Monday, October 28, 2013

The Way-Too-Long NBA Preview (Part I)

Dwight Howard has Houston thinking Championship.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

NBA season is right around the corner. Over the last two weeks, I've offered a pessimistic NBA preview (in three parts), and an optimistic NBA preview (also in three parts). This is the realistic NBA preview. In some instances, this will be a (paraphrased) repeat of what I said was the team's worst-case scenario; for others, a repeat of what I said was the team's best-case scenario. For others still, a totally new angle on what the season will be like.

In the interest of making things as confusing as possible, I've arranged the teams in random order (except for the teams I saved for last in today's Part I and tomorrow's Part II, but you'll get to that later). Do not try to discern a pattern for why a team is placed where - you won't find one. In each section, I've listed the team's record from last season, and two Vegas lines - their over/under for wins this season, and their odds to win the NBA title. You know, in case you live in a place where gambling is legal. 

Brooklyn Nets
2013 Record: 49-33
Over/Under Wins: 52.5
Odds to Win Championship: 10/1

Scouting Report: This team is going to be a lot like the 2010 Celtics, and not only because they prominently feature Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. It’s a team of veteran guys that realizes they don’t need to kick ass and take names on all 82 nights – they’re perfectly aware that they can go through the motions for days or even weeks at a time and still comfortably make the playoffs. All that really matters for them is if they can identify a clear rotation that will work come playoff time.

It’s a team that’s built for the playoffs. The triumph of this team (if it happens) isn’t going to be a 65-win tour de force through the league from November to April; it’s going to be a 16-win tour de force in May and June. For veteran teams, home-court advantage doesn’t totally matter – just look at how San Antonio closed out both Golden State and Memphis on the road last spring. That’s what Brooklyn will look to do with a veteran-laden team with heaps of postseason experience. They’ll just be an also-ran in the regular season – I can’t envision any scenario in which they beat out Chicago or Miami for the No. 1 seed – but they’ll be a tough out in the playoffs. Maybe the toughest.

Prediction: 54-28, 4th in Eastern Conference

Oklahoma City Thunder
2013 Record: 60-22
Over/Under Wins: 52.5
Odds to Win Championship: +850 (17/2)

Scouting Report: The success of the Thunder this season basically comes down to two things. First, how quickly Russell Westbrook can return to the floor, and how effective he can be immediately upon his return. Second, how well Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, and the rest of the bench can replicate the production, if not the tactical advantages that were provided by Kevin Martin and James Harden over the last two seasons.

For the start of the season, Durant, Ibaka, and 10 healthy bodies should be good enough to keep them afloat. Once Westbrook comes back, they should kick into a higher gear. But it’s impossible overlook the steps back the roster has taken over the last calendar year. With Durant and Westbrook at the top of their games, they’ll be a nightmare to knock out in the playoffs. But without a dynamic scorer off the bench, along with a Western Conference that seems to have improved almost across the board, they won’t be grabbing the No. 1 seed for the second year in a row.

Prediction: 54-28; 4th in Western Conference

Cleveland Cavaliers
2013 Record: 24-58
Over/Under Wins: 40.5
Odds to Win Championship: 66/1

Scouting Report: Without a doubt, this is the most perplexingly-constructed team in the league. The star is Kyrie Irving, a pick-and-roll wizard that can seemingly get into the paint on a whim. Complicating this, however, is the addition of Andrew Bynum, a not-so-mobile center who would rather have the ball dumped into him on the block. These two styles seem to be in direct conflict, and trusting coach Mike Brown to solve the offensive quagmire that is surely coming would be a fool’s errand.

That being said, it can’t be denied that the team has talent. Outside of Bynum and Irving, they have three other top-four picks from the last three years (Tristan Thompson, No. 4 in 2011; Dion Waiters, No. 4 in 2012; Anthony Bennett, No. 1 in 2013), plus trustworthy veterans like Anderson Varejao and Jarrett Jack. With so much talent, it’s seemingly impossible not to construct a league-average offense, even if it’s accidentally. And the one thing Brown can do well is get his teams to defend. Between the two, Cleveland will be in the playoff mix.

Prediction: 41-41, 7th in Eastern Conference

Toronto Raptors
2013 Record: 34-48
Over/Under Wins: 35.5
Odds to Win Championship: 150/1

Scouting Report: I might be the last human being alive who thinks Rudy Gay has salvageable value. Basically everyone agrees that playing him at small forward next to two traditional big men can’t work offensively. The spacing cannot and will not work out. But if you play Gay at power forward with shooting on the wings, and use Gay as a screener, getting him the ball in space on the move? He could be Carmelo-lite. Not quite an MVP candidate, but a player who creates distinct exploitable mismatches on offense. The upshot there is that Gay is far better defensively than Carmelo is – Gay uses his length and quickness well on that end.

If the Raptors put Gay on the floor next to either Amir Johnson or Jonas Valanciunas, then toss out Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross (assuming his jump shot improves), and Steve Novak on the perimeter, that’s a crunch-time lineup that puts Toronto in the playoffs. I really believe that. The problem is, I see way too much of a commitment to DeMar DeRozan to believe that my belief will come true. That five-man unit is potentially great, but I’m pessimistic about pretty much every other five-man unit Toronto will assemble.

Prediction: 36-46, 10th in Eastern Conference

Washington Wizards
2013 Record: 29-53
Over/Under Wins: 39.5
Odds to Win Championship: 100/1

Scouting Report: It’s something that I’ve repeated ad nauseam over the summer, but Washington had a winning record when both John Wall and Bradley Beal were in the starting lineup. Assuming natural progression for both players, along with the addition of Otto Porter, Washington seemed well on their way to a playoff berth.

Now there may be some doubt, however. Emeka Okafor was the glue that held their defense together. He was swapped for Marcin Gortat. On balance, Gortat is probably a better player than Okafor is. But for that specific spot, Washington needed a defensive big man to cover up mistakes. Gortat isn’t that guy. Washington’s defense will still be good, but overall they drop from a legitimate Eastern Conference sleeper to just another playoff also-ran.

Prediction: 44-38, 6th in Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks
2013 Record: 38-44
Over/Under Wins: 28.5
Odds to Win Championship: 250/1

Scouting Report: Your opinion of the 2014 Milwaukee Bucks depends on how you value the ability to create shots (regardless of whether or not they’re efficient ones). In the “old school,” “basketball-lifer,” “scout-minded” world, being able to create a shot from isolation is one of the most important skills there is. In the “new school,” “stat-geek,” “analytic-minded” world, it’s probably the most overrated skill there is. So if you think like the old school, you’ll probably think the Bucks will be terrible. If you think like the new school, you’ll probably think they’ll be about as good as they were last year. I normally think new school, but in this instance I’m swaying the opposite direction.

On some level, shot creation DOES matter. Last season, most of Milwaukee’s shots were created by Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, generally considered to be inefficient players. That bore out, for the most part – Milwaukee was just 22nd in Offensive rating. However, they were in fact closer to finishing as a top-10 offense than they were to finishing last, and their efficiency level wasn’t far off from teams like Indiana, Memphis, and Chicago. This isn’t to say that they had a good offense (they didn’t), just that the idea that inefficient shot creation is a tad overblown. This year’s Bucks team, without Jennings and Ellis will struggle to create anything resembling high-efficiency shot attempts, and their offense should be even worse.

Prediction: 34-48, 11th in Eastern Conference

Sacramento Kings
2013 Record: 28-54
Over/Under Wins: 31.5
Odds to Win Championship: 300/1

Scouting Report: Parting ways with Tyreke Evans was probably for the best, especially after bringing in Ben McLemore on draft night. The team seems to want to revolve around DeMarcus Cousins, and he needs to be surrounded by shooters, not slashers. The Kings have shooters, but their defense should still be unacceptably bad.

They clearly want to build around Cousins, and for good reason. If he ever completely “figures it out” (for the lack of a better phrase), he could be a more athletic, higher-skill version of Zach Randolph. The problem is, he hasn’t “figured it out” yet. He’s still to prone to shooting jump shots, and too averse to playing the caliber of defense required from modern NBA big men. He’s still only 23 years old, so it’s not like he’s a lost cause, but in the short term, the Kings are still a lottery team.

Prediction: 29-53, 13th in Western Conference

Indiana Pacers
2013 Record: 49-32
Over/Under Wins: 54.5
Odds to Win Championship: 9/1

Scouting Report: For the second year in a row, Indiana had one of, if not the most effective starting unit in the league (based on net rating per 100 possessions), but as soon as they made one substitution, everything completely fell apart. Once it became apparent that they couldn’t play their starters for all 48 minutes, their playoff hopes fell apart along with it.

This year will likely be different. They bring back Danny Granger from last season’s injury (a clear upgrade over Gerald Green and Orlando Johnson), they signed Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson (clear upgrades over Sam Young and D.J. Augustin), and they traded for Luis Scola (clear upgrade over Tyler Hansbrough). Armed with a bench of postseason-caliber players, not only will they be able to mix-and-match groupings better come May and June, they’ll be able to better manage their starters’ minutes in the regular season. With the top of the Eastern Conference as jumbled as it’s expected to be, that will certainly be an advantage.

Prediction: 55-27, 3rd in Eastern Conference

Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Record: 56-26
Over/Under Wins: 50.5
Odds to Win Championship: 28/1

Scouting Report: It’s tough to say anything original about the 2014 Grizzlies. They went 27-10 following the Rudy Gay trade (equivalent to a 60-win season prorated over 82 games) and advanced to the Western Conference Finals, and have since brought back effectively the entire roster. They swapped Darrell Arthur for Kosta Koufos (an upgrade), and upgraded from Austin Daye to Mike Miller. The only real change is the head coach, but by all accounts Dave Joerger is just as capable as his predecessor Lionel Hollins.

I would expect regression, but only because it seems like the balance of the league has shifted – there are fewer bad teams, but those fewer bad teams are even worse than usual. As a result, more wins will shift towards the middle of the league, and the top of the league will become even more jumbled than usual.

Prediction: 53-29; 5th in Western Conference

Boston Celtics
2013 Record: 41-40
Over/Under Wins: 27.5
Odds to Win Championship: 150/1

Scouting Report: This seems to truly be a throw-away year for Boston. They dumped their expensive veterans and brought in a new coach, and it seems like even the “core” pieces like Rajon Rondo could be shipped out at any time. There isn’t a single player on the roster that I would place a high wager on to still be on the roster by the end of the 2015 season. Trading Pierce and Garnett and parting ways with Doc Rivers seemed to be the blow-up, but there could be another one coming if they want to dump Rondo and Jeff Green.

In the meantime, however, this season will be about Brad Stevens establishing a new system and a new culture for whatever slice of this roster is still intact by the time the team is ready to compete again. As strange as it might sound, the Celtics seem to be more committed to their coach than they are to any player on their payroll. That will be evident in their record.

Prediction: 27-55, 12th in Eastern Conference

Philadelphia 76ers
2013 Record: 34-48
Over/Under Wins: 17.5
Odds to Win Championship: 300/1

Scouting Report: So, two basketball players from Philadelphia are driving a tank…

Really not much to say here – the team doesn’t seem to have any intention of being competitive. They may or may not be paying Jason Richardson in empanadas to make sure he stays fat. They’ll likely shut down Nerlens Noel for the season and just hope that Thaddeus Young (a legitimate building block) can stay positive throughout the process. The chase to lose 70 games will be a talking point for most of the season, but I think they’ll actually scrape together a passable defense (and I use that phrase VERY generously) and avoid historic ineptitude.

Prediction: 15-67, 15th in Eastern Conference

Utah Jazz
2013 Record: 43-39
Over/Under Wins: 25.5
Odds to Win Championship: 150/1

Scouting Report: The third team in a row that seems to be punting the season in the hopes of the best possible lottery odds come April. In the case of Utah, they’re the team with the clearest set of existing building blocks (that is to say, assets that are not currently tied up in the form of future draft picks). They have five lottery picks from the last four drafts, plus Rudy Gobert, a first-round pick from 2013 who ostensibly has every physical tool you could want from a modern big man.

If you’re searching for a negative for the long-term, your best bet is probably that the team didn’t ditch Ty Corbin at the same time it decided to re-build from the ground up. Corbin over the last two seasons has appeared to be unaware of which lineups actually work and which don’t (the team was somehow four games over .500 last year despite their six most-used lineups all sporting negative net ratings). They would have been better off finding a new coach to bring them into the future.

Prediction: 24-58, 14th in Western Conference

Dallas Mavericks
2013 Record: 41-41
Over/Under Wins: 43.5
Odds to Win Championship: 50/1

Scouting Report: A happy and healthy Dirk Nowitzki gets them into the playoffs. It might really be that simple. They were only four games out of a playoff spot last season, and that was with Dirk missing 29 games and playing markedly less proficient basketball even when he was in the lineup. They also had serious problems with their point guard play – Darren Collison never fit in, and they resorted to starting Mike James 23 times. Jose Calderon and Devin Harris should make a big difference there.

They swapped O.J. Mayo for Monta Ellis, and Chris Kaman and Elton Brand for Samuel Dalembert and DeJuan Blair. Those mostly seem like lateral moves and I wouldn’t expect them to move the needle much in either direction. But if Dirk is back to being Dirk, the Mavs should be back in the postseason.

Prediction: 41-41, 8th in Western Conference

Detroit Pistons
2013 Record: 29-53
Over/Under Wins: 40.5
Odds to Win Championship: 75/1

Scouting Report: The offensive spacing is going to be bad. Yes. We all agree on that. Playing Josh Smith at small forward has never exactly led to an offensive explosion, especially next to two other big men who can’t shoot and a various assortment of perimeter players who are in the same club. What people don’t seem to be talking about, however, is how good this team could be defensively. If they play Smith, Monroe, and Drummond along the front line, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Jennings on the outside, they’ll have great length at every position, and from there you’d have to try really hard to not play at least league-average defense.

In most years, that would be enough to make the playoffs. But it seems like the East is better this year. Philadelphia and Boston saw the bottom drop out, and Charlotte and Orlando are still bad, but the other 11 teams can make semi-legitimate playoff claims. Detroit ends up on the outside looking in.

Prediction: 37-45, 9th in Eastern Conference

Houston Rockets
2013 Record: 45-37
Over/Under Wins: 54.5
Odds to Win Championship: 12/1

Scouting Report: If Dwight Howard is Dwight Howard again, this is the best team in the West, and possibly the league. In 2009, Dwight Howard dragged an Orlando team to the Finals with Hedo Turkoglu and Rafer Alston running the offense. In 2011, he should have won the MVP before losing in Round 1 when his teammates shot 26% from three. Yes, last year was a bitter disappointment for him, but he was playing for most of the year with a back injury. If he has finally recovered (and he has looked very spry in the preseason), he’s the best defensive player in basketball and arguably the second-best player in the league. And that’s before we even mention James Harden, who established himself as a top-10 player in his own right last season. If you have two top-10 players on the same team, deep playoff runs aren’t far behind.

The Rockets were an elite offensive team last year, just average on defense. When Omer Asik was on the floor, their defensive rating of 104.2 was equivalent to 10th in the league. When he was off the floor, their rating of 110.0 was equivalent to 27th in the league. Now, with Howard and Asik on the same roster, at least one will be on the floor at all times. That defensive rating will creep up, and Houston will have an elite defense to pair with their elite offense.

Two top-10 players. Elite offense. Elite defense. What am I missing?

Prediction: 56-26, 2nd in Western Conference, Western Conference Champions

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