All Star Draft: Funhouse Mirror Edition

So the NBA All Star rosters have been announced and now we wait for King James and Steph to pick their teams. Everybody on the Internet is doing a Mock Draft and I can’t resist joining the herd. One little wrinkle, though. Since the NBA seems to be sticking to its guns on not televising the inaugural All Star draft, a missed opportunity that I’m confident they’ll rectify in years to come, the potential exists for some real head scratchers. With less accountability in play, James and Curry have the freedom to get weird. The picks below would create absolute havoc in the NBA world should they come to fruition. Let’s get to it. But first, from ESPN.com, here are the ground rules:

STARTERS

LeBron #1 – First of all, a bummer that LBJ can’t select any of his super friends in this spot. That’s because Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony have had the GOAT lockdown defender, Father Time, on their heels lately, while Chris Paul missed too much time due to injury to make it. So that leaves his newest frenemy as the WTF number one overall pick. That’s right, Kyrie and LBJ reunited and it feels so…awkward. Methinks James misses his old running mate every time he’s on the bench watching Isaiah Thomas or Derrick Rose try to run the Cavs offense. Plus, Kyrie seems much happier in Boston. So in a petty move, LeBron gets to take the ball out of his old teammate’s hand once more. [Logical world – Kevin Durant]

Steph #1 – Anthony Davis. Ever the shrewd operator, Curry and his Warriors buddies begin the courtship of AD as the next super cog in their unstoppable Death Star. You might think this pick would piss off KD, but rest assured, it’s all part of the larger plan. “Light years ahead” and all that. [Logical world – James Harden]

LeBron #2 – ABR, Always Be Recruiting. The second Pelican comes off the board as LeBron shows some love to Boogie, in a Hail Mary attempt to get the mercurial big man to demand a trade deadline deal to the Cavs. LeBron’s squad is sinking fast and he’s never played with a truly dominant center. I doubt the Brooklyn pick, Kevin Love and whatever else is enough to get Boogie right now, but GM LeBron is grasping at straws. Might as well try to feed the big man’s ego while you’ve got the chance. Hell, he can even tell Demarcus he picked him No. 1. [Logical world – Giannis]

Steph #2 – Giannis. Curry’s claim that he might pick all guards was a total smokescreen. Give him all the near 7-footers he can get (mostly for offensive rebounding purposes) and hence, a monopoly on his team’s 3-point attempts. [Logical world – AD]

LeBron #3 – Durant. He is sure to be the heir to the throne, so James will force Durant to address him as “Captain” all weekend. Plus he will be drawn to KD’s defensive prowess, given the Cavs’ sieve-like D. Not that any defense will be played in the ASG, but bear with me. [Logical world – Cousins]

Steph #3 – Steph goes for more height and all the memes with Joel Embiid. I have a feeling these two will have a lot of fun together. [Logical world – Embiid]

LeBron #4 – James Harden. Steph’s gamble on size leaves a gift on Team LeBron’s doorstep. With this pick, a well-rounded starting five is in place for the King to work with. [Logical world – DeRozan]

Steph #4 – DeRozan by default. A great year for DeMar, but he’s clearly the lowest starter on this totem pole. His slashing combined with a newfound proficiency for the 3-ball could make for an intriguing backcourt pairing with Curry, though. [Logical world – Kyrie]

RESERVES

Steph #5 – Call it Stephen and the Unicorns, as Kristaps Porzingis comes off the board, joining the towering freakishness of Giannis and Embiid. Man, this would be fun. [Logical world – Russ]

LeBron #5 – Draymond Green. A charitable LeBron forgives all nut punches and bolsters his team’s defense. He now has two Warriors to Steph’s zero. Eyebrows are raising in the Bay. [Logical world – Jimmy Buckets]

Steph #6 – Curry goes for another freak in Russell Westbrook. The catch is Russ only gets to play when Steph is off the floor. [Logical world – Draymond]

LeBron #6 – Klay Thompson. And LeBron’s troll job is complete as he ends up with all of Steph’s teammates. Effectively he tells Steph, “You look pretty good with these guys. Just wait til you watch me work.” [Logical world – Towns]

Steph #7 – A now-worried Steph realizing he has to face Klay and, more disconcerting, Draymond, quintuples down on unicorns. He’s taking Karl-Anthony Towns, and hoping his Dubs teammates forgive his “go big” strategy. [Logical world – Klay]

LeBron #7 – More defense. He snubs Kevin Love and his fake-cough for Jimmy Butler. Now with Jimmy, Klay, Dray and KD, he can once again feel what it’s like to be formidable on both ends of the court. Best believe he’ll be subtweeting the Cavs in the lead up to All Star weekend because of this. [Logical world – Beal]

Steph #8 – Kevin Love. This is an attempt to get back at LeBron by picking his teammate, but it falls flat, since LeBron is already working on trading Love for Boogie. Foiled again, at least Steph has added some more shooting. [Logical world – Porzingis]

LeBron #8 – Needing another point guard, Bron takes Kyle Lowry, the best defender remaining at the position. More subtweeting, specifically directed at Isaiah, ensues. [Logical world – Aldridge]

Steph #9 – Bradley Beal gives Team Unicorn some more needed shooting. This one isn’t all that weird, petty or funny. Just a solid pick. [Logical world – Dame Lillard]

LeBron #9 – Victor Oladipo. Another defender and a chance to snub conference rival John Wall. Win-win for Bron-Bron. [Logical world – Love]

Steph # 10 – Steph looks at Dame long and hard, but says “gimme more size!” and takes Lillard’s former Blazers teammate LaMarcus Aldridge. [Logical world – Oladipo]

LeBron #10 – With a deadeye shooter like Lillard available and another chance to snub Wall, Lebron says “Yes sir.” Team LeBron will win the pregame rap battle. [Logical world – Wall]

Steph #11 – John Wall comes off the board, finally. [Logical world – Kyle Lowry]

LeBron #11 – And Al Horford is Mr. Irrelevant in this version of events. But another elite defender for Team James. [Logical world – Horford]

Funhouse Mirror/Weird/Twitter Explodes Teams:

LeBron – Kyrie – Boogie – KD – Harden – Draymond – Klay – Butler – Lowry – Oladipo – Lillard – Horford

Scouting report: Well-rounded, can play a lot of D and boasts LeBron, KD and Harden. Vegas has Team LeBron opening at -7.

Steph – Brow – Giannis – Embiid – DeRozan – Russ – Porzingis – KAT – Love – Beal – Aldridge – Wall

Scouting report: A truly weird team but frightening in its potential. A big lineup of KP, Embiid, Giannis and Davis with Russ running point? How about a Curry-DeRozan-KAT-AD-Giannis spread offense? These guys are underdogs, but would you bet against them?

Logical/More Likely Teams:

LeBron – KD – Giannis – Boogie – DeRozan – Butler – KAT – Beal – Lillard – Aldridge – Love – Wall

Steph – Harden – AD – Embiid – Kyrie – Russ – Draymond – Klay – Porzingis – Oladipo – Lowry – Horford

We’ll check back in once the real picks are made. May weirdness carry the day over boring logic.

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:

Continue reading

Revised Olympic Roster Predictions (UPDATE)

Since I posted my Olympic roster picks in January two spots have opened up and, though we will all miss Anthony Davis and Chris Paul in Rio, we at least get to revisit this exercise! Davis will be forced to miss the Olympics as he’ll still be recovering from knee surgery and Paul decided to give his aging body a summer vacation – can’t blame him for that. So very quickly, here’s a reminder of who made my team the first time around, plus a list of the final players cut:

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

Final cuts – Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan

The first thought that entered my mind when I heard Paul was bowing out was that Damian Lillard would be jumping into at least an alternate spot if not onto the 12-man roster due to his surreal play since the All-Star Break. But then I looked back at the list of qualifiers, and in a goddamn travesty, Lillard didn’t even make the cut! Really?!? Dame isn’t a top 30 player, Team USA? The only good that can come of this omission is a Dame diss track aimed at Coach K. OK, after some more digging I can be calmed down. Apparently Lillard was added to the pool thanks to his recent exploits. My bad. He takes Paul’s place for me, and playing with the best of the best will hopefully improve his defense.

Replacing Davis is tougher, as he could play center with a small ball lineup of five shooters or slide to the 4 to play next to Cousins in a deadly frontcourt alignment. Normally Blake would be the call, as he is versatile enough to play those same roles. But uncertainty over his health and recent issues off the court make him sort of a wild card. Let’s see how he does in this postseason, where he can easily prove himself worthy of a spot on this team. For now, though, let’s slot in his teammate Jordan, who’s had a phenomenal two-way season and provides our Olympic team much-needed rim protection. So here’s my revised 12-man roster + alternates, as of March 29:

Guards – Curry, Lillard, Westbrook, Butler, Leonard

Forwards – James, Anthony, George, Durant, Green

Centers – Cousins, Jordan (unless Blake is 100%)

Alternates – Harden, Griffin, Thompson

I welcome your debate/scorn in the comments.

 

NBA Graveyard 2016: The Pelicans’ Lost Season

It’s March and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. More importantly, what can be salvaged going into next season and beyond? Cuz the great thing about the NBA is even when all is lost, the dead still have hope. There’s always room for wild optimism thanks to coaching carousels, the siren song of the big free agent, the franchise-saving Draft pick, the unknown potential of young assets and blind faith. 

Pelicans haven’t been this decimated since the BP oil spill. Too soon? My bad…

pelsgrave

Postmortem: The Pelicans’ 2015-16 campaign never had a chance, in hindsight. After winning 45 games a season ago and making the playoffs for the first time in Anthony Davis‘ young career, they came into this season with a hot new coach (Alvin Gentry) and high hopes for continued improvement. Davis signed a 5-year extension in the summer and was a trendy preseason pick for MVP. Everything was coming up roses. Then actual games were played. Continue reading

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!

 

2015 Media Day Winners & Losers

As a Chicago Bears fan, the NBA season can’t start soon enough. As a Chicago Bulls fan, can’t someone unplug Derrick Rose’s microphone? More on that later.

Media Day marks the start of NBA training camps, and showcases the Association in all its quirky glory. You know the NBA is back when Twitter videos pop up of a star player wearing a fannypack while lip-synching and dancing to Montell Jordan.

After reading up on each team’s version of the Media Day circus, here are my winners and losers – although much like Media Day itself, this is mostly good-natured fun. Except for D-Rose (Dammit).

Media Day Winners

D-Wade – You have to applaud Wade for how he’s crafted his brilliant career. He won a title with Shaq early in his career, convinced LeBron and Chris Bosh to come play with him and won two more titles, and now he’s again a cornerstone of an impressive roster. Most importantly his balky knees haven’t affected his dance moves. This is just a phenomenal performance.

Body Image – A common theme, much mocked by the basketball internet, is the recurring training camp storyline of who’s dropped weight, added 15 pounds of muscle or gotten swole in the offseason. This year’s Media Day did not disappoint. NBA Media Day quote sheets can resemble an issue of Cosmopolitan with all the LBs shed and miracle diet plans. This year’s winners? Kyle Lowry, who struggled with injuries down the stretch and is no longer a spring chicken, is now looking “svelte” and jokes were made about the impostor wearing Kyle Lowry’s jersey at Media Day. Jared Sullinger also shed some much-needed poundage, while Rudy Gobert added muscle to help him bang down low. Danilo Gallinari is looking trim after Eurobasket. Let’s move on.

Phoenix Suns – Everyone was curious how Markieff Morris would comport himself after throwing a fit when the Suns traded his brother, and demanded a trade himself. Surprisingly, he said he is putting it all behind him and looking forward to playing with his Suns teammates. This is big for Phoenix, who need Kieff’s skills and not his poor attitude in a year when they can compete for a playoff spot. Glad to see he’s on board, and it makes sense. I mean, he can still see Marcus at Thanksgiving, right?

Houston Promise – Ty Lawson has spent the summer getting his personal life sorted out, and is sounding like the change of scenery is doing him some good. He’s poised to help the Rockets compete for a title and will take pressure off of James Harden, keeping the MVP candidate more fresh for a deep playoff run.

“This is like the turning point,” Lawson said at Monday’s Media Day activities in Toyota Center. “What type of career you gonna have, Ty? Are you gonna win championships or are you just be like one of the mediocre players?

“A point guard’s career is always judged on if you win or not. You can have the most points, the most stats, whatever. But if you don’t win a championship as a point guard, then you’re not really one of the best point guards out there. So this is my chance to really prove something, prove my career if I win a championship here.”

Alcohol is a powerful foe; I join Houston fans in rooting for Ty to defeat it.

Amateur Comedy – Media Day allows players and coaches to goof off and test their standup comedy skills in front of a willing media. There’s no pressure yet and everyone’s in a good mood (and getting softball questions). Some highlights include:

  • Danny Ainge responding to questions on Jared Sullinger’s weight loss, joked that he didn’t have a portable scale to weigh him.
  • Brad Stevens when asked where the Celtics are as a team: “Somewhere in the Top 30”.
  • The newly-svelte Lowry complained that none of his pants fit anymore.
  • In response to the DeAndre Jordan situation, Rick Carlisle said: “If cows were kittens, there’d be a milk shortage.” I think that’s a joke, not really sure what it is. An aphorism? Anyway, I laughed.
  • Portland GM Neil Olshey said it was “too much effort to fly to Dallas” when asked why he didn’t resign LaMarcus Aldridge.
  • Number 1 overall pick Karl Anthony Towns started off Minnesota’s media day by announcing his retirement. That’s actually a pretty good one.

Mike Malone – The new Nuggets coach sounds like he’s making an instant impact on the team, who figure to be a bottom-feeder this season. He preaches an up-tempo style, which suits the high-altitude Nuggets, and is quickly building a team identity. He doesn’t want a lot of fouls screwing up his team’s pace, stressing quick defense to offense transition. I love this Malone quote from yesterday: “Fouling negates hustle.” What a gem.

Optimism – Ghandi would be proud. Optimism reigned supreme at Media Days, as it does every year. Here are some things to be happy about going into the season, NBA fans: Joakim Noah is healthy and ready to play like his old self…Fred Hoiberg loves the Bulls’ roster flexibility…Kevin Durant and new coach Billy Donovan have hit it off, are excited to work together…rookie Stanley Johnson has the Pistons glowing…star shooting guards Bradley Beal and DeMar DeRozan aren’t worried about their contracts and are just focused on winning…even George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins are (supposedly) getting along.

Media Day Losers

D-Rose – I’m not going to drop a hot take here, but I’ll just say that as a longtime, staunch Rose supporter it’s getting harder and harder to defend him when he says dumb things to the media. I don’t think his talk about free agency is a huge deal but it’s definitely not a good look at this point in his career and as a leader of a team trying to fundamentally change under a new coach.

This Pop Interviewer – Man this video makes you cringe. The best part is even after Pop has made it plain that he’s messing around, the interviewer looks like he’s in a Southwest Airlines “Wanna Get Away” commercial. Brutal.

Brooklyn Nets – Hey Deron Williams, your former teammate Joe Johnson is confused why you wanted to leave the Nets so bad? “It’s not that bad here,” Johnson said. That should be plastered onto the outside of the Barclays Center.

New Orleans Pelicans – Things on the whole are looking up with a young beast in Anthony Davis and new coach Alvin Gentry. However, Gentry said at Media Day that Tyreke Evans is their undisputed point guard. On its face, I question this strategy. Less Evans dribbling, not more, would be my prescription for the Pelicans. The more foreboding news reading between the lines here is that Jrue Holiday must not be ready to come back and be a reliable contributor, let alone the main point guard.

Jeremy Lamb – In his first season as a Hornet, Lamb is setting himself up to learn some harsh realities. Here’s what he said at Media Day: “I like to shoot the ball but I also like to make plays for my teammates. I think it’ll open up things for Big Al but also he can kick out if they double team him…[I] like to help people play to their strengths.” Obviously Lamb, only 23, is still learning the League. Double team or not, Al Jefferson doesn’t kick it out, young’n.

George Hill – Apparently he plans on sporting this bleach blonde dye job during the season. This is not the way to build upon your best season as a pro.

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Cancer – It was awesome to see Craig Sager, who has been fighting Leukemia for the last year and is receiving treatment in Houston, make it out to Rockets Media Day. NBA broadcasts aren’t the same without Sager and his colorful suits, and Down on the Block would like to wish him a speedy recovery. There was a great moment yesterday when James Harden sought Sager out in a crowded media room and gave him a hug. Here’s hoping there are some good vibes in that Beard…

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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)

NBA Risers – New Orleans Pelicans

This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 4 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? Today’s team – the New Orleans Pelicans.

UPDATE – This just in from brother-in-law Jeff, an actual living, breathing Pelicans fan: “They’re definitely committed to defining Davis as a PF, not C, based on Asik and Ajinca signings. Since Davis pick, they’ve taken Austin Rivers and sold/traded every other pick for Holiday and Asik. Gave up Greivis and Robin Lopez for Tyreke. Basically just a parade of bad moves since drafting Davis. Oh and Davis is quite possibly the best any 22 year old has ever been at the game of basketball, which makes up for a lot.” Well said.

Who are they? Essentially the Cleveland Cavaliers circa 2003-09. It’s a testament to Anthony Davis that these guys are considered favorites for the 7th seed in the West. Their piss poor job of surrounding their superstar with talent is reminiscent of LeBron’s first go-round with Cleveland. You can’t blame them for being misled by Philly on Jrue Holiday’s health, and the laughably small $3 million restitution for that debacle won’t make it right. The other guards they’ve targeted have been less than stellar companions to the Brow at best (Tyreke Evans) and complete duds at worst (Eric Gordon). But at the end of the day the Pelicans have a generational cornerstone in Davis, whom they’ve locked up to a long term deal, and any building team would commit atrocities for that luxury. One key addition is new coach Alvin Gentry, fresh off an NBA title as a Warriors assistant. Gentry will be a step up from Monty Williams from a play-calling perspective, and here’s hoping his time with the Warriors will help him shape this team in their image.

How have they been built? Davis was the No. 1 overall pick after David Stern rigged the lottery to help the formerly league-owned team get in position for a once in a lifetime player (just kidding, kind of). The rest of the pieces have come in free agency and minor trades, but as mentioned above, this team hasn’t really been built per se, more like randomly pasted together like a 3rd grader’s art project.

Core group – Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik. Davis may be the second best player in the league right now, and projects to sit atop the throne for many years going forward. He’s a fantasy basketball player’s dream – compiling points, rebounds, blocks, assists and steals at an elite level, and his dominance transcends the stat sheet. He’s a one-man floor spacer, drawing defensive attention whether he’s posting up, spotting up or running the break; not to mention he’s one of the best defensive big men in the game. Evans silenced some critics with solid numbers (17 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds per game) in a season where he was relied upon heavily. The downside with Evans is he doesn’t bring enough to the table defensively to make up for his easily criticized volume shooting and erratic playmaking efforts. Holiday unfortunately remains a question mark, though there have been some reports that he is back on his feet and rehabbing with his brother. Asik is solid and frees up Davis to roam on defense.

Role guys – Eric Gordon, Norris Cole, Alexis Ajinca, Quincy Pondexter, Ryan Anderson, Dante Cunningham, Alonzo Gee, Kendrick Perkins….yuck.

Boom or bust potential – Really nothing of note here. We know who these players are. Why their big moves this offseason were locking up Ajinca and signing Perkins is beyond me. Their deficiencies are mainly on the wing – shooting and perimeter defense. They did nothing to improve in those areas.

Optimist view – The sole reason I’m including the Pelicans in the group of NBA Risers is because of Anthony Davis; if he stays healthy they will win more than they lose, but to make the next leap into the West’s elite they’ll need to show more savvy in the front office. Last year’s 8-seed – where they were swept by the eventual champs Golden State – should have an inside track to the 7-seed, perhaps higher should one of the core six West teams suffer catastrophe. The true optimism should come next offseason, when an expanding cap gives them the flexibility to attract another star or two to join the Brow on Bourbon Street.