The off-season wheeling-and-dealing is largely in the rear view, with teams now just sorting through the scrap pile to round out their rosters. So what should we expect next year? Here's one man's view of the league's totem pole, from the weakest to the Heatest.
Pointless Playoff Teams
13. Denver Nuggets
The Nugs, these endearing yet starless Nugs, will try for the umpteenth time to follow the mold of the '04 Pistons to capture their franchise's first championship. Sadly for them, those Pistons had three borderline Hall of Fame players in Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton, they played serious defense, and they made their bones in the far less competitive Eastern Conference. The Nuggets, on the other hand, mainly try to out-athlete the opposition to death and don't worry too much about half-court execution at either end or on shooting threes. It's a formula built for regular season success which fails time and again in the postseason crucible.
Denver lost their best all-around player in Andre Iguodala and a decent enough big man in Kosta Koufos, plus a good wing defender in Corey Brewer who shot them out of many (and money) games. Still, they probably have enough pieces left, even in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, to grab the seventh seed, as long as Danilo Gallinari returns from his ACL injury in reasonable fashion. Their formula doesn't figure to change much under new coach Brian Shaw. They'll crash the boards on both ends with JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, and a pair of power forwards they've acquired in J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur will only help those efforts. Ty Lawson and Andre Miller will have to create shots for everyone and even with Gallo they're still short a shooter or two. The Nate Robinson signing was perfect for them though, as he's a guy not afraid to take shots late in the shot clock or late in games. He's like a rich man's Gary Neal. If I'm Denver's GM I do whatever I can to convince Mike Miller to sign on, but it's not gonna happen.
12. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks' season will be interesting to observe from afar for a couple of reasons. One, we get to see how longtime Spurs assistant Mike Budhenholzer will fare now that he's finally el jefe. More importantly, we'll finally find out, once and for all, just how valuable of a player --or not-- Josh Smith is. If Smith goes on to lead the Pistons to an unexpected playoff spot while the Hawks flounder without his all-world dynamism on both ends of the floor, then all the ex-players and pundits are right and he's a pretty big deal after all. However, if Smith continues to put up empty stats and launch hundreds of unsightly bricks for a 28-54 Pistons team while Budenholzer leads the Hawks to their 94th consecutive fruitless playoff campaign, then hey, score one for the ever-burgeoning statistical analytics community, where Smith is held in only slightly higher esteem than Rudy Gay.
The inverse of the Smith situation, interestingly enough, is Paul Millsap, who has a chance to look all the more valuable on a new team and to blossom playing alongside another big in Al Horford who doesn't treat defense like a four-letter word. There's nothing on Atlanta's roster that overly excites you, but they've retained Jeff Teague's services for another year, Lou Williams will return from injury and they drafted a couple of young internationals who may develop into helpful pieces down the road. It's one of the blandest rosters in the league, no doubt (ironic for a team playing in the so-called "highlight factory") but the Hawks should be a playoff team barring a strange injury epidemic.
11. New York Knicks
It's hard to resist the temptation to make fun of the Knicks. It really is. They acquired, of their own volition, two of the worst rotation players in the league last season in Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace. Their luxury tax bill will be as daunting as any in the NBA, though they won't have a roster worthy of it by a long shot. Their best player, Carmelo Anthony, is something less than a superduperstar, by my definition. They owe over $45 million the next two seasons to Amar'e Stoudemire, a fellow they've never quite figured out how to play effectively alongside Anthony and one who's injury prone besides. They're not quite as geriatric as last season's Knicks, but are still older than the teams they're chasing in the Eastern Conference.
Here's the thing though... the Knicks aren't bad. In fact, they're a long ways off from bad. They have a lot of the components you'd like a contender to have. It's just that, in the the cosmic tumbler of the NBA playoffs, I can't see sequence of events that could realistically align in such a way for them to win it all. There are just too many superior teams for them to overcome; at least four in the Eastern Conference plus whoever comes out of the West. Maybe if they had the Chandler from 2011 and the Stoudemire from... 2005? Heck, I don't know. Right now all I want from the Knicks is: a) for the internet to tell me whenever STAT and Bargnani are on the floor together so I can witness it in real-time, and b) for them to play the Nets in the first round, because that would be a fantastic series. The unfortunate big picture reality seems to be that last season's six playoff wins will be the height of the 'Melo Era in Manhattan.
Hyped But Holey
The Grizzles are right there with the Knicks, in the long view. Sure, their cap is much better managed, they're not paying the tax and they've got a more dependable team philosophy, but for all intents and purposes they're dead in the water with their current roster. You just can't win four playoff rounds against theoretically increasingly tougher competition, without being able to shoot the ball. There's only so far that Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless can carry you.
My worry, if I was a Grizzlies fan (shudder) would be that, like the Knicks, that last year was as good as it's ever likely to get. After all, Zach Randolph is 32 now and his game doesn't figure to age as gracefully as Tim Duncan's. For one, he's only 6'9," and two he's not nearly in Duncan's league as a defender or passer. In the playoffs, Randolph was basically neutralized by Tiago Splitter, albeit with a lot of help defense. My guess is that once the Grizzlies lack of shooting was exposed on the big stage in last year's Conference Finals, teams will be even more aggressive in their doubling and hedging inside against Z-Bo and Marc Gasol and take their chances with the other guys. Coaches are like sharks who smell blood in the water. Once a weakness has been exposed, they'll go after it mercilessly until you fix it.
I'm also curious as to how the veteran-laden Grizzlies will respond to new coach David Joerger, who was hand-picked by their analytics-driven front office. I was never a fan of Lionel Hollins, and there were numerous reported disagreements between him and stat guru-turned-executive John Hollinger, but he seemed to get the most of the guys they had. Will the new players respond to Joerger or just treat him like some nerd figurehead? I would expect Gasol to be open-minded about it, and we'll have to see if the other players follow his lead or stage a mutiny.
A lot of folks smarter than me when it comes to
everything basketball, proclaim the Rockets to be automatic contenders now that they got the top prize of the free agent class in Dwight Howard. But, man, I just don't see it. He got away from the Lakers because they'd rather use him in pick and rolls than in the post and now he's supposed to be happy in Houston where coach Kevin McHale runs nearly the exact same offense? It's true that the speed and shooting range of the athletes around him will allow Howard to play with more space and pace, but how much will that benefit him as the lone big being counted on to provide virtually all the defense and rebounding while playing with four pylons around him? Furthermore, how much success can that Rockets offense have when none of the perimeter guys is what you'd call a catch-and-shoot player and they'd all rather handle the ball and get to the rim?
I see no way to pair Howard with Omer Asik because neither he nor Howard can shoot, and the spacing issues would be a nightmare (but comically awesome for the rest of us to watch). More than likely Asik will be dealt, and if GM Daryl Morey is half as smart as his reputation suggests, it will be for a decent power forward. Also, using Asik as just a backup center for the 14 minutes a night Howard sits would be an absolute waste of his talents. He's proved he's a much better player than that.
Mainly, I have problems believing that Howard, who couldn't get the Magic over the hump in a 1-4 alignment in the weaker Eastern Conference, will be able to do that in Houston when he is: a) already past his athletic prime, and b) quite easy to eliminate as a threat just by fouling hard or fronting aggressively. It's easy to get in his head and he hasn't developed the constitution to get past adversity. He wants to be The Man, yet wants a roster catered to his strengths. I'm not sure James Harden signed up for a second-banana situation.
Rebounding and defense figures to be a season-long chore for this club, but it'd be wise to see how the Asik transaction shakes out before making any final judgments. No matter what, I expect season-long chemistry issues and some internal and external dissension with Duh-iva Howard.
Much better equipped to master the small-ball concept, I think, are the Warriors, who ironically made a bold trade for Andre Iguodala, in which they shipped the lousy contracts of both Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson to Utah in a three-team deal, largely because they hoped that the move would sway Howard into signing with them.
That plan didn't work, but the consolation prize is that the Dubs might very well have a better record next season. Iguodala's game fits perfectly within the Warriors' fast-paced style in that he'll never have to worry about creating his own shot or about drawing the opposition's top perimeter defender, since so much attention will still be paid, deservedly, to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Harrison Barnes is a promising talent as well, versatile enough to play the three or the four, and he's showed he can score in bunches. How they use David Lee will be interesting. He and Curry were quite effective in the pick-and-roll most of the regular season, but he's a complete non-entity on defense. Will Lee be the backup center in a microball offense, allowing Iguodala, Barnes, Thompson and Curry to all share the court, or will he be just a spare part despite his massive contract? I can't see Barnes or Iguodala losing many of their minutes, and there are still fellows like Draymond Green, Mareese Speights, Kent Bazemore and Nemanja Nedovic to find playing time for.
This might be the deepest Warriors team since their heyday in the 70's, but health will be their biggest concern. One, they need Andrew Bogut to give them 25-30 good minutes every night, or they're not gonna be able to hold anybody under 120 points, Iguodala or no Iguodala. Two, they'll need Curry's chronically fragile ankles to hold up because he really has to be their point guard for 38-plus minutes a night. Last year he got to play as the two for long stretches while Jarrett Jack ran the offense, but he won't have that luxury anymore because it's not like Toney Douglas is a guy you can play for more than spot minutes -- the way the Spurs use Cory Joseph, for example.
The Jazz, obviously, are rooting for a complete injury collapse, because they have Golden State's first-round pick next season and in 2017. Given the Warriors' tortured history for most of the past 20 years, and the medical files on Curry and Bogut, the odds may well be in Utah's favor. I'm also not quite sold on the tactical brilliance of Mark Jackson, who lost his top two X's-and-O's assistants Mike Malone and Bob Beyer in the off-season, but we'll see how well that plays in year two. All that rah-rah, son-of-a-preacher-man stuff only carries so far with most pros.
Next ... the Magnificent Seven.
More from Pounding The Rock:
- A Vegas diary: The second time around, Part 1
- Why did the Spurs sign Aron Baynes?
- Where will Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair end up?
- Who is the best in the Southwest division?
- What can the Spurs expect from Jeff Pendergraph?