Lee Fiorio, Michael Gabbard and maybe a couple of other people. Here is some unfiltered analysis you’re not going to get from the MSM about this now underway NBA season. The top 10 teams:
Portland falls to 7th in the West from tied for 4th, because they got killed by the Spurs in the playoffs while Dallas and Oklahoma City were much more competitive against San Antonio, their defense is average, and their most significant off-season transaction was getting Steve Blake as a backup point guard. Also, they are not a very deep team and their key players suffered few injuries last year (though their best player LeMarcus Aldridge actually missed 13 games).
The deeper reason for putting them 7th is that I really like Portland — love to watch Damian Lillard — and, living on the west coast, they will be one of the few teams I can now see live on League Pass. So, it would be really great if they were great but I’m usually disappointed in life.
Not an original insight here but I’m skeptical of their perimeter rotation. Memphis is expecting a lot from Vince Carter, and for most of his career, expecting a lot from Carter has been a problem. Apparently, he’s totally matured now, but given his age it seems like a stretch to expect him to consistently provide needed scoring from the “2” or “3” position.
Their other wing players – defensive specialist Tony Allen, 80s TV detective Quincy Pondexter, 2009 NBA Finals trivia answer Courtney Lee, 2004 NBA Finals trivia answer Tayshaun Prince — range from bad offensively for a professional basketball player to sneakily competent.
Memphis has stayed good partly because while Zach Randolph has declined, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have gotten better. Maybe those guys will get better, but I think they’ve more or less plateaued and so has the team.
The Grizz made the conference finals two years ago (only to be swept by San Antonio), because Blake Griffin got injured in their first round series, and Russell Westbrook was out for their 2nd round series. This team has been together for years and they can certainly seize another opportunity like that one. But, like Portland, I see Memphis as more of a spoiler in the West than a serious contender.
I was in a bar watching the Bulls-Cavs game with the sound off last night (a game Chicago lost in overtime) and it combined key frustrating element of Bulls fandom
A. Where is Derrick Rose? I had to read Sam Smith’s twitter to realize that, of course, he left the game because of an injury (an ankle sprain)
Watching a Bulls game for me, as a pretty passionate Bulls fan, is often about the disconcerting process of figuring out who is not on the floor. Jesus, Butler is out! Wait, is Noah injured, too? Did Taj Gibson just go down?
The main reason Chicago is one of the worst teams in the league offensively is that their players never stay on the floor together.
The biggest such example, obviously, is Rose. As someone whose formative years included watching the fall of Penny Hardaway, there is nothing more annoying than the potential energy generated by a perpetually injured star.
Rose is a ticking time bomb. There are a lot of other players in the league that are “injury-riddled.” But with no other player do you watch and think – Is this the play that he gets injured on? A player that is impossible to even WATCH on a play-by-play basis is obviously a player impossible to build a team around and the Bulls are damned so long as Rose is their best player.
B. Why is Kirk Hinrich taking the final shot of the game? Why is he such a central piece of their offense? Do they really have no one else better? Or does the coaching staff just have an out of whack sense of Hinrich’s abilities?
C. Given their injuries, offensively limited roster, and Coach Tom Thibodeau’s tendency to pick a few favorite “gritty” players – Hinrich , Jimmy Butler – and play them insane minutes, the Bulls are unique among good teams in utterly lacking an extra gear. This was very apparent in their brutal first round loss to the Wizards: Washington was just a bigger, stronger, faster, more talented team than the Bulls.
I’m ranking them this high as a hedge that Rose will play some of the season, and an acknowledgement of their offseason offensive upgrades – getting the ivory trio of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott. They won a lot of games after they traded Luol Deng last year, and they should win a lot of games again – probably 50. But unless you can start watching Rose without feeling anxiety, they’re not a championship contender.
I just have a good feeling. General manager Masai Ujiri seems like he can do no wrong. They were like 41-21, I think, after they traded away Rudy Gay (both the Bulls and Raptors kind of quietly had elite records in the 2nd half of last year) and reconstructed their team around scoring from guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and inside garbage work from Amir Johnson. Jonas Valanciunas is rapidly improving and could give them a third good offensive option after Lowry and DeRozan.
The fan base is good and appreciative. There was a big celebration when they re-signed Lowry this summer. It’s cool that they appreciate their own star to that extent, especially a guy like Lowry who never totally found an identity as an NBA player until last year.
Maybe the best analogy here is to the Memphis Grizzlies of a couple of years ago, and not just because they also dumped Gay. This is not the most talented team, but the Raptors seem to have a certain underdog identity. Given the lousiness of the East, I see them going to the conference finals and maybe winning the conference if the Cavs offensive talent isn’t overwhelming.
6. L.a. Clippers
After stealing Game 1 from the Thunder on the road, the Clippers got badly outplayed by Oklahoma City the rest of the series and, then, after decisively losing the final Game 6 at home spent the off-season doing almost nothing.
Well, excuse me! Clipper owners changed from reptilian NBA fixture for decades Donald Sterling to Silicon Valley jillionaire Steve Ballmer, a total boon for the league because it means the NBA now has two teams in L.A. that will actually spend money to win. And Ballmer kicked off his spending by giving a $50 million contract extension to Doc Rivers.
But Rivers doesn’t really have a better roster to work with than the one that squeaked by Golden State and lost to OKC in last years playoffs. They did add Spencer Hawes – and Hawes should be an upgrade as a back-up center, and might even play for DeAndre Jordan at crunch time sometimes when the team needs a center who shoots better than 42.8 percent from the free throw line.
But the team did nothing about their total lack of a defender at shooting guard, and that they have interchangeable gunners in J.J. Reddick and Jamal Crawford. Nor did the Clippers solve that they have a declining Matt Barnes and a non-contributor Jared Dudley as their small forwards.
Basketball pundits cluck, and rightfully so, at OKC’s failure to build a quality enough supporting cast around Durant and Westbrook. But for a team that’s shuttled in and out so many name players the past few years, the Clippers supporting cast is surprisingly pedestrian, and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have yet to prove they can even carry a team to the conference finals.
Everything I just wrote will look exceedingly dumb in three months if Griffin continues his rapid progress from last year, and seizes the mantle of the Clippers best player/leader/serious MVP candidate. But so long as Paul is still kind of leading the team and constantly berating his teammates, and there’s not a really change in the Paul-Griffin-rest of team dynamic, I think the Clippers will be surprisingly stale this year. Certainly a very good team, but not a team ready to leap past the Spurs and Thunder.
5. Dallas Mavericks
There are few definitively “impact coaches”, i.e. their presence alone assures the team will be significantly better than if “Generic NBA Coach X” were leading the team.
Greg Poppovich, a losing coach at Division III Pomona, has certainly proven himself an impact coach, especially over the last four years. Larry Brown and Pat Riley were impact coaches for large periods of their lengthy and most successful careers. To a lesser extent, Phil Jackson, Chuck Daley and Lenny Wilkens all made a difference.
At this point, I’d put Rick Carlisle somewhere in the middle of that elite list. A roster of offense-only-please players like Dirk Nowitski, Monta Ellis, and Chandler Parsons and just past his prime defensive stopper Tyson Chandler is definitely talented and interesting. Under an average coach, it might be too unusual to yield much in the brutal West. But under Carlisle I’m pretty confident it will work.
Dallas won 49 games and took the Spurs to seven games in the first round last year. On paper they are the most improved of the western conference playoff teams and it’s not even close. They were really bad defensively for a good team and now they have Tyson Chandler. And Chandler Parsons is really, really good, like a step or two below all-star, and they just got him as a free agent.
The Mavericks advancement in the west obviously depends on a couple of other unusual things happening, like a regression by the Clippers or Thunder. But a surprise team last year should be even better and harder to beat this year.
4. Oklahoma City
The notion that Kendrick Perkins is hurting this team was taken to a literal extent this week when he broke Russell Westbrook’s hand.
Now, IN THEORY, the Westbrook and Durant injuries could have the silver lining of forcing the Thunder to develop offense elsewhere, perhaps further developing the talents of Reggie Jackson or propelling Serge Ibaka into becoming a more assertive and feared offensive performer.
The injuries, though, could also just mean the Thunder lose a few more games than expected and fall behind teams in the West.
So here’s the cold, hard truth about Oklahoma City. Despite their staunch refusal to go over the luxury tax and make improvements to the supporting cast, the idea is that the core is so strong with Durant — clearly a close 2nd best in a ranking of NBA players, with him and LeBron head and shoulders above everyone – and Westbrook – one of the six or seven best players in the game – that only the Spurs are more ready to win a title than OKC.
The reality is, as evidenced in their Game 6 loss to the Spurs when Ibaka had come back from injury and the team was healthy, is that the core is not championship-proven. They made the finals two years ago when they had James Harden and offensively overwhelmed the Spurs with the one-on-one play of Durant, Harden and Westbrook. But there’s still no game plan for Durant and Westbrook to maximally complement each other, even if they get along, like playing with each other, etc.
Go ahead, mock the triangle, but Phil Jackson at least had a system and semblance of coherency in place for getting the most out of Jordan/Pippen and Shaq/Kobe. Scott Brooks is clearly no Phil Jackson, and his total lack of strategic coaching is painfully evident whenever OKC encounters a team on its level.
I think it’s more likely OKC will lose prior to the conference finals than beat the Spurs and win the title.
3. Golden State
It’s a hunch. The Warriors have played really well in the playoffs the last two years. Clearly their core players are comfortable in the playoffs. They won 51 games last year even though there was acrimony with Coach Mark Jackson and now they can turn over a new leaf with Steve Kerr. Jackson was a good coach but he seemed to place constrictions on the offense. Kerr, you know, seems like a smart guy on TV, and maybe he will have a better sense of just letting his assistants draw up the plays to maximize the team’s offense.
Stephen Curry has been healthy enough the last two years that the injury concerns of the start of his career don’t seem like a problem anymore. Curry could be the third best player in the league by the end of the year. The Warriors took some probably deserved flak for not trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love, but maybe this gives Thompson a huge feeling of confidence and propels him to become an all-star. Like Curry, Andrew Bogut has stayed on the floor enough lately that I don’t see injuries as a unique concern anymore for him.
The Warriors ascent will depend on Curry becoming a superstar, Thompson becoming an all-star, David Lee continuing to be a really good offensive player (while continuing to take abuse for his defense), Bogut staying healthy, Andre Iguadola and Shaun Livingston having clearly defined roles on the team, and Harrison Barnes recovering from his sophomore slump.
It’s a leap perhaps for all those things to happen, but, individually, all those expectations are pretty reasonable. The NBA is more a hierarchy-esque league than other professional sports. But even in professional basketball, there are changes in who is elite, and my guess is that the Warriors are best positioned to replace the Thunder in the western conference hierarchy – or at least beat them in one seven-game series.
2. Cleveland Cavs
I think the hardest predict team in the league this year is Brooklyn, a team no one is really talking about. But, to me, Brookyln could either be really bad or surprisingly good – like 2nd best in the East good – or just a borderline .500 team like most people have them pegged. I just don’t have a read on them.
But for the contenders, Cleveland is the hardest team to predict. Like I’m down on the Clippers, but I just think they will maybe win 52 games instead of the 56 games other people might be picking.
The Cavs could win anywhere from 45 to 65 games. Here are some things that I think about with them
A. A sensible analogy is the 2011 Heat, obviously. LeBron James and Chris Bosh join Dwayne Wade – people predict all-time greatness, but the team struggles early, recovering enough to win a bad Eastern Conference, but getting upset in the NBA Finals by Dallas. So maybe Cleveland with James, Love and Irving is ready to win the East but not the NBA finals.
But the Heat team of 2010 had won 46 games, and had experience winning with Wade. The team James and Love are coming into has no past success – they were just a bad team last year. Kyrie Irving doesn’t know the first thing about winning in the NBA. Neither does Love. It seems like there is more work to do in making this triumvirate work than in Miami
B. Cleveland is cursed
C. Will Kyrie Irving be cool playing off the ball?
D. Who plays defense besides James?
E. David Blatt is unproven as a coach
F. Is LeBron James enough of a god that he can resolve the bickering that ruined this team early last year between Irving and Dion Waiters?
My sense is ‘yes’ and that magical LeBron dust will make Love and Irving team players, and Waiters and Tristan Thompson effective role players. I think it will take a while for it come together, though. Luckily, for the Cavs, their talent is so much better than everyone else in the East that they have some time during the season to work things out.
1. San Antonio
The Spurs have always been good, but now they’re kind of likable and cool with Kawhi Leonard in an expanded role.
An age-induced decline by Duncan, Parker and Ginoboli could stop them from repeating, though maybe Greg Poppovich’s allocation of minutes is somehow a cure for aging.
In 2010, an aging Spurs team snuck into the playoffs as a 7th seed. They upset Dallas but that got swept – swept – by a Suns team featuring an aging Steve Nash and a hobbled Amare Stoudemire. At that point, the Spurs seemed finish. But heading into the 2015 season, they’re the prohibitive favorite to repeat as champions. If they win that’s six titles for Duncan and the franchise. It would tie the Spurs with the Bulls for the most titles of any NBA franchise, and clearly put the team as the 3rd best franchise in league history, only behind the Lakers and Celtics.