Las Vegas Scorpions: 2023 Team Preview
- By Michael Miller, Day 1, 2023
LAS VEGAS - As the sun rises on a new season, the Las Vegas Scorpions believe they have put the final pieces in place for a chase for a championship. Since General Manger, Michael Miller, put his stamp on the team by trading reigning MVP Dontay Sowder to the Houston Lightning for new franchise centerpiece SG Lamar Francis, the Scorpions have been building towards a competitive window expected to start in 2024.
The team's premature success in 2022, however, has jump started that window into the immediate year and Miller aggressively moved to get the final pieces that he believes will make the Scorpions a potent threat to make and win the JBL finals.
After winning 53 games in the first year of the retooling in 2021, the Scorpions expected to take a step back in 2022 while starting a rookie PG Mehdy Brown and breaking in new players within the rotation outside of the core 3: Francis, C/PF Omar Grant and SF Derrick Griffin. After a blistering 13-2 start to the regular season, including wins over the Thunder and Vultures, the Scorpions set their sights significantly hired.
Las Vegas was buoyed by the excellent play of PF Wesley Sherman, who signed a 3 year, $10.5 million dollar deal in the offseason. He significantly boosted the overall team's ability to rebound, and they finished the year 2nd in rebounds per game after finishing 16th per 2021. Sherman was also no slouch on the defeensive end of the floor, and was named to the JBL All-Defense team for his efforts. Brown also performed above his years of experience, finishing 4th in the league in assists per game and was named as a starter to the JBL All-Rookie team.
Meanwhile, Francis hit a new level in performance in the second year of Rowan "Flea" Jamison's helter skelter transition offense. He won the league's scoring title, falling just short of 30 points per game, made his second career All-Star appearance and was named to the All-JBL 3rd team at guard. C/PF Omar Grant, after moving back to his natural position at the 5, retook his place as the best defensive player in the league and won the Defensive Player of the Year award. SF Derrick Griffin led the JBL in steals per game and solidified himself as the best perimeter defender in the game. All told, the Scorpions led the league in defensive efficiency and finished with the 3rd best overall record in the Western Conference after winning exactly 60 games.
The Scorpions Achilles' heel, however, quickly became apparent in the postseaon. Las Vegas had no reliable secondary scorer behind Francis and, although the Scorpions had solid wing depth with SF Kai Navigato and SF Damon Murray, their frontcourt and backcourt depth was woefully lacking. When Sherman strained his knee late in the season, it created a tailspin which caused the Scorpions to fall out of contention for the top overall seed in the conference and created significant difficulties defending the high-flying #6 seed Oakland Tritons. Vegas fans will be talking about the Scorpions-Tritons series for decades as it was one of the most exciting playoff series in franchise history. SF Derrick Griffin came through with an amazing Game 7 performance and proved that he could be the third piece for a great title team.
Considered a significant underdog to SF Dontay Sowder and the #2 seed Houston Lightning, both Omar Grant and Lamar Francis played out of their minds to lead the underdog to a 4-2 series win. There was controversy after Navigato mysteriously left the team in the pivotal Games 5 and 6 for "personal reasons" which have never been disclosed to the public. SF Damon Murray, clearly in the spotlight with Navigato's absence, came in off the bench and was key in the upset, leading Las Vegas to their first conference finals appearance since winning the 2019 JBL Finals.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Scorpions faced their foe, nemesis and ultimate stumbling block towards immortality: the Seattle Thunder. The Scorpions fought valiently, winning Game 2 and giving themselves a chance at home. Unfortunately, Las Vegas fell by a single point in Game 4, allowing the Thunder to close out the team at home in Game 5. This was the second straight year where the Scorpions fell to the Thunder in the playoffs, and in both seasons, they were unable to win the series-tying fourth game to be able to take the series back home for 6.
2023 OFFSEASON REVIEW: DRAFT
Heading into the offseason, the team believed it had two holes which needed to be rectified to have a legitimate chance at taking on the Thunder: improving frontcourt depth and adding additional secoring beyond Francis. The Scorpions also looked to the future, because PF Wesley Sherman had essentially only one year left on his contract because the last year was a player option and management expected he would opt out. Fortunately, the Scorpions had draft capital thanks early season 2022 deals with the Los Angeles Fireballs and Toronto Huskies, which ultimately netted the Scorpions the 13th and 30th overall picks. Prior to the draft, the Scorpions had brief trade discussions with the Lightning about PF/C Isiah Clarkson and Skyhawks about PF Trey Astbury, but neither of those trade discussions made itt very far.
Draft projections suggested that most of the teams in the draft lottery would be selecting wing players, likely giving the Scorpions a strong choice between talented froncourt players with the 13th overall pick. Prior to the draft, Las Vegas zeroed in on 3 potential players who could be there with the 13th overall pick: C/PF Jarrell Harrison, PF JJ Cooper and C Marko Dujmovic. Harrison, with his potential to play excellent defense on both the perimeter and post, was the player most favored by Scorpions management. Cooper had long been the anticipated and public favorite for the 13th overall pick, but concerns emerged about his ability to fit wihin the current compliement of the lockerroom if drafted. Management was especially intrigued about Dujmovic's potential, especially when he had an amazing workout for the team and would be considered to be an excellent fit for the frontcourt.
The Scorpions would have been happy with any of those 3 at the 13th overall pick, and were thrilled when all 3 were available at the time their pick came up. Also available was C Qwan Songalia, however, and the Scorpions had projected him as a Top 5 pick and were stunned when he was there. Las Vegas was extremely close to selecting Songalia, but ultimately, stuck to their board and went with Harrison because he projected to be a much better perimeter defender than Songalia and seemed a better fit to play the power forward position.
With Harrison on the team, the Scorpions had zeroed in on PG/SG DeAndre Buie with the 30th overall pick. Buie was presently projected to be a mid-second round pick, so it would have been a bit of a surprise. Yet, as the first round draft continued to unfold, PF JJ Cooper continued to slide down the draft boards. Prior to the draft, Las Vegas had put out feelers to determine the trade value of SF Kai Navigato, who only had 1 year left on his contract and had fell out of some disfavor on the team due to his absence during the Western Conference semifinals. Only one team, the Oakland Tritons, showed any interest in Navigato, offering the 21st overall pick for Navigato and the 30th overall pick.
The Scorpions were only mildly enthused about the deal, and were more likely to just hang onto Navigato until Cooper was there at the 21st overall pick. Scorpions management attempted to negotiate additional value into the trade, either offering a straight up 21st overall pick for Navigato or getting a future second back in return. Oakland management, however, stood firm and Las Vegas ended up pulling the trigger on the team because the idea of locking in Harrison as a starter after Sherman departed next year and Cooper as a reserve for 4 years on low cost contracts was just too tempting.
With Harrison and Cooper on board after the first round, the Scorpions were somewhat crestfallen that they were going to miss out on Buie. Las Vegas did have the 53rd overall pick in the second round, but Buie was expected long gone by then. As such, the Scorpions zeroed in on PG Caius Springer who they expected to be there at that pick because he had not received a ton of fanfare league wide after being buried on the Yellow Jackets bench behind PG/SG Jamal Singleton. Suddenly, however, Buie started to drop out of the top of the second round, and he lasted into the 40's then, amazingly, he was available at the 53rd overall pick. Scorpions draft scouts punched their fists into the air when the card was turned in, as Buie, out of New Mexico, projects to be an athletic scoring guard with defensive potential due to his 6'6" wingspan.
2023 FREE AGENCY
The Scorpions inadvertently created a new problem for themselves through the draft, as now there were arguably too many players and not enough minutes in the frontcourt. Both Harrison and Cooper were going to expect over 20 minutes per game, and Sherman was entrenched as the PF starter for at least 2023. With problems, however, come opportunities. Still lacking a potent second scorer on the team, the Scorpions zeroed in on SF Pace LeGarde of the Jailbirds, who was publicly floated out for a trade. At first, the Scorpions offered two first round picks and two second round picks for Pace straight up, but because of Pace's $16 million salary, they could not take him on without dealing back additional salary. As such, PF Wesley Sherman was reluctantly included in the deal.
It was an aggressive move, and perhaps an overpay by the Scorpions, but SF LeGarde gives Las Vegas especially what they need in an electric scorer as either a starter or a reserve as well as veteran leadership. Las Vegas values that Pace has made several deep trips into the playoffs and has won a ring, so he can show the Scorpions' young players what it takes to get there. Upon his first days in the offseason training program, he took young SF Damon Murray under his wing and expects to be a positive influence in the development of SF Derrick Griffin and the team as a whole.
Entering free agency, and especially after the Pace deal, the Scorpions only had their $6 million MLE to work with. They targeted two options: PF Orien Young and PG/SG Shadrich Robinson. Young had previously been on the Scorpions but was traded to field the cap room necessary to sign PG Devante Parker during the 2021 offseason. Young had bounced around, but fit the need as additional scoring off the bench and a veteran mentor for the team. Shadrich, aka "The Shad", was a Scorpions target for 2022 Free Agency but was quickly targeted and signed by the Skyhawks for a 1 year with team option for $9.9 million.
The Scorpions focused first on PF Orien Young and it seemed like he was extremely close to accepting. Miller made a public plea for him to join Las Vegas after SF Dontay Sowder made the surprising [some would say cowardly] decision to accept a sign and trade with the two-time champion Seattle Thunder. Ultimately, however, other teams flush with cap space offered significantly more thant he Scorpions could afford, and Young signed with the Denver Dragons for 1 year and $18 million dollars. Fortunately, however, the Shad was still evaluating his options and the Scorpions quickly turned to him. The Scorpions sold the Shad on a rotation spot and a team which will use his athletic skills to their ultimate potential. The Scorpions felt they had won again when Shad agreed to the MLE deal.
With only the 11th, 12th and 13th spots open, the Scorpions filled those spots with C Ivan Vacendak, a 6'10" center who spent his career with the Nashville Stars and appears to have rebounding skills. He may be used as the 3rd big man to help fill some of the rebounding skills lost with the departure of PF Sherman. The Scorpions also signed SF Juwon Voss, last year's "Mr. Irrelevant" from the draft, who projects to be a big mobile wing who could earn minutes at SF and PF. Lastly, PG/SG Jadon McConnell was an undrafted but big combo guard who gives the team an additional guard spot if needed due to injury.
Las Vegas believes they accomplished their objectives and should have a very well rounded team enteringg into the regular season. Entering into training camp, the biggest questions on the team appear to be: (1) Can Francis develop an outside shot to further balance the team from top to bottom, (2) Can Griffin finally hit the next level on offense and become a legitimate two-way threat; (3) Has Pace lost a step or can he continue to be counted on for significant minutes, (4) who will emerge as the primary PF: Harrison or Cooper?
Prior to training camp, the Scorpions coaching staff has set the following depth chart:
PG: Mehdy Brown, Shadrach Robinson, DeAndre Buie, Jaden McConnell
SG: Lamar Francis, Damon Murray, Shadrach Robinson, DeAndre Buie
SF: Derrick Griffin, Damon Murray, Pace LeGarde, Juwan Voss
PF: Pace LeGarde, JJ Cooper, Jarrell Harrison, Ivan Vacendak
C: Omar Grant, Jarrell Harrison, Ivan Vacendak.
The Scorpions believe that their time is now to win the Western Conference. The Thunder will be dangerous with the addition of Sowder, but Las Vegas does not have to look too far back to see how a lack of depth could hurt a team. The Knights and Lightning are expected to take a step back with their changes and the Western Conference as a whole should be a bit more balanced.
"WHY NOT US" the Scorpions players yelled out in their team cheer as the last offseason workout concluded. With training camp around the corner, the Scorpions are ready to make the next move into glory.