What A Successful Season Looks Like For The Rest Of The Western Conference

To preview the 2021-22 NBA season, we’re taking a big picture look at what this year means to each team in the league. Part 1 on Monday consisted of the Eastern Conference, while Tuesday consisted of just the two teams in the Western Conference that opened their season. Wednesday, we round out the Western Conference and take a look at what they need to do in order to be successful by reasonable standards this year.

Dallas Mavericks

Let the offseason moves marinate and regroup

One of Dallas’ biggest problems last season was that they didn’t make enough shots.  That sounds way too simple and almost like a cop-out, but in so many games last year, the Mavericks started out shooting poorly and put themselves in a hole, leaving Luka Doncic to try his best to clean up the mess.

Dallas smartly attempted to fix the problem, bringing in sharpshooter Reggie Bullock from the Knicks on a three-year deal.  While Bullock doesn’t do much for Dallas’ defense, he almost automatically becomes their most potent wing, and reduces Dorian Finney-Smith’s role to a bench one, where he should excel.

The bigger question for Dallas going forward is whether the actual solution to becoming a true championship contender is finding Doncic a ball-handler to pair with.  Doncic’s passing is special, but the Mavericks’ roster is built for quite literally everything to run through him from a scoring, shot creation and passing standpoint.  It’s a huge load, and as good as Jalen Brunson is, his small stature and inexperience just doesn’t make it viable for the Mavericks to give him long run in games.  Dallas’ roster became even more reliant on Doncic after bringing Bullock in this summer.  Does a potential trade for or signing off a buyout of Goran Dragic elevate the Mavericks ceiling?  If Doncic does in fact need help, it could be a good idea.

Denver Nuggets

In the meantime of Jamal Murray, let Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol and Bones Hyland cook

We never will know what the upside was of the Nuggets after they traded for Aaron Gordon at last year’s trade deadline.  Denver seemed to be hitting its peak when the move was made, as Nikola Jokic’s MVP case turned into reality and Jamal Murray’s play was ascending once again.

But then Murray went down with a torn ACL, an injury that not only cost him last season and the Nuggets’ title hopes, but could very well cost him all of 2021-22 as well.

Denver only has to tread water if and when Murray comes back, but it’s very real that a return for Murray – whether it be late in the regular season or for the playoffs – is only a feel-good story, and that he won’t return to true form until 2022-23.

And even if Murray comes back full strength, it’s still no gimmie that Denver would have enough to be taken seriously as title contenders.  That’s why the Nuggets need to use Murray’s absence as an opportunity.  Up until this point, Denver’s perimeter shot creation has yet to slot in at a level that was Finals worthy.

The Nuggets have at the very worst test cases for that role.  Michael Porter Jr. just got paid like someone who has already proven he can be that guy, but to this point he’s only provided his value as a shooter while being a lost cause defensively.  It’s quite clear Denver gave him the money with projection in mind.

Bol Bol might be a bit of a gimmick at this point, but the Nuggets selected him in the 2019 Draft knowing he’d be a flyer and a project.  It’s highly unlikely he blossoms into a star, but with not much to play for given Murray’s unknown timetable, Denver would be smart to confirm what they have and what they don’t in him.

Then there is Bones Hyland, who Denver selected 26th overall in July.  Hyland was an absolute bucket-getter in college at VCU, and at the worst projects as a Kent Bazemore-like player.  Without Murray in the fold, the Nuggets would be smart to let Hyland hold a high usage rate throughout the season.  While his energy can get the best of him, it’s hard to rule out anything from a guy that plays as hard as he does.

Houston Rockets

See what you have in your youth

It’s Year 1 of a rebuild for the Rockets, which puts them in a similar position as teams like the Pistons, Hornets, Magic and Thunder (to an extent… more on them soon).  They just need to play all of the guys that have potential and see what they can do.

There’s a lot of players that need those minutes in Houston – it makes sense as to why they simply told John Wall to not show up and still get paid (Eric Gordon will also probably find his way out as well at some point, as could Christian Wood). 

It figures to be the Jalen Green show this season for the Rockets, which is not a bad thing considering concerns about his ceiling as a truly great player.  Letting him show those weaknesses – or overcome them – allows the Rockets to simply build better around him moving forward. 

Kevin Porter Jr. is surprisingly slotting in as a point guard this year, which seems a little far-fetched given some of his habits as a scorer.  The move for Porter Jr. does open up a sixth man type-role for another rookie in Josh Christopher, who’s ceiling as a NBA player is likely that.

Houston spread its wealth equally with its four first round picks, going with two in the back-court and two in the front-court in July.  There’s a log jam in the paint, with Wood, newly-signed Daniel Theis, No. 16 overall pick in 2021 Alperen Sengun and No. 23 overall pick in 2021 Usman Garuba all needing minutes either for development or financial reasons.  Wood and Theis occupy a around a $21 million cap hit between the two of them, which is quite a lot for a team that’s seemingly in a rebuild. 

It wouldn’t be shocking to see Wood moved this year – he was signed under the assumption that James Harden would be a Rocket and would be highly coveted around the league if Houston shopped him.  It’d open up a slot for Sengun to show everything he’s capable of, as the two’s skillsets are kind of similar.  At this early stage in his career, and with Theis seemingly in front of him, Garuba might be worth trying out on the wing or at the four, but it’s most likely he’s a super switchy five at the NBA level.

The Rockets shouldn’t have any expectations this year, except to be fun as hell.

Los Angeles Clippers

Treat Paul George like he’s Kawhi Leonard

It has been widely speculated that Kawhi Leonard will not appear in a game for the Clippers this year – regular season or playoffs.  That shouldn’t be shocking. First, it’s Kawhi, who has sat out a whole season because of angst before.  Second, his ACL tear is no joke, and it was sustained quite late in the year last season.  That’s an injury that typically takes a year to come back from.

If Leonard is indeed out for even a deep Clippers playoff run, then Los Angeles should take this year to evaluate his counterpart Paul George.

George overcame a lot of demons in the playoffs last year, leading the Clippers as far as he could after Leonard went out.  Los Angeles still came up short, but George didn’t choke or shy away from the moment – which was almost a first for him.

Getting that over the course of a whole regular season is probably a little unreasonable, but anything less than George’s prior regular season’s – even with a heavier load – should be cause for concern for the Clippers as to whether George is the right running mate for Leonard long-term.

Los Angeles’ offseason was certainly interesting in terms of how they surrounded George.  For a team that desperately needed a point guard to run the show, Eric Bledsoe was a curious answer.  He’s never been the most instinctive passer, and tends to play above his qualifications when it comes to creating shots.  The Clippers would have been almost insane to not bring back Reggie Jackson after the show he put on in the playoffs, but the contract he signed and the playoff production still seems streaky and unsustainable.  Terrance Mann is a good, all-around player, but some of the scoring performances he had in the spring aren’t likely to resurface either. All of those concerns has the Clippers then pivoting to the likes of Luke Kennard and even Brandon Boston Jr. for minutes and production, both of which are tedious bets.  

There’s certainly a level we shouldn’t expect George to hit with the Clippers this year, given his ceiling as a player and the seemingly lack of help around him.  However, there’s no reason he can’t bring Los Angeles to at least a favorable position in the Play-In Tournament or better.  If he can’t, the Clippers may be forced to reevaluate the viability of their star duo when Leonard returns. 

Memphis Grizzlies

If he doesn’t go up another level, find Ja Morant’s running mate

It’s hard to doubt anything when it comes to Ja Morant, who plays as hard as just a handful of players the past decade have.  But while the third-year point guard’s athleticism, penetration ability and passing is superb, it’s questionable as to whether he’s the No. 1 shot creator on a great or better team.

If Morant improves his isolation game and jump-shooting, then that’s great for him and for Memphis.  It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.  But little evidence exists thus far that he’ll develop into that type of player.

The Grizzlies seem decently aware of this.  They just paid Jaren Jackson Jr. a ton of money, which could pay off nicely if he expands his pull-up shooting game a bit more.  Desmond Bane seems destined for a bigger role this season after he flashed massive potential in 2020-21 as a rookie.  Memphis also made the ultimate home-run swing by selecting Ziare Williams No. 10 overall in the 2021 Draft.  Williams, who checked in at No 55 on the Hub’s board for the draft, came into his freshman season at Stanford as a top prospect thanks to a highly intriguing skillset as a long, 6-foot-8 shot creating wing, but fell after a tough season thanks to both basketball and non-basketball reasons.  While Williams was not highly regarded by this site (it was certainly disappointing to see him come in that low on the board), it is easy to see why the Grizzlies still believe.  If he hits his full potential – finally – the Grizzlies quickly go from frisky and fun to a serious playoff team or better.

Minnesota Timberwolves

New Orleans Pelicans

Portland Trail Blazers

Sacramento Kings

Surprise us, just a little if you can

None of these teams are in particularly great places, but some are in more dire situations than others.  

Minnesota, New Orleans and Portland all have superstar players that are likely less than thrilled to be there.  Two have made serious threats, with Damian Lillard issuing a memo to Portland’s front office that the team must improve, while multiple reports have came out about Zion Wiliamson’s disapproval of how his tenure with the Pelicans has gone.

Nothing at that level of seriousness has been reported about Karl Anthony-Towns’ discontent, but it’s hard to see why he would be ecstatic about playing in Minnesota, even with his best friend D’Angelo Russell on the team.  Years of losing and mismanagement at the top could force Towns out at some point, which would obviously be a devastating blow for the Timberwolves and their future.

Then there’s Sacramento, who doesn’t have anyone’s unhappiness to worry about except Buddy Hield’s, who is a bit lower on the totem pole than everyone else.  The Kings’ objective this year should simply be to compete and show that progress is being made toward fielding a winning team.  A Sacramento team that makes the play-in tournament? That would be surprising, and a positive step for the franchise. A team that at least doesn’t suck, is entertaining and maybe uses this year as a catapult for elevated success next season?  At the least, that should be the Kings’ goal.

The same goes for New Orleans, Minnesota and Portland, just on perhaps a different standard.  

Portland solved almost every issue it had this offseason except for one.  They brought in Larry Nance Jr. to sure up some of the defensive leaks and added even more firepower around Lillard and CJ McCollum with Tony Snell.  But it didn’t make a big, drastic change that seems to necessary for them to make the leap into true contender status. That could change if Ben Simmons gets moved this year (McCollum for Simmons might be the best deal for both sides in the NBA right now, given the health and safety risk that Kyrie Irving is).  A move like that could be the last-ditch effort needed to keep Lillard in town, because even with the offseason moves, and as Lillard said himself, it just doesn’t seem like quite enough.  If the Trail Blazers can emerge as real Finals contenders this year, it might be a natural way of fending off the inevitable.

Minnesota enters this season in chaos after its President of Basketball Operations was ousted a couple weeks ago.  On paper, the Timberwolves look like they should be decent, but D’Angelo Russell has turned himself into a negative value player, defense no matter what the personnel is has been a challenge over the years and there’s a lot riding on the play and development of young players like Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels.  

The Timberwolves turning the page this year and showing that they at least have something must be the goal with the clock on Towns ticking.  Whether Russell is able to flip his value around thanks to the presence of a truer point guard in Patrick Beverley, or the import of Leandro Bolmaro provides a much needed boost to Minnesota’s isolation game, or whether Towns turns into the player we’ve hoped he’d be on both ends, the Wolves need something to break this year, even if it is a late-seed playoff berth.

Finally, there’s New Orleans, which is on its third coach in three years and has struggled to field a competitive team around Williamson.  This season seems to be among their best chances in recent memory, as they relieved some of the clutter at the guard position by sticking to newly-signed Devonte’ Graham, Tomas Santoransky, Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander Walker.  Three of four of those players can play together, with Lewis Jr. potentially being a spark-plug sixth man.  Graham’s a potent guard to pair with Brandon Ingram and Williamson, which should give the Pelicans enough offensive juice.  

The biggest question is defense and health.  Williamson has been a force when healthy, but with him set to miss the beginning of this season due a foot surgery that secretly took place over the offseason, it’s fair to wonder whether someone with his size and skills simply works at the NBA level.  The former No. 1 overall pick has also failed to live up the hype he had at Duke on the defensive side of the ball, which doesn’t bode well for a team already playing Ingram and the 6-foot-1 Graham.  Additionally, while Jonas Valanciunas is certainly a better fit on both sides of the ball than Steven Adams was, he’s not a switchable, athletic big.  Jaxson Hayes fits that mold, but he’s shown serious signs of rawness since being drafted, and the Pelicans just extended Valanciunas’ contract.

New Orleans needs to prove to Williamson that it has something going for it this year.  The problem is that there’s three other teams that are wanting to do the same with their respective superstars, and the Western Conference, even in a diluted state, is still loaded.  It will likely take a big step up from Williamson himself or Graham to get the Pelicans where they need to be in 2021-22. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

Get anyone to pop, or get in position to get someone who will

The Thunder are an incredibly difficult evaluation since their long game appears to be endless.  With a bounty of future draft picks, Oklahoma City is in position to get whoever it wants via a trade or trade-up in the draft.  Until that guy becomes available or is eligible (he seemingly did this past draft in Cade Cunningham, but Oklahoma City either passed on the price or Detroit told them No. 1 wasn’t available), the Thunder are in a holding pattern with their roster, which means that incase the opportunity never comes to land the guy, it better come from within.

The options for Oklahoma City internally are a little scarce.  Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is really good, but his role now seems a little questionable with the drafting of point guard Josh Giddey.  The No. 6 overall pick in 2021 has the superstar qualities that the Thunder seek, but a lack of a jumper and sturdy frame could hold that development back in the long-term.  Giddey can get to the rim with ease thanks to his 6-foot-8 frame, which makes any ability of his to create a shot down the line incredibly valuable.  At this stage though, he’s still a bit of a raw project, and may never reach that next level the Thunder hope he will.

Then there’s Aleksej Pokusevski, who on some nights last year looked like he’d never played basketball before and others looked like a future All-Star. Pokusevski is a whole other level of raw, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be out of the league in five years or not.  Regardless, Oklahoma City banking on the former first rounder to emerge as a cornerstone for them is probably unrealistic.  This year provides a good test-run for him and all the other young talent now that not as many veterans are in the way, but something has to come along eventually for the Thunder – you can’t spend the entire timeline of the picks just waiting to make a move.

Phoenix Suns

Run it back and prove them wrong

Like the Bucks, the Suns have endured a lot of criticism and skepticism after their run to the Finals last season, with most of it being very valid.

To prove that last year was not a fluke, Phoenix doesn’t need to get back to the Finals again.  Encouraging outings against full strength Nuggets and Clippers rosters – during the regular season or playoffs if viable – would suffice.  But it’s unlikely either of those come to fruition, thanks to the very injuries that helped out the Suns in the 2021 playoffs.  

The Lakers are a tough evaluation for Phoenix when it comes to proving their worth.  It’s a completely new Lakers team first of all, but is also a team the Suns beat more fair and square than any other matchups last spring – LeBron James’ claims about his ankle after the loss fail to be taken seriously when he said he was 100 percent before the series started.  Anthony Davis’ injury is a legit excuse, but the James and the Lakers had multiple chances to fight harder against the Suns and never did so.  It wasn’t a matter of Phoenix being better – it was one of the Suns giving more effort.

Phoenix should strive to win the whole thing in 2021-22, whether it’s unattainable or not.  An at least respectable effort to do so should validate much of the playoff run last year.  The Suns roster is only better this year, with Landry Shamet and multiple backup centers (that includes Jalen Smith, hopefully) in the fold.  If the Suns flop, the critics will rightfully be calling.  If they shine, then the rest of the league better watch out.

San Antonio Spurs

Play survival of the fittest with the youth

The Spurs are in better shape than given credit for.  They sneakily have a boatload of young talent.  But at this stage in that collective’s development, they’re all complimentary pieces, or project to be that.

Higher ceiling options could be in the fold.  Keldon Johnson has been a completely different player since San Antonio sent him to the G-League during his rookie season – the former sharpshooter now uses his frame to get to the rim and still shoot over people.  Joshua Primo, as ghastly as that Spurs draft pick was, could have some untapped shot creation in him given his loose, vivacious style of play.  Dejounte Murray – their gifted point guard – just needs a jump shot to elevate his game, and Lonnie Walker Jr. remains a bit of an enigma in that department.

But none of these names are guaranteed to breakout or have their ceilings reach to the height the Spurs need them to.  If San Antonio can get a real feel for everyone this season, they can then move some of the spare parts elsewhere and potentially use them to make a splash.

Utah Jazz

Prove that a big shakeup isn’t necessary 

This mandate for Utah has nothing to do with the regular season.  The Jazz are likely to win a bunch of games, place high in the Western Conference and have a bunch of people going “Look out for Utah when the playoffs start!” only for it to come crashing down underwhelmingly early in the postseason.

The Jazz need that to not happen if they don’t want to ask and answer hard questions.  They’ve got to either make the Conference Finals, or give a good team a sweat on the path to getting there. But even that still feels like a disappointment.

Getting there will be hard, but if Donovan Mitchell can have a bit more of an impact on winning and if Rudy Gay proves to be viable as a small-ball five, allowing the Jazz to go small and switch every position of defense when Rudy Gobert isn’t on the court, then Utah would have at least made progress toward figuring out a solution for a roster that seems to be in denial about iself.

West projected standings:

  1. Phoenix Suns
  2. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. Utah Jazz
  4. Golden State Warriors
  5. Dallas Mavericks
  6. Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Denver Nuggets
  8. Los Angeles Clippers
  9. Memphis Grizzlies
  10. New Orleans Pelicans
  11. Minnesota Timberwolves
  12. San Antonio Spurs
  13. Sacramento Kings
  14. Houston Rockets
  15. Oklahoma City Thunder

A paragraph on the rest of the conference: The Suns prove their run to the Finals was no joke by using chemistry to top the Lakers.  Utah continues its regular season dominance but doesn’t pass the eye test as much, leading to another playoff collapse.  Dallas improves but not quite enough, and begins to think hard about what the right team around Doncic looks like.  The Blazers play well but ultimately not well enough, causing demons of the past to surface again.  Denver and the Clippers sneak in despite their banged-up rosters, but don’t pose much of a playoff threat.  Memphis makes the cut due to typical hard play and a step up from Bane and Morant, while the Pelicans are the last team in thanks to Minnesota’s youth and defensive shortcomings.  The Spurs still fail to get one of their young guys to elevate their game high enough, causing them to investigate upgrades league-wide, while the Kings have a disastrous season and reboot.  Houston and Oklahoma City expectedly round out the West, each having their own ways of entertaining but experience none of it translating to actual wins.

What A Successful Season Looks Like For The Lakers And Warriors

To preview the 2021-22 NBA season, we’re taking a big picture look at what this year means to each team in the league. Part 2 on Tuesday consists of just the two teams in the Western Conference that open their season today, and what they need to do in order to be successful by reasonable standards. Look for the rest of the Western Conference teams on Wednesday.

Golden State Warriors

Make it known and feared that you’re back

This is the year the Warriors have been waiting for.

It’s been a lost past two seasons thanks to injuries sustained by Klay Thompson for Golden State.  Now, Thompson will be back, and the roster is fitted perfectly for how the Warriors want to play.

It’s all built around Stephen Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, who in some way could resemble their 2015 selves.  Curry is clearly still at the top of his game after nearly winning MVP last season, while Green and Thompson’s abilities are less clear.

Thompson is coming off of two of the worst injuries an athlete can suffer in a torn ACL and torn achilles.  He hasn’t played basketball in 2.5 years, and could be a shell of his former defensive self. Green has seemingly forgot how to shoot and space the floor over the years, complicating his offensive role.  But he’s still found a niche acting as a screener and passer at the elbow, unlocking a lot for the Warriors’ offense when it needed to give Curry a break.  Defensively, Green is still very good and proved a lot of people wrong last year.  Steve Kerr has mentioned how he plans to implement Green as a small-ball center again this season, which only advances the notion that the Warriors plan to get back to their roots. 

But the Warriors also have other people to take care of.  It’s clear James Wiseman needs as many minutes as possible to gain his bearings in the NBA, or Golden State will quickly be looking at a scenario where they drafted the worst possible player with the No. 2 overall pick in 2020.  His role is reduced significantly if Green is to play at the five late in games.  The same can be said for 2021 No. 7 overall pick Jonathan Kuminga, who could very well be the last wing in the rotation on Golden State’s roster depending on how washed Nemanja Bjelica is (it was pretty rough last year for him).  

Golden State has the right formula and plan to contend this year.  Now it just needs to execute it. It has well-fitting players – off-ball wings – around its big three.  If they fail to live up to the stakes, supplementary scorers like Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins stand by to help.  There’s the perhaps scary variance of what Kuminga and Thompson could bring to the table, but there’s also stability in Moses Moody and Juan Toscano-Anderson.  Ultimately, things come down to Curry again, which probably isn’t what the Warriors totally wanted for him and themselves.  But with a better surrounding cast, a performance like last year’s from the former MVP is all the more meaningful.

Los Angeles Lakers

Don’t let the Russell Westbrook trade crater your chances

It would be one thing for the Lakers to come up short of winning the NBA title this year for the following reasons. 

The Nets or Bucks – two loaded teams – could take them down.  LeBron James could finally show some signs of not being as dominant.  A lengthy injury to Anthony Davis cannot be out of the question given his medical history.  

But the one thing Los Angeles can’t afford this season is chemistry issues brought on by the addition of Russell Westbrook this summer.  As a result of that move – a valid one in the sense of boosting the win total if James plays like a 36-37-year-old should or if Davis does go down – the Lakers’ roster is much worse.  Out went flawed but quality players like Dennis Schroder, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and in came almost exclusively washed veterans like Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony and Wayne Ellington. All of that was done to accommodate a very high usage, volatile presence in Westbrook who has proved that he plays best when he believes he’s the only player on the court.  If James is still capable of playing up to his previous standard, and Davis is healthy, Westbrook’s presence could very well become a liability.

The Lakers must fine-tune his role when the games start to matter this season.  Houston reached a decent level of efficiency with regard to Westbrook’s role in the 2020 Bubble, playing him almost like a center in the paint and allowing him to drive to the rim whenever he wanted.  This role eliminated Westbrook’s low percentage jumpshots and isolations and instead utilized his incredible athleticism.  

It might be tough for the Lakers to do the same with Westbrook this year though.  Davis is best utilized in the same area of the court Westbrook is, though his ability to isolate and create from outside the paint is underrated and is probably worth developing more.  That said, Westbrook’s presence conflicts directly with what makes the Lakers a dangerous postseason threat.  Unless either James is a shell of himself or Davis is out, Westbrook stands to be a liability once again.  After an overhaul geared directly toward him, a poor ending to this season due his selfishness is a disaster of epic proportions.

Projected standings in the Western Conference for both teams:

2. Los Angeles Lakers

4. Golden State Warriors

Some sentences about the two: Despite concerns about their postseason viability, the Lakers should be able to roll through most of the Conference during the regular season without Westbrook causing too much disruption and destruction. The Warriors don’t enter the playoffs as favorites per se, but strike fear into every opponent they face and get enough from Thompson and Moody to be taken seriously.

What A Successful Season Looks Like For Each Eastern Conference NBA Team

To preview the 2021-22 NBA season, we’re taking a big picture look at what this year means to each team in the league. Part 1 on Monday consists of every team in the Eastern Conference, and what they need to do in order to be successful by reasonable standards. Look for the Western Conference teams on Tuesday or Tuesday and Wednesday, time-permitting for the 26-credit college student author.

Let’s go!

Atlanta Hawks

Find an extra source of offensive oomph

As written in the 2021 Mock Draft, the Hawks could come into the offseason with almost a blank check.  Last season was dream-like for them, and Atlanta really only had two things to take care of heading into this year.

They did one of them.  While they’re still not totally equipped to take down Giannis Antetokounmpo (like most teams, to be fair) – the main reason last year’s run came to end – they did attempt to acquire even more offensive starpower in Jalen Johnson with the No. 20 pick in July’s draft.

Johnson’s offensive game is very boom or bust at the NBA level.  This site was incredibly high on him, but there’s no guarantee his style will ever translate.  But the Hawks aren’t solely reliant on him to provide that offensive boost this season.  Trae Young went up a level in 2020-21, and nothing seems impossible with him anymore after the masterpiece he painted in the playoffs.  The Hawks will also have Bogdan Bogdanovic to their use for the entire regular season, which could propel the offense to unseen heights, and DeAndre Hunter will also be back healthy – he’s someone who has developed nicely at the NBA level, but still hasn’t hit the ceiling he was projected for out of Virginia in 2019.

The Hawks were no fluke in 2021, but to be considered true title contenders moving forward, they’re going to have to get a step up from someone with the ball in their hands.

Boston Celtics

Bask in the glory of the righted ship

For the second time in three years, everything that could have gone wrong seemingly did for Boston last season.  The Celtics had no bench at all, underperformed, didn’t get enough offense from their star wings and point guard, dealt with a brutal stretch of COVID-19 absences and lost confidence in their head coach, who is now their General Manager in Brad Stevens.

Boston fixed as many of these issues as they could.  It added substantial depth, with Josh Ricardson, Dennis Schroder, Al Horford and Juancho Hernangomez all in the fold.  It swapped out Stevens for Ime Udoka, who was atop any list of best head coaching candidates the past five years or so.  The Celtics should also have COVID-19 be much less of a factor this year, but still need at least one or two players to step up.

The loss of Kemba Walker can be debated, but even in his diluted state he provided shot-creation the Celtics just didn’t replace in the offseason.  Dennis Schroder came on the cheap, but while bringing different liabilities to the table, he still brings the same quantity of them.

Boston needs one of their two star wings to make up for that loss.  Jaylen Brown has seemingly gotten better every season – it may be hard to keep asking him to do that given how far he has come and without starting to have serious conversations about how underrated he is in the league.  

Jayson Tatum is the X-Factor.  While Brown only blows us away, Tatum has yet to exceed expectations.  Perhaps the depth and flexibility in the lineup takes some of the pressure off him, but plenty of teams in the league have the back of the rotation taken care and forget the top.

Brooklyn Nets

Win the title, and cash in on what is still an embarrassment of riches

When the Nets signed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in 2019, they knew they would be immediate contenders in 2020-21, when Durant was back and fully healed from his achilles tear.  When Brooklyn traded for James Harden early on that season, the Nets assembled what could be considered as of the greatest collections of offensive talent ever.  When Harden and Irving sporadically missed time that year, the duo of Durant and one of the guards was still good enough, and when Durant was left to fend for himself in June’s second round playoff series against the Bucks, the Nets still came just inches away from moving on and being favorites to win the championship.

The bottom line is that an absence even to the degree of Irving’s for the whole season is overcomable for the Nets.  While it is certainly not preferred or acceptable for Irving to seemingly miss the entire season due to his reluctance to get a COVID-19 vaccine – a dose that is required for him to play home games in Brooklyn and forced the Nets to not allow him to play only on the road this season – the Nets should be okay, and to be in that position is one the Nets should relish, not feel bad about.

Would Irving’s presence make the Nets more likely to dominate and win the title? Undoubtedly yes, especially if the Bucks prove that last year’s second round win wasn’t as flukey as we believed it to be or if another Eastern Conference team rises up to an unexpected degree.  But the Nets still have arguably the best player in basketball on their team in addition to another top ten player, and have the potential return of an Irving trade looming.  While it’s entirely plausible that no NBA team would want Irving’s circus – and potentially not want an unvaccinated player in their locker room – selling low on Irving could still bring valuable pieces back to Brooklyn, and even more value to a team in search of an upgrade to its current shot creation situation.

In the doomsday scenario of no Irving himself or no Irving, Brooklyn still holds the crown as the title favorite. It brought in better depth around its two stars, and took pressure off of poor Bruce Brown – a point guard who played center a lot last season. With Patty Mills running the show without Irving in the fold, Harden and Durant can light the world on fire, and let the wins instead of the guy who isn’t there do the talking.

Charlotte Hornets

Let LaMelo’s progress dictate the next steps of the rebuild

The Hornets won the lottery in ways no one saw coming with LaMelo Ball’s breakout rookie season in 2020-21, and now they get to sit back and rest in the wake of it.

Charlotte doesn’t have to rush into anything yet.  Ball figures to make yet another leap in his second year, and the Hornets should be able to get a good sense of his true ceiling as a player with that.  How high he ascends either accelerates the Hornets’ timeline – in-season or next offseason – or allows them to go fishing for an even better player to pair with him for the future. Around Ball, there’s a lot of young talent to let grow as well. A below-average season from the Hornets shouldn’t be unexpected, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, either.

Chicago Bulls

Make the offseason moves look more than worth it 

Everything Chicago did this summer is understandable from a business perspective – the team has not been relevant as a serious playoff or title contender since Derrick Rose’s MVP season.  But the moves put a cap on the success the Bulls can have this season and beyond.

Is anyone in their starting lineup – Lonzo Ball, Zach Lavine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, Nikola Vuecevic – a No. 1 option on a great team?  Forget championship team – “great” doesn’t have to mean a Finals winner – are the Bulls suited to get past the second round?

Lavine made somewhat of a leap last season as an efficient scorer and passer, but he’s still far off from All-NBA consideration.  DeRozan is probably a little underrated just because of the role and lack of success he had in San Antonio, but the contract handed to him was still quite hefty and all he did in Toronto was come up short.  Patrick Williams is the one guy that could emerge with the high-upside skill set the Bulls need – Chicago certainly felt that way when it took him No. 4 overall on draft night in 2020 when consensus had him as a late-lottery to mid-first round pick.  But this is only Williams’ second season – his first in a normal year – and he showed many bouts of rawness (which was to be expected) in 2020-21.  Additionally, he’s coming into this year with a newly-healed high ankle sprain, which is an injury that can hang around longer than expected.  

The Bulls banking on Williams to elevate them to new heights this season is a really tough bet.  Sprinkle in a team that is defensively challenged aside from Wiliams and Lonzo Ball, and Chicago will probably feel like its spending left them hungry for a little more at the end of the season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Give off any notion that you have a plan or know what you’re doing

The Koby Altman-led front office in Cleveland has been a roller coaster ride since LeBron James left in 2018.  The drafting of Darius Garland in 2019 and trade for Andre Drummond early in 2020 was the first sign that the Cavaliers rebuild would be unorthodox.  The selection of Isaac Okoro in the 2020 Draft and the acquisition of Jarrett Allen two months later rounded out the rest of roster around Garland and Collin Sexton, but still presented limited upside.  Using the No. 3 pick in the 2021 Draft on Evan Mobley also made sense, but the move was countered by the strange sign and trade for Lauri Markannen late in free agency.

Cleveland enters the 2021-22 season in a state of purgatory.  It possesses a team that has too many players and is too expensive for what it is.  They lack a quality, 1A offensive option – or even one that projects as that someday.  Mobley very well could be a superstar, but he likely isn’t turning into a dominant, post-scoring big man or perimeter shot-creator, sooner or later.

Altman needs something to pop this year.  Whether it’s a big step up from either player or both in the ‘Sexland’ duo or an indisputable Rookie of the Year campaign from Mobley, the Cavaliers need some semblance of progress in 2021-22, or else big changes will be in store.

Detroit Pistons

Let Cade show you what he is capable of 

Detroit is in a similar spot as Charlotte, although with much lower expectations.  While the Hornets could easily find their way into the playoffs this year, Detroit can sit back and relax this year and watch the talent on the court tells them.

The Pistons sneakily have one of the best young cores in basketball with with Cade Cunningham coming in from Oklahoma State and after Saddiq Bey proved his readiness during his rookie year.  Cunningham is the crux of everything the Pistons do going forward – he’s one of the best prospects the game has seen this century.  How good he is right away – or how good he shows the Pistons he can be – dictates the next steps and how soon those steps need to be taken.  All 2021-22 is about is seeing what they consist of.

Indiana Pacers

See if Rick Carlisle is the saving grace before making a big move

Indiana is locked into a similar roster as Chicago, where many quality players exist but a high floor and low ceiling does as well.  With Malcolm Brogdon being a steddy-eddy at point guard and Caris LeVert probably topping out as a No. 1 option on a mediocre team when healthy, the Conference Finals are probably going to be a reach for this group now and going forward.

That does not mean Indiana is bad.  TJ Warren is just as potent as LeVert offensively, and for all of its faults, the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourt is fearsome.  But defense is a real challenge here.  Perhaps Rick Carlisle – the team’s new head coach – can round the team into shape with some new schemes and elevate one of its five starters’ games, but Indiana, with plenty of depth and good players, should probably have their eye on a bigger fish at some point this season.  They are not too far off at all.

Miami Heat

Rekindle the Bubble spark

Miami made it clear with the sign and trade for Kyle Lowry this offseason that it was going for it once again.  The Heat also completed a hard overhaul of its wings, which was a necessity after their performance in the playoffs.

The Heat clearly have title aspirations in 2021-22. To hit that benchmark, they’ll need to find what they had in the 2020 Bubble again: Elite two-way play from Jimmy Butler, hot three point-shooting and perhaps a higher level of offensive play from someone else.

All of those things are possible this year.  Butler was incredible down the stretch of last year’s regular season – the rest of the team just fizzled out on him.  The Heat brought in Lowry – albeit an old Lowry – to help take some of the load off and boost the shot creation.  Duncan Robinson is back on a massive contract, and P.J. Tucker is – even in a reduced offensive state – an upgrade over almost anyone they had on the wings last year (Looking at you, Trevor Ariza and Andre Iguodala) – Markieff Morris will play a role too.  The Heat can also deploy Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo at some point this season, with Herro likely spending his time as the backup point guard and Oladipo slotting in as the sixth man, if/whenever he returns to the court.  The two backup guards are perhaps the biggest X-Factors for the Heat.  Combining both of them with Bubble-level Butler and Lowry creates a dynamic, scary offense for any defense to try and stop.

Milwaukee Bucks

At least give Brooklyn a good fight and lay to rest the 2021 asterisk title case

There’s no way to sugar-coat it: both teams in last year’s NBA Finals received huge breaks along the way, and the 2021 title – just like the 2015, 2019 and 2020 (and even 2016 to an extent) ones – are asterisked, even though nothing in the Finals series itself dictated that.

So Milwaukee, even as the reigning champions, still has some things to prove.  The best way the Bucks can rid themselves of the takes and accusations is not necessarily to beat Brooklyn in next year’s playoffs, but at least go toe-to-toe and make it as close as the Nets did (or really, as close as Durant did) in that second-round series.  Defeating the Nets would be huge for the sake of validating the 2021 championship, but there will never be any proof one way or the other.  If Milwaukee can put together an effort that makes Brooklyn sweat or worse, then it should be enough to shut some of the critics up.

New York Knicks

Squeeze as much as possible out of Kemba, and prove 2020-21 wasn’t a fluke

Almost irregardless of his play, the Knicks got an upgrade at point guard this offseason when they signed Kemba Walker off his buyout from Oklahoma City.

Walker was not able to serve as the guy Boston needed him to be the past two seasons.  Without Kyrie Irving – and all of his subsequent problems – the Celtics just couldn’t get Walker to replenish the missing star power, and didn’t get the massive leap needed from Tatum in addition.

The Knicks don’t need that from Walker.  They need any shot creation and star power they can get, as the first round playoff matchup against the Hawks proved – Julius Randle just has no business being a playoff team’s No. 1 offensive option, and Immanuel Quickley is likely best served as an energy guy who can hit shots.  Assuming Walker can be better than Randle was if the Knicks make the playoffs, and assuming that the duo is as potent as it projects to be during the regular season, New York should be in decent shape to be as successful as it was last year, or least have people as excited as they were.  If the Knicks manage to do that, then a return to title contender status in the near future shouldn’t be far-fetched if the league’s stars and future stars get over playing for James Dolan.

Orlando Magic

Play all of the four guards and see what pops 

The Magic are in about as embarrassing a state as an NBA team can be in right now by rebuilding after a failed rebuild.  That said, they do have some things to work with.

For a team that plateaued so harshly with almost no promise, the talent at the two guard positions is incredibly impressive.  It starts with Jalen Suggs, the Hub’s No. 2 ranked player on the 2021 Draft big board who miraculously fell to No. 5 overall and has the potential to immediately become Orlando’s best player and take it to unforeseen heights fast.  The Magic could very well have a No. 1 player on a good team already on their hands, and building around him and his skillset allows for the quickest way for Orlando to gain relevance.

Even if Suggs plays out at the high-floor player most had him projected as, Orlando still has a lot of hope on the roster.  Cole Anthony is certainly not a bust and figures to be at least a rotation player in his career – his ceiling’s range is still quite high at this point.  RJ Hampton was another pick in the 2020 Draft that had high praise from the Hub’s board and others, but slipped due to multiple fair concerns.  Finally, the Magic paid Markelle Fultz big money two offseasons ago, and clearly believe in him as one of the most important pieces toward a good team in central Florida.  That contract and bet still seems a little too rich, but it’s almost guaranteed he’ll provide more value than we thought he would during his last days in Philadelphia.

Orlando is incredibly deep in the back-court, and has a lot to learn from its players, but it’s not a bad thing to have a lot of hope when you’ve been stuck at the bottom for so long.  There’s more hope now than ever on the Magic’s roster, and for the first time in awhile, it might actually be worth getting excited for.

Philadelphia 76ers

Resolve the Ben Simmons situation before next year

This season was destined to be a perhaps messy, off-track one for Philadelphia as soon as it lost to Atlanta in the second round of the playoffs in the spring.  In a perfect world, Ben Simmons would have been traded away as soon as he was eligible to be, and the 76ers would have gotten pieces back that may not have solved all their problems, but at least would have put them in a better position to win the championship.

Integrating those pieces would have taken time, and therefore created perhaps a slow start to this year, or even somewhat of a lost year.  Under different circumstances, the 76ers are in position to do just that as of now.

Which makes the current situation with Simmons somewhat tenable.  Things are uncomfortable and different for simply a different reason than expected.  What Philidelphia cannot do is go into next year with the same problem on its hands.  Simmons must be dealt – no matter for what package – by the end of next Summer.  The 2022-23 season has to be go-time for the Sixers, as a healthy and still young Joel Embiid must be taken advantage of.  Two years of waiting around cannot be allowed.

For now, the Sixers can wait for the situation to be resolved.  As long as his unhappiness doesn’t reach the levels James Harden’s did last year, then playing the season out and trying new things with regard to Simmons’ role shouldn’t be a bad thing.  Philadelphia is right to hold out for a bigger fish to want out elsewhere, but is also right to not accept an offer not worthy of what is left of Simmons’ value.

Toronto Raptors

Decide what direction you’re actually going in

For what feels like the third year in a row, the Raptors have one of the most confusing rosters in the league.

That does allow them some freedom, though.  If Toronto wants, it can be a decent, competitive team this year, which is what they’ve tended to be in the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s departure.

But that type of team has shown its ceiling the last two years – they went out sad in the Bubble in 2020, and though last season certainly had its challenges as the Raptors were forced to play in Tampa Bay, there was less grit than ever shown before from a Nick Nurse team.

The current depth chart seems to have the low ceiling and high floor that teams of the past have had.  Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are all quality players, but ultimately need a better shot creator in the fold to really shine.  There’s been a lot of hype about Anunoby’s evolution as a player, but him emerging as the true type Toronto needs seems unlikely this year and in the future.  The same goes for rookie Scottie Barnes, who was one of the safest players in the 2021 Draft but would be a massive surprise to produce the offense the Raptors need.  The book seems out on Siakam as that guy – he is just not good enough of a shooter to assume that role.

With their re-signing of Gary Trent Jr. this offseason, it seems like the Raptors are attempting to remain competitive.  That’s fine, and they figure to be decent in 2021-22 whether Goran Dragic is bought out or not, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see a bunch of pieces exchanged for one bigger fish at some point this year or in the future if they choose not to tear it down and start totally over.

Washington Wizards

Go all in

The Wizards are the most underrated team in the Eastern Conference entering this season.  Washington is deep.

It has three capable point guards in Spencer Dinwiddie, Aaron Holiday and Raul Neto.  It has a top-25 player – at least – in Bradley Beal, who’s a good bet to make his second All-NBA Team this year now that he has the best group of players in his career around him.  The Wizards have a bevy of wings that include Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Davis Bertans, Kyle Kuzma, Rui Hachimera, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert and Isaiah Todd.  To cap it all off, they have rim protection taken care of too, with Daniel Gafford ready to take his success from last year and spread it over a larger sample and Thomas Bryant coming back from injury.  And why not add some energy to the mix with Montrezl Harrell?

The Wizards are loaded without the top end talent that a team with that description usually has.  But don’t underestimate Beal with a good supporting cast.  This is the best team ever constructed around him in his career.  We’ve seen Beal be one of the 15 best players in the league before with worse.  What does his ceiling look like this year?

That’s why Washington’s motto this year should be to go all in.  Whether it’s trading some of the ridiculous depth to bolster the top end of the roster more and turn the team into a contender, or whether it be staying with the current construct to lessen the load on Beal as much as possible, the Wizards are ready to be the most relevant they’ve been in years – and not let anything screw it up.

Eastern Conference Projected Standings:

  1. Brooklyn Nets
  2. Milwaukee Bucks
  3. Atlanta Hawks
  4. Miami Heat
  5. Boston Celtics
  6. Philadelphia 76ers
  7. Washington Wizards
  8. Chicago Bulls
  9. Indiana Pacers
  10. New York Knicks
  11. Toronto Raptors
  12. Charlotte Hornets
  13. Detroit Pistons
  14. Orlando Magic
  15. Cleveland Cavaliers

A paragraph on the conference: Brooklyn gets it done without Irving because of the already present star power.  Milwaukee will be right there if injuries hit or if the Nets are conservative about their stars’ playing time.  The Hawks cash in on their run-it-back strategy and are still loaded with offensive options, while Miami raises its ceiling with much needed depth and roster upgrades.  Boston improves for the same reason, while the 76ers slip a bit due to chaos and potential new players coming in.  The Wizards’ decked-out roster gets them into the Play-In Tournament, with their ceiling rising higher if they make a big move.  The Bulls underperform but at least gain some relevance – which seemed to be the goal of everything anyways.  Indiana is a tough-out for its opponent every night under Carlisle, but still come up short.  The Knicks’ record takes a hit due to regression, but morale improves inside the franchise once again and sets them up to be a big fish’s destination via free agency or trade.  The Raptors continue to bite teams in the butt like Indiana, but no one emerges from the dust as a star and forces hard questions to be answered.  Charlotte unfortunately finds itself on the outside looking in, mostly because the conference is sneakily loaded but also because of the amount of youth they’re relying on.  Detroit, Orlando and Cleveland are the bottom feeders, with Cunningham and Suggs surprising everyone with their impact while the house gets cleaned out in Cleveland after a disastrous season.

Finishing Off The Teams That Probably Can’t Win The Super Bowl

This column serves as part three of the NFL preview. Yes, we’re once again a day behind, but both the Cowboys and Buccaneers have been covered.

Now to finish off the rest of the league: the remaining teams that have a case to win the Super Bowl. Again, these teams are listed in no particular order.

Ravens

The reason they can: Whatever he may be now, Lamar Jackson was and maybe still is an MVP, and now he’s got three legitimate weapons in Marquise Brown, Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman (who will be out to begin the season just like every other Raven, it seems). The defense, despite the loss of Marcus Peters, is still stacked at every level, with the front seven being the highlight.  Baltimore needs to rekindle some spark to get there, but if it can, they’re right at the top of teams to look out for.

The reason they can’t: There’s now been some foresight bought by publishing this post-Thursday, which saw Baltimore’s already ammargoden-like offseason only get worse.  The Ravens have lost three running backs (including their No. 1 starter and his replacement) and their top cornerback to torn ACLs, and now have to operate with two washed-up veterans in Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield. Latavius Murray’s presence should help, as he’s not as ineffective as the other two have been, but is ultimately not someone who is getting 20 carries a game at this stage of his career. The losses at running back put a huge burden on Jackson, whose shine as a passer could have been a one-year fluke during his MVP season.  With receivers now in haul, it’s on Jackson to return to form, or else Baltimore may be a team fighting for the playoffs while being carried by its defense.

49ers

The reason they can: They shouldn’t have the injury year they did in 2020, plain and simple.  And San Francisco now has an upgrade at quarterback if they need it.  The rest of the roster is stacked, just as it was when the 49ers made the Super Bowl in 2019-20.  If Trey Lance is truly not ready for NFL regular season snaps, the defense (which is among the best in football aside from some once again shaky cornerback play) can carry Jimmy Garoppolo and company, and Kyle Shahanan can make due just as he did two years ago with Garrapolo’s averageness throwing the ball.

The reason they can’t: It wasn’t enough two years ago to win it all, the NFC West is a hellscape and the book is out on Garoppolo, even if Shanahan can work some magic.  While the upside in Lance exists, he’s still a wild unknown and could be completely overwhelmed if inserted in as San Francisco’s starter.  Also, the 49ers’ safety play should help, but their cornerbacks have serious burn potential on a game-to-game basis.

Browns

The reason they can: Cleveland’s roster is another that easily ranks among the top ten in the league, and is perhaps one of the best.  The Browns have incredible one-two punches at running back and wide receiver, with football’s best offensive line in the middle.  All of that, in addition to a defense that could carry any average offense to the playoffs, should be more than enough for Baker Mayfield to succeed.  If he can elevate his play just a tad higher, and breach the elite boundary, Cleveland should win the AFC North with ease.


The reason they can’t: Can Mayfield really do it?  Is the Cleveland Browns franchise legally allowed to win a title?  Are the Browns really better than the Chiefs or Bills?  Cleveland is set up for perhaps its most successful season ever in 2020-21.  At the same time, it’s understandable as to why the Browns front office is holding out on giving Mayfield an extension.  The passing game should not be as flaccid as it is given the weapons on hand.  Health from everyone is needed, but Mayfield should be able to make due.  Until he elevates even a smidge, he’s going to be the loser in a duel between him and Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen.

Chargers

The reason they can: Justin Herbert looks on-pace to be one of the best quarterbacks in football after an explosive rookie season, and Los Angeles is doing the opposite of not giving him enough weapons with Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Jared Cook all to play with.  LA’s biggest controllable holes have been fixed – the offensive line is the best it has been in years (with the guard spots still a little iffy, but alas) and Anthony Lynn is no longer in charge.  The Chargers’ defense should be one of the best in football, with a wealth of talent at almost every position group.  The Chiefs being in the division is a problem, but if things break right, LA should be right among the top teams in the loaded AFC.

The reason they can’t: Because they’re the Chargers and can’t stay healthy, can’t make kicks and can’t execute when it matters, for whatever reason.  Maybe it was Lynn’s lack of preparedness for late-game situations, or a slew of bad luck, but there’s no way to be certain that the Chargers won’t Charger this season, even with a bit of a culture change in place.  Constant injury issues also won’t be rerouted by Brandon Staley’s presence, nor will a change in kicker performance.  It’s in the Football Gods’ hands, and who knows what wrath they will lay down this year.

Washington Football Team

The reason they can: This is, essentially, the blueprint for the Broncos of this year and of 2015-16: a very average, mediocre or worse quarterback held up by a fierce defense and plenty of weapons on the offensive end.  The defense will need to do a lot, but with perhaps the best defensive line in football and reliable defenders elsewhere, all Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to do is not have them on the field the entire time.  That should be viable, as Antonio Gibson is primed for a breakout season at running back and four-to-five viable pass-catchers exist for Fitzpatrick when the team is at full strength.  It’s unlikely, but similar things have happened recently – the parallels to the 49ers in 2019-20 are strong.

The reason they can’t: In no way is it conceivable that Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to win the Super Bowl.  The Nick Foles case exists, but at least he had shown multiple flashes at multiple points of his career.  In addition, Fitzpatrick is not along the lines of “knowing of what you’re getting” average – he’s actually the complete opposite, where four touchdowns in a game is just as likely as three back-breaking interceptions.  The variance is just too tough to bet on, and the loss of Curtis Samuel to short-term IR hurts deep.

Bengals:

The reason they can: With a fixed offensive line and good core of weapons, Joe Burrow should be ready for ascension, and that ceiling is limitless.  Burrow was the revelation we expected him to be before a devastating knee injury last November ended his season. He was on pace for a season – and projected ceiling – as good as Herbert’s.  If he can come back from it with no hiccups, then anything is possible for Burrow and the Bengals.

The reason they can’t: The defense is nowhere near good enough – with linebacker needing a complete overhaul – and issues still exist offensively with JaMarr Chase seemingly struggling to adjust to the NFL’s level of play and the offensive line still dealing with holes.  The AFC North is pretty open, but a lot else needs to go right for Cincinnati aside from Burrow being Burrow.

Jaguars:

The reason they can: Like Cincinnati, this is an upside play.  Jacksonville has a generational quarterback at the helm of its offense, and with that, anything is possible.  Trevor Lawrence walks into a better situation than given credit for with the Jaguars.  Despite the loss of fellow Clemson rookie Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville has a reliable running back in James Robinson, whose presence made the original drafting of Etienne Jr. a little confusing.  Jacksonville has given Lawrence weapons to work with up front in his career – D.J. Chark Jr. finally has a quarterback, Marvin Jones Jr. is a steady-eddy and Laviska Sheanault Jr. is a complete wild card in the best sense possible.  The offensive line has struggled but has some talent, and the Jaguars’ defense has a lot of versatile talent in the front seven, which will help make up for a questionable secondary.

The reason they can’t: It’s just a lot to ask for from a rookie quarterback – even one as decorated and seemingly destined for as Lawrence is.  Peyton Manning’s rookie season tells us all we need to know – even for the greats and the highly-anticipated ones, it takes time.  The culture in Jacksonville already seems certainly shaky, which is not ideal for a rookie quarterback.  It was never going to be about whether Urban Meyer can coach, it was always going to be about whether he could lead.  High-end success for him and the Jaguars would be quite a turnaround in a short amount of time.

Patriots

The reason they can: It’s the Patriots, who have completely reloaded, solved all their problems except one, and still have the best coach in football at the helm in Bill Belichick.  Absolutely nobody should be surprised if this happens.  New England gets back a lot of personnel that opted out in 2020, including stud linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who leads a stacked group in the middle.  The secondary is great, and that’s even without Stephon Gilmore, who will miss the beginning of the season and could see himself traded afterwards.  Additions were made up front too, with Matt Judon leading a stout defensive line.  The Patriots finally invested in the wide receivers Tom Brady begged them too – rookie Mac Jones now has four reliable targets and plenty of depth behind them in addition to a talented backfield.  The offensive line is loaded too, and as we’ve learned over the years, roster holes are almost non-existent with Belichick in charge.

The reason they can’t: They’re going to be starting a rookie quarterback who projects to be just average, not only this season but in the future as well.  That’s putting a lot of pressure on the other parts of the defense – a la what’s happening in Denver, Minnesota, Miami and Washington this season (among other teams).  Jones simply has to not suck for the Patriots to be successful this year – assuming Belichick’s heavy spending offensively pays off.  For all the talk about New England’s mediocre pass-catchers, they sure didn’t upgrade as significantly as one would hope.  A lot of money went to injury-prone, drop-heavy players.  Jones should love Jonnu Smith though – the ceiling of that duo, in addition to Damien Harris’ running ability, might be what New England’s success hinges on this season.

Eagles:

The reason they can:  For all the issues, turnover and drama, there’s still a lot of talent on this roster.  The defense, outside of linebacker, is a formidable group that needs the secondary to play up to its potential.  The offensive line still has four solid starters, and two competent depth options in Andre Dillard and Landon Dickerson.  In terms of scoring, Philadelphia has revamped its attack, with Carson Wentz out the door for Jalen Hurts.  Hurts had his struggles late last season, but there was a sense of rejoice and freshness breathed into the Eagles offense.  Now, with rookie DeVonta Smith in the fold and Jalen Reagor having a full offseason to get up to speed, Hurts has legitimate weapons around him, not to mention the tight end duo of Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz.  Miles Sanders can help balance things out, especially if concerns about Hurts’ arm come to fruition.  It would be wild to see Hurts’ rise in such dramatic fashion, but don’t underestimate the power of a new face.

The reason they can’t: Like Atlanta and the Chargers, the Eagles just seem to have bad things happen to them every season when it comes to injuries, and it usually happens to a degree that it decimates the roster. If injuries occur, it could devastate certain weak areas of the roster – linebacker is banking on being supported by the rest of the squad, and cornerback is already a little suspect.  The same can be said for Hurts’ receivers, as demonstrated the past two seasons.  Additionally, counting on Hurts’ to deliver in a big way is a tough bet.  While he semi-ignited the show last year, Hurts wasn’t a first-rounder for a reason, and needs a serious boost from his supporting cast to produce this year.

Steelers

The reason they can: The roster – outside of the offensive line and quarterback (which are admittingly important) – is loaded.  Pittsburgh’s defense is the type that can carry an average offense (which might describe the Steelers’ this year), with impressive linebackers, a ferocious pass rush and a talented secondary.  If Ben Roethlisberger can just hang in, his weapons and defense might be able to take care of him.

The reason they can’t: Roethlisberger was simply bad last year, and there is a shell of an offensive line to protect him this season.  Even with Najee Harris in the fold, the combination of Roethlisberger’s deficiencies and the lack of help up front could very well make the offense even worse than it was last year.

Titans

The reason they can: The Titans added the firepower they desperately needed to their supposed Derrick Henry-led offense, although that could change now that former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is the head coach in Atlanta.  Julio Jones’ addition becomes even more impactful if the Titans rely less on Henry and let Tannehill air it out more – it’s a shift that could probably be used given that the Titans have still felt short of destiny the past two years.  The defense is surprisingly talented, and aside from Jonnu Smith, there were no big losses anywhere aside from the coaching staff.

The reason they can’t: A potentially new offense that relies on Tannehill more and Henry less may not be something that Tannehill is equipped for, as we’ve seen dating back to his Miami days.  Additionally, there is not much depth at receiver if either Jones or AJ Brown go down, and cornerback is a little suspicious.  It still seems like it’d be asking a lot of Tannehill to take the Titans this far.

Saints

The reason they can: Jameis Winston got a change of scenery and eye surgery.  It’s as simple as that.  If he can just be average, and not mess things up to the degree that he was used to doing in his career, the Saints have a chance – the defense is good enough to pull of a carry-job.  Wide receiver is obviously very suspect, which is not something that bodes for helping out a quarterback who needs every ounce of support he can get, but New Orleans always is able to seemingly pump guys out of their system and turn them into reliable players.

The reason they can’t: It’s Jameis Winston, and everything that comes with that.  The perfect situation doesn’t exactly exist with this roster, thanks to just a steaming pile of uncertainty at pass-catcher.  Winston could even have the best situation possible and still not produce to an acceptable level – Tampa Bay is almost proof of that.  It is more likely that not that the Saints will be looking for their next franchise quarterback after this season – Winston is more likely to tell them that than the Saints deciding it for themselves.

The 6 Teams That Can Absolutely Win The Super Bowl

This column serves as part two of the NFL preview. Yes, we’re a day behind, but both the Cowboys and Bucanneers have been covered. Look out for part three either Friday or Saturday.

Now for part two: the real contenders.

Chiefs

The reason they can: It’s almost easier to just discuss why they may not.  The Chiefs fixed what they needed to this offseason: the offensive line, which arguably single-handedly cost them back-to-back Super Bowl wins when they lost to Tampa Bay in February.  Even though some youth exists, all projected contributors were good players in college, and veteran help will come if needed in Kyle Long, Andrew Wyile and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff.

The reason they may not: The pass-catching talent outside of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill is extremely problematic.  If one of those two go down for a significant amount of time, the Chiefs may be in serious trouble even with Patrick Mahomes under center.  Additionally, the interior defensive line is a little weak, and cornerback has zero depth.  Kansas City has four playable safeties, so that could allow it to get creative with its packages, but playing nickel with an extra corner might be a scary proposition. 

Buccaneers

The reason they can: Like the Chiefs, it might just be easier to say why they may not.  Also, they did so last year, and quite literally everyone that made it happen is back.

The reason they may not: Tom Brady is 44 years old and at some point this nonsense has to come to an end?  Because Aaron Rodges is extremely pissed off?  Because Sean McVay finally has a quarterback?  In all seriousness, it’d be surprising if the reason the Bucs don’t repeat came off of this roster, because a lack of cornerback depth does not matter for Tampa Bay this year.  The Buccaneers still have the best roster in football and it’s not close.  The only way this is truly their fault is if Brady is not the same player, which should not be surprising whenever that time comes. 

Packers

The reason they can: They have Aaron Rodgers, who is even more pissed off than he was last season, when he won MVP.  He’s throwing to one of the best wide receivers in football in Davante Adams, and can rely on a very good running back in Aaron Jones.  Green Bay also has a stacked defensive line and secondary, although that side of the ball has given them more problems that one would think the past couple years.

The reason they may not: This exact formula hasn’t worked for years, and Rodgers knows it.  While Green Bay did finally draft another wide receiver and traded for Randall Cobb to help Rodgers out, Amari Rodgers doesn’t move the needle like a Tee Higgins or Chase Claypool in 2020 or a Rondale Moore – per se – in April’s draft would have.  Rodgers has a foot out the door, and it’s fair to wonder if he mails it in considering the current state of affairs between him and the franchise.  Additionally, linebacker is a massive problem, and the offensive line is the worst Rodgers has had in front of him in years thanks to the loss of Corey Linsley in free agency and David Bakhtiari’s injury.

Buffalo

The reason they can: The Bills might have the second-best roster in football.  The defense could be the best in the league, as Buffalo, like the Chiefs, fixed the one thing they desperately needed to in the offseason: the pass rush.  The Bills have a group of five defensive ends they can rotate in and out on downs, including rookies Carlos (Boogie) Basham Jr. and Greg Rousseau and second-year player AJ Epenesa.  The back seven is loaded, the offensive line is great and Josh Allen still has plenty of weapons.

The reason they may not: Can Allen really do it?  Even though he broke out onto the scene last year and was in the MVP conversation, it still feels like he has to take another step forward.  Whether it’s the sometimes bone-headed decisions or the high variance of relying on downfield throws, the high-end side of his game still doesn’t feel possible.  The Bills really have no weaknesses aside from a questionable run game – how much that should be relied on could come to the forefront this season.

Rams

The reason they can: Sean McVay has a real quarterback now, and it could be scary hours for the rest of the league because of that.  The loss of Cam Akers hurts when it comes to making this offense a balanced, cataclysmic threat.  But it could also lead to the Rams to airing it out at an unprecedented rate, and subsequently unleashing holy hell on opposing secondaries.  The defense has arguably the two best defensive players in football and a dynamite secondary to help keep things in front of it.

The reason they may not: This is not exactly last year’s defense.  Even with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, holes exist in the front seven.  The line probably doesn’t need help with Donald, but an extra edge rusher wouldn’t hurt.  Linebacker is relying on a couple unknown guys, although Donald should plug up the run and the secondary should have their back.  Additionally, the defensive coordinator who made it all work last year is now the Chargers’ head coach.  Offensively, this is the time for Stafford to show who he truly is.  Are we sure he just needed a better support system?  McVay and Co. will be the ultimate test.

Seattle

The reason they can: Seattle is probably the biggest surprise in this top category of teams.  A lot of it has to do with the Seahawks, like Buffalo and Kansas City, fixing their two or so biggest problems over the offseason.  The offensive line is the best it has been in years, with Gabe Jackson’s addition at guard likely to do wonders.  Damien Lewis is a young, talented player opposite of him, and Duane Brown is a stable hoss.  That’s at least three quality linemen, and in a new offensive scheme, Russell Wilson should have to do less while getting beat up less as well.  Seattle’s defense features two awesome safeties and Bobby Wagner in the middle – giving them an impressive array of athletes to send flying all over the field.  Other areas are a little suspect, but if the o-line holds up, there’s no reason the Seahawks’ offense shouldn’t look like it did to begin 2020.

The reason they may not: A lot rests on Wagner and those safeties’ shoulders.  Cornerback is a weak, depth-lacking position.  The pass rush and defensive line is still quite bad.  The offensive line also has its holes despite upgrades.  Wilson strangely declined even after regressing back to the mean from the hot start last year.  Hopefully Seattle’s new offensive coordinator draws up advanced protections and quick, easy throws for Wilson, or else there might be another scare of the quarterback wanting to play elsewhere again this offseason.

The 8 Teams That Can’t Win The Super Bowl, And 6 More Who Probably Can’t


Welcome to the Hub’s 2021-22 NFL season preview. To preview the upcoming year, we’re breaking all 32 NFL teams down into three categories: those that can’t win the Super Bowl, those that probably can’t get there and those that absolutely can.

To start, let’s kick it off with the eight teams who don’t have any shot at winning Super Bowl 56, with reasoning to follow. Note: The following teams are listed in no particular order.

Colts

The reason they can’t:  While the Colts have overcome their preseason injury bug to a degree, there’s still not enough talent here overall.  Indianapolis’ offense and coaching is an upgrade from what Carson Wentz had in Philadelphia, but with T.Y. Hilton out, the Colts really lack a true No. 1 wide receiver that Wentz can rely on.  Additionally, left tackle is a big question mark with Eric Fisher out for part of the season and Sam Tevi out for the year.  Those two question marks do not bode well for a quarterback whose ability to handle pressure has seemingly fallen off a cliff in recent years.

The defense has holes at every level – most notably at linebacker, where Darius Leonard has a lot on his shoulders.  It’s not a group that’s going to carry the offense, even if Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack are the best backfield in football.

Bears

The reason they can’t: It was tough to not elevate the Bears into the next category, just because their ceiling with Justin Fields under center is so much higher than it is with Andy Dalton.  But there’s no way to know when that day will come – it certainly won’t be Sunday, at least to start out.

In addition, even with Fields in the mix, problems are present.  The offensive line on paper may not look like a disaster, but the center position is a question mark, and Germain Ifedi was let go by the Seahawks of all teams for a reason.  Even with Fields’ running ability and some underrated weapons, rookie QBs should be as comfortable as possible.  Chicago will not make Fields feel that way.

In years past, this was a defense that could overcome the troubles of the offense – specifically quarterback play.  It’s how the Bears went 12-4 and made the playoffs in 2018-19.  This group isn’t quite as ferocious, though.  Cornerback is an extremely thin position, and the talent is concerning behind Jaylon Johnson.  A lot rests on Roquan Smith at linebacker, although the fearsomeness of the defensive line still exists with Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn.  Even so, Smith and Chicago’s safeties – Eddie Jackson (who oddly declined last year) and Tashaun Gipson Jr. (who’s kind of been a journeyman himself since the year he led the league in interceptions) – have a lot to make up for, and that’s just on their side of the ball.

Giants

The reason they can’t: It would simply be too much of a step up to expect Daniel Jones to make this year.  Elevating from a well-below average quarterback to an above-average quarterback, which is what would be necessary given New York’s good-but-not-great defense, is almost unprecedented in NFL history (Yes, Josh Allen is a very recent example, but one could debate how below average he truly was before last year), and Jones has shown zero flashes that suggest he could do that (Unlike Allen, who was initially seen as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2018 Draft).

That said, Jones should be better this season.  The Giants invested heavily in weapons over the offseason.  Aside from a still shaky offensive line, there’s no more excuses for Jones.  If he still struggles, the Giants are looking at a player who needs a near perfect situation, on both sides of the ball, to succeed.  Better QBs, and therefore easier tasks for a front office, can be found.

Jets

The reason they can’t: It’s hard to slam the Jets for their defense, but some of it was avoidable.

Season-ending injuries to Carl Lawson and Jarrad Davis are brutal, but cornerback was the team’s second-biggest weakness entering the offseason, and not much was done to correct it.  New York has good safety play in stud Marcus Maye and LaMarcus Joyner, but there will be a lot of responsibility on those two, especially with CJ Mosley being more of a run-stuffing presence than a cover linebacker.

The offense comes down to how much one believes in Zach Wilson.  The offensive line is as good as it has been in years, and the weapons core is better than former quarterback Sam Darnold ever had it.  But there’s no clear No. 1 option in the pass-catching corps, and Wilson being totally overmatched as a pro shouldn’t come as surprising.

Lions

The reason they can’t: This roster makes it quite clear how the Lions feel about Jared Goff as their starting quarterback long-term.

There is just no real support system for him here, which is what he will need to be successful.  Detroit’s receivers are awful.  The defense, especially the secondary, has many holes.  It’s not a group that is strong enough to carry a bad offense to .500 (or, now with 17 games, around .500) or the playoffs.  Goff’s offensive line is quite good, which could lead to a productive season for D’Andre Swift and the rest of the Lions’ young running backs.  But we’ve seen Goff flame out in the past in a scheme built around a strong running game and play action.  In his favor then was a much better head coach, and one of the league’s best defenses.  The Lions don’t possess either of those.

Texans

The reason they can’t: Not going to lie about it – the Texans received consideration for the next group of teams up.  

In no way are the Texans Super Bowl – let alone playoff – contenders.  But Houston doesn’t have the worst roster in football, and in that particular superlative, they aren’t even close.  

The offensive line is the best it has been in years.  With whatever underwhelming quarterback they throw out there in DeShaun Watson’s absence, that will pay dividends. To help overcome QB deficiencies, the Texans have two solid lead running backs in Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay, a third in David Johnson if he’s healthy, and a perfect complimentary back in Rex Burkhead.  At the worst, one of those four can be flipped at the trade deadline for a late-round pick.

The defense is not very good, with holes aplenty.  The biggest reason why there’s no case for the Texans to be in the next bunch is because their quarterback will likely be career backup Tyrod Taylor or rookie third-rounder Davis Mills throughout the season.  But while Houston should be picking in the top five of 2022’s draft, it wouldn’t be shocking if they were closer to No. 10 than No. 1.

Panthers

The reason they can’t: This Panthers field the best surrounding roster Darnold has had in his NFL career.  That doesn’t mean he’ll take advantage of it, or that it will be enough.

While he has a weapons core that has high potential, the line in front of Darnold is still suspect.  Matt Paradis and Taylor Moton are the only starters who can be penciled in to hold their own.  The rest of the line is filled with journeymen and low-end starters.  That’s bad news for Darnold, who already struggles to make decisions even with a clean pocket.  A flustered Darnold, even with better weapons, will not lead to less turnovers.

Carolina’s defense is good, especially up front.  The defensive line will have to make up for the presence of only one true linebacker, and the secondary has some holes as well.  It could be a good defense that gets Carolina to the playoffs, but that’s an iffy bet, and with Darnold being a complete unknown, it’s hard to make a case for Carolina being a contender.

Falcons

The reason they can’t: It was a surprise to place Atlanta in this group of teams. It has been a sneaky sleeper team since the drafting of Kyle Pitts, which was for seemingly good reason.  But it’s not the offense that’s the issue, it’s the defense.

The secondary is a mess, with Duron Harmon probably slotting in as the only projected average player in the group.  Deion Jones is Atlanta’s only bankable linebacker, and his health is a massive wild card every season (as is everyone’s on this Atlanta team).  The line is perhaps the defense’s best position group, but there’s no dominant pass-rusher who can single-handedly wreck games.

The Falcons are going to score a lot of points.  A key stop that they will need here and there though may be hard to come by.


Now, let’s partially dive into the next category: Teams that probably won’t win Super Bowl 56, but have a case that could be made for them to do so. Again, these six teams are listed in no particular order. Note: Part 2 of this category will be released tomorrow, and the final category will be released on Thursday.

Cowboys

The reason they can: This was arguably the most unstoppable offense in football in 2020 before Dak Prescott’s horrible, gruesome ankle injury.  If Ezekiel Elliot is still ‘Zeke’ and Prescott is the same player, then they should be able to outscore anyone – other issues be damned.  There’s no better trio of wide receivers in football with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, and the offensive line still has two studs in Zack Martin (who will be out in Week 1 due to a breakthrough positive COVID-19 case) and Tyron Smith.

The reason they can’t: Well, it’s the Cowboys.  Mike McCarthy had his issues early last season, and his ability to guide an elite offense still seems suspect.  Prescott had his ankle pointing the other direction less than a year ago, and it’s fair to wonder whether that should be talked about more.  He also has what’s been described as a “baseball-style” injury somewhere in his upper-body.  Elliot has teetered on the elite label the past two seasons, and the defense, particularly the secondary, has numerous holes.  Dallas might also be giving up bomb after bomb down the field. Case in point: It’s the Cowboys.

Broncos:

The reason they can: This season and situation is going to be the tell-all test for Teddy Bridgewater and what his status and legacy really means.  How far can situation and non-below-average quarterback play get you?  Well, this year’s Broncos will be the answer. 

The Broncos did it before, when Peyton Manning was on his last legs in 2015-16.  There was no way Denver got as far as it did without the defense and weapons core it had in place – Manning was arguably below average that year.  Denver’s defense this season is one of the best units in the league, with a front that can wreck teams’ offenses.  Bridgewater has a good offensive line in front of him and more weapons than he seemingly needs.  Every piece is in place for Denver to make a miracle run.  It just comes down to whether Bridgewater is the guy we think he is or not.

The reason they can’t: The defense isn’t perfect, which is what it might take.  Linebacker isn’t very talented nor is it deep – Denver will be relying on rookie Baron Browning heavily at that spot.  The secondary and front will have his back, but most dynamic defenses have at least one stud in the middle.  Even with the offense being set up the way it is, asking Bridgewater to do enough to win the Super Bowl (versus making the playoffs) is a whole different ball-game, and Denver may need a more offensive-minded head coach to get them there.

Raiders

The reason they can: The offense had its moments last year, with Henry Ruggs III occasionally looking like Tyreek Hill when he was healthy and forcing Derek Carr to throw the ball deep.  In a perfect world, Carr has two high-impact targets in Ruggs III and tight end Darren Waller, with plenty of depth behind them in Hunter Renfrow, Zay Jones and Willie Snead IV.  Josh Jacobs also exists, which gives Las Vegas a potentially lethal attack offensively.

The reason they can’t: The other end of the ball, which has plagued Las Vegas for years no matter what it looks like on paper.  This is perhaps their best unit in that regard, with the back seven hole-free.  But the Raiders’ secondary has been a turnstyle year after year, and the defensive line needs a couple different players – most notably Yannick Ngakoue and Gerald McCoy – to step up. Additionally, Carr turning into an elite quarterback seems like a stretch at this point in his career, which lowers the Raiders’ ceiling and puts even more pressure on a defense that’s shown no evidence that it can handle it.

Dolphins

The reason they can: It’s simply about Tua Tagovailoa and whether he’s the guy we thought he was out of college or not.  That player was someone who could make any throw within 25 yards thanks to pristine accuracy and awareness in addition to having the ability to make plays with his legs.  Last year, Tagovailoa was coming off of a devastating hip injury, a subdued training camp and no preseason all while playing in an offense that was designed specifically for Ryan Fitzpatrick and not him.  The offensive line is a little suspect, but Miami has one of the deepest receiver rooms in football.  Tagovailoa should be able to elevate them, and if he can’t, then they can do the reverse instead.

The reason they can’t: The defense just may not be good enough if Tagovailoa is the type of quarterback who needs substantial help.  The Dolphins have one of the best secondaries in football, but the front seven is young and only possesses one or two impact guys (that’s including rookie Jaelen Phillips, who is hard to bet on because of his youth).  Additionally, expecting Tagovailoa to emerge as an above-average-to-elite QB might be unreasonable – even with his injury and all the other complications he faced, his lows were quite low last year.

Vikings

The reason they can: The defense should be a lot better, with the potential to be a load-carrying group if Kirk Cousins is the reason the offense is held back.  If he can be average or better, then the Vikings should score plenty.  Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook is about as good of a one back, two receiver set up that a team could ask for.  The offensive line has gotten better, although right tackle and center are both still a big question mark.  Minnesota has the potential on both sides of the ball.  On the margins is where concern lies.

The reason they can’t: If Kirk Cousins is in his best form, is that enough?  Or what if he is and the line sucks?  If he’s worse than his best, it’s over for Minnesota.  Additionally, the defense isn’t as loaded as you’d like it to be – cornerback has no one guaranteed to be successful as it’s a group of flyers.  The safeties help, but there’s also a hole at one of the linebacker positions.  Cousins is just a little tough to bet on after such a large lack of improvement last decade, and even if Minnesota is serious about putting pressure on his starting role, all Kellen Mond did in college at Texas A&M was underwhelm.

Cardinals

The reason they can:  The offense has the chance to be special.  Arizona alleviated any concerns about not having enough wide receivers by adding AJ Green and Rondale Moore over the offseason.  They pivoted full-time to Chase Edmonds as the starter at running back instead of relying on underqualified or washed up players to assume a high-volume starting role.  That would lead one to believe that the Cardinals are ready to air it out this season, and put head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense on full display with perhaps the largest dose of Kyler Murray’s legs we’ve ever seen, because when he runs, the Cardinals’ offense clicks.

The reason they can’t: As smart as Kingsbury is, the stars just haven’t aligned for him quite yet as he enters his third season at the helm, and if they don’t this year, then he’ll be out of excuses for the reasons above.  Additionally, cornerback is a complete mess for Arizona, with Malcolm Butler’s surprise retirement putting them in a tough spot less than two weeks before the season-opener.  Jordan Phillips to the IR hurts as well, although the Cardinals have gotten used to him not being available as his free agent signing looks like a total disaster.  Arizona also plays in a division that has at least two contenders, if not three.  The Cardinals are trying to be the fourth, and that will not come easy.

With Glendale Kicking Them Out, Is The Coyotes Future Viable In Arizona?

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  

Since the Arizona Coyotes moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg in December of 1995, the team has experienced more chaos and instability than perhaps any other franchise in the NHL.  Seven ownership changes, a lengthy bankruptcy case, a league takeover, a decimating expose and now a mandate from the team’s arena’s landlord to get out have all dominated the headlines since the team’s arrival in the desert.  

All of the troubles, old and recent, pose one question: Are the Coyotes a viable business in Arizona, or is relocation the only answer?

None of the people interviewed for this story believe the latter is truly the answer.  But almost all added that time may not suffice to figure that out.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN in 2020 that he hoped Arizona’s latest owner – Alex Meruelo, who bought the team in the summer of 2019 – would “crack the code” when it came to the franchise’s struggles, signaling that the league still hoped to keep the team in town.  Instead, figure after figure has failed to do so, including Meruelo himself.


To Matt Layman, he was just different.

Then a reporter with 98.7 Arizona Sports, Layman walked out of Meruelo’s introductory press conference as the Coyotes’ new owner in late July of 2019 certainly amused, and perhaps confident about the team’s future success.

“I actually remember being impressed with him,” Layman said via phone from Dallas, where he currently works outside of the journalism industry. “I thought he was good.  He seemed like somebody the Coyotes needed, at least from what was said about him and what he said about himself.”

Meruelo was an espresso shot into a drained body.  He had bought the team from Andrew Barroway, who represented the last remaining tie to the franchise’s infamous bankruptcy saga in the late 2000s and early 2010s.  He was the first hispanic owner in NHL history, and hoped to blend Maricopa County’s 31.4% hispanic population with hockey by introducing spanish-language social media accounts and celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.  He also replaced CEO Arhon Cohen with Xavier A. Gutierrez, who became hockey’s first Latino President and CEO.

“He seemed like a really fiery, energetic guy who used a swear word in his introductory press conference,” Layman said. “That definitely stood out to me.”

On the ice, Arizona made big changes too.  They traded for Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel and signed Clayton Keller and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

“There were some things that you noticed, and correlation doesn’t always mean causation, but there were certainly things that were new or that changed with the franchise in that time since Meruelo took over,” Layman said.

In that introductory same press conference, the Coyotes new leader spoke about the difficulties the team had faced since moving to Arizona, and how he intended to fix that.  Treating the franchise as purely a business – Meruelo’s self-proclaimed strength – was the plan.

“He talked a lot about trying to turn the business in the right direction and make good business decisions,” Layman recalled.  “It was all about business and what he had done previously in his other industries – casinos and hotels.  It was ‘Yeah, I’m going to do what I did in those other places and I’ve done this before and I’m going to do it again.’”

While his words were seemingly reassuring, hiccups could be found.  According to Layman, Meruelo seemed “a little nervous or chatty during the press conference.  He kind of ad-libbed and went off the cusp.”  While the former reporter was hesitant to correlate that with the new owner’s struggles, it perhaps was a look into the future.  According to Katie Strang’s piece in The Athletic, “several employees felt there was a lack of understanding about what makes running an NHL team… different from a private business.”

But to the public eye, Meruelo was set up for success, and Layman didn’t raise a finger.

[Meruelo] was probably reassuring for the fans,” he said. “I would say on a personal level, I bought it to an extent too.”


The allegations in The Athletic piece – and the extent of them – are startling.

Strang details Meruelo’s berating of team employees and lack of following through on promises and missed payments (to players, employees, vendors and sponsors).  She also mentions the dysfunction behind the drafting of Mitchell Miller, the dismissal of former GM John Chayka, the reign of control exerted by current GM Bill Armstrong and reported sexual harassment within the workplace.

According to Todd Merkow, a Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication faculty associate and the owner of Three Screens Media, Arizona’s wild inconsistency over the years is the perfect breeding ground for issues within an organization.

“When you talk about ownership, there’s been so many [with the Coyotes] that stability is the greatest key to success,” he said. “Stability and strength.  I’m not sure that those all existed with every ownership that has been a part of the Coyotes with the exception of, to a degree, Gluckstern and Burke.”

The group headed by Steven Gluckstern and Richard Burke brought the Coyotes to Arizona from Winnipeg in the mid 1990s and experienced relative success.  In their first four seasons, the team made the playoffs, and in five of its first six, it did as well.

“In those early days, when they came here with that product, they had great stars,” Merkow recalled.  “They traded for Jeremy Roenick to boost the star power.  They went into the playoffs their first four years.  The White Out was introduced.  The energy in that building [in] downtown [Phoenix, where the Coyotes played at what is now the Footprint Center] was unbelievable.”

But during the 2000-01 season, Arizona failed to qualify for the playoffs, which triggered a stretch that resulted in the Coyotes missing six of the next seven postseason tournaments.  At the same time, things outside of hockey began to change.  Gluckstern was bought out by Burke in 1998, and Burke later sold the team to Steve Ellman in 2001.  

Ellman had big plans.  While the team had success in downtown Phoenix on the ice, and perhaps attracted the most fans in its Arizona existence, what was then America West Arena brought obstructed views to some of those attending games.  The venue was constructed for the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury, and didn’t have hockey in mind.

So Ellman looked elsewhere for the Coyotes to play.  He wanted them to have their own venue – a place meant for hockey.

The flashy Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale made perfect sense, but an article written by Carolyn Dryer quoted Ellman saying that Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County Sheriff, “got me thrown out of Scottsdale.”  According to Dryer, the deal went “sour” and Arpaio wanted the site Ellman chose to eventually be a jail.

Ellman then shifted his focus to Glendale, who he “had a long history with,” according to Ellman in Dryer’s article.  He touted the Coyotes as being a “significant sales tax generator for the city” and planned on the Coyotes arena and surrounding area (now the Westgate Entertainment District) to be where “every meeting in the Valley is going to be held.”  

“This was a real estate deal for him,” Merkow said of Ellman.  “That was the play for him.”

Al Gage, a real estate agent in the Valley since 1996, agreed with Merkow’s opinion.

“I think that it was the incentives from the city and a little bit of badgering from the location on the east side and a willingness to embrace them on the west side,” he said.  “Essentially, the land was cheaper.”


The decision to build in Glendale could be seen as the catalyst for all of the Coyotes’ problems over the years.

Ticket revenue for Arizona has long been near the bottom of the NHL, and while Gila River Arena may be nice, it isn’t a particularly flashy venue – nor is it a historic one.

In addition, the arena’s location – at the Loop 101 and Maryland Avenue in the West Valley – is far from the Coyotes target audience.

“Being in Glendale doesn’t help them at all,” Layman said.  “As somebody who lived in Chandler when I was a teenager and in my early years of college, Glendale was a long way to go to go watch a hockey game, especially on a weeknight.  

“That’s not doing them any favors.”

The arena’s location – in addition to an elongated stretch of no success on the ice – has put the Coyotes in financial hell.  People don’t want a bad product, and certainly aren’t making the long haul to see it.

Merkow said that when Ellman moved the team to Glendale, Ellman was betting on the west side of the Phoenix metropolitan area eventually taking off, which would bring fans in from shorter distances.  But the growth wasn’t as sharp as expected off the jump.  

“It was too early to go out West,” Merkow said.  “I don’t know if it was going to grow at the rapid pace they expected.”

Ellman sold the team to Jerry Moyes in 2005, who took over just two years before a catastrophe no one saw coming struck: the recession.

“That area just hit a wall,” Merkow said.  “There was no growth whatsoever.

“It got killed because of the recession.  All the way around, he got killed.”

The Coyotes lost any progress they had made, setting them back years in their quest to be a mechanism for growth in the West Valley.  Now, the franchise sits in the purgatory Layman described: bad and far away.

“You still have to have a winning franchise and it has to be in the right location,” Merkow said.

On Thursday, a push to get the franchise out of Glendale came in ways previously unseen, as the city told the Coyotes that they must leave Gila River Arena at the end of the 2021-22 season. While the team has been exploring a new arena based in Tempe, no ground has been broken, and the Coyotes have been here before. With the same issues still existing at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, the Coyotes are homeless starting one year from now.

Gage believes location isn’t as large a part of the equation.  Consistency in the product on the ice is.  When the team moved to Glendale, it was coming off of a season in which it finished fourth in its division and missed the playoffs.  The losing continued for multiple seasons after that.

“I’m a huge hockey fan, and was there Opening Night at Gila River,” Gage said.  “Did you know that the first three pucks in regulation to go over the glass went to the same guy?  That’s statistically impossible, but it happened, because they slid down the net at the same place and he was the only one sitting there.

“The biggest problem they have in my opinion is that they don’t put the product on the ice.  I don’t think it’s a matter of West Valley vs. East Valley.  I think you’ve got to have a team that plays well for more than a couple of half seasons in a row.”

Success eventually found the Coyotes again after their early successes downtown.  Arizona made the playoffs three straight years from 2010-2012, and even came within three wins of making the Stanley Cup Final.  But while the franchise found the winning it craved on the ice, problems off it overshadowed the achievement.

Moyes secretly handed control of the team over to the NHL in 2008, just three years after he purchased it from Ellman.  He then filed bankruptcy, hoping to escape the losses incurred from the team’s losing and location during the recession.

After a lengthy saga, the NHL eventually found a taker in 2013: Ice Arizona.  But a year later, the savior group sold half its interest to Barroway, and three years later, the Ice Arizona party was completely out of the picture.

“Owners have to deal with the team being out of Glendale,” Merkow said. “I just think it is like being in a ring with a boxer. Anybody who owns that team and is operating out of Glendale, you’re just going to take on hits left and right, jabs and uppercuts with what is going on out there.”


Meruelo figured to be the saving grace.  

Arenas are expensive – and the Coyotes’ latest owner seemed to have pockets deep enough to take care of that.  But Layman noted that the billionaire isn’t likely to receive much help from the public if he intends to move the franchise elsewhere in the Valley.

“The willingness of the general public to pay money for sports arenas has dwindled,” he said. “That’s not as easy to accomplish as it used to be.  There’s now just hostility for that, even when the taxes are just tourism taxes or hotel taxes or are district-specific.  People don’t want to hear that.  They don’t want to spend taxpayer money, they don’t want new arenas being built.  They say, ‘The Coyotes already have an arena.’  That’s probably different now than it was when Gila River was built.”

That forces Meruelo to potentially come completely out of pocket for a new venue, and use cash that he seemingly doesn’t have if the reports from The Athletic are accurate.

Merkow believes that it’s a unique set of circumstances that has given the team such extensive problems.  Glendale is one of them, but the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be understated.

“Look at the pandemic – what’s the effect in the first year of ownership?” Merkow said. “Coming into sports ownership for the first time and the growth that needs to occur.  These early years come with growing pains and these are coming with an incredible growth spurt because you don’t have fans.”

Merkow cites Arizona’s invitation to the NHL bubble in the summer of 2020 as evidence for on-ice success translating.

“[Meruelo] pulled the trigger when he first got here,” Merkow said. “He said, ‘Hey, let’s go for it.’  And there was a payoff – the postseason – that was really good for them.  But it didn’t translate locally because those games were being played at neutral sites.  They didn’t have what you’d normally get out a lift like that.  They would’ve had a White Out for all of those playoff games, I’m assuming.  The energy would have lifted.  That carries, man.  That carries into the next season, and that carries with your fan base.  It creates a tremendous amount of energy to build upon. 

“I don’t think they truly have the one-on-one relationship with their fans yet and how that’s going to all convey.  You have to look at the pandemic in this case, because it’s all so vital to the first year of ownership.”

The first year of ownership is a larger theme Layman and Merkow both went deeper into.  While Meruelo strived to run the Coyotes like he did his prior enterprises, that can be tough.

“With any new owner that comes into the sports business world, there are expectations that these businesses can be run like other businesses, and in general, the answer to that question is ‘Yes, they can be,’” Merkow, the former COO of the Los Angeles Avengers AFL team, said.  “But sports offers just a uniquely different platform when it comes to business.  Business in itself is uniquely tied to your customer relationships.  In sports, it is highly tied to the relationship of your fans.  How it translates through to the play on ice, how it translates through to the screen, how it translates through to the environment in the arena.”

Layman said some of Meruelo’s ripples so far can be excused, but issued a similar warning as Merkow: sports are different.

“Alex Meruelo has never owned a sports team before,” he said.  “The point is, when you have people that are in a new position – and sports is a business, but it’s also a unique thing that’s unlike a lot of industries.  So when you have people that are new in the industry, sometimes you screw up.  I got a new job recently. I make some mistakes too.”

Meruelo did attempt to own a sports team before.  According to Strang’s piece in The Athletic, the NBA had concerns about Meruelo’s supposed wealth when he was interested in purchasing the Atlanta Hawks in 2011.

Those might be coming to a head now.  

Merkow remains optimistic.  He believes the pandemic is a major reason for Arizona’s issues, and believes Meruelo has the cash on hand to do whatever he wants – whether that means moving the team or not.  

“I do believe that if he’s the owner they will do the right things and will end up being successful,” Merkow said.

Part of him believes the pandemic shouldn’t be giving Arizona as hard of a time as it is, but also thinks Meruelo should be able to recover.

“He certainly has got the pockets to withstand some of the hits that occur being out there, but he certainly has the pockets to go into other places as well,” Merkow said.

It’s early, he claims.  Meruelo hasn’t fully gotten the chance to see what his product looks like in its final stage yet, nor has he been able to really experiment with growth.

“I think this is really trying to understand what your challenges are and how to overcome them,” Merkow said.  “Part of that might mean that they need to move to a different location in the Valley.  I don’t see them going somewhere else.  I think Meruelo is in it for the long haul and is going to make it work in Arizona.  It’s just a question of whether it’s going to be in Glendale or somewhere else.”

Layman worries if Arizona is still in the cards given all the turmoil the Coyotes have experienced.  Articles have been written wittily about why a relocation hasn’t occurred already, while NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is on-record about keeping the team in the desert.

“I think that Alex Meruelo’s ownership of the Coyotes might be one of the last interactions of the Coyotes that we get if they are going to move,” Layman said.  “I’m not predicting that they’re going to move, but I’m saying that it needs to work eventually.  Because if it doesn’t work eventually, it might be difficult for the owners or the league office to justify continuing to support the franchise.  That’s just my take.  I’m not a businessman.  

“There have been so many changing of hands and there was the bankruptcy about 12-13 years ago.  I think there may come a point when somebody throws their hands up and says ‘Enough is enough.’  But I don’t know when that is.”

In some ways, it’s fair to compare the Coyotes to the Cardinals, who play right across the street all the way out in Glendale.  Why do people travel for them and not for hockey?

“Bottom line is, if you build it, they will come,” Gage said.  “That’s always been the [slogan].  If they were putting good hockey on the ground, it doesn’t matter whether it is in Glendale or Scottsdale.  Or Tempe.  People are going to come.  The Cardinals aren’t having a problem when the Cardinals put out a good product.”

Layman wonders if Phoenix just isn’t as crazed for the Coyotes – or sports as a whole.

“You look at a team like the Arizona Diamondbacks,” he said.  “They’re not one of the top spenders in MLB, and there’s probably a reason for that.  I found in my 20 years living in Phoenix that fans in Phoenix tend to be fair weather except for the die-hards of course, but those tend to be the exception to the rule.  But there’s a lot of people who aren’t from Arizona and a lot of people who cheer for teams that aren’t in Arizona.”

Gage agreed and offered another way of thinking about it: “We are a transistient community.  We don’t have fans in Chicago that have been Diamondback fans their entire life.  It doesn’t happen that way.  We don’t have people moving from here to somewhere else.”

If the Arizona population isn’t very sports-centric, then the Coyotes seem to be the odd team out.  None of the people interviewed for this story claimed to be Einstein-like, but all expressed pessimism in some regard considering the health of the Coyotes – on the ice or off it.  As the cycle repeats with yet another struggling new owner, and now a mandate as serious as any other in history, the time to do something drastically different could be now.

“That team has just been mixed up for all the wrong reasons,” Merkow said. “It’s easy to say all the wrong reasons, because there are so many franchises that have done this, and done it successfully.  It could have been the right reasons.  But the timing in all of this is everything.”

What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its 2021 First Round Selection, Picks 11-30

This column serves as Part 3 of a three-part series called “What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its First Round Pick In The 2021 NBA Draft,” featuring picks 11-30, some guys who missed the first round, some second round sleepers and a breakdown of the Big Board.

Pick No. 1

Picks No. 2-10

No. 11, Charlotte Hornets: Kai Jones, Texas

Kai Jones is probably the rawest prospect in the draft, with Kuminga coming in second place.  He’s one of the most athletic players you’ll see for a guy his size, but at times it seems as though he has no idea how to play the game of basketball.

It makes sense that he doesn’t – Jones has only been playing since he was 15, and he’ll be 20 on draft night.  At 6’10, Jones frolics around the court like a deer.  He moves incredibly smoothly, which immediately gives him a perimeter game as at worst a dribble-handoff guy, and potentially a shooter.  For now, he’s probably somewhere in between those two things.  He experimented as a driver in college and had success with it, but some of that feels a little unreasonable in the NBA given his lack of body control at times.

Jones has the chance to be an incredibly unique and valuable big at the next level.  His best case scenario is that he can be a stretch big who can get to the rim from the three point line, be a threat on the roll, shoot and even create his own shot.  On defense, he could be a switchable player 3-5, and protect the rim with ease in drop and when switching PNRs.  

At worst though, Jones is a simple rim running big whose sole offensive purpose is to catch lobs and who is simply put out there to threaten drivers with his large, massive frame.

Jones has a wide range of outcomes at the next level.  The hope is that he doesn’t end up at his low-end projection.  If he doesn’t, then the Hornets have themselves a pretty good player at center, which fills a huge hole and will make LaMelo Ball quite happy.

No. 12, San Antonio Spurs: Josh Giddey, Australia 

Giddey is largely rumored to be Memphis’ target at No. 10 overall, and it makes sense.  Giddey, along with Jalen Johnson, is one of the few prospects not ranked in Tiers 1 or 2 that have true star potential.  That’s the type of player that the Grizzlies need.

So why Johnson and not Giddey for Memphis, who’s ranked three spots ahead of the Duke wing on the Hub’s board?  

Giddey projects as a point guard at the next level.  He’s an incredibly talented passer who can throw any dime known in the book.  There isn’t much else to his game yet – he’s a poor shooter and hope for that to develop is low. Despite a 6’8 frame and impressive athleticism, he’s bad defensively.  But Giddey does some of the things you’d want your starting point guard to do – passes like a wizard, gets to the rim and dictates the game at his own pace.

So where’s the star power?  Well, Giddey’s passing has the chance to be special.  He’s the third best passer in the draft, which doesn’t sound impressive, but given Cunningham and Suggs’ projection as potentially generational guys, Giddey is up against unfair odds.  

His lack of a jumper could make some worried about his effectiveness in the PNR, but vision and accuracy on passes should allow him to fire the ball anywhere, no matter how deep the drop is or where else defenders are helping away from him.

The Spurs are similar to Memphis in the sense that they have a lot of talented youth.  But nobody has emerged as the alpha among those guys yet, and they need to be done waiting around.  Giddey is the best bet left to emerge as that guy.

No. 13, Indiana Pacers: Moses Moody, Arkansas

Indiana is devastated by the picks of Jalen Johnson and Giddey, as it is in the same boat as Memphis and San Antonio, teams equipped with talented, deep rosters but ones that lack a player good enough to take them over the top.

That player doesn’t exist at this spot – all the guys left that project along that trajectory are massive reaches and are essentially fliers.

The Pacers could use some more athletic, defensively-apt wings on their roster though.  Kispert is ranked higher than Moody on the board, but doesn’t project as the effective two-way player Moody does.

Moody was miscast at times at Arkansas, having to carry an offensive load he wasn’t quite equipped for.  However, he was more successful than one would think in that role, and it makes one wonder whether there’s some upside with shot creation down the line.

For now, Moody is a lights out shooter – the third-best in the class – and should provide good defense on the wings and in switching schemes.  If he’s more than that, Indiana has a gem on its hands – exactly what it needs.

No. 14, Golden State Warriors: Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

The same two things apply to Golden State here as they did at No. 7: overall competence and shot-making.

Kispert is 22 years old and ready now, making the first trait an obsolete problem.  He’s also the best shooter in the draft, checking the second box.

Kispert is a bit more than a shooter though.  He’s a very good defensive player even though he’s not the best athlete in the world.  He’s strong and long, making him a tough out for anyone smaller than him.  

The Warriors wouldn’t be their 2017 selves with Kispert in the lineup, as he has zero upside as a shot creator like Kevin Durant.  But the former Gonzaga forward could be just as lethal of a shooter, and with Bouknight potentially carving defenders up, Golden State suddenly has title contender written all over it next season.

No. 15, Washington Wizards: Jaden Springer, Tennessee

Here’s what was written about the Wizards taking Springer prior to the Russell Westbrook trade:

“The state of the Wizards franchise is in flux.  It’s unclear whether Bradley Beal will be on the team next year, and the roster is geared as if he will be, creating a paradox.   Regardless of Beal’s presence, defense simply does not exist, and Russell Westbrook doesn’t make the situation better as a whole.

Washington likely has to deal with Westbrook being on the roster for two more years, assuming he opts into his $47 million player option next summer.  Whether he’s on the roster or not, the Wizards should be in the business of trying to upgrade from him.

That’s where Springer enters the picture.  He’s probably the most complete point guard in the draft outside of Suggs and Cunningham”

With Westbrook now gone thanks to the Lakers’ hilarious dealings, the fit is even better.  

Springer solves many of Washington’s problems at once.  He’s a ridiculous defensive player despite his relatively small size at 6’3.  He’s hard for anybody to shake when dribbling, and simply grinds through possessions with a pest-like energy.  Springer maintains that energy off the ball too, and has the potential to take anybody out of a game whenever he wants.  He should be a decently switchable defender given his abilities on and off the ball, though it remains to be seen how effective he can be against ball dominant wings, especially when they’re driving.

Offensively, Springer is one of those guards who always seems to know what he’s doing and never makes the wrong decision.  Playing at his pace is his speciality.  

He combines his very solid passing ability with a scoring punch too.  The grit he shows on defense translates into offense evidently.  Springer can get to the rim against seemingly anyone, though that can get the best of him against beefier rim protectors, as his finishing numbers aren’t as high as you’d like them to be.  Still, Springer’s herky-jerky style makes him an incredibly tough guard.  Defenders can’t lax in their effort when on him.

The jump-shot is a weakness, which could allow teams to drop deep against him and take away his driving lanes, and subsequently make finishing even harder.  But athleticism tends to win out. Washington could get a player similar to Westbrook in Springer, just without all the shenanigans and bad stuff.

No. 16, Oklahoma City Thunder: Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky

It seems like Oklahoma City is destined to move up with this pick and No. 18 overall.  But if they keep it, it makes for the Thunder to keep addressing their front-court.

Jackson has been rumored to have received a promise from the Thunder with this pick, although trading it would obviously void that.  OKC’s interest makes sense.  Jackson is the exact type of simple center craved in the league now.  He’s incredibly athletic and won’t be played off the floor.  He has a long frame, which makes him an imposing shot blocker and rim protector.  He’ll never be a floor spacer, but his bounciness doesn’t make him totally out of place on the perimeter.  There’s potential for him to attack the rim from out there thanks to his athleticism and quick feet, but it’s not something OKC should count on.

Simply put, Jackson projects as a classic rim running, shot-blocking big.  Making selections because of Aleksej Pokuševski’s presence on the roster seems a little reckless.  With Barnes and now Jackson, the Thunder have their front court of the future, with Barnes hopefully being able to play anywhere he wants.

No. 17, New Orleans Pelicans: Trey Murphy Jr., Virginia

New Orleans has an interesting choice with this pick.  It could go with a guard, signaling that the front office doesn’t plan on bringing back Lonzo Ball in restricted free agency and instead re-sign Josh Hart, or they could go with a wing like Murphy Jr., opening up a spot for Ball or another point guard while letting Hart walk.

The only real need New Orleans has is defense.  Murphy Jr. provides that.  He’s one of the safest players in the draft thanks to his three-and-D skill set.  He’s reminiscent of Cam Johnson thanks to a long, wiry-like frame, but is a much stronger and more developed defensive player than Johnson was out of North Carolina. 

It seems like Murphy could go higher than this on Thursday, which is respectable.  He’s about as close to a guarantee as one can get in the draft.

No. 18, Oklahoma City Thunder: Jared Butler, Baylor

Butler would be really intriguing for New Orleans the pick before, giving them a scoring punch at guard that no one on its roster provides.  But another small guard in their backcourt doesn’t provide the defense the Pelicans are looking for, even though Butler is pesky on the ball.

Instead, Oklahoma City takes him, and gets a solid point guard ahead of Theo Maledon, who’s already perfectly playing his role as a backup.  Butler’s scoring ability is the big difference between him and Maldeon.  He’s a three-level scorer who winds his way to the rim and can stop on a dime for pull-up jumpers as well.  Playing next to Davion Mitchell required some patience, but Butler figured it out and was able to hit threes at a good rate off the ball.

Butler is a solid passer who tends to make the right decision, though his vision isn’t elite and the turnovers were higher than you’d want.  His scoring is what elevates the rest of his game, and his status as a prospect.  Oklahoma City would probably want someone with a bit more upside at this position in the future, but if Cunningham or Suggs aren’t in the cards for them this draft, then Butler is a solid fall-back plan.

No. 19, New York Knicks: Isaiah Todd, G-League Ignite

Todd might be the biggest riser of the past month or so, and with good reason.

The last out of the four prospects on G-League Ignite to be taken seriously, Todd is a super unique player who could be a lot of different things in the league.  But the one skill that will certainly translate is his shooting ability.  Todd is an absolute sniper from deep, and can hit threes in a variety of ways.

From there, Todd’s game can take a whirlwind of avenues.  He’s got some isolation skills, although a lot of the shots he took out of those play types were a bit wild and inefficient.  He’s got the body of a power forward, which makes him incredibly intriguing as a screen-setter – he could roll, pop or slip out of a pick and be able to finish in either way.  He has a good handle and feel for the game, which could turn him into an offensive hub in the post.

All of these skills could develop for Todd over time.  If they all do, he could be an absolute star.  But it’s likely only one or two will develop.  Whether he’s a stretch four who is effective as a roller or a scoring wing, the Knicks could use competent rotation players almost everywhere.  Not that their 2020-21 season was a total fluke, but surviving again with Taj Gibson, Elfird Payton, Derrick Rose and Alec Burks contributing heavy minutes seems unlikely.

No. 20, Atlanta Hawks: Usman Garuba, Spain 

The Hawks roster is loaded, which means they can afford to draft for need more than other teams.  Atlanta lost in the Eastern Conference Finals largely due to its inability to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is obviously no easy task for any team in the league.  So why not take the second-best defender in the draft to help with that?

Garuba, like Scottie Barnes, is switchable 1-5 and is a complete specimen.  There’s not much else to his game outside of his lurking defensive ability.  He figures to be a nice roll man and lob threat, but Garuba’s value will be held in his ability to lock down an opposing team’s best player.

No. 21, New York Knicks: McKinley Wright, Colorado

This is likely the biggest reach of this entire mock, and Wright’s placement on the Hub Big Board might be the highest that exists anywhere.  But the Colorado guard is one of the most underrated players in this draft.

Wright had games last season where he was absolutely unstoppable.  His ability to get any shot he wants in the paint is comparable to few in this draft.  Wright’s athleticism causes defenders to guard the rim, but he can then hit them with a beautiful floater instead.  He can also stop on a dime to pull-up, as well.

Wright’s a very good passer, not great.  But he’s best at making plays in the PNR, which is most important at the NBA level.  The combination of his PNR chops and mid-rangers alleviate concerns about poor outside shooting and lack of great feel.

He also doesn’t take it slow on the defensive end, which will make him a good fit for Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks.  Wright does everything we wished Elfrid Payton or Frank Ntilikina did on the offensive end, giving the Knicks the best of both worlds.

No. 22, Washington Wizards: Chris Duarte, Oregon

After clearing Westbrook, selecting Springer at No. 15 and still acquiring Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, the Wizards are in win-now mode and could use even more length on the wings. Duarte is perhaps the most NBA-ready player in the draft as an elite shooter and solid, strong defender.

No. 23, Houston Rockets: Franz Wagner, Michigan

Houston lacks length on its roster whether it wants to contend or not – most of its wings aside from DJ Wilson and Sterling Brown are almost like hybrid guards.  That’s where Wagner comes in, who is renowned for his defensive ability and three-point shooting.  The Hub is significantly lower on Wagner than most because of some overplayed hype about his ability to move well, but he should be a serviceable three-and-D player at the next level.

No. 24, Houston Rockets: Sharife Cooper, Auburn

Houston could really use another big on its roster, but all the ones remaining are a bit of a reach at this spot.  Outside of Suggs, the Rockets lack a really good passer on their roster.  Cooper doesn’t do much else thanks to a poor jumpshot and small frame, but he’s at least a top five passer in the draft.

No. 25, Los Angeles Clippers: Miles McBride, West Virginia

McBride is a player who could very well be in play for the Knicks, as he’s a defensive grinder who also shoots.  He’s ranked ahead of Cooper on the Hub’s board, but Houston needs someone who can pass, which isn’t McBride’s strong suit.  That said, he’s still a good point guard, and the Clippers desperately need someone to right the ship at that position.  They essentially take the best one left in McBride.

No. 26, Denver Nuggets: Cam Thomas, LSU

Even without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets roster is pretty loaded.  It’s fair to wonder whether they still have enough with Murray back in the fold from a perimeter shot creation standpoint.  Thomas is no guarantee to be anything more than a sixth man who’s actually ninth in the rotation, but his skills are too hard to find.  There’s always that 0.1% chance he’s a star.

No. 27, Brooklyn Nets: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova 

This pick belonged to Phoenix before an afternoon trade on Thursday.  Brooklyn sent Landry Shamet to the Suns for Jevon Carter and this pick, which seems like a bit of a steep price for Phoenix given that Shamet never fit in Brooklyn and had a bad year.  At the same time, Phoenix protects itself from Cam Payne’s overpay with Shamet, while passing up the opportunity to add to the front court with Robinson-Earl, who’d be a perfect fit for Brooklyn as well.  Robinson-Earl will help limit Kevin Durant’s minutes at the five as a small-ball option, and also take minutes away from Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown.

No. 28, Philadelphia 76ers: Davion Mitchell, Baylor

The 76ers still need a star perimeter creator with or without Ben Simmons or the roster, and while the Hub is much lower on Mitchell than others, he still offers a decent two-way skillset.  It seems doubtful that Mitchell will thrive on both ends given his 6’1 frame and poor historical shooting, but if he’s here, he’s certainly worth a shot.

No. 29, Brooklyn Nets: Josh Primo, Alabama

The Nets just need as many competent players as possible.  After helping out their front court at No. 27, they address the wings here with Primo, who’s a lights out shooter who plays a tad too casually.  Brooklyn should be able to get away with that though, and they replace Shamet in an instant with this pick.

No. 30, Utah Jazz: Bones Hyland, VCU

Like Denver, it remains to be seen if the Jazz have enough firepower and star shot creation on their roster.  Hyland might end up just as a sixth man type player, but the guy can get buckets with ease thanks to a long, wiry frame.

How are these guys not first round picks? (# = big board rank)

  • Tre Mann (#27): There just wasn’t a fit for him in the late rounds after all of Thursday afternoon’s trades.  He’s a good shooter and is a menacing presence as a passer thanks to his 6’5 frame. 
  • Ziare Williams (#55): Might have one of the widest ranges in the draft.  Reports indicate that he could go as high as No. 8 overall or fall out of the first round completely.  Williams dealt with a lot this past year, but he played like someone who was much better than he is.  The jump-shot also feels like it will never come around.
  • Ayo Dosumno (#56): Could be a solid third guard in the league, but his NCAA Tournament performance was just too hard to get over.  You can let Loyola Chicago swallow you like that if you’re truly in consideration for National Player of the Year.
  • DayRon Sharpe (#57): It sounds like Sharpe is trying to refine his game by shooting threes, but it seems unlikely he’ll come into the league as a shooter.  If he’s not one, it might be tough for him to stay on the court.
  • BJ Boston (#59): A top recruit who had a bad year and has since endured tragedy, this is quite a fall for Boston.  But he seemed overwhelmed with the responsibilities handed to him at Kentucky, and could project best as a sixth man in the NBA.
  • Josh Christopher (#60): Similar to Boston, Christopher might be best suited as a sixth man after the handing of the car keys to him at Arizona State went poorly.  Christopher did get hurt and suffered from poor roster construction around him, but like Williams and Boston, he played like he was the best player on the court when he certainly was not.

Some favorites that didn’t make the first round:

  • Sandro Mamukelashvili (#35):  This guy is a wild player, but it seems like he could at least be something in the NBA.  He’s almost seven feet tall and shoots, passes and gets to the rim off the dribble.  One of those skills has to flourish at the next level.
  • Jericho Sims (#42): Just a fantastic rim runner who’s strong on defense and should be a good roll man.
  • Justin Champagnie (#43): He’s a similar prospect as Sims – just trades rim protection for more athleticism.
  • Charles Bassey (#44): This guy is a freak.  Not many guys get up as high as he does at his size.  He’s got to put it all together, but the athleticism is hard to overlook.

Big Board tiers break down:

Tier 1A: Superstars

  1. Cade Cunningham
  2. Jalen Suggs

Tier 1B: Superstar with some questions

  1. Evan Mobley

Tier 1C: Elite players in a role, need to develop more for superstardom

  1. Jonathan Kuminga
  2. Scottie Barnes

Tier 2: Can they really reach their ceiling?

  1. Jalen Green
  2. James Bouknight

Tier 3: Good bet to be solid players because of one or two things they do exceptionally well

  1. Keon Johnson
  2. Alperen Sengun
  3. Corey Kispert
  4. Josh Giddey
  5. Jaden Springer
  6. Moses Moody
  7. Jalen Johnson
  8. Kai Jones
  9. Isaiah Jackson
  10. Trey Murphy Jr.
  11. Usman Garuba
  12. Jared Butler

Tier 4: Tier 3, but with less confidence 

  1. Isaiah Todd
  2. McKinley Wright
  3. Chris Duarte
  4. Miles McBride
  5. Sharife Cooper
  6. Cam Thomas
  7. Josh Primo
  8. Tre Mann
  9. Davion Mitchell
  10. Quentin Grimes
  11. Isaiah Livers
  12. Franz Wagner
  13. Joe Wieskamp
  14. Bones Hyland
  15. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
  16. Sandro Mamukelashvili 

Tier 5: Each of them are something

  1. David Johnson
  2. Rokas Jokubaitias
  3. Matthew Hurt
  4. Herb Jones
  5. J.T. Thor
  6. Moses Wright
  7. Jericho Sims
  8. Justin Champagnie
  9. Charles Bassey
  10. Filip Petrusev
  11. Greg Brown
  12. Joel Ayayi
  13. Daeshin Nix
  14. Jason Preston
  15. Austin Reaves
  16. Aaron Henry
  17. Kessler Edwards
  18. Sam Hauser
  19. Vrenz Bleijenbergh

Tier 6: Out on

  1. Ziare Williams
  2. Ayo Dosumno
  3. DayRon Sharpe
  4. Neemias Queta
  5. BJ Boston
  6. Josh Christopher
  7. Juhaan Begarin
  8. Luka Garza
  9. Santi Aldama
  10. Aaron Wiggins
  11. Raiquan Gray

What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its 2021 First Round Selection, Picks 2-10

This column serves as Part 2 of a three-part series called “What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its First Round Pick In The 2021 NBA Draft.” Part 3 will come on Thursday, with picks 10-30 and looks an some intriguing second round talents.

THE BIG BOARD

No. 1, Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

No. 2, Houston Rockets: Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

The Rockets seem destined to take Jalen Green with this pick. Trading up for Cunningham, who they are allegedly interested in and would make sense given Houston’s array of future draft picks and Cunningham’s prospectus, is perhaps a better option. But the Rockets can split the cake if they instead take Jalen Suggs, who’s the only player in this class in the same tier as Cunningham.

Suggs is a classic high floor player with his passing, instincts and addiction to winning. But he has a higher ceiling than that. He possesses a scoring knack seldom seen in guards, using his lean yet sturdy frame to get to the rim and a mechanical but effective jump shot to hit from deep and pull up in transition.

At Gonzaga, Suggs was everywhere on the court. He always seemed to be in the right spot making winning plays – be it a steal, box-out, extra effort on a help defensively, a rebound, or a game-winning shot..

He’s reminiscent of Tyrese Haliburton from last year’s draft class in that sense – a player that this site was way too low on (He was No. 14 on the Hub’s 2020 Big Board). Having Suggs ranked as high as No. 2 might be an overcorrection from that, but Suggs’ shot creation skills give him an extra flavor that Haliburton – as a draft prospect – never let exude.

Houston is at the forefront of a rebuild, but Suggs represents a path down multiple routes. He can play next to John Wall in the short term while representing a path forward and past Wall’s contract. A team with Suggs, a hopefully healthy Wall, Eric Gordon assuming he’s not traded and Christian Wood isn’t terrible. Sprinkle in some Kevin Porter Jr. off the bench, and if the Rockets want to be competitive while stuck with Wall’s salary, that mix of players doesn’t make a great team, but it’s not exactly a bad one. It puts them in contention for a playoff spot.

Suggs also would serve as the next face of the franchise and Wall’s successor at point guard in the long term. He’s the type of player you build around rather than insert as a role guy. His upside is the best player on a championship team.

Suggs’ weaknesses are the expectations. Like Cunningham, projecting anybody as a true 1A offensive option is risky. This is even more true with Suggs, who already does so much on both ends of the court, and isn’t the shooter Cunningham is, limiting his potential as a scorer in the pick and roll game. He’s bigger than one would think, but his lack of immense size at the guard spot, in addition to a lack of moves in isolation, makes him potentially more of a true point guard rather than an all-around offensive creator.

No. 3, Cleveland Cavaliers: Evan Mobley, USC

In a way, Mobley should be the Cavaliers’ pick at this spot no matter who is on the board, assuming he’s available. Cleveland might be set on developing its young backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland even further, and Mobley’s unique skill set as a big makes him fit to play anywhere in the frontcourt. The fit is so good that Cunningham, if he were here, may be worth passing on for the Cavs.

But that scenario is unlikely to occur, with Cunningham destined to go No. 1 no matter who is picking. That makes this decision easy for Cleveland.

Mobley is the best player available and with good reason. The 7-footer is an absolute freak for his size and position. He moves as effortlessly as a wing or guard for his size – the only prospects in recent years who comes close to matching Mobley’s mobility are Oneyka Onkongwu in 2020 and Bam Adebayo in 2017, and both of those players are at least three inches shorter than Mobley.

Mobley’s game is simply beautiful. He’s not much of a bruiser or a post-up player thanks to a thin frame, but his athleticism and soft hands make him deadly on the roll. His height allows him to shoot over anyone – even the tallest bigs – with jumpers, hooks and curls. While Mobley won’t bang, his quick feet and athleticism gives him the ability to take his time before attacking a defender – one he will almost certainly beat. In addition to his work as a true center, Mobley can shoot it from anywhere. On a short roll, he can pull up from the mid-range while creating the mirage that he’s diving to the hoop. He can pop instead of roll out of the pick and drain a three with an effortless stroke. He has shot creation skills as well with his knack for shooting, touch and athleticism. At the same time, he doesn’t need the ball, because he’s a capable shooter from beyond the arc and moves around like a slashing wing trying to find an open spot on the court to spot-up from.

That’s just the start of it, too. Mobley’s not quite Nikola Jokic, but has an amazing passing gene for someone his size. He can handle and take dribble-handoffs, and have the offense anchored around him at the elbow. With some seasoning as a ball-handler and an expanding knowledge bank, it’s not far-fetched to say that he could be a lead ball-handler someday.

On the other end, Mobley is just as special. The athleticism on the offensive side of the floor translates perfectly to defense, where the former Trojan can switch and guard 2-5. He’s a menace at the rim, blocking anything in sight and using those quick feet to help and recover to wherever. Teams simply can’t hunt in the pick and roll – he’s too fluid to let a screen disrupt his movement and stands a chance against almost any ball-handler in that scenario (aside from much smaller, craftier guards).

So how is Mobley not the No. 2 overall pick, or let alone the first? He has very few weaknesses – the first being that despite his skills as a rim protector, his thin frame will likely see him suffer against beefer bigs like Joel Embiid and Jokic. The second is a reaction to the first. If he can’t hang against those players, then who does his team have to put on the floor to help handle them, and what kind of problems does that cause late in the postseason when unathletic bigs are hunted and usually played off the floor?

The value of bigs overall still plays its part here. Sure, Mobley himself projects as a player able to stay on the court in those situations, but does his defense – or someone else’s in spite of Mobley’s limitations thanks to that thin frame – actually hurt against teams that can get away with going against the grain? That list is bigger than it seems– the Lakers, Sixers, Nuggets, Bucks, Suns and Pelicans are all doing it with success or likely will be soon. 

In addition, the fact that a player can do everything Mobley does at his size at the NBA level seems a bit unreasonable. Every USC game of his was a show, but the Pac-12 wasn’t exactly college basketball’s greatest display last season. Can Mobley do all of the things he displayed at the next level? If he truly can, then he could very well be the best player in this draft years from now.

That said, Mobley is a fantastic prospect, and the Cavaliers should be ecstatic that they’ll likely be able to take him here on Thursday night. Mobley’s versatility allows them to play him at the 4-spot if they re-sign Jarrett Allen to play center, which will protect Mobley from bigger guys but allow Cleveland to deploy him as a switching defensive menace who can simultaneously protect Allen against more mobile bigs. If Allen and the Cavs part ways, then Mobley slides right into the 5-hole, and likely struggles defensively in certain matchups but punishes unathletic bigs on the other end.

No. 4, Toronto Raptors: Jalen Green, G-League Ignite

The Raptors need a star – and one who can be a star right away. 

That’s why Toronto takes Jalen Green here, who despite having two players ranked ahead of him on the Hub’s board, can be that.

Let’s first start with the players we don’t have Toronto taking. More in-depth scouting reports will be found in the next two picks, but Jonathan Kuminga, despite being the better prospect, is not an immediate help to the Raptors, whose roster won a NBA Championship two years ago and is not far off from being there again. Kuminga may be a better player than Green someday, but his rawness on both sides of the ball makes inferior to Green right now.

There’s perhaps a better case for Scottie Barnes going to the Raptors here. Toronto needs more size, and likely has a hole at guard assuming Kyle Lowry signs elsewhere (Suggs seems likely to be here for the Raptors Thursday night, which is insane and would be a home run for them to draft). Barnes can arguably fill both of those roles, as his passing instincts are rare for a player with his size and frame and his defensive acumen and ability is the best in the draft. But he’s a lock at either position, and probably fits best as a Draymond Green-style player offensively – someone who can screen and roll or be anchored at the elbow throwing darts to teammates. Using him solely as a rim protector – which Toronto needs – wastes his true potential.

So, enter Green. Pascal Siakam is a fine, solid player. But his half-court and isolation scoring went off the deep end after a brutal performance in the Bubble in 2020 – the Celtics seemingly figured him out in that second round series last Fall, and he never recovered. Fred VanVleet is the same level of offensive player as Siakam, as he can get hot one night and carry the team, but isn’t a crunch-time scorer made for deep playoff runs.

Toronto needs someone like Green – who’s best skill is scoring and who can do so in bunches. He’s their best bet in the short-term to pull them out of the league’s middle class.

That said, Green as a prospect is not perfect. While scoring is his best skill, it might be the only one he has. He’s a weak passer for someone who projects as a No. 1 offensive option, and doesn’t have the best game in and out of the pick and roll. Green is a high-usage player, who loves isolations and high-usage possessions. It’s not totally a bad thing if the ball consistently goes in, but players like Green – who are purely scorers and don’t bring anything else to the table aside from it – tend to have their ceiling capped in the NBA.

Those players are not bad – Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Donovan Mitchell come to mind. But teams like Washington and Utah seemed capped out at second-round playoff exits with those types of players as its 1As. With two-way threats like Kuminga available, a Green-clone in James Bouknight still on the board and potentially Suggs or Mobley in reach on Thursday night, Green’s ceiling just isn’t worth reaching for at the top of this class. For Toronto though, it is.

No. 5, Orlando Magic: Jonathan Kuminga, G-League Ignite

Sure, this is the classic Orlando pick – a long, athletic guy who’s raw and has problems shooting.

But the Magic have room for error. First, they own this pick and No. 8 overall, allowing them to take a swing with one of the spots. Second, if the past four years are any indication, Orlando’s front office led by John Hammond and Jeff Weltman have unlimited job security – that duo entered a rebuilding situation four years ago, took the team nowhere, and have now entered their second rebuilding phase. It is incredibly hard to not get anywhere at all when building a team up from nothing.

With those two things in my mind, Kuminga should be the pick. There’s a case for him to be a top-three ceiling player in this class, as his two-way skill set and athletic wing frame is comparable to no one ahead of him.

Kuminga is raw as all hell. He needs to fine-tune his shot selection, and he can be too aggressive at times on the ball and take shots away from those who potentially deserve it more. Despite his athleticism, his defense can waver – most of this may be due to his age and lack of development thus far. 

But the seeds are there. If he can put it together, Kunminga could develop into a Kawhi Leonard-type player, where he’s one of the game’s best defenders and not only is a No. 1 option offensively, but can handle the ball and initiate the offense as well. For better or for worse, Kuminga plays at his own pace, and establishes control over a game that way – similar to the way Leonard does. That’s a rare skill to have – it’s the same reason Cunningham is going No. 1 overall. 

Throughout the last decade, the Magic have had solid pieces. But there was never a guy to bring all together with his star power, and it’s why Orlando has been stuck in the dirt for years on end. Kuminga is no guarantee to be that guy either, but he has the best shot out of anyone available.

Barnes is the widely expected pick here, and it makes sense. The Magic don’t have a big man they can be confident in, as Mo Bamba has seemingly busted and Wendell Carter Jr. is not the player we’d thought he’d be out of college. But at No. 8 overall, the Magic should have another option to fill that spot, and whoever may be there doesn’t have close to the ceiling that Kuminga does.

No. 6, Oklahoma City Thunder: Scottie Barnes, Florida State

The Thunder are living a blank check lifestyle.

With 17 first-round picks over the next seven drafts starting Thursday night, Oklahoma City can essentially make any offer they want to, and subsequently, draft whoever they want to.

It seems as though they’re already trying. As written on Tuesday, the Thunder have reached what they considered their ceiling to be on a package offered for No. 1 overall, and it’s not enough for Detroit to accept given that there’s a potentially generational player on the board. It’s odd that the Thunder won’t go to the ends the Pistons want, because they certainly can, but there’s also a good case that protecting some of those draft assets to trade up for another generational prospect in a future draft – or a disgruntled star elsewhere in the league – is worth it as well. 

If the Thunder don’t move up for a shot at one of the top three prospects, all of whom should be held in similar regard by their respective teams compared to the Pistons and Cunningham, Barnes is the best player available.

The Thunder have cornerstones of their future at guard and on the wing already in Shai Gilgenous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley. Down low, there’s less of a future, with Aleksej Pokuševski being a complete wild card in terms of which way he goes as an NBA player (or not – that’s legitimately still up in the air).

With Barnes, the Thunder can get someone they can play anywhere. Likely used best as a screener and roll man and switchable big, Barnes’ athleticism makes him a matchup nightmare on both ends. Offensively, he’ll be impossible to stop when heading toward the rim. With a good passing guard, lobs should become a staple play of his. He also has the ability to initiate an offense – some see Barnes as a point guard given how good his feel for the game is. That might be a tad ambitious, but there’s no reason he can’t be an anchor at the elbow with sets running around him, or bring the ball up the court at times and initiate from the top of the key. 

Barnes is the best defensive player in the draft, too. He’s legitimately switchable 1-5, which automatically makes him one of a select few in the NBA. He’s got the special ability to play the equivalent of free safety on the basketball court by manning the open space on the court and quickly jumping to wherever the help is needed or the switch is to occur. His recovery time is that small, thanks to a chiseled, long frame and ballerina feet.

For whoever takes him, Barnes is an extremely safe pick. The only concern is his lack of a jump-shot, which is brutally bad and has no means of getting better given his poor free-throw shooting. In minutes he does play point guard, the lack of an outside shot could throw off his team’s offense – the same way it has to Philadelphia and Ben Simmons all these years.

No. 7, Golden State Warriors: James Bouknight, UCONN

If they don’t move them, the Warriors need to be getting two things out of their two lottery picks.

  1. Basketball competence. 
  2. Consistent shot-making.

Last year was just not good enough in those two departments. For example, Kelly Oubre Jr.’s line left you wondering if he was wildly underrated or overrated every night. Juan Tocanso-Anderson is certainly a rotation player, but the days of him starting need to be over. James Wiseman was simply not ready for the minutes allocated to him, and his eventual injury forced players much less talented than him into the rotation.

Of course, upgrades might be more bankable on the trade market rather than in rookies. But those options are much different than they were in 2020, when Golden State was picking No. 2 in a perceived weak draft. Trading last year’s pick for a star or selling low on it and acquiring two or three average to above-average rotation players was a better choice than taking a swing on whatever prospects were available. 

This year, a trade for a star player is the only real option outside of using the picks. The talent available at No. 7 and No. 14 is not far removed from – or perhaps even better than – trading for NBA-qualified veterans or rotation players. 

But does a star exist? It seems like neither Damian Lillard nor Bradley Beal are officially available yet. Ben Simmons would be the third name but picks No. 7 and No. 14 seem like a lot for someone who would essentially serve the same role as Draymond Green on the Warriors current squad.

It seems as though the Warriors are stuck using these picks, which isn’t totally a bad thing, as James Bouknight would provide both of the traits Golden State needs.

Bouknight is a very similar prospect to Green in the sense that both have only one real skill in scoring. But the Warriors desperately need that around Stephen Curry and the returning Klay Thompson to avoid a similar outcome as last season. Bouknight’s shot bag is deep, and he projects as a classic 2-guard who could fit in alongside Curry and Thompson. 

Bouknight has a chance to be a bit more efficient than Green despite his poor outside shooting. He’s not quite as high usage as Green is, displaying more selflessness as an off-ball offensive player despite bad three-point percentages. His slim, small frame may be a worry when cutting and slashing, but his athleticism translates to him getting to the rim well when the ball is in his hand.

If Bouknight’s threes can go down, then he’s got similar ability to Curry in the sense that he never stops moving and trying to get open. His shot creation skills make him more bouncy and slippery at the point of attack than Curry, which could allow Bouknight to still be effective if the shot never comes along.

Bouknight tries hard defensively. His small, slight frame puts a cap on his defensive ceiling that he can’t control. But the Warriors, for once, need offense with these picks. The other side of the ball is, for once, not a worry at all.

No. 8, Orlando Magic: Alperen Sengun, Turkey

After taking a high-upside wing at No. 5 overall, the Magic come back and address their problems down low here at No. 8 overall with Sengun.

Sengun is simultaneously one of the most intriguing and confusing prospects in this draft. The things he does to his opponents on tape make you wonder if he’s playing against YMCA dudes, but the Turkish League is a legitimate association, and Sengun put up historic numbers in it and won MVP at just 18 years old.

So how does a non-switching, defensively challenged, throwback offensive big end up ranking ninth on the Hub’s big board and go eighth in the draft? 

Sengun is simply a bucket. He will almost immediately challenge Joel Embiid for the best footwork in the league, which he uses to dance with bigger, slower players in the post with his back-to-the-basket. His quick feet also allow him to attack off the dribble from the perimeter and get to the rim, a skill that seems hard to believe until you see it. 

On the roll, Sengun can throw dimes to shooters, keeping defenders honest and reluctant to help inside. This opens up the lane and rim for him, which is an easy two points every time. 

Sengun’s passing also allows a team to use him as an offensive hub at the elbow, where he can dot up opposing defenses with craft and I.Q. 

There are serious limitations with Sengun, though. While his bounce off-the-dribble when driving would lead one to believe that he has untapped potential as a shooter and switchable big, neither is guaranteed. Sengun’s quick feet do not translate to defense at all, and his three-point percentage is quite low on not much volume. Not only is Sengun not switchable, but his defense in every type of coverage is poor. He’s also a little short on height, which doesn’t give him advantages on the defensive end.

Does that combination of traits in a Magic uniform sound familiar? Sengun is extremely comparable to former Orlando center Nikola Vucevic with his dazzling footwork, passing skills and lack of defensive talent, but he might have a higher ceiling thanks to his capabilities off the dribble and work from the perimeter.

No. 9, Sacramento Kings: Keon Johnson, Tennessee

Texas’ Kai Jones would make a lot of sense here for the Kings given their need for a big man, but Sacramento also desperately needs defense, which is Keon Johnson’s calling card. 

Johnson should be expected to make a similar defensive impact Isaac Okoro did for the Cavaliers last season as a rookie. He’s a lockdown wing defender who grinds through screens and has quick feet. He’s a tad short, but has a long wingspan and might be one of the best athletes in the draft – June’s Combine proved that.

His ability on the offensive side of the ball is up for debate. Johnson certainly projects to be better on that end than Okoro was or ever will be, but to what extent is unknown. He was a little too ball-dominant at times at Tennessee and took shots at times when he would have been much better off putting in Jaden Springer’s hands instead. But those shots at times were impressive when they went in, and tapped into Johnson’s perhaps unexpected potential as a go-to scorer.

The Kings could benefit from a guy like that. They currently lack a star offensive player on their roster, although Tyrese Haliburton’s second year could bring some upgrades to that department. Regardless of what Johnson does offensively, his defensive presence should make an immediate impact, one that the Kings sorely needs.

No. 10, Memphis Grizzlies: Jalen Johnson, Duke

The Grizzlies need a star.

Ja Morant already is that, but he and Memphis are bogged down by his inefficiencies in the half-court. Morant plays 100 mph, and while that’s not a bad thing, it’s unfortunately not the way things can be all the time.

So the Grizzlies need somewhere else to go for those buckets. As good as he is, Dillion Brooks just isn’t that guy, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is best suited shooting from the corner and wrecking havoc defensively.

Jalen Johnson has his warts. He has no jump-shot. He left Duke after his relationship with Coach K soured and his performance dipped. He’s done the same at other schools. His effort wanes on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense.

But the Grizzlies need a star and are one of few teams in the league that can afford to take a gamble. That star is their only missing piece, now that they’ve installed a greater veteran presence on their roster and added extra draft capital thanks to Monday’s trade with the Pelicans, who initially owned this pick.

The trade was smart for both sides. Memphis downgraded at center with Steven Adams but at least replaced the leadership Jonas Valancuinas brought to the table. It also added to it with Eric Bledsoe who, despite his selfish tendencies, can at least be a bit of a mentor to Morant, as the two’s games at one point were quite similar. They also picked up an extra first in addition to moving up to this spot, giving them extra protection if this pick or future ones bust.

New Orleans got rid of two massive financial mistakes in Bledsoe and Adams, and only moved down seven spots while giving up one of its billion other future picks in the process. They also improved their current roster, as Valanciunas is a much better fit next to Zion Williamson in the front court thanks to his ability to shoot threes.

Both teams are better off, and if both hit on their draft picks, it’s essentially a win-win.

Memphis may not hit on Johnson though. What he’s guaranteed to bring to the table is an intriguing skillset built around his astute passing gene, which is rare for a wing his size. He’s a wizard in transition and would be a dynamic threat next to Morant. In the half-court, his vision is still pristine, but his lack of a jump-shot makes his constant yet impressive drives to the rim predictable – he’s not a Ben Simmons/Giannis Antentokoumpo body mold, making those play types much easier to stop.

But the Grizzlies need someone who can be any type of threat off the dribble. Johnson’s frame makes him much more imposing than Morant, and his passing skills give Memphis something else to bank on. With youth everywhere and only one piece missing, the Grizzlies are best off taking a chance. Johnson is a big one, but he just might be worth it.

AD, Luka, Zion, Cade?? Why The 2021 NBA Draft’s No. 1 Pick Isn’t Getting Enough Love

This column serves as Part 1 of a three-part series called “What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its First Round Pick In The 2021 NBA Draft.” Part 2 will come on Wednesday, spotlighting another top prospect and unveiling another team’s projected pick before Thursday’s first round mock debuts.

No. 1, Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

After one of the NBA’s best drafts in 2020, the Pistons found luck in 2021 by winning the lottery and being in position to select Cunningham, who’s long been the No. 1 prospect on the Hub’s board and on many boards dating back to when he was in high school. 

That recognition comes with good reason.  Cunningham is potentially generationally – his prospectus is the fourth-best we’ve seen since 2010, after Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic.  Cunningham is that good.

It starts with his size.  At 6’8, Cunningham has an immense feel for the game and can make any pass in the book.  His height allows him to pass out of contested drives to the rim and throw dimes at angles few else can.  In the pick and roll, Cunningham’s size makes him possible to guard when he attacks the rim, and gives him an added advantage when making the pass to the roll man.

Cunningham’s ability to create his own shot is also incredibly developed.  He doesn’t miss as a shooter, although his percentage from deep will likely decrease in his early NBA years before rising back up again.  His size allows him to bully guys when driving and punish smaller guards with short wingspans when pulling up.  He’s not an amazing ball-handler given how special his passing is, but his knockdown shooting and frame can make up for that in the short term.

With so much hype and skill, it’s fair to wonder whether Cunningham can reach the ceiling pegged for him.  Perhaps the most indicative indicator of that resides in just how much Cunningham did for Oklahoma State this past year.  None of his teammates were close to NBA-level prospects, and none of them will likely be in the future.  Opponents swarmed Cunningham defensively and helped off his teammates in an ultra-aggressive way.  Yet, Cunningham still rallied to the Cowboys to an NCAA Tournament berth, put up impressive numbers and cemented his status as the best player in his class.

Given his point guard traits, Cunningham may seem like an odd fit next to Detroit’s second-year guard Killian Hayes, who the Pistons took No. 6 overall in 2020.  But the beauty of a player like Cunningham is his versatility on the offensive end.  Need a point guard?  Great, Cunningham is your guy.  Have one and need scoring next to him?  Cunningham’s projects as a No. 1 offensive option in an offense in addition to his passing ability.  Both guard spots full?  Cunningham’s 6’8 frame and lights-out shooting makes him a fit on the wing, and his passing comes as an added and perhaps overqualified bonus.  He’s the perfect tall, ball-dominant wing every NBA team craves.

On top of all of that, Cunningham is already a valuable defender off the ball thanks to his lengthy frame, and could develop into an on-ball pest with more effort and development.

We’ve seen this type of player fail before – AKA Markelle Fultz in 2017. Fultz projected as the offensive hub and creator Cunningham is, and played for a struggling college team. Cunningham has extra height on Fultz though, and plays the game at his own pace – something that Fultz’s struggled with on the court and off it coming into the draft. Additionally, Cunningham’s a better passer, has more feel and will have to purposely try not to make an impact defensively given his size. The same could not be said for Fultz.

Detroit has seemingly rebuffed offers from Houston at No. 2 overall and Oklahoma City at No. 6 overall to move up. The Pistons are smart to do this, given that Cunningham is a potentially generational player. But Oklahoma City has a lot of ammo, and Detroit would be smart to strangle them with picks until they tap out. The Thunder likely have their cut-off point, and it’s probably not enough for Detroit to give in.