Just as there are surprise success stories every NBA season, there are always serious disappointments as well. Each campaign features a number of NBA teams that enter training camp fully expecting to take the next step in their development and compete at a high level, only to fall short of their lofty goals by stagnating or sometimes even regressing.
Speaking of which, let’s take a stroll down memory lane back to the start of the 2015-16 season.
When discussing teams with heightened expectations that significantly underachieved, there are three squads that immediately come to mind: The Washington Wizards, Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks.
The Wizards were coming off a campaign in which they flirted with 50 wins (46-36) and earned the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs back in 2014-15. However, last season the Wizards struggled to finish .500 and missed out on the playoffs entirely.
The Rockets flirted with 60 victories and actually reached the Western Conference Finals in 2014-15. But last season, Houston had to fight extremely hard just to earn the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Kevin McHale was fired early in the year and players clashed in the locker room throughout the duration of the season (including stars James Harden and Dwight Howard, per reports).
Finally, the Bucks made the playoffs in 2014-15 and were fully expected to do bigger things after signing free-agent big man Greg Monroe the following summer. However, Milwaukee finished 16 games under .500 last season and failed to reach the playoffs – struggling to find any sort of consistency throughout the campaign.
These three teams are prime examples of why you shouldn’t put too much stock into preseason hype and rankings. Heading into this season, there are three teams that fit similar circumstances. Will they be able to take the next step or will they crumble under the heightened expectations like the previous examples? Here are the teams:
2014-15 record: 40-42
2015-16 record: 48-34
The Celtics had plenty of draft picks and cap room this summer. The team’s mission was to add a dynamic piece that could push them over the hump and get them back into title contention. While Boston was unable to leverage any of their draft picks into a mega deal (despite Danny Ainge’s best efforts), they still came away with quality talent.
In free agency, the team was unable to sign superstar forward Kevin Durant. However, Boston was able to lure four-time All-Star center Al Horford away from the Atlanta Hawks. The presence of Horford has now pushed many to believe the Celtics have become a legitimate threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ supremacy in the East.
But is this an accurate assessment?
The Celtics lost to the (Horford-led) Hawks in the first round this past season, and also finished with an identical record as Atlanta. Common sense says adding Horford to a 48-win team should push them into the mid-50 range next season. But the team the Celtics are trying to be dethrone in the East swept Horford and the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Easily. Horford was largely ineffective in the series versus Cleveland and even dating back to the Eastern Conference Finals of 2015, the Cavaliers have routinely found a way to bottle up the veteran center.
Boston should be headed to more wins, in theory, but the team also lost two role players in Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger who combined to average 20 points and nine rebounds per night. Horford is a dynamic, All-Star level talent, but his presence alone has not been able to put a dent into Cleveland’s recent dominance in the East. Will a change of scenery do the trick for Horford or is the early optimism for title contention unfounded? Time will tell.
2014-15 record: 16-66
2015-16 record: 29-53
When it comes to a young core with upside, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team in a better position than Minnesota. The Timberwolves have two former No. 1 overall picks in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins who are barely scratching the surface of their potential. Minnesota was also able to scoop up one of the favorites to win the 2016 Rookie of the Year award in Kris Dunn during June’s draft. Throw in promising players such as Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine and the hype train has arrived to Minnesota’s Central Station.
But are the young Wolves ready to take a significant jump in the Western Conference hierarchy?
The team won only 16 games in 2015, but improved to 29 victories last season. There are some around the league who believe Minnesota could flirt with playoff contention this year, which would mean around 42 to 44 victories. The team has hired a strong, proven head coach in Tom Thibodeau and they possess the talent to give opposing teams fits night after night. However, another 13-victory leap is a lot to ask from such a young club. The Wolves will improve, but playoff expectations are likely a bit much for this squad in 2016-17. Make no mistake though, the long-term outlook for Minnesota looks fantastic.
Portland Trail Blazers
2014-15 record: 51-31
2015-16 record: 44-38
The Blazers won 51 games in 2014-15 and regressed to 44 last season. But what made last season so special for Portland was the fact that they managed to play at such a high level immediately after losing four veteran starters in LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews (and sixth man Arron Afflalo) during the previous summer. It also marked the first year in which Damian Lillard was the unquestionable leader in town and he delivered the goods. C.J. McCollum stepped up into the sidekick role too, averaging over 20 points per game and taking home Most Improved Player honors. Portland even managed to win a first-round playoff series, advancing past the Los Angeles Clippers before falling to the Golden State Warriors.
This summer, the Blazers opened up their wallet to invest in free agents such as Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli while also re-signing their own internal talent such as Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe and Moe Harkless to big deals.
Portland is serious about joining the upper echelon of the Western Conference, but how will this team perform with the cloak of anonymity now removed? Going forward, the Blazers will get every team’s toughest shot since they have shed the fun underdog label and are now viewed as a legitimate threat.
From everything we’ve seen to this point, Lillard is a monster and isn’t going to slow down. McCollum is extremely talented as well and his results don’t appear fluky in nature either. There is plenty of talent to go around in Portland, but is it realistic to expect them to be one of the league’s better units this coming season? We shall soon find out.
NBA Daily: Clippers Looking Forward to Teodosic Return
Clippers hanging on and looking forward to Teodosic return, writes James Blancarte.
The Los Angeles Clippers have had a season of twists and turns. While the season is still young, they’ve dealt with setbacks, mostly in the form of a multitude of injures. In fact, the team’s misfortunes began almost immediately. On Oct 21 (the NBA season started earlier this year), Clippers guard Milos Teodosic went down with a plantar fascia injury. This stands as the first bump in the road for the Clippers, who have seen a number of key players go down.
Following the loss of Chris Paul this past offseason, the Clippers appeared to have salvaged their immediate future through a number of offseason transactions. Under the direction of the front office, which includes Lawrence Frank, VP of Basketball Operations, and Jerry West, a Clippers consultant, the Clippers traded Paul, which helped to remake the roster. West spoke of his approval of the Paul trade before the season started.
“The Clippers feel comfortable that we made out really well. We could have lost him for nothing,” West stated of the Paul trade. “I think it was kind of a win myself.”
The Paul trade brought in Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and helped to eventually bring in Danilo Gallinari. A big part of the offseason makeover was the acquisition of European star Teodosic. Losing Paul meant that the Clippers were going to be without a highly talented, pass-first point guard for the first time since Paul’s acquisition during the 2011-2012 season.
Part of the strategy called for replacing Paul with both Beverley, who could match Paul’s defensive tenacity, and Teodosic, who could match Paul’s vision and passing. While neither player could match Paul’s overall brilliance (and Paul has been brilliant this season for the Rockets), the team hoped to create a winning environment around these two players.
Unfortunately, Teodosic went down quickly. Then Beverley experienced issues with his knee, culminating with season-ending microfracture surgery on his knee in late November. Combine this with Gallinari missing nearly a month with injuries and Blake Griffin going down for the next few months with an MCL sprain of his left knee recently, and the Clippers have struggled to stay competitive with lineups that have often included only one of the team’s opening day starters (center DeAndre Jordan). The franchise shouldn’t be completely surprised by the rash of injuries, as their offseason plan banked on players with questionable injury histories such as Griffin and Gallinari.
To fill in, the Clippers have also made use of a number of young, inexperienced players (not at all common in the Doc Rivers era), including playing 2017 second round pick, guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell has benefited from the opportunity as is averaging 16.2 minutes a game and has even started in seven games (of 24 played). Thornwell confirmed the obvious regarding injuries.
“We’ve been playing without a lot of our core guys,” Thornwell stated.
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers also made it clear that injuries have affected the team.
“It’s not just Blake [Griffin]. If it was just Blake, we’d be OK,” Rivers stated recently. “But you miss [Danillo] `Gallo,’ Milos [Teodosic], Patrick Beverley.”
Currently, the team is well below .500 with a 9-15 record, good enough for 11th in the Western Conference. And while the team is ahead of a number of teams destined for the NBA lottery such as the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, they aren’t too far removed from the eighth seed, currently held by the Utah Jazz, who are below .500 (13-14 record). It’s not reasonable for a team that has already suffered a nine-game losing streak and is only 4-6 in the last 10 games to expect another playoff berth, and the team has not yet signaled they have given up on the season.
The Clippers have stayed afloat by being extremely reliant on the individual offensive output of guards Austin Rivers and Lou Williams. Give Williams credit, as he has been brilliant recently including a game winning shot against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. Over the last 10 games, he is averaging 23.2 points on 62.7 true shooting percentage and 6.2 assists in 34.5 minutes per game, per nba.com. For reference, Williams has a career true shooting percentage average of 53.3 percent, per basketball-reference.com. However, this doesn’t scream long-term winning formula, nor should it — the team hasn’t recently had reliable offensive output outside of these guards who were originally expected to come off the bench for the Clippers.
Gallinari has since returned and played well in his second game back, an overtime win against the Wizards. Now the team has upgraded Teodosic’s condition to questionable and are hopeful that Teodosic makes his return Monday night against the Raptors.
“He’s ready. He’s close,” Rivers stated, speaking of Teodosic at a recent Clippers practice. “And that will help. In a big way.”
In addition to possibly helping their increasingly remote chances at making the playoffs, the Clippers have other goals. Teodosic is signed to a two-year deal, but the second-year is a player option allowing the European guard to leave after the season. Should Teodosic find that the Clippers are somehow not a good fit or a place where he can find success, he may opt out of the second year. If the team wants to ensure that the 30-year-old guard sees a bright future with the Clippers, they should hope that his return leads to the Clippers playing winning basketball.
Q&A With Cavaliers Rookie Cedi Osman
Basketball Insiders caught up with Cavaliers rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics.
Monday afternoon, Basketball Insiders caught up with rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics.
Basketball Insiders: Your first experience in the NBA, making the transition from international play and Euroleague—has it been what you’ve expected?
Cedi Osman: I mean of course it’s different rules and stuff and a different type of basketball. In international, it’s like more slow, but here it’s like always up and down, a lot of fast breaks.
Actually that’s the kind of basketball that I like. When I was playing overseas, I was also running a lot, up and down. I was that guy who was bringing the energy, so it was not hard for me to adjust to this basketball.
BI: With Euros in this league, it’s a growing amount. What does that tell you about the talent pool over there?
Osman: There’s a lot of talented players overseas—like really, a lot. Like you said, when you look around the NBA there’s a lot of European players. Starting with Dirk Nowitzki, he’s a big legend. He was the one who chose to do Europe [to show] what he can do. I can give you the example of two Turkish basketball players—Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, he won one championship. I mean, there’s a lot of European players.
BI: Definitely. So how well do you know Hedo and Mehmet?
Osman: With Mehmet Okur, I was talking a couple times. I saw him one time in summer league this year. I talk to Hedo also because he’s president of Turkish Basketball Federation, so I was talking to him also.
BI: You’ve gotten some crucial minutes with the bench in the last couple of games. The same thing can be said when you played in New York and against the Hawks, too. What’s allowed you and that group to click together?
Osman: I always try to think positive. When I’m getting there on the court with the second unit, I’m trying to bring the energy because I’m the youngest one with Big Z [Ante Zizic] together.
Whenever I get on the court I’m trying to bring the energy on both sides of the court—on defense and offense—and I’m trying to run the floor the fastest that I can. Trying to guard players that are really good. And that also just improves my basketball [skills] a lot. I’m really happy that I am a part of this team and it’s also really important for me that I’m getting these crucial minutes.
BI: In a recent interview, you said that you don’t have a reason to be scared. You’re “cold-blooded.” Why do you feel that way?
Osman: I was playing overseas professionally since I was 16 years old…actually, I started getting paid when I was 12. [I’ve been] playing professionally for a long time. I played with a lot of good players. I’ve played also [with] former NBA players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic who was on the same team.
I know, yeah this is the best league in the world, but I don’t have a reason why to be scared because I was working for this—to come here, to give my best and to be stable to stay for long, long years. That’s why I said I don’t have a reason to be scared, because I know that I can play here.
BI: When you’re on the floor, what do you expect out of yourself? You said you want to get up and down the floor and give it to both ends, but is there anything outside of that, maybe mentality wise?
Osman: Of course. Not just as a rookie, but every time I get on the court like I said, I want to be always that guy who brings the energy. Also like, when we’re going bad or when we have a bad game, I want to change the momentum of the game. That’s what I’m working for a lot. We have great players and I have a lot of things to learn from them.
That’s why I said I’m really happy to be a part of this team, because we’re one of the best teams in the world. I hope that we’re going to win a championship in my first year. That would be a big thing for me.
BI: What kind of things have the coaching staff tried to help you improve in practice?
Osman: There’s a couple defensive plays that’ll be different. There’s also defensive three seconds. That was a bit of adjusting for me because in Europe you can always stay in the paint no matter what. There’s no defensive three seconds. Here it’s different, so it was a little bit hard for me to adjust in the beginning, but now I don’t have any problems and coaches are really helping me a lot.
BI: This team isn’t fully healthy yet, obviously with Isaiah Thomas coming back, Tristan Thompson coming back and Iman Shumpert down the road. That might affect playing time for some. You’ve gone to the G-League and played with the Canton Charge once before. You had a lot of minutes in that one game and did a really good job there. Is that something that you’re prepared for? Would you mind playing there again if that’s the case for you?
Osman: I was the one who asked for Canton, to go there, because before Shump got injured I didn’t have a lot of playing time. I said that I want to play whenever we have an off day, whenever I can go to play there, to run a lot, to try to do my thing. See that I’m working here before practices. That’s why I asked to go there. I talked to [Cavaliers general manager] Koby [Altman] and he said he supported me about that and that would be good for me.
BI: You have your own hashtag—#TheFirstCedi—can you explain the inspiration behind that and what it means?
Osman: So I’m working with one agency in Turkey and they’re doing a really good job about myself, my profile, my brand (laughs). They’re doing a really good job. “The First Cedi” is because my first name is Cedi and a lot of people are calling me Jedi, so that’s from Star Wars. The First Cedi—because in Turkey, ‘C’ reads as a ‘J’ so Jedi. First Jedi, that’s why.
BI: That’s pretty funny. Are you a Star Wars fan?
Osman: Yeah. I watch. But because it’s like old movies and that kind of stuff, but now new movies are better.
BI: It’s a locker room full of veterans here in Cleveland. Do you feel comfortable with everyone?
Osman: Definitely. I feel really comfortable. We have—I don’t want to say veteran players—but they are so good and they are big, big professionals. I have a lot of fun with them—locker room, when we go on the road, team dinners and that kind of stuff. It’s pretty cool.
The thing is, like it’s my first appearance. Overseas I’m coming to America and I was thinking the adjustment would be a little bit hard for me, but it was actually the opposite. From the first day that I met those guys, they helped me a lot.
BI: Is there anyone that you’ve gotten especially close to? You mentioned Big Z earlier.
Osman: Me and Z are pretty close. We’re speaking the same language. We played in the same league in Turkey. But like, I’m close with everybody. With Channing [Frye], we are always talking about the games and that stuff.
BI: Playing with LeBron—can you put that into words?
Osman: Look, it’s…(pauses), it’s something crazy. Because I was playing a game—obviously 2K—before when I was younger, I was playing with him and that stuff. Of course, it was my dream to be an NBA player, to play in the NBA. But when you’re playing on the same team with [Derrick] Rose, LeBron James, [Dwyane] Wade, Kevin Love, [Isaiah Thomas], it’s crazy.
I didn’t imagine that I would play with those players. And then, I just realize when I’m playing with them, the only thing that I can do is just work a lot and learn from them.
BI: When you hear these guys talk about you in a good light and coach Lue gives you praise, how does that make you feel?
Osman: That’s something really incredible. I mean… from the first day, from the media day when LeBron was in a press conference, he talked about everybody. But he talked also about me and he knew about Euroleague and that kind of stuff, so I was really happy. I was really proud and I was really happy about it. From the first day, he was so close to me. Not just him, but everybody.
BI: What do you think people need to know about your personality? Is there anything that hasn’t been said?
Osman: Actually, nothing special (laughs). I’m the guy who always smiles and with a lot of energy, always being positive talking to everybody, making a lot of jokes, trying to be friendly with everyone and the most important—I’m trying to be a good character.
BI: Last one—based off of this conversation alone, you’ve picked up the English language so easily. Who’s helped you on that side of things?
Osman: I actually had a lot of American players overseas on my previous team—it was Jordan Farmar, Jamon Gordon, Derrick Brown, he also played here, there was Bryant Dunston, Jayson Granger. I played a lot with Dario Saric, too, Furkan Korkmaz. Those were guys that were always talking English.
Just talking to them all the time. When they talked, I would just listen to them. I wasn’t listening to what they talked [about], but just for what kind of words they were using and what kind of sentences, the way they were talking. That’s how I learned English.
James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture
James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.
James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.
“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”
Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).
Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.
“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”
After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?
“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”
Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.
“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”
While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.
Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?
“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”
Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.
“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.
Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.