The Sleeper Team In The East
There is little doubt that the landscape of the Eastern Conference has changed. The Boston Celtics got better. The Toronto Raptors re-signed their impressive core. The Washington Wizards added pieces to their bench and the Cleveland Cavaliers still have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
The question facing the Eastern Conference is with so much shifting of talent to the Western Conference, is there a team that could enter the 2017-18 NBA season as a Sleeper team to not only challenge in the East, but maybe be a dark horse to sneaking into the Conference Finals, much like Boston did a year ago?
In what will be a weekly Thursday feature, we asked three of our Basketball Insiders to weigh in on this idea, and give us their “Sleeper Team That Could Challenge the East”
The Philadelphia 76ers
On paper, the Philadelphia 76ers roster is impressive. The obvious, important caveat here is that the Sixers need their key players to stay healthy, but this team boasts intriguing upside if they can keep their core on the floor.
After tallying just ten wins in 2015-16, Philly won 28 games last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that 18-win improvement from season-to-season was the second-highest in franchise history. The key to the Sixers solid start early in the 2016-17 campaign was Joel Embiid. After missing two years due to a variety of injuries, Embiid finally stepped on the floor and immediately made a strong impression.
Embiid only appeared in 31 games, but was extremely productive when he was on the court. Despite playing just 25.4 minutes a night, Embiid averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 three-pointers and 2.5 blocks per game. In the process, he became just the second player in NBA history to average more than 20 points while playing fewer than 26 minutes. (The other player in this exclusive club is Michael Jordan, who averaged 22.7 ppg in 25.1 mpg during his injury shortened season in 1985-86.)
However, Embiid wasn’t the only rookie to exceed expectations last season. Dario Saric led all first-year players in points, field goals and rebounds. He was second in free throws, third in three-pointers, fourth in steals and seventh in assists. In addition, Robert Covington established himself as an elite 3-and-D wing, contributing significantly across the board. RoCo averaged two three-pointers, 1.9 steals and one block per game. Paul Pierce, back in 2001-02, is the only other player to match those numbers in those categories over the course of a full season.
This summer, Philly added a couple of important pieces to the puzzle. First, they traded up in the draft to select Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick. Fultz is widely regarded as a blue-chip prospect and one of the more promising point guards to enter the league over the last few years. After posting incredible numbers during his lone season at the University of Washington, he is ready to contribute right away.
The Sixers then made a splash in free agency. Needing to improve their outside shooting and add a solid veteran presence in the locker room, Philly killed two birds with one stone by signing J.J. Redick to a one-year deal. Redick has established himself as one of the NBA’s more reliable long-range marksman. He is one of only three players to have averaged at least 2.5 made three-pointers per game while shooting over 40 percent from behind-the-arc in each of the last three seasons (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the other two).
The Sixers will also anticipate getting Ben Simmons back on the court. Simmons was the top overall selection in the 2016 draft, but missed last year due to a foot injury. Like Embiid, the biggest question mark surrounding Simmons is his health. His remarkably versatile skill set has Sixers fans very excited. Both Simmons and Fultz will enter the season as two of the favorites to take home this season’s Rookie of the Year award.
With Embiid, Saric, Simmons, Redick, Fultz and Covington as the first six players in the rotation, Sixer fans have reason to be optimistic. Philadelphia’s bench is impressive as well. Jerryd Bayless and T.J. McConnell will provide depth at point guard. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Nik Stauskas will backup Redick at shooting guard. Justin Anderson and newly added Amir Johnson can be shuffled in at both forward spots. Richaun Holmes and Jahlil Okafor will provide solid minutes off the bench at center and serve as insurance should Embiid go down.
The Sixers are coming, and may arrive sooner than expected.
– Tommy Beer
The Milwaukee Bucks
Outside the East’s consensus top four of Cleveland, Boston, Toronto and Washington, the team with the most intrigue on the court next season might reside in Wisconsin. The Bucks have a budding superstar, a strong supporting cast and the kind of roster makeup to cause some issues for teams ostensibly above them in the conference pecking order.
It all starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo, last year’s Most Improved Player and a franchise-defining star. Set to turn 23 midseason next year, does Antetokounmpo have yet another leap in him? Opponents had better hope not, particularly if the improvement comes as a distance shooter – his one legitimate weakness to this point.
Even if we only expect roughly the same star-level performance from Giannis moving forward, there are other causes for optimism. Health is one: Khris Middleton missed most of last season and was never entirely himself upon his return, though he had his moments. Even a recovering Middleton was enough to lift the Bucks to a strong per-possession rating while he was on the floor, though, and he’ll be full throttle from the jump this season.
Jabari Parker also missed significant time last year, and that will continue into 2018. Bucks coach Jason Kidd recently placed a February target on his return, though expecting the same player after two serious injuries to the same ACL would be unwise. A look at team impact figures over the last couple years, though, reveals that Middleton was a larger influence on team success than Parker by a wide margin.
Outside the team’s top names, the Bucks are running a lot of the same program back next season. They got Tony Snell back for a fair deal after a solid season, and they’ll hope Greg Monroe can continue in a positive role he carved coming off the bench last year. No one is quite sure what Thon Maker will be able to do next year, but little would shock anyone at this point.
If they can get a little improvement from guys like Malcolm Brogdon and John Henson, plus continued depth contributions from Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic, this is a deep Bucks team that could rack up regular season wins over a weakened East. Come playoff time, Giannis and Middleton alone form a tough duo – throw a recovering Parker into the mix, and you might have a team that could make some noise.
– Ben Dowsett
The Charlotte Hornets
This was not an easy pick. I looked long and hard at the Miami HEAT and the Detroit Pistons, but in both cases I kept asking myself are either really better teams today?
In the end, I settled on the Charlotte Hornets for a couple of reasons. The biggest being Kemba Walker. As we saw last season, Walker is as a good as any guard in the East and may be headed towards an All-Star nod if he takes another step forward.
Injuries were another factor — last year Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist never seemed to get completely right.
Kidd-Gilchrist has endured several seasons of injuries and started last season with a back issue. He did end up playing more games than we’ve seen in a while, but his timing and rhythm never seemed quite right. Kidd-Gilchrist entered this off-season without needing to rehab for the first time in a long-time and could be poised for a breakout season.
Batum had a tough season himself last year dealing with a knee issue, ankle issue and freaky migraines that derailed his season. Fresh off a huge payday, the Hornets were hoping for a franchise season and got anything but from Batum. He was not terrible when he played, but he certainly didn’t change the season as some expected or at least hoped for.
Assuming both Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist bounce back and can stay healthy, along with the addition of Malik Monk in the draft, the Hornets should be markedly better. Additionally, the pre-draft trade for Dwight Howard should give the Hornets more production in the front court.
The Hornets have a loaded roster, they just have to live up to expectations. If they do, they might have the talent to really challenge in an sneaky and unexpected way.
– Steve Kyler
Every Thursday we’ll ask three of our guys to chime in on a common subject. If there is something you would like to see us address. Drop it to us on Twitter at @BBallInsiders using the hashtag #ConversationThursday.
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