ESPN NBA analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson discussed the start of the 2017-18 NBA season in a media conference call this afternoon.
On Wednesday, Oct. 18, ESPN will televise its NBA season-opening doubleheader, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers vs. the Washington Wizards at 7 p.m., followed by the Minnesota Timberwolves vs. the San Antonio Spurs at 9:30 p.m. Van Gundy will provide commentary for 76ers-Wizards matchup alongside Mike Breen. Jackson will call the action for Timberwolves-Spurs game with Mark Jones.
Below is the transcript from the call.
Q. What are your thoughts on the Sixers and Joel Embiid, and can they get to the Playoffs?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, if Joel Embiid is able to remain healthy, and I don’t know what that means, let’s say 70 games, they’ll make the Playoffs, and he’s that good. He’s that dominant. He’s talented. And what I love about him is he’s got a competitive mean streak about him, too, that I think when you’re trying to break through a historic amount of losing that they’ve done, you need that one star that has a competitive streak to him.
I like the addition of J.J. Redick. He’s a pro’s pro, puts a lot of shooting around their better players, can work off baseline screens, and then obviously Ben Simmons I haven’t seen yet, but obviously their size with him and Embiid on the floor, their length is terrific. They’re a really good team, and if Embiid stays healthy, they’ll make the Playoffs.
Q. What do you see as the next step for John Wall as he enters this season with higher expectations and a team around him that’s going to be here a while?
JACKSON: Well, I believe that John Wall has done a tremendous amount individually in this league. There’s no question about it. I think the next step is to continue to progress collectively as a team. He’s a leader, he’s a franchise point guard, franchise player. He’s in the discussion with the best in the business at his position, and I think that people are underestimating the Wizards. We jump towards Cleveland and towards Boston. I think the Wizards are in that discussion, staying healthy and a dynamic backcourt. They have size, they have length, they have shooting ability; this is a dangerous basketball team. So I think the next step for him is not individual because he’s in the discussion. I think it’s collectively as a team the Wizards continuing to progress and go deeper and deeper.
Q. Minnesota was picked to be the most improved team this year. They also were picked that way by the GMs. What can you say about the changes that they’ve made, and have they made enough to make that big jump to the Playoffs after being out of the Playoffs for so long?
JACKSON: You know, obviously they have the tools to make the Playoffs, and I fully expect them to make the Playoffs. They start off with an outstanding coach in Tibs. Both of us know him extremely well. And then you look at the improvement that they’ve made as far as getting proving guys, adding depth to that basketball team, another year under their belt as far as the system and the structure and how they do things. You add Jimmy Butler, you’ve got a proven guy that you can go to down the stretch along with Towns and Wiggins, and defensively it gives you so many different options.
An underrated pickup for me is Jamal Crawford, proven scorer off the bench that can play — you can put the ball in his hands, giving those guys a breather, but that team, I fully expect them to make the Playoffs and continue to develop. I think it would be a disappointment if they did not.
VAN GUNDY: Yeah, and I think last year it bears out that they were a very good offensive team, and they added to their ability offensively with Teague and Butler and Crawford. Their improvement has to be defensively, and adding guys like Gibson and Butler certainly give them a chance to be better defensively, but young teams rarely are your best defensive teams, and the last few years Minnesota has been really bad defensively, and Towns and Wiggins have to improve dramatically at the defensive end of the floor through a greater effort and commitment. If they do that, this team will be very, very dangerous in a playoff series because offensively their system and their talent is terrific.
Q. I’m curious without Melo, where do you see the Knicks stacking up in the East, and along the same lines, how much do you see Porzingis taking that step forward this season?
VAN GUNDY: I think the Knicks obviously have declared what they want to do, which is rebuild, and so much is going to be — this season is going to be about Porzingis and Hernangomez, their development, and Frank’s ability to learn the NBA quickly at a difficult position and get him significant minutes to grow. This is a great opportunity for Porzingis. Hopefully he can remain healthy. I did not think he made the jump that everyone expected last year. There was a lot of commotion and noise last year that surrounded the Knicks that didn’t have anything to do with winning or development, so this year hopefully it’s a calmer environment, but he’s got to take responsibility and accountability for doing what great players do, which is produce every night and unite your team through your effort and unselfishness.
Q. Without Melo, where do you think the Knicks are going to stack up in the East and how much will they struggle without him?
JACKSON: I’ve got you. Well, they’re going to miss Carmelo Anthony. It reminds me to a lesser degree obviously, in my opinion the greatest Knick of all time was Patrick Ewing. You appreciated him more as a fan and a New Yorker after he left. Certainly they understood his greatness and they appreciated him, but not the same way until he was no longer in a Knick uniform, and I think the way that Carmelo Anthony has handled himself last year and during his stint with the New York Knicks, he’s been the ultimate pro through adversity, he continued to show up and do what he does best, which is score the basketball and try to put that team in position to win. So they’re going to miss him.
That being said, like Jeff said, they’ve declared their stance. They are in a rebuilding mode. I think what you look at as a fan or somebody within the organization or around the league is to what level do they compete. We understand that they’re going to be outmatched at times, but you can win games in this league by playing hard, by defending and competing, and that will be the thing that I’ll be looking at to see just how good they can potentially be.
Q. What are the primary challenges for the Rockets as they enter this new era, and do either of you have any comment about the back and forth between James Harden and Kevin McHale?
VAN GUNDY: Well, I think the challenges are those challenges that come with high expectations and then the sharing aspect that goes along with adding another great player into your mix. So sharing the ball, the responsibility, the credit, the blame. But there’s no doubt that the addition of Chris Paul makes them a much more dangerous team in the Playoffs.
After the underrated signings of PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. I think they had a great off-season. They’re a more versatile defensive team, and I think they’re going to have a great year.
And as far as the Harden and McHale thing, I thought Kevin’s — I did not see that as a criticism at all. I think 99 percent of what he said was very, very positive about the greatness of James Harden. I think what his major point was, he thought that Chris Paul’s responsibility will help Harden as a player and will help their team. So I think it was much ado about nothing.
Kevin McHale works for Turner and is paid for his opinions, and so I have no problem with him stating his opinion. Harden had his opinion of the opinion, and that’s fine, but I think in general, Kevin’s comments were very pro-Harden and pro-Rockets.
JACKSON: I thought they did a great job of adding pieces in the off-season to put themselves in position to continue to progress in the Western Conference and they have hopes of winning it all. You add a guy like Chris Paul, adding a home run hitter in the middle of your lineup, it takes the pressure off of James Harden, forcing him to be great every single night and every single possession, making plays for himself or for his teammates. I thought down the end of the season last year, he physically was worn out because of the demand that was put on him, and rightfully so. If you’ve got him, you’ve got to use him, but I think adding these pieces, especially Chris Paul, you can take the ball out of his hands and give him a breather during the course of the game and during the course of the season which will make him fresher, so that’s a dangerous team.
To your point about Kevin McHale and Harden going back and forth, I somewhat disagree with Jeff. I thought — my opinion is we sit and we talk to coaches and players all the time, and we get great answers and we use them, and Jeff and I always laugh and say — somebody will say, well, that’s great. Well, they’re not really telling the truth all the time, and so basically they told the truth this season when they’re no longer together.
The thing I loved about Jeff is he thought I was slow and couldn’t play defense when he was my coach, and he feels the same way today. He let me know. He didn’t wait until afterwards to inform everybody.
But Kevin McHale is an all-time great. Did an outstanding job coaching those guys. James Harden is an all-time great, and I’m glad we’re past that now.
Q. In the wake of the league trying to improve the flow of games by actually taking away some time-outs, we’re still left with the situation late in games where using the replay can create a sued other time-out for teams, which for a team that might have used up its time-outs is a great thing to all of a sudden have materialize. I’m wondering what sort of thoughts you have, if anything needs to be done about those things, a way to avoid teams from huddling up under those circumstances, or is that just sort of where things have to be?
VAN GUNDY: Well, the first thing that I would like to do is really cut back on the things that we replay and review. I think replay is good for the officials but awful for the game. I think at the most — at the critical times, the most enjoyable times, we often have these lulls to go over and look at a monitor. So that would be step one. Step two would be if they do go over there, wouldn’t it be great if each arena had a cone of silence that the five guys had to stand under, like go back to the “Get Smart” days and just drop down and all five guys from each team had to stand in that cone of silence? What a great marketing opportunity for some company and the NBA to make more money, because it is sort of absurd that a team falls out of bounds, they have no time-outs, and they can have a time-out that they haven’t earned. I wish something could be done. Most likely nothing will be.
JACKSON: And once again, I agree, but he takes it 10 steps further than I would have went. The first thing I would do, I totally agree with the idea of speeding it up. I do believe that it’s important to get every call right. But there’s obvious calls that we take more time than it calls for to get it right. We can walk over there, see the ball went off of somebody’s hands and make the decision and come right back and pick up the action where we left off. And I totally agree that in situations where a team does not have a time-out, it’s unfair to allow them to gather, go over a play and come out as if it was a time-out. It’s an unfair advantage, and I’m in total agreement with Coach that something has got to be done as far as that’s concerned.
Q. How tough is it to get a team together with so many new guys, and can they actually overcome Cleveland? Is that feasible? How did Stevens put this talent together and maximize this talent when all the pressure is on them to obviously beat the Cavaliers?
VAN GUNDY: Well, I think you don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and anoint them or any team right now in the preseason. But the one thing I do believe is even if Cleveland is totally healthy, I think Boston is far better equipped this year to match up effectively against Cleveland than they were last year. They are huge on the wings. So if you just think about the overall size they added to their starting lineup if they go with what appears to be Irving, much bigger than Isaiah Thomas, Brown and Tatum, much bigger than Avery Bradley and Crowder, and that ability to be bigger but not lose lateral speed and quickness I think gives them a very good chance. I think Rozier continues to improve over his three years. I think he’s done a great job of just improving every year.
And so I really like their team. I think they’re much better equipped to have long-term playoff success now than the team last year, even though that team last year, man, they were so impressive and they overachieved, and I loved the individual seasons that they got out of Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Crowder, but I just think for matchup purposes, they’re in a much better situation right now.
JACKSON: I think to me Cleveland is still the favorite in the Eastern Conference, but if the Boston Celtics came out of the East I wouldn’t be shocked. They’re loaded, they’re talented, they’re deep. One thing I will say is I believe that they’re going to miss what Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder brought to the table, and that’s no knock on what they have, but you’re talking about in Avery Bradley an elite, top-notch, arguably the best-in-the-business on-ball defender that had the ability to guard scoring point guards and also shooting guards, whether they were in pick-and-roll situations or moving without the basketball. To me, they are going to miss those two guys’ toughness and their ability to defend, but they are clearly at worst the second best team in the Eastern Conference and a dangerous team.
Q. Where do you see the Heat headed, more like the team we saw the first 41 games or more like the team we saw the second 41 games last year, and can they make the Playoffs, and what is the next step Hassan Whiteside has to do to make that next step?
JACKSON: I believe one thing you want to be conscious of as a team, as an organization is not being satisfied with what took place last year or at the end of the year or midway — no, you’ve got to make sure you start fresh and new, and I believe that they have an organization from top to bottom that reminds guys of that, that keeps it fresh, that keeps guys motivated. Erik Spoelstra in my opinion is one of the best in the business. He’s an outstanding coach and a future Hall of Famer. He’s done a great job, and I think they’ve done a great job of making sure they got the pieces back and also adding pieces, so in my opinion because of the way they play, the way they compete, the way they defend, the way they get after it, they are certainly a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and if they’re healthy and whole, they will be a tough out.
VAN GUNDY: I would agree with Mark in that I don’t know if they’re either the 11-30 team or the 30-11 team because every year things change, team dynamics change. People get paid, and you don’t know how that impacts performance. I think Whiteside obviously has turned himself into a dominant player, and it’s really incredible. A couple years back he was on the street looking for employment, and now you see him, and he just impacts so many games in so many areas.
I’ll second the fact that Mark said Erik Spoelstra is a Hall-of-Fame coach. He’s done a terrific job in so many roles there, but in this leadership role as a head coach. He’s had the best team and the best talent, and then he’s had young teams that he’s had to develop, and he’s done a great job with both situations. One thing about Miami, they’re going to guard especially hard, and they’re going to be tough to play against, and a lot comes down to Dragic’s offensive explosion like he had in EuroBasket this year. What he did there was terrific. His last half of the year last year was great, and if they get a great year out of him and Whiteside, they’ll definitely be in the Playoffs.
Q. Ben Simmons, there’s a lot of interest in him down here, what he may or may not do in the next decade or so. In terms of potential, what do you think we’re looking at with Ben, and also, if there’s a player that you could liken him to, if that makes sense, who might that be?
JACKSON: I think the future is incredibly bright for him. What he does on the basketball floor, how he impacts the game, his potential of impacting the game in a variety of ways, to me he could be the next superstar. It’s about individual success and team success. They’ve got great young talent, and I think that the main thing for him is staying healthy, and we know what he can do when he’s healthy.
The guy that I probably would compare him to, and I think he’s, with all due respect, has the potential of being even better because of his size, is Lamar Odom. Lamar Odom did it from the small 4 position, where Ben Simmons in 2017 legitimately is comfortable handling the ball and initiating the offense. But I think he has superstar written all over him.
VAN GUNDY: I loved Simmons’ ability to impact the game with the rebound and the pass, like a hard combination to find, a guy who can handle, pass and rebound. Should be an outstanding defender with his length and athlete six. Right now he takes a little bit — notoriety wise takes a little bit of a backseat to Embiid, but his development is every bit as important as Embiid’s development, and hopefully he has great health, and I’m sure his shooting will continue to improve, but his talent is unquestioned.
Q. If I could take you back to your time with the Warriors, how big a difference did it make when you started adding the Boguts, the Iguodalas, even Steve Blake, and how delicate of a dance is it to kind of meld the two together, deciding what the pecking order is and where the ball goes?
JACKSON: Well, to me the advantage that Tibs has, especially you went back and got two guys that he’s very familiar with he knows their work ethic, he knows that they’re pros, and he knows their competitive drive, in Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, two guys that he can trust. The concern any time you add guys is going to be in the rotation and a valuable piece of your team is do they fit in, what type of person are they, what type of player, what type of competitor. That’s the concern because you can get guys that they rave about, but they can destroy your culture or attempt to destroy your culture by not buying in. So the advantage he has, he went and got guys that he can trust, guys that can relay his message in the muddle, on the bus, on the plane, on the bench, and that’s a tremendous advantage to him. And pros like Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford, they make a difference.
Q. Jeff, your familiarity with Tibs, how much do you think the guys he has added speed the growth of Towns and Wiggins, and how long do you think it’s going to take for them to figure it all out?
VAN GUNDY: Well, I think Towns and Wiggins but really their whole team, their issues were not offense last year, they were defense. It seems odd to think a Tom Thibodeau team had struggled on defense, but it goes really to your best players have to have aptitude and commitment at that end of the floor, and I didn’t think they made as much improvement individually as I thought they would make throughout the year at that end. Sometimes it’s hard to convince young players how important that end of the floor is as they’re trying to carve out their niche in the league. Wiggins just got paid, Towns is going to get the max, as well, but the trade-off is they can’t just talk about winning, they’ve got to do the winning things. So the winning things are the hard things like defending, rebounding in task, taking charges, hitting the floor for loose balls, sharing the ball. They’re major things when you add this many more weapons. You may not be putting up the numbers that you have in the past because you’re sharing the ball and the spotlight even more. Those are all hard things, and they’re even harder when you’re younger, and to me the whole development of the Timberwolves is based around Wiggins’ and Towns’ ability to commit to doing the hard things with much greater consistency.
Q. What do you think of the Clippers to make the Playoffs with so many new players and with the departure of Chris Paul, and then also how realistic is it for the Lakers to not end up in one of the lottery positions this year?
VAN GUNDY: I think the Lakers have made a lot of good moves. I think Lonzo Ball is going to live up to all the hype. I think he’s going to have an outstanding year. I love his — obviously his passing and his court vision and his — really his care for his teammates, how he takes care of them, and it’ll be interesting to see how those other guys that play with him like Randle, et cetera, how much they benefit from that. I still don’t see them as a playoff team just because the West, there’s going to be good teams that don’t make the Playoffs.
As far as the Clippers, I thought the Clippers made as good a trade as you could make knowing that your star was going to sign in free agency if you didn’t make the trade. To get Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, to me that’s as good as they could have done. I think Patrick Beverley continues to improve offensively. Everybody knows about his defense. And Lou Williams is comfortable off the bench and is productive, and he’s a sixth-man candidate every year for a reason, because he just gets buckets.
The Rockets — the Clippers are going to miss Chris Paul not being there, but as far as a trade, with the parameters they had to deal with, I thought they did a good job in that trade.
JACKSON: I agree with coach. When you talk about the Clippers, it was an outstanding job. They’re certainly going to miss Chris Paul and what he did on a nightly basis. Just an incredible leader, incredible toughness, and tremendous play maker. But what they added in his absence, they made sure they got tough guys, tough, hard-nosed, proven great competitors, and that’s how you get into the Playoffs. Danilo Gallinari at the 4 that can play small and also he gets to the free-throw line, if he stays healthy, they’re certainly a team that because of who they brought in still have the ability to make the Playoffs.
Looking at the Lakers, to me it’s about defending, competing and their habits. I think after you get through the first five, six teams in the Western Conference, the other two or three teams that make the Playoffs will be the hardest working ones, the best defending ones and the ones that compete on a nightly basis. That could be between four or five teams that have a legitimate chance, and I think that it’s up for grabs. It’s how bad do you want it rather than saying you want it. I thought it was awfully impressive. I think ultimately they will play Kuzma and Ingram together in a smaller lineup because it gives them versatility, scoring power, and play-making ability.
Q. Of course it’s a result-oriented business, but for a team clearly rebuilding like Sacramento, what would you look at subjectively and objectively to make sure they are making progress and making strides to bring the franchise back to relevancy?
JACKSON: I think ultimately what you look at is realistic goals, and you’ve got to be realistic as an owner, as management, as coaches, and also as players. They added veteran players. I go back to the same thing I talked about with the Lakers and the Clippers; if you compete and you defend, you give yourself a chance. That’s a team that’s added some proven guys that you know what you can get from them on a nightly basis. So if I’m them, I want to continue to grow, continue to develop, and try to win during the process of improving these young players and making them more and more comfortable.
VAN GUNDY: Yeah, and for me, I think the commitment defensively, as Mark keeps referring to, tells you a lot about your basketball character, and so that development to me is often overlooked. Most people just talk about individual players, but there have to be a team dynamic where you know they care about the result, meaning they’re going to play unselfishly, pass, and they’re going to guard people. And so I’m also looking how they’re going to balance out George Hill and Fox.
I think they could play together absolutely. I’m interested to see how they spread their minutes around because I think it’s going to be a tough dilemma for Dave Joerger.
Q. I’ve noticed that no one has been mentioning the San Antonio Spurs; is that because people have such expectations of them to come out and do their normal greatness, or is it just people sleeping on them?
JACKSON: Well, I would hope it’s because we expect it to be business as usual for the Spurs. When you say no one, I’m sure that does not include Jeff or myself. We have tremendous respect for Pop, for that organization, for those players, and they’re going to be in the mix.
I thought an underrated signing, which has not been given enough credit, is Rudy Gay. If I was a lot of teams in this league, I would have tried to make a run at Rudy Gay, a proven guy that when healthy can play the 3, can play the stretch 4, has great size, can score the basketball, and I think he’s going to be dynamic in that Spurs lineup. That’s a team that I would not want to face at any point no matter who I was.
Q. Jeff, do you feel that the leadership of Okafor and Redick is going to dramatically impact the Sixers this year?
VAN GUNDY: Which Okafor?
Q. The older, Emeka.
VAN GUNDY: Emeka? I think it’s two different scenarios. Emeka Okafor was out of the league, so I think he’s probably just trying to get his feet back on the ground, make the team, and fall into line. I think J.J. Redick, his leadership will be one about his actions because I don’t think he’s going to say a whole lot, but he’s going to do the right thing, practice, individual preparation, on the floor in games. I think he’s going to set a great example and a great tone.
But the best players on a team, that’s where most of your leadership emanates from. They either lead you in the right way or they mislead you in the wrong way, and so you can surround your players with good examples, and I think Philly has done a good job with that, but at the end of the day, your best players have to do the right thing and unite and inspire your group with their play and their unselfishness.
Q. A lot has been written about the Cleveland-Boston trade and the other moves that the Cavaliers have done, but I was just wondering, how much do you think Cleveland is going to miss Kyrie Irving, a little bit, a lot, and what particular areas might they miss him in?
JACKSON: Well, they’re going to miss him, especially if Isaiah Thomas is not healthy. I think an underrated signing was Derrick Rose, a guy who — we’re thinking the old, hobbled Derrick Rose. This guy averaged 18 for the Knicks and had some bright spots last year. I think he’s going to have a breakout year and play extremely well in the absence of Isaiah Thomas, and then when Isaiah Thomas comes back, he’s a guy that can play alongside of him, also. But they’re going to miss Kyrie Irving, his play making ability, his scoring ability, and as crazy as it sounds, I thought Kyrie Irving for three years now has done a very good job defending when it mattered most, paying attention to details, trying to stay at home with Steph Curry and make them work in The Finals. That’s a tall task for anyone, and I thought he did a very good job. But I think they’re going to miss him, but when you’re making trades in this league, it’s a give and take situation. I think it matters how healthy Isaiah Thomas is, and when he comes back that will make a difference.
VAN GUNDY: Yeah, and I think playing with LeBron James when Isaiah Thomas does make it back, he’s going to have to adjust and adapt to that. I’ll be interested to see, I’m really interested to see how the Rose-Wade pairing in the backcourt works, not just offensively with their shooting but with their defense to start games. I think J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, that situation, sacrifice sounds like a great thought in theory. I think most NBA players would agree that it’s necessary. But when it comes to individual sacrificing, it becomes a much more challenging situation.
Obviously they’re probably not happy wanting to cover it up, but I think that situation also is important to monitor throughout the year.
Q. Do you think that they’ll miss Kyrie anyway in certain areas?
VAN GUNDY: Well, I think — Mark said it, too. I think his defense many times has been misevaluated, and I think the offensive ability — people talk about isolating too much, but you’d better have some home run hitters when it gets tough against the best defenses in the league that can make something out of nothing, and he was exceptional doing that. And I think he will be missed, and how much is dependent on Isaiah Thomas’s health.
Media contacts: Gianina Thompson, 860-766-7022 or [email protected], Twitter: @Gianina_ESPN.