By: Scott Brock-Wilson and Justin Lynch
We get closer and closer to #1 as we crack the top 3.
Click on the previous sets of rankings to view them:
#30-#21: 30 and 29, 28 and 27, 26 and 25, 24 and 23, 22 and 21
#20-#11: 20 and 19, 18 and 17, 16 and 15, 14 and 13, 12 and 11
#10-#1: 10 and 9, 8 and 7, 6 and 5,
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Season: 45-37, Missed Playoffs (9th in West)
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Cameron Payne
Key Offseason Losses: Perry Jones
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Dion Waiters
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Enes Kanter
Key Role Players:
1. Steven Adams
2. Kyle Singler, Anthony Morrow, Nick Collison
3. D. J. Augustin, Cameron Payne, Mitch McGary, Andre Roberson
SBW Season Outlook:
The Thunder are back. Durant is back. The Thunder pretty much brought back everyone from last year and added Payne to the mix. Any good team that is able to keep their core intact in the offseason, had a successful offseason.
Enes Kanter is one of the best offensive big men in the league with hi versatile low post game, and OKC made a commitment to the future with him by locking him up for 4yr/$70 million. After Kanter came to OKC, he averaged 18 and 11 in 31 minutes. The scoring will not be as high this year with Durant returning, but it is always good to have in your back pocket if you’re Donovan. There is no concern for Kanter offensively, however, when it comes to defense, he is atrocious at protecting the rim. The positive for OKC is that they have Ibaka to make up for Kanter’s inabilities.
Ibaka was third in blocks/game this past year with 2.42. He is three time All-Defensive 1st team and a two time NBA Blocks leader. He is a proven big who has a nice midrange jumper as well. Two-thirds of all of his shots are jumpers which allows OKC to space the floor more for either Kanter to go to work, or for Durant and Westbrook to drive the lane.
The main backup for these two bigs is Adams. Adams in only his second year, started 67 games last year for the Thunder. He averaged seven points and seven boards, boasting a 14.1 PER. He will be a main contributor off the bench this year for the Thunder. Something that they haven’t had in a long time from a big man.
The Thunders strength has always been in the backcourt. But this year it is not just because of Westbrook and Durant. They have five small guys that are quality bench players: Augustin, Payne, Morrow, Roberson, Singler. Augustin saw a drop in production once coming over from detroit last year because he had a much decreased role. Payne is one that many people are high on coming out of Murray St., and this opportunity learning from both Westbrook and Augustin, will be beneficial to his development. Roberson is a defensive specialist, while Morrow and Singler are three point specialist. Roberson and Singler both started a number of games last year for the Thunder, and now OKC has the luxury of bringing them off the bench.
Of course this team revolves around Durant and Westbrook, but who is sandwiched in between them in the starting lineup? The answer would be Waiters. Now, I am not high on Waiters (as you all probably know), but he does have potential because he is only 23. But he had a PER of 10 and a usage rate of 21%, which will need to go down because that is way to high for a guy playing on a team with Westbrook and Durant. He should be the fifth scoring option in that starting lineup.
Westbrook is a freak of nature. When he gets into his beast mode, there is no stopping him. There will be no issue with Durant coming back, as it has been, and always will be Durant’s team. He lead the league in points with 28.1 and averaged eight boards and seven assists. He put up an astonishing 11 triple-doubles last season. Most likely he will not put up the astronomical numbers again with Durant coming back and assuming most of the scoring duties again, but don’t expect Westbrook to go back to who he was before this past season.
As far as Durant, I believe that he will come back, and return to himself almost immediately, but I do not want to repeat myself too much, so if you want to hear more on Durant, click here to hear Lynch and I talk about it on our first NBA preview podcast. But, to summarize I expect him to be a beast and one of the top 10 players in the league once more.
The Thunder will be a top-four team in the West and will have to battle their way to the championship.
JL Best-case scenario:
Durant goes into Eff-you mode after people stopped talking about him among the best in the league. Durant proves why he’s the best offensive player in the NBA, averaging 30/game. Westbrook builds off of his big season last year, and Ibaka finally takes the next step. Dion Waiters is either shipped to a far away place, or he stops shooting every time he touches it. Kyle Singler, D. J. Augustin, Anthony Morrow, and Steven Adams prove to be one of the better bench units in the league. Kanter becomes only semi-lost defensively. The Thunder win 60 games, get the number one seed in the West and waltz to their long overdue title.
JL Worst-case scenario:
Durant isn’t the same after his three foot surgeries, especially early in the season. Russell Westbrook sees this and tries to carry the team. Tension between Durant and Westbrook are at the forefront of an underachieving team. Dion Waiters continues to fire up terrible shots at an an alarming rate, and, in the process, takes valuable touches away from Kanter. Without any production offensively, Kanter makes his $70 million contract among the worst in the league, due to his continuing defensive woes. The bench they assembled still lags behind the rest of the West. The Thunder win the division, but due to the new rules, fall to the six seed and get bounced in the first round. Durant then spurns OKC for the Lakers, and the Thunder’s title window is slammed shut, making the Thunder one of the best teams to never win a title.
Projected Record: 59-23
3. San Antonio Spurs
Last Season: 55-27, First Round Loss
Key Offseason Acquisitions: LaMarcus Aldridge, David West
Key Offseason Losses: Aron Baynes, Cory Joseph. Tiago Splitter
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Tony Parker
SG: Danny Green
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Tim Duncan
C: LaMarcus Aldridge
Key Role Players:
1. Manu Ginobili
2. David West
3. Boris Diaw, Patty Mills
JL Season Outlook:
Undoubtedly the winner of the offseason, the Spurs come into this season with championship expectations as they try to maximize the end of Tim Duncan’s career. Not only did this team pick up the biggest free agent of the offseason (Aldridge), they also signed David West, a move being desperately overlooked, and they re-signed Danny Green.
It goes without saying that this team is dangerous, and, if they gel the way they could, potentially even deadly. The storyline that this team will just cruise through the regular season because Popovich likes to rest his stars is being overstated. Even if Pop rests his original big three (Manu, Parker, Duncan), he still has his new big three (Aldridge, Kawhi, Green) as well as a deep bench that you know will exceed expectations. This team has nine guys that can be on the floor in crunch time, and with the hopes they have for Kyle Anderson, it may even be 10.
The backcourt will look similar to what we’re used to. Parker will run the show offensively, while Patty Mills and Danny Green spot up for open looks. If Parker is out, the ball-handling responsibilities turn over to Mills. The loss of Cory Joseph this offseason should not hurt them as long as Parker is relatively healthy.
Where this team gets fun is the frontcourt. 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, will hound any and all oppositions who cross his path. Leonard can guard four positions and is a vastly underrated rebounder for being just 6’7”. His 7.2 boards/game were second in the NBA among small forwards last year, just behind Draymond Green, who spent a lot of time playing the four and five as well. Offensively, Leonard posted a career-high in points/game (16.5) and had a 22 PER to boot. Oh, and he’s still just 24 years old.
The two big-guy spots will be filled, primarily, by Duncan and Aldridge. David West and Boris Diaw will get bigger minutes in the regular season, but those minutes will likely shrink when the playoffs roll around.
LaMarcus Aldridge just turned 30, and has been a top-10 player in the league for some time now. He averaged 23 and 10 last year on 47% shooting. But what is really exciting is his 35% from three. Assuming that number continues to inflate, Aldridge could instantly cure any spacing issues doubters may have foreseen with his signing. The only other issue one could possibly have with Aldridge is his tendency to hold the ball (which causes his low assist numbers). The Spurs whip the ball around like no one else and having a ball-stopper or someone who can’t pass can be poison for this offense. However, contrary to popular belief, Aldridge can pass and he can move the ball. That just wasn’t what he was asked to do in Portland. He will definitely take some time to adjust to the Spurs rapid pace, but when a guy is as good as him and he’s put in this great of a situation, he’s going to figure it out.
The two biggest pieces in helping Aldridge’s transition are the first two names when you think about the Spurs. Tim Duncan is entering his 19th season in the league and Gregg Popovich is entering his 20th season at the head of the operation. Both of these guys are the best in the business and will allow Aldridge to grow and develop within the system in hopes that he will bring the system up to another level.
This sounds a lot like something we are seeing in today’s NFL. The Spurs and the Patriots are always compared, and it’s tough find a better comparison than now. Brady and Duncan are both seemingly ageless. Belichick and Popovich prove why they are they best and the most innovative on a weekly basis. At the same time, neither are afraid to mix it up with the league in order to do what’s best for the team (Belichick’s formations against Baltimore, Popovich resting stars). But where does Aldridge fit into this equation? He’s Randy Moss. Moss came into a Patriots system with a lot of baggage and many did not think he would be able to conform to “The Patriot Way”. Aldridge comes into San Antonio with a wildly different role in a wildly different scheme. Moss’ first year in New England he broke the single-season record for touchdown receptions. But he also brought Brady through his best season as a pro and was part of propelling that team to 18 wins, the most ever in a season. Aldridge won’t be breaking any individual records, but there’s no reason he can’t make everyone around him better.
Aldridge can also score one-on-one from anywhere inside the arc. In crunch time, the Spurs can stick him on the left elbow and let him go to work, like we saw so often with Portland. But they can still go into Duncan, who will almost positively be one-on-one against some poor defender, because the opponent can’t double off anyone. There’s so many options to this offense it gets me excited just thinking about it. And if anyone can harness the powers of this team it’s Popovich.
But even I have overlooked David West throughout this preview. West turned down eight figures for a chance at a ring in San Antonio. But, as much as Diaw helps them, David West is no Boris Diaw. West has a deadly mid range shot, shooting nearly 50% from 15-19 feet. He is a tough, tough player, who is not afraid to bang with anyone. He also put up a career-high in assists last season. The combo of David West and Boris Diaw might not sound all that scary now, but those two, along with Patty Mills and Manu, could make the Spurs into the deepest team in the league.
There is not much else to say about this team other than this: Manu Ginobili is a borderline Hall of Famer, and all he was in this preview was a throwaway when talking about how good San Antonio’s bench is. Wrap your mind around that. Manu Ginobili is anywhere between the 5th and 7th most consequential player on this team. I can’t wait to see this team in action.
SBW Best-case scenario:
Aldridge fits right into the Spurs rotating system of producing great big men. Duncan mentors him while still putting up double-doubles. Parker continues to finesse his way through defenses finding the open man. Kawhi launches himself into the conversation of top five player in the league. Green keeps knocking down those threes, and Ginobili beats father time once more. They win the championship, skating through the West with their fresh legs from all the rest that Pop gave them during the season. And David West laughs at everyone who made fun of his decision to walk away from the money.
SBW Worst-case scenario:
Aldridge doesn’t quite live up to all of the hype that he was getting. Ginobili is finally done. Duncan, Parker and Kawhi still do their thing. But the Spurs miss the toughness of the bigs like Tiago Splitter and Aron Baynes. their bench struggles without Cory Joseph as well. The Spurs fall to the 5th seed in the West losing in the first round by getting overpowered by a more athletic team.
Projected Record: 58-24
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