Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Official (Way Too Long) SuiteSports 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Part I - The Worst of The Worst

How Rajon Rondo handles a disappointing Celtics season will hint as to his future with the team.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

We’re down to less than a week before the season starts. Are you ready?

We’ve taken a pessimistic look at all 30 teams. We’ve taken an optimistic look at all 30 teams. Now it’s time to split the difference and be realistic. We’re going a bit longer with these - instead of breaking the league into three groups of ten, we’re going with five groups of six so that we can really tackle each team. And instead of going in the order of last year’s standings, we’re going to go in the order that I project them to finish this season. We’re starting off with the worst of the worst - the six teams most likely to win the NBA Draft lottery next May. Let’s start at the bottom.

Philadelphia 76ers
2014 Record: 19-63
Over/Under Wins: 15.5
Odds To Win Championship: 1000-1

In all my years watching basketball and looking at gambling lines (despite never, ever gambling - because that would be illegal), I’ve never seen a team enter a season with 1000-1 odds to win the title.

That the Sixers spent two lottery picks on guys who will probably play a combined 15 games for the team this season, tops (Joel Embiid might be healthy after the All-Star break, Dario Saric won’t join the NBA until next year), tells you everything you need to know about how much the organization cares about winning basketball games this year. (Read: They don’t.) They’re also going to shelve Michael Carter-Williams for an extended period of time (he has a shoulder injury and could be out until February), and I’d bet dollars to donuts that Nerlens Noel at some point during the season will suffer some stiffness and/or soreness in his surgically repaired knee and have to sit down for 3 or 50 games. They want to suck and enter next season with five lottery picks from the previous three drafts. And then they want to win every title starting in 2019, and they probably will. But until then, they’re going to suck.

Player To Watch: Nerlens Noel

He missed all of last season with a knee injury, and if the Sixers really wanted to piss everyone off, they’d keep him on the bench all year this season also. But they can’t just openly dump on their fans like that, so they’ll grab an axe handle and smash the glass on the “break in case of impending riot” case that covers Noel.

Here’s what Noel brings to the table for Philadelphia - rebounding, shotblocking, and athleticism. Those are three skills that translate incredibly well from college to the pros. And he excelled in those areas in college - he averaged 11.9 rebounds, 5.5 blocks, and 2.6 steals per 40 minutes at Kentucky in 2013. The Sixers will dust him off at the beginning of the season, let him fly around the court and swoop in from the weakside for highlight-reel blocks. Then he’ll probably sit on the bench for two months or so, just to make sure they don’t exceed 16 wins or so, then they’ll bring him back at the end of the year so the fans can see what he’s like next to Joel Embiid and Michael Carter-Williams (who will finally be healthy by then) for a few games. Just to whet the appetite and to let everyone know that while the night is darkest just before the dawn, the dawn is coming. At least that’s what Harvey Dent says.

Prediction: 14-68, 15th in Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks
2014 Record: 15-67
Over/Under Wins: 24.5
Odds To Win Championship: 500-1

Milwaukee is a pretty strong candidate for regression even before you account for their draft and improved healthy. They only won 15 games a year ago, but their scoring margin suggested they were closer to a 20-win team. In a season as long as the NBA’s, you usually don’t see teams deviate from their Pythagorean Expectation by that much (the Timberwolves had the biggest disparity - they came up 8 wins short of what their scoring margin would normally predict), so expect Milwaukee to be better.

Giannis Antetokounmpo should take a step forward and be something more than just “a likeable young player with mind-blowing length and raw athleticism.” Jabari Parker will join him on the wing and probably be the league’s best rookie. And they’ll have Larry Sanders returning from injury to clean up the back line of the defense. That being said, they’re still going to be really, really bad. For all the youth and promise, they’re still severely lacking in top-end talent. Parker will undoubtedly show flashes, but he’s still a rookie, and rookies take lumps. It’s one of the few certainties in life, along with death, taxes, and Ocho Cinco open over the middle (at least according to Chad Johnson).

Player To Watch: Larry Sanders

We know that Giannis is going to improve, and we have a pretty good idea of what Jabari is going to be capable of as a rookie. But Sanders is an enigma. He was an absolute monster in 2013, getting four first-place votes in the Defensive Player of The Year voting, but his 2014 season was checkered, to say the least. He didn’t exactly start the year in a good mood, and then missed 25 games after injuring himself in a bar fight. Then he fractured his orbital bone in March and missed the rest of the season. At the end of the year, a suspension was levied against him for violating the league’s drug policy, and he’ll serve that five-game banishment at the start of this year.

If Sanders can bounce back and be an upstanding citizen, then the four-year, $44 million extension he signed in August 2013 will be a bargain. If he can’t, then it’s probably in Milwaukee’s best interest to move him. But that will be difficult, given his aforementioned contract that only kicked in this year (which means he’ll still have three years and $33 million left on it after this season). So keep your eye on Sanders at the start of the season. If he looks locked in, then Milwaukee has another pillar to build around, and he’s a pillar that most teams don’t have - a young, still improving, yet still dominant defensive center. If he’s out of it, then Milwaukee has a $44 million liability.

Prediction: 21-61, 14th in Eastern Conference

Los Angeles Lakers
2014 Record: 27-55
Over/Under Wins: 30.5
Odds To Win Championship: 150-1

There’s absolutely no way that the Lakers will be able to piece together a passable NBA defense. It’s just not happening. They have three of the worst backcourt defenders in the league in 40-year old Steve Nash, 36-year old Kobe Bryant, and Jeremy Lin. Compounding matters is their frontcourt, which prominently involves Carlos Boozer (who couldn’t even play acceptable defense under Tom Thibodeau), rookie Julius Randle, and Jordan Hill, who defends high screens about as well as my grandmother does (and my grandmother just had her hip replaced).

The only argument you could make for the Lakers having a semi-successful season is that they’ll be good offensively. That seems okay in theory (Nash, Lin, Bryant, Boozer, Hill, and Randle are all capable offensive players), but when you factor in age and it’s corresponding deterioration of skill and athleticism and Byron Scott’s hilarious aversion to three-point shooting, you aren’t left with much to rely on. The Lakers’ offense will probably rely heavily on Kobe hoisting up 25 shots per game, which will either result in (a) a head-shakingly inefficient offense, (b) another injury for Kobe, or (c) both. Even if Kobe is healthy, this team will be bad. And if Kobe gets hurt? Eyes will bleed.

Player To Watch: Ed Davis

The word circling the inter-webs and Twitter-nets is that Davis has been LA’s best big man so far in the pre-season. Davis has had a strange career. It took him a while to get on the floor in Toronto (his first stop), but once he did, he played very well (his last 32 games for Toronto in 2013 - 14.9 points/36 minutes, 9.5 rebounds, 55 percent shooting, 28.7 minutes per game). But then he got traded for Rudy Gay. He spent a year and a half in Memphis, but he never really got a chance, stuck on the depth chart behind Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

He might have more opportunities this year, but it will depend on what type of coach Byron Scott is going to be. If he’s delusional enough to think the team can win now (and/or he gets pressure from Kobe via the front office to play veterans in order to try to do that), then Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill will likely get the lion’s share of the frontcourt minutes. But if they play it smart, and don’t care about winning and losing, the smart play would be to throw Davis out there and see what he has, because it’s way more likely that a 25-year old Davis will develop into a long-term contributor than a 33-year old Carlos Boozer will. But it remains to be seen how Scott will arrange his rotations.

Prediction: 23-59, 15th in Western Conference

Orlando Magic
2014 Record: 23-59
Over/Under Wins: 27.5
Odds To Win Championship: 300-1

If you like your basketball teams to have a bunch of young forwards that they can’t make heads or tails of, then the 2014-2015 Orlando Magic are for you. Aaron Gordon, Moe Harkless, Tobias Harris, and Andrew Nicholson are all going to be jostling for minutes at the forward spots, and I’m not sure if anyone has any idea as to who the best one in that group is. As of right now, Harkless is the best defender, Harris is the best all-around offensive player, Nicholson is the best shooter, and Gordon has the most upside. This is a bit of a make-or-break year for all of them besides Gordon, as they’ll need to prove they have long-term value (my guess is that Harris proves that but Harkless and Nicholson don’t).

There is a ton to like about this team going forward, most notably the idea of a Elfrid Payton-Victor Oladipo backcourt defending in front of an Aaron Gordon-Nikola Vucevic frontcourt pairing, but the only one of those four who has proven any ability to play NBA-caliber defense is Vucevic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that - Gordon and Payton are rookies, so they obviously haven’t shown anything, and Oladipo was thrown into the fire last year during his own rookie season. But for now, there isn’t much besides raw talent. Jacque Vaughn will need to prove himself essential to the ongoing rebuild, otherwise he might be jettisoned as well.

Player To Watch: Victor Oladipo

He spent way too much time at point guard last year for my liking - 59% of his minutes last year came at point guard, according to estimates from There were obvious growing pains (5.3 turnovers per 100 possessions), and while there were occasional flashes of brilliance, there wasn’t really enough to make it seem like Victor Oladipo: Point Guard was a tenable long-term plan. Now that Elfrid Payton is on board, Oladipo will shift back to his natural position at shooting guard. Playing off the ball will allow him to do what he does best - spot up and shoot threes, or attack creases that someone else has created with prior action.

However, it will be important to see if Oladipo developed any bad habits during his struggles at point guard last season, or, similarly bad, if he’ll need time to adjust back to shooting guard and this will effectively be just another rookie season for him. How well he meshes with Payton will certainly be a good indicator of the future successes Orlando has, but don’t expect many wins this year.

Prediction: 23-59, 13th in Eastern Conference

Utah Jazz
2014 Record: 25-57
Over/Under Wins: 26.5
Odds To Win Championship: 400-1

They have a top eight that is all 24 or younger and they don’t have a single bad contract on their books. As far as rebuilding efforts go, the Jazz are doing about as well as you can possibly expect.

While they don’t have any bad contracts, they will have to make decisions sooner rather than later regarding Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. Both are eligible for extensions and will become restricted free agents after this season. Burks seems the more expendable one, now that Dante Exum and Rodney Hood are in town (and they’re already paying a ton of money to Gordon Hayward, who might end up being better off playing Burks’ position), but on the other hand, Burks will probably come cheaper, and if Rudy Gobert uses his World Cup performance as a launchpad, Kanter might become superfluous.

As for the actual basketball, it’s going to be hit-or-miss. They’re certainly going to have exciting moments (young teams inevitably do), but playing 48 disciplined minutes consistently is going to be a tall order. They’re built for the future, so look forward to a Utah-Philadelphia Finals in 2020.

Player To Watch: Gordon Hayward

Is he worth $63 million over the next four years? Chances are, he won’t be worth $14 million this season, but he’ll be worth $17 million in 2018.

He established himself as a dynamic all-around offensive player last year, averaging a 16-5-5, but he regressed noticeably as a shooter (just 30 percent from three after shooting just over 40 percent from range over the previous three years). If he can bring his shooting numbers back up to their 2013-and-before levels, then he could have a season better than most people are expecting.

The Jazz are in the middle of a full-scale re-build, but they appear 100 percent committed to Hayward. They paid Derrick Favors too, but it seems like his name has popped up in trade rumors more than once. I don’t think that Hayward is a future superstar, or probably even a future No. 2 star. It will be interesting to see how Hayward responds to being asked to lead a team for now, knowing that there’s a guy waiting in the wings (Exum) who may usurp his role sometime soon.

Prediction: 24-58, 14th in Western Conference

Boston Celtics
2014 Record: 25-57
Over/Under Wins: 27
Odds To Win Championship: 300-1

Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart. The three of them will likely combine to form the peskiest, most annoying defensive backcourt in the league. All three of those guys fight over screens, swipe their oversized paws into passing lanes, and will pick the pocket of any ballhandler dumb enough to cross the ball in front of their body. If the Celtics had a back-line communicator who could bark out instructions on high screens and clean up any messes that get through, the Celtics would probably have a top-10 defense. Instead, they have Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller.

The offense is going to be pretty ugly. Their guards can’t shoot, and neither can their bigs. They’re going to be young and athletic, so forcing turnovers will often lead to easy baskets, but a half-court offense is going to be a struggle. The Jeff Green/Evan Turner/Marcus Thornton triumvirate will be counted on for an undue percentage of offensive responsibility, and the track record there isn’t strong. The future of the team seems to be tied up in Smart, Bradley, and James Young, but those guys aren’t ready yet. And stuck in the middle is Rondo, who could be gone tomorrow or could re-up in Boston for five years this summer. The spectrum of possibilities for him is infinite. As long as he’s around, relatively happy, and playing hard, the Celtics will resemble a professional basketball team. They won’t actually be good, or particularly entertaining, but they won’t embarrass themselves. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all you can say.

Player To Watch: Rajon Rondo.


The future of the franchise kind of depends on how depressed he gets with another season of losing. If he goes the Paul Pierce route and bites the bullet under the philosophy of “the team made me the franchise player by default so it’s my responsibility to stick with them through to the other side,” we could see an exceptionally commendable season from an NBA star. If he goes a different route with a general attitude of “I’m not going to waste my prime playing for a losing team,” we could see him dealt sooner rather than later. The third, and most likely route, is that he just shows up and does his job like a professional but without a certain panache and flair that we’ve been accustomed to seeing out of him. He’ll go through the motions to a certain extent - not openly moping or slacking, but he’ll know and we’ll know that he’s not happy. How that affects him and the team going forward will largely depend on how well he can gel with the new faces. If he and Smart and Bradley form a lockdown defensive club, and he takes particular delight in setting James Young up for transition dunks, we’ll probably see a pep in his step. But regardless of how happy he is, Boston probably won’t be winning too many games.

Prediction: 25-57, 12th in Eastern Conference

No comments :