Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cleveland Cavaliers: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 61-21
2009-10 Playoffs: #1 seed; lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Boston Celtics in six games
Additions: Ramon Sessions, Ryan Hollins, Joey Graham, Christian Eyenga
Key Losses: LeBron James, Zadrunas Ilgauskas, Shaquille O’Neal, Delonte West
Projected Rotation Players: Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, J.J. Hickson, Ramon Sessions, Anderson Varejao, Ryan Hollins, Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson, Leon Powe, Jamario Moon

Barring a rash of injuries or a full-blown fire sale, look for the Cleveland Cavaliers regular season win total to exceed most expectations.

After the most successful period in the franchise’s history, the 2010-11 Cavaliers open a new chapter for hoops in Northeast Ohio. This season in Cleveland begins in the wake of the departure of the best basketball player on the planet and the man who led the Cavs to the only 60-win seasons in franchise history and its only trip to the NBA Finals. In relocating to South Beach, LeBron James took not only his talents with him, but much of the optimism and hope that surrounded the Cavaliers as well.

In the intervening months, a lot’s been made of the Cavs’ post-LeBron outlook. There has been no shortage of pessimism in analysts’ expectations, with many predicting no more than 20 wins for the team in 2010-11. While they’re sure to suffer a considerable dropoff, there’s simply too many capable basketball players remaining on this roster to expect a 75% drop in wins.

The 2010-11 Cavs’ rotation features seven legitimate NBA players. This group includes a pair of former All-Stars in Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams (whether or not you agreed with his selection, Mo!) and a young duo with loads of potential (J.J. Hickson and Ramon Sessions, a Hype favorite). Any of these four players can go off for 30 on a given night. In addition to this core, the Cavs boast a pair of capable shooters in Daniel “Boobie” Gibson and Anthony Parker and an undersized but tough front line of Anderson Varejao, Ryan Hollins, Leon Powe and Jamario Moon.

Combine this solid crew with a new coach (Byron Scott) with a proven track of getting the most out of his players, an owner hell-bent on fielding a winner and a $14 million trade exception (acquired as part of LeBron’s move to Miami) that could help him do so, and the Cavs’ cupboard’s far from bare. Not sure I’d back Dan Gilbert in his race to a ring against LeBron and the Heat, but the situation in Cleveland is not as bleak as some would have us believe.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Cavaliers at 30.5. This is far less pessimistic than most predictions, but could still prove low. There’s no replacing Lebron James, but there is a solid complement of quality players left on the Cavs’ roster. Not only should the Cavs post a decent record against the bottom half of the league, they will battle against the NBA’s best, using hustle, a solid defense and the unconditional support of its city (the fans will carry this team to a few surprising home wins) to compete against the NBA's top teams. Their hard-fought win over the Boston Celtics in the season opener was a prime example of this.

Is this a playoff team? Probably not, but don’t be surprised if the 2010-11 Cavaliers put up a gutty 33-35-wins.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Chicago Bulls: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 41-41
2009-10 Playoffs: #8 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games
Additions: Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans, Kurt Thomas, Omer Asik
Key Losses: Kirk Hinrich, Brad Miller, Hakim Warrick, Acie Law
Projected Rotation Players: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Kurt Thomas, C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans

Look for the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls to make a run at 50 wins and top-four playoff seed… but to look more comfortable playing without Carlos Boozer.

Watching the Bulls in their season opener in Oklahoma City, a couple of things of jumped out about the 2009-10 incarnation of this team:

First, as great as he’s already been, Derrick Rose looks ready to take his game to new heights and make his first (and by NO means last!) appearance in the annual MVP discussion. This is not to say that his performance in the game (28 points, 12-for-31 FG, six assists) was MVP-worthy. It clearly was not. However, it’s worth noting that this is probably one of the worst games he’ll play this season.

Rose’s overall demeanor (this really IS his team now) and the way in which he charged out of the gate in first quarter- slicing through the OKC defense, getting into the paint at will and finishing spectacularly- suggest that Rose now has not only physical gifts, but the mental and emotional preparedness to lead a team. In two years as a pro, he’s been productive (18.8 ppg, 6.2 apg), efficient (48% FG, 78% FT, less than one 3-pt attempt per game) and frequently spectacular. Now in his third season, Rose, who’s something of a hybrid of Chris Paul and Allen Iverson, looks ready to dominate.

This is not to say that he’s a finished product, but Rose seems to have a greater understanding of who he is as a player than he did in first two years. He’s an exceptional finisher, a top-notch passer and impossible for a defender to stay with. As long as he’s aware of his limitations (he’s still not good from the outside; until he is, there’s NO NEED to attempt one 3-pointer per quarter) and continues working toward achieving the right balance (a little less A.I., a little more CP3- he’s not far from the sweet spot), he’ll cement his place in the NBA’s top ten for the next decade.

Bottom line: The other thing that became evident on Wednesday is that for all of Carlos Boozer’s considerable gifts on offense, it’s not entirely clear where this summer’s $80-million man will fit on this team. His presence in OKC would have been helpful, but his offensive game (much more effective facing up than posting up), the style of play in which he thrives (slow) and his well-publicized shortcomings as a defender (I hope Tom Thibodeau likes a challenge!) do not seem to be suited to complement the parts that will surround him on this team.

Sure, he’ll still be good for at least 18 and 10 (because he’s just a damn good player) and give the Bulls more scoring out of the frontcourt than they’ve had in years, but it will take a bit of time to figure out exactly where Boozer actually fits on this team.

With all of that said, the Bulls have added some nice parts (the Utah Jazz trio of Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, sharpshooter Kyle Korver, Kurt Thomas and talented Turkish center, Omer Asik) to an already-impressive collection of incumbent talent (Rose, a healthy Luol Deng, the ever-improving Joakim Noah and 2009-10 sleeper Taj Gibson). There is simply too much talent and too many solid character guys here for this team to not figure out a way to make this work. Led by Rose, Noah, Deng and eventually Boozer, the Bulls will improve on last season’s 41-41 mark.

Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Bulls at 46.5. Look for the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls to win 48+ games and earn home court for at least one playoff round.

Friday, October 29, 2010

You've Got A Date With The Association!

Looking for reason to stay in on Friday night? Well… it’s the start of the first weekend of the NBA season, you probably have a free preview of NBA League Pass (it’s the only Friday where this is the case) and the Association’s got a solid 12-game slate to take you from quittin’ time deep into the night.

If you’re thinking of making a date with the big screen and the couch tonight, here’s a quick case for tuning in to each of Friday’s games:

Sacramento at New Jersey (7:00 PM): A TON of young talent on the floor. Brook Lopez, Devin Harris, Terrence Williams and #3 over pick Derrick Favors, who was solid and efficient in his debut, take take the floor for the Nets. Meanwhile, after a one-game suspension, this will be the 2010-11 debut of the reigning Rookie of the Year and future superstar Tyreke Evans. He’s joined by rookie stud DeMarcus Cousins, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson and Omri Casspi. Easy to overlook this game, but there are some players here!

Plus, how many more times in your life will you get to watch the undefeated Kings visit the undefeated Nets?

Atlanta at Philadelphia (7:00 PM): The Hawks looked fantastic on offense in their opener against the Grizzlies, shooting 52.5% from the floor and putting up 119 points. See if they continue to make me look silly. As for the Sixers, after hearing some murmurs that he may flounder as a pro, #2 overall pick Evan Turner played extremely hard, especially on D, against the Miami Heat Wednesday and put up a 16- 7- 4, made seven of his ten shots and even blocked a shot. He plays well at both ends and is really fun to watch.

Cleveland at Toronto (7:00 PM): We’ve got to get behind the jilted lovers, err, Cavs! They shoot for a 2-0 post-LeBron start. If basketball fans don’t support JJ Hickson and Ramon Sessions, the terrorists have won! Plus, Toronto’s got a beautiful home floor (especially in HD!) and a great home crowd. Their roster/ Not so much.

Indiana at Charlotte (7:00 PM): Yikes! This is a tough one. Frankly, you could probably skip this one, but if you want a reason to watch, the Pacers’ talented trio of Danny Granger, Darren Collison (a future star at PG) and Roy Hibbert (quietly becoming one of the NBA’s better centers) should keep your attention.

New York at Boston (7:30 PM): After a long, hard winter, the Knicks have finally got a team that even casual fans can enjoy rooting for. They’ve got a stud big man, a good-to-very-good PG and a weapon on the outside (Danilo Gallinari). Plus, it’s always fun to watch Celtics’ home games, especially against teams from rival cities (NY, LA, Philly), and Rajon Rondo has made the leap into not only the NBA’s top tier, but to “must watch” status.

Denver at New Orleans (8:00 PM): Hey, it’s the first “Get Me The Hell Outta Here” Bowl of 2010-11!

Seriously though, whatever the circumstances surrounding the superstars in this game, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony are two of the NBA’s ten best players, they always deliver the goods and are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Like with LeBron, sometimes the off-the-court stuff obscures players’ on-court brilliance. Don’t fall victim. Watch these guys- they’re consistently incredible.

Oklahoma City at Detroit (8:00 PM): Remember what I just told you about Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony? It’s no less the case with Kevin Durant. He’s good for 30+ a night, can score in every way imaginable and never looks uncomfortable on the floor. He’s another once-a-generation guy. Even against an absurdly sad team like the Pistons, he’s worth the time you’ll spend watching him. Plus, if you’re not too familiar with the work of Russell Westbrook, the PG on KD’s Thunder, he is a rising star and as much fun to watch as just about anyone player in the NBA.

Orlando at Miami (8:00 PM): ESPN’s early nation TV game. No need to have League Pass for this one.

What a winner this one is! The Superfriends return from a 1-1 road trip to make their long-awaited home debut (even on TV, that arena will be electric!) against their in-state rival- a fellow championship hopeful with whom they’ve traded plenty of choice words over the summer. Plus, based on what we’ve seen from Miami’s big men early on, you don’t think Dwight Howard would like to send a 50-points, 20-rebound message?

If you’re not jacked about this matchup, I’m not sure what compelled you to read this far down in the first place.

Milwaukee at Minnesota (8:00 PM): As someone who married into a Midwestern family, I have come to learn about the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry. Sure, it’s usually on a football field, but there’s always room for expansion.

In addition to seeing one of the few strong Target Center crowds of the season, this game will feature some young talent: Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings for the Bucks, and Michael Beasley and Kevin Love for the Wolves. Plus, this may be the game where Love punches Kurt Rambis for only playing him 20 minutes per game! Seriously, Rambis doesn't get a “respect for the game” technical foul for shackling Love?

Eh, my heart’s not even in it. Skip this one, watch Heat-Magic, check in on Durant and if you’re up to it, monitor this game for potential historical achievements.

Memphis at Dallas (8:30 PM): The only compelling reason to watch this game is a fairly simple one: there will be a lot of really good players on the floor in Big D. It’s generally worthwhile to watch a game that features one team with a pair of future Hall-of-Famers (Dirk and J-Kidd, who had an awesome 18 assists in the opener!) and three former All-Stars (Caron Butler, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry) against another with a skilled 20-10 lock (Zach Randolph), a super-athletic 20 ppg guy (Rudy Gay), a future star in the backcourt (O.J. Mayo) and one of the best (and still a bit unheralded) centers in the NBA (Marc Gasol).

LA Clippers at Golden State (10:30 PM): This one’s easy. Any game involving Monta Ellis (AI Light?), Stephen Curry and David Lee is gonna be incredibly fun to watch, but throw Blake Griffin into the mix? Yikes! Anyone who saw the first quarter of Griffin’s NBA career will be JACKED for this!

LA Lakers at Phoenix (10:30 PM): The second half of ESPN’s Friday doubleheader is a rematch of last spring’s Western Conference Finals. One side we have the NBA’s most skilled big man (Pau Gasol), a rested Kobe Bryant (should get big minutes)- who incidentally is another “never miss this guy” player- and an exciting supporting cast (Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes, just to name three). On the other side there’s Steve Nash, the best pure PG of his generation, with a full complement of toys, both old (Jason Richardson, Grant Hill and Channing Frye) and new (Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress). Throw in an always-raucous Phoenix crowd- especially jacked for a home-opener against the Lakers- and this will be one of the best games of the night. These games are always great!

Happy viewing!

Charlotte Bobcats: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 44-38
2009-10 Playoffs: #7 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Orlando Magic in four games
Additions: Shaun Livingston
Key Losses: Raymond Felton,
Projected Rotation Players: Gerald Wallace, Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, D.J. Augustin, Nazr Mohammed, Tyrus Thomas, DeSagana Diop, Shaun LivingstonGerald Henderson, Eduardo Najera

Look for the Charlotte Bobcats’ 2010-11 season to be slightly less depressing than that of the New Orleans Hornets- but only slightly.

Not really a whole lot to say here. After five seasons without a star or a season of more than 35 wins, the 2009-10 Bobs put together a few versatile pieces, played fantastic defense under an elite coach, won a franchise-best 44 games and made their playoff debut. That they were swept in he opening round by the Orlando Magic is disappointing, but hardly worthy of shame.

Ordinarily, when a six year-old franchise’s first trip to the playoffs is accompanied by a great deal of optimism and excitement. But then, ordinarily a six year-old franchise making its inaugural trip to the playoffs is presumably on the upswing, with a collection of young players that have yet to peak. Not the case here.

That four-game cameo in the 2010 playoffs may be the only taste of NBA postseason hoops (they still have the ACC tourney, right?) in the Queen City for some time to come. The Bobcats will pay out more than $110 million in salary over the next two seasons and, with the exception of Gerald Wallace, not a dime of it will go to an improving young player with star potential.

Over the next three years, the Bobs will pay a combined $33 million to DeSagana Diop and Matt Carroll (they should just exercise their player options for Year 3 right now). They’ve committed $40 million over the next five seasons to Tyrus Thomas- an awesome athlete with questionable maturity and basketball IQ, an extremely limited offensive game and the potential to turn into a total headcase following Larry Brown’s inevitable exit. They’ll be cutting $35 million worth of checks to Stephen Jackson, an awesome spark plug on a good team, a potential cancer on a bad one, and chunky Boris Diaw- with another $10+ million guaranteed to Jackson for 2012-13.

Looking for promising young players? Look elsewhere! In addition to the aforementioned Ty Thomas, injury-plagued PG (and HUGE Hype favorite) Shaun Livingston, potential lottery bust Gerald Henderson and D.J. Augustin- a potential career backup starting at the point- are the only 25-and-under rotation players.

The only big-money value on this roster is Gerald Wallace, the only All-star in franchise history, who’s got three years and $32 million left on his deal, but even that one’s got a strong attached. The third of those seasons is a player option, which Wallace will likely decline in favor signing a longer-term deal with a more competitive team.

All this, and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that Hall-of-Fame coach and catalyst for Bobs’ improvement on D, Larry Brown, is a lock to be eyeing the exit in April- if not sooner.

Not a pretty picture!

Bottom line: Poor attendance, a less-than-sparkling relationship with the fan base, a reputation for unabashed cheapness from ownership… Had this franchise not been purchased by the consensus greatest player ever (a player personnel debacle in his own right) in a deal personally blessed by David Stern, it would be a PRIME candidate for contraction.

This season promises to provide a brutal hangover to 2009-10’s playoff campaign. With a dearth of young talent, a roster full of overpaid veterans and the potential for meltdown from multiple players and a head coach that loves to hit the “eject” button, this season (and probably a few more to come) is poised to get ugly. Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Bobcats at 39.5. This number is laughably high. Look for the 2010-11 Bobs to win no more than 25-30 games.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Boston Celtics: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 50-32
2009-10 Playoffs: #4 seed; lost in NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games
Additions: Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, Delonte West, Avery Bradley, Semih Erden
Key Losses: Tony Allen, Michael Finley, Rasheed Wallace, Brian Scalabrine, Shelden Williams
Projected Rotation Players: Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kendrick Perkins (out until at least January), Glen Davis, Nate Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, Delonte West, Marquis Daniels

Look for the Celtics’ first two regular season games to be representative of 80 to come.

Just to clarify, I’m not predicting a .500 finish for the 2010-11 Celtics. This remains an extremely smart, talented and deep team whose place in the NBA’s top tier is set in stone.

However, the aging (now more than ever!) Celtics will struggle to score, leading to some unexpected losses- not unlike Wednesday night in Cleveland. For all of their talent and toughness, there an alarming lack of a go-to move on the Celtics. This team has only one player, Rajon Rondo, who’s capable of getting his own shot. And while Rondo can dominate without making a mark on the scoresheet and is capable getting to any spot on the floor, if he’s more than 10 feet away from the rim, he’s probably not going to score.

Of the remaining Celtics, two (Ray Allen and Paul Pierce) possess a consistent 3-point shot, three (Allen, Pierce, Kevin Garnett) can consistently hit a mid-range jumper and no one (maybe Garnett) commands a double team in the post. One of the O’Neals will occasionally find a rhythm inside, but both are shells of their former offensive selves. An overwhelming majority of this team’s easy buckets hinge completely on Rondo being able to penetrate and lay the ball off. This happens with incredible frequency, but puts the offense in the precarious position of being overly-reliant on a guy that doesn’t need to be guarded outside of 15 feet.

What all of that said, if we learned anything on Tuesday night (other than the fact that a Laker fan can root for the Celtics without bursting into flames), it’s that even in the absence of elite post stopper Kendrick Perkins and departed “defensive coordinator” Tom Thibodeau, the 2010-11 Celtics may be one of the best defensive teams we’ve seen in a long time. For starters, everyone in the rotation with the exception of Allen and Nate Robinson qualifies as at least a “good” rebounder.

On the perimeter, Rondo is an outstanding (and still improving) defender and one of the NBA’s elite ballhawks. He’s joined by rookie Avery Bradley, who’s expected to be a defensive stud, and Delonte West, another solid defensive guard. At the “3” Paul Pierce is still an excellent (and underrated) defender, and he’s backed up by a capable defender in Marquis Daniels.

Finally, up front, there’s KG, who looks better than he has in two years and should return to being an elite defender. Joining him is Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who’s undersized but a decent defender and a battler, and the Incredible Aging O’Neals. Shaq is practically cemented to the ground these days, but he’s still an experienced 330-pounder that can wear opposing bigs down by simply leaning on them. Meanwhile, for all that he’s lost at the offensive end, Jermaine remains a very good interior defender and shotblocker. All this, and not a mention of one of the game’s top-three interior defenders- Kendrick Perkins, who hopes to return from ACL surgery in January.

Look for the Celtics to regularly keep teams in the top third of the NBA in the 80s (or lower), and make them look silly in the process. However, this is also a team that will drop a handful of games to lottery-bound teams, and struggle to score 90 points in the process.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Celtics at 54.5. Like the Lakers out West, this is a veteran team that’s not concerned with regular season wins. Doc Rivers will push this team hard enough to secure a top-four seed in the playoffs, but not so hard that he drives them into the ground. There’s only one goal for these guys: a championship.

This team is built for the postseason, when the pace of games slows down and rest is easier to come by. The Celtics will win 50+ games, but as they prioritize rest for their veterans, some slippage may occur- just like last season. Look for these guys to win between 51 and 55 games in the regular season.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Atlanta Hawks: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 53-29
2009-10 Playoffs: #3 seed; lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Orlando Magic in four games
Additions: Jordan Crawford, Josh Powell, Etan Thomas
Key Losses: Joe Smith
Projected Rotation Players: Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Jamal Crawford, Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Jeff Teague, Maurice Evans, Jordan Crawford

After their recent ascent to the Eastern Conference’s top tier, look for the Hawks to fall back to the pack in 2010-11.

Not really going out on a limb here, but it’s virtually impossible to see anything different for the Hawks. Not after this core quit on itself and its coach in a conference semifinal sweep at the hands of the Orlando Magic, losing by an average of 25.3 points per game, including a humiliating 43-poit drubbing in Game 1.

Ordinarily when a 53-win, #3 playoff seed returns its top seven payers, it’s viewed as a good thing. Not here!

In the interest of maintaining “continuity,” the Hawks made a nine-figure commitment to a player that, in his prime, has been unable to lead a team past the second round of the playoffs and is ill-suited to be a team’s primary option. In committing to pay Joe Johnson (or “iso Joe”) $123.7 million over the next six seasons, the Hawks not failed to improve their team for the 2010-11 season, but have locked a ceiling of mediocrity for the next half-decade.

Joining Johnson for another go-round in the A-T-L are an aging defensive liability (Mike Bibby), a failure of a #2 overall pick with four years and $30 million left on an ill-advised contract (Marvin Williams), an aging shoot-first sixth man in a contract year (Jamal Crawford) and an excellent young big man that’s in line for a new contract extension, but may not get it thanks to a deal that will pay an almost 36 year-old Johnson just under $25 million in 2015-16.

Not mentioned above is Josh Smith, one of the best and most athletic PFs in the NBA- particularly at the defensive end- and the only member of the Hawks core whose age-contract-production combo won’t make you sad. Based on the matchup, Smith is capable of playing all three frontcourt positions, and creating problematic matchups himself. He’s an outstanding rebounder and plays strong interior defense.

In 2009-10, Smith enjoyed the best of his six NBA seasons, averaging 15.7 ppg (50% FG), 2.1 bpg and career-highs of 8.7 rpg, 4.2 apg, and 1.6 spg in 81 games. Smith became a more efficient scorer in 2009-10, in large part because he finally ditched the 3-point shot, attempting just seven 3-balls after trying at least 87 in each of the past four seasons, but never connecting on more than 30%. On a related note, according to Basketball Prospectus, Smith’s percentage of shots at the rim jumped to 54% (from 43%).

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Hawks at 46.5. This number seems to take into account continued deterioration in Mike Bibby’s game, uncertainty about the second unit (Jamal Crawford plus Zaza Pachulia, Mo Evans and a pair of rookies), the possibility that Josh Smith can’t top last season’s performance and the fact that one of their division-rivals, the Miami Heat, improved dramatically.

With the possible exception of Smith’s performance (that could be his new normal), all of these factors will conspire against the 2010-11 Hawks. My only disagreement is that this will likely shave more than six wins off of last season’s win total. Look for the Hawks to win at least 10 fewer games in 2010-11 than they did in 2009-10.

Utah Jazz: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 53-29
2009-10 Playoffs: #5 seed; lost in Western Conference Semifinals to the Los Angeles Lakers in four games
Additions: Al Jefferson, Raja Bell, Gordon Hayward, Earl Watson
Key Losses: Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews
Projected Rotation Players: Deron Williams, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur (inactive until at least January), Andrei Kirilenko, Raja Bell, C.J. Miles, Ronnie Price, Gordon Hayward, Kyrylo Fesenko

After losing a lot of depth on wings and on the perimeter, look for the 2010-11 Utah Jazz, as currently constructed, to take a step backward.

Although Chicago-bound PF Carlos Boozer was this summer’s the biggest-name departure, it’s the loss of a three-headed perimeter monster that will haunt the Jazz in 2010-11. This is in no small part because the Jazz almost immediately filled (upgraded?) Boozer’s spot with the reasonably priced (two second-rounders and Kosta Koufos) acquisition of low post specialist Al Jefferson. When healthy, Jefferson’s one of the league’s few 20-10 locks, and he’s entering his second season following ALC surgery, which is typically when guys return to 100% effectiveness.

He should also benefit from playing alongside not only the best PG of his career, but one of the NBA’s two best, Deron Williams. Jefferson spends the majority of his time on offense on the inside, has a treasure-trove of post moves and is a skilled passer out of the post, making him one of the NBA’s few old-school big men. He’s also got excellent footwork and some range on his jumper (~15 feet), making him a weapon on the pick-and-roll/pop. This duo will immediately establish itself as one of the league’s top inside-outside combos. It would not be surprising to see a career year from Jefferson (25-12?) and a Stockton-esque 12+ apg from D-Will.

However, there are a variety of areas where the Jazz will suffer in 2010-11. With Mehmet Okur (38.5% on 3s) out until at least January, and the departures of Wesley Matthews (38.2%) and Kyle Korver (53.6%; seriously), this team faces a huge drop-off in the perimeter shooting, unless the aging Raja Bell and rookie Gordon Hayward (some people really like him; I’m in the “bust” camp) can catch fire from beyond the arc.

The Jazz will also have to make some serious repairs at the defensive end. The Jazz has been subpar in terms of interior defense for some time (Boozer is not a good defnder and Jefferson is worse), but last season boasted a pair of excellent perimeter defenders- the aforementioned Matthews (who looked really good in his Portland debut; maybe they should have ponied up the cash for him) and Ronnie Brewer- that made up for their shortcomings inside, both of whom are gone. Raja Bell is touted as a defensive stopper, but his athleticism has slipped with age, and his last memorable defensive play incuded an attempt to maim Kobe Bryant.

Bottom line: The Jazz does possess one huge asset, Andrei Kirilenko’s expiring $17.8 million contract, that could be used to acquire the supporting cast needed to compete. However, and with all due respect to one of the league’s best players in Deron Williams, as long Utah has these holes on the roster, it’s impossible to include this team among the contenders in the West.

With the said, the Jazz should be able to ride the considerable offensive talents of Williams, Jefferson and Paul Millsap- who’s game is somewhat complementary to Jefferson’s- to a winning record. Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Jazz at 49.5. This is probably a bit optimistic. Look for the Jazz to win 44-46 games and grab a spot in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 50-32
2009-10 Playoffs: #7 seed; lost in Western Conference Semifinals to the Phoenix Suns in four games
Additions: Tiago Splitter, James Anderson, Bobby Simmons, Alonzo Gee, Gary Neal
Key Losses: Roger Mason, Keith Bogans, Ian Mahinmi
Projected Rotation Players: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, DeJuan Blair, Richard Jefferson, George Hill, Tiago Splitter, Antonio McDyess, Bobby Simmons

With DeJuan Blair starting in the middle and the likes of George Hill, Tiago Splitter, and James Anderson spearheading the second unit, look for the perpetually veteran-laden Spurs to establish a younger and more exciting persona.

Other than Blair, the Spurs’ starters have an average age of 31.3- 32.3 if we exclude Tony Parker, who’s shockingly only 28, but an old 28 . However, with the steal of the 2009 draft starting at center, and with second unit boasting more young impact players than at any time in recent years, the Spurs have quietly (would they do it any other way??) retooled their rotation.

A standout in college, Blair fell to the 37th pick of the 2009 draft because he doesn’t have an ACL in either knee- gotta admit, that does seem like a red flag. Coming off the bench as a rookie, he averaged 7.8 ppg and 6.4 rpg in 18 minutes per game (15.6- 12.8 in 36 minutes; forget ligaments!) and shot better than 55% from the floor. Given his lack of size (6’7”) and leaping ability (I guess ligaments do sometimes come in handy!), how effective he is on defense against other starting centers remains to be seen. However, he can be effective on the defensive end by using his 265-lb frame in the post (how many centers in today’s NBA are dominant post players?), crashing the boards and helping from the weak side. Plus, he’ll spend a good chunk of his minutes next to Tim Duncan, who will be forthcoming with pointers and defensive help.

Heading up the second unit, third-year PG George Hill is a great defender, efficient on offense, accurate on the “corner 3” (44.6% in 2009-10, according to Basketball Prospectus) and extremely familiar with coach Gregg Popovich, his system and the Spurs’ old guard. He will back up Tony Parker, but thanks to his length and defensive prowess, will share the backcourt at times with Parker.

Joining Hill in the “backup backcourt” is the 2009-10 Big 12 Player of the Year, James Anderson. As a Junior, he averaged 22.3 ppg (3rd in the nation). At 6’6”- 215, he’s got a solid NBA body. Anderson in an effective scorer off the dribble and can get to the free throw line. However, initially he'll be asked to be little more than a spot-up shooter, since he won’t spend much of his floor time as a top-three option offense.

Finally, we have Brazilian big man, Tiago Splitter, the 28th pick in the 2007 draft. A 26 year-old rookie, Splitter's got a well-rounded game and does almost everything (not a great rebounder) at least moderately well. He’s a smart player, effective on the pick-and-roll, can post-up (his left hand may need a bit of work, but I’m Splitter-ing hairs), can play on the perimeter and is a solid passer. An intelligent big man with well-rounded game? Yep, expect Splitter to complement Duncan, Parker and Ginobili perfectly.

Bottom line: The Spurs have their regular season win total decline each of the last fours (63 in 2005-06, to 58, 56, 54 and 50 in 2009-10). Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Spurs at 50.5. This number figures to be a bit low, considering the Spurs enter the 2010-11 season with their veterans healthy and rested, and with Tony Parker in a contract year (not that he isn’t ordinarily motivated- dude’s a champion). Also, this team features a solid corps of young impact players.

Look for the recent trend of declining win totals to be reversed in 2010-11. These Spurs should be good for 52-54 wins and a top-four seed in the postseason.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sacramento Kings: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 25-57
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Samuel Dalembert, Luther Head, Antoine Wright
Key Losses: Spencer Hawes, Andres Nocioni, Jon Brockman, Ime Udoka
Projected Rotation Players: Tyreke Evans, Carl Landry, DeMarcus Cousins, Beno Udrih, Donte Greene, Jason Thompson, Samuel Dalembert, Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia, Luther Head

Look for the 2010-11 Kings to play with lots of confidence, to notch victories in a bunch of games they’re not expected to win and to make a run at .500.

In fairness, however, the 2010-11 Kings will probably also lose a few games that they’re expected to win. Such is typically the fate of young, talented teams that are still developing an identity.

Of the league’s non-marquee teams, the Kings will probably be the most compelling. This team features an impressive collection of young talent- led by reigning Rookie of the Year and probable 2011 All-Star Tyreke Evans. In 2009-10, Evans became just the fourth rookie in NBA history (MJ, LeBron and Oscar Robertson are the others) to average 20+ ppg, 5+ rpg and 5+ apg, and there’s little reason to believe that he can’t pick up where he left off.

Combine his strength, which helps him flourish as a penetrator and a defensive stopper, with his awesome talent and his achievements as a rookie, and Evans looks poised to cement his place in the top-tier of NBA stars. If he’s been able to add consistency and range to his jump shot over the summer, he could be one of the league’s toughest matchups in the coming season.

Evans is flanked by a posse of long, strong, talented players, First up is DeMarcus Cousins, the fifth pick (top-two on talent, but he’s faced questions about his maturity) in June’s draft and potentially the steal of the draft. Cousins is an extremely skilled big man- versatile and aggressive on offense, a good passer and a beast on the glass. He can beat most bigs off the dribble, has a bit of range on his jumper, can bang inside but also has some finesse around the basket.

He could put up a double-double campaign as a rookie and will rival 2009 first overall pick Blake Griffin and his former University of Kentucky teammate John Wall for Rookie of the Year honors.

Up front alongside Cousins is a skilled trio that collectively possesses all the attributes you look for on the court. Carl Landry is an excellent inside scorer with some athleticism. He has a solid compliment of post moves, finishes well around the basket and get to the free line (over five FTA per game last season). A starting NBA PF wit his size (6’9”- 250) should be good for more than 5.9 rpg, but this is an area where he can definitely improve. As a matter of fact, this would be a good year for Landry to do so, as he’s entering a contract year.

Behind Landry on the depth chart is Jason Thompson, the 12th pick in the 2008 draft. Thompson has great size (6’11”- 250), is a very good rebounder (~8 per 30 minutes; 3 orpg) and can finish around the basket.

Finally, there’s Samuel Dalembert, acquired from Philly after nine seasons. If he gets minutes, he’ll be the solid 11-11 guy (per 36 minutes, career) that he’s been for nearly a decade now, and will be huge help on the offensive glass (3.7 per 36) and in the paint on D (2.7 bp36).

In the backcourt and on the wings, Tyreke Evans will have a range of options from which to choose, with Donte Green (an athletic 6’11”) and second-year man Omri Casspi at the “3”, with Francisco Garcia, Beno Udrih and Luther Head rounding out Sacto’s backcourt rotation.

Between Evans, Cousins, Landry, Thompson, Udrih and Casspi, the Kings have six potential 15+ ppg scorers and are well-positioned to be among the best sources for fantasy prospects. Additionally, on those nights when a majority of these guys (most importantly Evans and Cousins) have their “A games,” the Kings have the potential to put up huge numbers and slay the NBA’s giants.

In fairness, there will probably be more than few other nights…

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Kings at 27.5. With two mega-talents like Evans and Cousins leading the charge, and with a well-rounded group of legitimate NBA players surrounding them, this figure could prove laughably low.

Not sure if the Kings are ready to make a serious playoff push in 2010-11, but if healthy, these Kings are a virtual lock to win at least 35 games and should make a run at the franchise’s first winning record since 2005-06.

Portland Trailblazers: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 50-32
2009-10 Playoffs: #6 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Phoenix Suns in six games
Additions: Wesley Matthews, Fabricio Oberto, Luke Babbitt
Key Losses: Jerryd Bayless, Martell Webster, Juwan Howard
Projected Rotation Players: Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Greg Oden, Fabricio Oberto, Rudy Fernandez

Look for injuries and attitude problems to eat away at the Blazers’ optimism of recent years.

What happened here? Just two years ago, the Blazers were optimism personified- young, talented, united and exceedingly likable. This was a team on the rise, inexperienced and nagged by the occasional injury, but without question a contender in the Western Conference for the better part of the next decade.

In the 24 months that have followed, this appears to have evaporated. The incredibly likability? A casualty of infighting. The injuries that had previously been mere nuisances now derail seasons.

First, there was $21 million free agent PG Andre Miller, signed in the summer of 2008. A starter for all but one game before joining Portland, Miller immediately clashed with coach Nate McMillan about his role on the team and has reportedly had a tough time meshing with incumbent superstar and face of the franchise, Brandon Roy. The duo hasn’t exactly meshed on the floor, with Miller only at his best when Roy’s been out with an injury. Both players need to dominate the ball in order to be effective, and the latest chapter of this mini-drama, Brandon Roy’s laid down the law.

Meanwhile there’s Rudy Fernandez. Oh Rudy! The wheels on this one came flying off quickly. Upon entering the NBA in 2008, Rudy became an immediate favorite of fans across the league (I wanted more Rudy in my life!). Abe to score from anywhere on the floor, he was a spark plug of the bench and a key contributor as a rookie. His 159 3-pointers in 2008-09 were a record for a rookie.

Last season he struggled with injuries and became increasingly unhappy with his role on the team and team’s walk-it-up style. His shooting numbers slipped considerably, from both sides of the 3-point line, and he was simply awful in thee Blazers first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns, averaging just 6.8 ppg and failing to make an impact on the series.

The arrival of Wesley Matthews likely signals the beginning of the end for Rudy in Portland. And this would be just fine by him, as he has shown a desire to traded and was fined $25,000 by the league after his agent said that Rudy might not to report to training camp. Given his ineffective play in 2009-10, the subsequent deterioration in his attitude and his public desire to blow town (thanks for torching your trade value Rudy!), look for Rudy to be shipped out of town in the coming weeks.

And then there’s the first pick in the 2007 draft, Greg Oden. The big man chosen ahead of Kevin Durant (oof!) who’s suited up for just one out of every three (82 of 246) Blazers’ games since he was drafted.

Last December, just days after establishing career-highs in points (24) and rebounds (20) and looking like a lock to become one of the NBA’s most dominant rebounders and shotblockers, he suffered his most recent catastrophic blow, as a fractured patella ended his season. On Monday, 10 months after the injury, Oden participated in 5-on-5 drills for the first time. After his workout, he said that there’s no definite timetable for his return, but Oden and the club (and fans as well, not just the ones in Portland) are hoping for a late-November/early-December return. However, anyone buying into this timetable may want to take out insurance.

On those rare occasions when he’s healthy and able to log significant floor time, Oden actually looks really good. Prior to his latest injury, Oden looked great in the paint with 11.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 21 starts and was becoming increasingly comfortable with the flow of the NBA game, and his role in it.

One would assume that Oden’s return to the floor will restore much of the lost optimism from recent years. And while his return will be cheered by fans across the NBA, even when everything seems to be going swimmingly, there will always be a lingering fear in the back of every Blazer fan’s mind. A fear that it could all end on play.

Not good for optimism.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Blazers at 51.5. This number appears to be rather optimistic given the lack of reliable depth in the middle (Oden and Joel Przybilla missed 113 games last season and Camby’s played 70+ game just four times in his career), instability in the backcourt (Miller-Roy, Rudy’s meltdown impending exit and the need to integrate Wesley Matthews) and a total lack of rebounding outside of the center position. Not only is this team unlikely to win 52+ games in 2010-11, they could miss the number by 10 or ore wins and will finish no better than #8 in the West.

Phoenix Suns: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 54-28
2009-10 Playoffs: #3 seed; lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games
Additions: Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick, Gani Lawal
Key Losses: Amar’e Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa, Louis Amundson
Projected Rotation Players: Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, Robin Lopez, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, Hakim Warrick, Jared Dudley

Now that he’s no longer being asked to be a first option, look for Hedo Turkoglu thrive as part of a deep, versatile crew.

In just one disastrous season north of the border, Turkoglu somehow managed to engender a level of hatred that had previously been reserved for one, Vincent Lamar Carter. Hell, Chris Bosh hosted his own “Decision” special for the entire regular season and he’s likely to get less venom than Hedo in his first trip back.

I guess that’s the price you pay for signing a $50 million deal before proceeding to blatantly mail in an entire season while playing in front a passionate and knowledgeable fan base. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Turk got himself suspended in March, after he was spotted late at night in a Toronto nightclub after missing a due to a “stomach virus”… and later said he wanted to leave the team, claiming he’d been mistreated by Raptors' management.

So, yeah. Don’t look for Hedo to get much love on February 25, when the Suns visit Toronto.

While there’s no excuse for so blatantly disrespecting your employer and an entire fn base, the fact that Turkoglu was miscast in his on-court role may have contributed to bad attitude and subpar performance as Raptor. Although he possesses the idea size and skill set to be a team’s primary playmaker as a “point 4,” Hedo’s more suited to play a role as a part of an ensemble cast.

If we look back on the teams on which Hedo’s thrived in the past- at the start of his career in Sacramento, and later with the Orlando Magic- he’s was always one of the most skilled players, but he’s been surrounded by versatile, skilled players and has never needed to be the primary option on offense.

As he’s done in the past, Turkoglu begins his run in Phoenix not expected to be savior or even a star. He’ll simply be asked to do what he’s done best throughout his career- be one member of a talented cast and use his versatility against opposing forwards to create matchup problems. Playing alongside versatile talents like Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson and to a lesser extent (duh!) Josh Childress and Goran Dragic, Turk will get open looks, he’ll have opportunities to isolate against slower bigs and will get to be a secondary facilitator. While it may not show up in the numbers, this is an ideal situation for Hedo Turkoglu. Look for him to return to form in 2010-11.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Suns at 41.5. While a return trip to the Western Conference Finals is unlikely in the aftermath of Amar’e Stoudemire’s departure, the 2010-11 Suns have the talent and versatility to put together a .500+ regular season. Look for the Suns to rack up 42-45 regular season wins in 2010-11 and likely grab one of the final two playoff spots in the West.

Despite advancing age (37 in February) and nagging injuries, Steve Nash has not lost a step. He will continue to be one of the top PGs in the league and the clear leader of this team, but should benefit from a lighter playmaking workload with Turkoglu and a more experienced Goran Dragic in the rotation.

Meanwhile, frontcourt addition Hakim Warrick has averaged 10.6 ppg and 4.3 rpg in just 20 minutes per game in his career- which works out to roughly 18- 8 per 36 minutes- and he’s never played alongside Steve Nash. This is not to suggest that Warrick is Amar’e’s equal, or that he can mae the same type of postseason impact, but it’s reasonable to think that in longer minutes, with Nash feeding him, Warrick can be a very productive frontcourt player.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oklahoma City Thunder: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 50-32
2009-10 Playoffs: #8 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games
Additions: Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Morris Peterson, Royal Ivey
Key Losses: Kyle Weaver, Etan Thomas, Kevin Ollie
Projected Rotation Players: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, Nenad Krstic, Nick Collison, James Harden, Eric Maynor, Morris Peterson

Look for the OKC Thunder to live up to most, if not all of the hype, thanks in no small part to Russell Westbrook joining Kevin Durant in the NBA’s top 25.

The last young team made this kind of leap from “promising upstart” to budding dynasty” was the Chris Paul-led 2008 Hornets (sorry NOLA!), and the groundswell of support for them was not what it has been for the 2010-11 Thunder- and those Hornets actually won a playoff series!

With that said, OKC has even greater cause for optimism than did CP3’s 2008 crew. Both teams boast(ed) a once-in-a-generation superstar, a likable core group that really pulls for one another, a raucous and adoring new-to-the-NBA crowd, a strong relationship with their fans and at least a couple of solid veterans (both featured Mo-Pete!).

A pretty good recipe for optimism, no?

However, on top of all this, OKC has something that CP’s Hornet’s lacked: a second budding superstar. When the Hornets’ were in the midst of their ascent, Paul’s primary support- Tyson Chandler, David West and Peja Stojakovic- played extremely well and were all All-Star caliber players, but even at that time, each of them kinda was who we thought they were. This is not say that these guys couldn’t improve, but Chandler wasn’t going to evolve into David Robinson. West is a damn good player, but no one thought he was going to become Karl Malone.

In the case of the Thunder, we know that Kevin Durant is a top-four guy, a perennial MVP candidate and as long as he’s healthy, a virtual lock to average 30+ ppg. We also know that Jeff Green is essentially a talented third or fourth banana- a good player that haz a bit of room for improvement, but not a bona fide star.

But what abut Russell Westbrook? Where do we place him? What’s his ceiling?

After scoring 15.3 ppg as a rookie, Westbrook pushed his scoring average to 16.1 ppg (though not very efficiently, with FG-3-pt percentages of 41.8% and 22.1%). He averaged 5.3 apg (v. 3.3 TO/game) as a rookie combo guard. In his second season as a point guard, that number jumped to 8 apg, without any uptick in turnovers. According to Basketball Prospectus, Westbrook was one of eight players in the NBA to record an assist on at least 10% of his team’s possessions. In doing so, he shed the title of “average point guard” and joined the NBA’s elite.

He also possesses the strength, speed and quickness to get into the lane almost at will, and is a great passer off the drive. He’s also an excellent ballhawk with the potential to be an elite defender. He’ll need to refine his offensive game (developing a semi-reliable jumper and getting to the FT line more frequently are good starting points) so that it’s not entirely reliant on his athleticism. He’s already shown the ability to do this in spurts- namely last spring’s 20- 6- 6 in six tough games against the eventual champion Lakers and his fantastic performance in the FIBA World Championships- so consistency will the be the next goal.

Assuming his offseason work, combined with the invaluable experience he’s gained in recent months, leads to even modest improvement from Year 2 to Year 3, it’s difficult to see Westbrook averaging less that 20 ppg, 10 apg (that’s just three per half to KD and one per quarter to anyone else) and 1.5 spg. Take into consideration how good he was to begin with, and Westbrook should cement his status as a top-five PG in 2010-11.

Bottom line: From a PR perspective, no team benefitted from LeBron’s “Decision” more than the Thunder. Although they have yet to advance past the opening round of the playoffs, this young, exciting and soft-spoken crew has become the darlings of the NBA. However, based on their playoff performance against the Lakers and the exceptional play of KD and Westbrook (the NBA’s third best duo by season’s end; LeBron-Wade, Kobe-Pau…. And?) at the World Championships, they look like a safe bet to justify much of “contender” hype they’ve received over the summer.

Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Thunder at 51.5. Barring an injury to Durant and/or Westbrook, this looks like free money. OKC came out of nowhere to win 50 games last season. Nothing happened this summer to suggest that that 2010-11 won’t bring improvement. This team will enter the postseason in the top half of the Western Conference with no fewer than 54-55 wins, and maybe more.

New Orleans Hornets: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 37-45
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Trevor Ariza, Marco Belinelli, Jerryd Bayless, Willie Green, Quincy Pondexter, DJ Strawberry, Pops Mensah-Bonsu
Key Losses: Darren Collison, James Posey, Morris Peterson, Darius Songaila, Julian Wright
Projected Rotation Players: Chris Paul, David West, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Marcus Thornton, Marco Belinelli, Jerryd Bayless, Peja Stojakovic, Aaron Gray

Look for the wheel to come flying off the New Orleans Hornets franchise in 2010-11… early and violently.

Duck and cover Hornets’ fans! This is gonna get ugly!

Regardless of how hard Chris Paul tries to sell us on his continued devotion to the Hornets (the people of the city of New Orleans are a different story. I believe he’s devoted to them), his displeasure with the franchise is palpable. He continues to say all the right things, but given the downgrades to the roster, it’s pretty tough to imagine that he actually means a single syllable of what he’s saying.

While the Hornets have about $19 million worth of expiring contracts ($15.3 for Peja Stojakovic and ~$4 million for Willie Green) that could be parlayed into significant on-court help for CP3, as one of the NBA’s least financial viable (and cheapest) franchises, they’re unlikely to commit to making the most of the opportunity.

Additionally, the team’s second best player, star PF David West is, for all intents and purposes, a free agent at season’s end (he’ll make ~$8.3 million in 2009-10 and has a player option for 2011-12 for $7.5 million, a pay cut if 9%). He’s already stated that he’ll be testing the market next summer, as one of the Association’s top free agents. This sets up a brutal Catch-22 for the Hornets, as they likely have NO chance of convincing Paul to stick around without a happy and committed West. However, West would be crazy to commit the remaining years of his prime years to this organization with one of Chris Paul’s feet already out the door.

So, with West committed to free agency and unlikely to return and second-round steal and budding star SG Marcus Thornton becoming a restricted free agent after the season, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza are the only legitimate NBA players to which CP3 would be guaranteed to in 2011-12. Yikes.

Combine all of these ingredients- a cheap franchise that’s drowning in red ink and in the midst of a talent exodus- with the Hornets’ poor attendance in NOLA and David Stern’s recent insinuation that contraction is very much on the table as part of the effort to cut players costs by $700 million (I hear the contracted owners do quite well in these transactions), and suddenly fans in the Big Easy should be worried not about an extended period of rebuilding for the Hornets, but their swift disassembly.

Bottom line: Like I said, this is likely to get ugly. Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Hornets at 41.5. With relative full and productive seasons from both Chris Paul and David West- in other words, the dream scenario- an over-.500 finish would be very much in play, but still not a lock.

With Chris Paul and David West seemingly already thinking about their next NBA homes and unlikely to both end the season in New Orleans, another losing record is all but guaranteed.

Minnesota Timberwolves: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 15-67
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster, Luke Ridnour, Anthony Tolliver, Nikola Pekovic
Key Losses: Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Ramon Sessions, Ryan Hollins
Projected Rotation Players: Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster, Corey Brewer, Luke Ridnour, Anthony Tolliver, Darko Milicic, Sebastian Telfair, Wayne Ellington

Thanks to a pair of young and talented starting forwards, look for the 2010-11 Timberwolves to show improvement on offense and to be competitive on a nightly basis.

With that said, you probably don’t want to bank on this team actually winning too many games. However, for a team that lost by 20+ points 21 times and surrendered 129+ points five times in non-overtime games in 2009-10, simply forcing opposing starters to log fourth quarter minutes will be a step forward.

Over the summer, the Wolves dealt stud PF Al Jefferson, owner of one of the NBA’s best low post arsenals, and his eight-figure salary to the Utah Jazz, effectively handing “face of the franchise” status to Kevin Love. This was a good move given Love’s excellent rebounding and passing ability, and his exceptionally high basketball IQ- particularly if there is any lingering uncertainty surrounding Jefferson’s return to form after a torn ACL in 2009.

With Love having more room in and around the paint in which to operate, he can be a great facilitator from the “4” and could lighten the workload for the Wolves’ outmanned backcourt. The irony of this team still desperately needing a top-tier PG should not be lost on anyone.

Starting alongside Love in the frontcourt will be the #2 overall pick in the 2008 draft, Michael Beasley, who was acquired in the offseason from the Miami Heat in exchange for a pair of second-round picks. Though he’s failed to live up to the lofty expectations brought about by his IMMENSE talent and fantastic freshman season at Kansas State, Beasley is just two seasons removed from averaging 26.2 ppg, 12.4 rpg and leading the nation with 28 double-doubles. He’s averaged just 14.3- 5.9 in two seasons as a pro- not the stuff of legend, but hardly terrible. Look for him to benefit from the change of scenery and to develop into an extremely productive NBA player. I frankly wouldn’t be surprised to see him emerge as a 20-10 guy in Minnesota.

I realize I’m way more bullish on Beasley that most, but he hasn’t totally forgotten how to play the game of basketball and doesn’t turn 22 until January. As for the character issues that everyone loves to bring up? I don’t think they’re nearly as catastrophic as we’re led to believe and stem from kids being expected to be superhuman simply because they are pulling a big paycheck. Michael Beasley is not the first 20 year-old to smoke a little weed and dick around at his job! Again, he’s an all-world talent and is just 21.

It’s entirely possible that the basketball world’s given up on him too soon, right?

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Timberwolves at 23.5. This team’s definitely improved compared with last season, especially on the front line, but the Wolves have a serious lack of depth and NBA-level talent in the backcourt. While they’ll be better than they were in 2009-10, in arguably the deepest division in the NBA, it’s tough to see where a nine-win improvement is going to come from. Look for the 2010-11 T-Wolves to be an encouraging 20-22-win team, but not a whole lot more.

Memphis Grizzlies: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 40-42
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Tony Allen, Xavier Henry, Greivis Vasquez, Acie Law
Key Losses: Ronnie Brewer
Projected Rotation Players: Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Xavier Henry, Sam Young, DeMarre Carroll, Hamed Haddadi

Look for Rudy Gay’s massive contract to hinder the Grizzlies’ ascent to contention in 2010-11, and probably beyond.

Luol Deng. Andre Iguodala. Michael Redd. Andrei Kirilenko. And more recently, Joe Johnson and Rudy Gay. You wanna know the main reason we’re probably going see another NBA lockout in the summer of 2011? Mediocre teams grossly overvaluing their own guys. Scoring 20 a night on a middle-of-the-road team is not the sign of a franchise player.

NBA owners have put the league’s future in jeopardy not because of the decision to pay Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tin Duncan $20 million annually, but because of a perennial inability to resist doling (Dolan?) out superstar contracts to players who would be no better than a third option on a title contender. In doing this, owners- most of whom are presumably pretty intelligent given their nine- and ten-figure net worths- make huge long-term financial commitments in order to essentially lock in a ceiling of mediocrity, all while running the risk of alienating other players on the team who feel (sometimes rightfully) that they’re every bit as deserving of the fat paycheck as the team’s “superstar.”

The five-year, $82 million contract given to Rudy Gay by the Grizzlies not only overvalues Gay by 50-60%, but will likely have the double-whammy effect of costing the team at least one, and probably two, of its other three good players. He's a nice young player, but seems a bit outlandish to reward 19.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.9 apg and terrible defense (from a guy who’s motivation and worth ethic have frequently been questioned) with max dollars. Throw in the fact that it will likely force the team to deal the super-talented O.J. Mayo, who’s due to get overpaid himself in a couple of years and has clashed Gay in the past, and this transaction looks, to put it delicately, questionable.

On the bright side, the Grizz will have almost $40 million (Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Marko Jaric and draft busts Hasheem Thabeet and Mike Conley, neither of whom warrants a contract extension) come off the cap at season’s end. While this more than offsets Gay’s huge salary, the savings are likely to be short-lived, as the Grizz will be looking to re-sign Randolph and Gasol, neither of whom would settle for a sub-nine-figure salary under the current system.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Grizzlies at 38.5. This is a very talented team that’s got a year of experience playing together and does not share its division with an elite team.

Despite my less-than-flattering assessment of Rudy Gay’s contract, he is a very good player, as are frontcourt mates Randolph (who can get you 20-10 on accident), Gasol and, for as long he’s on the team, O.J. Mayo. The Grizz will also feature the perimeter defense of Tony Allen and the outstanding shooting of rookie Xavier Henry off the bench.

Not sure if they’ve got a postseason run in them, though it's definitely possible. Whether they reach the postseason, and regardless of what happens in the summer of 2011 and beyond, the 2010-11 Grizzlies should be at least a .500 team.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Los Angeles Lakers: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 57-25
2009-10 Playoffs: #1 seed; defeated the Boston Celtics in seven games to win the NBA championship
Additions: Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks, Derrick Caracter, Theo Ratliff
Key Losses: Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell
Projected Rotation Players: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Derrick Caracter, Theo Ratliff

As Kobe Bryant enters his 15th NBA season after knee surgery, look for Pau Gasol to slowly move from the Lakers’ second option to “option 1a.”

Right off the bat, let’s get one thing clear: a modest upgrade in Gasol’s role would NOT signal the end of Kobe Bryant’s run as a top-flight player. If anything, doing so will extend it.

However, Kobe’s neither getting any younger nor- despite his incredible force of will and ability to play through pain- is his body as fresh as it’s been in years past. With more than 1,300 meaningful (regular & postseason) games in 14 seasons under his belt, Kobe may be the oldest 32 year-old in NBA history. It’s already been revealed that Phil Jackson plans to limit his superstar’s minutes in the coming year (though limiting his games could be the more prudent play), especially as he works out some kinks and gets back up to speed.

Given Kobe’s struggles this offseason- 12.6 ppg and 28.2% from the field in roughly 22 minutes per game- it’s clear that lightening his considerable workload is vital to the Lakers’ shot at a three-peat.

Meanwhile, Pau Gasol, the second option on three straight Finals teams (and two straight title-winners) and an elite NBA big man, is more than capable of shouldering an even larger load for this team. In the middle of the past decade, Gasol was the centerpiece of three 45+-win (and playoff bound) Memphis Grizzlies’ teams- and he never played with the likes of Kobe, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. Rather than relying on Kobe to carry his usual heavy load, a Kobe-and-Gasol-led Laker team should win 55+ games in the regular season and will likely still emerge as top-three seed in the Western Conference.

As the Lakers pursue their second championship three-peat since 2000, reassigning some of Kobe’s offensive responsibility to Gasol will allow Kobe to not only rest his knee during the regular season, but to go full speed in the postseason and shoulder a full workload the Lakers’ pursuit of a 17th championship.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Lakers at 56.5. This is probably the right number for this team, with the smart money on the “under” (by no more than 2-3 games, but still).

While Kobe’s health and Pau’s role atop the team will garner attention during the regular season, this is a classic “waiting for the postseason” team. With a healthy Andrew Bynum (hope springs eternal!), the Lakers will field one of the best big lineups in recent memory. In addition to the 7’ Bynum, the Lakers will trot out a roster consisting of Kobe (6’6”), Gasol (7’0"), Lamar Odom (6’10”), Ron Artest (6’7”), Matt Barnes (6’7”), Shannon Brown (6’4”, pretty good for a PG), Theo Ratliff (6'10", and happy to more than just an expiring contract) and second-rounders Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter (6’9” each).

If the Lakers are able to field their full complement of talent in the postseason, irrespective of opposition, they'll be well-positioned to make a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, and a solid bet to secure the franchise's sixth title since 2000.

Los Angeles Clippers: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 29-53
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Ryan Gomes, Eric Bledsoe, Randy Foye, Al-Farouq Aminu
Key Losses: Drew Gooden, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, Steve Novak, Mardy Collins
Projected Rotation Players: Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Baron Davis, Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye, Craig Smith, Eric Bledsoe, Rasual Butler, Al-Farouq Aminu

Despite trotting out one of the league’s best starting units, look for the Clippers to struggle (again!), thanks to a sorry second unit and another mediocre coach.

There’s a chance that, man-for-man, the 2010-11 Clippers’ starting five is one of the NBA’s five best. It’s not difficult to envision any of their top four earning a trip to the All-Star Game.

First off, there’s Blake Griffin, who is a maniac. At 6’9”-250, he’s built like an NFL tight end- and plays with same kind of abandon- but is also blessed with great hands, a soft touch around the basket and elite athleticism. As long as he doesn’t hurl his body into another serious injury, Griffin has an excellent chance to average 20-12 as a “rookie” and quickly establish himself as one of the league’s top frontcourt players.

Griffin’s perimeter complement is 2008 first-rounder, Eric Gordon. Gordon’s averaged 16+ ppg in each of his two pro seasons, and should become an even more prolific and efficient scorer playing off of Griffin. He’s an underrated penetrator and an excellent shooter, both coming off of screens and spotting up. He also puts a lot of effort into playing really tough defense on the perimeter.

In the middle is the first of two guys in this unit that’s already been an All-Star, Chris Kaman. After missing a combined 77 games over the previous two years, he suited up 76 times in 2009-10 and enjoyed the most productive season (18.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg) of his seven-year career and earned himself an All-Star nod. Kaman’s one of the few traditional centers remaining in the NBA, and while he’s not quite cut out to be a team’s primary offensive weapon, he should do well as the Clips’ #2 frontcourt option.

Finally, at the point, there’s two-time All-Star (neither as a Clipper) Baron Davis. Davis signed a massive ($65 million) deal with the Clippers in the summer of 2007 and proceeded to lay an epic egg in his first season as a Clipper. Baron recovered in 2009-10, as he turned in a solid season as a playmaker (8 apg, 2.8 asst/TO) and a ballhawk (1.7 spg), while scoring 15.3 ppg (albeit not very efficiently). It’s well chronicled that Baron has a bit of “frontrunner” in him and is more engaged on team’s that are stacked with talent. Given this, he should have a great time running the point alongside his fellow 2010-11 Clipper starters. If he can lay off the outside shot (27.7% on 3’s in 2009-10) and focus on being a facilitator, Baron could averaged 10+ apg (and maybe create a market for a currently immovable contract that’s due to pay him over $41 million through 2012-13.

Meanwhile, either Ryan Gomes or Rasual Butler give the Clippers a solid option at the “fifth man.” Gomes is a bit of a tweener, but is relatively efficient scorer, while Butler is a tough defender and a decent 3-point shooter. If the remainder of the starting five is able to stay healthy, whichever of these two wins the Clips’ final starting spot will get plenty of open looks and could have the best season of his career.

While a foundation of Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon flanked by quality a pair of quality veterans inspires optimism, there’s not much on the bench that does the same. New coach Vinnie Del Negro had a .500 record in two years with the Bulls, is not a great game manager and was let go following a physical confrontation with GM John Paxon. Meanwhile, the Clippers’ backups- Randy Foye, Rasual Butler, Craig Smith, DeAndre Jordan and first-rounders Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe- lack either the experience or the basketball aptitude (in Aminu’s case it could sadly be a bit of both) to make much of a contribution.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Clippers at 36.5. Based on its first-string talent, this is a team that should smash this figure. With even mediocre backup, this group could carry the Clippers to 45-50 wins and a middle seed in the Western Conference. However, with a woefully undermanned second unit and an awful in-game coach, any time missed by the starters to injury- which is inevitable to some extent - will cost the Clippers W’s. Look for this to be a 36-38-win team.

Houston Rockets: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 42-40
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Key Additions: Courtney Lee, Brad Miller, Patrick Patterson
Key Losses: Trevor Ariza
Projected Rotation Players: Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Yao Ming, Aaron Brooks, Courtney Lee, Shane Battier, Kyle Lowry, Chase Budinger, Brad Miller, Chuck Hayes

Look for the Rockets to admit defeat (or at least consider it) on Yao Ming (and his expiring $17.7 million contract) ahead of February’s trade deadline.

Let’s be honest. Even if the Rockets’ 24-minutes-per-game limit is able to keep Yao healthy for the entire upcoming season, it will be the exception, not the rule. A healthy 2010-11 will not mean that he’s no longer injury prone.

Looking at the Rockets’ roster, as presently constructed, it’s clear that this is not only a front office that in interested in accumulating assets on its roster, but one that’s prepared for life after Yao.

With matchup nightmare (and newly re-signed) Luis Scola crashing the boards and scoring from both the inside and the outside (to ~17 feet), surrounded by a group of shooters and penetrators/slashers that includes efficient scorer and potential All-Star Kevin Martin, Aaron Brooks, Shane Battier (also an excellent perimeter defender), Courtney Lee (also an excellent defender) and Chase Budinger, the Rockets have assembled a core that is one big body away from contention. It would be possible to argue that Yao is that piece, but only if the person making that argument has any trust is his ability to stay healthy for a extended period.

Despite a tentative reliance on Yao’s presence, the 2010-11 Rocket are assembled as more of a competitive transition team than a legitimate contender. Not only is Yao a massive ($17.7M) expiring contract that can be parlayed into some top-flight talent, Battier and Jared Jeffries represent another ~$14.2 million in cap relief that non-contenders would gladly surrender legitimate talent to acquire. Thanks to the outstanding strategic approach of GM Darryl Morey and his team, the 2010-11 Rockets are a team in transition that will spare its fan base much of the pain normally associated with the retooling process.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Rockets at 48.5. It’s tough to see this team getting within 10 wins of this number. As good as Kevin Martin, Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola are (and they’re pretty good), not one of this trio is cut out to be the best player on a ~50 –win team in a tough conference.

If it sounds like I’m dismissing the possibility that Yao can stay healthy and make a significant contribution to contender, it’s because that’s exactly what I’m doing. Yao has played more than 57 games once in the past five years, and there’s no reason other than blind faith to believe that he’ll do so this year. With an aging and far less effective Brad Miller behind him, it’s tough to project the 2010-11 Rockets as much more than a 36-38-win team.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Golden State Warriors: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 26-56
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: David Lee, Louis Admunson, Dorell Wright, Epke Udoh, Dan Gadzuric, Charlie Bell
Key Losses: Corey Maggette, Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike, Anthony Morrow, Ronny Turiaf, C.J. Watson, Anthony Tolliver
Projected Rotation Players: Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, David Lee, Andris Biedrins, Reggie Williams, Louis Admunson, Dorell Wright, Brandan Wright, Valdimir Radmanovic, Jeremy Lin or Charlie Bell

New ownership, new coach, a new frontcourt stud and an improved attitude from their best player- look for the Warriors to emerge as the Western Conference’s feel-good team in 2010-11.

Last season, not only were the Golden State Warriors not very good, from the top of the organization on down, there was not a whole lot to like here. What a difference a year makes!

First and foremost, on July 16, VC mogul Joe Lacob, and Mandalay Entertainment Chairman Peter Guber agreed to purchase the franchise for an NBA-record $450 million, bringing to a close the comically inept reign of Jim Dolan wannabe Chris Cohan.

Heading into camp, Don Nelson- the NBA’s equivalent of an emotionally abusive parent- resigned as the Warriors’ head coach, likely at the urging of his new bosses. Keith Smart, Nelson’s longtime assistant, a more player-friendly and far more defensive-minded coach (in fairness, for a coach following Nellie, this is a low hurdle to clear) will take over on the bench.

Earlier in the summer, the Warriors managed to find a taker (the Milwaukee Bucks) for looter-in-a-riot Corey Maggette and the remaining three years and $30 million of his contract.

They then sent Anthony Randolph and his perpetual frown (and two great guys in Kelenna Azubuike and Ronny Turiaf) to NYC, in exchange for likable and hard-working (but defensively-challenged and somewhat overpaid) double-double machine, David Lee.

Lee, free-agent swingman Dorell Wright and Turiaf-esque rebounder/spark plug Louis Amundson join the undersized-but-explosive backcourt of 2010 Rookie-of-the-Year runner-up Stephen Curry and Allen Iverson clone Monta Ellis and (50 ppg from this duo is not out of the question), a hopefully healthy Andris Biedrins and D-League success story, Reggie Williams in the Warriors’ rotation.

While defensive will likely remain at a premium in Oakland, points should still be fairly easy to come by. If healthy on the front line, this team will be much more balanced on offense than in years past, with the ability to generate points (and plenty of them) not only in transition and from the perimeter, but also in the paint out of a half court set. These Warriors will still possess one of the NBA’s potent offenses- it’s difficult to imagine a team not being able make that claim with Curry and Ellis (who's now happily married and has a newfound positive attitude to playing with Curry) in its starting backcourt- although Smart may gently tap the brakes on the chaotic, disjointed style of the Nellie era.

Despite a more structured approach on offense, the Warriors will still play a faster pace than most, if not all teams in the NBA. When they are able to control tempo and get an opponent to abandon its gameplan and conform to their style, which could happen with some frequency, they will be able to play with anyone and will probably steal wins against some of the NBA’s best teams.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Warriors at 30.5. Barring a cataclysmic string of injuries the like of which this team suffered in 2009-10, especially on the front line, this figure should prove to be way too low. If this pretty talented crew is able to stay on the floor for most of the season, 40+ wins is a very real possibility. It’s probably a year too early to think about the playoffs, but this team should have a very encouraging season, with handful of wins over some elite teams.

Denver Nuggets: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 53-29
2009-10 Playoffs: #4 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Utah Jazz in six games
Additions: Al Harrington, Shelden Williams
Key Losses: Johan Petro, Joey Graham
Projected Rotation Players: Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, J.R. Smith, Al Harrington, Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Renaldo Balkman

Look for the 2010-11 Nuggets to take the term “contract-year mercenary” to never-before seen heights.

Carmelo Anthony’s status as a free-agent-to-be is common knowledge at this point, but did you know that Kenyon Martin, trigger-happy J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups (the team is unlikely to pick up his $14.2 option for 2011-12) are all playing for new contracts this season?

That doesn’t really set the stage for a lot of selfless play in the Mile High City, as K-Mart looks to beef up his numbers in the paint (on the bright side, he’ll hit the boards like a beast), while Smith and Billups are dialing for dollars from the outside.

While Melo’s not exactly playing for a contract (he’s going to max money, wherever he ends up), building a winner is likely not on his list of priorities, given his well-publicized desire to blow town. If you’re keeping score, Melo, K-Mart, J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups will all be in short-first mode, with newly acquired scoring forward Al Harrington and Nene demanding touches as well.

If this sounds a volatile situation that could quickly devolve into a train wreck, well, it is. However, this is still an extremely talented crew that will score a lot of points and win fairly consistently, in spite of itself. It helps that none of the Nuggets’ remaining rotation players- Nene, Chris Andersen (a Hype favorite), Ty Lawson Arron Afflalo and Renaldo Balkman- need the ball to be effective and only Afflalo is in pursuit of a new deal, and he’s going to earn that with defense, not scoring.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Nuggets at 43.5. While this number probably not far from the Nuggets’ actual total for the coming year, it’s tough to see this team losing half of its games, given the immense talent and versatility on the roster as well as the inspirational return of cancer-free (hopefully permanently!) head coach George Karl.

If Carmelo Anthony gets his wish and is sent out of town early in the year, the deal is likely to net the Nuggets a fair amount of production and added depth. If the Nuggets smartly elect to hold on him for until the trade deadline (or close to it) and he exhibits the maturity and professional pride that a team should be able to expect from a max player, this team could approach 50 wins and could earn a 5-6 seed in playoffs.

However, with Melo unlikely to finish the season in Denver, any postseason success will be predicated on how quickly and effectively the team is able to integrate their new faces.

Dallas Mavericks: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 55-27
2009-10 Playoffs: #2 seed; lost in Round 1 to the San Antonio Spurs in six games
Additions: Tyson Chandler, Dominique Jones, Ian Mahinmi, DeShawn Stevenson
Key Losses: Erick Dampier
Projected Rotation Players: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Jason Kidd, Rodrigue Beaubois, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, J.J. Barea, Dominique Jones

Look for the Mavs to dial up the tempo from recent years.

I’m not saying these guys are going to be the SSOL Suns, but there should be a lot less “walking it up” possessions. Yeah, J-Kidd’s rapidly approaching his 38th birthday, but he’s retained enough of what’s made him great to be remain a pretty effective lead guard. Last year, he ranked in the NBA’s top five in apg (9.1), spg (1.8) and 3-pointers made (176), and was 11th in 3-point percentage (42.5%).

Additionally, if this is the year that age really catches up with Kidd and his game goes off a cliff, super-athletic combo guard Rodrigue Beaubois (recovering from a broken foot, but should be back some time in November) would take over some of the ballhanding duties. In just 12.5 minutes per game as a rookie last season, Beaubois averaged 7.1 ppg and shot better than 50- 80- 40 FG-FT-#-pt. As a starter he was good for 8.7 ppg and 2.1 apg in just 18 minutes, with FG-FT of 52- 86 (he struggled from 3 as a starter, making just 25% of his attempts). Whether he’s the Mavs’ primary ballhander or two-guard, Beaubois is expected to play a significant role in 2010-11.

Regardless of who’s handling the ball (but much more so with Roddie-B), the 2010-11 Mavs are the franchise’s most athletic incarnation since Josh Howard was an All-Star. In addition to Beaubois and the still-capable Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Caron Butler and the age-resistant Jason Terry, while all 30+, are all well-suited to play a “semi breaking” style that will create more layups, mismatches and open jumpers in transition. Over the summer the Mavs also added rookie SG Dominique Jones, whose NBA body (6’4”, 215 lbs), elite athleticism and talent for filling the wing on the break and getting to the free throw line should help him find his way into the rotation- though probably not until later in the season.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Mavs at 49.5. While the Mavs are still definitely a playoff team and, with good health and the right matchup(s) in the postseason, possibly more, they do not have the look of a 50-win team. Waiting for Beaubois to return, get up to full speed and possibly have to assume some of J-Kidd’s responsibilities, along with major questions in the middle (Tyson Chandler, Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi), will cost the Mavs’ a few games during the regular season. Look for them to post a win total in the mid-40s and enter the playoffs as a 5-7 seed that no one's too eager to face in Round 1.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Quality Over Quantity - Lakers Should Limit Kobe's Games More Than His Minutes

ESPN reported on Thursday that Lakers coach Phil Jackson plans to limit Kobe Bryant’s minutes while his superstar continues to recover from offseason knee surgery. When asked about the matter, Jackson said he "[doesn't] anticipate Kobe's going to be playing heavy-minute games to start this season."

On the surface, this makes sense, given Kobe’s preseason struggles, obviously brought about by continued discomfort in his right knee. He’s been severely limited and largely ineffective on offense in the 2010 preseason. In the Lakers’ six games, Kobe’s played just 20 minutes per game and shot just 27.2% from the field (18-for-66, or 3-for-11 per game).

However, while it’s clear that lightening Kobe’s considerable workload is vital to the Lakers’ shot at a three-peat, I don’t know that shaving a few minutes off of his floor time in each game is the optimal strategy. Rather than having Kobe play in as many of the Lakers’ 82 regular season games as possible, only for 8-10 fewer minutes per game (implies 28-30 mpg, compared with 38.8 last season), why not continue to have Kobe go for ~40 minutes per contest, but get him his rest by having him play fewer games?

The reasoning here is pretty straightforward. Every minute that Kobe plays in a hard minute. The wear and tear on Kobe’s knees is not so much the result of minutes 31-39 in a given game as it is the result of simply preparing for a game, warming up and getting up to full speed. Thing is, once he’s out on the floor and fully into the flow of the game, a couple of minutes here and there aren’t a huge deal.

However, sitting Kobe altogether for a couple of games each month seems like it would be a more effective way to give Kobe the rest he so clearly needs. Rather than asking him to go through all of his pregame preparation (Kobe’s doesn’t do anything half-speed) and go all out for 30 minutes against the likes of Cleveland Toronto or Detroit, wouldn’t an entire night off be more beneficial?

Last season, Kobe played 2,835 minutes in 73 regular season games, or 38.8 per game. If he takes the floor for roughly 2,300 minutes (~20% decrease from 2009-10) in the 2010-11 regular season, he could do so playing 30 minutes per game in 76 games. However, if he we were to log the same number of minutes in 66 games- sitting out one half of selected back-to-backs and some games against the NBA’s bottom tier (against whom a still-deep, Pau Gasol-led Laker team will likely still prevail)- the Lakers would have Kobe’s services for 36 minutes per game, and Kobe would have an additional 10 full days of rest.

This would allow Kobe to not only rest the knee during the regular season (10 full days of no wear!), but to shoulder a full workload every time he does take the floor. Come playoff time, the fact that the Lakers occasionally left their Ferrari in the garage during the regular season's dog days will pay dividends.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

20 Questions From The Association - 2010-11 Opening Tip

Is it just me or...

With the exception of all future visits to Cleveland, have we seen the worst of the anti-LeBron sentiment?

Given this summer's backlash against LeBron James relocation, shouldn’t Carmelo Anthony be getting eviscerated for his treatment of the team that’s paying him $17+ million this season?

For all the (deserved) MVP and “best in the NBA” talk surrounding Kevin Durant, is Russell Westbrook’s 2010-11 explosion going to be OKC’s biggest storyline?

Between Greg Oden’s ongoing injury woes and a pending Rudy Fernandez meltdown, is the optimism of recent years in Portland beginning to evaporate?

Are we in store for one last semi-vintage (18- 10?) November from a motivated-for-the-first-time-in-four-years Shaquille O’Neal?

Is Chris Paul the disgruntled superstar most worthy of gutting your roster for?

Is Blake Griffin’s next injury likely to involve his head and the rim?

On draft night, wasn’t Evan Turner touted as the safest top-five pick?

Does the need to rely heavily on Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter to contain either LeBron or D-Wade offset a lot of Orlando’s depth, talent and fantastic coaching?

With the likes of George Hill, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair and James Anderson, are the perpetually “aging” Spurs suddenly pretty young and interesting?

Would limiting Kobe Bryant's games played be more beneficial than limiting his minutes?

Is 20-10 and a 2011 All-Star snub (he might have a chance next year) very much in play for Michael Beasley?

Despite an awful preseason, even if they're not able to pull off a trade for Carmelo, are the Amar'e-led Knicks poised to be sneaky-good?

Will Tayshaun Prince- great teammate, good defender AND an $11.1 million expiring contract- quickly emerge as this season’s most sought-after trade target?

With Antawn Jamison, Mo Wiliams, J.J. Hickson Ramon Sessions (a Hype favorite) and Sideshow Bob- all legitimate NBA players- still around, are the Cavs going to be better (or at least, not as terrible) than we’re expecting?

Between Tyreke Evans, Demarcus Cousins, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, Beno Udrih and Omri Casspi, do the Kings have six potential 15+ ppg scorers?

Does looking at the Toronto Raptors’ roster make you sad?

Is the “Capitol Connection" (John Wall and JaVale McGee) going to very quickly conjure up images of Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler's “Crescent City Connection”?

By halftime of Miami’s opener in Boston, are a lot of people going to feel very silly for forgetting just how good LeBron is?

Ranking the 50 Greatest Lakers of All-Time

After writing an 8,600-word opus highlighting the historical greatness of the NBA’s most successful franchise, what’s a writer to do?

I’ll tell you- you go back to the well!

In writing the last of my 29 “NBA All-Time Starting Fives” articles, it occurred to me that Lakers history has seen enough winners, characters and unique talents that there was a longer, even more involved piece to be written. Seriously.

As I have previously mentioned, the Lakers have participated in exactly half of the in the Finals series that have taken place since the franchise’s inception, 62 years ago. They’ve won 16 championships, including 10 of the last 30 and five of the past 11.

That doesn’t happen without a pretty strong flow of Hall-of-Famers.

Of the 101 players have suited up in at least 300 games for the Lakers, 13 are in the Hall of Fame. This number is guaranteed to hit 15 exactly five years after the respective retirements of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, with Pau Gasol likely to follow suit.

However, it takes more than transcendent stars at the top of the roster to sustain this kind of excellence for nearly two-thirds of a century. A fair number of All-Stars, “very good” players and unsung role players (also known as “glue guys”) need to be on hand as well.

What’s the criteria for inclusion? I’m not sure. It’s kinda subjective.

As was the case with the All-Time Starting Fives, inclusion on this list, and the rankings within it, were based on a combination of length of tenure with the Lakers, general statistical productivity, contribution to team success (in this case conference titles or better), with consideration given to the historical era in which a guy played, and his significance to the Lakers in the context of that era.

In case you were wondering what a list of the 50 greatest Lakers of all time might look like, I submit for you approval…

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Los Angeles Lakers: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Rather simply waxing poetic about my favorite team, I will validate the claim that the Minneapolis- Los Angeles Lakers are the greatest franchise in the history of the NBA, and perhaps all of professional sports.

In 62 seasons, the Lakers have made 57 postseason appearances, had 50 winning seasons and have only missed the playoff twice in the same decade once- when they missed consecutively in 1974-75 and in Kareem’s first season with the team, 1975-76 (despite having four more wins than the Pistons, who made it out of the Western Conference’s other division).

The franchise that came into existence in 1948 as the Minneapolis Lakers won a championship in its first season. Over the next five seasons, the last of George Mikan’s great career, he and fellow great Jim Pollard were joined by future Hall of Famers Vern Mikkelsen, Slater Martin and Clyde Lovellette, as the Lakers won another four championships.

With Mikan gone, the Lakers were absent from the NBA Finals for each of the next four seasons and missed the playoffs in 1957-58, with a league-worst 19-53 record. It would be almost two decades before either of these things would happen again.

In the 50 years since the NBA expanded to an 80-game (now 82-game) schedule, the Lakers have won 50+ games in a season 31 times and 60+ on 11 occasions. The rest of NBA history has seen 52 60-win teams.

In 62 seasons, the Lakers have advanced as far as the conference finals 42 times. They have participated in exactly half of the last 62 Finals series, including 10 of 15 from 1958-72 and nine of 12 between 1979 and 1991.

The Lakers have won 16 championships- second all-time to the Celtics’ 17- but hold a 11- 6 edge over the past 40 years, 10- 4 since 1980 and 5- 1 since 1990.

Sustained excellence? Thy name is the Lakers.

As for star power and individual greatness, there’s been a steady stream of that too.

A total of 101 players have suited up in at least 300 games for the Lakers. Of this group, 13 are in the Hall of Fame. This number is guaranteed to hit 15 exactly five years after the respective retirements of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Additionally, Pau Gasol looks like a decent bet to push that total to 16 by the time he’s finished.

The flow of superstars into Lakerland through the years is staggering. From Mikan, Pollard, Mikkelsen and Martin in the 1940s and 1950s, to Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960s and early 1970s, to Kareem for a decade and a half starting in the mid-1970s.

At the tail end of the West-Wilt-Goodrich era- right after Elgin Baylor’s retirement- the 1971-72 Lakers produced one of the greatest season in NBA history. They posted a regular season record of 69-13, including an unfathomable 33-game winning streak, and cruised through the playoffs to secure the franchise’s first championship in Los Angeles.

As Kareem rounded out his prime, he was joined by the greatest point guard of all time, Magic Johnson. They were joined under super-coach Pat Riley by underrated two-guard Byron Scott and James Worthy, one of the most well-rounded offensive weapons of the era. Together, they formed the foundation for the spectacular 1980s Showtime teams.

After a relative drought for a good chunk of the 1990s (Cedric Ceballos, Nick Van Exel and Sedale Threatt figured prominently), the Lakers struck gold again. In the summer of 1996, legendary-player-turned-legendary-GM Jerry West landed all-universe free agent Shaquille O’Neal and traded for 17-year-old preps-to-pros stud Kobe Bryant. Under uber-coach Phil Jackson, the pair would return the Lakers to the NBA’s elite, winning three straight championships and become one of the greatest duos in NBA history.

However, tension between the superstar duo, who’d never particularly cared for one another, boiled over after an embarrassing Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons in 2004. That they lost was not embarrassing- the Pistons were really good- but the way in which the wheels came flying off is another story. Once it was clear that the two could no longer coexist, Shaq was sent to Miami in a deal that brought Lamar Odom and Caron Butler to L.A.

The five seasons that have followed have brought a series of ups and downs:

A season of future All-Star Caron Butler emerging as a potential running mate for Kobe. The subsequent trade of Butler to Washington for human cataclysm, Kwame Brown. A return to the playoffs after just one trip to the lottery. Kobe’s “81” amid just the third 35+ ppg season in 35 years. A heart-stopping trade demand from Kobe Bryant. The return of Phil. The arrival of Pau Gasol in exchange for Kwame Brown (Kwame’s lone contribution to NBA history) and Pau’s extremely talented younger brother. The return of D-Fish. A return to the Finals in 2008. A 1960s-esque loss to Celtics upon arrival. A return to glory with another pair of titles, including sweet vindication against the Celtics.

It’s fitting that the Forum (later the Fabulous Forum and the Great Western Forum), no longer a basketball venue, was sold to a local church group and is now a house of worship.

Welcome to my cathedral.

WARNING! This is NOT light reading!