17. Utah Jazz
Key Stat: 48.9% Defensive Field Goal %
Rudy Gobert is a defensive force. This is not groundbreaking analysis, but it is worth acknowledging just how powerful of a force Gobert is. According to NBA.com, within six feet of the hoop last year, Gobert allowed an opponent FG% of just 48.9%, which trailed only reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green (48.3%) among all players who saw action in at least 50 games. However, Gobert faced a far higher volume of shots in this area (7.7 per game) as opposed to Green (5.8 per game). In fact, only three players who played at least 50 games faced at least seven shots per game within six feet of the hoop, and Gobert was the only one to allow an opponent FG% under 52.9%. Essentially, Gobert gets the most shots funneled to him on defense of any player in the NBA, and in turn, he defends the basket at a virtually unparalleled rate.
Utah lost an unimaginable amount of production in Gordon Hayward and George Hill, but through the continued presence of Gobert and the additions of versatile defenders in Ricky Rubio, Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha, and Donovan Mitchell, Utah will likely field an elite defense once again, and if they’re elite on one end, the Jazz are likely to float around the bottom of the West playoff picture in 2017-18.
16. LA Clippers
Key Stat: 29.4% Assist %
No longer the extreme high flyer who took the league by storm nearly a decade ago, Blake Griffin’s game has matured surprisingly well, and his passing is central to that maturation. Most appreciate Griffin’s ability to facilitate as a big, but it is underappreciated just how elite Griffin is at getting his teammates involved.
When Chris Paul was off the floor in 2016-17, and the Clippers were able to make full use of Griffin’s skillset, he posted an AST% of 29.4% per NBA.com. In 2016-17, that mark would have ranked 28th in the NBA among players who saw at least 700 minutes of action. Not only would Griffin have outpaced all of the league’s most accomplished passing big men (Nikola Jokic, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Draymond Green, etc.), but he would have landed right between All-Star point guards Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker on the leaderboard.
With the departure of Chris Paul, the Clippers roster is much more conducive to maximizing Griffin’s unique skills. While the players the Clippers added are not necessarily low usage, they are all highly capable off-ball players, and none of them--even Milos Teodosic--commands the ball in the way Paul does. The Clippers will certainly be worse than last year, because Chris Paul is still one of the seven best basketball players in the world, but a stylistic change that maximizes Griffin should be coming, and it’ll make for some exciting basketball.
15. Charlotte Hornets
Key Stat: 10.7% Turnover %
The 2016-17 Hornets turned the ball over on just 10.7% of their possessions, which was the lowest mark in the entire NBA. In 2015-16, the Hornets paced the NBA with a TOV% of 11.7%. In 2014-15, the Hornets paced the NBA with a TOV% of 11.2%. In 2013-14, the Hornets paced the NBA with a TOV% of 11.7%. That, mercifully, is the extent of this bizarre Hornets streak. How, you might be wondering, does a team collectively take care of the ball better than anyone else for four consecutive years? Hire Steve Clifford.
In 2013, the Hornets hired Steve Clifford. He was an accomplished assistant coach, but lacked any head coaching experience at the NBA level. Well, Clifford has quietly done a masterful job in Charlotte. Despite lacking defensive talent, especially at the crucial big positions, Clifford has engineered top-15 defenses (top-10 in three of four years) in every single one of his seasons in Charlotte. Clifford’s Charlotte teams are disciplined and smart. They don’t turn the ball over, they defend, and they avoid fouling (fewest free throws allowed per field goal attempt in the NBA). By avoiding the sloppy pitfalls of most teams, Clifford’s Hornets establish a really high floor for themselves. A team that does all the little things right, despite its talent level, can’t possibly be all that bad.
The 2017-18 Hornets are a pretty talented team, one that’s added several pieces this offseason. Dwight Howard, the most consequential newcomer, much maligned everywhere since he departed Orlando in 2012, finds himself reunited with Clifford. Clifford was a fixture as an assistant coach on the great Orlando teams Howard captained in his heyday. Howard, no longer the wrecking ball he was the last time he played for Clifford, still represents the best interior defender Clifford’s had to work with during his Charlotte tenure.
Given Clifford’s defensive track record and improved personnel, the expectation should be for Charlotte to have one of the league’s better defenses once again. Couple that defensive proficiency with an offense that doesn’t give away possessions, and the Hornets should easily find themselves in the East playoffs.
14. Miami Heat
Key Stat: 44 expected wins
The 2016-17 Heat season really was a tale of two seasons. In the first season, the HEAT won just 11 games and lost 30, ranking among the worst teams in the NBA. In its mirror, the HEAT caught fire and won 30, losing just 11, playing as if they were one of the league’s elite. Will the real Miami HEAT please stand up?
Well, that’s where the expected wins come in. In reality, the 2015-16 HEAT were neither among the worst nor the best teams in the league; they were pretty average. By point differential, the HEAT should have won 44 games, and given that they’re essentially rolling back the same squad, 44 is a reasonable win total to expect for 2017-18.
The HEAT do have a few legitimate arguments for optimism. They have continuity on their side, and as we see year after year, continuity is essential in the NBA. Furthermore, they have stability, both in the front office and coaching staff. This sort of thing creates a culture, and the value of culture cannot be overstated. HEAT optimists will also point out that the team did make additions. Kelly Olynyk, while not the big fish Pat Riley had hoped to land in Gordon Hayward, is a huge addition. His ability to both stretch the floor alongside Hassan Whiteside as a four and crush second units as a backup five will play extremely well in South Beach. The HEAT will also be getting Justise Winslow back, and perhaps having the young wing’s services for more than 18 games will provide a major boost.
Alternatively, several key HEAT had career years last season in Dion Waiters, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, and Tyler Johnson; regression could well be coming. So, what are the 2017-18 HEAT? In all likelihood, a reasonable facsimile of the 2016-17 HEAT. They won’t be as good as they look when you assume all the best possible developments, nor will they be as bad as they seem when you budget for regression to an extreme degree; they’ll be perfectly decent, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
Key Stat: 104 3P makes
Marc Gasol’s 3P makes by season: 0, 0, 3, 1, 1, 2, 3, 2, 104. In Gasol’s age-32 season, having made 12 threes in his entire NBA career, he attempted 268 shots from distance. What’s arguably more impressive is that he hit at a scorching 38.8%. Gasol is listed at 7’1”, 255 pounds. He’s a former Defensive Player of the Year, one of the best passers in the NBA, and apparently an elite three-point shooter now, too. With all this talk of NBA unicorns, it’s beyond unfortunate that Gasol gets lost in the shuffle simply because he’s old and plays in Memphis. A piece of advice: watch Gasol play while you still can. He’s arguably the most well-rounded player in the entire NBA, a maestro on both ends, one of the few players capable of bending the game to his will without casual viewers ever noticing.
But what’s so special about Marc Gasol is that he’s this good, this accomplished, and he’s still adding to his game. When you think that he’s fully formed, he’s made the most of the frame, talent, and intelligence he has to work with, he launches 268 threes and hits at 38.8%. As long as Gasol is in Memphis, the Grizzlies will be competitive, and luckily for the basketball world, Gasol is still in Memphis, playing smart positional defense, moving the rock, launching threes, and likely doing something new in 2017-18.
12. Portland Trail Blazers
Key Stat: 91.2% FT%
CJ McCollum had the NBA’s highest FT% in 2016-17 at 91.2%. You probably didn’t know that. Yes, because it’s a random, obscure, and largely inconsequential fact, but also because it was CJ McCollum. Not a lot of people pay attention to CJ McCollum; they never have. He was ignored coming out of high school, having to play his college ball at Lehigh. He went 10th in the 2013 NBA Draft, but was injured then largely forgotten during his first two pro seasons, playing a limited role on strong Blazers teams.
And then the great exodus happened, as four fifths of the Blazers starting lineup departed via free agency or trade in the summer of 2015. Heading into 2016, expectations were not high for the Blazers. Everyone knew the story of the 2015-16 Blazers: they’d be bad, get a high pick, and build around him and Damian Lillard. Then CJ McCollum happened. McCollum emerged as a star, won Most Improved Player, and the Blazers made the playoffs and won a series. McCollum got his five minutes, and people forgot about him.
Quietly, though, McCollum got even better last year. He led the league in FT%; no one noticed. He had the 3rd-highest 3P% among players who attempted at least five threes per game, well ahead of sharpshooting superstars Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and teammate Damian Lillard; no one noticed. People may not notice, but McCollum keeps doing his thing, and that thing has and will allow the Trail Blazers to win a lot of basketball games.
11. Milwaukee Bucks
Key Stat(s): 2016-17 Per-Game:
22.9 PTS, 8.8 TRB, 5.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 1.9 BLK
The above stats represent the high marks for the 2016-17 Bucks in each of the five major traditional counting statistics. Nothing too gaudy or out of the ordinary...well, except for the fact that they were all amassed by one person. Giannis Antetokounmpo, or the Greek Freak for those too timid to attempt pronouncing his name, led the Bucks in everything last year. According to NBA.com, Antetokounmpo is just the fifth player to ever accomplish this feat; the previous four were Hall-of-Famers Dave Cowens and Scottie Pippen and future Hall-of-Famers Kevin Garnett and LeBron James.
Not only is Antetokounmpo’s name alongside a handful of the greatest players to ever play the game, but there’s an aspect to his season that separates it from the others even further. When Cowens led the Celtics in all major counting stats, he was 29. Pippen was also 29 when he led the Jordan-less Bulls in the same five stats. Garnett carried his Timberwolves single-handedly at age 26. James, the King himself, didn’t accomplish the feat until he turned 24. Antetokounmpo was 22 last season.
We’re looking at some of the best seasons in the careers of some legitimate inner circle Hall-of-Famers, and Giannis is doing at 22 what they did in the hearts of their primes. That has to be so unsettling for the rest of the NBA. The expectation should be that Antetokounmpo will somehow be even better in 2017-18. Production at that level could carry the Bucks to incredible heights.
When people talk about needing transcendent talent to win NBA titles, they’re talking about Antetokounmpo. He’s in the mold of a Duncan, James, or Curry--good enough to bring you to the promised land. Antetokounmpo hasn’t hit his prime yet, and 2017-18 might not be the year he does, but when he does, he’ll likely be the best player in the league, an MVP, and like all of Cowens, Pippen, Garnett, and James, a champion.
10. Denver Nuggets
Key Stat: 14% of minutes at power forward
At the outset of the 2016-17 NBA season, you could have polled NBA diehards, journalists, and executives about who was the best young big in Denver, and without a doubt, some would have said Jusuf Nurkic. Ask the same question today, you’d get a puzzled look followed by, “Nikola Jokic, obviously,” and that’s not because Nurkic is no longer in Denver.
Denver started last season largely without direction. They had amassed a great deal of young talent, but there was really no hierarchy among the countless prospects. Denver tried to make their two prized young centers, Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic, share the court; the results were disastrous. The team wasn’t winning, the two centers struggled, and there was a great deal of unrest in Denver. Long story short, Denver eventually realized what they have in Jokic: arguably the best offensive center in basketball already with passing ability that would make Arvydas Sabonis or Bill Walton blush.
Given what we now know Jokic is, it’s easy to forget how much of Denver’s season was wasted on the ill-fated Jokic-Nurkic duo. Jokic played in 73 games last year, but started just 59. Furthermore, Jokic, who lacks the foot speed and athleticism to defend fours and whose offensive skills are wasted at positions other than center, squandered a striking 14% of his minutes last season at power forward.
In 2017-18, Denver will not be nearly so wasteful, as they finally have direction. The offense will run through Jokic, one of the league’s very best facilitators. Meanwhile, Jokic will be paired with the perfect complement in Paul Millsap. Millsap, an exceptional defender, will cover for Jokic’s deficiencies on that end, while Millsap’s diverse offensive game will also meld well with the giant Serb.
In the Western Conference, you cannot afford to fall behind early--a slow start is a death sentence. Unlike last year, the Nuggets know exactly who they are, and they’ll finally be able to maximize the immense talents of Nikola Jokic.
9. Toronto Raptors
Key Stat: +4.9 NETRTG
The 2016-17 Raptors had the NBA’s 4th-highest NETRTG at +4.9, according to NBA.com. What’s notable is that the Raptors’ mark was the highest in the entire Eastern Conference, exceeding the numbers posted by both the first seeded Celtics and second seeded Cavaliers. By expected wins, therefore, the Raptors should have actually been the first seed in the East, and it’s quite likely that had the team’s best player, Kyle Lowry, not gotten injured and missed the crucial close of the season, the Raptors would have been the East’s top seed. The Raptors bring a great deal of continuity to the table.
Sure, they lost Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, and PJ Tucker, but these are not overly crippling losses, and the team’s three most important players (Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka will all be back). The Raptors continuity is relevant given the context of the Eastern Conference. Two teams finished ahead of the Raptors in 2016-17. The Cavaliers lost their 2nd-best player, replacing him with a point guard who isn’t expected back from a major hip injury until January. The Celtics lost three of their four best players and 11 of 15 overall. Massive amounts of turnover are likely to derail the early portions of both teams’ seasons. Yet the Raptors will be good to go out of the gate, which is why it should come as no surprise to see them finish the regular season atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Unfortunately for Raptors fans, there is a bit of a distinction between the regular season and playoffs. I’m as big of a Kyle Lowry defender as you’ll find, but at this point, the sample size of both his and DeRozan’s games not translating to the playoffs is large enough. For some reason, they just can’t carry elite production into the playoffs. Maybe it’s the extreme reliance on getting to the line. Perhaps the two just get worn down by the end of the season due to carrying too much responsibility during the regular season. I honestly don’t know, but until the duo proves otherwise, its postseason shortcomings will keep the Raptors out of the next tier and out of true championship contention.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted