An eclectic group of basketball stars are getting ready to compete in the Rio Olympics, and NBA free agency is all but finished—well, save for J.R. Smith and a couple others who remain unsigned.
As such, it’s now time to look forward to the 2016–17 campaign. With a variety of big names headed to new places, the makeup of several of teams has changed dramatically. And while the goal of every front office exec is to enhance the on-court product, sometimes that comes at the expense of other players’ numbers and playing time.
That’s not always a bad thing, because a unit working in unison is often superior to a team with one star carrying the team on a nightly basis. However, there are a handful of players fans should not expect to break out or continue building on past success.
Stephen Curry, Warriors
Stephen Curry is the best shooter in NBA history. He’s coming off a season in which he won his second consecutive MVP award and his first scoring title, all while joining the exclusive 50–40–90 club.
Curry also sunk a career-best 402 three-pointers. That annihilated the NBA record of 286 threes he set the season prior, and was 126 more treys than fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson, who landed in second place.
By posting an offensive box plus-minus of 12.36 (the highest mark ever recorded), Curry put together what many view as the best offensive season of all time. All of this is to say that Curry should not be held to the same standard regardless of the circumstances surrounding him.
But with former MVP Kevin Durant entering the fray to help take some pressure off Curry, the Baby-Faced Assassin is guaranteed to see his numbers dip in 2016–17. That won’t be a negative for Steve Kerr and Co., since Durant obviously makes this team even more menacing on paper than the roster that won a record 73 regular-season games.
Curry notched a career-high usage rate of 32.6% last season. Durant’s usage rate for OKC was 30.6%. It stands to reason that both of those marks will drop with the tandem suiting up on the same team.
In 2015–16, the only team in the league to have more than one player on its roster notch at least 2,000 minutes and a usage rate of 30% or higher was the Thunder (Durant and Russell Westbrook). The team makeup of Golden State is far different, as Thompson and Draymond Green are also capable playmakers.
The Warriors are at their best when they’re moving the ball and creating open looks with frenetic passing. That will likely lead to lesser numbers for Curry (and perhaps Durant, too), but it’s a sacrifice made in pursuit of the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Nikola Vucevic, Magic
The Orlando Magic made a head-spinning amount of moves this off-season. Even after reading Zach Lowe’s comprehensive article attempting to break down Orlando’s murky short-term and long-term vision, the transactions remain befuddling.
In June, the Magic traded 24-year-old Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and No. 11 overall pick Domantas Sabonis to the Thunder in exchange for Serge Ibaka. A curious move provided Oladipo is set to hit restricted free agency after the 2016–17 season, while Ibaka (who is two years older) will be an unrestricted free agent.
If Orlando’s front office wasn’t interested in keeping Oladipo through restricted free agency next year, that’s fair enough. But dealing away a talented guard who can defend on the perimeter in favor of a power forward—a spot where the promising young Aaron Gordon already resides—seems odd.
From there, the Magic signed the reliably inconsistent Jeff Green to a head-scratching one-year, $15 million deal, and Bismack Biyombo for $72 million over four years. This now a very crowded (and convoluted) frontcourt.
So, who’s the odd man out? Or, put another way, who’s the guy with the most to lose?
Given the makeup of the talent on the roster, head coach Frank Vogel should opt to play Gordon at his more natural power forward slot (at least in some situations). In theory, that could slide Ibaka over to center, and Vucevic out of lineups altogether.
There’s also the potential for Vogel to go with a massive, defensive-minded frontcourt of Gordon, Ibaka and Biyombo. The shot-blocking prowess of those three would define the basketball idiom, “no easy buckets.”
Of course, even if Vucevic remains the starting center and go-to guy, he’ll still be splitting his minutes with Ibaka and Biyombo in some capacity. He saw less than a three-minute dip in playing time in 2015–16 compared to the season prior (31.3 versus 34.2), and still had his scoring and rebounding numbers slide somewhat significantly.
After three straight seasons averaging double-digit boards, Vucevic hauled in the fewest rebounds per game since his rookie year in Philadelphia. With more established, veteran pieces in the frontcourt around him, rather than youngsters vying for playing time, Vucevic’s role (and stats) could suffer the biggest hit.
Speaking of crowded frontcourts, it’s going to be interesting to see how head coach Terry Stotts decides to allot player minutes next season in Portland.
Last season, Noah Vonleh, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee all averaged more than 15 minutes per contest for the Trail Blazers. There was a lot of trial and error involved—Vonleh inexplicably started 56 games before Aminu was moved to the four. However, a combination of carrying over lineups that worked from last season and experimenting with new rotations, while adding Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli to the fold, is sure to shake things up.
At this point, it’s impossible to tell who will be immune from statistical regression in Portland. Aminu is probably the safest bet on that front. He carved out a nice niche for the Blazers as their small-ball power forward who can rebound and shoot from outside. His three-point shooting took a rather substantial leap in 2015–16.
Plumlee, meanwhile, became a huge part of Portland’s identity when he was given an opportunity to handle the ball more and make plays for teammates (he averaged 5.7 assists per game in the playoff series win against the L.A. Clippers). But even Plumlee may not be safe. Adding Ezeli to the mix likely means fewer minutes for last year’s starter, and we can even assume a healthy Leonard will get some run at center.
You’ve heard of addition by subtraction, but this Blazers situation might turn out to be subtraction by addition—especially after Plumlee and Aminu settled into their respective roles toward the end of last season. Stotts now has even more mouths to feed, which could lead to statistical regression for all involved.
Whether that means regression in the win column as well remains to be seen for what turned out to be the Western Conference’s most surprising team a season ago.