Nothing lasts forever in the NBA. Even the seemingly immortal San Antonio Spurs have seen their Big Three scatter to the winds. The Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and more are here for their turn atop the NBA. But balance must be kept. For every team or player that rises, others must fall.
Progress and decline are never linear in the league. Below are predictions for which NBA teams and players we believe are set to fall back this season and the acquisitions destined to disappoint.
1.) Which team do you expect to drop off this season and why?
Sure, the Blazers were the No. 3 seed in the West last year, and yes, underrating the Blazers is an offseason tradition as old as time. But in swapping Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton for Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas and a pair of rookies, Portland’s bench got demonstrably worse this season. If Dame or CJ miss any length of time, Stauskas and Wade Baldwin are not the droids you’re looking for.
The New Orleans Pelicans’ first-round sweep of the Blazers exposed a number of concerning weaknesses. Jusuf Nurkic is a back-to-the-basket brute but he struggles to cover stretch bigs in space, which doesn’t bode well given the rapidly rising number of unicorns throughout the league. Evan Turner and Moe Harkless run hot-and-cold on any given night and Al-Farouq Aminu has shot below 40 percent from the floor over each of the past two seasons.
The Blazers are young enough that we can’t rule out internal improvement fueling another 45-plus-win season, but unless Zach Collins takes another major step forward, they’ll once again be the Dame and CJ Show. Seeing as this team was on life support in 2016-17 prior to Nurkic’s arrival, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see this team regress. Seeing as the rest of the Western Conference demonstrably improved this offseason, Portland’s stagnation doesn’t bode well for its playoff chances in 2018-19.
Jackson Frank: There are only a handful of teams with two top-20 players on the roster. The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of them. Most, though, pair their stars with capable coaching and management. The Timberwolves are not one of them. Head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau has lessened the shine surrounding this team by overextending his stars — Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns — and constructing head-scratching rotations (#FreeTyus).
A season ago, Minnesota was dueling for a top-three seed in the West before a torn meniscus from Butler nearly pushed the club out of the playoffs altogether. When healthy, the Wolves are a playoff squad. But Butler has only played at least 76 games once since the 2012-13 season and with Thibodeau continuing to pile the tread on his tires, assuming he suits up for 90-plus percent of the year is unlikely. With Butler on the floor last season, Minnesota was 13.1 points better per 100 possessions. He’s an MVP candidate when healthy and the franchise leans heavily on him, which worries me given his shaky availability.
With rumblings Butler, a free agent next summer, is rumored to be unhappy with the current situation in town, adversity could provoke a trade as teams offer a treasure chest of assets and hope to potentially convince him to stay for the long haul — though Thibodeau agreeing to part with a former Chicago Bull is unlikely. Minnesota’s playoff outlook starts and ends with Butler. Given the current uncertainty surrounding him and the loaded Western Conference, another trip to the postseason doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
James Holas: Fact: the Washington Wizards have an All-Star backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal. Fact: Washington just signed Dwight Howard, the first player to average over 16.5 points and 12 rebounds per game in under 31 minutes a night since Larry Foust pulled it off back in 1958. Fact: Otto Porter Jr became one of four players ever to average over 14.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and shoot over 44 percent from deep. On paper, this Wizard’s team should be the best it’s been in years. On paper, through internal development (Satoransky and Kelly Oubre showed serious flashes last season, and Beal is entering his prime), this Wizards team should be in the mix with the Raptors and Sixers and Celtics.
But the games are played on the hardwood, not paper, and something about the chemistry in DC seems combustible. Wall walks a thin line between snarling competitor and surly malcontent. His outsized ego is a double-edged sword, giving him the supreme confidence a franchise leading man needs but putting him (seemingly) at odds with the other talent on his team. Wall has the swagger and paycheck of a superstar but in reality, Bradley Beal might be the best guard in Washington.
Adding the goofy Dwight Howard to the mix and expecting coach Scott Brooks, a “player’s coach” who may not have a forceful enough personality to keep his tumultuous locker-room in check, and the Wizards seem to be on the precipice of something. It feels like this Wiz team will either click and be really, really good, or they’ll falter and turn into a snarling mass of pettiness. I’m betting on the latter.
2.) Which star player (All-NBA or All-Star within past two years) is at risk for a decline?
Bryan Toporek: Seeing as DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, and Carmelo Anthony were all All-Stars in 2017, there are a number of layups from which to choose here. Instead, I’ll troll our editor-in-chief and select LaMarcus Aldridge, who’s fresh off his best season yet with the San Antonio Spurs.
A year ago, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was openly throwing shade at Aldridge following a playoff disappearance, which caused the big man to reportedly want out of San Antonio. A preseason heart-to-heart got Pop and Aldridge on the same page and he responded by putting the Spurs on his back as Kawhi Leonard’s quadriceps saga played out behind the scenes. Whereas Aldridge was MIA in San Antonio’s playoff loss to the Golden State Warriors in 2016-17, he was basically the only Spurs player to show up against Golden State in the playoffs this past season.
DeMar DeRozan’s arrival in San Antonio could lead to Aldridge taking a step backward this year, though. It likely isn’t a coincidence Aldridge’s best year in San Antonio coincided with him reclaiming the role of No. 1 scoring option. Instead of sharing touches (briefly) with a hobbled Leonard, Aldridge will now have to contend with DeRozan, whose usage rate has hovered around 30 percent in each of the past five seasons. With Rudy Gay also feeling “athletic again,” per Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News, Aldridge is likely to have far more competition for touches this season than he did last year.
The 33-year-old big man may not precipitously decline, but anyone expecting a repeat of his 2017-18 campaign is setting themselves up for disappointment.
Jackson Frank: I had Chris Paul pegged for this spot but after Wednesday’s news Russell Westbrook underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee — the fourth such procedure on that knee — there are genuine concerns the human fireball might extinguish sooner rather than later. Despite the host of surgeries in the past half-decade, Westbrook has remained a do-it-all Energizer Bunny for the Oklahoma City Thunder. But sometimes, one surgery can be the tipping point.
Maybe more so than any other star in the league, Westbrook relies on his supreme athleticism to dominate games. He blitzes into the paint at an unrelenting rate, snares rebounds and tears down the floor, and contorts his body to execute awe-inspiring passes. His lack of a jumper and refined fringe skills have always suggested the decline will be steep. Perhaps it won’t be entirely dramatic this season but, scheduled to be 30 in November, the drop-off is approaching. Knee surgeries are often tricky to recover from and a disappointing 2018-19 campaign for Westbrook could be the product of more than just a slow start.
James Holas: It took two seasons for Draymond Green to turn himself into one of the most unique, impactful power forwards the league has ever seen. Listed at 6’7″, Dray’s ability to guard hulking centers or swift-footed guards make him the backbone of a Warriors squad that, if not for a three-game meltdown in 2015, would be in the midst of four championships in a row. Fiery defense, playmaking from the middle of the floor, and timely floor spacing are Draymond’s calling cards.
But is the undersized do-it-all big man doing too much? The shelf life of undersized big men is usually a little shorter than traditional bigs. When will the wear and tear from carrying a hefty offensive AND defensive load start taking its toll on Dray?
Last season, the tiniest of cracks began to show in Green’s game. He posted the highest turnover rate of his career while also finishing with some of the lowest advanced stats (PER, VORP, WS, DBPM) since the Warriors’ Finals runs began. Green will turn 29 late next season, so he still is in his prime, but will five years of deep playoff runs dull the razor edge of rage that Draymond plays with? How much longer can the high-octane Draymond keep revving his engine into the red before his gears start slipping?
3.) Which new addition (rookie or free agent) do you think disappoints the most?
Bryan Toporek: Based on the size of his contract and his draft pedigree—Jabari Parker was the No. 2 overall pick in 2014—casual Chicago Bulls fans may expect him to make an immediate positive impact. But unless Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg gets creative with his rotations, Parker is in danger of playing out of position at the 3 for a majority of his minutes, which will make him a glaring liability.
Offensively, Parker is interchangeable between both forward spots, as he can both knock down three-pointers and bang in the paint. Defensively, however, he’s best-suited guarding paint-bound 4s rather than stretchy wings. His lateral quickness wasn’t anything to write home about even before his two ACL tears, and he ranked 77th out of 82 power forwards last season in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus despite logging a majority of his time at the 4. Whenever he plays alongside Lauri Markkanen and either Wendell Carter Jr. or Robin Lopez, opponents figure to relentlessly target him, particularly in pick-and-rolls.
Unless Parker turn into a paragon of offensive efficiency, he figures to be a net minus for the Bulls this season. He’s a worthy gamble for Chicago nevertheless, but Bulls fans should keep their expectations for him in check.
Jackson Frank: Kevin Knox was a divisive prospect among NBA circles. Some were enamored with size, length and shooting stroke while others worried about his quickness, athleticism and offensive impact beyond shooting. In Summer League, Knox appeared to give credence to his supporters, averaging 21.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.0 blocks in four games. He displayed improved shot diversity, comfort as a ball-handler — making some impressive reads for a 6-foot-9 wing — and generally looked the part of a modern scoring forward.
At Kentucky, Knox didn’t have the requisite floor spacing to thrive. In Summer League, he had more freedom and seemed to relish it. Yet he still shot just 35 percent from the floor and the Big Apple isn’t likely to provide more room as just two New York Knicks shot above 36.5 percent last season, including Kristaps Porzingis, who won’t play before January. After an encouraging performance in Las Vegas, expectations seem to be mounting by the day for Knox. But with Porzingis shelved and the rest of the roster uninspiring, he’ll struggle to get honest reps as a spot-up/off-movement shooter and should be granted a role that exceeds his current skill set.
Inefficient scoring and lousy defense in a big market like New York have the makings of an underwhelming rookie season.
James Holas: When it’s all said and done, Carmelo Anthony will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest scorers of all time. No one can take away how ELITE Melo the scorer was in his prime and if the 2018 Rockets were somehow getting 2015 Melo, he wouldn’t be on this list.
But with Houston’s stakes being what they are, and Carmelo Anthony being who he showed us he was last season, it’s tough to see how Melo stays on the floor when the Rockets are facing the best of the best. After the Thunder were unceremoniously punted from the postseason, The Ringer’s Roger Sherman tweeted this sobering stat:
Carmelo Anthony on-court vs. the Jazz: 194 minutes, -58
The Thunder with Carmelo Anthony off-court vs. the Jazz: 94 minutes, +32
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) April 28, 2018
Melo as an individual can probably still beat up his defender for a bucket more times than not but his deliberate “jab-jab-dribble-shoot” style is diametrically opposed to the Rockets “grab-go-fire” offense. After 15 seasons and over 41,000 combined regular season and playoff minutes, plus the warp speed evolution of how the game is played, the Rockets probably won’t be very happy with 2018-2019 Carmelo. (I personally enjoyed the hell outta prime Melo, so I hope for his sake that I’m wrong).