Predicting Which NBA Teams Will See Biggest Wins Increase in 2017-18

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 23, 2017

Predicting Which NBA Teams Will See Biggest Wins Increase in 2017-18

0 of 8

    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    The 2017-18 NBA season will be littered with risers and fallers. But since our cup is a good three-quarters full, we're focusing only on the former.

    Stocks can spike for any number of reasons, and these eight teams reflect that variety. Each is pegged for at least a five-win improvement, a cutoff the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers came the next closest to surpassing.

    Some follow the more traditional model of developing young talent and supplementing the incumbents through trades and free agency. For others, their previous campaigns were such a mess that even a modest improvement would be enough to clear our five-victory hurdle.

    No matter the method, these eight teams are ready to see the biggest increases in the win column during the 2017-18 campaign.  

New Orleans Pelicans

1 of 8

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 34-48

    Projected 2017-18 Record: 39-43

    Projected Win Increase: Five

    The New Orleans Pelicans took a literally massive risk in trying to combat the small-ball NBA with 6'10" Anthony Davis and 6'11" DeMarcus Cousins sharing a throwback frontcourt. Oh, and Boogie's deal is up at year's end, so if things head south, they could be the first playoff hopeful to reach for the detonation button.

    But they've seen success from their super-sized All-Star collection before. In the 394 minutes Cousins and Davis shared last season, New Orleans outscored opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions (which would have ranked ninth overall).

    "I do believe we've got a chance to basically change the style of play in the league," Cousins said, per Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer. "I think we've got a unique setup going here, something that hasn't been seen in a while. AD and I having the skill set we have, that's definitely a first-time thing."

    It's (hopefully) unclear what the Pelicans have put around them. (If the answer is already clear, it isn't good.) But New Orleans will go into a lot of games with the best two players on the floor. Talent often finds a way to make it work in the Association, and that's the hope in the Big Easy.

    Our crystal ball sees the Pelicans' anemic perimeter collection blocking a dramatic rise up the standings. But with last season setting such a low bar, a five-win improvement is in the cards.

Brooklyn Nets

2 of 8

    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    2016-17 Record: 20-62

    Projected 2017-18 Record: 26-56

    Projected Win Increase: Six

    Remember the tank-tastic 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers? The ones who drafted an already-injured Joel Embiid and were led in scoring by Tony Wroten? Well, they were just two wins worse than last season's Brooklyn Nets.

    Brooklyn would almost have to try to be that abysmal again. But this isn't just a there's-nowhere-to-go-but-up selection. The Nets have found a way to upgrade their roster on multiple fronts, a huge credit to general manager Sean Marks given the dearth of assets he inherited.

    D'Angelo Russell packs a wicked scoring punch for a 21-year-old. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a tireless worker and pesky defender. Rookie big man Jarrett Allen is impossibly long (6'10" with a 7'5 ¼" wingspan). Allen Crabbe has the three ball head coach Kenny Atkinson's offense needs to function. Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie bring their own blends of off-the-dribble verve.

    It's not an amazing collection, but it doesn't have to be. Not when the Nets could lose 68 percent of their games and still take a six-win step forward. While other cellar-dwellers race to the bottom ahead of oncoming draft lottery changes, Brooklyn can push its young players to chase as many victories as possible.

    "Because the Nets don't have control of their pick for one final year because of that never-ending Celtics deal, they...have no reason not to try to win every game next season," Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote. "That, along with the upgraded talent pool, could have the Nets in a position to make that final pick they give away a less valuable one than was expected."

Los Angeles Lakers

3 of 8

    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 26-56

    Projected 2017-18 Record: 32-50

    Projected Win Increase: Six

    Last season's Los Angeles Lakers were no different than the previous three iterations—an unmitigated mess. This year's group won't be playoff-bound either, so certain sections of the Purple and Gold faithful might feel another lost campaign is evident.

    It isn't. This bunch has things those groups didn't—direction, excitement and, most importantly, all-eyes-on-him polarizing prospect Lonzo Ball.

    Over the span of two outings (the first of his pro career, mind you), Ball went from being a bust to a savior. That's partly due to his dramatically different box scores—from three points and four assists to 29 points, 11 boards and nine helpers—but it's more a reflection of his unique existence in the L.A. fishbowl.

    "I'm used to it," Ball said after his bounce-back performance, per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. "I know everybody's going to say everything game by game."

    While Ball's stats will continue to fluctuate, he's still a difference-maker for the Lakers. His outlet passes and pinpoint deliveries put pep in this offense's step, and there's plenty of scoring to extract from Brook Lopez, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Kuzma. The defense will remain among the league's worst, but there will be enough fireworks the other way to give L.A. its best record in five years.

Charlotte Hornets

4 of 8

    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 36-46

    Projected 2017-18 Record: 42-40

    Projected Win Increase: Six

    The Charlotte Hornets added reinforcements to a roster that wasn't as bad as its record last season. If they don't take a significant step forward, something will have went horribly wrong.

    The Hornets' 2016-17 win total lagged behind their talent level. Despite posting the 12th-highest net efficiency rating (plus-0.3), they finished 20th in victories. They were overly reliant on Kemba Walker's offensive creativity, dreadful in close contests (0-9 in outings decided by three points or less) and doomed by Cody Zeller's absence (3-17 without him).

    Charlotte is overdue for late-game breaks, which would help repair the record. The Hornets also took some control over their course correction. They added some needed scoring punch on draft night with Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon. They took a low-risk gamble on former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams. They got Dwight Howard for almost nothing and might have him positioned for a resurgence.

    "He'll play for Michael Jordan, whom he wants to impress," Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer wrote. "He'll play for head coach Steve Clifford. Their relationship is solid; Clifford twice coached him as assistant. He'll also play for his legacy. Find me a once great player [who] wants to finish his career as a temp."

    Losing Nicolas Batum to an elbow tear is tough, but assuming the do-it-all forward returns OK, Charlotte can still engineer its mini-comeback. As long as Walker maintains his All-Star level, he'll get the Hornets back on track.

Denver Nuggets

5 of 8

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 40-42

    Projected 2017-18 Record: 47-35

    Projected Win Increase: Seven

    Last season, Nikola Jokic emerged as the central hub of a top-five offense. Meanwhile, Paul Millsap continued his run as one of the Association's most underrated players, booking his fourth consecutive All-Star appearance and posting a top-15 real plus-minus, per ESPN.com.

    The two uber-talented bigs now occupy the same frontcourt. Care to guess why we're bullish about the Denver Nuggets?

    "The things that he's able to do I think will help my game," Millsap said of Jokic, per Gina Mizell of the Denver Post. "And I think the things that I'm able to do and the experience I have, I think I'll be able to help his game."

    Millsap does a little of everything on both ends of the court. Jokic possesses every possible offensive weapon in his arsenal. There's so much to like about this pairing, particularly when it's supported by such a deep collection of role players.

    The Nuggets will sabotage their launch if they defend like last season (29th in efficiency). But the offense is so explosive that even an average defense could push Denver into a top-five seed out West. Between Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley and Emmanuel Mudiay, the backcourt doesn't lack for upside. And the crowded frontcourt provides a vast array of skill sets—and trade chips to address any deficiencies.

Oklahoma City Thunder

6 of 8

    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    2016-17 Record: 47-35

    Projected 2017-18 Record: 54-28

    Projected Win Increase: Seven

    It seems any time All-Stars join forces, concerns are raised over whether there are enough touches to appease them. But the worries are louder than usual for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are teaming up three players with top-20 usage percentages from last seasonRussell Westbrook (first), Carmelo Anthony (17th) and Paul George (20th).

    But you won't hear any alarms sounded inside OKC's locker room. When one star looks at the others, he doesn't see a barricade to stats but rather a bridge to success.

    "I'm not worried about shots, neither are those two guys," George said, per Cliff Brunt of the Associated Press. "We want to win, and that's it."

    OKC won more than expected last season, when Westbrook collected MVP honors and served an Oscar Robertson-sized helping of triple-doubles. But now the Brodie has assistance. George has been a 23-plus-point scorer the last two years and is a three-time All-Defensive selection. Anthony owns a top-20 career scoring average. Even if adjustments are needed, the combined skill level is astounding.

    The deals for George and Anthony—each deeply discounted—did cut into some of OKC's depth. The Thunder are still much better off now, but they'll need steady contributions from Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines and Patrick Patterson to substantially swell the win column.

Philadelphia 76ers

7 of 8

    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    2016-17 Record: 28-54

    Projected 2017-18 Record: 39-43

    Projected Win Increase: 11

    The stench from four years of willful losing still wafts through the City of Brotherly Love, but for the first time in what feels like forever the Philadelphia 76ers can smell optimism—all 7'0" and 250 pounds of him.

    He would be Joel Embiid, the top prospect on a team featuring the last two No. 1 picks. Injuries limited him to just 31 appearances over his first three seasons, andmuch to his chagrin—they still restrict his exposure. But he's a franchise-changer when he steps inside the lines, a modernized version of Hakeem Olajuwon.

    "He's so uniquely gifted," Sixers coach Brett Brown said before the season, per Andrew Sharp of Sports Illustrated. "... The package is very, very special. To think what he has done in only 31 games, it's dizzying. He has no right to have this profile. He has no right to be this good after only 31 games. Yet he is."

    Embiid hasn't performed to his standards just yet, which sounds ridiculous when his per-36 marks through two outings are 19.0 points, 17.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.0 blocks. But once he rights his 35.5 field-goal percentage, his ceiling is the highest plane of basketball existence.

    Tack on Ben Simmons' torrid start (15.7 points, 10.3 boards and 6.0 helpers), the spacing created by Robert Covington (55.6 three-point percentage) and J.J. Redick (47.1), and the sky-high potential of Markelle Fultz, and Philly has a shot to be this season's biggest leaper. But since the Sixers remain red-flagged by health concerns and inexperience, they slot into our No. 2 spot.

Minnesota Timberwolves

8 of 8

    David Sherman/Getty Images

    2016-17 Record: 31-51

    Projected 2017-18 Record: 47-35

    Projected Win Increase: 16

    The Minnesota Timberwolves are pups no more. Between the internal maturations of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and the external additions of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford, the Wolves have catapulted themselves ahead of all this campaign's up-and-comers.

    After an opening-night road loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Timberwolves have conquered the Utah Jazz's ferocious defense and toppled the Thunder's star-studded attack. If Wiggins continues cashing threes (42.1 percent), Towns keeps challenging for the best-center crown and Butler settles in at the offensive end, Minnesota could muscle its way into 50-win territory.

    "This is the best team we've had since I've been here...and the best team Minnesota's had in a very long time," Wiggins said, per Jace Frederick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "So I think everyone's excited, because we have big things planned for this year."

    The offense was ready to contend last season, ranked 10th in efficiency and buoyed by top-20 scoring efforts from Towns (25.1 points per game, 12th) and Wiggins (23.6, 16th). But the defense was overly generous (26th in efficiency), which is where Tom Thibodeau disciples Butler and Gibson stand to leave their biggest imprint.

    There are on-paper concerns with perimeter shooting and depth, but none ring loud enough to dim the Wolves' outlook. This season's top turnaround is theirs to lose.

         

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.