For the first time in a few years, the NBA appears to be in as much flux as it’s ever been. Superstars have left championship contenders to form new super-groups. Teams have gambled on acquiring that “missing piece”, only to strike out on their top targets. A much-hyped rookie class will finally be donning NBA jerseys on a court. And many of the top players in the league are looking forward to the inevitable rise of the salary cap—and their next maximum contract—tied to a new media deal. We here at the Bad Man Bureau are going to go through all thirty of the league’s teams to provide an idea of what to expect from each of them. We continue our discussion of each of the league’s middle of the pack teams, the five clubs that are going to be fighting for one of the last playoff spots in their respective conferences.
Power ranking in parenthesis. Note: There is no correlation between the current power ranking and predicted win-loss record.
Denver Nuggets (20)
Last Year’s Record: 36-46
Biggest Addition: Health
Biggest Subtraction: Evan Fournier
Last season was an unmitigated disaster for the Denver Nuggets. The franchise came in with high hopes; after all, this was the same team that had homecourt in the 2012-13 playoffs and had added a high profile coach in Brian Shaw to teach this group how to win games when the pace slows down, something the then-reigning Coach of the Year and legendary George Karl couldn’t do. However, things began to come apart even before the season got truly underway. Injuries to Gallinari and McGee resulted in big holes in the team’s rotation. As the season progressed, Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson, Ty Lawson, and Wilson Chandler all missed portions of the season. Brian Shaw also experienced massive growing pains as a first-time head coach. His attempt to immediately install a slow-it-down offense with parts of the famous Triangle resulted in one of the most exciting, fast-paced teams (with a cast of characters and a high-altitude arena to match) slogging through ineffective possessions and lost games. Andre Miller, PhD, the team’s veteran presence, blew up at Shaw during a game after being pulled and ended up being traded to Washington for spare parts. The result was the franchise’s first year missing the playoffs since Carmelo Anthony joined in the 2003-04 season.
As a result, it’s fair to wonder if this team is being slept on. The same cast of characters that won so many games in the post-Melonoma trade is back, and they replaced Evan Fournier (who showed signs of growth as minutes opened up for him last season) with Arron Afflalo, a clear upgrade for Denver at the shooting guard position. Brian Shaw finally acquiesced and sped the team up as they fell further out of the playoff hunt, and with so many key pieces returning from injury, the Pepsi Center may just become a near-impossible place to win for visiting teams, especially if they commit to that running style.
The biggest question for this team is obviously how effective the returning players will be in their returns from injury layoffs. However, Shaw has arguably one of the deepest rosters in the league, and that allows him to tinker with his lineups and rotations to find his most effective players on a nightly basis. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, they play in the far tougher Western Conference, which has arguably eleven worthy playoff teams. Were they in the East, this superstar-less but still incredibly deep team should be considered a playoff luck. In the West though, they’re likely to be a back-of-the-lottery team.
Win-Loss Prediction: 41-41
New Orleans Pelicans (19)
Last Year’s Record: 34-48
Biggest Addition: Health
Biggest Subtraction: Anthony Morrow
Key Reserves: Austin Rivers, John Salmons, Ryan Anderson
The Pelicans punted on the future once again this offseason, trading their first round pick in 2015 to the frenzied, cap-clearing Houston Rockets for Omer Asik. The move was met with both a positive and negative outlook. Yes, New Orleans once again sacrificed a nice, potentially great asset in a win-now move. Yes, the trade still hasn’t likely moved the needle enough to leap New Orleans into contender status. But the ownership wants to win now, and Asik does help New Orleans in rebounding the ball and playing defense.
It’s that second part that may be crucial if the Pelicans want to be a serious threat for the playoffs. It seems hard to believe with Anthony Davis and his never-ending wingspan, but the New Orleans Pelicans were one of the worst defensive teams last season, ranking in a tie for 25th in Defensive Efficiency (the number of points per 100 possessions the opposing team would score) at 107.3. Some of this might be due to the various maladies that the team experienced: Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson were pretty much out for the entire season, and Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, and even The Brow himself missed time. With all of those key players out during significant portions of the season, it is easy to see that New Orleans would stumble well out of the playoff chase.
One thing that could hold this team back this upcoming season is their bench. New Orleans let go of a number of solid pieces that has weakened the team’s depth. Starting small forward Al-Farouq Aminu went to Dallas; sharpshooter Anthony Morrow is now in Oklahoma City, and instant offense Brian Roberts will bring some scoring to Charlotte. In their stead now is a bench consisting of the improving-but-still-underwhelming Austin Rivers, the scapegoat for Toronto’s woes in the playoffs in John Salmons, and other reclamation projects or castoffs. Yes, Ryan Anderson and his valuable skills of offensive rebounding and three point shooting will anchor these units as the sixth man, but there’s not a lot to like about the New Orleans’s depth. Still, with arguably the third best player in the league (with Davis only in his third year!), the Pelicans might just be a threat to the current Western Conference hierarchy.
Win-Loss Prediction: 36-46
New York Knicks (18)
Last Year’s Record: 37-45
Biggest Addition: Jose Calderon
Biggest Subtraction: Tyson Chandler
For all things considered, the New York Knicks honestly didn’t have that bad of an offseason. Yes, they probably sold low on Tyson Chandler, getting Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert (Thank goodness he’s going to the city that never sleeps!) in return. But they also unloaded Raymond Felton in the deal, the much-maligned and weight-fluctuating point guard. Carmelo Anthony re-upped with the team rather than ditching them and causing an even-more massive crisis than always seems to happen with the Knicks. Finally, they nabbed some pretty underrated players in the draft (Cleanthony Early—though if a player is declared “underrated” by everyone, is he really underrated?) and in free agency (Jason Smith, if he can stay healthy, might be an excellent fit for this club).
I’m not terribly high on Derek Fisher as the head coach. Some people think he’s little more than a puppet for Phil Jackson—and that certainly could be the case—but he’s a rookie head coach coming into a pressure-packed situation probably on par with David Blatt in Cleveland. There’s a Hall of Fame coach sitting in the stands, lording over this rebuild, and if things go south quickly, the stands in Madison Square Garden may be chanting for his name and for Fisher’s ouster. Fisher is trying to implement the triangle offense in New York, but it’s still up in the air to see if the players will fully embrace it. After the last few years of run-and-gun and iso-Melo under Mike D’Antoni and Mike Woodson, it could be difficult to stick to a more rigid style of play for gunners like J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Iman Shumpert.
Defense could be a headache for this club. Players like Melo, Shumpert, and J.R. Smith are decent enough on defense when they try and are motivated. Dalembert is an overrated defender; Amar’e is a minus defender; Calderon is a non-existent defender; and Andrea Bargnani’s defense should be accompanied by Yakety Sax in the background. Still, the Knicks do play in the Eastern Conference, and they were nearly in the playoffs last season after a disappointing and dysfunctional year. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to see them threatening for the post-season again.
Win-Loss Prediction: 37-45
Brooklyn Nets (17)
Last Year’s Record: 44-38
Biggest Addition: Lionel Hollins
Biggest Subtraction: Paul Pierce
It’s been interesting to see how this Nets franchise has operated in the last few months. In the first few years under the ownership of Mikhail Prokhorov, the team acted as though they could buy their way to a championship. However, after a disappointing season for the Nets, one in which the front office truly believed they might contend for a title after acquiring Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Brooklyn has quietly tried to cut down their roster expenses. They let Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, and Andray Blatche walk in free agency (to Washington, Golden State, and China respectively). Marcus Thornton was traded for Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev. And probably most important of all, general manager Billy King didn’t try to pull another ill-advised win-now trade to inflate the Nets’s payroll as well as their enormous luxury tax burden.
With the loss of several key pieces to their rotation from last year, it would make sense that the Nets might take a step back. Paul Pierce, even in his advanced age, was still a big part of Brooklyn’s turnaround and even won the Nets a playoff game. Andray Blatche was able to rehabilitate his career somewhat by avoiding most of the same boneheaded mistakes he made in Washington and helped anchor the bench unit. Shaun Livingston was able to be plugged into a wide variety of roles, becoming a well-respected “glue guy”. When you factor those losses, it would seem to indicate that the Nets won’t be a playoff team this year.
There’s a catch though. The Nets experienced a massive upgrade in terms of their head coaching position. Jason Kidd is out after one year, headed to Milwaukee to seize as much power from that franchise as possible. In is former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins. Hollins was unceremoniously and rather unfairly dumped by the Grizzlies at the end of the 2012-13 season, but he had built a potential contender with his Grit and Grind style. He doesn’t really have the personnel to do that in Brooklyn, but he knows how to teach players to play strong defense and manages to squeeze enough offense from his roster generally. The Nets may also see a bit of a bump in their results due to some offseason rehabilitation. Point guard Deron Williams finally got surgery on his ankles and says he’s back to 100%. And big man Brook Lopez, the oft-injured but most talented center on offense in the league, is back after missing a majority of last season. If the Nets are going to maintain their playoff spot, they’ll need their two franchise cornerstones to stay healthy and effective.
Win-Loss Prediction: 41-41
Phoenix Suns (16)
Last Year’s Record: 48-34
Biggest Addition: Isaiah Thomas
Biggest Subtraction: Channing Frye
After last season’s absolutely shocking campaign, one in which just about every prognosticator selected them to be at or near the bottom of the league but somehow fought until the very end for a playoff spot, the Phoenix Suns are a darling pick to crack the top eight in the tough Western Conference this season. They’ve got two sets of brothers this year (the Morris twins are signed long-term, having split $54 million between them, and the Suns got Zoran Dragic to join Goran), and the team added even more depth to their point guard position by snatching small-sized but big-scoring Isaiah Thomas from Sacramento. The “Slash Brothers” moniker of last season is quickly being replaced with a new nickname for all three: “Point Guardians of the Galaxy”.
Jeff Hornacek brought the fun back to Phoenix, employing the run-and-gun style that seems to be synonymous with the Suns with a heavy dosage of three point shooting and guard penetration. Hornacek claims that the Suns will play at an even faster pace, which sounds absurd, but with a bevy of quick guards at his disposal, it’s possible. One trick that Hornacek has shown in the preseason and should have everyone buzzing as a League Pass alert is his utilization of Thomas, Goran Dragic, and Eric Bledsoe at the same time. Phoenix can employ a three-headed monster of speedy point guards that can penetrate and shoot, which could result in dizzying their opponents into submission.
All of that sounds great, but there are some causes for concern for Phoenix. Most wonder if many of the team’s breakout players last season—Markieff Morris, Miles Plumlee, and Gerald Green in particular—can really keep up their high level of play from a year ago. Each of them exploded onto the scene for Phoenix in different ways: Markieff turned into a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate; Miles Plumlee looked like he could be a defensive anchor in the desert for years; and Gerald Green shot a career high from behind the arc with 40% at 6.2 attempts per game. Are these signs of lasting improvement, or did a number of Phoenix’s players just experience their best season ever during the exact same year? The loss of Channing Frye, a decent post defender and long-range shooting big man could have a subtle impact on the team’s offensive spacing. Teams know Frye can shoot the three ball; they have a career’s worth of data to back that up. If Phoenix’s players regress behind the arc, the Suns could be missing Channing Frye’s ability to open driving lanes into the paint very much.
Win-Loss Prediction: 46-36