NBA Preview Tier Three: The Upstarts
It is officially fall. The advent of fall brings many things: the changing of leaves, Halloween, school starting, pumpkin spice lattes, and most importantly, the NBA. The new season will start on October 17., so Double G Sports is here to provide the comprehensive preview you need to prepare you to watch and follow your favorite teams and prepare you for any upcoming fantasy drafts. This year’s teams will be grouped into five tiers arranged by their ranking. So far we have covered the rebuilding teams and the playoff contenders. This week we are covering the upstarts. These are the teams that could rule the NBA one day as they continue to develop.
13. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers are the Eastern Conference’s “On Paper” all-stars. Their starting lineup seems good enough for them to be the Eastern Conference’s fourth or fifth seed. Joel Embiid is an ascending star while Dario Saric acquitted himself well as a rookie. Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons are two of the favorites for rookie of the year. Rounding out the starting five is JJ Redick: a lights out shooter who can space the floor.
As Renee Washington already covered, the main issue will be health. The ceiling of this team could be getting to the Eastern Conference finals. However, if Embiid and Simmons miss significant chunks of the season as they did a year ago, then Philadelphia will struggle to make the playoffs. Fultz and Saric do not have significant injury histories but even players like Redick and Robert Covington have struggled to play full seasons over their career.
Ultimately, while health is likely to determine the outcome of their season, the Sixers have many reasons to be optimistic. Embiid is in a contract year and will have every incentive to play. Meanwhile, Simmons has been electric in camp making him the favorite for Rookie of the Year in many people’s eyes. Additionally, the Eastern Conference saw the middle playoff teams fall off a cliff with the fifth, seventh, and eighth seeds from a year ago expected to be at the top of the lottery.
On the court, the questions will center on the ability of so many new pieces to integrate into a cohesive whole. That said, the starting lineup makes a lot of sense. Fultz, Saric, Embiid, and Redick are all capable shooters. While Simmons was not a great shooter in college (67 percent from the free throw line and 33 percent from beyond the arc) he reportedly had spent much of his time working on his mechanics and show and in July posted a video that showed him swishing threes. If Simmons develops a jump shot and everyone stays healthy, the sky is the limit for this team offensively.
On defense, there are major question marks. Covington is elite defensively and should be able to shut down all but the very best wings in the NBA. Saric is moving up a position, which gives him the quickness edge against many of the players he will face but his relatively skinny frame and inability to block shots will be problematic. Rookies are almost always poor defenders and Fultz and Simmons project to get big minutes. Embiid is a game changer when healthy but could struggle to cover up the mistakes of so many average perimeter defenders.
Last year, the 76ers were dead last in offensive efficiency and 14th on defense. If the Sixers can gel offensively and keep Embiid healthy, they could fulfill their destiny and save the Eastern Conference.
12. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are undoubtedly the Western Conference “On Paper” all-stars. This team feels like a new sports car; there is high top end speed but with the wrong driver, this season could quickly veer off a cliff. Without Chris Paul, the team will be led by Blake Griffin. There have been a lot of articles written about his potential as the team’s floor general. Will he be Mario Andretti behind the wheel or Tiger Woods?
Like the 76ers, the major concerns for the Clippers center on health. Griffin and newly acquired Danilo Gallinari have both had major injury issues and both are still recovering now. New point guard Patrick Beverley and shooting guard Lou Williams have also had their own injury troubles.
The reason for optimism then is that if the team does stay healthy, they are a very intriguing team. Coach Doc Rivers has sworn that the team will be sharing more this season and running more of a motion offense without Chris Paul in the fold. Unlike other ill-fated attempts at democratic offenses, the Clippers have the personnel to do it.
Beverley and Austin Rivers are the presumed starters at guard but Milos Teodosic is a wizard with the ball, especially in the pick and roll. All three have the shooting ability to spot up off the ball with Griffin is running the offense.
The obvious choice at small forward is Gallinari but when he plays there, other threes can keep him out of the lane and force him to shoot over them. Gallinari is at his best when leveraging his length and getting to the free throw line. Subsequently, Doc Rivers might be better served playing one of the smaller guards at point guard and then letting Austin Rivers start at small forward with Gallinari and Lou Williams leading the bench units. The league is going smaller and there are very few small forwards who have the bulk to take advantage of Rivers. Moreover, slotting him up would give Rivers a quickness advantage and help space the floor.
Griffin will start at power forward and DeAndre Jordan will be the starting center. Ideally, Coach Rivers will play small ball lineups with Gallinari next to Griffin or Jordan. That will maximize the spacing on the floor and ensure Rivers can get his best personnel on the floor in a position to succeed.
Defensively, the Clippers have been wildly inconsistent across Rivers’ tenure as head coach. They have been as high as sixth in the league in defensive efficiency and as low as 17th. Rivers will need them to finish closer to the first number if he wants to bring them back to the playoffs and keep his job.
11. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee is one of the most intriguing teams in the NBA. In the past year, the team has seen a superstar emerge, a major front office scandal regarding the hiring of a GM that could influence the aforementioned superstar’s desire to stay, and a return to the playoffs. There is a LOT going on in Milwaukee without even delving into Jabari Parker’s rehab, Jason Kidd’s status as head coach, or the emergence of one of the overflowing supply of young athletic players on the roster.
Any conversation about the Bucks starts and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis, or the Greek Freak as he is lovingly referred to, had a breakout season as he cemented his superstar status. He averaged nearly 23 points to go with nearly nine rebounds and five and a half assists a game. He also averaged 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals per game. Advanced stats confirm his standing with him ranking tenth in PER, 18th in real plus minus, and tenth in win shares.
This year’s iteration of the Bucks will again rely on Giannis but the supporting case will determine the Bucks’ ceiling. Giannis is flanked by Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Thon Maker in the starting lineup. Brogdon is the shortest at 6’5 but more incredibly, the average wingspan of that starting lineup measures at over seven feet. The Bucks have the longest and most athletic teams in NBA history even before including potential superstar Jabari Parker (6’8 with a seven foot wingspan.)
The major question mark for the Bucks coming into the season will be shooting. Last year, the team shot the lights out. Jason Terry posted the second best of his career while Snell, Middleton, and Parker all hit new career highs. Brogdon and Maker shot 40 and 38 percent respectively. Middleton and Terry are certainly knockdown shooters but the rest of those players shot much better than expected. Giannis is a poor shooter (27 percent last year) so the Bucks need the players around him to be able to space the floor. Can the Bucks recreate their shooting prowess from a year ago?
The Bucks have been below average defensively since Coach Jason Kidd’s first year. That year, the Bucks finished second in defensive efficiency but they have plummeted to 23rd two seasons ago and 16th last year. Kidd’s aggressive style of swarming defense has not worked. If Milwaukee continues to underachieve on that side of the ball, look for Coach Kidd to be on the hot seat.
The Bucks are clearly among the best positioned teams to ascend if LeBron James leaves for the Western Conference. Giannis and Parker could both emerge as superstars while Middleton, Brogdon, and Maker seemed primed to complement that core. If Giannis develops his jump shot, he could find himself as the new king of the Eastern Conference.
10. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets had a big offseason which now brings mile high expectations in Denver. Denver added Paul Millsap, which should immediately improve their defense and make their rebounding even more formidable. With OKC’s starting lineup downsizing this year, the Nuggets should be the favorites to lead the league in rebounding. They will also be a league pass darling despite their 11th place finish in Zach Lowe’s rankings. The combination of young players and the dynamic passing of their starting big men in Millsap and Nikola Jokic make them fun to watch.
The biggest challenge will be unscrambling their logjam at the frontcourt positions. There is a massive roster imbalance at the forward and center spots for this team. The team has eight (!) big men deserving of minutes. Even if Darrell Arthur falls out of the rotation and Tyler Lydon spends the season in the G-League, they still have six players to divide minutes amongst, including the two best players on the roster.
Jokic and Millsap will start but Kenneth Faried, Trey Lyles (who they traded for in the offseason), Juan Hernangomez, and Mason Plumlee (just signed to a $41 million deal) are all going to need at least 15-20 minutes a game. There are not enough minutes to go around. Hernangomez and Lyles have some perimeter skills but are much better suited as power forwards. Denver needs to move on from at least one or two of these players and Faried is the most likely to be dealt. If the Nuggets can swap big men for some help on the wing, they could end up as a top five team in the Western Conference.
Whether or not the Nuggets move on from some of their big guys, they should still make the playoffs. The team narrowly missed a year ago and Gary Harris and Jamal Murray should be even better. Defenses will focus on Jokic this year, so he will have to prove he can be the focal point of an offense. Coach Mike Malone did a great job last year but the issue up front could be a major issue for the chemistry of the team, especially given that the five highest paid players on the team are all frontcourt players. If Malone can manage those minutes and keep the team happy, the Nuggets will be a threat in the West.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves
The pups have grown up. The addition of a cadre of veterans led by Jimmy Butler signals that the rebuild is over and the time to contend is now. Butler and fellow new additions Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson form three fifths of the starting lineup. Gibson and Butler are both ex-Bulls who embody Coach/GM Tom Thibodeau’s gritty mentality. They should bring the toughness and defense he demands from his players.
The Wolves clearly improved with the additions but shooting could be a problem. Karl-Anthony Towns is the best shooter in the starting lineup. He is also probably the best rebounder, post player, and rim roller. He should not be stationed in the corner. That means Wiggins, Butler, and Teague will all need to improve their spot up shooting. All three like the ball in their hands so Thibodeau will have to stagger minutes and find ways to get all three involved using off ball actions.
Between Teague’s shaky shooting, dependence on having the ball, and Thibodeau’s tendency to rely on his point guards to initiate offense, Teague will likely find the ball in his hands a lot. Butler has had ups and downs but has never had this type of talent around him. That should open up space and help him improve on his shooting percentages. Like Butler Wiggins has improved his shooting and should get a lot more open shots with the added talent around him.
Wiggins will have to improve defensively where he was a train wreck a season ago. The loss of LaVine should help Minnesota defensively but Teague, Wiggins, and Towns all need to step up. Butler and Gibson cannot do it themselves and Thibodeau will not his team play as poorly defensively as they did last year.
It is easy to wonder about floor spacing and defense but the Wolves just added a superstar in Butler. The Bulls were a disaster last year and he still took them to the playoffs. With all of the young talent on the roster, Minnesota could be a surprise contender this season.
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