NBA Season Preview Series – Part 14

As we mentioned in Part 1 of this series, we will be previewing the NBA season by ranking the clubs in reverse order and revealing those clubs two at a time. Here’s what those rankings look like at this point:
30. Atlanta Hawks
29. Sacramento Kings
28. Orlando Magic
27. Phoenix Suns
26. Chicago Bulls
25. New York Knicks
24. Brooklyn Nets
23. Charlotte Hornets
22. Memphis Grizzlies
21. Dallas Mavericks
20. Cleveland Cavaliers
19. Los Angeles Clippers
18. Detroit Pistons
17. Miami Heat
16. Washington Wizards
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
14. Portland Trail Blazers
13. San Antonio Spurs
12. Denver Nuggets
11. Milwaukee Bucks
10. Indiana Pacers
9. New Orleans Pelicans
8. Los Angeles Lakers
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
6. Utah Jazz
5. Toronto Raptors

Here are the next two clubs:

4. Philadelphia 76ers

Last Season: 52-30 (0.634) (3rd in Atlantic Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference)
Head Coach: Brett Brown (6th season with team, 127-283 team; 127-283 overall)
Major Off-season Acquisitions: Zhaire Smith (16th pick), Landry Shamet (26th pick), Wilson Chandler (trade with Denver), Mike Muscala (trade with Hawks)
Major Off-season Departures: Justin Anderson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Bellinelli, James Michael McAdoo
Salary Cap Info: $104.2 million ($2.4M over cap, $19.5M luxury tax room)
Narrative: One question with the 76ers is how many games Joel Embiid is going to play this season. He played in 63 regular season games last season, plus eight more in the playoffs. He also missed the last eight games of the season (and the first two games in the playoffs) with yet another injury. While this was double his output from the previous season (31 games), it’s still not a full season of action, and the 76ers bench behind him is a bit thinner with the departure of Ersan Ilyasova. Embiid has shown that he is an elite big man on both sides of the floor, but he has to be on the floor and show some consistently before he is mentioned in the same breath as Anthony Davis as a dominant two-way big man. Will this be the season that he finally makes this leap?
Another question is what last season’s #1 overall pick will give them. Markelle Fultz was largely absent from the team for most of the season – he came back to play in 14 games down the stretch (and 3 in the playoffs), but he is expected to have a much larger role this season and beyond. Will he be able to become part of a Philadelphia “Big Three” with Embiid and Ben Simmons? Or will he remain another project that never fully reaches his potential in Philly like Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel? We’ve been told to #TrustTheProcess for most of the past decade. It’s time for the Process to pay off with real success in the playoffs.

3. Houston Rockets

Last Season: 65-17 (0.793) (1st in Southwest Division, 1st in Western Conference)
Head Coach: Mike D’Antoni (3rd season with team, 120-44 team; 575-470 overall)
Major Off-season Acquisitions: Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss (trade with Suns), Michael Carter-Williams, (The Corpse of) Carmelo Anthony
Major Off-season Departures: Ryan Anderson (trade with Suns), Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute
Salary Cap Info: $134.5 million ($32.6M over cap, $11.4M over luxury tax)
Narrative: The Rockets led the league in wins last season, which led to the first MVP season for James Harden. They even pushed the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals, and probably could have even come out on top if Chris Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute hadn’t been hurt, or they hadn’t missed about 5,000 shots in a row during Game 7. It was a disappointing result, and with the Warriors retaining most of their core, it may have been the Rockets’ best chance to find their way back to the Finals for the first time since they won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.
Instead, they may already be entering their post-peak era. Sure, they resigned Chris Paul to a mega extension, but his days of being able to play more than 80 games in a season (including playoffs) may be behind him. They lost two defensive wings during the offseason, which robs them of their ability to match up well with the switch everything Warriors (and other teams in the league). And their big move was to bring in a bought-out Carmelo Anthony, who looked like he was washed last season with the Thunder and still seems reluctant to come off the bench.
Can the Rockets clinch the first seed again? Probably not, unless things click with Carmelo around and the Warriors decide to take the regular season off again like they did last season. But a lot of teams out West hope to be better, either because of the addition of the best player in the game or a return to health from their defensive anchor. The Rockets will make the playoffs, but they may be hard-pressed to repeat their performance of last season, which will leave them questioning “What if…?” while they pay Chris Paul $44M in his age 36 season in four years.
Until next time… 
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