5 NBA Teams Due for the Biggest Regressions This Season
It's never fun to find out your favorite NBA team is ready to collect fewer wins than the previous season.
Alas, regression is a part of the Association's fabric and thus a necessary topic to discuss with the 2016-17 campaign inching toward tipoff.
Win totals are the focus. We already tackled the biggest increases; the same logic applies here but in reverse: Teams that won more games have more room for slippage, so last year's playoff squads will dominate the conversation. They are uniquely susceptible to drastic declines on the heels of free-agency losses, injuries, roster face-lifts and stylistic shifts.
These drop-offs won't always portend a lottery appearance. Most of the included teams will win enough to remain in the playoff hunt. Relative to last year, though, their regular-season outlook isn't nearly as bright.
Notable Eastern Conference Exclusions
None of us should want any part in forecasting the 2016-17 Charlotte Hornets.
On the one hand, they lost three valuable weapons in Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin, severely compromising their ability to sustain last season's top-10 offensive standing. A backup backcourt of Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions doesn't inspire much confidence, and the center position is now entrusted to Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller, with a little bit of Roy Hibbert sprinkled in.
On the other hand, head coach Steve Clifford is a defensive savant. The Hornets routinely deploy an effective fortress despite depending on statistical liabilities, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's return is bad news for any opposing offense hoping to chuck threes.
Will Charlotte match last year's 48 victories? Or will the mass departure of offensive talent render the Hornets a .500 team or worse? It could go either way.
Talk about versatility. The Milwaukee Bucks were also categorized as a notable exclusion for the league's biggest risers.
Blame the injury bug for their dual placement. Khris Middleton, the Bucks' second-best player behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, suffered a torn hamstring since we last met and is expected to miss around six months. Middleton is the team's most reliable shooter and can defend three, maybe four, different positions. His absence threatens to torpedo Milwaukee's stock on both ends of the floor.
Rashad Vaughn and the recently acquired Michael Beasley will look to fill this new perimeter void—which, you know, isn't ideal.
Then again, the Bucks are working off a 33-win campaign. Things can't get much worse.
Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson should be healthy; Jabari Parker and Antetokounmpo are another year polished; and the additions of Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic will help with spacing. Milwaukee should be able to tread water without Middleton, if only because it's swimming in a shallow pool.
Notable Western Conference Exclusions
This season's Dallas Mavericks are a chore even for head coach Rick Carlisle, the unofficial winner of the "Coach Who Does the Most with the Least" award for six straight years.
Dallas' highest-paid player, Dirk Nowitzki, is 38. Its second-highest-paid player is "possible-role-player-only" Harrison Barnes. Its third-highest-paid, Wesley Matthews, saw a statistical drop-off last season following an Achilles injury. Its fourth-highest is the absent-prone Andrew Bogut. Deron Williams and Dwight Powell are the team's fifth- and sixth-highest-paid contributors, respectively.
See the problem?
Everything can break right for the Mavericks, and they still may not clear 42 wins. But Carlisle gets the benefit of the doubt. His offensive schemes alone should ensure Dallas doesn't suffer a substantive win regression.
Golden State Warriors
Overestimating the win totals of freshly formed powerhouses is an NBA pastime. The 2010-11 Miami Heat. The 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. The 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers. Not one of them parlayed a fancy new collection of superstars into an immediate world takeover.
Should we expect the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors to be different? When they're trying to integrate two MVP talents, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, into the offense? Knowing that Draymond Green, the Warriors' chief of candor, is lowering the bar himself?
"Everybody is going to grow," he said, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss. "And are you going to with 74 games? To be quite frank with you, I don't want to win 74 games or 75 games. It's brutal."
Golden State's learning curve may not be as steep as those of superpowers from years past. Its main pieces, high-profile though they are, just fit. But reaching 73 wins is a tough act to follow, no matter the circumstances.
Realistically, the Warriors can collect 63 victories, 10 fewer than last year, and still finish atop the Western Conference. And yet, while the threat of regression is real, we must ask ourselves: Will a 73-win core that just added Durant really see its total drop by more than five?
The answer, for now, is a resounding "LOL."
5. Toronto Raptors
Record in 2015-16: 56-26
Predicted Win Decrease: 6
Please hold all profanity-packed reactions until the end.
The Toronto Raptors aren't preparing to plunge down the Eastern Conference's ladder. It will be a genuine shock if they stay healthy and don't earn a top-three playoff seed. But we have to account for their success last year, which, in this case, works against them.
Toronto won nearly 60 games in 2015-16. Sixty. That's straight absurd and due in large part to the career regular-season efforts of a more refined DeMar DeRozan and should-have-received-more-MVP-dap Kyle Lowry. Any decline on their part, however slight, will be felt in the win column.
Even if those downswings never come, the Raptors are in a wee bit of trouble. Their second unit ranked seventh in defensive efficiency, per HoopsStats.com, but is now without Bismack Biyombo. He gets supplanted by rookie Jakob Poeltl, free-agent addition Jared Sullinger and probably a dash of Lucas Nogueira—each of whom fails to match Biyombo's rebounding prowess and shot-blocking volume.
Sophomore Norman Powell figures to get more spin behind DeRozan as well. He impressed as a newbie, but when you factor in perennial question mark Terrence Ross and Poeltl, Toronto's bench mob is far more dependent on youthful projects than most other reigning 50-win squads.
Having a healthy DeMarre Carroll from the jump goes a long way to preserving those 50-win credentials. But where the Raptors went unchallenged in the tier just below the Cleveland Cavaliers, they now have to deal with the Al Horford-led Boston Celtics.
Plus, the East's middle class isn't getting any thinner. Certain teams are in line for evident slumps, but at least three of the Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, New York Knicks and Washington Wizards will vie for noticeably better records—appended competition that should come at the expense of Toronto's win total.
4. Indiana Pacers
Record in 2015-16: 45-37
Predicted Win Decrease: 7
It's time to start rethinking the Indiana Pacers.
The projected starting lineup of Monta Ellis, Paul George, Jeff Teague, Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young has the potential to be fun, but it's hardly an upgrade over last year's setup. The Indiana backcourt is specifically due for a dip, as ESPN.com's Micah Adams and John McTigue wrote in July:
Upon first glance, the three-team trade that brought in Jeff Teague and shipped out George Hill might appear to be a win for the Pacers. Teague is two years younger and is coming off a 2015-16 season in which he averaged more points and assists per game than Hill. But ESPN's Real Plus-Minus (RPM) paints a different picture. In 2015-16, Hill ranked 17th among point guards while Teague ranked 29th. Hill had ranked ahead of Teague in RPM each of the past three seasons.
There isn't a whole lot of defensive upside to an Ellis-Teague coupling, while backups Aaron Brooks and Rodney Stuckey don't profile as premier stoppers. George and Young will be fine, and Turner is already a nuisance when picking up players inside the arc. But the absence of Ian Mahinmi is damning.
No other Pacers player last season saved more points on the defensive end than him (120.62), according to NBA Math. In fact, Indiana's second-most effective performer, Paul George, didn't even prevent half as many (56.73).
Defensive sacrifices must often be made when reinventing an offense, but the Pacers' scoring machine hasn't necessarily been remade for the better. At least two below-average floor-spacers (Ellis and Young) are in the starting lineup, and the roster houses only a few proven spot-up shooters—namely C.J. Miles, George and Teague.
Not even the Pacers' backup brigade headlined by Lavoy Allen, Al Jefferson, Brooks, Miles and Stuckey provides any assurances. They have ditched last year's identity without guaranteeing themselves a new one. Don't be surprised if and when they drop below .500.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Record in 2015-16: 67-15
Predicted Win Decrease: 11
Docking around 11 wins from the San Antonio Spurs feels ignorantly cruel. Sure, they lost Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan, Boban Marjanovic and David West. But they picked up Pau Gasol and have Kawhi Leonard. Also: They're the Spurs. They exist to turn logic inside out and exceed expectations.
Still, San Antonio is entering uncharted territory.
Duncan, while ancient in NBA years, is a defensive loss. Same goes for Diaw; he continues to guard almost every position—versatility the Spurs can only hope to unearth in Kyle Anderson. And neither Dewayne Dedmon nor David Lee brings Marjanovic's or West's defensive girth.
The most any San Antonio lineup played last season without one of Diaw, Duncan, Marjanovic or West was 43 minutes. This group in question—LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Tony Parker, Anderson and Leonard—outscored opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions. But the lack of exposure is unsettling and a common theme.
How will an Aldridge-Gasol frontcourt hold up on defense, particularly when guarding pick-and-rolls? Is Anderson, now in his third year, ready for a much larger role? Will he and Leonard thrive when seeing more time at power forward? Can the Spurs get away with all-bench units that see Dedmon and Lee sharing the court?
And then there's the individual regressions to consider. Manu Ginobili is 39. Green failed to shoot 30 percent from three-point range in almost half of his regular-season appearances. Parker, 34, won't have the advantage at his position on most nights.
These are legitimate concerns—more than the Spurs have faced in any single season over the past 19 years. So while they will still challenge for the West's No. 2 seed, it's unrealistic to expect even a quasi-encore to last year's franchise-best performance.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record in 2015-16: 55-27
Predicted Win Decrease: 12
It would take most franchises years to recover from the departure of a player such as Durant. The Oklahoma City Thunder, of course, aren't most franchises. They have Russell Westbrook, another top-five superstar capable of ferrying an entire team's postseason hopes.
But they don't have much else—not compared to years past.
Steven Adams is a defensive dynamo. Ersan Ilyasova is a fine floor-spacing alternative to Serge Ibaka. Enes Kanter can be a phenomenal rebounder and scorer. Victor Oladipo has a fringe-star ceiling. Oklahoma City is nevertheless speeding toward a significant devolution.
The offensive repercussions alone of losing Durant and Ibaka are enough to make head coach Billy Donovan cringe. Westbrook will go bananas, because that's what he does, but the Thunder ranked second in offensive efficiency last season, pumping in 109.9 points per 100 possessions. They should struggle to rival that mark, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explained:
Even with Westbrook on the court, the lack of shooting could be fatal. For example, the Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll sounds fantastic on paper, but try to imagine how it's going to work when every guard goes under the screen and dares Russ to pull up for mid-range jumpers. Then envision a bogged-down lane as every help defender crashes in to stop Adams, begging for kickouts to [Andre] Roberson or Oladipo.
Oklahoma City did tally 109.5 points per 100 possessions last year during the 175 minutes Westbrook played without Durant and Ibaka and was similarly efficient after Durant played his last game in 2014-15, according to NBAWowy.com. Is that sustainable for an entire season? And are one-sided players such as Kanter (offense) and Roberson (defense) as valuable without two MVP candidates running the show?
Solo Westbrook and a burgeoning Adams should keep the Thunder within striking distance of a playoff berth. But they could be a net minus at every other position on most nights, and their bench isn't especially deep or experienced. Their chances of sniffing 45 wins look slim.
1. Miami Heat
Record in 2015-16: 48-34
Predicted Win Decrease: 14
So much for the Miami Heat remaining an imminent threat in the Eastern Conference following Dwyane Wade's exit.
Josh Richardson is dealing with a torn MCL in his right knee and may not be available to start the season, per the Miami Herald's Ethan J. Skolnick. That means a lot more of Dion Waiters, which is, frankly, terrifying.
On top of that, it sounds like Chris Bosh's time in Miami is over.
As team president Pat Riley said when asked if the Heat are still planning for Bosh's return, per the Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman: "We are not. I think Chris is still open-minded. But we are not working toward his return."
Remove Bosh from the equation, and Miami's depth chart—guaranteed contracts only—looks something like this:
|Goran Dragic||Josh Richardson||Justise Winslow||Josh McRoberts||Hassan Whiteside|
|Tyler Johnson||Dion Waiters||Luke Babbitt||Derrick Williams||Willie Reed|
|Beno Udrih||Wayne Ellington||James Johnson||Udonis Haslem|
And this assumes Richardson plays most of the year. Woof.
Some fun combinations exist when the Heat are at full strength. A Goran Dragic-Tyler Johnson-Richardson-Justise Winslow-Hassan Whiteside lineup could be a monster. Knowing Luol Deng spent ample time at center for Miami in the playoffs, we can't put it past head coach Erik Spoelstra to change out Whiteside for Derrick Williams and demand the offense play at warp speed.
Except the Heat's ability to remain relevant this past season was always contingent upon Bosh playing an active role. Since that appears unlikely, if unfathomable, so too are their hopes of cracking 35 wins.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.