Brace Yourself: These NBA Teams May Be Worse Than You Think in 2017-18
Offseason NBA projections are indentured to optimism. Unless a team is unabashedly trying to plunge down the standings, the summer is a time to wax hope and confidence in renovated rosters—to bask in what's new and worship what's unknown.
This annual idealism is about to encounter some numbingly cold water.
Not every squad that has engendered a reason for positivity will placate its zealots. Some of the most intriguing, high-ceiling prospects have lower floors than many realize or care to acknowledge.
Shiny new additions can be overrated. Roster holes are sometimes overlooked. Inexperience is frequently underestimated. When it comes to the offseason, uncertainty is oft-treated as some sort of advantage—a both involuntary and conscious trend we need to dispel.
Known commodities such as the Golden State Warriors (juggernauts) and Chicago Bulls (tanktastic) aren't up for discussion. Nor are new-look teams like the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder that clearly don't have dungeon-level basements. Ditto for in-between squads we know could go either way—think Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Utah Jazz, etc.
These selections are dedicated solely to teams with obvious hype attached to their product. Record projections don't always reflect it, but they're expected to be in the playoff race or contender's circle. And when all's told, they just might end up there.
Yet, when looking at the obstacles that lay before them, they could finish 2017-18 miles from where they're supposed to land.
B/R's Projection: 48-34
ESPN's Projection: 46-36
Part of you is worried about the Denver Nuggets' point guard situation. Admit it.
Emmanuel Mudiay is galaxies away from being an offensive lifeline, and Jameer Nelson, at 35, will be better off directing the show in small doses. Jamal Murray flashed some serious chops as a pick-and-roll trigger man as a rookie, but he's a combo guard being molded into floor general. That takes time. The Nuggets boast Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, two passing savants up front, but it'd be nice to have a more seasoned pecking order in the backcourt.
Counterpoint: They have Jokic and Millsap.
However low you are on their point guard situation, get over it. The Nuggets will run opponents off the court with their offense, just like they did last season when Jokic seized the starting-center reins. Millsap only improves their defensive appeal, which should leave this team exactly where it should be: closer to 50 wins than 40.
B/R's Projection: 43-39
ESPN's Projection: 44-38
Trusting the Miami Heat is only a risk if you're judging them against last season's 30-11 finish. They aren't going to win at that pace, because duh. But they're also not the 11-30 team from the first half.
Career-year James Johnson and Dion Waiters, hidden-gem Rodney McGruder, wind-up toy Wayne Ellington and post-March-15 Josh Richardson cannot all be one-hit wonders. Reincorporating Justise Winslow's defense is not a burden, even when he's misfiring from the perimeter. Adding another outside-in big like Kelly Olynyk cannot be construed as identity-crippling.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra must manipulate the deeper frontcourt to preserve his super-spacey lineups, but he's never been one to shy away from drastic measures. The Heat won't treat Johnson, Olynyk and Hassan Whiteside like a logjam; they'll try to blend the best of both worlds, the traditional and the contemporary—a balancing act their batch of wings allows them to prop up.
Quibble over their salary-cap outlook later. The Heat will be exactly what their roster suggests they'll be next season: playoff-bound, with the depth and lineup malleability to obliterate expectations before failing them.
San Antonio Spurs
B/R's Projection: 55-27
ESPN's Projection: 54-28
Overpaying Pau Gasol while paying Rudy Gay at all doesn't inspire much confidence. The Spurs weren't built or willing to trot out hyper-versatile combinations in 2016-17, and they lack the tools, even with a healthy Gay, to properly combat the NBA's rising athletic superpowers.
Then again, these are the Spurs. We have to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Push those visions of a sub-50-win campaign to the back of your mind. Then bury them. And then let them rot. The crux of last year's 61-win roster is back, which means, by default, head coach Gregg Popovich has enough to exceed expectations. That's the rule.
B/R's Projection: 52-30
ESPN's Projection: 54-28
The Boston Celtics' capacity to deliver an encore to last season's Eastern Conference-leading 53-win campaign was always strained. Even before the Kyrie Irving trade, even after they signed Gordon Hayward, even when it became clear poaching the Jazz's best player would include minimal collateral damage, one uncomfortable question loomed: Would they get another magical season from Isaiah Thomas?
Boston's floor general rated as a top-20 player in 2015-16 and top-15 contributor for 2016-17, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added (TPA). Expecting regression from that pinnacle was not unfair—especially with his hip injury factored into the mix. As Vice Sports' Michael Pina wrote:
"Thomas can shoot and pass as well as most, but his continuous aggression attacking the rim is where he leaves a vast majority of his colleagues in the dust. (Thomas led the league in drives and points per game on drives last season, per SportVU.) If his hip injury, mixed with age-related decline, strips that usefulness away, Thomas is reduced to an aging, super-expensive version of Kemba Walker—a quality piece, sure, but not anyone who moves the needle when positioned as the primary option on a playoff team. Thomas's 2016-17 campaign was incredible, but it's worth wondering how sustainable it is."
Subbing in Irving for Thomas helps the Celtics by way of availability. He is healthy, while Thomas expressed doubt to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski that he'd be ready to start the season. But the inbound value must still stack up to last year's marks, and it just doesn't.
Throw Jae Crowder into the scope, and the Celtics' TPA differential for this trade is a minus-218.69. And that doesn't include what Ante Zizic adds as a rookie (or, in later seasons, who the Cleveland Cavaliers land with the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick).
Signing Hayward alone (plus-201.66) doesn't make up the gap. It would hardly matter if it did. The Celtics squandered individual value by flipping Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris and letting Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk walk out the door.
These numbers are not telltale of everything. Hayward, Irving and Morris could all fair better under head coach Brad Stevens. Jaylen Brown and Terry "Second-Longest-Tenured Celtic" Rozier might take a noticeable leap. Semi Ojeleye and Jayson Tatum may do damage as rookies. Team president Danny Ainge could pull the trigger on another blockbuster.
Could. Might. May. Whatever the view on the Celtics' long-term outlook, they compromised their immediate one. More than 63 percent of last season's minutes are gone, including five of their seven most used players—roster turnover that would have rendered them among the three least-stable squads in 2016-17.
Big names are en route, and the East remains a joke. But these total flip-flops take time. The Celtics may be immediate challengers to the LeBron James-led Cavaliers. They may also labor through a year's worth of learning curves and growing pains and champagne hardship. Either way, given their sweeping, wholesale changes, they'll be lucky to match last year's finish.
Brace Yourself For: 47-35
Los Angeles Clippers
B/R's Projection: 42-40
ESPN's Projection: 45-37
At a least couple of last year's Western Conference playoff squads are expected to bow out of the picture following assumed rises in Denver, Minnesota and New Orleans. The Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers are the most common picks for lottery relegation, with the Jazz soaking up some residual blowback after losing Hayward and George Hill in the same summer.
Few seem prepared, or willing, or convinced, to displace the Los Angeles Clippers from the top eight. Sure, they lost Chris Paul to the Rockets, but they netted Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams in exchange for his services. They signed Milos Teodosic, a voodoo playmaker. They added Danilo Gallinari. They picked up an intriguing second-round wing in Sindarius Thornwell.
Oh, and they still have DeAndre Jordan and the freshly signed Blake Griffin—two All-Star talents who aren't, it seems, exceptionally dependent on their departed point guard.
In the 553 minutes Griffin spent without Paul last season, the Clippers scored like a top-three offense. In the 837 minutes Jordan logged without his quarterback, his league-leading field-goal percentage climbed, ever so slightly, to 71.7 percent. (He also shot 74.4 percent through the 497 minutes he tallied with neither Griffin nor Paul in the game.)
This team is deep and capable, with lineup combinations at its disposal beyond the starting five that couldn't be explored during the Big Three era. But are the Clippers really a surefire playoff participant, or even relatively close to it?
Three new starters are entering the fold. Beverley should be a lateral move from Paul on defense, but he doesn't begin to replace his pick-and-roll prowess. Gallinari is an offensive maestro, but he needs spin at the 4, which the Clippers cannot accommodate. Griffin has to play 35 minutes or more per game, and running him out at the 5 beside Gallinari will be a defensive disaster.
Losing Luc Mbah a Moute will sting more than J.J. Redick's exit. The former handled some of the toughest assignments, arming the Clippers with a wing who could pester point guards through power forwards.
Good luck filling that void now. Gallinari won't do it. Nor will Dekker. Thornwell, Wesley Johnson and DeAndre Liggins are the Clippers' most viable options—which, yikes.
Piling on points will be enough to keep the Clippers in the postseason hunt, but we can't pretend their Paul-less potential transcends doubt. The offense stalled in 2015-16 when Griffin ran solo. Similar struggles will nullify whatever playoff hopes the Clippers currently have.
Brace Yourself For: 34-48
New Orleans Pelicans
B/R's Projection: 37-45
ESPN's Projection: 41-41
Mixed reviews are enveloping the New Orleans Pelicans. They have two top-15 players in DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, the latter of which remains in line for top-five status, but they're essentially viewed as a lottery lock.
How could they feasibly be worse than that?
By discovering the playoffs are a day-dreamer's errand before the February trade deadline.
Dip far enough outside the West's postseason picture, and the Pelicans have to explore the market for Cousins. They don't have a choice. He's a free agent at season's end, and giving him his first taste of playoff basketball is their best shot at keeping him—aside from the fifth-year lollipop they can offer in contract talks.
Forfeit that selling point, and they'll have to explore contingencies, most of which should include capitalizing on Cousins' midseason value and stripping the roster of enough excess salary to stage another impromptu reset around Davis during free agency.
Sticking out the season no matter what is of course an option—and perhaps the likeliest one. But complacency doesn't safeguard the Pelicans against whiffing on modest-to-pessimistic expectations.
Solomon Hill's torn hamstring complicates the wing rotation. New Orleans was short on talent to begin with and now counts the undersized Tony Allen and E'Twaun Moore, along with Darius Miller, as its best small-forward candidates.
The backcourt situation might be fine. Jrue Holiday will shoot better than 30.4 percent on spot-up triples, Rajon Rondo is putting down 39.2 percent of his long balls since 2014-15, and Ian Clark is a ridiculously elusive off-ball slasher. Unwavering optimists are kidding themselves, though, if they think this Clark-Holiday-Rondo dynamic isn't more combustible than foolproof.
Leaning on a pair of superstars eases some of the concern. High-end talent tends to figure things out, and during the final 10 appearances for the Cousins-Davis duo, the Pelicans outscored opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions.
Ten-game samplings are nothing—especially later in the season. Cousins and Davis are dominant, and poaching assistant coach Chris Finch from the Nuggets will help maximize their marriage. But the Pelicans are still going against the grain with their Twin Towers approach. Most of the league is getting smaller; they're running bigger.
Mixed with all the other question marks, this dyad doesn't inject enough guaranteed returns to ensure New Orleans builds off last season's 34-win letdown.
Brace Yourself For: 33-49
B/R's Projection: 40-42
ESPN's Projection: 37-45
Most 28-win squads don't openly look ahead to the following season with the playoffs in their sights. The Philadelphia 76ers are different. Joel Embiid has been thinking about the postseason since his team "improved" to 10-25 this past January, and that ambitious spirit has carried over into the summer, infecting some of his teammates.
"I am serious when I say that," Markelle Fultz said at his introductory press conference in June, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "That is not just me talking because I am a player. I really think that we can be a [playoff team]."
"As these guys get older and get more experience, I think there's an opportunity to make a leap and really be one of the elite teams not only in the East but in the NBA," Redick told Alex Kennedy on the HoopsHype Podcast in August (via CSN Philly's Enrico Campitelli)."
Aiming for the postseason is not an unreasonable goal—not in the Eastern Conference, not when the Sixers posted a better net rating (plus-3.2) than the Celtics (plus-3.1) with Embiid, and not when they have a Big Three-in training.
Pump the brakes for a minute, however, and you'll find cracks in the idealism. Embiid, Fultz and Ben Simmons have 31 NBA appearances between them. Simmons missed his entire rookie campaign with a foot injury. Embiid has been an absentee player for nearly 90 percent of his career.
Assuming everyone remains healthy, the Sixers still need their talent to jell. Incorporating the ball-dominant Fultz and Simmons with Embiid will take a delicate balance and major off-ball strides from the former two.
Take away novelty, albeit helpful, veterans like Johnson, Redick and Jerryd Bayless, and Philly remains unproven. Nik Stauskas has appeared in more games than any other core piece (226). Think about that.
A playoff berth is totally on the table. But so, too, is another year of transition—one that, as it plays out, could find the Sixers failing to keep up with the Eastern Conference bottom-feeders they're supposed to have left in the rearview.
Brace Yourself For: 30-52
B/R's Projection: 48-34
ESPN's Projection: 47-35
Earmarking the Toronto Raptors for a top-four playoff seed is hardly an egregious projection. They're bringing back their three best players—DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry—and C.J. Miles' swiss-army-knife fit could not be more perfect.
Still, Toronto's Big Three(?) is returning at the expense of safety nets.
Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright will duke it out for minutes behind Lowry with Cory Joseph, one of the NBA's best backups, playing in Indiana. Norman Powell now has to complete the breakout the Raptors have been waiting on with DeMarre Carroll in Brooklyn and P.J. Tucker in Houston. If he doesn't, they'll be forced to depend heavily on rookie OG Anunoby.
Patrick Patterson posted the best combined plus-minus for Toronto over the past two seasons. He unlocked devastating switch-everything units when lining up as a small-ball 5. He paired nicely with pretty much every single big on the roster.
He is now in Oklahoma City.
Some of the Raptors' five-man arrangements will be superior to what they deployed last season. The Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Miles-Ibaka quintet touts infinite offensive oomph with the possibility of a defensive pulse.
But the cupboard isn't as well-stocked from top to bottom. They have too many bigs, which ties a lion's share of Ibaka's minutes to the 4, when he's best suited at the 5. Hiding DeRozan on defense becomes exponentially harder after trading in Carroll, Joseph, Tucker and Patterson for Miles and more of Powell.
Worst of all, the most versatile lineups no longer feature a fidgety big like Patterson. Not one of Ibaka, Lucas Noguiera or Pascal Siakam is expertly qualified to complement Jonas Valanciunas, and small-ball arrangements won't have the same jumpy presence in the middle.
Maybe the Raptors hit on everything: Lowry's health, second-string point guard production, frontcourt switch-a-tude, DeRozan's three-point touch, Powell's progression, wing depth—all of it. They'll flirt with 50-plus victories and measurable improvement if they do.
More so than any other team on this list, Toronto's 2017-18 campaign could go either way. It's the threat of the less-flattering direction that's so uncomfortable.
Everything can break as expected, for both better and worse, and the Raptors could relinquish ground to the Cavaliers, Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards, dropping out of the race for a top-four postseason slot.
Brace Yourself For: 42-40