s a chance that Diaw and Johnson might contribute more to the locker room than the court at this stage of their careers, but their passing skills and overall #veteranpresence should be assets to this particular Jazz squad, who have serious upside as a potential 50-win team and Western Conference playoff seed.

The newfound depth alone should bolster the Utah Jazz and allow players like Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert (or Gordo in a contract year, or Rodney Hood in Year Three, or Trey Lyles in his second season, etc.) to finally put together a healthy season that establishes them as one of the game’s impact threats. But if players like Ingles or Jeff Withey find themselves playing 20-plus minutes a night in Snyder’s rotations, then the Jazz could again be on the outside of the West’s playoff push (and with another lottery pick in the ‘teens.)

But Utah’s floor might be pretty safe due to their increased depth, even if players like Exum or Burks can’t contribute this year. Give me a team with a wild fluctuation in win/loss predictions, that makes no sense on paper and who requires a lot of optimism on the eye of the beholder in surmising their 2016-17 season. I am in on Frank Vogel’s Orlando Magic, even if I have no clue what this roster is trying to accomplish.

Granted, I may have been trying to talk myself into these Magic for at least two preseasons now, but the presence of some particularly poor head coaches has given me pause in predicting an outright playoff appearance in the past. I have no more coaching concerns after the franchise somehow lucked into one of the league’s better young coaches in Frank Vogel, following his (dare I say?) controversial dismissal in Indiana. Vogel is certainly a flawed coach who prioritizes defense over the other side of the court – perhaps to his detriment in Indiana – but one who gets his teams to compete at a high level and is perennially a tough out in a playoff series. Vogel’s voice may have faded within the Pacers organization, but it should resonate with a weird Magic roster that’s tailor-made to his skills as a head coach.

Which is to say, expect another top-ten finish from a Vogel-coached defense, and a likely bottom-ten offensive unit. The pieces will be there with which to craft a mobile and switching defense because, after a summer shopping spree by general manager Rob Hennigan, there are quite a few pieces on hand. Additions such as Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo should get along fantastically with their new head coach and be put into places to swallow a lot of shot opportunities, while it’s tantalizing to dream of what Vogel has in store for Aaron Gordon and his defensive upside.

Less exciting, however, will be the the Orlando offense, with a lot of Nikola Vucevic pick-and-pop jumpers and awkward Jeff Green drives to the basket. But Frank Vogel turned this roster into a top-three defense last season! Give him Serge Ibaka on a bounceback campaign and plenty of intriguing young talents (Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezooooooooonja!) scrambling around, and I’m banking on the Orlando Magic scrapping a seventh or eighth seed out East.

(Or, Ibaka takes his contract year the wrong way, the Oladipo absence removes the team’s only guardable ball handler, and the same chemistry whispers which doomed Scott Skiles last season reappear under Vogel, and the Magic flame out spectacularly. There’s always that option, too. This team has a lot of range.)

(By the way, we’re running long this week. Sorry, but the NBA season opener doesn’t come along very often. Once a year, some would say.)

Now on to the team I feel like I have the best understanding of entering ‘16-17: the San Antonio Spurs. Every season – for better or worse – there are a couple of teams which seem perfectly suited for the rigors of the regular season, but whose ultimate upside is still in question. An 82-game sample size sometimes is deceiving, when it’s the marquee matchups that can allude to the actual strength of a contending team. Which is why Gregg Popovich’s strategy of resting his star players on a nationally televised game can be extra frustrating, as it’s the “measuring stick” games that can reveal a team’s true mettle.

I hope that Popovich abandons his strategy this season and takes those TNT late games seriously, because I feel like these San Antonio Spurs will need every opportunity to prove themselves in a conference that should be dominated by our Golden State overlords. They, along with the Clippers, will get the default status until proven otherwise, but we won’t know if they can truly hang in a series with the Warriors until the stakes tighten up probably later in the season. Not to say that the Warriors and Cavaliers, and to a lesser extent the Spurs/Clips, have made the regular season irrelevant… but they’ve made the regular season kind of irrelevant.

Instead there will be glimpses into the strength of the Spurs scattered throughout the season. The aforementioned primetime appearances on ESPN or TNT on Thursday nights, or any overtime affair or #LeaguePassAlert on Twitter, should tell us more about the character of this Spurs squad and how good they can be a year removed from the incredible Tim Duncan era.

Questions abound. Is Kawhi Leonard officially ready to assume the mantle as the Spurs’ franchise player? How will the Tim Duncan-for-Pau Gasol swap affect the team, especially on defense? Is the team as deep in the frontcourt after losing a number of rotation players over the summer (i.e. David West, Boban Marjanovic, Boris Diaw)? How does the team feel about the commitment to LaMarcus Aldridge, after a few months of life post-Duncan? Is there enough three-point shooting on the roster?

And, most importantly: Is there a north-to-south element in the offense that can spark the ball movement that leads to open three-point looks (a la the 2014 Finals)? Basically, can Tony Parker – and Manu Ginobili to a slighter degree – still get into the lane off the pick and roll?

If they can successfully collapse the defense off of dribble penetration and draw a help defender, then that causes the defense to rotate and leads to open looks along the perimeter. Suddenly Danny Green or Patty Mills or even Kawhi can simply catch and shoot, or swing the ball along the arc for a wide-open look.

Without that element unlocking the Spurs offense, I’m not sure if they can consistently generate enough open looks to survive a seven-game series against tough competition. The Tony Parker that we’ve seen of late, including for most of last season and in a disappointing finale to his Olympic career, hasn’t been able to consistently probe the defense and draw the requisite gravity that he had in years past. For a 34-year old point guard who has made a Hall of Fame-career out of speed and quickness, it isn’t the greatest of signs. For a Spurs offense that can too often rely on contested long-two-point field goals, it could spell dire results.

The San Antonio Spurs will again vie for the league’s best defense, thanks largely to Kawhi Leonard and Coach Pop (and with an honorable mention to Danny Green’s wingspan on the perimeter). But removing defensive-oriented veterans up front and replacing them with Pau Gasol and David Lee could have an adverse effect. If the defense suffers, and Tony Parker is no longer able to turn the corner off of the high screen… then that suddenly starts adding up.

The problems (at least as I see them) on the San Antonio Spurs should only be apparent against elite opponents, and this team is built to beat up on the regular season’s nightly challenges. Against the select few elite teams in the NBA, though, and I’m not sure how much upside they have remaining. Luckily, the Spurs have the entire regular season to adjust and address their holes, if only they take it seriously.

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