Five teams poised to make a big leap forward this season

6 Comments

Last year it was the Phoenix Suns — they made a huge leap forward, one few saw coming (they were considered a tanking team before the season). Credit Jeff Hornacek for putting together a system that really took advantage of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The Suns were almost a playoff team in the deep West.

So who makes the leap this season.

It’s always a little tricky to predict, but here are my five picks for the teams that will make big leaps forward in 2014-15.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers. Well, duh. This is obvious but the list is incomplete if the Cavs are not on it. As everyone who has not spent the past four months backpacking through rural Thailand knows, they added LeBron James and Kevin Love to a roster that had the All-Star Game MVP in Kyrie Irving. Plus the roster has solid role players — Anderson Varejao, Mike Miller, James Jones, Tristan Thompson, and on down the line. The only questions about this team are of the “can this keep them from winning a title this year?” variety. The Cavs won 33 games last season with a bottom 10 offense, they are now likely to have the best offense in the league and push 60 regular season wins.

2. New Orleans Pelicans. There are a lot of reasons the Pelicans are going to jump from 34 wins up to contending for a playoff spot. First, Anthony Davis is going to make a third-year leap from “basketball fans know he’s very good” to “everyone knows he’s very good.” As in he gets mentioned in the MVP voting good. But it’s a lot more than one guy in the Big Easy. New Orleans made one of the most underrated moves of the off-season when they got Omer Asik from Houston — he is a rock solid defensive and rebounding center who lets Davis move to his more natural four spot. This should improve the Pelicans defense, which is the key to them making a step forward (they were bottom five on D last season). Also, this team gets a seemingly forgotten quality stretch four back in Ryan Anderson. If the trio of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans can just stay healthy this is a high-40s win team. Even in the West.

3. Charlotte Hornets. Charlotte made a leap forward last season because coach Steve Clifford got a team anchored by Al Jefferson in the paint to be a top five defensive squad. He should have gotten more coach of the year votes because of that. But holding them back was the need for more shot creation — enter Lance Stephenson. He and Kemba Walker give them two guys who can create both in transition and in the half court. Charlotte’s offense will not be bottom 10 this season. The Hornets won 43 games last season and in a deeper East it’s not like they are going to win a whole lot more, they are not contenders, but they are a team that can make the second round of the playoffs and will be a tough team to beat nightly.

4. Dallas Mavericks. If you’re betting on Dallas getting considerably better — as I am — then you’re really betting on two things. First, and most importantly, that Tyson Chandler in the paint can lift the defense up from bottom 10 to above average or higher. He’s a big upgrade over Samuel Dalembert, but Chandler was slowed by injury to start last season in New York and didn’t ever move very well. He has to regain his form, and as a team the Mavs need to be more defensively focused. The other bet you are making is that Chandler Parsons is going to live up to his new, massive contract. His ability to draw defenders to the weak side, who then can’t jump in to help on the Monta Ellis/Dirk Nowitzki pick-and-roll should get everyone better looks (Dallas has had the third most efficient offense in the NBA during the preseason). If these two things happen Dallas can be a four seed and make the second round in the West playoffs.

5. Detroit Pistons. This is a vote for Stan Van Gundy. He’s going to make the Pistons better by first not trying to force feed the Andre Drummond/Greg Monroe/Josh Smith combination — it didn’t work, it’s time to move on. Second, SVG’s teams have always been fierce defensively and this Pistons team was bottom 10 on that end of the court last season (despite having Smith and some good defensive players). The Pistons aren’t contenders, but they are not going to be pushovers anymore. The challenge is even if they improve by 10 games this season, that only brings them up to 39 and that may not be enough to make the playoffs in the East this season. Bottom line, even though they take a step forward that may not get them to the postseason.

Report: 76ers happy with GM Elton Brand, who’s drawing Knicks interest

76ers owner Josh Harris and general manager Elton Brand
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Knicks are reportedly interested in hiring 76ers general manager Elton Brand.

In New York, Brand would work under new Knicks president Leon Rose. Brand holds the top position in Philadelphia’s front office. So, Brand would likely go to New York only if fired by the 76ers.

Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

A team source on Wednesday confirmed Brand is under contract beyond this season and said the organization is very happy with his work since being named GM in 2018. The source cited Brand’s leadership and strong working relationships with players, agents, and executives around the league.

The 76ers are so pleased with Brand… someone said so without under the cloak of anonymity. If he wants to back Brand, 76ers owner Josh Harris can do so publicly. Otherwise, this is so weak.

Teams generally express support toward employees while the employees are still working for the team – whether or not the employees actually hold approval. A key way to tell whether the support is genuine? Check the source. Harris doesn’t want to look like a hypocrite. If he endorses Brand now then fires him soon, Harris would look silly. With this sourcing, nobody would get egg on his or her face if Brand gets ousted, because we don’t know the source.

I bet Brand does have good relationships with everyone. He has long connected well with others.

But his roster-building has fallen flat.

Inertia will probably keep him in his job. Philadelphia overachieving in the playoffs (whatever form they take) – certainly possible – would make that an easier call. It’s just difficult to build an affirmative case for Brand as a team’s lead executive.

Report: No chance of traditional NBA playoffs this season

NBA playoffs
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA playoffs have a familiar format – four rounds, best-of-seven series, games in front of fans at home arenas.

But the coronavirus, which has forced the NBA into an indefinite stoppage and disrupted life around the world, makes that untenable. Don’t expect the league to wait until that’s workable, either.

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

At this point, several team and league officials told SI.com, any chance of a traditional postseason is out.

A shortened playoffs in Las Vegas is gaining momentum. It’d allow the NBA, hemorrhaging money, to draw revenue sooner. A reduced postseason would also minimize disruption to future seasons.

But even that comes with major complications, especially containing coronavirus from undermining the entire operation. It could be a long time until its safe to hold games, even in a centralized location without fans.

It could be so long… a traditional playoffs could be back on the table. Though I find that unlikely, I’m still not convince people have a proper understanding of how lengthy this hiatus could be.

Everyone wants to finish the season. The playoffs are the NBA’s most lucrative time, and it feels right to crown a champion.

So, it’s good the focus is on alternative formats. It’d be naïve to expect business as usual when the NBA resumes.

Who should be drafted No. 1? Podcast talking NBC Sports mock NBA Draft.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Should Anthony Edwards be the No. 1 pick?

Or James Wiseman? How would Obi Toppin fit with the Warriors?

More importantly, how is anyone preparing for a draft when nobody knows when it will take place?

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports — who just completed his mock draft — joins me to discuss what they know and don’t know about the 2020 NBA Draft, starting with having no idea when it will take place. We discuss Obi Toppin, Lonzo Ball, sleepers to watch, and everything in between in a draft preview podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Bucks hoping to complete title pursuit after coronavirus stoppage

Milwaukee Bucks
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks remain confident the coronavirus pandemic won’t put a permanent halt to the season and that they’ll get to resume chasing their first league title in nearly half a century.

The Bucks had a league-best 53-12 record when play was suspended three weeks ago. With Giannis Antetokounmpo having a potential second straight MVP season, the Bucks seemed poised to make a run at the title that has eluded this franchise since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led them to an NBA championship in 1971.

Bucks general manager Jon Horst thinks they will get that opportunity.

“We believe that we’re going to play,” Horst said Wednesday in a conference call. “Everything that we’re doing every day in our communications, in our preparations, everything we talk about is being prepared to play at some point, finish out the season and have a resumption.”

That’s why Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has spent part of this hiatus making sure the Bucks don’t lose their edge whenever they do get back on the floor.

He’s been studying the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets — the Bucks’ two most likely first-round playoff foes — as well as other Eastern Conference teams Milwaukee could see later in the postseason. He’s tried to learn from his experiences as a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach during the NBA’s most recent work stoppages.

“One of my reference points with the coaching staff has been lockouts,” Budenholzer said. “Sometimes when you come out of a lockout, things have been kind of slow, you haven’t been able to maybe do your normal routines and preparation, and things happen really fast. Whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker.”

His instructions to his players have focused on conditioning while understanding they might not have as much time to spend working on their basketball skills.

“I think that we feel that there are things they can continue to do as far as continuing to stay strong, continuing to maintain a conditioning level and really just put a lot of time and effort and energy into their bodies,” Budenholzer said.

After blowing a 2-0 lead to the eventual league champion Toronto Raptors in last season’s Eastern Conference finals, Milwaukee appeared to have all the elements in place to make a serious championship run this year before the pandemic struck.

The Bucks had just returned from a winless three-game trip west when the hiatus occurred, but that was the first time they had lost as many as two straight contests all season.

Despite their optimism and their confidence that league officials will do what’s best for the safety of everyone, the Bucks realize that play might not resume. However, Budenholzer said they aren’t thinking about what impact canceling the season might have.

“If for some reason this season is not played or there’s nothing to look forward to or to complete, I’ll process it then,” Budenholzer said. “I would add that I don’t think it’s being totally head-in-the-sand. I think hopefully watching news, listening to the commissioner, listening to whether it be Tony Fauci or Dr. (Deborah) Birx or whoever it is, it does feel like there is I think some realistic hope and belief that we will get through this.

“I know that there are some negatives, some less optimistic modeling, but literally all we think about is we are going to play and we want to be the best team when we do play so how do we prepare for that, how do we get better? It’s a great way to get through this.”