Roundtable: Who will be the NBA's flop team this season?
SI.com periodically panels its NBA experts to ask a pressing question about the league. The start of the 2015–16 NBA season is less than two weeks away. With several younger teams struggling to develop and a number of older clubs in decline, we asked our NBA staff to pick a flop team.
Who will be this season's flop team?
Lee Jenkins: Houston Rockets
There are six excellent teams in the West and whichever one finishes sixth will look like a flop, whether deserved or not. Three of those teams—the Clippers, Spurs and Rockets—made substantial changes this summer that added talent but risked harmony. I have no idea which one will need the longest adjustment period, but I’m picking the Rockets, who acquired point guard Ty Lawson to flank James Harden. Last season, the Rockets reached the conference finals precisely because they had no one to help Harden, and he was able to dissect defenses himself. Taking any control away from Harden, no matter who is getting it, could cause a slip in the treacherous West.
Ben Golliver: Dallas Mavericks
It’s time for Mark Cuban to ask a painful question: What’s his team’s best-case scenario? Their summer was clearly a mess. Going from Tyson Chandler to Zaza Pachulia is a clear downgrade. Going from Monta Ellis to a recovering Wesley Matthews is a sideways move at best, especially early. Deron Williams ranks among the worst and least reliable starting point guards in the West. Losing Al-Farouq Aminu is an underrated rotation hit. Dirk Nowitzki is another year older. Last season, Dallas was punted quickly from the first round of the playoffs and, given all of these negative indicators, simply returning to that modest height would require a bunch of breaks.
The Mavericks’ best-case scenario, big picture, might actually involve pursuing the worst-case scenario when it comes to the 2015–16 standings. Dallas has had one of the most impressive runs of sustained success in recent NBA history, but its cupboard of promising young prospects is quite bare. What’s more, the Mavericks will owe their first-round pick to the Celtics if it falls outside the top-seven. All of this sets up Dallas nicely for a possible tank. Why cling to an early exit if it means sacrificing a chance at a potential future star? Why not get a jump on planning for the inevitable post-Nowitzki reality?
• MORE NBA: Who will be NBA's surprise team this season?
DeAntae Prince: Miami Heat
The Miami Heat entered the off-season with a number of issues to shore up. Chief among them were Chris Bosh's health concerns, Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade's contracts, and a need to secure young talent through the NBA draft. Each obstacle broke Miami's way this summer. Couple that with the return of Josh McRoberts, the steady play of Luol Deng, and the sideline acumen of Erik Spoelstra and Miami looks like a team ready to contend in a down Eastern Conference.
But can everything continue to go so smoothly for Miami? No team with this amount of talent stands on shakier ground entering the 2015–16 season. Last season alone, Bosh, Wade, McRoberts and Deng combined to miss 137 games, and that includes relatively healthy campaigns for Wade and Deng. The likelihood of a setback for a major player on this roster is palpable, and all it takes is a few bad breaks to alter the trajectory of a team this fragile. Miami does have some insurance on the back end, with youngsters Justise Winslow and Hasaan Whiteside looking to make splashes. But the rest of their roster is also filled out with aging veterans who could be on their last leg. Mario Chalmers and Gerald Green are the only exceptions here. Miami is talented; there's no doubt about that. But this team will need some serious luck to stay healthy long enough to make a run in the East.
Matt Dollinger: Washington Wizards
The Wizards might have the most promising backcourt in the league outside of Golden State, but the rest of their roster fails to drum up the same excitement. While John Wall (25) and Bradley Beal (22) have many All-Star appearances in front of them, most of their teammates have their best playing days behind them. Nene, Marcin Gortat, Kris Humphries, Jared Dudley and Drew Gooden are all north of 30 years old and have dealt with injuries or declines in production. The team lost NBA relics Paul Pierce and Andre Miller, but it still doesn’t have the right complementary parts for a team that should be sprinting down the court with Wall and Beal.
With Randy Wittman still at the helm—and no overhaul in sight—the onus this season will fall on 22-year-old Otto Porter Jr. and 19-year-old rookie Kelly Oubre Jr. to breathe new life into this team. Washington desperately needs players capable of running-and-gunning alongside Wall and Beal, but its front office has left the roster sorely lacking. The Wizards ranked in the bottom third of offensive efficiency last season and it’s hard to see that changing this year. Washington needs to find a way to evolve or it faces the chance of being a flop.
Jeremy Woo: Washington Wizards
Another year, and the East is still the NBA's little-brother conference—but don't discount the number of teams trending upward that are set to make life behind the Cavs a little more complicated. Chicago and Miami got healthy. Milwaukee and Toronto got deeper. Atlanta's team-oriented system helps cushion the loss of DeMarre Carroll. With all that in mind, part of me doubts the addition of Jared Dudley and untested rookie Kelly Oubre will move the ticker for the Wiz, who saw key playoff factor Paul Pierce depart for Los Angeles.
Credit the Wizards for advancing past the first round two years running, but after an unremarkable off-season, this is a team begging to be pushed for its spot. This is no knock on John Wall, who makes everyone around him better, but without help, the ceiling for his team isn't getting higher. The pressure is on oft-injured Bradley Beal to put together a complete season for Washington to keep its place in the pecking order. The Wizards are still a playoff team, but now have to bank on the value of continuity. Their days of cruising to cushy 4–5 seed matchups are likely over.
• MORE NBA: Shining a spotlight on NBA's best benches
Jared Dubin: Indiana Pacers
Even assuming the apparent issues with Paul George and Larry Bird/Frank Vogel about George’s position on the floor work themselves out, the Pacers have the look of a team that may not reach expectations. George at the power forward position is a stylistic shift Indiana may have wanted to make anyway, but the way their roster is constructed basically necessitates it. Who are the bigs on this team? Myles Turner is a 19-year-old rookie. Is he ready to be a defensive anchor? Are Lavoy Allen, Ian Mahinmi and Jordan Hill really all there is other than Turner in terms of NBA-level rotation players in the frontcourt? George basically has to play a bunch of power forward whether he wants to or not. Same with Chase Budinger and maybe Solomon Hill. PG’s an elite defender on the wing, but do we know he can play big man defense? If he can’t, who’s covering for him? And where’s the backcourt defense outside of George Hill? If the Pacers aren’t an elite defense, do they have enough scoring to make up for it? I don’t think the answer is definitively yes. What this essentially comes down to is that there are just too many questions about this team to consider them a lock for the playoffs.