This Monday through Friday, I’m going to give my season predictions in a countdown from worst to first. The format will be three teams per post, one post in the morning and one in the afternoon. Whichever team you’re a fan of, there’s a good chance you’ll feel like I’m disrespecting them. I understand this, and I promise you I won’t take your insults personally.
21. Utah Jazz
There is a decent possibility I am severely underestimating this team. Sure, their 8-21 finish to last season didn’t inspire a lot of confidence regarding the immediate future of the Jazz, but there are a few things I like about the Jazz. They have a deep frontcourt, including third overall pick Enes Kanter, sophomore small forward Gordon Hayward raised some eyebrows with his late-season scoring exploits, and Mehmet Okur’s return after playing just 17 games last season will definitely improve their outside shooting.
But the one player to keep an eye on in Utah this season is second-year power forward Derrick Favors. If head coach Tyrone Corbin can find minutes for him, he could have a significant impact on improving the team’s 23rd-ranked defensive efficiency from last season. Now that Deron Williams is gone, Favors will soon be considered the face of this franchise. Comparisons to Karl Malone will be inevitable, and unfair. But with some added offensive polish, I see All-Star appearances in Favors’ future.
20. Milwaukee Bucks
Scott Skiles is a very good and very intense coach. He tends to get immediate results when he takes over a new team, particularly on the defensive end. He also tends to have a limited shelf life, as his act wore thin with his players after 195 games in Phoenix and after 337 games in Chicago. After three full seasons as the Bucks’ coach, the defensive effort is still there — they finished fourth in defensive efficiency last season.
Unfortunately, the Bucks also had the worst offense in the NBA last season. Drafting Jimmer Fredette 10th overall in the 2011 draft could have provided a much-needed boost in that department, but the Bucks immediately flipped that pick along with Corey “Bad Porn” Maggette and John Salmons in a three-team trade that netted them Stephen Jackson, Beno Udrih, Shaun Livingston and Tobias Harris. Unfortunately, Jackson has yet to report to camp due to “back issues” that might actually be related to his dissatisfaction with not being offered a contract extension.
I expect the Bucks to continue to play hard-nosed defense, because Skiles won’t have it any other way. Offensively, I don’t see much opportunity for improvement — signing Mike Dunleavy Jr. isn’t going to help much. If Brandon Jennings continues to be the Bucks’ primary scorer with a sub-40 percent shooting percentage, they’re not going to score in triple digits often enough to contend.
19. Houston Rockets
I’ve been a fan of Rockets GM Daryl Morey ever since he took the job in May 2007. He’s a progressive thinker who is at the forefront of advanced statistical analysis in basketball. Bill Simmons calls him “Dork Elvis” and considering my nerdy tendencies, it’s not surprising that I’m an admirer. However, after a 43-win season in 2009-10 followed by 42 wins last season, it’s impossible to ignore the treadmill that the Rockets appear to be on.
To Morey’s credit, he tried to make some bold moves this off-season — including trying to sign Nenê and taking part in the three-team Chris Paul trade that David Stern squashed — but the Rockets enter 2011-12 with basically the same mediocre roster they had last season. The good news is that they are under the cap and they could use that flexibility to make a creative trade that takes on another team’s unwanted salary. They could do that, but is there really a point?
Assuming that Morey has a reasonable sense of job security, he might be better suited trying to clear even more cap space this season to try to make room for a premium free agent in 2012. They do have some nice pieces in Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry, but those are all secondary contributors on a contending team. Morey surely knows this, and so he will wait for the right opportunity to make his move. I still have faith in him, and so should Rockets fans.