Monday, October 20, 2014

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

With Derrick Rose back in action, the sky is the limit for the Bulls.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

After spending most of last week being mean, we turned the tables on Friday and started to say nice things about every team. This continues the Era of Good Feelings (or were those in the 1820s - I can never remember), and I explain how and why each of these teams has a shot at the postseason (or better) this season. This group has the last few lottery teams from last year, and the first group of playoff teams. It also includes the first two teams (one from each conference) with a semi-realistic shot (or better) of reaching the Finals.

New York Knicks

And underrated part of the trade that sent Ray Felton and Tyson Chandler to Dallas in exchange for Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert (and other spare parts) is that it reunites Calderon and Andrea Bargnani. Back before he got hurt in 2012, Bargnani was enjoying the best offensive season of his career, thanks in large part to a robust foul rate, and was doing most of his best work when he shared the floor with Jose Calderon. In 2013, Bargnani was injured and Calderon was traded mid-season and they never really clicked. But now they have another chance.

The Knicks have more shooters than they did a year ago. Ray Felton (a serial bricklayer from beyond the arc) is gone, replaced by Calderon, who shot almost 45 percent on over six attempts from three per 36 minutes. J.R. Smith started the season in an abysmal slump, but pulled out of it and actually finished the season shooting 39 percent from three. They also signed Jason Smith (48 percent on two-point jump shots over the last three years) as a spare big man, who should fit in nicely. Along with Shane Larkin and Cleanthony Early, they project to have a better roster of shooters, top-to-bottom, and didn’t lose anyone of note.

Best-Case Scenario: Going from Mike Woodson to Derek Fisher proves to be the single biggest upgrade any team in the East besides Cleveland made this offseason. The triangle is a comfortable fit for Carmelo Anthony, and surrounding him with shooters once again gives the Knicks a top-5 offense. Along with a respectable defense, the Knicks surge to a mid-seed in the Eastern Playoffs but ultimately come up short despite offering a seven-game duel with Cleveland in Round 2.

Atlanta Hawks

So, the Hawks were an average team last year (their average scoring margin was -0.5), and they did it without their best player for 53 games. Having Horford back allows Atlanta to open things up on both ends to a degree that they just weren’t able to last year. The thin front line that betrayed them is now a significant strength - in addition to getting Horford back, they also drafted Adreian Payne in the first round, who projects to be a solid floor spacer on offense and a plus defender to boot. The only relevant perimeter player they lost was Lou Williams, but they replaced him with Thabo Sefolosha, a better defender for sure, and will likely be a better shooter, so long as he can bounce back from a disappointing 2014 campaign. Also look for Dennis Schroder to take a step forward.

Best-Case Scenario: Horford returns to the folds with a career year. In turn, that sets up a major breakthrough season for Jeff Teague, and the Hawks rain threes on the entire league with no end in sight. They make the playoffs easily, and catch fire from range, setting up a surprise appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Trading away your best player is never a great thing, but the Wolves got an amazing haul - two former No. 1 picks, plus a productive, young forward. Minnesota doesn’t have any superstar talent (yet - Wiggins will probably get there), but they’re loaded with young, mostly inexpensive building blocks.

Best-Case Scenario: Ricky Rubio spends the year running the break and throwing lobs to Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. The frontcourt defense that was never there with Kevin Love in town becomes a frenetic, pick-and-roll blitzing scheme featuring Thaddeus Young. Gorgui Dieng continues to blossom as an up-and-coming rim protector, Anthony Bennett turns his career around after a disastrous rookie season, and Kevin Martin gives them just enough shooting to find space for everything else. Andrew Wiggins wins Rookie of The Year, and in an ironic twist, the Timberwolves sneak into the playoffs without Kevin Love.

Charlotte Hornets

They buttered their bread last year on an elite defense. But for the most part, their only offensive options were for Al Jefferson to post up or for Kemba Walker to dribble around aimlessly and hope to create something. Now they have Lance Stephenson on board, giving them another capable off-the-bounce creator, and Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston (both first-round draft picks) offer them shooting from positions that struggled to space the floor last year. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has also been working on his jump shot, and any improvement is noteworthy given how bad his shot has been.

Best-Case Scenario: Lance Stephenson blossoms with greater offensive freedom, and Charlotte’s offense doesn’t even miss Josh McRobert’s ball movement. Noah Vonleh steps in right away and is a knockdown shooter from range, and his length is an asset on defense. Kemba Walker continues to improve, helped by Stephenson being around to shoulder some of the load. Kidd-Gilchrist develops a reliable 18-footer, and all of a sudden Charlotte has a league-average offense. Coupled with their still-elite defense, the Hornets grab the No. 3 seed in the East.

Washington Wizards

Last year was their coming out party, but this year will be their big leap forward. Paul Pierce will be able to replicate most of what Contract Year Trevor Ariza gave them, and the rest of the slack will be picked up by the continued improvements of Bradley Beal and John Wall. At times last year their lack of frontcourt depth really hurt them, but they’ve brought in DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries, so at the very least they’ll be able to rebound and their bigs will be able to finish creatively around the basket. Getting a full season out of Andre Miller will also be a plus, after they spent the first half of last year trying to scrape by with Eric Maynor and Garrett Temple as backup point-guards.

Best-Case Scenario: A disappointing 3-10 start results in Randy Wittman getting fired. However, under the helm of a new coach, a more efficient offensive system is implemented. The long-range twos from Wall and Beal mostly disappear, and the Wizards turn their season around almost immediately. Pierce and Martell Webster, along with help from an improved Otto Porter make everyone forget Trevor Ariza was ever around. A fleshed-out bench means the offense doesn’t fall apart without Wall and Beal on the floor, and the Wizards somehow surge to 50 wins despite their slow start.

Brooklyn Nets

With Brook Lopez healthy and Paul Pierce replaced in the starting lineup by Andrei Kirilenko, the Nets somehow manage to get both bigger and quicker defensively. Jason Kidd is also gone, replaced by Lionel Hollins. Kidd had a good season last year, but Hollins has proven he knows how to coach a defense, which should improve Brooklyn’s 20th-ranked unit from a year ago. Mason Plumlee spent the summer with Team USA, an experience that always seems to send those players back better than they went in. As long as their horses stay healthy, they won’t have to deal with the back of their bench dragging them down like they did a year ago.

Best-Case Scenario: Lopez clogs the paint while Garnett, Kirilenko, and Joe Johnson bother everyone outside with their length. Lopez picks up where he left off last year offensively, and Plumlee continues to improve with an expanded role. Bojan Bogdanovic steps in right away and contributes on both ends, and Jarrett Jack takes over Shaun Livingston’s combo guard spot and performs admirably. Lopez and Deron Williams stay healthy for once in their life and Brooklyn surges back into the playoffs.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto played 18 games with Rudy Gay and went 6-12. They played 64 games without Rudy Gay and went 42-22. That’s 54 wins prorated over an 82-game season, which would put them roughly in the same league as Miami, Indiana, Portland, and Houston of a year ago. The only player they lost from last year’s playoff rotation is John Salmons, which is pure addition by subtraction, as he was a train wreck in 77 playoff minutes (29 percent shooting, Toronto was -25.8 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor). He’s been replaced by Lou Williams, who isn’t exactly a world-beater, but at least has a pulse.

They brought the whole band back, and the two oldest guys in their top seven are Kyle Lowry (28) and Greivis Vasquez (also 28). Terrence Ross (23), Jonas Valanciunas (22), and DeMar DeRozan (25) are all primed for big leaps.

Best-Case Scenario: They play just like they did after the Gay trade last year, only better with their young players taking leaps forward. Jonas Valanciunas takes the biggest leap and throws his hat into the ring in the running for the league’s best center. Toronto wins 55 games and emerges as the clear No. 2 team in the East. They duel with Cleveland in the Eastern Finals but fall short without anyone to check LeBron.

Chicago Bulls

Derrick Rose is back. Carlos Boozer is gone. What else would anyone want in life?

As always, they have a long, deep frontcourt. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are the twin towers of the East, with Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic combining to be the best bench pairing in basketball. Mike Dunleavy and Doug McDermott give the Bulls all the spacing they need, and Jimmy Butler is the new Luol Deng - defender extraordinaire who can play all 48 minutes if they need him to. Also, Derrick Rose is back, and Carlos Boozer is gone.

Best-Case Scenario: Derrick Rose is Derrick Rose again. Pau Gasol is reinvigorated in a new city out of the harsh winter of Kobe Bryant’s locker room. Mirotic makes a seamless transition to the NBA, and Doug McDermott plants the seeds of being the next Kyle Korver. Tom Thibodeau’s defense causes everyone fits as usual, and the Bulls win the East after a seven-game slug-fest with Cleveland. They end up in a coin-flip in the Finals, and they go as far as Derrick Rose’s knees will carry them.

Phoenix Suns

They have the goofiest roster in the league, but somehow one of the best. Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas are all going to co-exist and be the most fun backcourt the league has seen since, well, last year’s Suns. Throw in Zoran Dragic and Tyler Ennis, and the could conceivably throw five guards on the court at the same time. They’ll also get Alex Len back healthy - foot injuries last year held him to just 362 largely-insignificant minutes. Along with Miles Plumlee and the Morris twins, Phoenix has a young, high-upside frontcourt to match their guards.

Best-Case Scenario: They continue to push the pace and bomb threes. A full year of Eric Bledose and Alex Len plus the addition of Anthony Tolliver mostly offsets the loss of Channing Frye. The perpetually goofy lineups throw opponents for a loop, and the Suns ride unconventionality to a 50-win season. In the playoffs, their high-variance offense catches fire and they pull an upset over a higher seed in Round 1.

Dallas Mavericks

People forget this now, but it was these Dallas Mavericks who were the only team that even came close to toppling the Spurs last spring - and they just got better. They didn’t have a defense good enough to compete, so they traded for Tyson Chandler, the anchor of their championship defense in 2011. They needed a more dynamic playmaker on the wing, so they signed Chandler Parsons. They needed point guards who could penetrate as opposed to just make open shots, so they swapped out Jose Calderon for Jameer Nelson and Ray Felton. They added Richard Jefferson and Al-Farouq Aminu to round out their depth on the wing. And at the center of it all, they still have Dirk, who, at age 35, just posted a career high in eFG%, and the third-highest ORtg and TS% of his career.

Best-Case Scenario: Dirk continues to be an all-world offensive savant. He and Chandler Parsons click right away, and form an absolutely devastating pick-and-roll combo with their size and shooting ability. Tyson Chandler is an elixir for the defense, and Monta Ellis develops a consistent three-point stroke for the first time. The Mavericks roll into the playoffs just like they did in 2011, and a super-human Dirk carries them all the way to the Finals for another showdown with LeBron.

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