Ranking the 2014-15 NBA Season by Interestingness: Teams #15-11

by    October 26, 2014

15. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):

Last season’s supremacy of the Western Conference is often mentioned but never really explained. There are a lot of reasons why, with the main reason being the oversimplification that there are a lot of really fucking good teams in the Western Conference. Credit usually goes to the Spurs (62 wins in 2014-15), Thunder (59), Clippers (57), Rockets (54) and the Warriors (51) before even getting to the Blazers (54), Mavericks (49) and Grizzlies (50). For context, the Hawks snuck into the 8-seed in the East with 38 wins, and the 48 wins of the 3-seed Raptors would not have made the playoffs in the West.

The Grizzlies had their fair share of dominance in the Eastern Conference, going 21-9 and a fantastic 10-1 at home. The reason for that was mostly their 6th best defense per 100 possessions, stifling both on the perimeter and inside the paint with length, strength and the necessary commitment to focus on defensive basketball. This year they have retooled with the newly-reborn and newly-re-invented Vince Carter in place of Mike Miller — both of whom are way better than the animated corpse of Tayshaun Prince — and this should help them improve from a middle-of-the-road 15th in offense per 100 possessions. (If they can nab one more solid perimeter shooter who can defend, I like this team a lot more.)

I am mostly excited about this upcoming season for reasons of actual basketball, not contract negotiations or trades or superfluous narrative. Actual basketball. Because teams in the Western Conference are so consistently good this means lots of games where two really good teams face off at 7:00 PST: perfect for casual basketball fans on the coast, and perfect timing for late night basketball nerds throughout the Midwest to the east coast. It should be a season of great games on weird nights. The Grizz are going to be an indicator of whether or not the West can remain supreme, and in remaining true to their hard-nosed identity, and with a (hopefully) healthy Marc Gasol and a re-Joerger’d offense, they’re even better than last season.

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14. HOUSTON ROCKETS

HARDEN-HOWARD

by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):

The 2013-14 Rockets lived and died by their offense, which was not only one of the league’s best but also super fun to watch: a second best points per game of 107.7, a fifth fastest game pace, a fourth best offensive rating.

There is every reason to believe things are going to be as good, or better, than last year. Before you mention the loss of Chandler Parsons, I will mention Trevor Ariza and 41% shooting from three last season compared to Parsons’ 37%, not to mention that Ariza is a way better defender and slightly better on the boards. The Rockets’ bench is also improved, having cut the fat with Jeremy Lin, his minutes replaced by more minutes from 94-feet of Patrick Beverley, the super-fast Ish Smith and playoff sensation/3-point specialist Troy Daniels.

And then there are James Harden and Dwight Howard. At this point in their careers they are both superstar misfits, Howard in his tenth season and Harden in his sixth, but there for vastly different reasons. Both are inappropriately judged for the alleged flaws: Howard an ego-maniac without the motivation and drive of the greatest big men, Harden a lazy defender and as reckless as he is talented offensively. Both critiques devalue their impact on the court and, like Harden’s former teammate Russell Westbrook, create a focus that is about what they can’t do instead of the extraordinary things they can do.

Are Harden and Howard looking to satisfy critics, and finally starting to do all of the little things their critics say they aren’t? Well, no. They aren’t. They are superstars because of the way they play now, not because they’re pre-occupied with how to change. Until they upgrade at point guard, James Harden is going to have the ball in his hands a lot. Expect a more extreme version of the Rockets fast-paced 3-point barrage of last season, with Harden as the engine and Howard the scavenger in waiting. This team will start arguments with basketball fundamentalists and it will confuse the hell out of Byron Scott… meaning this is going to be a fun team to watch.

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13. PHILADELPHIA 76ers

by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):

In Part 1 of this preview, I wrote how there is something inherently interesting in being the worst. I stand by it. The 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers are, by every measure of NBA common sense, going to be TERRIBLE. They are not interesting in the sense that I am going to have to watch their games, but interesting in the sense that I want to see how badly this goes for a team making an unprecedented effort to suck.

The Sixers are going to be something to see for people who really like basketball in the same way the Frederic Wiseman documentary “Meat” is something to see for people who really love animals. It’s definitely not going to be enjoyable — but a little bit necessary to understand the world around you.

Last season, they managed to win 19 games, which is even less impressive when tacking on a historically bad 27 losses in a row. This is season is going to be worse, and whether or not they crack double-digit wins is actually in jeopardy. The Sixers are so shitty that NBA owners had to vote on whether teams are allowed to be this shitty. (They voted it down, 17-13 in favour, but 23 votes needed to change the rules.) A team so bad they almost had to change the rules. How is that not interesting?

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12. SAN ANTONIO SPURS

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by Mark Milner (@thejockocracy):

And here we go again. The San Antonio Spurs have been to back-to-back NBA finals and crushed the Miami Heat last June. And as we go into another NBA season, they could even be favourites to go to the Finals again: they’re right behind Cleveland and ahead of the Thunder.

In one sense, I find it crazy. At first glance, these Spurs seem old and top-heavy. After all, Tim Duncan is entering his 17th NBA season, Tony Parker his 13th and Manu Ginobili his 12th. But then you remember Kawhi Leonard and his Finals MVP performance last June. Between players like him, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw, the Spurs go deeper than just their big three.

But they need to. Over the past few years, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has done a great job of balancing minutes, giving Duncan, Ginobili or Parker nights off during the season. It’s worked so far: nobody’s had a serious injury. And Duncan, for example, averaged about 19 points and 12 rebounds per 36 minutes last season, while Ginobili’s scoring stats actually went up!

If they’re going to go deep in the playoffs again, the Spurs will need things to go right and get some luck, too. It’ll help if Cory Joseph is a capable fill-in for the injured Patty Mills, but avoiding more injuries helps more. Still, it doesn’t feel too crazy to think they’ve got another title run in them. And while I don’t quite understand how the Spurs keep on keeping on, I’m glad they do.

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by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):

I refuse to believe the Spurs will die. Gregg Popovich has invented a technique for NBA immortality using the magic ingredient of common sense. It’s remarkable, really, and it only took the balls to do it: limiting all of his players to average under 30 minutes per game, sitting his player when he feels they should sit despite the consequences, bucking conventional wisdom, and basically using his players in the exact opposite manner of Tom Thibodeau. Of course, this only works because Popovich can truly trust his bench. The Spurs are the only team where the 12th man on the bench can actually expect to not only play, but contribute.

Without the right personnel, though, even the Spurs’ best planning could not have worked. Danny Green and Tiago Splitter have gone from question marks in San Antonio’s future to some of the league’s most consistent role players, but neither more so than Kawhi Leonard. Due to minutes’ restrictions and the very nature of the Spurs system, the statistical impact of this relentless small forward isn’t likely to show itself until the 2015 playoffs but coaches and GMs around the league are desperately trying to find their own, new versions of last year’s Finals MVP. With Kevin Durant’s injury, Kawhi might actually make an all-star team, although it will be because fans or coaches making the right decision and not his night-by-night box scores.

The Spurs are going to hang a banner on opening night, and then for six months they are going to hide from the spotlight and go about their daily business of being the best basketball franchise on the planet. In late April, the Spurs’ immortality will once again be tested. Until then, do not doubt them.

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11. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

CAPTION TEXT

No one’s future has been less certain than Andrew Wiggins throughout the summer. Already having experienced a veteran’s share of trade and free agency drama, the 19-year old finally gets to prove himself on the court. Go forth, Boy Saviour!

by Mark Milner (@thejockocracy):

There might not be any team as confusing as the Minnesota Timberwolves. They finished just under .500 last season but were about ten games out of a playoff spot. They just traded away their best player, but grabbed an intriguing collection of young talent. And their star guard is one of the most exciting players in the league… until he takes a shot. They’re a team of compelling contradictions.

On paper, trading away Kevin Love gutted the Timberwolves. Not only was he their leading rebounder and scorer, he led the Wolves with 14.3 Win Shares (more than double the second-best total), a 26.9 PER and was their only All-Star. In return, Minnesota received Thaddeus Young, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. Suddenly, they have two possible franchise players and a forward entering his prime.

But things get strange in Minnesota when you start looking at Ricky Rubio. Before he took a shot in the NBA, Bill Simmons called him “my favorite international player of the decade” and Slam called him the “Spanish Pistol Pete.” But last year he averaged less than ten points a game. Hardly Pistol Pete-like numbers.

However, Rubio’s the rare player who makes more sense in person than on paper. While he can’t shoot, Rubio passes like few others. Take a moment to watch some of these highlights from last season. It’s filled with examples where Rubio controls where a play is headed and gets the ball to where it needs to go, even if there are two, three or four players in the way. Moves like that aren’t just fun to watch: they’re what brought Love to his career highs last season. Remember: Rubio can’t score, but Minnesota still averaged more points-per-game than Miami, OKC or San Antonio.

Enter Wiggins and Bennett. Both are intriguing opportunities for Rubio’s offensive playmaking: just look at this alley-oop from a preseason scrimmage! Neither has played with a guard as good at passing at Rubio is and it’s fun to imagine how exciting this team could be in transition. Add Young’s frontcourt presence, and Minnesota could be one of the league’s most exciting offenses.

“Could be” seems to be the best way to sum up this team, though. They could be an exciting team, but probably not for a while: none of their additions have played with each other before. Still, while there’s going to be confusing and messy nights, I suspect they’ll be a regular in my League Pass.

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by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):

Wing players! Canadians! This Timberwolves team has a strong contingency of both — and little else.

For Canadian basketball fans, we are interested in the development of this year’s number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins and last year’s number one Anthony Bennett. Conveniently for us, we only need to watch one team to do that. Unfortunately that same team is mired in a bad situation: a struggling team with no identity and no apparent plan for the future. It’s good news for Bennett as he gets a full redemption season, but pressure from fans and ownership mean that Wiggins is going to be asked to contribute right away. (I beg to differ.) If you’re inclined to think Andrew Wiggins is a budding superstar, you might think it’s good having him carry such a heavy load so fast for a young team. Sink or swim, the ball will find itself in the rookie’s hands this season.

The Wolves’ roster as it stands now — with a starting point guard who might be the worst shooter in NBA history, an abundance of young and unproven wing players all of whom still have fundamental flaws, a number one draft pick who everyone knew had no business being number one, below average big men who don’t fit together — will not be the Wolves’ roster at the end of this season. With real assets to do things with, they are almost guaranteed to make changes. Chase Budinger will be sought after by teams looking for a dependable shooter, Thaddeus Young was a recent acquisition but can still be flipped to a number of teams that may still want his services, and with seven (SEVEN!) rookie or sophomore players and not nearly enough minutes to go around, expect more than one of them to end up on a different team, and soon. For the kinds of impacts these players will have on teams once they leave Minnesota, Flip Saunders’ incubator for young athletic wings might turn the tides of another franchise from a fringe contender to a legitimate one. But that new contender is not going to be the Timberwolves.

With Kevin Love finally having skipped town for Cleveland, Andrew Wiggins is an obvious bright spot in the season. You’d also be keen to watch Gorgui Dieng, because judging from what he was doing late in the season last year, 2014-15 could be a coming out party for him. While everyone is waiting for Wiggins and Zach la Vine alley-oops, the real surprise for the Wolves this season could be the 6’11” center from Senegal. But make no mistake: even though there may be silver linings, get ready for a long, dysfunctional winter in Minnesota.

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Five more teams! Coming tomorrow!

is currently made up of Travis Nicholson, Mitch Orsatti and Mark Milner. Many collaborative articles can be found here, or at the individual author archives linked above.

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