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!

 

 

Reviewing the Wreckage: Updated NBA Playoffs Power Rankings

Boy, it was such a simpler time back on April 16, when I posted my original Playoffs Power Rankings. Steph Curry had two healthy feet and a non-sprained right knee, coming off a historic regular season and ready to become immortal. Chris Paul’s traffic finger was whole. Russell Westbrook was an unquestioned superstar (good call, Mark Cuban!). The NBA’s finest hour was upon us. Now just a week and some change later, the Western Conference has been turned on its head as NBA fans have lost the two best point guards in our lives. A rematch of the horrible 2007 Finals seems unavoidable. If it happens, the Cavs are much more competitive now than the first time they faced the Spurs in the Finals; yet we will still likely feel cheated, even if it’s a seven-game classic. But, alas, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Behold, the second installment of our Playoffs Power Rankings…

  1. San Antonio Spurs (Beat Memphis 4-0) [Last Week: #2] – Quietly and swiftly took care of business versus the ghost of Memphis’ roster, winning four games by an average of 19.5 points and posting an obscene 117.1 OffRtg. San Antonio gets a much tougher test in OKC in Round 2, but they’ve suddenly become my de facto favorite to win it all now that Steph is a question mark.
  2. Cleveland Cavaliers (Beat Detroit 4-0) [LWk: #3] – Proved to be too much for the Pistons in a testy series that saw LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving average a combined 69.1 points per game. The rest of the league should take notice as the big three seem to have found a rhythm finally. Then again, Detroit doesn’t present the toughest defensive matchup. The Cavs, the second-biggest beneficiaries of the recent Warriors’ woes, actually bested the Spurs by three in OffRtg in Round 1 (120.4).
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder (Beat Dallas 4-1) [LWk: #4] – In another feisty series featuring shoves, errant elbows and innumerable stare-downs, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tried to get in Westbrook’s head, or something, by saying the Thunder only had one superstar in Kevin Durant. Russ went off a couple hours later for 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists as the Thunder punted Dallas out of the playoffs. Russ is one of the last people on Earth I would choose to anger. Maybe that’s why I’m not a billionaire.
  4. Golden State Warriors (Lead Houston 3-1) [LWk: #1] – Let’s just get through this one before we get emotional. The greatest show on hardwood got knocked down a few pegs with news of Curry’s low-grade MCL sprain, but it’s still a damn good basketball team. Tied at halftime on the road in Game 4 with Curry shelved, the Warriors’ other stars unleashed the fury on Houston, to the tune of eight 3-pointers in the third quarter en route to a 65-38 second half. As bad as the Curry news is, they should still be favored over Portland or a CP3-less Clippers team in Round 2.
  5. Atlanta Hawks (Tied with Boston 2-2) [LWk: #7] – Instant Gratification Overreaction (IGO) Exhibit A: To everyone on the Internet complaining about the lack of competitive playoff series after two games, just let it breathe. Amazing how a series can even up once both teams have played the same amount of home games. There’s nothing wrong with the seven game series format. Still, it feels like Atlanta should be up 3-1 at the least, but somehow Boston is staying alive without its best wing defender, Avery Bradley. The Hawks had a 16-point lead in Game 4 behind Paul Millsap’s monster effort, but the rest of the team couldn’t hit an open shot. If that inefficiency corrects itself, look for ATL to advance.
  6. Miami Heat (Tied with Charlotte 2-2) [LWk: #9] – IGO Exhibit B: “Miami is red-hot and Nic Batum is out, it’s going to be an easy sweep” or some variation of that line of thinking was all over the podcast and Twitter world after Game 2. Amazingly, Miami did not continue to score at an all time team playoff rate and Charlotte’s great home court advantage helped them even the series. Initially I took Charlotte in six, but gun to my head I’ll take the Heat in seven. That Batum injury will haunt the Hornets at some point. The Heat should take care of business at home.
  7. Toronto Raptors (Tied with Indiana 2-2) [LWk: #5] – Toronto is all over the place. Determined to put to rest all the demons of playoffs past, the Raptors fell flat in Game 1, losing at home. After two straight convincing wins it seemed things had course-corrected and the 56-win team would prevail easily. Then Indiana spanked them in Game 4. DeMar DeRozan (30%FG) can’t score efficiently on Paul George and it seems he’ll be the last one to admit it. It’s up to Kyle Lowry (32%FG), who’s having his own matchup difficulties, to take the reins and finally get this team to Round 2.
  8. Charlotte Hornets (Tied with Miami 2-2) [LWk: #8] – I love the fight they showed in their two home wins, without the aforementioned Batum. Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin are an unlikely pair of playoff heroes, but they played the role well in Games 3 and 4. They combined for 55 points in Game 4, hitting half their joint field goal attempts. Steve Clifford has largely stuck to his guns on defense and waited for the Heat to stop making everything. It will be interesting to see if Miami gets hot again back in their home building, what kind of counter punch Clifford has in store.
  9. Portland Trail Blazers (Tied with LAC 2-2) [LWk: #11] – IGO Exhibit C: The Blazers looked dead in the first two games, with Paul handcuffing Damian Lillard and the rest of the Blazers struggling to score. Though they still haven’t eclipsed 100 points in the series after averaging 105/game in the regular season, Dame, CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu got loose with some home cooking. Aminu in particular was amazing last night, scoring a career playoff-high 30 points with 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. The Clippers’ myriad injuries have opened the door for Portland, will they bust through it with two games remaining in LA?
  10. Boston Celtics (Tied with Atlanta 2-2) [LWk: #10] – I really struggled with this ranking. On the one hand they willed themselves to two straight victories to even the series. On the other hand, I just don’t feel like they’ve played all that well. Atlanta has just been missing open shots – can the Celts count on Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague going 14-60 again? I’ll go out on a crazy limb and say no.
  11. Los Angeles Clippers (Tied with Portland 2-2) [LWK: #6] – With Paul expected to miss the rest of the playoffs with a broken third metacarpal, that means Austin Rivers & Jamal Crawford will be running the point. Yikes. Also, Blake Griffin is gimpy on that bad quadriceps, J.J. Redick has a bruised heel and even DeAndre Jordan got nicked up last night. It’s entirely possible Donald Sterling has a collection of Clippers voodoo dolls and is somewhere laughing maniacally. What an asshole.
  12. Indiana Pacers (Tied with Toronto 2-2) [LWk: #12] – Paul George is the best player in the series with Toronto, and that alone gives the Pacers a fighting chance. In their two losses, the Pacers just couldn’t generate enough points on the offensive end, despite how well they’ve defended the Raptors’ stars. In Game 4, Ian Mahinmi and George Hill gave George much-needed support on the offensive end with 22 points apiece. Meanwhile George held DeRozan to single-digits scoring.
  13. Houston Rockets (Trailing GSW 3-1) [LWk: #15] – We are so close to being rid of this uninspiring team. Let’s hope the Warriors put them out of their misery Wednesday so Dwight Howard and Co. can finally start their vacations. https://vine.co/v/iFVpQMzWBhO
  14. Dallas Mavericks (Lost to OKC 4-1)
  15. Detroit Pistons (Lost to Cleveland 4-0)
  16. Memphis Grizzlies (Lost to San Antonio 4-0)

NBA Playoffs Power Rankings

Plus Round 1 Picks!

  1. Golden State Warriors (73-9) – Duh. Any worry that the chase for 73 would wear them out should be squashed. If anything, it’s galvanized them even more. Now the Dubs can take a deep breath and smash the Rockets. That said, anyone who says there isn’t more pressure on them to finish off this record-setting season with a title is kidding themselves.
  2. San Antonio Spurs (67-15) – Of course the team with the best chance at ruining Golden State’s dreams are the Spurs, who just finished their best season. Though the Spurs have lost the season series 3-1 to GSW, they’ve played better defense on them than anyone else. Not surprising, given the Spurs’ historic 99.0 defensive rating. Their problem has been their inability to score enough to keep up with the Dubs. But I won’t be surprised if Danny Green magically becomes DANNY GREEN once the playoffs begin and starts hitting 70 percent from three.
  3. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25) – For all the doubting and negativity surrounding Cleveland this year, they still rate as heavy favorites in the East and LeBron has located his familiar dominance setting in the past month. The East road is tougher this year and I can’t wait to see how the Cavs fare with a healthy team this time around. Another Finals loss for James seems likely, however.
  4. Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27) – The Thunder somewhat underachieved, given the relative health of their big three this season. In a weaker West they should have won 60+ games. But that’s all in the rearview. They should be too much physically for Dallas, leading to the real test in Round 2 vs. the Spurs. It seems unlikely that they make it to the West Finals, but they will always have two of the three best players in a series. If it’s ever going to click, you get the feeling it has to be this season, given Kevin Durant’s looming free agency. The fate of OKC will be a fascinating subplot to these playoffs.
  5. Toronto Raptors (56-26) – The Raptors just completed their best regular season ever, yet they arrive in the playoffs with significant pressure. The Dwane Casey regime has yet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs and were embarrassed in four games by Washington last season. Kyle Lowry and Demarre Carroll are coming off injuries. DeMar Derozan will need to continue to be a scoring force, but may find it a bit more difficult to get to the line in the playoffs against a strong frontcourt. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of the Raptors’ young bucks make an impact.
  6. Los Angeles Clippers (53-29) –  I’m kind of lost on these guys. Chris Paul and JJ Redick have had tremendous seasons. But Blake Griffin will need to be in top form for the Clips to have a shot against any of the top three in the West. He hasn’t looked right yet. They will also need some contributions from one of their wings – does Paul Pierce have anything left in the tank?
  7. Atlanta Hawks (48-34) – The next four teams are so tightly bunched they could be ranked in just about any order. I’ll take the Hawks as the cream of this group, thanks to the steady brilliance of Al Horford and Paul Millsap. I also expect Kyle Korver to up his production in the postseason.  Their lack of rebounding troubles me but I like their X-Factors, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, to win them a game or two in a great Round 1 matchup with Boston.
  8. Charlotte Hornets (48-34) – I like the Hornets to get their first playoff game and series win on the backs of Steve Clifford’s defensive sets, Kemba Walker’s takeover potential and the wing shooting they’ve displayed all year.
  9. Miami Heat (48-34) – Man, I wish Chris Bosh was healthy and able for these playoffs. They’ve done an admirable job without him, as key young pieces Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside have meshed with Dwyane Wade. Goran Dragic has found more of a role and newest addition Joe Johnson has found the Fountain of Youth now that he’s gotten the Nets stink off him. I expect their series with Charlotte to be a grind.
  10. Boston Celtics (48-34) – They may beat the Hawks in Round 1, if they get enough consistent shooting. I don’t like the matchup of their bigs against Horford and Millsap, but they should be able to pester the hell out of Jeff Teague and Korver on the perimeter. Big opportunity for Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart to show out.
  11. Portland Trail Blazers (44-38) – They have a puncher’s chance to catch fire and score the upset over the Clippers in Round 1. I’ll take Terry Stotts over Doc Rivers in the coaching matchup but they’ll struggle with DeAndre Jordan in the post.
  12. Indiana Pacers (45-37) – They present some interesting matchup challenges for the Raptors. Ian Mahinmi will need to have a big series protecting the rim from DeRozan’s many drives. Paul George may be the best player in the series. Their lack of shooting depth gives me pause, however.
  13. Detroit Pistons (44-38) – I love Reggie Jackson’s confidence and think they’ll give the Cavs at least three tough games. They don’t have enough firepower on offense to score the monumental upset. SVG has the edge over Tyronn Lue on the sidelines.
  14. Dallas Mavericks (42-40) – Another amazing job by Dirk and Rick Carlisle to will the Mavs to the postseason. They’re over-matched and injured going into Round 1 against OKC, but I won’t put it past Carlisle to steal a game or two by out-coaching Billy Donovan.
  15. Houston Rockets (41-41) -This team has disappointed and infuriated me all season and I refuse to believe in them again. I need to cleanse my pallet. Patrick Beverley could give Steph some trouble, but the Rockets are too undisciplined; the Warriors will carve them up.
  16. Memphis Grizzlies (42-40) – It’s so unfortunate what’s gone on in Memphis. I was hoping to see another grit n grind playoff run, but with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley shelved we may never see it again.

Round 1 Predictions:

East

(1) Cavaliers vs. (8) Pistons – Cavs in 5

(2) Raptors vs. (7) Pacers – Raptors in 7

(3) Heat vs. (6) Hornets – Hornets in 6

(4) Hawks vs. (5) Celtics – Hawks in 7

West

(1) Warriors vs. (8) Rockets – Warriors in 4

(2) Spurs vs. (7) Grizzlies – Spurs in 4

(3) Thunder vs (6) Mavericks – Thunder in 5

(4) Clippers vs. (5) Trail Blazers – Clips in 7

 

 

Who Among Us Hasn’t Tanked?

It’s been a week since the (probably) forced resignation of Sam Hinkie, ending the great tanking experiment of the Philadelphia 76ers and inspiring one last wave of think pieces about the “Process”. Fear not, this won’t be yet another profound critique of Hinkie’s three-year reign. Besides nothing can top Hinkie’s own rambling, TED Talk-esque manifesto of a resignation letter.

Instead, something that Zach Lowe said on his podcast piqued my interest and I’d like to explore it further. In the Lowe Post episode that followed his podcast with Hankie (weirdly, one day prior to Hinkie’s resignation), he pointed out that just about everyone has tanked at some point or another, so it’s somewhat hypocritical to say what Hinkie pulled was some sort of radical new ground. Perhaps the Sixers went overboard with the strategy, but no NBA team is above tanking. Not the Celtics, not the Lakers, not even the high-class Spurs. Below, we’ll go through each NBA team, examine a season in which they tanked and what came of each tanking. See the Warriors’ section to understand the successful tanking equation: one part sheer luck meets one part smart drafting. Hinkie had neither ingredient, hence why he is out of a job – bottom line.

A History of Tanking Continue reading

What We Might Know After a Week (Eastern Conference)

What might we know after a week of NBA games? After looking at some data…maybe, probably nothing. But we can look at what last year’s standings were after each team played three games, and where that jived with or diverted from final standings. After waiting breathlessly all offseason for NBA action and eager to understand the league power structure, I crave context. I posted the Western Conference breakdown earlier. Now moving on to the Eastern Conference.

Anyone who follows the NBA with any real enthusiasm knows one simple truth: the Eastern Conference is inferior to its Western counterpart. It’s been that way for most of the 21st century. Some day I will do an investigation into why this phenomenon exists. But for now, just take comfort in the fact that the status quo has not changed. There’s one constant in this ever-changing world.

While the West has three winless teams in Houston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles (Lakers), the first two still have very real playoff aspirations after their bad start. Middle of the pack teams such as Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento and Utah all pack a punch. And the top of the West is much stronger than the top of the East. So the top, middle and bottom of the West is looking to be superior. To further illustrate the point, in this admittedly early stage of the NBA season, there are six winless East teams – Milwaukee, Philly, Indiana, Charlotte, Orlando and Brooklyn.

Detroit is a pleasant surprise at 3-0, and the Raptors have also jumped out to an undefeated start. Chicago and Atlanta have each played four games and sit at 3-1, while Miami, Washington and Cleveland all look very good. Here’s a look at the standings early on:

  Team W L
1 Raptors 3 0
1 Pistons 3 0
3 Bulls 3 1
3 Hawks 3 1
5 Cavaliers 2 1
5 Knicks 2 1
5 Heat 2 1
8 Wizards 2 1
9 Celtics 1 2
10 76ers 0 2
10 Bucks 0 3
10 Pacers 0 3
10 Hornets 0 3
10 Magic 0 3
10 Nets 0 3

Here’s a look at where the East stood after three games last season, and the final conference standings:

14-’15 Team W L   Final Standings W L
1 Heat 3 0 1 Hawks 60 22
2 Bulls 2 1 2 Cavaliers 53 29
2 Wizards 2 1 3 Bulls 50 32
2 Raptors 2 1 4 Raptors 49 33
2 Knicks 2 1 5 Wizards 46 36
2 Nets 2 1 6 Bucks 41 41
7 Cavaliers 1 2 7 Celtics 40 42
7 Bucks 1 2 8 Nets 38 44
9 Celtics 1 2 8 Pacers 38 44
9 Pacers 1 2 10 Heat 37 45
9 Hawks 1 2 11 Hornets 33 49
9 Hornets 1 2 12 Pistons 32 50
13 Pistons 0 3 13 Magic 25 57
13 76ers 0 3 14 76ers 18 64
13 Magic 0 3 15 Knicks 17 65

The East was weird last year, as the Heat adjusted to life after LeBron and eventually were done in by health issues. The Knicks fell off a cliff, winning only 15 more games after their 2-1 start. The Cavs struggled near .500 before the LeBattical and Timofey Mozgov/J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert acquisitions, finishing the season 35-15 over the last four months. Meanwhile the Atlanta Hawks became nearly unbeatable for three months, going 38-6 from December through February.

Looking at the first week of this season, there are only two teams that really stand out as surprises – the Pistons and Bucks. These two Central division teams are headed in different directions through three games. Detroit has reshaped its roster and approach to the game. A question mark coming into the season was their defense, but they are winning with stellar performances on that side of the court, anchored by Andre Drummond blocking/changing shots in the paint. The Pistons are winning while shooting just 39 percent (28th in NBA) and ranking 21st in points per game. But they’re fourth in opponent’s points per game and are holding teams to just 28 percent from beyond the arc.

If the Pistons join the Heat in making the playoffs in the East this year, that means at least two teams that made it last year will fall to the Lottery. The Nets will be one of those teams. The other, it pains me to say, could be the Bucks. A chic pick to make a leap by people like me (I gushed about them in this NBA Risers column), the Bucks are struggling to find their way. They clearly miss cagey veterans like Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, while Giannis missed a game and Jabari Parker hasn’t played yet (he’s cleared to play as of this writing). Meanwhile the addition of Greg Monroe, while it has great potential, has disrupted the chemistry. The Bucks are also testing conventional wisdom by starting a point guard that can’t shoot, in Michael Carter-Williams. He’s shooting a gross 27 percent from three.

The good news for Milwaukee, besides Jabari returning to the lineup? There are 79 games left, and they play in the East. The Rockets and Pelicans are envious.

NBA Season Tips Off – Up & Down (New Feature)

The season is underway and there are some early (very early) surprises. Up & Down will look at how teams are performing against expectations. We’re trying really hard not to overreact to 1 or 2 games, but not making any promises.

We’re two days into the 2015-16 NBA season, I haven’t stopped drooling and I can only blame the dog for so long.

But what a start! One of the most blah games on the slate last night turned out to be an emotional, Rubio-tastic barnburner that saw Minnesota outlast the Lakers in L.A. 113-112. That was the capper on a 14-game evening that saw some teams laugh at the prognosticators with unexpected winning debuts, while others played like they think the season starts next week. Here’s a look at the teams that have looked the best and the worst to start this season.

Who’s Up

Nuggets – If you say you expected a 20-point win in Houston you’re either lying or you have a Delorean and we need to talk about some daily fantasy lineups. The new-look Nuggets were very impressive, especially rookie Emmanuel Mudiay (17 points, 9 assists) and Danilo Gallinari (23 points, 8 rebounds). Gallo showed up to camp in great shape and looked spry in his return from injury. Mudiay had 11 turnovers, to be expected for a rookie point guard. What was unexpected was his stroke from outside. In a night where many rookies shined, he may have been the brightest.

Bulls – Da Bulls are off to a 2-0 start after topping the Cavs on Tuesday and avoided a hangover to win the next night at Brooklyn. Under Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls are leveraging their deep roster and spreading around minutes, while showing an emphasis on ball movement offensively. No longer are the Bulls stagnating with one on ones and forcing shots at the end of the shot clock. The defense may be sacrificed somewhat, but Bulls brass and many fans have clamored for years for imaginative offense and fewer minutes for star players and they’re getting it so far. Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose look good, and Nikola Mirotic has been much improved so far.

Pistons – Our other 2-0 team in the East, to the surprise of many so far. The Pistons were a mess last year before Stan Van Gundy arrived. SVG reshaped the roster, letting Josh Smith and Greg Monroe go and bringing in Reggie Jackson. The result so far is a more potent offense centered around Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls and outside shooting from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and rookie Stanley Johnson. Drummond grabbed 19 boards against the Hawks and has four blocks in two games. He looks to be taking the next step toward being an absolute monster on the block, inspiring hope in the Motor City for a playoff spot for the first time in half a decade.

Knicks – Holy Kristaps! The Knicks and their big rookie blitzed the Bucks in the opener, 122-97. As bad as they were last year, the Knicks quietly made some nice moves in the offseason. The Zen Master added real NBA players like Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn and Derrick Williams, the latter surprised an out-of-nowhere 24 point debut. If Porzingis is the real deal, things will be looking up in the Big Apple. The fact they destroyed the Bucks on a poor shooting night from Carmelo is all the more impressive.

Mavericks – I expected – and still sort of expect – a big swoon this year from Dallas. They just have so little depth on paper and are relying on old and/or injury-hampered guys in so many key spots. But I was reminded once again last night the dangers of doubting Rick Carlisle and Dirk. The Mavs are committing to Carlisle long term, a genius move, even if they will more or less be starting from scratch in the near future player personnel-wise. Carlisle is a top schemer on both ends and can develop players with the best of them. The 8-seed may not be a dream if the right guys stay healthy.

Trail Blazers – They did it against a banged-up Pelicans team traveling on a back-to-back, but that doesn’t diminish a stellar debut. Portland rolled to a 112-94 victory behind CJ McCollum’s career game. The guard scored 37 points, 28 in a 70-point first half for Portland. With four new starters and the loss of Lamarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Nic Batum, Portland still figures to fall out of the playoff picture. But their games will be high-scoring affairs if McCollum’s rise is real, as he and Damian Lillard will light up scoreboards while having trouble defending opposing backcourts. Nice job by another great coach in this league, Terry Stotts.

Timberwolves – I saw a great tweet last night by AP Writer Jon Krawczynski, who tweeted “No way Flip was letting that go in”, in reference to Lou Williams’ last-second floater that rimmed out at the buzzer in Minnesota’s 112-111 win over the Lakers. The late, great Flip Saunders left Minny set up wonderfully for the future. Ricky Rubio torched the much-maligned Lakers defense for a career-high 28 points to go with 14 dimes, while first overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns (14 points, 12 boards) looked like a star in the making. That post-up fadeaway shot he displayed last night made him look like a 10-year vet. Add to that last season’s Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, and the future is bright for Flip’s crew.

Who’s Down?

Pelicans – Yikes. Once players started dropping like flies in the preseason, expectations began falling for this team, at least in the early going. But many predicted that Anthony Davis’ sheer brilliance would carry this team to the top half of the West. It’s only two games in, but what we might be learning is that today’s NBA – and especially the West – is just too stocked with talent for one player to make a winner out of a franchise. There’s no denying Davis’ greatness and their season started against the champion Warriors at Oracle on their ring ceremony night. So let’s pump the brakes…they were never going to win game 1. However, my eyebrows raised a bit last night, when they got throttled in Portland. The Pels’ defense was hoping to be much-improved from last year, when they were 22nd in defensive rating. They hired guru Darren Erman to run the defense but they didn’t envision allowing 70 points in the first half to a middling (on paper) Portland team. I’m confident things will get ironed out and guys will get healthy but this is about as bad a start as they could’ve had, aside from a Davis injury.

Rockets – What the hell was that, man? I’m a huge supporter of this Rockets team after they showed grit and mettle in last year’s postseason and added Ty Lawson to an already loaded roster. I talked myself into them potentially leading the league in wins this year, drafting them high in my win totals fantasy league. For them to come out and lay a complete egg on opening night, at home, has me taken aback and smdh. (This is the part where I remind myself it was only one game. 81 more of these babies). OK. Thinking positively now. They were without Dwight Howard (suspended), who would have prevented such easy access to the cup for Gallinari and fortified the defensive end. Harden is pretty fresh off a Kardashian summer and still has some of that stink on him. Lawson will take some time to mesh with this group. And Clint Capela looks like a potential stud. I feel a little better now. I just really hope this isn’t the team we get every year that spent the offseason getting pumped up by their own press clippings and hype only to have all that air fly out of the balloon. Of course, that team could be…

Bucks – ….the Bucks. They impressed and genuinely scared me last year in the first round against my Bulls. Their length, versatility and irritating defense mixed with their youth made them a bandwagon pick to make a leap this year. They added Greg Monroe, and he played well enough last night. The idea is he provides a reliable post scoring threat, but I wonder if he slows down their pace too much and hampers their frantic switching defense. Monroe isn’t jumping out to guard a wing or provide much help-side rim protection in a fast-paced game. This may just take some time – and I believe in Jason Kidd’s coaching – but my eyebrow’s raised.

Suns – This was always a season that could go one or two ways for the Suns. Of all the teams out there, Phoenix had the most variance in win total projections. If the unorthodox pieces didn’t fit, Jeff Hornacek continues regressing and Markieff Morris loses his mind, they are going in the tank. But if they jelled and played more like the Suns of two years ago they could contend for a playoff spot. After last  night’s home stinker against Dallas, we are on a path to the former, maybe sooner than we expected possible. A couple teams with playoff hopes have to be bad in the West, and I’d bet on PHX over New Orleans for sure.

Grizzlies – I love Memphis and their style of play, and still think they’ll be the sixth seed out West. There is potential for this to be the year their old school grit n grind game fails them and their lack of scoring punch becomes too much to overcome. The Cavs are a tough early season opponent, to be sure. But losing by 30 while putting up just 76 points at home is a bad, bad look. Let’s hope this was an aberration.

The Denny Green Division “They are who we thought they were!” (at least through 1 game)

Kings – Nice comeback to make the Clippers sweat last night, but they imploded late and we had a nice Boogie Cousins meltdown on the bench in the final minutes. Sounds about right.

Cavs – Tough road loss at Chicago, then a dominant performance over Memphis. They will be great.

Warriors – Just watchin’ the throne…

Celtics – Well-coached. Strong defensively. Going to beat the bad teams (like Philly).

Heat – Great to see Chris Bosh back and good as ever. Same with D Wade. And look out for Justise Winslow, steal of the draft.

Thunder – Great win over San Antonio. They will compete for the top seed. KD and Russ are on a mission. Dion Waiters looking competent was the only surprise.

Spurs – Aldridge (just 11 points) will take time to learn the Spurs Way, as predicted. Played the Thunder tough, they will be fine.

Clippers – Someone tell Boogie that the Clips like to run Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan alley-oops. He may be the last man on Earth that doesn’t know.

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)