ESPN’s Kevin Pelton recently wrote an article projecting the records for the 2017-2018 NBA season (Link). Pelton used Real Plus-Minus as his barometer of grading a team’s potential. Real Plus-Minus is one of the better advanced NBA stats; it uses the basic box-score plus-minus but it also tries to isolate the measure of each individual player separate of their teammates. It is a nice stat to use when box scores don’t do players justice when it comes to on-court contributions. As we’ve seen with players like Shane Battier or Andre Iguodala, box score’s don’t mean as much at times. ESPN wrote up a nice overview of the advanced stat (Link).
While the stat is a nice supplement to use when evaluating players it still has it’s flaws like favoring players as better defenders based off height. It does makes sense in theory but Luke Babbitt was rated at a +1.24 Defensive Real Plus-Minus while Avery Bradley was rated at a -1.72 Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season. Luke Babbitt was a much improved defender under Erik Spoelstra but he did not have a better defensive season than Bradley, at least not by contributions to overall defensive stability. I don’t like using advanced stats as an end all be all so I disagree with a few of Pelton’s projections:
Atlanta Hawks – Bullish
Pelton has the Hawks projected as not only the worst team in the East but the worst team in the league. I don’t disagree with the calculations behind the Hawks being that bad. Take one look at their roster and most people would say the same thing. They traded Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap this off-season, got nothing substantial in return, let Tim Hardaway jr walk and as a result effectively have no starters from the 60-win 2015 Hawks team. On the surface it’s a rebuild; barely any talent, cap flexibility, no outgoing draft picks and potentially having Houston and Minnesota’s 2018 first round picks and Cleveland’s 2019 first round pick.
Am I saying the Hawks are going to make the playoffs? Probably not, no. But are they the worst team in the league? I just don’t see it. I’m basing my bullish outlook on the Hawks mostly due to head coach Mike Budenholzer. The Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks last year both started the season on the road to a top three pick due to major injury woes and depleted rosters but still managed to turn around their seasons. The Heat started their season 11-30 and finished off by going 30-11 while the Mavs started their season 11-27 and finished off by going 22-22. Whether it be sound defensive principles or well executed game plans the Mavs and Heat were well coached teams.
Budenholzer is in that same class of coach. The Hawks had the fourth rated defensive efficiency this year and have typically been a stable defensive team under Bud. They also had the sixth highest assist percentage this year while Bud has been a master at X’s and O’s throughout his head coaching career. This is going to be his first year where he will truly display his coaching chops. I like some of the pieces he has to work with no matter how inept they may seem. Taurean Prince came on last year as a potential 3-and-D wing player, John Collins can carry over his offensive face-up game and his rebounding from college, Dennis Schroder was second in the league in drives per game and should have shooters to pass to like Luke Babbitt, Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon can supply some rim-protection. Coaching matters in the NBA and playing hard on a nightly basis is an undervalued skill. As far as a talent perspective the Hawks could be the worst in the league but Budenholzer will have his team ready.
Boston Celtics – Bearish
Pelton has the Celtics projected as the number one seed in the East and I don’t necessarily disagree with him. Boston was the number one seed last year, they added more talent aka Gordon Hayward, Lebron is a year older and the Kyrie Irving trade merry-go-round isn’t going away; it makes sense that the Celtics stay atop the East. I’m not really bearish about the Celtics regular season instead I’m bearish about their post-season and the Isaiah Thomas situation. He’s too much of a liability on defense during the playoffs since he can’t be hidden and team’s can exploit the mismatch. Even though he is a top level scorer getting stops at end of game situation’s are just as, if not more important, go ask the Cavs. The Celtics were a Rajon Rondo injury away from potentially losing in the first round of the playoffs and even though the East has weaken the Celtics are still too matchup dependent to be a taken seriously. Trading away Avery Bradley didn’t do them any favors either since now Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are really their only other guards.
Isaiah Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason and can make upwards of $30 million in his first year of a new deal with Boston. I don’t think any team with Isaiah Thomas making about a third of the team’s total cap can realistically be called a contender. I still think that trading Thomas is the best option but I don’t think it will happen. As we all know Danny Ainge won’t make a deal unless he thinks he gets at least equal or adequate value back in return. Thomas is making $6.26 million and finding a trade where you can find equal or adequate value is near impossible for that low of salary and that high caliber player. If Thomas isn’t going to be traded then is he worth that much money?
The Celtics are going through an issue that most teams would dream of: they have too many assets. They collected all these assets over time with the hope they can flip them for a star level player. With no trades happening already players like Kelly Olynyk, Demetrius Jackson, Jordan Mickey, Tyler Zeller, Avery Bradley and James Young are gone. The names aren’t important, what is important was the fact that these names were all once “valuable” trade assets called draft picks that turned into nothing. If they sign Thomas to a huge deal maybe Marcus Smart will be next. With no cap space left after a Thomas deal these picks will be all the Celtics have left to turn them into true contenders. Until they fix the Isaiah Thomas conundrum I’m bearish on the Celtics.
Minnesota Timberwolves – Bearish
For the most part I’m a fan of what the Timberwolves have done this offseason. Kevin Pelton has them projected to be the fourth best team in the West, however, I on the other hand just want them to make the playoffs for once. The Jimmy Butler trade was a success, that one was obvious. The Jeff Teague signing wasn’t exciting but for $19 million I can’t complain. The Timberwolves had to use their cap space this summer due to the flattening cap and extensions for both Andrew Wiggins and Karl Towns that will most likely be maxed. Say the Timberwolves signed Kyle Lowry to a $30 million contract, they wouldn’t have been able to sign Taj Gibson and the only way to fill out the rest of the roster would’ve been through salary cap exceptions or draft picks for the foreseeable future.
With that said I hated the Gibson signing for $14 million. I’m skeptical of the fit, utility and it feels like Tom Thibodeau was taking care one of his ex-players. He should help reinforce defensive principles but at that cost is pretty ridiculous. Then the Timberwolves signed Jamal Crawford to the full room exception of $4.328 million. Couldn’t they sign him for the minimum since he’s a 37 year old one trick pony? Ian Clark went for the minimum and he’s a decade younger, there were options the Timberwolves weren’t patient for.
I would’ve liked to see them round out their roster better but pairing Jimmy Butler with Wiggins and Towns is what this team is built around. In particular the improvement of Karl Towns’ defense is my main concern. We all know he has the potential to be a good defender but he still has to learn to read coverage’s on pick-and-roll’s, help defend, rotate in time and most importantly communicate. He has to be loud, concise and an air traffic controller that improves the Timberwolves fifth worst defensive efficiency from last year. The Timberwolves had the tenth best offensive efficiency in the league last year so even though there are still issues with shooting and spacing, offense is my secondary concern. Wiggins and Towns need to be a whole lot better defenders to get the fourth spot in the West. Considering that their rate of growth on that end has been slow I just can’t see them make that big of a leap defensively. I think the Timberwolves are more suited for the bottom half of the West playoff standings.
Utah Jazz – Bullish
Kevin Pelton has the Jazz coming in as the eighth seed in the West. I was surprised by that projection since they lost Hayward but even though I agree eighth place sounds about right I’m still bullish. I really liked what the Jazz did to resuscitate themselves after they lost Hayward. The Jazz focused on their strengths and style of play when signing players like Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh, Jonas Jerebko, trading for Ricky Rubio and drafting Donovan Mitchell. They didn’t overpay for anyone including Joe Ingles on a 4 year $52 million contract. Health permitting the Jazz have one of the deepest teams in the league. Up and down their roster they have two-way players. Do they have a star wing? A star ball handler? A star scorer? Well no. But having a bunch of two-way players on good contracts with a good coach still has the making of an underrated squad.
Without Hayward how will the Jazz generate points especially late in the game? It’s possible Rodney Hood, Dante Exum or Donovan Mitchell make that leap into star territory but I wouldn’t count on it. Quin Snyder shares the Mike Budenholzer factor when it comes to X’s and O’s on offense so there should be an eco-system of shots. Limit possessions like they’ve been so good at, slow down the game, beat the opponent up on the boards and players like Joe Ingles, Rodney Hood or Joe Johnson will have bigger responsibility late in game. Their defense should be smothering and possibly the best defense in the league next year. Health, growth of young core and offensive possessions at end of game situations are my biggest concerns about the Jazz. Out of all the teams that ended up losing a star this offseason the Jazz are the team I’m most bullish about.