Chalk rules in the NBA. Coming into the 2016–17 season, we already know who the best teams will be. The Cavs and the Warriors are heavy favorites to play in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season, and unless one of them makes another run at history or is beset by a catastrophic series of injuries, the stakes are nonexistent until May and June. It’s the same story at the bottom of the league, where the Nets and the 76ers should have the highest odds of being the worst team in the NBA. The drama in the regular season comes from the great unwashed masses, the ones who aren’t competing for the top seed or the most ping-pong balls.
The good news for fans of unpredictability is the middle of the league is as deep as it has been in some time. There will be a lot of teams fighting for 45 wins, with only a few in each conference not expecting to compete for a playoff spot. Seven games separated the no. 3 and the no. 10 seeds in the East last season, and it shouldn’t be all that different this season. Out West, the Thunder have been brought back to the pack, and there doesn’t appear to be a clear heir to their spot in the top tier. Instead, the bottom of the conference has gotten stronger, as teams like the Wolves and the Nuggets advance further along in their rebuilds.
What that means is there will be fewer breaks in the schedule, fewer games in which you can rest your top players and still expect to come out with a win. One bad road trip or a poorly timed rash of injuries could have disastrous results, just as a string of hot shooting nights or good matchups could have the opposite effect. Without much difference between the top and the bottom of the pack, it won’t take much to push a team up or down the standings. Here are five teams that could have the most dramatic swing, depending on factors that are hard to predict at this point.
In a macro view, it will be very easy to predict what the Rockets will be: They will be very good on offense, and they will be very bad on defense. A Mike D’Antoni spread pick-and-roll offense with James Harden running the show, Clint Capela rolling to the rim, and Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon spotting up is an ideal offensive scheme for a team shaped in Harden’s image, and can be exactly what Houston needs to return to 2015 form. However, for the Rockets to maximize their offseason vision, they will need Anderson and Gordon to play 70-plus games, a mark each player has reached only once in eight seasons. D’Antoni will have to cobble together a defense when those two are healthy, and cobble together a rotation when they are not. The Rockets will get out to a lot of big leads, but they will give a lot of them back, too. The question is how much it evens out.
New York Knicks
Imagine waking a Knicks fan out of a five-year coma and explaining to them who Kristaps Porzingis is and what he can do on the court. The person would probably look at the roster and expect the Knicks to be one of the top teams in the league. That might have been the best explanation for Derrick Rose’s comments at his introductory press conference, when he compared the Knicks to the Warriors. As is, there’s a ton of moving parts for new coach Jeff Hornacek to figure out, from what type of offense to put Rose in to the best way for Rose and Carmelo Anthony to coexist — to say nothing of the number of games Hornacek can expect from Rose and Joakim Noah. A healthy Noah could transform the Knicks defensively, but the hobbled version we saw the last few years in Chicago could make them miss Robin Lopez. A big sophomore season for Porzingis would be huge in shaping the Knicks’ identity, but that will depend in large part on what lineups Hornacek uses him in and what role he has in the offense.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka were such foundational pieces in Oklahoma City for so long that it’s hard to say how Billy Donovan’s second season with the Thunder will unfold. The closest baseline is the injury-ravaged OKC team that stumbled to 45 wins two years ago, but that iteration had a far different supporting cast around Russell Westbrook. How good can Steven Adams be in a featured role? How will Victor Oladipo look outside of Orlando? Will Donovan find a way to give his best shooters minutes without compromising the defense? How far can pounding the offensive glass take a team in the modern NBA? What can we expect out of their young quartet of Cameron Payne, Alex Abrines, Mitch McGary, and Domantas Sabonis? Kyle Singler and Anthony Morrow couldn’t help a title contender, but can they stay in the rotation for an average team? There are a lot of questions to answer in Oklahoma City, both this season and going into the future.
The Magic are all in. After four years of stumbling through a rebuild and haphazardly collecting young talent, they are ready to get back in the playoffs, even if their talent base can’t really sustain that type of push. They cashed in a bunch of future assets for Serge Ibaka, gave a huge contract to Bismack Biyombo, and brought in Frank Vogel to sort it all out. The combination of Ibaka and Biyombo should allow Vogel to orchestrate the type of defensive schemes he ran in Indiana, but there’s no Paul George on hand to bail him out on offense. Their best offensive player, Nikola Vucevic, might be headed to the bench, which means there won’t be much room for the spread attacks that could get the best out of the young pieces they have left. Will Vogel be able to make the Magic’s mismatched collection of parts work, and can someone from the group of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Elfrid Payton make the leap and carry this franchise back to respectability?
Building an offense around Hassan Whiteside rather than Dwyane Wade should be a better fit for the modern NBA, but what does it do to the culture in Miami? The uncertainty around Chris Bosh’s future means Whiteside is now the Heat’s foundational piece, a prospect which would make many around the league shudder. He received one of the largest pay spikes in NBA history in July, which is a lot for anyone to adjust to, much less a guy whose reputation of immaturity makes Dwight Howard look like a model citizen. Goran Dragic is now on the wrong side of 30, but dominating the ball could mean a return to the form he showed in Phoenix. Wade’s vacated role will be filled by the youthful trio of Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Tyler Johnson — who among that group is taking a step forward? That doesn’t even get into the original inhabitant of Waiters Island, and the revenge tour he has in mind after being one of the only players in free agency not to get paid. There’s going to be an awful lot on Erik Spoelstra’s plate this season, and he’s not going to be able to depend on his safety blanket on the court or in the locker room.