Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Official (Way Too Long) SuiteSports 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Part II - Six More Lottery Teams

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are still in Miami, but making the playoffs will be a tall order without LeBron.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Yesterday, we kicked off the official season preview by breaking down the six teams most likely to finish at the bottom of the standings and secure the maximum number of ping-pong balls for the 2015 lottery. We're moving up a bit in Part II, but unfortunately, we're still mired in the realm of teams that probably won't make the playoffs. These teams are better than the ones we covered yesterday, but more likely than not, will be securing a few ping-pong balls of their own.

Minnesota Timberwolves
2014 Record: 40-42
Over/Under Wins: 27.5
Odds To Win Championship: 400-1

The legacy of the 2014-2015 Timberwolves is already set in stone, which is both a blessing and a curse. Regardless of what happens this season, it will always be remembered (for better or worse) as the year they traded away Kevin Love. If Andrew Wiggins pans out and becomes the next Tracy McGrady (or better), then 2014 will be the year they dealt a disgruntled, ungrateful star for a young gun the saved the franchise. If Wiggins busts, then 2014 will be remembered as the year they traded away a top-10 player and got nothing to show for it.

I don’t think Wiggins will bust, but I don’t think he’s going to be Tracy McGrady, either. At least not this year. He’ll compete on both ends and dazzle people with his athleticism, but he needs to work as a shooter and ballhandler before he’s ready to carry a team anywhere of consequence. And the same, doubly so, goes for Zach LaVine. They’re phenomenal athletes but not yet particularly good at actually playing basketball. And I’m not sure Flip Saunders is the coach that’s going to get them there in a timely fashion. The idea of this Timberwolves team, in theory, is fantastic - young, bouncy guys running the floor and throwing down alley-oops from Ricky Rubio, but not playing defense or executing half-court offense well enough to make any real noise. But those fast break lobs are going to be few and far between, and it’s going to make for another long Minnesota winter.

Player To Watch: Nikola Pekovic

Consider the following three statements, ranging from absolutely true, to probably true, to possibly true:

Nikola Pekovic is Minnesota’s highest-paid player.
Nikola Pekovic is Minnesota’s best player
Minnesota should trade Nikola Pekovic

It’s weird, right? Pekovic is a good player on a fair contract, and will only be 32 when that contract expires, so it’s not like he’s getting in the way of a rebuilding effort. But what are they re-building towards if Pekovic is involved? Look at it this way - Pekovic is a big, burly center who carves out space down low by casting murderous looks at opponents until they cower in fear. Then he gets an entry pass and (usually) scores easily. He’s an absolute monster on the offensive glass (first, ninth, and sixth in the league in offensive rebound rate over the last three years), and is a surprisingly good free throw shooter which indicates a potential for perhaps greater range on his jump shot than he’s displayed so far in his career.

But look at the rest of the Minnesota roster - it’s all young athletes and a point guard who wants to run the floor. I could understand building around Pekovic (he’d probably be a nice No. 3 on a very good team) if the Wolves youngsters were, say, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, and Doug McDermott - skilled shooters who excelled spotting up in half-court offenses. But instead they have young guys that will need to play a wide-open style in order to be most successful, and that will be difficult with Pekovic occupying the space under the basket.

The trade market for Pekovic is a rather interesting hypothetical. On one hand, he has four years of guaranteed money left (and teams generally don’t like taking on long-term money unless it’s a genuine blue-chipper). On the other hand, he’s a productive big man, and his long-term deal could end up being a steal if the cap accelerates up in the coming years (which by nearly all accounts it is expected to). His $11.6 million cap hit in 2018 could be not too much higher than the league average salary by that time, making a 32-year old Pekovic at that price a lot more palatable. So if Pekovic doesn’t seem to be fitting in early in the season, don’t be surprised if he’s wearing a different jersey this time next year.

Prediction: 30-52, 13th in Western Conference

Sacramento Kings
2014 Record: 28-54
Over/Under Wins: 30.5
Odds To Win Championship: 400-1

If there’s a logical reason for willfully parting ways with Isaiah Thomas, an absolutely dynamite offensive player, who would not have been prohibitively expensive, and replacing him with Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions (who combined will cost about 93 percent as much as Thomas will but only give you 65 percent of the production), I haven’t found one. It really seems to boil down to the fact that DeMarcus Cousins didn’t like playing with him, which is insane. There were point guards that Kobe Bryant didn’t like playing with, but that was Smush Parker, who sucked, Isaiah Thomas is a really, really good player. If your star center comes to you and says they don’t like playing with the supremely talented point guard on the team, that’s a problem with your star, not your point guard.

The kicker is that, presumably, Sacramento would have had some inclination that they weren’t going to bring Thomas back, and that they’d need to find a new point guard. But instead of drafting one (Elfrid Payton, Zach LaVine, and Tyler Ennis were all still on the board when they drafted, or they could have traded back for Shabazz Napier at the end of the first round), they took a shooter (Nik Stauskas) who plays the same position as their first-round pick last year. This is how teams end up in the lottery for eight years (and counting). This year will almost certainly make nine.

Player To Watch: DeMarcus Cousins

I mean, it’s impossible to keep your eyes off the guy.

He’s the most skilled center in the league not named Gasol. He can dribble, run the floor, rebound on both ends, play effective defense when properly motivated, pass from the high post, and can knock down shots beyond 15 feet from the basket. Every conceivable skill you would want from a modern NBA center - Cousins has it.

The only problem is, he has a bunch of other baggage that you probably don’t want.

He shows up officials. He whines openly when a play called for him doesn’t end up coming to him. He’s butted heads with virtually every backcourt player he’s played with, not to mention openly lobbied for his head coach to be fired in 2012 (and got his wish). In a lot of ways, he’s this generation’s Rasheed Wallace, only his brilliance comes offensively, not defensively.

In a lot of ways, this is a make-or-break year for Cousins. He’s in the first year of a lucrative contract extension, and he needs to prove that he’s worth that money. He’s coming off a great experience with Team USA at the FIBA World Cup over the summer, and he needs to prove it’s not a fluke. Allegedly, he’s the one responsible for Isaiah Thomas not being on the team anymore, and he needs to prove that the team is in fact better off with a different backcourt. If he can’t come through on these things, then sooner rather than later, his antics won’t be endearing anymore. He’ll just be a brat. Winning solves a lot of those problems, but will Sacramento be that good?

Prediction: 33-49, 12th in Western Conference

Denver Nuggets
2014 Record: 36-46
Over/Under Wins: 42.5
Odds To Win Championship: 75-1

They get Danilo Gallinari back, they traded for Arron Afflalo, JaVale McGee will be healthy, and they got some help in the draft, but Randy Foye and J.J. Hickson are still prominently involved, so I can’t in good conscience expect big things from them. J.J. Hickson has averaged a 16/12 per 36 minutes over the last four seasons, which seems like it would be good. But the flip side of that coin is that he’s done it on four different teams, each of those teams played better when he was on the bench, and the three teams he left are all now noticeably better than they were when he was on the roster. The same goes for Randy Foye - there’s a reason he’s on his fifth team in six years.

Plain and simple, I don’t trust the front office or the coaching staff to know what is actually in the best interests of the team. Randy Foye played 2485 minutes, compared to 1459 for Quincy Miller and Jordan Hamilton combined. J.J. Hickson played 1859 minutes to Darrell Arthur’s 1161. And this for a team that finished 11th in the conference, 13 games out of a playoff spot. This year, Hickson will probably play over Jusuf Nurkic, and Foye will probably get the nod as the third guard over Gary Harris and Erick Green, despite all evidence pointing to Denver once again missing the playoffs, and Hickson and Foye not being around when the team is ready to win again. Afflalo and Gallo will try to bring the team back to the success they had in 2011, 2012, and 2013, but it won’t be enough, especially without George Karl.

Player To Watch: JaVale McGee

Masai Ujiri is a wizard. Seemingly everything he touches turns to gold. He had no leverage trading Carmelo Anthony and somehow ended up getting nine rotation players out of it when you connect all the dots (Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Andre Miller, Timofey Mozgov, Jordan Hamilton, Corey Brewer, and Kosta Koufos, and two first-round picks) He traded Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington for Andre Iguodala. He left Denver for Toronto, traded Andrea Bargnani and got a first-round pick out of it, then dumped Rudy Gay and won 48 games.

But JaVale might be the skeleton in his closet. Ujiri dealt Nene to Washington for JaVale back in 2012, and then followed that up with a $44 million extension. Since then, though, Nene has helped Washington turn into a borderline Eastern Conference contender, while McGee missed nearly all of last season.

McGee has certainly shown flashes - he’s an athletic freak who can catch and finish around the basket - that will always have value in today’s NBA. But he’s consistently lost on defense, lacks awareness on both ends, and generally plays a stream-of-consciousness game where he succumbs to every single whim his brain cooks up (most involve jumping).

He’ll turn 27 this season, which is pretty much the cut-off point for a player ever really “getting it.” If McGee doesn’t put it together this year, he probably never will. So it will be interesting to see if he can retroactively prove Masai Ujiri right, or if the whole fiasco will end up being the sole blemish on an otherwise impeccable resume.

Prediction: 35-47, 11th in Western Conference

Indiana Pacers
2014 Record: 56-26
Over/Under Wins: 33.5
Odds To Win Championship: 120-1

Oh my God this offense is going to suck.

They were 23rd in the league last year, and that was with guys who could actually create shots occasionally. Their offensive system was seemingly “let Lance or Paul George dribble around for 20 seconds and hope something good happens.” Now it’s going to be “let Rodney Stuckey dribble around for 20 seconds and [vessels burst and blood pours out of ears].”

They’re still going to be a feisty defensive team, but “feisty” will probably end up describing their effort more than their execution. A huge part of their defensive success last year was that Stephenson and George could squash drives before they started. Stuckey and C.J. Miles, bless their hearts, don’t come anywhere close to being able to replicate that kind of performance. It will be open season for guards who want to get into the paint. Roy Hibbert is certainly an effective back line of defense, and he’s able to stay on the plane of verticality as well as any center in the league, but a lot of the success he had in doing that was predicated upon the penetrator entering the lane from an angle that is more advantageous to the defense than the offense. Drivers would be angled or nudged in the direction Indiana wanted them to approach from. Now it’s just going to be blow-by after blow-by, and there are going to be attacking guards driving straight up Hibbert’s back. For a guy that commits 4.5 fouls per 36 minutes for his career, it’s going to be tough to keep him on the floor.

Any hope Indiana has this year is going to be tied to the defense holding up well enough (a) until  Paul George returns to the lineup towards the end of the regular season, or (b) that Indiana actually makes the playoffs (where it’s far more likely that George will be well enough to return). But if the defense slips, this year could get very ugly very quickly.

Player To Watch: George Hill

A lot of offensive responsibility is going to fall on Hill’s shoulders this season. His career up until this point would probably suggest that he can’t quite handle it. He’s a 27-year old point guard with six seasons under his belt, but at no point was he anything more than the fifth scoring option, and even as a point guard, he’s never been more than third on the totem pole in terms of responsibility for creating offense. He’s always been more suited as a spot-up shooter (this despite the fact that he’s never even shot 40 percent from three in a season - not once). Now Indiana is going to rely on him to play pick-and-roll basketball, at least a little, because dumping the ball in to Roy Hibbert every time down the court is an absolute nightmare proposition.

Hill will still be a strong defensive player, and he’ll be the singular saving grace for a makeshift perimeter defense this year. But for Indiana to have any hope of treading water long enough for Paul George to come back and rescue them, George Hill is going to have to discover a level of offensive dynamism that he’s never shown before. So, long story short, don’t hold your breath.

Prediction: 36-46, 11th in Eastern Conference

New York Knicks
2014 Record: 37-45
Over/Under Wins: 41
Odds To Win Championship: 60-1

Nothing ever actually changes with the Knicks.

You know that analogy about fixing one nail on a boat? Like, if you take an old boat and replace one old, rusty nail, it’s still pretty much the same boat. But then if you systematically, one at a time, replace every nail, and every plank of wood, eventually it’s not the same boat. It’s now a different boat. But the problem with the analogy is that while it’s a completely “different” boat in that all the individual pieces have been replaced, collectively, it’s still the same exact boat, because you’re replacing parts with identical parts. You didn’t make any improvements.

That’s the last 15 years of the New York Knicks.

Sure. Things are ostensibly different. They fired Mike Woodson and hired Derek Fisher. They traded Ray Felton and Tyson Chandler for Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert. They drafted Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo. But will any of these changes actually make them better? This year, probably not.

They’re still going to be a vaguely efficient offense and an absolute train-wreck on defense. They’re still going to spend too much time playing Carmelo Anthony at small forward with two traditional big men. They’re still going to bury cheap, productive guys who are better than their more expensive, washed-up guys (two easy ones this year - Jason Smith and Shane Larkin). They’re going to switch around all the pieces and pretend like the problems have been fixed. But they haven’t. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

Player To Watch: Amar’e Stoudemire

Don’t look now, but Amar’e was actually (gasp) somewhat productive offensively last year. He was healthy enough that he actually played almost 1500 minutes, and was an efficient scorer, posting a True Shooting Percentage of 59.6 percent, right at his career average. He can’t stay on the floor for more than 24 minutes or so, otherwise he’ll break down, but he’s certainly a marginally valuable big man.

He has a $23 million expiring contract. That’s a pretty big expiring contract. It’s so big that it would be very difficult to move, but certainly not impossible. Hell, Gilbert Arenas and Rashard Lewis both got traded with contracts over $20 million (granted, they were traded for each other, but that’s not the point).

There aren’t going to be many teams that want Amar’e. But if a team is looking to have a fire sale come February, Amar’e could be a lynchpin of a blockbuster deal. If Stan Van Gundy hates his roster and wants to clean house? Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings for Amar’e and Shane Larkin. If Larry Sanders can’t get his head on straight and all of a sudden Milwaukee desperately needs to get out of his contract, and wants to dump more salary in the process? Sanders and O.J. Mayo for Amar’e and Iman Shumpert. If the landscape looks like the Knicks won’t be able to land a major free agent in the summer of 2015, their best bet might be to buy low on another team’s trash, hoping it might become their treasure. It probably won’t be enough to get the Knicks into the playoffs this year, but it might plant a seed going forward.

Prediction: 37-45, 10th in Eastern Conference

Miami Heat
2014 Record: 54-28
Over/Under Wins: 44.5
Odds To Win Championship: 50-1

It’s going to be a weird year.

People seem to think that Miami is still a lock for the playoffs, which doesn’t really jive with the roster they’ve put together. Most people don’t realize how responsible LeBron was for their success.

When LeBron was off the floor last year (a sample of about 1000 minutes), Miami’s offensive rating was 104.7, their defensive rating was 104.5 - they were just about pure average. In the playoffs (about 200 minutes), their net rating was -3.7. In 2013, the Heat were -2.1 per 100 possessions with LeBron off the floor (1097 regular season minutes). In 2012 they were -3.6 (881 minutes). Despite the team having two other All-Star caliber players, Miami struggled mightily without their superstar.

This season should be even tougher. Dwyane Wade sat for 28 games last season and barely played any back-to-backs and *still* broke down at the end of the season. And that was playing with LeBron, which allowed him to coast offensively at times. What is he supposed to do now that he’s going to be asked to shoulder more of the load? I think playing 54 games would be optimistic.

Chris Bosh re-signed, and he’s probably going to go back to his more natural role as a central scorer. But he hasn’t been that guy for the last four years. When he was 25, he could give you a 24-10 and carry your offense. Can he still do it now that he’s 30? Not to mention that his free throw rate has been in freefall since he moved south - his last five years in Toronto, he shot .522 free throws for every field goal attempt. It’s been just .356 for Miami, bottoming out last year at just .285. If he’s not getting to the free throw line, where are his easy points coming from? They’re certainly not coming off pick-and-pops with LeBron.

Attempting to fill LeBron’s shoes is Luol Deng, which is commendable, but he’s going to fall dramatically short. Deng is a nice player, but he’s never been a central star, and he’s certainly not going to become one at age 29 with almost 27000 career minutes under his belt, especially after his 40-game stint in Cleveland last year was the worst statistical stretch of his career by virtually every metric. He’s a helpful player to have along, but Miami needs a straw to stir the drink, and they don’t have one.

Player To Watch: Chris Bosh

I wanted Chris Bosh to sign with Houston. Or join LeBron in Cleveland. Really anywhere but Miami. He’s spent the last four years establishing himself as unequivocally the best third banana in the league (and really, he was Miami’s second-best player last year, which is kind of why they lost in the Finals). If Chris Bosh is your third best player, you’re in *really* good shape. But now he’s going to be Miami’s best player, and that’s a waste of his true gift - outstanding social intelligence and unmatched unselfishness. His personality and skill set make him the perfect secondary star, but now he’s going to be running the show.

You can’t really begrudge his decision - Miami paid him the most money and he gets to live on the beach. And you can’t really begrudge Miami for paying him more than he’s probably worth - they want to stay competitive because they have nothing to gain by bottoming out - they don’t control their own first-round pick this year unless it’s in the Top 10 (but then it just rolls over to 2016, and then it’s unprotected in 2017). And the roster they have is good enough to make the playoffs if things break right for them. But again, from a selfish point of view, it would have been nice to see Bosh somewhere else.

If Bosh can find his 2010 form again, Miami could cause a lot of problems for a higher seed in the first round of the playoffs. It will be early enough that Wade can still give them a punch, Erik Spoelstra will have a game plan that works, and Bosh will fill in whatever holes pop up with his considerable gifts. But if he can’t access that time machine, and he’s the same Chris Bosh that we’ve seen the last four years, the Heat will be on the outside looking in.

Prediction: 38-44, 9th in Eastern Conference

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