NBA franchises do their absolute best to mitigate the time between bottoming out and contending for championships. Regression can be initiated intentionally as an orchestrated rebuild or can result from injuries. It can also stem from something as simple as aging, coaching or team chemistry issues. Regardless, success is fleeting. And while progress is expected by lots of NBA players and teams, teams and players rarely have the foresight to anticipate a decline in production. Much attention is paid to ascending teams, but let’s instead examine candidates who might regress from their respective 2017-18 campaigns:
Reason: Standing pat is rarely good for business, but the Miami HEAT did just that. The HEAT entered the 2018 Playoffs as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, a presumably safe spot given the fact that they will return the exact same team this season.
But the lack of moves made by Miami can be a problem for the team when you consider the improvements made by teams below the HEAT in the Eastern Conference in 2017-18.
Leading the charge of teams looking to replace the HEAT in the 2019 Playoffs is the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons are optimistic about its first full season with Blake Griffin. Additionally, the Pistons added two savvy veterans – Jose Calderon and Zaza Pachulia – and took a flier on a talented young wing in Glenn Robinson III. The team’s only departing players are Anthony Tolliver, Dwight Buycks and Eric Moreland – none of whom projected to be major contributors given their PERs in 2017-18 (13.9, 12.8, 14.0, respectively).
And the Pistons finished only five games behind the HEAT in the standings last season. Interestingly, Griffin’s cumulative win share in 2017-18 was 4.9, and his average win share throughout his career prior to last season is 7.7. Are Griffin and the other new Pistons enough to close that gap?
But it’s not just the Pistons hoping to overtake the HEAT. The Milwaukee Bucks finished the 2017-18 season tied with the HEAT, posting a 44-38 record. And unlike the HEAT, Milwaukee infused its roster with a good amount of talent with the likes of Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and dynamic rookie Donte DiVincenzo. Meanwhile, the Bucks only shed oft-injured Jabari Parker and Brandon Jennings. Additionally, the simple fact that Giannis Antetokounmpo is only 23 years old and should continue to improve likely provides the Bucks with enough upside to overtake the HEAT on its own.
The Washington Wizards are another team that made minor improvements to a roster that finished only one game behind the HEAT in the standings. The team added Jeff Green, Dwight Howard, Austin Rivers and others; and only removed Marcin Gortat and Mike Scott. Provided, advanced analytics has its flaws and adding three players to a rotation that’s only losing two is not entirely realistic; however, those transactions alone adds 8.1 in total win share, which should easily catapult them past the HEAT in 2018-19. And that doesn’t even take into consideration any production Washington’s less impactful additions might have, like its 2018 first round pick – Troy Brown.
If all three of those teams improve as much as their rosters changes indicate, the HEAT could fall outside the Eastern Conference Playoffs in 2019.
Runner Up: New Orleans
Reason: Departure of two core players – DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo
Disclaimer – DeMar DeRozan is a very good player who will eventually find his rhythm with the San Antonio Spurs. DeRozan is a nine-year veteran boasting a career scoring average of 19.7 points per game on .448 percent from the field. He ranked sixteenth in the NBA in PER with a 24.0 in 2017-18. So why pick on DeRozan? Circumstance. DeRozan will play his first professional game in a Spurs uniform on October 17 when the Spurs host the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Spurs are traditionally viewed as an organization that gets the most out of its players, but the Spurs officially began a rebuild this offseason.
Coach Gregg Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford are still in charge. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder from last season, LaMarcus Aldridge, is also still in tow. But Tony Parker chased a final pay day with the Charlotte Hornets and Manu Ginobili retired, thus marking the official end of an era that began at the 1997 NBA Draft with the selection of Tim Duncan. Further, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to Toronto in the deal that landed DeRozan in San Antonio.
The Spurs team still features a good amount of talent and if any Western Conference team is set to overachieve, it’s the one being coached by Popovich. But gone are the days when the Playoffs were a lock. DeRozan has never been a strong three-point shooter himself; however, he has been surrounded by above average shooters in recent years, giving him more leeway to operate in the mid-range and around the rim. That luxury might be a thing of the past.
The 2017-18 league-wide average on three-point shots was .362. There are only two players on the Spurs active roster who shot above the league average last season – Marco Belinelli (.377) and Patty Mills (.371). Conversely, DeRozan’s former team boasted six such players last season, five of whom shot above .400. Therefore, opposing teams will more readily collapse on DeRozan when he makes a move toward the rim or while operating in the mid-post, where a majority of his points are generated, thus making it harder on DeRozan to maintain his efficiency.
Additionally, DeRozan has played the past six seasons with his friend and fellow star Kyle Lowry. The two blossomed together as players, developing an undeniable chemistry on and off the court. DeRozan took the news particularly hard, voicing displeasure with the organization immediately via social media.
Beyond their chemistry, Lowry’s presence was instrumental to DeRozan’s success by virtue of his talent. Lowry is an exceptional point guard, widely regarded as a top-10 floor general in the league. He is a fierce competitor and a vocal leader. Further, he averaged at least 6.4 assists per game over the course of the last six seasons, many of which led to DeRozan buckets. He took pressure off DeRozan as well, as he has been the team’s second scoring option with a 17.8 point per game scoring average over the last six years. He will be a difficult teammate to replace for DeRozan, whose game is well-rounded, but not necessarily dynamic enough to create for himself and others consistently. However, with a little more talent added to the Spurs roster next offseason and the added benefit of a full season playing for Popovich under his belt, DeRozan should bounce back in 2019-20.
Runner-Up: Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Reason: Overcrowding in the front court
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