1. Golden State Warriors (1st in the West)
2016: 73-9, Point Differential: +10.8 (1st), Offense: 112.5 (1st), Defense: 100.9 (T-4th)
I knew there was a chance, but it's still hard to wrap my ahead around the fact that Kevin Durant is a part of this team. They are the prohibitive favorites to win it all and have a Vegas over/under of 66.5 wins that sounds silly at first until you consider that they won 67 in Steve Kerr's first year as coach before last year's NBA record of 73 wins. I'd still caution against betting that at all considering that they won't be pushing for the record again, but with their talent, it's hard not to see them around the 70 win mark. Unlike the 2010-11 Miami Heat, this team should mesh immediately with their shooting and lack of ball dominating skill sets, and their All-NBA stars are all in the peak of their primes, giving them more staying power than the 2007-08 Boston Celtics. There are also some exciting young prospects like the past two big men selected with the 30th pick, Kevon Looney and Damian Jones, and the Summer League sensation I was excited about and suggested they try to lock up to a longer deal, Patrick McCaw. It would've been nice if Elliot Williams would've worked out as one of the D-League lottery tickets I hoped for or an international free agent could've provided a cheap rotation piece, but that would just be icing on the cake given their free agency coup. Durant fits in seamlessly with his shooting, passing, positional versatility, and overall unselfishness while also adding more shot blocking with more length than Harrison Barnes provided in their smaller lineups and provides the one thing they were missing in their league-best offense: the ability to get to the free throw line.
|I used this slide for school in a hypothetical free agency pitch, but it's relevant here to show KD's fit.|
2016: 57-25, Point Differential: +6.0 (4th), Offense: 108.1 (4th), Defense: 102.3 (10th)
It will be interesting to see how much LeBron James and the defending champs coast now that they finally delivered a trophy for Cleveland. With the Matthew Dellavedova sign and trade and Mo Williams late retirement, they are mostly relying on rookie 2nd rounder Kay Felder as backup point guard, and although he is a potential dynamo, they might have to tax James with the strain of leading the second unit in his age-32 season. They remain mostly unchallenged atop the East and still have the best player of his generation and MVP favorite to lead the way to 55-60 win campaign, but Zach Lowe made a great point in his recent tiers rankings: there's never been a Finals trilogy. Even the famed 1980's Celtics and Lakers would stumble upon the Sixers and Rockets in the middle of their historic meetings, so you never know what can happen.
3. San Antonio Spurs (2nd in the West)
2016: 67-15, Point Differential: +10.6 (2nd), Offense: 108.4 (3rd), Defense: 96.6 (1st)
Not seeing Tim Duncan on this roster is a strange sensation, and without him, David West, Boris Diaw, and Boban Marjanovic up front, their over/under opened at a surprising 56.5 after their 67 win season. Even if their defense takes a step back without one of the greatest defenders of all time, they still led the league by a large margin, and Pau Gasol should fit in perfectly offensively with his variety of polished skills. I loved how they managed their cap space in the wake of Duncan's retirement by stretching his remaining $5.6 million, keeping Manu Ginobli, Dejounte Murray, and Livio Jean-Charles as cap holds, and then giving Gasol as much as possible up to the cap before officially signing them. Getting Dewayne Dedmon with the Room Exception could prove to be a steal with his defense, and although I was disappointed to see Jean-Charles waived, Murray and 2011 2nd rounder Davis Bertans could eventually become impact rookies. Their lack of overwhelming athleticism hurts their cause in challenging Golden State, but you can never count out Gregg Popovich.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (3rd in the West)
2016: 53-29, Point Differential: +4.3 (6th), Offense: 106.5 (6th), Defense: 100.9 (T-4th)
Health of their stars is always the issues with this team because Doc Rivers does a great job of getting veterans on the minimum to provide some depth. I would not have given 36 year old Jamal Crawford $30.5 million when they're already so guard heavy with Austin Rivers re-signed behind Chris Paul and J.J. Reddick, but Raymond Felton was a strong signing at his price along with Brandon Bass and Mo Speights up front. They'll end up playing three guard lineups as usual given their glaring weakness at small forward with only Wesley Johnson, Alan Anderson, and Luc Mbah a Moute there, and I still don't see that being able to hold up defensively when the going gets tough in the playoffs. Maybe things will finally break right for them, but this looks like another strong regular season team only barring some change.
5. Boston Celtics (2nd in the East)
2016: 48-34, Point Differential: +3.2 (8th), Offense: 103.9 (13th), Defense: 100.9 (T-4th)
|Could he be the first of multiple stars given their assets/cap space?|
6. Toronto Raptors (3rd in the East)
2016: 56-26, Point Differential: +4.5 (5th), Offense: 107.0 (5th), Defense: 102.7 (11th)
Toronto actually did push Cleveland in their franchise's best season, and that was with big free agent acquisition DeMarre Carroll missing 56 games. Getting Jared Sullinger for just one year on the Mid-Level Exception is a solid value, but it's a definite downgrade from last year's even bigger bargain, Bismack Biyombo, who cashed in on his strong playoff performance. Their defense might take a step back as a result, but they do have former 1st rounders Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo as bouncy front court options along with #9 pick Jakob Poeltl and #27 pick Pascal Siakam, who could be brought along slowly like their predecessors. Jonas Valanciunas always seems on the precipice of a breakout season if Dwane Casey will trust him with more minutes, and that could be important if DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry regress at all from their All-Star campaigns. The young Lithuanian big man could benefit if Patrick Patterson and his shooting gets inserted into the starting lineup in a contract year, and I'm interested to see how much they go small with Carroll at the 4 due to the emergence of Normal Powell as a backup wing option with Terrence Ross.
7. Utah Jazz (4th in the West)
2016: 40-42, Point Differential: +1.8 (10th), Offense: 103.1 (17th), Defense: 101.6 (8th)
This may seem too high for a team that finished below .500, but they added some key veterans to their young team that was bit by the injury bug and lost a lot of close games that belied their strong point differential. Trading the #12 pick for George Hill in the last year of his contract was a bit of a high price to pay, but he's such an underrated player that is a strong fit next to the playmaking Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood while also serving as a good mentor for Dante Exum, who is loaded with potential as he works his way back from his ACL injury that cost him all of last year. It is unfortunate that Hayward is already out for around a month with a broken finger, but that's why Joe Johnson was signed to a moderate two year deal to provide further depth along with the oft-injured scorer Alec Burks and adequate glue guy Joe Ingles on the wing. Getting Boris Diaw for just a 2022 2nd rounder and the rights to '15 #42 pick Olivier Hanlan was the best deal of all as the Spurs needed to clear cap room, and while providing a French countrymen for Rudy Gobert, they more importantly got some further versatility as a backup big with young Trey Lyles. Derrick Favors forms a beastly interior duo with Gobert, so having those skilled reserves gives coach Quin Snyder some nice lineup options. I'm pretty confident that they can piece together a decent enough offense to make the playoffs with what should be an elite defense behind the Stifle Tower, my early pick for Defensive Player of the Year.
8. Atlanta Hawks (4th in the East)
2016: 48-34, Point Differential: +3.6 (7th), Offense: 103.0 (18th), Defense: 98.8 (2nd)
This might be the most fascinating team outside of Golden State now that they are trying to replace Horford with a vastly different kind of player in Dwight Howard in Mike Budenholzer's system and handing the keys over to Dennis Schroder following the Jeff Teague trade. The return from that move, #12 pick Taurean Prince, ideally is someone who can replace what they lost in DeMarre Carroll, and I love their #21 pick, DeAndre Bembry, as a potential point forward to take on some of the playmaking load lost, although both rookies need some time in the Hawks University for Wings to hone their shots. New backup point guard Malcolm Delaney is an intriguing free agent addition on the cheap after he was undrafted out of Virginia Tech in 2011 and earned his way in Europe, and if he can provide reliable minutes behind Schroder, then they should remain a playoff team after re-signing top 3-and-D wing Kent Bazemore. Whether they can avoid being swept again by Cleveland and make some noise will depend on how well Howard can adapt in his hometown since he could ideally provide the physical interior play they need next to star power forward Paul Millsap, whose potential free agency makes this a precarious season filled with uncertainty.
9. Charlotte Hornets (5th in the East)
2016: 48-34, Point Differential: +2.7 (9th), Offense: 105.1 (9th), Defense: 101.8 (9th)
|Re-signing these two at fair rates is high-five worthy.|
10. Portland Trail Blazers (5th in the West)
2016: 44-38, Point Differential: +0.8 (13th), Offense: 106.1 (7th), Defense: 105.6 (20th)
I'm not quite as high on the upside of this team as most, and even putting them at this spot was mostly due to a lack of other options. After shrewdly picking up undervalued rotation pieces last summer, they made one similar upside signing (Festus Ezeli), gave mostly fair new deals to four of their own guys (C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, and Mo Harkless), and overpaid on a splashy addition that is a questionable fit (Evan Turner), putting them in Luxury Tax territory next season for a team that might not have much natural improvement left with a core already in their mid-to-late-20's. With that in mind, I don't think it's likely they'll give Mason Plumlee his own new contract beyond this season since he isn't really the defensive force they need behind their small guards, which is why the injury-prone Ezeli was worth the flier on a two year deal with the second season only $1 million guaranteed. Starting Harkless next to Al-Farouq Aminu as their forwards would help defensively with their ability to switch on most actions, but they'll have to make opposing defenses pay on the other end when they're left alone from three. That likely leaves Turner as a 6th man, which could make sense since he is best with the ball in his hands and wouldn't be able to do so starting next to Damian Lillard and McCollum, who now won't have to carry such a heavy load as the primary creator with the second unit. Crabbe still needs to get his minutes on the wing as he continues to develop, though, so Terry Stotts will have some juggling to do on the perimeter in addition to finding the right balance of big men combinations with Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh giving him further options beyond Plumlee, Ezeli, and Leonard. He's a good coach that can figure these things out, so I don't doubt their playoff staying power. I'm just not far they'll go with this group as Lillard enters his prime or whether they need to make some kind of trade with their depth.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (6th in the West)
2016: 55-27, Point Differential: +7.3 (3rd), Offense: 109.9 (2nd), Defense: 103.0 (T-12th)
It's tough to find a new path once an MVP talent leaves, but Sam Presti has always been a GM with an eye towards the future, which has provided them some other nice pieces around All-Star Russell Westbrook to help cushion the fall from title contender. Of course, a cynic might say that "always getting younger" contributed to why Durant felt the need to leave, but Steven Adams is beginning to blossom into an elite center, Victor Oladipo and #11 pick Domantas Sabonis look to be two starters gained in exchange for Serge Ibaka in the last year of his contract, and Spanish rookie Alex Abrines finally came over as the other 2013 draft pick along with Adams as a part of the James Harden trade (although the 2014 1st rounder acquired, Mitch McGary, was waived today). Getting Westbrook locked up for another season by boosting this year's salary in exchange for their remaining cap space was huge since they don't have to worry about him opting out next summer, so they now have some more time to see how things will shake out around him with this group that is more of a collection of talent than a group that perfectly fits. Oladipo is a curious choice in the back court since Orlando tried turning him into their own Westbrook by experimenting with him at point guard as a rookie, and he is not a knockdown shooter, although he has improved each year from 32.7% to 33.9% to 34.8% last season with increasing attempts, as well. Shooting will be at a premium for this team since starting a complete non-threat like defensive specialist Andre Roberson only worked with Durant and Ibaka able to space the floor from their forward spots. Sabonis has shown some surprising early range in the preseason that will be huge for his growth as I was a big fan of his at Gonzaga for his rebounding and interior touch, but I'm not sure how many minutes he'll be ready for as a rookie or whether defenses will respect him out there. Playing big man Enes Kanter alongside Adams might work since some outside shooting is a part of his scoring prowess while he'd benefit from having their two best defenders next to him as cover in Roberson and Adams, but it's hard to imagine that would truly help their spacing. Thus, Abrines and veteran Anthony Morrow will likely need to get more minutes on the wing, and Billy Donovan could try and stagger Westbrook and Oladipo's minutes to anchor the second unit with a playmaker at all times. That should help them win enough games to safely make the playoffs this year and reconfigure based on more data next summer.
12. Houston Rockets (7th in the West)
2016: 41-41, Point Differential: +0.2 (15th), Offense: 105.5 (8th), Defense: 105.6 (21st)
Well, at least they know who they will be. By signing Mike D'Antoni to be their coach and signing Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, they will have an outstanding offense and not much defense. I'd like the idea of Gordon as a 6th man, but it sounds like James Harden will completely shift to point guard since he is their main creator anyway, even after Pat Beverly returns from knee surgery. A defense spearheaded by the incumbent point guard with Trevor Ariza and a full season of Clint Capela would actually have a chance at finishing outside of the bottom ten depending on how the bench and coaching, but going this route will be a fun experiment that will pump up Harden's stats. Once committed, I loved the way they handled their summer by going literally right up to the salary cap with the signings of the two free agents, 2nd round pick Chinanu Onuaku on a three year deal, and Harden's extension for an additional season while still holding onto Donatas Motiejunas' cap hold before adding Nene at a bargain with the Room Exception for just one year and the minimum contracts to round out their depth. Picking up Tyler Ennis as a younger option at backup point guard for just the non-guaranteed contract of Michael Beasley was a nice low-risk move even before considering their glut at forward. Perhaps D'Antoni will give Sam Dekker and K.J. McDaniels some playing time to develop as possible two-way players because any help defensively will improve the ceiling of this team.
13. Washington Wizards (6th in the East)
2016: 41-41, Point Differential: -0.5 (17th), Offense: 102.9 (19th), Defense: 103.6 (14th)
|Brooks is likely the best coach Wall has had in Washington.|
14. Indiana Pacers (7th in the East)
2016: 45-37, Point Differential: +1.7 (11th), Offense: 102.4 (23rd), Defense: 100.2 (3rd)
This one was tough since Paul George has always been one of my favorite players and I loved them getting Myles Turner as his wingman in last year's draft, but I don't think they'll be improved from last year. Letting a coach as good as Frank Vogel go was a stunning move by Larry Bird, and replacing the rotation spots of Hill and Mahinmi with Teague and Jefferson will further hurt this previously elite defense. Trading the 20th pick for Thaddeus Young wasn't as bad since he should slot in well between George and Turner as the small ball for Bird's wanted, but it was an expensive one compared to the rookie scale contract. Getting Aaron Brooks and Kevin Seraphin with just one guaranteed years each were nice, cheap depth moves, and taking on Jeremy Evans' guaranteed contract just to waive him was a nifty move to pick up $2 million in total by helping Dallas clear cap space. I can't get over them losing both of their George Hill trades, though, as he cost them Kawhi Leonard and is now being replaced by a player who is less valuable for a team that doesn't necessarily need individual offensive creation. Hill may be two years older than Teague, but his terrific defense and spot up shooting made him a much better fit next to George and the imperfect Monta Ellis. Maybe promoted coach Nate McMillan can put together a scheme for this group that allows them to gel in ways I can't see an proves me wrong, but I don't see them improving on last year's 45 wins.
15. Detroit Pistons (8th in the East)
2016: 44-38, Point Differential: +0.6 (14th), Offense: 103.3 (T-14th), Defense: 103.0 (T-12th)
I would feel a lot better about this team if star point guard Reggie Jackson wasn't out the first month of the season with a knee issue because much like a former ballplayer with his name, he really is the straw that stirs the drink for this offense. They re-signed Andre Drummond to a max contract as expected, but their pick and roll game with him won't be as effective with new backup point guard Ish Smith running the show. Signing fellow big men Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic was a bit surprising while also making last year's Aron Baynes overpayment look even worse, but at least Leuer could stretch the floor and play some at either front court spot. They'll need Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to stretch defenses more after his 3 point shooting dropped from 34.5% to 30.9% between his second and third years because his defensive versatility is so valuable. Which two end up starting more of the season out of Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, and Marcus Morris will be interesting as I believe Morris was overextended in his role last year, although he provides some combination of shooting and defense. Johnson taking a leap along with Harris' steady improvement is where this young team has the most potential to grow once Jackson gets healthy, though.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves (8th in the West)
2016: 29-53, Point Differential: -3.5 (24th), Offense: 104.3 (11th), Defense: 107.1 (27th)
This team has basically become the new Thunder for me ever since they got Andrew Wiggins, especially since they followed that up with Karl Towns and Kris Dunn over the next two drafts, much like Westbrook and Harden with Durant. That 2010 OKC team made the jump from 23 wins to 50 and the 8th seed, and although the Vegas over/under of 41.5 is surprisingly optimistic, I cautiously like the over. 13 wins is a huge improvement, but going from Sam Mitchell to Tom Thibodeau should be a drastic coaching change to go along with all of their young talent improving. Wiggins should reach his defensive potential like Jimmy Butler did in this system, and perhaps Zach LaVine will be able to harness his athleticism on that end, as well, since his shooting is likely needed with the starters on offense. Their need for a stretch four could be filled internally as former EuroLeauge MVP Nemanja Bjelica does have a lot of skill and could remind Thibs of Nikola Mirotic if he gets more consistent minutes than he did in his rookie year. The signings of centers Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill, while solid contracts, likely mean that they want to play Towns at power forward, though, and I can't help but feel that they're losing an even bigger advantage with his myriad of skills at center. It likely won't matter since his elite talent will shine through no matter what, but you have to wonder what kind of vision Thibs has for this team as president of basketball operations since he doesn't seem to be the biggest fan of Ricky Rubio, who is often the heart of this team. Dunn and him can play together at times thanks to their size and defensive abilities, but since neither is a knockdown shooter, Rubio is likely their best trade chip once Dunn proves ready to be the starting point guard, with sophomore Tyus Jones still needing to develop into a reliable backup, as well.
|There's a lot of reason for excitement around these two.|
2016: 42-40, Point Differential: -2.2 (20th), Offense: 102.6 (T-21st), Defense: 105.4 (19th)
On paper, they look like a sure playoff team with their top players, but depth concerns abound with their injury history. Moving Zach Randolph to a 6th man role is a good idea from new coach David Fizdale that should provide a scoring anchor for the second unit while also having JaMychal Green provide more defensive energy with the starters. If Chandler Parsons can return to his peak form before his knee issues, his shooting and passing will be a great fit between the re-signed floor general Mike Conley and defensive anchor Marc Gasol, and they're betting over $94.4 million that he can. I'm not willing to go that far, but I do think that their upside-filled rookies Wade Baldwin, Deyonta Davis, and Troy Williams will be contributors, with the deal for Davis potentially a steal.
18. Dallas Mavericks (10th in the West)
2016: 42-40, Point Differential: -0.3 (16th), Offense: 104.8 (10th), Defense: 104.3 (16th)
It seems like every year I count out Dallas, and the magical combination of Dirk Nowitski's shooting and Rick Carlisle's coaching proves me wrong en route to a playoff showing. This year's version of a revamped roster from Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson hinges on max contract free agent signing Harrison Barnes proving ready to step into a more critical role at age 24, which will be fascinating to monitor since he'll be able to flex his wings with more offensive freedom but will be without the benefits of his Warriors teammates drawing the opposition's attention. The Black Falcon's raw numbers will likely go up due to a higher usage, but that tends to lead to lower efficiency, although the gravity of Dirk as a teammate tends to make you look better (just ask J.J. Barea). Taking center Andrew Bogut's salary off of Golden State's hands as well was a cost effective way to provide a defensive stopgap for a year, and Seth Curry's deal for the Room Exception is a bargain for the shooting he provides as they form a faux Warriors team. Their usual signings of 2nd rounders and young free agents to long-term deals with little guarantees don't appear to have high upside but could produce some sneaky role players, and although they would appear to have a guard heavy roster, that could work out since they can't 100% count on Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams. In total, though, there is so much uncertainty that I think this is the year they bow out of the postseason.
19. Orlando Magic (9th in the East)
2016: 35-47, Point Differential: -1.6 (19th), Offense: 102.6 (T-21st), Defense: 104.6 (17th)
On the one hand, I think Frank Vogel is a fantastic hire to go along with their young group of talent while on the other, I just cannot understand some of the head scratching moves they've made over the past year. I believe that third year player Aaron Gordon is best as a high flying power forward and should be their centerpiece going forward, yet they created a crowded front court by trading for Serge Ibaka and signing Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green to go along with the incumbent Nikola Vucevic. Gordon will likely have to spend most of his minutes on the perimeter as a result, and although they did well to re-sign Evan Fournier to a five year deal below his max, they appear to be relying too heavily on poor shooting point guard Elfrid Payton to create offense. I'm hopeful that last year's #5 pick, Mario Hezonja, can help alleviate that load in the wake of Oladipo's departure and provide some desperately needed shooting, but Vogel's system may not suit him. They should be competitive at the very least and could make a run at a playoff spot if the pieces fit better than they would appear.
20. New York Knicks (10th in the East)
2016: 32-50, Point Differential: -2.7 (22nd), Offense: 102.0 (26th), Defense: 104.8 (18th)
This team would appear to be on the rise with new coach Jeff Hornacek and some good signings supplementing star forwards Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, like new 3-and-D shooting guard Courtney Lee, backup point guard Brandon Jennings on a surprisingly low-risk deal, returning bench grinder Lance Thomas, under the radar Lithuanian forward Mindaugas Kuzminkas, and 2015 #35 pick Willy Hernangomez on a nice four year deal. However, the headliners Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah might have bigger names than game right now with their health concerns. Rose could do better with a change of scenery away from his hometown, but he is not a good fit in the Triangle Offense if they stick with it. If they run Hornacek's offense from Phoenix that suits him, then they'll have the pressure to commit to him on a big contract that carries risk like the four year deal they gave to 31 year old Noah. He could contribute to what should be a fun team, though, and they could climb out of mediocrity if their lack of depth doesn't come back to hurt them.
21. Chicago Bulls (11th in the East)
2016: 42-40, Point Differential: -1.5 (18th), Offense: 102.1 (25th), Defense: 103.9 (15th)
Under rookie head coach Fred Hoiberg, the offense that he was hired to improve fell to near the bottom of the league, but you can't necessarily fault him since the roster lacks the right pieces for a pace and space offense that made his Iowa State teams so fun. Signing aging non-shooters like Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo isn't going to help that and largely negates the effect of trading Rose and his huge expiring contract for steady center Robin Lopez and 2015 #19 pick Jerian Grant, who isn't a knockdown shooter either but can be a nice third guard. At 6'7", 220 lbs, star wing Jimmy Butler can certainly play small forward next to the veteran guards, but they'll have almost no spacing to work with, especially if defensive stalwart Taj Gibson starts over Nikola Mirotic at the 4. Tony Snell never really became the shooter they needed, but trading him for another non-shooter in Michael Carter-Williams only amplifies the situation. The 6'6" point guard they received is the better player on the aggregate, though, and playing Doug McDermott more could help since he knocked down 42.5% of his threes last year and was at 45.8% in college while #14 pick Denzel Valentine also hit 40.8% of his college threes, including over 100 in each of the past two season. It's fair to wonder whether any of these perimeter players aside from Butler is a plus defender at this stage of their careers, though, and while there is potential for young bigs Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio behind Lopez, Gibson, and Mirotic, there are sure to be growing pains defensively, as well. There are some good pieces here, but I don't like the fit at all under an inexperienced coach.
22. Denver Nuggets (11th in the West)
2016: 33-49, Point Differential: -3.1 (23rd), Offense: 102.7 (20th), Defense: 106.4 (24th)
|Their burly young bigs will likely determine their success.|
23. Sacramento Kings (12th in the West)
2016: 33-49, Point Differential: -2.5 (21st), Offense: 103.3 (T-14th), Defense: 106.3 (23rd)
Maybe this will be the year things turn around for the Kings in their new arena after making a good coaching move with Dave Joerger. They made some nice personnel decisions like offloading Marco Belinelli for the #22 pick Malachi Richardson and not committing too many years to useful free agents Arron Afflalo, Anthony Tolliver, and Matt Barnes. Giving such a big deal to Garrett Temple and drafting even more bigs in Georgios Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere were more on the questionable side, but there isn't anything horrible here, which is saying something. There's some flexibility here going forward to either try and build around star big man DeMarcus Cousins like they've been trying to or blow it up if needed. Perhaps taking a risk-free chance on Ty Lawson can help them get off to a good start while presumable starting point guard Darren Collison is suspended, and they'll need as much good guard play as possible to help Rudy Gay around Cousins. I don't think they'll be able to play the defense Joerger will demand just yet, but a step in the right direction and seeing what they have in their draft picks can be a solid year for this club, especially if it happens to mean they keep their top-10 protected 1st rounder in the upcoming draft.
24. Milwaukee Bucks (12th in the East)
2016: 33-49, Point Differential: -4.2 (26th), Offense: 102.2 (24th), Defense: 105.7 (22nd)
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a future superstar if he isn't already, and I wrote a good bit about the lineup flexibility he allows you as a point forward, which makes the hamstring injury sustained by do-it-all wing Khris Middleton all the more tragic since that will rob them of one of the key pieces in their versatile lineup for the majority of the year. Newly acquired Snell is something of a facsimile with his length and shooting while free agent addition Matthew Dellavedova also provides shooting as a gritty combo guard next to the Greek Freak, but they'll really need Jabari Parker to expand his range and take his game to the next level now that he's two years removed from his torn ACL. Second year guard Rashad Vaughn stands to improve as a shooter, as well, and Mirza Teletovic could prove to be the bargain of the summer as a shooting big that boosts the defense. However, it remains to be seen whether Miles Plumlee, Greg Monroe, John Henson, or surprise #10 pick Thon Maker can truly anchor an above average defense, likely sinking their playoff hopes.
25. New Orleans Pelicans (13th in the West)
2016: 30-52, Point Differential: -3.8 (25th), Offense: 103.2 (16th), Defense: 107.3 (28th)
It's been fascinating to me how each of the top rookies across sports in 2012 (Mike Trout, Andrew Luck, and Anthony Davis) have proven to be generational talents but lack sustained playoff success due to mismanagement around them. Drafting Buddy Hield over fellow shooting guard Jamal Murray, who is over three years younger and has more potential as a playmaker, seems like another win-now attempt of a move while guaranteeing four years of starters' money to Solomon Hill appears to be unnecessary commitment in the front court like Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca. Starting those two new additions on the perimeter puts a lot of pressure on Jrue Holiday to create, but he is out indefinitely to nobly take care of his wife, soccer star Lauren Cheney, and their newborn after a tumor was discovered on the side of her brain. Although Langston Galloway was a steal of a signing along with solid addition E'Twaun Moore, neither one of them is a true point guard. Terrance Jones was also a bargain on just the minimum for a year to reunite with his Kentucky teammate Davis, but the two of them could be pushing their playmaking abilities a bit too far with this current mixture of talents. Maybe their late flier on Lance Stephenson to fill in while fellow combo guard Tyreke Evans is on the shelf will surprise, but right now it's hard to see their lack of reliable talent overcoming their constant medical misfortune.
26. Miami Heat (13th in the East)
2016: 48-24, Point Differential: +1.6 (12th), Offense: 104.2 (12th), Defense: 101.5 (7th)
With the way they handled the Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh situations, this looks like a team ready to tank if things don't look too rosy the second half of the season like when they secured the top-10 protected pick that became Justise Winslow, and their over/under is down to 35 wins as a result. After re-signing star center Hassan Whiteside, they made enough value moves for capable rotation players like Willie Reed, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams, and Luke Babbitt before matching rising guard Tyler Johnson's offer sheet and eventually nabbing Dion Waiters on the Room Exception that it would appear they want to stay competitive while maintaining some flexibility, a sensible strategy. The combination of Johnson, Waiters, and putting the ball in point guard Goran Dragic's hands more with Wade gone can keep the offense from dropping too far, but the drop off in forwards around Whiteside from Bosh, Luol Deng, and eventually Joe Johnson will likely be rough. The development of Winslow and 2nd round find Josh Richardson is probably the key to them getting back to the playoffs, but barring another diamond in the rough like Whiteside emerging under coach Erik Spoelstra, who surprisingly has the second longest tenure in the league behind pop, I think they take a step back to build through the Lottery before finally losing two future 1sts for the Dragic trade.
27. Phoenix Suns (14th in the West)
2016: 23-59, Point Differential: -6.7 (27th), Offense: 99.4 (28th), Defense: 107.0 (26th)
Those Miami picks are going to Phoenix, who already has a nice collection of talent that makes me want to like them, but they just feel so far away from really contending for a playoff spot under no-longer-interim coach Earl Watson, especially when you see where they ranked in the above categories. Both #4 pick Dragan Bender and #8 pick Marquese Chriss have sky-high potential up front, and last year's #13 pick Devin Booker proved to be much more adept of a playmaker than expected as the youngest player in the league last season, raising his long-term ceiling as a go-to option. However, adding yet another Kentucky guard in Tyler Ulis and signing the nearly 34 year old Leandro Barbosa to have behind Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Booker seemed unnecessary, with Archie Goodwin now waived as a result. Balancing the front court minutes to let the rookies grow will be a challenge for Watson, so I wouldn't be surprised to see some trades to shake things up, despite 34 year old Tyson Chandler having $39 million left on his deal.
|Yup, your team could be really good in about 3 years, Devin.|
2016: 17-65, Point Differential: -9.6 (29th), Offense: 98.6 (29th), Defense: 109.3 (30th)
There's a fun sense of young excitement around this legendary franchise after lucking out with the second pick in the Lottery in back to back years to keep their protected draft picks in back to back years and hiring head coach Luke Walton away from the Warriors, whom he went 39-4 with while filling in for Kerr. 20 year old point guard D'Angelo Russell, 24 year old combo guard Jordan Clarkson, 19 year old wing Brandon Ingram, and 21 year old power forward Julius Randle have a lot of potential as a young core, while 19 year old Ivica Zubac, 23 year old Larry Nance Jr., and 24 year old Tarik Black could be useful bigs alongside them. That being said, they still owe 2017 and 2019 1st round picks unless they win another top-3 spot in the Lottery again and have surrounded their youngsters with older players who don't fit their timeline like Luol Deng, Metta World Peace, Jose Calderon, and Timofey Mozgov, who wildly set the market with his inexplicably early $64 million deal. Deng is still a good player and definitely a valuable veteran voice but takes away minutes from either Ingram or Randle, and I'd have to think veteran 6th man scorer Lou Williams might be flipped for an asset eventually since he does the same to Russell and Clarkson. There's reason for excitement, but it should be tempered for now at least.
29. Philadelphia 76ers (14th in the East)
2016: 10-72, Point Differential: -10.2 (30th), Offense: 96.6 (25th), Defense: 106.7 (25th)
After finally getting heralded center Joel Embiid ready to make his NBA debut after two years of injuries since being the #3 pick in 2014, they lost #1 pick Ben Simmons to a fraction of his fifth metatarsal in his right foot with an unclear recovery time. Free agent addition Jerryd Bayless, whom I mentioned as the type of combo guard to play next to a point forward like Simmons, is also currently out for at least a month with a left wrist injury, leaving playmaking duties to the combination of EuroLeague star Sergio Rodriguez in his second NBA stint and scrappy second year guard T.J. McConnell, with newly arrived 2014 #12 pick Dario Saric possibly given some point forward opportunities. Both of their later fist round picks could become solid wings next to their bigs with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot's 3-and-D potential if his shot stays consistent and the smart offensive game of Furkan Korkmaz, who will need to get stronger defensively as he stays overseas at least for this season. That will help them not have to rely too much on Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas too much down the line, but their long term upside obviously depends on Simmons' health and how well their centers Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor play, possibly together. Or how fast a trade of one of them can come together, with bench minutes capably being filled by Sam Hinkie's 2nd round finds Jerami Grant and Richaun Holmes. Although Hinkie won't be there to reap the benefits, I hope The Process works out to ease up the criticism he's taken and any heat on coach Brett Brown.
30. Brooklyn Nets (15th in the East)
2016: 21-61, Point Differential: -7.4 (28th), Offense: 100.9 (27th), Defense: 108.5 (29th)
Kenny Atkinson has signed up for a similarly long rebuild like Brown, but Brooklyn's behind the eight ball to start due to the picks that they owe from their hasty win-now phase negating any tanking these next two seasons. New GM Sean Marks is off to a solid start, though, flipping veteran Thaddeus Young for the 20th pick (and taking upside wing Caris LeVert) and an upcoming 2nd rounder, grabbing dynamic guard Isiah Whitehead in the 2nd round (and signing him to a four year deal), signing point guard Jeremy Lin to an acceptable deal, and attempting to pry away restricted free agents Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson before both offer sheets were matched. There was a clear goal to improve their perimeter play, with veterans Greivis Vasquez and Randy Foye later signed to nice one year deals and undrafted Indiana standout Yogi Ferrell getting a look, as well, so they are doing things a bit differently than Philly, which will hopefully result in a watchable offense at least. Their top rookie last year, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, has defensive chops at multiple positions while their upside pick, Chris McCullough, showed some flashes with a nice steal rate and some threes (13 of 34) but was inconsistent in his 24 games coming off his torn ACL, only shooting 41.3% inside the arc. They'll likely trade more pieces throughout the season to try and gain more young players, and longtime center Brook Lopez is still likely their most tradeable asset despite his nearly $44 million owed and injury history since he only has another year left on his deal, is still only 28, and can play passable defense to go along with his vast array of offensive skills. Any additional 1sts they can add will help, and it may even distract fans from the fact that in addition to losing a lot of games, they'll likely be losing a top-5 pick to Boston for what is likely a pick in the high 20's and those glorious Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce years.