Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I Like This Team - A Glass-Half-Full NBA Preview (Part I)

Kyrie Irving and John Wall are both poised to turn their franchises around.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Last week, we ran through all 30 teams and took the most pessimistic angle possible. We did this because we are a sports blog, and thus contractually obligated by the laws of the internet to be snarky and sarcastic.

However, like Fox News, SuiteSports is fair and balanced. If we spend nearly 5000 words saying the worst thing about every NBA team, it's only right that we spend the same amount saying nice things about every NBA team. Hopefully, reading this series makes you think of Jon Gruden's penchant for saying how much he likes "this guy." For now, I am Jon Gruden, and the 30 NBA teams are the scrappy, unheralded, or otherwise non-traditional players that Gruden gushes over during Monday Night Football broadcasts.

Orlando Magic

They used the No. 2 overall pick on a promising young player with seemingly unlimited upside. He’ll be playing out of position, but that actually might not be such a bad thing – he’ll take his lumps at point guard long before Orlando is expecting to be a playoff contender, so by the time they are expecting to be, he’ll have all the wrinkles ironed out.

Moe Harkless and Tobias Harris are each skilled forwards who have plenty of time to figure out how they complement each other. Nikola Vucevic is a 22-year old double-double machine. They don’t have the central star that can tie everything together yet, but it seems like they have several pieces that can assemble together easily if they ever do get the superstar they’re looking for.

Best-Case Scenario: Victor Oladipo is a revelation at point guard - he picks up on the intricacies of the position overnight and uses his athleticism to cover up his weaknesses. Harkless and Harris effortlessly float back and forth between the two forward spots, and Arron Afflalo returns to his 2009 form on defense, giving them a legitimate perimeter stopper. Nikola Vucevic holds down the paint and Orlando is in the mix for the 8th playoff spot all the way into April.

Charlotte Bobcats

Signing Al Jefferson actually might turn out to be a savvy move for the Bobcats. It’s the type of move that generates fan interest (because they signed a “name” player), improves the entertainment level of the team, but might not actually move the needle much in terms of wins and losses. Jefferson seems like a good player because he scores a bunch of points and does so efficiently, but there is conflicting evidence about whether or not he actually improves the team he’s playing on. And with a short-term contract (just three years, and the third is a player option), the Bobcats have the ability to get out of it if it turns out for the worse.

In the meantime, the Kemba Walker/Cody Zeller duo seems promising. If they can push tempo and get Zeller to the front of the rim in transition, they can generate some easy baskets. At the very least, Charlotte will be an entertaining team to watch this season.

Best-Case Scenario: Bismack Biyombo learns to catch the ball. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist develops a reliable 16-foot jump shot. Cody Zeller's face-up game translates immediately into NBA success, and new coach Steve Clifford institutes a defensive scheme good enough to hide Al Jefferson. With a lot of flux in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference, Charlotte lurks near a playoff spot all the way to the end of the season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

If Andrew Bynum can stay healthy, this is probably a playoff team. They have two forwards that compliment him (and Kyrie Irving) well – Tristan Thompson can dive from the weakside for offensive rebounds, and Anthony Bennett can step out and space the floor.

Irving and Dion Waiters should continue to improve with experience, and newly-added Jarrett Jack should seamlessly slip into the same role he occupied in Golden State, as a true combo guard, allowing Irving to play off the ball occasionally and ensuring Waiters is always sharing the floor with an effective table-setter.

Best-Case Scenario: Kyrie Irving establishes himself as a top-10 player in the league. Andrew Bynum returns to his 2012 health and playing form. The rest of the Cleveland frontcourt rotation takes advantage of their versatility and the Cavs overwhelm teams with their depth, all the way to a 50-win season.

Phoenix Suns

If you cross your eyes a bit, it looks like the Phoenix roster has all the pieces you’d want – they have a natural point guard who does point guard things, an athletic freak combo guard that can fill any role, a promising young slasher, a plethora of forwards who can space the floor with shooting, and two big men who can catch and finish.

They lack in overall talent, but this isn’t a team expecting to be competitive right now anyway. They have a number of pieces that could prove very fruitful down the line, so taking a year to find out exactly where they stand is a great plan of action.

Best-Case Scenario: Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe develop a nice chemistry, each taking turns running the offense and playing off the ball as a scorer. Alex Len's pre-draft injury concerns are unfounded, he develops into a strong pick-and-roll finisher. Phoenix ends up in the lottery again, but identify a half-dozen rotation players or better to hold on to going forward.

New Orleans Pelicans

The top five guys on the roster are five that just about any team in the league would love to have. Jrue Holiday is an All-Star point guard that just turned 23. Eric Gordon, when healthy, is a top-five shooting guard in the league. Tyreke Evans was born to be a 6th man/complementary player for a playoff team. Ryan Anderson is the premier floor-spacing power forward in basketball, and Anthony Davis seems to be blessed with all the athletic gifts of Kevin Garnett.

That’s a five-man group that should be able to blitz the bad teams and stay competitive with the good ones. And if Davis progresses faster than anticipated, it’s a group that very well could be a true contender down the line.

Best-Case Scenario: Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson, and Davis develop into a dynamite 5-man crunch time unit. Austin Rivers finds ways to contribute in the second unit, and Davis takes a leap defensively to hold down that end of the floor. The Pelicans ride the success of their 5-man core to 50 wins.

Sacramento Kings

Probably the best news surrounding the Kings is that they will be staying in Sacramento for the foreseeable future – the board of governors voted down a proposal for a Seattle-based group to buy the team, and the new Sacramento-based owners already have plans to build a new arena downtown. As the new regime came in, they cleaned up the front office as well, dumping Geoff Petrie (whose last handful of seasons as General Manager were basically basketball malpractice) and replacing him with Pete D’Alessandro, who was groomed under Masai Ujiri (the NBA’s equivalent of MacGyver) with the Nuggets. They also ditched Keith Smart and replaced him with Mike Malone, an offensive savant who worked wonders in Cleveland with LeBron James, in New Orleans with Chris Paul, and most recently in Golden State.

Best-Case Scenario: DeMarcus Cousins grows up, Ben McLemore's scoring prowess develops immediately. Very quietly, the Kings put together a top-10 offense and the defense holds up barely well enough to compete for a playoff spot. 

Detroit Pistons

After bringing in Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, the Pistons actually have five starting-caliber players for the first time since their last playoff appearance in 2009. How they’re going to arrange those five players remains to be seen – either they can play Josh Smith at small forward alongside Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, or they can rotate the three, knowing that 96 minutes between power forward and center is more than enough to divide between the three of them, especially if Drummond is only playing 24-26 minutes per game. Both plans have merit with different strengths. At the very least, their talent level has buoyed back towards league average, possibly even above it, and that will keep Detroit competing for a playoff spot throughout the season.

Best-Case Scenario: Detroit's personnel doesn't hurt their offensive spacing, instead their length and size fosters a top-five defense. Their condor length serves them the same way it does for Indiana and Chicago, and their offense keeps them afloat well enough to put them comfortably in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Washington Wizards

With John Wall in the lineup last season, Washington was 24-25. Prorated to a full season, they would have comfortably beaten out Milwaukee for the 8th seed in the East (and certainly given Miami a closer series in Round 1). Now with a healthy Wall getting his first full preseason and training camp since his rookie season (he was hurt last year and there was no preseason in 2011-2012 due to the lockout), and an improved roster around him, a playoff spot is not only possible, it’s probable.

Best-Case Scenario: John Wall shows conclusively why he was drafted No. 1, carrying a Washington offense to heights it has no business being at. His explosive athleticism puts him in the realm of Rose and Westbrook, attacking the basket as if it won't be there tomorrow, creating a parade to the free throw line every night. Emeka Okafor gets healthy and the defense is once again one of the best in the league. Bradley Beal makes a leap as well, and Washington shocks the league all the way to a top-four seed in the East. 

Minnesota Timberwolves

One of these years, Minnesota is going to get lucky with health. This year is already off to a rocky start with Chase Budinger’s injury, but for once they have depth to cover up those holes, with Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer ready to step in.

The Timberwolves will go as far as Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, and Ricky Rubio can take them. Those three players are terrific offensive players, and they should actually have space to operate now that they have Martin to help space the floor. As long as those four are healthy, Minnesota will be in the mix for one of the last playoff spots in the West.

Best-Case Scenario: Rubio, Martin, Love, and Pekovic fall into place easily to create one of the most unorthodox but most effective offenses in the league. Despite a defense with more than a few hiccoughs, the offense is potent enough to push Minnesota into the playoffs.

Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers jettisoned a lot of dead weight from last year’s miserable second unit and brought in a number of players who, at worst, will tread water while Portland’s horses are on the bench. Robin Lopez is an upgrade over J.J. Hickson, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright offer shooting they were severely lacking, and Thomas Robinson gives them another young big with upside. If C.J. McCollum can get (and stay) healthy, and Meyers Leonard can continue to progress, their core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and Nic Batum is strong enough that Portland can slide into the playoffs if a contender falters.

Best-Case Scenario: Lillard builds on his rookie season and makes the All-Star game. Batum continues to develop as a creator on offense, as opposed to just a finisher. McCollum returns from his foot injury and shores up the 2nd-unit offense, and Aldridge finally cements himself as a top-15 player. In a competitive Western Conference, Portland slides into the back half of the playoff bracket and gives a competitive series in Round 1. 

No comments :