The Most Interesting Men in the NBA: Part II

This essentially serves as a 2017 NBA preview. I’ll take a look at who I believe the most interesting player will be for all 30 teams in the coming season. They could interesting for any reason, and they may be interesting only to myself. Hopefully, though, you’ll learn a bit about each player and how they will help decide their team’s fate. The regular season is fast approaching. Let me help you prepare for it.

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Dallas: Nerlens Noel

If you turn down a guaranteed $70 million, you better believe in yourself. Noel clearly does, taking $4million this season instead of the $17 he could have had. Now it’s possible in that process he pissed off Rick Carlisle, who is famous for not tolerating youngsters already. Carlisle may make him come off the bench, limiting his minutes and production, thus limiting his earning potential next summer. That’s cold. Or Noel could. play well enough he’ll be forced to play. It’s not like the Mavericks have a deep bench.

Noel only played 22 minutes per game during his time in Dallas last season, but his per 36 minutes numbers are that of an NBA starter. He’s a skilled rim protector and rebounder, with an ever-improving touch on offense and competent passing abilities from the post. In Carlisle’s defense, it may make more sense to make Noel the backup 5 to feast on other backups rather than shoehorn him into the 4 spot with the starters. Whether that’s the reason or the coach is just a grumpy old fart, it has big potential to backfire on both Dallas and Noel. Let’s see how this all plays out.

Denver: Nikola Jokic

Jokic may be the most interesting of all these men. After starting for just half a season, he’s already a superstar in NBA nerd circles. Casual fans, though, may not have even heard of him at all. The NBA is already looking to change that.

With good reason. This beauty of a dish is standard fare for the Serbian big man. He sees the floor better than any big man in the league, and probably better than most guards. He’s just a joy to watch. On offense, at least. At the other end, hide your eyes! This is where my interest lays: I want Jokic bump his defense up from “horrendous” to simply “below average.” An Offensive Rating of 115 is pretty awesome, but a Defensive Rating of 110 almost seems like you’re not trying. And I think he does try, which is an issue. The Nuggets have hopes of making a big step forward this season and Jokic’s defense can be a big part of that.

Detroit: Reggie Jackson

The Pistons are sitting on a tall, rickety fence right now. On one side is competency; a meltdown is on the other. They could easily fall to either side, and Jackson is going to lead the way no matter which direction they go. Because for better or worse, Detroit is paying him $51 million over the next three years – a nearly untradeable contract if the status quo remains unchanged. A big reason is that his teammates don’t like him and have never liked him, going back to the OKC days. That’s a problem.

The other, arguably bigger issue is that Detroit was better with Ish Smith in the lineup last season than they were with Jackson. Smith was an NBA journeyman in his first year in Detroit, and is by no means an acceptable starting point guard for a playoff team. It’s not that hard to beat a -8.8 Net Rating, after all. But Jackson was hurt to start the year and never looked 100% when he returned. He struggled in the pick and roll, a key component of Stan Van Gundy’s offense, and couldn’t hang at all on defense. He needs both healthy knees and relationships with his teammates to keep the Pistons from falling apart.

Memphis: Chandler Parsons

Hey, speaking of knee health, here’s Chandler Parsons! Parsons is apparently ready to go this season, but if his entire life preceding this is any indication then he still can’t be trusted. And that’s scary. His level of play may be what separates the Grizzlies from making the playoffs or going into tank mode and starting over. It sounds dramatic, but it’s not like Parsons isn’t accustomed to drama. (At this point, the first thing that autofills in a google search is “chandler parsons instagram”.)

This is not a deep team. The Grizz need all the scoring from the starters they can get. I’m old enough to remember Parsons putting up 16 points per game and shooting 38+% from three. He won’t have his old athleticism, but he can glue the starting lineup together with his spacing. However, if he can’t play half the season again, Memphis won’t have enough talent to keep up in the crowded Western Conference. Maybe at that point management sees the $94 million they invested in him last summer as a sunk cost. Trades of Marc Gasol and/or Mike Conley could follow. Memphis is in a similar position as Detroit, really.

Miami: Dion Waiters

The offers didn’t materialize last summer for Waiters, so he took a minimum with the Heat. A season of balling out, Philly cheese swag and top-notch journalism later, he got paid. He had to justify getting paid last year, and now he has to justify what he’s been paid. Being an NBA player is a lot of work, and it sounds super difficult. You just can’t win. Waiters has already won the love of the public, so at least he’s got that.

Waiters exemplifies the entire Heat roster: a lot of pretty good guys that Pat Riley had to overpay to keep, so the pressure is on to keep up that performance. Unlike the team who struggled until an unlikely and equally fun post-All-Star run, Waiters, despite injury trouble, produced throughout the season. His 46 games is still a small sample size, much like his team’s run in their last 41 games. Everyone in Miami needs to prove this season that the last one was no fluke, including Waiters.

Minnesota: Andrew Wiggins

A max deal sat on the table for months this summer for Wiggins, who definitely hasn’t played like a max player yet. Although he was obviously going to take it, he waited until last week to make it official. He wasn’t going to take anything less, but did Minny have to succumb to his demands? After this offseason it’s not clear. If he does indeed take the deal, he’ll have a lot to live up to. Owner Glen Taylor even spoke cryptically about needing more from Wiggins if he were to shell out this amount of cash to him. Taylor’s not wrong about this.

Wiggins’s three-point shooting ticked up to league average last season. It needs to stay there or preferably rise if he has to share the court with Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague, who will struggle to be average from outside. Open looks that Ricky Rubio once found for him may not be there this year. Offense shouldn’t be a problem, though. It’s defense that’s the issue, and the issue is that Wiggins doesn’t play it. His opponents shot above league average from nearly every spot on the floor. Butler should be able to help him in this regard. Or they may clash because of their overlapping skillsets on offense. A max player should be able to figure all this out.

New Orleans: DeMarcus Cousins

It’s the question that could cause the biggest shakeup in the league before the trade dealine: can Cousins and Anthony Davis successfully coexist? After his acquisition at last season’s deadline, the Pelicans couldn’t even keep themselves in the race for the 8th seed. That was unexpected. With more time together, the duo looked far improved by the end of the season. It just didn’t translate to wins. The team took a big bet on Boogie to get those elusive wins and will be expecting them this season.

New Orleans with Cousins raised its plus/minus to 0.3 from -3.1, so it was a nearly perfectly average team. But even a 41-41 team ain’t making the playoffs in the Western Conference this year. The team’s 3PT% also crept up near league average. Both Cousins and Davis can shoot from deep which helps team spacing. But they both prefer and are better served inside. Crafting an above-average offense with both on the floor is a tough but crucial challenge. So signing more teammates that can’t shoot, however, was an interesting offseason tactic. Because of that, this experiment could be deemed a failure through no fault of Boogie’s. If so, he could be moved again by the deadline. Who else wants a shot at him?

Philadelphia: Ben Simmons

Simmons is technically a rookie, but has spent a year inside the NBA and adapting to Philly’s team structure. This should make him more fully-formed out of the gate than other first years. The best case here is a Joel Embiid-like show of realized potential right away. This team is well-suited to give him that opportunity. (As always, we must use the IF HEALTHY disclaimer when discussing this team.) But his style of play should fit well into the system Brett Brown is trying to create.

There’s a free-flowing, pass-happy, Spurs/Warriors-y thing going on with the Sixers, and Simmons is known mostly for his passing ability. He’s practically a point guard, and will have some ball-handling duties if that isn’t his listed position. Shooting is going to be an issue for him, probably always. Philly can’t complain, though. His length will help create a defensive behemoth alongside Embiid and Dario Saric. Philly needs him, and they need him healthy. We’ve waited too long for Simmons assist highlight reels but they’re on their way.

Portland: Jusuf Nurkic

After (rightly) losing his spot in Denver to Jokic, Nurkic got sent to Portland and proceeded to ball out. He improved in every statistical category you can name per 100 possessions. Non-statistical things like attitude and effort noticeably improved, especially defensively. Yes Portland was a bit better than Denver, but a normal person doesn’t just improve their Net Rating by 20 (!!!) entire freaking points after switching teams. The 9.6 Nurkic will get Portland back to the playoffs, the -10.3 version keeps them out of that tight race.

I’m more inclined to think that Nurkic is closer to the Portland version, and his Blazers teammates work more in his favor. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are elite pick and roll runners to pair with him. He’ll pretty much have the center spot all to himself, leaving him plenty of minutes and space on the floor to be the Bosnian Beast all over everyone. His 20 games with the Blazers last spring is a small sample size, but he’s out for blood against everyone, especially Denver. His greatest joy would be pushing Portland into the playoffs while keeping the Nuggets out.

Utah: Joe Ingles

Ingles is free! With Gordon Hayward’s departure, a starting spot has opened up for the underappreciated Australian. Don’t get me wrong, he’s for sure not as good as Hayward. But I do think that he’s more fun. Lefties are just more interesting by default. Now he has the opportunity to show his growth and live up to his new contract. A lot of shots left when Hayward skipped town and Ingles, who’s been mostly stuck in the “stand in the corner and shoot when you’re open” role, should be able to get his fill.

He’s already grown in almost every area in his three seasons. Shooting percentages from all areas, assists, rebounds and turnovers have all improved. He settled nicely into his old role, but now he’s got a new one. He shot 78% on driving layups last season, proving adept at creating his own points in small doses. Attacking a mismatch or scrambling defense or running the pick and roll led to plenty of quality looks. If he can maintain that efficiency with more touches and work on finishing with his right hand, the Jazz may not miss Hayward as much as anticipated.

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These are roughly the middle ten teams.
Here’s Part I.
Here’s Part III.

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