This is the third entry in our NBA preview series. In the prior installment we unearthed our picks for the six worst teams in the NBA. Now we rise up from badness to mere irrelevance:
24. Sacramento Kings (23rd overall in 2010, 22nd offense, 18th defense)
After much of the walking disasters in the previous section, the teams here seem to either be just unappealing in a boring, non transcendental way, or they are teams like the Sacramento Kings – a team with a lot of raw materials, but without a discernible near term recipe to put the flavors together. Tyreke Evans, while playing wildly out of position as a lead guard, is one of the most impressive physical forces in the NBA, a pocket version of the LeBron James wing player as-linebacker. Jason Thompson is an interesting forward, Carl Landry has always been a super productive forward for his pedigree, and Beno Udrih seems like he might be a competent point guard. DeMarcus Cousins, entering as the #5 pick, is certifiably crazy. But he is also the single best talent to enter the draft, a big man with soft hands, amazing rebounding instincts and the ability to go for 20-20 any night. There are going to be some nights where they could crush a team like the Lakers or Celtics on the second night of a back to back. They will also pile up a lot of losses while trying to put this chemistry experiment together.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Tyreke Evans morphs into the junior Oscar Robertson his talent tracks with. DeMarcus Cousins IS the best big man rookie since Dwight Howard and Paul Westphal learns how to coach defense.
23. Washington Wizards (26th overall in 2010, 25th offense, 20th defense)
After the colossal disaster of a season ago, the Wizards seemed without hope – sure they had cap space, but who would buy, especially when the three top free agents were making a pinkie swear promise? Flip Saunders did a decent job defensively – 20th is no great shakes, but at least they gave a shit compared to what Eddie Jordan wheeled out there. However, his offense predicated on smart reads and cuts was dependent on the basketball acumen of people like Nick Young and Javale McGee. Oops. This is not to say these are bad players, but “heady” is not a popular descriptor. But alas, there is hope with Ted Leonsis owning the team and John Wall landing in their laps as the #1 overall pick. Wall is the first true facilitator the Wizards have had since Rod Strickland, and if Gilbert Arenas can handle playing shooting guard competently, they could be entertaining pretty quickly. While the albatross of Kirk Hinrich’s deal is not great, at least he can play basketball and not just run and dunk and shoot wantonly. Wall, Arenas’ return and the growth of Aundray Blatche could keep things interesting for a couple of months. Really this is a step in a solid rebuilding process.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Wall is even better than I think he will be (and that’s saying a lot), Gilbert becomes an efficient shooter and Blatche emerges as one of the East’s top power forwards. The team learns Saunders’ defensive schemes more and become a tough team to score on.
22. Memphis Grizzlies (20th overall in 2010, 17th offense, 23rd defense)
The Grizzlies are the first (ok I forgot the Cavs) 40 win team from a year ago to be on this list. How they did it though was a bit lucky. First of all, they were among the healthiest teams in the league. It is hard to remember any of their core guys, Rudy Gay, OJ Mayo, Zach Randolph missing any significant action. The Grizzlies were an athletic team that relied on volume to account for relative inaccuracy. So while their shooting percentage (true shooting) was merely 21st, their league leading offensive rebounding pushed them up in efficiency. That said, their defense was bad and their bench was worse. The bench will improve as Hasheem Thabeet might be a bust at the 2nd overall pick, but should be improved as a backup center. Also the drafting of Xavier Henry gives them some more depth in the wing. That said, the extension for Rudy Gay was nonsensical, and the odds of human carcinogen Zach Randolph staying engaged again is low.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: They played in the NBDL. Their starting five stays as healthy and focused as they did last year and Xavier Henry plays like the guy who the college basketball experts thought Kansas was getting and not the one dimensional wimp who actually played for them. But there is just not much ceiling here – considering what a best case scenario last year’s 40-42 was.
21. Los Angeles Clippers (27th overall in 2010, 27th on offense, 21st on defense)
This is one of the first solid upside plays we have in this list. I could see this team making the playoffs in an everything goes right sort of way. The key is Blake Griffin. After missing his entire rookie season, the slam dunk #1 pick of last season shows signs of being that sort of guy this year. If he is the real thing, then the notoriously unfocused Baron Davis could match it also. Even as he has gotten older, Davis to me is the best package of pure point guard skills in the game. When he focuses and stops launching 3s, he dominates games like no other point can. But he does it so rarely that we are staring a 21st ranked team. There is a decent amount to like even if they ARE a laughingstock franchise and hiring a crappy coach like Vinny Del Negro. Griffin and Eric Gordon are building blocks, Al-Farooq Aminu is one of the most talented guys in this draft class (raw but a great homerun swing) and Eric Bledsoe could be a great combination guard. But it comes down to Baron.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: If Blake Griffin is the type of superstar that can get Baron Davis to be a superstar like he can be too. This team has the parts of a dangerous playoff team … but bet on any Clippers team at your peril.
20. Philadelphia 76ers (25th overall in 2010, 20th offense, 24th defense)
It is funny what coaching can do. Under Maurice Cheeks, this team was young, fast and energetic. Sure they couldn’t shoot, but they could defend and out-athlete more veteran opponents. But their offense lacked, so the management picks up Eddie Jordan. But the management forgot Eddie Jordan has no concept of coaching defense. The accountability was gone and these guys fell like a rock. Enter Doug Collins. Collins, ever the ambulance chaser, comes out of his cushy TNT gig to try to rescue the team he played for. Collins is a great rebuilder, but notoriously bad with young players. Jrue Holliday is the youngest, and Evan Turner, the 2nd overall pick this year is no grizzled vet either. Will Collins tear them a new Kwame Brown? One hopes not, because if their confidence is not shattered (and Evan Turner is a legitimate solid fringe all-star sort as he seems to profile), they have pieces. Andre Iguodala is a terrific glue guy, Louis Williams is a solid combo guard, Maresse Speights is a terrific post scorer. The players under Collins will be accountable, and he has always been able to develop underachieving veterans (witness his tour in Detroit). This team will be better just by having defensive accountability. That said, I am not sure if they have solved their shooting problems which is years old now. The Sixers were the 22nd ranked TS% team, and while they might get to the line more now (only 2 teams went less), they still do not have much shooting.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Thaddeus Young or Jrue Holliday make the leap based on their talent, Elton Brand steps in the way back machine and Doug Collins works his Doug Collins miracle while not turning Holliday or Evan Turner into a fetal puddle of goo. Evan Turner also has to be that point forward/Brandon Roy type and not an overrated non athlete who succeeded due to being in a non athletic Big Ten. Someone needs to shoot the ball too.
19. Charlotte Bobcats (14th overall in 2010, 24th offense, 2nd defense)
This is the team I am most confident that I will underestimate. If Doug Collins in an ambulance chasing miracle worker, Larry Brown positively has healing hands. Look at that roster. When Gerald Wallace or Stephen Jackson is your best player, this is not the stuff of a title winner. There is still a lack of wow on this team, even if they were the first team to really tap into the physical gifts of Tyrus Thomas. Out is Raymond Felton at the point and in is the oft-injured Shawn Livingston. Livingston has the talent to be a terrific big point guard, but his lack of shooting ability limits his ceiling. Besides that, with no first rounder infused into the team, only Thomas’ improvement provides hope offensively – that and cutting down their league worst turnover rate. Owner Michael Jordan could suit up again and be a net positive with this bunch (it’d better than him as a General Manager). But somehow Larry Brown persists, and he makes this mishmash competitive by using good position defense that does a good job defending (3rd best forced turnover rate) without fouling. (lowest FT rate allowed in the league and 2nd at defending 3 pointers).
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: They could let the 2010 Phoenix Suns play offense for them. This is such a weird mishmash of mediocre talent and unproven upside that Larry Brown getting them 44 wins a year ago is a major league miracle. He might get 50 wins this year with his skill for all I know. But this is not the roster with that sort of ceiling, and given Michael Jordan’s work as a GM both here and in Washington, he is not someone you can immediately assume will identify that ceiling. (Adam Morrison, cough cough)