NBA Season Preview: Part 3
Written by: Hashaam Jamil
10. Charlotte Hornets (49-33)
This doesn’t feel natural at all to see the Charlotte Hornets in the top 10 of the NBA. It may seem like a huge jump from last year, but this team has the talent, coaching, and swagger to really go for 50 wins. Al Jefferson has turned into a franchise star thanks to Steve Clifford’s coaching particularly on the defensive end. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a defensive stud who seems to have made some strides with his incredibly ugly jumper. Kemba Walker is going to try to make a case for him being a top-tier point guard in the East and the supporting cast should help with that. With the drafting of Noah Vonleh to sure up the frontcourt after losing Josh McRoberts to free agency and backup guards like Gary Neal, Gerald Henderson, and Brian Roberts the Hornets are one of the deepest teams not only in the East but in the league. But the biggest move has to be the addition of Lance Stephenson who could solve so many of the problems that plagued Charlotte last year. The Hornets defense was stellar last year and adding Stephenson should only benefit them with how well he performed in Indiana last year. With how poor Charlotte’s perimeter offense is, Stephenson should provide a big boost with his solid three-point shooting and his ability to handle the ball and manage the game should really benefit the team. The East should be much improved this year and the team that will epitomize this change should be the Hornets. The elite in the East are going to have to watch out for Charlotte, because they have the size and skill to upset the giants of the league.
9. Golden State Warriors (50-32)
If this was a ranking of the most fun teams to watch, the Warriors would be even closer to the top than they are in this ranking. Still, being number 9 isn’t a bad thing for Dubs. With a starting lineup of Curry-Thompson-Igoudala-Lee-Bogut this team has the talent to beat any other starting 5 any other night. But the Warriors still have two huge problems. The first is that David Lee, Andre Igoudala, and Andrew Bogut each played under 70 games last year and Bogut again got hurt in the playoffs. Health has always been an issue and it’s also struck the Dubs’ best player. Curry has a chronic ankle injury that always seems to hurt him at the least opportune time. And for a player that takes as many jump shots off-the-dribble as Curry, the ankle is very important. Still Curry is going to challenge the greatest three-point shooters ever for the title of the best of all time, and with Klay Thompson at his side in the backcourt, the Splash Brothers are going to run some teams out of the arena. The other huge problem with Golden State is the complete lack of offense off the bench. Harrison Barnes is a solid young player, but he took a step back in his sophomore season. You can blame some of that the introduction of Igoudala into the offense, but Barnes still should have thrived as the primary scorer off the bench. Adding Shaun Livingston was a very smart move since he can fill the role Jarret Jack had a few years ago especially after the comeback season he had with the Nets last year. The bench can defend fairly well, but the offense becomes almost unbearable without Curry or Thompson in it. Hopefully the new coach knows how to fix this. Steve Kerr is smart and has played under both Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich so he is coming in with some valuable experience. Still he has no true coaching experience and is making the infamous move from analyst to coach so only time will tell how good he can be. There’s a chance he can make Curry an all-time great and perhaps be closer to 60 wins than 50.
8. Portland Trail Blazers (53-29)
The next three teams are all right on the cusp of being elite. Each one of them have made major strides towards being title contenders but are still lacking at least one thing that is holding them out of the top 5. First up is the team that surprised everyone last year, but won’t be able to do it again. Before last season, no one expected the Trail Blazers to be as good as they were. Damian Lillard was still young and unproven, the team had little to no perimeter scoring, and LaMarcus Aldridge was demanding a trade. None of that I true anymore. Lillard is a beast and is helping this offense run with Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum each hovering around 20 points every game. Aldridge could still leave this team in free agency, but why would he when the offense runs through him and he has established himself as one of the best big men in the game? The team is incredibly talented and have the ability to outplay most teams in the West. The only problem is the bench has a few holes. And by a few holes that means Dorell Wright is their best bench player. Wright isn’t bad, but he can’t be relied upon to provide scoring when the starting lineup is struggling. But Portland is dangerous with their mixture of size and speed. Batum is a Swiss army knife of a player, Lillard is a young scoring machine, Matthews is a great 3-and-D player, Aldridge is a dominating big man, and Lopez can defend any big man. Trust the Trail Blazers to be better this year than last with Terry Stotts having established his scheme and trusting his players to fill the roles they’ve set up for themselves. The bench could not be worse than last year especially with Meyers Leonard and C.J. McCollum entering their second seasons and being more accustomed to the Blazers offense. Add more experience and a better bench and you have a legitimate title contender that could beat any of the teams ranked above.
7. Dallas Mavericks (54-28)
Just when it seemed the Dirk Nowitzki era of Dallas was coming to an unceremonious close, Mark Cuban found a way to make this team just as scary as it was in the past. Signing Monta Ellis was huge last year as it helped spread the scoring load. This year’s transactions might have been even better. While losing Jose Calderon hurts this team’s backcourt, adding Tyson Chandler not only brings in a player and leader beloved by Dallas and Nowitzki, but also helps sure up the team’s interior defense, something the Mavs wish they were better at versus the Spurs. With Dirk getting closer and closer to the finish line, having Chandler there to take over the interior defensive load will do wonders for Dirk’s aging body. The Mavs also stole an up-and-coming scoring machine from an in-state rival. The Rockets are going to regret losing Chandler Parsons especially when they see him help the Mavs to a higher playoff seed. Losing Jose Calderon really hurts this team on offense, but Parsons more than makes up for it. His scoring ability, while still great, was not allowed to reach its full potential thanks to Harden and Howard needing touches. On this Dallas team he and Ellis will share the scoring load with Dirk. It sounds like the same situation, but there is one huge difference. Ellis no longer needs to shoot every time he touches the ball and has now become a very good passer. Dirk has mastered the “old man game”-style of basketball and in doing so has let the offense come to him more than ever before. This means that Parsons gets to control the ball and set up his own shots, something he proved he can do well last year. The Mavs have veteran leaders, one of the best coaches in the league and a “nobody believes in us” mindset that helped them challenge the Spurs. They are scarier than last year and look to fill Dirk’s last few years with deep playoff runs.
6. Memphis Grizzlies (55- 27)
When Marc Gasol came back from injury last year the Grizzlies became one of the scariest teams in the West. The Grizzlies went 10-13 when Gasol was out, but were an impressive 40-19 when he was healthy. Now Gasol looks completely healthy and is in a contract year, meaning we may not have seen the best of the former Defensive Player of the Year. Gasol and Zach Randolph are still one of, if not the scariest frontcourts in the league. Randolph’s in-your-face offense mixed with Gasol’s incredible passing and you have two players who can hurt from multiple facets of the game. This team took the Thunder to seven games and it could be argued that they would’ve won the series had Randolph not been suspended for the last game. Still this team has some holes that need to be answered before they can crack the top-tier of the Association. While they have one of the best defenses in the league thanks to players like Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince along with the bigs, Memphis also has one of the worst offenses thanks to players like Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince. A severe lack of perimeter spacing and shooting has hurt this team for years and could still be in the bottom half of the league. The Grizz did add Vince Carter, an irrationally confident veteran who can have a vintage Vinsanity game when he needs to, but one old player who is on the decline isn’t enough. Tayshaun Prince, Quincy Pondexter, and Courtney Lee are all going to have to step up as scorers to take some of the load off of Carter and starting point guard Mike Conley. Conley has developed into the perfect Memphis PG thanks to his defense, slowed down pace, and attack-first mentality. His health and development are going to be key for how well this team does in coach David Joerger’s sophomore season. The Grizzlies are going to tire out any team they play in the playoffs, they just need that second scoring gear in order to put them away in a 7-game series. Maybe Carter can help them accomplish that, but for now the Grizzlies are the last team on the outside looking in.
5. Chicago Bulls (58-24)
If Derrick Rose is vintage Derrick Rose than this team wins 60 games easy and probably steals the title in the East. But two years removed from meaningful basketball, Rose is going to need more than a summer of slowed down and limited basketball to get back to where he once was. Early on, Rose is going to show glimpses of the beast we once knew, but more often than not he is going to struggle. Luckily this team has plenty of talent and enough experience without him to know how to win games. Joakim Noah is a dominant center, Taj Gibson is too good to be a bench player, Jimmy Butler is a stud, and Mike Dunleavy can do Mike Dunleavy things. But the additions Chicago made are going to make the difference this year. Stealing Doug McDermott in the draft is huge for a team that has struggled to get three-point shooting and he should be a much better version of Mike Dunleavy very soon. Signing Pau Gasol is a major upgrade over Carlos Boozer and he should fit well with Noah in the frontcourt and in Tom Thibodeau’s scheme. When healthy, Gasol and Noah will be a nightmare to defend with their multitude of offensive moves and their ability to pass the ball out. McDermott, Butler, and Dunleavy are each going to get their share of wide-open shots. Add the incendiary Derrick Rose and you have a stonewall defense with a pick-your-poison offense. If Rose returns to his slashing ways this team will have to collapse on him leaving one of the bigs or one of the shooters open, and that is going to end badly a majority of the time. Leave Rose one-on-one as he takes it to the hole and 99% he’s going to score and/or get fouled. It will take a special kind of team to keep this talent and scheme in check. And unless the Bulls can stay healthy and mesh sooner than expected, the four teams listed above all have the ability to do so.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23)
Kevin Durant is hurt and that is going to cost this team some wins. But it is in no way the end of the world for this Thunder team. Because for the first time, Russell Westbrook is going to be the best player on this team, and the number one scoring option, and that should be fun to watch. Westbrook is going to tear up defenses with his athleticism and now that he’s improved his passing, he’s going to have one impressive two-month stretch. It is possible that while Durant is out Westbrook pulls a LeBron and averages 30 points per game, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds. He is that talented and that scary. But there is another player that is going to have a huge impact on this team especially without the reigning MVP. Serge Ibaka is going to be forced to shoot the ball more often and defend wings more frequently. A talented big with freakish athleticism and a solid offensive game, Ibaka can pick up the slack and show he was worth the massive contract he was given. Ibaka and Westbrook are both elite players in the NBA, and the Thunder should be just fine until Durant comes back. But when he does come back, the NBA will be put on notice. Reigning MVP, disappointing playoff finish last year, and this injury on top of that will make the chip on Durant’s shoulder much larger than anyone else in the league will like. Slowly building his defense up to match his offense, Durant is now one of the scariest players in league history, and he still has yet to hit his prime. 30 points any given night, along with 7 rebounds and 5 assists and you have a player that leaves defenders up at night. No matter how many questionable decisions the front office seems to make, as long as Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka are playing, the Thunder can hang with any team. The bench may not be reliable post-James Harden, but as with every year someone on this team always seems to pop-up. Don’t be surprised if Anthony Morrow turns out to have been a steal in free agency.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (60-22)
LeBron came home, and he brought some friends with him. Kevin Love is a dominant NBA layer with the ability to beat just about anybody on the low-block. Sure he isn’t the biggest fan of playing actual defense, but his ridiculously diverse offense more than makes up for it. 26 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 assists a game are Hall-of-Fame caliber numbers, and Love is just about to enter his prime. And he’s going to be playing with an up-and-coming star in Kyrie Irving who has just as much talent offensively as Love does. But the problem is, Irving also seems to be allergic to trying on defense. Having both Love and Irving in the starting lineup is going to be bad defensively, but with their speed and offense, the Cavs will be able to keep a fast enough tempo that their offense will essentially become their defense. Opposing teams will have to deal with three nearly unstoppable scoring threats on defense and have to find a way to score themselves too. Which is only made harder when you remember LeBron James can essentially guard any position on the court. James is not the same player he was last team he played for Cleveland. He’s matured both mentally and physically to the point where he could destroy from the post one game and incinerate you from the outside the next. He’s the most versatile player in NBA history and one of the most athletic as well. His basketball IQ is out of this world, and he now has a coach who seems to be just as offensively smart as he is. David Blatt has the makings of the best coach LeBron has ever played for and that could be the biggest reason this young team lives up to expectations. His malleable coaching style will adapt to the opponent each and every night; a very tough and rare strategy but with the personnel on this team it should be possible, and very dangerous. LeBron, Love, and Irving each have the offensive range to work in any offense and the role players surrounding these guys can fit right in as well. Tristan Thompson is a double-double machine, Anderson Varejao can rebound and defend when healthy, Shawn Marion is a tough-as-nails veteran, and Mike miller always seems to come through when needed. This team may not be ready to win a title right now, but with time, this team could be an even better dynasty than Miami Heat just were.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (62-20)
The Los Angeles Clippers are not only the best team in California, but they are one of the true elite in the entire NBA. A few years ago that would have been blasphemous to say in NBA circles, but now the much maligned franchise has truly turned a new page. The dark cloud of Donald Sterling is gone, Doc Rivers is now running this team, Chris Paul is healthy, and Blake Griffin is a really good player. So good, in fact, that it can be argued that the Clips have two of the top-5 players in the league. Any team that can argue that is going to be great, but the fact that the Clippers have one of the best supporting casts in the league makes them scary good. DeAndre Jordan is one of the best defenders and rebounders in the game and Jamal Crawford seems to choose whenever he wants to drop at least 30 points off the bench. Add 3-and-D specialist JJ Redick, defensive pest Matt Barnes, and Glen “Big Baby” Davis and you have a team loaded with talent everywhere. One of the biggest problems for this team last year was their terrible spacing with their bigs and when Ryan Hollins is your backup center that tends to happen. The Clippers resolved that problem by bringing in Spencer Hawes who is perfect for spacing. Hawes can play solid defense while also dropping threes and posting up. Whoever is with him in the frontcourt, whether it’s Griffin, Jordan, or Davis, is going to be able to play the way they want to knowing Hawes will find a way to complement them. The Clippers could have the best record in the West, but that might be something Doc Rivers will want to avoid being the primary goal. Rivers is going to continue to focus on managing his stars’ minutes so that they can continue to have healthy seasons and go into the dogfight that is the Western playoffs with as much rest and energy as possible. Lob City will continue to be in full effect, it’s just this team will be winning more often in the process.
1. San Antonio Spurs (64-18)
And then there’s the defending champions. For the better part of the last decade, the San Antonio Spurs were counted out. They were called old, Greg Popovich couldn’t seem to adjust to the “new” era of basketball, and people thought Tim Duncan would fade into irrelevancy. The only problem is none of that was true, well except for the old part. Popovich has proven that he is head-and-shoulders above any other coach in the league and he’s not afraid to let you know it. Tony Parker continues to be one of the best point guards in a league filled with great point guards and Manu Ginobili dunked. In the NBA finals. On LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It still makes no sense at all, but then again neither do these Spurs. They grab the international players that were slowly fading away in the NBA players and make them into the best role players in the game. Players like Boris Diaw and Patty Mills thrive in the pass-first and then pass again offense. They trade away George Hill for a late first round pick that turns into the new face of the franchise Kawhi Leonard who continues to develop into a star on both ends of the court and always seems to step up his game in the playoffs. No one played LeBron James better in the playoffs than Leonard did, and that is a huge asset in the league today. The Spurs continue to rely on the Big Fundamental Tim Duncan who continues beat down on Blake Griffin and the bigs in Memphis. Despite his age, Duncan still has the ability to guard and score on any big man in the league. And with Duncan come bigs like the Red Rocket Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter who fits his role of being a big body very well. The Spurs utilize each and every player to the best of their ability and never seem to have a personnel issue. Whether that is because of an incredible front office or because the current players are so easy to play with is debatable, but what isn’t debatable is that this is still the best team in the league. This may be Lebron and Durant’s era, but Tim Duncan and the Spurs are not afraid of the stars of today. They may have one of the greatest players in history, and the best player of the last generation, but that isn’t how they beat you. Passes on top of passes, threes on top of threes, and wins on top of wins. If you’re entire team isn’t ready for the Spurs, you’re going to have a rough time in San Antonio.