After an offseason full of free-agent drama and super team discussions, the much anticipated first tipoff of season 2016/17 is finally upon us. With that in mind, we preview the league, giving an overview of what each team can expect this season from strengths to weaknesses. We’ve broken down our top 4, playoff contenders to follow and organizations on the up. Let’s dive into the East, where some upstart young squads are looking to challenge the defending world champion Cleveland Cavaliers for conference supremacy.
EASTERN CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS
The cream of the crop — LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers head into the 2016-17 expecting to win another championship, and there’s no reason to think they can’t do exactly that. That being said, there are some key questions surrounding the 2016-17 Cavaliers. Although LeBron looks like an unstoppable force and is a physical specimen, he’s 31 and will be 32 by the time the year comes to a close. On top of that, he’s played A LOT of basketball. Thirteen NBA seasons (going into his 14th) is a lot of wear and tear to put on anybody.
On top of that, this will be Tyronn Lue’s first full season as the head man in Cleveland. He proved more than capable during the second half of the year for the Cavs, but keeping your team ready to play and managing a roster for 82 games is a different story.
Strength – The Big 3 – One member of the Cavaliers’ big three might be viewed slightly less favorably than the other two, but he’ll be just as big of a component for the Cavs if they’re going to make a run at a championship in 2016-17.
Kyrie Irving is just 24 years old and should only be better, and LeBron can be counted on to be the world’s best player every night.
Weakness – Center – While Timofey Mozgov was far from a vital member of the Cavs in their playoff run, he was instrumental to their success throughout the regular season. On top of that, the Cavs lost Anderson Varejao and could potentially run into some issues against opponents with dominant centers.
Toronto Raptors – 56-25 last season (2nd in East)
The Raptors have cleared an impressive number of organizational hurdles over the last few years, vaulting from an afterthought of a franchise to a yearly contender. It’s been no small feat for management to pull this off, and as a result, ownership has extended the contracts of two of the main men behind the team’s success, GM Masai Ujiri and coach Dwane Casey.
Now, after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals and playing the Cavaliers tight in six games, the Raptors have one more great big hill to climb.
Strength – Guard Play – This shouldn’t come as a shock to NBA fans, but the Raptors starting guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, are second to none. Per NBA.com, the duo averaged 44.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 10.4 apg, and both made the Eastern Conference’s All-Star team. This team goes, as Lowry and DeRozan go.
Weakness – Injuries – Last year the Raptors lost DeMarre Carroll for much of the year with a knee injury that might just be recurring and lost center Jonas Valanciunas in the middle of their playoff run. The Raptors at full strength would be hard pressed to beat the Cavaliers, but without anyone in their starting five it’s essentially impossible. They’ll need key cogs to stay healthy throughout the season and most importantly the postseason to continue last year’s success in 2016-17.
Boston Celtics – 48-34 last season (5th in East)
After a few years of rebuilding once their big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen moved on to less-Celtic green pastures, Boston is ready to compete with the big dogs in the East once again.
Coach Brad Stevens got the most out of his team both years he’s been in the league and now has his best roster yet. The combination of coaching, talent and timing all seem to be coming together for Boston in 2016-17.
Strength – Coaching, Brad Stevens – In just three years in the league, Stevens has morphed into one of the best coaches league-wide for the job he’s done with a young Celtics squad. His calm demeanor and innate knowledge of the game gives the Celtics a leg up over most teams before the game even begins.
Weakness – Youth – The youthful exuberance that has the basketball world so excited about the Celtics could also be the potentially dangerous team’s undoing. According to RealGM.com, only the 76ers have a younger average roster age than the Celtics, whose average is 24.9 years old. If there’s any man that can get these young stars to mature quickly, it’s coach Stevens. On top of that, Al Horford’s veteran presence in the starting lineup should also help move this team along maturity wise
Indiana Pacers – 45-37 last season (7th in East)
Even though the firing of coach Frank Vogel still doesn’t sit well, it’s hard not to believe that this Pacers team will be better than the one that won 45 games last season. With Paul George’s game back in form, Jeff Teague joining the fray and a supposedly “rededicated” Monta Ellis, this Indiana team has the makings of a fourth or fifth seed in the East again, capable of doing some damage come playoff time.
Strength – Paul George – George is one of the best two-way players in the game, and last year was a triumph for him on the court. Now is George’s time to really shine in Indiana and lead this team to a deep playoff run.
Weakness – Secondary Scoring – In a league built around big threes and fours, the Pacers really only seem to have a big one in George. Teague, a rejuvenated Ellis and Thaddeus Young are all good players in their own right, but there’s no Robin to George’s Batman in Indiana this year.
Atlanta Hawks – 48-34 last season (4th in East)
The Hawks will look much different in 2016 without Al Horford, than in years past. Taking Horford’s place is local boy Dwight Howard, who’s looking to regain his place among the NBA’s top centers.
Strength – Defense – Last year the Hawks were one of the stingiest defensive units in the NBA, ranking second in defensive efficiency (98.8) behind on the San Antonio Spurs. Now, with Dwight Howard protecting the rim, the Hawks could be poised to have an even better defense.
Weakness – Guards – It’s probably unfair to label the Hawks’ guards as a weakness — perhaps potential weakness would be more apt — but there is some cause for concern. After lighting the league up from three in the 2014-15 season, Kyle Korver was nowhere near the force he was from outside last season and actually shot under 40 percent from downtown for the first time since his 2008-09 season with the Utah Jazz. Additionally, Dennis Schroder, who is still raw and will need time to develop into an NBA-caliber starting point guard, could hamper the Hawks in the early going.
Chicago Bulls – 42-40 last season (9th in East)
The Derrick Rose era is over, but Bulls fans have a lot to look forward to going into the season. Key free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo and first-round draft pick Denzel Valentine, a standout at Michigan State, should keep the Bulls competitive.
Strength – Experienced Stars – Wade and Rondo bring this Bulls team a wealth of championship experience, which they’ll need with Pau Gasol fleeing to San Antonio. These two can help further the development of Jimmy Butler and Valentine and help instill a winning attitude sooner than later.
Weakness – Shooting Range – Outside of Wade and Butler, the Bulls severely lack quality outside shooters. Rondo’s limitations from a shooting perspective are well documented by this point, leaving the 34-year-old Wade and Butler as the Bulls’ primary perimeter threats.
Charlotte Hornets – 48-34 last season (6th in East)
After a 48-win season that surprised many around the NBA, the Hornets won’t be sneaking up on anybody this year. Can they turn last year’s success into a lengthy playoff run in 2016-17?
Strength – Well-Rounded – The Hornets are pretty good at everything. They were a top-10 defensive team in 2015-16, top 10 in three point percentage, top 15 in rebounding and fell just outside the top 10 in overall scoring. They’re roster is rock solid, and they’re not ripe for the picking on either end of the floor.
Weakness – Center – While Cody Zeller has been solid, the Hornets need more from him this season if they’re going to get past the first round of the playoffs. Roy Hibbert’s grasp on the starting center position is tenuous, and most in Charlotte are hoping Zeller does enough to win the job from him.
New York Knicks – 32-50 last season (13th in East)
It was a busy offseason for Phil Jackson and the Knicks. And the end result is a completely overhauled roster surrounding star forward Carmelo Anthony. As there have been for quite a few years now, there are many more questions surrounding the Knicks than there are answers.
Strength – Scoring – With Carmelo Anthony leading the charge, Kristaps Porzingis range and ability to score both in and out of the paint along with Derrick Rose at point, the Knicks should be able to shoot the lights out against even the stingiest defensive squads.
Weakness – Injuries – The Knicks’ starting five could be among the best in the league… if they can stay healthy. Every single player in their starting rotation has had a history of injuries or has injury concerns surrounding them. If the Knicks can stay healthy, they’ll likely find their way into the playoffs, but that’s about the biggest ‘if’ of any.
Detroit Pistons – 44-38 last season (8th in East)
Detroit is one of many upstart teams in the Eastern Conference looking to take the next step this season after a playoff berth. Led by Andre Drummond and head coach and president Stan Van Gundy, the fledgling Pistons are a team to watch in 2016-17.
Strength – Coaching – Stan Van Gundy has had the opportunity to craft this team has given himself quite an arsenal of young talent to work with. Obviously Drummond is the superstar of the bunch, but Van Gundy has proven that he can get the most out of his young team and should be able to maximize their output in year three of his tenure.
Weakness – Shooting – Detroit’s offense left something to be desired last year. They finished shooting just 43.9 percent from the field, good for 25th in the NBA. That number will have to improve if Detroit’s going to make and escape the first round of the playoffs this season.
Miami Heat – 48-34 last season (3rd in East)
Dwyane Wade is out, and it’s a whole new Miami Heat team from the days of the big three. They’re young, looking to play some up-tempo basketball and could be one of the more exciting teams in the Eastern Conference to watch from night to night.
Strength – Coaching – Miami’s continuity these days comes from head coach Erik Spoelstra, who has proven that he’s one of the best in the business, whether LeBron James is in his corner or not. He might just have his toughest coaching job yet ahead of him, with lots of young and new faces on his roster.
Weakness – Chemistry – There’s a lot of talent on this Miami Heat team but how, and whether it can all come together will be the biggest questions for them throughout the year. Those were questions asked about the Heat back when the big three first came to town, and they managed just fine. So hopefully for the Heat coach Spoelstra can push all the right buttons this time around as well.
ON THE WAY UP
Milwaukee Bucks – 33-49 last season (12th in East)
The Bucks seem like a team in transition in 2016-17. While there are bright spots on their roster in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Miles Plumlee, almost everybody else in their starting five has a serious question mark next to them heading into the year.
Strength – “The Greek Freak” – If you’re looking for a reason to tune into Bucks games throughout this year’s campaign, it’s Antetokounmpo. The 21-year-old budding superstar put up monster numbers last year and is a triple-double threat on any given night.
Weakness – Three-Point Shooting – The Bucks are built to dominate in the frontcourt, and as a result, they finished last in the NBA in 2015-16 in three-pointers per game. They don’t have many shooters capable of connecting on the long ball, and in today’s NBA, that’s a problem. They really didn’t do anything to address the issue either, and their leading three-point shooter, Khris Middleton, will likely miss most, if not all of the season due to a torn hamstring suffered in preseason workouts.
Washington Wizards – 41-41 last season (10th in East)
By any measure the Wizards underachieved last season and will be looking to turn things around under new coach Scott Brooks. They have the talent, and Brooks can get his teams to perform. So this could be a much better year than 2015-16 for the Wizards.
Strength – Backcourt – Personal strife can turn a dominant backcourt tandem into a dreadful one, as we’ve seen with the talented yet often at odds Bradley Beal and John Wall. But these are two of the best in the business. Players who have played for Brooks all seemed to love having him as their coach so there’s no reason to think Brooks can’t calm these two and get them on the same page.
Weakness – Defense – Injuries crushed the Wizards last season, but so did defensive inefficiency. The Wizards were 21st in the league in points allowed, allowing an average of 104.6 points per game. Opponents shot over 46 percent from the field against them. They’ll have to improve on the defensive side of the ball if they want to return to the playoffs.
Orlando Magic – 35-47 last season (11th in East)
The Magic have been irrelevant in the East for the better part of the decade. But they now have the players and coach to actually be competitive this season. In fact, one could argue that the Magic could get a No. 7 or 8 seed if they stay healthy and buy into what Frank Vogel is selling.
Strength – Frontcourt – The Magic boast an embarrassment of riches in Bismack Biyombo, Serge Ibaka, Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green. Vogel will be able to use them to help buoy the team’s backcourt, which lacks any real star power.
Weakness – Backcourt – As mentioned, the backcourt really leaves something to be desired and could be an issue for the Magic throughout the year.
Brooklyn Nets – 21-61 last season (14th in East)
An abysmal 2015-16 campaign for the Nets might just be the beginning of things. The Nets have an abundance of issues at key positions, and rookie head coach Kenny Atkinson will likely have his hands full in year one trying to get the Nets to remain competitive on a nightly basis.
Strength – Center – Brook Lopez is about the only real strength you can point to on this Nets roster. They have some nice options outside of Lopez but nobody worth writing home about. Lopez is the core of this team and off of arguably the best year of his career in 2015-16. He’ll have to go above and beyond that if the Nets are going to be competitive this season.
Weakness – Talent – It seems harsh, but the Nets truly just lack the talent to compete. Hopefully for the Nets and their fans their first-round draft selection Caris LeVert can get healthy and perform at a high enough level to present some optimism in Brooklyn heading into 2017-18.
Philadelphia 76ers – 10-72 last season (15th in East)
Trust the process. Those words rang hollow for years, but now-departed GM Sam Hinkie’s vision is beginning to come into focus. The 76ers have a wealth of talent heading into 2016, and there should be some visible improvement this year for the first time in a long time.
Strength – Young Talent – This one’s pretty obvious. Even though Ben Simmons is hurt, Joel Embiid is finally ready to play. Dario Saric has arrived in the U.S. and Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor round out the fruits of the labor of tanking for the last handful of seasons.
Weakness – Unproven/Inexperienced – The disclaimer that follows right behind “young talent” is that they always have a lot to prove. This bunch in Philadelphia is no different and has their work cut out for them. They basically have to start validating years and years of tanking by winning/showing potential on the hardwood. No pressure, guys.
THE WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden State Warriors – 73-9 last season (1st in West)
Since conceding a 3-1 lead in the Finals, the Warriors went out and signed the free-agent prize of the year: Kevin Durant. However, to do so, they had to jettison key pieces from last year’s roster, including center Andrew Bogut and small forward Harrison Barnes. Expectations are astronomical for this team, and it’s clearly championship or bust.
The team, with Durant, is unquestionably more talented. But how will the stars will fit together once the season starts? We’ve seen this movie before (Miami, 2010-11), and we know how difficult it can be for superbly talented players to cohesively play together. That said, the Warriors, who move the ball better than any team in recent memory, seem likely to gel.
Being the “villains” will affect them at some point, but a squad this talented usually makes the NBA Finals at least.
Strength – Shooting – It has been this team’s bread and butter, and they just replaced Harrison Barnes with a former MVP who’s a better shooter. Barnes was a good defender, capable of playing multiple positions. Durant, as he showed in last year’s Western Conference Finals, can be a game-changing force on defense. Like Barnes, he allows the Warriors to maintain that amorphous, position-less style of basketball they love.
Weakness – Center – Golden State is predominantly a small-ball team, with Draymond Green playing “center” alongside Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Durant and Andre Iguodala. However, they did still use Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli a combined 36 minutes per game on average last season. Now, their center position will be held down by the combination of ZaZa Pachulia (solid), Anderson Varejao (perpetually injured) and Javale McGee (umm… entertaining?). There’s also less depth here due to the addition of Durant’s contract.
San Antonio Spurs – 67-15 last season (2nd in West)
Death. Taxes. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs winning 50+ games. Seriously, the Spurs have now won 50 or more games in 17 consecutive seasons and in 18 of the 19 seasons that Popovich has been head coach. This franchise is the model of consistency and they have most of the core group back from the team that won 67 games last season.
Tim Duncan retired, which leaves a big hole to fill at center. The Spurs signed Pau Gasol to try and do so. Gasol was an All-Star the last two years in Chicago and can certainly help on offense. But the front-court combination of him and LaMarcus Aldridge leaves questions on defense. One thing to watch is the team possibly trading Aldridge. Rumors have been swirling for a couple weeks now that he could be moved. If he is, I would expect them to get back a true center and move Pau to the four spot where he’s a bit more of a natural fit on this team. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are both coming off down seasons. The team drafted guard Dejounte Murray out of Washington and he’ll be expected to contribute along with steps forward from both Jonathan Simmons and Kyle Anderson. The Spurs have some questions to answer, but they’ll win 50+ games again.
Strength – Gregg Popovich – The players change, the coach hasn’t. Granted, this will be his first year without on-court leader Tim Duncan, but Pop is the best coach in the game. He will have this group ready to go come the season opener and will have guys like Parker and Ginobili rested come playoff time.
Weakness – Defense – Duncan’s absence will be felt. He wasn’t the same offensive player the last several years, but his defensive impact was unquestioned. The Spurs were the best defensive team in the league by Defensive Rating, allowing just 99.5 points per 100 possessions. Gasol is a fine player, but he’s never been a particularly staunch defender. The defense will likely take a step back.
Los Angeles Clippers – 53-29 last season (4th in West)
Another year, another go-round for the Clippers and Doc Rivers. They’re basically the same team they were last year with the additions of Brandon Bass, Marreese Speights and rookie Brice Johnson. The rest of the cast — Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, JJ Redick, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Paul Pierce, Austin Rivers and Luc Mbah a Moute — are all back.
After an injury-riddled season, the Clippers are hoping first and foremost to stay healthy. Secondly, they’re looking to actually contend at playoff time.
Strength – Continuity/better injury luck – Injuries are largely unpredictable. Last year, the Clippers were hit by a perfect storm that eventually forced an early playoff exit. This year, they should be healthier and enjoy some continuity with the team largely intact. Marreese Speights should help the second unit as a complementary scorer to Jamal Crawford.
Weakness – Backup center – This remains an issue, even with Speights, who isn’t exactly known for his defense. And outside of him, the only other option at the five spot is rookie Diamond Stone or going small with Brice Johnson/Brandon Bass.
Oklahoma City Thunder – 55-27 last season (3rd in West)
The Thunder are still a threat in the West, despite losing Durant. Russell Westbrook seems determined to prove that point, and an angry Russell Westbrook is breathtaking on the court. The “Big Three” of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka is now just Westbrook, but that doesn’t mean the roster lacks talent.
The Thunder were proactive about Ibaka’s pending free agency after this season, trading him to the Magic for Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova offers solid shooting off the bench while Oladipo brings good perimeter defense, but is still developing his offensive game. A starting five of Westbrook, Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter, and Steven Adams could dominate defensively. But spacing will be an issue on offense with Roberson’s inconsistency and Oladipo’s work-in-progress shot.
There’s talent enough here to make the playoffs. But the loss of Durant knocks them down a bit, even with Westbrook going scorched earth on the league.
Strength – Angry Westbrook – Seriously, it will be so much fun watching him try to destroy rims, collect every rebound and flex on the entire league every game. Also, Billy Donovan proved to be a very good coach in the playoffs, getting his team to within a game of the Finals.
Weakness – Shooting – There are some okay options off the bench, but most of their perimeter players are inconsistent shooters at best. It will be interesting to see how they space the floor and attack.
Portland Trailblazers – 44-38 last season (5th in West)
The Trailblazers surprised many last year, ripping off 44 wins en route to the 5-seed and a second-round playoff trip. A huge year from CJ McCollum to pair with Damian Lillard certainly helped, and the Blazers now appear to have one of the league’s best young backcourts.
The Blazers also strengthened their bench by re-signing Allen Crabbe, signing free agent Evan Turner and bringing in Festus Ezeli from Golden State. They adapted well after losing Wes Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge prior to last season and look primed to be one of the Western Conference’s playoff teams.
Strength – Offensive efficiency – The Blazers were 6th in offensive rating and 8th in effective field goal percentage last season using Lillard and McCollum in pick-and-roll games with their big men. Adding a depth scoring talent like Turner will help the bench unit.
Weakness – Defense – The Blazers were middle of the pack last year defensively as neither Lillard or McCollum rate as plus defenders and none of their big men really offer serious rim protection. They’ll need to improve in a big way on this end of the floor to move up in the West.
Memphis Grizzlies – 42-40 last season (7th in West)
The Grizzlies were decimated by injuries last season and made some significant changes this offseason. The team fired head coach Dave Joerger (now in Sacramento) and brought in David Fizdale (formerly of the Heat). Then, in free agency, they lavished Chandler Parsons with a big contract and handed Mike Conley the largest deal in NBA history.
Fizdale wants to play a more uptempo style than their traditional “Grit-N-Grind.” Whether they can do it largely depends on the health of Parsons and the development of younger players like Jordan Adams, JaMychal Green, and rookie Wade Baldwin. A healthy Grizzlies should make the playoffs again and challenge for a top-four seed.
Strength – Defense – The Grizzlies have consistently been one of the best defensive teams in the league because of their playing style. Their numbers may drop a bit this year because of the move to the uptempo style of play. But this should still be a top-10 unit.
Weakness – Shooting – They brought in Parsons to fix the problem, and the young guys could help. But there are still some issues. Parsons is out indefinitely after offseason surgery. And who knows how the young guys will develop?
Utah Jazz – 40-42 last season (9th in West)
The Jazz are one of multiple young, hungry teams competing for a playoff spot in the West. They’ve built this team slowly through the draft and look fully capable of snagging a playoff spot in this difficult conference.
There’s no superstar on this team, but certainly potential All-Stars. Gordon Hayward has developed every year he’s been in the league. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are a dominant low post duo. Alec Burks has developed into a nice scorer on the wing.
Strength – Rebounding/Rim Protection – The Jazz finished 4th and 7th respectively in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage last season. As one of the league’s better rim protectors, Gobert is a major deterrent in the paint for opponents. Favors is a solid rebounder at both ends. Adding a veteran like Boris Diaw should help these two continue to develop.
Weakness – Injuries/Chemistry – Burks and Hayward, both recovering from injuries, are expected to miss several weeks to start the year. That means Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles and veteran Joe Johnson will likely be holding down the wing spots. Also, can point guard Dante Exum, who missed last season with an ACL tear, bounce back?
Minnesota Timberwolves – 29-53 last season (13th in West)
This team could be really fun this season. It’s year two for Karl-Anthony Towns and year three for Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Add in rookie Kris Dunn, and let Tom Thibodeau run the entire operation. There’s a good young foundation here for Thibs to build upon in his second head-coaching gig.
Thibs purportedly learned a lot in his year away from the game, so we’ll see how he implements it with this roster. A jump to playoff contender in his first year is unrealistic. Topping 30 wins and showing improvement as the season wears on seems more likely.
Strength – Depth – This team has young star power mixed with solid veteran role players. Dunn and Tyus Jones at the point; Cole Aldrich, Gorgui Dieng, Jordan Hill, Adreian Payne and Nemanja Bjelica in the frontcourt and Rasual Butler, Brandon Rush and Shabazz Muhammad on the wings. With so much ability, the rotation will be interesting.
Weakness – Finding playing time for everyone/defense – How do you find playing time for all that young talent? The stars — Towns, Wiggins, Lavine and Dunn — will get plenty, but Muhammad, Dieng, Payne and Jones deserve minutes too.
Houston Rockets – 41-41 last season (8th in West)
The Rockets were a dysfunctional mess last season. Harden and Howard soured on each other, and the team seemed disinterested in playing together, particularly on defense. This year, Howard is gone, they added Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene in free agency. Mike D’Antoni has turned the keys to the offense over to Harden as the de facto point guard.
The offense should be fun, as Mike D’Antoni groups always are. But can he and new assistant Jeff Bzdelik get this group to care at the other end? A nonexistent defense won’t get them anything beyond a playoff spot.
Strength – Team Chemistry/Offense – With Howard gone and D’Antoni at the helm, this unit will rely on Harden’s playmaking ability and the shooters who surround him. Anderson and Gordon should help if they can stay healthy (though that’s a big if).
Weakness – Center/Defense – The loss of Howard may ease the dysfunction, but the dropoff from him to new starting center Clint Capela is significant. Outside of Capela, 34-year-old Nene and rookie Chinanu Onuaku are their only options to play the five this year. That’s not ideal. Harden, Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza can all play good defense. But will they?
ON THE RISE
Dallas Mavericks – 42-40 last season (6th in West)
The Mavericks swing and miss on the big free agents year after year, but they never stop trying. This season, they did benefit from Kevin Durant’s signing in Golden State though, scooping up ex-Warriors Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. Both should help Dirk with one more hopeful playoff run.
Point guard is the biggest hole in the starting five. Devin Harris and Deron Williams, two older guards, are still effective, though not dynamic enough for the main playmaker spot. Wes Matthews is a good shooter but isn’t known for his playmaking abilities at the two-guard.
The Mavs are hoping for more from last year’s first-round, pick Justin Anderson, as the team looks for the next young core piece to build around. It will be interesting how Barnes handles himself with a larger offensive role. He will be the number two guy, along with Wes Matthews, behind Dirk, whereas he was the 4th option at Golden State.
Strength – Coaching – Rick Carlisle is one of the league’s better coaches, and he consistently gets the most out of his roster. This year’s team is younger and more talented than last year’s and should push opponents in the playoffs.
Weakness – Defense – The Mavs got some help for Dirk with Andrew Bogut, but Bogut’s health is a huge question mark. Barnes and Matthews have been plus defenders, but Dirk and both point guards are below-average on defense at this point in their careers.
Phoenix Suns – 23-59 last season (14th in West)
The Suns jumped out to a terrible start last season, getting Jeff Hornacek fired in favor of Earl Watson. But they played better basketball down the stretch. This roster has some good veterans, but is still building for the future.
Eric Bledsoe (27), PJ Tucker (31), Jared Dudley (31) and Tyson Chandler (33) will all start, with young gun Devin Booker (20) likely to hold down the two spot. The Suns must also find time for this year’s two first-round picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. It’s a difficult balance between winning and gaining experience, with the Suns doing mostly the latter this season.
Strength – Shooting – Bledsoe (37.2%), Booker (34.3%) and Dudley (42%) should all be above league average this season, assuming that Booker continues to develop.
Weakness – Offensive efficiency – This team was 28th in offensive rating last year, 25th in effective field goal percentage and 30th in turnover percentage. The Suns will have to improve all of these to even sniff one of the final playoff spots.
Denver Nuggets – 33-49 last season (11th in West)
The Nuggets are another young team that could take the next step this season. But playing time could also be an issue, with the logjam they have at most positions.
Mike Malone must find playing time for guards Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley and Will Barton. On the wing, he has Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. In the post, there’s Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Juan Hernangomez, Darrell Arthur, Kenneth Faried, and Mike Miller.
Malone has a young, deep and talented roster on his hands, so there’s a lot to figure out rotation-wise. Balancing between winning and getting guys minutes will be the trick. It will be interesting to see what he does.
Strength – Depth and rebounding – The depth we’ve explained. But this team, with the combination of Jokic, Nurkic, Arthur and Faried, was top 10 on both ends in rebounding percentage. That should continue.
Weakness – Shooting – As a team, they shot 33.8% from three last year, tied for 26th in the league. Adding Murray should help, but Mudiay (31.9%) and Harris (35.4%) need to develop more consistent outside shots to improve this area.
Los Angeles Lakers – 17-65 last season (15th in West)
The Lakers will be much better than they were last year under Byron Scott. The Kobe farewell tour is done, and new coach Luke Walton is looking to develop the next generation of stars. D’Angelo Russell will be let off his extremely short leash. (He’s averaged 18.2 points per game in the preseason.) Add in Jordan Clarkson, rookie Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle, and the Lakers have a nice young core.
Signing Luol Deng, the consummate pro, should help alleviate the pressure on Brandon Ingram to be the guy right away. They also gave a massive deal to Timofey Mozgov who the Cavs benched in the playoffs last season because he was getting killed on pick-and-roll defense. Nick “Swaggy P” Young is still here, so there’s an entertainment factor outside of seeing the young guys develop too.
Strength – Luke Walton – Walton showed his coaching ability last year, leading the Warriors to a 44-3 record out of the gate while Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery. He’ll be installing his system, which will take some time to learn. But there’s no pressure to win right now.
Weakness – Defense – Last year’s team ranked dead last in defensive rating allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s horrendous. Even the 10-win 76ers were a full two points better in that category. For all the talk of what Walton can do for this offense, he’ll need to improve this defense. The slow-footed Mozgov at center likely won’t help matters
Sacramento Kings – 33-49 last season (10th in West)
The Kings have been a mess for quite awhile now, and this rebuild still seems a work in progress. Maybe new coach Dave Joerger can develop some chemistry with the team’s temperamental star DeMarcus Cousins. Rudy Gay has made it known that he won’t be back after this season. And approximately 11 big men are fighting for one starting spot alongside Cousins. So there are some question marks here.
The backcourt has two solid veterans in Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo, some solid youth in Ben McLemore and Malachi Richardson, and a former starter in the league in Ty Lawson. The front court is Cousins alongside some combination of: Kosta Koufos, Skal Labissiere, Georgios Papagiannis, Anthony Tolliver and Willie Cauley-Stein. Gay is a potential trade candidate, but Omri Casspi and Matt Barnes can step in if that happens.
With all that, this looks like another lottery year for the Kings, even as they open their new arena.
Strength – DeMarcus Cousins – Cousins is an All-Star talent, the kind that teams build around. (And that’s what the Kings have been trying to do basically since drafting him.) An absolute force down low, he’s averaging a double-double for his career.
Weakness – Chemistry/Identity – Another year, another roster turnover. Most of the starters are new to the team. Gay wants out. Cousins is an attitude case. Can’t imagine why top free agents avoid Sacramento.
New Orleans Pelicans – 30-52 last season (12th in West)
The Pelicans are back to rebuilding, as the roster looks to be in a state of transition. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are gone. Point guard Jrue Holiday is out indefinitely while helping his wife deal with brain surgery to remove a tumor, replaced by Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore. Tyreke Evans is also out until sometime in December after multiple knee surgeries this offseason. The team did add sixth pick Buddy Hield, who should help space the floor around all-world talent Anthony Davis. Omer Asik is a solid rim protector, but doesn’t bring much offensively, and Lance Stephenson hasn’t been the same since leaving Indiana. The Pelicans will miss the playoffs again barring a superhuman effort from Davis.
Strength – Anthony Davis – Davis is a superstar, but he’s battled injury throughout his young career. The Pelicans hope he stays healthy and takes the next step in his development, since he’ll have to carry this roster at least until Holiday and Evans return.
Weakness – Surprisingly, defense – Despite two good rim protectors in Davis and Asik, they finished 27th in team defense last year. Any hope of making the playoffs would require a vast improvement. And with the guys they have missing to start the season, a jump seems doubtful.