Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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

LeBron has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love thinking Championship
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

This is the third and final installment of the positive half of our extreme NBA previews. Last Week, I told you why all 30 teams are terrible. Friday and Monday, I told you why 20 teams are great. Here are the last ten, featuring some of the best teams from a season ago (plus the new-look Cavaliers).

As with the first two sections, I've included each team's best-case scenario for the season. With most of these teams, the talent level is close enough that everyone's best-case scenario is to win the title. As such, I've tried to be as specific as possible as to how and why those best-case scenarios might manifest themselves. Put on a pair of rose-colored glasses and look on the bright side. 

Miami Heat

LeBron has skipped town, but the cupboard is far from bare. Wade will once again be the primary offensive creator, and Chris Bosh will be given a lot more freedom offensively. The reason Bosh spent so much time on the perimeter offensively was for spacing and floor balance - LeBron couldn’t attack the basket if Bosh was occupying that space down low, and if LeBron and Wade are both crashing into the paint with shooters in the corners, then someone needs to get back in transition if necessary. That was Bosh. But without LeBron, Bosh will have a lot more space to operate.

Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger continue the legacy of strong Miami shooters, and Luol Deng gives them a versatile defensive forward who can do some of the things LeBron did on that end. They also drafted Shabazz Napier, who should be a nice second-unit spark plug for a team that will certainly need a scoring punch off the bench. And as long as Erik Spoelstra is running the show, things should be all right.

Best-Case Scenario: The Dwyane Wade breakdown concerns are overblown. Wade is able to sustain a productive level of play for around 65 games, missing a few here and there. Bosh returns to true superstar form like his Toronto days, only now with the added weapon of a long-range jump shot. He has the best all-around season of his career and makes First-Team All-NBA. Napier, Norris Cole, and Mario Chalmers form a solid point guard rotation, and Greg Oden finds a Shaun Livingston-esque rebirth as a role player. Spoelstra works his magic and Miami ends up with 50 wins and a trip to the conference Finals.

Memphis Grizzlies

They’re only a year removed from a trip to the Conference Finals, and last year were a few ridiculous Russell Westbrook miracle threes away from upsetting Oklahoma City in Round 1. They had to say goodbye to Mike Miller, their only reliable shooter, but they’ll get a full season out of Courtney Lee, they get Quincy Pondexter (a solid shooter) back from injury, and they added Vince Carter, a decidedly better all-around player than Miller. For once they actually have multiple shooters on the wings and can cycle through them to be sure there is always floor spacing available.

Mike Conley had a career year last year and should continue to improve. Marc Gasol is still in the prime of his career, shouldn’t miss 23 games again, and is in a contract year to boot. Dave Joerger last year proved a capable replacement for Lionel Hollins at head coach, and he’ll have Memphis gritting and grinding until they just can’t grit or grind any longer.

Best-Case Scenario: Gasol stays healthy and the Grizzlies have the league’s best defense. Carter, Pondexter, and Lee all shoot over 40 percent from three and Memphis finally has shooting to match their size. They cruise into the playoffs and once again cause fits for simple offenses like Houston and Oklahoma City. They meet San Antonio in the conference Finals and get revenge on their 2013 loss. They meet Chicago in the Finals and win Game 7 by a score of 68-63.

Golden State Warriors

The only real weakness that Golden State had last year was they lacked a reliable backup for Stephen Curry. Jordan Crawford, Steve Blake, Kent Bazemore, and Toney Douglas combined for over 1800 miserable, forgettable minutes. This year they’ll have Shaun Livingston, who thrived in a similar role for Brooklyn last year. Livingston gives Golden State a fourth long, rangy, versatile perimeter player, and if Brandon Rush is healthy for the first time since 1994, they could have five. When they pair Livingston and Andre Iguodala together, they’ll have two guys that can float between any position on the perimeter and guard everyone from 5-10 to 6-10.

Mark Jackson was a good coach who instilled good values, but did struggle at times to identify the true strengths and weaknesses of his team (for example, it was pretty much by accident that he discovered the team’s offensive ceiling when David Lee got injured in the 2013 Playoffs and he started going small - also, his second most-used lineup last year was outscored by 6.4 points per 100 possessions). Steve Kerr has never coached, but was the GM of the Steve Nash-era Suns teams, and he could bring some of the free-flowing philosophies to the Bay Area, which would likely unleash Steph Curry to an even greater degree.

Best-Case Scenario: Steve Kerr turns the Warriors into 2010 Suns North. Curry and Bogut run high pick-and-rolls all day and everyone else spaces the floor. Iguodala, Livingston, and Draymond Green scramble all over the place on defense while Bogut clogs the paint and the Warriors once again post a top-5 defense. Once they’re in the playoffs, they rain molten fire from three-point range for two straight months and no defense can dream of slowing them down. Steph Curry wins Finals MVP.

Houston Rockets

Yes, losing Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, and Jeremy Lin for nothing isn’t exactly ideal. But they were able to use some new-found cap space to ink Trevor Ariza at a more reasonable price than they would have had to pay to keep Parsons. They didn’t replace Asik, the upshot there is that Kevin McHale won’t be tempted into playing both Asik and Howard together, and those lineups were absolutely, positively brutal last season (Asik, Howard, Parsons, and Harden, regardless of who the fifth player was, were -18.1 per 100 possessions as a group). And while they didn’t replace Lin either, his vacancy will open up minutes for guys like Troy Daniels (emerged as a dead-eye shooter in the playoffs last year), Isaiah Canaan (2013 Second Round pick - fairly promising), and Nick Johnson (2014 Second Round Pick - also promising). And at the center of it all, they still have James Harden and Dwight Howard, the engine that makes all of this go.

Best-Case Scenario: Ariza’s contract year wasn’t a fluke, and he’s the perfect 3-and-D forward Houston was looking for. Houston’s defense actually improves while the offense doesn’t miss a beat. Daniels leads the league in threes made and three-point accuracy, and someone from the Canaan/Johnson/Ish Smith group blossoms as a second-unit point guard. Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, and Clint Capela round out the big man rotation and provide energy and size. James Harden starts to give a crap on defense and by the playoffs roll around, he’s emerged as a legitimate two-way force. Houston upsets Oklahoma City on their way to the Finals and then beat Cleveland in Game 7 by a score of 134-128 - in regulation.

Portland Trail Blazers

They started the year 22-4 and had the league’s best offense. They cooled off mid-season but bounced back and finished as the league’s No. 2 unit. Their undoing was their merely average defense, but that should improve just by nature of low roster turnover and not needing to integrate new pieces. They lost Mo Williams, but added Steve Blake, and C.J. McCollum should absorb some backup point guard minutes as well. Other than that, the only other player from last year’s team that they “lost” is Earl Watson, who played 161 minutes all season.

Continuity breeds success, and the Blazers have it in spades. They’ll work Blake into the rotation, as with Chris Kaman (who presents an upgrade over Meyers Leonard and whose underrated range shooting - 47 percent from 16-23 feet over the last six seasons - will fit very nicely into Portland’s offense), but they’re both veterans who should be able to acclimate quickly. Their defense was hurt by its inability to force turnovers - they were dead last in turnover rate last year. If they can make headway there, they could end up with a top-10 unit on both ends.

Best-Case Scenario: Damian Lillard has a Year 3 point guard leap that rivals Derrick Rose (MVP that year) and Chris Paul (should have won MVP that year). A mind-blowing, record-setting Portland offense and improved defense vault the Blazers to a 60-win season and the West’s No. 1 seed. They ride home-court advantage all the way to the Finals and win a shootout series against the East’s representative.

Indiana Pacers

Paul George had surgery on his grotesquely injured leg less than three months ago, but he’s already back on the practice court shooting jumpers. The “official” timetable for his return says he’s expected to miss the entire regular season but could return for the playoffs if Indiana gets that far, but we’ve seen athletes make miraculous turnarounds before. Even if George is out for the entire season, Indiana will still have an elite defense anchored by Roy Hibbert with Frank Vogel’s schemes. They won’t have the athletes on the wings to totally lock teams down, but there’s no reason they can’t bring back a top-10 defense. That’s usually a recipe for the playoffs - since 2008, only two teams (the 2009 Bobcats and 2011 Bucks) have ranked top-10 in defensive efficiency but missed the playoffs. In a still-weak Eastern Conference, that should be good enough.

Best-Case Scenario: Rodney Stuckey somehow keeps Indiana’s offense afloat until the All-Star break, after which Paul George makes a shockingly early return. Indiana surges in their last 25 games and grabs the No. 8 seed. In the first round, Indiana finally gets their vengeance on LeBron in an upset of Cleveland. They win in Round 2 also before falling to Chicago in the Eastern Finals.

Los Angeles Clippers

They won 57 games last year despite Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu, Antawn Jamison, and a cast of similar clowns manning the reserve frontcourt spots. Hell, even B.J. Mullens got some run. Now they have Spencer Hawes for offensive help, who can space the floor (over 40 percent from three last year!) and attack defenses with passing from the top of the floor, and Ekpe Udoh for defensive help (still a plus defender even if he’s completely useless offensively).

Offensively, this team will once again be near-unstoppable. Chris Paul is still the maestro, and he’s unlikely to miss 20 games again this season. J.J. Redick will also likely play more than 35 games. They ditched the Jared Dudley experiment, which wasn’t working out, and will turn over the small forward spot to Matt Barnes, with Reggie Bullock and C.J. Wilcox (their last two No. 1 picks, both good range shooters) pitching in when necessary. Jamal Crawford is still around to razzle and dazzle, and Jordan Farmar will actually probably be an upgrade over Darren Collison as a backup point guard. And they still have Doc Rivers.

Best-Case Scenario: Chris Paul continues to do Chris Paul things and wins the MVP that he should have won in 2008. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan dunk on people’s heads, and Spencer Hawes, J.J. Redick, and the rest of the wing crew rain threes. The Clippers have the No. 1 offense again, and thanks to another step forward defensively from DeAndre Jordan, a top-5 defense. The Clippers grab the No. 1 seed, exact their revenges on Memphis, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio all in a row on their way to the Finals. Chris Paul wins a point guard duel with Derrick Rose and the Clippers win their first title in franchise history.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Kevin Durant is going to miss a not-insignificant chunk of time this season. There’s really no avoiding that. But it does present a bit of an opportunity. Just like Reggie Jackson blossomed into an impact player during the 36 games that Russell Westbrook missed last season, a number of wing players could see marked improvement now that their roles are expanding and they’ll be depended on to make contributions. The most likely candidates are Jeremy Lamb (who was buried in the rotation last year for inexplicable reasons after the team acquired Caron Butler), Perry Jones, Andre Roberson (their 2013 first-rounder), and newly acquired Anthony Morrow. Along with Durant’s injury, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha have also moved on, which means there are going to be ample minutes available on the wing for someone to step up and assert themselves. And the team will undoubtedly be better for it once Durant returns to the lineup.

Best-Case Scenario: Russell Westbrook emerges as a superhuman force and slaps up triple-doubles in Durant’s absence. Jeremy Lamb emerges as the two-way playmaker they were hoping for when they acquired him as part of the James Harden trade, and Anthony Morrow fits in seamlessly, knocking down corner threes at an alarming rate. Durant returns to the lineup after Thanksgiving and the Thunder start kicking ass and taking names, rolling off a 23-2 stretch in the middle of the season. They ditch Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline and turn the frontcourt over to Steven Adams and Mitch McGary, who run the floor, bang under the boards, and do all the other dirty work. Oklahoma City blazes through the Western Playoffs on their way to a rematch with LeBron, but Cleveland doesn’t have the depth to run with OKC’s horses. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

It doesn’t really matter how thin Cleveland is up front, because LeBron and Shawn Marion will probably end up playing a lot of power forward anyway. And when they do, teams like Chicago will be forced to stick Pau Gasol on someone like Mike Miller, which isn’t exactly an ideal matchup.

The LeBron-Kevin Love duo is a match made in heaven. Only like, Steph Curry and Dirk could dream of making a more deadly offensive combination. When they play the 4 and the 5 together, with Miller, Waiters, and Irving spreading the floor, there’s no hope in defending them. And God help us all if they end up signing Ray Allen.

The defense is a work in progress, for sure, but at the end of the day it might not end up mattering, because this offense looks like it might score 125 points per 100 possessions.

Best-Case Scenario: Anderson Varejao stays healthy, LeBron re-discovers his life-or-death commitment on defense (and can afford to do so with Irving and Love around to carry the offense for stretches), and David Blatt schemes the rest of the way to a top-10 defense. With the league’s best offense and a top-10 unit on the other end, Cleveland cruises to 65 wins and the league’s best record. LeBron takes the MVP home again, and finishes up his dream season with Cleveland’s first title.

San Antonio Spurs

The rich get richer. Everyone is back from last year (and I mean *everyone* - all 14 players who saw postseason action last year are still on the roster), and they added Kyle Anderson, who spent last year being a svelter, American Boris Diaw while also shooting 48 percent (!!!) from three for UCLA.

They just rolled it all back. They’ll continue to manage minutes for everyone while Kawhi Leonard continues to establish himself as the next two-way superstar despite the fact that he may or may not be able to speak. We know the drill at this point.

Best-Case Scenario: An exact replica of 2014.

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