Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Lines of the Night- Monday, November 29


For the winners…

Dwyane Wade- Hey! Someone found Dwyane Wade!

Not right away, but still.

On the heels of three losses in four games, two of which saw him shoot combined 7-of-34 from the field and 6-of-12 from the free throw line, D-Wade came out on Monday night proceeded to lay a first half egg, hitting just one of seven shots and scoring four points.

HOWEVAH…

After that brutal first 24, Wade righted the ship, hitting seven of his 10 second half shots. By the time the Heat walked off the floor on Monday night, 105-94 winners against the Washington Wizards, Wade had made eight of 17 field goal attempts and hit all 10 of his free throws en route to 26 points. He added eight rebounds, six assists, four steals and a block as the Miami Heat answered their critics.

For one night, anyway.

Al Jefferson- Big Al enjoyed arguably his best game as a member of the Jazz in Monday night’s blowout win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

In 31 minutes of action in the 109-88 win, Jefferson scored 22 points on 11-of-14 from the field, grabbed 11 rebounds (3 offensive) and blocked a season-high four shots.

22-11 is a line we’re likely to see regularly from Jefferson, but it’s hard to imagine him getting there more efficiently.

Russell Westbrook- On a night when Kevin Durant scored 26 (7-22 FG) and grabbed 11 boards, Russell Westbrook led the Thunder to a big win over the New Orleans Hornets.

In 37 minutes on the floor, Westbrook scored 25 points (9-19 FG, 5-6 FT), grabbed five rebounds (3 offensive), handed out 11 assists and had five steals, all while matched up against Chris Paul.

He did commit eight turnovers, but he more than offset them by playing tough D against CP3, attacking the paint aggressively- posterizing Emeka Okafor after having a dunk attempt blocked- and making both of his 3-point attempts, including a back-breaking 25-footer with 1:38 left to seal the win.


In a losing cause…

Chris Paul- While the Hornets were handed their fifth loss of the season on Monday night in OKC and Russell Westbrook dropped 25-11, as usual, CP3 was arguably the best player on the floor.

In 35 minutes, Chris Paul, made six of 13 shots (one of two 3-pointers) and all four of his free throw attempts, for 17 points. To this he added a pair of rebounds, 14 assists (v. two turnovers), five steals and the man-up quote of the night: "When you lose close games, (people) say it's coach's fault. As a point guard, I say it's my fault..."

Andray Blatche – Had a choice of a pair Wizards, and it was a photo finish.

While teammate Gilbert Arenas racked up 23 points, five rebounds and handed out seven assists, Blatche was the Wizards’ best player Monday. In 38 minutes, he scored a “not inefficient” 26 points (8-19 FG, 10-14 FT), grabbed nine rebounds (three offensive) and had an assist, a block and a steal.

Brandon Jennings- While it may not have seemed like it to anyone watching the game (and I even had the Milwaukee announcers on!), Jennings actually turned in a very nice game. In 35 minutes he scored 27 points (8-20 FG), grabbed two rebounds, handed out four assists and swiped three steals.

Not the greatest performance he’ll ever turn in, but an admirable job for a shorthanded team getting thumped on the road.


There’s always tomorrow…

John Salmons- While he did contribute four rebounds, four assists and a steal, Salmons missed 10 of his 11 shots and managed just three points. While a bunch of guys on the Bucks turned in subpar performances in Monday’s 21-point loss to the Jazz, this was the most brutal showing of them all.

Jason Terry- Man, JET sure did pick a good night to put up a stinker! Outside of Dirk Nowitzki, no one’s been more central to the Mavs’ success in 2010-11. One would assume that on a night when Terry hit just two of seven shots in 21 minutes, the Mavs would have been trouble. Not so fast, my friend!

First off, it does help to have your worst game against a subpar defensive team full of role players. Second, it helps to have that game coincide with Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson combining for 53 points.

With all of that said, Terry’s 2-7, 6-points, 0-rebound, 0-assist, 0-block, 0-steal showing on Monday was pretty bad!

Shane Battier- Just one night after holding Kevin Durant to just 18 points and scoring a season-high 18 himself in a win over the Thunder, Battier turned in a far more pedestrian performance.

On offense he was essentially nonexistent, as he scored just three points in 22 minutes (1-5 FG, 1-3 3-pt), failed to reach the free throw line, committed a pair of turnovers and did not have an assist. On defense, while he did rack up a pair of blocks and a steal, he failed to grab a single rebound and was matched up against Caron Butler, who turned in one of his better performances of the young season (19 pts, 8-14 FG).

Shane ended the night with a line of 3, 0, 0, 2, 1, 2 (turnovers) and +/- of -17. Coulda been worse, but not by much.


Under the radar…

Earl Watson- With Deron Williams on the bench in Monday’s blowout win, Watson took the floor for 27 minutes, more than double his season average of 12. To say that he represented himself well in that time- albeit in garbage time- would be an understatement.

In those 27 minutes, Watson (+30 +/-) flirted with a triple-double, scoring an efficient 12 points (5-8 FG, 2-3 3-pt), grabbing six rebounds and dishing out seven assists (v. two turnovers). For good measure he added a pair of steals and a blocked shot.

That’s a pretty good job of stuffing the stat sheet!

JaVale McGee- McGee didn’t start in Miami on Monday, as he continues to deal with discomfort in his head and neck following last week’s flagrant foul by Elton Brand. With that said, that he was held to just 26 minutes on Monday has as much to do with the fact the he racked up six fouls in his limited burn as it does with his injuries. However, McGee did make good use of his time on the floor, hitting five of seven shots for 10 points, grabbing 10 rebounds (5 offensive!) and blocking a pair of shots.

His activity level doesn’t appear to have slipped much, and McGee should be back in the starting lineup before long. In the two games prior to the injury, he was emerging as a monster, averaging 22 ppg, 17 rpg, 9 orpg (that’s awesome!) and 3 bpg.

Juan Jose Barea- On a night where Jason Kidd was unable to deliver much in the way of scoring, J.J. Barea stepped in with an extremely efficient and effective showing off the bench. After a handful of brutal performances in recent weeks, Barea played one of his best games of the season in Monday’s 101-91 home win over the floundering Rockets. In 27 minutes Barea scored 10 points (5-8 FG), grabbed three rebounds, handed out six assists and had a steal, all while committing just one turnover.

Corey Maggette's Playing Himself Out Of Minutes

Corey Maggette missed his second consecutive game on Monday night with, depending on which report you choose to believe- both published on the same Worldwide Leader’s website- either an ankle sprain or flulike symptoms, but was “intending to play.”

I’m not buying it. I mean, I believe that he may have a sore ankle and/or be a bit under the weather, but if I had to wager on the true reason Maggette was glued to the pine on Monday, my money would be on “CD,” or “coach’s decision.”

Why the cynicism?

Bucks’ coach Scott Skiles preaches a hard-nosed approach to the game, predicated on defense and effort. While Maggette’s always given solid effort in his time on the floor- as evidenced by his better-than-average rebound rates (at both ends) and a gift for getting to the free throw line- he’s seldom exhibited much on the defensive end. Little has changed on that front this season, as Maggette’s averaging just .53 “defensive plays per game” (defined as steals+ blocks+ charges drawn; courtesy of HoopData), a total that’s less than half the league average of 1.38.

Throughout his career, Maggette’s value to a team has come primarily through his efficiency at the offensive end, which in 2010-11 has waned considerably- he’s shooting just 39% from the field, 16.7% from 3-point range and has made 40% of his shots just six times in 15 games this season. In the three games before his “injury,” Maggette scored a total of 23 points in 72 minutes and hit just five of 22 shot attempts.

But wait, there’s more!

He’s not hitting 50% of his attempts from any of the shot locations defined by HoopData, including a FG% of just 45.7% “at the rim” and a sorry 25% from 10-15 feet. His “Effective FG%” (adjusted for 3-pointers) is just 39.7%, down from 52.3% a year ago and his lowest (by 6.5%) in the past five years. Meanwhile, his “True Shooting %” (which adjusts for 3-pointers and free throws) has dipped to just 52.7%, down ~9% from last and, again, a five-years low.

Additionally, Maggette’s done a below average job of protecting the ball (12.82 turnover rate, v. league average of 11.57, which means he turn the ball over 1.25 more per 100 possessions than the average NBA player) and has done little to make his teammates better (admittedly not an area of strength historically), with just 5.95% of possessions in which he’s involved ending in an assist, WELL below the league average of 15.32%.

The Bucks, fresh off an unexpected 46-win season and a spirited first round playoff showing, headed into the 2010-11 season with great expectations. While injuries to stud big man Andrew Bogut and starting “3” Carlos Delfino have thrown a wrench into the team’s plans, they've not left the cupboard totally bare. Presented with an ideal opportunity to step into a leadership role on a young team, Maggette’s inability to a) play Skiles’ brand of basketball and b) to provide an efficient spark on offense (the reason he was brought in) appear to have landed him in Skiles’ doghouse instead.

Eh, I guess that’s the risk you take when pay eight figures to a one-dimensional guy who’s suited up in 12 playoff games in 11 pro seasons.

Monday, November 29, 2010

20 Questions From The Association - One Month In

Is it kinda cool to see the 20-rebound game return as a fairly regular occurrence (12 times so far this season, 5 times in the past 8 days) in the NBA?

Is Al Horford’s extension ($60M over next 5 years) already a screaming bargain for so young, efficient and skilled a big man?

Should we just go ahead and pencil in Shannon Brown as the NBA’s 2010-11 Sixth Man of the Year?

With the number of potential trade suitor dwindling, would Carmelo Anthony be smart to pounce on the Nuggets’ $65 million extension offer?

With Northwest division-rivals the Jazz, Thunder and Nuggets all more or less healthy and playing well, are the Trailblazers’ playoff hopes already in serious jeopardy?

Would it probably be worth it for a deep-pocketed team to take a low-risk gamble (in terms of talent traded in exchange) on Gilbert Arenas?

Are Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson the NBA’s most disruptive frontcourt duo?

Is the Spurs’ 7-0 road record- which includes 12+-point wins at Oklahoma City, Utah and New Orleans (a 14-point win powered by a 37-18 4th quarter)- the most impressive achievement of the early season?

Are the Knicks going to regret not locking up Raymond Felton for more than two years?

At a cost of $15.2 million in 2011-12 and with just a team option for 2012-13, and with his inability to avoid injury or return to the floor in a timely manner, is Andrew Bynum’s greatest value to the Lakers as a financial asset? (felt really sad writing that)

Is a 50-20 game legitimately in play (maybe very soon) for Blake Griffin?

Is it ridiculous that while hitting an awesome 58.3% of his 3-point attempts, Matt Bonner has connected on just 12.5% of his attempts from inside the arc?

Is Michael Beasley a solid bet to average 30+ ppg for a month this season?

Weren’t the Hawks supposed to get a couple of good seasons out of Joe Johnson before that contract turned into a total disaster?

Is Eric Gordon now one of the 15 best players in the NBA?

Is the Dallas Mavericks’ 12-4 start made even more impressive by the fact that Caron Butler, Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood (and their combined $25 million in salary) are combining for just 27 ppg, 15 rpg and 2.5 apg?

With Mike Miller and now Udonis Haslem on the shelf, is this the 2010-11 Miami Heat team we all expected on July 8?

Despite the Jazz’s outstanding 13-5 start, have we still not seen the best of Deron Williams (21.9 ppg, 9.9 apg) and Al Jefferson (16.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg)?

Was this a much better idea six weeks ago?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Another Season Lost For Greg Oden- Where To From Here?

Wednesday night, it was reported that for the second time in his young career, Grego Oden will lose an entire season to microfracture surgery. Shortly after being selected first overall in the 2007 draft, Oden lost the entirety of his rookie season to microfracture surgery- a procedure intended to stimulate cartilage growth- on his right knee. This time around he will have the surgery on his left knee. Blazers trainer Jay Jensen said at a press conference that Oden has a hole in the articular cartilage on the end of a bone in his knee and that the cause of the damage remains unclear. "We sat there and it was like we'd been kicked in the stomach," Jensen said, choking up. "It felt like hearing someone close to us had died."

In addition to the microfracture procedures that have now cost him two seasons, Oden has also missed significant time due to a pair of patella injuries, the most recent of which, a fracture in his left patella, took place in December 2009 and cost him the last 61 games of the 2009-10 season.  By the end of the 2010-11 season, which would have been (or technically is, I guess) Oden’s fourth in the NBA, he will have taken part in just 82 of the Blazers’ 328 regular season games.

In those 82 games (61 in 2008-09 and 21 in 2009-10), Oden’s been solid, averaging 9.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.4 bpg, and shooting 57.7% from the field, but has never had the opportunity to truly establish his identity as an NBA player. Prior to breaking his patella in a home game against the Houston Rockets last December, Oden was enjoying the best stretch of his NBA career. He’d started all 21 of the Blazers’ games, averaging 11.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 2.3 bpg, had put up six double-doubles, blocked 3+ shots 10 times and was a single game removed from a career-best 20 rebound performance.

This injury, the latest in a string of devastating blows to what should have been a promising NBA career, brings to light a series of questions. Is this the end for Greg Oden in Portland? Is this the end for him in the NBA? How do the expectations for his career need to be adjusted?

At just 22 years of age, where does he go from here?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NBA Wednesday- Lakers, Celtics, Heat & The Divorcing Duo

On the Wednesday before the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the NBA offers up for your approval, what should be a entertainment 10-game slate. What to watch for:

Phoenix Suns at Miami Heat (7:00 PM): ESPN kicks of its Wednesday night “soon to be single” PG doubleheader with Steve Nash (who LOVES Tony Parker right now!) leading the Suns into the American Airlines Arena, or as it’s now known, the Special Ed Class for Sports Fandom.

On the floor, this is exactly the kind of game the Miami Heat should win spectacularly. Although the Suns have an elite lead guard, they are woefully thin inside (especially with Robin Lopez out) and don’t have the manpower to match up with Miami in a wide-open game. At home, against an undersized opponent that plays an uptempo game and is average at best on D. No excuses for losing this one.

Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers (7:00 PM): Brand! Bargnani! Holiday! DeRozan! Buckle up for the 2-9 Raps at the 2-9 Sixers!

These teams make me sad.

Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics (7:30 PM): This should have been one of the most exciting games of the young season, featuring two of the NBA’s most electrifying point guards. While red-hot Rajon Rondo (10.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 15.1 apg and 2.7 spg) will be running the show for the home team, a sprained foot will likely keep lightening-quick rookie sensation John Wall on the sidelines (unofficially- he tweeted "nah" when asked if he was "good to go" for Wednesday night's game).

While the busted marquee matchup is a bit of a buzzkill, all is not lost for the Wiz. A possibly rejuvenated Gilbert Arenas will step in for Wall. He and the Wizards’ talented frontcourt duo of Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee could give the C’s some problems, but this just means that Boston’s “Aging Three” will have to log some fourth quarter minutes in a ho-hum 12-point win.


Brook Lopez Is Not Playing To His Strengths

A season after losing their first 18 games (12 of them by double digits) and having to wait until the 44th game of the season (on January 27) for their fourth win, the New Jersey Nets have earned four wins in their first ten games and have suffered three losses by three points or fewer, including a tough one-point loss to perennial Eastern Conference power Orlando.

A year ago, the Nets barely looked like an NBA team. Now, they look pesky, if not downright competitive. While this marked improvement is certainly a welcome change from the debacle of 2009-10, the Nets can’t help but feel as though they’re still underachieving. Whether it would have been reasonable to expect even this strong a record prior to the start of the season is debatable, but the way in which the Nets have gotten here suggests that they’re leaving money on the table.

Heading into the 2010-11, Devin Harris was the clear-cut key to a successful season for the Nets. As long as he’s healthy and committed to attacking the paint, Harris creates high percentage scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates, most of whom are incapable of getting their own shot.

Plagued by a groin injury early last season and with the Nets’ season all but over by the time he got back to full strength, Harris had little incentive for him to play with the aggressiveness that made him an All-Star in 2008-09. He needed to return to his form from two seasons ago- when 35%+ of his attempts came at the rim. While only 20% of Harris’ 2010-11 attempts have come at the rim (compared with 23.1% a year ago), he’s done an excellent job of getting into the paint, as 47.3% have from within 10 feet of the basket, compared with just 30.5% a year ago (from Hoopdata.com).

Also, Harris is attempting roughly six free throws per game- a far cry from 8.8 per game two years ago, but still solid- and hitting 84.7% of them (v. 79.8% a year ago). This number jumps to 8.7 per game in the Nets’ first three wins (he was ejected 14 minutes into Monday’s win over the Clippers)- an early sign of the correlation between Harris’ aggressiveness and the Nets’ success.

So if the Nets are actually winning games at a respectable clip and their main catalyst is living up to expectations, why does it still feel like they’re underperforming?

Well… while Harris has bounced back the way the team would have hoped, stud big man Brook Lopez- whose productivity was almost universally taken for granted- has failed to live up to expectations, thanks to a lack of assertiveness on offense and effort on the boards.

After averaging ~16 ppg on 51.2% from the field and 8+ rpg (over 3 orpg) over his first two seasons, Lopez, while still averaging 18 ppg, is shooting just 42% from the floor, grabbing 5.5 rpg (1.7 orpg), getting to the free throw line less frequently and taking tougher shots.

A year ago, when Lopez averaged 18.8 ppg and shot 50% from the field, nearly half (6.6 of 13.7) of his field goal attempts came at the rim, and he made 61.4% of them. This season, just 18.9% (3 of 15.9) are at the rim, and what’s worse, he’s only making 43.3% of them.

Last season, an additional 19% of his shots were attempted within 10 feet, but not “at the rim.” This season, that number is up to 39.6%, somewhat offsetting the drop at the rim, although with slightly tougher shots. Both seasons he’s hit ~49% of these attempts. For those of you keeping score at home, last season 67% (9.2 of 13.7) of Lopez’s attempts came from no more than 10 feet away, with a success rate of 57%. This season, 58.5% of his shot are from within 10 feet, with fewer point-blank attempts, and consequently a success rate that’s dipped to ~46%.

From 10-15 feet, the story hasn’t changed much from year to year, as Lopez made 34% of his 1.6 attempts last season, and is making 35% of his 2 attempts this year.

HOWEVAH…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

For The Heat, Admitting A Mistake Isn't Panicking

It’s just not working in Miami.

For Chris Bosh.

With the Miami Superfriends barely better than .500 after 10 games, we’re on the cusp of an avalanche of stories (probably from Adrian Wojnarowski alone!) proclaiming the failure of Pat Riley’s “just add water” dynasty. After just three weeks of meaningful games, any reports of the out-and-out failure of the Wade-LeBron era in Miami will be premature and greatly exaggerated.

However, one statement that can be made with a considerable amount of confidence is this: Chris Bosh has no place on this team.

It’s not that Bosh is not a talented player, he was just a “bad hire.”

How Chris Bosh managed to get himself grouped with Wade and LeBron as one of the summer of 2010’s Tier-1 free agents will forever be a mystery. A 2nd-team All-NBA selection, five All-Star selections and career scoring and rebounding averages of 20 & 9 are very nice, but other than the year in which he was drafted, what exactly does Bosh have in common with his superstar draft classmates?

In seven seasons in Toronto, Bosh had NO team success to speak of (211-320 regular season record; 3-8 in the playoffs), was not any kind of statistical wonder, and did not earn a reputation for dominating games. His age and relative durability (he’s missed 12-15 games four times, but hasn’t suffered any serious injuries) made him the cream of this summer’s big man crop, but to consistently mention his name alongside Lebron’s and Wade’s was patently absurd. And yet it happened.

Again and again.

Unlike his elite teammates, Bosh would have been a gigantic disappointment to any team that signed him as its centerpiece. His years in Toronto showed that the ceiling for a Chris Bosh-led team is not terribly high. As a second option, Bosh is more appropriately cast, but by no means guarantees contention. As the third option on a star-studded team, it was presumed that Bosh would be among the NBA’s best.

It’s become clear, however, that for all of his physical talent, Bosh is simply not ready to assume a prominent role on high-profile contender. Not only has Bosh put up some rather pedestrian stats (14.5 ppg, 6 rpg, 2 apg) playing alongside Wade and James, he’s failed to make any discernable impact on the floor and has admitted to feeling “a little lost out there.”

The first seven seasons of his career and the beginning of his time in Miami have combined to reveal that, simply put, Bosh is a poor fit for this team. With each passing game, he strengthens the argument he’s a classic “looter in a riot” and is at his best when he’s able to play his games away from the spotlight. In recent weeks, Bosh has demonstrated that he a) lacks either the ability or the desire to make anyone else better and b) is more likely to disappear than to step up in a meaningful game.

On the surface, teaming Bosh with a pair of elite perimeter players makes sense, but the Heat, as presently constructed, lack the attitude and pedigree to elevate him to a championship level. Even if he’s only being asked to be the third option, Bosh looks like he needs an authoritative coach and clear-cut champion alpha dog (think Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson) to define his role. For the time being, and perhaps the foreseeable future, these things are lacking in Miami.

Although he’s got some all-important championship experience, Wade has failed to lead the Heat past the first round in each of the team’s last three postseason appearances. As great as he was in the 2006 postseason, it’s worth noting that Wade delivered his title-winning performance while playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal, one of the seven greatest centers in NBA history and a proven championship lynchpin, and with Pat Riley, one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, at the helm.

Meanwhile, with the exception of his heroic 2007 conference finals performance, LeBron James has done little to establish himself as the steadying force on a championship team. Not only is he the face of back-to-back 60-win playoff underachievers, anecdotal evidence suggests that he threw in the towel on the Cavaliers' 2010 postseason. Whether or not this is true, the accusation is pretty damning.

Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas… how often are any of these guys accused of quitting?

Finally, there’s coach Erik Spoelstra, who’s undoubtedly one of the NBA’s better young coaches, but lacks the seniority and championship cache to dictate “how things are going to work” to veteran stars. Additionally, the specter of Pat Riley looking over his shoulder which, between Stan Van Gundy’s forced exit in 2006 and the ominous image of him taking notes on Thursday night, limits Spoelstra’s ability to really exert much control over this team.

Given the shortcomings in Bosh’s competitive DNA and his talented-but-limited support system in Miami, something drastic will have to be done for the Heat to get the most out of their investment in the big man. At the moment, Bosh is an $18.3M/year bit player whose star is quickly fading. Barring a miraculous turnaround in his demeanor and performance, Bosh is on his way to becoming an ill-fitting, nine-figure albatross for the Heat.

Assuming they’re not planning to give Spoelstra his walking papers- given James’ and Wade’s desire to have him as their coach, it would not be advisable- and install the authoritative micro-manager Riley as their coach, the Heat would do well to test the trade market for Chris Bosh before he’s lost more of his trade value.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Miami Heat: Recommit To Commitment

Well, that didn’t last long!

Not long ago- at halftime of Tuesday night’s game against the Utah Jazz, as a matter of fact- the Miami Heat looked like they’d shrugged off a totally understandable and explainable opening night loss in Boston and discovered the identity that would make them championship contenders.

Vanilla offense, devastating defense.

That was it. That was the plan and it was working. Brilliant.

By deploying two of the NBA’s fastest, longest and most athletic defenders on the perimeter, the Heat were suffocating opposing offenses and cruising to one easy victory after another. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were wreaking havoc every time they’d converge to trap an opposing ballhander. The rest of the team was moving on defense, whether it was to crowd Dwight Howard in the paint or play passing lanes on the perimeter. The way that these guys approached defense, with an offensive mentality, was really impressive and beautiful to watch.

The Heat were creating an abundance of fast break chances, which led to some blindingly quick scoring runs, which led to some joyous fourth quarters on the Miami bench, which in turn made the Superfriends’ “check your egos at the door” motto much easier to live up to. When this system is clicking, it also leads to the Heat having no use for a real offensive system.

When opponents are struggling to score 85 points and the Heat are lapping the field in a track meet of their creation, 16 & 8 from LeBron and 11 points from Chris Bosh are seen as “doing what it takes to win.” When the system is working, the Heat can dominate without having to run anything more complicated than an elementary school offense (basic pick-and-rolls, isos and drive-and-kick).

And just when it looked as though the Heat had grabbed the NBA by its scrotal detachments and were poised to usher in a new era of dominance in the Eastern Conference, the worm began to turn. Over the past week, a couple of factors- one out of their control, the other very much within it- have combined to put some chinks in the Miami Heat’s aura of invincibility.

First, they started facing the league’s elite point guards. No longer was it Luke Ridnour, Devin Harris or even Jameer Nelson- a very nice player on a good team- running the point against the Heat. The lead guards that have helped hand the Heat three losses their past four games have been Chris Paul, Deron Williams (Millsap got the win, but D-Will drove the comeback) and Rajon Rondo (33 assists in two wins v. MIA), a trio that’s capable of getting to any spot on the floor, at any time, and is not going to lose its composure against any opposing defender or scheme. Four times this season the Heat have faced a top-five point guard, and four times they’ve lost, three times in rather humiliating fashion.

Second, and far more troubling than the Heat’s inability to stop a truly great point guard, is that level of effort put forth on the defensive seems to have waned. This to some extent, this is to be expected over the course of a long season. It’s tough to keep the intensity at a fever pitch for 82 games. There are going to be lapses- some worse than others- during which the Heat will have to rely on raw talent to get by. However, great teams are able relegate these stretches to the “dog days” of the season (February-March). These guys are only human, and are going to have the occasional sluggish night.

What’s problematic, however, is just how quickly these guys went from having the eye of the tiger and feeding off of being the villains of the NBA to a dog days mentality. For a great team to falter during a late-February road trip to (for example) Denver, Minnesota and Indiana is not uncommon (hell, it happens to every team), but for a team that’s been sold as one of the greatest collections of young talent in NBA history- and one that’s playing with a chip on its collective shoulder- to begin to coast before Thanksgiving is a bit silly.

It’s as though they failed to realize just how long a road this is going to be. It’s as though they though that a summer of hype and four dominating wins (one of which came against a good team) qualified as some sort of achievement. It’s like they’d talked themselves into the idea that were already one of history’s great teams and that their mere presence would be good for 60 wins.

With all of that said, there is no reason to think the Heat can’t right the ship. Some cracks have been exposed in the façade, but these issues are far from terminal. Unchecked, they could torpedo the Superfriends era, but don’t need to be anything more serious than growing pains. The Heat still have two of the NBA’s best players (we can all stop pretending that Bosh matters, right?) at the peaks of their respective powers. Thing is, they’ve got to stop acting like this is the case. This team (well, Wade and James) needs to take a step back, humble itself a bit and recommit to giving max effort every night on defense. In my Miami Heat season preview, I wrote that “your offensive game will go through hot and cold streaks, but speed, quickness, length and hustle never go into a slump”- despite the Heat’s attempts to disprove this statement, it is no less true today than it was two weeks ago.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What To Watch For- November 10, 2010

We’re now two weeks into the NBA season and, for the most part, it’s been a fascinating fortnight. The most anticipated season of the post-Jordan era is now underway, with myriad storylines beginning to unfold and develop.

We’ve now gotten multiple doses of the universal curiosity that is the Miami Superfriends, who were the unquestioned engine of the offseason hype machine. At their best, the Heat have dominated opponents with suffocating defense, and at their worst have looked like a disjointed hybrid of the 2009-10 versions of the Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, only with an emasculated Chris Bosh wandering about.

The Heat’s loss in their “dynasty opener” to the Celtics on October 26 was welcomed by most fans outside the 305. The brash manner in which they assembled and introduced their collection of stars- and possibly ushered in a new era of “super-teams”- rubbed many fans the wrong way. However, as much as the Heat’s opening loss was welcomed and celebrated by NBA fans, diehard and casual alike, it would take something exceptional to maintain the casual fans’ collective interest.

For about a week, they delivered, with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade using their awesome athleticism on defense to rattle off four straight wins, three of them dominant. That only one of these was against a top-tier opponent was rendered irrelevant by the way in which the Heat comprehensively dismantled their talkative in-state rivals, the Orlando Magic, in their (the Heat’s) home opener.

Now that the buzz has died down somewhat, especially in light of the Heat losing to two of their last three games, the honeymoon appears to be over. That Heat suffered their first home loss on Tuesday night- after blowing a 22-point lead to the Jazz- in a half-empty arena (C’mon Miami! You can’t fake being a real sports town for more than a week?).

Now that the Miami Heat buzz has died down, and with the Lakers generally tipping off too late for East Coast fans and casual fans liking the idea of watching the Boston Celtics more than actually doing so, the casual NBA fan has returned to the fringes and will make only fleeting cameos- Christmas Day, All-Star Weekend, the occasional ESPN/TNT game- until late April.

That just leaves us, the diehards. The fans took more than a passing interest in the Pacers’ 54-point quarter on Tuesday. The fans that dissect the development in Dwight Howard’s offensive game. The fans that yell for Eric Bledsoe whenever Baron Davis waddles down the lane for the Clippers.

The free preview of NBA League Pass has come and gone, meaning if you’ve still got it, you love you some hoops! So, a little over an hour before tipoff of the night’s early games, let’s see what we can do about drumming up some interest in what should be a solid 10-game slate- with intriguing matchups early, and a lot of young talent on the floor late:

Milwaukee Bucks at Atlanta Hawks (7:00 PM): The Bucks entered the season with big expectations, and proceeded to lose four of their first five. While they’ve won two of three since, it’s about time they nail down a win against a quality team. Meanwhile, Atlanta stormed out of the gate, winning the first six games on a relatively soft schedule, before losing their last two- at home on Sunday to the Phoenix Sins and in Orlando on Monday.

This game should feature an excellent matchup in the paint, with Andrew Bogut squaring off against Al Horford. Meanwhile, Milwaukee should have a major advantage at the point, with Brandon Jennings- one of the league’s most exciting young guards- free to run wild against the aging-increasingly-immobile Mike Bibby and raw second-year man, Jeff Teague.

Charlotte Bobcats at Toronto Raptors (7:00 PM): Don’t waste your time. Seriously. There is not a single compelling reason to watch either of these teams.

Utah Jazz at Orlando Magic (7:00 PM): The game of the night.

A night after overcoming a 22-point hole to dump the Superfriends in Miami, the Jazz set out to complete the Florida sweep. Jameer Nelson will be back at the point for Orlando, where he'll have his hands full with Deron Williams. D-Will is a safe bet to outplay Nelson thoroughly when the two are at full strength- with Nelson having missed the last two games with a bum ankle, it's not likely to be close.

Meanwhile, on the inside, Paul Millsap will be looking to build on Tuesday's 46-point career night, during which he more than doubled his career tally of made 3-pointers in 28 seconds of game time.

On the other side, Dwight Howard looks to continue furthering the opinion that he's taken "the leap" and that his offensive game has evolved. He should have big night against Utah, since he'll be smaller defenders in a relatively low-stakes game.

Houston Rockets at Washington Wizards (7:00 PM): John Wall. John Wall is the reason to watch this game. Like Allen Iverson a decade and a half ago, irrespective of how well or how poorly he's playing, Wall is must-see TV. Eight days ago, in his home debut against the Philadelphia 76ers, he turned in one of the most electrifying performances ever by a rookie point guard, with 29 points, 13 assists and nine steals (and eight turnovers, but whatever). In the two games since, he's averaged just 13 ppg, 8.5 apg, shot just 36% (9-for-25) from the field and committed 15 turnovers.

With the 1-6 Rockets coming to the nation's capital, look for Wall to get back on track. Not only are Rockets defensively-challenged, allowing 112.7 ppg, they recently lost starting PG Aaron Brooks for at least a month with a severely sprained ankle.

New Jersey Nets at Cleveland Cavaliers (7:30 PM): Given the NBa counter-programming, there's not really a compelling reason to watch this game. However, if you do tune in, enjoy the Cavs' home crowd and the developing feel-good story. Also, be sure to check out a pair of very talented young forwards- potential star J.J. Hickson and Net's stud rookie, Derrick Favors.

Golden State Warriors at New York Knicks (7:30 PM): A Mike D'Antoni featuring Armar'e Stoudemire team taking on a team that features Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and David Lee? Don't expect a lot of defense here. Stoudemire's been a mild disappointment thus far and will be looking to put up a huge number in front of his new home crowd. Meanwhile, David Lee, a former MSG fan favorite, makes his only return to the Garden- he'll be looking to make the Knicks regret getting rid of him. All this, and no mention of the most offensively explosive backcourt in the NBA. Look for Curry and Ellis to play pick-and-roll with whomever Amar'e's guarding (probably Lee), leading to plenty of Warriors points.


Philadelphia 76ers at Oklahoma City Thunder (8:00 PM):


Dallas Mavericks at Memphis Grizzlies (8:00 PM): I've said it before, the compelling reason to watch this game is simple: these two teams feature a lot of really good players. Dirk Nowitzki is not far from the peak of his power, J-Kidd is struggling to put up points, but is still good for 9+ apg, and Jason Terry has been fantastic, averaging 18.8 ppg on over 50% from the field and from 3. Throw in Caron Butler, Shawn Marion and a rejuvenated Tyson Chandler, and the Mavs are pretty loaded. Meanwhile, The Grizz feature double-double machine Zach Randolph (fresh off a 20-20 game), a questionable max-money signee that seems to be earning his take (Rudy Gay), an extremely talented and productive backcourt (O.J. Mayo and, so far, MikeConley) and a rock-solid man in the middle (Marc Gasol).

20 Questions From The Association - The Opening Fortnight

Is it just me, or...

Might ESPN have jumped the gun a bit in launching the “Heat Index”?

Despite feigning indifference, were the Lakers perhaps a bit miffed (8-0, +12.5 differential) at being so egregiously overlooked this summer?

Is it kinda cool that two weeks into the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are over .500, in first place and would host the Miami Heat “if the playoffs started tomorrow”?

Lost amid their scorching 3rd quarter against Denver (54 points on 20-for-21 from the field) is the fact that the Pacers shot 55% and scored 90 points in the other three quarters?

Are Rudy Gay and Mike Conley doing an excellent job of answering their army of (myself among them) critics?

Does the 5-2 (a bit soft, but still) Warriors’ commitment to rebounding (four starters averaging 4+ rpg, ~15 orpg, Biedrins-Lee averaging 21.4 rpg and 7.3 orpg) mitigate the effects of their mediocre defense?

Is it only a matter of time before Scott Skiles attempts to strangle eight-figure albatross (38.5% FG, 11.1% 3-pt) Corey Maggette?

Is Eric Bledsoe (drafted #18 overall) more talented and NBA-ready than any non top-five pick in the 2010 draft, not to mention the chubby guy ahead of him on the depth chart?

As the leaders of a 1-7 team that’s allowing nearly 113 ppg, are Luis Scola and Kevin Martin removing any doubt as to whether or NOT they’re franchise players?

Should it have taken more than 10 games for “Chris Bosh: Superstar” to be exposed as a fraud?

Did the Suns get a screaming bargain the second Jared Dudley signed his 5yr/$22M extension?

Can Tyreke Evans get to the basket ANY. TIME. HE. WANTS.?

Is it weird to see a pair of 24+-minute teammates- the Nets’ Terrence Williams and Travis Outlaw- shooting better than 50% from behind the arc, but only in the low- to mid-40s overall?

Is Nate McMillan right about Lamar Odom being an All-Star?

Does a healthy Tyson Chandler make the Dallas Mavericks a top-three team in the West?

Is it weird that at 106.7 ppg, the San Antonio Spurs rank second in scoring among teams with a winning record?

Are the Toronto Raptors Charlotte Bobcats not as good as their 1-6 records would suggest?

In the “slightly frumpy white Tobacco Road power forward” battle in Indiana, should Tyler Hansbrough get the starting nod?

(gut feel) Should we just pencil Gary Neal in for a couple of game-winners for the Spurs this season?

Did I really shit the bed with my gloomy predictions for the Atlanta Hawks and (WOW!) the New Orleans Hornets?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Lines of the Night- Sunday, November 7

For the Winners…

Steve Nash- A beautifully efficient performance in the Suns’ 118-114 win in Atlanta. In 33 minutes, Nash was 7-for-11 from the field, made his only 3-pointer, all four free throw attempts en route to 19 points- four of which came in the final minute and helped to ice the game. He added five rebounds and dished out 15 assists, while committing just two turnovers. Sunday night was Nash’s first game this season with 10+ assists, bringing to a close a rare streak- since rejoining the Suns for the 2002-05 season, only seven other times has he failed to reach 10+ assists in five straight games.

Richard Hamilton- The 2010-11 Pistons are not likely to string together very many winning streaks. On Sunday, in front of their smallest home crowd in years, Hamilton joined forces with his backcourt mate, Rodney Stuckey (21 points, 9 assists) to help the Pistons to their second straight win (102-97 v. Golden State). Hamilton scored 27 points- his highest total of the young season- and did so with great efficiency, hitting 10 of 17 shots (including a pair of threes) and making all five of his free throws. Although he committed five turnovers, Hamilton grabbed five rebounds, got a steal and at +12, was the only member of the Pistons with a double-digit +/-.

Pau Gasol- On a night when Kobe Bryant played just 25 minutes, Pau stepped into the spotlight in a major way, notching his third career triple-double, and his second as a Laker. Gasol completed the triple-double with about three minutes left in the third quarter of the Lakers’ 121-96 win over the Blazers, and ended the night with a ridiculous line: 20 points (9-13 FG, 2-2 FT), 14 rebounds 10 assists, three steals, no turnovers and a team-best +27 in 33 minutes. That’s about as complete and efficient a performance as you’re going to find from a seven-footer.

Too good to be considered “under the radar,” but definitely worthy of a shout out here, is Lamar Odom. In 34 minutes (he and Gasol were the only starters to play 30+) Odom scored 21 points, making 10 of 15 shots (including his only 3-pointer), and grabbed 12 rebounds (three offensive).


In a Losing Cause…

Al Horford- Horford was a monster on Sunday night against the Suns. Not only did he score 30 points (on 13-16 FG!) and grab 10 rebounds, he dishe out five assists and blocked a pair of shots. This was the first 30-10 performance of Horford’s career, and the second time he’s scored 30+ points. In those two games, he’s made over 80% of his shots (25-for-31), so as good he is, playing this well is a bit of an anomaly.

Also deserving a mention here is Horford’s teammate, Joe Johnson, who scored 34 points (15-27), grabbed seven rebounds and handed out six assists (v. just one turnover) in 44 minutes.

Monta Ellis- Ellis put up 24 points and grabbed six rebounds in 44 minutes against the Pistons. That he made 11 of his 23 shots and committed just one turnover despite playing such heavy minutes would suggest that he played an extremely efficient game, but an 0-for-5 performance from behind the 3-points line (bringing his season total to 5-for-22) would refute that claim.

For a guy that’s this capable a finisher in the paint- and quick enough to be almost unguardable- there’s little explanation for a) attempting more 3-pointers (5) than free throws (2) or b) attempting jut two of six fourth quarter shot from inside the paint. Monta may want to shy away from the 3-ball until he proves that he can consistently hit from deep.

Kevin Durant- After falling behind by as many as 21, Durant led an OKC Thunder rally (14 pts in Q3) that cut the Celtics’ lead to six early in the fourth quarter. Durant played 43 minutes, made 11 of 22 shots, including two of three 3-pointers, and 10 of 11 free throws, and finished with 34 points six rebounds and two steals.

HOWEVAH…

KD had just three points on one of six in the fourth quarter (a layup with 5:40 remaining) and failed to score in the game’s final three minutes.


There’s Always Tomorrow…

Stephen Curry- In his second game back from an ankle injury, Curry continues to look less than 100%, thanks in no small part to an ankle brace that’s limiting his mobility. He took the floor for 29 minutes on Sunday night, scoring 10 points, hitting just three of his 12 attempts from the field and missing all three of his 3-point attempts. He also committed four fouls, giving him nine in 62 minutes since returning to the floor. He’s not much of a defender to begin with, so any issues with mobility will surely turn him into a greater liability on D.

Russell Westbrook- On the surface, it’s hard to attack a 16-point, 10-assist line from a young PG, but Westbrook actually played a pretty subpar game again the Celtics on Sunday night. At 6-for-16 from the field, he was not efficient in getting his points, he wasn’t consistent (13 points on 5-9 in Q3; 1-7 the rest of the game) and his 10 assists were essentially offset by eight turnovers. Maybe it’s a tribute to just how good this guy is, but outside of a seven minute stretch of the third quarter, Westbrook was brutal on Sunday.

Brandon Roy- The Blazers’ visit to L.A. on Sunday got out of hand early, as the Lakers took a 13-point lead after the first, extended it to 22 at the half and never looked back. In that situation, the game becomes extremely disjointed for the losing team. This is what happened to Brandon Roy on Sunday night. Well, that and some pretty spirited defense from Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest. In 31 minutes Roy attempted just six shots, making only one. He did made all seven of his free throws to give him eight points. Roy added two rebounds, three assists and no turnovers, but never had an impact on the game.


Under the Radar…

Josh Smith- Don’t expect J-Smoove to fly under the radar too often, but he efficiently packed the stat sheet in a losing effort. In 42 minutes of burn (+/- of +8), Smith hit six of 10 shots and seven of eight free throws. In addition to his 19 points, Smith grabbed nine rebounds (three offensive), handed out four assists, got three steals and blocked a shot.

Ben Gordon- Like Josh Smith, Gordon does not often fly under the radar. However, with Hamilton and Stuckey both playing extremely well against the Warriors, Gordon saw his minutes dip on Sunday night, but didn’t try too hard to force the action. In 25 minutes, Gordon scored seven points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked a shot. The beauty of Gordon’s stat line is that he did not turn the ball over and his seven points came on just six shots (1 FGA/4.2 minutes, compared with his average of 1 FGA/2.7 minutes).

Glen Davis- Judging solely on numbers, Big Baby’s line from Sunday is wholly underwhelming. However, broken down into its component parts, there’s really nothing negative to say about his contribution. In 28 minutes, he took seven shots, making four, and ended with eight points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal. Throw in the fact that three of his four field goals came n the first 4:20 of the fourth quarter and took the steam out of the Thunder rally and it becomes clear that Big Baby’s line deserves some love.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Orlando Magic: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 59-23
2009-10 Playoffs: #2 seed; lost in Eastern Conference Finals to the Boston Celtics in six games
Additions: Quentin Richardson, Chris Duhon, Daniel Orton, Malik Allen
Key Losses: Matt Barnes, Anthony Johnson, Adonal Foyle
Projected Rotation Players: Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus, Quentin Richardson, Marcin Gortat, Brandon Bass, J.J. Redick, Chris Duhon

Look for the 2010-11 Orlando Magic to fall from the ranks of the NBA’s legitimate title contenders.

Just how good are these guys?

I initially asked this question in the preseason with regard to Dwight Howard’s supporting cast, but after seeing the Magic’s evisceration at the hands of the Miami Heat, it seems fair to expand the question to the entire team. More on this in a second.

While there’s no doubt that the Magic are a good team, it’s becoming difficult to include them with the Lakers, Celtics and Heat in the top tier of title contenders. Sure, they’ve won 59 games in each of the past two regular seasons, reached Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last spring and represented the East in the 2009 Finals, but they’ve failed to deliver in a “must win” game in either of their last two postseasons and lack big-game performers.

A close look at the Magic reveals a collection of players that either have no business being counted on in a big game or have no experience in that spot. During their run to the 2009 Finals, the Magic relied heavily on Hedo Turkoglu- a solid playmaker with size and strength- in crunch time. While it can be argued that this team’s overall talent level is greater than that of the 2009 squad, no one on the roster fits into that vital role.

What’s worse is that, irrespective of track record, there’s not really anyone on this team that you’d trust unequivocally with a championship on the line. Let’s break this down:

The starters

Rashard Lewis- not only is the $120-million man not a reliable big-game player, he’s become essentially useless in the regular season as well.

Vince Carter- VC is at his best when there is nothing at stake. He’ll accumulate numbers in the regular season and in low-pressure playoff games, but he’s also the guy that will limp off the court in the fourth quarter of Game 7 and make no attempt to return. Y’know, kinda like Wilt Chamberlain in the 1969 Finals. (Sorry, had to get that in)

Jameer Nelson- Definitely has the heart to be a big-time performer. And while he’s got the ability to take over a game as well, he’s not unstoppable. He’s not Kobe, Wade or LeBron. Even if he’s red-hot, Nelson can be taken out of his rhythm by either a double team or an aggressive bigger defender. For all of his talent and heart, if Jameer Nelson is your one and only prime time performer, you’re not a championship contender.

Quentin Richardson- Unless Steve Nash is involved, forget it.

And on the second unit? J.J. Redick can absolutely be counted on to hit a big shot or to get hot for a while, though he can't get his own shot. Mickael Pietrus is a great guy to count on a for a defensive stop. And Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass can get you a big rebound or blocked shot. However, if these are the guys you’re counting on to win a big game for you… once again, you are not a title contender.

And then there’s Dwight Howard.

Howard is a physical freak, a monster on the boards and unquestionably the best interior defender in the NBA. In terms of raw ability, his ceiling is as high as any big man in NBA history.

However, for all of his physical gifts, Howard is unable to assert himself when his team needs him. This has been evident in a number of postseason games in which Howard’s been a non-factor on offense, in no small part because of early foul trouble and turnovers. However, on Friday night, the Miami Heat dealt a major body blow to the notion that Dwight Howard can lead a team to a title.

In the most anticipated game of the young season, Howard scored 19 points (8-15 FG, 3-7 FT), grabbed seven rebounds and blocked just one shot in 28 minutes, before fouling out.

Really? 28 minutes, seven rebounds, one blocked shot? Against Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Jamaal Magloire?

While I realize that in theory this game was no more meaningful than Wednesday’s 42-point thumping of the Timberwolves- just one of 82- in reality the Magic had quite a bit at stake. After a summer of yapping at the their suddenly star-studded in-state rivals- from GM Otis Smith, to coach Stan Van Gundy, to Howard himself, declaring Kevin Durant a better player than LeBron- Howard and the Magic should have been more prepared to compete. Matched up against Joel Anthony in a game surrounded by that much hype, the best big man in the game needs to be gunning for a 40- 20, swatting shots and forcing the opposing bigs to commit a foul every four and a half minutes. Win or lose, Shaq in his prime would not have had Dwight Howard’s game from Friday night.

There’s no shame in losing to a good team, but to be dismantled and utterly humiliated in your first shot at your biggest rival probably means you’re not winning a title.

Bottom line: Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Magic at 54.5. This is probably a fairly accurate number, though given the inconsistency on the wings and Howard’s propensity for taking himself out of games with foul trouble, the Magic will probably be closer to 50 wins than they will be to 60. Look for them to finish the regular season with 52-55 wins and once again grab a top-three playoff seed.

However, look for the Magic to struggle in the postseason. Their go-to guy, while an excellent big man, is absurdly foul prone and offensively raw (as cool as that video with Hakeem was, maybe we made too much of Dwight spending all of three days working on his post game). When games are on the line, this team lacks a bona fide playmaker that will take over and win games.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

New York Knicks: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 29-53
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Amar’e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, Kelnna Azubuike, Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf, Timofey Mozgov, Landry Fields, Roger Mason, Andy Rautins
Key Losses: David Lee, Al Harrington, Chris Duhon, Eddie House
Projected Rotation Players: Amar’e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Landry Fields, Timofey Mozgov, Ronny Turiaf, Anthony Randolph, Toney Douglas, Bill Walker

Look for the 2010-11 New York Knicks to be the franchise’s most exciting and likeable in a decade- and to restore hope at MSG.

Perception is all about managing expectations.

After all of that plotting and positioning, the much-vaunted “Summer of 2010” came and went, with neither LeBron James nor Dwyane Wade opting to become the face of hoops in the Big Apple. In that sense, the past two years- essentially lost years, with virtually all personnel moves aimed at freeing up cap space- are a disappointment. With that said, this organization, which has itself been lost for the past decade, has made major strides, emptying its bloated colostomy bag of ill-advised contracts, replacing it with cap flexibility, and retooling the roster with actual NBA-caliber talent.

Gone are, among others, Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, Jared Jeffries, Larry Hughes, Jerome James and Quentin Richardson. In their place, Donnie Walsh (a key acquisition himself) has brought in Mike D’Antoni to man the bench, near-elite PF Amar’e Stoudemire (who excelled under D’Antoni in Phoenix) to be his star and loaded the roster with young (or at least not past-their-prime), NBA-quality players, all of whom have extremely cap-friendly contracts.

In Amar’e, the Knicks acquired their best player since Patrick Ewing and the first eight-figure salary of the post-Ewing era that will not make the fan base want to vomit in its collective mouth. At the offensive end, Amar’e is a matchup nightmare for opposing bigs- awesome on the pick-and-roll, able to handle the ball, athletic, nimble, with soft hands and a jumper that’s reliable to ~20 feet, making him a weapon on the pick-and-pop as well. It’s possible that his performance may slip a bit now that he’s no longer playing alongside Steve Nash, but the fact is that Amar’e’s got a sublime offensive skill set.

It should be noted, however, that for all of his athleticism and agility, outside of being a decent shotblocker, Amar’e is something of a disaster defensively- especially on the pick-and-roll. However, it should also be noted that if he stays healthy and puts up 24 and 12 for an exciting and improving team, this will not matter one bit. After a brutal decade, the MSG crowd wants a star that it can latch on to. Knicks fans desperately want to like Amar’e, and if he becomes the face of a likeable team that bring hope back to the Garden, they will not nitpick.

The man tasked with making the Knicks run smoothly on the floor is former Bobcats PG Raymond Felton, a more-than-capable lead guard who signed a two-year, $14.6 million deal over the summer. The brevity of Felton’s contract is a bit unusual for a player of his caliber, but stands to potentially benefit both parties. The short-term deal Felton with an opportunity to audition on a huge stage for long-term, big-money contract, while giving the Knicks an above-average point guard until the summer of 2012, when Chris Paul (the latest object of NYC's affection) becomes a free agent.

One the wings the 2010-11 Knicks feature a good amount of firepower, led by third-year sharpshooter and MSG favorite Danilo Gallinari, potential super-sub Wilson Chandler, rookie SG Landry Fields, Kelenna Azubuike, Roger Mason, former can’t-miss prospect Bill Walker and the object of every scout’s mancrush (I’m unfairly almost out on this guy!), moody but talented swingman, Anthony Randolph.

Joining Amar’e up front are “glue guy,” solid defender (found one!) and future MSG fan favorite (take this to the bank!) Ronny Turiaf and athletic seven-footer and FIBA World Championships standout Timofey Mosgov. Hope are high for the Russian rookie, who at 7’1”-270 has the size of a center, but the agility of a smaller player. He’ll be a factor right away at the defensive end and on the glass (with David Lee gone, all help here will be welcome), and has an efficient offensive game on which to build.

Bottom line: For the first in years, the Knicks are young, skilled, athletic and likeable. Combine this with Mike D’Antoni’s uptempo, fan-friendly system and fans at the Garden should take a liking to this team pretty quickly. Between having a good point guard in a PG-centric system, Amar’e’s (sure to be) excellent work in the paint and on the glass and plenty of open looks for Gallinari, points will not be short supply for the 2010-11.

However, as tends to be the case with D’Antoni’s teams, there are not a whole lot of defensive stops to be found here. In a trend that began with Rajon Rondo’s 24-assist explosion, look for a number of opposing players to put up some big numbers against the Knicks this season.

This team will struggle against smart, well-organized defensive units, but boasts enough weapons on offense to outscore a majority of teams. Think of these Knicks as a poor man’s version of D’Antoni’s Suns. Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Knicks at 35.5. This number’s probably not too far off, but given the infusions of talent, stability and positivity that this franchise has received, look for the Knicks to end the regular season in the neighborhood of 40 wins.

New Jersey Nets: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 12-70
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Derrick Favors, Troy Murphy, Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, Jordan Farmar, Damian James, Quinton Ross, Joe Smith
Key Losses: Courtney Lee, Yi Jianlian, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Keyon Dooling
Projected Rotation Players: Brook Lopez, Devin Harris, Troy Murphy, Derrick Favors, Travis Outlaw, Terrence Williams, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Joe Smith, Stephen Graham

Provided Devin Harris is healthy and recommitted to attacking the paint, look for the New Jersey Nets to more than double their 2009-10 win total.

Point guard play will be vital for this team. Despite a disappointing foray into the free agent market over the summer, in terms of talent the 2010-11 Nets have are much improved compared to last year’s model. However, for the considerable (seriously!) talent that the Nets now boast on the wings and in the paint- a core of Brook Lopez, Troy Murphy, Travis Outlaw, Anthony Morrow and Derrick Favors is not bad- they lack players that are capable of getting their own shot.

On its own, this is little more than a collection of skilled-but-disparate parts. However, playing alongside a lead guard that penetrates and draws in defenders turns each of these players into a legitimate threat. When Harris beats his man off of the dribble, he creates space open looks for his shooters and, once he gets into the lane, attracts opposing big men, creating layups and offensive rebounding opportunities for his own bigs.

In a season plagued by a groin injury and soul-crushing failure, Harris lost the aggression that had catapulted him to All-Star status in 2008-09. If he’s able to return to the form of two seasons ago- when 39.2% of his attempts came at the rim, compared with 34.2% a year ago (from Hoopdata.com)- it will go along way toward lifting the Nets out of the NBA’s basement. A clean bill of health, the optimism of a new season, as well as a reunion with new head coach Avery Johnson- with whom Harris had a strong relationship during their days in Dallas- set the stage for a season of dramatic improvement.

Through the Nets’ first four games of the Nets’ 2010-11 season, Harris looks to be back to his old self. He’s attacking the paint with more frequency, averaging 18.8 ppg, 8.3 apg and scoring very efficiently, with percentages of 52-86-42 from FG-FT-3-pt. More importantly, the Nets have won two of these games- they did not reach two wins last season until December 8- and lost a two-point heartbreaker against the Bobcats on November 3.

HOWEVAH…

If Harris is unable to recapture his 2008-09 form and remains stuck in last season’s rut, look for the New Jersey Nets to regret not selling high on him. When he’s right, Harris is one of the NBA’s most disruptive lead guards and, at $27 million over the next three years (aka, Mike Conley’s new annual salary), an absolute bargain for a player of his caliber. When he’s passive and seemingly uninspired, Harris is a jump shot-reliant volume scorer with an inconsistent outside shot (~30% on 3-pointer over the past three seasons).

With Terrence Williams improving by the day and seemingly mounting threat to steal the starting PG spot, the Nets will to be sure of what they’ve got in Harris. While Avery Johnson has said that Williams is strictly a shooting guard on this team, his fantastic rebounding, ballhandling and playmaking skills suggest that he may be in line for an expanded role. Although he doesn't have a knack for scoring efficiently, Williams' ability to penetrate and finish make up for this. Additionally, he's is already on par with Harris defensively, and should surpass him, since he’s still learning the NBA game. If Harris is unable to regain his 2008-09 form, Williams could cause a PG controversy in Newark by simply knowing his limitations and focusing on his strengths.

Bottom line: Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Nets at 24.5. On the surface, this may seem a bit optimistic for a team that managed a mere dozen wins last season, but thanks to a healthy and aggressive Devin Harris, a top-five center in Brook Lopez and a future star in Derrick Favors (11.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg; wasn’t he supposed to be raw and at least a year away?), the Nets should be competitive again.

This squad is a year (and another top-10 pick and a free agent) away from making a playoff push, but will be one of the NBA’s “best bad teams” in 2009-10. As Derrick Favors continues to develop (expect ~14-10 and a strong #3 ROY finish) and Troy Murphy is added to the mix, they will notch a few upset wins against playoff teams and beat up on the league’s bottom-feeders en route to about 30 wins.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Milwaukee Bucks: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 46-36
2009-10 Playoffs: #6 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Atlanta Hawks in seven games
Additions: Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden, Larry Sanders, Keyon Dooling, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Earl Boykins, Jon Brockman
Key Losses: Luke Ridnour, Charlie Bell, Dan Gadzuric, Kurt Thomas
Projected Rotation Players: Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino, Luc Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders, Keyon Dooling

Look for Corey Maggette’s commitment to defense and rebounding to serve as a catalyst for the 2010-11 Milwaukee Bucks. 

Make no mistake- the primary drivers of any success for the Bucks in 2010-11 will be stud big man Andrew Bogut and 2009-10 star rookie PG Brandon Jennings. However, the difference between another decent season ending in a first round exit and legitimately challenging for a top-four playoff seed will be newly acquired Corey Maggette’s ability (he’s coming off of ankle surgery) and willingness to play Scott Skiles brand of ball.

This season, Maggette will be asked to not only lead the Bucks’ second unit, but essentially play starter’s minutes off of the bench, in a role similar to Jason Terry’s Dallas. While the primary reason for his acquisition was to give the Bucks a spark on offense through hard drives to the basket and ability to earn trips to the free throw line. While Maggette is the most talented veteran on a young, defensive-minded team, he’s at risk of becoming a grossly overpaid, one-dimensional slasher. As such, and because he’s being paid a star’s salary ($30+ million over the next three years) and occupying a star’s spot on the payroll, he’s got to bring more to the table on the defensive end of the floor.

Maggette’s just too great a physical specimen and too gifted an athlete to go through his entire career as a mediocre defensive rebounder and a subpar defender. Given the recent deterioration in his outside shot (from 38.4% on 3-pointers in 2007-08 to 25.3% and 26% the last two seasons), he will want to focus on improving other aspects of his game.

This Bucks’ squad is probably the most ambitious of any team that Maggette’s been a part of during his career, which should be sufficient motivation for a guy who’s taken part in all of 12 postseason games in 11 pro seasons- all of them in the spring of 2006. If it’s not, the idea of Skiles- who’s not the type to tolerate guys neglaecting defense- dramatically limiting his role ought to do the trick.

Turning quickly to the rest of this squad, we see a starting lineup that returns four of five members (Jennings, Bogut, Carlos Delfino and John Salmons) from a year ago.

Bogut is coming off of a horrific injury to his arm (he suffered a broken index finger, broken wrist and a severely dislocated elbow after losing his grip on the rim after a dunk), and while he’s expected to suffer some discomfort early in the season, looks to be reasonably close to his previous form. He’s grabbed 11 rpg and blocked 2.7 shots per game in his first three meaningful post-injury games. However, on the offensive end it looks as though his return to All-Star form could take a bit of time, as he’s scored just 12.3 ppg and, in perhaps the most obvious after-effect of the injury, made just five of 12 free throw attempts (at ~60% for his career, he’s not a great free throw shooter, but he’s better than this). Even at less than 100%, Bogut’s one of NBA’s better big men, but when he’s healthy, he’s easily in the uppermost tier. He’s got a great arsenal of post moves and is an excellent passer out of the post.

Meanwhile, in second-year PG Brandon Jennings, the Bucks look to have a budding superstar. Despite being an inefficient scorer (~37% from the field and an inconsistent 37% on 3s as a rookie), Jennings is just a damn good basketball player and has all the tools needed to develop into a top-five lead guard. While he does look for his shot, Jennings is more of a pass-first (or at least, passing is tied for first!) guard who protected the ball well as rookie (9 apg, v. 1.7 TO/game) and is an outstanding ballhandler. Additionally, and no less importantly, he’s a willing and extremely capable rebounder (5 rpg at 6’1”? Not bad!) and an excellent perimeter defender.

Rounding out the starting five are John Salmons, Carlos Delfino and Drew Gooden. Salmons, who was acquired from Chicago at the deadline last season, is a bit one-dimensional but is a strong two-guard that can get to the line (and shoots well when he’s there, with a career 81% FT) and shoots the ball well from the perimeter (38% from 3 each of the past two seasons). Delfino is a better-than-average supporting player than can shoot from the perimeter (~37% from 3 the last two years) and is a good rebounder and defender- just a solid NBA rotation guy. Milwaukee also added the WELL-traveled Drew Gooden (his ninth team in nine years!) at PF. Gooden is little more than an average but serviceable “4,” but his addition adds defensive depth to the second unit, in the form of Luc Mbah a Moute.

If Maggette lives up to his promise as a super-sub and Bogut’s recovery doesn’t hit any snags, the Bucks’ top six will be among the 10 best in the NBA.

Bottom line: Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Bucks at 45.5, in line with the team's performance a year ago. There's no reason to expect a drop-off from this team, considering the only loss from last season's rotation is Luke Ridnour, who will be replaced by Keyon Dooling (good shooter and perimeter defender) and Earl Boykins (high-energy, instant offense). Add Corey Maggette to the mix, and if Bogut's back to 100% of his old self, the Bucks should be right around this number. This will be a dangerous team again- depending on how they fare with health and the random bounces that sometime decide games, look for the 2010-11 Bucks to win 44-48 games and wind up as a #5 or #6 seed in the playoffs.

Head Fake! John Wall Throws His Hat Into The ROY Ring

It's fitting that John Wall's home debut came on Election Night. In his first official performance in the nation's capital, Wall did an outstanding job of swaying at least a few voters.

Wall had already made quite a name for himself before ever taking the floor in a meaningful NBA game- SEC Player of the Year; NCAA Freshman of the Year; single-season freshman record at Kentucky for points (616); marks for assists for a season (241) and a single game (16) at Kentucky; Most Outstanding Player at Las Vegas Summer League, with averages of 23.5 ppg and 7.8 apg- but Tuesday night was a serious show of intent.

Whatever flaws exist in Wall’s game (perimeter shooting and turnovers top the list) can be addressed through experience and practice, but the his greatest strengths- awe-inspiring speed, quickness and maneuverability- he's as fast as Allen Iverson, but "plays bigger" thanks to his long stride- cannot be taught or practiced. These, combined with an innate ability to hit the open man (JaVale McGee will back me up on this already) and the ability and willingness (this part cannot be underestimated) to take over a game offensively without forcing the action are the foundations of Wall's forthcoming superstardom.

Five days after putting up 14 points and 9 assists (on just 6-for-19 from the field) in his NBA debut- a 28-point loss at Orlando that wasn't even really that close- and at the end of a week in which Blake Griffin, Clippers rookie and #1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, all but etched his name on the 2010-11 Rookie of the Year trophy (yeah, I was a part of that chorus!), John Wall officially declared his ROY candidacy.

On Tuesday night, Wall scored 29 points (9-16 FG, 11-14 FT), dished out 13 assists and swiped an incredible nine stealsin 45 minutes as he led the Washington Wizards to a 116-115 overtime win over the Philadelphia 76ers. It's only fair to note that Wall did have eight turnovers in the game, but this is more than offset by seven points and an assist (on Cartier Martin's game-tying buzzer-beater) to lead the Wiz back from a six-point deficit in the last minute of the fourth quarter.

In addition to notching his first win as a pro, Wall entered his name on multiple pages of the NBA record book. He's now got 31 assists after his first three regular season games, tying him with Damon Stoudamire and Jamaal Tinsley (one of the rare times a player wants to appear in a sentence with that guy). His nine steals tied a rookie mark set by Ron Harper in 1986 and are two shy of the NBA record held by the Spurs' Larry Kenon and he Nets' Kendall Gill. Finally, and most impressively, Wall became just the second player ever to record more than 60 points and 20 assists (he's got 71 and 31) in his first three NBA games. The other? Oscar Robertson (72- 30) and Connie Hawkins (61- 21).

Now, I've got to be careful not to prematurely anoint Wall as the 2010-11 Rookie of the Year, just days after jumping on the Blake Griffin bandwagon. However, one thing I can say at this early stage in the race is that not will Griffin not be running unopposed. At this moment, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Wall may have the inside track for the ROY. It's fair to assume that this subject will have be revisited more than once before the third week of April, but one thing we have learned thus far is that the top selections in both the 2009 and 2010 drafts are both worthy of the honor.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Miami Heat: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 47-35
2009-10 Playoffs: #5 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Boston Celtics in five games
Additions: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwon Howard, Eddie House, Jerry Stackhouse
Key Losses: Michael Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal, Daequan Cook, Dorrell Wright
Projected Rotation Players: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, James Jones, Juwon Howard, Eddie House, Jerry Stackhouse, Jamaal Magloire

As long as they’re even mildly interested, look for the Miami Heat’s devastating defense to actually outshine their work at the offensive end.

So… How was everyone’s summer?

It really wasn’t my intent to wait until the NBA season was a week old to finish writing these previews but that’s just the way things work out sometimes. With that said, for the purpose of this particular preview, I am ecstatic that things worked out as they did.

Ever since we learned about LeBron James’ intended destination for his talents, millions of words have been written about both LeBron and the Heat. We’ve seen venomous condemnations, spirited defenses, rationalizations, psychological analyses and countless prognostications as to level of success- or lack thereof- that the “instant dynasty” will achieve. The majority of this content was simplistic, redundant noise, while some of it was very thoughtful and well-written. Irrespective of its quality, however, every syllable written about the expected performance of the Superfriends shared a common trait- it was all based entirely on speculation.

The lack of precedent for this type of union- two of the NBA’s top three players and three of its top 25, in their respective primes, orchestrating a move to play together- and the lack of opportunity to observe this crew in its entirety in the preseason (what was it? Three, four minutes?) turned any attempt to forecast the Heat’s on-court future into nothing more than an uneducated guess. Having now seen this team play four times- once disastrously, once unremarkably and twice dominantly (one of these against a fellow contender)- we at least have a sample on which to base our predictions.

And just four games into the season, it’s becoming clear that everyone (myself included) neglected to discuss the most important aspect of this Heat team. For all the speculation about which of the three stars would have to sacrifice the most on offense and whether or not LeBron could average a triple-double, not a lot of thought was devoted to the Heat’s potential on defense. This is clearly the area where they’ve chosen to assert their dominance.

Early on at least, the stars on the Heat have chosen not to focus on touches and shot attempts, but on preventing their opponents from putting points on the board. Through four games, the Heat are allowing just 81.8 ppg and forcing nearly 16 turnovers per game. They have yet to allow an opponent to score 90 points in a game and have held three of four opponents to a field goal percentage of 43% or lower. In 16 quarters of regular season play, the Heat have allowed 20 or fewer points in a quarter nine times, they’ve allowed 15 or fewer four times and in their humiliation of Orlando on Friday night, held the Magic to just 10 points on 10% from the field (2-for-20) in the third quarter.

Even in their season opener, a disastrous showing in which they shot just 36.5% from the field and managed just nine first quarter points, Miami continued to put forth a strong effort on defense. Despite playing what will be one of their worst games of the year, the Heat held the Celtics to 88 points and managed pull to within one possession with just 69 seconds remaining. That’s gonna be pretty tough to beat.

It’s important to realize that this is not an old-school, grind-it-out defensive team. The Heat, LeBron and Dwyane Wade in particular, approach playing defense with an offensive mindset. They use their incredible length and athleticism to contest every shot, aggressively play passing lanes and, most devastatingly, smother smaller players on the perimeter, creating turnovers and easy runouts.

Between the LBJ-Wade-Bosh combo, Mike Miller, James Jones and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Heat possess the talent and the personnel to run a variety of sets at the offensive end. However, by focusing the bulk of their energy on defense and opting to run (initially, at least) simple pick-and-rolls, isos and drive-and-kick plays on offense, the Heat have made the game easier for themselves. There will be other brutal shooting nights that are reminiscent of the opening night disaster (probably not as bad, but still), but as long as the Heat are committed to being a truly elite defensive team, they will seldom, if ever, be out of a game. It’s been said countless times: your offensive game will go through hot and cold streaks, but speed, quickness, length and hustle never go into a slump.

Lesser talents have taken this mantra to heart and achieved great things. The notion of two top-tier athletes making this type of commitment is downright scary.

Bottom line: Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Heat at a staggering 64.5. What’s really crazy about this number is not just that seems to be right on, but that the smart money is probably on 65+. Look for the Heat’s final regular season win tally to be between 64 and 67.

It remains to be seen if the Heat have got enough size and muscle in the paint to survive seven-game series against both the Celtics and the Lakers (presumably) this year, but based on the early returns, it looks like this experiment is going to work. And in the words of Agent D-3, when it does, “this is gonna be fun.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

Indiana Pacers: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 32-50
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Darren Collison, Paul George, James Posey, Lance Stephenson
Key Losses: Troy Murphy, Earl Watson, Luther Head
Projected Rotation Players: Danny Granger, Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert, Mike Dunleavy, Josh McRoberts, Tyler Hansbrough, Dahntay Jones, James Posey, Paul George, Jeff Foster

After years of disappointment, look for optimism and excitement to return to Indiana, as the 2010-11 Pacers emerge as one of the NBA’s rising teams.

Both on and off the floor, the last half-decade has not been an easy one for the Indiana Pacers and their fans. On-court failure, off-court misbehavior, overpaying for mediocre talent and rumblings of possible relocation in the coming years, not to mention the worst economic downturn in the U.S. since the Great Depression, have unfortunately combined to alienate what has historically been one of the NBA’s most enthusiastic and supportive fan bases.

On the morning of November 19, 2004, the Pacers ranked among the NBA’s elite teams, with an outstanding young core that was poised to become a perennial title contender. That night, in the dying seconds of a 15-point Pacers win, Detroit’s Ben Wallace initiated a scuffle with Ron Artest (and somehow shoulders none of the blame for the incident), after which Artest laid down on the scorers’ table, got pelted with a drink from the stands and, well, you know the rest.

Of course there’s a chance that had it not been that night, the wheels would have come flying off anyway but prior to the brawl at the Palace, the Pacers figured to be a significant factor in the NBA for years to come. As a result of the events of that night, the Pacers lost three of their best players for a total of 131 games (15 for franchise big man Jermaine O’Neal, 30 for Stephen Jackson and 86, 73 regular season and 13 postseason, for Artest) and had the direction of the franchise unfathomably altered.

It would be ridiculous to blame the misfortune of the intervening years- the antics of Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley and Shawne Williams, Larry Bird’s penchant for making (or assuming, from other team) sizable long-term commitments to mediocre, injury-prone players, the credit crunch and subsequent recession and rumors of relocation- on the events of that night, but chronologically the brawl at the Palace did serve as something of a starter’s pistol for has been a brutal six years (and counting). For the first time since, the Pacers and their fans can envision the dawn of a new era.

Scoring machine Danny Granger heads up the solid young rotation. Granger’s as physically gifted a wing player as there is in the NBA and a safe bet to be an All-Star any time he’s healthy, but has room to increase the efficiency in his offensive game. First, he might want to lay off the 3-pointers a bit (he attempted 9+ 3s 17 times in 62 games last season, including nine times in the his first 18 games) and focus more on attacking the paint. He’s an excellent finisher at the basket and has averaged 6.9 FT attempts per game each of the past two seasons, while jacking up 6.7 and 7.1 3s per game. With minimal effort, he could average 10+ FT attempts per game- not a bad thing given his 84% career FT percentage.

Additionally, Granger’s got too many physical gifts to not be a better perimeter defender- improvement at that end will be key as well. The length and mobility are already there in spades, as long as Granger refines his technique and ramps up the effort, there’s no reason to think he can’t be an excellent defensive player.

Joining Granger as the face(s) of the 2010-11 Pacers are last season’s surprise breakout rookie, newly-acquired Darren Collison, and one of the league’s best truly old-school centers, Roy Hibbert.

Collison averaged 18.8 ppg and 9.1 apg in 37 starts as a rookie. He’s an excellent shooter and combines his dual role of scorer and playmaker extremely well. He has shown a tendency to be turnover-prone (4.1 per game as a starter) and should look to penetrate more, but these are areas in which he’ll be sure to improve as he gains more experience at the pro level.

Meanwhile, in the middle we have Hibbert, who made significant strides in his sophomore season, and enters the 2010-11 season in excellent shape and fresh off a summer spent working with all-time great big man Bill Walton. The biggest knock on Hibbert has been his lack of athleticism, which has limited him on defense and on the glass. Based on preseason form and very early regular season returns (18.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 4.7 apg and 2.7 bpg), he seems to have addressed this issue. If he can maintain this form over the long run, he’ll be a franchise cornerstone.

Rounding the Pacers’ young core are a pair of Tobacco Road bangers (Josh McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough) at the “4”, super-athletic and defensively capable rookie SG Paul George, defensive specialist Dahntay Jones and a pair of talented PGs- T.J. Ford (wants to start) and Lance Stephenson (consistent behavioral problems)- though Ford’s greatest value to the Pacers is as an $8.5 expiring contract.

Add in the solid veteran influence of James Posey, Jeff Foster and Mike Dunleavey, the latter also representing ~$17 in expiring deals (Jamaal Tinsley’s $5.5 million deal finally comes off the books this year as well) and there’s some real cause for optimism in Indy.

While they carry a tiny fraction of the expectations of the Pacers teams of the past two decades, the 2010-11 team has something has been little more than a fantasy in recent years: a young, talented and likable core. This, in turn, offers hoops fans in Indianapolis excitement, optimism and the opportunity to re-embrace their Pacer fandom.

Bottom line: Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Pacers at 33.5. While this is probably not too far from where they’ll end the season, if the nucleus gels and perhaps an expiring deal or two are parlayed into a starting PF, there’s a case to be made for this team making a run at 40 wins. Either way, it feels fairly safe to assume that the Pacers will eclipse 2009-10’s win total of 32.

Detroit Pistons: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 27-55
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Greg Monroe, Tracy McGrady, Terrico White
Key Losses: Kwame Brown
Projected Rotation Players: Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, Austin Daye, Greg Monroe, Will Bynum, Charlie Villanueva, Tracy McGrady, Jason Maxiell

Look for the Detroit Pistons to challenge for the NBA’s worst record every asset at their disposal to begin “rebuilding their rebuild.”

This roster has got to rank among the NBA’s saddest. It’s really unclear what the objective is here. Although the 2010-11 Detroit Pistons feature a handful of recognizable names, an overwhelming majority of this roster falls into at least one of three categories: overpaid, overrated or over-the-hill.

To make matters worse, Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon and Richard Hamilton are owed more than $95 million over the next three seasons, with Gordon and Charlie-V holding ~$22 million worth of player options for 2013-14. Three years out, the exercising of those options is already just a formality.

Assuming Joe Dumars has an interest in pawning off some of his financial disasters onto another team (one would assume he does, except this is the man that willingly committed ~$100 million to Gordon and Villanueva in the summer of 2009), he’ll likely have to allow opposing GMs to take their pick of the Pistons’ desirable assets (Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Price and his $11.1 million expiring deal, maybe Will Bynum? Basically anything that’s not rookie Greg Monroe) as a part of a package.

On the floor, the Pistons not only lack a clear philosophy- ranking near the bottom of the NBA at both ends of the floor in 2009-10- but also any semblance of top-shelf NBA talent. In recent years, they’ve accumulated a series of unremarkable and redundant pieces at the 2-3 spots- Stuckey, Bynum, Villanueva, Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye, Jason Maxiell, DaJuan Summers, Chris Wilcox and whatever’s left of Tracy McGrady. This has proven to be an ineffective strategy, as none of these players have played well enough to supplant either of the Pistons’ eight-figure incumbents (Prince or Hamilton). In fairness, Jerebko had shown signs of establishing himself prior to losing the entire 2010-11 season to a preseason Achilles injury.

Going forward, the Pistons will do well to cut ties (at virtually any cost) with their current crop of big-money veterans in favor of any young, improving players. With new ownership coming in, dumping long-term and/or big-money commitments will be a priority. This is not a team that’s geared up to contend for anything of consequence in the coming years, so the most important task at hand is identifying the young players that will be the foundation of the franchise. Do not expect Joe Dumars- who's now spent all the currency that the 2004 title earned him- to be aorund for this.

They will likely find that these pieces are Monroe, Stuckey and, if he returns to 100% after his injury, Jonas Jerebko, Stuckey still needs to establish his role in the Pistons’ backcourt, he’s an excellent defender on the perimeter. He seems to vacillate between being a lead guard and a two-guard. If he focuses on attacking the bucket and on becoming an excellent playmaker, he could become the backcourt stud the Pistons have been hoping for.

Meanwhile, in Monroe, the ninth pick in June’s draft, the Pistons have potentially shored up the center position for the better part of the next decade. Monroe’s not a banger in the paint; he’s a good athlete, a skilled offensive player and an exceptional passer. Based on his performance in the D-League, Monroe should be able to contribute at the offensive end right away, though his defense will need to improve for him to reach his potential. An extremely intelligent player, he will likely operate 12-15 feet from the basket and shoulder some of the playmaking load for the Pistons.

Joe Dumars tried to seamlessly usher in a new era of “Dee-troit Basketball” when he traded away Chauncey Billups, the catalyst for the Pistons’ 2004 title team. The move was intended to clear the way for Rodney Stuckey to become the franchise’s backcourt star of the future. This move was defensible at the time, and Stuckey has actually developed into a decent NBA player. However, subsequent decisions to hand out star-level contracts to supporting players and a massive extension to Hamilton have left the Pistons light years away from the goal they’ve been working toward.

Bottom line: Given the risk of Hamilton and Prince missing significant time again (missed 69 games combined last season), along with a pressing need to shake up the roster, and 2010-11 doesn’t promise a great deal of stability in Detroit. Throw in the season-ending injury to Jerebko, a big part of the team’s limited success a year ago, and it becomes safe to assume that this will be not a “transition year,” but the early stages of another period of major rebuilding.

Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Pistons at 31.5. It’s tough to see this team matching last season’s 27-win total, let alone topping it. Look for this team’s 2010-11 win total to be closer to 20 games than to 30.