Big Byron Breakdown: Which Team Will Improve the Most Next Season?
It’s the same every year, every sport ends at the same time and we’re left clamouring for more sport throughout the summer. This summer is no different to its predecessors as it is rife with the sweet smell of optimism for the 30 teams that will return to compete in the National Basketball Association next season.
For some, the goal will be a title, for some it will be playoff push and for others it will be to simply give the fans a bit more to cheer about; the one common goal throughout the league however, is improvement.
Five teams saw win increases of seven games or more last season, with four of those teams reaching the postseason. Here I’m looking to break down the teams that I feel are most likely to improve this season.
After four years of mercilessly tanking and telling us to ‘Trust the Process’ more times than Rory can tip a donkey, the Sixers are finally ready to make a charge for the postseason beyond deciding who to take as the number one draft pick. With a younger core than the Moors in Ian Brady’s heyday, Markelle Fultz joins Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to try and fire past the 30-win mark for the first time since 2013. The ‘process’ will have some teething problems no doubt, Fultz will need to find the winning edge that he was unable to find in Washington and Simmons will likely need to adapt his jumper to prove more effective but this team is certainly going to be exciting to watch and fun to play as on the upcoming 2K feature.
This team is certainly not going to win the chip this season, and they’re unlikely to push too far into the playoffs (the aforementioned trio only has a combined 31 games NBA experience under its belt). Given the previous injury woes of his ‘big-3’ for want of a better term, coach Brett Brown will want to manage the minutes of his team carefully and ensure he can get the very best out of them.
As if the team wasn’t already young enough, you can put 23 year old Dario Saric and 25 year old TJ McConnell in that mix; Some veterans will be featured in the roster though – The 76ers added JJ Redick and Amir Johnson during the offseason, so at least the team does have some playoff experience, and a cooler set of heads for crunch-time.
The addition of Redick should do wonders for the 76ers’ spacing and shooting. Philadelphia ranked No. 24 in the league in three-point percentage last year, and despite Embiid showing that he can throw from downtown, Philly often looked to shoot within the paint with Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.
Despite his age, JJ Redick can still go deeper than Roberto Esquivel Cabrera (Google his name for the reference) and shot 43% from range last year. Obviously he was injured for all of last year, but if Simmons can be even half the passer he was in college, then Redick could be extremely productive.
It remains to be seen whether all the cogs will come together as effectively as I’m imagining. Will Embiid stay healthy? Can Fultz and Simmons share the ball? Do they have enough depth? And these questions will last throughout the season, but expectations are high for the first time for as long as I can remember and hopefully the process pays dividends.
Elsewhere, Minnesota have been putting together a nice young core themselves of a similar quality to the Jenners (not you Caitlyn). The Timberwolves are all but guaranteed to improve next season, after adding Jimmy Buckets (Butler) and Jeff Teague during the offseason, and keeping hold of almost everyone bar LaVine.
The last time the Timberwolves made the playoffs, Karl-Anthony Towns was just 8 years old, but adding Butler to a team that was already capable of playing at 200mph has cemented them with one of the most high octane attacks in the league. In order to truly make the most of the extra buckets, the Wolves need to shore themselves up defensively and who better to sort this than Tom Thibodeau? Minnesota ranked 27th defensively last year and conceded an average of 112 points across 100 possessions.
Wiggins was selected with the first overall pick in 2014 and this was in part due to his defensive strengths, but he has yet to demonstrate this on the big stage. Whether this is a result of a lack of focus and commitment, or deficiencies in his game are yet to be seen, but Thibodeau should be the perfect man to draw out whatever is there.
Butler and free-agent signing Taj Gibson should help kickstart the Timberwolves’ defensive transformation, but realistically they won’t have to improve much on this side to at least clinch a playoff spot by the end of March.
Two years ago, the Hornets recorded a 48 win season, before spiralling down to 36 wins last year; The Hornets were looking like a lacklustre franchise with nothing more than Kemba Walker to get the fans off their seats.
Look no further than Charlotte’s front line to bring some buzz back (had to get at least one Hornet pun in here) to the City – Cody Zeller missed 20 games last year and his teammates put up a pathetic 3-17 record in his absence; A full season from the 7 foot giant and we should see some kind of turnaround. Add Frank Kaminsky to that mix and you’ve got a two punch combo capable of terrifying any rim protector in the league. The second-year man from Wisconsin averaged nearly 12 points per game last year, and increased his range out to the three-point line. Hornets fans will be hoping he can make more looks from behind the arc in his purple jersey.
As if the two big-men weren’t enough, Charlotte added Dwight Howard too, and much like Adrien Broner, we find ourselves saying ‘but what if he gets his act together’. It’s easy to forget that Howard is an eight time All-Star and despite not being as dominant as he once was, he still has enough tools to put together a double-double on any given night.
It remains to be seen whether the Hornets can fly (I’ve done it again) back to another 48 win season, but they’ll certainly sting (sorry) the 36 wins they managed last year.
The Rockets are now looking like the team most capable of competing with the Warriors following the acquisition of Chris Paul. They did lose Patrick Beverly which will haunt them more than they think, but it’s hard to believe that the boys in Red won’t put up more of a fight than they did last year when they crashed out to the San Antonio Spurs. Hopefully Harden can find a clutch gene before the post season and if Carmelo makes the move, then things could get very interesting.
Oklahoma City Thunder
It didn’t appear that OKC would be a major player in the market this summer, and instead, the Thunder made one of the biggest deals of all. To acquire Paul George, they surrendered Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers. When you consider the type of player that PG is, this is a tremendous deal for the Thunder, despite it essentially being a rental. George and Russell Westbrook should make for an exciting pair on the offensive, and perhaps a Western Conference playoff run could emerge from the deal.