Who Among Us Hasn’t Tanked?

It’s been a week since the (probably) forced resignation of Sam Hinkie, ending the great tanking experiment of the Philadelphia 76ers and inspiring one last wave of think pieces about the “Process”. Fear not, this won’t be yet another profound critique of Hinkie’s three-year reign. Besides nothing can top Hinkie’s own rambling, TED Talk-esque manifesto of a resignation letter.

Instead, something that Zach Lowe said on his podcast piqued my interest and I’d like to explore it further. In the Lowe Post episode that followed his podcast with Hankie (weirdly, one day prior to Hinkie’s resignation), he pointed out that just about everyone has tanked at some point or another, so it’s somewhat hypocritical to say what Hinkie pulled was some sort of radical new ground. Perhaps the Sixers went overboard with the strategy, but no NBA team is above tanking. Not the Celtics, not the Lakers, not even the high-class Spurs. Below, we’ll go through each NBA team, examine a season in which they tanked and what came of each tanking. See the Warriors’ section to understand the successful tanking equation: one part sheer luck meets one part smart drafting. Hinkie had neither ingredient, hence why he is out of a job – bottom line.

A History of Tanking Continue reading

NBA Graveyard 2016: Bucks Take a Step Back

It’s March and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. More importantly, what can be salvaged going into next season and beyond? Cuz the great thing about the NBA is even when all is lost, the dead still have hope. There’s always room for wild optimism thanks to coaching carousels, the siren song of the big free agent, the franchise-saving Draft pick, the unknown potential of young assets and blind faith. 

For the second straight year, the Milwaukee Bucks are figuring things out in the final stretch of the season. Unfortunately for them, the East is no longer a cakewalk. You must win more than you lose to stay alive in 2016…

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Postmortem: I’ve written about the disappointing 2015-16 Bucks extensively back in December, when it was already clear this was a lost season. I won’t rehash too much here. It will suffice to say that it’s nearly April and the Bucks haven’t had one winning month. Here are their monthly splits: Continue reading

Shifting Conference Tectonics as 2016 Begins

Welcome to 2016, loyal DotB readers!

The first two months of the season are in the books and I’m here to kick off 2016 with a deep dive into the two conferences, followed by a Power Rankings level-set. I will examine where I was right at the start of the season and eat a large plate of crow for all the teams I guessed wrong on. Each year teams surprise us with out of nowhere starts and unexpected falls from grace but this year is especially filled with upheaval. It’s part of what makes the league fun to follow and keeps us on our toes. To wit, I am in a four-man win total “fantasy” league and I thought I staged a coup with my draft picks in the preseason. Those picks were OKC, Houston, Washington, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver and Utah. Yikes. Thanks to the Rockets, Wiz, Bucks and Jazz I am in dead last as we start 2016.

Perhaps the biggest story of the first two months for me is the shifting balance of power in the conferences. For years I’ve been fascinated with the West’s consistent dominance and curious as to how one conference can stay in power for so long. However, though the top three teams in the NBA all reside out West, the bottom falls out quickly in that usually loaded conference. It’s likely that this season the West will have two playoff teams under .500, a dubious feat that the East had cornered the market on in recent years. You have to go back to 1996-97 for the last time the West fielded a below-.500 playoff participant (there were actually three that year!). Last season’s 8-seed (New Orleans) had 45 wins and the year before that Dallas finished eighth with 49.

So it begs the questions: is this just a down year that the West was long overdue for, a blip on the radar that will right itself quickly? Or is this a sign of a changing of the power structure in the NBA? I’ll look at it through a few prisms – Superstar Arms Race, Second-tier Stars and Randomness.

The easiest way – outside of win/loss records – to determine prowess in the NBA is star power. The way that teams acquire stars (mostly) is through the Draft. So I decided to look at recent Drafts to see if any patterns emerged that have hurt the West and empowered the East.

By and large, after the year LeBron, Bosh and Wade entered the league (2003-04) up until 2009, the West did a better job of getting superstars through the draft, which is a key reason behind its continued big brother status. Here are a few names you may be familiar with: Chris Paul (’05, New Orleans), Blake Griffin (’09, Clippers), Kevin Durant (’07, Sonics/OKC), Russell Westbrook (’08, Sonics/OKC), Steph Curry (’09, Warriors), James Harden (’09, OKC), Lamarcus Aldridge (’06, Blazers via trade).

Since the 2010 Draft, the West has continue to add bona fide and/or potential superstars like Demarcus Cousins (’10, Kings), Klay Thompson (’11, Warriors), Kawhi Leonard (’11 Spurs via trade), Damian Lillard (2012), Anthony Davis (2012), Draymond Green (2012), Andrew Wiggins (2014) and Karl Anthony-Towns (2015).

Here’s how the East has done since 2010:

’10 – John Wall, Paul George

’11 – Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler

’12 – Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond

’13 – Giannis Antetokounmpo

’14 – Jabari Parker

’15 – Kristaps Porzingis, Jahlil Okafor

I’d take Boogie, Klay, Kawhi, Dame and AD in a heartbeat over the East’s top five drafted stars since 2010 (with Draymond off the bench – wow). So even though the East done a better job in the last five years through the Draft, it still lost ground in the Superstar Arms Race with the West. This would seem to point to 2015-16 being an aberration, rather than the beginning of a decline for the West. It’s a superstar-driven league.

The East did, however, seem to add more Second-tier Stars (guys like Beal, Walker, Giannis) since 2010. That may be a function of continually bagging more high lottery picks. Each conference sends seven teams to the lottery each year, but the teams with the worst records have a better chance at picking high in the top 10. Since 2008, the East had 44 top 10 picks, to the West’s 36. That has to impact overall roster depth in due time. I combed through the players picked in those draft since ’08 and – admittedly somewhat subjectively – tallied up how many of those lottery picks are impactful NBA players in 2016. Thirty-six impact players from the last eight drafts reside in the East, while just 28 play in the West. This would tend to suggest that the East has gotten deeper if not necessarily more star-studded in recent years. This line of thinking seems to fit teams like Boston, Charlotte, Orlando, Atlanta, Detroit and Toronto – all playoff-contending, over-.500 East teams for much of this season that don’t boast many huge names on their rosters. Meanwhile, such star-led teams in the West like Houston (Harden, Dwight Howard), New Orleans (Davis), Sacramento (Cousins), L.A. Lakers (Kobe) and Portland (Dame) have struggled at least in part due to lack of quality depth. My verdict here – the Second-tier Stars factor is real, and could continue to tip the scales East-ward. The current 2-10 seeds in the East may not be title contenders but they are tough on a nightly basis thanks to deep rotations and can all finish with winning records.

The last, by definition impossible to quantify measure, is randomness. Here are some random, quirky things that have made the East better in 2015-16 and/or the West worse…

  • Conglomeration of talent at the top of the West. Aldridge went to San Antonio in the offseason, effectively creating a super team in the Spurs and turning a 50-win Blazers team into Lottery fodder. The Warriors kept their loaded roster intact after a historic season. The return of the KD-Russ-Ibaka trio at full health has made OKC a powerhouse again. The Clippers have struggled some but still have one of the top starting 5’s in the NBA talent-wise.
  • Houston forgetting that it was basketball season. They’ve gotten a coach fired, had many on-court bickering matches and sport some of the worst (laziest) transition defense in the league. After a conference finals appearance, the Rockets are the most disappointing team in the league, yet will make the playoffs by default. Slated for 55 or so wins, they will be lucky to finish .500. Can’t wait for them to sleep through a Round 1 loss.
  • The Plague hitting New Orleans. A supposed shoo-in to build upon last season’s 45-win playoff team, they barely have enough NBA players most nights thanks to a rash of injuries.
  • Memphis got old, Phoenix imploded and the Kings, Nuggets and Blazers aren’t ready for primetime.
  • Injuries have disproportionately hit the West. Eric Bledsoe is lost for the year, the Nuggets and Pelicans are decimated, Mike Conley and Lillard have missed time. Even the 32-2 Warriors have been hit by injuries, not that it’s hurt them much.
  • Unlike most recent years, the East only has two doormats in Philly and Brooklyn. The Magic, Hornets, Pistons, Knicks and Pacers have graduated up a level or two thanks to improved coaching (Magic, Hornets, Pistons), a healthy Paul George (Pacers) and an influx of respectable talent (Knicks). As bad as Washington and Milwaukee have been compared to expectations, they can be tough on any given night.
  • Coaching performances. Stan Van Gundy, Frank Vogel, Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer, David Blatt, Scott Skiles, Steve Clifford, Eric Spoelstra and Dwayne Casey have done great jobs this year. They all coach teams in the East.

After considering these factors – a combination of great coaching, an uptick in roster depth and random cataclysm striking the West – I tend to conclude that the shifting in conference tectonics this year has been more a blip than a new world order. When it comes to the NBA I will always side with the Superstars, and there are just more of them out West. Besides, Golden State and San Antonio are miles ahead of anyone else in the league and OKC edges out Cleveland for No. 3 in my Power Rankings. So chances are the West will still wear the crown that matters when the season ends. The regular season crown is a good start for the East though as it fights for respectability, and I’m excited to see a much more balanced NBA going forward.

Here’s to a great new year of pro basketball, and my inaugural 2016 Power Rankings will be right up!

Wizards and Bucks – What’s the Deal?

We’re far enough along in the NBA season to start figuring out some trends and deciding who’s actually good and who isn’t. Stubbornly, I still want to hold out hope for two Eastern Conference playoff representatives from a year ago that I expected big things out of, but who have not delivered at all. Of course I’m talking about the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards. Actually, the Wizards and Bucks are the only two teams in the East that you can call disappointing through 20 or so games. I mean, were Philly and Brooklyn fans really expecting much? I hope not. As I covered yesterday, teams like the Magic, Hornets, Pacers and Pistons have made the Central and Southeast Divisions suddenly deep. The Celtics are about what we expected, and the New York Knickerbockers are riding the giant Latvian rookie Kristaps Porzignis to a surprisingly positive start. All three divisions in the East are more competitive and overall better than expected.

But there’s always a flip side to that coin. If most of the East is coming up Heads, then the Wiz and Bucks are left chasing their Tails. Let’s try to figure out what’s wrong, and whether either situation is salvageable.

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What’s up with the Wiz?

Washington, fresh off an inspiring postseason run and sporting a shiny backcourt, has stumbled to a 7-9 start. Fans actually booed franchise point guard John Wall the other night after he missed free throws in a terrible loss to the Lakers. Shooting guard Bradley Beal has continued to struggle with minor injuries, Nene is banged up and now Marcin Gortat is away from the team for a personal matter. The frustration last season from NBA viewers was that coach Randy Wittman seemed unaware of the fact that his dynamic backcourt plays best when they are attacking on the fast break and pushing the pace. Wall, in particular, is a unique weapon that runs circles around opponents and creates opportunities on defense with his quick hands. Wittman did a 180 in the playoffs, finally playing a smaller lineup and revving up the engines on offense – the result was a first round spanking of Toronto in four games. They then took the 60-win Hawks to six games, losing the final two by a combined four points. It seemed Wittman had finally figured out what he had in his roster. And they have mostly continued the pace and space strategy in 2015-16 (they’re currently 3rd in pace), but the wins haven’t followed. So what’s wrong?

For one, Wall hasn’t been good. The fanciest Tesla that Elon Musk can build won’t work without a charge, and Wall is the battery that Washington runs on. He’s more than two assists per game below is career-high 10 per game last season, and his field goal percentage is slightly down. He’s shooting more threes and making them at an OK rate (33%) but teams will concede a long range shot to Wall all day long over a drive to the rack. In Washington’s 3-1 start, Wall was great (21 and 8 per game). They’ve been 4-8 since and maddeningly inconsistent, following their star’s lead. Wall had 35 and 10 in a fantastic 97-85 win over Cleveland on Dec. 1. The next night they lost to the Lakers at home. To be fair, Wall had great numbers against L.A. but he did miss the key free throws that led to the booing.

Second issue has been Bradley Beal, who was expected to make another leap in a contract year. He leads the team in scoring but remains in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries. In general his shooting numbers are good but I guess the leap hasn’t been as great as I expected, especially for  a guy who will be looking for a max contract after the season.

The third issue I see is a fundamental one that many teams are facing in the “We want to emulate the Warriors” era. I covered this before with the Bulls, and the Wizards are an even better example of this struggle. That being, if you’re going to play fast that equals more possessions, and more possessions equals more shots. YOU NEED TO HAVE GUYS THAT CAN MAKE SHOTS IN ORDER TO MAKE THIS A SUCCESSFUL PLAN. Sorry for yelling. But outside of Beal, who are the shotmakers on this team? Otto Porter has made 15 threes on 57 attempts. Jared Dudley is always solid and is shooting 50 percent from the field but he’s a bit player. Gary Neal can knock down shots but he’s not going to win you many games. In theory Kris Humphries stretches the floor and he’s done well this year at 36 percent from beyond the arc, but he’s basically a seventh man. They really need another guy or two on the wing that scares defenses – Porter was supposed to be that guy, but he hasn’t flourished in a bigger role.

Are the Wizards salvageable?

I really, really want to say yes, and I’m not going to count out Wall and Beal just yet, but let’s reexamine in a month. The Wizards are entering a murderous stretch in their schedule, as 15 of their next 20 opponents currently have winning records. They are dead last in the Southeast and every other team in their division has a winning record. The East is back from a 15 year hiatus (at least so far this season) and it won’t be easy to dig out of their current hole, God forbid they dig any deeper in the tough month ahead. It’s amazing to consider, but the Wizards could be a lottery team by mid-January, unless they quickly right the ship.

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What’s up with the Bucks?

Milwaukee was a great story last year, riding a bunch of fresh faces with long wingspans and bouncy legs to a surprise playoff spot. They punched the heavily-favored Bulls in the mouth in the first round before bowing out in six games. This created hope, that ever-fragile and sometimes dangerous thing that gets fanbases fired up and GMs occasionally fired. Why not be hopeful? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are two legitimate stars in the making, with fingers crossed for good health (Parker) and proper development (Giannis). Jason Kidd seems a natural at this NBA coaching thing and he’s a former point guard that fixed his broken shot, creating more hope still that he can fix the Bucks’ point guard Michael Carter-Williams’ broken shot. So the Bucks decided they were ready to go for it, signing big-time free agent Greg Monroe and extending promising wing Khris Middleton. In the meantime they let veterans like Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova walk. They unveiled shiny new uniforms (very nice actually) and a new court design and prepared to continue their ascendance up the Eastern Conference ladder.

So what’s happened? The shiny toys (Giannis!, Parker!, Middleton!, Monroe!, playoff excitement!, rebranding!) drove “hope” and “potential” but distracted them from some of the core reasons behind last year’s success. Less sexy things like veteran leadership and toughness were sacrificed to bring in Monroe. The former Pistons big man has not panned out thus far, to put it nicely. Not to say Monroe isn’t a good player, but it’s a square peg in a round hole situation. He doesn’t fit the rangy, bouncy, tenacious D profile that drove the Bucks last season. The team thought guys like Giannis and Jon Henson could make up for Monroe’s deficiencies on defense and the loss of Zaza, but the drop has been precipitous. Defense was key to this team’s identity last season, and they currently are the second-worst defense in the league. MCW is also not great on defense, and his shot is still broken. Methinks Milwaukee regrets jettisoning Brandon Knight to Phoenix last year. They just don’t have enough punch on offense to overcome bad defense. The Bucks should be grinding teams down and winning slugfests in the low 90s. Right now they allow 103 points per game.

That’s how a great deal of hope turns into a 7-12 start.

Are the Bucks salvageable?

In any other year, probably. But with the way the East is playing out this season, sadly the answer has to be no. That’s right, I’m writing off one of my NBA Risers from the preseason in December.

Long-term, yes, they are salvageable. But they currently sit last in the Central and 13th in the East. They are headed for the lottery. There will be some tough choices to make, but a core of Giannis, Parker and Middleton can still be special. I think MCW needs to go, more shooting will need to be acquired and somehow they need to fit Monroe into the mix or trade him if it really goes bad.

It’s sad because a season ago this team had a real identity – they thrived on creating chaos, forcing turnovers and brought attitude to the table, thanks mostly to Zaza. I’m always amazed when NBA teams add more talent and get worse on the court. Chemistry, identity, hope – it’s all very fragile in the NBA.

Rising(?) East – Examining the Southeast Division

The Southeast Division has rarely been relevant in the past decade, outside of the Miami super-teams and Atlanta’s 60 win season last year. But as mentioned in my last post, the Southeast is one of two divisions with four teams over .500. Charlotte and Orlando have been frisky, jumping out to 10-8 records. They both potentially join division mates Atlanta and Miami in the playoff conversation. I mentioned this already but it bears repeating: the top eight teams in the Southeast and Central divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. One of the toughest questions for NBA analysis is always, “is this a blip or a real thing?”

What makes me confident that the East is actually gaining ground on the West is that two East teams I most expected to be near the top are at the bottom – Milwaukee and Washington. I still have faith in both teams, but the East is no longer one big doormat and these two slow starters are learning that the hard way. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s go back to the goodness.

Southeast Division

  1. Miami (10-6)
  2. Atlanta (12-9)
  3. Charlotte (10-8)
  4. Orlando (10-8)

Quick hits on each team:

Miami can throw out a starting-5 that can stand toe to toe with just about anyone, and they do one thing exceedingly well – play efficient defense. Opponents shoot so poorly against the Heat it’s like they’re using those tight carnival rims that always screw me out of a useless prize dammit. The Heat hold opponents to 41% from the field (1st in NBA), 32% from three (4th), allow the second fewest free throw attempts per game and lead the league in point allowed per game (92.5). The reason they aren’t, say 14-2, rather than 10-6, is an almost equally anemic offense. Basically Heat games this season have been brick-laying contests in which Miami forces slightly more clanks from their opponent than they produce. They’ve only gotten off for more than 100 points four times this season, but three were against Houston, Sacramento and the Lakers. Those three may as well spot the other team 15 points at the start of each game. With the talent on Miami’s roster – Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh – you expect the scoring to go up at some point. The mantra for these guys is to keep healthy for the playoffs.

Atlanta will not win 60 games again this season. We all knew that. But an early 7-game win streak (albeit against less than stellar competition) shot them to the top of the conference early. Their defense has taken a bit of a hit without DeMarre Carroll, and with Tiago Splitter on the injured list. But Budenholzer ball continues to thrive – the Hawks are second in the league in assists and top half in most shooting categories. They should compete for a top four seed all year.

Charlotte is a team that I had completely written off after the season-ending injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That they are 10-8 is a testament to the coaching staff, Nic Batum’s bounce back season and a more efficient Kemba Walker. The narrative around this team is that they are hoisting threes at will and just trying to outscore teams with their defensive stopper MKG on the shelf. They have gone nuts in certain games, scoring 130 on the Bulls and 108 on the Mavs in back to back games. They hit 14 threes in that Bulls beatdown, but only 6 against the Mavs. They rank 6th in scoring and 12th in three point attempts, numbers that seem improbable for a team that features Al Jefferson. I love Big Al, but he slows the game down and has never been known as a great kick out passer once he gets the ball down low. Nice job by coach Steve Clifford pivoting their style after MKG went down and helping Marvin Williams find a niche as a stretch four.

Orlando is just awesome. They are a joy to watch. They are filled with pedigreed athletes (due to so many years of high lottery picks), they play hard for Scott Skiles, they make mistakes but always seem to put up a fight against tougher competition. This is the trajectory I hoped they’d be on and I expect their above-average play to continue. Victor Oladipo has taken the next step and has slightly improved his jumper but it still needs work. Elfrid Payton has fantastic hair but also needs work on his jumper. Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon are fascinating swiss army knife type of players and Evan Fournier has surprised me with his scoring. Nikola Vucevic gives them a constant 15 and 10 post presence. With so many pieces Skiles can roll out many different lineup combinations to mix things up and keep other teams guessing. For instance, potentially their toughest lineup to defend this season is Fournier, Payton, Vucevic, Channing Frye and Tobias Harris. Figure out a way to slow that group down, and here comes Oladipo and Gordon; two more difficult problems to solve. Orlando may slip in to the playoffs as an 8 seed, and drive Cleveland batty in Round 1.

Back in a bit with a diagnosis and analysis of Milwaukee and Washington.

Rising(?) East – Examining the Central Division

Over a month into the NBA season, there are many early returns I didn’t see coming (hello Houston and NoLA), but I will take credit for predicting the rise of the Central Division. Since it’s only been a month I can’t say it’s eclipsed the Southwest Division as the class of the league, but it’s much closer than expected thanks to some stumbling teams (hello again, H-Town & N.O.).

Three of the four Central teams won again last night (Cleveland was off), leaving four teams in the division above .500 on the season. The only other division in the NBA with four teams over .500 is the surprising Southeast, where Charlotte and Orlando have overachieved to 10-8 records. Amazingly, the top eight teams in these two divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. This is where I remind you that the West has bested the East in regular season record 15 of the last 16 years. It’s only early December, but we can officially raise an eyebrow at the perpetual little brother, the East.

What’s most crazy about these early results is who is not doing well in these divisions. Unquestionably, the two worst teams in the Central/Southeast have been Milwaukee and Washington, two playoff teams that went all in to win this season. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s start with the good.

Central Division

  1. Cleveland (13-5)
  2. Indiana (12-5)
  3. Chicago (11-5)
  4. Detroit (10-9)

Cleveland came in as the clear favorite to win the East and that hasn’t changed. I’m loving the all-business version of LeBron we’re getting right now; he has his guys humming and their fast start will allow Kyrie Irving to ease back into the lineup when healthy. Get Kyrie back, get Iman Shumpert back, hit full stride going into the playoffs. That’s the script for Cleveland and nothing has diverted them from it so far.

Indiana is the true surprise of the division early on. Frank Vogel is a great coach because he has shown the ability to adapt. Much like Erik Spoelstra in Miami or Gregg Popovich in San Antonio have done, Vogel has changed to fit the personnel and whims of the front office. Roster turnover is a thing that happens quickly in the NBA, especially when you factor in injuries. Before Paul George went down prior to the 2014-15 season, Indiana was one of the top teams in the West, by playing a plodding, physical style anchored in defense and rebounding. Roy Hibbert and David West were great on the boards but not ideal for spacing on offense. So Vogel shaped a team that wasn’t all that fun to watch but they were damn successful, with those bigs clogging the middle and the versatile Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill wing combo slowing down shooters and creating turnovers. Losing George before the start of the season made last year a lost cause, but Indiana has quickly pivoted into a totally different attack. PG-13 is back playing at an All-NBA level on both sides of the court and the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating, 9th in pace and 2nd in three-point percentage. The truly amazing thing is that their defense hasn’t slipped a bit when they’ve gone small. I really don’t have a great explanation for that, outside of Vogel’s game planning and George’s all-around brilliance. They are blitzing teams with one lineup that’s featuring Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen as the only “bigs”to the tune of +55 points and +6 rebounds. Another lineup with Jordan Hill as the lone big is +40 in points. I have doubts on whether any of this is sustainable but the Pacers have proven me wrong thus far.

Chicago keeps winning yet I’m not quite sure how they’re doing it. As a Bulls fan I’m very happy with an 11-5 start, but I also worry about sustainability here. Let’s take a closer look. First off, who are the Bulls beating? All the good teams, seemingly. Chicago has knocked off Cleveland, OKC, San Antonio, Indiana, Charlotte and earned a nice road win in Phoenix. They played Golden State tough in Oracle before the Warriors’ practically unfair, Draymond at the 5 lineup torched them in the final two minutes. The Bulls have only scored over 100 points in five of their wins, while ranking 4th in defensive rating. So their well-renowned defense hasn’t been hurt, curiously, by Fred Hoiberg’s new system. Season-long, a Hoiberg team can’t compete with a Thibs scheme in defensive efficiency, right? (However, considering most of the roster has been around for a while, we do need to give them some credit for retaining Thibs’ principles and knowing how to play the game at a high level. They are NBA players, after all). Of their five losses, two have been in overtime and only one occurred at the United Center. So no worries right? All good, moving on…

…OK now taking my head out of the sand. There are a few concerns worth mentioning quickly. A) Derrick Rose is shooting 34% and 19%(!) from three; B) Nikola Mirotic may not actually be a good shooter (which they desperately need him to be), and his incessant pump-faking is ridiculous; C) Hoiberg has them playing 11th in pace yet 26th in offensive efficiency. So they are getting shots up quickly just not making them. If this doesn’t right itself, how can their defense possibly hold up?; D) four of the top five Bulls’ lineups in terms of +/- don’t include D-Rose, but four of the bottom five +/- lineups do include D-Rose. E) As a D-Rose fan, I’m sad.

Detroit raced out to a 5-1 start, lost four straight, then have played about even ball since. They are much improved, but still have glaring flaws, which show up in their multiple blowout losses. Six of their losses have been by nine points or more. It boils down to a serious lack of shooting. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond can be magic on the pick-and-roll, but when defenses clamp down and force Detroit to beat them from the outside, they simply don’t have the firepower. Marcus Morris is shooting just 28% from three, so not doing his part to stretch the defense, while Stanley Johnson has shown flashes and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been up and down. On nights when they can be close to league average in field goal / three point shooting they will be dangerous. Once they get Brandon Jennings back, they may get a much needed shot in the arm, at least for small stretches. But basketball is definitely back in the Motor City, and I can’t get enough of Mr. Drummond.

Southeast Division breakdown coming up next…

 

What We Might Know After a Week (Eastern Conference)

What might we know after a week of NBA games? After looking at some data…maybe, probably nothing. But we can look at what last year’s standings were after each team played three games, and where that jived with or diverted from final standings. After waiting breathlessly all offseason for NBA action and eager to understand the league power structure, I crave context. I posted the Western Conference breakdown earlier. Now moving on to the Eastern Conference.

Anyone who follows the NBA with any real enthusiasm knows one simple truth: the Eastern Conference is inferior to its Western counterpart. It’s been that way for most of the 21st century. Some day I will do an investigation into why this phenomenon exists. But for now, just take comfort in the fact that the status quo has not changed. There’s one constant in this ever-changing world.

While the West has three winless teams in Houston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles (Lakers), the first two still have very real playoff aspirations after their bad start. Middle of the pack teams such as Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento and Utah all pack a punch. And the top of the West is much stronger than the top of the East. So the top, middle and bottom of the West is looking to be superior. To further illustrate the point, in this admittedly early stage of the NBA season, there are six winless East teams – Milwaukee, Philly, Indiana, Charlotte, Orlando and Brooklyn.

Detroit is a pleasant surprise at 3-0, and the Raptors have also jumped out to an undefeated start. Chicago and Atlanta have each played four games and sit at 3-1, while Miami, Washington and Cleveland all look very good. Here’s a look at the standings early on:

  Team W L
1 Raptors 3 0
1 Pistons 3 0
3 Bulls 3 1
3 Hawks 3 1
5 Cavaliers 2 1
5 Knicks 2 1
5 Heat 2 1
8 Wizards 2 1
9 Celtics 1 2
10 76ers 0 2
10 Bucks 0 3
10 Pacers 0 3
10 Hornets 0 3
10 Magic 0 3
10 Nets 0 3

Here’s a look at where the East stood after three games last season, and the final conference standings:

14-’15 Team W L   Final Standings W L
1 Heat 3 0 1 Hawks 60 22
2 Bulls 2 1 2 Cavaliers 53 29
2 Wizards 2 1 3 Bulls 50 32
2 Raptors 2 1 4 Raptors 49 33
2 Knicks 2 1 5 Wizards 46 36
2 Nets 2 1 6 Bucks 41 41
7 Cavaliers 1 2 7 Celtics 40 42
7 Bucks 1 2 8 Nets 38 44
9 Celtics 1 2 8 Pacers 38 44
9 Pacers 1 2 10 Heat 37 45
9 Hawks 1 2 11 Hornets 33 49
9 Hornets 1 2 12 Pistons 32 50
13 Pistons 0 3 13 Magic 25 57
13 76ers 0 3 14 76ers 18 64
13 Magic 0 3 15 Knicks 17 65

The East was weird last year, as the Heat adjusted to life after LeBron and eventually were done in by health issues. The Knicks fell off a cliff, winning only 15 more games after their 2-1 start. The Cavs struggled near .500 before the LeBattical and Timofey Mozgov/J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert acquisitions, finishing the season 35-15 over the last four months. Meanwhile the Atlanta Hawks became nearly unbeatable for three months, going 38-6 from December through February.

Looking at the first week of this season, there are only two teams that really stand out as surprises – the Pistons and Bucks. These two Central division teams are headed in different directions through three games. Detroit has reshaped its roster and approach to the game. A question mark coming into the season was their defense, but they are winning with stellar performances on that side of the court, anchored by Andre Drummond blocking/changing shots in the paint. The Pistons are winning while shooting just 39 percent (28th in NBA) and ranking 21st in points per game. But they’re fourth in opponent’s points per game and are holding teams to just 28 percent from beyond the arc.

If the Pistons join the Heat in making the playoffs in the East this year, that means at least two teams that made it last year will fall to the Lottery. The Nets will be one of those teams. The other, it pains me to say, could be the Bucks. A chic pick to make a leap by people like me (I gushed about them in this NBA Risers column), the Bucks are struggling to find their way. They clearly miss cagey veterans like Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, while Giannis missed a game and Jabari Parker hasn’t played yet (he’s cleared to play as of this writing). Meanwhile the addition of Greg Monroe, while it has great potential, has disrupted the chemistry. The Bucks are also testing conventional wisdom by starting a point guard that can’t shoot, in Michael Carter-Williams. He’s shooting a gross 27 percent from three.

The good news for Milwaukee, besides Jabari returning to the lineup? There are 79 games left, and they play in the East. The Rockets and Pelicans are envious.

NBA Season Tips Off – Up & Down (New Feature)

The season is underway and there are some early (very early) surprises. Up & Down will look at how teams are performing against expectations. We’re trying really hard not to overreact to 1 or 2 games, but not making any promises.

We’re two days into the 2015-16 NBA season, I haven’t stopped drooling and I can only blame the dog for so long.

But what a start! One of the most blah games on the slate last night turned out to be an emotional, Rubio-tastic barnburner that saw Minnesota outlast the Lakers in L.A. 113-112. That was the capper on a 14-game evening that saw some teams laugh at the prognosticators with unexpected winning debuts, while others played like they think the season starts next week. Here’s a look at the teams that have looked the best and the worst to start this season.

Who’s Up

Nuggets – If you say you expected a 20-point win in Houston you’re either lying or you have a Delorean and we need to talk about some daily fantasy lineups. The new-look Nuggets were very impressive, especially rookie Emmanuel Mudiay (17 points, 9 assists) and Danilo Gallinari (23 points, 8 rebounds). Gallo showed up to camp in great shape and looked spry in his return from injury. Mudiay had 11 turnovers, to be expected for a rookie point guard. What was unexpected was his stroke from outside. In a night where many rookies shined, he may have been the brightest.

Bulls – Da Bulls are off to a 2-0 start after topping the Cavs on Tuesday and avoided a hangover to win the next night at Brooklyn. Under Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls are leveraging their deep roster and spreading around minutes, while showing an emphasis on ball movement offensively. No longer are the Bulls stagnating with one on ones and forcing shots at the end of the shot clock. The defense may be sacrificed somewhat, but Bulls brass and many fans have clamored for years for imaginative offense and fewer minutes for star players and they’re getting it so far. Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose look good, and Nikola Mirotic has been much improved so far.

Pistons – Our other 2-0 team in the East, to the surprise of many so far. The Pistons were a mess last year before Stan Van Gundy arrived. SVG reshaped the roster, letting Josh Smith and Greg Monroe go and bringing in Reggie Jackson. The result so far is a more potent offense centered around Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls and outside shooting from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and rookie Stanley Johnson. Drummond grabbed 19 boards against the Hawks and has four blocks in two games. He looks to be taking the next step toward being an absolute monster on the block, inspiring hope in the Motor City for a playoff spot for the first time in half a decade.

Knicks – Holy Kristaps! The Knicks and their big rookie blitzed the Bucks in the opener, 122-97. As bad as they were last year, the Knicks quietly made some nice moves in the offseason. The Zen Master added real NBA players like Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn and Derrick Williams, the latter surprised an out-of-nowhere 24 point debut. If Porzingis is the real deal, things will be looking up in the Big Apple. The fact they destroyed the Bucks on a poor shooting night from Carmelo is all the more impressive.

Mavericks – I expected – and still sort of expect – a big swoon this year from Dallas. They just have so little depth on paper and are relying on old and/or injury-hampered guys in so many key spots. But I was reminded once again last night the dangers of doubting Rick Carlisle and Dirk. The Mavs are committing to Carlisle long term, a genius move, even if they will more or less be starting from scratch in the near future player personnel-wise. Carlisle is a top schemer on both ends and can develop players with the best of them. The 8-seed may not be a dream if the right guys stay healthy.

Trail Blazers – They did it against a banged-up Pelicans team traveling on a back-to-back, but that doesn’t diminish a stellar debut. Portland rolled to a 112-94 victory behind CJ McCollum’s career game. The guard scored 37 points, 28 in a 70-point first half for Portland. With four new starters and the loss of Lamarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Nic Batum, Portland still figures to fall out of the playoff picture. But their games will be high-scoring affairs if McCollum’s rise is real, as he and Damian Lillard will light up scoreboards while having trouble defending opposing backcourts. Nice job by another great coach in this league, Terry Stotts.

Timberwolves – I saw a great tweet last night by AP Writer Jon Krawczynski, who tweeted “No way Flip was letting that go in”, in reference to Lou Williams’ last-second floater that rimmed out at the buzzer in Minnesota’s 112-111 win over the Lakers. The late, great Flip Saunders left Minny set up wonderfully for the future. Ricky Rubio torched the much-maligned Lakers defense for a career-high 28 points to go with 14 dimes, while first overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns (14 points, 12 boards) looked like a star in the making. That post-up fadeaway shot he displayed last night made him look like a 10-year vet. Add to that last season’s Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, and the future is bright for Flip’s crew.

Who’s Down?

Pelicans – Yikes. Once players started dropping like flies in the preseason, expectations began falling for this team, at least in the early going. But many predicted that Anthony Davis’ sheer brilliance would carry this team to the top half of the West. It’s only two games in, but what we might be learning is that today’s NBA – and especially the West – is just too stocked with talent for one player to make a winner out of a franchise. There’s no denying Davis’ greatness and their season started against the champion Warriors at Oracle on their ring ceremony night. So let’s pump the brakes…they were never going to win game 1. However, my eyebrows raised a bit last night, when they got throttled in Portland. The Pels’ defense was hoping to be much-improved from last year, when they were 22nd in defensive rating. They hired guru Darren Erman to run the defense but they didn’t envision allowing 70 points in the first half to a middling (on paper) Portland team. I’m confident things will get ironed out and guys will get healthy but this is about as bad a start as they could’ve had, aside from a Davis injury.

Rockets – What the hell was that, man? I’m a huge supporter of this Rockets team after they showed grit and mettle in last year’s postseason and added Ty Lawson to an already loaded roster. I talked myself into them potentially leading the league in wins this year, drafting them high in my win totals fantasy league. For them to come out and lay a complete egg on opening night, at home, has me taken aback and smdh. (This is the part where I remind myself it was only one game. 81 more of these babies). OK. Thinking positively now. They were without Dwight Howard (suspended), who would have prevented such easy access to the cup for Gallinari and fortified the defensive end. Harden is pretty fresh off a Kardashian summer and still has some of that stink on him. Lawson will take some time to mesh with this group. And Clint Capela looks like a potential stud. I feel a little better now. I just really hope this isn’t the team we get every year that spent the offseason getting pumped up by their own press clippings and hype only to have all that air fly out of the balloon. Of course, that team could be…

Bucks – ….the Bucks. They impressed and genuinely scared me last year in the first round against my Bulls. Their length, versatility and irritating defense mixed with their youth made them a bandwagon pick to make a leap this year. They added Greg Monroe, and he played well enough last night. The idea is he provides a reliable post scoring threat, but I wonder if he slows down their pace too much and hampers their frantic switching defense. Monroe isn’t jumping out to guard a wing or provide much help-side rim protection in a fast-paced game. This may just take some time – and I believe in Jason Kidd’s coaching – but my eyebrow’s raised.

Suns – This was always a season that could go one or two ways for the Suns. Of all the teams out there, Phoenix had the most variance in win total projections. If the unorthodox pieces didn’t fit, Jeff Hornacek continues regressing and Markieff Morris loses his mind, they are going in the tank. But if they jelled and played more like the Suns of two years ago they could contend for a playoff spot. After last  night’s home stinker against Dallas, we are on a path to the former, maybe sooner than we expected possible. A couple teams with playoff hopes have to be bad in the West, and I’d bet on PHX over New Orleans for sure.

Grizzlies – I love Memphis and their style of play, and still think they’ll be the sixth seed out West. There is potential for this to be the year their old school grit n grind game fails them and their lack of scoring punch becomes too much to overcome. The Cavs are a tough early season opponent, to be sure. But losing by 30 while putting up just 76 points at home is a bad, bad look. Let’s hope this was an aberration.

The Denny Green Division “They are who we thought they were!” (at least through 1 game)

Kings – Nice comeback to make the Clippers sweat last night, but they imploded late and we had a nice Boogie Cousins meltdown on the bench in the final minutes. Sounds about right.

Cavs – Tough road loss at Chicago, then a dominant performance over Memphis. They will be great.

Warriors – Just watchin’ the throne…

Celtics – Well-coached. Strong defensively. Going to beat the bad teams (like Philly).

Heat – Great to see Chris Bosh back and good as ever. Same with D Wade. And look out for Justise Winslow, steal of the draft.

Thunder – Great win over San Antonio. They will compete for the top seed. KD and Russ are on a mission. Dion Waiters looking competent was the only surprise.

Spurs – Aldridge (just 11 points) will take time to learn the Spurs Way, as predicted. Played the Thunder tough, they will be fine.

Clippers – Someone tell Boogie that the Clips like to run Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan alley-oops. He may be the last man on Earth that doesn’t know.

Taking My Temperature on the ESPN Summer Forecast

Recently, ESPN put out its “Summer Forecast” rankings, based on a survey of their NBA experts’ thoughts on 2015-16 team win totals. Since it’s Labor Day weekend and we’re still nearly two months from the start of the season, I figured I’d take a look and comment on these rankings. Below are my thoughts for each team’s projected win total, followed by a forecast of my own.

 EASTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Proj. record: 59-23

Last season: 53-29

This is low. Like everyone else in the world, I have Cleveland winning the East, but anything under 60 wins would really shock me. Even with Kyrie missing time, the Cavs have made enough improvements in the offseason and the team jelled in the playoff run.

  1. Chicago Bulls

Proj. record: 50-32

Last season: 50-32

This is the safe bet, factoring in the unknown that is Head Coach Fred Hoiberg. But this team has done it before and with a jolt on the offensive end, 50 wins will be a disappointment. I like Chicago for 2nd in the East, but it will take 53-55 wins to do so.

  1. Atlanta Hawks

Proj. record: 50-32

Last season: 60-22

I’m a bit lost on this team. I still don’t know how they won 60 last year, and DeMarre Carroll’s loss will be felt, but not sure he is worth 10 wins. However, some of the bloom is off the rose with the players that are left I feel, so I’m predicting an even more precipitous drop.

  1. Miami Heat

Proj. record: 47-35

Last season: 37-45

I’m predicting more than 47 wins from Miami, as they will be one of the bigger turnaround teams this season. Health won’t be perfect, but a killer starting 5 and great coach in Eric Spoelstra gets them close to 50 wins.

  1. Washington Wizards

Proj. record: 46-36

Last season: 46-36

The Wizards were impressive last year but their 2015-16 success hinges on a few key items: Jared Dudley and Otto Porter replacing Paul Pierce’s production and veteran leadership, Bradley Beal and John Wall staying healthy enough to become a top 3 backcourt and Randy Wittman staying out of his own way. 46 wins feels about right but could swing based on those factors.

  1. Toronto Raptors

Proj. record: 44-38

Last season: 49-33

The Raptors played like crap in the playoffs. But they should get a healthier Kyle Lowry and added Carroll to give them more lineup versatility.. I’m guessing they finish a bit closer to last year’s totals. Playoff performance will be a whole other conversation.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

Proj. record: 44-38

Last season: 41-41

I love the Bucks this year, see my NBA Risers column for more detail. A healthy Jabari Parker and addition of Greg Monroe should lead to 44-45 wins.

  1. Boston Celtics

Proj. record: 40-42

Last season: 40-42

People always talk about Brad Stevens when they talk Celtics. Having a great coach goes a long way and I admire Stevens’ work, but at the end of the day you need stars if you want to be a factor in the NBA. The 8-seed feels like their ceiling, right around 40 wins.

  1. Indiana Pacers

Proj. record: 39-43

Last season: 38-44

Indiana’s fate will be tied to Paul George. If he returns to even 90% of what he was two years ago, Indiana could nab a 7 or 8 seed. I’m not a fan of the rest of their roster, aside from George Hill and PG-13’s leg makes me nervous. I’m taking the under here.

  1. Charlotte Hornets

Proj. record: 35-47

Last season: 33-49

The Hornets ridded themselves of Lance Stephenson and stuck to their guns on drafting Frank Kaminsky, when Justise Winslow was unexpectedly available. I like the first move, hate the second. More mediocrity for MJ’s crew, 35 wins feels fair.

  1. Detroit Pistons

Proj. record: 35-47

Last season: 32-50

I’m going to pick Detroit to finish closer to 40 wins after some roster turnover and a training camp under SVG. This team will play together offensively, while Andre Drummond takes another leap on both ends.

  1. Brooklyn Nets

Proj. record: 30-52

Last season: 38-44

Brooklyn got rid of the disappointing Deron Williams and his huge cap hit. They also didn’t do much to get better, in an offseason with their hands tied due to irresponsible Russian rain-making the last few years. This feels high, which is sad.

  1. Orlando Magic

Proj. record: 30-52

Last season: 25-57

I really like the Magic roster and new coach Scott Skiles will bring a new energy. I think they improve by 10 wins and next season fight for a playoff spot.

  1. New York Knicks

Proj. record: 25-57

Last season: 17-65

An 8-win improvement seems high to me. Even with a healthy Carmelo they top out at 22 wins in an improved East. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Carmelo traded by February.

  1. Philadelphia 76ers

Proj. record: 19-63

Last season: 18-64

Philly has some players now after so many high draft picks, but their still raw, and the team is missing an identity. Again, with an improved East, this win total may be high which is really, really sad.

 WESTERN CONFERENCE 

  1. Golden State Warriors

Proj. record: 60-22

Last season: 67-15

The champs stood pat this offseason except for shipping out David Lee, which will give them a little flexibility to add to their already insane depth. I understand you can’t forecast 67 wins since it’s an all-time number, but I also don’t see them dropping off 7 wins from last year. They’re too good and every game (plus homecourt) matters in the West.

  1. San Antonio Spurs

Proj. record: 57-25

Last season: 55-27

This feels right. They will be awesome, but will take time to find their rhythm with the new pieces. Manu Ginobili is not the player he once was and they lost a lot of shooting and perimeter depth this offseason.

  1. Houston Rockets

Proj. record: 56-26

Last season: 56-26

Houston is absolutely stacked on paper. If Ty Lawson and James Harden figure out an efficient way to share the scoring load, look out. They could approach 60 wins, so I’m taking the over.

  1. Los Angeles Clippers

Proj. record: 56-26

Last season: 56-26

Another team that made some nice moves and got better this offseason. They will also need time to jell, but Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith are complementary pieces, so I expect them to hit their stride quicker than the Spurs, who are integrating a star in LaMarcus Aldridge. I’ll take them to outperform this projection.

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Proj. record: 55-27

Last season: 45-37

Jeez the West is stacked. OKC could conceivably win the West, which would mean 60-plus wins. We are the real winners, getting to watch KD and Russ play together again. Will be interesting to see how Billy Donovan works out as an NBA coach, but I’ll bet a few extra wins on him.

  1. Memphis Grizzlies

Proj. record: 51-31

Last season: 55-27

Memphis does feel due for a downturn, but I’ve gotten burned by that thinking before. With the intensity which they play defense, they are a threat to win on any given night in the regular season. 52 wins is my guess.

  1. New Orleans Pelicans

Proj. record: 47-35

Last season: 45-37

This is where things get really interesting in the West seeding. The team they’ve put around Anthony Davis is weird, and outside of Tyreke Evans I’m not sure where the consistent scoring will come from. However, Alvin Gentry should be counted on to make an impact on that end, and Davis is a monster, 45-47 seems more than doable.

  1. Dallas Mavericks

Proj. record: 41-41

Last season: 50-32

As a Dallas resident, I’m not a Mavs fan. But I’d still like to see them succeed so I can go to some intense late season and playoff games. But I don’t see them making the playoffs or even finishing .500. They’re counting on too many old guys and Wesley Matthews will need to be handled with care after an Achilles injury.

  1. Utah Jazz

Proj. record: 40-42

Last season: 38-44

This is the team I like to take the Blazers’ playoff spot. See NBA Risers for more color, I’ll just say I love the frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, they play great defense and the loss of Dante Exum – while it sucks – won’t hurt as much as one might expect. Trey Burke and Raul Neto can be serviceable – just feed the bigs and Gordon Hayward from the perimeter.

  1. Phoenix Suns

Proj. record: 35-47

Last season: 39-43

A super intriguing team. They are a huge wild card. Either Markieff Morris and all his drama lead this team into the tank, or they make a run at the 8-seed with an improved offense. Alex Len should be better, Tyson Chandler will anchor the defense and they have a plethora of perimeter weapons. I’m betting on an improvement and just missing the playoffs as the 9-seed.

  1. Portland Trail Blazers

Proj. record: 31-51

Last season: 51-31

This team was so great to watch the past two years, but they will fall off a cliff. 31 wins will be tough in the West, with really only Damian Lillard providing spark (and terrible defense).

  1. Sacramento Kings

Proj. record: 31-51

Last season: 29-53

I really enjoyed CBS Sports’ Zach Harper’s column on George Karl and Demarcus Cousins, and the potential to build a great offense regardless of the off court drama that has plagued the two. But the Kings need the turbulent Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay to click and not clash with a headstrong coach. That’s a bit too much to ask. Sacramento will struggle but 31 is attainable with the talent they have.

  1. Denver Nuggets

Proj. record: 27-55

Last season: 30-52

Really excited to watch Emmanuel Mudiay figure out the league. He will have his bumps, but will have the ball in his hands a ton and be asked to shoulder a major scoring load. That’s about all there is to watch in Denver this year. I’m taking the under.

  1. Los Angeles Lakers

Proj. record: 26-56

Last season: 21-61

If Kobe and Julius Randle play most of the season, and D’Angelo Russell lives up to the hype, these guys will at least have some entertainment value. They lack depth however, and Kobe’s body may just not be able to hold up anymore. I think they win 23 games, with some Vine-worthy moments mixed in.

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves

Proj. record: 24-58

Last season: 16-66

Their talented young core is exciting and the development of Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine will make for good League Pass nights, but 24 wins is too much of a jump.

Down On The Block’s Forecast

Eastern Conference

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers – (61-21)
  2. Chicago Bulls – (55-27)
  3. Miami Heat – (50-32)
  4. Washington Wizards – (47-35)
  5. Atlanta Hawks – (46-36)
  6. Toronto Raptors – (45-37)
  7. Milwaukee Bucks – (45-37)
  8. Detroit Pistons – (40-42)
  9. Boston Celtics – (40-42)
  10. Charlotte Hornets – (37-45)
  11. Orlando Magic – (36-46)
  12. Indiana Pacers – (35-47)
  13. Brooklyn Nets – (25-57)
  14. New York Knicks – (22-60)
  15. Philadelphia 76ers – (19-63)

Western Conference

  1. Golden State Warriors (62-20)
  2. Houston Rockets (60-22)
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder (57-25)
  4. San Antonio Spurs – (55-27)
  5. Los Angeles Clippers – (54-28)
  6. Memphis Grizzlies – (52-30)
  7. New Orleans Pelicans – (47-35)
  8. Utah Jazz – (43-39)
  9. Phoenix Suns – (41-41)
  10. Dallas Mavericks – (40-42)
  11. Sacramento Kings – (31-48)
  12. Los Angeles Lakers – (23-59)
  13. Portland Trail Blazers – (23-59)
  14. Denver Nuggets – (20-62)
  15. Minnesota Timberwolves – (19-63)

NBA Risers – Milwaukee Bucks

This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 4 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? The first team we’re tackling – the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee Bucks

Who are they? A feisty first round playoff team that nearly pushed the heavily favored Bulls to the brink. As a Bulls fan I admit this team had me seriously worried that my favorite team would be the first to blow a 3-0 series lead. The Buck are young, long, rangy and furious defenders. Their offense should get a shot in the arm with the addition of Greg Monroe and a healthy Jabari Parker. Jason Kidd has surprised with his early coaching success; he has this group believing.

How have they been built? Their most important pieces – Parker and Giannis – were Milwaukee first round picks. Acquired Middleton in the Brandon Jennings trade with Detroit and MCW in a trade with Philly. Free agency has yielded Greg Monroe this year, perhaps a sign that free agents now consider the Bucks a destination. Jason Kidd escaped from Brooklyn memorably to lead this team.

Core group – Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetekoumpo, Khris Middleton, Michael Carter-Williams, Greg Monroe. A devastatingly versatile core that will only get better. Giannis has the chance to be a superstar, as does Jabari. Middleton provides much needed shooting and needed to be brought back, even if it was a slight overpay. MCW must improve one of the league’s worst jumpers but puts in work on the defensive end. It will be interesting to see how Monroe fits in. There won’t be a ton of spacing for him to operate in the post and his defense has been lackluster, which this coach won’t tolerate.

Role guys – Greivis Vazquez, OJ Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Miles Plumlee, Chris Copeland. Depth has improved, with a quality backup PG in Vazquez and Chris Copeland takes Jared Dudley’s slot. Could use a couple shooters off the bench.

Boom or bust potential – Jabari Parker. I’m praying that he stays healthy for his second season, as he can be provide just the scoring punch and wing/stretch four versatility this team needs to get to the next level.

Optimist view – The 2015-16 ceiling for this team is the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, if things really break right can finish top-4 and get home court in the first round. With continued success more free agents and a new arena could be in the cards. The dream scenario is Jabari developing into a stud this season and Giannis making the leap to All-Star, with a top-10 defense to boot.