Predicting Which NBA Teams Will Have Biggest Win Increases in 2016-17
The NBA may sometimes seem like a league in which parity is hard to find and the haves hold seemingly insurmountable advantages over the have-nots.
There's a certain truth to that, but it's not as simple as it sounds. Even if the league's elites stay stable, there's still substantial movement among the rank and file behind them.
That's what adds excitement and optimism surrounding every offseason. Fortunes can and do change over a single summer, as roster moves, player development and a welcome return to health can alter an organization's outlook.
The resulting win spikes can be dramatic. Eight teams enjoyed double-digit win increases during the 2015-16 campaign. The two seasons prior, there were seven and five, respectively.
Our crystal ball pegs 2016-17 with six clubs poised to make 10-plus-win leaps. This metric admittedly skews toward bottom-feeders, since they have the most room to grow. But teams from all corners of the hoops landscape have massive opportunities ahead of them.
Player movement, prospect maturation and 2015-16 statistical trends all helped shape these projections. The six clubs are presented in ascending order by the sizes of their anticipated win increases.
2015-16 Record: 33-49
Projected 2016-17 Record: 40-42
The Denver Nuggets don't have the star power to register prominently on the hoops radar, but they've quietly assembled one of the league's better collections of young talent. The backcourt rotation runs heavy on recent first-round picks—led by Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris—while the center spot belongs to hidden gems Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic.
Denver might need a top-tier veteran to fully unleash its potential—which explains this summer's Dwyane Wade pursuit—and this roster looks ripe for a trade. But barring injury, the current core is strong enough to make a push for 40 victories.
Los Angeles Lakers
2015-16 Record: 17-65
Projected 2016-17 Record: 25-57
After failing to find any quick-fix options, the Los Angeles Lakers have appeared to embrace a patient beginning to the post-Kobe Bryant era. They've placed several big bets on upside, spending consecutive No. 2 picks on D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram while giving Luke Walton $25 million for his first crack as a head coach.
This strategy should pay major dividends down the line. If this core matures together, LA could become a perennial power. But this season looks like a baby-steps portion of the process. The Lakers will snap their three-year streak of setting franchise records in losses, but they'll top out around 25 victories.
2015-16 Record: 35-47
Projected 2016-17 Record: 43-39
The Orlando Magic saw their first notable spike of the post-Dwight Howard era last season, adding 10 wins to the previous year's total. They're hoping for at least a similar surge in 2016-17. Everything about Orlando's offseason screams "win right now"—Frank Vogel's hiring, trading for Serge Ibaka and investing $116 million in Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin.
In a vacuum, the Magic have an intriguing mix of prospects and proven commodities. But it's hard to see how the pieces mesh. There are more frontcourt players than openings, which means either some vets get paid to sit or some youth gets lost in the shuffle. The Magic have the individual talent to win 45-plus games, but the roster's awkward fit will leave the final victory tally just shy of that mark.
New York Knicks
2015-16 Record: 32-50
Projected 2016-17 Record: 42-40
"The Knicks seemingly came into this offseason hellbent on trying to put together a team that could be a title contender in 2011, as opposed to 2017," Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote.
The criticism, while dramatic, is fair.
The Knicks paid a heavy premium to trade for Derrick Rose—the former MVP who hasn't been the same since tearing his ACL in 2012. New York gave $72 million to Joakim Noah—a 31-year-old who's missed at least 15 games during three of the past four seasons. The team then rounded out its starting lineup with 30-year-old Courtney Lee and bet $5 million on Brandon Jennings' ability to fully recover from a torn Achilles.
That's a narrow-minded vision for a franchise in possession of a 20-year-old unicorn like Kristaps Porzingis. But the Knicks heard 32-year-old All-Star Carmelo Anthony's ticking biological clock and decided they needed to respond with urgency.
This does little, if anything, to move the long-term needle favorably. But there should be some relief on the immediate horizon. The overall talent level has raised considerably since the completion of New York's dismal 32-50 season.
If the Knicks stay close to healthy, they could have both 45 wins and a playoff berth in sight. Lee's low-maintenance, floor-spacing offense should mesh well alongside Porzingis and Anthony, while Rose's penetration game and Noah's passing could enhance New York's most potent weapons. New head coach Jeff Hornacek has much more to work with than his predecessors did.
Many may still have preferred patience and player development, but at least the Knicks carry some obvious leap potential into the upcoming campaign.
2015-16 Record: 40-42
Projected 2016-17 Record: 50-32
Some teams hint at an impending breakout. The Jazz won 40 games last season without health or experience. If they get both this time around, they have all but guaranteed theirs.
Despite playing all of last season without Dante Exum and seeing Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks lose a combined 92 games to injury, the Jazz still increased their win total while posting a top-10 point differential.
Their roster offers one chance of internal development after the other, as the returning rotation is almost entirely 26-and-under. By not rushing their rebuild, the Jazz have organically grown a playoff-ready collection of length, versatility and defensive nastiness.
And Utah somehow supported that nucleus with reasonably priced veterans acquired during a summer otherwise defined by ludicrous spending. As Michael Pina wrote for Vice Sports, Utah's drafting and sage investing have constructed a potential power built for any style:
They're big enough to turn the paint into a steel cage match and deep enough to go small and switch everything on the outside. Last year's team was sparky and intermittently scary, and they've kept their core intact while adding George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw—savvy veterans with real playoff experience who fill areas of need.
Hill's arrival allows the upside-rich Exum to grow at his own pace without stalling Utah's progress. Johnson gives this group another half-court scoring option, which should increase the potency of Burks, Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood. Favors and Gobert are as formidable a frontcourt pairing as there is, and Diaw and Trey Lyles support that physicality with playmaking and floor spacing.
2015-16 Record: 29-53
Projected 2016-17 Record: 40-42
Building a perennial powerhouse from the ground up is a 98 percent guts, 2 percent glory endeavor for nearly all of its construction phase. However, once the cornerstones are set, the possibilities seem endless.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are sort of stuck in the middle here. They're not quite ready to launch into the elite ranks, but they're close enough to frighten the league's ruling parties. Their roster features the last two Rookie of the Year winners (Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins), and their future is now in the hands of a former Coach of the Year (Tom Thibodeau).
The Timberwolves sported the league's fifth-worst record last season, yet their potential was obvious even then. Their prospect-rich, most common five-man lineup tallied a plus-3.9 net efficiency rating together, which would have ranked eighth among team ratings. They were also one of only two teams to claim a road victory over the 73-win Golden State Warriors.
Plus, Minnesota's outlook has only brightened since the summer started. Thibodeau brings a formidable track record and the potential fix for the Wolves' 27th-ranked defense. No. 5 pick Kris Dunn gives this group an embarrassment-of-riches feel, while veterans Brandon Rush and Cole Aldrich add reliability to the reserve unit.
"We are young, we're gonna be playing hard, we're going up and down, we're gonna be all over the place on defense," Wiggins told NBA TV. "I feel like we're gonna be a nightmare to play."
The development of Towns and Wiggins alone could push Minnesota near the 40-win threshold. Add in the roster's maturation around them, Thibodeau's leadership and the chance to upgrade any problem area by dealing a backcourt piece, and these pups should at least challenge for a playoff spot.
2015-16 Record: 48-34
Projected 2016-17 Record: 59-23
The Boston Celtics' crystal ball has a fun-house mirror feel to it. The picture is too blurry to fully decipher, but it's clearly bigger and scarier than its present form.
The Shamrocks nearly doubled their win total over the past two seasons—from 25 in 2013-14 to 48 in 2015-16—and still haven't come close to exhausting their growth potential. Not only did they scratch their itch for a star by snagging Al Horford, but they also managed to add a top-tier talent without disrupting overall balance.
If head coach Brad Stevens sculpted his ideal big man, it would look an awful lot like Horford.
"Horford has three-point range, passes better than most bigs, doesn't need the ball in his hands to make an impact and polices the paint," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote. "He is equal parts superstar and complement."
Horford elevates players around him, and this young supporting cast was already poised to develop on its own. Boston returns most of its key contributors from last season's group that boasted a top-five defense and top-10 net efficiency. Plus, it found seven new puzzle pieces at the draft, including No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown.
Between Horford's impact and the growth of this core—including Stevens, who's only 39 and entering his fourth NBA season—the Celtics might have 60-win potential. And with arguably the league's best asset collection, they're ready to pounce if/when a superstar hits the trade market.
2015-16 Record: 42-40
Projected 2016-17 Record: 55-27
Mike Conley had 153 million reasons to re-sign with the Memphis Grizzlies. But the basketball gods may have blocked his path out of the grit-and-grind capital of the world long before he transformed from "most underrated" to "highest paid of all time."
The Grizzlies couldn't withstand another hit—not after the barrage of blows they took during the 2015-16 season. They redefined the term "patchwork roster," suiting up an NBA-record 28 different players.
Simply avoiding the injury bug could skyrocket the team's win total. They managed just 42 last year but averaged 53.7 over the three previous seasons with many of the same pieces. And this team has reasons to aim above its previous ceiling. The Grizzlies wagered $94 million on Chandler Parsons being the three-point sniping, versatile, wing scorer they've needed for a while.
"This is the guy we've been seeking for a number of years," Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "He fits the description for that perimeter star to a 'T' that we've been searching so aggressively for for so many years."
The full-strength Grizzlies will be a defensive menace once again, and they may finally have the offensive firepower to match.
Parsons, when healthy, is an across-the-board contributor. New head coach David Fizdale boasts a strong X's and O's record as an assistant. Rookies Wade Baldwin IV (17th pick) and Deyonta Davis (31st) have the talent to outperform their draft positions.
2015-16 Record: 10-72
Projected 2016-17 Record: 26-56
The Philadelphia 76ers have moved on from their outright loss-column process. Rather than prioritizing ping-pong balls and draft-lottery odds, the Sixers will spend their 2016-17 campaign pursuing honest-to-goodness victories.
Former general manager Sam Hinkie and his radical rebuilding plan are gone, but the fruits of his labor should sprout a return to respectability—or something close to it. All of his lottery winnings presumably will be present this season. We've already heard Joel Embiid is healthy, Jahlil Okafor is happy and Dario Saric is coming.
Oh, and No. 1 pick Ben Simmons is quite possibly a once-in-a-generation talent.
"He's like a mini-LeBron," Chicago Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine said, per Ohm Youngmisuk and Nick Friedell of ESPN.com. "LeBron's probably top 10 [all time], so if he's a mini-LeBron, that's saying a lot."
Does that mean this coming year will vindicate and validate Philly's unsightly tank jobs? Probably not. So many of these pieces are unproven, and it's unclear how many can fit on the same court.
But the Sixers won't repeat last season's 10-win performance, or come close to it. For one, it's tough to be that bad. By year's end, Philly had tallied the second-most losses and third-lowest winning percentage of all time.
Beyond that, Simmons' transcendent court vision could bring this roster together, and those who still don't fit can be shipped out for players who will. Philly also added experience and shooting to the perimeter (Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson), so the bigs will have more room to breathe.
It's hard to envision a playoff path, but Philly shouldn't have trouble doubling its victories.