|4||Marvin Bagley III||PF/C||DUKE||6’11”||9.9|
|6||Wendell Carter Jr.||C||DUKE||6’10”||9.1|
|8||Michael Porter Jr.||SF/PF||MIZZ||6’10”||N/A|
|28||Gary Trent Jr.||SG||DUKE||6’6″||5.4|
If not for the strongest point guard crop since 2009, the story of the upcoming NBA draft would be the talented and versatile freshman forwards Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Jonathan Isaac, and Miles Bridges. While Jackson (8.0 DMX), Tatum (7.7), and Bridges (7.0) have met or even exceeded lofty expectations, the real standout in my numbers has been Isaac (9.8), a wiry 6’10” combo forward with tantalizing two-way potential. After 27 NCAA games, Isaac grades out as the fourth best forward prospect since 2002, edging out Blake Griffin, Chris Bosh, and Ben Simmons. That begs the question, is Jonathan Isaac truly an elite prospect?
It is easy to see why the numbers adore Isaac. He is tall, young (19.7 years old on draft day), efficient, rebounds like a PF or C (11.2 REB/40), and has an elite combination of steals (1.8 Per 40) and blocks (2.3 Per 40). His only blemish statistically is a low assist rate, which is offset in the model by a relatively low turnover %. Moreover, he has done this in arguably the toughest conference in the NCAA and has helped the Seminoles to a #18 KenPom rating, up thirty spots from #48 last season.
Let’s go back to Isaac’s one conceivable red flag; his lack of assists. Between his statistical brilliance, age, tools, and team success, it seems pretty obvious that Jonathan Isaac is good. The question is whether or not Isaac is a prospect on the level of Bosh or Griffin as his projection suggests, and his passing may be a deal-breaker to that end.
In the NBA, passing the is skill that often differentiates the great from the good. This is pretty intuitive; players who are elite at creating for themselves and also for teammates are completely unstoppable. Since BPM is generally a good measurement of the value of NBA players, here is a list of the top 13 players by BPM along with their AST% this season:
Only Kawhi Leonard, the league’s best perimeter defender and a ruthlessly efficient offensive player, has an AST% under 20%. Even if you expand the list to 50, the only non-center with an AST% lower than 10% is Otto Porter, who is leading the NBA in 3PT% and was an A:TO stud at Georgetown.
Historically great DMX projection aside, Isaac seems unlikely to achieve NBA superstardom barring a Durant-like leap as a passer (note: Isaac ain’t KD on offense). Markelle Fultz, a supremely talented offensive creator (Westbrook/Harden), and Lonzo Ball, an outlier passer and basketball genius (Paul/Curry), have far clearer, if still mathematically unlikely, paths to being top ten players. Even Josh Jackson (18.6 AST%) is still drawing live to be Jimmy Butler 2.0. Jonathan Isaac projects as a better version of Marvin Williams, a former #2 overall pick who has had a solid career as a stretch four and versatile rim-protector. I wouldn’t draft Isaac over Fultz, Ball, or Jackson, but he has played himself into my top five in a loaded class.
1. San Antonio Spurs (60-22, 1st in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Gregg Popovich
Best Player: Tony Parker
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Corey Joseph
What’s even left to say about the Spurs? Their performance in last year’s playoffs was simply masterful, and trying to pretend like a younger, more athletic outfit will supplant them atop the Western Conference is a pointless exercise in futility. This offseason was a perfect microcosm of San Antonio’s dynasty; while other teams chased marginal free agents, the Spurs sat back and re-signed their own guys, drafted a lottery value (Kyle Anderson) with the last pick in the first round, and made two groundbreaking coaching hires. Oh, and Pop grew a badass beard.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (58-24, 1st in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Doc Rivers
Best Player: Chris Paul
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Chris Douglas-Roberts
With the Donald Sterling saga the rear view, the high-flying Clippers loom as one of the league’s legitimate championship contenders. Lead by the virtuoso tandem of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, LAC brings back the league’s most powerful offense and a defense that made strides during Rivers’ first year. Some, me included, would have liked to see the Clippers use the MLE on a defensive-minded role player rather than a stretch five, but lineups with Griffin and newcomer Spencer Hawes in the frontcourt could produce some dizzying offensive efficiency. With the CP3/Griffin/Jordan core group entering their fourth season together, the time has come to see if the Clips can make the leap from a fun team to a legitimately great one.
3. Golden State Warriors (56-26, 2nd in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Steve Kerr
Best Player: Stephen Curry
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Draymond Green
All of the Kevin Love rumors and subsequent dissection of Klay Thompson overshadows the fact that Golden State brings back one of the strongest teams in basketball. Headlined by the sharpshooting backcourt of Thompson and Steph Curry (see: Splash Brothers), the Warriors are well known for their long-distance assaults, and I would expect this to remain an integral part of their game plan under new head coach and former 3pt specialist, Steve Kerr. What is less evident is their elite defense, which was 4th in the NBA in Def Rtg thanks to the presence of anchors like Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. Factoring in Bogut in any Warriors predictions is tricky, because he is immensely valuable when healthy, which is never. Early reports out of GSW camp are that Kerr is opting to start Harrison Barnes at SF over Iguodala, which is unfortunate. Iggy is an ideal role player whose unselfish point-forward skill-set and all-world defensive chops makes life easier at both ends for the aforementioned Thompson and Curry, while Barnes provides no such value. Health and coaching are the two big question marks here, but on paper they are very much in the championship conversation.
4. Dallas Mavericks (53-29, 2nd in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Rick Carlisle
Best Player: Dirk Nowitzki
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Greg Smith
This is not exactly a fresh take, but the Mavs had themselves a hell of an offseason. Back in the fold is Tyson Chandler, the defensive anchor of Dallas’ 2010 championship team, to shore up what was one of the worst defensive outfits in the NBA last season. Pricey free agent signee Chandler Parsons is a solid all-around contributor who fits any offensive system and will provide a sizable upgrade on the wing. Dallas also made a few relatively minor moves that hit the mark as well; replacing Jose Calderon with the better-defensively Raymond Felton, adding Jameer Nelson, grabbing Greg Smith off the scrap heap, and swapping out Shawn Marion for Al Forouq-Aminu, a younger and cheaper player of the same ilk. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Dallas lost Calderon, Marion, Vince Carter, and Dajuan Blair, all objectively good players, but so is the price of chasing a ring. Dallas now has all the makings of a dark horse title contender: a top ten-or-so player in Dirk, the league’s second best coach in Carlisle, and a roster that is significantly better on paper than the one that pushed the mighty Spurs to seven games last season.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder (52-30, 1st in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Scott Brooks
Best Player: Kevin Durant
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Andre Roberson
When I first got wind of Kevin Durant’s foot injury, I was immediately reminded of this stat I had seen on Twitter weeks earlier:
While many will get perverse enjoyment out of Westbrook using up to nearly half of OKC’s possessions, don’t count me in that group. Scott Brooks’ willingness to let Westbrook carry 44% USG gets to the crux of what I dislike about Brooks’ coaching philosophy and, by extension, the Thunder’s brand of basketball. The talent in OKC has been so overwhelming that Brooks’ questionable coaching acumen only comes into play in certain end-of-game situations, but down the league’s second best player this is no longer the case. Eventually, KD will return and the Thunder will be among the league’s elite, but how Brooks, Russ, and OKC’s flimsy supporting cast respond in his absence may prove critical to their ultimate success.
6. Memphis Grizzlies (50-32, 4th in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Dave Joerger
Best Player: Marc Gasol
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Jon Leuer
The Grizzlies are one of my favorite NBA franchises; they have a sharp front office and a core of smart, tough-as-nails players that mesh beautifully. Metrics-heads will bemoan their down-tempo, mid-range based offense, and they love to ignore that this style gave OKC hell in last year’s postseason and overwhelmed the Spurs in 2011. Free agent signee and guy-who-looks-bizarre-in-a-Grizzlies-uniform Vince Carter will play a critical role as a shot-maker from the wing, replacing the departed Mike Miller. I am also obsessed with what they did in the draft, scooping two players in Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes who are not only great value picks in a vacuum, but fit perfectly into the “Grit N’ Grind” culture that has been established in Memphis. The Grizz, as always, are something of a long shot to win the championship, but they are basically a lock to be a 5-8 seed in the West.
7. Houston Rockets (49-33, 3rd in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Kevin McHale
Best Player: James Harden
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Kostas Papanikolaou
Houston’s ambitious GM Daryl Morey took a big swing-and-miss when he shipped out Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in order to clear cap space for Carmelo Anthony/Chris Bosh, both of whom would ultimately stay put. This left the Rockets without a bench or their 2015 1st round pick, but with process-oriented guys like Morey, there is always a Plan B, C, and D. When Dallas pried away rising star Chandler Parsons with a max deal, it looked like another loss for Morey, but he responded by shrewdly signing Trevor Ariza, a roughly Parsons-caliber player and a clear defensive upgrade, for half the average annual salary. The Rockets bench might make OKC look like the Spurs, but their first five of Beverley/Harden/Ariza/Jones/Howard is still about as good as any unit in the NBA. An injury to any of the five could cause the bottom to drop out in Houston, but as it is I think they stay in the playoff picture.
8. Portland Trail Blazers (46-36, 2nd in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Terry Stotts
Best Player: Lamarcus Aldridge
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Will Barton
The Trail Blazers started off last season like gang busters thanks to MVP-level play from LaMarcus Aldridge and the late-game heroics of Damian Lillard. After some time, their offensive firepower could no longer mask their glaring defensive issues, and I expect this regression to pour over into this season. Portland has a decent coach in Terry Stotts and a really well-structured starting five, but their defense is pretty much dog shit. In a crazy competitive Western Conference with, in my estimation, 11 playoff-caliber teams, poor defense might be enough to drop even a team with a good coach and two All-Stars out of the postseason. As for now, I have the same eight in the West as last season, but Portland stands out as the most likely to be the 2012-13 playoff team that misses out.
9. New Orleans Pelicans (44-38, 5th in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Monty Williams
Best Player: Anthony Davis
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Jeff Withey
On the flip side, the Pellies lurk as a strong candidate to be this year’s version of last year’s Blazers. New Orleans’ 2013-14 season was derailed by bad injury luck, so it’s almost inevitable that they improve somewhat. Their other downfall was their porous defense, which they hope to have improved significantly by adding one of the league’s premier rim-protecting/rebounding big men in Omer Asik. There is no reason why a lineup with Asik, Jrue Holiday, and rapidly ascending basketball god Anthony Davis should not be above-average defensively, and we already know that the Holiday/Eric Gordon/Tyreke Evans/Ryan Anderson/Davis unit is an offensive juggernaut. The deciding factor would appear to be head coach Monty Williams, who now clearly has playoff-level talent at his disposal. The Pelicans could be a surprise 50-win team, but if they fall well short of that and miss out on the postseason again, Williams should be out of a job.
10. Phoenix Suns (42-40, 3rd in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Jeff Hornacek
Best Player: Goran Dragic
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Anthony Tolliver
First-year head coach Jeff Hornacek reinvented basketball last year in Phoenix, or something, taking a team that was thought to be engaging in the mythical “tank-a-palooza” to the brink of the Western Conference Playoffs. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were revelations in Horny’s dual-PG system, and they will really push the envelope this year by adding the diminutive and kick-ass Isaiah Thomas to the attack. Unfortunately, for a really refreshing and exciting group, the Suns stand out as another candidate to regress, what with all of their overachieving last season.
11. Denver Nuggets (41-41, 3rd in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Brian Shaw
Best Player: Ty Lawson
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Timofey Mozgov
All it takes is one tumultuous season to go from overrated to underrated in the NBA, and that seems to be the case in Denver. After firing George Karl and losing Andre Iguodala, both integral parts of their highly unusual 57-win team in 2012-13, everyone knew that the Nuggets were due to regress some last season, and a pair of worse-than-expected injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Javale McGee sealed their lottery-bound fate. But now Gallo and McGee are healthy (I think), and PF Kenneth Faried returns with a new confidence, fresh off an excellent FIBA performance and a $40 million extension. A return to 57-win form is most unlikely, but the Nuggets do have an outside chance of crashing the Western Conference playoffs.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves (32-50, 4th in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Flip Saunders
Best Player: Ricky Rubio
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Gorgui Dieng
The Kevin Love trade dropped Minny from a borderline playoff team to lottery participant, but it did catapult them up the League Pass rankings. Ricky Rubio is a brilliant two-way talent and fast breaks involving him and high-flying rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have already given us a few “holy shit” moments. Thaddeus Young is a dubious Love replacement, but he does fit nicely into an up-tempo, transition-heavy attack, which is where I assume the T’Wolves are headed. I expected Flip Saunders to completely bollix the Kevin Love situation, but they managed to come away with a few high-upside pieces (Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, and to a lesser extent, Dieng) and a surrounding group of solid vets (Young, Nik Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer).
13. Utah Jazz (28-54, 5th in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Quinn Snyder
Best Player: Gordon Hayward
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Rudy Gobert
Utah’s half-court offense was a horror show last season, as the promising frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter failed to make up for the departure of long-time safety valves Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Some of that was likely due to Ty Corbin who, by all accounts, was an awful coach. Corbin has since been replaced by Quinn Snyder, who I expect to push the tempo with guys like Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, and Dante Exum. Another highly intriguing player to watch will be second-year center/human redwood Rudy Gobert, whose limbs captivated the basketball world this summer. The Jazz are still very much rebuilding, but at least they will be easier on the eyes this season than last.
14. Sacramento Kings (26-26, 4th in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Mike Malone
Best Player: Demarcus Cousins
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Ray McCallum
The curious (to put it lightly) team-building tactics of the Sacramento King’s front office became a topic in-and-of-itself this offseason. Replacing Isaiah Thomas with the clearly inferior Darren Collison was a head-scratcher, as was their crowd-sourcing approach to the draft. DeMarcus Cousins is going to dominate, but that was mostly the case last season and the Kings still struggled on both ends of the floor on their way to 28 wins. It’s been seven seasons since Sacto last topped the 30-win plateau, and I don’t see any indication of them breaking that trend this year.
15. Los Angeles Lakers (22-60, 5th in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Byron Scott
Best Player: Kobe Bryant
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Ed Davis
What’s the opposite of “Showtime”? Once the dynastic team of my childhood, the Lakers are now on their way to becoming the West Coast Knicks. The roster has been in disarray ever since the failed Dwight Howard/Steve Nash experiment, and they refuse to hit the restart button as long as Kobe is around, snarling at people and whatnot. As if a piecemeal roster wasn’t enough, new head man Byron Scott is dead set on eliminating the 3-ball from their offense. What is amusing about that, besides the obvious strategic stupidity, is that 3pt shooting was BY FAR the Lakers’ best asset last season. Last week’s 75-point preseason debacle set the tone for what looks to be another long year in LA.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (59-23, 1st in Central Division)
Head Coach: David Blatt
Best Player: LeBron James
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Matthew Dellavadova
I think there are more than enough Cavaliers season previews floating around the basketball blogosphere, so I’ll keep I brief: They are going to be great. The offensive possibilities of lineups involving the LeBron/Love/Kyrie trio break projection models, and all indications are that David Blatt is the kind of coach who will allow this group to reach its frightening potential. My skepticisms regarding their defense still stand, but they ought to be so strong offensively that it won’t matter until the Conference Finals or so. The Cavs are the class of the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NBA.
2. Chicago Bulls (52-30, 2nd in Central Division)
Head Coach: Tom Thibodeau
Best Player: Joakim Noah
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Nikola Mirotic
Tom Thibodeau has been squeezing winning teams out of poor offensive outfits in Chicago for so long that it’s easy to get excited about their recent infusion of offensive talent. Las Vegas has taken a bold stance on the new-look Bulls squad, placing the over/under at 55.5 wins after an offseason that saw them net offensive aces Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott. In a weak Eastern Conference, 56+ wins is certainly plausible, given that they won 48 games last season without Derrick Rose and the trio of offseason additions. This projection seems dependent on the return-to-form of Derrick Rose, who hasn’t looked right since suffering an ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs and is an ever-present injury risk. The Bulls will be improved, but there are too many question marks for me to anoint them as an elite team.
3. Toronto Raptors (48-34, 1st in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Dwayne Casey
Best Player: Kyle Lowry
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: James Johnson
The Raptors aren’t championship contenders just yet, but I like what Masai Ujiri is doing in TO. It’s clear that he values roster continuity, as he spent the offseason retaining integral parts of last year’s squad in Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson, and Greivis Vasquez. He also picked up Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueira basically for free. Bonus! A good bit of upside could be hidden in the frontline of Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunus, an underrated duo of bigs who impact the game at both ends.
4. Miami Heat (46-36, 1st in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Eric Spoelstra
Best Player: Chris Bosh
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: James Ennis
I already wrote a bunch of words about my optimistic outlook on Miami’s post-LeBron era, and that was before the emergence of James Ennis! As I mentioned in the article, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Heat finish anywhere between 2nd and 5th in the East, but they seem to have a low degree of risk because of quality vets and coaching.
5. Washington Wizards (45-37, 2nd in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Randy Wittman
Best Player: John Wall
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Kevin Seraphin
Following an exciting playoff run led by the young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wiz have become a sexy pick to contend in the Eastern Conference. Wall and Beal are awesome – Wall in particular seems headed towards superstardom – but this was a team that struggled to hit .500 last season and downgraded from Trevor Ariza to Paul Pierce at the three. Washington has already been hit with injuries to Beal (out 6-8 weeks) and Kris Humphries and it’s only a matter of time before Nene gets hurt. There is obviously potential here, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Wiz hovering around .500 again this season.
6. Atlanta Hawks (44-38, 3rd in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Mike Budenholzer
Best Player: Al Horford
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Mike Scott
Front office turmoil aside, the Atlanta Hawks have a pretty good thing going. Last season, Spurs transplant Mike Budenholzer imported a Pop-inspired, three-ball happy offense, and the Hawks pushed the top-seeded Pacers to the brink behind basketblog heroes Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap. And now Al Horford is back. Don’t sleep on the Hawks.
7. Brooklyn Nets (39-43, 2nd in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Lionel Hollins
Best Player: Brook Lopez
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Mirza Teletovic
I have Detroit and Brooklyn just about neck-and-neck because they are the two Eastern Conference teams that would seem to have the widest variance of outcomes. Brooklyn is especially difficult to get a handle on. There are clear positives: two All-Stars (Johnson and Lopez), a solid PG (Deron Williams), a pair of intriguing young big men (Plumlee and Teletovic), and a battle-tested head coach in Lionel Hollins. On the flipside, they are dangerously thin at the wing (where they are expected to start Bojan Bogdanovich), their bench is dreadful, and they are one injury to DWill or Lopez away from being a bottom-feeder.
8. Detroit Pistons (38-44, 3rd in Central Division)
Head Coach: Stan Van Gundy
Best Player: Andre Drummond
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Jonas Jerebko
I paid money to watch the Pistons play live twice last season and they were probably the most dispirited NBA team I’ve ever seen, lead by two of the league’s most loathsome stars in Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. While I’d love to be able to write them off again this year, Stan Van Gundy came along in the offseason and paid handsomely to surround budding superstar Andre Drummond with spot-up 3pt shooters. If Drummond can grow into the Dwight Howard prototype and SVG can somehow harness the erratic assortment of talent in Detroit, the Pistons could make some noise in the East.
9. Charlotte Hornets (37-45, 4th in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Steve Clifford
Best Player: Al Jefferson
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Bismack Biyombo
Like the Wizards, I am afraid that the Hornets have become the object of misplaced optimism. They overachieved last year and, while I like the terms of the Stephenson deal, I’m not sure he solves their court-spacing woes. Their other offseason move was replacing departed FA Josh McRoberts with Marvin Williams, a rough downgrade in my opinion. Steve Clifford is a good defensive coach and there is enough here to make the playoffs in the East, but I am not sure this year’s Hornets will be any better than last year’s Bobcats.
10. Indiana Pacers (35-47, 4th in Central Division)
Head Coach: Frank Vogel
Best Player: Paul George
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Chris Copeland
No team was hit harder by the offseason than the Pacers. Indiana’s 23rd ranked offense saw their best playmaker (Lance Stephenson) leave in free agency and their best scorer (Paul George) suffer a devastating leg injury in FIBA. Perhaps there is a coach who could squeeze a league-average offense out of guys like George Hill, C.J. Watson, and David West, but based on how bad their offense was even with PG and Lance, it’s unlikely that Frank Vogel is that coach. Superior defense and coaching may keep Indy afloat and in the playoff conversation for a while, but I am not in a hurry to watch the Pacers this season.
11. New York Knicks (32-50, 3rd in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Derek Fisher
Best Player: Carmelo Anthony
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Pablo Prigioni
So begins the Phil Jackson era in New York. Jackson and the Knicks made a few splashes this summer; shipping Tyson Chandler back to Dallas, re-upping Melo, and tapping the Zen Master’s long-time PG Derek Fisher as head coach. Fisher is expected to install a Jackson-inspired triangle offense, which ought to be better than Mike Woodson’s iso-heavy clusterfuck, if only by default. Without the services of Chandler, their outlook at the other end of the floor leaves little room for optimism. A lineup of Calderon/Smith/Melo/Stoudemire/Bargnani, which is certainly conceivable (and would be some degree of dangerous on offense), could challenge the worst defensive units in basketball history.
12. Orlando Magic (31-51, 5th in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Jacque Vaughn
Best Player: Nikola Vucevic
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Kyle O’Quinn
Things are beginning to take shape in the post-Dwight era in Orlando. GM Rob Hennigan has used the last two drafts to build up a core of athletic, defensive-minded players (Oladipo, Gordon, Peyton) and enlisted a few veteran specialists (Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, Willie Green) to help space the floor offensively. A brutal preseason injury to Frye, an unsung hero of last year’s surprising Phoenix squad, will allow Orlando to give extended looks at young players like Kyle O’Quinn, Andrew Nicholson, and Mo Harkless, whose long-term fit in Orlando is not as clear as, say, Aaron Gordon. The Frye injury likely killed whatever slim chance the Magic had at a playoff run, but it will be fun to watch this group develop into a defensive stalwart and a future Eastern Conference power.
13. Boston Celtics (26-56, 4th in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Brad Stevens
Best Player: Rajon Rondo
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Phil Pressey
The Celtics are easily the least interesting of the Eastern Conference cellar dwellers and, without the services of Rajon Rondo, they may also be the least good at basketball. Defensive specialist Avery Bradley is back, as is mid-range assassin Brandon Bass and his band of jump-shooting big men, but that’s about it. The defensive potential of a Bradley/Marcus Smart backcourt is intriguing, but I have trouble identifying a single, unequivocal strength of this team. Unless coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens can make something unforeseen out of this inverted roster, expect another bland, 20-30 win Celtics team.
14. Philadelphia 76ers (21-61, 5th in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Brett Brown
Best Player: Michael Carter-Williams
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Hollis Thompson
The Sixers spent the offseason following a 19-win campaign by drafting two unavailable players and sitting (more or less) idly on a massive pile of cap space. Some call that “tanking”, but no personnel move was likely to elevate the Sixers from league’s worst to playoff caliber, so they will spend another year developing youngsters and mining the NBDL for league-average contributors. With lineups involving the hands-y MCW and rookie shot-blockers Nerlens Noel and K.J. McDaniels, Philly might approach league-average levels on defense, but that’s about as bullish as I am willing to get. They seem likely to repeat as the league’s least efficient offense, and are still awfully young and inexperienced across the board. The Sixers will be plenty bad, but probably not the 15-win atrocity that Vegas and the basket blogging world expect them to be.
15. Milwaukee Bucks (18-64, 5th in Central Division)
Head Coach: Jason Kidd
Best Player: Brandon Knight
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Khris Middleton
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s unclear just how much of Milwaukee’s struggles last season were due to coaching, injuries, and inconsistent playing time. The Bucks roster would appear to have more than 15 wins on it, so if Jason Kidd can succeed where Larry Drew did not, perhaps they make a significant step forward. Or maybe not! Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, and Brandon Knight are nobody’s idea of proper veteran leadership, and I am skeptical about Jabari Parker or Giannis Antetokounmpo being positive contributors this early in their careers. It might come down to guys like Khris Middleton and Nate Wolters emerging as starting caliber, which should just about say it all.
In the summer of 2012, the 76ers brass concluded that their 8th seeded team had maxed out on its current roster composition and made a blockbuster trade to acquire C Andrew Bynum. Bynum never suited up in his one mystery injury-riddled season with the Sixers, and the trade cost Philly their best player (Andre Iguodala) and three valuable assets (Moe Harkless, a 2015 1st round pick, and double-double machine Nik Vucevic). In the wake of this disastrous trade and the 34-win season that followed, Sixers coach Doug Collins resigned and the organization cut ties with GM Tony DiLeo, a Billy King-era front office holdover.
Enter: Sam Hinkie, a whip smart GM with tutelage under Rockets GM and devoted champion of analytics, Daryl Morey. Hinkie inherited a roster with one tradable asset in PG Jrue Holiday, a 23-year-old borderline All-Star type on a fair market contract. So when Hinkie dealt Holiday on draft night for an injured rookie and a 2014 draft pick, the narrative became that the Sixers were “tanking” the 2013 season; making themselves bad on purpose in order to maximize their lottery odds. I reject this narrative.
As I noted earlier, the Bynum trade sapped Philly of nearly all of its positive assets. Sam Hinkie saw the Jrue Holiday trade not as an opportunity to make the team bad, but as a chance to acquire a potential superstar in Nerlens Noel and a possible lottery pick in a highly touted draft class. Hinkie’s next move was to draft Jrue Holiday’s replacement, Syracuse PG Michael Carter-Williams. Here is the Sixers 2013-2014 “tanking” lineup versus the one that finished the 2012-2013 season:
Through February, the Sixers had traded exactly one player and replaced him with the rookie of the year. Their decline in play (seven fewer wins through 55 games) could be largely attributed to replacing departed free agent veterans like Dorrell Wright and Nick Young with a carousel of young, inexperienced players. If there is any way in which the Sixers have “tanked”, it is their preference to hoard cap space instead of signing mid-level veterans, but I have yet hear the argument that failing to retain Dorrell Wright and Nick Young is against the integrity of basketball.
That brings us to the February 20th trade deadline, when Philly shipped out Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, and Lavoy Allen for Henry Sims, Danny Granger’s contract, and 2nd round picks. The pundits and fans already invested in the #TankingForWiggins narrative saw this as Sam Hinkie trading three of his most productive and veteran players in order to “catch” the Milwaukee Bucks for the title of worst team in basketball. When the team responded by going on a record losing streak, it seemed to confirm that narrative. In reality, the Sixers were already terrible by the time Hawes and Turner were dealt. They owned the league’s second worst record, were dead last in point differential, and were already nine miserable games into their historic losing skid. Hawes, Turner, and Allen were dealt because they were set to become free agents after the season, not because Sam Hinkie thought that the league’s second worst team was playing too well. If Hinkie was so concerned with the Sixers securing the worst record, then why did he wait until the deadline to make these trades? And why didn’t he move Thaddeus Young who, unlike Turner and Allen, is actually good?
Hinkie’s tanking master plan was supposed to culminate with the selection of Kansas uber-prospect Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 draft. That was not to be, as the Sixers landed the 3rd pick and Wiggins emerged as the #1 prospect. Instead, the Sixers selected Joel Embiid, who, like Nerlens Noel a year ago, will likely sit out the season to recover from surgery. After swapping the pick they received in the Holiday trade (#10) to the Magic, and scooping up a future 1st and 2nd rounder in the process, they grabbed Croatian F Dario Saric, who will spend the next two seasons playing professionally in Turkey. People who saw these moves as Hinkie setting up another tanking season miss the point again. This was a GM with time on his side using it to his advantage by pouncing on opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. Even after breaking his foot during the pre-draft process, Joel Embiid was still thought in many circles to be by far the best prospect in the draft. Dario Saric is a 6’10” player with professional experience and a unique skill set, and it is possible that he wouldn’t have been available at #12 had he been able to jump to the NBA right away. If you are still convinced that the Sixers are revving up “Tank 2.0”, what do you suppose they would have done if Embiid or Saric had been taken before them? Gone for the next-best injured player? Come on.
Sam Hinkie, Brett Brown, Josh Harris, and the rest of the Sixers regime have been honest and forthcoming about their commitment to a long-term plan, one that is indifferent towards short-term success. Though they haven’t made an honest effort to make this year’s edition of the Sixers competitive, they have not made a single personnel decision in the interest of bottoming out and getting a good draft pick. Even if the NBA adopted a lottery substitute that eliminates the incentive for being bad, all of the moves I detailed above; trading Holiday for Noel and a 1st, trading impending free agents for Henry Sims and 2nd rounders, drafting Embiid and Saric; would still stand as unequivocally good ones. Tanking is mostly a #HotTakes pundit-driven non-issue. Real professional sports franchises do not implement an organizational mandate to lose as if they were the Indians in the Major League movies. If the NBA chooses to punish the Sixers with reactionary lottery reform, they will find that they are only increasing the league’s already problematic talent gap.