We all know the Lakers are the single biggest story of the season, with four great players trying to reach an undetermined ceiling within the Princeton offense — and despite an uncertain bench whose only plus defensive big, Jordan Hill, is already nursing a herniated disc. Miami and Oklahoma City are powerhouses, the Spurs play the most pleasing brand of ball in the league, the Wolves will be without Ricky Rubio for much of the season, and both New York teams will be unavoidable. Let’s reach beyond the title contenders and big-market melodramas and find this season’s All League Pass Teams. Here are five teams who have the potential to be both exciting and good.
1. Golden State Warriors
This is really about missing Andrew Bogut, a spectacularly underappreciated player who is clearly one of the league’s half-dozen best defenders when healthy. He’s not the quickest cat, even among his fellow legit 7-footers, but he’s one of a handful of big men who border on genius in understanding of space, angles, timing, and what the other nine players on the floor are going to do in the next few seconds of action. Bogut watches everything, head on a swivel, shifting around the floor in tiny little slides in concert with the ball and the motion of the other team’s offensive set. Focus on Bogut and you’ll find those weakside shot blocks — so many of them left-handed! — that appear to come out of nowhere are really the careful result of Bogut’s understanding of opposing offenses and ability to sense exactly when it is safe to leave his man for the rim. He’s almost never too late or too early.
Bogut’s Milwaukee teams were significantly stingier when he was on the court, and he’s the perfect tonic for a Warriors team that has ranked among the five worst defensive clubs in the league for three straight seasons — and for any team that employs David Lee.
The best part: Bogut’s sense of space and timing carries over to the other end, where his shooting has suffered horribly since the gruesome arm injury that ended his 2009-10 season. (Side note: Why doesn’t Amar’e Stoudemire get more blame for that injury, and for the subtle, dangerous shove of an airborne Bogut that caused it? Has the NBA geekery forgotten about this?) An uptick in shooting, especially from the line, would help, but Bogut’s passing alone makes him a valuable big man. He and Lee have a chance to be the best starting big-big passing tandem in the league, something that should make Golden State’s offense delightful to watch. (Other candidates: Carlos Boozer–Joakim Noah, Al Horford–Josh Smith, Zach Randolph–Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol–anyone, David West–Roy Hibbert, Tim Duncan–Boris Diaw, and the obvious winner: LeBron James–Chris Bosh. But that’s if Miami starts a smaller lineup this season, which appears unlikely.)
Each has just about every pass in the big-man arsenal — dishes out of double-teams on the block, passes on the move on the pick-and-roll, hits cutters after flashing to the high post, etc. Both typically assist on between 10 and 15 percent of their team’s baskets while on the floor, something only three or four heavy-minutes big-man combos do every season, per Basketball-Reference.
Bogut can’t single-handedly transform one of the league’s worst defense into a top-five or top-10 unit. But if he can lift Golden State to league average and work as a cog in a top-five offense, with all that shooting on the perimeter, the Warriors will be a stylish entrant in the playoff race.
2. Denver Nuggets
The most popular choice on the League Pass board, the Nuggets offer both obvious aesthetic appeal with their unique fast-break style and some substantive questions for the curious: Will JaVale McGee “get it” over the course of a full season? If he doesn’t, is a Kenneth Faried–Kosta Koufos front line good enough to carry a would-be championship sleeper? How big a lift can Andre Iguodala, perhaps the best wing defender in the league, give the team that sported the worst defense last season among all playoff teams? How many fans will Corey Brewer and Kenneth Faried injure by running the floor like maniacs?
Faried is going to be a crucial player in year two. He would appear to be the only traditional power forward guaranteed consistent rotation minutes, unless George Karl is prepared to play Anthony Randolph regularly. And though Faried’s lunatic energy accomplishes a lot on its own, especially on the glass, he’s undersized, lacks a jump shot, and was uneven defending the pick-and-roll last season. Nenê, Chris Andersen, and Al Harrington are all gone, and Karl almost never played two of his three-headed center monster together last season.
That leaves both Faried and the possibility of Denver playing huge minutes of small ball, with Danilo Gallinari serving as the nominal power forward. And the Nuggets were ferociously effective in that setup last season. Considering only lineups that logged at least 10 minutes, the Nuggets with Gallo at the four in about 200 minutes scored 111 points per 100 possessions and allowed just 101.5, per BasketballValue. That was equivalent to the no. 1 offense, the no. 5 defense, and the top overall scoring margin. The best part: These units generally grabbed an even higher percentage of defensive rebounds than Denver’s solid overall mark. Can you imagine how fun a Ty Lawson–Andre Miller–Iguodala-Gallinari-McGee lineup is going to be, with all that speed, Gallo’s developing on-ball skills, and Miller’s professorial game?
Denver is going to be crazy entertaining, regardless, and just watching Karl sort out the wing minutes will be interesting night-to-night.
3. Utah Jazz
In a league that is allegedly going smaller and quicker, Utah has a chance to veer against the grain by going super-big via units featuring Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, and Al Jefferson. Those three played only 113 regular-season minutes together, mostly late in the season when injuries forced Tyrone Corbin’s hand, and they outscored opponents by nearly 20 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com’s stats database. That won’t hold over the long haul, even if these units played the Spurs almost exactly even during San Antonio’s first-round whitewashing of Utah. Corbin has already indicated this will be only an occasional change-of-pace tactic, since playing Millsap at small forward exposes him to quicker players and squeezes Utah’s spacing. And it might not be as urgent a need this season, with the acquisition of Marvin Williams, plus internal improvement from Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, bolstering a wing rotation that was among the very worst in the league last season.
But Favors represents the most likely potential cure for Utah’s diseased defense, which ranked 20th in points allowed per possession, mostly due to Jefferson’s flat-footed non-defense of the pick-and-roll. Favors is a shot-blocking menace, capable of getting from the foul line to the rim in a flash, and Utah needs to play him more if his unsure offense has progressed enough. That’s an important “if.” As much as everyone wants to scream about defense winning championships, Utah made the playoffs mostly thanks to a top-10 offense that sputtered whenever more than one or two starters left the floor. Jefferson is a sieve on defense, but teams don’t get anywhere by solving one problem if the solution creates another. Corbin and his staff have an interesting juggling act to perform.
I’m bullish on Hayward, too. He has solid all-around skills on both ends, and his struggles last season were typical of young players. He was turnover-prone on the pick-and-roll, with a habit of dribbling into crowds, missing easy pocket passes and generally proceeding without a plan. Perhaps as a result, he took too many jumpers on both pick-and-rolls and spot-up chances in which the opportunity to drive by a defender on the close-out was there.
His defense was also uneven. He’d go under screens now and then against good shooters, over-help in the lane at times, or rotate a split second late to a weakside shooter. But the inability of Utah’s big men to hedge on dribble penetration — Millsap, though much better than Jefferson, isn’t blameless — compromised everything, and Hayward showed a solid baseline understanding of NBA responsibilities on both ends. With a little more decisiveness, Hayward should be a player.
4. Atlanta Hawks
And I actually like watching Joe Johnson, who seems to have a knack for perfectly clean swishes on insanely tricky mid-range shots. (Someone needs to develop a stat for swishes per field goal, even if it would be imperfect.) But the Hawks have replaced him with one speedy ball handler (Devin Harris), one herky-jerky, creative ball handler who could write a dissertation on the two-for-one (Lou Williams), and perhaps the two very best outside shooters in the league (Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow).
And it’s hard to be boring when you start two big men who do just about everything well, as the lucky Hawks do with Al Horford and Josh Smith. Every NBA geek missed Horford’s team-first two-way game last season, and Smith, for all his selfish mid-range jumpers, is a fast-break menace who might be the best inside-out diagonal passer on planet Earth. And he’s in a contract year! Toss in more responsibility for Jeff Teague, Zaza Pachulia’s face, a dash of Grantland favorite Ivan Johnson, some two–point guard lineups, and a faster pace, and this team should be a fun watch. Right, Larry Drew?
Teague should be hungry this season to show what he can do as more of a primary ball-handler, and with Horford back at full strength, more knockdown shooters around him and the departure of Johnson as a co-primary ball-handler. Horford is a more polished pick-and-roll partner for Teague than Smith, who only attempts about one shot per game out of the play — a weirdly low number for such a multi-skilled big man. Teague generally has the look of a player on the verge. He has the speed to get a close-range shot whenever he wants, especially since he’s developed a nice righty floater he can loft after crossing over a big man or pausing, Chris Paul-style, to read the defense near the foul line. If anything, Teague almost over-estimates the power of his speed, racing into the lane for tricky shot attempts over reaching arms while shooters are open around the floor. Teague hit an above-average percentage of shots at the rim and from the floater range, but those are tough shots, and the Hawks would benefit from some slight refinement in Teague’s pass-or-shoot choices — especially if the Hawks stress the corner three again this season.
He has the tough passes in his bag — skips to the corner, drop-offs along the baseline, pocket passes on the pick-and-roll, etc. If he manages more of those this season and adds more three-point attempts, especially when defenders go under picks, he’ll be a joy to watch. (And as an aside, a slight uptick in outside shooting in Utah could help Hayward’s development as a passer. It’s more tempting to dish a kickout pass when the targets are Mo Williams up top and Marvin Wiliams in the corner, instead of Harris and Josh Howard, respectively).
5. Milwaukee Bucks
It’s a testament to Milwaukee’s understanding of NBA nerd appeal that they traded a nerd favorite (Bogut) for a nerd’s inefficient enemy (Monta Ellis) and somehow remained a wacky bunch worthy of League Pass attention. In relative anonymity, Milwaukee’s offense morphed over the second half of last season into a fast-paced, pass-happy machine that piled up shots at the basket and scored at a top-five overall rate. Ellis continued recording assists at career-best levels as a Buck, and advanced metrics and data from those fancy tracking cameras installed in Milwaukee and nine other NBA arenas have consistently shown Ellis’s passes produce a disproportionate number of close shots.
Milwaukee lost one heady wing passer in Carlos Delfino, but Mike Dunleavy is still there providing great value. Plus, Delfino’s absence means more minutes at small forward for Tobias Harris, a potential bruiser at that position. Ersan Ilyasova finished no. 2 overall in 3-point percentage, and he brings an array of nutty flip shots and unexpected back screens to go with his hungry rebounding.
The only downside: Ilyasova grasping that power forward spot for 35 minutes a night blocks an army of big men who provide comedic value (Drew Gooden’s pump fakes and facial hair), defense, passing, and long-armed, youthful potential. John Henson showed a solid grasp of NBA pick-and-roll defense at Summer League (I know, I know), Samuel Dalembert protects the rim, Ekpe Udoh needs to play, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute can guard almost every position, and lots of data floating around suggests Larry Sanders could be a hugely impactful defender if he earns minutes.
And Beno Udrih — the undisputed king of the PUJIT (pull-up jumper in transition) — is a bonus.