Five teams likely to make a huge jump next season.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
2011-12 Record: 23-43
2012-13 Projection: 39-43
Golden State didn’t make a huge splash this offseason, but quietly got a lot better. Their improvement started with last year’s mid-season Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut swap, and continued into the summer.
First they shipped out Dorell Wright and brought in Jarret Jack in a three-way trade, and went on to sign forward Carl Landry this week. They also drafted small forward Harrison Barnes, who will likely see a bunch of minutes early on with the departure of Wright.
The starting five projects as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Barnes, David Lee and Bogut, with Landry, Jack, Richard Jefferson and probably Brandon Rush coming off the bench. Not bad at all.
The Warriors biggest flaw has been terrible defense over the last few years, but this team may be a little different. Granted any team with David Lee starting at the 4 can’t really claim to be defensive-minded, but with Bogut in the middle they have a chance to make a stop here and there.
Golden State’s season may come down to two big, big, big ‘ifs’.
‘If’ No. 1: Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut stay healthy. This is really sort of two ifs, but they need both of these guys at full strength all season. Curry has played 80, 76 and 26 games in his first three seasons. The total for his first two years are pretty good, but he missed the majority of last season with ongoing ankle issues. Playing one-third of the season ain’t gonna cut it if the Warriors are going to do any damage this season.
The same goes for the oft-injured Bogut. Since entering the League, he’s played in 82, 66, 78, 36, 69, 65 and 12 games. The Ws need at least 70+ from him this year. He can really impact a game defensively, but he needs to actually be on the floor to do so. Golden State doesn’t really have a backup center, so in the event of a Bogut injury Lee would likely slide over to center with Landry moving into what would again be a terrible defensive starting frontcourt.
‘If’ No. 2: Thompson and Barnes develop nicely. It’s conceivable that Jefferson will start over one of these guys, but at the end of the day much of this team’s success will fall on Thompson and Barnes’ shoulders. Thompson averaged 12.5 points in his rookie season, and is set to see major minutes without Ellis around. If he can get close to replacing Ellis’ offensive production—17 ppg sounds reasonable—then the Warriors will maintain a powerful backcourt.
Barnes could be the team’s answer at small forward, something they lacked throughout last season. Wright was horrible for them, and Jefferson isn’t a great option as a 35-minute per game player. If Barnes can do roughly what Thompson did last season, this team will really be able to make some huge strides in the upcoming season.
The problem for Golden State is that they probably need to hit on all four of these scenarios to make any noise. Things rarely go as teams hope, so the Warriors may well be in for another long season of injuries and miserable defense. But it’s easy to be optimistic about this roster.
2011-12 Season: 23-43
2012-13 Projection: 37-45
The Raptors are a pretty unique team. While nobody was looking, they’ve stockpiled a pretty solid roster, top-to-bottom.
They have two really good point guards in the newly acquired Kyle Lowry and Jose “I Get 9 Dimes Per Game, Somebody Trade For Me” Calderon. Good enough guys on the wing in DeMar DeRozan, the overpaid-but-solid Landry Fields and rookie Terrance Ross.
The team really gets interesting in the post, where they have Andrea Bargnani, who averaged nearly 20 points per contest last season, and Jonas Valanciunas, who they grabbed fifth overall a year ago and will finally join the team for the upcoming season.
Of course, like most teams on this worst-to-first list, the Raptors need some things to break their way. If Valanciunas is as good as people believe he will be, he and Bargnani will turn into quite the tandem in the paint (though I don’t think Bargnani has step foot in the paint since ’96). DeRozan may be a 20 percent career three-point shooter, but he finds ways to score, averaging just shy of 17 points per game in the ’11-12 season.
Fields was an awful signing financially, but there isn’t a team in the NBA that wouldn’t welcome his services. A shooting guard who won’t shoot the team in the foot is a valuable asset. But he’ll need to regain his pre-Melo New York confidence to be really productive.
Ross was a reach at eighth overall, but they must like him to have taken him rather than trade back with a team like Houston who wanted to move up to grab Andre Drummond or Austin Rivers.
The bench is solid. Assuming they hang onto Calderon (if I was running the Bulls, I’d be trying to work something out as we speak), they’ll have a starting caliber point guard alongside Ross, Linas Kleiza (10 and 4 per game last year), Ed Davis and Amir Johnson. They lack a classic sixth man instant-offense guy, but it’s good enough. Good enough for what, you may ask.
Well, this Raptors team won’t be fighting for home court advantage in postseason. They’re not better than Miami, New York, Brooklyn, Indiana, Boston or (probably) Philly, but they’re right there after that. Atlanta and Orlando will likely take steps back next season, opening up the bottom of the conference to a handful of teams. Toronto will be in the thick of the race for those seventh and eighth spots after missing the Playoffs by 12 games last season. That’s improvement.
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
2011-12 Season: 21-45
2012-13 Projection: 42-40
Here’s your chance to hop aboard the Hornets bandwagon. Sure, everyone will love them when they’re the new OKC in three years, but get on board now. Because this team is ready to go to work now. I bought my ticket the moment they re-signed Eric Gordon, creating a very interesting trio, featuring rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers alongside Gordon.
New Orleans also made two trades which look bad on their books but should really help on the court. They sign-and-traded for forward Ryan Anderson (four years, $36 million)—a sniper from deep. They also landed big men Robin Lopez (three years, $15 million) and Hakeem Warrick (two years, $9.6 million) in a three-way deal involving Phoenix and Minnesota.
They did move Jarret Jack in a traded I hated from their perspective (a team with tons of cap space trading a relatively small expiring contract for nothing makes no sense), but the roster is still looking pretty nice.
The starting five can really go in a number of different directions, but here’s how I project it: Greivis Vasquez, Eric Gordon, Al Farouq-Aminu, Anthony Davis and Robin Lopez. That leaves Rivers, Anderson and Warrick as the first few guys off the bench. A lineup featuring Rivers or Anderson instead of AF-A is a little more fun, but it’s crucial to have some punch off the bench.
The Hornets have some holes. Farouq-Aminu is not a good enough small forward to start for a Playoff team, but I can’t imagine he’ll really get starters minutes if he struggles. I’d sign Josh Howard and deal for Calderon in a heartbeat, but it seems like the Hornets are done making moves. Assuming they go forward with this roster, I like their chances.
They can create a lot of mismatches with their flexibility, and should be a legitimately exciting team to watch.
Of course most of the pressure will fall on the shoulders of young Anthony Davis, who will be relied on to take this team to the next level. Sure Gordon and Rivers could form a great backcourt one day, but New Orleans needs Davis to deliver if they want to sniff title contention in a very tough Western Conference.
The great Larry Brown is on record saying that, “the team that gets [Davis] is gonna win over 50 games.“ I’m not sure that’s true (and I can’t imagine Brown is, either), but the message is clear: If you have Davis, you have a prayer.
The Hornets may prove to be an inexperienced teams that makes a ton of mistakes and takes home more moral victories than those which show up in standings. But maybe not. I’m buying into Davis and I’m buying into the Hornets. Mark me down for an over-.500 record.