HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Of all the lists your team could make here at the hideout, this is the one you don’t want to see them on.
Making the top five or bottom five is at least a definitive indicator of where you teams fits in the NBA’s bigger picture. But when you make HT’s Danger Zone List, the only thing we know for sure is that we’re not sure exactly where your team fits this season.
They might have the pieces to be special.
But what if the pieces don’t fit together?
And again, it’s not about the teams that won’t make the playoffs this season (you know who you are) or the teams that might be headed for a cliff. It’s about the teams that remain a mystery to us with the start of training camps around the league just a few days away.
It’s that sort of uncertainty that led our crack research staff to these five teams …
ATLANTA HAWKS, 40-26 last season
Why they are here: Hawks general manager Danny Ferry took all of about a week (eight days actually) to start taking things apart in Atlanta, on and off the court. He sent Joe Johnson packing. Marvin Williams, too. Now the organization is betting on Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague being the backbone of a team capable of chasing a top four spot in the Eastern Conference. There’s every reason to believe that’s a possibility, especially with new faces like Lou Williams, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver and Devin Harris. No one is disputing the fact that Ferry has reset the Hawks’ salary structure in a way that they’ll be quick on their feet in free agency come the summer of 2013, where Smith and several other big names could be in play. But who will carry the load Johnson did for the franchise? You might not have liked his contract, but there is no disputing the fact that the Hawks’ rise coincided with the six-time All-Star’s arrival. Smith and Horford are already prime time players. And Teague is headed that way. The Williams swap puts another mark in the Hawks’ favor. But we have a nagging feeling these guys are going to miss Johnson more than they know.
Bottom line: Hawks are a playoff team and should be a serious player in the free-agent/trade market next summer, but the top four looks like a stretch.
CHICAGO BULLS, 50-16 last season
Why they are here: When your entire team eats off of the table Derrick Rose sets and Rose’s return from ACL surgery is still up in the air, there’s no question you need to be ready to take a step back. The Bulls have been like teflon the past two seasons no matter what adversity they had to deal with. But an injury this serious to a player of Rose’s stature is cause for a complete examination of what the Bulls are capable of this season. Coach Tom Thibodeau is going to have his team ready to play. But they would appear to be slipping out of that top-two-in-the-East realm and heading to the back of the pack a bit. They went 18-9 without Rose last season. But that was when there was every expectation that a healthy Rose would show up for the playoffs, don his cape and carry them to at least the conference finals. Now they’re just hoping to see a fully healthy Rose at some point this season. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer all have to step up in a major way.
Bottom line: Honesty it the best policy here. There’s no guarantee these Bulls make the playoffs with all that they’re dealing with.
DENVER NUGGETS, 38-28 last season
Why they are here: The Nuggets are here because they always seem to start training camp as a bit of a mystery. Do they have enough to challenge the top squads in the West? Is this the year they turn the corner? Those questions remain for a team that gave a good showing of itself in the playoffs last season, but without an identifiable superstar anchor to lead them … the Nuggets haven’t elevated themselves in a crowded race for one of the top four spots. The addition of Andre Iguodala is a quality move. He proved last year that he can be an integral piece to playoff puzzle for an up and coming team in Philadelphia. There is a solid returning core with Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov leading the way. But when the Lakers retool the way they did and the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Grizzlies all return ahead of you, room to move up is hard to find. That said, coach George Karl is a master at maximizing the talents of guys that have struggled to do so elsewhere. And Masai Ujiri has quickly established himself as one of the sharpest young general managers in the league. So there’s definitely the possibility for another in-season move to bolster the Nuggets playoff fortunes.
Bottom line: This is definitely a playoff team. How deep they play into the playoffs is the bigger question and the one we still don’t have a concrete answer to … yet.
ORLANDO MAGIC, 37-29 last season
Why they are here: The easy explanation for the Magic popping up on this list is that both Dwight Howard and coach Stan Van Gundy have exited the premises. Ryan Anderson is gone, too. But a closer examination of the Magic roster reveals a battery of solid players for first-year coach Jacque Vaughn to work with as the franchise picks up the pieces after losing another superstar big man to the Lakers. Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, Al Harrington, Arron Afflalo, Quentin Richardson, J.J. Redick, Gustavo Ayon and Josh McRoberts won’t be making anyone’s All-Star team anytime soon. But they’ve all played enough quality NBA basketball to give Magic fans a glimmer of hope that this season won’t be a complete washout without Howard. The playoffs were a given when the Magic had the league’s premier low-post presence patrolling the middle for them. Now their most glaring deficiency is, of course, the gaping hole Howard called home. The Magic have a lot riding on Vaughn and his making a smooth transition from assistant coach to head man in charge. If this group responds, there is a the potential to shock a few people. If not …
Bottom line: Logic tells us to cover our eyes watching the Magic this season. But recent history says teams in Orlando’s spot have basically a 50-50 chance of remaining competitive (Denver sans Carmelo Anthony and Utah sans Deron Williams vs. Cleveland sans LeBron James and New Orleans sans Chris Paul) when a superstar bolts.
UTAH JAZZ, 36-30 last season
Why they are here: The Jazz lacked a backcourt presence last season and responded by snagging one of HT’s all-time favorite players in Mo Williams. But it remains to be seen if he’s the player they need to establish a tone for a group that, while loaded in the frontcourt with lunch pail types likes Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and future studs Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, still seeks an overall identity. Being good enough to scrap your way into the West’s eighth playoff spot is an accomplishment worthy of respect. Taking the next step, however, is even more difficult. And with the teams you beat out for that spot (Houston, Phoenix and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota) all aiming to take your place, the Jazz need significant improvement or risk falling back to the pack of lottery-bound teams. The other Williams (Marvin) could help change our minds if he takes to his new environment sooner rather than later. Hampered by years by expectations in Atlanta, freedom from that weight might allow him to show off the skills that made him the No. 2 pick in the 2005 Draft. Gordon Hayward has shown signs that he’s ready to assume a bigger role as well.
Bottom line: Ty Corbin has done a fantastic job taking over for Jerry Sloan, but he’ll have to do his best job yet this season, what with the lottery pack hard after the Jazz for that No. 8 seed. This is a team planted firmly in the Danger Zone!