NBA Fraud List: Which Teams Aren't True Contenders This Season?
The Open Floor podcast looks back on the first month of the NBA and creates a fraud list. While it's clearly early, some teams have started to reveal their true identity. Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver weigh in on the state of the Sixers, Warriors, Rockets, Jazz and much more.
(Listen to the latest Open Floor podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Andrew Sharp: We're one month into the season and we've had a significant enough sample to start taking stock of the landscape. So I wanted to start with a quick check-in around the top of the league, and to that I want to play a quick game. A friend of mine who works in a front office has something that he calls a fraud list that he keeps for various players around the league who aren't as good as everyone thinks, and I wanted to use that framework today, but instead of players let's talk about teams. Let's take a look at the top 10 teams in the league and I want you to tell me if they're on your fraud list as contenders.
Ben Golliver: First of all, another quality anonymous namedrop from you. I really appreciate that. But you took it up to the next level. It's amazing that this anonymous namedrop person who happens to work for a team would have such a SEO-friendly and click-bait ready personal mechanism for tracking 'frauds'. Does he also keep track of the team with the 10 best dancers around the league?
Sharp: I don't know if fraud list is that SEO-friendly. I don't know who's searching out fraud, but I enjoy the binary. We can start with the Sixers. Personally, I am pressing pause on any Sixers analysis for the first month because it seems like Jimmy Butler is still feeling things out and I don't want to jump the gun with any Ben Simmons concern trolling. Everybody is still kind of getting comfortable there, although I do think it's concerning that even against teams like the Suns and the Hornets—the Hornets have actually been kind of good and we'll get to Kemba later in the podcast. But the Sixers haven't blown anyone out and they have blown a lot of big leads and they're not making this look easy, but it's been 10 days so we should hold off on any big picture Sixers worries.
Golliver: Or we could look at Markelle Fultz taking another sabbatical and get pretty nervous for them. I think the sabbatical is probably the best thing for him. We know he shouldn't have been starting. I've been saying that since earlier this season. I just worry how many consecutive seasons are you just going take the, 'Hey, it's important for me to do right now sabbatical' before we give up. I guess that's my question, right? He already did that last year, now we're in Year 2. Who knows where it will go? If he does it again next year, are you still going to feel like that's the best for him? How long are we playing this thing out?
Sharp: Let's get back to the fraud list. What do you think of the Sixers, though? Are you a believer long-term?
Golliver: No, not really. I think the opening of the Jimmy Butler era could definitely have gone worse. He pulled a rabbit out of his hat with that three-pointer against the Hornets. They're slowly figuring out how they're going to use Simmons, but to me Simmons is going to be marginalized one way or another. When they're playing faster, when Simmons is hitting Butler in transition or vice versa, that's when they're at their best. Are they going to be able to consistently do that? That's my concern.
I guess if we're talking true contenders, I'm not sure I quite see it with them this year. They would either need to make another or get the mysterious shooter who's going to come out of nowhere and help stretch the court for them. They need to have that guy appear. I just don't really trust Mike Muscala as your guy. I don't think I'm going to go so far to call them frauds. That seems like kind of a loaded phrase, Andrew. If a team can make the conference finals, which I think Philly could, I don't know if that makes them fraudulent.
Sharp: The one thing I would add even if you're concerned about the Sixers' ceiling, it is kind of nice to watch Jimmy Butler and just remember how good he is. The whole thing with Jimmy has been so fraught for the last two months or so, but watching him at the end of their recent Hornets game, the defense he played on Kemba was just as impressive. The block on Kemba was ridiculous and then to turnaround and hit that three. Jimmy is really, really, really, really good.
Golliver: He held Kemba to only 60 points. He kept him under 61. It was phenomenal. I'm glad he admitted that in the postgame. You're looking at a 12-minute sample size. If Kemba had any help at all, the Hornets win the game. And it's not nice to watch Jimmy Butler because this guy was there the whole time. He was just pouting and making us suffer through it day by day. I am not enjoying the experience even though that was a nice shot. Where do you see their ceiling?
Sharp: I see conference finals as their ceiling. I don't see them getting to the Finals, and I think things will start to get even more interesting this summer.
Golliver: Are they frauds by this rubric?
Sharp: We don't have to keep coming back to the fraud list. We can just say whether we believe or not. I think that they are good, and I am not a believer in them as genuine contenders.
Golliver: Sounds like we're on the same page with Philly, so who's next?
Sharp: The Warriors. We both believe, right? Despite all the chaos we're going to get to May and they're still going to be head and shoulders above everyone else.
Golliver: Yes, but I would love to hear the argument that they're frauds. Can we even try to do it? Should we try to do a brainstorm? You know how you're supposed to learn debate by taking up the other side of the argument? Let's try to make the case that the Warriors are frauds. You go first.
Sharp: I really don't have much because I'm a believer in Steph and when Steph gets back they will be fine. I am hardened by the last two weeks kind of underscoring just how valuable he is to everything they do. I think this is more evidence for my "Steph Curry is actually better than Kevin Durant" take. The bottom line is this: for the last five seasons, the Warriors have had more success than any team in the last 25 years. And when you remove Steph Curry from that equation, the entire system starts to get discombobulated, and that's where the Warriors have been. I think he deserves a lot of credit.
Golliver: They built the whole thing around him. Here's my counter argument to show why they're frauds. Their bench is garbage. Second point would be they're thin at point guard so they can't really withstand the Steph injury. Not only does it screw up their whole system, but it even ruins the investment in the other guys. Even if they had a league-average backup where he could plug in and KD would be able to get along and do what he does, they still have to change everything, put the ball in KD's hands, Klay all of sudden his shot quality is going way down. They just don't have any option there, so they're completely dependent on Steph's health.
No. 3 is that KD is in a mood. I defend KD pretty much to the death all the time, but he's in a mood right now and hopefully that will not continue for the whole season... but it might. Or it might pop up at the wrong time, and the painful memories of the Western Conference finals, where everybody was blaming him and singing Steph's praises, could pop up if they hit some turbulence in a playoff series.
I would also say overall their three-point shooting, that is also super dependent on Steph. Their auxiliary shooters, if you want to call them that, is not there. So if they wind up getting into a shootout with certain teams, I think unless Steph is really hitting they're sort of vulnerable. And I guess general questions about Draymond. Can he crank it up as much as he cranked it up during last year's playoffs? I think that is the case for them being frauds. I don't think it's a very strong cause, I think they're going to be fine.
Sharp: Well, listen, credit to you. I did not have the energy or inclination to sit here and play devil's advocate on the Warriors, but all of those points are good. Moving on, the Rockets and Jazz. Where you at?
Golliver: In terms of are they going to be contenders? They're not, not right now. They're in trouble. I think Utah needs to get in on the pillaging of your Washington Wizards, Andrew. Can we get Bradley Beal in a Jazz uniform? Can we get a little Bradley Beal-Donovan Mitchell combo? Or maybe throw Otto Porter into their mix? The Jazz gotta do something on offense to get it up to a higher level consistently. Everybody else is running these crazy shootouts, and I'm just not sure if they can keep up. It pains me to say that obviously. It's not like they've been completely left behind but there's a shift in the league in terms of how basketball is being played, and it doesn't feel like they're able to stay on that cutting edge, that front wave as much as they were last season.
Sharp: You're the take scorekeeper on this podcast and I rarely participate. You called the Jazz the second-best team in the West, predicted 55 wins for them, and I said, 'Look, I'm a believer in the Jazz. I do worry about the offense. I think the offense was pretty iffy last year and there's going to be a lot of pressure on Donovan Mitchell this year.' And so far that's how that's played out. I'm still a Donovan Mitchell believer, but right now they're asking him to do too much. It's not working for the team, it's not working for Mitchell and I do hope they can make a move. If they can somehow land Bradley Beal, I would be thrilled for them, I would be thrilled for Beal. I just want good things to happen to Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. But they have to do something because right now the mix they have is not enough. Joe Ingles is great, but when he's your second-best player or some night's your best scorer, that's a real problem.
Golliver: I'm not going to admit that I was wrong on Utah, but I will blame you on hyping me on Donovan Mitchell a little too much. Clearly listening to your propaganda for four or five straight months last year kind of colored my vision of what their offense could be. But the reason I bring up style of play with them is that I didn't see the NBA going this wild in terms of scoring and it's still continuing. Teams are putting up 130, 140. Every single guy is getting numbers. When everybody else is continuing to load up, continuing to play faster and you're trying to slow everyone down and play your way and grind it out, your margins a lot smaller. Do you view the Rockets as frauds?
Sharp: I'm starting to believe more in the Rockets, and I'm kind of in shock because I was watching the first couple weeks of these Rockets game and the whole team just looked so sluggish. Literally everyone on the court was a step slow and they looked less athletic than anyone they were playing, and I was watching these games and I was thinking it can't be that Carmelo has made the entire team slower and less athletic...
Golliver: No, I think that's what it was. I think they were infected with Carmelo-itis
Sharp: I hate to say it, but for the last 10 days Houston looks like Houston again, and James Harden and Chris Paul are playing much better. Which is probably not related for Carmelo, and the recipe for this Rockets team kind of requires those two to be elite for Houston to have a chance to contend just because of how the salaries are structured. It's Harden, Clint Capela, Chris Paul and then everybody else is on a minimum deal. So they need their stars to be superstars, and that has happened. But in addition, you throw in guys like James Ennis and the rookie Gary Clark and it's actually started to work in Houston. So I'm more of a believer than I was three weeks ago and low and behold, Daryl Morey's Rockets are going to be in the top three, just like everyone expected.
Golliver: They need James Harden and Chris Paul both on the court playing well. They finally got that and they're playing well. Big surprise. I was never in panic mode with them, but the gap between them and Golden State with Steph healthy is significantly wider than last year, right? So I don't know if that makes them frauds if they can make the Western Conference finals. I still think that's possible for them. To me I think that series is easier this year than it was last year.