Predicting the NBA's Biggest Win-Total Increases for 2016-17
Is your favorite NBA team primed to boost its win total significantly during the 2016-17 season?
If so, get excited—just not too excited.
More victories are never a bad thing. After all, if your team is neither trying to win nor partying with Sam Hinkie, there's no point in playing the games. But the most drastic upticks are typically reserved for those teams with the most room to grow.
The Golden State Warriors, for example, can only improve by so much. They will not win 95 games during an 82-tilt regular season. Thus, it's easier to transition from bad to better-than-bad.
Not all cases follow this formula. Offseason additions help some rosters bust out of the middle and make a meaningful jump into the postseason discussion. Others saw a predicted leap get deferred last year and might now be entering fringe title contention.
Next season's crop of win-column hopefuls fit under diverse umbrellas. There isn't a bona fide contender in the bunch, but for the most part, they're more than a group of crappy teams that are capitalizing on the low bar set by last season's cruddiness.
Notable Eastern Conference Exclusions
After winning 41 games in 2014-15, the Milwaukee Bucks collected only 33 with largely the same core last season. Jabari Parker is another year polished, Khris Middleton is the ideal wing, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is an all-galaxy stat-stuffer. You can easily see Milwaukee building upon its swagger from two campaigns ago.
Here's the thing: It's also possible the real Bucks revealed themselves last season.
Free-agent acquisitions Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic are good spacing buffers, but they do little to recapture this team's previous defensive identity. That will remain in the wind so long as Greg Monroe is logging heavy minutes in the middle.
Slotting Antetokounmpo at point guard or as the primary ball-handler isn't some offensive panacea, either. He averaged 19.1 points on 51.4 percent shooting and 7.3 assists during 23 appearances after Michael Carter-Williams was shelved. Milwaukee still ranked 19th in offensive efficiency and went 9-14 during that time.
Since it's not clear these Bucks can be a net plus on either end of the floor, a prospective jump is a toss-up.
New York Knicks
On paper, the New York Knicks look like title contenders...from 2011.
Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose are past their primes, and Carmelo Anthony, at 32, isn't far behind. Kristaps Porzingis is the remedy to any "well, actually" truth-tellers, but much of his development is predicated upon Rose becoming a pass-first point guard in a contract year.
New York can't even count on everyone being healthy and available. Brandon Jennings is still working his way back from an Achilles injury. Lance Thomas missed 23 games last season with knee troubles. Rose hasn't cracked 70 appearances since 2010-11. Noah has missed 86 games over the last four seasons.
The pending civil lawsuit against Rose that claims he and two friends sexually assaulted a former girlfriend of his comes into play as well. The trial is slated to start on Oct. 4 and is expected to last between eight and 10 days, per Daniel Werly of The White Bronco.
That timeline has Rose missing around three preseason games, but the proceedings won't end with the outcome. What if the ensuing media coverage becomes a distraction for him—not that this is by any means the leading concern of the case, but we are analyzing basketball here—and the rest of the team? What if he's subjected to disciplinary action from the Knicks or NBA that takes him off the court?
Plenty of things, both on and off the floor, could backfire in New York. And even if they don't, perfect circumstances won't guarantee a substantial increase over last year's 32 wins.
Notable Western Conference Exclusions
New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis will enter 2016-17 free of restrictions, which is the good news after last year's 30-win letdown. Alas, the New Orleans Pelicans remain wild cards.
Tyreke Evans won't be ready to start the season after having three right knee procedures in less than 12 months. And Jrue Holiday will be out indefinitely as he tends to his wife, who must have a brain tumor removed once she gives birth to their first child.
With those two out, there aren't many proven performers in New Orleans. No one knows what to expect from Omer Asik, while both Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon bolted for the Houston Rockets. The Pelicans, meanwhile, made a slew of calculated gambles in free agency with the signings of Langston Galloway, Solomon Hill, Terrence Jones, E'Twaun Moore and Lance Stephenson.
This team could be good, exceeding last year's victory tally by five or slightly more. But it's also one Davis injury/slump/return to the mother ship away from basement-level lottery contention.
The Phoenix Suns have the potential to be a ridiculously fun team. Eric Bledsoe-Brandon Knight-Devin Booker combinations should pump in points with obscene volume, and the offensive possibilities are even more vast whenever Jared Dudley plays the 4.
But this group has a clear ceiling, one that's not necessarily much higher than the 23 games it won in 2015-16.
Bledsoe and Knight don't add 10 wins just by being healthy. They have yet to master playing together and must now adjust to Booker's emergence. It's still unclear where T.J. Warren fits in. Is he really a 3? Starter or second-unit spark plug?
Phoenix's frontcourt rotation is equally perplexing. Tyson Chandler, going on 34, is out of place but needs playing time. Between him and Alex Len, the center rotation is on lock. Rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss will somehow blend into all this, and the learning curve for each is steep.
Most damningly, the Suns won't survive on defense. They ranked 26th in points allowed per 100 possessions last season and don't have the personnel to improve much, if at all. Chriss may end up being their best rim protector after accounting for Chandler's probable decline.
Eclipsing the 30-win plateau is totally possible. Assuming anything further is too ambitious.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Record in 2015-16: 17-65
Predicted Win Increase: 8
As one of last season's bottom-feeders, the Los Angeles Lakers are in prime position to raise their win total all the way to...25. There is a lot to like about their situation, something that couldn't be said with a straight face in 2015-16.
Kobe Bryant's farewell tour, and the inordinate number of possessions it wasted, is no more. New head coach Luke Walton is an upgrade over Byron Scott—even when he's not coaching three All-Stars. Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell are one year deeper into their developments—Julius Randle, too. Adding Luol Deng gives the Lakers an established asset on both sides of the ball.
Louis Williams can still score. Nick Young doesn't need to play. If Timofey Mozgov is worth half his $16 million salary, he's better than anyone this team plugged in the middle last year.
And then there's rookie Brandon Ingram, the Lakers' most important offseason acquisition.
First-year players are often downplayed because of the learning curve they face, but Ingram's three-and-D skill set fits neatly into the NBA landscape. He enters the league as just the second freshman since 1993-94 to total at least 600 points, 40 steals and 45 blocks while shooting 40 percent from the outside. His company? Kevin Durant.
All of these improvements won't make the Lakers a playoff squad. They are too inexperienced at most positions, and their defense figures to be awful. But tacking on another eight or so wins to last year's franchise-worst total shouldn't be a problem.
4. Denver Nuggets
Record in 2015-16: 33-49
Predicted Win Increase: 10
"Denver will hang tough with most squads and upset a number of contenders, showing off an improved defense and an offense capable of exploding against the right matchups," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote. "Above all else, it'll look the part of a more confident squad that expects victories."
A healthy Wilson Chandler (injured all of 2015-16), Danilo Gallinari (29 missed games) and Jusuf Nurkic (50 absences) are like free-agency additions. And Denver picked up three first-round picks in June's prospect pageant, two of whom—Jamal Murray (seventh overall) and Malik Beasley (19th)—could have an immediate impact.
What the Nuggets lack in finished products throughout the rest of the roster, they make up for in depth. Nikola Jokic was the second-best newbie for most of 2015-16 (sorry, Kristaps). Emmanuel Mudiay's rookie season was tough to watch at times, but he refined his outside shooting as the year wore on, and Denver's offense was better (albeit still mediocre) with him running point.
Will Barton and Gary Harris are both coming off breakout seasons. Gallinari set a new career high in scoring (19.5 points per game) and averaged more free-throw attempts per 36 minutes (8.5) than DeMar DeRozan (8.4). Kenneth Faried quietly put together his most efficient season since his rookie crusade.
Head coach Mike Malone has a truck load of different play styles at his fingertips thanks to this everywhere-jam. Big, small, fast, slow—the Nuggets can stack up against whatever. So even without a patented star or a clear-cut rotation, they'll be a matchup nightmare.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record in 2015-16: 29-53
Predicted Win Increase: 12
Some will bristle at the Minnesota Timberwolves "only" boosting their win total by 12, but this is a fair stance.
Head coach/defensive magician/hair-gel connoisseur Tom Thibodeau is a massive upgrade over Sam Mitchell. Karl-Anthony Towns is turning Anthony Davis comparisons into old news. Andrew Wiggins isn't on the LeBron James trajectory, but he averaged 20 points per game on tolerable efficiency last season.
Gorgui Dieng is criminally underrated. Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio make for a backcourt logjam, but it's an epic one. Cole Aldrich is one of the game's stingiest backup centers. Nemanja Bjelica still profiles as a great floor-spacing 4 alongside Towns.
The cherry atop all of this? The Timberwolves' two most-used lineups last season posted the net rating of a playoff team, and their offense hovered around the top 10 of efficiency. Minnesota was already so close to something special, and now it's better. That's easy math.
Still, some concerns remain: Can Thibodeau effectively coach up multiple youngsters at once? Does he have the perimeter personnel to reinvent the Timberwolves' bottom-five defense? Will he, like Mitchell, allow Towns to dabble in three-point shooting? Can Dunn and Rubio coexist, or is a trade coming?
These are genuine issues. And we can't reasonably pencil in the Timberwolves as a postseason contingent until the team addresses them. We can, however, bank on a double-digit win increase.
2. Utah Jazz
Record in 2015-16: 40-42
Predicted Win Increase: 13
Injury bugs are responsible for the Utah Jazz making this list.
Dante Exum sat for the entire season with an ACL tear. Alec Burks mustered just 31 appearances while battling left leg and right knee issues. Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert each missed at least 20 games. There was no coming back from that in time to make a playoff bid—although Utah came pretty damn close.
The Jazz yet again closed the season on a triumphant tear. They ranked third in defensive efficiency once Gobert returned from his sprained MCL, and the offensive efficiency improved as well. Their net rating through those final 48 games was the fifth-best in the Western Conference.
Imagine that: Utah played better than the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and the rec-league version of the Memphis Grizzlies for more than half the season. Each of its four most-used lineups notched net ratings that would have ranked among the NBA's top three.
This is not a fabricated or baseless projection. The Jazz weren't just on the cusp of something special; they were there, just a little bit later than expected.
Now, as they prepare for the return of Burks and Exum, they're also welcoming newcomers Boris Diaw, George Hill and Joe Johnson. This is on top of Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, Raul Neto, Jeff Withey, Shelvin Mack, Favors and Gobert.
Strap in, folks. The Jazz are coming—deeper and healthier—with an eye on a top-four playoff seed.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
Record in 2015-16: 10-72
Predicted Win Increase: 15
It pays to be bad, and last year's Philadelphia 76ers were really bad. They have nowhere to go but up. On top of that, they have more impact players than ever at their disposal.
"Given our experience together, from where we were to where we are now, how can we all not feel a breath of fresh air, a new bounce, a higher level of hope and an excitement that together we haven't experienced for a while," head coach Brett Brown said, per Marc Narducci of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
You can understand Brown's enthusiastic relief: Philly has won 47 games over the last three seasons, in part due to Hinkie's philosophy as president and general manager. Ten teams hit or exceeded 47 victories in 2015-16 alone. The Sixers' most pressing problems now are welcome luxuries compared to what's behind them.
The frontcourt logjam is real. One, maybe both, of Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel has to go. At the same time, the Sixers are opening their doors to first overall pick Ben Simmons, crafty Croatian Dario Saric and the potentially fortune-turning Joel Embiid. They could feasibly have three newbies earn All-Rookie First Team honors.
Certain incumbent players are also underrated. Robert Covington and Hollis Thompson were above-average shooters for some of the worst offensive teams in league history; they will revel in Philly's frontcourt pileup if it means working off Simmons. Richaun Holmes and Jerami Grant do things on defense that make you wish they played for better teams.
There are other new additions to consider, too. Frenchman Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is a blank canvas of potential. Sergio Rodriguez is a point guard the Sixers might actually want to keep for more than a half-minute. Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson don't fit into the big picture, but they add wins now.
Make no mistake, the Sixers are going to be bad. But they'll be a lot less bad than in years past. Surpassing 25 wins is not out of the question—and, in this instance, that's cause for mild-to-immoderate celebration.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.