We looked at the bottom half of the NBA in our last post. Again, the win totals are just a jumping off point to talk about each team.
New Orleans Pelicans - 41 wins (Opened: 40) - Hated what the Pelicans did this summer, and that includes changing their name to the Pelicans. As a born and raised Louisianian, the best choice was the New Orleans Krewe. It has the Mardi Gras tie in, and the mascot options (including, but limited to, a Mardi Gras float, a flambeau, and a topless woman) are endless.
But NOP didn't just mess that up. They traded Jarret Jack and Emeka Okafor last year, and Robin Lopez and Greivis Vasquez this year, to create cap room that they immediately blew on Tyreke Evans, and the acquisition of Jrue Holiday. They traded 2 1st rounders to get Jrue Holiday. Are Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday better than Jarret Jack, Emeka Okafor, Robin Lopez, Greivis Vasquez, Nerlens Noel, AND a pick in the best draft in a decade. The short answer: Gurl Please.
If NOP trades Eric Gordon for someone that can shoot, this team will make a bit more sense, but it will likely be another case of NOP not maximizing an asset. Still, Anthony Davis may drag this team to respectability all by himself. He's still growing into his superhero wingspan and skillset, but if NOP makes a conscious effort to involve him in the high post, with Ryan Anderson in the corner, it may not matter who the other 3 players are. They'll win.
Minnesota Timberwolves - 41 wins (Opened: 41) - For the third straight year, people are high on the T'Wolves. I'm just happy Ricky Rubio will be throwing passes to Kevin Love again. I am pessimistic of any team whose primary distributor is an inefficient shooter. The T'Wolves know this and surrounded him with a bevy of guys that shoot 3's. Some go in; and then there's Corey Brewer, who's entire shot chart is bloodier than a Quentin Tarantino film.
Dallas Mavericks - 44 wins (Opened: 44) - These kids' got alley-gator blood (in my Teddy KGB voice). The Mavericks re-shufflled their veteran deck, bringing in the sharpshooting yet defensively challenged Jose Calderon, and Monta Have It All. You can survive with one poor defensive guard, but doubling down on that strategy is a recipe for disaster. But if Have It All reverts back to his early Warrior days, and embraces the fact that he may not, in fact, have it all, this team will be deadly on offense.
The league, very quietly, is becoming a collection of highly specialized teams. The Mavs, T'Wolves, Knicks, Clippers all doubled down on offense. We know what the Grizzlies bring to the table. The Pelicans are a collection of high usage guards with questionable outside shots. The Warriors are sort of the opposite. The Nets went old; several others went young. Increasingly, teams have doubled down on their identities. I have long been a proponent of playing to your strengths (whatever they may be), rather than attempting to plug the holes in your team. Getting good players is most of the battle. It makes me wonder if teams have found a recipe for success - that every dollar spent adding to a strength is marginally more effective than dollars spent elsewhere. We shall see.
Denver Nuggets - 46.5 wins (Opened: 47) - They legalized marijuana in the offseason, so at least Denverites won't remember how bad this offseason was.
New York Knicks - 49.5 wins (Opened: 49.5) - Their offense revolved around making 3's, then they lost most of the guys that made 3's, and replaced them with a guy one website calls the worst player in basketball. They got a career year from BOTH Carmelo and J.R. Smith. Oh, and the entire defense is held together by Tyson Chandler's knee ligaments. One of my favorite under picks.
Memphis Grizzlies - 51 wins (Opened: 49) - WOOOOOO!!! We got them right where we want them. The 49 win opening total is a slap in the face. The 51 win mark ranks them tenth in the league, which sounds low, but look how close the teams are! This is a reflection of just how much talent is in the West. Still, 51 wins is too low for a team that potentially goes 12 deep, regardless of who is in their division. Regular season wins are dependent on depth, health and effort. One of those you can't control. The other two the Grizzlies have in spades.
The entire Grizzlies offseason (by both local and national writers) has been viewed through the lens of the Spurs series. That is a mistake. The Grizzlies are never playing the 2012-2013 Spurs ever again. That team doesn't exist anymore. Anything can happen this year. Manu's regression may hit especially hard. Injuries could creep up. The point is that 4 games in May were important, but they have very little relevance to the upcoming regular season. Tayshaun and Tony can play (and be elite) against 75% of the NBA.
Oh, and there's this: the Grizzlies are better than last year. They have only 2 players whose age regression should be a significant impact (TA and ZBo) and both have capable backups. This team is for real.
With that said, just because the Grizzlies are better this year does not mean they will be successful. The top 6 teams in the league could be separated by as little as seven games. Good luck figuring out who will make it out of this dogfight.
Brooklyn Nets - 52.5 wins (Opened: 52) - Regular season wins are highly dependent on depth, health and effort. The effort portion of that equation is greatly enhanced with the acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, two players that bring it every night. But man, health is a huge issue (and so is backcourt depth). They will be a great playoff team (assuming even moderate injuries), and could give every team in the East a run for their money.
Okay, I'm back. The Warriors addressed their major issue from last year, perimeter defense, and just gave Andrew Bogut a multi-year deal to shore up their rim protection. Their main problem is David Lee. Basically, if he's guarding someone, the ball bursts into flames ">NBA Jam style.
Random aside: the best SNES NBA Jam team are, in order, Phoenix (Barkley/KJ), Sacramento (Richmond/Tisdale), and Golden State (Hardaway/Mullin). If you play with the Bulls or Hornets, I can't take you seriously.
Oklahoma City Thunder - 53 wins (Opened: 50.5) - There are many ways to win basketball games, but defending the rim and shooting 3's are the largest factors. Offensive rebounding is another. Finding all of those attributes in one player is virtually impossible. There have only been two players I can remember who have been able to rebound, protect the rim, and shoot 3's. Their names are Lebron James and Rasheed Wallace.
With all due respect to Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love and the assortment of stretch 4's out there, the only other player that can reasonably make that leap in today's game is Serge Ibaka. He has very quietly and slowly been stretching his elite mid-range game to the 3 point corners. Check out this shot chart:
Shooting 35.3% from the corners is still below average and it is a micro sample, but IF (and I don't have a caps lock strong enough to qualify this) he can continue this progression and become an average 38% corner 3 point shooter... Holy Crap. Nothing will ever convince me that trading James Harden was the optimal decision. But man, Serge Ibaka plus a 3 point shot is a top ten player. This is the secret subplot of the 2013-2014 season, and he would be my pick for Most Improved Player. There is nothing more important in the NBA than a young player making a sustainable leap from good to great.
Indiana Pacers - 54.5 wins (Opened: 53.5) - I love Paul George. Besides LeBron and KD, George is the best wing in the NBA. One of the few players in the league capable of anchoring both a team's offense AND defense. Count me as one of those that doesn't think the Granger trade will happen. With the money invested in both George and the bench, the Pacers can't really afford to bring back much long term salary (something like Rodney Stuckey's expiring contract and Kyle Singler may work), and most trades that do don't bring back equal value. They are better off keeping Granger, and praying he gives them something. At his peak, Granger was one of the very few players in the last decade that shot a high volume of threes at a plus 40% clip, like the Stephen Curry chart showed.
Houston Rockets - 54.5 wins (Opened: 54.5) - This team will be devastating in stretches, and even more devastating if they are able to swap Jeremy Lin or Omer Asik for a real third banana. I don't think the upgrade from Omer Asik to Dwight Howard is as large as has been stated. Asik is one of the better rebounding/defending big men in the game, and if Houston gives into Dwight Howard's past notions of needing post touches, the offense will struggle. This team won 45 games last year. They will win more this year, but asking them to win ten more while every other team at the top of the West got better, may be a little tougher than people are making it out to be.
San Antonio Spurs - 55.5 wins (Opened: 55) - The Spurs don't have the best players in the league. What they do have is an elite collective ability to generate open, efficient shots for their set of players. On defense, they make what you do best as hard as it possibly can be. If I had to pick a favorite in the West, it would be the Spurs. They have the fewest teams that are bad matchups for them. They can play big or small. Fast or slow. It doesn't matter to them. The addition of Marco Belinelli (he's essentially replacing Gary Neal, no great defender himself) will be huge, as he provides another ball handler. The Spurs may die, but they'll die fighting.
Chicago Bulls - 56.5 wins (Opened: 56) Im more than a little excited to see Derrick Rose on the basketball court again. I'm also more than a little excited for the possibility of ">the look happening again.
Los Angeles Clippers - 57.5 wins (Opened: 57) - The Clippers may just be the best offensive team in basketball this year. Surrounding a Chris Paul/Blake Griffin pick and roll with JJ Redick and Jared Dudley is just deadly. I'm not saying that Chris Paul will win the MVP this year, but what I am saying is that if Vegas was offering CP3 for MVP at 11:1 odds, I may or may not have wagered on that.
Miami Heat - 60.5 wins (Opened: 60) - The reigning champs have the highest win total on the board. Vegas doesn't screw around with power rankings like some others. Miami is the best team in the league, but that doesn't mean they will win the most games. After 3 extended playoff runs, a historic win streak last year the last 10 games of which were all played at playoff game intensity, the Heat will probably throttle back a little more than usual. This team presses the On/Off switch more than Vin Diesel presses the NOS button. If you simulated this season 100 times, they would win more times than any other team, but I don't know if they would win more than the field combined. If anyone says they know who is coming out of the West with a degree of certainty, they're just spouting off. The West is tight, and seeding will come down to injuries, luck, and trades.
Miami is still the favorite, but the gap has narrowed considerably. If they win the title this year, they will go down as a top 5 or six team all time: 3 straight titles, 4 straight Finals appearances, and a top 7 or 8 all time player at the peak of his powers, winning an unprecedented LeBron will have won 5 MVP's in 6 years. The NBA is back!!!