March 16, 2021
By John Henry Robison V
1. Utah Jazz
-Strengths: 8 rotational players averaging over 37% from 3 and 80% on FTs
-Weaknesses: Could benefit from an additional Forward
This team is absolutely loaded. Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley have improved over their mediocre performances last season. Jordan Clarkson is on the short list for sixth man of the year candidates, averaging 18 ppg on 45%/37%/96% shooting splits. Rudy Gobert is continuing to play at an ALL-NBA & ALL-Defensive level and Donovan Mitchell is one of the most dynamic guards that I have seen since prime Dywane Wade. The Jazz have three players (Conley, Clarkson, and Mitchell) who can create their own offense and a platoon of solid shooters surrounding them. I could easily see this team make a push to the Western Conference Finals this season, but a lot will depend on playoff matchups. The Jazz can guard the perimeter and defend the paint, but how will this franchise fair matchups against elite forwards such as Lebron, Kawhi and Paul George? Are their forwards, Bogdanovic, Naing, Ingles and O’neale, strong enough defenders to handle one-on-one matchups against elite scoring forwards?
2. Phoenix Suns
-Strengths: Leadership brought by the addition of Chris Paul
-Weaknesses: Second unit wings
The Suns had a tremendous off-season. They added All-NBA guard Chris Paul and solid veteran PF in Jae Crowder. Chris Paul has brought leadership to a young talented team and helped this team begin to achieve team success. The Suns roster is filled with young lottery picks such as Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, and Cameron Johnson. Despite their talented young core, the Suns have not made the playoffs since 2010. The Suns are currently in second place in the Western Conference and have been one of the most consistent and efficient teams in the NBA. I love their starting lineup including the addition of former Heat veteran forward Jae Crowder, who provides shooting, floor spacing, rebounding and toughness. Lack of playoff experience for Booker and Ayton is always a concern, but I expect Paul and Crowder to help significantly reduce that concern. The only area of weakness on their roster is that I’d like to see a more efficient second unit wing. Backup SG E’twaun Moore, while producing defensively, only averages 27% from three on 1.3 attempts per game. Acquiring another veteran wing could help this team in the playoffs, as I do not trust Booker and Bridges’ backups to produce in important playoff situations.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
-Strengths: They have Lebron and AD
-Weaknesses: Could benefit from another rim protector
The Lakers are the defending champs. They have two of the top 5 players in the NBA on their roster. They also added two energetic contributors in Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder. This team is still likely the favorite to win the Western Conference due to their superstars and depth. The only area of concern is that the team replaced Centers Dwight Howard and Javale Mcgee with an aging Marc Gasol. Potentially in the playoffs they could have difficulty guarding elite Centers like Nikola Jokic. A trade deadline move or free agent acquisition of a defensive center could benefit this franchise. Other than that one issue, this team is perfectly constructed to defend their title.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
-Strengths: Kawhi and PG
-Weaknesses: Ivica Zubac is a mediocre defender
There are rumors that the Clippers are looking to acquire Kyle Lowry as he is an offensive upgrade over Patrick Beverly, but although that move would help, I do not think it is the biggest concern. The Clippers need to get Andre Drummond from Cleveland. Whether via trade or free agency (after a player buyout), this is the player the Clippers need, but making this trade is a very risky move. The Clippers would need to involve other teams in the trade to balance the salary acquisitions and also be willing to part with Ivica Zubac, Lou Williams and Serge Ibaka. Mathematically there is a way for the Clippers to trade for both Drummond and Kyle Lowry, but it would involve trading nearly every rostered player other than Kawhi and PG. Drummond’s contract is expiring, so potentially over paying for a 1 year rental is a concern. All this being said, the Clippers need an all-in move to win a title. You can call it a big 3 or a super team, but the Clippers need to do whatever it takes to put the best possible 5 players on the basketball court. Starting with the Chris Paul trade in 2011, the Clippers have been seeking their 1st franchise championship and needs to come sooner rather than later, even if it involves sacrificing the team’s future for immediate success.
5. Portland Trailblazers
-Strengths: Damian Lillard
-Weaknesses: Small Forward
The Trailblazers are a very good team. I like their backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as Center Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers have a very solid nucleus and good role players around their 3 stars, including aging former scoring champ Carmelo Anthony and defensive specialist Robert Covington. I even like their younger second unit players such as Gary Trent and Zach Collins. I do see a glaring hole (a hole many teams in the West face)…how will this team guard both Kawhi and PG or Lebron and AD. The Blazers are a bit undersized (often even seen running a 3 guard lineup) and I am confident that Robert Covington can defend one forward on the opposing team, but when a team has two elite forwards it is next to impossible to stop them. An aging Carmelo Anthony? A young Zach Collins? I am not quite sure. This team needs to acquire a 3&D forward to space the floor and help defend against teams with two elite forwards. With the current construction of the roster, I do not expect the Trailblazers to get past the Clippers or Lakers in the playoffs, even if they could beat teams like the Suns or Jazz (who are constructed a bit more like they are).
6. Denver Nuggets
Strengths- Nikola Jokic is awesome
Weaknesses- Michael Porter Jr.
I love Jokic. He is essentially a better version of both Gasol brothers merged into one. He is an elite scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. I love that he can help initiate the offense and make plays for his teammates…a very rare trait in center. I do see a few glaring holes in the Nuggets construction. Do they need to move Jamal Murray to Shooting Guard and trade Gary Harris for a playmaking Point Guard, such as a veteran Ricky Rubio? And the biggest question…is Michael Porter Jr. an All-Star calibre player? I think Michael Porter can be an elite scorer in this league and I like his shooting range and versatility, but he does not play well on defense and is best suited to play as a stretch 4 who stands in the corner and shoots threes. I do not think this team can win a title as it is constructed. I like Murray and Jokic a lot but the remainder of their roster is rather pedestrian, but if they could find a way to add a third star (a playmaker or elite defender) and use Michael Porter Jr. in the Rashaad Lewis Orlando Magic role. I think this team could contend better in the western conference. The team definitely has some young trade assets like RJ Hampton and Bol Bol and it will be interesting to see if they make a move involving Gary Harris and some of their younger players before the trade deadline.
7. San Antonio Spurs
-Strengths: A lot of good, solid, young guards and wings
-Weaknesses: it is unlikely they will get good trade value for LaMarcus Aldridge
The Spurs are not likely really a contender this season. I actually see the Warriors or Grizzlies making the playoffs over them this year. The Spurs have done a good job drafting some solid younger players but still have two aging all-stars on their roster. Demarr Derozan seems content to stay in San Antonio but it has been announced that the Spurs and LaMarcus Aldridge are parting ways. The team is currently seeking a trade partner but I am unsure of whether a team would want to acquire his large contract. LaMarcus Aldridge could be bought out of his contract and become a free agent; however, the Spurs will receive nothing in return for his player buyout besides future salary cap flexibility. Unless the Spurs are able to make a trade for Aldridge, the Spurs do not have any means to improve their young roster immediately. The Spurs are a franchise that needs to continue acquiring draft picks and drafting well to improve their team. The Spurs have an opportunity to improve but it just won’t be during this season.
8. Dallas Mavericks
-Strengths: Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis (THE UNICORN DUO)
-Weaknesses: Secondary playmaker, stretch 4 and a third scorer
The Mavericks had a poor off-season. Instead of bettering their roster, they tried to make sure that they had cap space to potentially sign Giannis Antetokounmpo this upcoming off season. Well, Greek Freak signed a max extension with the Bucks and unfortunately the NBAs first ever International Big 3 will not likely come to be. I liked the idea of having Doncic, Antetokounmpo and Porzingis on the same team. It would really let us know if a team based around international NBA stars would have the popularity of a team like the Lebron, Wade, and Bosh Miami Heat. We are at a weird point in the NBA where potentially 3 of our top 10 players were international prospects. Of course in the late 80s and early 90s there was a point when Nigerian born Hakeem Olajuwon and Jamaican born Patrick Ewing were among the top 10 players in the league but both of those players came to the United States for college and were developed through the college system. We have had increasingly more international players come to the NBA who never played high school or college basketball in the United States. By the mid 2000s we had two international superstars in Dirk Nowkitzki and Pau Gasol but I do not think Pau Gasol was ever one of the top 10 players in the NBA (especially not regarding popularity). As the gap between US developed and internationally developed prospects shrinks, the NBA could see its best players coming from Europe and not the United States. We currently have 3 top 10 NBA players in Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Doncic all as international products and it will be interesting to see if the NBA popularity continues to increase as the league becomes even more internationally driven. Diverting back from an awesome what-if scenario to the Mavericks actually needs, The Mavericks did not improve their roster this past off-season. They even may have worsened in the off-season as the Seth Curry trade may not have hindered the team more than it helped. So if the Mavericks desire to contend this season, they need a secondary playmaker and a stretch 4 who can add point production. They are getting less than 20 points per game from the power forward position and likely would be better playing Dorian Finney-Smith at small forward. My desired move for the Maverick would be reacquiring forward Harrison Barnes from the Kings. I think he would provide the team with a solid third or fourth scoring option who can efficiently space the floor. The Mavericks have a lot of possible moves to make to improve around Doncic and Porzingis, so it will be interesting to see if the team does anything to try to improve immediately.
9. Golden State Warriors
-Strengths: Coaching & Leadership
-Weaknesses: Klay Thompson’s Injury
The Warriors are going to have a difficult time contending for a title without the play of injured Klay Thompson. The Warriors have a few options as the trade deadline approaches. Are they going to try to trade some of their young players for another veteran to compete immediately? Are they going to try to trade some of their larger, bloated contracts to reduce their luxury tax penalties? I am not sure what the Warriors will do, but there is an area to start: Kelly Oubre. The Warriors front office needs to determine if Oubre is in the team’s long term plans and if not they need to trade his expiring contract for a couple of younger players or draft picks. If Curry, Thompson and Wiggins are the future guards and wings for the Warriors, then I do not see a need to keep Oubre. He is a good contributor with a manageable contract, so I do expect the Warriors can get something solid in return. Most likely, the Warriors will not do anything drastic and simply make a minor move or two to make sure they are still in position to contend next year.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
-Strengths: Ja Morant
-Weaknesses: Wing scorer
The Grizzlies are a fringe playoff team that I do not expect to do anything to improve immediately. Whether it is through free agency, trade or the draft, they need to add a wing scorer. I like their young nucleus surrounding Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr, but the Grizzlies need a SG or SF who can shoot and create his own offense. The Grizzlies lack a second scoring option after Morant and improving the ‘wing’ positions is the logical next step for the Grizzlies if they desire to build a team that can contend for an NBA title.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder
-Strengths: Draft Assets
-Weaknesses: Wiinning too many games
The Thunder are rebuilding. They will be trading away players at the trade deadline for draft assets and are playing for the future. They have a lot of draft assets, but have actually played a bit too well this year. The focus of the Thunder is actually making sure they do not have a better record than the Pelicans or Kings at the end of the season. Increasing the team’s draft lottery odds is actually the most important thing for the Thunder and if they want to successfully rebuild, drafting will obviously be the key to their success.
12. New Orleans Pelicans
I have a simple question. Does Jrue Bledsoe or Lonzo Ball have any trade value at all? I think there is a way to build a team around Zion and Ingram, but I do not like the current makeup of their roster. I like their defensive minded Center, Stephen Adams, although I’d like to see them acquire a second unit center who can space the floor and allow Zion to dominate the paint. Ball and Bledoe are not good enough shooters to play off a dominant post player like Zion Williamson. I like the Pelicans having a guy like Ingram who can create his own offense, but I’d like to see this team acquire guards who are elite shooters and defenders. The formula is simple: They need to build around Zion. I expect to see the Pelicans try to trade Bledsoe by the trade deadline and maybe attempt to package Ball this off season.
13. Sacramento Kings
-Strengths: Point Guards
-Weaknesses: Owner Ego
This team NEEDS to trade Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes for draft picks and expiring contracts. The Kings have two very good point guards (who can actually play together), but Hield and Barnes are players with trade value who likely aren’t in the team’s long term future. The team has drafted point guards well, but not much else and Marvin Bagley has not developed into the player he is expected to be. The team has continuously fluctuated between being bad and mediocre for the past few years and I feel as though the Kings are trying to push for the playoffs (losing Bogdanovic did not help), but unfortunately the team is not good enough. The Kings need to trade their players with value by the trade deadline and restart next off-season by rebuilding around Fox and Haliburton.
14. Houston Rockets
-Strengths: Tradable players
-Weaknesses: Traded a lot of their own draft assets
There is nothing really positive to say about Rockets. The James Harden era is over. The team is rebuilding. Currently, they are trying to trade PJ Tucker (Heat should make an offer), which would rid the team of another player from the Harden era. Essentially, the Rockets are trying to trade anyone and everyone to acquire draft assets. Whether it is Wall, Gordon, or someone else, everyone on this roster is likely available for trade. Unfortunately, the Rockets had traded away many draft picks to get Russell Westbrook and then later trade him to Washington. The Rockets now are simply stockpiling draft picks to reduce the duration of their rebuild. Not much positive is occurring in Houston right now. I am curious to see if they have a massive fire sale with the approaching trade deadline.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
-Strengths: Karl Anthony Towns
-Weaknesses: Too many guards not enough forwards
The Timberwolves are one of the most oddly constructed teams in the NBA. To say the least, they are undersized, but oddly enough it is because they have too many guards and not enough forwards. On their roster, the T’wolves have Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio, Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver, Jaylen Nowell and Josh Okogie. All seven of these players are guards who are 6’6″ or under (most in the 6’3″/6’4″ range). While Josh Okogie has been relegated to the end of the bench, the other six guards are in the T’wolves ten man rotation, which means that some of these guards are forced to play the small forward position. In fact, the T’wolves do not have a small forward on their roster. Now the T’wolves are very talented at center with Karl Anthony Towns and Naz Reid but this team lacks quality play at the forward positions. The team needs to make some trades. First, trade Rubio to a team needing a veteran point guard. Secondly, see if there is any trade value for Okogie or Culver. Reducing the roster to the 4 guard rotation of Russell, Beasley, Nowell, and Edwards would help a lot. Now those 4 players could play all of the minutes at PG and SG. The team will still need to address the SF position but making a few trades could help them acquire more draft picks. The obvious solution for the T’wolves is to acquire a top SF prospect in the draft and move forward from there. Now this would hardly begin to solve most of their problems but it is a plan moving forward that will help. Long and athletic wings are an important formula towards success in the NBA and I believe the T’wolves are just too undersized at the SF position.