Wednesday, October 23, 2013

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

The Return of Derrick Rose has Chicago thinking Championship.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

We're continuing with our optimistic NBA preview after dolling out 30 helpings of hate last week with Your Team Sucks. If you missed Part I of I Like This Team, you can find it here. In Part II, we're covering the middle of the standings from last season, including a handful of teams that many would find it hard to be optimistic about. But not me! My rose-colored glasses don't discriminate here. Let's start off with a bleak one so you'll get what I mean:

Philadelphia 76ers

They actually have a future! They could end up with two lottery picks next year (their own and New Orleans’), and they have two lottery picks from the 2013 draft (Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams). It’s basically impossible to have four lottery picks in two years and whiff on all of them. Someone in there is going to develop into an All-Star caliber player or close to it. If they can keep Thaddeus Young invested in staying in town, and if they can continue to develop Evan Turner, they’ll have the makings of a future playoff team.

Best-Case Scenario: Nerlens Noel recovers from his ACL injury by mid-February, giving him an opportunity to get NBA game experience, but it's so late in the season it doesn't really affect Philadelphia's spot in the standings (or, more importantly, the lottery). Michael Carter-Williams takes his lumps but slowly develops, and Thaddeus Young continues to do Thaddeus Young things. With a former San Antonio assistant as the head coach, those three players (along with Evan Turner) use their length and quickness to plant the seeds of a future lockdown defensive squad. 

Toronto Raptors

Rudy Gay is finally in a situation where he can play a larger chunk of his minutes at power forward. The only truly reliable big men on the roster are Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson, which means Gay will be able to find minutes as a small-ball power forward, acting as a screener and receiving the ball on the move in space, instead of in isolations. And with Andrea Bargnani gone, replaced by Steve Novak, the Raptors might actually be able to space the floor from the wing spots. All signs point towards the Raptors being on a path towards success – their cap sheet clears up substantially after the 2015 season, and Masai Ujiri is a management wizard – every move he makes seems to work out.

Best-Case Scenario: Rudy Gay thrives as a power forward the same way Carmelo Anthony did for the Knicks last season. Head coach Dwayne Casey adopts some of the double-ballscreen sets Dallas used while he was an assistant there, using Rudy Gay to flare to the wing while the big man dives to the rim. The sets are near-unstoppable and Toronto develops a top-10 offense. Masai Ujiri flips DeMar DeRozan at the deadline for a 3-and-D swingman, and the Raptors cruise into one of the playoff spots vacated by Boston and Milwaukee

Milwaukee Bucks

Some people might think that losing Monta Ellis is a bad thing. These people don’t realize that for the first 61 games of the season last year, Ellis was shooting 23.6% from three, but still attempting 3.5 per game. Over the last 21 games, he turned it around, making 38.4% on 5.3 attempts, but for the majority of the season, he was shooting so inefficiently that he was doing more harm than good. Some people might also think that losing Brandon Jennings is a bad thing. These people don’t realize that Milwaukee had a net rating of -5.3 when Jennings was on the floor, versus a net rating of +7.5 when he wasn’t, good for an on/off rating for Jennings of -12.8. Milwaukee cleaned house in the backcourt, and brought in O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Gary Neal, and Luke Ridnour. In other words, their guards can shoot for once. With Larry Sanders still patrolling the paint, Milwaukee shouldn’t drop off much from last season.

Best-Case Scenario: Losing Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings turns out to genuinely be addition by subtraction. O.J. Mayo opens the season on a hot streak not unlike the one he had last season, but he manages to sustain it for much longer, keeping Milwaukee's offense afloat. Larry Sanders and John Henson wreak havoc on defense with their length and springiness, and without a porous backcourt defense holding them back, Milwaukee turns out a top-8 unit on that end. Giannis Antetokounmpo gets some run and shows flashes of a future Kawhi Leonard/Paul George-type defensive star. The regression people expected never comes, and Milwaukee returns to the playoffs.

Boston Celtics

Just because a team is not going to be competitive does not mean there aren’t reasons to be optimistic. The Celtics have a whopping nine first-round picks over the next five seasons, and very well could end up with more. There are a glut of teams that have the potential to win 50 games if the right moves break the right way. The Celtics are not one of them, but they could play a key role in helping another team make that leap. A team looking for help in the frontcourt (like Washington or Dallas or the Clippers) could dangle a first-round pick trying to snag Brandon Bass. A team looking for help on the wing (like Oklahoma City or Memphis or Minnesota) could do the same for Jeff Green or Courtney Lee. A team looking to upgrade at point guard (New York or Indiana?) might even dangle two, plus a cheap asset in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

As the Celtics slowly stockpile assets, they’ll be slowly bringing along their young players (and their coach), gauging who is a long-term contributor and who is not. Patience is a virtue for the Celtics, and it usually ends up paying off.

Best-Case Scenario: Teams desperate for depth offer up future firsts for Bass and Lee. Olynyk and Green develop a strong chemistry together, and rookie coach Brad Stevens proves to be a master motivator and technician. Rondo returns and starts slapping up triple-doubles again. The Celtics miss the playoffs by a dozen games, but successfully set the stage for a future rebirth.

Dallas Mavericks

There were way too many moving parts with last year’s Dallas team, and they didn’t have the rock in the middle to keep everything stable. Now that Dirk Nowitzki is healthy, they have a Dwayne Johnson-sized Rock. Swapping O.J. Mayo for Monta Ellis is mostly a lateral move, and Ellis closed last season much better than Mayo did, a good sign for this season. On top of that, they ditched their entire point guard rotation and brought in offensive savant Jose Calderon, as well as rookie Shane Larkin and cheap free agent Devin Harris.

Nowitzki’s health is the key to this roster, and all accounts point towards him being back to normal. His efficiency numbers remained pretty good last season; in fact he was above his career average in effective field goal percentage. What held him back was his inability to shoulder a large offensive load. With his legs under him again, he should lead Dallas to a top-10 offense.

Best-Case Scenario: Jose Calderon meshes with Dirk the same way Steve Nash did once upon a time. Their efficiency rubs off on Monta Ellis, who returns to be an open-court force the way he was for the Warriors in 2007 and 2008. Their cheap young guys all find ways to contribute, and Dallas grabs a playoff spot.

Utah Jazz

Here’s another team with a bright future ahead of them. They sat around treading water for three years, barely winning 50% of their games and getting unceremoniously swept in their only postseason appearance. So instead of rolling everything back for the same result, they cut ties with Al Jefferson (the root of their defensive problems), Paul Millsap (to avoid taking on long-term money), and their stable of replacement-level point guards (because they were terrible). Now they enter the 2013-2014 season with a starting five with an AVERAGE age of 22 and one of the lowest payrolls in the league.

Also, in the last few days, they’ve made rumblings about signing Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors to extensions worth in the neighborhood of $50 million each. Some people scoffed at those numbers, suggesting that Utah was simply “paying for potential,” but the fact of the matter is both Hayward and Favors both had seasons in 2013 that already compare favorably to a number of players who make that much money (or are likely to once their own rookie contract ends).

Here is the list for Favors (click to enlarge):

And here is the list for Hayward (click to enlarge):

Pretty good company.

Best-Case Scenario: They don't exactly light the world on fire, but the baby-faced starting five get a ton of reps together and start to develop a good synergy. The Jazz are like the 2013 Blazers-lite, with a respectable starting five but a dreadful bench. While the starting five is good enough that they're competitive, even stealing a few wins from upper-echelon teams, they're still far from a playoff spot come mid-April. However, there are positives to be taken away from the season, and help coming in the draft.

Atlanta Hawks

In the last two years, the Hawks have parted ways with two of their most recognizable stars, Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. The thing that gets overlooked, however, is that they’ve managed to hold onto their best player, Al Horford, and they’ve found ways to replace the stars they’ve lost.

When they traded Joe Johnson, they shifted the creative focus of their offense to point guard Jeff Teague and the newly signed Lou Williams, and the offense didn’t really miss a beat (they were 17th in offensive efficiency with Johnson in 2012, 18th without him in 2013). When they opted not to re-sign Josh Smith, they went out and grabbed Paul Millsap and Elton Brand with the money they would have had to spend on Smith. Neither Millsap nor Brand is as productive as Smith is individually, but collectively they form a decent facsimile.

All the while, Al Horford remains the centerpiece of the team, while Atlanta fills out the rest of the roster with cheap young talent, like Dennis Schroeder, John Jenkings, Jared Cunningham, and Lucas Nogueira.

Best-Case Scenario: Horford and Millsap turns out to be a match made in Heaven. Along with Kyle Korver, they create space for Teague and Williams to operate, and Atlanta's offense actually improves without Josh Smith. The jumpshot-heavy offense produces a high-variance offense that is tough for even the best defensive teams to combat, and Atlanta rides it to a playoff birth and a first-round upset over a favored powerhouse.

Chicago Bulls

Derrick Rose is back! Derrick Rose is back! Chicago’s offense won’t want to make me cover my eyes with a blindfold and run through a plate-glass window anymore! They also added Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell, who, along with Jimmy Butler, give them wing players who can actually knock down jump shots and will allow Tom Thibodeau to manage Luol Deng’s minutes for once. Chicago’s defense will always be good so long as Thibodeau is the architect and Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are scrambling along the back line. Now that Rose is back and the offense has cohesiveness, Chicago should be a juggernaut.

Best-Case Scenario: The full year off for Rose is a godsend. From Day 1 he is back to attacking the basket and exploding to the rim. With improved depth on the wing, Chicago is able to experiment with Luol Deng at power forward, meaning reduced regular season minutes across the board for Deng, Butler, and Noah. The Bulls are fresh and healthy for the postseason for the first time since 2011, and this time they're able to get the better of Miami and ride their defense all the way to their first championship since Jordan left town. 

Los Angeles Lakers

In a year where the entire roster is in flux and everyone is writing them off, can’t you see Kobe Bryant using that doubt as fuel in his recovery? And with the team removed from the Dwight Howard circus, can’t you see the team buying into Mike D’Antoni’s offense (which, in an under-the-radar way, was actually underrated – they were 9th in the league in offensive efficiency last season under D’Antoni, just 11th the year before under Mike Brown) and finding success, especially with Pau Gasol not being forced to share the floor (and the same space on the floor) as Howard?

People scoffed at the Chris Kaman, Nick Young, and Wesley Johnson signings, but they should actually fit well. Kaman is a good shooter from range (extremely helpful in D’Antoni’s offense), Young’s poor shot selection should be curtailed by the offense creating so many easy looks on spot-up threes, and Wesley Johnson’s athleticism in the open floor should be an asset for an up-tempo offense.

Best-Case Scenario: Kobe Bryant's insane conditioning and work ethic have him healthy enough to play by early December. His adapted game is perfect for the D'Antoni offense - he lives on spot-ups and is able to pick his spots to be aggressive. Pau Gasol returns to center and thrives there, forming a dynamite pick-and-roll duo with Steve Nash. Nick Young and Wes Johnson benefit from so many open looks, both shoot over 40% on threes. The Lakers continue to improve throughout the season and are humming on all cylinders by the time the playoffs roll around. A hungry Kobe leads them on a first-round upset of the favored Rockets, and delivers some scathing quotes about Dwight Howard in the locker room after the series.

Houston Rockets

Entering last season, the Rockets were the least experienced roster in NBA history (measured by career minutes played prior to the season). They finished 45-37 and made the playoffs. Then they added Dwight Howard, who, when healthy, is the best center in the league. The roster is littered with young players with ample upside, and the law of averages suggests that a few of them will continue to improve. A pick-and-roll attack centered around James Harden and Dwight Howard is just about as deadly as it gets in today’s league, and with a number of capable shooters surrounding them, the Rockets’ offense should be as potent as it was last season. The only weakness for last year’s team was on defense, because when Omer Asik wasn’t on the floor, it fell apart. Now they’ll have Howard starting with Asik shoring up the 2nd-unit defense, so the defense should stay afloat for all 48 minutes. With both offense and defense clicking, Houston could be the team to beat in the Western Conference.

Best-Case Scenario: Harden and Howard are the new LeBron and Bosh - teams for the life of them can't figure out how to defend their screens in transition. Terrence Jones makes a leap in his sophomore season and develops a consistent shot from range. Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley form a great point guard platoon, and both spend the entire season wrestling the upper hand away from each other. Howard and Asik cover up any and all defensive mistakes and Houston has an elite defense to match their offense. Armed with strong units on both ends of the floor, Houston rolls through the Western bracket and into the Finals, where Dwight Howard's size on both ends causes fits for Miami, just like Roy Hibbert's did. The Rockets win the title and Dwight Howard joins Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, and Yao Ming among great Houston centers.

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