What’d I miss?

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“It’s been a long time, I shouldn’ta left you, without some real Trill shit to go left to.” – Bun B

August 2016. Man.

Much has happened in my life and in the world at large since that month. Almost too much. But you know what hasn’t happened? A Down on the Block blog post from yours truly. That’s right, your boy is emerging from a 17-month hibernation.

So what happened? Where did I go? I struggle to answer that myself. I have a ton of ready-made excuses for you, if that helps. Landed a dream job, the worst person in America became President, worked the Super Bowl on behalf of StubHub, lost said dream job thanks to budget cuts (Capitalism!), had my first child, moved back to Austin, writer’s block, laziness, daddy duties. You name it, I can use it as an excuse.

But as any writer knows, this shit takes practice and diligence. Not only have I neglected to work out my long-form writing muscles, but my time spent writing professionally for social media sapped my confidence a bit. Can I still write more than 140 characters coherently? We shall see. Right now, I’m shaking off the rust like a wet dog with an iron collar.

But this is supposed to be about basketball, right? Enough with the autobiography. While I haven’t been jotting down my thoughts about the NBA recently I’m not falling off all the way. I’m still watching plenty of games, and even attending a few. Namely, Cavs-Wizards in D.C. and Warriors-Rockets in H-Town. Quick aside: I heard Bill Simmons claim on his podcast that Houston is a “top-3 worst home crowd.” I’m calling bullshit on that. Every Rockets game I’ve been to has been raucous. Step your game up, Simmons.

Anyway, how to approach my first NBA post of the 2017-18 season? Let’s keep the vibes positive with this one. As we hit the halfway mark of the season, here are the teams, players and coaches who’ve pleasantly surprised me.

Lauri Markkanen – The plus side of my dereliction of blogging duty? That my worst takes haven’t been recorded for posterity. I guess I’m outing myself now, though. But so what? My Bulls have found the 7-foot quick trigger shooter of the future, improbably salvaging the Jimmy Butler trade. While I’m still dubious that trading Jimmy was the right move, Markkanen’s rise (fastest rookie to 100 3-pointers ever – WHAT?) makes it easier to stomach.

Fred Hoiberg – The Mayor has not been treated well in this space in the past. I was 100 percent sure that Bulls brass made a colossal mistake with their hand-picked hire after the Thibs era, up until as recently as two months ago. Now? I’m more like 25 percent hopeful that Hoiberg has figured it out, now that the last of the Thibs roster is out of the way. He deserves some credit for Markkanen’s rise and Kris Dunn’s solid play, as well as his handling of the Bobby Portis – Niko Mirotic rift.

Giannis, 30ish per game scorer – Like everyone, I knew the Greek Freak was coming to take over the league. I just didn’t see him trailing only James Harden in points per game THIS SEASON, without having a real 3-point shot yet. He’s been one of the league’s best defenders to boot. Bucket list player to see live, for sure.

Lou Williams, 30ish per game scorer – Wow. Lou is averaging 23 a game for the year, but a whopping 31.2 over his last 13. Chris Paul called him the Clips’ go-to scorer in some phenomenal petty shade thrown at Blake Griffin. Didn’t see this coming in Sweet Lou’s 13th season.

Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers – I would’ve told you in September that the Pacers were headed for their first ever real tanking season. Silly me, the Pacers don’t tank! Oladipo, a former No. 2 overall pick, is finally shining (24.3 ppg) and making the Hoosier State forget about Paul George. His Pacers are 6th in the East and Kevin Pritchard looks like a genius. Domantas Sabonis looks good too at 12 and 8 per game.

DeMar DeRozan – 36 percent on 3.2 treys a game?! I had given up on DeRozan’s potential as a deep threat. Now he’s got the Raptors rolling to a 29-13 start and dropping 25 a game with efficiency. The top of the East is, dare I say, fun? What a world.

Gerald Green – Do it for H-Town! The NBA vagabond has found a home in his hometown, and in Mike D’Antoni’s system. I witnessed him bury six 3-pointers against the Warriors, including one off the backboard. The crowd progressively lost their shit with each triple until it was almost deafening. I guess Simmons wasn’t watching that night.

Honorable Mentions – Donovan Mitchell/Trey Lyles/Doc Rivers/Jimmy Butler’s MVP case/Ben Simmons thriving on offense without actually shooting/Spencer Dinwiddie (CU Buff!)/Andre Drummond/the 25-18 Miami Heat/that time Orlando started out 8-4/Celtics dominating without Gordon Hayward.

It’s good to be back!

 

 

Olympic Roster Rapidly Dwindling

Be it due to injury, fears of mosquitoes carrying Zika Virus or just summer vacation, big names continue to drop from the once-astonishing Men’s National Team roster. Just this past week, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have taken their names out of consideration for the 12-player squad looking for another gold medal in Rio this summer.

In January  I mused about the potential this team had to rival the 1992 Dream Team in talent and star power with my proposed final roster. I revised it a couple months later after  Anthony Davis got hurt and Chris Paul pulled out. Just take a look at what could have been, before we get into picking the actual, more watered-down (h/t Tracy McGrady) roster:

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Projecting the 2016 Olympic Roster

It must be pretty sweet to be Coach K. I think that’s pretty undebatable. I only sympathize with the tough task he has ahead of him, cutting down this roster of 30 NBA stars to a final team of 12. The collection of talent below is truly astounding and it must be hard to tell NBA superstars “thanks, but no thanks…we won’t be needing you”.

Then again, the USA Olympics team is 129-7 with him on the coaching staff, he’s collected two Olympic gold medals and a FIBA gold medal, and he’s won the NCAA tournament five times. Any scorned player needs to get on his level before they’re allowed to pout. Besides, it will be a monumental surprise if the 2016 USA Men’s installment doesn’t roll to another gold medal. It’s good to be the basketball coach king.

Here is the 30-man roster that was announced on Jan. 18, broken down into guards, forwards and centers:

Guards

Bradley Beal, Wizards

Jimmy Butler, Bulls

Mike Conley, Grizzlies

Stephen Curry, Warriors

DeMar DeRozan, Raptors

James Harden, Rockets

Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers

Chris Paul, Clippers

Klay Thompson, Warriors

John Wall, Wizards

Russell Westbrook, Thunder

Forwards

LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Harrison Barnes, Warriors

Kevin Durant, Thunder

Kenneth Faried, Nuggets

Rudy Gay, Kings

Paul George, Pacers

Draymond Green, Warriors

Blake Griffin, Clippers

Gordon Hayward, Jazz

Andre Iguodala, Warriors

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

Kevin Love, Cavaliers

LeBron James, Cavaliers

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

Centers

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Andre Drummond, Pistons

Dwight Howard, Rockets

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers

 

I am going to tackle this by making three cuts to get down to the final 12 roster. But first a quick word about snubs. There are a few players I think should have made it to this hallowed 30-man list. The most glaring omission to me is Chris Bosh, who can never get enough respect. A future Hall of Famer in my book, it’s almost criminal to leave him on the outside looking in while Love, Faried, Iguodala, Gay and Barnes make it in as forwards. Bosh is someone who could make a final 12-man roster and it wouldn’t be crazy. Strange omission. Next up is Kyle Lowry, who saw his backcourt mate DeRozan make it, but not himself. Now, Lowry is a casualty of the loaded point guard group and wouldn’t beat out Curry, Westbrook, Irving, Wall, etc. for the final team. But as the leader of a 30-15 Raptors squad who scores, distributes and defends I think he deserves a spot. Knock an extra forward out for Lowry (I’m looking at you Faried). Others with a case to be included are Damian Lillard (again a point guard casualty), Derrick Favors (injuries have hurt his case), Derrick Rose (injuries and declining play) and Paul Millsap. Kobe Bryant mercifully announced he wouldn’t be trying out for the team, so he did not get a legacy spot in the 30-man group.

In 2012, the final roster included 5 guards, 6 forwards and 1 center, for reference, and the alternates were Anthony Davis, Rudy Gay and Eric Gordon. Without further ado…

First Cut – 10 players

Faried; Gay; Iguodala; Hayward; Barnes; Love; Howard; Conley; Beal; Drummond.

I assume Faried and Gay were included because they have Olympic experience. However, they were easy cuts in a crowded group of forwards. Iggy played well for the 2012 team and is an awesome role player for the Warriors but this is as far as I can advance him in 2016. I love Hayward’s shooting and think he’ll be on this team in the future, but he’s not quite ready. I’m scared to see Howard and Drummond miss free throws in crucial moments. Howard is past his prime but Drummond was a more difficult cut. He also has a future on the team I believe. Conley is the first point guard out, as there are just too many stars at the position. Beal hasn’t shown he can stay healthy, while Love and Barnes are additional forward casualties. Love’s game has stagnated in Cleveland and Barnes, while a key cog in the Warriors’ machine, isn’t on the Olympic level at this point.

Second Cut – 5 players

Aldridge; DeRozan; Jordan; Thompson; Irving.

Now it starts getting real hard. Blake and Cousins edge out Aldridge just barely. I had to cut two great shooting guards in DeRozan and Thompson. Klay was especially tough, but Butler and Harden beat him out by the slimmest of margins for me. Jordan is in the midst of his best pro season, but similar to Howard and Drummond, his horrendous free throw shooting cost him. There will be no “Hack-A” against Team USA.

Now a few words about John Wall vs. Kyrie Irving. I went back and forth on these two a hundred times. Whether it’s an All-Star team, an Olympic roster or a friendly argument amongst friends, it always seems to come down to Wall and Irving. Both are electric with the ball in their hands, quicker than just about any other basketball players on Earth. Kyrie gets more spotlight because he plays with LeBron and he’s prone to 50-point scoring outbursts. Wall is a more traditional mold of point guard, though his team’s offense has struggled mightily this season. How much of that can be pinned on him is debatable. Kyrie frustrates because he refuses to get Love involved more in the Cavs offense, seemingly a joint decision with LeBron. Yet Kyrie, when healthy, shows flashes of being a generational talent. I chose Wall for two reasons – I like Wall’s defense much better and I feel he’s more comfortable as a distributor to the many stars he’d be sharing the court with on an Olympic team. Kyrie just is a bit too ball-dominant for these purposes.

Final Cut – 3 players

First, the locks. LeBron, Curry, Durant, Melo, Westbrook, Davis, George, Kawhi and Paul all have to be on my team. No negotiations there – not even with Melo, who is automatic after his previous Olympic heroics. Which doesn’t leave space for any more point guards, but we probably need at least one center, a forward and definitely a shooting guard. Russ can play minutes at the 2, but we need a pure shooting guard to fill out the roster. So I will need to pick three players out of the following pool: Wall, Harden, Butler, Cousins, Green and Griffin.

All of my inner torment over Wall and Irving is moot, because I’m cutting Wall anyway. He’ll be an alternate. I can’t make a case for him over Curry, Paul or Westbrook, nor can I justify carrying four point guards.

As mentioned I need a shooting guard, and Jimmy Buckets is the pick over Harden. He’s earned it with a remarkable year and a half of carrying the Bulls on his back. He can shoot, defend and get to the rim when he wants to; plus he brings a work ethic and competitiveness that will be an asset on the world stage. I know Harden won a gold medal in 2012, but he will have to settle for being an alternate on my team. Am I a Bulls homer? Yes.

That leaves Cousins, Green and Griffin. There is no right answer here. Currently my de facto center is Anthony Davis, which works fine for international play but leaves us very one-dimensional as a small ball attack when Davis sits. For that reason I’m leaning toward including Boogie. But the other two have very strong cases themselves.

No doubt Griffin has hurt his standing with his recent assault of an equipment manager. He’s done damage to his image as well as his shooting hand. But can I really leave off Blake? He is one of the game’s premier stars and a potential juggernaut at the international level, too quick for big men and too powerful for small forwards to deal with. In a vacuum, I’d take him over Boogie, but considering we already have Durant, LeBron, Davis, George and Kawhi – and the roster really needs a true center – I’m leaning towards leaving him off.

That’s because the more I think about it I simply have to include Draymond. His swiss army style lends itself perfectly to Olympic play, as he can play 3-4 positions and defend all five. He will bring Team USA the confidence and swagger it deserves, while not worrying about lack of shots or playing time. His last two NBA seasons are nuts. Nobody knows how to defend his unique blend of passing, decision-making and shooting. Put him on the floor with Kawhi and George, and neither France nor Spain nor Serbia will be able to get off a good shot. Draymond’s in and I can’t wait.

Which leaves me with Boogie or Blake. Screw it, I’m taking Boogie. The downside is his propensity for being a malcontent that bitches at refs, coaches and teammates. You’re risking an international incident if he choke-slams a Turk or something. I am fully aware of this. But he’s a monster in the paint that no country will have an answer for, and if need be, Jerry Colangelo can orchestrate an “undisclosed injury” and swap in Blake.

So here is Down on the Block’s vote for the final 12-man Olympic roster. I’m salivating.

PG – Steph Curry

PG – Chris Paul

PG/SG – Russell Westbrook

SG – Jimmy Butler

G/F – Kawhi Leonard

F – LeBron James

F – Carmelo Anthony

F – Paul George

F – Kevin Durant

F – Draymond Green

F/C – Anthony Davis

C – DeMarcus Cousins

Alternates – (F) Blake Griffin, (G) John Wall, (G) James Harden

If that’s not a gold medal team, I don’t know what is. I fully reserve the right to make changes as the rest of the regular season and playoffs play out. You may think I need another 2-guard / shooter, and I’m willing to listen. But I think we can get by with the shooting of Curry, Leonard, Butler, George, Durant, Carmelo and Green. It will be up to Coach K to determine minutes, ideal lineups and rotations, which will be tough especially among the forwards. But THOSE FORWARDS…my God. I need to go take a cold shower…

 

 

It’s All Star Time

Welcome to the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA season! We have two teams playing at historic levels in the Warriors and Spurs, an oddly desperate conference champion favorite in Cleveland and two surging teams in OKC and LAC. In other words, order has been somewhat restored on the West vs. East Conference front. There is still a giant middle class of good-not great teams out East but, as we will see with the All Star rosters and later with our Olympic picks, most of the top talent and thus upper crust dwells in the West.

The Fan Voting is in for All-Star, but this space will ignore that fact. These picks are based on who has played the best in the first half of the season, pretty novel idea, right? Like everything, we tend to overthink these rosters. Here is my effort to make sense of what I’ve watched this year. The starting lineups are based on two guards and three front court players, with the reserves sort of organized along positional lines. Without further ado:

DotB Eastern Conference All-Stars

Starters

G – Kyle Lowry, Raptors

G – Jimmy Butler, Bulls

FC – LeBron James, Cavaliers

FC – Paul George, Pacers

FC – Andre Drummond, Pistons

The only one here I needed to think twice about was Drummond, the other four were locks for me as starters. Hurting his case the most is his horrid free throw shooting, but I couldn’t ignore the massive rebounding numbers (15.5 per game, 5.5 offensive rebounds, whopping 33% defensive rebounding rate). Drummond has anchored Detroit’s resurgence, still getting better as a post scorer and can protect the rim when energized. Drummond gets extra love in this space as an old-school post force down on the block.

Skinny Kyle Lowry has been an offensive technician and leader for the Raptors, helping them stay in the upper half of the East playoff race much of the year. His weight loss hasn’t hurt his ability to compete on defense and if anything has given him more stamina on that end.

Butler is having a stunning season for the wildly inconsistent Bulls. He’s been their rock and one of their only constants. The 40-point second half against Toronto and the 50-point effort against Philly carved his spot in stone and made the league take notice. He’s jumped up a level this season and is earning his new contract in a big way.

LeBron and George are no-brainers, two of the top 10 players in the sport. A lot has been made of James’ supposed slippage this season and it’s sort of fair. Still 80 percent of LeBron is one of the best basketball players in the world. He’s carrying Cleveland to a runaway top seed even without Kyrie Irving for much of the season and an up and down Kevin Love performance. James is averaging 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists per 36 minutes – another master stroke in his 13th NBA season. George, meanwhile, has carried the surprising Pacers in a monster comeback season after a terrible leg injury. He’s tailed off a bit since his white-hot start but is still putting up 24, 7.5 and 4 per 36 minutes and a 20.8 PER.

Reserves

John Wall, Wizards

DeMar DeRozan, Raptors

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

Pau Gasol, Bulls

Chris Bosh, Heat

Reggie Jackson, Pistons

Paul Millsap, Hawks

The perennially underrated Bosh was a lock, as were Wall, DeRozan and Gasol. Wall is single-handedly keeping the Wizards afloat and has overcome a slowish start nicely. DeRozan is getting to the rim with abandon and gets to the line eight times a game. In an era of jump shooters, he’s playing like a Clyde Drexler throwback slasher and I love it. Gasol is the other constant on the Bulls, he gets in even though his defense drives me nuts. Sure he’s getting blocks but he turns his nose up at pick-and-roll defense and is allergic to rotating. However, his 19 and 12 per 36 is too hard to ignore.

Carmelo has exited his prime as a pure scorer but is transitioning nicely to more of a facilitator role and stepped up his defense this season. The Knicks are actually a feel-good story and it’s not all Porzingis…Melo is still the engine in New York. I had to get a Hawk on the team and Millsap edges out Al Horford just barely. Jackson edges out Isaiah Thomas because of the huge responsibility he has shouldered as the key-turner in Detroit’s pick-and-roll heavy attack. He has a 29.0 usage rate, and he and Drummond’s rapid chemistry is one of the stories of the season.

East Breakdown – I’ve got just one Cav (James), since Kyrie has been hurt; two Raptors, two Bulls, two Pistons, a Hawk, a Knick, a Pacer, a Wizard and a Heat. Only the Wizards and Knicks are outside the top-8 in the standings.

 

Western Conference

Starters

G – Stephen Curry, Warriors

G – Russell Westbrook, Thunder

FC – Kevin Durant, Thunder

FC – Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

FC – Draymond Green, Warriors

Notice a theme here? The top three teams in the West are so far above everyone else and it becomes self-evident in the All-Star Starters. This devastating small-ball lineup would wipe the floor with the East starting five. We won’t have this starting five in real life since Kobe was voted a starter by the fans, but here’s hoping this group gets some minutes together. Draymond and Kawhi will play lockdown, versatile defense, while the other three light up the scoreboard. I can’t wait.

Curry is proving he’s the greatest shooter of all time and figures to repeat as MVP. The fact Kawhi is in the conversation for MVP is remarkable, given how transcendent Curry has been. Kawhi is the best defender in the league and has been among the league percentage leaders in three point shooting, drives to the rim and midrange shooting. There’s nothing he can’t do at an expert level. Durant and Westbrook are generational talents that happen to play on the same team. Durant’s comeback from foot injury has been a blessing to basketball fans and a reminder of his brilliance. Westbrook is the human highlight reel. His shoes should be checked for bottle rocket implants. I’ve talked about Draymond a lot in this space before, but it bears repeating – the Warriors are not the Warriors without him. His ability to guard five positions, while running the “read option” off Curry pick-and-rolls and filling up the stat sheet (including three straight triple-doubles) makes him a new category of NBA player.

I love this starting five so much.

Reserves

Chris Paul, Clippers

Klay Thompson, Warriors

Blake Griffin, Clippers

LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

James Harden, Rockets

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

I tussled with the decision between Cousins and Dirk Nowitzki more than any other in this whole exercise. At first glance it seems like a classic stats vs. team success conflict. Cousins’ numbers are gaudy and much higher than Dirk’s (26 to 18 points per game; 11.4 to 6.1 rebounds; 23.8 to 19.9 PER). Yet Dirk’s Mavs have been a pleasant surprise this season, at 25-19 led by its German star, brilliant coach and smoke and mirrors. Meanwhile the Kings are under .500 and may earn the dubious prize of sneaking into the 8th seed in the West. But when Boogie hasn’t played, due to injury or suspension, his below-average team becomes horrid. The Kings are 18-16 with Boogie in the starting lineup, and just 1-7 without him, losing those seven games by an average of 12 points. They crater without their star big man. Hurting Boogie’s case is his 44% shooting from the floor and the fact that Dirk has slightly more win shares; again due to his team being higher in the standings. It hurts to leave Dirk out, especially the way he’s stepped up in clutch situations and led his team in his 18th season. But I can’t ignore Boogie’s production.

Similarly, cases can be made against Harden and Davis but come on, they’re All Stars. Both have led their teams to massively disappointing seasons, and Harden in particular has been frustrating with his regression on defense and overall lackadaisical approach. But he’s putting up 28, 6 and 7 and the Rockets have gotten mildly better since a disaster start. Davis hasn’t met the astronomical expectations this year but is still probably the first or second player I’d pick to start a franchise. He’s 22 years old and putting up 23 and 10, with 2. blocks and 1.3 steals a game. I can’t hold him out just because his team is poorly constructed and devastated by injury.

Thompson is the Warriors’ third All-Star – I have a rule that any 39-4 team gets at least three All-Stars. He’s been great. Paul and Griffin are locks. While Aldridge has adjusted seamlessly to his new team, giving the Spurs a devastating front court on both ends, leading to one of the best team defensive seasons of all time.

Last ones out – Damian Lillard, Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, CJ McCollum

West Breakdown – Three Warriors, two Spurs, two Thunder, two Clippers, a Pelican, a Rocket and a King.

I’ll be at the Mavericks-Thunder game tonight, where hopefully Dirk makes me look foolish for leaving him off my roster. Looking forward to seeing him do battle with Westbrook and Durant. Pics to follow!

 

Around the (NBA) World – Tuesday, Nov 10

Named after a time-honored driveway shooting game, Around the World takes a look at notable items going on in and around the NBA universe.

Humbled By the Champs – The Pistons stormed into Oracle Arena as the talk of the league after an amazing comeback win in Portland in which they outscored the Blazers 41-11 in the fourth quarter. Andre Drummond put up an insane 29 points and 27 rebounds in that game, while Reggie Jackson scored 26 of his career-high 40 in the fourth quarter. The Pistons’ outburst to start the season can be explained  by simple addition and subtraction. Gone is Greg Monroe, whose presence clogged the paint, hampering Drummond’s growth and the team’s overall spacing. Also by subtracting Josh Smith and replacing him with a big who can actually knock down threes consistently (Ersan Ilyasova), defenders can’t collapse as much on Drummond. When they do decide to double the big man, that leaves wide open layups for Jackson out of the pick-and-roll. The addition has been Drummond emerging as perhaps the best two-way big in the game. It’s early to say that, but the 22-year old is on the right track. Jackson blossoming into a star point guard who can knock down shots and make the right PnR decisions is another welcome addition, and one that I have to admit I was wrong about. I thought he was overvalued by Detroit this offseason.

However, the red-hot Pistons cooled down once they got to Oakland. As detailed in my column last week, the Warriors’ true source of brilliance is their defensive prowess. The undersized Draymond Green can somehow guard Drummond, at least enough to get in his head. The Warriors maintain integrity guarding the pick-and-roll by switching nearly everything and getting away with it due to their versatility. And on the other end Steph Curry is unstoppable. The Pistons may very well bully their way into the playoffs this season and demolish weak defenses like Portland’s as they go, but they were humbled in the Bay last night. Most teams are.

Young Wolves are Teething – The NBA is really in a great place right now, and it’s only getting better with up and coming stars like Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns of the T-Wolves. Towns has played like a veteran through the first six games of his career, averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the floor. With Towns, Drummond, Jahlil Okafor and Demarcus Cousins coming up, there’s hope for us big men! Meanwhile, Wiggins continues to bloom into a superstar. The pair gives me flashbacks to those awesome Kevin Garnett-Stephon Marbury teams that fell apart too soon. Here’s hoping this ends better. Wiggins took over last night with 33 points and some vicious drives to the rim. Observe:

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The Wolves have a lot of growing up to do and the roster has holes, evident in nearly blowing a 34-point lead Monday against the Hawks. But it’s finally an exciting time for Wolves fans again.

Speaking of Rookies – The 2015-16 rookie class looks amazing already. On Monday, Emmanuel Mudiay posted 18 points, 5 dimes, 6 rebounds and 2 nasty blocks. Remember when rookie point guards had a steep learning curve? Okafor is scoring in bunches – totaling 21 points and 15 boards in a loss to Chicago Monday – and is cause for hope in Philly. Kristaps Porzingis is bringing life to the Knicks as well. This was really tough, but here are my early season top 10 rookie rankings:

Rank Player Draft Position Points Rebs Asts
1 Okafor 3 19.9 6.9 1.3
2 Towns 1 15.5 10 1.2
3 Mudiay 7 12.7 4.3 5.6
4 Porzingis 4 12.3 8.6 0.7
5 D’Angelo Russell 2 9.3 3.2 2.3
6 Justise Winslow 10 7.1 4.9 1.3
7 Stanley Johnson 8 7.6 4 1.1
8 Willie Cauley-Stein 6 6.6 5.9 0.5
9 Mario Hezonja 5 4.5 1.3 0.8
10 Jerian Grant 19 7.1 2.7 4

Kings in Turmoil – We knew coming into the season, the potential for disaster was everywhere. Boogie Cousins paired with Rajon Rondo, with George Karl at the helm? Big, difficult personalities abound in Sacramento. The Kings have stumbled to a 1-7 start, getting outscored by nearly eight points a game, and predictably the royal castle is crumbling from within. This team was sloppily put together and the dysfunction flows from ownership on down to the players on the court. Big change could be coming soon, once again, for this team that’s consistently been in the lottery while failing to get better with all their draft picks.

Awesome DeAndre Game Promo – More to come on this game – I will actually be in attendance tomorrow night – but ESPN got us primed for it with a great promo featuring Phil Collins, DeAndre screaming, Dirk shoving and Mark Cuban looking sad:

A November Must Watch

The Detroit Pistons seem to be for real. Andre Drummond is single-handedly bringing back the center position. This vine has me captivated:

Tonight the Pistons take on Golden State at Oracle Arena. It’s the second night of a back to back for Detroit so I will take the Warriors in this one. Out on a limb, I know. But Drummond just may have entered an echelon we haven’t seen since Dwight Howard’s prime, maybe even since prime Shaq, if he continues his run of dominance.

Whether the Fighting SVG’s win or lose tonight, must-see basketball in November means we’re all winners.

Taking My Temperature on the ESPN Summer Forecast

Recently, ESPN put out its “Summer Forecast” rankings, based on a survey of their NBA experts’ thoughts on 2015-16 team win totals. Since it’s Labor Day weekend and we’re still nearly two months from the start of the season, I figured I’d take a look and comment on these rankings. Below are my thoughts for each team’s projected win total, followed by a forecast of my own.

 EASTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Proj. record: 59-23

Last season: 53-29

This is low. Like everyone else in the world, I have Cleveland winning the East, but anything under 60 wins would really shock me. Even with Kyrie missing time, the Cavs have made enough improvements in the offseason and the team jelled in the playoff run.

  1. Chicago Bulls

Proj. record: 50-32

Last season: 50-32

This is the safe bet, factoring in the unknown that is Head Coach Fred Hoiberg. But this team has done it before and with a jolt on the offensive end, 50 wins will be a disappointment. I like Chicago for 2nd in the East, but it will take 53-55 wins to do so.

  1. Atlanta Hawks

Proj. record: 50-32

Last season: 60-22

I’m a bit lost on this team. I still don’t know how they won 60 last year, and DeMarre Carroll’s loss will be felt, but not sure he is worth 10 wins. However, some of the bloom is off the rose with the players that are left I feel, so I’m predicting an even more precipitous drop.

  1. Miami Heat

Proj. record: 47-35

Last season: 37-45

I’m predicting more than 47 wins from Miami, as they will be one of the bigger turnaround teams this season. Health won’t be perfect, but a killer starting 5 and great coach in Eric Spoelstra gets them close to 50 wins.

  1. Washington Wizards

Proj. record: 46-36

Last season: 46-36

The Wizards were impressive last year but their 2015-16 success hinges on a few key items: Jared Dudley and Otto Porter replacing Paul Pierce’s production and veteran leadership, Bradley Beal and John Wall staying healthy enough to become a top 3 backcourt and Randy Wittman staying out of his own way. 46 wins feels about right but could swing based on those factors.

  1. Toronto Raptors

Proj. record: 44-38

Last season: 49-33

The Raptors played like crap in the playoffs. But they should get a healthier Kyle Lowry and added Carroll to give them more lineup versatility.. I’m guessing they finish a bit closer to last year’s totals. Playoff performance will be a whole other conversation.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

Proj. record: 44-38

Last season: 41-41

I love the Bucks this year, see my NBA Risers column for more detail. A healthy Jabari Parker and addition of Greg Monroe should lead to 44-45 wins.

  1. Boston Celtics

Proj. record: 40-42

Last season: 40-42

People always talk about Brad Stevens when they talk Celtics. Having a great coach goes a long way and I admire Stevens’ work, but at the end of the day you need stars if you want to be a factor in the NBA. The 8-seed feels like their ceiling, right around 40 wins.

  1. Indiana Pacers

Proj. record: 39-43

Last season: 38-44

Indiana’s fate will be tied to Paul George. If he returns to even 90% of what he was two years ago, Indiana could nab a 7 or 8 seed. I’m not a fan of the rest of their roster, aside from George Hill and PG-13’s leg makes me nervous. I’m taking the under here.

  1. Charlotte Hornets

Proj. record: 35-47

Last season: 33-49

The Hornets ridded themselves of Lance Stephenson and stuck to their guns on drafting Frank Kaminsky, when Justise Winslow was unexpectedly available. I like the first move, hate the second. More mediocrity for MJ’s crew, 35 wins feels fair.

  1. Detroit Pistons

Proj. record: 35-47

Last season: 32-50

I’m going to pick Detroit to finish closer to 40 wins after some roster turnover and a training camp under SVG. This team will play together offensively, while Andre Drummond takes another leap on both ends.

  1. Brooklyn Nets

Proj. record: 30-52

Last season: 38-44

Brooklyn got rid of the disappointing Deron Williams and his huge cap hit. They also didn’t do much to get better, in an offseason with their hands tied due to irresponsible Russian rain-making the last few years. This feels high, which is sad.

  1. Orlando Magic

Proj. record: 30-52

Last season: 25-57

I really like the Magic roster and new coach Scott Skiles will bring a new energy. I think they improve by 10 wins and next season fight for a playoff spot.

  1. New York Knicks

Proj. record: 25-57

Last season: 17-65

An 8-win improvement seems high to me. Even with a healthy Carmelo they top out at 22 wins in an improved East. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Carmelo traded by February.

  1. Philadelphia 76ers

Proj. record: 19-63

Last season: 18-64

Philly has some players now after so many high draft picks, but their still raw, and the team is missing an identity. Again, with an improved East, this win total may be high which is really, really sad.

 WESTERN CONFERENCE 

  1. Golden State Warriors

Proj. record: 60-22

Last season: 67-15

The champs stood pat this offseason except for shipping out David Lee, which will give them a little flexibility to add to their already insane depth. I understand you can’t forecast 67 wins since it’s an all-time number, but I also don’t see them dropping off 7 wins from last year. They’re too good and every game (plus homecourt) matters in the West.

  1. San Antonio Spurs

Proj. record: 57-25

Last season: 55-27

This feels right. They will be awesome, but will take time to find their rhythm with the new pieces. Manu Ginobili is not the player he once was and they lost a lot of shooting and perimeter depth this offseason.

  1. Houston Rockets

Proj. record: 56-26

Last season: 56-26

Houston is absolutely stacked on paper. If Ty Lawson and James Harden figure out an efficient way to share the scoring load, look out. They could approach 60 wins, so I’m taking the over.

  1. Los Angeles Clippers

Proj. record: 56-26

Last season: 56-26

Another team that made some nice moves and got better this offseason. They will also need time to jell, but Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith are complementary pieces, so I expect them to hit their stride quicker than the Spurs, who are integrating a star in LaMarcus Aldridge. I’ll take them to outperform this projection.

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Proj. record: 55-27

Last season: 45-37

Jeez the West is stacked. OKC could conceivably win the West, which would mean 60-plus wins. We are the real winners, getting to watch KD and Russ play together again. Will be interesting to see how Billy Donovan works out as an NBA coach, but I’ll bet a few extra wins on him.

  1. Memphis Grizzlies

Proj. record: 51-31

Last season: 55-27

Memphis does feel due for a downturn, but I’ve gotten burned by that thinking before. With the intensity which they play defense, they are a threat to win on any given night in the regular season. 52 wins is my guess.

  1. New Orleans Pelicans

Proj. record: 47-35

Last season: 45-37

This is where things get really interesting in the West seeding. The team they’ve put around Anthony Davis is weird, and outside of Tyreke Evans I’m not sure where the consistent scoring will come from. However, Alvin Gentry should be counted on to make an impact on that end, and Davis is a monster, 45-47 seems more than doable.

  1. Dallas Mavericks

Proj. record: 41-41

Last season: 50-32

As a Dallas resident, I’m not a Mavs fan. But I’d still like to see them succeed so I can go to some intense late season and playoff games. But I don’t see them making the playoffs or even finishing .500. They’re counting on too many old guys and Wesley Matthews will need to be handled with care after an Achilles injury.

  1. Utah Jazz

Proj. record: 40-42

Last season: 38-44

This is the team I like to take the Blazers’ playoff spot. See NBA Risers for more color, I’ll just say I love the frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, they play great defense and the loss of Dante Exum – while it sucks – won’t hurt as much as one might expect. Trey Burke and Raul Neto can be serviceable – just feed the bigs and Gordon Hayward from the perimeter.

  1. Phoenix Suns

Proj. record: 35-47

Last season: 39-43

A super intriguing team. They are a huge wild card. Either Markieff Morris and all his drama lead this team into the tank, or they make a run at the 8-seed with an improved offense. Alex Len should be better, Tyson Chandler will anchor the defense and they have a plethora of perimeter weapons. I’m betting on an improvement and just missing the playoffs as the 9-seed.

  1. Portland Trail Blazers

Proj. record: 31-51

Last season: 51-31

This team was so great to watch the past two years, but they will fall off a cliff. 31 wins will be tough in the West, with really only Damian Lillard providing spark (and terrible defense).

  1. Sacramento Kings

Proj. record: 31-51

Last season: 29-53

I really enjoyed CBS Sports’ Zach Harper’s column on George Karl and Demarcus Cousins, and the potential to build a great offense regardless of the off court drama that has plagued the two. But the Kings need the turbulent Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay to click and not clash with a headstrong coach. That’s a bit too much to ask. Sacramento will struggle but 31 is attainable with the talent they have.

  1. Denver Nuggets

Proj. record: 27-55

Last season: 30-52

Really excited to watch Emmanuel Mudiay figure out the league. He will have his bumps, but will have the ball in his hands a ton and be asked to shoulder a major scoring load. That’s about all there is to watch in Denver this year. I’m taking the under.

  1. Los Angeles Lakers

Proj. record: 26-56

Last season: 21-61

If Kobe and Julius Randle play most of the season, and D’Angelo Russell lives up to the hype, these guys will at least have some entertainment value. They lack depth however, and Kobe’s body may just not be able to hold up anymore. I think they win 23 games, with some Vine-worthy moments mixed in.

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves

Proj. record: 24-58

Last season: 16-66

Their talented young core is exciting and the development of Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine will make for good League Pass nights, but 24 wins is too much of a jump.

Down On The Block’s Forecast

Eastern Conference

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers – (61-21)
  2. Chicago Bulls – (55-27)
  3. Miami Heat – (50-32)
  4. Washington Wizards – (47-35)
  5. Atlanta Hawks – (46-36)
  6. Toronto Raptors – (45-37)
  7. Milwaukee Bucks – (45-37)
  8. Detroit Pistons – (40-42)
  9. Boston Celtics – (40-42)
  10. Charlotte Hornets – (37-45)
  11. Orlando Magic – (36-46)
  12. Indiana Pacers – (35-47)
  13. Brooklyn Nets – (25-57)
  14. New York Knicks – (22-60)
  15. Philadelphia 76ers – (19-63)

Western Conference

  1. Golden State Warriors (62-20)
  2. Houston Rockets (60-22)
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder (57-25)
  4. San Antonio Spurs – (55-27)
  5. Los Angeles Clippers – (54-28)
  6. Memphis Grizzlies – (52-30)
  7. New Orleans Pelicans – (47-35)
  8. Utah Jazz – (43-39)
  9. Phoenix Suns – (41-41)
  10. Dallas Mavericks – (40-42)
  11. Sacramento Kings – (31-48)
  12. Los Angeles Lakers – (23-59)
  13. Portland Trail Blazers – (23-59)
  14. Denver Nuggets – (20-62)
  15. Minnesota Timberwolves – (19-63)