Thursday, October 30, 2014

Top 30 players in the NBA, 2015 edition, Part II

Heavy in point guards and centers…part II of the three part series for best players in the NBA is here! (You can view Part I here.) Players 11-20:

20. Tony Parker

If it weren’t for Big Al, Tony Parker would be the most underrated players in the league. A 12-year NBA veteran and four-time NBA champion, Parker rarely gets the respect he deserves prior to being crowned a champion. The other aspect is that with Gregg Popovich as coach, it’s difficult to truly judge an individual player’s value within a team system that runs so smoothly. Duncan didn’t make my top-30 simply because his minutes will continue to drop, but that’s no knock against the 38-year-old future Hall of Famer.

19. Damian Lillard

Not-so-quietly becoming one of the league’s most dependable clutch scorers, the Oakland native burst onto the NBA scene in 2012. With a Rookie of the Year award, NBA All-Star vote, and playoff appearance already under his belt, Lillard still has untapped potential. His incredible Game 1 in the first round of the 2014 playoffs against Houston was the first time a player went for 30+ points and only one turnover in their playoff debut. He finished that series with a game-winning buzzer beater. Lillard’s only problem is that the point guard position is stacked with more All-NBA talent.

18. Joakim Noah

The face of the Chicago Bulls in Derrick Rose’s time on the sideline over the past few years, Noah’s fiery personality has instilled a ferocity within the Bulls’ defense. Jonathan Abrams wrote a feature on this heart of Chicago a couple weeks ago that illuminated the started-from-the-bottom-now-we-here story behind Noah. The 2014 Defensive Player of the Year is quietly one of the best passing bigs in the game. His assist numbers have increased every single year he’s been in the league (starting in 2007-08): 1.1, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2, 2.5, 4.0, 5.4.

17. Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk’s Mavs competed with the eventual 2014 champion San Antonio Spurs better than LeBron James’ Miami Heat did. That says a lot about the leadership and one-legged fade-aways from the 36-year-old German. While his defense has always been rather comical (a recent example), every shot chart of Dirk is video-game like. That shot won’t go away this year, and with Tyson Chandler on board, some people see the Mavs entering the fray with the likes of the Warriors and Rockets in the teams knocking on the door of the West’s elite.

16. Rajon Rondo

This was probably the toughest decision in terms of ranking because like Derrick Rose, Rondo’s injury history leaves something of a question mark in his 2014-15 capabilities. However, if opening night for the Celtics and a rout of the Nets was any indication—with the usual near-triple-double numbers from Rondo—there’s no reason he has left the discussion for top NBA point guards. Now, whether or not he stays with the C’s remains to be seen…

15. DeMarcus Cousins

23-12-3 in 2013-14 and you probably didn’t even know it. Cousins may be in the running with Lance Stephenson for the Ron Pandaworld Peace Crazy Man award, but he boogies down low. One of the best offensive centers in the NBA, Boogie Cousins will make a very strong case to earn his first All-Star appearance. If the Sacramento Kings can make a push for Rajon Rondo, you might be looking at a second playoff threat in Northern California.

14. Marc Gasol

Marc and his brother, Pau, were heavily hyped prior to the 2014 FIBA World Cup as a legitimate threat to dethrone the United States. They didn’t even make the Final. Despite an impressive start, Marc did not impress in Spain’s matchup with France, going 1-of-7 from the field and grabbing four rebounds and no assists. Memphis can never seem to make that jump come playoffs, but Gasol’s value as an all-around big (offense, defense, leadership) puts him firmly in the top-15 NBA players of 2015.

13. Dwight Howard

Howard’s numbers have definitely cooled off since his 21-13-2 and two blocks days as a member of the Orlando Magic. The whole Los Angeles fiasco made one of the most likable players in the NBA suddenly become hated by the league’s largest fanbase. His free-throw shooting hovers around 50 percent, so D12 leaves much to be desired in terms of a polished offense. But defensively, he is still as good as it gets. Paired with the player one spot ahead of him, Howard is a post-game away from being a true franchise player…and still only 28 years old.

12. James Harden

He told us this off-season that he’s going to spend more time focusing on his defense. Those YouTube montages with him almost literally falling asleep on defense were awful. He can’t be considered a top-10 player with such an anemic defensive ability. Maybe he shows us something different this year but I need to see it to believe it. His offensive skill-set, however, is top-notch. Harden's shooting range and playmaking combine with a knack for getting to the free-throw line at will. (Harden was second only to Kevin Durant in free throw attempts per game in 2014, with 9.1 FTA per game.)

11. LaMarcus Aldridge

LaMarcus Aldridge led the Portland Trailblazers to a scorching hot start in 2014. Yes, they did cool off as the season wore on, but LMA came back in the post-season with a vengeance. He destroyed Dwight Howard and James Harden’s Houston Rockets in the first round as nothing short of an offensive juggernaut. His final numbers for that series: 30 PPG, 11 RPG, 2 APG, 3 BPG, and 82 percent from the line. Sure, he cooled off against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the Conference semis, but he proved his singular value last season in both the regular and the post-season. I know I won’t be overlooking Portland’s foundation in 2014-15.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Top 30 Players in the NBA, 2015 edition, Part I

The 2015 NBA season is finally underway! One of the classic columns that I’ve written each year since the beginning of Bases and Baskets is a ranking of the best players in the NBA. I decided to expand the ranking from the usual top-10 players to a 30-player ranking. I didn’t quite agree with the ESPN rankings in some parts…but I do think that Lakers legend Kobe Bryant is no longer in this conversation. Here’s Part I, with players 21-30:

30. Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose still has a lot to prove coming off of his second injury in as many years. There’s no doubt that his upside is MVP-worthy, but he needs to show he isn’t the guy who put up bagels in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.

29. Lance Stephenson

Michael Jordan spoke very highly of Lance Stephenson and likes the way that the young guard competed last season with LeBron James. Nobody doubts that he can be a bit of a headcase at times, but his talent is clearly worth it. I’m on board with a 20-5-5 potential from Born Ready. He’s a poor man’s Russell Westbrook who competes on both ends of the floor.

28. Kawhi Leonard

The 2014 NBA Finals MVP has been declared the future of the San Antonio Spurs franchise. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are (very) slowly fading—at least minutes-wise. Kawhi has proven to be a LeBron-stopper who can also score when called upon. As more responsibility is placed on his shoulders, there’s no reason to see he can’t climb up these rankings. I’m not yet sold on him as a franchise player.

27. Klay Thompson

As much as this summer was about LeBron James, Klay Thompson came in a firm second place. The Warriors ended up deciding the value of Thompson as a shooter, defender, and friend of Steph Curry outweighed Kevin Love’s superstar value. Klay has added new wrinkles to his game each season in the league, improving his defense and offensive play-making ability to add to his second-to-none shooting ability. Kobe Bryant spoke highly of the young shooting guard, saying Thompson “has the whole package.”

26. Goran Dragic

Dragic, a disciple of Steve Nash, showed last season that he could contribute and take on the leadership required of a franchise. The Phoenix Suns did not make the playoffs in 2014, but in a loaded Western Conference, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Phoenix kept their core and will only get better behind their point guard(s), Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.

25. Serge Ibaka

The third-best player on his own team, Serge Ibaka is a beast on the interior. Unlike Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka is also an offensive threat and a Chris Bosh-lite. Although Ibaka isn’t a franchise player, there isn’t a team in the league that couldn’t use the talents of Ibaka.

24. Chris Bosh

Always a second- or third-wheel behind LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in his tenure in Miami, Chris Bosh will emerge as the go-to option in 2014-15 for the first time since his Toronto days. Bosh acknowledged on Monday that Chicago and Cleveland are ahead of Miami in terms of talent, but was also quick to point that they have the chance to be a very, very good team. I went so far as to predict a career year from Bosh, and nearly 50-40-90 numbers from him.

23. Al Jefferson

Al Jefferson has to take home the title of most underrated player in the NBA. He doesn’t have that ESPN-ready superstar highlight reel but his post-game is the most-polished in the game (aside from the aging Tim Duncan, who plays less minutes). Hopping from Minnesota to Utah to Charlotte doesn’t help that cause, but I’m expecting big things from the revamped Hornets.

22. Kyrie Irving

An incredible talent, Kyrie Irving will take a back seat in Cleveland for the first time in his NBA career. It will be interesting to see how the shoot-first point guard plays alongside two of the NBA’s greatest stars, LeBron James and Kevin Love.

21. Dwyane Wade

Like Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade has taken a backseat with the acquisition of the now-departed LeBron James. I’m still a firm believer in what Wade has left in the tank even though his knees aren’t cooperating as he would like. He said he didn’t develop an outside shot this off-season which is worrisome, but he’s still just shy of a top-20 player in the NBA.


Stay tuned for Part II!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

10 Bold Predictions for the 2015 NBA Season

The 2014-15 NBA season is finally (almost) upon us. And what NBA blogger or sportswriter starts the season without some bold predictions? This isn't going to be like Zach Lowe's predictions column for Grantland where Cleveland leading the league in points per possession counted and Indiana missing the playoffs counted as bold. Enough with the introduction, let's get straight into the meat of some predictions that will make you raise your eyebrows more than once BUT will be supported with more than a desire to jump on or off a team/player bandwagon...

San Antonio will not be a top-three seed

I pulled a Gregg Popovich and may have outsmarted not just him, but also you, with this pick. After all, when you’re dealing with Gregg Popovich, you have to think at least ten steps ahead. You thought that I’m picking against the Spurs with this prediction…but I’m not. Popovich is the master of the regular season and the post-season. He’s like the Mamba of coaches (who took home almost every coaching award in the annual NBA GM survey). He waits and waits and pounces just when the time is right. As his team ages, he doles out fewer and fewer regular season minutes to his starters. I foresee that trend continuing to the point where he doesn’t mind losing out to the Thunder, Clippers, and Warriors in seeding.

Dallas, the 8 seed, gave them the hardest battle in the 2014 playoffs, so seeding only matters so much. Pop knows a healthy squad is more valuable than home-court through the Western conference playoffs if the two are mutually exclusive.

Terrence Ross will average 18-6-4

For a guy to make the jump from 11-3-1 to get to 18-6-4, we’re talking about a most improved player-worth leap. But for T Dot who can leap out of the building on any given dunk, I think it’s possible considering he has a maniacal fan base and great team around him. His point guard, Kyle Lowry, just got $48 million guaranteed so he’s ready to throw out some dimes. 2014 Terrence Ross can put up 2013 Klay Thompson-type numbers. Ross is quietly a 40 percent three-point shooter who goes crazy on left corner threes (47 percent), a vital shot as determined by NBA efficiency gurus.

I’m going to throw in a bonus prediction: Toronto will be a No. 2 seed over Chicago and Washington. The dynamic between Paul Pierce and the Wiz young backcourt will be interesting. I’m not sold on Derrick Rose until I see him thrashing through the Leastern conference defenses. Bagels in FIBA competition is not reason for optimism with the former NBA MVP.

TNT will suspend Charles Barkley once

It’s too easy to make this just a bold playoff predictions article. Plus, the side stories are often nearly as entertaining as the games themselves. In fact, some off-season talk on the BS Report landed in this realm and suggested that the NBA free agency period receives more attention than the NBA games. The celebrity appeal crosses into the sports realm more frequently than just when a Kardashian hops from dating one NBA player to another (yes, Lamar Odom and Kris Humphries, I’m looking at you).

Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA was and is must-see TV. More than once, I wouldn’t re-watch a TNT game if I had missed it live… but I would scroll back to the halftime shows. Those short segments with Chuck, Kenny, Shaq, and Ernie were always exciting because you never knew when someone would drop what Jalen Rose calls a “don’t-get-fired” moment. If you didn’t see Barkley's antics describing San Antonio women, go to YouTube right now and watch them.

He was one step away from getting suspended. If ESPN can put Bill Simmons on vacation for calling the NFL commissioner a liar with some cuss words sprinkled in, then TNT could suspend Chuck for some inevitably outrageous comment this year.

LeBron James will continue his year-over-year increase in FG% that began in 06-07

He’s climbed from a "paltry" 47.6% to an unfathomable 56.7%. LeBron James doesn’t have much more room to improve but he’ll figure out a way to do it. Kevin Love will be spotting up and working P&Rs, Kyrie will finally learn how to play within a team concept, and Dion Waiters chip on his shoulder is still Goliath-sized.

LeBron has been raving about new head coach, David Blatt. I almost wanted to throw out a prediction that would only turn out to be outrageous…LeBron will average a triple-double. Two main reasons I decided against it: 1) LeBron slimmed down. I’m expecting him to play less at the power forward spot and more at the 3 (hence lower rebounding numbers). 2) Blatt and LeBron may come to the agreement that the best player in the game needs to rest more. This won't stop the best player in the game from an efficiency level that you can’t reach in NBA 2K15.

The Lakers will have the fewest wins in their 54-year Los Angeles history

26 wins or less. And if I’m setting the over-under at games Steve Nash plays at that same number, I’m taking the under there, as well. Unless Linsanity 2.0 erupts in Los Angeles, the combination of Lin, Kobe, and the self-anointed Swaggy P could be a scoring backcourt gone oh-so-very-wrong. Iso-ball + jacking up contested shots = losses.

As if a team of defensive sieves wasn’t enough, Byron Scott decided to take down any chance at improved offensive efficiency. The new Lakers coach wants his team to take 10-15 threes a game. A Twitter account has been born out of Scott’s desire to essentially eliminate the most efficient shot in the game (the corner three). @HaveTheLakers MadeACorner3? is a real thing. At least Kobe will be able to shoot 9-28 and put up big scoring numbers…right?

Chris Bosh will come surprisingly close to 50-40-90

And the award for 2014-15 Biggest Chip on His Shoulder goes to…. Chris Bosh! The ramifications of the LeBron move ripple throughout the NBA, but nowhere moreso than King James’ former team. One thing that LeBron did do for Bosh was help create the necessity for a three-point shot, something that became a weapon for the stretch-5. With LeBron gone, Bosh can go back to working in the paint in addition to spreading the floor with his three-point shot. What does this mean? A lot of mismatches and increased efficiency. His career peaks in FG% and FT% are 54 and 84, respectively. Last year, he was 34 percent from 3. Coming within a total of 5-7 percentage points of the 50-40-90 club would be a career year, but for a rejuvenated former All-Star who’s still only 30, it’s not too outrageous.

(For good measure, the second place finisher in the Biggest Chip on His Shoulder was another casualty of the LeBron trade: 2014 no. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins.)

Carmelo Anthony will hit the 30 points per game mark for the first time in his career

The East has significantly improved from last year to this year. However, the Knicks have almost been part of that upward trend. The pick-up of Jose Calderon at point guard will prove to be a significant upgrade to the ever-ballooning Raymond Felton…and I don’t mean ballooning in skill. Newly-minted head coach, Derek Fisher, and the Zen Master, Phil Jackson, should be able to maximize the ability of their roster, unlike Mike Woodson.

The relationship between Iman Shumpert, a player that I believe has a solid upside despite a career FG% south of 40, and former coach Mike Woodson was tumultuous (as Phil Jackson recently pointed out). Put all of this together, and Carmelo Anthony is right in position for a career year. I’m not expecting his assist numbers to skyrocket, but the 30ppg mark is well within reach for one of the NBA’s top-2 scorers.

The 76ers will not have the worst record in the NBA

This is probably the least likely prediction out of all of them. Most pundits consider the 76ers falling to the bottom inevitable. I'm going to go the other way because unlike the Sixers, the Jazz are in the West. Dante Exum still has to prove he can compete with the best basketball players in the world. I think eventually he’ll be a serviceable starter/borderline All-Star, but I’m taking a flier on this year’s Nerlens Noel before I take one on Exum. The Celtics are cellar contenders when they eventually trade a malcontent Rajon Rondo. It’s a tough call, but I’ll take the field in the competition for the NBA’s 2014-15 Least Likely to Agree to Lottery Reform.

Klay Thompson will be a 2015 All Star and get his max contract

…and he’ll be considered underpaid a few years down the line when the new TV contract leads to the eventual gradual or rapid salary cap spike. The younger Splash Bro has already said that he prefers the contract extension now instead of waiting for a long-term deal once the new cap hits. Dan Feldman of NBC Sports has pegged this extension to be worth $89 million and last through the 2020 NBA season.

For comparison, if he sought a Parsons like deal, he could make nearly $100 million in that same time-span. If Klay does accept an extension by October 31, it’ll put him in the pay grade of the top-five shooting guards in the league, something he is well-worth. I’m betting on Klay to have a big year under new coach, Steve Kerr. Former Warriors coach, Mark Jackson, was a great friend to (most) players in his locker room but left much to be desired in terms of on-court strategy. The lack of ball movement is one of Jackson’s main failures as an HC, and Kerr is already turning that around.

Better (and more) motion will lead to open shots, and open shots for one of the game’s best shooters will be lethal. Klay will be in the 20-5-4 range when the All-Star break rolls around and find himself playing alongside Steph Curry in the game. Hype matters when it comes to All-Star voting, so Klay’s FIBA success and the ever-increasing spotlight on the Warriors will push him into All-Star glory.

Now, I’m going on record saying that the Warriors can support two All-Stars with two defensive stoppers, potentially the best defense in the league, and a bright coach. So I’m ready to make my boldest prediction and become the first person to predict that…

The Golden State Warriors will win the 2015 NBA Finals

The squad that the Warriors will put on the floor is as good as any teams. Superstar? Check. Shooting? The best. Perimeter and interior defense? Third-best defense in the league last year. Bright, young coach surrounded by a great staff? Finally. What about the bench? With Brandon Rush, Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Mo Speights, and Draymond Green coming off the bench, this squad has all the pieces. And the thing that will always go underrated…chemistry? SB Nation called them the Weird Warriors for a reason. They are a little weak in the Veteran Leadership Dept., though. Only David Lee and Leandro Barbosa are the sole players older than 30…and they’re both only 31 years old.

They showed in 2013 that they can beat the Spurs. That Game 1 collapse in Round 1 emotionally throttled the team but they still made the Spurs fight to win a series I still feel the Warriors should have won (and would have under a better coach). In 2014, they took a Sternly-motivated Clippers team to seven games with their second-best player sidelined. Twice in a row, it’s been so close you could taste it. Both times against two top teams, you felt they had it within reach. All they’ve needed is a #FullSquad and good coach.

I love everything that I’ve seen so far from Steve Kerr. The way he handles the team, the media, his staff, and  himself is how you want your coach to do it. I’ve picked a favorite to win each of the past three NBA Finals and it’s time to change that up. This team has the potential for a top-3 offense and top-3 defense. I’m all in on the Warriors.