Ball is life.
Hear ye, hear ye: the 2016-2017 NBA season is upon us! Hoops fans everywhere can rejoice in the knowledge that this time next month, the NBA season will be in full effect, delivering unto us that sweet, sweet basketball action we so crave. Although the summer has been jam packed with basketball, from the Orlando and Vegas Summer Leagues to the Olympic tournament, nothing can compare to genuine NBA ball. Hell, even the pre-season is a welcome sight, even if it’s mostly just going to be teams fielding their third string units, trying to figure out who stays and who goes and who gets which Plumlee brother.
As with every season, predictions and hearsay are running rampant, the topics of super teams, rookie teams, and dehabilitating injuries dominating hoops talk. Everyone’s trying to predict who’s going to win MVP or which teams are gonna make it to the Finals before a single man even steps on the court. Fans are preparing themselves for the upcoming season: some certain of their team’s good fortunes, others are less optimistic, doing mental gymnastics to convince themselves and their friends that their team is going to excel. A few teams will improve, maybe shaking up the often stagnant NBA playoff race, but others will crash and burn spectacularly, becoming the target of endless Crying Jordan memes. So, without further ado, let’s figure out which NBA teams will improve this coming season and which will regress. For fans of some teams, notably the Brooklyn Nets, just whip out the good whiskey and revel in the fact that it can’t get much worse. Hopefully.
15. Improve – Philadelphia 76ers
We’ll kick this list off with an obvious choice: the Philadelphia 76ers. Quite simply, the Sixers are likely to get better because they really can’t get worse. They’re coming off three straight tank-tacular seasons with less than twenty wins, including a dismal ten wins last season, and they’re hopefully done tanking for the time being. The team has a sterling collection of young players (or potential trade assets), including: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor, and Ben Simmons. Although Simmons will start the season on the bench, nursing a foot injury, the team has enough talent and a good coach in Bret Brown, who has tried his hardest despite the rancid hand he was dealt the past three years, to finally stop being awful. They have a considerable logjam in their front court with Noel, Embiid, Saric, and Okafor, but the front office is probably working to move at least one of those four men to add to their still brimming war chest.
14. Regress – Miami Heat
The Miami Heat did not have a good summer at all. They went from being either the second or third best team in the East to losing Dwyane Wade and releasing Chris Bosh. They’re now left with a fairly young team led by fringe All-Stars Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. While Dragic is one of the most underrated guards in the league and Whiteside is one of the best rim protectors, serious questions now arise as to whether or not the team has enough offensive firepower to win games. Wade and Bosh each averaged roughly 19 points per game, the highest marks on the team by a significant margin, with Dragic and Whiteside only scored roughly 14 points each, the second highest margins on the team. While Dragic will improve in Wade’s absence, Whiteside’s offensive ceiling probably isn’t much higher, as his range is limited to a few feet around the basket. The team will have to rely on their younger players, specifically last year’s lottery pick Justice Winslow and Tyler Johnson, the fifty million dollar man. Without Wade and Bosh, the team will suffer a significant fall down the rankings, maybe even out of the playoffs.
13. Improve – Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz could be very good this season, possibly even great. They have a powerhouse team that can both score points and stop their opponents from scoring them. They have a borderline All-Star in Gordon Hayward and one of the league’s best defensive weapons in Rudy Gobert. So, why are they so low on this list? Mostly because for the past few years, people have been predicting that the Jazz are going to break out and join the Western Conference playoff picture, but they never do. It seems like they’re right on the cusp of something very good, but they keep coming up short, either because of poor roster cohesion, such as all that Enes Kanter drama, or injuries, such as last year with Dante Exum. Now, Exum is healthy, they have additional depth at point guard, and the team has brought back all their starters. If Coach Quin Snyder can successfully utilize his team’s skills, they could finally crash the playoffs.
12. Regress – San Antonio Spurs
Now, as with the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs are in no way going to be bad. They still have the best defensive player in the league in Kawhi Leonard, who’s also an MVP candidate and dead-eye shooter, they still have perennial All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge to supercharge the offense, and they still have super coach Greg Popovich to mold new players into surprising stars. However, for the first time in nineteen seasons, they don’t have Tim Duncan, the undisputed best power forward of all time. Although last season was Duncan’s worst, the team will undoubtedly miss his veteran presence and always stout defense. Free agent acquisition Pau Gasol will help the club weather the storm, but it won’t be the same. The Spurs will still be great. They’ll probably continue their streak of fifty win seasons. They’ll probably be the second best team in the West. But without Tim Duncan, they won’t be as historically dominant as they were last season.
11. Improve – Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics are primed to compete for… something? They won’t compete to be the best team in the East, that title belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, barring any catastrophic injuries or Kwame Brown possessing LeBron James. At best, they’re competing for second best in the conference, against the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets, and (maybe?) the Washington Wizards. After this offseason, they’ve put themselves in good position to be second best and to at least challenge LeBron’s stranglehold on the East. They’ve added Al Horford, finally giving them a legitimate presence at center, they drafted Jaylon Brown, who could (maybe, possibly) end up being very good, and their cadre of guards are ready to wreck havoc on the league, again (Hell hath no fury like Avery Bradley’s defense). The Celtics have been steadily improving under Brad Stevens and this may be the year they reintroduce themselves to the Eastern Conference Finals (at least).
10. Regress – Chicago Bulls
How can the Chicago Bulls get worse than they were last season? By all accounts, it was an unmitigated disaster, with a first year coach failing to corral a roster of divas and injuries plaguing key players. They even missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Plus, this past offseason, the Bulls added Dwyane Wade, the third greatest shooting guard of all time, and Rajon Rondo, a four time All-Star and last year’s assist leader. How can they get worse? Mainly because the big name players they added don’t necessarily fit with the team. Dwyane Wade plays the same position as Jimmy Butler, the team’s best player, most likely forcing Butler up to small forward, where he’ll be more or less undersized. Not a super big deal, but inconvenient. Most damaging, however, are the shooting abilities of the trio of Butler, Wade, and Rondo. Jimmy Butler shot .311% behind the arc last season, Wade is a career .284% shooter from three (and a founding member of the “I’m a Superstar, so Even Though I’m a Bad Three Pointer Shooter, You’ll Chase Me Out Behind the Arc” club), and Rondo is a career .289% three point shooter. With that little floor stretching, the Bull’s will clog the lane, creating an offensive quagmire and handing every team they play the blueprints to defeat them.
9. Improve – New York Knicks
Knicks fans the world over are hoping this season is where the club finally gets back to respectability (So has every season for the last fifteen years, but now, Kristaps). While the team may not reach the super team heights Derrick Rose has been peddling, they almost certainly will be better than last season. They’ve replaced coaching horror show Kurt Rambis with Jeff Hornacek, the mind who orchestrated the Phoenix Sun’s remarkably fun 2013-2014 season, before management pull the rug out from under him with idiotic decisions. They’ve added Derrick Rose, who, even as a shadow of his former self, is probably a better point guard than they’ve had in the last decade. Most importantly, they have Kristaps Porzingis, the source from which all New York basketball hope springs from. The 7’3″ sophomore will undoubtedly be handed a bigger role on the team following his historic rookie season and all numbers point to more Kristaps being the key ingredient to more successful basketball in the Big Apple. With any luck, the Blue and Orange will be making their first playoff run since 2012-2013.
8. Regress – Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies will not go silently into that dark night, this much we know. The sole purveyors of Grit ‘n’ Grind basketball in today’s NBA, the Grizzlies have only doubled down on their brutally physical, defense oriented approach. They re-signed Mike Conley and added Chandler Parsons to hopefully give the offense any kind of spark. The question is: how much longer can they win with this style of basketball? Last year, the team was already trending downhill before a foot injury put Marc Gasol out of commission. They coasted into the playoffs because of an unusually weak Western Conference, then got swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Now, they’re back again with few changes. Adding Parsons helps, but he can only do so much and his health is a major question mark. If he gets hurt, the offense will sputter, or falter altogether, and the Grizz defense has been having less and less success. Not to mention, if Marc Gasol’s foot injury becomes a perpetual issue, which is a huge risk when it comes to big men and feet, then the team will come crashing back to Earth yet again.
7. Improve – Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets (or the Charlotte Hornbobetcats, for the hardcore fans) have been waiting to ascend into the upper echelon of basketball for a long time. Just a few years off being one of the biggest embarrassments in the league (they infamously only won seven games in the lockout shortened 2011-2012 season), the Hornets have all the ingredients to be contenders in the East: two near All-Stars in Kemba Walker and Nicholas Batum, one of the best defenders in the league in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and a great coach in Steve Clifford. Last year, Kidd-Gilchrist only played seven games due to injury, but they still managed to make it to the playoffs, where they were booted in the first round by the Miami Heat. This year, they have all the necessary tools to challenge for Eastern Conference supremacy. They’ve brought back all of their key players and Kidd-Gilchrist is healthy. Now it’s just a matter of capitalizing on last season’s momentum.
6. Regress – Sacramento Kings
New season, same old Kings. The Sacramento Kings have become a punchline in the NBA. Despite having the best center in the NBA in DeMarcus Cousins and a litany of high lottery picks, the Kings are the most dysfunctional franchise in basketball. They’re basically the Browns or the Marlins of the NBA. Every offseason, it seems like the Kings could creep into the playoffs on the back of Boogie and Co., but every year, they perform dismally. A new trade rumor surrounding Cousins creeps out once a week, widening the schism between the team’s star player and front office. This past draft, they selected yet another big man after drafting Willie “Trilly” Cauley-Stein last year. Their front court is packed, but their back court is in a bit of a talent drought. They lost Rajon Rondo this past summer and their shooting guard position is taken by Ben McLemore, who doesn’t seem to be getting better. Dave Joerger will be stalking the sidelines this season and he has experience working with superstar big men, so the potential is there for the Kings to improve, but a lack of talent and cohesion will render that a moot point. Again.
5. Improve – Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets have done a great job of rebuilding from the ground up. After winning fifty-seven games in 2012-2013, the Nuggets fired head coach George Karl and Andre Iguodala left for Golden State, leaving the team without that year’s Coach of the Year and arguably their best player. The front office slowly dismantled the team, handing off various pieces for younger players or draft picks. Thanks to the still lingering effects of the Carmelo Anthony trade and SOMEHOW GETTING TWO FIRST ROUND PICKS FROM THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS FOR TIMOFEY FRIGGIN’ MOZGOV, as well as smartly utilizing their own lottery picks, the club has assembled a solid group of young players on the rise, like Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic, and veterans, like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Led by head coach Mike Malone, the team is ready to continue their promising, very fun rebuild and pick up the momentum from a surprising thirty-three win campaign last season.
4. Regress – Golden State Warriors
This is not some crazy hot take, okay. The Golden State Warriors are still going to be an incredible basketball force, especially after adding Kevin Durant in the offseason. However, they’re coming off a season where they won a league record seventy-three games. They simply won’t match that level of success. The team won’t be concerned with breaking any records this season and they’ll be quick to rest their starters, especially Durant and the oft-injured Stephen Curry, whenever they can. Head coach Steve Kerr will most likely be taking a Greg Popovich approach to time management in the hopes of keeping his stars crisp for the postseason. The only thing that matters to the Warriors this season is redeeming their embarrassing loss in the Finals last year and they’re not going to be chasing regular season glory this time around. They may not technically get worse, but their record undoubtedly will be.
3. Improve – New Orleans Pelicans
This entry is probably too optimistic, seeing as the Pelicans were slated to take over the league last summer before an injury to Anthony Davis and an admittedly thin, fragile roster derailed them completely. Within the first week of the season, the Pelicans went from being playoff contenders to a dead-in-the-water tank job. A new year is upon the Pelicans and hopefully, so are renewed hopes for the franchise. Anthony Davis should be healthy and ready to return to his All-NBA heights, Jrue Holiday is physically healthy, but temporarily out of action to take care of his ailing wife, and the team is finally rid of Eric Gordon’s albatross of a contract. Plus, they add Oklahoma superstar, and dead-eye shooter, Buddy Hield in the draft. With offensive mastermind Alvin Gentry stalking the sidelines, Davis, Holiday, and Hield will be able to pour in buckets at a rapid clip. The team still has shortcomings, such as Omer Asik, but they have all the tools to become a challenge for any team.
2. Regress – Oklahoma City Thunder
Well, this is a fairly obvious ending, isn’t it? No plot twists here, the Oklahoma City Thunder are going to get worse. That’s a forgone conclusion when a team loses a top three player like Kevin Durant (The Magic sure as hell didn’t get better when they lost Shaq in 1996). To make matters, the team also lost Serge Ibaka, one of the league’s best spacing bigs and defenders. To be fair, OKC still has Russell Westbrook, a top five player in the league and a literal triple-double machine. He’s always been an unstable nuclear reactor that can slam dunk and now with Durant gone, he’s sure reach power levels that would make Goku cringe. However, one player a team does not make (unless that one player is Allen Iverson, young LeBron, or pre-injury Bill Walton) and Westbrook’s not perfect. He’s a next level ball stopper and a painfully bad three point shooter (.302% on his career) who, for whatever reason, often chooses to jack up threes at an extended clip, as if he’s personally insulted by Steph Curry’s career. The team still has a decent supporting cast and they may still make the playoffs on the back of Russy’s heroics, but there’s no chance of them being the historic juggernaut they were last season, and they’re definitely no longer realistic contenders.
1. Improve – Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves have put themselves in place to become world beaters. Not secondary contenders or dark horses, but conference leading, be all, end all world beaters. It may not happen this season, not with the Golden State Warriors standing ready to crush all the skulls, but soon, they will be very, very good, and their ascension starts this season. Karl-Anthony Towns is the next big NBA megastar. He’s a young player so good so soon that he can legitimately draw comparisons to Tim Duncan with drawing snickers as well. Andrew Wiggins is a future All-Star and perfect sidekick to Towns. Zach LaVine is a rising star and very potent three-point shooter. The Wolves drafted Kris Dunn earlier this summer, who projects to be, at least, a very good defensive point guard. Most important, the team is now being coached by Tom Thibodeau, the man who kept the Chicago Bulls running even though it’s now clear that they were a very flawed franchise. With an excellent coach leading a team of young players and a superstar trained by Kevin Garnett, the sky’s the limit for the Timberwolves.
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