Sunday, September 29, 2013

2014 NBA Season Preview and Predictions, Part II: Western Conference


As always, the 2014 NBA Western conference is going to be very strong and competitive. At this point, I would say the only lock is the Oklahoma City Thunder at the No. 1 seed. But even that depends on the successful return of Russell Westbrook from his devastating meniscus injury. Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and Westbrook are all high-impact players that rely on athleticism and in doing that there is always the heightened risk of injuries.

But we’ll save the rest of the team-by-team analysis for the meat of Part II, my predictions for the way the Western conference will pan out in 2014:

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz

It would be interesting to see how the standings would pan out if some of these teams were in the East because the new-look Pelicans and (healthy?) Timberwolves would make strong playoff pushes. And Kobe Bryant would find a way to get his undermanned Lakers to limp into the playoffs—somehow, someway. In the West, though, these teams are destined for an early summer in 2014. With the Mamba laying low in the beginning, I don’t expect anything out of Mike D’Antoni…and he won’t disappoint. When Kobe comes back, he will grind out some wins but is that really the best thing for the Lakers franchise (or even Kobe)?

Regardless, the Lakers will miss the playoffs for only the second time in the Kobe era and only the third time since 1976. (Somewhere David Stern is crying in the background at the thought of lost revenue from the NBA’s most popular franchise.)

The Pelicans may have put together something special and will compete for the final spot with Jrue Holiday, The Brow, Tyreke, and Eric Gordon. They may not make it this year, but 2015 is not unreasonable to expect the New Orleans franchise to re-enter the playoff fray.

THIS IS SPARTA YOUR TICKET TO A FIRST ROUND EXIT

8. Portland Trailblazers
Damian Lillard is a mini-Westbrook without the ego—and he’s also the franchise player, unlike Westbrook. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the center of Portland’s organization for many years but Lillard proved in his rookie campaign that he’s readily capable of 30-point shows. In terms of players 23 and under, he’s behind Kyrie, Paul George, James Harden, and maybe John Wall. That's it. But even more so than those other players, Lillard has untapped potential. He will be a perennial All-Star in the NBA. A first appearance on the national stage in the NBA playoffs would be a huge step in that direction. And in all likelihood it would be Lillard vs. Westbrook.

7. Denver Nuggets



It’s easy to sleep on the Denver Nuggets after losing Andre Iguodala, but to do so would be a huge mistake. Their core of Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and yes…JaVale McGee is a strong one. Denver was 38-3 at home—the best record in the league—and the Little Man Who Could, Nate Robinson, will relish that home-court advantage. That strong spark off the bench may not be enough to get the Nuggets another 57-win season, but they will definitely be a playoff team.

6. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies are one of those teams in limbo. They have been the West’s version of the Atlanta Hawks: always good enough to get a seed in the middle of the conference but never able to make it to that next step, the NBA Finals. Like the Nuggets, Memphis has a very strong core of not-quite star players. Even with the much desired combo of a strong frontcourt (Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol) and backcourt (Mike Conley, Tony Allen), they don’t have that go-to superstar that propels teams to NBA championships. But, as always, the Grizzlies will be right in that 4 – 6 range for playoff seeding.

ANYTHING GOES: THE BIG FREE-FOR-ALL IN THE WILD, WILD WEST

5. Los Angeles Clippers
Lob City, led by Chris Paul, will be fun to watch as always. And with Doc Rivers bringing championship experience to Los Angeles, it will be the second year in a row where the best team in LA is not the Lakers. While everybody rightfully raves about Rivers’ ability to rally an NBA locker room, I still think that there are four teams with player personnel that surpass the Clippers. Blake still has to work on shedding his "soft" label...but he is still a star in this game. In each of Griffin's three seasons in the NBA, he’s averaged over 20 points per 36 minutes on over 50 percent from the field.
J.J. Redick, Antawn Jamison, and Darren Collison were quiet but solid pickups. Redick will help the Clippers space out the floor and Collison will be a great backup to CP3. With their current squad, anything less than a top-5 seed would be a huge disappointment—but realistically if LA clicks, a two-seed is not out of the realm of possibility.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Warriors, like the Indiana Pacers, model how you want to build a deep franchise but both will ultimately fall one spot short of the No. 1 seed to teams with a more loaded front-end. The Heat and the Thunder combine to have the two best players in the game and four of the top ten. Health is the hidden card behind any NBA franchise’s success, but with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the OKC Thunder are clear favorites to win the West. (Edit on 10/14...well not so much now that Westbrook is re-injured. They'll still be in the hunt for a top-5 seed but that "clear favorite" idea I said? Not true anymore.)

3. Houston Rockets
Dwight Howard will add a dominating defensive presence on the inside for Houston. Offensively, however, it remains to be seen how Kevin McHale will integrate Howard into their run-and-gun offensive scheme that relies on quick possessions and a high percentage of threes. And unless Hakeem Olajuwon truly overhauled Howard’s offensive game, the new center still has very limited ability in the post. And his goal may be to shoot 75 – 80 percent from the line, but Howard has to hit 50 percent first.

Chandler Parsons is one of the more underrated players (put up 16-5-4 in 2013) and will emerge as  valuable starter for Houston. McHale will have to work out an effective rotation that involves D12 and Asik and we still haven’t mentioned the best player on the team, James Harden. I’m with Kevin Durant on this one: Harden was snubbed a top-10 spot by Sports Illustrated’s 2013-14 ranking. With a Harden-Howard duo leading the way in Houston, the West should be on alert.

2. Golden State Warriors


You could make a strong argument that each of the Warriors starters (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, and Bogut) are top-five players for their respective positions and there’s no doubt that all are top-10 for their position. The Black Falcon (Harrison Barnes) also has to be a favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year award and Draymond Green and Jermaine O’Neal will lead a highly capable group of role players. Golden State is the most well-rounded team in the NBA and Mark Jackson will be sure to get the most out of each of them. It’s been a long haul for Warriors fans, but this team is finally ready to compete with the best in the West.

1. San Antonio Spurs
I’ve been one to say in years past that the Spurs were “too old” and each time I’ve been proven wrong. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan have convinced me that there is nothing “too old” when you are literally one shot away from winning the NBA Finals. In that SI ranking, I was originally surprised to see Parker at No. 4 but that’s exactly where he should be. Until Derrick Rose proves that he can return successfully from injury and Steph Curry proves he can stay healthy, TP is the second-best point guard in the NBA today. A dynamic playmaker, Parker is a youthful 31 years old and can create for himself if Pop allocates less minutes to Duncan and Ginobili in 2014.

Monday, September 23, 2013

2014 NBA Season Preview and Predictions, Part I: The Eastern Conference


The 2014 NBA season will have a very unique feel because of the dichotomy of teams vying for a championship and others in sacrificial lamb mode looking for losses. The Boston Celtics entered full rebuild mode this off-season, shedding Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Doc Rivers while leaving Rajon Rondo to weather the storm. The other end of that trade is the Brooklyn Nets—a team still looking for the franchise’s first NBA title. Mikhail Prokhorov shelled out serious money to players that are not quite members of current NBA royalty. Put Jason Kidd at the helm and the Brooklyn Nets will be a fun team to watch.

Here is my second annual NBA season preview and predictions. This is Part I in a three-part series broken down into the East preview, West preview, and playoff predictions.

THE “MAYBE NEXT YEAR” GROUP / ALL IN FOR THE 2014 NBA DRAFT

Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Wizards

It’s amazing how in one year the Boston Celtics will go from playoff contender to the NBA cellar. In an all-out effort to land Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or another big name in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Celtics made a wise decision to let go of their aging core. (The Lakers probably should have done something similar but that’s the Kobe Bryant conundrum for you.)

And after losing Josh Smith, the Atlanta Hawks will join three other “maybe next year” teams to give up big-name players (Celtics with KG and Pierce, Milwaukee with Monta and BJennings, and the 76ers with the corpse of Andrew Bynum). They will probably not lay down and tank the season, but they’re looking at missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007. While part of me wants the revamped Bobcats to make a playoff push, the truth is they’re the Bobcats…the punch-line of half of NBA jokes and memes. It won’t happen.

WHIPPING BOYS OF THE PLAYOFFS

8. Detroit Pistons
I’m still not sure how the Pistons managed to do it, but Joe Dumars grabbed Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith in the off-season. For the first time since the Sheed-Billups-Tayshaun era, Detroit may have something to actually cheer for. The back-end of the East is particularly weak but in most-competitive scenario, it would be a Pistons vs. Hawks vs. Bobcats race. Even if that were the case, the Pistons have a deep frontline with J-Smoove, Andre Drummond (a 280-pound man child), and Greg Monroe. If Chauncey Billups can provide some veteran leadership for the young backcourt, Detroit will make the playoffs.

And if the Pistons do land the 8 seed, someone please get the memo to Brandon Jennings that guaranteeing a first round victory against the No. 1 seed doesn’t work. Even if they are better than last year’s Milwaukee Bucks, they still have nothing on the Bulls/Heat/Pacers.

7. Toronto Raptors
With a full off-season for Rudy Gay to acclimate to Canada, I expect him to put up right around 20-6-3 and be the center of the Raptors offense. That’s still not quite what you want from a franchise-type player but Gay is the founder of the “not quite All-Star club” and still has to prove that he’s capable of making it to the next level. He and Monta Ellis have the unfortunate reputation of being the subtraction on addition-by-subtraction trades from their former teams (Gay with the Grizzlies and Monta with the Warriors).

But unlike Monta in what was then Milwaukee, I think Gay has found himself in a good situation with appropriate supporting talent. With a knockdown shooter like Steve Novak and tough-nosed role players like Tyler Hansbrough, coach Dwyane Casey has the pieces for Toronto to be the new version of the Hawks of the late 00s.

WANNABE CONTENDERS

6. Cleveland Cavaliers
Andrew Bynum has to be the biggest wild card player in all of the NBA. He could come out and tear up the league…or he could destroy the hopes of a second franchise in as many years. At the top of his game, he is a nightly 20-10 threat but the argument could be made that right now, he’s better suited for the circus than the NBA hardwood.

I’m a believer in Kyrie Irving as a franchise player, and it finally looks like he may have some pieces around him to sneak into the playoffs. Kyrie and Dion Waiters will be the foundation of the franchise and a more established version of what John Wall and Bradley Beal hope to be. Even if Bynum proves to be a bad experiment, Anderson Varejao can be a Joakim Noah-type contributor. In December of last season, he had a five-game stretch where he hauled in 22, 18, 18,17, and 18 rebounds and put up nearly 20 points in each game on roughly 60 percent from the field. Glad to say he was on my fantasy team at the time.

Flying under the radar is the Jarrett Jack pick-up. Even though I had a love/hate relationship with him when he was in Golden State, Samurai Jack was a critical piece in the Warriors 2013 playoff run. I expect him to provide a similar boost off the bench for the Cavaliers in a mix of minutes covering for Kyrie and possibly playing alongside him if the Cavs play small ball. Jack is cold-blooded and will take and make clutch shots even if he’s been on the bench for the first three quarters.

5. New York Knicks
After another disappointing one-and-done performance in the 2013 NBA playoffs, the road for Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks has only gotten harder. All four teams ahead of them in my predictions here have gotten better and while the Knicks have, too, it won’t be enough. Especially with distractions swirling around Melo leaving NY next off-season, I think the addition of Kenyon Martin, Andrea Bargnani, and MWP won’t be enough to get them any farther than last year.

THE BIG WILD CARD

4. Brooklyn Nets
It won’t take you more than a Google search to find analysts who think the Nets have the ability to dethrone the Miami Heat in the East. As I have said, and will continue to preach, let’s wait and see. Remember the team that looked indomitable on paper last year and turned out to be the laughing stock of the NBA? There are quite a lot of similarities between those Lakers and these Nets: aging stars, owner spending on the best talent money can buy (not necessarily the best team), and an inexperienced head coach. If anything, Mike Brown had more experience than Kidd and had the benefit of being more than just a former opponent in the NBA to his players. The dynamic between J-Kidd and the older players on the Nets will be a storyline to follow in and of itself.


For now, I think No. 4 is a reasonable spot to put them. They may battle the other New York team for this slot but I’m not ready to put Brooklyn with the East’s Big 3.

CLASS OF THE CONFERENCE

3. Chicago Bulls
With new Derrick Rose commercials already permeating national television, the hype for the former NBA MVP has just begun. Rose took a lot of heat last year for sitting out while his team did surprisingly well—and I was certainly a critic of Rose’s last year. But he can alleviate all of that with a strong return this year. Undoubtedly, Rose is one of the most electrifying players in the NBA—but like the case with Brooklyn, they still need time to gel and reach their full potential. And if Rose returns more like RGIII than Adrian Peterson from his ACL injury, it may be a disappointing return.

Chicago will do well whether or not Rose is truly 100 percent, and they’ll be positioned nicely for a playoff run sitting just underneath the reigning Eastern conference finals teams.

2. Indiana Pacers
Outside of the Brooklyn Nets, the Indiana Pacers improved the most from last season to this. Getting Danny Granger back from injury will be critical because he can provide a serious boost to a team that was not very potent offensively (23rd in scoring) last season at 94.7 points per game. They also acquired a couple under-the-radar steals like Luis Scola and Chris Copeland...and another year of experience for Paul George will really help the emerging star. With Roy Hibbert and David West still manning the middle, I firmly believe that the Pacers have the most deep and well-rounded team in the East. But until I see reason to believe otherwise, they are still chasing the defending champions.


1. Miami Heat
Make no mistake about it, LeBron James is chasing NBA history this season. Looking to surpass Kobe Bryant with three NBA Finals MVPs is no insignificant feat. If he can pull off the trifecta again (regular season MVP, NBA champion, NBA Finals MVP), he will be a top-five player in history...and the man won't even be 30 years old!!

What gets me the most about the Heat is that popular sentiment is that Dwyane Wade is on the decline. 1) These are probably the same people that say the Spurs won't make it...and we all know how the Spurs manage to do year after year. (Although it will be interesting to see how their management deals with TD and Ginobili's retirements in the coming years. Could it be a Celtics all-out tankfest or more like the Lakers struggling to maintain their stellar reputation?) 2) Nine players in the entire NBA scored 20 PPG last season and only three of those did that with over 50 percent shooting from the field. One of them was Dwyane Wade. 3) He's only 31 years old! We look at guys like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant who are still performing at a high level farther along in their 30s and somehow Wade is the old guy?

Finally, Wade is one of the toughest competitors in the NBA. Remember these commercials?


He took a backseat to LeBron in order to win championships but that doesn't mean he somehow became a worse NBA player for it. Tack on Michael Beasley and Greg Oden to the Big 3 and you'll see that Pat Riley and the Miami front office craftily provided a couple players to fill out the roster and support two of the best players in the game.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Kobe Bryant Conundrum


Kobe Bryant is one of the most competitive people alive. Whether you like him or not, there’s no debating his desire to win. Maybe the winning is an end in itself or maybe he wants to compete with Michael Jordan for the title of greatest player of all time. Either way, his competitiveness and work ethic has driven him to an elite level in the NBA and has gained him fans across the world. But what happens when that mindset meets with father time?

Once upon a time, Kobe said that he would call it quits at 35...but that seems to have been a thought that has since gone by the wayside. Now he’s clearly set on one thing: that sixth NBA championship ring. But coming off an Achilles injury and already at 35 years of age, Kobe is past his prime and his style of play is demanding on his body. As hard as he works, there is only so much that even an elite athlete like Bryant can endure. On his last leg(s?), he is poised for a not-so-graceful exit…much like Michael Jordan of the early 00s.

Two things are certain: 1) the Lakers will not compete for a championship in 2014 and 2) Kobe will try to get there anyway. As such, Kobe’s desire to win will ultimately prove to be harmful to his team. 

The end result of that is painful. You can argue that the Lakers will be better or worse than last year, but in the end they will land plus or minus the eighth seed and outside of the NBA Draft lottery. As Bill Simmons wrote on how he’d fix the Lakers, LA’s best option is to tank 2013. Thankfully for the rest of the league, that won’t happen.

Kobe Bryant really puts Los Angeles in a major conundrum. Do they help their legend win a sixth ring despite the odds or should they prepare for the post-Kobe era?


Kobe playing his entire career in LA is that feel-good story that people like (and choose to conveniently forget his multiple trade requests). But the problem with Kobe Bryant is that he’s good enough to keep his team afloat but not good enough to single-handedly battle the likes of Westbrook and Durant, Duncan and Parker, or even Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala. I’ve said many times before: great teams, not great individuals, win championships—and Kobe Bryant isn’t in a situation with a team that complements him well enough. Not only that but his coach is incompetent…39 minutes per game on a 17-year veteran in a season that clearly isn’t going anywhere? D’Antoni is not far from clueless.

So instead of tanking and getting a shot at Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, the Lakers will continue a slow, painful decline. Ironically enough, if Kobe were to acquiesce to sacrificing this year for the future, it might actually give him a better shot at tying Michael Jordan with that sixth championship in 2015 or 2016. And it would give LA somebody to build around in the post-Kobe era.

But instead Kobe will show how competitive he is and will prove how much he can accomplish individually—the very same mentality that he had when he ousted Shaq from LA back in the day. The “I can do it on my own” mentality did not work back then and it certainly won’t work a decade later.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

2014 NBA Awards Predictions


We’re still more than a month away from the 2014 NBA season commencement but every NBA fan—maybe with the exception of anybody living in Philadelphia—has to be excited for many exciting new stories to unfold. #TheReturn of Derrick Rose that has hit Facebook and Twitter hash tags will probably be the most intriguing one to watch. Rose is one of the NBA’s most electrifying players but his return from an ACL injury is still very much a question mark. For now, here's how I see the 2014 awards being doled out:

Rookie of the Year

Nerlens Noels now has the chip on his shoulder in addition to his talent to work with in his rookie season. Unfortunately for Noels, his ACL injury will keep him out until at least Christmas and as such, the ROY running. My pick to win it is the No. 2 overall, Victor Oladipo. The former Indiana guard is set to take the stage in an Orlando team that will struggle mightily in 2014 but he can be the bright spot in the post-Dwight Howard era in the way that Kyrie Irving blossomed in Cleveland in the post-LeBron era. Trey Burke (No. 9 overall) will also compete for the award but in the end, Oladipo will take it.

Coach of the Year

Warriors coach, Mark Jackson, will make a run at this award with a much improved team headed by the newest edition addition Dr. Dre—that’s Andre Iguodala, a combo of Dr. J and anDre, any takers? (Awkward pause.) Moving on…

While my hopes lean toward the Warriors coach earning the award for best coach in the league, I see it going to Doc Rivers in Los Angeles. He should be able to fix any problems in Lob City that did or did not exist between CP3 and Blake and will hopefully get rid of the “soft” label that Griffin has acquired. The West is loaded this year and the Clippers should be in the hunt…at least until the playoffs start.

Doc Jackson? Come on...you have to admit these guys look at least mildly similar.
Most Improved Player

He has that wide-eyed look about him, but Kawhi Leonard is a beast. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs may have been the perfect system for Leonard but he has taken advantage of it and is now a household name after playing some excellent defense on LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals. You know you’re good when the best player in the game has this reaction when you’re coming back on the floor:

  
Defensive Player of the Year

Dwight Howard is reviled in Los Angeles after a messy departure but at least there was no big “Decision” that was nationally televised. Now imagine if he went to the Celtics (an idea that I briefly entertained) then we’d have a whole different story. But for all the heat that D12 takes, he’s still a beast. He had a bad back and a bad year in 2013 but still managed 17.1/12.4/2.4. His defensive presence is as good as it gets. Maybe LeBron James finally pulls together a DPOY-worthy season in the eyes of the voters but for now, this is Dwight’s award to lose.

Sixth Man of the Year

With the addition of Dr. Dre, the odd man out of the starting lineup in Golden State will be Harrison Barnes. He is still incredibly enthusiastic and excited about this season as a Golden State Warrior. Check out his Facebook page and you’ll see just how involved he is with Dubs fans. Not only that, but Harrison Barnes did see how a position in the starting five meant relatively little last year when Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry came off the bench and played big minutes late in games. Either way, this guy is something special and yes, this is where I post the obligatory posterization:


Yup, the Warriors have this man coming off the bench.

Most Valuable Player


As much as his haters will deny it, LeBron James is creeping into the realm of greatest NBA player of all time. If he wins the 2014 MVP, he’ll tie Michael Jordan and Bill Russell at five and James won’t even be 30 years old. A very strong argument could be made that James has been the best player in the game in all nine NBA seasons since his rookie year (where he’s averaged 28/7/7) and that won’t change in 2014. Only health is in the way of his fourth MVP in the last five years.