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A final 2015-16 NBA season preview: New-look Bulls, Anthony Davis, more

Before the action tips off Tuesday night, Jared Dubin breaks down a bunch of major NBA storylines to get you ready for the start of the 2015-16 season.

The 169-day march through the NBA’s 2015–16 regular season tips off Tuesday night. For the next 24 weeks (except for that one pesky week in February), we’ll have nightly basketball to entertain us all and help decide which teams get the chance to vie for the Larry O’Brien Trophy throughout May and June.

There is still time to take one last look at what’s to come. We’ll do so by touching on a grab bag of relevant topics, from on-court tactical concerns to the Game of the Week, and from big important numbers to Halloween costumes. 

Enjoy, and welcome back, NBA!

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New-look Bulls

When the Chicago Bulls take the United Center floor against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the season opener, they’ll do so without Joakim Noah on the floor to start the game. 

This represents quite the change for the organization. It’s not that the Bulls aren’t used to taking the floor without Noah — he’s missed 97 games due to injury in his eight-year career so far. The difference this time is that he’s healthy. He’s just not a starter anymore. Rather than Noah, new Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg will use second-year man Nikola Mirotic next to Pau Gasol in the frontcourt. It’ll be the first time that Noah is healthy and not in Chicago’s starting lineup since March 30, 2010. 

The idea here, presumably, is that Mirotic’s jumper will stretch defenses and provide more space for Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, and Gasol to operate offensively. Noah’s range essentially ends at the free throw line, and, judging by how the Milwaukee Bucks treated him during last year’s first-round playoff series (comfortably switching wing players onto him in pick-and-rolls and daring him to go to work in the post), he doesn’t even scare many teams from inside that distance either. 

Crystal Ball: 2015-16 NBA predictions

​Mirotic’s jumper looks funky and it didn’t go through the net all that much (40.5% from the field; 31.6% from beyond the arc) last season, but he shot nearly 40% on threes across five years in Spain, and he launched 6.8 threes per 36 minutes as a rookie. Even the threat of a deep ball from the four should loosen up defenses enough to open up some cracks that might not be there with Noah hanging around the elbows all night. 

Gasol’s post-up-based game (only seven players finished more plays with a shot, turnover or foul drawn out of the post last season, per Synergy Sports) and Mirotic’s long-range sniping (assuming he gets back to shooting at the clip he did in Europe) make for a symbiotic fit offensively, but their glaring lack of foot speed likely will hurt Chicago on the other end. 

The hallmark of Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago teams over most of the last five years was their stifling defense. They ranked first, first, fifth, and second in defensive efficiency in Thibs’ first four years, before finishing 11th last season. Regular Bulls watchers might have tired of seeing Thibodeau stomp around and scream “ICE! ICE! ICE!” to force the dribbler to the baseline on isolations, but it worked. 

This year’s Bulls have strong perimeter defenders in the starting lineup in Butler (annually an All-Defense-caliber wing at this point) and Tony Snell (filling in for Mike Dunleavy), but opponents that can manage to get past the first line of defense may find themselves having an easier time scoring in the paint than in seasons past. Mirotic, in particular, leaves much to be desired as a rim protector (he ranked very low in Seth Partnow’s rim protection metric at Nylon Calculus), and you can bet that opponents will use Gasol’s man as the screener in pick-and-rolls in order to both get him in open space and force Mirotic to act as the last line of help defense. 

Conversely, the bench duo of Noah and Taj Gibson should work just fine defensively, but it may present some issues on offense, particularly if they share the floor with bench guards Aaron Brooks and/or Kirk Hinrich. Some mixing and matching would appear to be in order in the frontcourt, but after using Gasol, Noah, and Mirotic together in a team preseason game, Hoiberg never again put Gasol and Noah on the floor alongside each other for the rest of the preseason. 

If Hoiberg is going with a platoon system, Gasol-Gibson and Noah-Mirotic offense/defense tandems might make a bit more sense so that both ends of the floor are adequately covered, but even that doesn’t leave much playing time for rookie Bobby Portis, who looked terrific early in preseason before seeing his playing time dwindle. This situation looks very crowded, and there’s no clear answer as to how it’ll shake out. 

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Number to Watch:

Cauldron Kobe 129
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Kobe Bryant is 129 turnovers away from joining Karl Malone, John Stockton, and Jason Kidd as the only players with at least 4,000 giveaways in their career. Reaching that number would be quite the accomplishment, and not in a bad way! 

First of all, it’s a testament to his ridiculous longevity and playmaking burden that he’s even approaching that number. Kobe has an 11.7% turnover rate for his career, 21st-lowest among the 73 players that have played at least 500 games and registered a usage rate above 25%. Considering turnover rate just works out to turnovers per 100 plays, that means Kobe’s 3,881 turnovers have come on an excess of 33,000 career plays. That’s insane

Secondly, Kobe turning the ball over 129 times would mean he’s on the court a whole lot, which would be a great thing. Also: he had 128 turnovers in 35 games last season and, considering that the Lakers say they’re going to restrict his minutes a bit more, and they now have more capable ball-handlers, I’m guessing it would take a bit more than 35 games for him to crack the 4,000 mark. I, for one, would be all for it. 

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How high is the Jazz's ceiling?

Last week, Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder was asked a question about stalwart defensive center Rudy Gobert, who’d yet to impress to that point of the preseason. Snyder’s answer to the question didn’t have all that much to do with Gobert specifically, but rather the general vibe around what many view as an ascendant team. The length and tone of Snyder’s response (embedded below thanks to transcribing from Jody Genessy of the Deseret News) makes you think he’d been sitting on this issue for a while in hopes he’d eventually get a chance to address it at length. 

People can take Snyder’s long-winded response in a lot of different ways; to me, it read not as Snyder telling everyone outside the team to slow their roll on anointing the Jazz the Next Big Thing, but simply reminding his players that while they have the potential to make the leap, it takes a whole lot of work to get there. He drew a pretty vivid picture of how hard the Thunder worked to get to the point where they were one of the best teams in the league, highlighting the dedication their biggest stars have to their craft even in pregame warmups. (It's true: OKC’s pregame routine is among the most intricate and well-constructed in the league.)

The Thunder were once in the very position the Jazz are now — a young, team that many view as being on the cusp of contention. It came to fruition for them with a Finals trip and three appearances in the Western Conference Finals, but there are countless other young teams that have been declared future contenders and never made it. I’m on record as a bit of a Jazz skeptic for this particular season, but I think Snyder is taking the right approach here if he wants to get his team to buy in and build something sustainable. 

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Expectations for Durant

Speaking of the Thunder, I can’t imagine I’m the only one wrestling over what to expect from Kevin Durant this season. A fully healthy Durant is one of the handful of best players in the league, of course. And during the preseason, he looked healthy as ever. 

In his last two games, as head coach Billy Donovan let him stretch out his playing time, Durant dropped a combined 52 points on 20-of-29 shooting in 60 minutes. He got to the rim, and he pulled up from deep. He worked the in-between game, hit the glass, and made some nice dishes. He looked like the KD we’re all used to. 

But I want to see him stay healthy and on the floor for a few months before I let myself get sucked back into “perennial MVP candidate and best scorer on Earth KD” being a regular thing in my life again, something that I can take for as a given. We’ve been burned before

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Thunder win Halloween already

On a much lighter Thunder-related note: Can we talk about how amazing their Halloween costumes were? This is A+ work. Nick Collison went as Forrest Gump. Mitch McGary went as a Dodgeball character. Durant went as Martin Lawrence’s character from Blue Streak when he disguised himself as a pizza delivery guy (SUPER niche reference there, KD). Steve Novak went as Bigfoot. Somebody went as the guy from Saw. Steven Adams went as the Joker. AND RUSSELL WESTBROOK WENT AS STEVEN ADAMS.

LOOK AT RUSS. He should be required to dress as Adams at all times. It’s not like that would be any more outlandish than what he usually wears. I especially love that he got so into it that he even got Adams’ tattoos done up on his right arm, even though the style doesn’t exactly match. “FUNAKI,” by the way, is Adams’ middle name. (For more details on the ink, click here.)

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Adams second to Conley

Steven Adams’ joker mask is only the second best NBA mask in the news this week. Why? Because Mike Conley, who broke his face during last year’s playoffs and returned inside of two weeks outfitted with a mask, Rip Hamilton-style, said he’ll continue to wear the mask from now on. Here’s a look, via his Instagram account:

I can’t describe how much I love this. 

Conley has always been a player that’s overlooked, operating in the shadows first of AAU and college teammate Greg Oden, and then of Grizzlies teammates like Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen. His defining characteristic has almost always been his steadiness. Now he’s got the mask. Whatever will help people notice Conley and his consistently terrific play more often, I’m all for.

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Game of the Week Alert:Warriors  at Rockets, Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET

This one is a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals. That’s tantalizing enough in and of itself, but the Rockets also come into the game with even more firepower than last season. Thanks to the offseason acquisition of former Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, as well as the returns of incumbent point guard Patrick Beverley and power forward Donatas Motiejunas from injuries that kept them out of the postseason, Houston has the league’s deepest roster and represents arguably the most significant threat to Golden State’s crown.

70 reasons to watch the NBA this year

The Rockets can come at you with a never-ending wave of plus athletes and, much like last year’s Warriors, they have the personnel to shapeshift themselves into whatever style of play that night’s opponent wants to employ. They can slow it down and grind on defense with Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Donuts and Dwight Howard. They can push the pace and run you out of the gym with Lawson, James Harden, Corey Brewer, K.J. McDaniels, and Terrence Jones.

They can mix and match with any combination of those groups, too.

Houston lost all four regular-season matchups to the Warriors last season, each one increasing in the total number of points scored: 98–87, 105–93, 131–106, and 126–113. These teams should both be strong defensively this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they pushed and prodded each other into another high-flying, high-scoring duel. Should be a nice late(ish)-night treat.

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Player Most Likely to …

Unexpectedly vault into MVP conversation: John Wall.

Benefit most from the situation he’s in as a rookie: Justise Winslow.

Become the next trendy 3-and-D guy: Rodney Hood.

Have his contributions completely overlooked: Serge Ibaka.

Lead the Kings in technical fouls: It’s still DeMarcus Cousins, guys.

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Celtics: Average? Above average? Below average?

The Cauldron’s own Ian Levy did a nice job last week of explaining why so many statistical plus-minus models love this Celtics team more than might be reasonable when taking an initial look at their roster. Levy writes:

Most teams are built with a mix of good and bad players. The great players are exceedingly difficult to find, but players who exist within the middle tiers — the serviceable majority — are much more common. As such, there’s great power to be had in a team’s ability to replace their bad players with average ones.

This helps explain why projections for the Boston Celtics have been so rosy. For example, FiveThirtyEight’s win estimates are based on player projections (a 50/50 blend of Box Plus-Minus and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus). By their estimates, Marcus Smart stands to be the Celtics’ best player this season, worth about 2.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s just below the level of what most plus-minus practitioners would consider a star.

The reason the starless Celtics are projected to win 48 games is because nine of their other 14 players have a projected value of -0.5 or better. That essentially means Boston can build an entire rotation of average-to-above-average players. A completely average team would project to win about half their games over the course of a season. If you throw in the few slightly better-than-average players Boston boasts — Smart, [Amir] Johnson, [David] Lee, Isaiah Thomas, Kelly Olynyk — tacking on six or seven extra wins suddenly doesn’t sound so farfetched.

That all makes intuitive sense and I was ready to buy in despite my assertion that the Celtics have the weirdest roster in the NBA and may not actually be on the verge of anything unless and until they make some bigger move. Then I saw this series of tweets from Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow and swung all the way back over the fence to my original position.

Much like last year’s Hawks, the Celtics appear on the surface to be a team without a star player (though I and many others would argue that Al Horford is a star), but with many above average contributors and very few below average contributors. 

The difference, which I think Partnow was getting at, is that Atlanta’s above average contributors were significantly above average while Boston’s only appear to be slightly so. None of the Smart, Thomas, Olynyk, Johnson, Lee crew profiles to have as great an impact as Horford or even Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague, or DeMarre Carroll did last season. 

I’ll happily eat crow and bow at the altar of Danny Ainge if the models all wind up being correct and this is a team that registers a win total in the high-40s or even 50s, but barring a trade, it still feels more like they’re a lower-half-of-the-East playoff team. 

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Beware The Brow

Be afraid. Be very afraid, literally everyone else in the NBA. Anthony Davis is already doing things that are unheard of for players his age, and with Alvin Gentry in town, his newly extended range, and basically the entire Pelicans team suffering from some injury or another, we’re going to see AD put up numbers in the early goings of the season that don’t look like they could possibly exist in this world.

The Pellies open their season Tuesday on the road against the champs in a rematch of their first-round playoff series, then after a trip to Portland get Golden State again, at home on Saturday. But they also get Orlando, Dallas twice, the Knicks, the Raptors (and their shaky frontcourt defense) and the Nuggets within the first three weeks of the season. Get ready for a show. 

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It doesn’t matter 

(This is where I talk about stuff that you think matters, but doesn’t, and explain why.)

  1. That the Blazers will open the season approximately $14 million under the salary cap floor. The remaining money just gets split between the guys on the team anyway, if they don't end up spending it.
  2. Where Cleveland finishes in the Eastern Conference. They’re going to the Finals barring a LeBron injury anyway. 
  3. How many pounds Al Jefferson lost by dropping fried chicken from his diet. The Hornets just don’t have nearly enough else around him to make a playoff push. 
  4. That Paul George doesn’t want to play power forward. The Pacers’ roster is constructed in such a way that essentially necessitates it. 
  5. If Sasha Vujacic starts for the Knicks. At least as long as Derek Fisher doesn’t plan on playing him significant minutes.
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In honor of Flip

Last but not certainly not least, we turn to the late Flip Saunders. It was with great sadness that everyone in the NBA said goodbye to him over the weekend after he succumbed to cancer, and the outpouring of respect and sadness from players, coaches, fans, and media tells you all you need to know about how highly respected a person — not just coach and executive — he was.

The extensive reach of Flip Saunders

I won’t claim to know Flip well, or even really at all, but what stands out to me was Flip seemed to be the rare coach who genuinely enjoyed media company — engaging in give-and-take and getting animated when a particular question piqued his interest.

(I couldn’t have been happier that one of mine, about how young teams struggle with defensive communication, was one of them.) 

Even in a short 20-minute session you could tell the insane amount of basketball knowledge — both historical and tactical — that was stored in his brain. I greatly appreciated (and will never forget) that he was willing to stand there and answer all of our inane questions quite literally until we didn’t have any more to ask.

Rest in peace, Flip.