Thursday, November 5, 2009

NBA Preview

Let me start by apologizing to my readers for not finishing this NBA preview last week. The World Series was a clear distraction, but it's not an excuse. You expect me to have timely articles and unfortunately, I've been a little too Twitter happy when sharing my thoughts and not taking the time to have real posts which allow me to express my thoughts in more than 140 characters. Rest assured that from now on, I will have at least three posts a week every week, unless I say so differently.

For some reason, there seems to be less buzz for this season of the NBA than in recent years, then again, living in New York always hurts the buzz of an NBA season. One things for sure, this season isn't wide open, only five teams have a legit chance at an NBA title. Thus the other 25 teams are finished already, some won't be in the playoffs, some will win a playoff series but no more. That's the thing about the NBA, you can't have parody in this league, the absolute best players have so much more control of the game that whomever has them will win, while pretenders who think are as good aren't and never win unless paired with a franchise guy. That being said, here's ten things to look for in this season of the NBA.

1. I was all set to put the L.A. Clippers back into the playoffs. I really was. They have a good young team with Al Thornton and Eric Gordon, plus the number pick in Blake Griffin and an expected better season from veteran Baron Davis who would be motivated by a better ball club. Add that Zack Randolph is gone from this team, a contract year for Marcus Camby and the likely devaluing of Ricky Davis, the stage was set for not only a playoff team, but a team that has the cap space, the talent and the big city atmosphere to attract LeBron James in the Summer of 2010, plus the added bonus of igniting a rivalry with Kobe in L.A. alone. Until this. The Curse of the Clippers strikes again. With Griffin out for the next six weeks, all the jokes about injuring knee/leg/ankle/foot will continue. In other words, the Clippers aren't making the playoffs with this news, plus the fact that Mike Dunleavy is still the coach and should have been fired years ago by Mike Dunleavy the GM. Finally, some advice for LeBron, if the Clippers come calling, run, run for your life.

2. The other two teams that would be possible destinations for LeBron are both going nowhere this season, and I'm sure you know those teams are the Nets and the Knicks. For the Nets, it's simple, play bad, get another high draft pick, and hope players like Devin Harris, Terrance Williams and Brook Lopez will become better players this season. The real battle for the Nets is if they can get the move to Brooklyn before New Year's. It seemed like a forgone conclusion that the Nets would move there a few years ago, then it became absolutely dead until some recent court decisions and the potential new buyer for the team, who is thought of as the Russian Mark Cuban.

The Knicks are in much more worrisome condition because they don't have their first round pick, so losing this season has no benefit and the giant elephant in the room that this team doesn't realize; the Knicks will not have the roster that LeBron James can win an NBA Championship with and he can't have the same place in history if he can't lead a team to a title. I've written it before and I'll write it again, the Knicks have such a financial advantage over the majority of the 30 clubs and they can use that to pick up a good player 50 cents on the dollar. That's how they should turn their team into a better team. Speaking of financial disadvantages...

3. The NBA is riddled with teams who are in financial trouble with Memphis, Charlotte, Indiana, Sacramento and Milwaukee among the first teams you'd think of. Which means we will be seeing more teams trade players away to this season's big five like a Rudy Gay or perhaps a Mike Dunleavy Jr. The only thing that will keep pretenders like Chicago or Miami from making trades is the Summer of 2010 which has free agents galore and that could preclude these teams from making long-term commitments on players via trade. But here's an easy prediction, the Memphis Grizzlies will be involved in a trade making sure salaries between two other clubs match up, while getting some money for their trouble (best example is the Rafer Alston trade). Everything here is laying out for a new collective-bargaining agreement in 2011, which the NBA will have a lockout to get things to change to benefit owners and the players stand no chance because they won't be able to lose a year of salaries like the NHL did. The interesting thing is the NFL seems all but certain to have a lockout as well in 2011 and we as sports fans are looking at 1994 once again for sports fans, and to be honest, it will be worse because of the habit of Sundays in the fall will be broken.

4. Quick preview of the Eastern Conference (aside from more in depth previews for the top three), Milwaukee will be among the worst in the league and hoping to get the top pick next season. You can add the Nets, Knicks for missing the playoffs and Charlotte won't be there too as they are the worst team in an surprisingly tough Southeast division, plus the Bobcats will regret not signing Allen Iverson, the only place in the league he would have fit. Indiana, despite an improving Danny Granger, is still a lottery team, while the Pistons will join them as they completely botched last season's cap space. There was no need for the Pistons to squander that money on Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon when they could wait a year for better free agents. The last team to miss the playoffs will be the Raptors, where I have a feeling they trade Chris Bosh in February in order to avoid losing him for nothing.

Though Gilbert Arenas is vastly overrated, a healthy Agent Zero along with Mike Miller and Randy Foye joining this team would help the Wizards return to the playoffs and a likely rematch with the Cavs. The Sixers will be back in the playoffs, and if they can get anything productive from Elton Brand, even better. However, this team is going to be stuck in that no-man's land of a middling East team which is akin to being a middle team in the Premier League. Atlanta, Miami and Chicago are the best of the second tier in the East, with each team having a size disadvantage. At least the Heat and the Bulls have a franchise player in Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, respectively; but the Hawks best player (Joe Johnson) isn't in that class yet and probably never will.

5. Now the West, where I expect Memphis to once again be one of the cellar-dwellers in the conference, since you have a team with Allen Iverson, Zack Randolph, O.J. Mayo and one basketball. As I mentioned before, someone should try to pry Rudy Gay away who could get lost in the shuffle. Minnesota had a chance to be a sleeper, especially after the Ricky Rubio pick. Unfortunately, they followed that with Jonny Flynn and ruined this season in the process, especially with a weakness in outside shooting following the Miller/Foye-Flynn trade. Sacramento still has no frontcourt, despite the pickup of Tyreke Evans and Golden State has no clue what they're doing (another team that perhaps can trade players fifty cents on the dollar, yes, I mean Stephen Jackson). Houston won't be awful without Yao Ming as I expect Carl Landry, Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry to be leaders; however, without even a legit second banana, the Rockets can't make the playoffs. The Clippers I wrote would miss the playoffs because I can't trust the Clippers Curse won't strike again and the last team joining them in the lottery is the Phoenix Suns, who play out Amare Stoudamire's final year there quietly.

Which means the Durants will make the playoffs. I'm expecting a huge season from Oklahoma City as Kevin Durant enters Year Three and like LeBron's Year Three, Durant will taste playoff action with a very impressive cast of characters, including Russell Westbrook and newcomer James Harden. Utah will make the playoffs again despite uncertainty surrounding Carlos Boozer because Deron Williams is too good to keep out of the playoffs as well as Jerry Sloan. New Orleans is in the same group with Chris Paul and David West and they could be among the best if they get anything close to a full year from Emeka Okafor.

Denver I think takes a step back, as Chauncey Billups is a year older; though the only way they don't go back is if Carmelo Anthony can get better (and based on his first few games, he could very well be better, maybe MVP-level). The main thing to consider, which I credit Bill Simmons for pointing out in his NBA preview, is that George Karl coached teams always have a pronounced drop following a season which they go to a conference finals and I would be surprised at all if that's the case. Dallas is always intriguing mainly because I believe Dirk Nowitzki is passed the dip in his career from 2007-08. Remember that Dirk was at his absolute peak during the 2006 Playoffs, then started declining in the Finals and continued it into the 2007 Playoffs (fooling people by becoming MVP though) and into the 2007-08 season. Well, I thought he was pretty good last year and now enters his contract year, thus I expect a good year from him. The team is okay around him, hopefully they can get one more year from Jason Kidd and a stress-less season from Josh Howard. Finally, I'm a big believer in the Blazers to be that third team in the West which is closer to four than two. I know Portland hasn't been able to get the guys they really want in the past few years (Andre Miller was their last choice in free agency) and are pretty weak up front (no way should they have given jump shooter LaMarcus Aldridge $65 million). However, they have the franchise guy in Brandon Roy and very few teams can say that. Roy alone with a talent roster surrounding him should guarantee 50 wins this season, a number that won't be a question mark on the playoffs this year for once out West.

6. The biggest question that in the first two games has started to manifest itself into a panic for everyone who's lives depend on this: Are the Cleveland Cavaliers a legitimate title contender? I still think they are because of LeBron James alone, but the way this team playing against good teams, something must change in order for them to maintain big 5 status. There's no offense in Cleveland as many people, particularly Charles Barkley, point out that LeBron goes 1 on 5 against good teams and the other four just stand around. This isn't 2001 when Iverson and Tracy McGrady could go iso on other teams, the zone defense prevents that, particularly good ones. Another problem with the 1 on 5 offense, the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal hurts the offense since he can't play in the perimeter, thus clogging the lane for LeBron. Not having "Gunslinger" Delonte West forces LeBron to bring the ball up, rather than playing away and setting up shot opportunities.

The biggest issue is Mike Brown. His offense is failing against good defensive teams because, well, there is no offense. Brown is following the epic playbook that the coach in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air used: Just pass it to LeBron. At least the Cavs don't have a Carlton Banks who will steal the ball from LeBron to take the last shot, but the Cavs aren't facing a bunch of white prep school teams; you need a real offense. Thus, the Mike Brown Watch is underway and if you remember the Braylon Edwards trade, the city of Cleveland will do ANYTHING to keep LeBron.

7. The defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic in my mind have the highest ceiling and the lowest basement of the five contenders. Their big question is: Does Vince Carter over Hedo Turkoglu make them better or worse. On the one hand, Carter is a natural two-guard who you can use to hit any shot you need. On the other, Carter being a natural two-guard turns this team more conventional which may hurt because having Rashard Lewis and Turkoglu would have defenses wondering how to handle two 6'10" guys who can shoot from anywhere and deal with Jameer Nelson at point guard and Dwight Howard. The only way Carter makes them better is if he plays this year like he gives a crap. Ever since he missed the shot in Game 7 of the Raptors/Sixers series, Vince only seems to care when he shows up in Toronto to stick it to the fans and team that he screwed over. In New Jersey, Vince was known to forget when his teammates were playing in games. He's the biggest question because the Orlando Magic have put themselves in a situation where they can't erase it if it doesn't work out because of contracts to Marcin Gortat and Howard's eventual max contract extension the Magic will have to get signed.

8. The Boston Celtics on paper have the best team in basketball...if this season was 2001-02. Of course it doesn't mean that the C's can't win this year, however, depending on four thirty-somethings doesn't guarantee anything. One of them, newly signed Rasheed Wallace, shouldn't have to do too much, which is a good thing for everyone involved and I think Wallace knows that. Ray Allen is in a contract year and a good season would lead to his last big payday, while Rajon Rondo just signed a 5-year, $55 million deal and I expect him to keep getting better, especially when he can develop an outside game. I think we all know that the Celtics will go as far as Kevin Garnett's knee can take them. If he is there all year, with Big Baby Davis coming back from injury later this year and Wallace is in the supporting role that will showcase his strengths, then the Celtics will be back in the NBA Finals in 2010. If not, they could lose in the first round. I think Garnett stays healthy and the Celtics make back to the NBA Finals, if for no other reason, but the fact that the way the team is currently constructed doesn't have that many more opportunities to win.

9. There is one team coming in this year that has the best chance to dethrone the Lakers in the West and that is the San Antonio Spurs. Here's is the Western version of the Celtics in regards to their dependence on older players to play well. Unlike last year, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are both healthy again, at least for the time being. Particularly Manu, who didn't have to play for the Argentinian national team this summer. Along with those two and Tony Parker, the Spurs have added Richard Jefferson (the first athletic swingman they've had in a long time), Antonio McDyess (who can do for the Spurs what Rasheed is doing in Boston, lessen Duncan's workload) and DeJuan Blair (the sleeper of the 2009 Draft who should have never fallen to the second round despite his knee surgeries). Make no mistake, the Spurs are back this year after last year's early exit because the window is closing for Duncan and Ginobili and Parker will be due for a new contract and if Eva Longoria is tired of San Antonio, Parker would leave.

(Sidebar: Here we have the potential of Duncan, Shaq and Kobe deciding once and for all who was the more dominant player of the first post-MJ era. Each guy has four titles with Kobe and Shaq going to six finals. Each guy has at least 11 All-Star Games, with Shaq at 16 and Kobe at 12. Now clearly if Shaq wins another title, he will be as a supporting role behind LeBron, whereas Kobe and Duncan can still be the best player on their respective teams. Honestly, I would give it to Duncan as the better player because he was always the best player on any Spurs championships, while Kobe was secondary to Shaq in his first three. Doesn't discredit Kobe in general, but I can't have him better than Duncan as long as the titles are even; though I do give Kobe an edge over Shaq because he's been traded a few too many times and the greatest players should be traded. But enough of my soapbox...)

10. The defending champs are still the prohibitive favorites to repeat. The Lakers still have Kobe and Gasol once he returns from an injury soon and they resigned Lamar Odom, which keeps this team balanced and deep; plus with his stories about candy, the NBA trophy replica made from candy and his marriage to Khloe Kardashian, the comedy of this team is still strong. Some more comedy, Sasha Vujacic is going out with Maria Sharapova (wait, that's not comedy, that's a tragedy, unless Vujacic acts like this around her). Just when you think this Lakers team is already comedic gold, the Lakers add Ron Artest, who is legitimately crazy, not crazy in a Dennis Rodman, this is all for attention-type crazy. The only thing missing from Artest is a Tyson-like "I guess I'm gonna fade into Bolivian" quote, but I'm sure it's coming.

Enough humor, the key questions for the Lakers this year: 1) Can Artest avoid screwing this up? 2) Is Andrew Bynum at all ready to take the next step? 3) Is Kobe getting too old to dominate games the way he has in the past? Well you never know with the first because you can predict crazy. Bynum improving would be the best thing to happen for this team, not for nothing, so the Lakers don't need to depend on Kobe and Gasol to do the heavy lifting of this team and make the third question moot. I think Kobe is showing some age, but he's smart enough to pick his spots on when to dominate and play above the rim. Remember, Kobe now is very reliant on his jumper now, just like Jordan after his return from baseball. There is one final question, what does Kobe think of legacy? Does he have a sense of accomplishment with finally winning a title as the best player on his team? Does he realistically think he can prove greater than Jordan? The answer to the second one better be no because he's too much in the Jordan mold to be better than him. Only LeBron has that ceiling of being better because of his all-around game and this is slowly closing. What Kobe does have in front of him was explained earlier, a chance to be the best player of the post-MJ era (1999-) with a fifth title. I'm sure he wants it, but will he be as dependent on teammates like he was last year.

I think Kobe will be willing to trust his teammates again, the problem is, in reality, the Lakers aren't as good as last year. I do believe that Artest replacing Trevor Ariza is a mistake because the Lakers didn't need to disrupt chemistry for an unknown. Ariza was tremendous on defense and began to hit the long range jumpers that his opponents gave him. Somehow, Artest's play has declined in recent years, as typified by the way Kobe had abused Artest last year. Now, the Lakers are better than the Cavs because Shaq can't handle Gasol anymore and if Kobe can lockdown on LeBron, with some help from Artest, they have no offense. They are better than the Magic, who with Vince Carter, make it easier to beat because he won't stop Kobe and Kobe will handle him pretty good. I think it's 50-50 that they beat the Spurs, but the Celtics are one team that can handle the Lakers. Garnett can cover Gasol, while Wallace will pull Gasol or Odom away from the rim, Rondo will be a better player this year and will eat Derek Fisher or Shannon Brown alive. Paul Pierce if guarded by Kobe will match him and I think is too quick for Artest, while Ray Allen will get himself open shots. The Celtics have an answer for the Lakers and they have the experience of beating them before and that why I think they win the 2010 NBA Championship over the Lakers in six games again.

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