The 2016-17 NBA season starts tomorrow, and all rosters have now been finalized. Something long-time followers will know about me is I'm a maven of the marginal. I'm a fairly firm believer in the idea that the bottom part of the roster is oftentimes more important to the success of a season than the starters. That's why I like to wait for rosters to be finalized before I look at how I think teams are going to do.
Now that this is wrapped up, I feel comfortable writing a few words about the upcoming season. I'm going to use as my basis of analysis Kevin Pelton's win/loss predictions, which were finalized a few weeks ago. I'll start with the West, then go to the East.
Golden State Warriors - 67 wins (Conservative)
- This seems a relatively fair prediction. I would probably sit closer to 70 myself, but 67 is a good conservative call. One thing to keep in mind: the bench of this team is arguably worse than last season. They can weather a single injury to one of their core guys, but an injury to one of them and, say, Zaza Pachulia could put this team in serious trouble.
San Antonio Spurs - 54 wins (Slightly over-hyped)
- The Spurs aren't as good as they were last season. Tim Duncan and David West are gone, as is the criminally underappreciated Boban Marjanovic. In fact, the Spurs now have a deficit of quality big men. Their key addition, Pau Gasol (36), does little to stem the age problem the Spurs face, with a good chunk of minutes due to be played by Tony Parker (34), Manu Ginobili (39), and David Lee (33). This team lost part of its identity, and I think the impact of that is being underestimated. They did, however, have some of the best off-season undrafted gems. Bryn Forbes and Nicolas Laprovittola could honestly have an impact this season if injuries impact the guard rotation as they have in years past.
Utah Jazz - 47 wins (Spot on)
- The Jazz are one of my favorite teams. Joe Johnson and George Hill were two of the best low-key signings of the off-season. The Jazz are going to be able to run a five man unit of Hill-Hayward-Johnson-Lyles-Gobert that will absolutely swallow teams defensively. This teams biggest flaw from last season was guard play, and they improved that somewhat, but I still think they're going to struggle initiating the offense. 47-48 wins seems totally appropriate.
Houston Rockets - 47 wins (Conservative)
- The Rockets are a boom or bust team. Under Mike D'Antoni, this team is going to run. James Harden is going to be a triple-double threat every night. With Gordon, Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela running with him, this team could honestly win 50 games or more. The real problem, and the hard to predict thing with this team, is whether Anderson and Gordon can stay healthy. If they go down, the team really lacks impactful depth. Keeping Tyler Ennis and cutting Gary Payton II might come back to bite the team if Patrick Beverley, their key defensive guard, is unable to perform due to injury.
Los Angeles Clippers - 47 wins (Super Conservative)
- I get it. Everyone thinks the Clippers are going to decline this year. They still don't have much of a bench. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are all a year older. They still have a hole at the small forward position. But... I just can't see this team winning less than 50 games. That core, with J.J. Redick, is still really good. Throw in one of the most NBA-ready guys drafted last season in Brice Johnson, who I think is likely to play a small-ball center with this team, and there is room for modest excitement. Barring a major injury to, well, anyone, this team contends for the 2nd seed in the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder - 46 wins (Overhyped)
- Look, I get that everyone is on board for the Russell Westbrook revenge train. Its going to be compelling, fun basketball. But this team lost two of its best three players. Its now starting Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova. Westbrook is a generational talent, but he's going to be pushed to his absolute limits this season. I just can't imagine this team winning games at better than a .500 pace. One low-key story to watch: Joffrey Lauvergne is coming for Ilyasova's job. Lauvergne quietly improved last season. He's more offensively versatile than Ilyasova, and a much better rebounder. I could see Billy Donovan relying on Lauvergne more and more as the season goes on. Lauvergne and Domantas Sabonis could be the core of an...interesting second unit.
Portland Trail Blazers - 45 wins (Conservative)
- The Trail Blazers were a surprise to many last season, but they shouldn't be this year. Pelton, and many others, are primed to be surprised again. The Blazers don't have the best players. What they have going for them is a deep team with players that are very strong complements to each other, and a coach in Terry Stotts able to get the most out of them. This team is weak at Point Guard this season, though, so health is a really important factor for Damian Lillard. I would expect about 48 wins barring injuries.
Denver Nuggets - 42 wins (Over-hyped)
- The Nuggets have a really interesting young core with Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic and rookies Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez. They have interesting vets in Wilson Chandler, Danilo Galinari, Kenneth Faried and Will Barton. I'm just not sure what their identity is, or which guys in the latter list will still be on the team by the end of the season. If they put it all together, I guess this team could win 42 games. But what does together even look like? The fact that I'm really struggling to answer that question leads me to believe this team is not going to get anywhere near 42 wins. I'm expecting closer to 35.
Memphis Grizzlies - 40 wins (Conservative)
- Grit and Grind might be slowing down, but it isn't over yet. This team made the playoffs after losing Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Those two healthy, with a (hopefully) healthy Chandler Parsons, and this team looks interesting. PF and SG are major questions, though. If the team is lucky, Deyonta Davis is able to come in and contribute, at least modestly, right away; but this is a major question mark, because Davis is currently hurt. Brandan Wright could be a major role player, a la his days in Dallas, but there are questions about his health as well. This team could have the largest variance between their perfectly health record and their unhealthy record. I'm going to assume health, and predict about 45 wins and another playoff appearance.
Minnesota Timberwolves - 38 wins (Spot-on)
- The Timberwolves are a year away from being competitors. Karl-Anthony Towns is a monster, and he looks spectacular with Ricky Rubio running the offense. Wiggins and LaVine both showed signs of improvement last season. Gorgui Dieng continued to be a quiet yet effective big. I'm still not sure how all these pieces fit together, though. I'm not sure Rubio, Wiggins and LaVine can coexist, or if Towns is best suited to playing next to Dieng. The bench is...questionable this season. I like some of the guys, but I just don't see a team that is really going to be able to hang with deep, playoff-caliber teams. These guys will flirt with the playoffs, but I think they ultimately fall about 5 games short.
Sacramento Kings - 38 wins (Over-hyped)
- This team won 33 games last season with a fairly similar roster. Darren Collison is a plus addition at the starting point guard position, if only because he meshes better with Boogie Cousins. Arron Afflalo hasn't been a positive player in a number of years, and I just don't see him helping this team. Rudy Gay is still, well, Rudy Gay, if but another year older. Cousins is still one of the best players in the league. This is a team screaming for a makeover, and it now has some of the roster pieces to accomplish it. Rudy Gay has already expressed his desire to opt-out after this season, so I have to imagine he'll be shopped to a contender or wannabe contender. Boogie will always be tied with trade rumors. I just think this is finally the season this team hits the reset button. I expect 33-35 wins, just like last season.
New Orleans Pelicans - 37 wins (Conservative)
-Please stay healthy. Please stay healthy. Please stay healthy. I firmly believe a healthy Pelicans team is one that competes for the last two playoff seeds in the West. Anthony Davis is still developing, but is already a potentially transcendent talent. Surrounded by the wing talent the Pelicans have accumulated (Jrue Holiday, Solomon Hill, Quincy Pondexter, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Lance Stephenson), he could really flourish. Who among those guys will actually play a whole season? That's a totally different question. Another, perhaps more important question: who the hell plays next to Davis? Omer Asik was not a good basketball player last season, and risks becoming this generation's Kendrick Perkins. Alexis Ajinca has his merits, but probably not next to Davis. The Pelicans got one of the steals of the waiver wire last season when they picked up Tim Frazier. He doesn't have a sexy game, but after dealing Ish Smith, and with Jrue Holiday's continuing family concerns, Frazier represents a solid if unspectacular option at emergency starting point guard. If this team can manage to win 40% of its games while Jrue Holiday is out to start the season, expect them to compete for the 8th seed.
Dallas Mavericks - 35 wins (Conservative)
- This prediction is based entirely off of the fact that Rick Carlisle is a basketball genius. On paper, this team is... not good. If this was 2 years ago, a starting 5 of Deron Williams, Wes Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut would have looked modestly better. Now? Not so much. Toss in what might be the worst bench in the West, and things don't look rosy. That being said, the Mavericks do have a really interesting youth movement going on with Dorian Finney-Smith, Nicolas Brussino, Dwight Powell, Justin Anderson and A.J. Hammons. They're a young point guard away from having a future rotation. Justin Anderson is the real deal. I expect this team to compete for the 8th seed, but to fade down the stretch and (very maybe, very potentially) try to move Matthews and/or Williams.
Phoenix Suns - 29 wins (Spot on)
- The Suns are not a good team right now. They're weak at PF, SF and C, and are getting just average production out of the PG and SG positions. Eric Bledsoe, if he can stay healthy, is a top-half of the league player. Devin Booker, if he doesn't have to carry the offense, is a top-half of the league off-guard. Brandon Knight, if he accepts his role, is a top-half of the league 6th man. After that? Its a bit of a toss-up. The youth movement (T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, Alex Len) has some interesting potential, but the forwards have very overlapping potential skillsets. The vets on the team (P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, Leandro Barbosa) don't really seem to fit on this team, as they're all good enough to take minutes away from the youth movement and win the team games they don't want to win. I have to imagine the front office is looking to trade players, particularly Tucker and Chandler. Even if they don't, it seems unlikely this team manages to win more than 29 games.
Los Angeles Lakers - 24 wins (Conservative)
- Addition by subtraction can be a powerful tool. Kobe Bryant, according to the stats at Box Score Geeks, was worth -5.6 points per 48 minutes last season. The Lakers were a bad team last year, but no one who got anywhere near the same number of minutes was anywhere near that bad. They were also comically mismanaged by Byron Scott. Under new coach Luke Walton, the team already looks light-years better. They key for this team will be continued growth out of the guard pairing of the future in D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, and continued average production out of new additions Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. Don't look now, but the Lakers could run out a lineup of Clarkson, Lou Williams, Nick Young, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov that could quite honestly compete against the starting five of most of the teams competing for the last seed in the West. That's not to say they will run out that lineup. But the team has that potential. For the sake of brand image, I expect this team to make the decisions that will allow them to finish outside of the bottom of the Conference this season. I expect between 28-30 wins.
Cleveland Cavaliers - 54 wins (Conservative)
- I, uh...I don't get this one. This team struggled with some nagging injury concerns last season and still won 57 games. They didn't really suffer any major defections other than Mozgov, who wasn't that effective due to injury. Losing Matthew Dellavedova hurts a bit, given Kyrie Irving's injury history, but the nice thing about having LeBron James on the roster is you don't need to worry as much about PG depth. The Cavs are still super thin on the bench, and I wouldn't be surprised if they make an attempt to shore that up with late cuts, with guys like Pablo Prigioni, Ronnie Price, Yi Jianlian, Jeremy Evans and Nate Wolters available. They have an open roster spot at the moment. I expect this team to, once again, win 57 games.
Boston Celtics - 49 wins (Slightly Conservative)
- The Celtics have a conglomeration of players that are all pretty good, but not great. Their starters are all starting quality, their bench is deep and productive. They should be better than they are likely to be. But they just aren't. The loss of Evan Turner is going to hurt this team worse than I think others realize. They desperately need a go to scorer other than Isaiah Thomas, but no one on the roster seems likely to fulfill that need, unless Al Horford counts as a go to scorer. Horford was a good addition, but he's just not the face of an offense this team needs. I fully expect Danny Ainge to be looking at moving some of his veteran guys and decent young talent to get a disaffected, high volume scorer. All this being said, the Celtics are still probably the second best team in the East, and getting to 50 wins is entirely reasonable.
Toronto Raptors - 48 wins (Over-hyped)
- I have the benefit of knowing that Jared Sullinger likely won't play this season, so the Pelton prediction can be forgiven a bit here. The loss of Bismack Biyombo and James Johnson is going to hurt this team much more than people realize, as they were the defensive pillars of an otherwise average team defensively. Lowry will be his usually productive self, and I can even imagine a little bit of growth from Jonas Valanciunas. But this unit just isn't going to be as good as last season, especially if DeMar DeRozan regresses to his usual level of efficiency. That being said, I really like what the Raptors have done from a youth acquisition standpoint. Delon Wright, Bruno Caboclo, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira are all interesting guys. The problem is that young, totally unproven guys are now the vast majority of this teams bench, with only Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson coming off the bench as established contributors. This season could get modestly ugly, and I wouldn't be surprised if the team ends up with as few as 44 wins.
Detroit Pistons - 47 wins (Conservative)
- On paper, this Pistons team doesn't look that appealing. The projected starting lineup of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond seems like a mish-mash of only mildly complementary pieces. The Pistons' strength this season comes from the fact that they have another five guys (Stanley Johnson, Ish Smith, Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic and Reggie Bullock) who could all be switched in to construct various lineups that can compete in the less talented Eastern Conference. I really, really like the depth on this team, and I don't think it unlikely that this team challenges for the 2nd seed in the East. I don't expect them to get there, but the Celtics will get a run for their money.
Charlotte Hornets - 42 wins (Spot on)
- The Hornets are a weird team. I could imagine this team being the scariest defensive unit in the NBA. A lineup with Kemba Walker, Treveon Graham, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Roy Hibbert could be a nightmare for perimeter penetration oriented teams. Health and offensive development will be the keys for this team. Kidd-Gilchrist NEEDS a healthy season, as when healthy he's arguably one of the most impactful wing defenders in the league. One of Cody Zeller, Christian Wood and Frank Kaminsky needs to develop consistency so as to be able to relieve some pressure on Kidd-Gilchrist. This whole thing could fall apart, again, if the team cannot manage to stay healthy. If that happens, I wouldn't be surprised to see the team try to move vets Marvin Williams and Ramon Sessions, both of whom would likely have value to other playoff contenders. I don't expect them to struggle that badly, though. 42-44 wins seems pretty uncontroversial.
Washington Wizards - 42 wins (Spot on)
- The Wizards have a new coach in Scott Brooks. Not necessarily an exciting hire, but probably an improvement. I'm not sure what Brooks is going to be able to do with this team, though. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat aren't a bad starting five. They're not great either. They're a league average starting unit, more or less. The bench for this team is more or less the same. Kelly Oubre, Ian Mahinmi and Andrew Nicholson all do some things nicely, but they aren't game changers, really. Trey Burke, who the team picked up to play backup PG, probably shouldn't be handed the reins to any NBA offense. Tomas Satoransky, who the Wizards brought over from Europe, might be their most intriguing bench player, in that he's a relative unknown who had some really fine moments in the pre-season. There just isn't a lot to be excited about with this team. If Bradley Beal perhaps finally makes the leap that people have been projecting, or Markieff Morris reverts to 2013-14, this team could challenge for the 2nd or 3rd seed. I just can't imagine that happening. .500 or thereabouts seems about right.
Atlanta Hawks - 40 wins (Conservative)
- The Hawks made the questionable decision to trade Jeff Teague in favor of Dennis Schroder. I thought that was a dumb move - by most advanced metrics Schroder was not good, while Teague was average. They lost Al Horford, and replaced him with Dwight Howard which, again, I'm not sure was a great move. Paul Millsap will remain a criminally underappreciated talent, and Thabo Sefolosha will continue to make the Thunder look like fools for letting him walk. The team will hope Kyle Korver reverts somewhat to form after a downtick last season. I just don't know that this team is really very good. If the Schroder experiment doesn't work, they're counting heavily on European import Malcolm Delaney to pick up the slack, as their are no other PGs on the roster. I should say, I think the Hawks have the young core with the greatest defensive potential, with DeAndre Bembry, Taurean Prince and Walter Tavares all projected as positive defensive players. All told, I expect this team to win 42-44 games.
Indiana Pacers - 39 wins (Over-hyped)
- Paul George is a great player. Jeff Teague is a slightly above average player. After that, I'm not sure what this team is. Thad Young and Monta Ellis, at their best, are league average players. They're making $25 million dollars this season. The starting center is Al Jefferson. There isn't a player on this team that I look at and say, 'Damn, that guy is a great defender.' So the expectation should be that this team is strong offensively. Yet, how do the skills of this team synchronize? George, Teague and Ellis all probably need the ball in their hands to be most effective. Al Jefferson is a back-to-the basket center who cannot play uptempo, which is the specialty of much of the rest of the offense. Young is undersized, with limited range and limited foot-speed. He can neither offensively draw defenders away from Jefferson nor defend Jefferson's man on the other end. The Pacers picked up a gem in Georges Niang, who went undrafted and has impressed in the pre-season and the Summer League. Paired with the still developing Joe Young and Myles Turner, this is a modestly interested young grouping. 39 wins seems like a stretch. I'm thinking closer to 35.
Chicago Bulls - 39 wins (Spot-on)
- This team makes no sense. Individually they have some appealing players. Their projected starting five of Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez is a throwback to an era when spacing didn't matter. Unfortunately for Gar Forman and the front office, that isn't the era we exist in now. The bright side for this team is that it legitimately has a young core that fans should be excited about. Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams, Dough McDermott, Cristiano Felicio, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine all have NBA caliber talents. The development of these players will be the key to the Bulls hitting 39 wins, as Fred Hoiberg will need to use them to stagger the minutes of his starting five and get some shooting onto the floor. 39 is doable, and probably likely, but it could go ugly, too.
Orlando Magic - 37 wins (Mildly Conservative)
- I can understand people being concerned about this team. The roster lacks much in the way of established talent. Serge Ibaka, the third best player on last year's playoff OKC team, is now undeniably the best player on the Magic. Not great. But the East isn't the West, and this team has some interesting young players. Their likely starting lineup under new coach Frank Vogel is Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gorgon, Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, with Nikola Vucevic and Mario Hezonja as offensive sparks off of the bench. That's honestly not that bad of a lineup, and it has great defensive potential. This team is going to struggle to score the ball, and guard play is a definite weakness. If they can see some modest development out of Payton on the offensive side, this team could really surprise people. I say they get to 40 wins.
Miami Heat - 35 wins (Mildly Conservative)
- Another year without Chris Bosh really, really sucks. I've been high on the Heat the last few seasons, but their window has definitely passed. That being said, 35 wins for this team seems way too low. This team's starting lineup isn't that bad. Goran Dragic-Tyler Johnson-Justise Winslow-Josh McRoberts-Hassan Whiteside is going to be able to win games against other, non-elite teams in the East. The bench isn't even that bad with Luke Babbitt, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Josh Richardson and Willie Reed. The only way this team gets 35 wins or less is if the front office decides to move in the other direction. I expect them in the 38-40 range and in the competition for the playoffs.
New York Knicks - 35 wins (Slightly Over-Hyped)
- This team has star power, I'll give it that. I'm just not sure that is going to be enough. Assuming everyone on this roster stays relatively healthy, this might be closer to a 40-42 in team. But I just cannot see that happening. Literally every key member of this team has had serious medical concerns in the last few seasons, with the exception of Kristaps Porzingis. The biggest flaw this team suffers from is that, regardless of whether they're playing Derrick Rose or Brandon Jennings, they have a net negative at PG. The team does have some interesting youth with Maurice Ndour, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Ron Baker, but these are all pretty limited guys. I thought the team missed out on an opportunity by cutting Damien Inglis in favor of Baker; Inglis has the kind of defensive potential that would have made him useful as a complement to Carmelo and Porzingis. I expect this team to disappoint a bunch of Knicks fans and finish at about 33 wins.
Milwaukee Bucks - 33 wins (Spot on)
- When the Bucks made the playoffs two years ago, it was largely as a result of the emergence of Khris Middleton, a nearly perfect complementary player to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Their struggles last year coincided with the struggles of Middleton. With Middleton due to miss probably the entire season and the Bucks having essentially no replacement option, it could be a rough season in Wisconsin. Matthew Dellavedova is potentially a slight upgrade at PG, mostly because he is more suited to operating without the ball. The team intends to start Tony Snell at the 2 spot, and that seems...bad. It seems like the team plans to start Jabari Parker and Miles Plumlee at the 4 and 5 spots, which makes sense from a roster point of view, but seems like a waste of Greg Monroe, who shifts to the bench unit. The bench unit is not good, and what talent does exist is stacked at the 4 and 5 positions. This is going to be a rough season for the Bucks. Only the fact that Giannis is really, really good, and Jabari has looked like a different player in the preseason, gives me hope that this team will scrap to 33 wins. If either of those guys misses time...the tank could be on.
Brooklyn Nets - 29 wins (Slightly Over-Hyped)
- Vegas has the over-under on this team at about 21 wins. That's too low. 29, though, is probably too high. This team has some veteran pieces that are going to allow them to compete on a nightly basis. Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker and Brook Lopez are veteran guys that can put in 32-34 quality minutes per night. Greivis Vasquez is a quality vet off the bench who might be able to play next to Lin if he can get healthy. The team's youth should contribute to some degree this season. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough should both player heavily, while Anthony Bennett, Isaiah Whitehead and Caris LeVert have the potential to get some spot time. The biggest hole for this team is at SF. Bojan Bogdanovic is a limited player, and the team doesn't have a second option, unless it is going to play a three guard lineup or a three big lineup. Hollis-Jefferson could potentially play there, but offensively he's going to struggle more than he already does. I'm not as down on this team as most, but I only expect them to get 26-27 wins.
Philadelphia 76ers - 26 wins (spot on)
- The Ben Simmons injury really hurts this team. Simmons alone is probably worth 3-4 wins, especially given how the team seemed to be building its offense around him. Additional bad news came with the announcement that Nerlens Noel will miss 3-6 weeks as a result of a minor knee injury. With Jerryd Bayless out likely a month with a wrist injury, this team is already suffering badly from the injury bug. The good news is that the team is relatively deep, and gets Joel Embiid back this season. While this team isn't going to be good on the court, the crazy thing is that at this point they actually have a full team of NBA quality players. They're just mostly bench players or lower order starters. T.J. McConnell, Richaun Holmes, Jerami Grant, Hollis Thompson, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor and Robert Covington are all guys under 25 who would undeniably have a role on other teams. Combined with Embiid and Noel, you have 9 guys under 25 that are legitimate NBA players. Its honestly the other guys on this roster that I question at this point. The team is likely going to start or give significant minutes to Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez. I'm not sure at this point what value they provide. Regardless, this team isn't going to win many games. But they should finally be somewhat fun to watch, and that's a definite improvement.