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.
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