Friday, October 24, 2014

The Official (Way Too Long) SuiteSports 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Part III - West > East

This is the face Stan Van Gundy is going to make when Josh Smith shoots a three.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Last year, the Western Conference dominated the East, to a tune of 284-166. Prorated to a 82-game schedule, that's the equivalent of the West being a 51-31 team and the East being a 31-51 team. That's kind of a lot.

The trend should continue this year. As such, after outlining nothing but lottery teams in the first two sections of this preview, we've exhausted the Eastern Conference lottery teams, but have yet to hit that point with the West. This section breaks down four playoff teams, all from the East, and two lottery teams, both from the West. But in a vacuum, the two best teams in this section are both lottery teams out West. But we'll get to them later.

Detroit Pistons
2014 Record: 29-53
Over/Under Wins: 36
Odds To Win Championship: 300-1

Of all the teams that didn’t sign LeBron James and trade for Kevin Love this summer, Detroit is the most likely to improve in a big way. And they’re doing it without the benefit of a first-round pick. The reason they’ll likely improve is that they’re going from having one of the worst coaches in the league (the Maurice Cheeks-John Loyer combination) to having one of the best in Stan Van Gundy. He’s never won a title, but he’s been to the Finals once and he’s never had a losing season. In Orlando, he turned Rafer Alston into a reliable, steady hand who started for a team that made the Finals, and took Dwight Howard and launched him into the most destructive defensive force since Kevin Garnett.

Stan Van Gundy can coach a defense. With the length and athleticism that the Pistons have on that end, there’s no way they finish ranked in the bottom 20th percentile of the league again. It’s not even within the realm of possibility. Instead of trying to play his three big men (Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond) all together (a combination that got absolutely killed last year), he’ll stagger the three of them. And there’s no reason not to. There are 96 total minutes available between power forward and center - which is more than enough to split three ways, especially if Drummond is only playing 26-28 minutes or so. Despite how obviously the three-man combination wasn’t working, they started 75 games together last year. I’d be shocked if that number was any higher than 10 this season.

The main offensive struggles stemmed from a lack of shooting. The Pistons finished 29th in 3-point shooting and dead last in free throw shooting (and you can’t just blame the free throw shooting on Drummond - even if you remove his 42 percent on 328 attempts from the sample, Detroit still shot just 1278-for-1783, or 71.7 percent, which would only have been 28th-best). So basically, they couldn’t space the floor, which allowed the defense to collapse into the paint, and they couldn’t even take advantage of the cluttered paint by drawing fouls and getting easy points that way. Van Gundy brought in shooters, though - he signed Jodie Meeks and Caron Butler, and he’ll shoehorn more shooters onto the floor by not playing Josh Smith at small forward. If the spacing improves, the Pistons should have an offense that’s watchable.

Player To Watch: Greg Monroe

It’s an interesting year for Monroe. He accepted Detroit’s qualifying offer and didn’t sign an offer sheet, which means next year he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. He’s probably in for a big pay day, as big men who average close to double-doubles and can run an offense through the high post don’t exactly grow on trees. The catch, though, is that he’s the most likely candidate for Stan Van Gundy to bring off the bench.

It will be tough for Smith to be the sixth man, as he’s the highest-paid player on the team and isn’t exactly the “winning trumps everything” personality type that would happily come off the bench for the good of the team. And it will be tough to bring Drummond off the bench, because he’s just so damn talented that you want him on the floor as much as possible. Monroe, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to really factor into Detroit’s long term plans (given that he’s an unrestricted free agent after the season), and after he eschewed a contract extension with the Pistons this summer, I’d be surprised if the team really wants to go out of their way to help his market value.

Now, Monroe probably won’t be too happy about coming off the bench in a contract year, but how he responds to that adversity will tell us a lot about what type of player Greg Monroe is and what type of season Detroit will have. If he decides to be professional about it, Detroit’s rotations should seamlessly fall into place, and in a roundabout way, it will probably help Monroe’s market value in the long run (as teams will see that he’s a magnanimous player that’s willing to do what it takes). If there’s any coach that can coax that out of a player, it’s Stan Van Gundy.

Prediction: 40-42, 8th in Eastern Conference

Brooklyn Nets
2014 Record: 44-38
Over/Under Wins: 42
Odds To Win Championship: 65-1

Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce are gone, and with them goes the amazing perimeter flexibility that turned Brooklyn’s season around last year. Shaun Livingston started 54 games, and Brooklyn was 35-19 in those games. In games that Livingston didn’t start, Brooklyn was 9-19. I don’t really think that’s a coincidence.

But there’s still hope in Brooklyn. They lost Livingston and Pierce, but they also cleaned up the end of their bench, which was pretty ugly last year. Marcus Thornton, Jason Terry, Reggie Evans, and Alan Anderson played way too much and produced way too little. The first three guys were shown the door, and Alan Anderson has been buried in the depth chart. Kevin Garnett is a year older and a year closer to spontaneously collapsing on the court like a precariously built balsa-wood table, but the rest of their frontcourt is greatly improved. Brook Lopez is back from his injury and poised to return to his All-Star form from 2013. Mason Plumlee, despite a slow start, came on strong at the end of last year, spent the summer playing with Team USA at the FIBA World Cup, and will now likely see his minutes close to double in his sophomore season.

With all the injuries Brooklyn dealt with last year, it’s tough to say whether it was bad luck (because they were just decimated by injuries - they used 24 different starting lineups and none more than 20 times) or it was inevitable (because they had an exceptionally old roster and even their young guys are fairly injury-prone). If Brooklyn can stay healthy, they’re easily a playoff team, but that’s a big if. Brook Lopez hasn’t played a full season since 2011. Deron Williams has missed at least 10 games in four of the last six seasons. Kevin Garnett has averaged 15 missed games per season over the last seven years, and needs to have his minutes severely managed in order to survive the season. But if the Nets can find some good luck with the injury Gods, making the playoffs shouldn’t be too difficult.

Player To Watch: Joe Johnson

I don’t quite know how he did it, but Johnson somehow had the most efficient offensive season of his career in 2014, at age 32. A lot of it had to do with shooting the most threes more often than any point of his career (39.7 percent of his shot attempts), and shooting them at the second-most accurate clip he’s ever posted (40.1 percent). He also had (by far) the lowest rate of long two-point attempts - they accounted for just 13.8 percent of his shot attempts, substantially lower than his career average of 23.4 percent. He also slashed his turnover rate, down to 9.8 percent of his possessions, the second lowest mark of his career.

There really wasn’t any one thing that Johnson did substantially better than ever before - it was the combination of doing a few different things slightly better than before (with the exception of cutting out long twos - that was a pretty jarring decrease). But all of them are indicative of a positive harbinger: Johnson is realizing that his athleticism isn’t what it once was, so he’s adjusting his game accordingly. Instead of playing Iso-Joe like his Atlanta days, trying to beat guys off the dribble, he’s shooting more threes, and the isolations he does use are usually post-ups against smaller defenders (he absolutely torched Toronto in the playoffs with those).

If Johnson can continue to adjust his game in order to remain an impactful player, then Brooklyn’s offense will probably bounce back in a big way (assuming a healthy season from Brook Lopez as well), and the playoffs will be in their future.

Prediction: 41-41, 7th in Eastern Conference

Atlanta Hawks
2014 Record: 38-44
Over/Under Wins: 42
Odds To Win Championship: 80-1

There are few things in this NBA season more exciting than the return of Al Horford. He was enjoying his best offensive season ever when he tore his pectoral and missed the last 53 games of the season. Unlike Derrick Rose, whose knee injuries could greatly sap the athleticism that made him so great in the first place, Horford’s pectorals should leave no lingering effects on anything he does from a basketball standpoint.

Make no mistake about it - Al Horford is a great player, and he makes Atlanta a much better team. The five-out offense that they showed off in the playoffs and almost upset Indiana becomes a whole different beast with Horford. Imagine taking Pero Antic off the floor (and the dirty little secret here is that Antic wasn’t even actually good against Indiana - he was 3-for-25 from three, but merely the threat of a shot was enough to draw Roy Hibbert out of the paint) and replacing him with Horford, who was shooting 49.6 percent on long twos before he got hurt. Also take into account that the only threat Antic presents off a high screen is to pop or flare to the three-point line. But if you get Horford the ball on the move, he can attack the basket off the dribble or kick the ball out to other shooters (3.2 assists per 36 minutes over the last four years). Horford is a dynamic offensive player that will make life very easy for Atlanta.

Atlanta’s big man rotation is shooter after shooter after shooter. Horford has range on his jumper. Paul Millsap started shooting threes regularly for the first time and ended up shooting 36 percent. Mike Scott only shot 31 percent from downtown, but his 48.4 percent clip from 16-23 feet is promising. They drafted Adreian Payne in the first round, he shot 41 percent from three during his junior and senior years at Michigan State combined. No matter who is on the floor, they will always have five guys capable of knocking down a three. The spacing that creates on offense is incredible - even a mediocre point guard like Jeff Teague can be a dynamic player with that much space.

Player To Watch: Paul Millsap

If you think Millsap had a good year last year, look at the splits between him and Al Horford:

Horford, with Millsap: 21 Pts/36 min, 59.1 FG% (676 minutes)
Horford, without Millsap: 18.4 Pts/36 min, 50.8 FG% (281 minutes)

Millsap, with Horford: 16.6 Pts/36, 52.1 eFG% (676 minutes)
Millsap, without Horford: 20.2 Pts/36, 48.9 eFG% (1805 minutes)

Millsap’s scoring volume is down, but collectively, their efficiency skies through the roof. A full season together probably means Atlanta cracks the top 10 in the league in offensive efficiency. And if Atlanta’s offense can perform like it did in the playoffs last year for a full regular season, the Hawks shouldn’t have to worry about going up against the conference’s No. 1 seed in the first round.

Prediction: 44-38, 6th in Eastern Conference

New Orleans Pelicans
2014 Record: 34-48
Over/Under Wins: 43.5
Odds To Win Championship: 70-1

New Orleans came into the season with a very specific plan. They had five guys that they felt were all good to great players at their respective positions, and all they’d need to do is roll them out and they’d have a good team.

In theory, that works. In reality, injuries absolutely slaughtered any playoff hopes they might have had. Tyreke Evans missed 10 games. Anthony Davis missed 15. Eric Gordon missed 18. Jrue Holiday missed 48, and Ryan Anderson missed 60.

When they had their full compliment of players, they were actually a pretty good team. When Ryan Anderson was on the floor (794 minutes), the Pellies had an offensive rating of 113.5. For comparison, the Clippers had the best offensive rating in the league last year at 112.1. When Anderson was off the floor, the offensive rating was just 105.7, roughly as good as the Kings and Pistons.

The old saying is that time heals all, and, in fact, it does appear that the ongoing rotation of the Earth has turned fortune in the favor of New Orleans. They’re entering the season with no nagging injuries to speak of, which means that after a year thrown away, they’ll finally be able to put their five guys on the floor together. And they can add to the group, too. Anthony Davis is The Guy in the frontcourt, he’s going to have a monster year on both ends. But New Orleans now has two guys to pair him with - for an offensive explosion, they can go with the long-range bombing Ryan Anderson; for lockdown defense, they can go with newly acquired Omer Asik, one of the premier defensive centers in basketball. Having Asik and Davis on the floor together will effectively make the paint off-limits for opposing offenses. Spacing the floor on offense will be a work in progress, but those lineups will be so amazing defensively that it might not matter. If you’re looking for this year’s Blazers - namely, a team with a dominant starting lineup that maintains a near-miraculous level of health and surges to 50+ wins, New Orleans should be your pick. I’m not sure how likely that is, but it’s in play.

Player To Watch: Anthony Davis

Look out, NBA. He’s coming.

Even last season, he was a dominant player. He finished fourth in the league in PER and 7th in Win Shares/48 minutes, but everything points to this being the year where he struts onto the scene and starts slapping up 28-14’s with all-world defense, a reliable 18-foot jumper, and 40 minutes of running the floor like a gazelle. Make no mistake about it - once LeBron and Durant are done passing the MVP trophy back and forth, Anthony Davis is the next in line.

New Orleans’ fortunes largely rest on how much of a leap Davis can make on defense. Pairing him with Asik will certainly help - last year he was asked to do way too much defensively as a 20-year old sophomore, and it overwhelmed him at times. As a result, the Pelicans had the 27th-ranked defense in the league. Some of the blame for that can be placed on injuries - it’s tough to play consistent defense when there’s so much lineup turnover, and the Pelicans never used a starting lineup more than 14 times last season, using 24 different lineups in all. With a healthy roster this year, and a more prepared Davis, the Pelicans could vault all the way into the top 10. At the very least, I’d expect them to finish in the top half of the league.

They won’t have a defense on the level of Chicago and Memphis and the like. For one, they foul way too much - they were dead last in opponent’s foul rate. And second, they have to play Ryan Anderson sometimes - he’s just too good offensively to utilize any less than 30 minutes per game or so. But he’s a disaster on defense. Going from Asik to Anderson is going to be a night-and-day switch. The team has said that they may experiment with zone defenses, which would allow Anderson to hide against a spot-up perimeter player on defense and play nominal small forward on offense. It’s an intriguing idea that would allow New Orleans to play all three of their big men together, and it might work in short doses.

So long as Davis is on the floor, New Orleans will be a good team. Perhaps not a great one, that’s still a few years away. But they’ll cause fits for opponents every night.

Prediction: 44-38, 10th in Western Conference

Charlotte Hornets
2014 Record: 43-39
Over/Under Wins: 44.5
Odds To Win Championship: 60-1

Well, this is just too confusing. If I want to look up the Hornets on, I’m going to get four different results - the Charlotte Hornets that existed from 1989-2002, The New Orleans Hornets that existed from 2003-2013, the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets that existed in 2006 and 2007, and then ANOTHER Charlotte Hornets that exists as a different franchise entirely, starting in 2014-2015. How does this work? Is this Hornets team part of the same franchise that existed from 1989-2002? And the history of the current Pelicans franchise has been retroactively altered to have started in 2003 when the team moved to New Orleans? My brain hurts, and I don’t like it.

In any event, this Charlotte team could make an impressive step forward. Their defense carried them last year, finishing fifth in defensive efficiency, and their weak link was on offense, which struggled with spacing the floor and breaking down defenses with initial dribble penetration.

The Hornets made a number of moves this offseason that could help them solve some of those problems. First and foremost, they signed Lance Stephenson in free agency, who presents a massive upgrade over the shooting guards on the roster from a year ago. Instead of having Kemba Walker as they only true creative force on offense, Charlotte will be able to pair Stephenson and Walker together and allow one of them to make secondary attacks on defenses that the other one has already sent scrambling.

Last year, Kemba Walker would break down the defense (although understand that I’m using that term generously), but when the back line rotated, he didn’t really have much he could do. He could throw up a contested shot (which goes a long way towards explaining his 44.1 percent eFG%) or kick the ball to someone like Gerald Henderson or Josh McRoberts, who just aren’t dynamic enough offensively to take advantage of the warped defense in front of them. With Stephenson on the floor, though, those opportunities will lead to layups and dunks, or a kickout to a shooter.

By way of shooting, Charlotte added Noah Vonleh with the 9th pick in the draft - he’s a rangy 6-10 forward who shot 48.5 percent from long range in college last year. He won’t be that accurate in the NBA, but he’ll be able to pull opposing bigs away from the paint. They also signed Marvin Williams, who shot just under 36 percent from three as a small-ball power forward in Utah last year. Neither of these guys projects to be a dead-eye shooter this year, but really anything is an upgrade over last season. With more creativity off the dribble and better spacing from their role players, Charlotte’s offense should be able to at least tread water as opposed to holding them back.

Player To Watch: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

When Kidd-Gilchrist was drafted in 2012, there weren’t too many illusions about what type of player he’d be - he was a serious work in progress offensively, especially as a shooter and ball-handler, but he’d be a dynamic athlete who would work his ass off on defense. Through two seasons, that’s pretty much what he’s been, but the degree to which he is a work in progress offensively might have even been under-sold.

Through two years, he is a combined 80-for-255 (31.3 percent) on shots from 16-23 feet from the basket. He isn’t just a bad shooter, he’s an embarrassingly bad shooter. How good he is on defense almost doesn’t matter because his shooting makes him borderline unplayable against smart defensive teams.

The Hornets need him to be a threat on offense. When he’s on the floor, Charlotte’s defense goes from average to great. The problem is, their offense goes from bad to abysmal. There have been rumblings of MKG completely tearing up his shooting form and rebuilding it from the ground up. If that’s true, and it works, then it opens up a number of doors. A Michael Kidd-Gilchrist that can knock down corner threes is the difference between Charlotte sneaking into the playoffs as a No. 7 or No. 8 seed and one that secures home-court advantage in Round 1 and maybe even puts a scare into Chicago or Cleveland in Round 2. I’m not quite sure he’s there yet, so let’s split the difference.

Prediction: 45-37, 5th in Eastern Conference

Phoenix Suns
2014 Record: 48-34
Over/Under Wins: 44
Odds To Win Championship: 100-1

I have never been more wrong about a pre-season prediction than I was about the Suns last year. I can only take solace in the fact that probably not even the Suns front office thought they’d win 48 games and come just one game short of a playoff berth.

Last year’s Suns were entertaining as hell, and this year’s team will likely be no different. It’s basically the same crowd coming back, only they swapped Channing Frye for Isaiah Thomas (salary-wise) and Anthony Tolliver (role-wise) and they added two rookies - T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis, both who project as decent rotation players sooner rather than later.

So, while they lost arguably the best pick-and-pop forward in the league outside of the household name stars (Dirk, Love, etc), they got even smaller and quicker than they were last year. We’re going to see lineups that feature Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas all at the same time, and they’re going to be fascinating. The Suns will probably get killed on the glass and won’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of matching up with wings who have size and like to post up (if they try it against Memphis I think after six minutes there would just be bodies strewn all over the floor), but any defensive rebound or turnover is going to be points the other way, because there isn’t a single team in the league that can match their speed.

It’s going to be an interesting team - they probably actually took a step back offensively (losing Frye really will hurt them there), and simply a lack of size is going to probably cause a step back defensively. And they might not be as exciting as they were last year, if only because they won’t have the out-of-nowhere element. But don’t sleep on Phoenix. They’re so unorthodox that any number between 35 and 55 wins wouldn’t surprise me.

Player To Watch: Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris

I have to list both of them because it’s impossible to separate them. They play better when they’re on the court together. The team plays better when they’re on the court together. They fit together perfectly - Markieff is a power forward that can shift up to play center when they need to. Marcus is a power forward that can shift down to play small forward when they need to.

Their contract negotiation this summer epitomized everything about this Suns team - they do things completely different than everyone else. The Suns approached the twins together, and offered them $52 million total, and the twins could split it up as they saw fit. Markieff ended up getting the bigger slice of pie ($32 million over four years) than Marcus ($20 million over four years), but that they were able to come to that split quickly, and that they were able to mutually agree on the fact that one of them is worth more than the other (despite the fact that they’re, you know, identical twins) is kind of incredible.

Markieff is the better player, but really only because he’s spent more time developing big man skills whereas Marcus is the better shooter. I have no doubt in my mind that they could spend the next year switched places and come out the other side completely reversed.

Last season was their first full year as teammates in the NBA, and they both had breakout years. Everyone talks about the versatility of Bledsoe and Dragic in the backcourt, but the versatility of the Morris twins in the frontcourt is just as integral to Phoenix’s success. If they continue to blossom together, next time around they might be splitting up twice as much money, and Phoenix might be a Western Conference Power. But that’s still a way’s off.

Prediction: 46-36, 9th in Western Conference

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