Teams That Need to Prove Something to Their Fans, aka the Hungry Bunch
16. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons have a massive front court in Andre Drummond (6’11”, 270 lbs, 7’6″ wingspan), Greg Monroe (6’11”, 250 lbs, 7’2″ wingspan), and new addition Josh Smith (6’9″, 225 lbs, 7′ wingspan). Between these three, they will dominate the paint and will force opponents into messy possessions and a supreme fear of penetration. Drummond’s potential makes Monroe expendable. It seems likely the Pistons will attempt to move Monroe, who may be seeking a max extension soon, despite the fact he isn’t a potentially dominant center. The Pistons will try and figure out how to evenly share the ball with shoot-first, shoot-second, pass-third point guard Brandon Jennings at the helm. Old teammate Chauncey Billups will attempt to fight father time for one more year and lead the new-look Pistons back to the playoffs, if only to punish Miami in the paint and then quietly bow out in five playoff games. Italian import Luigi Datome and rookie Kyle Singler can both drain an open jumper and should stretch the defense. The key: will new coach Maurice Cheeks get Brandon Jennings to notice them hanging out in the corner?
The line says 41 wins. Darko Index Predicts 42-40.
15. Cleveland Cavaliers
Let the “What ifs?” begin. Andrew Bynum may only play fifteen minutes per game, but those will be fifteen very intriguing minutes. When you add in Anderson Varejao at power forward, you get two things: 1) Amazing hair from the twin towers and 2) Potentially dominant big men with nagging injuries. The Cavs won the lottery and chose the uber-athletic Anthony Bennett, another wide-body with some serious athleticism but questionable shooting. They hope Jarrett Jack provides the same kind of game-altering bench-scoring punch he gave to Golden State last year. All of these pieces surrounding an insanely talented back court of the impossibly quick Kyrie Irving, and the superior passing of Dion Waiters. If the Cavs somehow get sustained health from either Bynum or Varejao, they should eclipse 45 wins, possibly closing in on 50. More likely, they get very few stretches of Bynum health, and end up fighting for the eighth spot. Jarrett Jack may never again see the level of production he established at the Oracle, as his penetrating game won’t age well. The secret weapon, barring a health resurgence from Bynum, the naturally ambidextrous, Tristan Thompson, and his rebuilt jump-shot. You’ve got to give the 22 year-old former 4th overall pick some credit. With the driving abilities of Irving, Waiters and Jack, Thompson’s baseline jumper could lift the Cavs offense.
The line says 40.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 43-39.
14. Washington Wizards
Last year, the Wizards quietly had a huge second half, going 25-25 over their last 50 games. Not surprisingly, the Wizard resurgence coincided with John Wall’s return. John Wall’s 3/4 court sprint time before the 2012 NBA Draft: 3.14. John Wall’s 6’9″ wingspan allows him to disrupt opponents ball-handling. What makes these Wizards even more interesting: Trevor Ariza and Nene both are capable of playing stifling defense. Bradley Beal will have the opportunity to establish himself as a 15+ ppg scorer who can knock down long-range shots. The loss of Okafor on the interior during the preseason was ominous, but the win-now approach prompted Washington to acquire serviceable center Marcin Gortat. The Wizards will be fun to watch and capable of playing defense…as long as Nene can stay on the court.
The line says 38.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 43-39.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
Bad luck doomed the rebirth of the Wolves last year. Love’s injuries short-circuited what could have been a 40-win team. This year, the Wolves have added scoring punch in Kevin Martin, a strong wing defender in Corey Brewer, and will have the uber-talented Kevin Love, the behemoth Nkola Pekovic, and playmaker Ricky Rubio moving the ball. Offense should not be an issue for the Wolves. Rookie Gorgui Dieng offers some potential shot-blocking if teams are penetrating at will. J.J. Barea and Chase Budinger, when healthy, add energy off the bench. Former 2nd-overall pick Derrick Williams has one last shot at turning his potential into something stable this year.
The line says 41 wins. Darko Index Predicts 43-39.
12. Dallas Mavericks
Speaking of offensive-minded teams, Mark Cuban made more bold moves this summer by signing Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon to complement Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs are built for video-game basketball, where the object is usually to score before the shot clock reaches single digits. They will be hoping that Calderon is able to create easier looks for Ellis than he found in Milwaukee. Nowitzki would benefit from less of a scoring burden through the 82-game slog. The question remains: who will play defense other than the aging but still useful Shawn Marion? Certainly not Calderon or Ellis. DeJuan Blair will scarf down rebounds in a reserve role. Samuel Dalembert is 32 years old. That is hard to believe. Will he give the Mavs any semblance of shot-blocking? The Mavs have too many question marks to call themselves contenders, but too much talent not to make the playoffs. Draft pick Shane Larkin’s 3/4 court sprint time before the 2013 NBA Draft: 3.08 seconds. That’s a nice change-of-pace style from Calderon’s pick-and-roll genuis passing.
The line says 44 wins. Darko Index Predicts 44-38.
11. New York Knicks
Goodbye, Steve Novak. Hello, Andrea Bargnani, Metta World Peace, and Beno Udrih. Bargnani’s long-range shooting peaked in 2008-09 at 41%. In the following years, he’s posted these numbers (37.2, 34.5, 29.6, and last year 30.9%). This doesn’t bode well for the second stage of Bargnani’s career. The Italian has also been injury-prone the last two years. However, he does remain capable of going on scoring binges. The Knicks will be strengthened by a full of season of Iman Shumpert (36.5 inch no-step vertical jump at the 2011 NBA draft combine), one of the more underrated perimeter defenders in the East. In addition, Udrih provides an actual point guard who doesn’t over-dribble, unlike the sometimes ball-clogging Raymond Felton. J.R. Smith remains an enigma. In total, the unfair burden sits on Mike Woodson and Tyson Chandler’s shoulders. How can these two convince the rest of the team to play with Metta World Peace’s intensity on defense? If Woodson is smart, Udrih gets more minutes than Felton.
The line says 49.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 46-36.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis had a great run last year and then hit the brick wall known as the San Antonio Spurs in the West Finals. The series ended in perhaps the least lopsided sweep in playoff history, with the Grizzlies losing two games in overtime, in part to Zach Randolph’s missed free-throws. What could have been a grueling six-game series, ended as quickly as it started. The inside-out game that the Grizzlies employ with Gasol and Randolph stalled against the dominant San Antonio front line. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince were exposed for their mediocre to flat-out awful shooting ability. Mike Conley had moments of brilliance and moments of anxiety as Tony Parker continued his brilliant season into the Spurs’ playoff run. Out with Lionel Hollins and GM John Hollinger’s fingerprints are now all over the roster. Mike Miller and Quincy Pondexter will be used to stretch the defense and provide Gasol more elbow room. The Grizzlies are again flying under the radar, in part because of the new additions to Houston and Golden State. In part because they got swept. In part because they aren’t sexy. What they are is tough. And what that means is their regular season record won’t matter as much come playoff time.
The line says 49.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 47-35.
The If-All-Falls-Into-Place, then Perhaps, Possibly, Maybe
9. Golden State Warriors
Harrison Barnes’ 3/4 court sprint time prior to the 2012 Draft: 3.16 seconds. Harrison Barnes’ no step vertical: 38 inches. Most players are lucky to reach 33 inches. Barnes’ break-out in last year’s playoffs was due in part to his consistency with the corner three-pointer, which forced Denver and San Antonio to run out to the line, and enabled Barnes’ athleticism to take over. Barnes can become an elite defender and, if consistent with the jumper, provides incredible flexibility for coach Mark Jackson. New addition Andre Iguodala is already an elite defender, excellent passer, and open-floor wizard. With Curry and Thompson extending the defense out nearly to half-court, and a healthy Andrew Bogut working from the elbow, the Warriors should come close to leading the league in offensive efficiency. As always, the health of Curry and Bogut remain the keys to a deep playoff run. Losing Landry and Jack may demand that Thompson comes off the bench to spark the second unit. Can Toney Douglas help Thompson get his shot off? Can Marreese Speights alleviate the loss of Carl Landry’s post work? Mark Jackson has all kinds of tools to work with. The expectations are there. The Lakers will not be a threat. Golden State and the Clippers will be battling for Pacific supremacy all season.
The line says 49.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 51-31.
8. Brooklyn Nets
Aside from the Garnett-Pierce for half of the Nets trade that we’ve talked about all summer, and that has left Celtics fans in something of a catatonic state even if it bodes well for the future, perhaps equally important was the steal of the summer: Andrei Kirilenko turned down a $10 million player option in Minnesota to sign for the mid-level exception ($3.5 million) for one year of championship contention in Brooklyn. Perhaps the Nets Zillionairre owner has bought him a yacht that waits in the Cayman Islands for Kirilenko’s retirement. Kirilenko brings a dynamite defender who will wrap up all perimeter threats and will allow the Nets to play Lopez-KG-AK-Pierce-DWill, in what will be a terrifyingly big lineup for Miami to contend with. With Joe Johnson leading the second unit and ultra-big point guard Shaun Livingston spelling Williams, the coaching tandem of Jason Kidd and Lawrence Frank will have lots to work with. It may take a month or two for the Nets to develop the defensive chemistry that Garnett and Kidd will demand. In addition, the back-to-backs may be days of rest for Garnett and sometimes Pierce. Like Memphis, the regular season record will be less important to the Nets. Their main goal: knocking off Miami. If that comes in the East Semis, the Pacers and Bulls will owe KG, Pierce and AK a debt of gratitude.
The line says 52.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 51-31.
7. Houston Rockets
James Harden is fun to watch. His clever penetration and unique finishing ability resulted in over 10 free-throw attempts per game last year. GM Daryl Morey understands and embraces advanced metrics as much as anyone in the NBA and the Rockets experimented with an extreme offense last year as a result. Parsons, Lin and Harden pushed the pace to the point where their questionable defense suffered even more. On the other hand, they got the shots they wanted: at the rim and in the corner for threes. With the addition of Dwight Howard, the Rockets now have a potentially devastating pick-and-roll tandem in Harden-Howard. Will Howard’s presence necessitate a trade of the woefully underrated Omer Asik? Most likely. The Rockets need a power forward, preferably one with some shot-blocking and a baseline jumper. Howard will likely miss some time this year, as Morey and McHale aim to keep him fresh for April. The gritty Patrick Beverly, the scapegoat for OKC fans and sports media folk alike, who were desperately hoping the Thunder would topple Miami last year, beat out Jeremy Lin for the starting point guard spot, but then went down in the season opener with a torn muscle in his chest. The irony: Beverly gets his chance after traveling the globe for the last five years, accidentally injures Westbrook in the playoffs, then wins the starting PG spot before going down for two weeks at the start of the year with an injury.
The line says 54.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 52-30.
The Top Tier
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
As mentioned above, Westbrook’s injury derailed the Thunder’s playoff bid last May and Kevin Durant was forced to take 35 footers while being double-teamed as a result. This year, Westbrook will return before December, and lead the Thunder back into contention. Serge Ibaka has evolved into the game’s best mid-range shooter, which is flat-out incredible considering where he started. Other than the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka trio, the Thunder will desperately need two very young guards: Reggie Jackson (23) and Jeremey Lamb (21) to step up and fill the void left by Kevin Martin and (temporarily) Westbrook. The Thunder continue to employ defensive whiz Thabo Sefolosha, this era’s Bruce Bowen, as a perimeter vice. How does Westbrook bounce back? Probably pretty well, but he might play it safe. Does Presti deal for a stable Kendrick Perkins replacement? Yes.
The line says 53.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 53-29.
5. Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose will need more than a month to dust off his springs and Mike Dunleavy will be needed to provide a bench spark, but the Bulls will intimidate opponents with the swarming, stifling defense that Tom Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are all known for. The Bulls defense wreaks havoc. Can Rose balance out the offense as he did for several years before the injury? Probably. Will Mike Dunleavy perform for a winning team? Dunleavy’s career has been extended by an improved 3-point shot (40.2, 39.9, 42.8) over the last three years. He’s never played for a team with championship aspirations, and he hasn’t always handled pressure well. Jimmy Butler, on the other hand, handled the playoff atmosphere beautifully. Butler’s defensive tenacity and improving outside shot make him an intriguing option that will leave Luol Deng on the market after his contract runs out. Still, the Bulls will depend on Deng, Boozer, Butler, Dunleavy and Hinrich to pull the offense out of the quagmire if Rose can’t get all the way back. My guess is that Thibs is forced to rely more on the bench than he would like to, in order to give Rose, Deng and Noah a chance to stay healthy for a playoff run.
The line says 56.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 54-28.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Shooting? J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Jamal Crawford, and rookie Reggie Bullock. Shot-blocking? DeAndre Jordan. Rebounding? Blake Griffin and Jordan. Passing? Chris Paul, Matt Barnes and Darren Collison. Open court athleticism? Griffin, Paul, Barnes, and Jordan trailing for the dunks that give “Lob City,” their name. Defense? Coach Doc Rivers will be attempting to reinforce it all season. Chris Paul, Jordan and Barnes have that desire to dominate defensively. But can Griffin bring that intensity? Lamar Odom, for all of his unpredictability, is a terrifyingly long defender and superior rebounder. Without Odom’s presence, the Clippers will rely heavily on the newly arrived sharpshooters. That should work during the regular season. DeAndre Jordan is Rivers’ pet project. Supernaturally long, DeAndre possesses a 7’6″ wingspan and a 9’5″ standing reach. That means he is seven inches from the rim without leaving the floor. If Jordan can limit his fouls, and stay on the court for 30-35 minutes per game, the Clippers will evolve into a different team. If not, they will be susceptible in the playoffs.
The line says 55.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 54-28.
3. Indiana Pacers
Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, and Danny Granger. Four players that Indiana didn’t have last season. Instead, they depended on Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Sam Young, and the ghost of Gerald Green. The Pacers had the most lopsided starters/reserves numbers in the East. Now, their bench should actually be a strength. In addition, they retained the indefatigable David West. Paul George is ready to embrace the role of offensive leader and learn how to let the game come to him. Instead of a Scottie Pippen-type career, George may be headed even higher: Scottie’s defense and Clyde Drexler’s offense. Roy Hibbert is ready to reinforce the reputation he built during April and May. Coach Frank Vogel has options at his disposal. Look for the Pacers to dominate early and often. The Pacers-Bulls rivalry will be renewed. The fight for the top two seeds in the East will be a fun one, as Indiana edges out Brooklyn and Chicago.
The line says 55.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 57-25.
2. Miami Heat
LeBron, LeBron, LeBron, LeBron. ESPN the Magazine shamelessly decided that LeBron should receive 55 pages of coverage in its NBA Preview Issue (which they called “The LeBron Issue”), while the rest of the NBA was given four total pages of attention. You know, because the NBA doesn’t really exist without LeBron. Nobody wants to read about anything but LeBron. Because, really, why even have a regular season, and honestly, why even talk about the league at all. From ESPN to NBA Countdown to most other ratings-related media forms, we are in the center of the LeBron Universe, and if you don’t like it, well, f**k off. It’s a sad state of affairs. Not to minimize LeBron’s achievements, but as NBA fans, we are treated as if we don’t realize there are 29 other teams in the league. There is just Miami and everyone else. And guess what? Dwyane Wade’s knee won’t hold up this year. And Greg Oden will be lucky to play 20 games, but will suit up for that inevitable match-up with Brooklyn, Chicago, or Indiana. Michael Beasley won’t last through January, despite his talent. Instead, Miami will selectively turn it on as the season progresses and eke out the top seed in the East, before falling to Brooklyn in May.
The line says 61.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 58-24.
1. San Antonio Spurs
The year of Kawhi Leonard. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan refuse to age. Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw continue to fill in the gaps. Marco Belinelli’s marksmanship adds some scoring punch. The Spurs never seem to lose their hunger. After last year’s epic NBA Finals, they clearly have something left. Having home court would help their cause. Kawhi Leonard, like Paul George, is ready to make his mark. The Spurs will depend on Diaw, Splitter, and Belinelli to rest Duncan and Ginobili throughout the season. San Antonio will not relent this year. Popovich and Duncan will go out on top. Expect a trade in January to add even more depth.
The line says 55.5 wins. Darko Index Predicts 59-23.
Jonah Hall likes to predict things, which is one reason why he writes The Darko Index. He is unclear on the concept of “Previews.”