It’s all about perception when dissecting expectations. Rarely if ever do two people operate from the same viewpoint when assessing the situation, and each individual is likely going to place a different emphasis on deciding factors in order to shape the outlook.
While teams around the NBA all operate on different timetables when it comes to building a contender, the long-term process doesn’t prevent us from making projections about the short-term future. With the 2015-16 season upon us and all 30 teams receiving a blank slate in order to start over—with memories of last season firmly in the rearview mirror—there are six clubs that immediately stand out as capable of raising eyebrows.
The Sacramento Kings’ offseason was met with ridicule, criticism and shoulder shrugs from most around the NBA. Between the questions about the timing of their offseason moves, the decision to bring in Rajon Rondo into an already combustible mix and signing Kosta Koufos and Marco Belinelli for north of $50 million combined, it seemed like the only transaction that was met with widespread approval was the decision to draft Willie Cauley-Stein with the sixth overall selection. But no matter what concerns you have about the Kings’ future, it’s difficult to argue against the idea that Sacramento didn’t markedly improve its outlook for this specific season.
DeMarcus Cousins is going to get MVP votes now that George Karl is ready to unleash the beast, Rudy Gay should have more freedom to play his game and every position on the roster is at least two-deep with real NBA talent. The Kings are highly unlikely to make the postseason in an absolutely loaded Western Conference, but anyone expecting these to be the “same old Kings” is simply not paying attention.
Although the Boston Celtics still don’t have the star that General Manager Danny Ainge has been chasing since Paul Pierce walked out that door, this is one of the deeper rosters the NBA currently has to offer. Nobody should confuse depth with talent since there are clearly better built teams with a top-heavy star approach, but Brad Stevens could have a rotation that regularly features 10 or 11 players because he has so much versatility at his disposal. David Lee came over in exchange for peanuts, Amir Johnson was signed to help protect the rim and Jae Crowder, the multi-talented combo forward who looks like the best player in last season’s Rondo trade, was re-signed to a five-year, $35 million contract this offseason.
Rookie Marcus Smart is prepared to take a sizable step forward after a generally positive first season, Avery Bradley is motivated to prove that he belongs in the conversation when talking through the game’s most talented two-guards and Isaiah Thomas is my early favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year. Stevens, already one of the best coaches in the league, has his troops slurping the Celtic-colored lime green Kool-Aid. After a surprise playoff berth last season, nobody should be overlooking a group that promises to again turn heads when few expect them to do so.
The three-headed point guard experiment clearly did not work in Phoenix last season, but the Suns are committed to making the two-pronged attack work. With Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight having demonstrated clear chemistry and the club’s addition of Tyson Chandler in free agency this offseason, the Suns may very well be ready to become the team so many previously projected them to be.
With the ability to space the floor, a pick-and-roll attack that should be devastating and the team capable of playing at a faster pace than a lot of the opposition, the Suns’ biggest test will come if (when?) a member of their starting five is forced to the sidelines. Phoenix, like Sacramento, is likely to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture, but this is a team that is going to compete every single night and will take advantage when the opposition is tired, beat up or simply overlooking the date with the Suns on their schedule.
Randy Wittman is finally buying into the idea of small ball and Bradley Beal is entering a critical contract season, but it’s really hard to see how this team elevates its ceiling before taking a step or two in the other direction. Paul Pierce’s departure pushed Otto Porter into a role that he might not be quite ready for, Kris Humphries is suddenly a starting stretch-4 out of necessity and there are serious questions about every key member of the second unit. Jared Dudley had offseason back surgery, Alan Anderson recently had to undergo a second procedure on the ankle he had worked on this summer and Martell Webster—a player who unfortunately has a lengthy injury history—is dealing with a partially torn labrum in his right hip.
As good as John Wall is and as high as I am on his own evolution as a player, this situation could turn sour quickly. Beal (leg) has never been a symbol for durability, Nene is typically in and out of the lineup and the second unit could very well feature a front line of Humphries, DeJuan Blair and/or Drew Gooden at various points in the year 2015.
Everyone wants to push the Utah Jazz hype train full steam ahead, but this is a group of guys that has proven exactly nothing. Coach Quin Snyder provided an excellent answer when assessing the realistic outlook of his team, and while there was likely some built-in motivation to going that route, Snyder’s words should be commended considering what the Jazz will be forced to go through moving forward.
Few expected Rudy Gobert to become a star when he got his opportunity following the Enes Kanter trade, but now he’ll enter every game with a target on his back and the opposition looking to score on The Stifle Tower. Dante Exum (torn ACL), who was critical to Utah’s excellent defense down the stretch during his rookie campaign, is lost for the entirety of his sophomore season. The excitement around Alec Burks and Rodney Hood has exceeded their actual on-court value (for now) and we need to all stop pretending the better-on-paper bench can’t be exposed. Overlooked routinely last season, Utah faces a new reality entering this year.
They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same activity and expecting different results. What does that mean for a Memphis team that is returning the same core that has shown it isn’t good enough for so many years prior? We’re about to find out.
There was never much of a question regarding Marc Gasol’s re-signing, but it didn’t do anything to further elevate the ceiling of the team. The club’s two biggest moves were signing Brandan Wright and acquiring Matt Barnes, and while both undoubtedly fit what the Grizzlies do and should boost the second unit, neither is the difference between this Memphis roster suddenly becoming something it hasn’t been in the past. The Grizzlies still look like a first round playoff exit waiting to happen.