Wake up, dust off your finest Jordans, throw on a pair of sunglasses and tell the world to deal with it, because the NBA is finally back on your television tonight. Three games featuring five playoff teams from a year ago, including the defending champion Golden State Warriors, return us to the hardwood. So much has transpired this offseason, it can be easy to get caught up in it. Such is life in the 24/7/365 NBA, if you allow it to be.
We can only say and think so much about basketball, however, without there being any games. Before the first tip-off of the season (Cavs/Bulls or, if you prefer, Hawks/Pistons, tonight at 8 pm), let’s spare a thought – not necessarily a prediction, though there will be more than a fair share of those – to each franchise, in alphabetical order. Some of them may be painfully obvious or extremely misguided, because I guess I don’t think about the Minnesota Timberwolves nearly enough. Anyway, best of luck to the following teams, especially the Knicks. Those dudes are gonna need it.
1. Atlanta Hawks: I’m naming my first dog after Charles Barkley. Based on historical data, my dog will also not be great at dealing with advanced analytics.
2. Boston Celtics: One of Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart is getting traded. Thomas is probably the best player on the roster, and Bradley is versatile enough to keep tricking people into thinking he’s much better than he is. That leaves Smart, whose preseason production in the pick-and-roll has made him look like a totally different player from a year ago. Even so, unless an early injury derails Brad Stevens’ plans for a giant rotation, there isn’t enough of the ball to go around in Boston for this trio.
3. Brooklyn Nets: Later on, I’ll say how much fun it will be to watch the Sacramento Kings on League Pass, even if they aren’t good. The Brooklyn Nets are the anti-Kings. Avoid watching this team at all costs. Hell, the Nets could be a playoff team again, because this is the Eastern Conference, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be fun. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson might be your best MKG proxy for the time being, which is great.
4. Charlotte Hornets: Speaking of which, Zach Lowe expressed concern over the Hornets’ front court and the lack of a versatile wing defender (MKG) to anchor it on his podcast last week. Lowe’s guest, Jeff Van Gundy, also touched upon the offensive improvements the team made in the offseason by acquiring the likes of Nic Batum, Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky. Last season, Charlotte was third-to-last in Offensive Rating, a measure of estimated points per 100 possessions. This year, the Hornets will be in the Top 10 in Offensive Rating, purely out of necessity. They have to play quickly, break out in transition and rebound on offense. Steve Clifford should give a call to Mike D’Antoni and rely on his own defensive scheming to give Charlotte a shot at the playoffs.
5. Chicago Bulls: In the aforementioned Lowe Post podcast, Van Gundy also correctly pointed out that Nikola Mirotic is not as good of a shooter as people often think. That was true last year, but Mirotic only has one season in the NBA under his belt. Being that Mirotic is likely to start alongside Pau Gasol, pushing Joakim Noah to the bench, he will have the opportunity to hone his game with more than the twenty minutes a night he was allocated last season. Fred Hoiberg was running a pro-style, motion-heavy offense at Iowa State; he knows how to get the most out of young talent, and the older guys will know how to get the most out of him in his first season. Derrick Rose will always be an anomaly, and Jimmy Butler is poised to go all-NBA. Rose will buy Butler another really nice watch as a result.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers: Forget that Kyrie isn’t ready yet, and that Kevin Love may not be yet either. Forget that David Blatt isn’t really the coach, and that David Griffin’s General Manager title means as much control as being a New York City Mayor under Boss Tweed. Did you see what just happened with Tristan Thompson? I bet you don’t know who his agent is, or who else on the Cavs employs that agent. Forget that Matthew Dellavedova’s small sample size of greatness couldn’t even make it seven games. Anyway, forget all that. These are your 2015-’16 NBA Champions.
I just spent that entire paragraph talking about LeBron without talking about LeBron. That is the NBA in 2015, because his shadow is immeasurable.
7. Dallas Mavericks: You better not be taking Dirk Nowitzki’s turn-around, one-footed jumper for granted. Because sooner rather than later, it will go the way of Kareem’s skyhook: a perfect shot, jazz in motion, captured on film, lost on the youth. Deron Williams will enjoy a bounce-back season in another smooth Rick Carlisle offense, assuming he stays healthy.
8. Denver Nuggets: This is the year noted Über driver Kenneth Faried gets traded at the deadline. Emmanuel Mudiay should withstand the West assault of point guards and end up on the all-rookie team. Mike Malone is my favorite head coaching hire of the offseason, all due respect to Hoiberg.
10. Golden State Warriors: Steve Kerr will win Coach of the Year, perhaps a year later than he deserves, and the Warriors will not make it out of the Western Conference. Following a 67-win regular season that snowballed into an NBA Championship, the Warriors appear to have retained the hunger to repeat. As Doc Rivers knows, you need luck to win the West. He was right. The Warriors weren’t so much lucky – they were, after all, the league’s best team – but they did benefit from the misfortune of others around the conference. While it is entirely possible, it is very difficult to imagine Golden State knocking off some combination of the Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers, Rockets and Thunder again, among the other great teams they may face in the playoffs.
11. Houston Rockets: James Harden angles to be the MVP this season, but that only happens if he trusts Ty Lawson with the ball which, in turn, only happens if Lawson acts like a decent human being. Dwight Howard continues living out his dream of being the NBA’s biggest ass-clown while also playing exceptional two-way basketball. Three of these players are 21 years old, and only two of them, Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry, are 30 or older. As a result, the Rockets are in no rush just yet, but they could win it all this year just as easily as anyone else. Which is to say, not easily at all, but it’s possible.
12. Indiana Pacers: So much rests on Paul George that you tend to lose sight of the fact that there are three people whose last name is Hill on this team, and none of them are Grant. George will need help from Monta Ellis and the blindingly blonde George Hill if the Pacers expect to contend in the East.
13. Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers did exactly what they had to do in the offseason, and now they may have the most talented roster top to bottom in the NBA. Chris Paul strikes fear into even the most brash shooters in the league (J.R. Smith), Blake Griffin is its pre-eminent power forward and DeAndre Jordan was the key to the most controversial offseason signing since “The Decision.” Meanwhile, old man Paul Pierce will continue to do old man things; namely, hit infuriating game-winning jumpers and send pictures of emojis instead of emojis themselves.
14. Los Angeles Lakers: Even now, people don’t say “Curry” or “Beal” when they throw balled-up paper into the trash can. For this reason, Kobe is immortal, even as he drifts aflame into the trash can of the upcoming Lakers season. Also, what is the Lakers’ obsession with having every center who’s ever been noteworthy on their roster at some point? Roy Hibbert continues a rich tradition, albeit as a shell of his Pacers self.
15. Memphis Grizzlies: For the last half-decade, the Grizzlies have been a good-but-not-quite-great Western Conference team, which, in today’s NBA, means they would win multiple championships in other eras throughout history. The Marc Gasol/Z-Bo Grizz are a team befitting of Dr. John, though they would probably argue they’re in the wrong place (the West) at the right time (when the East is hot flame 100 double-underscore emoji trash). Memphis is still the Grindhouse, and Tony Allen is still the Grindfather, but this is a team that could use a lucky break or two in order to fulfill its waning destiny. Mike Conley is THE Ohio State University’s finest product out right now.
16. Miami Heat: Dragic-Wade-Deng-Bosh-Whiteside is one of the more imposing starting fives in the league. Plenty rests on how many games Dwyane Wade will actually play – my guess is somewhere in the neighborhood of 60, right around where he’s been since about 2010 – but even with that variable, Miami stands to be a playoff team at the very least and a Top 4 seed at best. Justise Winslow was a fan favorite coming out of college, and learning under Luol Deng will be invaluable.
17. Milwaukee Bucks: You want to talk positional revolution? Magic Johnson playing center in the 1980 Finals, and the advent of the point-forward? Giannis Antetokuonmpo is about to play all five positions in various intervals. Jason Kidd is one of the best basketball minds the NBA has ever known, and he’s been blessed with an absurd collection of talented, athletic, young players on whom to impose his philosophy. A full season of Jabari Parker should be the cherry on top of this delightfully talented squad.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves: First of all, and I mean this with the utmost respect a dude behind a computer screen can possibly afford via a blog: Pour one out for Flip Saunders, his family, the Timberwolves organization and NBA head coaches everywhere. Saunders was one of the very best, and cancer sucks for having taken him from us far too early. Kevin Garnett walked out of practice the other day to sit in Saunders’ parking spot. I wish I could’ve sat next to him.
On the basketball: the Timberwolves are a team of precocious youngsters and ancient veterans. Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Professor Andre Miller, Ph.D., are going to mentor Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Tyus Jones and Ricky Rubio. The hope is that the latter generation, and maybe the ageless Miller, will fulfill the promise that KG brought to Minnesota in 1995, and in any case this team should be a joy to watch. As the #1 pick, Towns is everyone’s presumptive favorite for Rookie of the Year.
19. New Orleans Pelicans: Life is but A.D.R.E.A.M. = Anthony Davis rules everything around me, and you, and everyone we’ve ever known, willingly or not. He is the sun, he is a solar eclipse, he is gravity itself, pulling us relentlessly into his orbit along with the multitudinous rebounds he will collect. This is your Defensive Player of the Year and, knock on wood for health, maybe the MVP as well. The Pelicans being down a bunch of players to start the season will only boost Davis’ stats. He’ll barbecue your brain, complete with cajun seasoning, when you see his PER.
20. New York Knicks: In contrast to last season’s team, watching these Knicks will not make you (me) want to stare into the sun, thoroughly roasting your corneas for fear of ever having to see anything so wildly despicable and viciously constructed again.
21. Oklahoma City Thunder: Can’t lie right now – I’m almost kind of sad that Russell Westbrook doesn’t have to do this alone. I’ve never seen anything like Westbrook at the tail end of the season last year, posting triple-doubles on a near-nightly basis in a last-ditch push for the playoffs. I would’ve loved to have seen Westbrook futilely hurl himself at Draymond Green for a few games, making Steve Kerr’s German automobile of a defense look like a Pinto in the process. Then I remember that Kevin Durant was my favorite player in the league to watch prior to his injury, that his MVP season was unbelievable, that his MVP speech was almost as good (and meme-worthy!), and I feel better. Serge Ibaka’s shooting has gotten so much better and should continue to improve. A fully healthy Thunder poses the biggest threat to the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy, and though a max contract is going to come off the bench only to play offense – looking at you, Enes Kanter – Oklahoma City at full strength is an absolute juggernaut. Billy Donovan could be the man who keys this offense into the necessary gear. At least, they better hope so, what with Durant’s impending free agency.
22. Orlando Magic: Elfrid Payton kind of can’t shoot, and Shabazz Napier wasn’t the hero that Miami needed to keep LeBron, but there is so much to like about this young Magic team. None of the starters is older than 25. Tobias Harris is a force. Victor Oladipo is slowly but surely coming along. For the real fun in Orlando, though, I direct you to Andrew Sharp’s Grantland.com column on Mario Hezonja, who has more stones than a London blues club in the ’60s.
23. Philadelphia 76ers: If the Rockets are any indication, then Daryl Morey’s process works, and protege Sam Hinkie only needs you people to trust in it for a little longer while he cycles through draft picks trying to find a workable lineup. Joel Embiid is looking increasingly untenable, but the perfect foils Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel will be a case study in old school mentality vs. new school analytics, all within an analytics-based system. Brett Brown is a more patient man than you, or I, or any of the rest of us.
24. Phoenix Suns: I don’t really understand how Tyson Chandler fits in with the Suns. He was the only plus defender on the Knicks two years ago, and even he gave up when the team seemed to give up on him. Devin Booker was a good shooter at Kentucky, but it will take some time for him to find his NBA range, if only because it always does. Eric Bledsoe stands to have a very good all-around season, unencumbered by the three-point guard system the Suns tried to operate while Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas were on the team at the beginning of last season. Nobody knows how Markieff will do without Marcus.
25. Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard will lead the NBA in shot attempts this season. Last year, Russell Westbrook was (understandably) the leader, at 21.96 shot attempts per game. In that case, Westbrook made up for the loss of Kevin Durant in his volume. Second behind Westbrook was LaMarcus Aldridge, whom you may have heard recently moved out of Portland in favor of joining Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. Lillard ranked twelfth, and though his field goal percentage was the lowest in the Top 12, Portland will be looking to Lillard to take some of the late-shot clock attempts that Aldridge put up a year ago.
26. Sacramento Kings: The Kings are a more cataclysmic version of The Canterbury Tales whom I’ve already delved into in depth here. At least for the time being, Sacramento is classic League Pass fodder. Catch this demented patchwork of has-beens, never-quite-weres, not-yets and DeMarcus Cousins for as long as you can.
27. San Antonio Spurs: Think about it for a second: before LaMarcus Aldridge, when was the last time the Spurs landed the biggest free agent available? The last time they bagged even a good one in free agency was probably Bruce Bowen (and, the summer after that, this site’s namesake, seven-time NBA Champion Robert Horry). The point is, San Antonio didn’t NEED LMA; the organization is the best-run in all of sports, and they would’ve figured it out one way or another. Landing Aldridge is a boon, however, and he should slot nicely alongside The Big Fundamental on both sides of the floor. Just another day in the glorious life of one Gregg Popovich, future Team USA head coach.
28. Toronto Raptors: This is the Anthony Bennett reclamation project. Weirdly, Toronto seems like the kind of place that can revitalize the former #1 overall draft pick’s career. He is Canadian, after all, and a Toronto native at that. If his hometown fans and a svelte Kyle Lowry can’t help Bennett reach his potential, who can? Ripping DeMarre Carroll was an excellent move on Masai Ujiri’s part.
29. Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward will put up All-Star numbers again and may end up an actual All-Star, though that is a tall order in a Western Conference stacked with great swingmen. Rudy Gobert, on the other hand, will register a few accolades, earning an All-Defensive nod and consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.
30. Washington Wizards: With the possible exception of the Splash Brothers in Golden State, the Wizards have the best starting back court in the NBA, and it’s only getting better. Bradley Beal continues to make strides toward becoming a complete two-guard, and John Wall is the heir-apparent to Chris Paul as the league’s best all-around point guard. The black soul inside of Marcin Gortat will bring this team to the mountain. Hope Kris Humphries packed some trail mix.