By: Scott Brock-Wilson and Justin Lynch
The team previews chug along as we inch towards the top 10.
Click on the previous sets of rankings to view them:
#30 and #29, #28 and #27, #26 and #25, #24 and #23, #22 and #21, #20 and #19, #18 and #17, #16 and #15, #14 and #13
12. Atlanta Hawks
Last Season: 60-22, Lost in Eastern Conference Finals
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Tiago Splitter, Tim Hardaway Jr.
Key Offseason Losses: DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antic, Elton Brand
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Jeff Teague
SG: Kyle Korver
SF: Thabo Sefolosha
PF: Paul Millsap
C: Al Horford
Key Role Players:
1. Tim Hardaway Jr.
2. Dennis Schroder
3. Tiago Splitter
SBW Season Outlook:
The Hawks are coming off their franchise best 60 wins. They had all things go their last year, including staying healthy. The Hawks biggest loss this offseason was Carroll. Carroll only averaged 12 points and five boards, and he was the only starter to not be named an all-star. But it was his mentality, toughness, and defense that they will miss. His replacement will be Sefolosha.
Sefolosha is great defensively (hence why he started over Harden for those year in OKC), but it has yet to be determined if he will gel nicely with this starting lineup. The reason the Hawks were so good was because they were so unselfish. The Hawks were second in the league in assists last year only behind the defending champs. It will take time for the Hawks to achieve the unity with all five starters that they had had last year.
However, the core four are intact. That is the important part. Teague, Korver, Millsap and Horford now have one more year of playing together and knowing each other’s tendencies. This team’s success will vary depending on them.
Could you guess who was the leading scorer on the Hawks from last year? Paul Millsap. The two time all-star averaged over 16 points and nearly eight boards, leading the team in both categories. Horford who you might think could lead in either of those categories, averaged 15 and seven. His PPG decreased by three last year, and his rebounding has gone down the last three years. These trends will need to come to a halt this year. He will need to produce more and take more of a leadership role among the team, considering he is one of the three captains.
Everyone knows what Korver is. He is a shooter. That is what he gets paid for, and he is one of the best in the league at it shooting 49% from three last year. 96.4% of his 221 threes were assisted last year, most of those coming from Teague. Teague is one of the more underrated point guards in the league. He is the one that steers this offense and makes it all possible for this high powered offense to succeed.
The offense starts with the point guard. Therefore, to have an unselfish offense, a team has to have an unselfish point guard. Teague is exactly that. He is one of the three captains, but he is the one who primarily leads this team. Teague averaged nearly 16 and seven by picking his spots. Expect him to continue his success, still with little recognition.
Something the Hawks could’ve improved on last year was their bench scoring. So they traded their first round pick (Jerian Grant) to the Knicks for Hardaway Jr. He averaged 11 points in 24 minutes on 34% shooting from three. Hardaway will provide a shooting boost off of the bench. They also added Splitter, who averaged eight points and four boards in under 20 minutes per game. Splitter will also be a good option if Horford, who has been known to be injury prone, finds himself on the sideline again.
The East got better and the Hawks didn’t necessarily improve. It is hard to see the Hawks matching or even coming close to their record from last year. I expect them to be a middle seed in the playoffs this year.
JL Best-case scenario:
The one-seed in the East is back at it again. Horford stays healthy, and the system in place allows Hardaway to grow into a the DeMarre Carroll role. Dennis Schroeder continues to improve, and lineups featuring him and teague become devastating defensively. The Hawks fly semi-under the radar and finish third in the East. After taking care of business in round one, they beat the Bulls in round two and head to Cleveland. After a fight in Cleveland, the Hawks can’t quite pull it out. They again show that a team without a superstar can hang with the best in the league, and become the Grizzlies of the East.
JL Worst-case scenario:
The Thabo Sefolosha/Tim Hardaway combo ruins the chemistry and flow offensively. Horford is banged up all year and Millsap starts to regress. Teague is overwhelmed by the offensive burden and loses efficiency. The Hawks fall to the seven-seed in the East where they lose decisively to the Bulls in round one.
Projected Record: 48-34
11. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Season: 41-41, First Round Loss
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Greg Monroe, Greivis Vasquez, Rashad Vaughn
Key Offseason Losses:
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Michael Carter-Williams
SG: Khris Middleton
SF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
PF: Jabari Parker
C: Greg Monroe
Key Role Players:
1. John Henson
2. O. J. Mayo
3. Greivis Vasquez
JL Season Outlook:
By far the team I am most excited about watching this year (other than the Celtics) is the Milwaukee Bucks. Visions of Jabari at the four and Giannis at the point center have been dancing around in my head since the end of last season. The addition of Greg Monroe just means more offense for this talented bunch. With so much young talent and a surprising amount of depth, this Bucks team might not win 50 games (although there’s a chance), but they will certainly be entertaining.
As the 2014-15 season commenced, I got my first taste of NBA league pass. I flipped through games night after night, waiting for the perfect matchup to help me procrastinate a few hours more. Every night, it seemed, I ended up in Milwaukee. Despite their slick court design and fun, young talent, I mainly tuned in to see rookie Jabari Parker and, of course, Giannis. But in just the first moments I spent watching the Bucks play I noticed someone else. Number 22 moved around the court seamlessly, hoisting up shots without hesitation...and making a lot of them.
This player that burst onto my TV was Khris Middleton. Yes, I know, of all the players to start with I chose Middleton. But he’s the epitome of what this team is about. Middleton is young, at just 24 years old, and he has a sweet stroke, which led him to 47% from the field and 41% from three. Defensively, he is better than advertised, averaging 1.5 steals/game and having the versatility that allowed the Bucks to switch most screens on the perimeter, a key force in their top-tier defense. Middleton’s 3-and-D promise caught more than just my eye and landed him a 5-year/$70 million deal this offseason.
Another $50 million over three years went to proficient post-up player Greg Monroe. Monroe, 25, comes over from Detroit after a 16-10 season that also saw him post a 21 PER. Monroe is one of the top post-up men in the game and will bring desperately needed offensive to an otherwise semi-stagnant team. Monroe will allow the Bucks to play inside-out, but he will also be a go-to guy in clutch situations. Also, don’t forget that Drummond clogged up the lane in Detroit and the more room Monroe has to work with the better he will be.
However, spacing issues were also an issue in Milwaukee last season, and it all starts at point guard. After trading away Brandon Knight in a three-team deal landing the Bucks Michael Carter-Williams, the offense suffered, mainly due to MCW’s woeful shooting. Carter-Williams shot a Lance Stephenson-esque 14% from three in 25 games with Milwaukee last year. He did not make up for it much is his field goal percentage, either, shooting just 43%. Though he may be a liability offensively, MCW does bring the defense. He’s a long 6’6” and his frame allows him to apply ball pressure that smothers defenders more so than it would if he were three inches shorter. But what makes him such a good defender is that he doesn’t give up athleticism with his height. Carter-Williams can slide with the shiftiest of point guards or use his size to switch onto a wing without thinking twice. He’s also a strong rebounder for his position, pulling down five boards/game. MCW likely is not the future of the Bucks, but he surely helps them is certain aspects.
The future comes in the form of two players with super-different backgrounds. Jabari Parker was on Sports Illustrated when he was in high school, was the second overall recruit coming out of high school (Andrew Wiggins was number one that year), and played at Duke, putting him in the forefront of everyone’s minds. Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up in Greece, and most had never even heard of him (nevermind pronounce his name) before the draft. All the tape we could see was grainy video in empty gyms somewhere in Greece. Together they are now maybe the most promising duo in the NBA that has not quite made it yet.
Jabari returns from an ACL tear that shut his rookie season down after 25 games. His fluid stroke and smooth moves will likely lead him to be one of the top scorers on this years team. A popular comparison to him is Carmelo Anthony, based on how easy he can score the ball. He will stretch the defense, but can also drive an finish, but no one is worried about his offense. He will likely be guarding a lot of power forwards this season, and his biggest question marks are defensively. Like Carmelo, Jabari is certainly not seen as a lockdown defender, and whether or not he has the goods to bang traditional four’s is a question. Lucky for him, the East is full of Thad Young’s and Jared Sullinger’s, who don’t have the same intimidation factor as a Z-Bo or Blake Griffin. Jabari’s development is certainly something to watch.
And if we’re talking about player development, the first name to mention is Giannis. The Greek Freak took considerable steps his sophomore year, upping his FG% 8 percentage points, nearly doubling his points/game, and upping his rebounds as well. Giannis struggles from three, and his 16% from that distance is a scary to think about, but let’s get back to the positives. Giannis is still just 20 years old. Yes, he’s only 20! He’s also 6’11” with a 7’3” wingspan. Yep, you read that right too. Giannis also has freakish athleticism (hence the nickname) and if you don’t believe me, just google his highlights. Defensively, Giannis is a menace, he can casually guard three spots, and with him, Middleton, and Carter-Williams (and maybe even Jabari) there will be switching galore and a locked down paint in Milwaukee.
The lineup combinations is really where this team becomes fun. We just went over the starters, but there’s no reason they can’t take Middleton out, bump Monroe to the four, and bring in John Henson, a severely underrated big. Also, Giannis has the versatility to bring the ball up the court, so we’ll certainly see some Giannis-O.J. Mayo-Middleton-Jabari-Monroe/Henson lineups. Even Rashad Vaughn has been super impressive in both the summer league and the preseason. They picked up Greivis Vasquez for a first-rounder and his veteran presence and shooting off the bench will be huge from the guard spot, especially when MCW is especially bad offensively.
Good teams need to have lineup fluidity, and the Bucks are maybe the best example of that from a team that is not in title contention. They have oodles of young talent, will be uber-fun to watch, and just might be dangerous come playoff time.
SBW Best-case scenario:
The Bucks, with all of their length, become the best defensive team in the league. Everyone on the team continues to develop and improve. Monroe provides the low post scoring that the they have always needed, while Parker returns fully healthy with no limitations. Giannis improves his jumper, and Middleton becomes more than a three and D guy. MCW decides that he should probably learn how to shoot with the guidance of Vasquez. Henson is a force down low defensively playing with and without Monroe. Mayo is able to provide scoring off of the bench. The Bucks get a top three seed in the East.
SBW Worst-case scenario:
Jabari cannot quite get back to himself after the injury. Monroe’s weakness’ defensively hurt them more than his strengths offensively as he struggles down low. Giannis doesn’t improve much on his shooting. Middleton stays in his role and fails to break out. MCW still can’t shoot. Henson will still be the defensive guy he is, but he doesn’t improve offensively. However, with all of this being said, they will not slip out of the top five of six in the East. They are too good and have too much talent for that.
Projected Record: 48-34