The first part of our 2011 NBA Preview started with last year’s rankings recapped. But of course, that was LAST year. What about this year – and shouldn’t an NBA preview feature wanton, almost certainly incorrect assessments about who is most likely to raise the banner next season? But of course! But to reach the top, we start at the bottom, so we count down the teams to the favorite to take home the gold.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves (29th ranked in 2010, 29th offense, 27th defense)
After a season where GM David Kahn decided to stockpile point guards – we now have a situation where he decided to stockpile small forwards. We have #4 overall pick Wesley Johnson – who has NBA talent but is 23, so one wonders if he has any star future – we have the highly fungible Martell Webster, Corey Brewer – a glue guy on a team desperate for stuff to glue together, and Michael Beasley – who really should be playing power forward. Alas, Kevin Love is occupying that spot because Kahn has been seduced by Darko Milicic as a center with a pulse. The team has a lot of depth, but I am not sure any of them besides Love are any good at all. They are horrid on both ends of the floor and there is not a lot in their offseason that offers evidence of change. Kurt Rambis’ attempts to fit these guys into the triangle also showed real questions about his ability to coach a CYO team.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: A Godzilla like space creature comes in and marauds every other city in the country but, due to a fear of Prince music, leaves Minneapolis untouched.
29. Toronto Raptors (17th overall in 2010, 5th offense, 30th defense)
The Raptors, like many of the teams in the toilet bowl section of this preview, are a series of complimentary players waiting for a superstar to save them. Of course Chris Bosh, their best player, walked out the door to fulfill a pinky swear promise with Wade and LeBron, and left this Charmin-soft band of misfits behind. Props to Brian Colangelo for foisting Hedo Turkoglu’s deal on the unsuspecting Phoenix Suns, but what is left here might be the single least intimidating team in NBA history. With Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani, Linus Kleiza, Leandro Barbosa – they can score and shoot well. They were the 5th best offense a year ago, and that will suffer with Bosh’s absence – though they should still be middle of the pack. However, their appalling defense of a year ago (not just 30th, but 30th by a larger margin than the difference between 29th and 25th) figures to be even worse too.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: The NBA changes its rules to allow all games played in Canada to be decided by a game of 21 or Knockout.
28. Detroit Pistons (28th overall in 2010, 21st in offense, 26th in defense)
The real surprise over the years as the Pistons have fallen apart from their 2003-2008 heyday is how they still play a molasses slow pace, but are now incredibly easy to play against. 26th in defense! How? After losing Flip Saunders, their offense faded from super efficient to pretty shaky, but the defense has slid too. We know Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon are not defensive aces, but Tayshaun Prince (when healthy), Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace (who to be fair, had a good season) – where is the accountability? Really there feels like there is just a depression over the franchise – this has not been a crash, but a gradual descent into irrelevance, kind of incredible given that they were in the semifinals as recently as 2008. The ownership change to Mike Ilitch, who knows winning with the Red Wings and Tigers, will help – but not yet.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: The clock turns back to 2004.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers (1st overall in 2010, 3rd offense, 8th defense)
The #1 team of last year is 27? How? Ummm … I don’t know. Seriously, what LeBron’s loss will do for their previously 3rd ranked offense cannot be overstated. Their offense relied on having lots of good shooters and LeBron to slice them up. Now? Well Ramon Sessions is a good pick and roll point guard, but nobody would call him a LeBron playmaker. Actually the cupboard is not that bare on some level, Hickson and Varajeao could be a very good frontcourt and they did defend well in the past. I would not be surprised if they did better, but I am not sure where the offense comes from.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: They trade for Antawn Jamison to give LeBron that help … oh wait a minute.
26. New Jersey Nets (30th overall in 2010, 30th offense, 25th defense)
The 12-70 Nets can’t get a whole lot worse than last year. Considering this team flirted with East postseasondom in 2009, and Devin Harris and Brook Lopez have all star ability in them, there are some raw materials. I loved the pickup of Anthony Morrow, who is one dimensional, but elite at that dimension (shooting the rock). If they surprise me, they have the pieces to do so. That said, their first round pick, Derrick Favors, is more a guy to dream on in the future than the present. Their coaching will be somewhat improved with Avery Johnson (since Kiki Vandeweghe was just a sacrificial lamb) although Lawrence Frank is not at all a bad coach – the marginal improvement from the beginning of last season to this year is pretty small. Really I just don’t see how they got THAT much better despite all their claims about cap space. Travis Outlaw does not an offseason make.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Well, they add Carmelo Anthony without seriously injuring the core i.e. just moving Favors, they start becoming interesting. They have the cap room and assets to make a big move, so on some level this is a team that can at least dream – just not with this roster.
25. Golden State Warriors (22nd overall in 2010, 14th offense, 28th defense)
The best thing that happened to them is that Chris Cohan sold his team. I know nothing about the new owners, but if they are just adequate that will be plenty. This year’s team will not bear the fruit of this infusion of competence, but still one of the best markets in the league has hope again. The team will be fun. Stephon Curry is one of my favorite players in the league, though he is paired with one of my least favorites in Monta Ellis. They will run and score – their pace last year was the fastest in the league by a wide margin. They will not defend – and getting David Lee in the offseason only makes that worse – although new coach Keith Smart might at least pretend since unlike Don Nelson, he will give a shit. Also unlike Don Nelson, Smart might play Brandan Wright, who has been either injured or treated unconscionably by Nelson in the past. There is talent even if they can’t guard a traffic cone.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: The playoffs occur at Rucker Park. Really at least the last three teams in this section still have some ceiling – maybe not title ceiling, but could at least keep their fans flipping the sports pages until March. The Warriors will be zany, and they will unearth good NBDL talent – but this is still a year or two away from being really somebody.