NBA Season Preview: The Middle of the Pack (Part I)

john wall

Here at DRaT, we can see training camp coming up just around the corner. To get prepared for the upcoming season, Jacob Bikshorn will be breaking down the league into The Contenders, The Middle, and The Hot Garbage. We kick things off with The Middle teams of the East.

In my first installment  of this tiered NBA preview, I will take a look at the part of the Eastern Conference that will likely never lead Sportscenter. These aren’t teams that will make noise in the regular season or be playing competitive basketball in late May. But at the same time, they aren’t teams that will set records for futility. They don’t have any chance of making the conference finals, but at the same time will likely not hear their names called as lottery winners. This group of four teams will probably fight for the 7-8 seeds in the playoffs, and for these teams, that will be considered a success. I know I’m contradicting myself but the reality is that for some teams, especially those who have dwelled in cellar the last few years, just making the playoffs is important to the fans and (more importantly for GMs and coaches) the owners. Without further ado, the middle of the east, from best to worst.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Last Year: 24-58

Prediction for this year: 43-39

The Cavs had an exciting offseason. After winning the lottery in a year that really nobody wanted to win the lottery, Cleveland shocked the world by drafting Anthony Bennett out of UNLV. Bennett is kind of a tweener, a guy who can shoot and play inside, but may struggle to defend bigger players. I think Bennett could be a solid player for Cleveland. This is a team that has talent at almost every position except small forward. With guys like Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao already on the roster, there is less pressure on him to try to fit into a position he may not physically be ready for.

The Cavs passed on one center with shaky knees on draft night in Nerlens Noel, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to bring in another via free agency. The 2 year, $24 million deal that Andrew Bynum signed this summer may seem like a big investment, but only $6 million of it is actually guaranteed. If Bynum is healthy, the Cavs find themselves with a pretty nice bargain. This was a player who Philly last season thought could be the face of the franchise. And if it doesn’t work out, it’s only a one year, $6 million deal that allows you to still be a major player in free agency next season.

Kyrie in year three is going to take a huge step. He’s already showing at Team USA summer camp that he’s ready to step up and be the man, and assuming he can stay on the court, he’s going to be a real star of next season. Dion Waitors showed flashes in his rookie season, averaging 14.7 points a night. If his 31% shooting from three picks up, he’ll be a real threat on the wing with Kyrie. And with the free agent signing of veteran guard Jarrett Jack, the Cavs suddenly are one of the deepest teams in the league in the back court.

The Cavs also return Mike Brown to the bench. Brown, who’s initial dismissal from Cleveland was thought to be an attempt at appeasing Lebron, is a coach known for improving his teams’ defense, something the Cavaliers desperately need. With a mediocre defense, this team may have enough fire power to get all the way to the 6th seed.

Washington Wizards

Last year: 29-53

Prediction for this year: 42-40

The Wiz have their man for the future, as they are on the verge of locking up point guard and dancing sensation John Wall to a five year, $80 million contract. Wall showed a lot of improvement last year, especially in his midrange shooting game. Grantland’s Zach Lowe discussed in depth the improvements he’s made not just as a shooter, but as a floor general. While his outside shooting leaves a lot to be desired, Wall’s incredible speed will allow him get to his spots on the floor where he can be dangerous from.

Bradley Beal last season showed that he’s going to be one of the best shooters in the league. After getting off to a slow start, one that can be mostly attributed to the absence of the injured Wall, Beal finished the season shooting 38% from downtown, an above average mark that is sure to increase in his sophomore campaign.

The Wiz also added a small forward in the draft in Otto Porter. Porter is sort of a jack of all trades, a player who is great at the little things and doesn’t need to hoist up a lot of shots to make an impact on the game. If Nene is able to stay on the floor, Kevin Seraphin regains some of his mojo from two seasons ago, and Jan Vesely stops being the worst player in the entire league, the Wiz are pretty much a lock to make the post season.

Detroit Pistons

Last season: 29-53

Prediction for this season: 41-41

This Pistons made big offseason news when they signed Josh Smith to a 4 year/$54 million contract. Smith is one of the best two way forwards in the entire league. Since 2006, Josh Smith has averaged at least one block and one steal every game. An effective player around the rim, people love to criticize Smith for his poor shot selection. JSmoove just loves to take long twos, and defenses are happy to give them up.

The issue in Detroit is that Smith may be forced to take more long jumpers than any sane person would advise. With Greg Monroe and the up and coming Andre Drummond already on the roster, Smith is probably going to be forced into playing more small forward than we have ever seen from him. While playing all three may really cramp the team’s spacing, they will be pretty impenetrable on the defensive end.

Brandon Knight’s most memorable contribution to the 2013 season may have been when he was brutally murdered by DeAndre Jordan,

but he will be entering his third year, one that will be critical in his development. There are few people who believe he can be a full time point guard, but there have been bigger surprises in the NBA. Hopefully first round draft choice Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is able to flash the great shooting that got him noticed despite a mostly unsuccessful college career at Georgia, and create spacing for a team that will certainly be desperate for it.

If Knight develops, new coach Mo Cheeks is able to find a reasonable big man rotation, and Drummond is able to improve upon his 37% FT%, Detroit should have enough firepower to claim one of the final spots in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

Milwaukee Bucks

Last year: 38-44

Prediction for this year: 35-47

Milwaukee made some moves this offseason, although I’m not sure any of them were very good. The Bucks opted to let Monte Ellis, who they acquired via trade a year and a half earlier in exchange for Andrew Bogut, walk as a free agent, Ellis signed a big deal in Dallas so that he could stand next to Jose Calderon and let guys run by them. Ellis is an inefficient chucker who was going to be overpaid no matter where he landed. The Bucks probably, in the long term, made the right call in letting him walk. But for next year they are really going to miss his offensive production.

It’s looking more and more likely that Brandon Jennings is going to grab the one year qualifying offer and test the free agent market again next season without any restrictions. With Ellis gone, Jennings is the undisputed man of this team, and with the added pressure of playing for a lucrative deal, Jennings can go one of two ways. Either the talented point guard develops as a floor general and learns to pick his spots better, or he loses trust in his shaky supporting cast and just tries to go and get his. My money is on the latter of those two scenarios.

The Bucks brought in a couple of decent free agents in OJ Mayo and ZaZa Pachulia. Pachulia, who spent the last several seasons backing up Al Horford in Atlanta will assume the  same role behind the defensive force of nature that is LARRY SANDERS! Pachulia somehow convinced Bucks GM John Hammond to give him a 3 year deal worth $15 million. Perhaps that was a little too much.

In Mayo, the Bucks get a guy who probably just isn’t that good. Mayo started out hot last year from three, but gradually regressed to the numbers that we have grown accustomed to seeing from him. Down the stretch, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle openly criticized Mayo and his commitment to playing solid team basketball. The Bucks are hoping another year will mature the former USC Trojan, but chances are Mayo is what he is at this point of his career.

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