This past Saturday, NBA fans were treated to their first (somewhat) competitive basketball games since LeBron and Co. took home their second title in a row. And although preseason basketball is not the most exciting of events, it means that meaningful, counts-in-the-standings match-ups are not far away.
A handful of teams have already separated themselves from the pack as favorites to win the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2014. Miami, Indiana, Brooklyn, and Chicago in the East, and San Antonio, OKC, Houston, Memphis, and the Clippers in the West seemingly have what it takes (barring Russell Westbrook-like injuries) to take home a championship. But that leaves 21 teams to settle on various levels of success and failure. I’d like to take a look at two teams in each conference that should see a big swing in their win column in 2013-14 – one for better, one for worse.
The East Riser: Detroit Pistons
For the last few years, the Pistons had been burdened by the massive contracts of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva signed in the summer of 2009. Gordon came off the books this year and signed with Charlotte, while Villanueva is entering the last year of his deal, making him an enticing trade prospect. What really mattered for Detroit was that they finally had the ability to make a splash in the NBA summer, and wow, did they ever.
The Pistons grabbed up Josh Smith in free agency and Brandon Jennings in a trade, two players with checkered pasts but tons of talent. Smith has long been considered one of the NBA’s best athletes, but poor shot selection and attitude have created red flags. The same caveats go for Jennings, who at only 24, still holds a lot of potential for improvement.
If the upcoming Jennings-to-Smith daily alley-oop highlights don’t entice you, then the progress of big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond will. Monroe’s third year saw him produce 16 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 assists in just 33 minutes per game, and nearly receive an All-Star nod. The rookie Drummond was a beast on the boards in limited playing time, putting up 7.6 rebounds in 20 minutes a game. He also ranked in the 86th percentile in points per possession as the pick-and-roll man (per Synergy Sports), a promising number for someone new to the NBA game. Monroe is just 23, Drummond only 20 – if the former continues his trajectory and the latter doesn’t get distracted dating iCarly stars, the Detroit frontcourt could be dangerous.
The last piece of the puzzle is rookie shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who the Pistons selected 9th this summer. Pope finished 2nd in the SEC in scoring in 2012-13, although he won’t be asked to do much of that this year. I’m looking at him as a solid “3-and-D” guy – someone who hits his outside shots and hustles on the other end.
The Pistons have three new exciting players and two incumbents with huge potential. There are some character concerns, but the talent is there. I like them to make a run at a 5 or 6 seed in the East.
The East Sinker: New York Knicks
Look at the moves Miami’s biggest Eastern Conference contenders. Chicago added Mike Dunleavy (underrated in my opinion) and of course get the return of Derrick Rose. Danny Granger will be healthy for Indiana and they bolstered their bench with C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. Brooklyn made the biggest headlines with their acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
But what did the East’s #2 seed do? The Knicks made two moves that should only hurt their team in a much more competitive conference. Trading for Andrea Bargnani didn’t make a lot of sense when it happened, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense now. Bargnani is a 7-footer who has only averaged 4.8 rebounds per game in his career. He supposedly makes up for that with good shooting, but he only managed to shoot 39.9 percent from the floor last year. Combined with his always sub-par defense, and I think the Knicks made a big mistake here.
They also added Metta World Peace in free agency, another move with question marks. The artist formerly known as Ron Artest will be 34 in November, and has lost nearly all of his value on the offensive end. Like Bargnani, he carries a reputation that he might not deserve, that of a defensive stopper. In his heyday World Peace was a lockdown defender, but he might have lost a step while with the Lakers.
Combine those two questionable moves with the usual New York complaints – Will Amar’e be healthy? Will Melo and J.R. play more of a team game? – and this could be a long season in the Big Apple. Although I think they will remain in the playoffs, I can’t see them winning a series against any of the East’s top four.
The West Riser: Minnesota Timberwolves
Only one stat is needed to explain the struggles of Minnesota last season: their three best players – Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and Nikola Pekovic – played a total of 13 minutes together. That’s right, 13, just over a quarter of playing time for a trio that was supposed to carry the T’Wolves back into the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Now the three leaders are back, healthy, and ready to grab that playoff spot. Love is the prototypical modern NBA player – he can excel in the pick and roll, dominate the offensive glass, and has terrific three-point range. He also is great at going to playgrounds and dunking over fools. Ricky Rubio has averaged nearly 8 assists a game in his short NBA career, and is one of the league’s best at creating instant highlight-reel plays. Pekovic is a dynamic rebounder while showing a deft scoring touch, scoring 16 points per game on 52 percent shooting. They might not be Miami’s big three, but this is a solid core.
Minnesota also made a couple of key moves this summer. Kevin Martin comes over from Oklahoma City, where he was 8th in the NBA in true shooting percentage (which puts more emphasis on 3-point shots) among players with at least 25 MPG. Martin has a long pedigree as an NBA scorer, exactly what the Wolves need. Minnesota was only 20th in the NBA in scoring and 28th in 3-pointers made last season.
Minnesota also picked up Corey Brewer, who was a key role player on the Denver Nuggets last year. Brewer will join rookie Shabazz Muhammed and 2nd-year man Alexey Shved in a revamped second unit for the Timberwolves – in fact, they might have one of the top benches in the entire league. If Minnesota can stay healthy, they should be a lock for the postseason.
The West Sinker: Golden State Warriors
I think the obvious team in this spot to most people would have been the Denver Nuggets. No George Karl and no Andre Iguodala usually spells trouble. But I think that a healthy Danilo Gallinari would be enough to keep Denver in the playoffs. One team I see losing their postseason spot plays a little more towards the Pacific.
I don’t think there was a bigger postseason bandwagon than that of the Golden State Warriors. Steph Curry lit up the Nuggets and Spurs, while supporting castmates like Klay Thompson, Carl Landry, and Jarrett Jack all had their moments in the spotlight. However, Jack and Landry are gone, leaving a hole in veteran leadership on the team. Jack was very capable as the third guard in the offense, even finishing third in the Sixth Man of the Year award. This year, the Warriors will be playing Toney Douglas and Kent Bazemore as Jack’s replacements, a huge drop off. Considering Thompson was fairly inconsistent, I’m worried about a lack of help for Steph in the backcourt.
The Warriors did make a big move in free agency, signing Andre Iguodala to a 4 year, 48 million dollar contract. Iggy was one of only 4 players (Kobe, LeBron, Westbrook) to average at least 5 rebounds and 5 assists last year, but I see him struggling more in Golden State because of his abysmal 3 point shooting (31 percent last year). His arrival could potentially stunt the development of Harrison Barnes, who was very productive in the playoffs.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Splash Brothers as much as anyone. But in a loaded Western conference, I see them failing to make the playoffs for the 18th time in 20 seasons.