Five teams likely to make a huge jump next season.
by Leo Sepkowitz | @LeoSepkowitz
The bulk of off-season activity is done, so it’s becoming easy to see which teams are set to improve in the upcoming season. Some lucky squad may jump 20-or-so wins by dealing for Dwight Howard in the next couple of months, but let’s, please, please leave him out of this.
Here are the five teams ready to make the biggest leaps forward in the ’12-13 season.
The Nets are the most obvious choice to top this list. They were able to re-sign Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, traded for Joe Johnson and also brought in role players like CJ Watson, Mirza Teletovic and Reggie Evans. After a complete roster overhaul that goes back to bringing in GM Billy King two years ago, the Nets are, at long last, all systems go for the ’12-13 campaign.
They seem like a lock for a Playoff spot in the top-heavy East, and, if things go nicely off the bat, could contend for the number 2 seed in the conference. Derrick Rose’s injury will likely shelf him for at least half the season, so there probably won’t be any teams closely behind Miami. My projected record for Brooklyn looks more like a 3-4-5 seed, but this team is a legitimate threat in the East.
Holes can easily be poked in the roster. Lopez isn’t good enough defensively to lead the team to a title. Deron has shot under 40 percent from the floor since first donning a Nets uni. Wallace just turned 30 and his skill set isn’t ideal for a very long-lasting career. Johnson is the most overpaid player in the NBA. Humphries was married to Kim Kardashian. The list goes on and on, but for as many things as you can say is wrong with this team, there are a few major forces going for them. Here are my main two:
1. Brooklyn. The New Jersey Nets were arguably the League’s least intriguing team for a number of years before Deron arrived. And even once he did, it appeared that the team had given up their future for a crack to re-sign Williams, which, for a while, seemed like a long shot. But now Williams is here. His buddies are here. Brooklyn is here. The team has excitement around it. Real, tangible stuff. People are walking around New York wearing their Nets hats proudly. The team has a fan base which will actually energize their new arena on a nightly basis, rather than serve as proof as to exactly how pathetic the Nets were.
2. This team is a real team. A team, people. A team! Not the best one-or-two-or-three-or-four players King could sign or trade for. They fit together like players on a team should. Don’t think that matters? Ask the cross-borough Knicks.
New York signed a top-flight free agent in Amar’e Stoudemire and then traded for an elite scorer in Carmelo Anthony and defensive specialist in Tyson Chandler. But three guys repping the same team does not mean they’ll fit together. Players don’t play on the court like they should on paper.
The Nets have a pass-first point guard—perhaps the best in the League. They have a reliable shooting guard, something which has become surprisingly more difficult to find these days. They have a small forward who can be productive without the ball in his hands, which is useful since, well, Wallace is never going to have the ball in his hands.
Make fun of Lopez’s defense and rebounding ineptitiude all you want, but his offensive game is undeniably solid. In his second and third seasons, he averaged roughly 19 and 20.5 points per game, respectively. And don’t tell me it’s because he was on a bad team—he shot right around 50 percent from the floor while drawing consistent double-teams and added an 80 percent clip from the line. But he can’t rebound the ball. Enter Humphries, who’s averaged 10.5 and 11 boards per game over the past two seasons.
Worried they spent too much on their starting lineup and left nothing for the bench? Think again. Sixth man MarShon Brooks was very solid in his rookie campaign, averaging 12.5/3.5/2.5 and a good enough shooting slash of 43/76.5/31.3.
People are excited about Teletovic, who averaged 22 points and more than 3 threes per game in Europe last season. Will those numbers translate exactly to the NBA? Of course not. But the Nets will happily take half of that production from their 7th man.
For his career, Evans averages 14 boards per 40 minutes. They found a steal in Watson who settled for the minimum despite being just 28-years old and averaging roughly 10 and 4 playing behind Rose last season. Rookie guard Tyshawn Taylor—the team’s only rookie—made some serious noise in the Summer League.
The Nets have flaws—big ones. But I’m not making the case for them to be the favorite to come out of the East. I’m just saying they have a lot more there than some think they do, and the pieces are all set to come together beautifully.
2011-12 Record: 22-44
2012-13 Projection: 40-42
I’ve been into this Sacramento team for a while now. Did they make me eat my optimistic words with their mediocre and often-lazy play last season? Yes. Might they burn me again this season? Most definitely. Will I hype them again? Yes!!
Sacramento, bizarrely, is one of the League’s deeper teams. It’s true. Check it out.
Guards: Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, Aaron Brooks, Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Honeycutt
Forwards: Thomas Robinson, Jason Thompson, Chuck Hayes, James Johnson, Travis Outlaw
Centers: DeMarcus Cousins
That’s assuming they let Terrence Williams and Hassan Whiteside walk. Slicing off Honeycutt and the inept Outlaw, that’s six guards who can really play, three forwards who can really play (and maybe a fourth in Johnson), and an absolute animal in Cousins.
Sacramento is 10, and maybe as many as 12 or 13, deep. That would give them a pretty serious advantage if they could ever figure out how to use their best assets. Cousins is probably the third-best center in the NBA. Evans can play all over the floor. Brooks is two years removed from being the League’s Most Improved Player. Nobody knows what Jimmer can do. Thornton may be the best scorer you’ve never seen score. Robinson’s ceiling is sky-high.
The list goes on and on. The bottom line, though, is the following: Sacramento has the potential to, in a year or two, be one of the West’s new dominant teams. The Thunder’s early progress was steady, and by that I mean it didn’t show in the standings, much like the Kings. But when they figured it out… man, they figured it out.
Is an 18-win jump too big for a team which only added a solid guard in Brooks and a rookie in Robinson to a roster which didn’t need more guards or unproven players? Maybe. Do I need to stop asking myself questions and immediately answering them? Yeah, sorry.