Friday, October 17, 2014

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

A healthy year for Anthony Davis and the Pelicans could launch New Orleans into the playoffs.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Earlier in the week, we ran through all thirty teams and said mean things about them. We did this because (a) I’m a pessimist by nature, and (b) as an independent sports blog, taking pot shots is just something you have to do in order to stay relevant. Also, it’s fun.

But at the same time, it’s nice to have a broad appeal. And my grandmother always taught me that you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. I think that means I’m supposed to be nice. So in an effort to be nice, I’m going to offer a positive spin on all thirty teams.

You know how Jon Gruden spends 70 percent of his Monday Night Football broadcasts explaining why he likes this guy (whoever that guy is)? That’s what I’m doing. Imagine the 30 NBA teams are undersized undrafted linebackers and I’m Jon Gruden.

If you want a refresher on last year’s series, you can find it in these three parts. Like Your Team Sucks, we’re going to start with the 10 worst teams from a year ago, but again, we’re going to save Cleveland for the end.

Milwaukee Bucks

Last year was a season from hell, but this year has many reasons for optimism. Jabari Parker might be the most NBA-ready rookie to enter the league in the last five years, and he’ll form a pairing with Giannis Antetokounmpo that has so much length on the wing that the whip-around passing that has become so commonplace in the league these days will prove nearly impossible. If defenses can somehow penetrate their long-armed defense, Larry Sanders and John Henson will be waiting in the paint to place a lid on the basket. New coach Jason Kidd made somewhat of a name for himself last year in Brooklyn by placing an emphasis on flexibility, rather than conforming to his veteran’s tendencies. Now he’ll be able to instill those values into young players.

Best-Case Scenario: Milwaukee’s length and athleticism across the board (even including point guard Brandon Knight) makes up for a lot of their inexperience-induced foibles on defense. Parker proves to be such a high-floor player that he makes the All-Star team as a rookie, and is able to carry the offense to league-average respectability. In a tumultuous Eastern Conference, the Bucks shock the league with 40 wins and a playoff berth.

Philadelphia 76ers

As I mentioned in Your Team Sucks, identifying what is actually “best-case” and “worst-case” for the Sixers is kind of silly. They probably want to be terrible, which would make their best-case scenario to lose 70 games but win the lottery. They’d probably want to trade Michael Carter-Williams for a first-round pick if they can get one, but that doesn’t seem likely after a report this week suggested he might be out until February with the shoulder injury that he had surgery on in May. For a team that doesn’t want to be good, it would seem more likely than not that they’d keep Carter-Williams out of the lineup for as long as possible.

Best-Case Scenario: The Sixers are overly-cautious with Carter-Williams, keeping him sidelined until Christmas. In the meantime, Nerlens Noel takes his lumps as a defender, but making a few highlight plays with his length and explosive athleticism. By March, Joel Embiid is cleared to play, and the Sixers spend the last month of the season gelling together - MCW, Noel, Embiid, and fellow rookie plant the seeds for a future lockdown defensive unit.

Orlando Magic

Here’s another team that projects to have some serious length and athleticism on defense. Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Moe Harkless, Tobias Harris, Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Vucevic are all either (a) huge for their position, (b) insanely athletic, or (c) both. Spacing the offense is going to prove difficult, and Victor Oladipo is going to have to transition back to shooting guard after spending a good portion of his rookie season at the point. But they’re a young team with a young coach, and their weaknesses seem correctable.

Best-Case Scenario: Payton and Gordon develop reliable jump shots sooner than expected. Vucevic anchors a capable defense, and Harris makes a leap as a scorer and creator. Ben Gordon inexplicably has a bounce-back year, giving them a scoring punch off the bench, and Luke Ridnour gives them a steady hand in crunch time when Payton or Oladipo show skittishness. Channing Frye’s knee injury proves less severe than originally thought, and he returns to the lineup and spaces the floor well enough that Orlando remains in the hunt for a playoff spot all the way through April.

Boston Celtics

With a healthy Rajon Rondo, anything is possible. If he comes back strong and starts slapping up triple-doubles, there’s no reason why Boston can’t compete with just about any team in the league. People forget this, but he arguably out-played LeBron in the 2010 Playoffs and went toe-to-toe with Miami’s big three in 2012 (in between, he only averaged a 19/12/7 in a sweep of the Knicks in the first Round of 2011). He’s a franchise-caliber player, still only 28 years old, and looked reasonably well in the 30 games he played last year. The rest of the roster is filled out with young athletes who can play multiple positions, which has shown time after time to be a roster malleable enough to make a playoff run.

Best-Case Scenario: Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart give the Celtics the best defensive backcourt in the league, minimizing Boston’s lack of shotblocking. Jeff Green finally puts in all together and becomes a primary scorer. Jared Sullinger develops a reliable three-point shot, and with Bradley, James Young, and Marcus Thornton, give Boston enough threats from deep to open the floor for everything else. Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk get easy baskets running to the rim in transition, and the Celtics ride average-or-better units on both ends to a surprise playoff appearance.

Utah Jazz

Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood. That’s eight guys, all 24 or younger, with serious upside. And they won’t have Ty Corbin’s ineptitude to hold them back. Gobert averaged 3.4 blocks and 12.9 rebounds per 36 minutes as a 21-year old rookie last year, and spent the summer anchoring the defense of the French national team. He should be a reliable rotation big this year. Burke and Burks took their lumps last year, but they should grow together now that Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams won’t be eating up minutes. And if Exum proves to be the real deal, they might finally have the straw to stir the drink.

Best-Case Scenario: Youthful exuberance. They lack elite talent anywhere but eight young players and a rookie coach give them a springboard to leap off. They get beat early and often for the first few months, but start to put things together after the All-Star break and finish the season with a record over .500 for the last month.

Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe returns. And now he’s pissed off. We’ve seen for 18 years that angry Kobe is a forced to be reckoned with, and he’s going to take it very personally that everyone has spent the last year talking about how he was done and that the Lakers just need to move on. After filling the team with stopgaps last year, the Lakers have proven NBA talent on the roster, with Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, and Ed Davis to complement Bryant. Julius Randle also offers the Lakers their first home-grown blue-chipper since, well, Kobe.

Best-Case Scenario: Kobe scores 45 on opening night and puts the league on alert. Having Lin behind him helps Steve Nash stay rested and healthy, and with Boozer, Davis, Randle, and Jordan Hill all capable finishers in the frontcourt, the Lakers surprise into a top-10 offense. The defense struggles, but the Lakers stay competitive all season and finish the year in a battle for the 8th playoff spot.

Sacramento Kings

They ditched Isaiah Thomas because he was too expensive and a liability on defense. Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions aren’t exactly Mookie Blaylock and Gary Payton, but they’re upgrades. And DeMarcus Cousins is coming off a summer of maturation playing with the U.S. National Team, and, when engaged, has appeared to have made leaps and bounds defensively. The frontcourt is cluttered, but Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas give the Kings two good scoring options to pair with Rudy Gay on the wing. Mike Malone is entering his second year as the head coach, and if his previous stops as an assistant (Cleveland with LeBron, New Orleans with Chris Paul, Golden State with Steph Curry) prove anything, he’s more effective the longer he’s around.

Best-Case Scenario: Cousins finally grows up, offers consistent effort on defense, and the Kings sport a league-average unit on that end. Gay, McLemore, and Stauskas form an interesting trio that can play small (with Gay at the 4) or big (with Stauskas at the 1) together and score effectively either way. Like Portland last year, they start the year on a nearly-shocking hot streak and ride it all the way to the playoffs.

Detroit Pistons

Stan Van Gundy is here to solve all your problems, Detroit. Remember when Maurice Cheeks tried to play all three of your big men together, a lot? Also, remember when your team thought hiring Maurice Cheeks was a good idea? The Drummond-Monroe-Smith lineups will die. Monroe will come off the bench and dominate the second-unit offense, and he’ll be smart enough to realize putting on a happy face will affect his upcoming free agency better than pouting about not starting. Jodie Meeks, while overpaid, gives them a dead-eye shooter on the wing, and Van Gundy should able to beat some sense into Brandon Jennings, knowing that he can always turn to D.J. Augustin if he needs to.

Best-Case Scenario: In a stroke of good fortune, Smith and Monroe find themselves shooting strokes that make playing all three bigs together palatable. Van Gundy works his magic on Andre Drummond and starts to turn him into the next Dwight Howard. Meeks, Singler, Caron Butler, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope give the Pistons enough spacing that they’re able to run sets vaguely similar to those of the Howard-era Magic teams, and Van Gundy’s defensive system is still impeccable. Detroit is able to wade through the thicket of the Eastern Conference riff-raff on their way to the playoffs.

New Orleans Pelicans

Talk about bad luck with injuries. Al-Farouq Aminu and Anthony Morrow were the only two players on the roster who didn’t miss at least 10 games last year. Their projected starting five (Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, and Anthony Davis) combined to miss 151 games with various maladies. A year of good health and good fortune could treat them to a season like Portland enjoyed last year, and that’s even before we get to the addition of Omer Asik.

Best-Case Scenario: Anthony Davis makes The Leap. Asik and Davis give the Pelicans the premier defensive frontcourt in basketball. When Asik sits and Anderson checks in, the Pelicans offense soars into the upper-echelon. Jrue Holiday stays healthy and returns to All-Star form. Eric Gordon stays healthy and parades to the free throw line. Tyreke Evans bullies his way to the rim. The top six each play 75 games and the Pelicans ride their horses to a 50-win season and easily make the playoffs.

Denver Nuggets

With Danilo Gallinari healthy and Arron Afflalo back from his sabbatical in Orlando, Denver finally has reliable wing players and won’t have to turn to Randy Foye, Nate Robinson, Aaron Brooks, and the parade of under-sized guards who can’t actually guard anyone. After Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried all missed at least 13 games last year, Denver’s bad luck with health should regress to the mean.

Best-Case Scenario: While missing almost all of last season, JaVale McGee studied tape for hours on end and no longer makes mental mistakes. Danilo Gallinari returns to form after a torn ACL, and he and Wilson Chandler go back to being matchup nightmares for opposing forwards. Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried out-energy everyone, and Arron Afflalo and Gary Harris give the Nuggets enough 3-and-D production from shooting guard that Denver sneaks into the playoffs.

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