The NBA’s Back! Lessons From the “Real” NBA Preseason: Part I
by TRINI ANDREW
There have been numerous NBA previews before the season starts and they each aim to provide a detailed prediction of how the NBA season will play out. The reality is that it’s very difficult to predict each team’s future performance since most NBA players never apply themselves until the season begins and too many teams are focused on incorporating new players who take time to gel. The NBA summer league and preseason are simply exhibitions only useful for coaches to determine: how well their players follow instructions and to make cap-related decisions.
With less than ten games being played it is easy to see what the season outlook is for every team and how they will progress moving forward. There have already been some unfortunate injuries (Gordon Haywood and Jeremy Lin) and early trade requests (Eric Bledsoe and Jahlil Okafor). There has been pleasant individual and team performances and one gigantic belly flop of a start. It’s safe to say that the NBA is back and it’s going to be a great season. Let’s look at what tier each team in the NBA falls in.
GSW, HOU, SAS, CAVS
The Golden State Warriors managed to emerge from a tricky free agency period. Most of their bench, along with Kevin Durant and Steph Curry were free agents and they emerged with everyone signed. Somehow, they still managed to add Swaggy P and Omri Casspi on the cheap to provide spot starts and timely 3-point shooting (and no defense). The NBA is a cruel and unusual place where GMs are unwilling to make sensible decisions for themselves and the good of the NBA, so the Warriors were gifted Jordan Bell for straight cash where he gets to learn from Draymond Green and David West in the ideal situation for him. The Warriors are overwhelming favorites to a) Make the NBA finals b) Win the title – but as with any perennial contender, motivation and injuries can derail their quest to win three titles in four years. I personally believe they will have a more difficult time making the finals as they will face stiff competition in the Western Conference playoffs but if/when they reach the finals (truthfully whoever makes the finals from the West) will easily dispatch their Eastern Conference opponents.
The San Antonio Spurs had the typical under the radar offseason and have navigated the beginning of the season well without the services of Kawhi Leonard. They signed Rudy Gay to be a small ball PF and SF when Kawhi rests (officially putting to rest the good player on a bad team argument) and resigned Patty Mills and Pau Gasol. Young players such as Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson are finally able to perform at the level needed for Gregg Popovich while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will be placed in bubble wrap until the playoffs start. They are definitively the second favorite team to win the title this year.
The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder are title contenders based mainly on their star power and pedigree. The Rockets are an interesting case in that their two best players, James Harden and Chris Paul, always have great regular seasons until they tire out or get injured early in the playoffs. Hopefully, they will be able to spread the burden throughout the season (Chris Paul is already out for a month which is a blessing in disguise). The rest of the Rockets roster is not flashy but well suited to support their playmaking talents. If Clint Capela continues his ascendancy, he could be the x-factor that sends them to the finals.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a team that truthfully should be in the Eastern Conference. Their starting lineup is perfectly balanced and they have some intriguing options off the bench. The pace at which they play should ensure that new players Paul George and Carmelo Anthony get all the touches they need. Positional overlap is not an issue since Russell Westbrook, PG and Carmelo all prefer to operate on different spots on the floor. Steven Adams and Andre Roberson will provide all the defense the team needs without demanding any shots. Patrick Patterson, Jerami Grant and Raymond Felton will round out the 8-person rotation teams use in the postseason. They’ll remain one Andre Roberson 3-point shot away from making the finals.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are in this tier because an Eastern Conference team must be here by default and until LeBron stops making the NBA finals, whatever team he is on will continue to be the favorite to get there. This offseason has been unsettling for them and the regular season has been even worse. The Kyrie Irving trade was very unexpected and while I believe that both team and player will fare better apart, the timing ultimately hurt the Cavs more as they already made needless roster moves before the trade. This iteration of the Cavs is still old and slow, they can’t defend and now they apparently can’t shoot 3-pointers. Tristan Thompson is injured for a month, Isaiah Thomas is out until January and who knows what form he will be in when he returns. On paper, this Cavs team has great depth but in real life, they are imperfect cogs in a poorly run machine. On the bright side, they still have LeBron and the new GM seems more than capable of swinging at least a couple of trades to reduce the number of role players they have and create some balance to the team. JR Smith, Iman Shumpert (player option), Channing Frye, Jeff Green, Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon (expiring contracts) are all pieces that should be consolidated and traded for a proper contributor after December 15th which is when all players in the NBA become trade eligible. George Hill, Wesley Matthews and Kent Bazemore are all 2 ways players on lottery-bound teams that the Cavs should target.
MEM, LAC, POR, DET, WSH, MIL, BOS, TOR, CHA
The NBA’s middle class is a curious place to be in. Some franchises are content to simply make the playoffs and simply create a positive culture for their fans to enjoy (Memphis, Boston and Toronto are the best examples) while the rest of the teams are often ridiculed by commentators and writers for their lack of “elite” players and title aspirations. Being in the upper middle class of the NBA is the most a fan should reasonably expect from their team. There’s only so many Hall of Famers in the league and I believe it to be unethical to tank in the hope that your team somehow drafts one. Building towards 50+ regular season wins and into the second round of the playoffs is a sustainable and noble goal in the NBA and you can always hope for internal jumps in ability and decline/injuries from opposing teams. The previously mentioned teams have shown that they are locks to make the playoffs but still lock the one or two pieces to become true title contenders and they simply might just have to wait until their current players mature into who they need them to be.
The Memphis Grizzlies were reasonably expected to suffer a great decline this season as they lost a lot of the “grit” from their Grit and Grind teams. While the rest of the league zigged to small balled they zagged back into slow down, post offense and the rest of the league still has yet to figure out how to counteract them in the regular season. Marc Gasol at 32 still has several great years left ahead of him. Mike Conley is still being a boring but effective point guard but they are getting valuable and cheap contributions from their role players (Jarrell Martin, Andrew Harrison and Mario Chalmers). Tyreke Evans, James Ennis III and Dillon Brooks have vastly overachieved and this all can be attributed to David Fizdale’s effect on the team. The Grizzlies will continue to be playoff locks if Mike Conley and Marc Gasol each play more than 70 games a season.
The Los Angeles Clippers had the best offseason in the NBA considering that they could have lost Chris Paul, JJ Reddick and Blake Griffin without getting anything in return. While Reddick and Paul have indeed left, Doc Rivers (previously one of the worst NBA GM’s) shrewdly managed to acquire useful pieces and retool his squad. They are now Blake Griffin’s team but they are very balanced with Danilo Gallinari providing size and scoring Lou Williams providing scoring and the PG tandem of Patrick Beverley/Austin Rivers providing a breath of fresh air from the tedious command of Chris Paul. Health remains a long-term issue for this team but they should be able to make the playoffs easily but not harbor any title aspirations. Lob City may be gone for good but the future of the Clippers remains bright.
The Portland Trailblazers made a shrewd trade for Jusuf Nurkic who energized the team before suffering a long-term injury. They now have him for a full season to provide inside scoring and toughness to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum’s outside prowess. There’s not much to say about this team as they have one of the best backcourts in the league and everyone else is above average role players with size and the ability to play multiple positions. They will improve as their role players mature.
The Detroit Pistons are finally healthy and will make the playoffs. This has more to do with their being in the Eastern Conference. They are not an aesthetically pleasing team to watch but they are crudely effective. Tobias Harris has been playing at an All-Star Level since returning to the starting lineup following the Marcus Morris trade and having Avery Bradley on the team significantly helps the team on both ends. They have been getting better contributions from their drafted players and the team has finally learned how to win independently of Andre Drummond (who is still a very useful player). They seem to be aching to trade away Reggie Jackson and Stan Van Gundy will only make the trade for a player who’s a better fit. They should easily win more than 43 games and be a lower seeded playoff team.
The Washington Wizards are the perfect example of the needs for continuity in roster development in the NBA. Four of their five starters were drafted by the team and they all went through significant growing pains before becoming unquestioned starters. Most other teams would have traded them by now. Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi provide much-needed size and interior toughness to the team. The Wizards players know each other well, are talented and athletic. They can seriously challenge for a top two seed in the Eastern Conference and are a threat to make some mid-season roster moves to increase their title challenge ability. As with most other teams, health remains an issue for their team in the playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks will make the playoffs because Giannis Antetokounmpo is the second best player in the Eastern Conference. It’s as simple as that and no surprise to us at 10thYS There’s very little chance that he will miss the playoffs again for the rest of his career. Jason Kidd has matured into a great coach who gets the best out of his players. Tony Snell and Khris Middleton are dependable contributors and Malcolm Brodgon and Thon Maker continue to belie expectations. The return of Jabari Parker in February will improve the team. They are simply too young to be title contenders.
The Boston Celtics are an interesting case study of trying to have your cake and eat it too. They were gifted an obscene amount of lottery picks from the Nets, Isaiah Thomas from the Suns are had loads of free agency space. Their fans legitimately thought they were going to the NBA finals last year but they ended up being a speedbump to the Cavaliers. I won’t get into the details on why they should have gotten at least two out of Paul George, Jimmy Butler and DeMarcus Cousins but they have decided to revamp their roster and go very young while also turning the keys over to Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Hayward is already out for the season which could not be predicted and thus Al Horford’s few remaining years as an elite all-around player is effectively wasted. Hayward’s injury will help the young players in the long term as they will get all the minutes they need to develop. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are effective starters, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier provide playmaking and defense but make no mistake, this team is only a playoff lock with Brad Stevens as the head coach. They are woefully light in the frontcourt and will need to stave off the rookie “wall” as they have 5 rookies in their rotation. Al Horford and Kyrie Irving must also play at least 70 games for this team and stave off injury. They will be well coached and play hard and should win 50+ games.
The Toronto Raptors are a solid team. You can pencil them in for 55 games won a season and expect them to make some noise in the postseason. Another team that has been built through their own ethos, they have made minor changes each offseason and are now a veteran team with players who know exactly what is required of them. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are their All-Stars. CJ Miles and Serge Ibaka will provide the athleticism, defense and shooting their frontcourt severely lack. They have useful role players such as Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and Lucas Nogueira. Like the Grizzlies, they will keep making the playoffs as long as Lowry and DeRozan are healthy.
The Charlotte Hornets are an often-forgotten team in the NBA. In fact, most people only think about their owner (Michael Jordan) rather than their players. The truth is that they have addressed the depth issues and interior defense that plagued them last season. They added rookies in Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon who have already gotten off to a great start as role players (their shooting percentages will improve as the season progresses). Their holdovers in Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller have proven to be useful players. This team is led by Kemba Walker who has matured into one of the best PG’s in the league and he is functionally unguardable off the dribble. Their X factors are Michael Kidd Gilchrist who is now only needed to be a defensive specialist and Dwight Howard. Regardless of your personal opinions of him, Dwight is still one of the best defensive players in the NBA and will commandeer the defense and grab a high rebound/ low points double-double whenever he gets the minutes. He simply does not miss the playoffs. The return of Nicholas Batum is something to watch as they may not need his contributions as much which could unsettle the team.
In Part 2 we will look at the remaining teams left in the league; the playoff hopefuls and basement dwellers.