Sam Smith's 2015-16 NBA Team Previews
On the eve of the NBA season, Sam Smith predicts where each NBA team finishes in 2015-16
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By Sam Smith | 10.26.2015 | 8:10 a.m.
More 70-year-olds might want to have this outlook.
The NBA turns 70 this season with the 2015-16 season. It’s no end, though that will be the questions to Kobe Bryant if this becomes the conclusion of his amazing career. Bryant’s perhaps final march is one of many intriguing stories and storylines for the next six months until the playoff tournament.
Then we get to see if LeBron can do it this time and again, and whether the Warriors were for real. Yes, they were. They did win. And any team that does is deserving.
There always are returns, and perhaps the biggest this time is not in Chicago. It’s Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City with the question whether it’s also the next goodbye as he can be a free agent next summer. Derrick Rose is back and not off surgery for a change. Well, other than his eye. Is Dwight Howard back for a full season this time? Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving? Well, Irving still is out.
The Clippers got back their almost wayward center and filled their bench with former starters. The Spurs filled their ranks with former All Stars, acquiring the prize of the summer in LaMarcus Aldridge. David West was the shocker of the summer passing on about $10 million to live in San Antonio. The winters are nice. That nice? The Heat insist they really are back this time to challenge LeBron. That view didn’t go so well for Dan Gilbert when LeBron left. Carmelo Anthony is back from his surgery with a more competitive Knicks team that actually may be the best in New York again. And still not in the playoffs. Plenty have messed with Texas and the Mavericks are feeling it. While some are thinking there could be real wizards in Washington this time.
It is starting time Tuesday. Let’s go!
- Cleveland Cavaliers: It’s good to be the king, as the saying goes. It’s also tough to beat the king. You can see with team managing partner/general manager/coach/player LeBron James basically skipping the preseason that James has settled on a playoffs priority. They still have enough players to lead the conference, if not with 55 to 60 wins, with James taking the occasional week or two in Florida. Kevin Love took the money, figures to play out a good season in Cleveland and then get his trade out west to make room for Tristan Thompson. Kyrie Irving will work his way back in the next month or so and David Blatt will be saying “pretty please” instead of “please” more often. But it’s tough to beat the king. Teams found that out in the 1990s trying to take out the Bulls.
- Chicago Bulls: I’ve tried to see them down a few spots because there are questions: Rose’s health, the new coach, Joakim Noah off the bench, Rose’s health, a glut of forwards, a dearth of athletic wing players; did I mention Derrick Rose’s health? That’s obviously the difference. Forget the elbow to the eye, even if Rose can’t. If his knees remain in tact, as they have thus far, the Bulls can be very good. Since it’s almost four years since the ACL surgery with no issues, then there shouldn’t be more questions than with anyone else. The Bulls’ hard playing, never quit reputation was more reputation last season than reality. They were worn out and ready for a new voice; it’s the natural progression in sports, every sport. They seem to have embraced the new message. If they embrace the team concept, perhaps it won’t be a fifth time being beaten by LeBron.
- Washington Wizards: I’ve heard this thing about missing Paul Pierce, though perhaps in the playoffs. Pierce pretty much mailed in the regular season, as did Nene. There wasn’t even enough postage. So they’ve adjusted like much of the rest of the new Eastern Conference that wants to West it up with spacing, running and shooting. Sounds easier than the implementation. But now they have a few guys who will run with John Wall instead of waving to him from the backcourt. Bradley Beal shooting for a contract likely won’t be as cautious. Also, big congratulations to Kris Humphries for escaping the clutches of the Kardashian family and showing it’s possible to become a productive citizen by defeating the axis of celebrity evil.
- Atlanta Hawks: Is DeMarre Carroll that important? Last year no one even knew who he was. That was who the Hawks lost in free agency, their Spurs-esque system of unselfish play earning him a big raise and likely not as good a next season in Toronto. They were a surprise, in a sense, and 60 wins seems unreasonable again. But they should still be very good and competing for the top of the conference. They actually answered a need with a big man in the Spurs Tiago Splitter. Could Kyle Korver do that again? Probably not to that level, but they have the foundation in place with their style and spirit and an underrated lead guard in Jeff Teague. Tim Hardaway Jr. might develop some patience with their game and welcome back Thabo Sefolosha, who was an obvious victim of New York police brutality and good for him for fighting for his name. They missed him in last season’s playoffs and the Hawks should sue New York City as well. Looks like Elton Brand quietly retired. They’ll miss him for his presence, one of the best people to come through the NBA.
- Miami Heat: Looks pretty good on paper. So did the Bernie Madoff reports. Not to make a precise parallel, but there’s a lot of stuff that has to go right. Dwayne Wade’s knees are much older and more operated on as Rose’s; Chris Bosh is back from life threatening issues; Luol Deng has played a lot, lot, lot; Hassan Whiteside, well, it’s generally not a coincidence when a half dozen teams think you are, well, erratic. Can they all be at their best? If they are they can get up higher. But it’s difficult to multiply five to the fourth power. Getting Josh McRoberts back is big as he’s much underrated. Pat Riley also is one of the best and the Gerald Green pickup could be a big one as well as the Justice Winslow draft. There’s some there there. But how much?
- Boston Celtics: I didn’t think they were good enough to be eighth last season. Amir Johnson and David Lee? Yes, but there’s a spirit and competitiveness there. Coach Brad Stevens gets a lot of credit. And he is a good one. I’ve never been a fan of the ball dominant Isaiah Rider, I mean, Thomas. But they have a lot of guys. Obviously missing is the so called go-to guy star. Which keeps you out of the top four. But they could win a lot of games by playing and playing. You can see them with a wealth of big men as one of those teams that keep coming at you and with irksome perimeter defenders.
- Toronto Raptors: I’m still not sure Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are going to play nice with their big men despite saying they will, especially with DeRozan hunting a new contract. So we’ll see. But they have shored up some spots with Carroll. I’m not sure how much Luis Scola has left, but they have enhanced their depth and have a defensive possibility in Bismack Biyombo. They’re one to watch early for how they go after a poor finish last season and whether they’ll makes changes.
- Orlando Magic: They’re my dark horse in this horse race. The term does come from horse racing, and the NBA season can be a steeplechase. No offense to Jacque Vaughn, OK, offense, but geez, just because guys are in the San Antonio airport you hire them as coaches? They’ll go from perhaps the least dynamic coach to one of the best in Scott Skiles. He is among the best quick turnaround guys, like Doug Collins and Larry Brown. They’ve got a potentially dynamic backcourt who can guard with Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo to offset Nikola Vucevic, who doesn’t. But they will at least try now. Their rookie Mario Hezonja also seems like the sort of cocky guy Skiles appreciates. No one expects much from them, and there’s always a surprise. That’s why the NBA keeps bringing us back.
- Milwaukee Bucks: I know; that’s not a playoff position, and everyone has them in there. And, sure, they could be as the East is going to be much deeper this season. There isn’t going to be your 38-win playoff team. So all those whiners in the West can quiet down and realize if eight teams are ahead of you that you aren’t very good, anyway, and should not draw so much attention to yourself. They were a surprise last season and not so much any more, though to me the biggest upset of the offseason was the Greg Monroe signing. Yes, a basketball player said no to Los Angeles and New York to go to Milwaukee. In Wisconsin. Where the sin is only in the suffix. That would be a first. So they’ll have a scoring post game. But he’s smallish and Jabari Parker gets a bit of a late start after his ACL surgery from last season. It’s still unclear whether they can make enough shots, but they’ll have a shot for the playoffs along with three or four others below them in the East.
- Charlotte Hornets: Another team that looks like a playoff team, though I have run out of spots. They made some nice offseason moves with Nicholas Batum and Jeremy Lin to address Kemba Walker’s wild shooting. It hurts defensively losing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. And will Spencer Hawes regain his form? Hawes is an outspoken political conservative and I always thought his brain was close to exploding being in Los Angeles. He should be more comfortable in Jesse HelmsWorld. Also can Al Jefferson hold up inside and can Tyler Hansbrough avoid running into a wall?
- New York Knickerbockers: They get the more formal name because they finally seem serious. They didn’t draw any star free agents and may not because the truth is with the inconveniences and media sniping it’s not a very pleasant place to live or play. But Phil Jackson is excellent putting pieces together to form a team. They’ve made some nice additions in Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Derrick Williams and Kevin Seraphin. And Kristaps Porzingis could be one of the better rookies from this class in a few years.
- Indiana Pacers: Losing Roy Hibbert may have been a plus. Not so much David West. But that’s when you change your style: When your style leaves. So now they’re Indiana shoot-first-and-ask-Monta-later. It’s one thing to change your pace with a new coach like the Bulls are trying. It’s another to ask Arnold Schwarzenegger to do Shakespeare in the park.
- Detroit Pistons: It suggests the East is much better that I can’t find a place for them and can make a case for them being a playoff team. Stan Van Gundy is one of the better strategists/motivators and you can see his theory for putting shooters around a dominant big man. Andre Drummond isn’t Dwight Howard, which is the issue thus far. And then there’s Brandon Jennings to return with Reggie Jackson and see what that brings. Rookie Stanley Johnson has looked good early in a positive sign for a more competitive Eastern Conference.
- Brooklyn Nets: They’ve pretty much acknowledged: They took their shot and it didn’t work. You can argue with the price of high draft picks for talent whose names were bigger than their games. But it’s never a mistake to try to succeed at a higher level. So now they’ll burn it down slowly and try to begin to recover. It takes a while.
- Philadelphia 76ers: C’mon, who really cares. They’re making a joke out of the meaning of competition.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: Of course they have their ifs with Kevin Durant out injured most of last season. But with Durant back—and anyone can be injured at any time—you can make the case with he, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and a bunch more they have the best talent in the NBA. OK, maybe I just tried to do that. Their larger questions may include whether a near 20-point scorer in Enes Kanter can adjust to rebounding for Durant and Westbrook. You can have worse problems.
- Golden State Warriors: Hey, it’s no insult as they’ve mostly been pouting this offseason about this supposed lack of respect after their first title in 40 years. How dare everyone not recognize the dynasty. They’ll still be very good, though don’t discount the absence of Steve Kerr in camp and to start the season. Luke Walton is no John Kennedy, either. What they’re going to get this season is a course in teams attacking Stephen Curry. You know, you think you’re so good. OK, let’s see Bogut and Thompson beat us. Can the defense perform to those levels again as teams run Curry all over the place? They had that amazing start and momentum can carry you with confidence. They’re legit and I did pick them at this time last year to win the conference. So they’re not a fluke. But your star really needs to be a star the next time around. Is Curry up to that?
- Houston Rockets: They had Dwight Howard half the season and won the tough Southwest. And Ty Lawson should be one of the better steals from the offseason as he was nearly untouchable a year ago until he led a Nuggets insurrection against Brian Shaw. We’ll see who he is now. Patrick Beverley back helps immeasurably against Western guards and Donatas Montiejunas was breaking out before he broke down. They’re a team to watch if Howard can hold together.
- Memphis Grizzlies: Not really anyone’s favorite because they refuse to believe you have to score to win games. You hate to say this about any team, but they need to get a big season from Jeff Green. He’s one of the more disappointing talents. But he has the ability to score and there’s a chance Matt Barnes beats him up at some point, which could motivate him as well.
- Los Angeles Clippers: There’s surely the capability to self destruct with Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith and DeAndre Jordan maybe thinking he should have the ball. But any team that doesn’t need Jamal Crawford has a lot of talent. Does it mix and match and mesh? Paul Pierce is back home in the middle of it all and you know he has plenty to say. If they’re not entertaining on the court we know they will be off the court.
- San Antonio Spurs: I guess I’m not that sold on the LaMarcus Aldridge/David West haul. It’s not quite that as it was a brilliant addition to finally provide a post-Duncan path. Coach Gregg Popovich, we know, doesn’t treasure the regular season. And it’s not like anyone ahead of them is undeserving. They’ll be cautious as usual with their assisted living members. So regular season wins isn’t a big priority, though they won’t be easy to defeat. Popovich may give up more on the lineup card than he does in games. You can come out of sixth to win in the West because it is so close.
- New Orleans Pelicans: It’s your real bad luck roster with the constant injuries. If they ever could be whole with Anthony Davis we might see. I thought they could be top four last season the way Davis was coming on. He did but it was like a guy running into a fight imploring everyone to follow and they’d turned back. You can’t be league MVP, as many believe Davis can be, with a team scraping to get into the playoffs. New coach Alvin Gentry will expedite their offense, which amazingly ignored Davis half the time. And he still averaged 25. He could average 35 if there are injuries or Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans discover they are allowed to pass.
- Sacramento Kings: Did I just predict that? The Bulls are wishing it as they have the Kings draft pick if it isn’t top 10. Rajon Rondo has to be looking to resurrect his reputation and may not decide he’s smarter than Red Auerbach. DeMarcus Cousins? I know everyone says he’s the greatest talent since Joe Barry Carroll. Hey, he is. That’s the problem. Cousins is so good and so stubborn and has no idea how to contribute to success. George Karl is a clever, inventive coach. But he’s on such shaky ground with an inconsistent management in his last run that he may back off. They’re going to be one of the better dramas to monitor this season. They may only need a Kardashian romance to perfect it.
- Portland Trailblazers: They’ve been the left for dead team with the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge. And ninth isn’t in the playoffs. But they’ll be better than most expect. It’s a guard dominated West, and Damian Lillard could really break out without them throwing inside. If at all. C.J. McCollum as well. They made a few nice role playing pickups with Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh, highly touted coming out of the draft.
- Denver Nuggets: They were the Village of the Damned kids last season and pretty much broken up before scaring the rest of the NBA. It finally looks like Danilo Gallinari can play again and Emmanuel Mudiay looks like a real point guard talent, albeit a rookie. You can’t be a huge surprise missing the playoffs, but they’ll be better than expected.
- Utah Jazz: They’re the popular preseason favorite as the breakthrough team. But I can’t figure out how they’re going to score 90 points. Not that Dante Exum looked ready, but he was close to being a point guard. They don’t otherwise really have one and use Gordon Hayward for too much. They’re so excited about Rudy Gobert, but blocks don’t count for points.
- Dallas Mavericks: I hate to put any faith in Deron Williams, but in Rick Carlisle I do trust. Somehow he’ll get it figured out to at least make them competitive. They’ve obviously made a mess of the last few years with dumping Tyson Chandler twice and the Rondo deal. As well as being spurned eventually by DeAndre Jordan. Remember when Mark Cuban was supposed to be the ultimate owner and so friendly all the top free agents would be going there? If you’re counting you’re really still at one. Good for paying Wesley Matthews after surgery, but he’s only a nice role player. Dirk got his title. But it’s closer to a rebuilding.
- Phoenix Suns: Turns out the boom may have been almost making the playoffs. All those picks and cap room has become Tyson Chandler and a sad Morris. Goran Dragic and Gerald Green bolted and Morris wants to. They still have some stuff with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight back from injury. But the West is too tough to make much of a move, though they could again get close to a playoff spot.
- Los Angeles Lakers: I think they’ll actually be much closer to last; yes, closer than even this. It’s going to be a long season and change to come. My early prediction is that’s Kevin Love’s destination and the Cavs eventually get back Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell, who isn’t good enough to excite Los Angeles and would be a nice backup combo guard for Kyrie. Kobe’s going to be shooting and wait until he gets a load of Roy Hibbert trying to run. The question hanging over the franchise is whether this will be the last season for Kobe. Until he leaves, free agents aren’t coming. Once he does and if they can land someone like Love it can come back together quickly.
- Minnesota Timberwolves: I actually think with some fun young kids in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns they won’t be at the bottom. Not a playoff threat yet, but getting much better. But I mostly wanted to write a bit about Flip Saunders, the gm and coach who died Sunday. There have been tributes throughout the NBA about Saunders. It is heart breaking. Saunders was such a good man. I know they always say people are nice when they die, except perhaps for Hitler, Joseph McCarthy and Cinderella’s step sisters. But Saunders truly was just a very nice man. It was his failing, if one can say that. The only criticism I ever heard about Saunders’ coaching in Minnesota, Detroit and Washington was he wasn’t confrontational enough. No, he wasn’t an emotional leader, and when you lose a job in coaching there always has to be some excuse/reason. Flip treated people like he would want to be treated. Like anyone would want to be treated. He treated his players with maturity and respect. He wasn’t a screamer or pouter. When there’s not ultimate success that becomes a weakness. But Flip never surrendered to the baser elements and instincts. He was a mensch. He dealt with victory or defeat with compassion, intelligence and humor. He was one of those terrific overachievers, maybe 5-3 in high school becoming a top player, small college coach at 21 with a 90 percent winning percentage, working his way up through the CBA, a studious guy who became one of the masters of zone defense. His specialty was a 1-2-2 that he jokingly called from his Minnesota mentor Bill Musselman the “hyperbolic, paraboloid, transitional floating zone.” I wrote about it in the 2007 conference semifinals when the Pistons won the first three games and beat the Bulls in six. It was one of the few times I saw Scott Skiles frustrated, saying it wasn’t the zone. It just wasn’t. Flip had such a charming way even in games. One of my favorite gimmicks was proposing trades and one of my go tos was Kevin Garnett. You know, high school in Chicago and all that. Some coaches and gms would take it too seriously. Flip would always laugh and shake his head when I’d explain to him how it would benefit the Timberwolves. What a nice man. What a terrible loss for all of us.