Even though the Warriors are going to curb-stomp everyone, developments outside the Bay still matter. The growth of one player, or one unexpected boom-or-bust trade, can bend the trajectory of an entire franchise.
With that in mind, here’s our annual spotlight on six of the most intriguing players to watch in the upcoming season. We avoid superstars and obvious first- and second-year curiosities. The goal is to find guys in new roles, facing new challenges, who might emerge as X factors for solid teams.
RODNEY HOOD, UTAH JAZZ
The moment Gordon Hayward hit “publish,” Hood became the go-to scorer for this defense-first meat grinder that figures to be in the race for one of the West’s last three playoff spots. The presence of Ricky Rubio means Hood doesn’t have to be Hayward, who served as something of a co-point guard. Quin Snyder prefers an egalitarian offense, but Rubio’s unique game — the combination of horrid shooting and genius passing — means he will probably have the ball more than anyone on last season’s Jazz did.
That will free Hood to score, which is good, because Hood wants to score. He averaged just 2.2 assists per 36 minutes last season, a career low, and a disappointing figure considering how often he commandeered the offense. He sometimes holds the ball too long, and takes one fatal extra dribble toward an open teammate that gives the defense a head start in recovering:
His handle can get rickety:
Hood has flashed good vision; he wraps slick interior dimes to Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, likely to start together again, and occasionally slings crosscourt lasers to corner shooters. But his assists have stemmed more from crisis response — “Oh, crap, I’m trapped!” — than any proactive reading of the defense. Utah needs a hair more playmaking.
But the Jazz know Hood is a scorer at heart. They just want him to score more efficiently. He pulls up for a ton of tough midrangers:
About 30 percent of Hood’s shots came in the floater zone between 3 and 16 feet from the rim, a share that ranked in the 90th percentile among wing players, according to research from Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass. Trade a few of those for drives and 3s, and Utah will have something. Hood could average 20 per game this season, but will they be the kind of points that lead to winning?
Hood earned only two free throws per game last season; Utah will ache for cheap points, and Hood can supply some if he drives more. He’ll have to dodge heavy traffic when both Favors and Gobert are on the floor.
He’s already comfortable jacking triples out of the pick-and-roll, and whether he can nudge his accuracy on those pull-up bombs a few ticks above 30 percent — his mark last season — might be the single most important variable in Hood’s evolution.
He’s crafty opening airspace for those shots. He disguises which way he wants to go around a screen, and jukes his defender in the wrong direction with mean shoulder shimmies.
The craft translates into the paint. Hood does the Chris Paul thing where he locks his defender on his hip, slow-dribbles inside, and waits to see what the defense yields:
Blazers, mediocre all season, jolted to 14-5 with Nurkic in the starting lineup, and outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions with the Bosnian Beast on the floor, per NBA.com. They went 5-3 in that stretch against playoff teams, and dealt a death blow to Denver’s postseason hopes in an eighth-seed showdown — a game in which Nurkic humiliated his old team.
(By the way: Remember when the Nuggets had a boatload of extra picks? They have none now. They attached one to Nurkic in the Mason Plumlee deal, and gave another to Philly in 2015 as a gift for taking on JaVale McGee‘s contract. The Nuggets basically lit two first-round picks on fire. Yeah, McGee was toxic, with another year left on his deal at the time worth $12 mill. And Denver already had a ton of young guys. Still: That’s not great, Bob.)
Nurkic’s revival is a useful reminder that only a half-dozen or so superstars translate independently across any roster. Everyone else is a plant seeking the right habitat.
In Denver, Nurkic set screens for point guards who inspired no fear. In Portland, he dances with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, lethal pull-up shooters who draw traps 30 feet from the rim. Nurkic suddenly had space to rampage, and holy hell, did he rampage:
He understood defenses would swarm Lillard and McCollum early, and adjusted by slipping screens — darting toward the paint before even setting a pick — way more often in Portland than in Denver, per Synergy Sports. Nurkic isn’t a leaper, but he’s explosive on the horizontal plane; he can zip from the foul line to the rim in a flash.
“We didn’t know the extent of his game,” said McCollum, who watched a lot of film with Nurkic early to accelerate their two-man chemistry. “He’s huge, but he can make plays without being a klutz.”
Nurkic became a fundamentally different player. He migrated outside, and exchanged brute force post-ups for pick-and-roll devastation. (It also helped that he, like, tried.) Most promising of all, he showed the passing chops to run Portland’s offense from the elbows, easing the creative burden on Lillard and McCollum.
Portland’s weaker shooters — and there are a lot — realized right away Nurkic could find them on backdoor cuts if their defenders lunged at McCollum and Lillard popping off picks. And with Nurkic handling, McCollum and Lillard morph into dangerous, Curry-style screen-setters.
Nurkic almost doubled his assist rate in Portland. He even used his post-ups to draw the extra help Plumlee never could, and pick out cutters. He injected some needed unpredictability — a new method of attack — after the league caught up to the cascading flow offense that surprised opponents during Portland’s feel-good 2015-16 season.
Nurkic will have to manage amid tighter spacing with Allen Crabbe jettisoned to Brooklyn. Crabbe allowed Terry Stotts to stagger his worst rotation shooters — Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Noah Vonleh — so that only one or two were on the floor with Nurkic. That will be harder now. Help defenders might arrive in the paint sooner, and Nurkic isn’t as steady on his feet when the help meets him high on the floor.
“The give and take is that you have more good defenders on the court,” Stotts, Portland’s coach, told ESPN.com. “But we do need to find another shooter.” (The Blazers are confident Harkless and Aminu can stabilize as at least average 3-point shooters; Aminu shot 36 percent from deep two seasons ago, and better than that after returning from injury last season. We’ll see. It will be awhile before anyone guards them.)
On defense, Nurkic returned the Blazers to the conservative dropback style they preferred when Robin Lopez manned the middle.
He’s surprisingly nimble, with sticky paws; Nurkic recorded 1.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes as a Blazer, rare historic territory for a 7-footer. Keeping Nurkic back allows Portland’s wing defenders to stay close to enemy shooters, cracking down on 3-point attempts.
That scheme brings obvious trade-offs. Portland won’t force many turnovers. Lillard and McCollum, both minus defenders, face enormous pressure to scoot cleanly around picks; get hung up, and opposing guards have acres of space to launch 3s. Nurkic will have to scamper out of his comfort zone against centers with 3-point range.
He’s a so-so rim protector who struggles to keep up when opponents run him through two or three actions in quick succession. When he gets tired, his arms drop to his sides, like a winded boxer. Teams are going to test his conditioning. The Nurkic Fever honeymoon will end; adversity will strike, and Nurkic pouted when he didn’t get his way in Denver.
Good news: Nurkic appears to be in great shape. If he stays disciplined, he could become an important part of Portland’s long-term plan.
THE DALLAS FRONTCOURT
It will be fascinating to see how warlock Rick Carlisle meshes three potential frontcourt pillars in Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, and Nerlens Noel — the last in a contract year after hilariously turning down a four-year, $70 million offer early in free agency. The trio logged just 122 mostly ugly minutes last season.
The fit between Nowitzki and Noel is obvious: Noel is the new Tyson Chandler, sucking in defenders on rim runs while Nowitzki spots up. But what about Barnes? The Mavs last season shifted Barnes to power forward and turned him into Nowitzki; he isolated on the wing, set picks, and abused switches from Nowitzki’s old office in the middle of the foul line. If Noel is the go-to screen-setter now, what will Barnes do when all three share the floor?
The easy answer would be to give him the ball in the pick-and-roll, but the Mavs barely did that last season, and when they did, it went poorly:
Barnes still hasn’t shown the feel or vision to run an offense; he used just 163 ball screens all season, seventh-most on the Mavs, per data from STATS. If Yogi Ferrell and Dennis Smith run the show with Noel, Barnes will have to spend a lot of time chilling in the corner — decoy duty is beneath max-salary scorers.
Barnes has spent the summer working on his playmaking for exactly this reason. He has set an informal goal of averaging three assists per game, he told ESPN.com. “It’s something I have to do better,” he said. But teams might switch any Barnes-Noel stuff, daring Barnes to beat their bigs or inviting Noel to post up smaller defenders. Noel has barely hit the post over the past two seasons, and often literally falls over when he tries.
There are natural solutions. Barnes will get plenty of time at power forward. Carlisle has long yanked Nowitzki early so that he can anchor second units, often as a center in lineups that bled points last season. Carlisle’s flow offense, with simultaneous motion across the floor, creates organic opportunities outside the central action:
Two of Barnes, Wesley Matthews, and Nowitzki might exchange screens under the rim while Smith and Noel run a pick-and-roll up high. Generate a switch, and any of those three can post up a mismatch.
“Even on plays that aren’t designed for me,” Barnes said, “there will be an option for me.”
The Mavs will still use Nowitzki as a screener, and park Noel under the hoop. Nowitzki’s defenders stick to him out of respect for his jumper, allowing Dallas guards to turn the corner, draw help, and lob to lurking centers:
The Mavs might also play through Noel at the elbow a bit, and orbit him with screens and cuts — another way of involving everyone. Noel is a sneaky-good passer when he resists the temptation to try no-chance thread-the-needle jobs; the Sixers installed inside-out sets to let him dish.
“Nerlens can be an elite high-post passer in a spaced environment,” Brett Brown, Philly’s coach, told ESPN.com.
Noel also has to anchor the defense. Carlisle has a bag of tricks — zones, weird matchups — to hide Nowitzki, but no trick is better than a shot-blocking, steal-swiping center patrolling the paint. Noel’s bad bets have always outnumbered his highlight steals and rejections; he leaps for blocks he’ll never get, lunges wildly into passing planes, and teeters off-balance. Carlisle will demand more discipline.
The Mavs aren’t making the playoffs, but they need to learn whether Noel is worth a big investment — and how he mixes with their other big-money stars.
JUSTISE WINSLOW, MIAMI HEAT
Remember Justise Winslow? Boston offered Charlotte four first-round picks just for the chance to draft him. One head coach told ESPN.com Winslow gave the best pre-draft interview he had ever seen.
The Heat owe Phoenix two first-round picks, and they are capped out for the next three years after splurging on James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and the Imperator of Waiters Island. The Heat have unearthed some good young players — Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson — but Winslow is their swing piece. If they want to leap up the East, or strike a killer trade, Winslow has to rehabilitate his value.
He might have to do it from the bench if Miami starts James Johnson at power forward, as I would expect. The Heat probably would want maximum shooting around Johnson and Hassan Whiteside; Winslow provides none. The Heat’s offense took off last season almost the moment Winslow got hurt.
When Miami plays Winslow on the wing, it has mostly been with an ace shooter — Luke Babbitt last season — as the nominal power forward, a setup that allows Winslow to skulk along the baseline:
Winslow is a good cutter who made huge strides as a passer last season. Playmaking and movement can masquerade as spacing, to some degree. Put enough guys on the floor who can cut, drive, and dish, rapid-fire, through tight corridors, and you can score even if they are so-so shooters. Letting James Johnson handle as a point forward mitigates the Johnson-Winslow-Whiteside spacing crunch, since opponents have to honor the ball.
Hell, Miami wasn’t loaded with fearsome shooters last season, despite borderline career years from Goran Dragic, Waiters and James Johnson. The Heat were just freaking relentless, and in better shape than everyone else.
Winslow can even be an effective pick-and-roll guy when Miami hits the gas, and gets into things before opponents can gird themselves to duck under every pick:
Still: He can’t shoot, and it will be hard to play him in some groups. Opponents hide their weakest defenders on him — even little point guards — which makes it easier to guard everyone else.
Winslow is a better fit as a small-ball power forward in second units with Olynyk at center, but Erik Spoelstra can play those groups only so many minutes.
Winslow just has to be better. Step one: Stop catching the ball in 3-point range, sliding inside the arc, and barfing up 21-footers. Either jack that open 3, or move things along. If Luc Mbah a Moute can work himself into a 40 percent shooter on corner 3s, Winslow can, too. Winslow can drive into the chest of smaller guys and shoot over them, though he has shown zero finesse finishing around the basket; he shot a horrid 47 percent in the restricted area last season.
Winslow will be an elite defender across four positions. He is tenacious. He can be a productive player even if the jumper never comes. The Heat just have to figure out how, and in what lineups.
ANDRE DRUMMOND, DETROIT PISTONS
This is a show-me year for Drummond. All the issues I wrote about in February remain unresolved. If Drummond insists on posting up, Stan Van Gundy wants him to try facing the basket and blowing by fools instead of belching bricky jump hooks. (Drummond shot a ghastly 41 percent on post-ups last season, per Synergy, and rarely got to the line — perhaps fearful of embarrassing himself there.)
On defense, Drummond resisted Van Gundy’s entreaties to venture outside the paint and disrupt pick-and-rolls around the 3-point arc. “There’s a tug of war going on between us,” Van Gundy said then.
The Pistons sniffed out the Drummond trade market for much of the winter, and found little interest, sources told ESPN then.
We know what Drummond is on offense, or what he should be: a dive-and-dunk rim-runner who inhales offensive rebounds before the regular humans around him even get off the ground. Those players have value, even in the era of pace-and-space and stretch centers.
But a lot of their value has to come on defense, and that is where Drummond regressed. He played with low energy, and often let both his man and the ball slip behind him — leaving the rim naked.
Drummond will never be Rudy Gobert. To live up to his contract — and to make it movable for a team up against the tax — he has to at least approximate DeAndre Jordan.
Detroit is optimistic Drummond will play with more effort and verve after offseason surgery to open up his left nostril. His wind should improve, and he just turned 24. But if the Pistons start out slowly, this situation could turn volatile — fast.
JRUE HOLIDAY, NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
So, umm, did the Pelicans — with DeMarcus Cousins‘ free agency looming and limited paths to upgrade if he leaves — just give Jrue Holiday $26 million per year to be an average spot-up shooter next to Rajon Rondo and two All-Star bigs?
They concluded Holiday just works better as a secondary ball handler, a role he has played next to Tyreke Evans, Tim Frazier, and others over four strange years in New Orleans. “I honestly don’t think it changes much for me,” Holiday told ESPN.com. “Rondo makes scoring so much easier.”
The team worried about Holiday’s court vision and shot selection as the undisputed floor general. “The fit with Rondo is going to be much, much better for him,” Alvin Gentry, the Pelicans’ head coach, told ESPN.com. “Anyone who doubts the value of Rondo just has to look at the playoffs last year. [The Bulls] dominated with him against Boston.”
Holiday is a 36 percent career shooter from deep, and right around that number on the catch-and-shoot attempts he should get more of in his new role — decent, but far below sharpshooter status. Nobody is afraid of Holiday letting fly.
At this salary, Holiday has to do more than stand and wait — not easy alongside three dudes who need the ball. Gentry wants Cousins and Anthony Davis to push after rebounds, so that Holiday can run the wing, catch at full speed, and slice into a backpedaling defense.
Things will get dicier in the half court given the Pellies’ shaky outside shooting. Cousins and Davis are skilled playmakers, and Cousins has reinvented himself as an above-average 3-point shooter. (The same reinvention has not happened for Davis.) But there is always a trade-off having your behemoth banger chilling 30 feet from the hoop, and defenses don’t hug up on Cousins out there.
The fifth starting spot at small forward is open, and Gentry might rotate players based on matchups, he said. The bet here is on Dante Cunningham, who shot 39 percent from deep last season — an outlier mark that won’t make opponents pay him any mind.
Gentry and his staff have to get creative. They hired Chris Finch away from Denver, and plan to mimic how the Nuggets ran their offense through Nikola Jokic. Cousins and Davis will handle the ball up high, while the other four players screen for one another. Gentry might even stick one of the bigs in the corner in Rick Adelman-style sets, and have Holiday screen for him there. “Deal with that,” Gentry said.
Holiday will snare dribble handoffs at the elbows, and attack scrambled defenses when Rondo kicks him the ball after a pick-and-roll. He has spent this summer working on quick catch-and-drive attacks. “I am locked in on off-ball actions,” Holiday said. He is in shape after his first summer of health and peace in years.
But he’s undersized at the wing, and he’s not a blow-by athlete anymore. He might find himself taking tough shots over bigger defenders.
He’ll have to guard those same players at times. Gentry plans to use three-guard lineups featuring any of Rondo, Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, and Ian Clark, and he will ask Holiday to defend bigger wings. “The Paul Georges and Kevin Durants — we’re going to ask Jrue to guard those guys,” Gentry said.
The Pelicans have the talent to make noise. Core Boogie-Davis lineups trended up on offense after a brutal start; the Pelicans ended up outscoring opponents by three points per 100 possessions with Cousins, Davis, and Holiday on the floor. The sheer amount of IQ and craft flowing from Cousins and Davis is overwhelming.
But these guys have a lot to figure out, fast, and the wing rotation is the bad kind of scary. They are going to need a monster year from Holiday.