By Satchel Price
It’s an interesting time to be an NBA team. The idea of gunning at the Warriors, Spurs or Cavaliers is beyond the pale for most, so expectations need to be set lower. Maybe the goal is to make the playoffs, or to move up a class and earn homecourt advantage. Actually making the NBA Finals, however, is a long shot for most teams.
Still, even with the top of the league feeling so impenetrable, the NBA is full of teams that should be excited about their progress. The Western Conference, in particular, has some young teams that could be contenders whenever the Warriors loosen their grip on things. There’s little doubt about which teams run the West right now, but this season could help lay the groundwork for who comes after that.
In the East, there’s a huge swath of teams that could finish behind the likely top three of Cleveland, Toronto, and Boston, which gives real incentive to everyone in the middle tier. Ending LeBron James’ Finals run seems improbable, but earning homecourt advantage (and the chance at a playoff series win) would be a real feather in the cap to several teams that spent years in the lottery.
No team is in better position to finally make that postseason leap than the Jazz. Utah should’ve made the playoffs a year ago, but some bad luck and poor execution in close games bumped them from the top eight. In a showing of optimism in a season of seemingly limited championship possibilities, here’s why the Jazz, and a couple other NBA teams, are well-positioned to get back to the playoffs in 2017.
The Jazz are a deeper, more experienced team than a year ago, when they were, in most ways, already good enough to make the playoffs. This team didn’t need to make major additions to become a likely playoff team — instead, those reinforcements merely bolster their odds.
Utah finished last season eighth in defensive efficiency at 101.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The team was 12th in net rating (+1.6 per 100 possessions) overall and fifth in the Western Conference. Only the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers outscored their opponents at the better clip among West teams.
The Jazz ended up one game short of the playoffs with a 40-42 record, however, because they just couldn’t finish games. In the final five minutes of games where the scoring margin was five points or less, Utah was the third-worst team in the league. A 14-28 record in those games was worse than anyone except for the 76ers and Suns.
Part of this stems from the lack of an elite scorer who can take over in the final minutes, but it’s not that simple. A big part of the Jazz’s late-game breakdowns actually came on defense, where the team allowed 121.3 points per 100 in those “clutch” situations, per NBA.com. That’s a major drop-off from the rest of the game, and it’s the kind of thing that screams youth and inexperience. There’s no reason a top-10 defense should suddenly become one of the league’s worst in crunch time.
Those late-game situations are where the Jazz’s big offseason additions, George Hill and Joe Johnson, could make their greatest impact. Hill is an upgrade across the board for Utah as an experienced, defensive-minded point guard, and his stabilizing presence at the top of the defense will be crucial after the team rotated Trey Burke, Shelvin Mack, and others through that spot last season. Between Hill and the return of Dante Exum, Utah is much better at one spot. You can figure there will be fewer late defensive breakdowns with Hill often guarding the primary ball handler, too.
Johnson, meanwhile, might be a perfect fit as a crunch-time wing scorer. The 35-year-old is no longer a 20-point guy like in his prime, but he’s shot 38 percent from three over the past five seasons and remains a very good spot-up shooter who can put the ball on the floor a bit. He won’t usurp Gordon Hayward or Alec Burks as the key wings in those situations, but Johnson’s experience and shooting seem like good ways of addressing the dependence on those two.
Combine the likelihood for some natural improvement in late-game situations with the smart additions of Hill and Johnson (plus the return of Exum) and it’s hard to see how Utah doesn’t make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight pegs their chances at 85 percent. In fact, I’d say there’s a pretty good chance the Jazz challenge for homecourt advantage, just a year after watching from the outside.
If the Jazz are the obvious choice for a breakout team, then the Timberwolves could be considered the flashy one. They have a surefire young superstar in Karl-Anthony Towns, several other big-time young players, and hired coach Tom Thibodeau over the summer to put it all together.
Based on the sheer talent level in Minnesota and Thibodeau’s track record for racking up wins with the Bulls, you can see why many are high on the Timberwolves despite winning just 29 games last season. Towns is already one of the best players in the NBA at age 21, and there’s a lot of upside in a supporting cast featuring Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, and Kris Dunn.
There’s also a lot of youth in that group, and as we saw with the Jazz, that inexperience can lead to challenges, especially in close games. Minnesota may have some ongoing growing pains, and the team isn’t terribly deep, so there’s nowhere to turn if the young guys stumble a bit. The Timberwolves will just have to play and learn through whatever issues they have, and that could have some impact on their win-loss record at the end of the season.
The Timberwolves are projected with a 63 percent chance to make the playoffs at FiveThirtyEight, and that sounds about right given the volatility of young players. Still, Minnesota stands a very good chance of making the playoffs with Towns and Thibs leading the way, and that would be impressive for a team that picked No. 1 overall less than two years ago.
The Bulls have elicited a wide variety of responses ever since they signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade as free agents over the summer. On one hand, it’s a major influx of veteran talent to the team. On the other, the Bulls set themselves up with three primary ball handlers who don’t like to shoot three-pointers, which isn’t a great formula in the modern NBA.
Cut to the beginning of the season, and it’s still hard to say who is right about the Bulls. They’ve looked encouraging with three straight wins, though, and Dwyane Wade’s newfound three-point shooting is adding a new wrinkle. Chicago might not be an up-and-coming team like Minnesota or Utah, but the short-term play to get back to relevance behind Wade, Rondo and Jimmy Butler may actually work to some degree. Those three big names — dubbed the Three Alphas — are showing some early chemistry.
The problems are at point guard and on defense. Rondo and backup Michael Carter Williams, who got hurt Monday against the Nets, can’t shoot from deep, and the third-stringer, Isaiah Canaan, has to overcome size issues defensively. Wade’s age also gets exposed more on that end, and Robin Lopez isn’t an elite rim protector who can make up for the mistakes of others.
There’s a good deal of experienced talent across the roster, though, and it positions the new-look Bulls as a likely postseason team.
There are still a lot of ways this could go wrong — a good start doesn’t disprove the concerns about shooting and defense — but FiveThirtyEight now projects the Bulls to win 48 games and earn the No. 4 seed in the East. Injuries seem like the biggest thing that could sink the season. Their odds of making the playoffs are at a rosy 90 percent. Even if that’s a bit optimistic, it’s fair to say that Chicago stands a very good chance of getting back to the playoffs this season.
Satchel Price is a fan of the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and Bears. He’s a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. Satchel is also managing editor for Second City Hockey and his work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.