Is Aaron Gordon truly the missing piece?
Health is going to be the largest issue for this team because Murray will not be able to return until the latter half of the season. In his absence, they will need multiple bodies to carry the scoring load. I think when Denver acquired Gordon, some were expecting to see a 20 point per game scorer and this high-flying highlight reel of a man. In spots, he can be that player but the reality is, he is a role player on this team and he might be the most important role player.
Following the Gordon trade, the Nuggets were looking like a legit championship contender. Throughout the last half of the regular season, Denver stacked impressive wins on top of each other and Gordon facilitated some of that success. After the Jamal Murray injury, we began to recognize the limitations of this team. They are not as good defensively as they once were, so they needed to put up points in bunches to outlast teams.
The Trail Blazers series opened a lot of eyes to the notion that this is one of the most resilient teams in the league. They showed it doesn’t matter what type of talent they throw out onto the floor, they will compete at a high level and teams will need their best effort to come out with a win. In my opinion, that series win was one of the best in franchise history but it was followed by a sweep.
The Blazers were an awful defensive team, so that allowed Denver to get away with their lackluster defensive performances. Once they hit a Suns team who maintained good balance on both ends of the floor, they could not compensate for Murray’s absence. This year, they must either obtain a good balance on both ends or they need to be outstanding on one end.
Gordon is the best defensive player Denver has and he is honestly a better defender than most realize. He will be able to compete with the best talent in the league at that end of the floor, but he as an individual will not be able to make up for Denver’s lack of defensive talent. With that being said, Denver needs him to be that guy they can pencil in for 15 a night. They don't need him to drop 25 consistently but they need him to star in his role and some of that role is being efficient on offense.
If he can bring the hammer on the defensive end while hitting open shots and becoming more of a consistent cutting threat, he will be the piece that helps the Nuggets compete with the Lakers. As he develops more of an on-court relationship with Jokic, I think they can be a deadly combo once the postseason arrives. As teams focus on the two-man game between Murray and Jokic they might relax on Gordon and that’s when he can find open spots to cut to the rim for an easy dunk.
As I said before, I think he’s the most important role player on this team. Denver will ask a lot of him. They don't have anybody to effectively guard elite talent, so he is that guy they will call upon but they will also ask him to be efficient on the offensive end. Denver cannot afford multiple possessions where they don't score a basket because it can bury them into a 10-0, 15-0 scoring run they might not be able to come back from. Gordon has a lot on his plate but he has the talent and the team around him to be the core piece they need him to be.
Will the three-point shot be enough for them?
Last season the Jazz were the best three-point shooting team in the history of the NBA. They made 16.8 threes a game which is absurd considering how the game used to be played. Back in the day, teams as a whole were not even attempting 16 threes a game but now the NBA shifted their mentality beyond the three-point line.
Utah had eight players shoot over 38% from three last year. They were putting up 20+ made three performances on a nightly basis and even broke their franchise record for threes made several times throughout the season. They marched into the postseason with the NBA’s best record and a real shot to make it to the NBA Finals, but the postseason is a whole different ball game.
After handling the Grizzlies in five games, they ran into a Clippers team without their best player for the latter half of the series. They rattled off two straight home wins to go up 2-0 and then lost four straight after that. They like to spread the floor and obtain drive and kick opportunities, but the floor shrank in the postseason and shots became tougher to make as they always do later in the season.
The question remains, will this style of play eventually crown a champion? Yes, the Golden State Warriors rostered some of the best three-point shooters in NBA history but they were much more than that during their championship run. Utah’s philosophy mirrors that of the Mike D’Antoni Rockets. They play every game with the mentality that three points are better than two and we’re going to outshoot you.
That style of play has not yet proven to be a winning formula in the postseason but maybe Utah can break that mold. They have the best defensive player in the league to stop the paint and one of the more exciting, explosive players in the game with Donovan Mitchell. They’re also incredibly deep and hold a veteran presence throughout the lineup.
They will be underrated yet again this year because they have not displayed their true potential. If they reach the pinnacle of their potential, they could definitely hold the Larry O’Brien trophy when it is all said and done, but will it come via the three-ball? It will be interesting to see if they adapt their style of play or continue it. Either way, watch out for this team because they are talented but most of all, hungry.
Portland Trail Blazers
Get Damian Lillard some help.
Portland’s offseason was a very puzzling one to me. They had the best player in their franchise’s history place an immense amount of pressure on them after the season and they still did not make any moves. They are incredibly lucky Dame is one, if not the most, loyal players in the NBA because if that was anybody else, that star would have packed their bags and left for a major market a couple of seasons ago.
Their best move was resigning Norman Powell because he is a really talented player and they desperately needed him to stay. Other than that, they did nothing to enhance this team. They signed Cody Zeller, Tony Snell, Ben McLemore, and traded for Larry Nance and rookie Greg Brown. Does it give them more depth to work with? Sure, but when it comes to reliability I don't think it helps them at all.
They needed a piece to help them get out of the first round and now they will be in jeopardy of missing the playoffs given how other Western Conference teams bolstered their roster. I give Dame an immense amount of credit for sticking with Portland. I love to see a Hall of Fame player like him value his team and city as much as he does to stick around for as long as he has.
With that being said, he is a historic player and it would be a shame to not see him be able to compete for a championship. His performance against Denver in that first-round series last year was the best I’ve ever seen and it came in a loss because he didn't have any help. As a Nuggets fan, I do not want the Trail Blazers to be as competitive as they have in the past because that does not help my team win. But for the love of everything good in this world, Portland get this man some help. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.
When will their talent translate to wins?
Ever since they lost Jimmy Butler, Minnesota has not been a good team and we all know that, but they’re a lot more talented than some may think. We know Towns and Russell are All-Star caliber players, but they have a budding star in Anthony Edwards, Malik Beasley who is a hell of a role player, and Patrick Beverley who is a great, gritty piece to a young team.
They will have their growing pains as they always do. They will have fairly frequent losing streaks because they’re not a postseason team, but will they acquire the identity for the foundation of a postseason team? Chris Finch has a lot to handle as the head coach with all this young talent and a team that lacks a winning culture right now.
My favorite offseason move this team made was signing Patrick Beverley. He’s a guy you hate to see on the opposition, but you absolutely love to have him on your team because you know he will give a 100% and he is not afraid of anything. That is the mentality this team has always been missing. Jimmy Butler tried to teach this team that type of culture but it was too much for them to handle at the time.
If they treat Beverley like they did Butler they are missing out on a huge opportunity. Beverley will help give this team an identity and a winning attitude on a nightly basis, but it is up to the young players to foster that into their growth. If you give a talented, young player like Anthony Edwards that type of dog mentality, he will be a perennial All-Star and one that brings the postseason back to Minnesota.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Will losing impact the development of their young pieces?
We expect the Thunder to lose a lot of games come next season and that could jeopardize the potential of their young talent. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an All-Star type of player and I worry if the constant losing will impact his mentality and development. They also don’t have a lot of proven, veteran pieces to teach the young guys how to withstand the challenges they will face.
A piece like a Patrick Beverley would have gone alone way with them, not because they would win more games but because a guy like Gilgeous-Alexander could learn a lot from a gritty, veteran player who is used to and won’t accept anything less than winning basketball. They are obviously building towards the future with their farm of assets they have acquired over the years but building bad habits could ruin that.
The average basketball fan won’t know this because the Thunder aren't an entertaining team yet, but they actually have some really good young talent. Lu Dort is one of my favorite players to watch. He’s a force defensively on the perimeter and brings great physicality to their perimeter defense and he can also hit shots from deep. Pokusevski is an intriguing player who is pencil-thin, but he has good playmaking and shooting ability and reminds me of a smaller, poor man’s Kristaps Porzingis if he keeps developing. Josh Giddey and Tre Mann are the two pieces they acquired in the draft and were sought-after assets for many teams this year.
The Thunder seemed to have formed their potential young core but if you don't water the plants they’re not going to grow. If they water their plants they will end up with a damn beanstalk tree with all their assets. They need to keep building and practicing good habits so when they do acquire that All-Star veteran piece, they can hit the ground running towards the postseason.
I like what this team has done in the draft and in past off-seasons and now it is time to find an identity and cultivate it. I would not be surprised if this time is a perennial postseason player in the next five years. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if they don’t make the postseason for the next 12 years.