One player can make all the difference in the NBA, not only on the court, but for the whole attitude and reputation of a team among fans, writers, and players. The Cavs picked up LeBron James and went from a laughingstock to a contender. The Bulls added Derrick Rose (again) and went from plucky overachievers to fragile contenders. The Pacers lost Paul George and became pitiful. Not in the sense that they will be nearly as bad as the 76ers or possibly the Lakers, but in the sense that everyone feels sorry for them. Meanwhile, Detroit is hoping Andre Drummond can become that player and Milwaukee is hoping the same for Larry Sanders and Jabari Parker, both of which seem like shakier bets.
Bigs - Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, Zaza Pachulia, John Henson, Johnny O'Bryant
Wings - Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jared Dudley, Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton, Damien Inglis
Guards - Brandon Knight, Nate Wolters, O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Kendall Marshall
I want to start with the Bucks, so fewer people will simply skip over their section, as admittedly befits a team of their standing in the NBA's pecking order. To truly understand the season Milwaukee experienced, the Philadelphia 76ers started the season with three proven NBA players on their roster, traded two of them by the middle of the season, one of whom helped throw his new team into a tailspin, and lost a NBA record 26 games in a row. They still won more games than the Bucks. Instead of an objective preview detailing all the ways the Bucks could spend another season mired in futility, I thought it would be more interesting to make the argument that Milwaukee could be a decent team this year. Yes, it's more likely that the perimeter defense will be wretched, Sanders will not become a DPOY candidate, Jabari will prove an inefficient chucker, and the team will lose close to 60 games. But bear with me.
The Bucks have a lot of players who had uncharacteristically bad seasons last year. The most important of these was Larry Sanders, who was one of the best defenders in the 2012-13 NBA season, but never got on track last year due to injuries and off court problems. If the Bucks can pair a defensively dominant LARRY SANDERS! season with a bounce back year from Ersan Ilyasova, formerly one of the most deadly stretch fours in the league (.448 3P% over the two seasons before the Buckapocalypse), they will have a very synergistic frontcourt to build around. While that duo would be the strength of the team, the Bucks have a collection of savvy veterans and two youngsters with oodles of potential in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, either of whom could account for many more wins than anyone is expecting. Veterans Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia can bring stability and efficiency for long stretches, youngsters Khris Middleton, Nate Wolters, and John Henson showed signs of turning into productive role players, and Brandon Knight can provide some extra scoring punch. And I guess it's always possible some team will talk itself into trading for O.J. Mayo.
Bigs - Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, Jonas Jerebko, Tony Mitchell
Wings - Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Singler, Caron Butler, Luigi Datome, Cartier Martin, Spencer Dinwiddie
Guards - Brandon Jennings, Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin, Will Bynum
Speaking of teams looking for trading partners to bail them out of their own mistakes, it's Josh Smith and the Detroit Pistons! Now, Smith's contract isn't an unworkable albatross. He can still be a productive player, he's signed for three more years, the cap is increasing, and the Pistons probably aren't contending for any marquee free agents regardless of their cap situation. That said, the Drummond-Monroe-Smith troika was an abject failure and it remains to be seen how the Pistons will resolve that situation. Stan Van Gundy's front office doesn't appear to be convinced that Monroe is ultimately part of the next good Pistons squad, and there has been plenty of speculation that SVG would prefer to structure the team like his most successful Magic teams; one dominant big (Drummond) and shooting.
The Pistons can employ a slew of interesting lineups that utilize those offensive principles using some combination of Caron Butler, Kyle Singler, Waluigi Datome, Jodie Meeks (now out for several months), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Unfortunately, I can't find lineups that combines crack shooting with good defense, especially with Brandon Jennings and D.J. Augustin manning point. The other interesting storyline will be the development of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope after a promising Summer League and start to preseason before an injury scare that will keep him out until the start of the regular season. KCP makes an interesting contrast to MCW, the other three initialed lottery pick from last June. Carter-Williams took on a huge role for the Sixers, scoring, assisting, rebounding, stealing, and generally making his presence felt, but in a dreadfully inefficient manner. KCP contributed much less to the stat sheet, but made very few mistakes (lowest turnover rate in the league) and played uncommonly good man to man defense for a rookie. Will MCW's struggles in a large role prepare him to excel in that same large role or will KCP's successes in a small role better prepare him to succeed in a larger role?
Bigs - Roy Hibbert, David West, Ian Mahinmi, Luis Scola, Lavoy Allen, Shayne Whittington
Paul George, C.J. Miles, Chris Copeland, Damjan Rudez, Solomon Hill
Guards - George Hill, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Watson, Donald Sloan
This is just sad. The defense should still be above average, though I think the loss of George may hurt more on that end than on offense. C.J. Miles is their best wing defender by far, which should translate into perpetual foul trouble for Roy Hibbert. They still won't be able to score unless Stuckey pulls off a D.J. Augustin style career renaissance and even then it might be dicey. George Hill is probably underrated again, but he's never been the type of player to orchestrate an entire offense for over 30 minutes a night. The East is so bad I could still see this team getting to .500 on the back of another excellent defense and grabbing the 7 or 8 seed, but that's about it. 35 wins and the #11 pick is probably more likely. And they could be the most boring team in the league, stylistically speaking. Let's move on.
Bigs - Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Cameron Bairstow, Nazr Mohammed
Wings - Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell
Guards - Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Aaron Brooks, E'Twaun Moore
"They are who we thought they were" - Denny Green on another excellent Chicago team.
What else is there to say about the Bulls? If Rose plays at an All-NBA level once again they are a title contender. If not, they are a good, flawed team to be unceremoniously dispatched at some point between the first round and conference finals. Rose isn't the only Bull with lingering injury concerns. Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol have each battled plantar fasciitis, Jimmy Butler played last season with turf toe, and Kirk Hinrich is roughly a hundred years old. which technically isn't an injury but is pertinent to the concerns expressed in this sentence. And while the Bulls are really good, they are also incredibly thin beyond their playoff rotation and will be giving time to D-League caliber players if they deal with injuries, in marked contrast to other contenders like the Mavericks, Spurs, and Grizzlies. In addition, all of the players they acquired to help the offense, including Gasol, Mirotic, McDermott, and Aaron Brooks, have serious questions on the defensive end, and it remains to be seen if the Bulls can play them and maintain their identity as a premier defensive team.
Pau Gasol was an interesting signing, and I'd like to hear the Canisensus on how much Gasol helps the Bulls and what his role should be for them. The Bulls have been starting Gasol at power forward next to Noah, but I wonder if they wouldn't be better off primarily playing Gasol as Joakim Noah's backup and giving more minutes to Taj Gibson, who is quicker, a better defender, and does not primarily operate out of the same spaces as Noah. Meanwhile, Gasol would be the hub of the offense with bench units when Rose is not playing. If the 2011 and 2012 Bulls, the most successful of the Thibs-led squads, had one weakness, it was the lack of a second player that could create offense off the dribble. This version of the Bulls shares that weakness, but Chicago is hoping that Pau's scoring and facilitating from the low and high posts will alleviate that need. Despite Gasol's presence, I still suspect that the lack of a player other than Rose that can scare the defense by creating off the dribble will continue to hurt the Bulls against playoff defenses.
Bigs - Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Brendan Haywood, Alex Kirk
Wings - LeBron James, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, James Jones, Joe Harris
Guards - Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Matthew Dellavedova, A.J. Price
How important are "playoff experience" and "knowing how to win"? One of the reasons I do not consider the Cavaliers the favorites for the 2015 title is that many of their key players are very young, do not have that experience, and have spent their careers on bad teams picking up bad habits. Kevin Love famously has never made the playoffs, but I would be more concerned about the performances of Irving, Waiters, Thompson, and Dellavedova. Will their defensive lapses, wasted possessions, and postseason jitters be ironed out of the Cavs system in only one year or will they cost the Cavs a series? I would place higher odds on the 2016 Cavs winning a title than the 2015 Cavs for that reason, their lack of rim protection, and the benefits of continuity.
On the other hand, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Anderson Varejao are good enough that it might not matter. Sideshow Bob's health is a constant concern, as he's their only really good interior defender and has missed large chunks of the past four seasons. His activity and passing mesh perfectly with Love's activity and passing, and the past several champions have shown the importance of having skilled, unselfish bigs. Love and LeBron are unstoppable individually and appear to complement each other almost perfectly. They should be incredibly fun to watch, marred only by occasional stretches during which their guards forget their existence. I am going to try to enjoy the beautiful basketball from now until June without thinking too much about what could have been in Minnesota, but I certainly understand the fans who are upset enough about the end of the Love era not to wish the Cavaliers the best of luck.