Defining Success: Memphis Grizzlies

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 good news is that the added depth gained from acquiring Vince Carter and the return from injury of Quincy Pondexter, coupled with last season’s acquisition Courtney Lee, should mean that the wing spots are in the best shape they’ve been in during the team’s recent run of success. The three core players – Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley – all appear to be in good shape and ready for the start of the season. Now, like each of the past few seasons, the goal is to enter the playoffs with a high seed and a healthy roster.

The bad news is that somehow a team playing its home games in Tennessee has to play in the West.

Injuries undermined the Grizzlies last year, and left them scrounging for a playoff spot over the last few days of the regular season. Gasol’s absence in particular caused problems, with his stout defense and team-friendly offensive game being sorely missed.

Pondexter’s loss may have secretly been even more of an issue. He took on a surprisingly big role in the 2013 playoffs as a floor spacing wing, but only got through 15 games in the following campaign. He’s not as critical this season with Lee in the fold, but if he can unseat Tayshaun Prince (or at least steal a bunch of his minutes) it will be a big boost to the offense.

Prince aside, a wing rotation of Lee, Pondexter, Carter, and Tony Allen is an embarrassment of riches compared to what’s been in the cupboard for the last few years. Add in re-signed combo guard Beno Udrih, and the Griz suddenly have pretty good depth along the perimeter. Up front things aren’t as promising, with Kosta Koufos providing solid backup play at center, but not much else of note in the huge humans department.

The lack of quality bench bigs could be a problem for stretches, but realistically this team isn’t getting anywhere without the health and continued strong play of both Randolph and Gasol. Randolph is due to drop off a bit more as he continues to march into his mid-30s, and Gasol is a free agent after this season.

All that means this season is critical for Memphis. They’re not going to be able to do what they’re doing now for much longer. A two-big system like the one employed by the Grizzlies only works if they’re both playing well. Without peak-ish production from Randolph and Gasol still suiting up for the team they will struggle mightily, and there’s a very good chance that in 2015 neither of those criteria can be met. If they stay relatively healthy they’ll be able to make the playoffs this season, and possibly even push forward to the conference finals.

It may not exactly be contention, but in the West get in the playoffs and anything can happen.

Predicted Finish: 51-31 | 7th in Western Conference

Defining Success: Miami Heat

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.

Well, shit. Losing LeBron James certainly wasn’t plan A, but Pat Riley worked quickly to keep Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in town while also adding Luol Deng to fill the gaping hole at small forward. Mario Chalmers is also back, with LeBron’s favorite player Shabazz Napier around to provide additional support at point guard.

All of that’s great. Just don’t, you know, look at the rest of the roster. Josh McRoberts is a fine player who should fit in nicely at power forward by providing a little shooting and some good passing, Chris Andersen can still block a few shots at age 36, and Norris Cole has some sort of value, probably.

After that there really isn’t a lot of actual basketball talent left. Udonis Haslem and Danny Granger are beyond washed up. And yet this team could still be really good.

The Eastern Conference is wide open below the Cavaliers, so I fully expect that the Heat will make the playoffs, but it will be interesting to see what expectations come from both the team and the fans this season.

The playoffs are the realistic answer to the question of what a successful season would be, but that really seems disappointing given that four months ago this team, with most of the same roster and coaching staff, was in the Finals. Maybe there’s no success to be had after losing that good of a player. Maybe the Heat have moved on, and can embrace a lower-seed playoff team with Wade back at the helm. Of all the teams in the league, this one seems hardest to peg.

Whatever the actual dreams of the franchise are this year, Wade will enjoy a leading role for the 58 games he manages to stay healthy, and Bosh is going to get a chance to spend more time in the post with McBobs around, so the stars should at least look better statistically than they have since joining forces.

Both have something to prove after subjugating their games a bit to allow James to handle the offense. It may be too late for either to prove much in a post-LeBron world however. Wade has been breaking down for almost his entire career. He can still get it done when he’s on the floor, it’s just that he can’t be on the floor nearly as often as he once was.

Bosh is only 30, and his shooting should allow him to maintain his production for the next several years, so he is the best bet for a “comeback” season. He’ll at least keep the offense moving and the defense in reasonably decent shape. That’s all you can ask.

Expect Riley to work the phones and try to bring in more talent to support this veteran rebuild. Expect him to fail. With little to trade and aging talent this season could just be a stopgap before the real losses kick in. The front office and coaching staff have been diligent and productive in the past, so they may have a few tricks left up their sleeve, but my guess is this is only the beginning of a painful process.

Predicted Finish: 43-39 | 7th in Eastern Conference

Defining Success: Portland Trailblazers

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.

This season the Trailblazers are pulling the NBA equivalent of running it back, with all of the starters and much of the bench returning from last season in a bid to get to the Western Conference Finals. Only Earl Watson and Mo Williams are gone, while Steve Blake and Chris Kaman were brought in. With their 1st round pick long since traded to Charlotte for Gerald Wallace, the roster was set.

Making a step forward in the West can be a difficult endeavor. Conceivably, another year with the Damian Lillard-Wesley Matthews-Nicolas Batum-LaMarcus Aldridge-Robin Lopez starting five should allow them to gel and work better off of each other, especially given Lillard has another season of experience under his belt and could show more improvement on an already killer offensive game. In reality, last season’s lack of injuries to main contributors may mean that this core overachieved a bit. One of the starters missing a big chunk of the season, especially if that starter is Lillard or Aldridge, would be devastating.

Lopez, Batum, and Matthews are who they are at this point, so expecting one of them to pick up any additional slack is asking too much. The only real opportunities to get some notable improvement come from the bench. Thomas Robinson hasn’t shown much in his few years in the league, but there’s always the chance that something will click. He’s only 23, but now’s the time for improvement if he ever wants to be more than a bench player.

The real hope comes from C.J. McCollum, who missed most of the season due to injury. He’s old for a 2nd-year player at 23, but he did shoot 3s well in limited minutes last season. If he can provide some creativity and offense off the bench it may be enough to push the team’s ceiling a little bit higher.

All told this season’s Blazers should be pretty similar to what we saw last year. They’ll rely on long jumpers from Aldridge and perimeter creation from Lillard, play conservative defense, and pray that no major injuries befall them. If all of that happens, there’s no reason to believe Portland won’t make the playoffs. Once they get there, they’ll have to dig deep into their bag of tricks to avoid getting knocked out in the 1st two rounds.

Predicted Finish: 51-31 | 8th in Western Conference

Defining Success: Brooklyn Nets

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.

At least they’re not boring. A slow start to last season that saw lead assistant relegated to report-writing duty after a spat with then-coach Jason Kidd was seemingly compounded by the loss of Brook Lopez to a foot injury for the remainder of the season. Instead, Kidd started running out hybrid lineups with Kevin Garnett at center and Paul Pierce at power forward, and the team landed the 6th seed in the East on the strength of their post-January 1st play. However, the turnaround wasn’t enough for Kidd to complete an ill-conceived postseason powerplay, in which he attempted to oust GM Billy King and acquire the power to handle personnel decisions.

So Kidd was himself ousted in one of the most bizarre stories of the summer. He ultimately ended up in Milwaukee, while Lionel Hollins was brought in to helm the Nets. It’s more than a little funny that Hollins – who lost his last gig after feuding with ownership in spite of leading his team to a strong playoff showing – was the guy Brooklyn turned too, but again, they are not boring.

The lofty goals that came with Russian rich guy Mikhail Prokhorov acquiring the team seem to have faded. Rumors are swirling that he may look to sell off the franchise, and that 5-year title prediction seems a long way off.

Making the playoffs is still an obvious goal though, especially with Garnett, Joe Johnson, and Deron Williams still around. That me be a tougher proposition than they hope. The East isn’t particularly strong, and with the Pacers falling off it would seem that last year’s playoff teams should be enjoying some measure of security, but the Nets have some unanswered questions from their rough start last season.

Their issues were resolved when Lopez went down and the small lineups went into effect, but Lopez will need to be a critical part of the team this season. That pushes Garnett back out to power forward, where he is noticeably less effective due to his declining quickness. The guy who made the small lineup work by moonlighting at the 4 has packed his bags and gone to Washington, and Williams and Johnson haven’t gotten any younger.

Hollins is likely to stick with traditional two-big lineups anyway if his time in Memphis is a guide. One would hope that Lopez returns healthy and can propel the offense while providing passable work on defense (and possibly even grabbing the occasional rebound, although that’s probably pushing it). If he does get injured Mason Plumlee is a solid replacement, albeit one who has a completely different set of skills.

The bench may not be particularly strong this season either, with Andray Blatche taking a deal in China and Shaun Livingston moving on to Golden State. Andrei Kirilenko can provide a lot more than he did last year, which may cover some of those holes, but this roster isn’t providing Hollins a lot to work with. A top-4 playoff seed and challenging for a conference finals spot would be widely considered a successful campaign. The problem is the Nets are going to struggle to just finish 8th.

Predicted Finish: 41-41 | 8th in Eastern Conference

Defining Success: Phoenix Suns

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.

Jeff Hornacek’s debut season as head coach of the Suns couldn’t have gone better (aside from the part where they missed the playoffs…). Now it’s time to take the next step and crack the top 8. Unfortunately, it seems that every team who made the playoffs in the West last season is at least as good this year, and New Orleans appears to be much improved as well. The Suns will have a tough time making the leap into the postseason.

It’s worth taking a step back and realizing how absurd this perspective would have seemed a year ago. Last year’s preseason expectations were more focused on figuring out how good Eric Bledsoe and Alex Len could be while scoring another high draft pick. Len didn’t even do anything of note, losing large chunks of his rookie season to injuries, and Bledsoe missed a large stretch as well, but the Suns still managed to fight for a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference until the final weekend of the regular season.

They won so many games on the back of a strategy reminiscent of Steve Nash’s Phoenix teams: spread the floor with shooters, play small, and let the lead guard slice up the defense to set everyone up. Goran Dragic obviously isn’t in the same league as Nash in his prime, but he learned a trick or two during his stint as Nash’s understudy.

The open floor and relative youth of the roster saw several players post career years, starting with Dragic, Markieff Morris, and trickling down to Indiana castoff Miles Plumlee. Marcus Morris even got in on the fun by carving out a strong role as a bench shooter.

Perhaps the best-fitting cog on the roster was the now-departed Channing Frye, whose exquisite shooting touch and legitimate size created nightmare matchups for opponents, who had to choose between sending help towards one of the Dragic/Bledsoe duo, who would rocket around picks into the lane, or dealing with the giant who had already launched a top-of-the-arc three before the defense had made a decision. Coach Hornacek also utilized Frye’s size as a fantastic transition defense deterrent by always stationing him at the top of the arc on offense and having him dart back as soon as the shot went up. He will be missed.

In his absence, Markieff Morris will be expected to take on a larger role. The Suns used the free agency money that was left over after signing their own players to double down (triple down?) on their speedy point guard hoarding by bringing in Isaiah Thomas, who will be a huge annoyance for opposing bench units. Thomas is severely underrated due to his small stature and the fact that he’s been playing in Sacramento, but he was born to be a bench sparkplug on this kind of team.

Bledsoe and the Morris brothers both re-signed over the summer, as did scrappy wing P.J. Tucker, so the roster is going to be fairly stable for the next couple of years barring a major trade. Even Dragic, whose contract is up at the end of the season, has incentive to stay. His brother Zoran signed with the team in the offseason. Brothers may be the new market inefficiency.

With the core intact and a strong season under their belts, the hope of making the playoffs is a very real one. Even if they miss there are bright spots. First, the West probably can’t stay this loaded forever, although it hasn’t shown any signs of slippage for a decade. More promising is the top-5 protected pick owed to Phoenix by the Lakers. L.A. has all the makings of a team that will ignore that protection in an ill-fated playoff pursuit, so the Suns could have a top-10 pick as soon as this year.

Regardless of where they fall relative to the always high bar of the 8th seed in the West, continued progress from the youth movement and another year of good coaching from Hornacek are all they need to really call this season a success.

Predicted Finish: 47-35 | 9th in Western Conference