We’re finally about done with an offseason in which trades — in Boston, Brooklyn, Indiana, Phoenix, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Philly — outpaced free agency in reshaping the league. Only one franchise-level guy, Dwight Howard, changed teams as an outright free agent, though the sign-and-trade of Andre Iguodala to Golden State comes close. The middle class of NBA players took a financial hit, teams at the top either cut players or generally stood pat, and a bunch in the middle rather loudly announced their intention to either win now or, um, win a little bit less now.
With just three weeks (!) before tipoff, it’s time for my annual attempt to categorize the NBA’s 30 teams into distinct tiers.
The Contenders, Group A
It was true in July 2010, and it’s true now: If all three of Miami’s stars are healthy, both of mind and body, nobody is going to beat this team four times in seven tries in May and June. But that “if healthy” stipulation has happened exactly zero times since the Heat threw that little pep rally for themselves — DOS MINUTOS! — in July 2010. LeBron James fell apart in the 2011 Finals, Chris Bosh battled injuries through the 2012 playoffs, and Dwyane Wade has dealt with serious knee issues in each of the last two seasons. Miami had to unfreeze Mike Miller to loosen spacing in both championship runs, and it chose cash over title odds in using the amnesty ax on Miller instead of the borderline useless Joel Anthony.
Miller was the team’s primary “big wing” insurance against a Shane Battier shooting slump, since Erik Spoelstra is reluctant to overtax super-small lineups featuring three of the Heat’s smaller guards (Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Wade) next to LeBron and a lone big man. Defending power forwards wore Battier down, perhaps contributing to a prolonged slump he corrected in the Finals in part by aiming left.
The Heat are going to be on the precipice at some point in the playoffs. They always are. They’ll need an extra oomph from someone along the way, and with almost zero financial flexibility, Pat Riley has tried to find it with high-upside minimum-salary gambles on Michael Beasley and Greg Oden. Both will likely flame out, leaving the oomph burden on guys left over from the repeat titles.
But that’s still enough for Miami to maintain favorite status, especially since Spoelstra will likely ease up a bit this regular season. That might mean fewer minutes for the stars, and more “big” lineups that spare James and Battier from too much jostling with David West types. Beasley and Oden provide some interesting lineup flexibility, and a full season of Chris Andersen will help. So would something — anything — from Rashard Lewis. But in Year 4, this team knows exactly what it is on both sides of the floor — a pace-and-space, 3-point shooting machine that has an extra pick-and-roll blitzing gear on defense.
San Antonio Spurs
They’re favorites in the Western Conference, given Russell Westbrook’s knee issues and the lack of a proven third option on the wing in Oklahoma City. San Antonio could have nabbed big-time cap room by renouncing both Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginobili, and it surely flirted with a home run free-agent acquisition. But it settled on bringing back last year’s group, banking on staying power from the old guard and continued internal development from the young core.
We know what we’re getting here: the league’s most diligent motion-based offense, with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan as its hubs, and a defense that revived itself based on Duncan’s nimbler game, Kawhi Leonard’s ascension, and Gregg Popovich’s patience in building the Duncan-Splitter pairing. The Spurs were basically co-champs last season, and though we should expect some decline from Duncan and Ginobili, the younger guys are ready to pick up the slack. Leonard especially showed he’s ready for more in the Finals. Marco Belinelli provides some Ginobili meltdown insurance; he’s bigger than Gary Neal, nearly as good a shooter, and much more polished at all the other stuff — ballhandling, passing, and defense.1 The world is curious to see what the Spurs do with Jeff Ayres (formerly Pendergraph) after using their mini midlevel exception to offer him nearly twice the minimum salary. The Spurs also have some trade flexibility, with two midsize expiring contracts (Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw) and some interesting, seldom-used international prospects.
Belinelli will happily admit how difficult it was for him at first to grasp the nuances of Tom Thibodeau’s defense in Chicago, and how much he ended up learning in the process.
In a conference filled with teams facing (very intriguing) questions, the Spurs are a known commodity that may still have some upside.
The Bulls’ starting lineup — Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah — has logged exactly zero NBA minutes together. Ditto for that same lineup, only with Taj Gibson in Boozer’s place, a switcheroo Tom Thibodeau likes to pull in crunch time of close games.
Rose and Butler logged just 74 minutes together in 12 games in 2011-12 before Rose blew out his knee, and Rose returns now to find Butler entrenched as the two-way starting shooting guard Chicago has dreamed of while cycling through Keith Bogans, Richard Hamilton, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, and others. Rose’s health is a bit of an unknown, but he has looked fine in the preseason, and all the noise coming out of Chicago is positive.
This team lurks as the biggest threat to Miami. It’s had the league’s best record in both healthy Rose-Thibodeau seasons, and home-court advantage in Game 7 might prove essential against the champs. We know it’ll bring it on defense, when both of the above lineups could prove terrifying; the Gibson group will be in the running for stingiest heavy-usage lineup in the league. Chicago is about flooding the strong side with extra help defenders, and with Butler alongside Deng and Noah, no team will have more tenacious help-and-recover quickness on the floor. And remember: Chicago in 2011-12 solidified itself as a top-10 offense before Rose’s injury.
There are questions about depth, since both Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy are aging and the guys behind them are totally unproven. Ownership could mandate a tax-slashing salary dump at some point. But this team is going to be brutal to play against.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Go ahead and write them off. Westbrook’s hurt, and the James Harden trade has turned into exactly zero players with an NBA footprint. The Thunder run a stagnant offense, and even if Westbrook’s injury only costs them two or three wins, that may still knock them down to the no. 4 or no. 5 seed in the perilous Western Conference. (Seriously: Being in the Western Conference is like playing one of the final levels of the original Zelda for Nintendo. If you open a door with less than half your health remaining and see 10 of those blue sword-wielding dudes who dart around the room carrying giant shields, just run back through the door.)
But they’re staying in the top tier as long as Kevin Durant and Westbrook are around, with a good chance to be healthy when it counts, each with upside still to realize. Same goes for Serge Ibaka, who just turned 24, and for several young guys with a chance to learn on the fly before the games really start to matter. Oklahoma City has completed its evolution into a long-armed, paint-clogging defensive menace, tying the Spurs for the no. 3 spot in points allowed per possession last season.
The Harden void will continue to hurt, especially in the early part of the second and fourth quarters, when Harden and then Kevin Martin terrorized bench units via pleasing two-man stuff with Nick Collison. But the centrality of that role always declines in the playoffs, when Durant and Westbrook play more. Jeremy Lamb especially should be ready for some responsibility. And if he’s not, I’m betting on Sam Presti to spin some of his young assets, plus a potential unprotected pick from the Mavs, into an impact veteran cog.
The Contenders, Group B: Prove It
The closest among this bunch to a Group A contender, if only because the four-man core — Paul George, David West, George Hill, Roy Hibbert — is entering its third season together. Lance Stephenson has vaulted himself into this group, though his unrestricted free agency next summer looms as a major question for what is suddenly a high-payroll team, and Danny Granger is back. Luis Scola can work well next to both West and Hibbert, and will likely allow Frank Vogel to cut West’s minutes if need be. The gap between C.J. Watson and the bricktastic 2012-13 version of D.J. Augustin is about as large as the gap between Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff.
Indiana clearly matches up well against Miami; it kills the Heat on the boards, and no one on Miami (absent a healthy Oden) can even begin to deal with Hibbert’s size on the block. Indiana’s big ball also comes in handy against fellow behemoths Chicago and Brooklyn.
But we need to see if this team can score enough over the long haul. It scored at a league-average rate after a catastrophic start, with the improvement coinciding almost exactly with Hibbert’s recovery from a wrist injury. Granger and Scola will provide relief if the injury bug finally hits one of Indiana’s young core.
But the Pacers were prone to ugly, turnover-heavy droughts; taking Miami the distance was impressive, but they had trouble against a limping, disorganized New York team one round earlier. Indiana needs George to make a mini-leap as a ball handler, and for Hibbert to show he can log 35-plus minutes of efficient two-way ball on demand — something he had never done before last year’s playoffs.
Right there with Indiana, nudging up into the “Group A” category. We know two things: (1) An elite defense is slightly more important to winning a title than an elite offense, and (2) the Grizz are going to make you earn every point every night. Kosta Koufos will be the best backup Marc Gasol has ever had, and the Koufos–Ed Davis combination should help new head coach Dave Joerger make sure Gasol and Zach Randolph are fresh for the playoffs.2
That is, if Randolph is on the roster then. I think he will be, but this is a bold front office that understands Randolph is declining, expensive, and approaching the point in his contract — with only a player option after this season — when he might be most tradable. The Grizz also have a large trade exception left over from the Rudy Gay deal, but they’re less than $2 million below the tax, so adding salary is unlikely.
Joerger understands the need to juice up a below-average offense with both pace and spacing, and the Grizz will be deeper in quality, multifaceted wings than they’ve been since both Shane Battier and O.J. Mayo were here. Memphis scored at a borderline top-10 rate after the Rudy Gay–Tayshaun Prince deal, but the Spurs exposed that as fool’s gold. We just need to see how it works in real life — if the Grizz can keep Miller in a cryogenic chamber until April; if Quincy Pondexter can build on a very solid playoff run; and how Joerger handles the backup point guard spot.
The potential for a championship roster is there, but there are too many questions to get Houston, flush with two of the league’s 15 best players, into the top tier. The Rox need to either feed Howard all the delicious post-ups he wants or trick him into feeling like a centerpiece while really leaning on the Harden/Howard pick-and-roll that should be their foundation. Houston will also slow down some after playing at the league’s fastest pace last season, and the coaching staff has been blunt in detailing how Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons must improve their defensive fundamentals and/or effort.
The power forward spot is up for grabs, and Houston is a very strong bet to make a semi-significant trade or two during the season. Let’s see how the pieces fit, and whether Howard’s back is healthy enough to transform the shaky Rockets’ D into a top-10 outfit.
Los Angeles Clippers
Here’s the thing about the Western Conference, as tough as it is: How many of the top six teams would scare you out of playing small ball? Memphis surely would, but once you leave the Grindhouse, even the teams that generally prefer to play “big” — San Antonio, Oklahoma City, etc. — aren’t exactly teeming with back-to-the-basket scorers.
In Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers are leaning on two big men who can’t shoot free throws and have no track record of functioning as an above-average defensive pairing. Their backups are Antawn Jamison, Ryan Hollins, and Byron Mullens, and with apologies to those guys, if any of them is playing major minutes of an entire playoff series, you’re in trouble. (Chris Paul might murder Mullens this season if Mullens uses the same shot selection decision tree he relied upon in Charlotte. “Do I have the ball? If ‘YES,’ then shoot immediately. If ‘NO,’ then pout and/or demand ball.”) Los Angeles is also loaded with wings, raising the possibility it might be able to lean on smaller lineups with Griffin at center.
But the path to a title generally lies in long arms, rim protection, and size. Small ball is an option, but the Clippers know they’d be safer developing the Griffin-Jordan combination into a more playable duo. Doc Rivers will help after mastering Thibodeau’s system, and the Clips will keep a roster spot open for any big man who might become available. But they’re also over the tax, and may well be again next season, raising the possibility of a midseason money dump.
The tax champs are a well-constructed group, deep on the wings, able to play big and small, and with much more shooting than last year’s outfit. They’re old, sure, but they’re smart; the veterans will share both the ball and shot-creation duties if doing so leads to wins and the preservation of their bodies. Jumping to the next tier is about improving a defense that ranked just 18th in points allowed per possession last season, and the acquisition of Kevin Garnett alone should jump Brooklyn a half-dozen spots up the list. Garnett remains a very good defensive rebounder, solid enough that Brooklyn should be able to hang on the glass with Brook Lopez at center. Remember: The Nets’ rebounding fell to league-worst levels last season when Lopez, a historically poor rebounder (but an improved one), played without Reggie Evans. And the Nets won’t be able to get through a beefed-up East playing an offensive zero like Evans heavy minutes.
Garnett’s health is key, and there are just a ton of guys here on the wrong side of 30. Brooklyn is going to be very, very good, but we have to see how healthy they are in the spring; whether Jason Kidd (with a huge assist from assistant coach Lawrence Frank) can juggle this rotation; and whether Miami’s speed overwhelms this verryyyy sloowwwww group if the two meet in the playoffs.
The Juicy Middle
New York Knicks
What a wacky bunch. New York is everyone’s choice for the East’s no. 5 spot, and though it didn’t have the starry offseason of its crosstown rivals, New York managed some very nice moves despite lacking any financial flexibility. Nabbing Metta World Peace and Beno Udrih on the minimum is a smart way to leverage big-city appeal, and each provides Mike Woodson with flexible lineup options the 3-happy Knicks used to baffle opponents last season. Heck, I’m even on record as bullish about the potential — on offense — of a Carmelo Anthony–Andrea Bargnani–Tyson Chandler trio, which would mimic the effect of small-ball groups that unleashed Anthony’s scoring and post passing last season. World Peace and Iman Shumpert could be an interesting defensive wing pairing in smaller lineups, though World Peace is declining.
But there’s no road map from last year’s below-average defense to the sort of unit any legit contender needs. It’s nice to have Kenyon Martin behind Chandler, but Martin’s 36 with a long injury history, and there are just too many defensive minuses here — too many guards who get smashed on picks, too few weakside rim protectors for when teams put Chandler into the pick-and-roll. If there’s a team in the East’s top five with a scary downside, this is it — and that’s before we contemplate the future, and whatever is left of Amar’e Stoudemire.
Golden State Warriors
There’s a very good chance we’ll realize 30 games into the season that Golden State belongs in the group above this one. Iguodala should fit nicely, providing Preacher Mark some small-ball options and allowing Golden State to transition away from a disastrously bad zone defense it used when it couldn’t hide both Stephen Curry and Jarrett Jack. Internal expectations are sky-high for Harrison Barnes, and this team’s offense should be dynamite for years to come. Andrew Bogut looks healthy, and a healthy Bogut anchoring the team’s weaker half — its defense — pushes the Warriors’ ceiling higher.
But Golden State had the point differential last season of a team barely over .500, and it got a season of unprecedented health from Curry — until his ankle issues flared up again in the postseason. The notion of “injury-prone” is a thorny one, a label fans and media toss around too often with false certainty, but it’s fair to wonder about Curry’s ankle at this point. And that ankle means everything.
Golden State did a nice job filling out the bench on the cheap, but none of the new guys is a heavy-minutes rotational piece at the level of Jack and Carl Landry.
The Eastern Conference Morass
The best team in this group, and the big early favorite for the coveted no. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference, now that Emeka Okafor’s injury leaves a minutes void for Kevin Seraphin, Snakey the Snake, and Jan Vesely (whom I believe is behind Snakey in the current Wiz rotation).
This is just a vintage 21st-century Hawks team. They’re going to be good, and potentially very good, but not good enough to make any real noise in the postseason. It’s possible they could win a round if they fall into the right matchup against a banged-up opponent, but there’s not quite enough outside-in creativity on the perimeter (beyond Jeff Teague), rim protection, or long-armed defense on the wing to go further. But the starting lineup is going to be a pain to guard, with shooting at all five positions, Kyle Korver jetting around screens, Teague zipping around on the pick-and-roll, and Paul Millsap — instantly tradable on a cheap new deal, by the way — working some wily off-the-dribble stuff. Gustavo Ayon and Pero Antic are going to do their best to replace the Zaza Pachulia–Ivan Johnson entertainment factor off the bench.
The first of several solid candidates for a panic trade, only they don’t have quite the trove of assets of some other teams with general managers facing job insecurity and “Win now, damn it!” pressure from fat-cat owners. Emeka Okafor’s a solid player, and an especially solid defender, but his injury is less about his skill than the chasm between Okafor and the guys behind him in the rotation; almost all of Washington’s quality depth is on the wing now.
Nene has to stay healthy, and that has never been a winning proposition. Al Harrington will help if he can reprise the physical small-ball power forward role he played in Denver two seasons ago, and though Washington had the league’s worst offense last season, the indicators are good that it’ll score enough with the trio of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Nene on the court at once.
Joe Dumars won’t call this a playoffs-or-bust season, so I will: It’s a playoffs-or-bust season for Detroit, especially given the ripple effects of Okafor’s injury and the general unpredictability of the rest of the morass. The challenge: Detroit cannot afford to fall behind after starting 4-20 in 2011-12 and 0-8 last season, and that means Maurice Cheeks has to work out a lot of dicey rotation questions quickly. Detroit will start the fascinating Josh Smith–Greg Monroe–Andre Drummond ultra-big trio, with an often inefficient point guard in Brandon Jennings orchestrating on what will be a very, very cramped floor.
The last starting spot is up for grabs, and if Cheeks gives it to Rodney Stuckey, a non-shooter, Detroit’s offense could crater. All three of Chauncey Billups, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Singler would be better options, and though Gigi Datome lacks the foot speed to play the position, Cheeks has to find minutes for him. Datome is a deadeye shooter on the wing who should also be able to play some small-ball power forward — perhaps rendering Jonas Jerebko expendable.
Cheeks has to learn a lot of stuff, and quickly — the right balance between lineup types; the best wing combinations; whether the league will let him implant an electric shock device he can activate whenever Smith rises for a 20-footer; and how well the Monroe-Drummond frontcourt can work defensively. Detroit is another candidate for a “win now” trade, though it’s tough to find any appealing bait if it doesn’t dangle Monroe — perhaps expendable now, with Smith aboard and Monroe’s agent, David Falk, almost certainly demanding a max contract.3
Monroe is eligible for an extension until October 31.
Milwaukee has revamped nearly its entire roster, going all-in on 3-point shooting, Brandon Knight’s work ethic, and LARRY SANDERS! erasing the leaks that will come from just about every direction on defense. O.J. Mayo can work as a decent secondary ball handler (and Caron Butler still thinks he can), which is good, because Knight has failed to read the floor in very basic ways any starting point guard must manage.
But Knight is young, Mayo will help, and the Bucks are generally tough to defend whenever Ersan Ilyasova is around to pull an opposing big man far from the basket. Ilyasova has a lot of trade value around the league, and the Bucks are curious to see if SANDERS! and John Henson (and their arms) can function well together on offense. The Bucks project as mediocre on both ends of the ball.
The Eastern Swing Teams
The starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson, and Jonas Valanciunas outscored opponents by 85 points in just 253 minutes together — the equivalent of nearly 12 points over a full game, on par with some of the league’s very best five-man groups. Tyler Hansbrough is an able third big man, Landry Fields has rebuilt his jump shot after elbow surgery, Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have an NBA season under their belts, and the battle for backup minutes behind Lowry has been fierce. In other words: Toronto should be in the thick of the morass for the nos. 6-8 spots.
But everything about the Drakes is uncertain. Lowry’s in the last year of his contract, with a checkered NBA past, and Gay may well opt out of the final year of his deal in order to test free agency this summer. DeRozan is overpaid, but still learning.4 Masai Ujiri, the Drakes’ new GM, will have chances to blow this roster up if other teams sweating their win totals offer even just a little something for these guys. Go that route, and the Drakes would sink below the morass — and into the high-lottery sweepstakes.
Even the coaching situation is uncertain, with Dwane Casey in the final year of his deal, and two of Ujiri’s handpicked assistants — Nick Nurse and Bill Bayno, both highly regarded — working with Casey on one-year deals.
No one has any clue with these guys. If they get, say, 120 combined games between Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum, plus the expected development from all their young players, the Cavs could vault right into the no. 6 spot and perhaps even challenge for no. 5. If they get considerably fewer Varejao-Bynum games, they might fail to win even 30 games for the fourth straight year A.L. (After LeBron). Mike Brown will bring some rules-based consistency to a porous defense, but the baseline is so low on that end that even league-average is a reach. Kyrie Irving is a killer on offense, but the small forward position is a mess, and everyone else on the roster is so young as to be something of a question mark.
The Bynum deal effectively caps Cleveland out this season, but the Cavs remain the league’s best lower-rung candidate for a foundation-shaking trade. Dan Gilbert is in full foot-stomping “win now” mode, and the Cavs have a bundle of extra first-round picks from all over the league, as well as interesting young assets and future cap flexibility. Keeping the books clean for LeBron this summer, and indefinitely, could cramp Cleveland’s trade activity, but it’s a swing team in every sense.
The Western Conference Morass: Can Anyone Defend?
Here are the only teams in the last 20 years to win 55 games in one season and miss the playoffs in the next:
• 1996-97 Spurs (David Robinson and Sean Elliott suffer health issues, Tim Duncan tankapalooza)
• 1998-99 Bulls (Current Charlotte Bobcats owner “retires”)
• 1998-99 Sonics (Vin Baker falls apart, injuries galore, Sam Perkins leaves)
• 2004-05 Timberwolves (Assorted injuries, Flip Saunders fired, Western Conference insanely stacked)
• 2004-05 Lakers (Lost Shaq and Phil Jackson)
•2008-09 Suns (Amar’e Stoudemire suffers eye injury, Shaq mix is awkward, 46-36 somehow not good enough to make the playoffs in loaded West)
• 2010-11 Cavaliers (Lost LeBron)
So, basically: If you win at an elite level in one season, it’s almost unprecedented to miss the playoffs in the next one — unless you lose a transformational superstar and/or played in the Western Conference when it was perhaps the toughest conference in NBA history.
It’s going to be very tough again this season, though it’s unclear how many wins it will take to slide into the no. 7 or no. 8 spots. And Denver, fresh off 57 wins under George Karl, might be the single hardest team to peg. Several executives suggested it was borderline nuts to slot a 57-win team into the lottery, but a large minority sees them as a major risk to miss the postseason — and perhaps even as likely to do so.
I’m in the latter boat. There is just too much going on here. The team’s best all-around player is in Golden State. Its idiosyncratic coach is gone, and Brian Shaw, the new head guy, is rejiggering just about everything on both sides of the ball. Its second-best off-the-bounce threat, Danilo Gallinari, will miss the first portion of the season recovering from knee surgery. Wilson Chandler’s 41 percent mark from 3-point range might have been a fluke. Denver’s cap sheet this year and next is such that Tim Connelly, the team’s new GM, might seek a money-saving trade.
And most damaging of all: There is no reason to trust the Kenneth Faried–JaVale McGee–J.J. Hickson big-man trio to defend adequately.5 The Nuggets are firmly in the mix for one of the last two playoff spots, but they’re in that mix — not above it.
Darrell Arthur and Timofey Mozgov will both be involved as well, but Arthur appears to be the fifth big man in the rotation — for now.
Dallas was a complete mess last season and finished at .500. There’s a lot to be said for the notion that Rick Carlisle, a healthy Dirk Nowitzki, and just a competent supporting cast can get a team to 45 wins.
This supporting cast is competent — on offense. Jose Calderon will work as a killer pick-and-roll partner for Nowitzki, and Monta Ellis, not a favorite in this space, should have his best season since 2007-08 working with the greatest shooting big man in history. And Dirk himself slowly rediscovered his off-the-dribble game last season after a creaky start.
Defense will be a bugaboo, but it was last year, too; Dallas ranked just 20th in points allowed per possession, and unless Samuel Dalembert is ready to play 35 minutes a night (spoiler alert: He’s not), it might sink lower this season. The team’s perimeter depth is mostly unproven, unless Jae Crowder can shoot well enough to play major minutes at small forward, and Shawn Marion is winded just looking at this roster.
Still, Dallas will score enough to stay in the race.
Oh, hey, Chase Budinger is already hurt! Why, basketball gods? Why will you not let this team stay healthy?
The Wolves are like a younger, more polished version of the Mavs, only with a long-term cap picture that is both more expensive (they’re capped out through at least this summer) and more uncertain (Kevin Love can already opt out after next season). A healthy Minnesota team, with more shooting via Budinger and Kevin Martin, should finish as one of the league’s 10 best offenses — and maybe better. The questions come on the other end, where they hung around the top 10 in points allowed per possession over the first half of last season before falling off.
The Love-Pekovic connection hasn’t spent much time on the floor together in three combined seasons, but the Wolves have struggled defensively in those minutes in all three, per NBA.com. Neither offers any threat of shot-blocking, but both can function just fine in coherent schemes — especially if Love kicks some of his bad habits. The Budinger-Martin combo will be dicey, but if the Wolves can hang around the league average on defense, they might end up the best of West’s morass.
Portland Trail Blazers
It’s all about defense here, too, and as I’ve written before, I’m skeptical the Blazers can build a good one this season — even with Robin Lopez onboard, and Terry Stotts installing a more conservative pick-and-roll scheme to fit Lopez’s strengths. But like the Mavs and Wolves, the Blazers should make a serious push to rank among the league’s half-dozen best offenses. They’ve got a ton of 3-point shooting around a legit post hub in LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum emerged last season as a very nice secondary ball handler in Stotts’s “flow” system. For a 15-game stretch after dealing for Eric Maynor, an actual NBA-level bench player, Portland sported the league’s best offense, per NBA.com, before spiraling into a season-ending free fall.
And they have a real bench this season! With real NBA players and everything! C.J. McCollum’s broken foot dents that depth a bit, but the Blazers have some talent. Gun to my head, they’re in the lottery again, but health and some randomness could take them above Denver, Minnesota, and Dallas.
New Orleans Pelicans
Perhaps the most exciting team among this bunch, but also the one with the most to prove — and the one least likely to sneak into the playoffs without a great deal of injury-related luck. The Pellies plan to start Greg Stiemsma at center, and it will be interesting to see how much Monty Williams will go with the Ryan Anderson–Anthony Davis front line. That duo has the potential to unlock some serious spacing and firepower, but it was also flammable defensively last season.
Finding a way to keep two of the Eric Gordon–Jrue Holiday–Tyreke Evans trio relevant when one of them has the ball will be a challenge, but it’s one Williams should be able to pull off. Holiday is a solid 3-point shooter, and Gordon was a sniper before two straight lost seasons. Evans is a trickier issue. His commitment to cutting away from the ball comes and goes, and his jumper mostly goes — despite an uptick from deep last season. But he made strides as a pick-and-roll distributor in Sacramento and has shown inklings of a post game.
The Pellies just have a ton to sort out, on both sides of the ball and with Williams’s rotation — plus some major potential depth issues. If Davis makes a giant leap on both ends, steadying himself on defense and working his off-the-bounce game more effectively on offense, this is a different conversation.
Just Plain Bad
Los Angeles Lakers
There is just too much that you have to talk yourself into here. Maybe Kobe Bryant will come back sooner, and stronger, than expected! This is the year for Wesley Johnson, baby! Nick Young totally “gets it” now, and he’s back in L.A., and that makes him a happy young man! Chris Kaman has a beard, and he’s sort of pudgy, and he likes to hunt, and maybe he and Pau Gasol can function nicely together! Steve Nash keeps himself in great shape; he’s going to stay healthy! Xavier Henry is killing it in preseason!
Some of that stuff is real. Kaman and Gasol should be able to play well together on offense; Kaman has improved as a passer, even if he still shoots waaaayyyyy too much. Gasol is a genius with the ball. Nash does keep himself in great shape. Kobe is a maniac, in the best way possible. Preseason production can carry over in meaningful ways for individual players.
But this team was a disaster defensively whenever Howard hit the bench last season, and they’ve replaced Howard with precisely zero plus defenders. Kobe is already well in decline as a defender, and we’ve no clue when he’s coming back, or how he’ll look after one of the most devastating injuries a player can suffer. L.A. fans, prepare yourselves: This team is not going to be in the playoff race, and if that’s apparent early, the front office will need to pivot and think about trades.
There’s nowhere to go but up for a team that decided to (sort of) abandon its rebuilding strategy in order to overpay a big man who can’t play defense — sort of a problem for the league’s worst defense, two years running. But Al Jefferson is a legitimately very good offensive player, and working an inside-out game will make things a bit easier on all the perimeter guys here who need an extra boost when creating offense — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson, and the very promising Jeffery Taylor, who dunked all over EuroBasket this summer. Kemba Walker graduated out of that group with an efficient sophomore season, and there are some decent bench cogs here.
But the Bobcats are still going to be really, really bad. At least they’re still slated to have ample cap room going forward, even with the Jefferson overpay.
If Mike Malone, a fiery defense-first type, can’t get DeMarcus Cousins — owner of a max contract the Kings negotiated against themselves, even though Cousins has no track record of being a helpful NBA player — to stop pouting and get his ass back on defense, the Kings might be in trouble.
But they’ll be better this season. Malone will install a hard-and-fast system on defense, will demand rigorous loyalty to it, and will bench guys who can’t bring that. The frontcourt is loaded with league-average contributors, and league-average is perfectly fine. Greivis Vasquez can do this thing called “passing,” which may confuse fans in Sacramento at first. And this was a top-10 offense, with serious firepower, after the All-Star break.
But getting into the race for the no. 8 spot is a multiyear process. The Kings could gain serious cap flexibility if they manage to deal just one midtier salary during the season.
Back Up the Tanker Truck
This is barely an NBA team, and the Sixers aren’t really trying to be an NBA team this season. They’re carrying by far the most cap room in the league — about $13 million, prime salary dump territory — and they’ll gauge the market value of Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young as other teams figure themselves out. Brett Brown, the team’s new coach, will be free to try a lot of things both on and off the floor, and that will be interesting to monitor. But this team is going to be terrible, by design.
Boston has the veteran talent and potential defensive chops to stay in a lot of games, but the idea that these guys are going to challenge for the no. 8 spot is way overblown. The C’s have been a bottom-10 scoring team for two straight seasons with Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett (and Ray Allen in 2011-12). Every single basket is going to be an unwatchable grind, and the season will probably end with Boston around 25th or worse in points per possession.
They’ll be solid defensively on the perimeter, and Brad Stevens will have them executing precisely on both ends, but they’re severely lacking rim protection. It’s going to be ugly, and if the Celtics do somehow find themselves in the race for no. 8 at midseason, they’ll happily trade themselves out of it if they can find any useful assets for Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries, and others. A Rondo trade is the sexier angle — and not implausible — but a trade involving one of those names is much more likely; dealing Lee or Bass would allow Boston to get serious cap room in July.
They’re playing for draft picks and cap room. Everyone’s available, save perhaps for Eric Bledsoe and the rookies, as Ryan McDonough, the team’s new GM, finishes purging the bad deals he inherited and setting Phoenix up for the future. Watching Bledsoe–Goran Dragic lineups will be fun, and it’s nice to have Channing Frye back raining triples. Kendall Marshall is playing for his career, already.
These aren’t last season’s Hawks, where you could plausibly argue that it’s very difficult to be bad with two very good, multi-talented post players (Josh Smith, Al Horford). Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors are going to be very good NBA players, and they should form a solid defensive pairing right away now that Millsap and Jefferson are gone. But Utah has struggled horribly on offense with those two on the floor, and though each has tantalizing individual skills, the Jazz have to figure out how to mesh them.
They’ll have to do so without a veteran starting point guard, and with Gordon Hayward, a very good player, likely having to do too much heavy lifting on offense as a result. The bench is going to be awful if Marvin Williams plays this season as he did last. The Jazz will be fun to watch from a big-picture perspective, but they won’t be good.
This is a developmental year for a team that’s finally going to walk into some serious long-term cap flexibility next summer — especially if they deal Jameer Nelson or buy out the final year of his contract.6 There are some interesting pieces here, and it was fun to watch Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless stretch themselves when things fell apart last season. But Orlando’s defense collapsed without Glen Davis after a surprising 12-13 start, and its offense was never any good. It’ll have major issues spacing the floor, and each young guy will experience growing pains — especially if Jacque Vaughn gives Victor Oladipo heavy time as the team’s main playmaker.
Only $2 million of Nelson’s $8 million salary for 2014-15 is guaranteed.