NBA Preview Tier Four: The 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. So far we have covered the rebuilding teams, the playoff contenders, and the upstarts. This week we turn our attention to the teams that could compete for a championship if things break the right way. These are the contenders.
8. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are, in the words of Dennis Green, “who we thought they were.” They lost a few pieces in Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll but are the same nucleus with the same ceiling.
The success of this team revolves around DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Lowry is a finished product at this stage. 31-year-old point guards usually do not develop unless their name is Steve Nash. DeRozan could determine the direction of this team. He has been reticent to attempt three pointers during his career but as Kevin O’Connor wonderfully described, that addition could change the dynamic of Toronto’s roster and nudge their ceiling higher. Luckily, DeRozan appears to have worked on it during the summer, which is good news for any Raptors fans.
The other X-factors are the young players that GM Masai Ujiri has collected. Pascal Siakam, Jakob Petl, OG Anunoby, Lucas Nogueira, Brunco Caboclo, and Normal Powell have all shown flashes. If one of them can take a Jimmy Butler-esque leap from role player to complementary star, the Raptors could find themselves competing for the top spot in the East. While it would be nice to see more from Bruno “two years away from being two years away” Caboclo, the more likely candidate is Norman Powell.
Powell should be Toronto’s three-and-D player but could unlock small ball lineups for Toronto if he continues to develop. C.J. Miles might not be able to slide up to the four given his rebounding deficiencies but the combination of those two and DeRozan with Serge Ibaka and Lowry could be lethal offensively. If Powell can evolve into the final piece, it would force Coach Dwane Casey’s hand into playing the small ball lineups that unlock spacing for the Raptors.
Casey has been outcoached during the playoffs in each of the past few years and needs to improve. The offense is still prehistoric and relies far too heavily on the midrange game. If Casey does not update the offense, then he could be the first coach on the chopping block this season.
The first step to modernizing the offense will be dealing with Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas is a solid offensive player and an excellent rebounder who cannot guard perimeter players or shoot from distance. He signed a mammoth $64 million dollar deal that has crippled Toronto financially and incentivizes Casey to play him. Serge Ibaka makes him largely redundant as Ibaka is a better shooter, defender, and rim protector. If Casey can shift the lion’s share of center minutes to Ibaka, Toronto will be better for it.
The Raptors need to resolve the Casey situation. Whoever coaches them will have to fix an offense that has been 13th in points scored the past two postseasons. GM Masai Ujiri is never afraid to blow things up so if the team cannot fix their offensive woes then the current squad will likely go extinct.
7. Washington Wizards
The Wizards head into the season with expectations as high as they have been in the John Wall era. The team narrowly missed the chance to go to the Eastern Conference Finals last season when Kelly Olynyk tore Boston’s hearts out by going nuclear in game seven. This season, Wall, Bradley Beal, and Coach Scott Brooks will look to build on that success.
The most important number for the Wizards last year was 155. Wall and Beal played 155 games between them last year. That tied the high mark during their careers with the 2013 season when they nearly made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2015, both missed time with Beal only playing in 55 and the team missed the playoffs entirely. A successful season in Washington starts with Beal and Wall staying healthy.
The rest of the roster is filled with role players. Marcin Gortat has manned the middle ably for this team but is 33 and his best years are behind him. The Wizards hope that backup Ian Mahinmi can be a competent backup and partially justify his huge contract.
Markieff Morris and Jason Smith are the power forwards, which largely summarizes the problem with this team. Neither is a bad player per se but they are also incapable of elevating their games to help take a load off Beal and Wall.
The wing position holds the one gleam of hope for improvement on the Wizards. Otto Porter is still young and proved to be an all-star caliber talent a season ago. He cannot create his own offense but he is an exceptional role player who can defend, rebound, and shoot.
Third year player Kelly Oubre holds the fate of the Wizards in his hands barring a big trade. Oubre is a mediocre shooter (29 percent from three) but can handle the ball, defend, and has shown perimeter skills. He is just 21 years old. Oubre’s development is Washington’s best shot at having a chance to compete for the Eastern Conference title this season.
The Wizards are likely locked into a middle seed unless they make a move. The past trades for veterans have left them devoid of young talent outside of Oubre. Wall and Beal are likely to miss more than the combined seven from a year ago. If that happens, the Wizards will likely take a step back rather than a step forward this season.
6. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are the big movers in the Eastern Conference. Coming into last season, they were mostly an afterthought. This year, they should be right behind the Cavaliers. Even if Cleveland wins the Kyrie Irving trade, they will not reap the benefits until they use the Nets draft pick. Isaiah Thomas is already going to miss the first few months of the season. The addition of Gordon Hayward further improves an already talented roster.
The Celtics will trot out a new starting lineup this season but no one is exactly sure who will be there. Irving, Hayward, and Al Horford are virtual locks to start at this point. Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and perhaps even Jayson Tatum will compete for the other two. Morris and Brown are the favorites but Smart will undoubtedly fight his way into that conversation.
The Celtics will need to space the floor around Hayward and Irving when they have the ball. The Irving trade also sent Jae Crowder to the Cavaliers who provided shooting at the power forward spot. Marcus Morris’ shooting percentages largely mirror Crowder’s but Crowder’s percentages climbed dramatically in the past three seasons with Boston. Celtics fans hope that Coach Brad Stevens’ offensive wizardry can create the same effect with Morris.
Hayward and Irving should fit nicely on the court. Isaiah Thomas had a higher usage rate than both Hayward and Irving last year so neither player will have to sacrifice many touches on offense. Moreover, since both players are excellent shooters, they are formidable weapons off the ball as well. Stevens designed numerous off ball actions for Thomas that helped him become an elite offensive player and should be able to generate open looks for Irving and Hayward the same way.
The Celtics are as well positioned as any team in the NBA. The only concern with this team will be chemistry. There are a lot of new pieces and the flurry of moves left a bad taste in the mouth of some Celtics. Jaylen Brown recently expressed his feelings on the move and there may be other Celtics with lingering concerns about loyalty with the way GM Danny Ainge shipped out a number of players from an Eastern Conference finalist. Thomas’ departure also leaves a leadership void. The Celtics need to be very wary of who fills that role.
It is important to remember that Marcus Smart is now the longest tenured Celtic at the ripe old age of 23. Coach Brad Stevens is the clear leader but he needs a counterpart on the floor. Irving, Hayward, and Horford are all high character players but none of them embraced the role of a vocal leader in the past so someone else may need to fill that role. Teams often assume the identity of their leader. The Celtics were a gritty and hard-working team with Thomas. Who will they be now?
5. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs come into this season with the stiffest competition in the Western Conference that they have ever faced. In fact, from top to bottom the Western Conference has never been as good as it is this season. The Spurs have been a constant atop the conference. They perpetually finish as one of the best teams and have been a contender since they drafted Tim Duncan. This year will be no different unless Coach Gregg Popovich and GM RC Buford decide to reset.
The Spurs will rely heavily on Kawhi Leonard yet again. Last season, he posted the highest usage rate since 2008 for a Spurs player. That speaks volumes about both his talent and Coach Popovich’s ability to constantly adapt his system to the players who inhabits it. If healthy, Kawhi Leonard will be a strong contender for the MVP with his incredible combination of shooting, scoring, rebounding, and defense. Defense has been his calling card. Few perimeter players have inspired more video highlights of their defensive exploits. The case for the Spurs as a contender will rest in Leonard’s enormous hands.
The rest of the roster is not inspiring. LaMarcus Aldridge came to the Spurs to be their second star but has not played to that level since arriving. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are on their last legs and Pau Gasol is not far behind. It will be no surprise if Rudy Gay resuscitates his career but he is also on the wrong side of 30 years old. Danny Green is a nice three-and-D role player but not much more. Patty Mills should excel in a larger role but how much should we expect from someone who has barely been able to crack ten points a game?
The Spurs should think about starting to retool. Leonard is going to need some help and the current cast is not enough. The Spurs have watched their average age decline from 31.6 in 2015, to 29.1 last season, and now 28.2 coming into this one but they are still the third oldest team in the NBA. The Spurs have traditionally built through the draft from David Robinson, to Duncan, to Parker, to Ginobili, and finally by trading for Leonard’s draft rights. In a draft filled with talent, the Spurs need to return to that strategy so they can return to the top of the conference before time passes them by.
4. Houston Rockets
The Rockets underwent a facelift this offseason by adding Chris Paul. Paul is a culture changing player who has commanded every high school, college, and professional team he has played on during his career. From the moment he stepped on the court at Wake Forest, he made them his team. He followed the path in the NBA by transforming the Hornets into his team. The Clippers became “Lob City” when he arrived with him throwing the lobs. Who will the Rockets become with him at the helm?
Chris Paul is an advanced stats darling. He has been top three in three of the four years of ESPN’s Real Plus Minus. The other year he finished seventh but was second to Harden in the wins he added to his team. Paul has been in the top ten of Player Efficiency Rating each of the last five years with an average finish of sixth. There is a reason he is the Point God.
Harden is right there with Paul. Since the inception of Real Plus Minus, Harden has been the fourth best offensive player on average. He has been in the top ten of PER the last three years. Him and Paul should be two of the top ten players in the league this season but with the Warriors that might not be enough.
Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza headline the role players for the Rockets. Meanwhile, Ryan Anderson is a great shooter and Clint Capela is a great pick-and-roll man. Nene rounds out the frontcourt rotation but might not have much left after injuring his groin to end his season last year.
The wild cards will be new additions PJ Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Tucker could theoretically pair with Paul, Harden, Ariza, and Capela to play small with Harden as the lone weak defensive link. Mbah a Moute could be another interesting candidate but lacks some of the offensive polish of Tucker.
The ball sharing issues with Paul and Harden might not be as important as many expect. The Rockets will be fine offensively. They were second behind the Warriors in both offensive rating and points per game. Paul might get them closer to number one but even falling a couple of spots would not knock them out of contention.
On the other side of the ball, the Rockets were 18th in defensive efficiency. Paul is an elite defender but the departed Patrick Beverley was excellent on that end as well. D’Antoni believes but the rest of the roster will have to step up. Harden, Gordon, and Anderson are all poor defenders. Kevin McHale may be a clown but he is right about Harden’s defense. Other players are going to have trouble taking his leadership to heart on defense until he improves on that end. Until Houston’s defense moves into the top ten, they will be no match against the Warriors.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder’s acquisitions of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George make them the top contenders to Golden State’s Western Conference hegemony.
The moves the Thunder made this offseason clearly had a matchup with Golden State in mind. Golden State now has a roster that can play multiple styles. Their glut of wings with Paul George, Anthony, Andre Roberson, and Alex Abrines mean they can switch to super small lineups with George or Roberson defending Draymond Green and Kevin Durant.
Their lone true big man is Steven Adams. However, Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant are capable of defending big men or switching onto smaller and quicker players. Patterson is a floor spacer while the Thunder are hopeful that Grant’s 38 percent shooting from deep last year was a sign of things to come.
The point guard depth was an issue last season that remains unresolved. Raymond Felton is no longer a starting caliber point guard. If Westbrook goes down, he could take the Thunder down with him. He just received PRP injections and has been sitting out the preseason as a precautionary measure. Coach Billy Donovan will need to carefully monitor his minutes to ensure the team is healthy heading into the playoffs.
If the team gels, the Thunder could run people off the court this season. George and Anthony will improve the defense, especially considering the departure of Enes Kanter. Their contributions on offense should also ease Westbrook’s burden and let him dial in on defense. They could be a top ten unit on both ends next year, which is usually a recipe for title contention.
Unfortunately, this is not a usual year. They play in the same conference as a team that could go down as the best of all time. The Warriors set the single season wins mark before adding Kevin Durant scorching the earth on their way to another championship last year.
The Thunder will have their work cut out for them. Thankfully, GM Sam Presti is a wizard and could have more tricks up his sleeve. He turned role players and bad contracts into two superstars so who knows what other GMs he could bamboozle. The moves he orchestrated this offseason give them a puncher’s chance of knocking out the champs.