by Chris Foss
As the NBA opens the season today, the headlines revolve around predictions of another Cavs-Warriors final, finishing a new collective bargaining agreement, and player protests of the national anthem. At The Tattered Pennant, however, we look beyond the big headlines and the top teams to examine the fate of four clubs that had decidedly mediocre 2015-16 seasons. Last year, the Portland Trail Blazers overcame 25-win odds by Las Vegas to get into the playoffs, where they won a round and went toe-to-toe with the Warriors. Who will be the Blazers of 2016-17? The following teams could significantly shape the new season:
New York Knicks (32-50 last year): Every year, seemingly, pundits wait for the Knicks to make a real run. With the exception of the 2012-13 season, when they lost to Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Knicks have been out of contention this entire millennium. The additions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah give them some real hope this season, however. Whereas Rose and Carmelo Anthony suffered under the burden of being the alpha with the Bulls and the Knicks, now they can share the effort. Kristaps Porzingis should continue to emerge as a star, perhaps transcendent, player. The Knicks will have a big frontline, with young guys Willy Hernangomez and Marshall Plumlee joining Porzingis to provide some real matchup problems for teams favoring Warriors-style small-ball. Tonight’s opener against Cleveland will provide some clues as to what the season holds, but give Jeff Hornacek—also in his first season in New York—some time to show what this club can do. Although Hornacek flamed out at the end of his tenure in Phoenix, he did win 48 games in his rookie season as a head coach, so there is some potential there. Another good sign comes in reports that Knicks president Phil Jackson is willing to let Hornacek use less of the complicated triangle offense. This should make the players happier and more productive, and give the Knicks a better chance to win.
Milwaukee Bucks (33-49): The glue of so much of the Cavs’ success of the last two years, Matthew Dellavadova, made his way north to the Bucks, who have long been regarded as an NBA Siberia. Did he just follow the money ($9.6 million in salary this year alone), or does he also know something most pundits don’t? Emerging big Giannis Anteokounmpo is still only 21—it’s hard to believe he’s going into his third season. Former Knick Steve Novak joins Khris Middleton, Mirza Teletovic, and ex-Piston Greg Monroe to provide another burly frontcourt with which Warriors imitators will have to contend. A key question will be whether forward Jabari Parker can continue his recovery from a December 2014 ACL tear—he showed flashes late in 2015-16, and like Anteokounmpo, he’s just 21 and in his third year. Beyond the players, watch to see if Jason Kidd can mature and develop as a head coach—he certainly has received plenty of second chances. He has the talent on his squad this year, however, to make a run. The team also has reduced distraction this season, since its long-term future in Milwaukee is now secure, with a new arena set to open for the 2018-19 season.
Los Angeles Lakers (17-65): Exit Kobe, enter Luke. Without their top box-office draw of the last 20 years, the Lakers are looking to new head coach Luke Walton to be their savior. But did he really do good work with the Warriors during Steve Kerr’s absence last season, or was he just the beneficiary of coaching one of the all-time most talented teams? If Walton is the real deal, in L.A. he has the raw pieces to make a Blazers-style run. A major key will be to get Luol Deng back to something approximating his Chicago Bulls form. At 31, Deng might be past his prime, but he’ll be the alpha on this squad. Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell had tons of pride coming from two of the country’s storied college basketball programs, and now have some NBA experience that they can take to the next level. Russell and Jordan Clarkson won’t be a Curry-Klay, or even a Lillard-McCollum combo, but they might give some teams fits. The Lakers’ depth should also hurt teams: for example, Walton can coach mid-career guys Yi Jianlian and Timofey Mozgov into filling a rebounding, shot-blocking Andrew Bogut/Festus Ezeli-like role and provide the Lakers the defense they sorely missed last season. If Walton can do that, while getting guys like Louis Williams and Nick Young to step it up, the Lakers, finally shorn of Kobe’s drama and free to just play, should be able to make some sort of run.
Minnesota Timberwolves (29-53): In Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves also welcome a new coach out West who should bring a new, winning attitude to a youthful team. With Kevin Garnett retiring, furthermore, their season won’t be ruined by Kobe-style distractions while KG is feted with gifts everywhere he goes while being pressured to play poorly “one more time” in every stop around the country. Remember, meanwhile, that the Wolves dealt the Warriors one of their nine losses late last year in a game in which they could have broken the Bulls’ regular-season win record. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Ricky Rubio are the real deal. While they are not quite yet a Big Three, they have growth potential, particularly Towns and Wiggins. The Wolves face a depth problem, however: where’s the offense going to come from? Cole Aldrich? John Lucas III? Thibodeau faced these problems on a regular basis when he was Rose-less in Chicago, however, and somehow dragged several low-scoring Bulls teams to the playoffs. If he can get some D out of these unheralded players and some more spectacular performances from Towns and Wiggins, watch for the Wolves to make a move up if some Western teams slip.
Could these teams really threaten the preeminent powers of the NBA? I think Golden State will have a harder time in general than Cleveland during the regular season. In terms of the above teams, we saw at the end of last season, for example, that Minnesota poses a matchup problem for the Warriors, and the Wolves return essentially the same squad as last year. The Lakers also dealt the Dubs one of their nine regular season losses. Without Kobe jacking 20 bricks and providing the Warriors with easy fast-break opportunities, those matchups could be more interesting than in years past. Meanwhile, the Knicks are clearly the biggest threat to the Cavs in the East. Rose and Noah know LeBron well from past playoff battles and could give Anthony the breathing room he needs to have better offensive performances against the Cavs. The Bucks are more of an unknown, but they have the size on the frontline and the talent on the perimeter to do some damage, especially against the Cavs’ bench.
At playoff time, one of the above four teams could very well get a first-round draw against the Cavs or Warriors. If that happens, the Cavs and Warriors would still be prohibitive favorites, but injuries and/or matchup problems could play a role. In the West, if the Lakers or Timberwolves get their big-man game going, that could pose some size issues for the small-ball Warriors. Also, it’ll be increasingly harder to forget that they had to slough off most of their depth for Kevin Durant, a factor that could come into play for a team that struggled when missing Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Andrew Bogut at various times last postseason. On paper the Cavs will have the easier run to the Finals, but last year they were extremely lucky with their health. The law of averages says it’s hard to believe that type of luck will hold true through two playoffs in a row. There’s a lot of young talent in the league that the league’s elite has not scouted yet. Bottom line: don’t pencil in the Cavs-Warriors NBA Finals rubber match just yet. There’s a long NBA season to be played.
Sidebar: When to watch these teams kick off their seasons:
Knicks: at Cleveland, tonight (Oct. 25), 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Bucks: vs. Charlotte, Wednesday (Oct. 26), 8 p.m. ET*
Timberwolves: at Memphis, Wednesday (Oct. 26), 8 p.m. ET*
Lakers: vs. Houston, Wednesday (Oct. 26), 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
*These are not national games, but many cable and satellite packages allow you to get a week of NBA League Pass for free so you can see early games (and, they hope, get hooked and want to buy the pass!)