With the 2016-17 NBA season rapidly approaching, we’ll use our division previews to take a look at a key question, play or theme that may define a team’s success.
- How will Frank Vogel handle Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo’s playing time?
When the Magic lavished a $72 million deal on Toronto’s playoff hero, Bismack Biyombo, it set up a strange dynamic going into this season. Biyombo signed a deal that eclipses the $53 million extension Vucevic signed two Octobers ago and makes him, along with Evan Fournier, the highest paid player on the roster. And between Vucevic and Biyombo, Orlando will be using a third of their salary cap on two players that play the same position.
Now if this was 1997, there might be more optimism for a scenario where Biyombo and Vucevic share the court together to great effect. Unfortunately for Vogel, it’s 2016 and he’s readying his team to play in a league trending faster and smaller than ever. Yet if there’s a successful NBA coach able to commit to a style that seems to go against the NBA’s trends, it’s Vogel, as he proved with his “power” Pacer teams just a few years ago.
These two players have the ability to mesh in theory, at least offensively. Biyombo and Vucevic operate just fine in different areas of the floor -- Vucevic up high near the elbows and Biyombo lurking along the baseline. Vogel can tailor his offensive rules to make sure those they stay out of each other’s way by using concepts other teams have employed when pairing two more traditional bigs together. And Orlando's entire offense might receive a boost from Vucevic’s underrated post game when a relentless rebounder like Biyombo lurks on the opposite block. It’d be tricky to make it function seamlessly and Vogel would essentially be catering his scheme to those two players, but there’s some hope Biyombo and Vucevic can co-exist offensively.
The other end of the floor, however, is where optimism goes to die. Vucevic’s statuesque movement makes it hard for him to contain guards 15-feet from the basket. If you ask him to hang with NBA players chilling out on the perimeter, it’s bound to get ugly fast. Smart coaches would put Vucevic in closeout situations -- where he has to help before running back out to his man -- nearly every time down the floor and watch as the scoreboard lights burn out. Biyombo wouldn’t be such a liability if the roles were flip-flopped, but having the shot-swatting big man guard on the perimeter basically nullifies his rim protection skills, likely the reason Orlando targeted him in the first place.
To his credit, Vogel is at least giving this awkward pairing a try. With Ibaka out, Vogel actually started Vucevic and Biyombo together in the team’s first two preseason games. In related news, however, Vucevic shot under 40 percent combined in those games and failed to register a positive raw plus/minus during his minutes. As I’ve said before in these previews, small sample size preseason numbers are virtually meaningless. But when evaluating a situation like this one, you'd prefer to see the early numbers point toward a more a positive outcome.
When Ibaka returned, Biyombo did move to the bench during the games Vucevic has played. There are worse things than having those two players split the 48 minutes available at the center position, but it is still limiting and unlikely to leave either one of them overly cheery. I’d expect, though, that this trend -- Biyombo starting in Ibaka’s absence and splitting minutes with Vucevic when Ibaka plays -- continues until Vogel gets a more time to evaluate the efficacy of that pairing.
It’s a difficult balancing act that doesn’t even take into account how it impacts the rest of the roster. Orlando fans are hoping Vogel is up to the challenge.
- Will Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder prove to be capable replacements for departed starters Al Horford and Jeff Teague?
In a league as unforgiving as the NBA, change is a scary thing. The term “on paper” has the potential to get coaches and GMs their own piece of paper; one being pink in color and signaling the end of their employment. But on paper, the transition of from Horford and Teague to Schroder and Howard seems to be at least a wash for an Atlanta team coming off a nondescript 48-win season.
That isn’t meant to devalue the impact of Teague and Horford. Both players played key roles in the Hawks success during the past two seasons. While Schroder was getting his NBA bearings, Teague was the only player on the Atlanta roster capable of vertically attacking opposing defense. During the 14-15 season when he earned an All-Star berth, Teague actually finished 4th in the leaguein drives per game, per SportVU tracking data. That north-south penetration is key for any good offense, but for the Hawks in particular, it was crucial feature given the natural side-to-side flow of their system.
Horford was like a glue guy on steroids. Offensively, he was just as helpful short rolling near the free throw line after screening in pick-and-rolls as he was spotting up from corner 3s. More importantly, his penchant for sticking with the flow off the offense -- things like willingly reversing the ball and setting a screen rather than looking for his own shot -- set the tone Atlanta’s, “Spurs East” mantra. Like Teague, Horford’s skills aren’t overly exciting or irreplaceable, but combined with his defensive impact, they helped make the Hawks system hum.
On paper, however, Schroder and Howard have the ability to be even more impactful. One of the things Atlanta has lacked since Budenholzer took over is a big man capable of sucking in defenses while rolling to the rim. Along with the rest of Atlanta’s bigs aside from the oft-injured Tiago Splitter, Horford excelled as more of a “pop” guy -- stopping his roll around the free throw line and settling for jumpers. Despite his injuries and advancing age, Howard rolling down the middle of the paint will strike more fear into defenses than Horford ever could.
Schroder has the potential to have a similar impact. Though Teague was nursing an injury, Schroder had the second highest on/off split of any Hawk not named Paul Millsap, per 82games.com data. Schroder was becoming damn near Teague’s equal last season in a lot of areas -- finishing at the rim, assist percentage, etc --, and at just 23 (compared to Teague’s 28), there is plenty of room for growth. On top of that, Schroder’s fearless attitude stood in stark contrast to Teague’s frustrating penchant for fading out of games.
The problem with both Schroder and Howard, however, lies within their approach. That fearless attitude Schroder possess also led to a lot of possessions with less than ideal results. As a backup who sometimes played alongside Teague, Schroder had more freedom to concentrate on his own offense. Now that it’s his ship to captain, Schroder needs to be more focused on finding a balance between his own aggressiveness and running the Hawks offense.
Howard must also be ready to put aside his desire to showcase his entire skillset for the sake of fitting into Atlanta’s equal-opportunity offense. There is no doubt that if Howard had focused on being one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the league, his career arc might have been different. But a desire be a major cog and dominate like centers of 90s and early 00s in the post, created some friction in previous stops. And doing the little things that Horford did, like simply swing the ball to the other side of the floor to keep the defense shifting and the offense flowing, don’t show up in box scores but are a massive help to the team’s ability to score points.
Whether Schroder and Howard will only be capable replacements “on paper” will all depend on how they approach their new jobs.
- Is Erik Spoelstra capable of bringing out the best in Goran Dragic?
Despite four years filled with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade dominating Sportscenter highlight reels with their breathtaking transition plays, Spoelstra’s Miami teams have hardly ever reminded people of the Mike D’Antoni-era Phoenix Suns. In fact, the Heat have largely fell on the on the other end of the tempo spectrum during Spoelstra’s time in charge.
Since he took over as head coach in 2008, the Heat failed to crack the top half of the league in pace for a single season, topping out at 16th during the 11-12 season. And that season was something of an outlier considering Miami finished 25th or lower five times during Spoelstra's reign. Clearly, playing at a breakneck speed isn’t exactly his preferred tempo.
But this is a new era for Spoelstra and the Heat. For the first time in his tenure, the Miami head coach won’t have to build an offensive system around the talents of Wade. Instead, the Heat’s hopes will be centered around the production of Dragic. In a true statement of the obvious, those two players thrive in completely different ways.
As the miles accrued on Wades legs, his game morphed from fearless transition attacks to methodical post ups and pick-and-rolls. Dragic's game, however, is not built for the halfcourt. When things slow down, the flaws in the Slovenian guard's skillset -- his inconsistent outside shooting and so-so playmaking -- become more pronounced. Where Dragic excels is when he left attacking with reckless abandon in transition, something evidenced by his career year under Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix during the 2013-14 season. That Suns team finished 8th in the league in pace that year due to a scheme that suited Dragic perfectly.
Unlike the pedantic sets Spoelstra seems to prefer, Hornacek’s offense was basically a wide-open, free-for-all. The team was encouraged to push the ball up floor, get into random pick-and-rolls and just play basketball. Dragic in particular had free reign to grab rebounds and run full-speed toward the other end even if he didn’t have a numerical advantage. In a related story, Dragic posted his career high in both field goal percentage (50.1) and free throw attempts per game (5.5).
With Wade out of the way, Dragic is clearly the player Miami needs to play well if they have any desire to compete for a playoff spot. It’s fairly obvious what style suits Dragic. It’s also fairly obvious that Spoelstra, even if catering to superstars, isn’t the type of coach that seems comfortable employing a run-and-gun system. Yet for Miami and Dragic to have success this season, Spoelstra may need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
- What will we learn about both Scott Brooks and his past from as he starts fresh in DC?
With a Final appearance and a career winning percentage of .620 over seven NBA seasons, Brooks should be widely regarded as one of league’s better coaches. But during his time with the Thunder, Brooks was often the scapegoat for a talented team’s failure to live up to expectations. All the scrutiny eventually made it hard to tell if the success Brooks had was driven by his coaching acumen or simply a byproduct of coaching a roster that housed two of the league’s brightest, young stars.
There was no denying, however, that despite all the winning Brooks did in OKC, the team did have its share of issues. The Thunder were the anti-Spurs in terms of ball movement, often finishing near the bottom of the league in any passing-related category. The team’s offense, in part because of sticky fingers, was never very innovative. Poor lineup choices, particularly in his lone Finals, will also mar Brooks’ resume. Defense was supposed to be Brooks' main calling card, but even there, the Thunder had their high points (4th in 12-13) but were never consistently at the top of the league.
Part of the problem with evaluating Brooks on these criticisms (aside from the personnel management), is that we have never known him as a coach without Durant and Westbrook. Had Brooks had another run as a head coach before OKC, more data would have been available to help us understand which faults could be pinned on Brooks and which were likely just the side effects of dealing with two, young ball-dominant superstars. Now that he’s in Washington, we’ll get a clearer picture of what exactly Brooks is as a head coach.
His situation with the Wizards is almost the exact opposite of what Brooks encountered with the Thunder. Instead of two burgeoning superstars battling for control of a young roster, Brooks has one clear cut Alpha dog in the 26-year-old John Wall -- a point guard known far more for his distribution than his scoring chops. Every frontcourt player slated for a rotation spot - Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat, Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson -- are Wall’s age or older.
Wall’s backcourt running mate, Bradley Beal, may only be 23, but he’s already on his second NBA contract. And unlike Westbrook and Durant, Beal and Wall’s skillsets complement each other far more than they overlap. To top things off, Washington is already a competent defensive squad -- finishing 14th in the league, per our RealGM database.
Pretty much all of these factors create an excellent opportunity to evaluate what Brooks is capable of as an NBA head coach. If the Wizards suffer from the same stagnant ball movement and struggle offensively due to an uncreative approach, the Thunder will look totally justified in letting Brooks go. We’ll also be able to firmly assert that Brooks carries with him severe offensive limitations as a head coach.
The performance of the team’s defense will have pretty telltale effect as well. If the Wizards jump to the top of the league, Brooks’ reputation of having a defense-first approach will be justified. If Washington hangs around league average, it’ll be fair to assess that Brooks has a minimal impact on that end of the floor. If the Wizards free-fall, well, you can guess what that says about Brooks’ defensive chops.
So while the Wizards viewed the hire of Brooks as staking claim to a known commodity, the truth is they will find out exactly what they have with their new head coach right along with the rest of us.
- How will people react to this Hornets team at the end of the season?
If it’s hard for you to get fired up about Charlotte this season, you are probably not alone. Their roster lacks a genuine superstar or even a young prospect with a longshot chance to be one. The team’s head coach, Steve Clifford, looks like he should be teaching P.E. in middle school. Most people probably couldn’t even name their GM (it’s Rich Cho) or remember the team damn near won 50 games last season (48).
Even their offseason was nondescript as they waved goodbye Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin, but held tight to Nicolas Batum while acquiring a helpful bench piece, Marco Belinelli, in a trade. Mix in the expected return to health of defensive terror Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and it was a productive summer for Charlotte. Just not one that makes them a darkhorse contender in the East.
So in short, the Hornets have talent, basic organizational competency and a good NBA head coach. They’ll likely contend for a playoff spot both this year and in the foreseeable future. Yet in the NBA, the good-but-not great teams are treated like mid-range jumpers -- you can live with them, but there are better options out there.
Because of the superstar dominance and the way the draft affects team-building, NBA franchises are equally interesting when they are both competing for a championship (meaning they have superstars) or rebuilding (the search for the next big thing!). The Hornets are doing neither.
In some ways, where they’ve climbed should be applauded given the early years of Michael Jordan owning the franchise was marred by incompetence and lots of losing. Should they make the playoffs this season, it’ll be the third time in four years that the franchise has done -- a pretty stark improvement over the clusterfuck that existed entering this decade.
What is interesting about the Hornets this season isn’t so much what they do on the court (assuming they don’t suffer a major backslide down the standings) but how their future success is viewed by both their fans and people around the league. Given the ebbs and flows of the league and string of never ending rebuilding projects (Hi Orlando!), sustained success -- even if it’s mid 40s win totals and early playoff exits -- is something that should be a commendable achievement. Yet you’d more likely see it decried than celebrated across the basketball landscape, even given the massive risks teams take when enter a full-fledged rebuild in hopes of landing a superstar.
At the end of this season, should it end the same way as last year, it will be interesting to see what the narrative is around this Charlotte franchise -- and how that impacts the direction of the front office going forward. So while the Hornets may not be the most intriguing team in the NBA to follow this season, how their success impacts their future direction will be something worth keeping an eye on.