NBA Preview Tier Two: The Playoff Contenders
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. Last week we covered the rebuilding teams. This week we move on to the Playoff Contenders who are unlikely to compete for a championship this season but aim to secure a postseason berth.
The Miami Heat lead off the playoff contenders. Some may be surprised to see them this low after narrowly missing the playoffs a year ago but a lot had to go right for Miami a year ago and they will need a lot of luck to replicate that success. The team memorably won 13 in a row at one point and challenged for the playoffs. In fact, they were tied with the Bulls in record but lost on a tiebreaker to end up at home. The problem for this year’s squad will be that many of the contributors to that success are unlikely to match last season’s production. Goran Dragic’s numbers were around his career highs across the board while Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, and James Johnson all obliterated their previous bests. Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson also had their best years as pros but both players are in the beginning stages of their careers so those numbers should be more replicable.
It is possible that some of those players match or even improve this year but it is exceedingly unlikely that all of them will. Getting back Justise Winslow will help but his inability to threaten teams from deep was a huge reason the team was so successful after he went down with an injury. Many around the league expected the Heat to score big in free agency but they mostly brought the band from last year back and added Kelly Olynyk. Coach Erik Spolestra will undoubtedly keep the Heat in playoff contention but the Heat will need major strides from Winslow and a repeat of last year from many of their players to make it back to the postseason.
The Mavericks slotting in at number 20 speaks volumes about the stiff competition out west. Dennis Smith was a great pickup for them in the draft and should infuse the team with some youth and athleticism. Dirk Nowitzki still has some gas in the tank but he is no longer the type of player who can carry an offense for stretches. He posted his worst shooting percentage since his rookie year but much of that was due to injuries so he may bounce back but it will not be enough to get the Mavs into the playoffs. The rest of the team consists of good but not great players like Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, Seth Curry, and Nerlens Noel. That is undoubtedly a lot of talent but Mark Cuban will have to wait at least another year in a conference where teams can have multiple all-stars and miss the playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are a true oddity. It is almost unheard of to see a team with two players who are among the top-20 in basketball to play together and miss the postseason. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins had that happen last year although Cousins only played part there for of the year. New Orleans is hoping that will change this year but it will not be easy with the supporting cast around those two. Jrue Holiday is as consistent a player as you can find in the NBA but Dante Cunningham and Rajon Rondo round out the starting lineup. Cunningham is a lifetime backup on the wrong side of 30 now who has never cracked 30 minutes a game in his career. Meanwhile, while many people remember the Rajon Rondo who snuck into passing lanes and disrupted the Celtics offense in the playoffs a year ago, Bulls fans know the truth. Rondo was a huge negative for the Bulls in the regular season as they struggled to stay above .500. He played under 30 minutes a game and barely managed 40 percent shooting from the field.
The Pelicans were a respectable tenth in defensive efficiency a year ago but the addition of Rondo and Cunningham are unlikely to improve that number while they may further deteriorate the Pelicans anemic offense that finished 26th in the league. Coach Alvin Gentry was brought in to modernize the team and bring them to the playoffs. He will need to find a way to get Davis and Cousins to play together while maximizing the surrounding talent or he will be looking for a new job while Cousins may find himself looking for another new team.
It might be time for Utah to change their name to the Blues after facing another potential rebuild after losing George Hill and Gordon Hayward in free agency. Fortunately, there is still a lot of talent but one of the young guys will need to become a star. Rudy Gobert might be the guy after narrowly losing to Draymond Green for the Defensive Player of the Year. The numbers bear out that the two were neck and neck with many measures including ESPN’s real plus minus giving Gobert the edge. Meanwhile, the preseason star is Rodney Hood. The excellent Zach Lowe from ESPN as well as Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer both did profiles on him and the increased usage he is going to see.
Hood is flanked by some serious depth at the guard and wing positions as well, which foreshadows some additional small ball lineups in the season to come since Derrick Favors struggled playing alongside Gobert. With George Hill being replaced by Ricky Rubio and Gordon Hayward now in Boston, Coach Quin Snyder is sure to use any means he can to unlock the spacing. Wings like Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson could shift up a spot and that would open some minutes for players like summer league star Donovan Mitchell and other young guys like Alec Burks and Dante Exum. Burks and Exum have been the forgotten men on this team. Both missed time to injury and slipped off the radar after being selected in the lotteries of their respected drafts. Neither are knockdown shooters, but Burks is a career 36 percent shooter while Exum is still just 22 years old. Coach Snyder will have his hands full trying to balance the pressure of playing to win while also developing the young players he has on the roster but the Jazz should be happy if they can discover a second foundational piece to pair with Gobert on the roster.
Last year was the year from hell for the Pistons. They had made the postseason 2 seasons ago and everyone expected a subsequent improvement by the team after playing surprisingly well against LeBron in the playoffs. Instead, they fell flat on their faces and proceeded to miss the playoffs by four games. Meanwhile, the supposed cornerstones both struggled with Reggie Jackson missing extended time and absorbing criticism for his score first mentality and Andre Drummond watching his numbers fall across the board and his free throw shooting become a major story. Drummond’s free throw issue persists and remains as baffling as ever. To put it into context, Steph Curry has shot 43.8 percent on three point shots over his career while Drummond has shot free throws at a 38.1 percent clip from a place called the “charity stripe” so named to convey the gift of an unguarded attempt at scoring baskets.
The good news is that befuddling free throw percentages aside, Drummond is a stud who rarely misses games and remains among the league’s best at rebounding. Jackson presents a different dilemma as the primary criticism has centered on his style of play. Jackson is a score first point guard who needs the ball in his hands a lot given his relatively poor three-point shooting. Subsequently, he is not as much of a threat off the ball, which leaves Coach Stan Van Gundy with precious few options. Jackson will likely enter the season as the starting point guard and handle most of the ball handling for Detroit. The good news for Detroit is that they did manage to get some help in the form of Avery Bradley. Bradley is a tenacious defender who is a better shooter from beyond the arc than the man he is replacing in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Pistons desperately need shooting and may turn to Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock, Jon Leuer, and newly drafted Luke Kennard to give it to them if the other starters struggle. Detroit was stingy on defense a year ago coming in at seventh in the league in defensive efficiency but will need to improve their offense if they want to return to the playoffs.
Charlotte is poised for a bounce back season this year. Kemba Walker asserted himself a year ago and made his first all-star team but the rest of the team struggled. Nicolas Batum regressed while the remainder of the supporting cast could not provide much scoring punch on nights when Walker was off his game. The addition of Dwight Howard will help the Hornets’ rebounding after being outrebounded on average and finishing 20th in rebounding differential a season ago. Offensively, Charlotte hopes that Malik Monk can contribute immediately to add another weapon to Charlotte’s offense and unlock small ball units where Batum slides to the three and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would operate as a small ball power forward. MKG is the clear x-factor for this team. He is among the best defenders in the league but his complete inability to knock down jumpers results in cramped spacing and the Hornets playing four-on-five on offense. Charlotte needs him to take the leap in order to ascend in the hierarchy of the Eastern Conference.
The Grindhouse Grizzlies Era is over with the departures of Tony Allen and Zach Randolph. Many of the other pieces are still there but the style of play has shifted towards a modern offense. Still, the Grizz rely heavily on Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to generate offense for them, especially after striking out on Chandler Parsons. While there is some optimism regarding Parsons, his history of knee injuries is troubling to say the least. Memphis lacks depth even if he is healthy and might not survive losing Gasol or Conley for an extended time. It is painful to say about one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA but the Grizzlies need to blow it up before it is too late to get anything for their assets. They are a fringe playoff team as currently constructed. It is time for these Grizzlies to start the grit and grind of a full rebuild.
Portland Trail Blazers
Like many of the teams on this list, Portland is in the unenviable position of being good but not good enough. They possess two stars and a number of solid role players but in a post Warriors universe, that is not nearly enough. CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard form one of the most fearsome and offensively potent backcourts. Unfortunately, their scoring acumen has not carried over to the other end. They have been in the bottom half of the league defensively for a few seasons but have avoided being truly terrible by staying with the conservative defense that Coach Terry Stotts prefers. Jusuf Nurkic is a good fit in that system but with two undersized guards and no lockdown perimeter defenders, the ceiling is only so high. The Blazers continue to emphasize internal development but the talent gap at the top of the Western Conference may be too great for them to overcome. The Blazers tried to add Carmelo Anthony but his lack of interest set the Blazers back to square one. They still need a third star alongside McCollum and Lillard to stand any chance among the elite teams. The Blazers remain an entertaining league pass team awaiting their chance to ascend to greatness. In order to challenge the giants of the conference, they will have to follow the lead of those teams and get another star to play in Portland.