We continue with part two of our fall out column….
-Utah Jazz: The spanking by the Rockets obscured a pretty good season. The Jazz were arguably the third or fourth best team in the West but had the bad luck of drawing Houston earlier than expected due to Houston’s early slump. So, the Utah season ended with a 4-1 Rockets win, just like last season, albeit one round earlier. In all, the Jazz have basically been the same team the last three seasons: great on defense and mediocre on offense. Utah doesn’t have any single sieve on offense (except Royce O’Neale) but they lack players who can get to the rim off the dribble (besides Donovan Mitchell).
The Jazz have choices to make with Derrick Favors likely to opt out and Ricky Rubio being a free agent. Neither player is indispensable, in theory, but both are good enough to keep on a fair deal. Assuming they can be kept, or replaced with similar players, Utah should be okay again. The problem is the team is not particularly young so any chance at improvement must come from Mitchell making a leap forward. He has impressed but his advanced stats profile as not quite star at this point (17.2 PER, 5.0 WS, 0.6 BPM). Putting Mitchell aside, getting more wing athleticism is a must (it doesn’t look like Dante Exum is going to happen either). In the end, Utah is likely looking at another 50-win season and the high hope that they avoid the Rockets until the second or third round of the playoffs.
-Oklahoma City Thunder: The profile of most of the first round losers is the same: good defense and blah offense. OKC also fits the mold to a tee. They also lack secondary scorers but not because of lack of athletes. In fact, they have a bunch of young athletes that the Jazz could use (Dennis Schroder, Terrance Ferguson, and Jerami Grant) but all struggle to score consistently. On top of that, Russell Westbrook seems to have lost his ability to shoot long range. He’s never been a great shooter in the best times but Russ has now shot under 30% from three-point land in four of the last five years. Westbrook’s free throw attempts have also slowly receded to his lowest rate since 2009-10. He is still a great, great player but Russ is slowly declining and will have to alter his game slightly to be more efficient.
OKC had the third highest payroll in the NBA this year and Russ, Paul George, Steven Adams, and Schroeder are locked in for two more seasons at over $110 million per year. That means that the Thunder are just going to have to keep the core intact and see what happens. If Westbrook can shoot better and things break slightly differently, OKC could make a conference finals but they are just as likely to get knocked out in round one again next year.
-San Antonio Spurs: Finally a playoff team whose problem is defense and not offense! The Spurs have locked in DeMar DeRozan and La Marcus Aldridge for another year and both played quite well, if not dominant. The biggest weakness here was guard defense, where Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills, and Marco Belinelli were routinely toasted. Mills should yield minutes to Derrick White and a hopefully healthy Dejounte Murray, who was excellent defensively in 2017-18.
But addressing the margins only ignores the larger problem, that a DeRozan/Aldridge team is not quite good enough to be the core of a very good team. DeRozan will be 30 and LA 34. It may be painful but the Spurs may be much better off cashing in the players for draft picks and starting over instead of fighting for a low seed. It’s been a while (1996-97) but the Spurs should turn the page and dip back into the lottery.
-Los Angeles Clippers: We can briefly note that the Clippers were scrappy and fun and deserved credit for pushing the Warriors. But the only real issue here is free agency. The Clipps have less than $50 million in salary committed next year and a few solid players coming back (Danilo Gallinari, Louis Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). But another decent season is not the goal here. Instead, the Clipps have a chance to land big fish (Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant) and wrest control of Los Angeles from the Lakers. The Clipps appear to be in a good position to get someone (good ownership, glitzy city, some young talent) but we shall see what happens…