Wednesday, October 29, 2014

2014-15 Northwest Division Preview



My season previews continue to march along. This time I stop at the Northwest Division of the Western Conference, home to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Denver Nuggets.




                                                    Portland Trail Blazers (57)

     The Portland Trail Blazers once again look prime for another competitive season in the Western Conference. The dynamic point guard/power forward duo of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge should be even better this season which means that the Trail Blazers themselves should be better. In addition, due to the injury of Kevin Durant and the impending fall of the Thunder in the regular season standings, I expect the Trail Blazers to step up and win the Northwest Division.
     The only real knock on the Trail Blazers is that they didn't add anybody of significance to their roster. They lost point guard Mo Williams to the Timberwolves and added center Chris Kaman. Kaman still has some gas left in the tank and should be able to give them around 10 points and 6 rebounds per game off the bench, which is solid production for a reserve, but nothing to write home about.
     One player who might be worth keeping an eye on is Allen Crabbe, a second year shooting guard out of the University of California, Berkeley, which is where I go to school. Crabbe was an early second round pick in the 2013 draft and figures to be a key member of this team in the future. If Crabbe has a breakout year of sorts, that would be a huge boost to this Trail Blazers team.
     The Trail Blazers have the making of a team that should win the Northwest Division and clinch home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They might even clinch the #2 seed. Does that mean I think they threaten to reach the NBA Finals?
     Perhaps, but the playoffs is a different ball game. I expect the Thunder to be lurking with a healthy Kevin Durant come playoff time and I would have to pick the Thunder as more likely to come out of the West even if the Trail Blazers had home court advantage over them. Plus, the Spurs are a vastly superior team to the Trail Blazers at this point.
     But with that all being said, that doesn't mean the Trail Blazers won't be dangerous and it doesn't mean they aren't contenders. If I am picking a team to win a division, then I have to consider that team a "contender".

                                                        

                                                 Oklahoma City Thunder (54)
   
     The Oklahoma City Thunder suffered a significant blow when they found out that Kevin Durant would miss the first 8-12 weeks of the regular season with a Jones fracture to his foot. However, the injury to Durant doesn't mean that the Thunder are heading to the cellar or out of the championship picture.
     The main reason why is because they have Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to carry the load until Kevin Durant gets back. Westbrook and Ibaka couldn't carry the load for the full season, but they can do it through Christmastime.
     The biggest question mark I have about this Thunder team is their head coach Scott Brooks. I'm still not convinced he's the guy to lead them to the promised land. The team has been wise to keep him unless they can get a really good replacement for him, but at some point the team does have to consider going in a different direction if they cannot win a championship.
     As good as the Spurs are, the Thunder should be able to compete with them and take them out just by looking at their players. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are arguably the two best players in the entire Western Conference. That means that they should be favored to win every playoff series they have in the Western Conference playoffs.
     Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich out-coached Scott Brooks in the Western Conference Finals last year and that made the difference in the series. The Thunder obviously cannot go out and get Gregg Popovich, but they can go out and try to find a different coach to help close that gap. Avery Johnson, George Karl, Jerry Sloan, and Doug Collins are all available coaches who I think would take up the chance to coach this team if asked.  Lastly, I as I mentioned in my preview of the Trail Blazers, I don't think the Thunder win the Northwest division, but I still think they are the biggest threat to the Spurs in the Western Conference.



                                               Denver Nuggets (41)

     The Denver Nuggets should be improved with the return of JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari, but even with them healthy, they will struggle to crack .500. The biggest problem for the Nuggets is that the Western Conference is really deep and they still lack a real definitive star. Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, and Arron Afflalo are all on the cusp of being the kind of star that the Nuggets need, but I'm not sure any of those three guys gets there this season.
     Arron Afflalo is coming off his best season with the Magic, averaging 18.2 points per game; Ty Lawson is coming off his best season with the Nuggets, averaging 17.6 points and 8.8 assists per game; and Kenneth Faried is also coming off his best season with the Nuggets, averaging 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
     The main thing to understand about this Nuggets team is that they are building themselves into a team that will be able to compete in the playoffs, but they won't get there this season. The key thing for their head coach Brian Shaw to do is get them to continue to play unselfishly and as a team. They have the depth and the breadth of talent to give a lot of teams trouble, but they lack a legitimate superstar to take over games in the clutch. If Lawson, Afflalo, or Faried can become a legitimate superstar this season, the Nuggets may be looking at winning around 50 games. But at the moment, I see them as a .500 team.



                                                  Minnesota Timberwolves (36)

     The Minnesota Timberwolves are in for a really interesting and exciting season. They traded Kevin Love to the Cavaliers and got back Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, and Anthony Bennett who all should form a nice young core to build around for the future. In addition, they drafted Zach LaVine out of UCLA and Glen Robinson III out of Michigan while also picking up Mo Williams. The team itself looks to be promising and certainly capable of entertaining fans across the NBA.
     The most important player on this team in my opinion is Gorgui Dieng since he has the potential to make the Timberwolves forget about Kevin Love for good. As a big man he can score, rebound, and play defense which is Kevin Love's biggest weakness. If he can come close to scoring and rebounding like Kevin Love while also playing fantastic defense, Dieng will be an upgrade from Love in the post.
     The other really important player on this team is Ricky Rubio who is reportedly on the cusp of a 4 year, $52M extension. If he gets that extension, he better produce. He can pass the ball and defend really well, but his shot is still terrible. If he isn't able to score with more regularity and improve his shot, he could end of hurting the Timberwolves and their overall growth as opposed to helping them.
     Overall, I like this Timberwolves team. They have a solid pass first point guard in Ricky Rubio, a budding superstar in Andrew Wiggins, a really nice shooting guard in Kevin Martin, a solid front court with Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic, and some nice reserves. The problem they have is similar to the Nuggets: The West is really really tough and they are young.
     However, unlike the Nuggets, the Timberwolves have good reason to believe they have a future superstar on their hands in Andrew Wiggins. They just need to be patient and let him develop without expecting too much from him right away.

                                               
                              
                                             Utah Jazz (30) 
    
      The Utah Jazz are also in for an interesting season, but I'm not sure I would call it "exciting". They have a lot of young pieces with Trey Burke at point guard, Dante Exum as a combo guard, Alec Burks at shooting guard, Gordon Hayward at small forward, and Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter in the paint. 
     All of these players are expected to be really good in the future, but right now they are still a work in progress. The concern for the Jazz is that we've been saying this for the last three years, and it's time that these young guys step up. Namely Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks. 
     The Jazz front office is doing all they can to put together a competitive team, but now it's time for the players to show that they are worth the investment. Hayward especially has a lot of pressure on him since he signed a lucrative max contract this summer to stay with the team. The Jazz didn't pay him that money to be a role player. They paid him that money to be a leader and a star on this team. 
     Similar expectations are also on Derrick Favors, who many have compared to a young Karl Malone.  So far, he isn't looking like the second coming of the Mailman. He looks like the second coming of Joe Smith, only worse. Smith at least had a couple of really productive seasons in the NBA before becoming an average NBA power forward. Favors is yet to have one. 
     The good news about Favors is that he keeps getting better. He averaged 13.3 points and 8.7 rebounds last season which was an upgrade from the year before in which he averaged 9.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Still, he hasn't yet backed up the hype. He needs to take an even bigger jump this season and average around 18 points and 10 rebounds per game. 
     Utah's rookie head coach Quin Snyder will have his work cut out for him and have his label as a "player development" coach put to the test. He has a lot of interesting pieces to work with, but it isn't at all clear how they should fit together. Look for the Jazz to be improved from last season, but nothing close to being a playoff team. 

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

2014-15 Southwest Division Preview

   
                                          (credit 7poundbag.com)
   
     The NBA season starts today, so I'm trying to get these previews under the gun! I am moving on to my preview of the Southwest Division, home to the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, and New Orleans Pelicans. As has been standard protocol on my previews, I will list each team in order of where I think they will finish with their win total in parentheses.

   
                                              San Antonio Spurs (59) 
     
     The machine that is known as the San Antonio Spurs is coming off their fifth NBA championship in franchise history and they don't show any signs of slowing down. Just when you think they are ready to head for a "re-building" period, they continue to find ways to compete, contend, and win NBA championships. 
     What is probably most frightening for opponents of the Spurs is the emergence of Kawhi Leonard as the next superstar of the franchise. The franchise appears to be in good hands with Kawhi Leonard as their star once Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker retire. In addition to Leonard, Tiago Splitter also appears to be on the verge of being another key piece to build around for years to come. 
     As for this season, Splitter and especially Leonard should really take the pressure off of the Spurs' "Big Three", allowing them to spend more time resting for the playoffs without the worry of losing too much ground in the standings. The key to the Spurs' success is the balance between making sure their core veterans are rested for the playoffs and also making sure that they are still winning enough games in the regular season to position themselves well for the playoffs. The Spurs appear to have the pieces to accomplish the goal of keeping the old guys fresh while also making a run for the top spot in the West. So long as they are able to do this, they are sure to be a really scary team. 
     Lastly, the Spurs have Gregg Popovich, who in my opinion is arguably the greatest coach in the history of the NBA. If there is any man who can help the Spurs maintain a perfect balance between rest and playoff positioning, it's Gregg Popovich. He will once again do a masterful job with this team and make sure his guys are ready for the playoffs. 


                                              Houston Rockets (54) 
     
     The Houston Rockets are truly what I call a "two-man freak show" now that Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons are gone. This "freak show" consists of James Harden and Dwight Howard. Harden continues to be one of the league's best shooting guards, averaging 25.4 points and 6.1 assists per game last season and Howard is still the league's best center. 
     The key thing to look for in this Rockets team is whether or not both of these guys are ready to carry the load and take on the responsibility of being the leaders of a championship caliber team. This team was designed to be a contending team with Howard and Harden as the foundation. It's time that these two guys prove that they can be such a foundation. 
     The Rockets don't have a championship caliber supporting cast around Howard and Harden, but that doesn't mean Howard and Harden can't play like a championship caliber duo. The Rockets' success this season has to be measured by the performance of Howard and Harden as a duo and not by the team's overall success. 
     This team as presently constituted, even if Howard and Harden become a championship caliber duo, is not going to win the Western Conference crown. The very best case scenario for the Rockets is that they win a series and maybe take 2 games in the next round. If they do that, they can be confident in Howard and Harden as their duo for the future. 

     
     
                                                Dallas Mavericks (52)

When looking at the Mavericks' roster, the first thing that jumps out at me is all the possible options they have at point guard. They have Monta Ellis (more of a shooting guard), Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris, and Raymond Felton all on their roster. This is rather unusual and I expect them to trade one of these guards before the trade deadline. 
     Anyways, on to the rest of the team! Dirk Nowitzki is still getting it done as one of the league's best players, averaging 21.7 points per game last season. He showed last season that he is still capable of leading a team to a championship provided he gets enough help. Does he have enough help? I don't think so, but Monta Ellis is a really nice #2 option for the Mavericks to have as is newly acquired small forward Chandler Parsons, who is coming over from their in-state rival Houston Rockets. Both of those guys are really solid players who help take the pressure off of Dirk Nowitzki. 
     Ultimately, I expect the Mavericks to be in the playoff mix all season and if they get a good first round opponent, they could find themselves in the second round of the playoffs. However, the Western Conference is really competitive and a lot of teams will be breathing down the Mavericks' neck all season. Look for the Mavericks to be a competitive team this season, but not a contending team. 

                                             
                                            Memphis Grizzlies (51) 

     The Memphis Grizzlies are coming off a very good season in which they took the Oklahoma City Thunder to a Game 7 in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Last year they had a really competitive team that didn't quite seem to be able to get over the hump. Can they get over the hump this year? 
     Reason to believe that they can is that they added Vince Carter, which is a signing I have applauded on BealeStreetBears.com, a Memphis Grizzlies website I write for. The reason why I applaud this signing is that Carter brings three-point shooting, experience, an additional scoring punch, and a clutch factor to the team. He's a guy who this team can trust to hit big shots in big moments. While the team is still built around Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley, Carter's presence will be huge this season as a guy who can on occasion step up like they do. 
     The Grizzlies should once again be a competitive team this season. Their core group is intact with Tony Allen as the heart and soul of their grind it out defensive style of play. They also added Jordan Adams from UCLA in the draft to give them another much needed long-ball threat. This team has the makeup to make some noise in the playoffs as we saw last season. But it remains to be seen whether or not they can make the jump from scaring teams like the Thunder and Clippers to actually knocking them out of the playoffs. 

     
                         
                                                     New Orleans Pelicans (39)

     Anthony Davis appears to be on the verge of superstardom which should be great news for the Pelicans. The problem for them, however,  is that this could also indicate he's on the verge of leaving. The key thing for this Pelicans team to do is convince Anthony Davis that he can compete in New Orleans and that they are capable of building a competitive team around him. If they can do that this season, then they'll have had a good year. 
     Whether or not they accomplish this goal largely comes down to health. Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Eric Gordon, who all are the main guys built around Davis, have had injuries during their careers. If they can stay healthy and figure out how to play together, things could look rather promising for the Pelicans. If they don't stay healthy, then things will look rough and complicated for the Pelicans as well as the future of Anthony Davis with the team. 
     As for this season, I don't expect the Pelicans to make the playoffs or come close. They should improve from last season and come close to 40 wins, but they'll likely need at least 44 wins to make the playoffs.  I don't see them making that kind of improvement in one season. 

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Bear Territory Thursday: Is Cal getting overlooked?

                                          (credit: basketball.wikia.com)

     Going into this season, the main teams people have their eyes on in the PAC-12 are Utah, Stanford, UCLA, and Arizona. There is a great season preview of the PAC-12 by Dan Hanner of Real GM that goes into more detail about why these teams are expected to be good. In his preview of Cal,  Hanner concludes that Cal "can sneak into the tournament", implying that a trip to the tournament is the best they can hope to do and that odds are not in their favor to do so.
     Hanner's core thesis that supports his conclusion is:

"With Ty Wallace and David Kravish Back, and with Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews likely to make the sophomore leap and become dominant players, California's core four players are very strong. But the rest of the roster is filled with a bunch of recruits with fairly low potential."
 The first part I agree with, but the second part I disagree with. I agree that Tyrone Wallace, David Kravish, Jabari Bird, and Jordan Mathews make a fantastic core four. I disagree that the rest of the roster is weak.
     First of all, Cal has really nice depth at point guard. Freshman point guard Brandon Chauca is actually very talented judging by the tape I watched of him. He has a very nice shot, good ball handling skills, and the potential to be a fantastic play maker.
     As for sophomore point guard Sam Singer, he too is an underrated player. He wasn't much of a scoring threat last season, but he showed tremendous capability when it came to handling the ball, making plays for others, and playing good defense. If he improved his shot over the summer, which I'm sure he did, he will be a difference maker in Cuonzo Martin's rotation.
     This depth at point guard is huge because it gives Cuonzo Martin a lot more options and flexibility with his rotations. Even though I expect Tyrone Wallace to be the starting point guard, Wallace has the size to play shooting guard at 6'5. By having other viable options at point guard, Martin can use Wallace at the shooting guard position to give Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews some relief. It also allows Martin the chance to experiment with Jabari Bird at the power forward position, which could give certain teams serious matchup problems.

                                                       
                             
                                            (Credit: www.Eurohopes.com) 
     As for up front, freshman center Kingsley Okoroh is raw, but stands tall at 7'1. He should be able to provide a sound post presence for the Golden Bears and keep them from feeling like small ball is their only option. If he can earn a lot of minutes, David Kravish will be able to play his more natural position of power forward and thus be much more effective inside. Plus, Roger Moute a Bidias could be due for a breakout year of sorts. I don't know where his ceiling is, but I think he is really going to surprise people and prove effective as a viable power forward option in "small ball" packages.
    While it's true that I like Cal's bench much better than Hanner does, what really makes me optimistic for Cal is Jabari Bird. He really came into his own in the NIT last season, and I think he was only showing us a glimpse of what is in store for him. I don't think he was hyped as an NBA first round draft pick for nothing. What we saw from him in the NIT is what everybody was waiting for all season.
     Now that he has a year under his belt and is being asked to step up, I expect him to deliver the goods and become one of the best players in the country. If Bird can play like a first round pick, Cal by default will be a team that has a chance to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. All you need to be dangerous in the NCAA tournament is a couple of players who are willing to step up in crunch time.  David Kravish will be one of those players and I'm confident that Jabari Bird will be the other.
     To answer the question in the title of my article "Is Cal getting overlooked?", I think the answer is yes. The potential to make a run in the NCAA tournament is definitely there when you have a potential lottery pick on your hands, three other players who are likely to play in the NBA, and quality role players.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 
   




Thursday, October 23, 2014

2014-15 Central Division Preview

   
     I conclude my previews of the Eastern Conference with my preview of the Central Division, home to the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, and Cleveland Cavaliers. Like my other previews I will list the teams in order of where I think they'll finish with their projected win total in parentheses.

                                           
                                                        
                                                           Cleveland Cavaliers (57) 

     The Cleveland Cavaliers have gone from being cellar dwellers in the Eastern Conference to being favorites to win the Central Division. That kind of transformation can happen when LeBron James and Kevin Love get added to your team. There is no doubt that the Cavaliers will be good, but we still don't know how good. 
     Will they win the Eastern Conference title? Will they win the NBA championship? These are the questions that are on the minds of NBA fans everywhere and ultimately only time will answer these questions for us. However, it is my responsibility on here to give you my honest opinion and answers to both questions. 
     In response to the first question, I think the odds are around 75% that they win the Eastern Conference title. I give 20% to the Bulls and 5% to the rest of the conference. With the way that this Cavaliers team is built, one has to put them as the odds on favorite to win the Eastern Conference even though this group as a unit remains unproven. As for winning the NBA championship, I give them 35% odds. The Spurs are still my pick to win the NBA championship, and after them you have the Thunder and the Clippers who I also think could threaten to win the title as well. 
     But with that all being said, this Cavaliers team looks ready to compete with those kind of teams right away. LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, Kevin Love is the best power forward in the NBA, and Kyrie Irving is a top-five point guard.Those three alone make them the favorite to win the East, but when you look at the rest of the team, it becomes really hard to figure that they won't win the Eastern Conference crown. In addition to the three superstars I mentioned, they also have Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao, and Tristan Thompson. Those five players form a really nice supporting cast for the Cavaliers' "Big Three" and should provide the additional help needed to get the team over the top. 
     Marion provides veteran leadership and scoring, Miller provides a three-point threat, Waiters provides an additional scoring punch that should produce around 13-14 points per game, and both Varejao and Thompson will grab rebounds and do all the dirty work. This team is very nicely constructed to win right away, and so I expect them to do just that. I'm just not sure it will all come together so nicely that they win the entire NBA championship in just one season together. 

                                                         

                                                 Chicago Bulls (52)
     
     The Chicago Bulls are a really tough nut to crack. On paper the team looks fantastic. They have Derrick Rose healthy, they added Pau Gasol, and they got some nice rookies in Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. There really isn't a weakness on this team. They can score, they can defend, and they can rebound. The only question mark surrounding this team is health (primarily the health of Derrick Rose). If this team stays healthy, they will prove to be the biggest obstacle for the Cleveland Cavaliers to hurdle in the Eastern Conference. If they don't stay healthy (i.e. if Derrick Rose gets hurt again), they will have a hard time getting out of the first round of the playoffs. 
     With so much hinging on the health of Derrick Rose, this team will have to find ways to keep Rose healthy and limit the number of minutes he plays throughout the regular season. In my opinion, Rose shouldn't play more than 36 minutes on any given night. I.e. He should get at least one full quarter of rest each night. Doing this would cost them wins in the regular season, but it would also likely ensure them a championship caliber team in the playoffs. Rose seems healthy enough to play 36 minutes per game, but beyond that I wouldn't push him. 
     In addition to the health of Derrick Rose, I think a lot of this team's success hinges on the coaching mind of Tom Thibodeau, a defensive guru who is allergic to offense. At some point, the Bulls' front office has to wonder whether or not Thibodeau is too defensive minded. I said above that they have no weaknesses, but I was only referring to their player personnel. The players they have can score just fine, rebound just fine, and defend just fine. 
     But Thibodeau for whatever reason has the tendency to try to win off defense and rebounding alone, which might come back to haunt the Bulls. So far Thibodeau has gotten a hall pass for his shortcomings due to Rose being injured, but if Rose is healthy and the Bulls don't come close to winning the Eastern Conference, odds are good Thibodeau gets fired after the season. 
     Overall, I really like this Chicago Bulls team. They have the pieces to contend and win the NBA championship this season. It will be especially interesting to see what Pau Gasol brings to the table and what kind of role he plays in the development of their rookie European big man Nikola Mirotic. If Gasol produces at a high level and if Mirotic starts to show signs of being a key piece for the future, the Bulls will likely have higher than 20% odds of winning the Eastern Conference. 

                                                 
                                                 
                                                  Indiana Pacers (43) 

     With Paul George likely missing the entire season, this team will have a hard time making the playoffs. The only way this team can make the playoffs is if Roy Hibbert comes out of hiding and actually plays like a big man who isn't allergic to rebounds. Hibbert has to step up and prove his worth this season. If he struggles and can't lead out, this team should try to trade him at all costs and possibly cut him. You can't have your team relying on the mentally weak and that's what Roy Hibbert was last season. If he proves to still be a mental midget, the Pacers will have no choice but to part ways with him. 
     As for the rest of the team, only David West seems to be a guy who this team can rely on for any sort of stable and consistent production. You know that he'll put up solid numbers around 13-14 points per game with around 7 or 8 rebounds, but that kind of production won't be enough for this team to make a dent in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
      You might be thinking "What about George Hill?". George Hill is a disappointment in my book. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.5 assists per game last season. That is nothing close to the kind of production that the team needs from him and I don't see any reason to think he'll be any better than last season. Of course, if he could step up and average around 15 points per game in George's absence, that would be huge. 
     With Paul George going down, the loss of Lance Stephenson will loom large this season. He is a guy who could have given David West real help. He'll be a great fit in Charlotte and will be sorely missed this season. Had he been on the team, I would say that the Pacers make the playoffs for sure. But without him, it's gonna be dicey. 
     Overall, this team is going to struggle without Paul George. Frank Vogel is going to get a hall pass this year if the team misses the playoffs as he should. He's a fantastic coach who held the team together as if they were a wooden house made out of Popsicle sticks. He did the best he could, but his guys let him down. This year, he just doesn't have the horses. This will be a lost season for the Pacers, but perhaps Vogel can learn more about the rest of the guys he has on the team and find out who he wants for the future. Especially Hibbert and Hill. 

               
                                               Milwaukee Bucks (32) 

     The Bucks are entering a new era with new ownership, a new coach, and a new face for the franchise. There is reason to be hopeful for the future, but as for this season, this Bucks team is going to struggle. I have full faith in Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo being a dynamic duo in five years, but right now they'll have to go through some growing pains. A successful season for the Bucks will be if Jabari Parker is in the running for rookie of the year and if Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to show why he should have been the #1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. 
     Their head coach Jason Kidd will be heavily scrutinized this season. He left Brooklyn in a rather bizarre and unusual way amid whispers of him wanting more power in the organization. If he doesn't do a good job coaching these guys, he'll look like a real clown. Of course, if the team plays well under him, then due to his age, Milwaukee may feel confident that they have a coach for the future. 
    The last real important thing to look for in this team is how Larry Sanders plays. The team is paying him a ton of money and he better prove that he is worth it. He has the potential to be a fantastic big man in the NBA, but he regressed last season. Some felt it was due to Larry Drew's poor coaching, but no matter how you slice it, Sanders needs to bounce back. 
     In conclusion, don't expect the Bucks to do anything big this year. They'll be exciting to watch, but they won't produce a lot of wins. Check back on this team in five years and see where they are at. 

                                            
           
                                               Detroit Pistons (30)

     The Pistons are a weird combination of talent and confusion. They have some talented pieces with Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Josh Smith, and yet the team doesn't know how it all fits together. Their formula for success seems to be "lets throw talent on the court and see what happens". It's like a weird science experiment involving baking powder, sulfuric acid, salt, water, and a wire. It could produce something cool, but more likely it will produce a disaster of some kind but you just don't know what. 
     Greg Monroe got retained in restricted free agency for this season, but next season he'll be an unrestricted free agent. This has to worry the Pistons since he is likely the best piece they have and he isn't likely to stay on a team that is so dysfunctional. Andre Drummond is also promising, but like Monroe he isn't likely to stay once he can leave, either. He hits free agency in 2016, so the Pistons have a little more time to convince him to stay but not much more. 
    The real problem with this team is Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. Both guys are what Seinfeld calls "chuckers". They just chuck the ball at the rim and see what happens. They play basketball like they are playing a game of craps which usually doesn't work out so good. 
    Ultimately, the Pistons need to get rid of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith in order to be successful. Sadly, both guys have massive contracts that nobody will want to take on which means that the Pistons will stink again this year and will be lucky to get more than 30 wins. 

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

2014-15 Southeast Division Preview

I continue my preview of the 2014-15 NBA season by taking a look at the Southeast Division, home to the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards, and Charlotte Hornets. I will address each team in order of where I think they will finish with a projected win total in parentheses.


                                                          Washington Wizards (50) 
 
     The Wizards' backcourt of Bradley Beal  (17.1 ppg) and John Wall (19.3 ppg) is one of the best backcourts in the NBA, averaging a combined 36.4 points per game last season. They can only be expected to improve this season and with the addition of Paul Pierce, they could be on the cusp of a trip to the NBA Finals.
    The most important thing for this Wizards team is going to be how well they can stay healthy. Their roster itself is really solid. In addition to a great backcourt, they have a great frontcourt rotation with Marcin Gortat, Nene, and Kris Humphries. With Paul Pierce playing the small forward position, they look very dangerous and capable of winning the Eastern Conference provided they stay healthy. If any of those guys is out for an extended period of time, then there will be trouble.
     This won't be an easy task as Nene, Bradley Beal, and John Wall all have dealt with injuries in the past. It will be really important for their head coach Randy Wittman to manage the minutes of all his players carefully. Especially Wall and Beal since they are the real driving force behind this team.
    What also will be important to keep an eye on is their bench. Glen Rice, Jr., Andre Miller, Otto Porter, Jr., Martell Webster, and Garrett Temple will have to step up and provide quality relief for Pierce, Wall, and Beal.
     I'm confident that Andre Miller will play well and that Martell Webster will continue his solid off the bench production. It's the other guys that are hard to call. Especially Rice and Porter. Neither player  was a factor at all last season, and yet both have the potential to be quality off the bench scorers. If both of them can have significantly improved seasons, that will do wonders for the Wizards since their bench honestly is suspect.
     Overall, this Wizards team looks very solid. The starting five is great and they have nice balance between a good backcourt and a good frontcourt. They can beat you inside and out. Ultimately, injuries or the lack thereof will make the difference for this team's season. If they stay healthy, they'll make a strong push to win the East. If they get injured, they'll make the playoffs, but fail to make much of a push.

                                                           
                                                               Miami Heat (47) 

This team may have lost LeBron James, but they still are going to be dangerous. Luol Deng was a very underrated addition to this team since everybody was only thinking about how he isn't LeBron James instead of thinking about how he averaged 16 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1 steal per game last season. While it is true that he is no LeBron James, he is still a very quality small forward who should fit nicely with what the Heat have been doing during their four straight trips to the NBA Finals.
     In addition to Deng, the Heat also still have Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who is the heart and soul of the franchise. Both of those guys are still capable at producing at a high level. Ironically, like last season, this team's success hinges on the health of Dwyane Wade's knees. If Wade stays healthy, the Heat will still be very dangerous since outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers, they arguably have the scariest trio in the Eastern Conference.
     What will also be crucial to this team's success is how well Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts fit with the team and how productive they are. Especially Granger since he has had injury issues these past couple of seasons. If Granger is able to be anything close to his old self, the Heat could really be cooking with gas in terms of offensive firepower.
     The biggest concern for this team outside of Wade's knees is their lack of size in the middle. Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem aren't bad in the paint, but they still have a weak front line that was largely masked by the amazing play of LeBron James. They are going to have to find ways to win despite getting beat on the glass. I think Deng will fit the style they've been playing, but since he isn't as multi-dimensional as LeBron James, I expect their lack of size to be an even bigger concern this season.
      The Heat are one of the few teams that might give the Cavaliers serious trouble in the playoffs. Health will be huge, but if they can weather that storm, they could find themselves in a position to knock out the Cavaliers and surprise everybody.




                                                    Charlotte Hornets (44)

     The renaissance of Buzz City is a great thing for the city of Charlotte. They finally have a team that they can really embrace and get behind. "Charlotte Bobcats" always felt strange and so it's nice to see the nickname "Hornets" back where it belongs.
     As for the team itself, they look promising. They added Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams in free agency and also P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh in the draft. Those guys should all prove to be very good additions to go along Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, and Gerald Henderson. In addition, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller should be improved with another year under their belts.
     Of all those additions, Lance Stephenson is undoubtedly the most important. He emerged into an all-star caliber player last season and he could prove to be a terrific fit with Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson who largely had to carry the load last season. It was clear that the Hornets didn't have the firepower to win a series with just Jefferson and Walker as their best players. It's no disrespect to them. They just needed help and Stephenson's ability to attack the basket from the perimeter as well as his defensive and rebounding abilities could be just what the doctor ordered.
     Noah Vonleh should provide quality production inside and P.J. Hairston should be a nice scoring threat off the bench. But with those two guys being rookies, the Hornets can't bank on them being consistently good every night. Lance Stephenson on the other hand played a big role on the Pacers last season and he should be expected to be a major contributor right away.
   Ultimately, I see the Hornets making the playoffs, but not threatening to win the East. The East is wide open, but there is still a pecking order that goes Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, and then Miami. Charlotte isn't good enough to break into that tier, but they still will be exciting and certainly dangerous.


                                                       
                                                            Atlanta Hawks (41)

     The Hawks are coming off a season in which they almost knocked off the top seeded Indiana Pacers  in the playoffs as an 8 seed, taking them to seven games. This team accomplished a lot last season considering that they were without Al Horford for the bulk of the season including the playoffs. We are still yet to see how this team can do with both Paul Millsap and Al Horford healthy, which gives reason for optimism if you are a Hawks fan.
     Before going down last season, Horford was averaging 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, the best numbers of his career. As for Paul Millsap, he too had a career year, averaging 17.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. If the Hawks get that kind of production from both players throughout the whole season, they will be very scary. Especially since they also have a solid point guard in Jeff Teague, who averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 assists per game last season.
     As for the rest of the team, they have some solid pieces. Kyle Korver is able to knock down threes with regularity and stretch the floor, DeMarre Carroll hustles and does all the dirty work, and Pero Antic is a big man who stretches the floor by hitting threes. Plus, they added Kent Bazemore in free agency, a swingman who averaged a career high 13.1 points per game during his stint with the Lakers last season. Those players all know their roles and fit nicely with the Teague, Horford, and Millsap trio.
    This team's success comes down to how healthy Teague, Horford, and Millsap stay. If those three can all play 70+ games each while staying healthy for the playoffs, they'll be scary. However, they won't be good enough to win a series in my opinion if everything in the Eastern Conference holds to form. But if they are healthy like I mentioned and a couple teams fall due to injury, the Hawks could be prime for a first round upset. I just won't predict it at this point in time.




                                                   Orlando Magic (34) 
   
     The Orlando Magic drafted Aaron Gordon out of Arizona with the #4 overall pick in the draft. I am really high on him due to his athleticism, energy, and defensive abilities. I think he'll have a really good rookie season even if he has a hard time scoring because of all the other things he brings to the table.
     In addition to drafting Gordon, the Magic also added Channing Frye and Ben Gordon in free agency. Both guys can score the ball, especially from downtown, and that is something that this team lacked last season. This team already had a slasher from the backcourt with Victor Oladipo and a quality paint presence with Nikola Vucevic inside. The three-ball they lacked and by now having it, they should be much improved.
    One of the more interesting things to look for in this young Magic team is how point guard Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo play together in the backcourt. Payton came into the draft as one of the best point guard prospects. If he can hold his own at point, the Magic may have themselves a really good backcourt for the future.
    This team can compete for a playoff spot, but right now, I see them missing the playoffs. However, not by much. 34 wins is probably 4-5 wins shy of a playoff spot, which means that if they get some luck they could snag the 8 seed in the East. Most previews of this team's season aren't going to be as optimistic as mine is. I actually like the additions they made in free agency and the draft. It's just going to be tough for it to all come together in one season.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 











Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bear Territory Thursday: A look ahead at Cal's schedule

                                           (credit: calbears.com)

     This week I thought it would be fun to look ahead at Cal's schedule and identify some key games to look for in the season. So what I'll do is list five games that should be of interest on the schedule. Enjoy!

1. 2K Classic vs. Syracuse in New York, NY (Nov. 20):  This will be a fun game to watch since Syracuse has such a quality basketball program and Cal has a recent history with them. Cal faced Syracuse last year  in Hawaii and the year before that, they got bounced by Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. Cal is becoming more familiar with Syracuse and their unique 2-3 zone defensive scheme, which means that perhaps the third time is the charm. Plus, in the most recent USA Today coaches poll, Syracuse came in ranked at #24. Cal will get to face one of the best teams in the country early on, which could serve them well later in the season.

2. Cal vs. Wisconsin in Berkeley, CA (December 22): Further up the rankings in the USA Today coaches poll is Wisconsin, who right now are ranked #4 in the country. This is a game that Cal players have circled on their calendars. Wisconsin was a Final Four team last season, and they once again are expected to be really good. I was present at the Cal-Arizona game last season and I must say it was pandemonium at Haas Pavilion. I expect a similarly electric atmosphere in Berkeley when the Badgers come to town. This one will be fun.

3. Cal vs. Stanford (January 14) and Cal @Stanford (February 21): 

I'm pairing these two games together since both games against Stanford are always crazy. Each team won on the other team's floor last season and I'm sure both teams will be eager to get the sweep and certainly hold home court. These rivalry games always have a special buzz to them and it'll be interesting to see how this relatively young Cal team does after already having faced Wisconsin. Plus, Stanford is a team on the edge of being ranked at the moment. Odds are good they are a top 25 team by the time Cal faces them.

4. Cal @ Utah (February 15):  Like Stanford, Utah is a team that is on the cusp of being in the top 25 and likely will be in the top 25 at some point in the season. Utah beat Cal in Berkeley last season and now Cal will have a chance to return the favor. It will be tough for Cal since Utah plays at high elevation and is expected to be really good. If Cal can win in Utah on the road, this would be a huge boost to their tournament resume.

5. Cal vs. Arizona (January 24):  After losing at Haas Pavilion, it will be interesting to see how Arizona responds in their return to the place where Justin Cobbs hit perhaps the greatest shot in the history of Cal Basketball. Arizona is ranked #2 at the moment and once again is expected to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Will Deja vu happen again at Haas or will the Wildcats get revenge?

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday Windmill: By turning down $48M, Ricky Rubio is asking the Timberwolves to let him go

                                                (Credit: en.global.nba.com)
   
     Ricky Rubio is entering the final year of his contract before he hits restricted free agency next summer, which means that he's looking to get an upgrade from his rookie scale contract. He is scheduled to make a shade over $4.6M this season and $6.7M next season, the year teams can sign him to an offer sheet. If you have been following the talks between Rubio's camp and the Timberwolves, you know that Rubio turned down a 4 year, $48M offer from the Timberwolves, asking for more money. I personally think that by doing this, Rubio is asking the Timberwolves to let him go since he definitely isn't worth any more than that.
     I understand why Ricky Rubio is asking for more money. The NBA is a point guard driven league and he recently saw Eric Bledsoe get more money by turning down the Suns' initial offer. With that being said, Rubio isn't nearly as good of a point guard as Eric Bledsoe, and while he does show signs of promise, he hasn't yet shown that he will become the kind of point guard that deserves to be paid like a franchise player.
     Let's take a look at his stats: Over his three years in the NBA, his rebounding average has consistently stayed right around his career average of 4.1 rebounds per game; his points per game average has actually dropped, going from 10.6 points per game to 9.5 points per game; his steals per game average has stayed relatively the same, which is 2.3 steals per game; his assists per game average has slightly gone up from 8.2 to 8.6; his field goal percentage has risen from 35.7% to 38.1%; his three point percentage has gone down from 34% to 33.1%; and his free throw percentage has stayed relatively the same across all three years at 80%.
     Judging by his numbers, I would say he has improved, but only slightly. More importantly, he hasn't taken a leap in his scoring average. If you are going to demand more than $12M per season, even as a point guard, you need to at least be averaging around 17 points per game and 10 assists. I personally think the best Rubio can ever become is a 15 and 10 guy, which means I don't think he'll ever be worth what he's asking.
     This doesn't mean that I think Rubio doesn't have any value or that he isn't a quality point guard. I just don't think he's worth anything close to the money that he is asking. He's a B grade John Stockton from a passing and defending perspective and nothing close to Stockton from a shooting perspective. John Stockton was a point guard worth more than $12M a year, Rubio on the other hand is a point guard worth around $7-8M per year.
     If Rubio wants to ask for a shorter and cheaper contract and prove to the Timberwolves he's worth what he says he's worth, I'm all for it. Rubio could prove us all wrong in 5 years and morph into a bigger John Stockton. But so long as he demands this money without proving he's worth it, the Timberwolves are left with no choice but to trade him or let him go in free agency if they can't find a good deal for him.

                                         (credit: www.hoopsaddict.com)

     One of the things that Rubio isn't considering in all of this is that to a certain extent he was viewed as a good piece to put with Kevin Love. The Timberwolves envisioned Love and Rubio being the future of their team as an item. But with Love now gone, the franchise has gone in a different direction, instead building around Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, and Nikola Pekovic. The Rubio-to-Love duo is no more without Love, which means that Rubio is more expendable.
     The reality for the Minnesota Timberwolves is that they really shouldn't pay Ricky Rubio any more money than what they have offered him. He simply hasn't proven to be worth this kind of money. A final thought on this is that drafting Ricky Rubio was David Khan's idea and Khan is no longer the general manager of the team.  It was David Khan who was sold on Ricky Rubio and celebrated his arrival like he was Jesus coming to redeem his people, not Flip Saunders. By letting Rubio go, the Timberwolves would officially be starting a new chapter in the Flip Saunders era and purge themselves of the David Khan era which for Wolves fans is an era that they want to forget.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord