There are 28 NBA teams outside Cleveland and Oakland, and as Kevin Pelton noted this week, history suggests at least one will impose postseason stress on the anointed Finalists.
Teams below that level still have to play. They're not just going to forfeit. They have long-term goals, young players to develop, and looming roster choices.
With that in mind, let's spotlight six of the most intriguing "other" players going into the season. We're ignoring superstars and long-awaited curiosities like Joel Embiid. The goal is to find sub-stars thrust into major new roles for teams with big dreams -- guys we're going to learn a lot about over the next six months.
Schroder will swing Atlanta's season, a fact that triggers something ranging from dread to fidgety optimism in every member of the organization.
Schroder's personality occasionally rankled teammates, coaches, and higher-ups over his promising three-year stint backing up Jeff Teague. He was a pouty loner when playing time dwindled, and a yapping taskmaster who chastised veterans when his confidence bloomed. His active night life made him an awkward fit among the staid Spurs East.
But the dude has that "it" dynamism, and the Hawks were right to promote him -- and flip Teague for a lottery pick. Schroder is a better defender than Teague, and maintaining a stout defense should stabilize Atlanta amid unusual roster turmoil. Atlanta ranked second in points allowed per possession last season, and Dwight Howard's combination of rim protection and sorely needed rebounding -- teams destroyed Atlanta on the boards -- should compensate for the loss of Al Horford's mobility.
Cleaning the glass would jump-start Atlanta's transition game, where Schroder thrives. He has a good eye for reading waves of defenders crashing around him, and spotting shooters -- especially Kyle Korver -- in the pockets that pop up in their wake. "He's just starting to understand how much ground he can cover in the first three seconds of the shot clock," said Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta's coach.
The Hawks need fast-break buckets; they plummeted to 18th in points per possession last season, and struggled (again) on wide-open 3-pointers. Hitting the gas would make it harder for Schroder's defenders to set their feet, slide waaaay under the first pick Atlanta sets for him, and wall off his driving lanes -- daring Schroder to pop his unreliable jumper.
When defenses can't lay in wait, Schroder unleashes the full creativity of his game. He has a wicked crossover. He's among the very best at faking toward a pick, coaxing his defender that way, and then zooming away from it -- and into the lane for a zippy drive.
That's just mean.
Atlanta needs Schroder to hunt his own, but not so often that he subsumes the Hawks' equal-opportunity style.
"I'd actually encourage him to be more aggressive," Budenholzer said. "He doesn't have quite the same confidence Jeff had."
On most possessions, the defense will be waiting for Schroder, and that's where he needs to be better. He shot just 37 percent out of the pick-and-roll when he used the screen, among the worst marks for high-volume point guards, and coughed up a hail of wild turnovers. Good news: He has gradually improved his jumper, and his mechanics are mostly sound; the Hawks are confident he can drain enough 3s and midrangers when defenders duck under picks.
But Schroder is a slithery driver at heart, and for these revamped Hawks to approach their ceiling, he needs to pilot with more craft and nuance. He sometimes telegraphs his decisions, picking up his dribble 20 feet from the rim to toss no-chance-in-hell lobs:
It's admirable that Schroder wants to get rid of the ball early instead of pounding it. He just has to recalibrate his unselfishness. He'll make some early passes -- like those lobs -- that torpedo Atlanta's offense, and two possessions later, charge into a thicket after looking off an open shooter.
And when Schroder puts his head down, defenses know he's going full-speed-ahead to the rim. He's not a good-enough finisher to play so predictably. Schroder shot just 53 percent in the restricted area last season. He's not a mega-leaper, or strong enough to dislodge help defenders with a shoulder-block so he can finish over them. He resorts to thread-the-needle scoops and sky-high flip shots, only he's moving too fast to control them.
He needs that live-dribble, change-of-pace game that keeps all five defenders guessing. He has shown flashes of it, including a teardrop shot, but the Hawks need more. "There is not the variety in his game that will come with development," Budenholzer said. "It's about shifting down a gear, so that you really freeze someone."
Schroder also loves to dribble around a screen, and then cross back the other way -- right into the screener's path to the rim. That's not an issue with Horford and Paul Millsap popping for jumpers, but Schroder has to give Howard a workable corridor to pay dirt.
On a side note, Schroder is eligible for an extension ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline, and the two sides are talking, according to league sources. It's hard for either to act when no one knows what the rules will be in the new collective bargaining deal.
One wrinkle in the current proposed deal, according to sources familiar with it: Cap holds attached to free agents coming off rookie contracts could jump to 250 and 300 percent of their prior salaries, up from 200 and 250 percent, to prevent teams from arranging wink-wink deals as San Antonio and Detroit did with Kawhi Leonard and Andre Drummond, respectively: "Hang in free agency as a cheapo cap hold, and we'll sign everyone else first." That extra few million matters for teams scrounging max cap space.
As of now, cap holds attached to players with more experience would stay the same, per league sources. That could change, of course. But the status quo would be huge for Golden State, which is counting on Stephen Curry's under-market cap hold -- $18 million, way below his $30-million-plus max salary -- to fit Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston.
Our Tim McMahon broke the news that Houston management pushed coaches to play Capela over Howard last season, even though Capela was essentially a rookie learning to hold his own on the glass -- kind of a big deal for the league's worst defensive rebounding team. And now Patrick Beverley, one of two competent perimeter defenders in Houston's projected starting lineup, is out recovering from knee surgery.
No pressure, buddy. Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun fun will be empty calories unless Capela can anchor an average-ish defense. He has the wheels and the length for it, and he tries hard. Capela hounds ball-handlers beyond the 3-point arc, a pressurized style that helped Houston force oodles of turnovers.
He can switch onto guards, stay in front of them, and force long jumpers -- though he has a habit of committing dumb reach-ins as they rise to shoot.
Capela has to expend his frenzy in the right doses. Having him switch outside leaves Houston naked on the glass. He sometimes traps ball-handlers who don't merit the attention, opening breaches elsewhere:
Houston is also fretting about Capela's stamina. Nene is a great backup, but he'll miss his usual 20 games with Nene-itis.
On offense, Capela is a perfect dance partner for James Harden. He slips to the rim before even really setting a pick, a must skill for any D'Antoni big, and he's a surprisingly nimble finisher -- even if he has to take a dribble first:
He has a soft touch with both hands, and he crams alley-oops few can even catch. If Harden wants Capela to stick around and level a sucker with a nasty screen, the big fella can do that, too.
Now that Houston has actual outside shooters, Capela will need to keep his antennae up for kickout passes; he has dished just 49 career dimes, though he reads the floor pretty well:
It's tempting to suggest teams put a smaller guy on Capela and switch the Harden-Capela pick-and-roll; Capela has zero post game, so he's not going to bulldoze a mismatch. But that (usually) leaves a big man guarding Ryan Anderson, and the Rockets would pivot into a Harden-Anderson play -- and rain pick-and-pop 3s.
Capela looks ready for this.
Oh, baby. Turner has the versatility on offense to be an All-Star who warps the geometry of the floor. Building block No. 1 is a silky pick-and-pop jumper defenses have usually been willing to give him -- until he does too much damage:
Turn some long 2s into 3s, and the Pacers will have a unique weapon -- a stretch center who barricades the rim on defense. As is, the threat of Turner's jumper drags behemoths outside their comfort zone, and that alone can bust a defense.
Turner knows opponents will adjust to his jumper. A third defender will fly in from the wing to cloud his vision. When Turner gets really good, teams will scrap their base pick-and-roll defenses; instead of sloughing away from Turner to corral a Teague drive, they'll stay attached to him, or have his guy lunge briefly at Teague before rushing right back to Turner. Wacky teams might defend Turner with wings who can run with him and switch, leaving their big guy to jostle with Thad Young.
Turner is ready. When that third defender darts over to him, he'll flick the ball to open shooters -- something he didn't do enough last season.
"I know that pass is there now," Turner said, "and I just have to advance the ball."
Hedge out on Indy ball-handlers, and Turner can slice through the vacuum:
Defend him with a little guy, and Turner will slide down into the post.. He wasn't super-efficient there last season; he settled for long turnarounds, and rarely drew fouls. He has the tools and the bully streak to be better once he adds more strength. He likes post play. He runs the floor like a madman -- seriously, he's going to torture plodders -- and when he has a smaller guy on him, he works for early position. He just couldn't hold it:
"I like contact," Turner said. "That didn't get displayed last year. That will change."
He won't draw much with fadeaways, but once he hones that shot into a 45 percent proposition, it will become a valuable fail-safe late in the shot clock -- and a crucial way to punish switches. Think LaMarcus Aldridge, an increasingly popular comp for Turner.
Indiana bet big on Turner's defense, and his ability to mimic Ian Mahinmi's underrated work will determine their season. He's already a nuisance around the basket. It will take him much longer to master the ballet of pick-and-roll defense. He has happy feet in space, and he was sometimes late grasping Indy's coverages:
"I was guessing a lot last season in the pick-and-roll," Turner admitted. "I feel like I know it now."
He works hard, and his brain is always firing. When he felt emboldened, he'd sometimes bait pick-and-roll ball-handlers by springing toward them -- and then darting back to intercept their pass heading for Turner's man. He wants to dictate terms -- for the offense to turtle in fear of him. "I'll do anything to make that point guard pick up his dribble," Turner said.
He's already fast enough to chase stretch power forwards all over the floor:
That is the promise of Turner: opponents go small, and the Pacers can stay big. He should grow into the ideal center for the modern NBA. The Pacers need that growth to come fast, especially on the boards; Indiana's stalwart defensive rebounding cratered when Turner played without Mahinmi, and bulky opponents will shove both Young and Turner almost out of bounds.
Carroll isn't exciting. What he promises to bring a pseudo-contender is. A healthy Carroll, if such a thing ever exists again, is a perfect fit for the Raptors -- a shooter and cutter happy to mooch scraps on offense and defend bigger wings (hi, Bron). "It's hand in glove for us," Dwane Casey said.
With Jared Sullinger out, the Drakes need Carroll to soak up minutes as a small-ball power forward. That sounds good in theory, but it's unclear if Carroll can take the pounding. He's not especially heavy for a wing, and he hasn't been healthy in 18 months; the Hawks had major concerns about his long-term prognosis.
Still: To earn anything but a dismissive eye-roll from LeBron, Toronto needs the kinetic unpredictability only Carroll provides. When all eyes are on Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas, Carroll flits along the baseline or down the gut:
When the ball swings to him, Carroll has just enough off-the-dribble juice to drive by defenders rushing out -- and get in the lane for floaters, layups, and slick interior passes.
He's not just a bystander, either. A lot of Toronto's pet sets involve Carroll screening for their stars, and he's smart about aborting those screens when he senses a chance to fly open to the rim:
He needs nearly all his bounce to make that stuff work. His finishing around the basket and from floater range dropped off horribly last season; he just didn't have the usual lift, forcing him to contort for awkward over-the-shoulder prayers.
The Raptors searched a half-decade for anyone to guard big wings -- the Joe Johnson Lament. Carroll has never stood much of a chance against LeBron, but no one does. Norman Powell isn't tall enough. Bruno Caboclo may be a folk tale. Carroll represents Toronto's only chance at a credible LeBron-sized defender who doesn't compromise their offense.
One of the sad stories from last season: Right as the milquetoast Hornets reinvented themselves as a fun drive-and-kick buzzsaw, they lost their most watchable player -- their irrepressible, balls-to-the-wall chaos engine -- for almost the entire season. We finally get to see how MKG fits around Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum in small-ball lineups.
The Hornets have always been better with MKG on the floor, despite his wayward shooting, and they are counting on him to offset the loss of several key free agents -- plus a sneaky important early-season injury to Cody Zeller.
We know how it plays out on defense: MKG will crawl into the jerseys of elite scorers across four positions, and terrorize them with a motor permanently switched to 11. Seriously: Can you imagine how miserable it is being guarded by this guy?
For Charlotte to cinch another playoff berth, Kidd-Gilchrist has to make himself useful on offense beyond the odd put-back and fast-break rush. (And, holy hell, is MKG a maniac in transition. Jog back, and you're toast.) He lurks mostly off the ball, and defenders ignore him to muck up Walker and Batum pick-and-rolls:
Stationing him as often as possible on the strong side -- the side of the floor where Walker and Batum end up driving -- would loosen spacing, since defenders are more cautious helping from there.
But the Hornets want MKG to shoot when he's open, even from deep; he shot more 3s last season, including some from above the break, and Charlotte is optimistic he'll surprise people.
"In my 17 years in the league, I've never seen anyone improve his skill level the way he has," Steve Clifford said. "Look: You can't be a great player if you can't shoot from range. We think MKG is going to do that. He's going to make corner 3s."
When defenses tilt back to Kidd-Gilchrist on the wing, he has to punish them with instant catch-and-drive attacks:
He has a knack for weirdo floaters and hooks, and he's a nifty inside-out passer. He also has room to grow as a secondary pick-and-roll guy; he's surprisingly good at running his man into picks, driving into the teeth of the defense, and making plays.
Playing alongside a stretch power forward -- Marvin Williams -- allows MKG to claim territory near the rim. He's a slick backdoor cutter, but in hunting those cuts, he has a tendency to stand in no-man's land along the baseline -- outside the paint, but well inside the 3-point arc.
"Playing down there is good for him," Clifford said, "but sometimes, he has to be either outside the arc or in dunking range. And he knows that."
A post game would do wonders, since opponents stash weak defenders on MKG. Alas, he has only attempted two dozen shots via post-ups over his entire career, per Synergy Sports, and the coaching staff doesn't expect to see him down there much.
THE LUMP OF CLAY
It still feels like we know nothing about this guy -- what position he should play on offense, what position he defends, and what in the hell an allegedly Melo-style scorer is supposed to do while Point Giannis has the ball. And yet: "He could lead us in scoring this season," said Jason Kidd. "Not in the future. Right now."
We know Parker might be the most explosive off-ball cutter in the league, a key skill now that Milwaukee has handed the rock to Giannis Antetokounmpo. But even that comes with complications. Off-ball cuts around a Greek Freak pick-and-roll are tough sledding when Antetokounmpo's defender ducks under picks and Parker's guy crowds the paint; where exactly is Parker supposed to cut here?
When Antetokounmpo turns the corner and draws crisis help, cutting lanes widen:
Parker should be an Amar'e Stoudemire-style rim-rocker on the pick-and-roll, but he took only 46 shots after setting ball screens all of last season, per Synergy Sports. Opponents will defend Antetokounmpo and Parker with like-sized guys, meaning they'd just switch what would otherwise be Milwaukee's go-to play. (The Cavs ran into this issue with the LeBron-Kevin Love duo.)
There is some promise in a Matthew Dellavedova-Parker partnership, and Parker can step into a more ball-dominant role when Antetokounmpo rests.
Parker can solve a lot of these issues by nailing 3s, and Kidd warns of a coming barrage. "He's going to shoot twice or three times as many 3s this season as he has in his career," Kidd says. "He shoots it real easy." The more dangerous Parker is from deep, the closer defenders will stick -- making it easier for Parker to sneak behind them for dunks, and creating a more spacious environment for Antetokounmpo's drives.
Kidd will also give Parker more freedom to post up mismatches, and run his own pick-and-rolls -- as he did toward the end of last season with Milwaukee's centers. (Chill on the hair-trigger long 2s, though.) Hell, to goose their spacing, the Bucks might try Parker as the nominal center in lineups featuring two guards alongside the Antetokounmpo/Parker/Mirza Teletovic trio. "I'm not afraid of that lineup," Kidd says.
Parker holds the promise of a multi-positional shape-shifter who could become really good at almost every offensive skill. That is a unicorn. Right now, he's good at only one -- and clueless at basically every part of defense.
He's less flammable on the ball, which is why the Bucks started using him on star wings -- Gordon Hayward, Jimmy Butler, Paul George -- in the middle of last season. Antetokounmpo unlocks such flexibility, since he can guard power forwards and even centers.
Still: It's hard to arrange things so that Parker is a full-time wing defender, and unclear if he could handle it over extended minutes. He's a big dude. The Bucks need him to do some big dude stuff: contain pick-and-rolls, rotate along the backline, and rebound better than a typical shooting guard.
Parker is the most interesting blank slate in the league. Let the games begin.