NBA Preview: The Lottery Locks

Philadelphia 76ers vs Washington Wizards

Attempting a preseason prediction of where all of the teams in the NBA will finish after playing an 82 game season is mostly a fool’s errand.  Nobody knows exactly how the newly acquired free agents and draft picks will affect teams, and there are sure to be multiple significant trades and injuries that will affect the outcome of the season.  It would seem like an article previewing the season would be pointless then, so that is why I’ll be writing five of them.  What is the fun in NOT talking about basketball?

As mentioned above, it’s not easy to predict specifically how each team will do, but forming a generalized opinion is a little less difficult.  To preview the 2015-2016 NBA season, I have divided all of the teams into generalized tiers based on where I think they will finish in each conference.  This is an important distinction from a traditional power ranking; I think the New Orleans Pelicans will be a much better team than the Indiana Pacers, but they both end up in the same tier because the Western Conference is so flush with talented teams, and the Eastern Conference is as weak as it’s ever been.  With that said, we will start this off by dredging through the absolute bottom of the league.  

Tier 1, the Lottery Locks.

Philadelphia 76ers
2014-2015 Record:  18-64
Offensive Rating:  30th
Defensive Rating:  13th

Where else to start but with the reigning kings of this tier?  The Sixers begin their third consecutive year of outright, unabashed tanking.  They aren’t here by chance, but by design.  General Manager Sam Hinkie knows that the path to success in the NBA requires stars, and he is maximizing his odds by acquiring as many high draft picks as possible.

The Sixers actually made an ounce of progress last year; they have a handful of young, long, and athletic players, which allowed them to be pretty decent defensively.  In his first healthy season, Nerlens Noel proved to be a worthwhile NBA player, swarming around the lane constantly swiping at the ball.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you view their tanking strategy) for them, defensive prowess doesn’t exactly translate to offensive skill, and they struggled mightily in that regard.

The Sixers did not pose a threat from either beyond the arc, or in the paint.  Every bucket took effort.  That figures to improve a little bit this year, as 3rd overall pick Jahlil Okafor should easily be a rookie of the year candidate.  He has a post game that is already polished enough to require double teams on the professional level, which will also help pull defenders away from shooters at the 3 point line.  Nik Stauskas, who was traded from Sacramento as part of a salary dump, will get plenty of playing time this year after struggling his first year in the league.

Aside from these players, there isn’t too much to look forward to this year.  Expect the roster to see significant turnover as Hinkie will probably continue acquiring overpaid veterans in exchange for future draft picks.  They might be a good team in the future, maybe a dominant one, but it won’t be anytime soon.

Minnesota Timberwolves
2014-2015 Record: 16-66
Offensive Rating: 25th
Defensive Rating:  30th

The Timberwolves have been one of the most fortuitous lottery teams in recent years, with at one point having three straight number 1 overall draft picks on their roster.  That number is down to two now, but losing Anthony Bennett isn’t exactly cause for concern.  Last year the Timberwolves sported a bad offense, and an awful defense, mostly due to being unable to guard the rim.  Nikola Pekovic may look terrifying, but he doesn’t do a great job of deterring opponents in the lane.

1st overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns was drafted by Minnesota for precisely this reason, and he should be able to immediately make a difference, although I don’t expect the rookie to single-handedly fix the T-Wolves’ defense in his first season.  The other 1st overall pick on their roster, Anthony Wiggins, should continue to improve after winning Rookie of the Year last season, and I would not be surprised if he averaged 20 points a game this year.

Other young players worth watching are guards Zach Lavine and Tyus Jones.  Lavine is one of the most explosive dunkers in the game, but is still relatively raw on offsense.  I expect him to improve his shooting a bit this year, but by no means is he a player that commands a lot of attention behind the arc.  Jones has had an impressive preseason and is already looking like one of the steals of the draft.  Look for him to run the second unit and keep the T-Wolves afloat while the stars rest.  Overall, the Timberwolves are a young, exciting team.  They will be a fun watch this year, but will most likely end the season in the running for another 1st overall pick.

Denver Nuggets
2014-2015 Record:  30-52
Offensive Rating:  19th
Defensive Rating 26th

After trading star point guard Ty Lawson to the Rockets in the offseason, the Nuggets have lined up a replacement in Emmanuel Mudiay.  Mudiay is a top notch athlete with the speed and strength to hold up to constant contact while driving in the lane, but he’s not a great shooter and teams are likely to sag off of him during pick-and-rolls.  He’ll also probably turn the ball over a lot, as he will be running the starting offense from day one.  There’s no better way to learn the NBA than by playing though, and this season will be invaluable to his development.

New coach Mike Malone, who was unfairly fired mid-season by the Kings last year, is a clear upgrade over former coach Brian Shaw.  The Nuggets will be playing fun, fast basketball again, but they don’t have the roster to compete like they did 3 years ago.  Malone will also be good for the development of center Jusuf Nurkic, as he helped Boogie Cousins in Sacramento.  Like Cousins, Nurkic is a bully down low, grabbing lots of tough rebounds.

Danilo Gallinari is finally healthy after an ACL tear, and this season he should regain most of his previous form.  I am not sure what else there is to like on this Nuggets team though; Kenneth Faried stagnated last year, and while he still can’t do much besides dunking and grabbing lots of rebounds, he’ll most likely be a trade target for contending teams this year.

Charlotte Hornets
2014-2015 Record:  33-49
Offensive Rating:  28th
Defensive Rating:  9th

Poor Charlotte.  Last year they thought they had signed a fringe all-star in Lance Stephenson, and he ended up shooting a historically poor 17% from deep.  During the draft this year, they turned down four first round picks from the Celtics in order to draft another tall white guy in Frank Kaminsky.  Kaminsky has range and is a decent defender, but in no way was he worth 4 first round picks, or even the 9th overall pick.

They could have still competed for a low playoff spot though, but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist injured his shoulder and now will miss the season.  MKG was one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, and without him the defense will crater.  The Hornets have been playing Moreyball in the preseason, shooting as many 3’s as possible.  They haven’t been making a lot of these shots, but this should still be an improvement over their offense last year.  Shooting a lot of 3’s will also open up space for Al Jefferson to practice his refined post game.  I don’t think any marginal offensive improvement will be enough to offset how much the defense will weaken, and even though they are in the Eastern Conference, the Hornets are looking at another year in the basement.

Portland Trailblazers
2014-2015 Record:  51-31
Offensive Rating:  9th
Defensive Rating:  10th

Portland was a legitimate title contender last year before Wesley Matthews went down with a torn Achilles, and now that both he and LaMarcus Alrdidge are no longer in Portland, the Trailblazers have shifted into rebuilding mode.  Unfortunately for Portland, their success last season meant that they didn’t get a high draft pick, but they do have a couple young players that should get plenty of playing time due to all of the departures.

Professional Justin Bieber impersonator Meyers Leonard will take over Aldridge’s former starting position, and should have a prolific season shooting the ball.  The Blazers also traded for 2nd year PF Noah Vonleh, who barely got any playing time in Charlotte last year.  Vonleh might not be good, but he is a completely unknown commodity.  After getting drafted 9th overall last year, he is worth taking a chance on.

The all star who did remain in Portland this year is Damian Lillard.  Lillard will most likely put up monster stats this year, and should be good for a few games where he GOES OFF, but putting the team on your back is not a viable way to compete in this league unless your name is LeBron James.  I expect Portland to have a bottom 10 defense this year, and that is not a good thing to have in the Western Conference.

New York Knicks
2014-2015 Record:  17-65
Offensive Rating:  29th
Defensive Rating:  28th

Melo is back, and while a star player is always a good thing, the Knicks are still going to suck this year.  New acquisition Robin Lopez should help the defense improve from awful to just bad, and Afflalo is a solid guard who will shift some of the defense’s attention away from Melo, but there just aren’t many legitimate NBA players on this roster.  Kristaps “Cornrows” Porzingis already gives some of the best soundbites in league, and while his height and natural shooting ability will allow him to have a little success this year, a rookie is nothing to rely on.

To top it all off, the Knicks have a coach who doesn’t appear to know what he’s doing in Derek Fisher, and they run the Triangle offense, which largely ignores the usefulness of the 3 point line.  It is going to be another long year in New York, and it only serves to get worse if Carmelo decides that he doesn’t want to be part of a rebuilding team anymore.  

Los Angeles Lakers
2014-2015 Record:  21-61
Offensive Rating:  24th
Defensive Rating:  29th

Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.  This season might be Kobe’s final season in purple and gold, and everything will revolve around him, for better or for worse (mostly for worse).  The Lakers need to develop their young players this season, but Kobe’s tendency to monopolize a team’s offense might serve as a detriment to them.  The fans will love him as always, but I expect Kobe is going to continue to be slow on defense and take way too many difficult mid-range jumpers.

The fans will love him regardless though, and the back half of the season might turn into a farewell tour similar to the likes that Derek Jeter had last year.  The most entertaining aspect of this team is going to be how Kobe interacts with his assortment of teammates.  Kobe has never been the mentoring type, but I’m sure the Lakers would appreciate him helping to develop 2nd overall pick D’Angelo Russell.  Russell has already been using the preseason game to show off his top-notch passing ability and court vision; overeager Lakers fans are probably already dreaming about a new version of Showtime, but that’s not likely to happen for a few years at least.

Also new to the roster are Roy Hibbert and Lou Williams.  Hibbert is a statue in the lane, and while his sheer size will go a long way in improving the Lakers’ rim defense, his ineptness on the offensive end is sure to anger the alpha dog that is Kobe Bryant.  Lou Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, has the opposite problem.  Lou is a gunner, and shoots the ball almost every opportunity he gets.  This is bound to cause problems as Kobe tends to get upset when he’s not shooting the ball.  The Lakers won’t play successful basketball this year, but the on-court drama alone makes them worth watching.

What do you think?