Posted by Jonah Gardner on October 21, 2016
What are we doing here? It's been four months since the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off a miraculous comeback, winning three straight games against the team with the best regular season record in NBA history and ending the city's 52-year, 147-season title drought. And eight months from now, we'll be doing it again.
No Eastern Conference team has constructed a squad that's anything other than a heavy underdog to stop LeBron James from making his seventh straight NBA Finals. Out West, the picture is even bleaker for fans who don't live in the Bay Area, where Kevin Durant now resides as a member of the 73-win Golden State Warriors. What is this regular season, then, besides a long march to LeBron-Steph III?
While it's true that the probability overwhelmingly favors a Warriors-Cavaliers rematch, a chart in this excellent Howard Beck piece on the Warriors points out that, just two years ago, the Dubs didn't even place among the top six most likely champions, according to their Vegas odds.
More to the point, there's 28 other teams and, even though they have a dramatically worse shot at the title than Cleveland and Golden State, there's still plenty of reasons to be intrigued by them. So here's a look at five players who may not win a title, but could emerge to have fascinating seasons in their own right.
After blitzing their way to a playoff spot in 2014-15 with their switch-heavy defensive machine, last year was supposed to be the year that the Milwaukee Bucks truly arrived as a top level team in the East. Instead, they won eight fewer games, sunk to 12th in the conference, and suffered through more disappointment for a franchise that has become all too used to it. Since George Karl's final season with the club in 2002-03, the Bucks have finished above .500 just one time. Their hopes of doing so this season start with two words: Point Giannis.
The Bucks have waffled on how to use the Greek Freak, but there were some promising signs that, after the All-Star Break, Jason Kidd and his staff finally cracked the code. Their secret? Unleashing Giannis at point guard. Before the All-Star Break, Giannis averaged 15.9 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game, and, here's the important part, 2.8 assists per game. After? 18.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, and 7.2 APG. Oh, and 1.4 steals per game as well as 1.9 blocks. That's improvement in all box score stats, including what looks to be the birth of a top-level playmaker.
If you prefer advanced stats, the leap is just as noticeable. After the All-Star Break, Giannis posted a 32.2% assist rate, 24.2% usage rate, and 13.6% rebound rate. Since 1973, the only players to put up a 30/20/10 over a full season are LeBron, Russell Westbrook, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Toni Kukoc (in a strike-shortened season as the best player on the post-MJ Chicago Bulls). His average Game Score in that stretch was 17.9, which would rank 10th in the NBA last year, behind a few people you may have heard of:
Giannis at point guard is a thing, but the biggest question for Milwaukee actually isn't on offense, where they improved by 1.6 points per 100 possessions last season. Instead, it's on the other end of the ball, where their defensive rating plummeted 6.5 points per 100 to 108.7.
Does Point Giannis help with that problem? In the short term, the answer was maybe. Post-ASB, the Bucks did improve to a 103.4 defensive rating, though that could be as much due to the month that Greg Monroe spent coming off the bench and the general reduction in his minutes that came in February. However, in the long term, the idea of a defense built around Giannis at point guard is a tantalizing one. When the player covering a team's primary ball-handler is capable of switching onto practically anyone else on the floor, it makes life a lot more difficult for NBA teams that like to run the pick-and-roll, a number that currently sits around 30.
Giannis' size also introduces unconventional, completely outside-the-box lineup options. Why not try lineups where Giannis takes on point guard responsibilities on offense and then covers centers on defense? Or ones where no one's under 6'7"?
Unfortunately, Khris Middleton's injury has pretty much crushed the hopes for any kind of breakout season for Milwaukee before the year even started. But hopefully, that means Kidd and the Bucks take the opportunity to really unleash their new $100 million man and see what they've got.
Dame's probably making the All-Star Game this year. Despite getting pushed out in the crowded All-Star field, Lillard turned in a magnificent season, becoming the fourth player in the 2000s to make an All-NBA First or Second Team without making the All-Star Game. He earned his spot too, scoring over 25 points per game while finishing in the top ten in both assist and usage rate.
According to the All-NBA voting, Dame was one of the ten best players in the league last year; if he's going to make another leap, there's simply not much room left for him to do it in. Yet, even though the Portland Trail Blazers outperformed their expected W-L record and rode a wave of bad injury luck by the Warriors and Clippers to make their playoff run, I'm buying Dame stock. Why? Well, this, from the Player Comparison Finder on Basketball-Reference, gave me pause:
Development isn't necessarily linear, but Dame's first four years in the league look slightly more offensively accomplished than Stephen Curry's. That does include Steph's injury-riddled third season, but it also has three full seasons, including the Warriors' 2012-13 playoff run that saw them upsetting the Denver Nuggets in the first round and pushing the Spurs to six games. Yet, Dame has been the higher usage player and the better playmaker, even if he hasn't matched Steph's shooting figures.
But what about Steph's super long-range shooting? He wouldn't be nearly the kind of weapon he's turned into without the ability to launch it from 28 feet and beyond. Well, about that:
That's every player to attempt 50 or more shots from 28+ last season. Dame doesn't have that shot yet, but he's the only player, besides Steph, who seems to be trying to add it to his arsenal. And you can criticize his shooting percentage but in Curry's age-25 season, he shot 10-39 from 28 feet, a worse field goal percentage on those shots than Dame's last year (his age-25 season).
Where Dame really needs to improve is his defense. Steph had made major strides on that end, especially in the two seasons since Steve Kerr arrived in Oakland, but he was also starting from less of a deficit than Lillard:
While Lillard has the edge in total Win Shares over where Curry was after four seasons in the league, his defense has definitely narrowed the gap. On a per 48-minute basis, Dame has averaged 0.019 Defensive Win Shares while Steph averaged 0.032 DWS per 48 in his first four seasons. The difference in Defensive Box Plus/Minus is even starker. Whether or not he achieves competence on the defensive end will end up deciding whether Lillard's ceiling is the next Curry or the next James Harden.
Let's move from a Blazer to a former Blazer. LMA would have been a strong contender for this list anyway, but over the last week, there's started to be real indications that the San Antonio Spurs are thinking about trading last year's big free agent acquisition. Should they?
It's hard to say. Aldridge got off to a somewhat slow start in San Antonio. He averaged 14.8 PPG and an 11.8 game score over the Spurs' first 20 games, and had three single-digit scoring nights in that range. By the end, he seemed to be acclimated, averaging 20.9 PPG and an 18.0 game score over the last 20.
But Aldridge was doing his damage alongside players who aren't on the team anymore. He logged 1,150 minutes with Tim Duncan, 464.9 with Boris Diaw, and 389.6 with David West. In addition to all three of those players being able to play center (given Aldridge's much-publicized preference not to play the position), they were all plus defenders. Of the four, Aldridge had the worst defensive BPM and the second worst defensive rating
Aldridge still graded out as above average in both of those stats, but those were also both career highs. In Portland, Aldridge was a much less consistent defender. The obvious counter to that is that, in Portland, Aldridge played in worse defensive systems, with less defensively accomplished teammates and a coach who wasn't Gregg Popovich.
That's true, but now, instead of starting alongside one of the most talented defenders of the last generation, Aldridge will be starting alongside Pau Gasol. Is Gasol a good defender? By the numbers, this is a tougher question to answer than you might think. Over the last two seasons, he had a DRtg of 101 and a DBPM of 3.3. But one of those years was under Tom Thibodeau and, in his last two years in LA, he was much worse. But those seasons were under Mike D'Antoni and for generally hopeless Los Angeles Lakers teams.
The simplest explanation is that Gasol and Aldridge are hard workers who respond to solid schemes, but can't serve as a cornerstone of strong defenses. They don't take anything off the table on defense, but they need a Duncan or Joakim Noah around as an anchor.
If there's anyone who can build a functional defense from Aldridge, Gasol, and Tony Parker, it's Pop. And the Spurs do still have an anchor. As long as Kawhi Leonard is around, opponents will, at the very least, have to account for the fact that their best wing player is going to have a very difficult night. But if Pop can't solve this puzzle, and the Warriors start to pull away from the pack, it might behoove the Spurs to look a few years further down the line in their team-building.
In the Mike Budenholzer era, with Al Horford on the floor, the Atlanta Hawks had an effective field goal percentage of .527, kept opponents to .485, and outscored them by 4.8 points per 100 possessions. If you're a Boston Celtics fan who wants to get excited about your team's new player, that's where you start. Over the last three seasons, Horford has been a largely overlooked star for one of the league's best teams.
But there's more to the Horford-Celtics marriage than just that. In some ways, Horford fills in the exact holes that plagued Boston last year. For example, on offense, the Celtics were 13th in three-point attempt rate last year, but 28th in three-point percentage. Part of the problem was finding an effective two-way center. Kelly Olynyk had the best three-point percentage on the team last year, but defensively, he had more or less average numbers while playing for a top-5 defensive team, a sign that he was drafting off the talented defenders around him. On the other hand, Jared Sullinger had a much better DBPM, but no three-point shot.
Horford checks both boxes. He shot .344 from behind the arc while averaging over three three-pointers per game last year, which isn't on the same level as Olynyk but is far better than Sullinger's .282 mark. And on the other end, since his first season he's never had a season with a DBPM under 2. He's surpassed Sullinger's mark of 2.3 seven times in his career, and bested Amir Johnson's 2015-16 DBPM of 3.2 four times, including each of the last two seasons.
On the other hand, Horford doesn't answer Boston's other big question: rebounding. Last year, the Celtics were tied for 24th in the league in defensive rebounding rate, but the problem is that they were tied with Atlanta. The Hawks actually rebounded worse with Horford on the floor and, if you've watched an Atlanta-Cleveland series in the last couple of years, you probably have a good idea of how easy it is for the Cavs to exploit that particular weakness.
The first four players weren't in any particular order, but Russell Westbrook is far and away number one on this list. With Kevin Durant gone, the Oklahoma City Thunder are 100% Westbrook's team now, his game has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two seasons, and he's going to be playing with a gigantic chip on his shoulder. It's no surprise that he's been a trendy pick for NBA Most Valuable Player or that the Thunder are one of the most buzzed about teams going into this year.
So what can we expect? A good place to start is Durant's injury in 2014-15. With KD sidelined, Westbrook took the controls of that team, which ended up missing the playoffs due to a flukey Anthony Davis buzzer-beater three that wound up giving the Pelicans the edge in the playoff race.
Westbrook led the league in usage and Box Plus/Minus that year, but that's including games with Durant. KD played roughly 50% of the Thunder's first 44 games, but just six of the ensuing 38. If we start with game 45, Westbrook's numbers get even crazier. Westbrook averaged 30.8 PPG, 9.3 APG, and 8.3 RPG over that span, numbers that only Oscar Robertson managed over a full season. Do you prefer advanced numbers? He posted a 38.7% usage rate, 45.9% assist rate, and 12.2 rebounding rate, close to his full-season numbers and the only time someone had numbers like that over a full season since 1973.
Can he best those? Is averaging a triple-double really in play? For starters, the Thunder will have the advantage of having spent the entire offseason planning for a team built around Westbrook, instead of being thrust into that position due to injury. There's also the coaching change, which could cut either way because of the change in styles. The more possessions they have, the better Westbrook's odds of hitting a triple-double, but the Thunder dropped from 7th in pace in 2014-15 to 10th in 2015-16. However, that's somewhat deceiving because the league as a whole was faster last year. In fact, Billy Donovan increased the Thunder's pace to 96.7, more than a full possession ahead of Scott Brooks' 2014-15 mark of 95.7.
The question is whether the new-look Thunder will keep that pace, or slow it down, which brings us to the revamped supporting cast. Three of the top four players in field goal attempts per game last season are gone, and while that includes KD, that also includes Dion Waiters. In the Durant-less second half of 2014-15, Waiters had a 21.7% usage rate, a .455 true shooting percentage, and a 10.1 PER. Replacing him in the 2016-17 vintage is Victor Oladipo and how Oladipo does may determine whether Westbrook really reaches the statistical heights that we've all been fantasizing about.
Oladipo shot .348 on three-pointers last year, better than Waiters' 2014-15 mark, but worse than how he did last season. That was as a higher usage player (22.9% for Oladipo vs 17.7% for Waiters), but without Durant around to use over 30% of the Thunder's possessions when he's on the floor, that about evens out.
When you think about the Thunder's role players, you typically think about their missing three-point shooting, but that's not really Oladipo's problem. He's OK from three, but at the rim, he's decidedly below average. Last year, he shot .578 on shots from 0-2 feet, putting him in the bottom quarter of players who attempted at least 100 shots from that range. You can defend Oladipo by pointing out how cramped the spacing was in Orlando, but the Thunder shot worse from three last year. In lineups with at least three of Westbrook, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Andre Roberson, Oladipo will have even less space at the rim, as teams pack the paint.
Speaking of Adams, he's probably the Thunder's second-best player this year. Has he made a leap? Is he ready to this year? Adams emerged as a force in last year's playoffs, but his statistical record from the regular season is more mixed. On a per 36 basis, his scoring increased by just 0.5 points last season (from 10.9 in 2014-15 to 11.4 in 15-16), while his rebounding actually declined by over one board per 36 (10.6 to 9.5).
However, Adams made strides in other areas. His efficiency was way up, as his field goal percentage soared from .544 to .613. Most impressively, his offensive rating shot up from a decent 108 to an eyepopping 123, good for 3rd in the NBA last season. The question is whether that efficiency will survive what's sure to be a spike in usage. Adams used just 12.6% of Thunder possessions when he was on the floor last season. That number is going to be way higher this year. As teams focus on him as a main weapon, instead of trying to push the ball into his hands to keep Durant from shooting, Adams will have to find a way to do more than just score easy buckets.
That means it's incumbent on Oladipo to shoot well from behind the arc to take attention away from Adams' diving at the rim. If those two can't open up space for Westbrook's drives, the Russ for MVP bandwagon may not even make it out of the station.