by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor & P.Carl Giordano, Managing Editor


ATLANTIC DIVISION BEST BETS...It has not been an easy few years for the New York Knicks (29½), whose latest incarnation is making no bones about the fact it is in the midst of clearing salary space to make a run at any number of high-profile free agents due to hit the market next summer. The recent release of Joakim Noah (using the stretch provision of the final year of his contract) sure fits that narrative, reducing his cap hit about $13 million next summer, giving the Knicks enough space to go after one “max” player (Kevin Durant? Kawhi Leonard?). If it sounds strange to be talking about all of these what-ifs-for-2019 in New York, well, get used to it, because the Daily News and the Post will be doing the same things all winter. We feel a bit sorry for new HC David Fizdale, though he’s not going to be blamed for any of the expected failures of this term. As for 2018-19, getting to 30 wins would be a neat trick, especially with Kristaps Porzingis still on the mend from last year’s ACL tear, with a return near Christmas as a best-case scenario. Eventually, Porzingis and Kentucky rookie F Kevin Knox might be an entertaining frontline combo, while another promising rookie, 7-1 Mitchell Robinson (2nd-round pick), cuts his teeth. Make no mistake, however, the Knicks are just biding their time until next summer...check back then for more interesting reading, and if Spike Lee and other fans can finally get excited again. In the meantime, look “under” at MSG...Maybe this season we’ll finally get a chance to see the Boston Celtics (58½) at full strength. We didn’t a year ago, when key FA addition Gordon Hayward went down early in the opener with a gruesome season-ending broken fibula and dislocated ankle. Hayward and Boston’s other high-profile addition, Kyrie Irving, played together for a total of 5 minutes and 15 seconds last season. And by the time the playoffs rolled around, Irving was sidelined as well. The thought persists in some NBA circles that a fully-healthy Celtics lineup would have been more than a match for the LeBron Cavs, but now that King James has moved to the Western Conference, the Cleveland roadblock in the playoffs should no longer exist. The absences of Hayward, and eventually Irving a season ago, allowed others to step to the fore like rookie SF Jayson Tatum, SG Jaylon Brown, and PG Terry Rozier. Toss those three together with a healthy Hayward (who might play limited minutes at the outset) and Irving, with a large dose of master tactician Brad Stevens on the bench, plus no LeBron in the East, and the route is laid out for a Beantown return to the Finals for the first time in nine years. “Over” at TD Garden.

OTHERS...Might any team benefit more from the move of LeBron James to the Western Conference than the Toronto Raptors (55½)? The Raps found LeBron’s Cavs a permanent blockade in the playoffs, and last spring’s meek 4-game exit caused Toronto to finally cut ties with HC Dwane Casey, even after he was named NBA Coach of the Year. Promoted successor Nick Nurse not only won’t have LeBron to worry about in the East, he has an exciting new addition in Kawhi Leonard, plus another ex-Spur in Danny Green to compensate for the first Toronto lineup minus DeMar DeRozan in nine years. A healthy Leonard, plus Green, also provide upgrades on the stop end, and the chance Kawhi becomes the sort of two-way dominator he was when last healthy in 2016-17, while developing positive chemistry with holdover G Kyle Lowry, gives Toronto fans hope that both the Raps and Maple Leafs will have home dates into June. If all works as planned, the Raps don’t drop four wins from last season’s 59; look “over” at Scotiabank Centre (that’s what they’re now calling the Air Canada Centre)...Are the Brooklyn Nets (32) going to forge a bit of a breakthrough before their expected entry into the free-agent derby next summer? They’ve made incremental progress the past two years for HC Kenny Atkinson, but to take the next step will require upgrades on the boards and on the stop end, where the Nets ranked low last season. And we’re not sure how much upside there might be with their key players D’Angelo Russell (into his own contract year) and Spencer Dinwiddie both manning the same position at the point. Are the Nets really any better than last year, when they came in at 28 wins? “Under” at Barclays Center...“The Process” for the Philadelphia 76ers (54) enters its next phase, as for the first time in a long while the Sixers could be burdened by expectations. The possibility to succeed the Cavs as Eastern kingpins is very real with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the focal points. And the non-Eagles chatter on WIP 94.1 is that 2nd-year G Markelle Fultz might be ready to make real contributions after injuries scuttled his rookie campaign. We have some questions, however, about Fultz, whose over-indulgence helped cause his college coach (Lorenzo Romar) to lose his job at Washington, and whether moving JJ Redick to the bench is really the best thing for HC Brett Brown (though Redick could just as easily emerge as a valued 6th-man). Mostly, however, there are durability issues with the big two (Simmons and Embiid), who have both missed extended time in the past, to the point where Embiid’s minutes and availability in back-to-backs must continue to be monitored. Big Joel’s injury history suggests he goes down at some point this term; if it’s a lengthy absence, the Sixers don’t get to the high 50s in wins. All enough to make us pause and take a pass at Wells Fargo Center.

CENTRAL DIVISION BEST BETS...Were the Indiana Pacers (47½) just a one-hit wonder last term, a convergence of factors not likely to replicate? Perhaps, and we doubt the Pacers sneak up on anybody as they might have a year ago when qualifying as the No. 5 seed in the East and scaring the daylights out of LeBron’s Cavs in the first round, pushing Cleveland all the way to the last minute of Game Seven. Like every other Eastern entry, there’s no more worry about LeBron this season, but GM Kevin Pritchard didn’t sit on his hands in the offseason, adding some firepower in free agency with Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, and some size in ex-Knick Kyle O’Quinn, who effectively takes the place of Al Jefferson, who moved to China. The breakout stars of last season, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, both added in the Paul George trade, helped create an unmistakable vibe and chemistry that was channeled expertly by Nate McMillan, who proved an inspired HC hire. Does all of that and a notable (and NBA rarity) esprit de corps all disappear just because we’re six months on from the end of last season? “Over” at Bankers Life Fieldhouse...Fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers (30½) don’t need to be reminded what happened the last time LeBron James left town. And we don’t expect the Cavs to sink to quite those depths of 2010-11. Still, even with LeBron pushing himself beyond the limits and playing in every game a season ago, the Cavs could only get to 50 wins and the No. 4 seed in the East. What remains on the roster is a patchwork quilt of aging vet leftovers from the recent Finals runs and some precocious youth. Plus a coach (Ty Lue) that might not have even been coaching that much when LeBron was effectively running the team the past few years. This new frontier in Cleveland now will feature F Kevin Love, rewarded with a 4-year contract extension in the summer, but durability has not always been one of Love’s astrong points. Alabama rookie PG Collin Sexton might be fun to watch, but without LeBron, the non-Love portion of this roster resembles so many spare parts. They’ll be doing well to get to 30 wins. Look “under” at The “Q.”

OTHERS...The Tim Duncan example of a superstar staying content in a small market does not always resonate in the NBA. Thus, word that the “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo is already looking down the road to free agency and a move to a major media market could impact the long-term prospects of the Milwaukee Bucks (48). In the short-term, however, the Freak is still in place in Milwaukee, and the consensus around the NBA is that new HC Mike Budenholzer, a Gregg Popovich disciple who easily qualified the Hawks for the playoffs whenever his roster allowed, will provide an upgrade on the bench. Budenholzer’s experience suggests he will make various capable pieces (Kris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon) fit around the Freak, while exciting Villanova rookie G Donte DiVincenzo will not have to be rushed into a featured role. The potential downside revolves around Giannis; not as much a free agency down the road, but injuries, which have sidelined the Freak at times in the past. Short of that, however, the Bucks could certainly emerge from the post-LeBron vacuum in the Central, heaping more excitement into what looks a celebratory year with the new arena opening downtown. “Over” at the new Fiserv Forum....The Chicago Bulls (29½) are continuing their rebuild and suggest they are beyond their tanking phase. We concur with that, but have more concerns about what has thus far been a very fragile core of key components on the current roster. Injuries have to be mentioned because practically everyone HC Fred Hoiberg is counting on to perhaps make a playoff push has been sidelined for extensive periods before. Including offseason addition Jabari Parker, a Windy City product who never seemed to be healthy in Milwaukee. Zach LaVine has dealt with serious knee issues in the past; last year’s promising rookie F Lauri Markkanen is already on the shelf, possibly into December, with elbow problems. And then there’s Hoiberg, who could end up being a scapegoat for the front office, which might have reached its limits on mulligans for “The Mayor” if the losing continues. Even if the roster stays healthy, this core has never proven it can win together. Plenty of trip wires here; look “under” at United Center...Beneficiaries of the knee-jerk reaction in Toronto to jettison Coach of the Year Dwane Casey are the Detroit Pistons (38), who inked Casey not long after deciding Stan Van Gundy was not the guy to lead the franchise back to prominence. Not sure Casey does that, either, but he could have a few advantages that Van Gundy lacked a year ago, mainly a healthy PG Reggie Jackson from the outset, and Blake Griffin in the fold from the start after his addition before the deadline last winter. The prospects of an old-school feel with a potentially dominant frontline featuring Griffin and Andre Drummond does intrigue, though this might work better in theory than practice, because (a) both have been injury-prone, especially Griffin, and (b) the bigs didn’t seem to develop a lot of cohesion when on the floor together for Van Gundy. True, Detroit was a .500 team after big Blake arrived, but his career-long durability issues give us cause for pause. We’d rather take a pass in year two at Little Caesars Arena, where the crowd counts were more than a bit disappointing last season.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION BEST BETS...In recent seasons we have often thought the Orlando Magic (31) were on the verge of a breakthrough. But once again they’re re-making themselves, with another new coach (Steve Clifford, recently at Charlotte, and now Orlando’s fifth HC since 2012) just a year after major front-office turnover. But a jump of seven wins seems to be asking a bit much for a team that quite strangely might not benefit as much as some with no LeBron in Cleveland, having given the Cavs all they could handle while splitting 4 a year ago. Much of the hope for upside centers around 7-1 Texas rookie C Mo Bamba, already a likely deluxe rim-protector but raw with the rest of his game. Key PF Aaron Gordon has also ended speculation about a move after signing a 4-year extension in the summer. But a move up the standings likely will rely more upon a collection of vet additions (Timofey Mozgov, Jerian Grant, Jarell Martin) and perhaps an eventual upgrade at the point, where D.J. Augustin appears a place-holder until further notice. We don’t see this team improving 7 wins; “under” at Amway Center...We’re always looking for teams flying under the radar. Thus, intriguing us a bit are the Charlotte Hornets (35½), on nobody’s watch list after the latest playoff miss last spring that triggered another coaching change (Steve Clifford out, James Borrego in). But Borrego’s preference for a free-flowing style might be a perfect fit for go-go PG Kemba Walker, who often seemed handcuffed in the Clifford offense, while ex-Spur Tony Parker will make it easier to give Walker a blow every once in awhile. A deep collection of bigs gives Borrego added flexibility, and there’s hope that Michigan State rookie Miles Bridges emerges as a Draymond Green clone; after all, they were both tutored by Tom Izzo in East Lansing. We’re looking over at the “Hornet’s Nest” (Spectrum Center).

OTHERS...The rebuild (or was it a tear-down?) began a year ago for the Atlanta Hawks (23½), a playoff regular the preceding decade. That seems a long time ago now, and there is not going to be any immediate pressure on new HC Lloyd Pierce, a long-ago Santa Clara man most recently on the 76ers staff. That Philly experience fits with the new Atlanta “process” narrative, but this season is still the experimental phase. First, to see if Oklahoma rookie G Trae Young’s NBA game translates to the sort of high-volume shooter and on-court manager he was for the Sooners, and if he and 2nd-year F John Collins can develop a dangerous pick-and-roll dynamic. Collins, however, has been dealing with nagging hurts in preseason, and C Dewayne Dedmon is already out indefinitely (ankle). In the meantime, career complementary pieces such as Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin, and Alex Len will be asked to do a bit (maybe a lot) more than they are probably capable. Too early to expect this Peachtree Street version of “The Process” to deliver, so it’s an “under” for us at Philips Arena...The Washington Wizards (44½) have been a real tease the past few seasons, occasionally making some noise in the playoffs but hitting ceiling in the second round. Not sure the Wizards do much better this time around, or if the addition of Dwight Howard in the latest stop on his circuitous career path changes the metrics very much, but getting to the high 40s in wins looks within reach. With all hands on deck, especially the rare instances when both John Wall and Bradley Beal are healthy at the same time in the backcourt, the Wiz can be formidable. And Scott Brooks expects his bench to be of a bit more help this season, especially with the addition of Austin Rivers providing some cushion to the inevitable absences of Wall and Beal, and Jeff Green another reliable recruit. It all could go pear-shaped if Brooks is forced to put out locker room fires, and Howard has caused friction before (with prior internal feuds at Orlando, the Lakers, and Houston). But the Wiz has been trading in the same win range for a few years, and the new additions do seem to improve the depth that has been a recurring problem. We’ll close our eyes and push the “over” button at Capital One Arena...The Miami Heat (41½) look an interesting case study, especially since the Jimmy Butler trade rumors continue, and a serious move for Butler could yet materialize. Adding Butler could change the dynamics and maybe even squeeze one more productive year out of Dwyane Wade, who has already announced this will be it in 2018-19, though he could serve as a valuable (and needed) mentor to Butler as he was in Chicago a couple of years ago. The possibility Butler shows up at some point keeps us from recommending an “under” as the Heat has already dealt with various injuries in preseason (Goran Dragic and his balky knee iffy to start the season; Dion Waiters out until further notice with an ankle), and opponents could jam the middle on Hassan Whiteside unless an elite playmaker (Butler?) appears. With the Butler variable to consider, we’d rather pass for the moment at AA Arena.


SOUTHWEST DIVISION BEST BETS...Is the addition of Carmelo Anthony such a negative that the Houston Rockets (55½) are going to drop ten wins from a season ago? While we wonder about ‘Melo’s dwindling impact, the thought persists that shrewd HC Mike D’Antoni, not to mention Chris Paul and James Harden, will figure out some way to maximize Carmelo’s impact. We suspect the expected drop in the Houston win total stems more from the departures of defensive stalwarts Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, roles not to be filled by Carmelo. But versatile big Clint Capela has re-signed, and the Harden-Paul pairing proved to be dynamite a season ago when Houston won 65. Our main concern is the health of Paul, who has been oft-injured, and whose absence proved costly at the end of the West Finals vs. the Warriors. Otherwise, it’s full speed ahead in Houston. “Over” at Toyota Center...Are the Memphis Grizzlies (33½) really ready to increase their win total by an effective 50%? Sure, it will help to have PG Mike Conley healthy again, but much of the upside seems tied to Michigan State rookie C Jaren Jackson, who was not dominant enough on the college level to lead the Spartans out of the NCAA sub-regionals. While he looks an effective heir apparent to Marc Gasol, he still enters the NBA as a one-and-done with much seasoning required. Squeezing another big season out of Gasol will probably more impact the W-L record, but keeping the big Catalan healthy is always an issue. And we didn’t think J.R. Bickerstaff did a whole lot in his interim HC stint to warrant the job on a full-time basis, either. Look “under” at FedEx Forum.

OTHERS...The New Orleans Pelicans (45½) caught lightning in a bottle down the stretch last season, winning 20 of their last 27 games to storm the playoffs as a No. 6 seed, then routing the Blazers in an eye-opening 4-game sweep before bowing out honorably vs. the champion Warriors in five games. The recipe for HC Alvin Gentry was MVP-caliber play from Anthony Davis, aggressive scoring from G Jrue Holiday, floor savvy and leadership from Rajon Rondo, and floor stretching from F Nikola Mirotic. This all happened after DeMarcus Cousins went down with his Achilles tendon tear, causing some to nod knowingly that not having to worry about a ticking time bomb like Boogie was a contributing factor to the updraft as well. That proved Cousins (now with the Warriors) won’t be missed; adding ex-Laker Julius Randle in free agency provides extra insurance just in case at PF. More concerning might be the departure of Rondo, but if ex-Magic and Sun Elfrid Payton can replicate Rondo’s contributions, the Pels might not skip a beat. What could scuttle everything is an injury to Davis, who has been hurt-prone at times in his career. But we’ll take the glass is half-full approach and assume the best for Davis’ health, and if he can play at least 70 games (which he’s done the past two years), New Orleans returns to the playoffs. “Over” at Smoothie King... Mark Cuban gets in the spotlight more often these days for Shark Tank and appearances on the news channels than he does with his Dallas Mavericks (34½), who have become irrelevant the past few years after more than a decade of serious contention (and an NBA title in 2011). Dirk Nowitzki and HC Rick Carlisle are about all that is left besides Cuban from the glory years, and Cuban is not expected to sit on his hands too much longer. But the Mavs are not likely to make a serious move until they take another stab at the FA market next summer; this season’s additions of ex-Clip C DeAndre Jordan and promising Euro rookie wing Luka Doncic do not figure to increase the win total by 50% from a year ago. Especially if Harrison Barnes’ hamstring injury lingers into November and beyond. The plus side for Cuban is the Dallas first-round pick is top-five protected, so if Doncic and high-usage G Dennis Smith can’t figure out a way to co-exist and Barnes never can get to 100%, the Mavs can always dust off their old tanking strategy to prevent the Hawks from getting the first-rounder due from the trade to get Doncic. That’s hardly encouraging for the “over” bettors; look “under” in Big D...How much do we trust Coach Pop? We’ll see. His San Antonio Spurs (44½) are flying under the radar for the first time in a generation, and all of Pop’s nous will be needed to get back to the playoffs. Much has been made of the departure of Kawhi Leonard, but he only played nine games last season, with his mysterious injury proving a constant distraction in the process. And at this stage in the career of Tony Parker (only 7.7 ppg LY), his departure is a non-event, as is the retirement of Manu Ginobili. The season-ending knee injury to promising wing Dejounte Murray is a bit of a bummer, however, and Miami-Fla. rookie G Lonnie Walker IV (knee) also likely opens the season on the injured list. Yet the Spurs will have ex-Raptor DeMar DeRozan in the mix, and the possibility of an All-Star 1-2 combo with LaMarcus Aldridge gives Pop something to work with this winter. Though mid 40s looks a max on the wins, we respect Pop enough to not undershoot with the Spurs, so we’ll pass instead.

NORTHWEST DIVISION BEST BETS...There was a lot of celebrating going on in the summer for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder (48½) when Paul George decided to re-sign and forego a move back to hometown L.A. And being rid of Carmelo Anthony is hardly a negative. But there are a couple of concerns, not the least of which is the balky knee that bothered do-everything Russell Westbrook in the preseason; any possibility that Westbrook could be out or compromised changes the Ok City metrics completely. And though he provides little offense, don’t think defensive specialist Andre Roberson wasn’t badly missed when he went down with injury last season (he remains out until further notice, likely until after New Year’s, rehabbing his knee). In the East, Ok City might be better able to manage these potential problem spots; in the West, we’re not sure.  “Under” at The Peake...Yes, the playoff sweep at the hands of the Pelicans laid bare some of the concerns on the roster of the Portland Trailblazers (42), and if they are really built for postseason success. Maybe they aren’t. But this was the West’s No. 3 seed a year ago, and returns much the same team that won 49 games. One concession to change is that HC Terry Stotts is less likely to stagger the minutes of his star G pair of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum; Stotts, under some pressure, is staking his job on putting those two on the floor at the same time much more often this season, which sounds like a swell idea to us. Look “over” at Moda Center.

OTHERS...Some odd doings in the preseason with the Minnesota Timberwolves (45) and the distractions surrounding Jimmy Butler, who seems hellbent to force a trade before he hits free agency next summer. Safe to say part of his displeasure is the structured Tom Thibodeau system that might not best showcase a top-dollar FA-to-be. That the Wolves system might only be a minor irritant suggests the Butler problem runs deeper than we or anyone else can imagine. We think it’s safe to say that this situation is not going to have a happy ending in Minneapolis unless Butler is moved, but until then, his presence figures to hover like a cloud over the franchise. So, this season could easily turn into a hot mess; if Butler is traded, getting commensurate value is not going to be easy, and if he isn’t moved soon enough, the whole situation could implode, including “Tibs” as a scapegoat. Not sure Karl-Anthony Towns and/or Andrew Wiggins are yet mature enough to navigate what might be some very turbulent waters this term. We can’t help but think “under” at Target Center...It was too bad at the end of last season that the Denver Nuggets (47½) just missed the playoffs; hot down the stretch, the Nugs would have probably made for a better first-round series against the Rockets than did the T-wolves. More than anything, Denver is fun to watch, and while a high-octane offense/shaky defense mix might have a win ceiling somewhere in the low 50s, it creates some opportunities on the season wager at the current price. Nikola Jokic is thus the quintessential Nug; dynamic on the attack end in a variety of roles, but a liability on defense. Mike Malone can live with the latter as long as other components pick up the defensive slack, but the Mile High calling card is offense, with Jokic and ex-Kentucky wing Jamal Murray a potential All-Star pair, Paul Millsap still around to do the dirty work in the paint, and Isaiah Thomas (when healthy) an intriguing backcourt addition looking to jump-start his career. With the Broncos giving the locals nothing to cheer about these days, the Nugs will be filling a Rocky Mountain region void this winter; “over” at Pepsi Center... Drill a bit with the numbers on the Utah Jazz (49), and some inevitable conclusions can be drawn. First, the team that went 29-6 down the stretch and powered into the second round of the playoffs can again be a handful. But only if Rudy Gobert is part of the equation; in games the “French Rejection” missed last season, Utah was just 11-12. And since Gobert has dealt with injuries for much of his career, it’s a bit risky to assume a healthy Gobert can lead a further charge up the standings. If Gobert can play in 70 or more games, Utah could handily clear that 49 number, especially after Donovan Mitchell proved such a pleasant surprise as a rookie last season, and Ricky Rubio finally displayed some consistency (and an outside shot!) at the point. Rubio, however, is another with an injury history, so too many variables here to get real definitive in October. By us, the best call in Salt Lake City is no call, so we pass on the Jazz.

PACIFIC DIVISION BEST BET...Never mind (for the purpose of season wins, at least) the offseason addition of DeMarcus Cousins by the Golden State Warriors (63½), and any talk of invincibility with big Boogie in the mix. First, Cousins is not being rushed back from last winter’s Achilles tendon tear, in fact he might re-hab all of the way until the All-Star break. Second, Steve Kerr laid his hand on table last term when the Warriors, recalling how their drive for the record 73 wins in 2015-16 might have sapped them unnecessarily for the playoffs, didn’t seem to give a hoot about the best record last term, instead wanting only to be healthy and peaking for the playoffs. Since a third title in four years ensued, expect Kerr to employ the same strategy. As a year ago, the regular season is just a preliminary to the main event (playoffs) in Oakland, so we look “under” at Oracle Arena before the move across the Bay to the Chase Center (by AT&T Park) next season.

OTHERS...After a few years in hibernation, the Los Angeles Lakers (48½) are news again after LeBron James made a business decision to move to California in July. Unlike LeBron’s previous move out of Cleveland to Miami that was all about winning some rings, this move is more about LeBron’s vast outside interests and post-career path that includes the entertainment sphere. (Give LeBron a few years around the Hollywood types and let’s see how long he wants to stick around L.A., but we digress.) On the court, however, he’s still King James, and the Lakers will have to benefit, though Luke Walton is going to have to seriously alter an offense that was big on sharing the ball a year ago; LeBron says he’ll be as accommodating as needed, but he didn’t move to L.A. to become a facilitator. LeBron leading the fast-break and making his usual commando raids into the paint intrigues almost as much as the cast of misfits the Lake Show has collected around him. Rajon Rondo? Lance Stephenson? JaVale McGee? What next, Flavor Flav? This makes for a reality-show like clubhouse, and trip wires are easy to identify. And LeBron also now has to deal with a steady diet of West foes, after some wondered if the Cavs of last season (the No. 4 seed in the East) would have even made the playoffs if they were in the West and not the lesser East. Whatever, it’s going to be must-see TV at Staples Center, but we’re looking “under” with the Lake Show...While the Lakers take up all of the oxygen in the local sports media, the Los Angeles Clippers (36½) have quietly reassumed their secondary status. While no one is expecting much, perhaps HC Doc Rivers can author a surprise. Losing linchpins Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan over the past year signals a downgrade, but that combination, for whatever reason, always seemed a bit of an awkward fit. We’d like to see what Doc can do with a full season from terrier-like G Patrick Beverley, who went down early with injury a season ago after playing just 11 games. Meanwhile, ex-Wizard Marcin Gortat should prove a serviceable replacement for Jordan on the blocks. There is some excitement in Clipper camp that Kentucky rookie wing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be the steal of the June draft, and prove a nice complement to underrated Tobias Harris. Much depends on keeping some oft-injured parts (Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Avery Bradley, Milos Teodosic) in one piece, but with all hands on deck, Doc should be able to cobble together a representative unit. Not sure about a playoff run, but if healthy enough, getting into the high 30s looks do-able, so it’s an “over” at the Clip Joint... It’s too bad that maybe the best new arena in the NBA (the Golden 1 Center) doesn’t have a better tenant that the Sacramento Kings (26), who have been spinning their wheels for the better part of the last decade. But there is plenty of exciting young talent on the roster, and have to salute first-round pick Duke F Marvin Bagley, one of the few top-line rookies who embraced the chance to play for the Kings as opposed to the various first-round brats who were on record to say they wanted no part of Sacto, apparently not a cool-enough destination these days. (Just curious, but how many non-Bagley first-rounders could identify Sacto on a map?) Bagley and last year’s first-round pick, ex-Kentucky De’Arron Fox, form a nice young nucleus, and something for HC Dave Joerger to build around, but no indication yet that the likes of other kids like Harry Giles, Skai Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein can make an impact. Can the likes of vets Zack Randolph and Iman Shumpert keep the ship afloat, or will they become trade bait at the deadline? The best we can recommend for Kings fans is a pass at the Golden 1...The Phoenix Suns (29½) have been the worst team in the West the past two seasons and worst in the entirety of the league a year ago when limping in at 21-61. It was over within the first week, as HC Earl Watson was dismissed and Jay Triano served the remaining 79 games as an interim. Now the Suns gamble with the first Euro-born coach in NBA history, Serbian Igor Kokoskov, who has an extended work history in the league, most recently as Quin Snyder’s aide with the Jazz. Kokoskov’s defensive expertise figures to come in handy for a team that could use all the help it can get on the stop end. But there is palpable excitement in the Valley of the Sun regarding top overall pick DeAndre Ayton, a 7-1 man-child from Arizona who has reminded some of a taller Hakeem Olajuwon and has done nothing to dispel the excitement in preseason. If Ayton hits the ground running, Devin Booker emerges in an envisioned James Harden-type role, and vets Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and just-signed Jamal Crawford fill in other gaps, the Suns might not be that bad this season...or at least as bad as a year ago. Still, the West is tough, and we don’t want to get too carried away, so we’ll just pass instead at the Talking Stick.

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