The 2017-18 NBA season launches Tuesday night with an awesome doubleheader. That means it’s time for Stat Boi’s third annual 8 NBA title contenders, which will serve in place of this week’s St8 of the NBA — a new series that debuted last week.
YEAAHHHH BABTY GET HYPED
You will recognize a lot of familiar names atop this list, including two teams that have been selected 1-2 all three times we’ve done this.
8. Charlotte Hornets
Ah, yes. The eighth and final coveted spot in StatBoi’s Top 8 title contender. Part of this tradition is finding a way to limp in and include the beloved Charlotte Hornets.
This year, I’ll use this to shamelessly promote a few things. Keep up with BG’s St8 of the NBA, which will have four Hornets news items every week, and make sure to listen to me, Spencer and Richie on BuzzBeat Radio — a weekly Hornets podcast.
— Buzz Beat (@BuzzBeatRadio) October 15, 2017
7. Washington Wizards
With Jimmy Butler going east to west this summer in a trade between Chicago and Minnesota, we can now say that Raleigh product John Wall is the second best player in the Eastern Conference. The issues with this team, however, fall squarely on a depleted bench.
Washington’s starting lineup played 1,347 minutes together last season — more than any other 5-man pairing by almost 500 minutes. Yep, you read that correctly.
I detailed the expanding games of Wall — a speed demon and passing savant — and smooth-shooting two guard Bradley Beal in March. The Zards were excellent with those two on the floor: 2,362 minutes, scored 113 points per 100 possession — a rate of a top two offense.
When those two sat, well, not so great — Washington barely managed to score one point per possession.
The Wizards — capped out, thanks in part to the $30 million they owe Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi — could do little to improve depth this offseason. Signing Otto Porter Jr. to a $100 million was their only move to maintain skill at the forward position. Jodie Meeks, at the mini mid-level, Tim Frazier and Mike Scott were the only other signings of note.
6. Boston Celtics
The Kyrie Irving trade was certainly a risk; Boston gave up a lot in return for one of the best iso scorers roaming the planet. That’s only part of why this team will look chemically different this year. Only four players return; gone are IT4, Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley — all part of a busy summer for the Celtics.
Boston did, however, manage to poach All-Star Gordon Hayward from the Utah Jazz — the lone example of an Eastern Conference team luring a star player from the West.
In lineups with Al Horford at center, which should be Brad Stevens’ preferred look, the Celtics will be damn near unguardable. Kyrie and Gordon Hayward are stud high-usage perimeter players. When this team gets into its loopy handoff and split action, good luck defending them — unless you’re San Antonio or the super-switchy Warriors.
Hayward and Kyrie running this sort of weak side action will be devastating while Horford picks out cutters and shooters.
We should see plenty of Jaylen Brown on the wing and Jayson Tatum as a stretchy four, which I’m excited about — except for nights when he will be asked to spend minutes guarding LeBron.
I’ve seen this team twice now in the preseason; they looked awesome. I think they win more games than anyone else in the East (53-55), give the Cavs a run in May, but ultimately fall to Cleveland in the ECF — for a second straight year.
5. San Antonio Spurs
Another year, another 50-win juggernaut in the heart of Texas. You know what you’re going to get with the Spurs. They will defend; San Antonio has been top 10 in defense each season since the 2011-12 campaign. They will pass the hell out of the ball; San Antonio finished No. 7 in the league in passes per game (317), despite ranking 27th in pace. And they drill three-pointers; San Antonio has ranked in the top 10 in three-point percentage in every season since 2010-11, and that includes four times when they led the league.
And Kawhi Leonard will wreck shop.
Leonard has long been a two-way monster, but in 2016-17, he hit another level. He used 12.6 percent of his possessions via isolation — shooting 42.3 percent and scoring 0.94 points per possession — right there with Paul George and Westbrook. Kawhi was arguably the best non-guard pick-and-roll player in the NBA — 1.01 points per possession (No. 4 in the NBA), 47.6 eFG%.
This dude just turned 26, too. The best is yet to come; we are just now entering the prime of his career. He takes his time, gets to his spots and punishes defenders. Look at this midrange mastery.
This was a strange offseason for the Spurs, who missed out on the Chris Paul sweepstakes, and overspent to retain an aging Pau Gasol. However, most of the crew is still here, including my idol Gregg Popovich. Newly signed Rudy Gay, if healthy, offers intriguing small-ball options next to Leonard.
LaMarcus Aldridge will likely continue to regress some, but he’s still and automatic 17 and 8 and 41% shooting from the midrange. Patty Mills is back to drain threes; Dejounte Murray looks like he may be a stud. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — two zombies — remain undead, although Parker is still recovering from injury.
This is the best organization in North American professional sports — period. Enjoy them while it lasts.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
These guys were very close to getting the No. 3 spot in the rankings; however, I have them a hair below Houston.
With Russell Westbrook extension, the Thunder put the wraps on a wildly impressive offseason. First, OKC turned Victor Oladipo (and his contract) and Domatas Sabonis into All-NBA wing Paul George. Next, the team named plus-minus god Patrick Patterson for the mini mid-level extension. Later in the summer, OKC shocked the world by landing disgruntled Knicks star Hoodie Melo for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second round pick.
Westbrook’s triple-double mania drew most of the headline, but part of what won this dude the MVP award was his ability to perform in clutch moments. In the final five minutes of games, with the score within five points, the Thunder dominated with Westbrook: scoring 116.7 points per 100 and allowing just 95 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com — a net of +21.7, second in the NBA.
In those situations, Russ posted a usage rate of 62.3 percent — a number that would make even Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant blush. This means more than 62 percent of the team’s possessions ended with Russ shooting, getting fouled or turning the ball over. Russ will have the ball at the end of games, but that number has to dip this year with George and Melo.
Westbrook assisted on 58.3 percent of his teammates’ made field goals in clutch situations, too, which was also No. 1 in the NBA — above CP3 and LeBron.
OKC lacked shooting (dead last in the NBA in three-point percentage), but it’s primary problem: a lack of secondary talent around Westbrook. The team fell apart when he sat. In the playoffs, it was even worse; the Thunder scored a paltry 0.9 points per possession when Russ sat in the postseason — a number that would rank as the worst offense ever.
That, however, is no longer an issue. If Billy Donovan properly staggers the minutes, then at least one of their Big 3 will be on the court at all times. This should solve the team’s woes when Russ sits, and hopefully appease some of Melo and PG’s desire to run the offense.
Fit could be a concern when those three share the floor; however, George and Melo are excellent catch-and-shoot players, which should help. According to NBA.com, here’s how those two shot after holding the ball for less than two seconds last season:
PG13: 40.8 3P%, 59.6 eFG%
Melo: 40.9 3P%, 55.8 eFG%
Additionally: 42 percent of Melo’s field goal attempts came after holding the ball for less than two seconds; 47 percent of PG’s attempts fell within that timespan, too. PG and Melo screening for one another off the ball could be deadly — both players command gravity, and lead to easy catch-and-shoot bombs.
A crunch time lineup of Westbrook, George, Melo, Adams and Roberson should spit fire. When OKC downsizes, and play Patterson ( 37 3P% on catch-and-shoots) as the nominal 5, they can throw out a lineup that can compete with Golden State’s vaunted Death Lineup. Westbrook-Melo pick-and-pops should reign supreme, too.
Also, if this team finds a way for Melo to play in the hoodie, all bets are off. This team is going 82-0 and winning every game by 50.
3. Houston Rockets
As a Chris Paul honk, I’m so excited to watch the 2017-18 Rockets. It will be absolutely fascinating to see how CP3 matriculates into the league’s souped-up pick-and-roll attack. Will Paul — a titan of tempo and the midrange — bog down James Harden’s arial launch force?
The 2016-17 Rockets were a machine on offense. Bearded wonder James Harden and Mike D’Antoni teamed up to orchestrate one of the greatest offenses in the history of basketball. They did so by playing super fast and launching an unprecedented number of triples.
Over 46 percent of the team’s field goal attempts were three-balls; Houston shot 3,306 three-pointers (40.3 per game), which demolished the previous record.
Houston is the only team to attempt at least 3,000 threes in a season — and they intend to up the ante this season.
59.2% of all shots the Rockets attempted during the preseason were 3-pointers.
2.2% of all their points were scored off mid-range jumpers.
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) October 15, 2017
The Rockets had to give up real pieces to get Chris Paul, but Houston had an incredible offseason — like OKC and Golden State. P.J. Tucker on the mini mid-level exception, Luc Mbah a Moute on the vet minimum and Tarik Black on the BAE were all quality signings.
Houston has the ability to downsize and play the sort of two-way lineups that could, at times, bother Golden State. It helps that both Harden and CP3 are excellent catch-and-shooter players that should be able to work off the ball, too. Harden made 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes; Paul was even better at 50 percent.
Paul should diversify Houston’s offense, too. His ability to supplant Harden on the ball and hit from the midrange means it won’t be as easy to thwart this team in the postseason, like the Spurs did — walling off the rim and staying home on shooters. He and Capela will form a nice pick-and-roll tandem, too.
If Paul and Harden — two of the four best guards on Earth — figure out how to split the ball and play together, this team will be awesome, but not quite good enough to dethrone the gods.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers have the supreme fortune to employ LeBron James, the greatest player ever. Surround him with enough shooting, and he gives you the best chance to hurdle Golden State.
Jae Crowder, acquired in the Kyrie Irving blockbuster, gives this team a two-way wing/forward that they desperately needed. Crowder can switch and guard twos, threes and fours; he ranked in the 82nd percentile in terms of isolation defense, per Synergy Sports. The 6-6 forward also shot a shade under 41 percent on catch-and-shoot threes — perfect next to LeBron James.
Cleveland plans to start the season with Kevin Love at the 5, which is interesting. Lineups with Love at center did serious damage in the playoffs, especially on offense — scoring 118 points per 100 possessions. However, will Tristan Thompson’s defense and rebounding prove too valuable to not play against starters?
I get the feeling that this team will tinker with lineup and roster combinations a lot over the next six months, especially once Isaiah Thomas returns to action.
I’m not sure if Dwyane Wade is more than a name now, and his lack of shooting could cramp lineups with LeBron. But perhaps he can help boost second units, and work his cut-game next to James. Also, Derrick Rose is hear, too. He was wildly inefficient on offense last season and a disaster on the defensive end. However, I kind of like him on a one-year “get right” contract — $2.1 million. Can he help hold the fort down next to LeBron until IT4 returns?
Boston is no joke, but LeBron is headed to his eighth straight NBA Finals in 2018, which is silly to think about. When he gets there, though, we know who will be waiting…
1. Golden State Warriors
For the third straight season, the Golden State Warriors come in at No. 1 Stat Boi’s list of title contenders.
The last three years this organization has absolutely blitzed the league, professional sports and the zeitgeist. This year will be yet another chapter.
In 2016-17, Golden State led the league in offense — for the second straight season — and finished No. 2 in defense. It marked the third year in a row that the Dubs ranked inside the top 4 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. It was one of the seven greatest offensive seasons in the history of the NBA, per Basketball Reference. The Warriors posted an effective field goal rate of 56.3 percent —for the second straight season, the only two times that’s happened in NBA history.
Golden State led the league in assist rate (assisting on over 70 percent of its made field goals), hockey assists and shooting in the paint.
Everyone important is back from last season’s title team, too; Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston all resigned. Durant and Livingston took discounts; they made it work. The team’s four superstars are all in their primes. Curry is the oldest, and he’s just 29.
Golden State’s Death Lineup returns for it’s second season with Durant in the fold, which means it should only get better. By the way, that group — which has no answer other than LeBron destroying everything — led the league in terms of net rating last season, scoring better than 1.22 points per possession.
The team also added Swaggy P, multi-positional shooter Omri Casspi (an absolute long range bomber), and Jordan Bell.
With all of the key pieces signed through 2019, Golden State has at least two more opportunities to add to perhaps the great run in pro basketball history — or certainly one of them.
This team is already immortal; all that’s left to figure out is the legacy. See you in June for the quadrilogy.