Defining Success: San Antonio Spurs

Each team enters the season with varying expectations based on the talent on their roster, where they are in their team building cycle, and the delusions of management and fans. Prior to the start of the season I’ll look at what would need to happen for each team to call their regular season a success, and how likely they are to make it happen.

What do you expect? The defending champions are bringing back the usual suspects for another season, hoping to squeeze one more title out of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Tony Parker and coach Popovich are back too in the quartet’s 13th season together, along with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, and Marco Belinelli. It’s no wonder with that kind of depth that they were able to get by last season without a single player averaging over 30 minutes per game, and Pop will again lean heavily on his strategy of resting the vets while cycling in young or unproven players to help them gain game experience.

This all has to fall apart at some point. Duncan has to finally break down. Parker has to lose a step. Ginobili has to sustain one too many injuries. It may not happen this year, and it certainly didn’t happen last year, but it will eventually, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Far from the early days of the Duncan era, when he teamed with David Robinson in a post-up centric offense, the last few years have seen the Spurs put on an offensive clinic thanks to their crisp ball movement and solid shooting. This team can get anyone an open look, and they’ll use some of the most creative sets in the league to do it. The entire process is a thing of beauty.

That awe-inspiring play was good enough to rank San Antonio 6th in offensive efficiency despite sitting their best players for large chunks of the regular season. The defense might somehow be more impressive, ranking 4th in efficiency last year. Every player can contribute offensively, making it easier for the coaching staff to use optimal defensive lineups for long stretches. The Splitter/Duncan combo can play together, especially in the regular season, thanks to the spacing provided by everyone else, and the bigs are fantastic together defensively.

It’s hard to say exactly how this season will go. The depth and talent make injuries less of an issue, and Leonard’s ascent should help mask the decline of Duncan and Ginobili, but the roster is old, and a big decline by more than a couple of the key contributors could signal the closing of this core’s title window. In addition to Duncan and Ginobili, Diaw is always a risk to be out of shape, and he is on the wrong side of 30.

We’ll have to wait and see how well the team holds up and whether or not father time ever comes calling for Duncan. A spot in the playoffs is almost assured, however, which is something almost no other team in the West can say. Once there, the health of the team and the luck of the draw will be the biggest factors in determining if the Spurs’ quest for a repeat is successful.

Predicted Finish: 59-23 | 1st in Western Conference

Defining Success: Los Angeles Clippers

Each team enters the season with varying expectations based on the talent on their roster, where they are in their team building cycle, and the delusions of management and fans. Prior to the start of the season I’ll look at what would need to happen for each team to call their regular season a success, and how likely they are to make it happen.

The L.A. Clippers are legitimate contenders, and may end up with the best record in the West. Last season ended on a rough note, with the Donald Sterling fiasco finally reaching a broad enough audience at the right time to earn him a long overdue ticket out of the league, but this year’s roster is absolutely loaded and will stand out even with the stiff competition around them.

Last season wasn’t exactly a failure, unless winning 57 games and making the 2nd round in a loaded conference is frowned upon these days. With upgrades across the roster there’s no reason to doubt the Clippers’ ability to reach the Western Conference Finals and compete for a title.

Spencer Hawes was the biggest signing of the offseason, providing solid depth and floor spacing behind (and possibly next to) DeAndre Jordan. At backup point guard, Jordan Farmar will be an upgrade over the departed Darren Collison. The only area that may be short on quality depth is the wings, where J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes will be supported by Jamal Crawford and a bunch of question marks. If Reggie Bullock can’t provide some support in his sophomore season the Clips will be left hoping for help from the scrap heap.

Barring injuries, that shouldn’t matter. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can carry this team a long way. The extra shooting on the roster will be a huge help, but Griffin’s continued improvement is the best hope for L.A.’s other team making it out of the West. Entering his 5th season he will have the most help he’s ever had, and should continue to get better.

The Clippers are in a very strong position with Kevin Durant missing the first weeks of the new season and San Antonio more interested in resting their players than putting up gaudy win totals. With a strong regular season, L.A. could land the top seed, guaranteeing themselves homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. What with the West being a bit of a crapshoot when the playoffs start that could be just the advantage this team needs to get over the top.

Even if that doesn’t happen, a top-4 seed and a trip to the conference finals would be considered a great season, and it’s completely reasonable for a team this deep and this talented to pull off the feat.

Predicted Finish: 57-25 | 2nd in Western Conference

Defining Success: Oklahoma City Thunder

Each team enters the season with varying expectations based on the talent on their roster, where they are in their team building cycle, and the delusions of management and fans. Prior to the start of the season I’ll look at what would need to happen for each team to call their regular season a success, and how likely they are to make it happen.

Kevin Durant isn’t the only player on this team. His absence won’t be the end of the world. It sure won’t be fun though. In reality, barring setbacks, losing the reigning MVP should only cost the Thunder a few games in the final standings. That may be enough to turn a 1-seed into a 4-seed in this brutal conference, and that could be devastating to the title hopes of one of the league’s few true contenders.

Injuries have played a stealthy role in keeping OKC from returning to the finals since their first trip there in 2012. In the 2013 playoffs, Russell Westbrook went down in the 1st round and didn’t return, leading to the Thunder being ousted by Memphis in the 2nd round. Last season, Serge Ibaka suffered a calf strain that kept him out of the first two games of the Western Conference Finals against San Antonio. They lost them both, and eventually dropped the series in six games. A healthy Ibaka may have swung the series.

Instead of consistent trips to the finals these Thunder have been mired in the upper reaches of the playoffs, unable to catch the breaks they need. For better or worse, the roster is constructed around three players, and any injury to one of them is enough to take them out of contention. It’s hard not to talk about the James Harden trade when discussing OKC’s depth, so appreciate how great of an act it will be for me to skip past it. This is one hell of a core, and they’ve been championship quality when healthy. They just need to be in good shape through the playoffs – it’s as simple as that.

The early part of this season will see Westbrook getting his chance to run the show on his own, but the bigger question is how much Ibaka can step up offensively. There’s not a ton of scoring talent available without Durant, and the lanky power forward offers the best bet for a secondary offensive force.

A few other players could help that along as well. Anthony Morrow wasn’t an Earth-shattering pickup this offseason, but he can shoot the lights out and should get plenty of opportunity early in the season when the offense is desperate for spacing and perimeter scoring with Reggie Jackson also missing time due to injury.

The more obvious promotion would be of Steven Adams to starting center over Kendrick Perkins (sorry, I couldn’t avoid every tired Thunder storyline). Adams played well in his rookie campaign, and stands to improve with more time on the court. He’s not a game changer in any sense, but he’s big, gets in the way on defense, and rebounds pretty well. He can’t shoot and occasionally inspires opponents to punch him, but whatever, mainly he’s just not Perkins, who is absolutely awful. This change needs to happen sooner rather than later.

A championship is still a real, achievable goal if Durant can make a full comeback fairly soon. The Thunder will need to get a little lucky, just like any team does to win a title, but the pieces are certainly there. Getting some contribution out of the likes of Perry Jones or Jeremy Lamb would help, but it really all comes down to the big three. Get them healthy and flowing and everything else will fall into place.

Predicted Finish: 56-26 | 3rd in Western Conference

Defining Success: Cleveland Cavaliers

Each team enters the season with varying expectations based on the talent on their roster, where they are in their team building cycle, and the delusions of management and fans. Prior to the start of the season I’ll look at what would need to happen for each team to call their regular season a success, and how likely they are to make it happen.

That went well. Cleveland can’t exactly claim to be the luckiest sports city on the planet, but the Cavs are certainly making a run at changing that. They’ve won three of the last four draft lotteries, landing Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins, then signed the best player in the game in free agency thanks mostly to an accident of birth. After that, they flipped the underachieving Bennett and rookie Wiggins for arguably the best power forward in the game, and one of the best shooting big men to boot, Kevin Love. Not bad.

When LeBron James joins your team, expectations immediately shift to winning championships. Adding Love to the equation in exchange for young players will only add more fuel to the fire. Here it’s important to note that while it feels like he’s been around forever, Love just turned 26 last month, and his game isn’t one that will likely deteriorate with time. LeBron has in him a running mate who should still be going strong long after James has begun to drop off.

None of that matters this year, however, as the Cavs will be a dominant offensive force right away. It may not always be pretty at first, but the amount of raw talent and shooting on the roster means that this will be a top offense regardless of how quickly everyone acclimates to their new surroundings. New coach David Blatt will need to use some creative sets and actions to get the most out of them, but he has a ton of tools to work with and is already adept at creating motion offenses from his years coaching in Europe.

The other end of the floor might be a bit more tricky.

Anderson Varejao has beaten out Tristan Thompson as the starting center, which feels like the sort of sentence that shouldn’t need to be written as long as Varejao is healthy. He will provide paint protection when he can stay on the court, and that will be sorely needed with Irving, Love, and Dion Waiters joining him and James in the starting five. Beyond Varejao, Blatt may seek to extract some defense from Brendan Haywood, whose presence on the roster is a testament to the value of his non-guaranteed contract next season and not his basketball value.

Beyond those two, there’s very little in the way of rim protection available. Expect the veteran buyout crowd to give strong consideration to Cleveland around the end of February, but don’t expect any of them to make a big contribution. At least for this season the Cavs may have to win games by outgunning their opponents. They will win a lot of games that way.

This may not be the season that Cleveland gets its first title, but the pieces are in place for a wildly entertaining year. They are the favorites to represent the East in the Finals, and likely will be for the foreseeable future.

Predicted Finish: 58-24 | 1st in Eastern Conference

Defining Success: Chicago Bulls

Each team enters the season with varying expectations based on the talent on their roster, where they are in their team building cycle, and the delusions of management and fans. Prior to the start of the season I’ll look at what would need to happen for each team to call their regular season a success, and how likely they are to make it happen.

Generally the success criteria for an NBA season are nuanced. A team may want to improve their offense, change systems on the fly, and achieve a certain amount of playoff success, all while seeing a handful of players develop. The same holds true for the Bulls, but they have one goal that trumps the others so much that it makes them seem almost unimportant. Chicago wants to compete for a title, improve their offense, and maintain their defense. More than anything though, they want to get a full season from a healthy Derrick Rose.

Rose has barely played half a season since his MVP campaign four years ago. He looked good in the preseason, and he is still only 26, but the future of the franchise rests on him showing that he can return to his peak form. A healthy return this year will cement Chicago as a contender for the next several years.

Adding Pau Gasol will inject a little extra firepower into the front line, but obviously Rose is the linchpin. Not that the team wasn’t a nuisance without him – the Bulls under Tom Thibodeau always play excellent defense, and Joakim Noah competes so hard that he even gives 100% at the All-Star game. Last season the team managed to make the playoffs once again with the formula of tough defense and unwatchable offense.

In the process, Noah took on more of a facilitator role. The move came from desperation more than anything else, but it worked, and those skills will help a much more offensively gifted team this season. Noah’s partnership with Gasol up front ought to be an improvement over the last few seasons with Carlos Boozer. Gasol only has so much left in the tank, but Boozer had been running on fumes.

Gasol has been a matador in pick and roll defense over the past few seasons, and his lack of quickness in general will limit his effectiveness in a lot of situations. Thibs and Noah will help out a lot, just as they’ve done with Boozer, but there’s only so much that can be done. As such expect Taj Gibson to see a lot of crunch time minutes. Nikola Mirotic will get some run in the frontcourt as well, likely as a fourth big. The lanky Montenegrin forward has been one of the best in European basketball over the past couple of year, and he can score inside and out, leaving only his defensive skills as a big question mark.

The wing rotation has as much talent as it has in years thanks to the addition of Mike Dunleavy through free agency last season and Doug McDermott in this year’s draft. They join Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich, and Tony Snell to provide an unspectacular but workable group.

The supporting pieces are all in place, but Rose is still the key. The team’s ceiling is “2nd round annoyance” without him at full strength. With him, they can hang with anyone in the East. This season will be about establishing once and for all whether or not Rose can be counted on to carry the franchise.

Predicted Finish: 50-32 | 2nd in Eastern Conference