Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Jeremy's Best- and/or Worst-Case NBA Preview

Stephen Curry took home an MVP Award and an NBA Title last season, but can he repeat?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Every year I make NBA picks. Every year I'm wrong. Like, yeah, I picked Cleveland to make the Finals last year, and yeah, I picked Miami to make the Finals in each of the previous four years. But how hard was that? The East is always super-easy to predict. I've whiffed on the West pretty much every year, sometimes spectacularly so.

So, I'm just taking a wide lens this year. I'm making no official predictions, whether with regards to win-loss records or who's going to win which conference or the title. If I'm just going to be wrong anyway, what's the point? So, like I did with my NFL preview back in September, I'm going to take a look at every team's best-case scenario, every team's worst-case scenario, and finally, a middle-ground look that (I suppose) will serve as my unoffically official prediction (but again, I'm not going to explicitly say a win total or an exact finish).

As I sometimes do, I've arranged the teams in a random order, so please don't spend time worrying about why I picked the order that I picked, or searching for hidden meaning. There isn't any. Also, it is long (in total, it runs a cool 8800 words), so feel free to skip ahead and just find your favorite team. I won't be offended.

Minnesota Timberwolves
2015 Record: 16-66 (15th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 28 (Over -115; Under -115)

Best-Case Scenario: The team rallies around the tragic loss of Flip Saunders and takes advantage of an easy early schedule to the tune of a 13-7 start to the season. Andrew Wiggins makes a huge leap in Year 2, Zach LaVine meshes well with Ricky Rubio, and Karl-Anthony Towns puts together the best rookie season since Blake Griffin. Kevin Garnett, Kevin Martin, Andre Miller, and Tayshaun Prince provide a valuable veteran presence to balance out the youth, and a surprisingly deep Minnesota squad stays competitive all year. The kids handle the open-floor game and the vets handle the grinding, and the Timberwolves shock the league with a playoff berth.

Worst-Case Scenario: The veterans all wash up together, and Wiggins and LaVine stumble in their development with the coaching staff and front office in various states of disarray following Saunders' passing. Towns goes through the usual rookie foibles, and Rubio and Nikola Pekovic once again miss time due to injuries. They're a fun team to watch with all the young talent, but it doesn't translate into success on the floor, and they once again lose 60 games.

Real-Case Scenario: Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns fly up and down the court and never have a dull moment. The Wolves have 10 legitimate NBA players and use their depth to feed on the other teams at the bottom of the Western Conference. The powerhouses like Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, and the Clippers make quick work of them, but Minnesota is able to beat up on the weaklings often enough to avoid another season of embarrassment. They miss the playoffs, but come far closer than most people expected.

Utah Jazz
2015 Record: 38-44 (11th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 42.5 (Over -130; Under Even)

Best-Case Scenario: They found a reliable five-man group last year, and a full season of that unit leads to great improvement. Rudy Gobert shuts down the paint, anchors a top-5 defense, and wins Defensive Player of The Year. Gordon Hayward and a healthy Alec Burks keep the offense humming, and the Jazz sneak into suddenly-up-for-grabs 8th seed.

Worst-Case Scenario: Gobert proves to be a flash in the pan, of sorts. Smarter teams take advantage of his poor lateral movement, and he proves to be a burden offensively alongside Derrick Favors. There aren't any driving lanes for Hayward and Burks to take advantage of, and Trey Burke continues to flounder as a starting point guard. The defense remains above-average, but the offense tumbles to the bottom third of the league. They're competitive, but their late-game offense costs them too many games. 

Real-Case Scenario: The defense with Gobert regresses, but only a little. Burke, Burks, and Hayward continue their development, along with Rodney Hood and Trey Lyles, giving the Jazz a plethora of athletes to run the floor. Derrick Favors averages a double-double, and the Jazz grit-and-grind themselves into somewhat of a "Memphis-Lite" mold. The bottom half of the Western Conference is a five-way rock-paper-scissors for the last playoff spot, and the Jazz find themselves in the mix all the way through.

New Orleans Pelicans
2015 Record: 45-37 (8th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 47.5 (Over Even; Under -130)

Best-Case Scenario: Anthony Davis emerges as the next Kevin Garnett and single-handedly keeps New Orleans competitive, injuries to literally everyone else on the roster be damned. The team finally gets healthy by Christmas, and Alvin Gentry's system finally unleashes the Jrue Holiday/Eric Gordon/Tyreke Evans trio that the team envisioned back in the Summer of 2013. The offense is unstoppable with Ryan Anderson on the court, and the defense is impenetrable with Omer Asik on the court. Davis fills in all the gaps, dominates on both ends, wins the MVP, and leads New Orleans to a 50+ win season.

Worst-Case Scenario: The team never gets healthy. Evans and Asik are already hurt, Holiday is on a minutes restriction, and it's only a matter of time before Eric Gordon misses 20 games with something. Davis can't carry the team by himself for the entire season, and eventually he, too, breaks down in early May. They shelve him and call it a season, missing the playoffs by a wide margin.

Real-Case Scenario: The team is banged up, but Davis is so spectacular that it won't totally matter, at least for the first month. The team adjusts to the new system, and they improve as the season goes along and players return to the lineup. The Davis-Anderson combo remains great on offense but terrible on defense, vice-versa for the Davis-Asik duo. They mix-and-match as best they can, but can't find the one five-man unit that excels on both ends. They make the playoffs, but their lack of a true go-to five proves their undoing.

Miami Heat
2015 Record: 37-45 (10th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 47 (Over -130; Under Even)

Best-Case Scenario: Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, and Chris Bosh provide Miami with a dynamite core that can hold their own regardless of who the fifth guy is. Dragic and Bosh develop great chemistry on their pick-and-pop sets, and Erik Spoelstra pulls a few old tricks out of his LeBron bag, like Dragic-Wade screens that continue to perplex defenses. Josh McRoberts comes back healthy, Chris Bosh is 100% recovered from his scary lung issue, and Dwyane Wade enjoys the healthiest season he's had since 2011. The East is crappy as always, and Miami surges to the No. 1 seed.

Worst-Case Scenario: Wade and Dragic never mesh, Wade and Deng miss chunks of the season with injuries, and the rest of the riff-raff in the rotation can't pick up the slack. Chris Bosh can only do so much, especially on defense, and that unit slips towards the bottom of the league. Their lack of shooting causes some spacing problems on offense, and it's only by the sheer grace of god and the ineptitude of the rest of the conference that Miami is able to sneak into the playoffs.

Real-Case Scenario: Chris Bosh is back and continues his stellar play from early last season. With Dragic on board, Wade is able to take time off and stay fresh throughout the season. Gerald Green, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Justise Winslow provide much-needed depth, and Josh McRoberts provides the ball movement and spacing that they missed in his absence last year. Spoelstra continues to be one of the league's top-5 coaches and navigates Miami through a poor Eastern Conference to a top-4 seed. 

Charlotte Hornets
2015 Record: 33-49 (11th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 34 (Over -125; Under -105)

Best-Case Scenario: Nicolas Batum is everything that Lance Stephenson was not - he moves the ball, spaces the floor, and plays good defense in place of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Kemba Walker benefits from less responsibility and improves as a spot-up shooter. Frank Kaminsky provides desperately-needed long-range shooting, while Troy Daniels, Jeremy Lamb, and P.J. Hairston each pitch in as token long-range specialists, and the Hornets shockingly become one of the league's better three-point shooting teams. Al Jefferson remains Al Jefferson, and the defense holds steady in the top 10. The Hornets claw their way back into the playoffs and cause fits for a higher seed in Round 1.

Worst-Case Scenario: Nic Batum is in over his head as the team's central player, and struggles for a few months before heading to the bench with an injury. Al Jefferson can't deal with constant double-teams, and the offense once again can't find easy baskets. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's injury proves to be a death sentence - the defense can't stay afloat without him, and with an anemic offense and below-average defense, the Hornets fall all the way to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Real-Case Scenario: Batum is a slight upgrade over Stephenson, but the rest of the pieces just don't fit. The offense is slightly better, but the defense is noticeably worse. Kaminsky makes little to no impact in his rookie season, and Cody Zeller plateaus in his development. Steve Clifford coaches them up, but the team remains stuck in limbo - not good enough to make the playoffs, but too competitive to tank their way to a high pick.

Chicago Bulls
2015 Record: 50-32 (3rd in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 49.5 (Over -115; Under -115)

Best-Case Scenario: The team has been drilled so hard over the last five years that they can still execute Tom Thibodeau's defense without him even being there. Meanwhile, Fred Hoiberg opens up the offense and the Bulls suddenly have top-5 outfits on both ends. Derrick Rose, finally healthy, returns to NBA form and refuses to be this generation's Penny Hardaway. Jimmy Butler emerges as the league's best shooting guard without a beard, and the four frontcourt players - Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Taj Gibson - mix-and-match any way they need to for the lineup the Bulls want. Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, and Bobby Portis round out the rotation and the East's deepest team cruises to the No. 1 seed.

Worst-Case Scenario: Derrick Rose can't stay healthy. Again. Joakim Noah can't stay healthy. Again. The defense slips without Thibodeau, and Hoiberg can't zero in on a rotation that works with so many playable guys. Mike Dunleavy's injury robs them of a reliable shooter, and the offense slips with poor spacing and no reliable creator. Jimmy Butler is content under his new contract and regresses ever so slightly. The team is nothing but cluttered chaos, but talent alone drags them into the playoffs.

Real-Case Scenario: Rose continues his climb back towards relevance, but it's still an awkward fit next to Jimmy Butler with no shooting around them. Five playable frontcourt guys leads to a number of different pairings - some work, but some don't. Hoiberg doesn't hurt the defense much, but doesn't help it either, and they finish around where they did last year (11th) on that end. They take care of business against the East's bottom half and play even with the other top teams in the conference, easing their way into the playoffs, ready to pounce should any injuries befall the other contenders.

Detroit Pistons
2015 Record: 32-50 (12th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 36.5 (Over -130; Under Even)

Best-Case Scenario: With Josh Smith and Greg Monroe out of the way, Stan Van Gundy is finally able to implement Orlando North V2.0, with Andre Drummond in the Dwight Howard role and shooters surrounding him. Reggie Jackson runs the show for the first month, and then shares the load with Brandon Jennings following his return. Drummond is such a gravitational force that Ersan Ilyasova, Jodie Meeks, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Marcus Morris all shoot over 40 percent from three. Detroit suddenly has a top-10 offense and rides it to a playoff berth.

Worst-Case Scenario: Teams don't fall for the misdirection - they just hack Andre Drummond whenever he has the ball and stay home on the mediocre shooters. Reggie Jackson can't find a rhythm and feuds with Brandon Jennings. With no above-average perimeter defenders, the defense craters to the worst in the league, and Detroit loses 60 games.

Real-Case Scenario: Orlando North V2.0 doesn't quite work as well as it did down south. Drummond can't prop-up a defense on his own like Dwight Howard could, and they don't have the shooters to make it work. But purely schematically, it's a good system, and lays the groundwork for winning in the future.  

Philadelphia 76ers
2015 Record: 18-64 (14th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 20.5 (Over -115; Under -115)

Best-Case Scenario: Ironically, Philadelphia's best-case scenario is probably more of the same - a ton of roster turnover and losing a ton of games. They need Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel to develop a chemistry - Okafor handles the offense, Noel handles the defense. Nik Stauskas should find success in Philly's up-and-down style, but not so much that they'll actually win more games than they want to. If Noel, Okafor, and Stauskas mesh, Joel Embiid is given a clean bill of health, and the Sixers lose 60 games again, that's a perfect season.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Sixers show substantial improvement, but not nearly enough to get into the playoffs. They win enough that they get stuck towards the end of the lottery, but the season is still miserable enough that fans and the front office start to turn sour on Sam Presti's worldview. Embiid suffers yet another setback and it starts to look like he's this generation's Sam Bowie (Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, and future Hall of Famer Jordan Clarkson were all taken after him). At the end of the season, Brett Brown decides he's tired of losing all the time through no fault of his own, and gives up on the process, leaving Philadelphia to go find a new coach.

Real-Case Scenario: Eventually, the Sixers are going to win 25 games. Eventually, one of these replacement-level investments is going to turn into a surprisingly productive player. Eventually, having three high lottery picks on the floor at the same time is going to lead to good basketball. This might be that year. They'll win enough and be competitive enough (and be young and exciting enough) that everyone collectively shuts up about the tanking, but they won't win so much as to undermine the process of trying to draft as high as possible for as long as possible.

Orlando Magic
2015 Record: 25-57 (13th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 34.5 (Over -130; Under Even)

Best-Case Scenario: Like with Philadelphia, eventually, drafting in the top 10 over and over again will lead to some good results. A team filled to the brim with athletes, they just out-run everyone and fly all over the court on defense. It's a total feast-or-famine team. Some nights everything goes well against the Sixers and they win by 50. Other nights, everything goes wrong against the Cavs and they game is over by halftime. But they flip back-and-forth often enough that they hover around .500 for most of the season. Scott Skiles, as he always does, gets improvement in Year 1, and by the time March rolls around, they've matured enough that they go on a mini-surge and find themselves comfortably in the playoff picture.

Worst-Case Scenario: As it turns out, drafting nothing but athletes will a basketball skill set most generously described as a "work in progress" doesn't make for a great half-court offense. They're able to beat up on the riff-raff at the bottom of the conference, but any remotely well-coached team is able to completely shut down their attack. The inevitable team-tunes-out-Scott-Skiles happens way sooner than it ever has before as his intensity is grating on a bunch of young guys who just want to run around. The coming-out-party never happens and Orlando once again loses 50 games.

Real-Case Scenario: Scott Skiles, for all his faults, can turn a defense around pretty quickly. There's a reason he's never finished a 5th season with any of the teams he's coached, but that shouldn't be an issue in Year 1. That being said, Year 2, historically, has been the year where his teams make the real leap, but he lays the groundwork in Year 1. The Magic don't make the playoffs, but they come close and enter next year as the consensus team-on-the-rise in the East.

Boston Celtics
2015 Record: 40-42 (7th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 45 (Over -135; Under +105)

Best-Case Scenario: The Celtics started 16-30, but finished 24-12. Over a full season, 24-12 prorates to either 54 or 55 wins. Their only real weakness was in the frontcourt, to which they added David Lee and Amir Johnson. Much like the post-Carmelo Denver teams under George Karl, there's no real central star, they just go 12-deep with above-average players. They beat teams with depth, destroying second units and treading water against starters. Brad Stevens establishes himself as the best coach in the league not named Popovich and the Celtics shock the league en route to the No. 1 seed in the East.

Worst-Case Scenario: Their second half was a mirage and their depth proves to be more of a burden than a blessing as players grumble over playing time. The frontcourt defense can't keep up with the excellent performance on the perimeter - when the guards and wings funnel guys towards the middle, but there's nobody in the middle to defend the rim. When the bigs step out to hedge, they aren't fleet afoot enough to handle the coverage. The defense stumbles (especially when David Lee is on the court) and there just isn't enough shooting to keep the offense afloat. With an improved conference, the Celtics find themselves outside the playoff picture.

Real-Case Scenario: To be honest, it doesn't matter what happens with the Celtics this season. They can have a great year solely on the basis of the performance of other teams. They get Brooklyn's first-round pick (it's unprotected), and they get Dallas' pick if it lands outside the top 7. With a deep team and a still-pretty-bad East, the Celtics should make the playoffs, but could still end up with two lottery picks.

Houston Rockets
2015 Record: 56-26 (2nd in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 56 (Over -130; Under Even)

Best-Case Scenario: Harden and Howard are the league's best 1-2 combo and everything else falls into place behind them. A healthy Howard, along with a healthy Patrick Beverley, anchor a top-5 defense. Trevor Ariza, K.J. McDaniels, and Corey Brewer run amok on the wing and shut down opposing scorers. Ty Lawson comes off the bench and plays 200 miles per hour, allowing Houston to have an All-Star level creator on the floor at all times. A relentless Houston attack gives them 60 wins and the No. 1 seed in the West, which they ride all the way to the Finals.

Worst-Case Scenario: Dwight Howard's back continues to be an issue, and Ty Lawson's off-court issues prove to be not worth the hassle. Suddenly, James Harden is the only one around to run the show. The defense slips without Howard, and a surprising lack of shooting chokes the offense just enough that Houston falls to the bottom half of the Western playoff bracket. Without home-court advantage, the Rockets exit in Round 1.

Real-Case Scenario: James Harden is once again an MVP candidate. Howard is healthier than he was and helps shore up the defense. Lawson and McDaniels give the bench the extra punch they've been looking for, and the roster is flexible enough that there could be a big trade in their future. The big three carry Houston to a comfortable playoff berth, and the Rockets are once again one of a handful of teams with as good a chance as any to win three series and advance to the Finals.

Los Angeles Clippers
2015 Record: 56-26 (3rd in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 57 (Over -115; Under -115)

Best-Case Scenario: Paul Pierce turns back the clock and gives the Clippers a solid 28 minutes at small forward every night. Josh Smith plays like he did in Houston, knocking down threes and giving a crap on defense, and wins Sixth Man of The Year. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan perform their magic in the half-court offense, and for six minutes each half, Lance Stephenson comes in and runs the show like a homeless man's LeBron. J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford both shoot 40 percent from three, and the Clippers ride the league's best offense all the way to the Finals.

Worst-Case Scenario: Lance Stephenson submarines yet another team and the Clippers' bench is once again a disaster. Paul is still a wizard, but the Clippers can't keep up with the other contenders in the playoffs without a reliable second unit. Paul tries to do it all himself but too much on his shoulders leads to an injury in Round 1 of the playoffs and another disappointing early exit.

Real-Case Scenario: As Stephenson goes, so go the Clippers. We know that the starting unit will be spectacular, so it all depends on whether Stephenson can run the second unit to open the 2nd and 4th quarters. There's no use trying to predict the type of season a semi-loose cannon like Stephenson will have, so suffice it to say that the floor for the Clippers is a Round 1 exit and their ceiling is winning the title.

Milwaukee Bucks
2015 Record: 41-41 (6th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 45 (Over -105; Under -125)

Best-Case Scenario: Jabari Parker returns to full health following his injury, and along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams, form a trio that can switch any screen and be a nightmare defensively on the perimeter. Greg Monroe provides a solid low-post threat, and the offense moves towards middle of the pack to accompany a top-10 defense. Khris Middleton makes a leap and starts to draw comparisons to Jimmy Butler, and O.J. Mayo plays his butt off in a contract year. Even as a popular regression candidate, the Bucks surge into the middle of the playoff bracket and maybe even take their Round 1 series.

Worst-Case Scenario: Greg Monroe proves to be too big a cog to hide on defense. The defensive system breaks down when Monroe can't close off the paint and can't hedge high screens. He's an effective low-post scorer, but with poor spacing, the offense struggles to get him the ball in advantageous positions. Jason Kidd loses confidence in Michael Carter-Williams and turns to Greivis Vasquez and Jerryd Bayless, who don't fare much better. Jabari Parker is back, but he's still not 100 percent recovered from his knee injury, and his sub-standard mobility make him a liability on defense. Without an elite outfit on that end to prop up the team, the Bucks slip out of the playoff picture.

Real-Case Scenario: The team was 10-16 following the mid-season trade that shipped Brandon Knight out of town and brought in Michael Carter-Williams; they were 31-25 prior. Now they've added Greg Monroe, a minus defender at an integral position. Jason Kidd has shown in the past that he can scheme a defense with minimal talent, but that's been with veterans. This team is young. That's the downside. The upside is that while the team's record was worse following the trade, the team performed admirably in the minutes that Carter-Williams did play (+6.2 points per 100 possessions in 782 minutes). If Kidd can get through to the kids and return a top-10 defense, the Bucks should find themselves in the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder
2015 Record: 45-37 (9th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 57 (Over -105; Under -125)

Best-Case Scenario: Kevin Durant's foot is as right as rain - he shakes off the cobwebs and goes right back to MVP form. Russell Westbrook is right there with him, and Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter play supporting roles to perfection. Billy Donovan's offense actually has plays and progressions, and Oklahoma City's offense soars to never-before-seen heights. The defense doesn't matter as no other team in the league can keep up with their relentless offense, and it carries them all the way to the Finals.

Worst-Case Scenario: Bill Walton had a series of foot injuries and was never the same again. Imagine that, but for a player at a position during an era that does a lot more running and jumping than Walton did. If Durant's foot gets hurt again, it could be curtains for a team that couldn't hold their own without him.

Real-Case Scenario: Durant eases his way back in, letting Westbrook take the lead to start the season. Things start to click around Christmas, and the Thunder, under the stewardship of Donovan, emerge once again as one of the best teams in the West. Ibaka anchors the defense, and Kanter bullies opposing second units and averages a double-double off the bench. The Western Conference Playoffs, as always, comes down to who gets hot and who draws favorable matchups. Oklahoma City matches up well against just about everyone, so they'll be right there with everyone else.

Cleveland Cavaliers
2015 Record: 53-29 (2nd in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 56.5 (Over -130; Under Even)

Best-Case Scenario: LeBron and Kevin Love carry the team until Kyrie Irving returns from injury. Once he's back, the Cavs are once again the team that went 32-3 in their last 35 games with their big three intact. Shumpert comes back around Christmas and Cleveland goes on a run reminiscent of Miami's 27-game win streak in 2013. Everything falls into place for Cleveland - Chicago can't stay healthy, Atlanta, Toronto, and Washington regress, and nobody else steps up to take the mantle, and the Cavaliers breeze their way into the Finals.

Worst-Case Scenario: Love and Irving take their time returning from their injury, and LeBron spends the first two months of the season like he did in the Finals - trying to carry the team on his back. When Love and Irving return, LeBron takes a few weeks off, but the Cavs enter panic mode when they're in 7th place at the All-Star break. They make a run in March and secure a playoff spot, but it's too late to just flip the switch, and they get upset in the 2nd round.

Real-Case Scenario: The team mostly just horses around and keeps their head above water until the cavalry comes after Christmas. With the team at full health, they close the year strong, securing a top-three seed. From there it goes as it always does in the Eastern Conference - LeBron steamrolls through them as if they aren't even there. The Cavaliers make the Finals and once again find themselves in a coinflip series with the Western Conference champion.

San Antonio Spurs
2015 Record: 55-27 (6th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 57 (Over -110; Under -110)

Best-Case Scenario: So, they won 55 games last year, then they upgraded from Tiago Splitter and Aron Baynes to LaMarcus Aldridge and David West while only having to surrender Marco Belinelli and Cory Joseph. I think that's a trade that most teams would make. This could be the best team of the Spurs era, and that's saying something. If they were in the East, 70 wins wouldn't be out of the question. They're in the West, so if everything goes right, 60 should be easy. From there, they can beat anyone in the playoffs. We already know this.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Spurs are a finely-tuned machine. What's going to happen when LaMarcus Aldridge, a player who will need to touch the ball a lot, just gets thrown into the middle of that? This could be a work in progress for the first month, and that assumes that everyone is healthy. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan are a combined 110 years old. If Parker and Ginobili miss time, who exactly is going to run the offense? Patty Mills is capable, but they have a surprising lack of depth in the backcourt for the first time in recent memory. In an uber-competitive Western Conference, a year from hell could mean they miss the playoffs.

Real-Case Scenario: Issues of chemistry and backcourt depth aside, it's incredibly hard to believe that a team with this much talent will win any less than 50 games unless something goes dreadfully, dreadfully wrong. There's a reason they've won 50 or more for 16 straight seasons. The Spurs will be the Spurs, and, in all likelihood, Aldridge will only augment their usual greatness. They'll be in the mix of the Western Conference, like always.

Memphis Grizzlies
2015 Record: 55-27 (5th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 51 (Over -110; Under -110)

Best-Case Scenario: We know what the Grizzlies are capable of. The play slow, they play great defense, they struggle to space the floor, but they give every team in the league fits and there isn't a single team that they can't beat. They've been on the cusp for the last five years, and there isn't much to explain their postseason failures other than the simple breaks of the game. They whole gang is back, and a full season of Jeff Green gives them another scorer on the wing. If they're healthy, there's no reason why they can't make the Finals.

Worst-Case Scenario: Well, there's a reason they're always the bridesmaid but never the bride. They've had the fame fundamental flaws for the last five years - their lack of shooting causes their offense to grind to a crawl, often at the worst possible time. They were 29th in threes attempted and 22nd in three point accuracy, and remedied this by adding.... nobody? They just rolled it all back. Once again, their lack of shooting submarines their offense late in games in the postseason and the Grizzlies can't advance past Round 2.

Real-Case Scenario: They're going to win high-40s-to-mid-50s games. They always do. They have their system, and it works. The ongoing question is whether they can win four series in a row. They can beat anyone, but can they beat everyone? The past five years suggest not, but this Western Conference is as topsy-turvy as can be.

Denver Nuggets
2015 Record: 30-52 (12th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 27.5 (Over -125; Under +105)

Best-Case Scenario: I'm not quite sure what Denver's goals are for this season. As such, it's tough to judge what their best-case scenario actually is. It seems quite far-fetched that they'd make the playoffs in this Western Conference, so I'll say that the best they can hope for is to trade Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, AND Wilson Chandler and get a few nice picks in return. Portland is currently $20 million under the salary floor and could easily absorb a large contract or two. Denver nabbed Emmanuel Mudiay in the draft, who could be a very special talent. If they dump Faried and Chandler (most likely), they could pick up a few picks, bottom out, and try their hand at being Philadelphia West.

Worst-Case Scenario: They can't find a suitable trade partner for Faried or Chandler, so they end up just playing out the season. With the East as bad as it is, and the bottom of the West almost as bad, Denver manages to win 35 games purely by accident. They're not good enough to even sniff a playoff spot, but too good to get a true blue-chip talent in the draft.

Real-Case Scenario: They'll play out the season to start, and likely won't find a trade partner for Faried or Chandler. However, that means they'll probably dump Gallinari for way cheaper than he's worth. The rest of the season is mostly a train wreck. I don't see anything going right for Denver this year, other than maybe Mudiay proving to be the best rookie guard of this class.

Toronto Raptors
2015 Record: 49-33 (4th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 46.5 (Over -110; Under -110)

Best-Case Scenario: Skinny Kyle Lowry sets the league on fire and makes the All-NBA team (probably the third team, but still). A healthy DeMar DeRozan is the best shooting guard in the Eastern Conference and Cory Joseph makes a leap with more playing time. The frontcourt isn't as deep, but Joseph, Terrence Ross, and DeMarre Carrol give them a lot of depth on the perimeter and allow for a bunch of funky small-ball lineups. Jonas Valanciunas finally emerges as an All-Star, and the Raptors once again piece together a top-five offense. The defense is still sub-standard, but their offense and depth launch them to a top-three seed in the East.

Worst-Case Scenario: Their defense was bad with Amir Johnson. Without him, it falls off a cliff. With no depth in the frontcourt, they're on injury away from Luis Scola or Bismack Biyombo seeing more minutes than either of them should in 2015. Skinny Kyle Lowry proves to be not that much better than Roly-Poly Kyle Lowry, and the offense regresses a bit. Regression on offense and a downfall on defense leads to Toronto plummeting all the way to the bottom of the Eastern Conference bracket, where they get thrashed by Cleveland in Round 1.

Real-Case Scenario: DeMarre Carroll fits into the Amir Johnson "do all the random things that need to get done" role, in an albeit slightly different fashion. Lowry is slightly better and DeRozan is slightly healthier, and the offense is once again great. The lack of frontcourt depth is an issue, but the Raptors are totally capable of dangling Terrence Ross or one of their prospects (Lucas Nogueira or Bruno Caboclo) or a few future No. 1 picks in the face of a team with more than enough big men (Chicago, Boston, and Memphis come to mind). They breeze into the playoffs and find themselves in the same boat as all the other Eastern Conference also-rans; they have a punchers chance of making the Finals if Cleveland inexplicably implodes.

Washington Wizards
2015 Record: 46-36 (5th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 47 (Over -110; Under -110)

Best-Case Scenario: Randy Wittman has an epiphany. He cuts the long-range two-point jumpers out of his playbook and replaces them with threes. Otto Porter, thanks to the tutelage of Paul Pierce, emerges as a valuable two-way swingman. John Wall plays at light speed and Bradley Beal is lights out. Nene has a resurgence in a contract year, and Gary Neal and Jared Dudley provide valuable shooting on the wing. Wall makes a leap and enters the MVP conversation. By the time the playoffs role around, they have the profile of a team that can attack Cleveland in all the right ways, with a bunch of bodies to throw at LeBron. As the No. 1 seed in the East, home court advantage tips the scales and Washington pulls the shocking upset in the Eastern Finals.

Worst-Case Scenario: Playoff Wittman stays in the playoffs. The offense is still clunky - too bogged-down with midrange jumpers. Dudley, Martell Webster, Ramon Sessions, and Drew Gooden all prove to be on the wrong side of their career arcs and the supporting cast dries up, leaving Wall and Beal to do everything themselves. They play (mostly) two-on-five all season and are able to get into the playoffs, but they have no hope of advancing.

Real-Case Scenario: Depending on how Cleveland approaches the regular season, this could be the No. 1 seed in the East. If Cleveland opts to take everything slow and not care where they finish in the regular season, my bet would be on Washington to steal the No. 1 seed. Wall and Beal are the best 1-2 combo in the conference (Miami's combo, whichever combo emerges, is the only contender). If Wittman's offense is indeed improved and more efficient, this team could give Cleveland a hell of a series.  

Atlanta Hawks
2015 Record: 60-22 (1st in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 50 (Over -105; Under -115)

Best-Case Scenario: They lost jack-of-all-trades DeMarre Carroll, but are able to make up for it with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kent Bazemore emerging thanks to the phenomenal player development that goes on in Atlanta. The Hawks also opt to play more dual point-guard lineups, with Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder sharing the floor, which proves to be a dynamite combination in Mike Budenholzer's drive-and-kick-and-swing-and-drive-and-kick-and-repeat offense. The Al Horford/Paul Millsap combo up front continues to be an amorphous blob that can do anything, and Tiago Splitter gives them a boost on both ends in place of Pero Antic. The season goes roughly the same as it did last year, only without an injury to a key player halfway through the Eastern Conference Finals.

Worst-Case Scenario: It turns out that it was DeMarre Carroll, of all players, who was the glue of the Atlanta team. The defense suffers without its best perimeter defender, and the offense suffers without a second dead-eye shooter on the wing. Neither unit falls apart, but they both slip enough that the cumulative effect drops the Hawks down to the bottom half of the Eastern playoff bracket. They had a relatively lucky season last year in close games, and that luck turns on them this year. Their statistical profile isn't radically different, but they win 10-12 fewer games than last year, and are nothing more than an afterthought in the postseason.

Real-Case Scenario: Budenholzer is a Popovich disciple, and the Hawks appear to be San Antonio East. No matter which lineup they used last year, their performance ranged from "about average" to "well above average." They have their system, they stick to it, and all they need to do is plug new guys in. Carroll was an important cog, but not irreplaceable. The core group is still intact, and the Hawks should have no problem once again establishing themselves as one of the best regular-season teams in the conference.

Brooklyn Nets
2015 Record: 38-44 (8th in Eastern Conferece)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 27.5 (Over -110; Under -110)

Best-Case Scenario: There is no best-case scenario for these Nets. They're losing their pick regardless. It's gone. There's no use trying to be as competitive as possible so they don't look bad handing over the No. 1 pick (if they're losing it regardless, they'd only be saving face from a PR standpoint), but there's also no incentive to tank. They're just going to sit there in their suckiness and suck.

Worst-Case Scenario: They don't even try to tank but still lose 60 games. Then they "win" the lottery and hand the No. 1 pick to Boston. That's probably the worst-case scenario of any team in the history of the league.

Real-Case Scenario: Being the Nets, they're probably going to fight tooth and nail for every win so they don't end up giving the No. 1 pick away. That means they're going to hold onto Thad Young, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson even though pretty much every contender in the league will kick tires on at least one of them. They won't be the worst team in the league, but they'll be close.

Portland Trail Blazers
2015 Record: 51-31 (4th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 28 (Over -110; Under -110)

Best-Case Scenario: Remember how everyone thought the 2014 Suns were going to be a trainwreck because they didn't really have any top-end talent, but ended up winning 48 games because their point guard turned out to be a lot better than we thought he was and the supporting cast turned out to all be pretty efficient dudes that could piece together a good offense and the coach was good enough to make the whole cockamamie plan work? That.

Worst-Case Scenario: This Portland defense could be really, really, really, historically bad. Their current big man rotation is Chris Kaman, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, and Mason Plumlee. There isn't a single reliable rim protector or pick-and-roll defender in the bunch. Al-Farouq Aminu is the only plus defender on the entire roster, really. Even if Damian Lillard drags their offense to above-average by himself, the defense is going to be so miserable that it won't matter.

Real-Case Scenario: Lillard is going to shoot. A ton. From a raw statistics perspective, Lillard could have a jaw-dropping season. They're going to have some pretty good shooters (Lillard, Meyers Leonard, C.J. McCollum, Mo Harkless will hopefully find his stroke again), so whoever has the ball will usually have space to operate. The defense is likely going to be terrible though. They'll be fun to watch, but even reaching .500 will be a great accomplishment.

Sacramento Kings
2015 Record: 29-53 (13th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 35.5 (Over -145; Under +120)

Best-Case Scenario: Boogie Cousins gets his head on straight. Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo rejuvenate their careers. Ben McLemore makes the McLeap. Willie Cauley-Stein is a defensive revelation on arrival. George Karl does George Karl things and pieces together a rotation and a system to get the most out of this utterly bizarre roster. With a suddenly mature Cousins leading the way, the Kings bully the bottom half of the Western Conference on their way to the 8th seed.

Worst-Case Scenario: Boogie Cousins is still a headcase. Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo are washed up. Ben McLemore is the same guy he was. Willie Cauley-Stein is a rookie on defense. George Karl gets fed up with the headache that he neither wants nor needs and quits by Thanksgiving. In a quintessentially Kings fashion, a team that looks half-decent on paper turns out to be the worst team in the Western Conference.

Real-Case Scenario: Boogie is slightly less crazy than he was last year. Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo don't give them much more than anyone reasonably expects - they're kind of just there. McLemore makes a mild improvement, and Cauley-Stein gives them some semblance of rim protection. George Karl re-defines "keep getting 'dem checks" from a coaching perspective. The only good thing to come of the season is Nancy Lieberman serves as an assistant coach. 

Los Angeles Lakers
2015 Record: 21-61 (14th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 28 (Over -105; Under -115)

Best-Case Scenario: Kobe is healthy and productive for the first time in three years. Roy Hibbert flourishes thanks to a change of scenery and reverts back to his brick-wall-in-the-paint days, single-handedly dragging the Lakers to a top-15 defense. D'Angelo Russell is the league's best rookie and immediately develops good pick-and-roll chemistry with Julius Randle. Randle also greatly benefits from playing alongside Hibbert. While Hibbert boxes out the entire team, Randle is able to sweep the boards and take off on the fast break like a poor man's Charles Barkley. The Lakers surprise on offense and find themselves competing for a playoff spot come April.

Worst-Case Scenario: Kobe's body just can't do it anymore. He misses 40 games and then hangs it up for good. Hibbert can't find the motivation to care - with the cap going up, he knows he's going to get paid next year anyway and mails in the season. Russell struggles out of the gate and Randle can't find his niche with so much weird stuff going on. Nick Young emerges as the best player on the team which is great for entertainment but bad for winning games.

Real-Case Scenario: Kobe (begrudgingly) takes a back seat and lets the young guys run the show for the most part. This becomes boring for him within a month and he starts trying to do too much, eventually injuring himself. He comes back by the All-Star break, but by then it's too little, too late. The Lakers lose 50 games without breaking a sweat and Kobe is suddenly unsure whether he wants to keep playing.

Phoenix Suns
2015 Record: 39-43 (10th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 37 (Over -120; Under Even)

Best-Case Scenario: The Eric Bledsoe-Brandon Knight combo succeeds where the Bledsoe-Goran Dragic combo failed. Knight's spot-up shooting proves to be an invaluable resource when Bledsoe goes on his mini-LeBron tears and decides to just go to the basket over and over again. Tyson Chandler is the ideal pick-and-roll partner that Phoenix has been looking for, and Mirza Teletovic, P.J. Tucker, and Devin Booker make it rain from three. The Suns sport a top-10 offense and steal the No. 8 seed.

Worst-Case Scenario: Bledsoe gets hurt, Chandler gets hurt, Alex Len gets hurt, and the Suns find themselves scrambling to find playable frontcourt guys. Brandon Knight's shooting stroke from the first half of last season proves to be a fluke, and the Suns find themselves scrambling to find shooting. The defense was never going to be that great, but with a struggling offense, Phoenix falls to 12th in the Western Conference.

Real-Case Scenario: If the Suns are healthy, they could finish anywhere between 8th and 13th in the West. There's just a huge range for them because so much is going to depend on how well Bledsoe and Knight mesh and whether or not their feast-or-famine shooters can find the range. The most likely scenario is that both of those variables produce lukewarm results and the Suns are in the mix for the last playoff spot, but don't separate themselves from the pack in either direction. 

Dallas Mavericks
2015 Record: 50-32 (7th in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 36.5 (Over Even; Under -120)

Best-Case Scenario: Deron Williams experiences the comeback to end all comebacks and returns to 2012/2013 form. This yanks Dirk out of neutral and keeps the Dallas offense afloat while Chandler Parsons and Wes Matthews recover from injuries. Once healthy, the Mavericks rain hellfire and post the league's best offense. They piece together a defense just respectable enough to avoid crippling embarrassment, and ride their unstoppable offense the rest of the way. The whispers of a season from hell prove to be dramatically overblown and Dallas finds themselves comfortably in the playoff picture.

Worst-Case Scenario: Deron Williams is just done. There's nothing left. It's over. With no reliable creator, Dirk's efficiency continues to slip. Matthews and Parsons take their time getting back to full speed, leaving Dallas without an offense to speak of. With a poor offense and a makeshift defense, the Mavericks tumble out of the playoff picture. To add insult to injury, the Mavericks finish 8th in the lottery drawing and are forced to surrender their pick to Boston.

Real-Case Scenario: I'm not sure the playoffs are in the cards for Dallas this year, so a lot of signs are pointing towards an aggressive tank job. Wait until Matthews and Parsons are a year removed from their surgery, the cap will go up, giving them enough to offer a max contract, and they can either use their high draft pick or flip it for another win-now asset, and then go all-in for one last hurrah with Dirk. 2016 seems like a lost year for Dallas.

New York Knicks
2015 Record: 17-65 (15th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 30 (Over -110; Under -110)

Best-Case Scenario: Kristaps Porzingis is a rookie phenomenon and displays great touch around the basket. Carmelo Anthony, Arron Afflalo, and Jose Calderon all shoot over 40 percent from three, and the Knicks put together a top-10 offense. Robin Lopez mans the paint defensively (as best he can), and at the very least, the Knicks are able to clog the paint with their size and limit attempts around the basket. Armed with a good offense and a passable defense, the Knicks are able to comfortably slip into the postseason in the weak East.

Worst-Case Scenario: Porzingis displays all the worst attributes of Nikoloz Tskitishvili and proceeds to get dunked on mercilessly for the first month of the season, destroying his confidence. Carmelo grows tired of playing with such a softie and begins openly gunning, showcasing himself for a trade. The Knicks oblige, shipping him out, but unlike Denver in 2011, the Knicks get mostly riff-raff and late picks, completing the circle on Anthony (they over-payed to get him, then accepted 60 cents on the dollar to get rid of him). With no talent left on the roster, the Knicks lose 60 games in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history.

Real-Case Scenario: Anthony opens the season firing, spends the halfway point of the season firing, and finishes the season firing, possibly wearing a different uniform. I'd say it's roughly a coinflip whether Anthony finishes the season in New York. If he does, and Porzingis pans out even a little bit, the Knicks have a half-decent chance to slip into the playoffs if a bunch of other teams implode. If Carmelo does get dealt, one would hope they'd get a package like Denver did when they dealt him - two or three rotation players (at least) and a few No. 1 picks.

Indiana Pacers
2015 Record: 38-44 (9th in Eastern Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 41.5 (Over -110; Under -110)

Best-Case Scenario: Paul George playing power forward completely opens up Indiana's offense. Myles Turner plays a stretch-five role and the Pacers play a five-out style like the Hawks did in the 2014 playoffs to nearly upset them. With no bigs clogging the paint, Monta Ellis and Paul George are able to get to the rim repeatedly, and Indiana finds themselves with a top-10 offense. Frank Vogel is able to scheme up a defense relying heavily on trapping and switching, much like the Miami defense of yesteryear that the Pacers could never figure out. With top-10 units on both ends, the Pacers surge to a 50-win season and clinch a top-4 seed in the East.

Worst-Case Scenario: The offense is just clunky with George at power forward - he's uncomfortable as a screener and the system just can't survive with only one big man setting screens. Myles Turner's range shooting never materializes and Indiana finds they have no way to space the floor, even with playing four perimeter players. Their lack of size causes problems on defense, as even the poor teams in the East have big men that can score inside. The experiment is scrapped by January and the Pacers return to a more standard alignment, but it's too late in the season for the team to adjust on the fly. 50 losses later, they find themselves looking to re-tool again.

Real-Case Scenario: The Paul George: Power Forward experiment will work wonders against other teams that would prefer to go small, as George dominates on both ends. When the Pacers face two traditional bigs (as rare as it is), they can't deal with the size and are forced to turn to Jordan Hill and Ian Mahinmi for far too many minutes. Frank Vogel schemes well enough that they're never too far out of the hunt, and by the time April rolls around, the Pacers are one of three or four teams still vying for a playoff spot.

Golden State Warriors
2015 Record: 67-15 (1st in Western Conference)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 59.5 (Over Even; Under -120)

Best-Case Scenario: Remember last season? Again.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Warriors were able to remain remarkably healthy last season, but no such luck here. Bogut misses 30 games, and Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston both miss time, robbing the Warriors of their perimeter depth and flexibility. It's not enough to ruin their season, but enough to send them tumbling back towards being just another team in another loaded Western Conference.

Real-Case Scenario: By default, this is the team to beat in the West. They won 67 games with a historically great scoring margin and lost just five playoff games despite playing some of the stiffest competition any title team has ever faced. That being said, there's a reason there have been five different Western Conference Champions in the last six years. Things can change quickly. There isn't any team that can say they really have Golden State's number, so there's no reason why they couldn't repeat. That being said, the Western Conference playoffs are going to be an all-out war for eight weeks. It's way more likely that some random stupid fluke event throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings than the No. 1 seed dominating the competition again. But Golden State has a good a change as any - maybe even better.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Stupid a$$ read