Hello, and welcome into the second annual SportsChannel8 Eight NBA title contenders! The NBA returns tonight in all of it’s glory. I intended to get this out a week ago, but *insert bad excuse* happened, and I had to push things back. You know how these things go, am I right?
Last season, seven of our eight teams made the playoffs (thanks a lot, Hoiberg!), and Stat Boi’s top two teams — the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers met in the Finals for the second straight season. We even (somewhat jokingly) included the Charlotte Hornets as our No. 8 team a season ago, and the Buzz actually finished with 48 wins and in a three-way tie for the seventh best record in the league. A broken block is right twice per day, I suppose.
Let’s go ahead and jump right in.
8. Toronto Raptors
A picture can say a thousand words, but here are a few more. Kyle Lowry is awesome; DeMar DeRozan is good but expensive and can’t shoot; Drake likes owls; this team doesn’t really have a power forward; Jonas Valanciunas is a Lithuanian brown bear with a quality back-to-the-basket game.
This team is good and will win a lot of games, but in a year when Drake dropped an incredibly underwhelming album, it’s no surprise this team was at home by the end of May trying to convince themselves that Views had more than, like, one good song.
On to the more fun teams.
7. Houston Rockets
If you enjoy the sacrifice of defense in pursuit of ruthless gunning on offense, this this your team! The Rockets have shed themselves of Dwight Howard, who never really found much of a home in Houston. They’ll will miss his rebounding, but not much else, I’d imagine. In his place they’ll turn to Clint Capela, a 22-year-old pogo stick, who has the wingspan of a garage door and projects to be a quality rim-runner and shot blocker.
Capela should form a nice pick-and-roll combination with Houston’s All-Universe guard James Harden. Laugh all you want about his effort on defense, which is worthy of mockery at times, Harden is the best two-guard in the world, and a force unto himself on the court. He led the NBA in minutes (38.1 per game), field goal attempts (1,617), and made free throws — 720 (165 more than DeRozan, who finished No. 2 in the league).
The Rockets have surrounded Harden with more shooters than he’s ever had before in H-Town. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon join Patrick Beverley, recovering from knee surgery, and Trevor Ariza in this department. In new coach Mike D’Antoni’s go-go spread pick-and-roll offense, there will be no defense for Harden’s forays into the paint; he finished fourth in the NBA in assisted 3-pointers per game last season (2.85). Harden will run fewer isolation plays, and this will be the league’s second best offense.
Houston may be a disaster defensively, and if they play Gordon and Anderson together for extended stretches of time, the Rockets will hemorrhage points. However, If D’Antoni can find the right balance of minutes, making sure to maximize Beverley and Ariza’s time with their defensive sieves, this team will be electric, and could push for 50 wins.
6. Utah Jazz
Everyone, gather around: I’ve got a quick story to tell you: The Utah Jazz are cool. Don’t believe me, just watch. Outside of Minnesota, this team has the best collection of young talent in the NBA. Denver and Phoenix are intriguing, too, but Utah looks the most ready of this group (they’re further along on the age curve) to take the proverbial jump into postseason play in 2017.
George Hill can splash corner threes (43.7 percent last season), and defend multiple positions; he’s the perfect point guard for the Jazz, who feature two rangy wings — Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood — capable of creating all kinds of offense. Unfortunately for Utah, Hayward dislocated his finger in early October, and his timetable for a return is unclear, which means until he’s back, it’s Hood’s time to shine. The former Duke standout is among the best isolation players in the NBA, too. Of players who ran at least 100 iso plays in 2015-16, Hood ranked second in the NBA in points per possession (1.08).
This team has exceptional depth; the signings of veterans Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw bulk up their bench shooting and passing. Their frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors wall of the rim. For the second-straight season, The Gobert Report led the league in field goals defended at the rim percent, according to the league’s player tracking data — 41 percent. Plus, second-year forward Trey Lyles lurks as a do-it-all positionless freak. You can bet on his role increasing this year, too. Utah can get funky with a variety lineup combinations, but their length and defense will be their calling card. They’ll fu
Utah won’t actually contend for a conference title, but their size could make Golden State uneasy at times. They have the ability to be the fourth best team in the West this year, which is pretty damn impressive.
5. Boston Celtics
The Toronto Raptors are still seen as the second best team in the Eastern Conference in the eyes of many. I’m a big fan of Kyle Lowry, but I think the Celtics have usurped Tdot in terms of the East’s hierarchy. Snagging Al Horford in free agency was the third biggest addition this offseason outside of some dude named Durant heading west and Chick-Fil-A bringing back their barbecue sauce.
Last season, Boston gave up just 100.2 points per 100 possessions, which was the fourth best number in the league. Horford’s no rim protector, but he’s an excellent and vocal defender; he was one of the most important pieces in Atlanta’s blitzing scheme, which ranked second in the NBA last season (98.8 points per 100 possessions).
Horford will make for an excellent pick-and-roll/pop battery with Isaiah Thomas in Brad Stevens’ spread offense. Thomas, at 5-9, is a dynamo, and plays angles better than anyone else in the league, which makes him highly-entertaining. The Celtics run some of the best half-court sets, beautiful side-to-side action, and no one draws up better stuff during timeouts than Stevens. But when things bog down, Thomas goes to work. He’ll shake by his first defender and take off towards the rim, and somehow — just when you’re certain he’s going to get his shot thrown — finish with that signature lefty hook/floater/layup in traffic around three guys a foot taller than him. It’s breathtaking to watch.
As great as Thomas is, he’s a liability defensively. Boston and Stevens can cover that with a cupboard full of rangy perimeter defenders, but in a playoff series against Cleveland, the Cavs and LeBron can give him the Steph Curry Treatment from last year’s Finals — mercilessly target him in PNR actions. Regardless, this will be a great defensive team; they’ll win a bunch of games this season, and they lurk as one of the league’s top trade suitors. This roster may not have finished forming. Thanks, Brooklyn!
4. San Antonio Spurs
It’s going to be incredibly weird to watch this team without Tim Duncan. The man was an institution, and the Spurs will miss more than Timmy more than Sprite misses their legendary pitchman, probably. Even at age 40, Duncan was still one of the best defensive players in the NBA, despite playing just 25 minutes per game. San Antonio allowed less than 94 points per 100 possessions with Timmy D on the court.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — the other two-thirds of San Antonio’s historic Big Three — are still around, but Duncan’s retirement firmly passes the franchise baton to the catcher mitt-sized hands of Kawhi Leonard. The Klaw is one of the six best basketball players in the universe, no matter how you slice it. He’s the league’s preeminent defensive stopper, and if he claims the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017, Leonard will become just the second player in NBA history to win it in three-straight seasons (Dwight Howard, 2009-11). Some concerns linger about Leonard being a go-to scorer on a championship-level team, but at age 24 last season, he scored better than 21 points per game, and finished in the top five of catch-all metrics like Win Shares (13.7).
Every season he continues to take and make more 3-pointers, which is promising, and in 2015-16, he took a massive leap: 129 made threes on 44.3 percent shooting — good for third in the league behind only J.J. Redick and Curry. This progression is emblematic of Leonard’s overall development. He’s gotten better every season as a pro. He posted a PER of 26 last season, which puts him on a age curve somewhere between Kevin Durant and Paul George. Ridiculous.
It went lost in the shuffle for most of last season, thanks to the Warriors, but San Antonio won 67 games. They’re just the 12th team in the history of the NBA to win at least 67 games in a season. Not only that, but the Spurs actually finished with a better point differential than the bleepin’ Golden State Warriors! You know, that 73-win death machine sent from the cosmos. The Spurs were 11.8 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions, which is a historically great margin. Their defense — backed by Kawhi and Duncan — was one of the best units in the last 15 NBA seasons. Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge form an delightfully skilled pairing in the frontcourt, but neither can replace Duncan’s rim protection.
Aldridge’s first season was interesting, to say the least. He put up incredible numbers, and LMA is capable of getting 19 and 10 in his sleep, but it wasn’t exactly a clean fit. I was surprised that he didn’t make a single 3-pointer last season, too. I thought for sure that he’d let fly from there more often, but, no dice. Trade murmurs surrounding Aldridge have leaked out of San Antonio recently, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Regardless, with Kawhi and LMA, the Spurs have two All-Stars. They’ll win more games than anyone in the West, except the Warriors, of course. But I believe the next team matches up even better with Golden State…
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Yes, send me all of your Chris Paul hate. Let me hear you squawk about RINGZ and clutch genes or clutch jeans or whatever. Keep bringing up Julius Hodge. No, really. It’s still a funny joke, you guys. It’s not played at all. Keep that coming. I don’t need coffee in the morning; you people are my lifeblood.
CP3 is a passing savant, the best point guard of the last decade, and one of the greatest to ever play this goddamn game. Just ask Coach K. Or, ya know, check the mountain of statistical evidence that supports all of these claims. For instance: since Paul entered the league in 2005, only one player has accrued more win shares than CP3. That player is LeBron James, who may very well be the best basketball player ever.
This will be an interesting year for Paul and the Clippers, though. It’s the fourth season he’s been teamed up with Redick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. That nucleus is on par with the Warriors for collective talent among a team’s top four players. However, these games aren’t played four-on-four, and the Clippers have never been able to find a suitable small forward, or the proper depth to seriously contend against the heavyweights. Once again, they enter yet another season with a giant void at that position. Paul and Griffin have early termination options for next season, and Redick is set to once again hit unrestricted free agency. If it doesn’t happen this year, well, it’s probably time to make some serious changes. Hard decisions will have to be made.
Before that, though, we’ll get another season to marvel at these guys as they play some of the best offensive basketball in the history of the NBA. Paul is a maestro with the ball and a lethal midrange shooter. Redick is constantly in motion, and was the best catch-and-shot guy in the league last season from beyond the arc. This team, thanks to CP3 and Redick, runs floppy action better than anyone out there. Following a lost season a year ago, Griffin is back to be the closest facsimile to LeBron that we have in the league: a monster power forward with shooting touch, hops, and an almost unfair way of seeing the floor. Griffin and Paul put some much pressure on defense with pick-and-rolls. If defenses trap Paul, he’s one pocket pass away from hitting Blake on a 4-on-3 roll, which is going to result in an auto-dunk for Jordan or a three for Redick. I’m a huge fan of when the Clips run a jumbo double high ball screen out of their horns set for Paul. When Griffin and Jordan are the screeners, it puts just so much strain on a defense, especially with Redick stationed in a corner.
Also, Jamal Crawford is my spirit animal.
Blake and DJ have the size and athleticism to put serious pressure on the Dubs, but the Clippers don’t have the defensive chops to stick with them for a 48-minute game. No team can really match with Golden State; we’ve simply never seen this much shooting power on one squad. This was once a budding Western Conference rivalry, like two years ago, but unfortunately the Clips have been left trailing behind.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
What LeBron James did at the end of last season was the single greatest individual achievement in the history of team sports. If you were still trying to clown this guy a year ago, you were a fool, and if you still actually have something to say, listen to Big Boi’s advice and hush that fuss.
I thought the Warriors — a 73-win juggernaut — would runaway with the crown last season, but LeBron just refused to let it happen, turning in a Finals performance that we’ve never seen before. No team has ever comeback from being down 3-1 to win. Michael Jordan never won a Finals in which his team wasn’t favored. James did both of those things while averaging a stat line in the last three games that will cause your eyeballs to spin in circles: 44 minutes, 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 50.6 percent shooting (42.1 percent on threes), 3 steals and 3 blocks. He also robbed Andre Iguodala of his soul, in case you forgot:
My god, I never want to stop watching that. James hit a new level when his team needed it most, and just about everyone was betting against him when he did so. LBJ bullied Steph Curry as Cleveland targeted The Chef on defense — having whomever Steph was guarding go set a screen for LeBron. Once Steph switched to LeBron, it was night night.
Matthew Dellavedova is gone (good riddance) and Timofey Mozgov (RIP, Moz!) has also departed, but the rest of the crew is back, including a man who despises shirts even more than Mark Gottfried — J.R. Smith. The Summer of J.R. was a glorious time; I hope you soaked it in. Kyrie Irving, a wizard and dribbling savant who was put on Earth to get buckets, is entering his prime. Tristan Thompson, who starred defensively in the playoffs, is a rebounding menace capable of switching onto smaller, faster players. When LeBron, Thompson, and Kevin Love shared the court together last season (996 minutes), the Cavs outscored their opponents by 18.4 points per 100 possessions.
This team will roll through the East with ease. LeBron’s winning the MVP, and he’s headed back to Finals for an absurd seventh-consecutive season. Giddyup.
- 1. The Charlotte Horn—LOL just kidding!
That said, I do think the Hornets will be returning to the playoffs for the second straight season, which would be the first time they’ve done so since 2002. Over the offseason, Charlotte parted ways with several key players in free agency: Jeremy Lin (Brooklyn), Courtney Lee (New York), and Al Jefferson (Indiana) left town for a combined $116 million in NBA Monopoly money. The Hornets will miss all three of these guys. Despite the losses, Charlotte was able to hold on to their top two priorities — Nicolas Batum and backwards hat aficionado Marvin Williams, both of whom were unrestricted free agents.
They return to join Kemba Walker, who had his best season as a pro last year: 20.9 points (17th in the league), 37.2 percent shooting on threes, and for the first time in his career, Walker finished with a PER above 20 and a true shooting rate above 55 percent. Walker also ranked seventh in the NBA in clutch time points (less than five minutes in the game, neither team is ahead by more than five points). Kemba has one of the league’s most violent crossovers, and despite his size, he can get to the rim on just about any defender. Irving, Lowry, and John Wall are the three best point guards in the East, but Kemba is in the tier just below them.
As I’ve written in this space before, Kemba shot a blistering 43.2 percent on catch-and-shoot three, according to the NBA’s player tracking data. Walker and Batum paired nicely last season, and if they avoid regression this season, they’ll form the nucleus of an offensive that will likely shoot fewer threes and score fewer points per possession, but still be good enough. They’re probably not a top ten unit like a season ago on that end. Their defense has the potential to be one of the five best in the league, and they’ll lean heavily on it. Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — back from another shoulder injury that cost him all but seven games last season — give Charlotte a pair of long, dynamic defenders on the wing, and with Marvin Williams at the four, the Hornets can switch on a lot of different actions.
MKG shot the ball well over a very small sample last season, but don’t get your hopes up here, or expect to see Charlotte running him off any pin-downs or whatever. In all likelihood, Charlotte won’t have the pristine spacing they possessed a season ago, but Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the best defenders in the league, and rebounds his position. He’ll have to find a role as a rebounder and cutter in the half-court.
Steve Clifford is perhaps this franchise’s most valuable asset. Guys love playing for him, and his teams bust their asses on the defensive end and on the glass. The Hornets had the pythagorean formula of a team that should’ve won 49 games last season. We’ll see how much the departures in free agency cost them.
(By the way: I love this photo of Marv; you can tell he grew up in Seattle during the 1990s. My man has the Ken Griffey Jr. look going on.)
1. Golden State Warriors
There’s already been so much written about this team, and for the next eight months they’ll be the biggest story in basketball, that it’s not even really worth it to spill more ink over this team.
The Warriors posses three of the greatest shooters ever (Steph, KD, Klay), and two of the three best players in the world at the moment (Steph and KD). Thompson checks in behind Harden as the second best shooting guard in the world; Draymond Green is the second best defensive player in the league (behind only Kawhi), and joins LeBron, Griffin and Batum as the best playmaking forwards in the NBA. Their bench is better than some are giving it credit for, too. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are studs even as the age into their 30s.
Rim protection will obviously be an issue; Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli no longer lurk as shot blockers. Zaza Pachulia was a steal in free agency, and will give them good minutes at the center position; he’s a really good rebounder, and can function as a high-post passing hub in their half-court sets, assuming you can actually prevent this team from running, which will be a must if you want to even sniff a chance of beating them.
If they get their timing down while new players matriculate into the offense — specifically Durant — then there simply won’t be an answer for them. Their beautiful split action sets will bend and warp defenses in previously unthinkable ways; it’s going to look unfair at times. Curry-Durant pick-and-rolls will be silly. When they downsize and unveil their new wave Death Lineup — with Durant replacing the Harrison Barnes — they will melt faces and burn down opposing villages.
It will take some time to acclimate the new players into the roster, but once they do that, this could be one of the greatest teams we’ve ever seen. They won 73 games last season and added one of the three best players currently living to their lineup. It’s insane to think what might be possible for them. They’re not unbeatable because as long as LeBron’s breathing nothing is a certainty for anyone. They’re also not winning 73-plus games like their previous chapter did; however, Golden State will win at least 65 games, and sprint to the Finals in a slightly watered-down Western Conference. It’ll be the first Finals trilogy in NBA history come June. I’m looking forward to it. See you then.
Basketball is back; I love you all.