Thursday, October 17, 2013

Your NBA Team Sucks - A Glass-Half-Empty Season Preview (Part III)

These guys think they're so cool. They're wrong. They suck. (Flickr)
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

In case you missed the first two installments of Your NBA Team Sucks, Part I can be found here and Part II can be found here. In Part III we cover the 10 best teams from last season (by regular season record), and while all of them made the playoffs last season, not all of them will this season. 

Golden State Warriors

Everyone is tripping over themselves to talk about how good the Warriors are going to be this year but ignoring a few key points.

First, David Lee is healthy again. The Warriors went on an impressive playoff run after he got hurt and they were forced to play small out of necessity. Harrison Barnes at power forward awarded the Golden State offense ample space with which to work, which they translated into a dynamite offensive performance (especially in Round 1). With Lee in the lineup, that spacing suffers.

Second, Jarrett Jack skipped town. Jack was the guy who allowed Stephen Curry to play off the ball and curl around screens. Now that role needs to be filled by Andre Iguodala, who has markedly inferior ballhandling and passing skills.

Lastly, their entire long-term success hinges on the health of a center who has played 44 of a possible 148 games over the last two seasons. Expecting health from Andrew Bogut is like expecting rational problem-solving skills from the U.S. Congress (Political joke! Boom! Nailed it!).

Worst-Case Scenario: Stephen Curry's ankle and Andrew Bogut's foot continue to be nagging injuries that never quite get back to 100%. The Warriors experiment with Andre Iguodala at point guard, but it fails miserably. Iguodala hinders the development of Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, and neither improve substantially compared to their current abilities. An argumentative atheist picks a fight with Mark Jackson, leading to a long-drawn out debate in the media regarding the place of religion in professional sports.

Brooklyn Nets

When a team underachieves in the playoffs against a team with clearly less talent and depth, the savvy move is definitely to mortgage your future and surrender a handful of draft picks in order to acquire the core of 41-win team. I can’t see any way that plan backfires.

The only way the Nets win the NBA title is if a time machine takes them back to 2008 when Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Andrei Kirilenko were elite players. They’d even get the good version of Jason Terry, too.

Well, at least they don’t have a payroll in excess of $100 million and will end up paying the largest luxury tax bill in league history or anything like that. If the Nets need something to fall back on, it’s certainly financial flexibility.

Worst-Case Scenario: The top-heavy roster is forced to play their stars major minutes in the regular season to keep pace with the other teams in the conference. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce break down by mid-March, forcing Jason Terry and Andray Blatche into the starting lineup. They end up barely qualifying for the playoffs and are demolished by Indiana in the first round. 

Indiana Pacers

Like Golden State, everyone seems to be rushing to be the first person to bet on the Pacers to upset the Heat and become the new preeminent power in the Eastern Conference. I don’t quite get it.

The team had a very strong defense last season, but an abysmal bench. To improve their second unit, they traded for Luis Scola and signed Chris Copeland. In a vacuum these seem like strong moves until you realize the two additions are two of the very worst defensive players in all of pro basketball. Sacrificing defense to improve the bench basically turns out to be a zero-sum game.

The other “upshot” for Indiana is the return of Danny Granger, which will supposedly launch the Pacers into the stratosphere only populated by 65-win teams. The problem with this assumption, is that upon his return, Granger will either (a) be forced to come off the bench for the first time since his rookie season, or (b) be inserted into the starting lineup, forcing Paul George back to shooting guard, and disrupting a starting unit that was +12.1 per 100 possessions in over 1200 minutes of play last season. Neither one of those seems like it would be a seamless transition.

Worst-Case Scenario: Danny Granger returns to the starting lineup and throws a monkey wrench into the effectiveness of the unit. Luis Scola becomes washed up overnight and Chris Copeland develops a shooting slump, completely negating his entire value. With a diminished starting unit and no bench, Indiana falls in the 2nd round of the playoffs. 

New York Knicks

This one was too easy.

Worst-Case Scenario: Carmelo gets hurt, Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire become the go-to scoring options. Metta World Peace and J.R. Smith star in a buddy cop web series that becomes so successful they quit basketball to pursue acting full-time. Iman Shumpert's haircut proves to be Samson-esque, without his flat-top he's just another NBA guard. He scrambles to re-grow his hair, but it isn't in time for the playoffs, and New York finishes with the 9th seed. 

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers made a big splash when they traded their only real asset (Eric Bledsoe) and ended up getting back two high-value swingmen in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Both are dead-eye shooters with otherwise average offensive skills. The problem is neither one of them present real upgrades defensively.

The Clippers’ offense has never been in question – any team with Chris Paul is basically guaranteed to finish in the top 10 of offensive efficiency. But after starting out the season strong on defense, the Clippers slipped mightily, and actually had a below-average defense during the 2nd half of the season. Now they’ve lost Bledsoe, their most destructive defensive player, and their frontcourt consists of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Byron Mullens, and Antawn Jamison, four guys who range from clearly below-average defenders (Griffin, Jordan) to unacceptably terrible defenders (Jamison).

No matter how good their offense is, their miserable defense will stop them cold in the postseason.

Worst-Case Scenario: The defenses regresses and Doc Rivers is exposed as a semi-fraud without an elite defensive assistant. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin become such liabilities as free throw shooters that it is impossible to play them in 4th quarters. Byron Mullens becomes prominently involved in the Clippers late-game lineups. The load becomes too great for Chris Paul to shoulder and the Clippers lose in Round 1. 

Memphis Grizzlies

Last year they had an inefficient offense that would grind to a halt because they couldn’t create space through outside shooting. They added one shooter (Mike Miller) who has played a whopping 2490 minutes over the last three seasons (50 players played at least that many minutes last season alone) and runs like he has a steel rod instead of a spinal cord. Otherwise, they’re trotting the same team back.

If their offense grinded to a halt in last year’s postseason because they can’t shoot from range, why would this season be any different? They’re throwing the same team out there and expecting a better result? Savvy.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Grizzlies shooting woes continue to cause problems, so much so that the coaching staff begins encouraging Marc Gasol to shoot threes. This inverted spacing results in Memphis' offensive rebounding numbers to plummet, dragging the rest of the offense down with it. Zach Randolph gets traded mid-season and Memphis slides down to the No. 7 seed. 

Denver Nuggets

The success of the 2013 Nuggets was going 9-deep with flexible players who could play multiple positions and mix-and-match strengths to run other teams out of the gym.

Three of those nine guys are gone. A fourth has a torn ACL and might not play at all this season.

The secret lynchpin of the team, Kosta Koufos, who sported the best on/off score on the roster last season, was unceremoniously flipped on draft night for a guy who missed all of 2012 with an Achilles injury and played like garbage last season (Darrell Arthur). Now their starting center is JaVale McGee. JaVale. McGee.

To replace some of their departed bodies, they brought in J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye, two guys who played on bad teams last year, and those teams performed even worse than usual when they were on the floor. After winning 57 games a year ago the Nuggets might be lucky to win half that many in 2014.

Worst-Case Scenario: Desperate to find a combination that works, new coach Brian Shaw experiments with a lineup of Andre Miller, Randy Foye, Nate Robinson, JaVale McGee, and Timofey Mozgov. The unit is outscored by 74 points per 100 possessions. Mozgov becomes frustrated and accidentally injures Ty Lawson. Danilo Gallinari misses the entire season with his knee injury and the Nuggets miss the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs

They’re old. They’re slow. Their window for winning one last NBA championship before Tim Duncan retires was 2012 and 2013. In 2012 it was slammed shut by a younger, faster, more athletic Oklahoma City team. In 2013 it was slammed shut by a younger, faster, more athletic Miami team. Now the whole San Antonio crew is a year older and they still expect to compete with younger, faster, more athletic teams (Houston, Oklahoma City, the Clippers, Miami, Indiana, Chicago, etc.)? Please.

They’re just going to be another team jumbled around the top of the Western Conference, totally indistinguishable from the others. Even if they somehow manage to make it through the Western Conference thicket (they won’t), the Miami buzz-saw will still be waiting for them in the Finals. The Duncan era is over. Just move on.

Worst-Case Scenario: Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker fall into precipitous decline and Kawhi Leonard doesn't develop quickly enough to offset. Danny Green can't find his shooting stroke and Tiago Splitter presses too much trying to justify his large contract. The 2013 team is seen as the last "great" San Antonio team and they slowly fade into the annals of NBA history. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

In 2012, they had Durant, Westbrook, and Harden – arguably the best under-25 perimeter trio in NBA history. In 2013 they traded Harden for Kevin Martin, giving them an elite under-25 perimeter duo and a pretty good sixth man. Then they ditched Kevin Martin in free agency. So in less than a calendar year, they’ve gone from having James Harden (a top-10 player in the league) to Jeremy Lamb (not even a top-10 player in the 2012 Draft).

Now half of that elite perimeter duo (Russell Westbrook) is projected to miss the first four-to-six weeks of the season as he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery related to his meniscus injury in last year’s playoffs. So until mid-December, the Thunder roster is going to consist of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and a bunch of riff-raff nobody else wanted. That’s going to lead to Oklahoma City losing a bunch of games they probably wouldn’t otherwise. In the ├╝ber-competitive Western Conference, that could mean the difference between the No. 1 seed and the No. 4 seed by the end of the season.

But there isn’t much to worry about on the injury front for Westbrook. Explosive athletes always perform exactly the same after a serious knee injury as they did before it.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Thunder stumble out of the gate while Westbrook is hurt and never kick into high gear even after he returns with the lack of a reliable third scorer. They spend most of the regular season floundering around the middle of the Western playoff bracket and lose in Round 2 without home-court advantage. 

Miami Heat

Does Miami really think they can make the Finals four years in a row?

The last team to do it was the Celtics from 1984-1987. The Lakers also did it from 1982-1985, and the Celtics did it again for 10 straight seasons from 1957-1966. And that’s it. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers couldn’t do it, the Duncan Spurs couldn’t do it, Jordan’s Bulls couldn’t do it, and the Bad Boy Pistons couldn’t do it. And after the Heat limped through the playoffs last year, I’m betting against a fourth straight trip.

Wade is old, Ray Allen is old, Shane Battier is old, Udonis Haslem is old, Norris Cole still sucks, and THEY SIGNED MICHAEL BEASLEY. No team with Michael Beasley on the roster has ever made the NBA Finals. It’s never happened. You can look it up and everything.

Worst-Case Scenario: Wade and Bosh both get hurt early in the season, thrusting Beasley and Greg Oden into prominent roles right away. Oden promptly gets hurt again, and Beasley once again finishes with more field goal attempts than points scored. LeBron carries the team as far as he can but they fail to reach the Finals. 

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