There are some NBA teams we generally know what we can expect from in the 2015-16 season. But there are some others that are a little harder to peg. Let’s take a look at some of those squads.
Did you realize the Indiana Pacers were eliminated from the playoffs on the last night of the 2014-15 season despite C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey being their No. 1 and 2 scorers? The team finished the season with a 21-12 record in its final 33 games.
That’s a testament to head coach Frank Vogel’s ability to motivate his players, many of whom were playing a bigger role than was expected of them heading into last season.
During the summer, Roy Hibbert, David West and Luis Scola all left Indiana, and the Pacers are taking on an all-new, uptempo small-ball approach.
Superstar wing Paul George, who only played six games last year due to a broken leg, is being pushed to the power-forward spot. He’s looking like his old self, even if he’s not thrilled about his new role:
Aside from George’s attitude toward playing the 4, there are concerns about new shooting guard Monta Ellis fitting in with the rest of the squad. He’s a ball-dominant player who can light up the scoreboard at times, but it’s never been clear whether his offensive punch is actually a positive to his teams.
Additionally, with a depleted big man rotation, Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill and rookie Myles Turner should be pushed into significant roles. West, Hibbert and Scola weren’t anything special last season, but they were veteran rotation bigs; the jury is still out on what Indiana’s bigs are capable of.
Best-case scenario: George embraces his new role and becomes a matchup nightmare. Ellis gets fast-break points galore, and Hill and Miles knock down transition threes at an excellent rate. One of Mahinmi, Hill or Turner becomes a viable starter at center and Indiana wins 48 games, grabs the No. 4 seed in the East and loses to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs.
Worst-case scenario: The new style flounders with the team. George gets worked in the post by bigger power forwards and whines some more about it, Ellis clashes on the court with his teammates and no one steps up from the big-man rotation. Indiana finishes with 31 wins and the No. 12 seed.
When a team goes from 15 to 41 wins in one season as the Bucks did last year, there are going to be questions about sustainability. Opponents didn’t take them seriously much of last season, and they could steal a few games they weren’t supposed to win.
Add in the fact that Milwaukee ended the season 10-18 over its final 28 games, a stretch that almost completely correlated with Michael Carter-Williams taking over as starting point guard for Brandon Knight, and those questions will persist.
There’s no denying the talent and potential that exists on the Bucks’ roster: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton and free-agent acquisition Greg Monroe is a great young quartet to build around. Parker was out most of last season after tearing his ACL, but hopefully he can make a full recovery.
But the problem isn’t talent, it’s how those pieces might fit.
Spacing is the chief concern. Antetkounmpo shot 7-of-44 (15.9 percent) from three last season, Parker was 4-of-16 (25.0 percent) and Carter-Williams was 36-of-153 (23.5 percent). Monroe and John Henson, his projected backup, don’t have mid-range jump shots in their arsenals. Middleton is a nice spot-up shooter, but one player can only do so much.
Scoff if you may, but Ersan Ilyasova, Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia are three departed players who executed their roles without complaining and could leave a hole. Ilyasova and Dudley shot from long range very well, while Dudley and Pachulia were both hardworking defenders.
Now, the team has a bunch of young players with potential looking to prove they can be a franchise cornerstone. Can head coach Jason Kidd find a way to maximize their abilities on the court together?
Best-case scenario: The young guys all improve their shooting strokes and Parker looks unaffected by his ACL injury. Monroe finds a way to be a low-post beast without stepping on his talented teammates’ proverbial toes on the offensive end. The squad doesn’t take a step back defensively (No. 4 in the league last season) and the offense takes off with newfound spacing. Milwaukee wins 51 games and earns the East’s No. 3 seed, losing a close second-round series to the Atlanta Hawks or Chicago Bulls.
Worst-case scenario: Teams treat Milwaukee as a threat this season, and they can’t adjust. The young guys don’t improve their shooting, giving Monroe no room to operate in the post. Parker looks noticeably affected by his ACL and none of the “core four” makes a significant leap. The Bucks step back to 36 wins and the No. 10 seed in an improved Eastern Conference.
Can Dwyane Wade stay healthy? How’s the spacing in the starting unit? Was Hassan Whiteside a flash in the pan? Who’s the No. 1 offensive option? Can the bench mesh together well? The Heat have lots of questions and few answers, at least right now.
The Heat, like last season, are being pegged by many as a dark-horse contender in the East. Injuries were a big deterrent for them last season, and the team’s already-bad depth was exposed as it missed the playoffs.
To start the 2015-16 campaign, their projected starting lineup is Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside. On paper, that’s a fantastic five-man unit because all five of those guys are above-average starters at their positions.
Dragic, Wade and Bosh need to figure out who’s going to carry the heaviest offensive load. For Dragic and Wade, at least, it rarely works out to have two ball-dominant guards playing next to each other. One of them will have to work more as a cutter and spot-up weapon this season.
Overall, I’m not thrilled about the unit’s potential spacing. Wade has never been a reliable three-point shooter, Dragic is on and off, Deng is mediocre from long-range for a wing and Whiteside isn’t a good mid-range shooter. Bosh is a nice stretch 4, but he’ll need some help, like Middleton will for the Bucks.
The bench, led by Mario Chalmers, Gerald Green, Justise Winslow, Josh McRoberts and Amar’e Stoudemire/Chris Andersen screams potential. But what will the identity of that unit be? There’s little established chemistry there.
Best-case scenario: Wade’s knees miraculously cooperate and he only misses a few games for rest. He emerges as the No. 1 offensive option and Dragic and Bosh are a deadly spot-up combo off the ball. Whiteside and Deng focus on defense and thrive on that side of the court. Rookie swingman Winslow shows tons of flashes as a sixth man, but stays humble and remains with a cohesive Miami second unit. The Heat win 56 games and earn the No. 2 seed, upset the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals and go on to lose in the NBA Finals.
Worst-case scenario: Health and chemistry issues sabotage Miami’s season. Whiteside validates his reputation as a knucklehead, which clouds his enormous potential. Chalmers and Green clash in the second unit and Winslow plays very much like a 19-year-old rookie. The Heat win only 37 games, the same as last year, and earn the East’s No. 9 seed.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder easily have the highest ceiling of any of the teams listed here. 2015-16 Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is the most talented duo in the league since 2011-12 LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and that Heat team beat Durant and Westbrook’s Thunder in the Finals that season.
Of course, Durant is dealing with serious foot issues and Westbrook and Serge Ibaka both struggled with injuries last year, as well. The chemistry between Durant and Westbrook needs to be estalished; is it a 1A and 1B sort of thing on offense, or is one of them clearly going to take the lead?
Questions also remain at the starting shooting guard and center positions.
At the 2, do the Thunder start Andre Roberson, as they did for most of last season? He’s utterly useless on offense, but his defense is helpful. Anthony Morrow is a dead-eye spot-up shooter, but his mediocrity on defense means Westbrook and Durant need to try harder there. Dion Waiters is a wild card with his scoring ability, but he’s erratic and probably won’t start.
Steven Adams seems like the logical choice to begin the game at center, as his defensive presence further lessens the need for Durant and Westbrook (and Ibaka, to a lesser extent) to carry a large load on that end. Enes Kanter draws much more attention than Adams on the low block, but his defense is deplorable.
The Thunder bench probably won’t be spectacular, but pairing Kanter and Waiters together with D.J. Augustin could make it an excellent scoring unit.
The West won’t be forgiving this year, so any health or chemistry slip-up to a contender likely will cost them valuable seeding position.
Best-case scenario: Oklahoma City’s key players stay healthy and the starting unit finds the right men for the job at the shooting guard and center positions, resulting in the league’s best starting five. The bench won’t need to provide tons, but they hold down the fort well enough to provide rest for Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. The Thunder win 66 games, get the No. 1 seed and take the NBA title.
Worst-case scenario: Durant re-injures his foot, missing a bunch of games and Westbrook goes all-out to get his stats, which causes chemistry issues. Rumors about Durant’s 2016 free agency also become a distraction for the team. Oklahoma City wins 44 games and gets the No. 8 seed in the West, then gets swept in a non-competitive first-round playoff series.
If only I could get a guarantee that Rajon Rondo would channel his 2009 self, I would be very high on this Kings squad. Rondo was a perfect No. 4 scoring option with the Boston Celtics, using his elite passing and defense to make his aging teammates better and help his team tremendously.
But, alas, it’s hard to get the last I’ve seen of 2015 Rondo out of my mind:
So we’ll see.
DeMarcus Cousins is the best offensive center in the NBA, plus he’s pretty good on defense and improving at just 25 years old. Rudy Gay is an underrated scorer, but he has to prove he can put up his numbers for a good team.
Ben McLemore played a lot better in 2014-15 than during his rookie year, but he’s got awhile to go before reaching the potential many thought he had coming into the league. Is this the year he breaks out?
Also, how does the Rondo-Darren Collison dynamic work? Collison was unequivocally the better point guard last year, and now he’s losing his starting spot to a notorious chemistry-killer. Apparently, the two are going to play together this season, but I’m not sure how well that will work.
Like many other teams here, spacing is an issue. Cousins is probably best playing with another big who can stretch the floor for him, but he was gifted with Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein this offseason, neither of whom has a jump shot.
Of course, there’s also the whole ongoing George Karl-Cousins drama. If a head coach and his best player can’t get along, the team probably won’t be very good.
Best-case scenario: Cousins establishes himself as the clear-cut best center in the NBA and even a dark-horse MVP candidate. Rondo regains his old form, Gay accepts his No. 2 scoring role and Ben McLemore is deadly on spot-ups, attacking the rim and also becomes a defensive stopper. The bench, led by Collison, Marco Belinelli and either Koufos or Cauley-Stein, is decent enough. The Kings win 46 games, earn the No. 7 seed in the West and pushes a title contender to a difficult first-round series.
Worst-case scenario: Karl and Cousins clash, and myriad trade rumors swirl awhile before Boogie is eventually traded. The Kings get promising young players and future picks in the deal, but the team has no clear franchise building block anymore and it gets swallowed up in the Western Conference. Gay and McLemore falter with increased attention, and Koufos and Cauley-Stein are unable to provide anything close to the inside offensive punch Cousins did. Sacramento wins 20 games and finishes last in the West.