Olympic Roster Rapidly Dwindling

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

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

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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)

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.

 

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!

 

Dispatches From DeAndre’s Dallas Experience

Last night I had the opportunity to witness the Clippers’ first visit to American Airlines Center in Dallas since the Great DeAndre Jordan Free Agency Fiasco of 2015. This date had been circled on my calendar since that fateful night this summer when Twitter emojis and rumors of a scorned Mark Cuban driving aimlessly around Houston briefly took over our collective lives. I knew the AAC would be electric, and a late-arriving crowd didn’t disappoint. The few that were there pre-tip off even booed DJ in warmups as he practiced clanking free throws. Here was his official introduction:

As the game got underway, we were amused that each time DeAndre touched the ball he was booed mercilessly. I was even more amused when another fan in my section lamented that he doesn’t really touch the ball all that much, so he couldn’t boo as much as he wanted. See DJ, you could have been the centerpiece here in Dallas!

For the record I think Jordan made the right decision for his career to stay in L.A., he just made it in the most clumsy fashion imaginable and hurt Dallas’ chances to land another big free agent in the process. But as the crowd booed every rebound and post up from DeAndre, it got me thinking of the irony. Perhaps Dallas dodged a bullet with Jordan’s change of heart. They aren’t going anywhere this season anyway. How much better could they have been with DeAndre? Not enough to make much of a dent in the West, and while he would have boosted Dallas’ porous defense, his one-dimensional offensive game doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a Rick Carlisle attack. I looked to Twitter for backup on these jumbled thoughts and it delivered. Here’s a tweet from Eric Freeman that perfectly captured the irony that was unfolding before me:

Eric Freeman (@freemaneric)

Mavs fans just cheered the failed DeAndre Jordan post-up that was supposed to be the focus of their offense.
DeAndre generally struggled all night, but did shut the crowd up with a sweet early dunk off a Chris Paul alley-oop:
Another thing I learned on Twitter during the game was that Jeff Van Gundy dropped a verbal bomb on the Dallas fans, essentially calling them hypocritical for booing Jordan then turning around and cheering for Greg Hardy on Sundays. I may need to stop going to Mavs games that are broadcast on ESPN so I don’t miss these JVG gems. Last season I went to see my Bulls play the Mavs, when Van Gundy famously crushed John Paxson on air, in defense of his buddy Tom Thibodeaux. Van Gundy is always inflammatory and his observation is interesting. It misses the point a bit, however. I agree with him that what DeAndre did pales in comparison to the misdeeds of Hardy, and at the end of the day we shouldn’t be throwing too much shade at a 27-year old making an 8-figure financial decision with the whole world watching. But the fans last night are not in the wrong for booing. I mean, c’mon. It was a Wednesday night in North Texas, just game number eight of an 82-game slog for a bad Mavs team. The DeAndre game gave people something to be excited about. It was a reason to care and be enthusiastic about basketball in November. It was a net positive. The guy who was relentlessly told he sucks may disagree, though.
Plus, it’s really incomprehensible just how bad DeAndre is at shooting free throws. So it was amusing to watch sequences like this (also listen for the guy calling Doc Rivers a douchebag):

The fans left happy as Dallas pulled out a close victory, led by Dirk Nowitzki’s 31 points. It was an impressive win for the Mavs, in what may amount to the highlight of their season. DeAndre and the Clips have bigger fish to fry, but for one night Dallas had the last laugh.

Thoughts on Guards + NBA Backcourt Rankings

For much of my life my stance on guards was that they were a necessary evil. For a big man they struck me as selfish, short-sighted showboats. Much of their movements seemed superfluous, and they were hesitant to throw it in to the post even when there was a mouse in the house. I could see their mind turning as they saw me with great low block position and a beckoning arm raised for the ball, always judging, thinking, “What if I never get the ball back?”. It baffled me that they lacked confidence in my ability to pull a fundamental spin move, ball fake, switch hands and kiss it off the glass for two. But, alas, someone needs to bring the ball up the court – I know damn well I’m panicking and getting stole on when that half court trap comes at me.

So it became necessary to build an uneasy alliance with one or two guards who seemed to see the light, who realized that a center isn’t a black hole (except for Al Jefferson), and that a skilled big man with court vision can draw a double team and kick it back out to the original passer or another shooter behind the arc, or find a slashing forward for an easy bucket. It’s not that point guards are inherently selfish – though some are –  it’s that they’re control freaks, with maybe a dose of Napoleon syndrome. As a big man you have to at least feign understanding with these tiny dribble machines for the offense to function properly and the team to ultimately succeed. It’s a constant tug of war. One my favorite books is Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season”, in which the diminutive Conroy’s coach, talking to the author years after their Citadel days, tells him: “I always hated guards”, to explain away why he was always suck a jerk to him. As I read that, I reflected on many years of being ignored in the post and then berated for not offensive rebounding a contested brick, and a satisfied smile began to curl. What wisdom in those words.

With all that said, I’ve softened my stance on the guard positions as I’ve gotten older, maybe because I don’t get to play as much anymore to witness their treachery in action. You simply can’t deny the level of skill and artistry which the NBA’s best guards display on a nightly basis. In recent years the traditional center position has been de-emphasized yet I crave the NBA more now than I did as a kid. Credit where credit’s due, and as Stephen Curry showcased last season, the point guard position in particular is crucially important in today’s game. And what it means to be a top point guard has changed: not only must they be the court general that drops hot dimes and penetrates a defense, a sweet stroke from three-point range is now almost a prerequisite. A guy like Curry opens up the floor for his bigger teammates since you can’t leave him open at any time. Done right, it’s sublime.

There’s also something to be said for a great partnership between backcourt mates. It can take many forms, such as Klay Thompson checking a bigger, scoring point guard for the small Curry so he can conserve energy for the offensive end; or a Kyle Korver/JJ Redick specializing in catch-and-shoot and bending a defense by moving without the ball while their respective point partner Jeff Teague and Chris Paul run the show and get them the ball at the right spot. Like any partnership it can take time, and it can backfire. The initial promise can disappear when egos, unclear roles and overall team chemistry come into play and sends backcourt mates into feuds. In the best cases you have classic male bonding. The worst case? Well, you remember Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton exorcising their 2nd Amendment right in the Wizards locker room, right?

Without further ado, I present my current NBA Backcourt Rankings, with some color commentary on each tandem. Point guard is listed first, then shooting guard. One note: though the key criteria for ranking is total starting backcourt play, I will elevate a backcourt if one of the two is a superstar, regardless of how bad his backcourt mate may be. Case in point: I’m taking Russ Westbrook (awesome) and Dion Waiters (decidedly not awesome) every day of the week over two solid guards like George Hill and Monta Ellis in Indiana. Combined PER is from the 2014-15 season.

Low on Talent and/or Experience

30. Emmanuel Mudiay & Randy Foye (Denver Nuggets). Combined PER: N/A. I was in Denver last weekend, and excitement for the Nuggets hasn’t been this low since the pre-Melo days. I like Mudiay and think he will be good, but this year will be tough with a thin roster and a lot being asked of him. As for Foye, I was surprised he is still in the league, let alone starting. Gary Harris may take his job.

29. Tony Wroten & Robert Covington (Philadelphia 76ers). Combined PER: 29.6. Wroten was a great fantasy sleeper if you were punting on turnovers, prior to his injury. He’s erratic and too eager to look for his own shot. Covington is a solid player, whose best role would be coming off the bench for a contender. In Philly he’s their top perimeter player.

28. Jarrett Jack & Wayne Ellington (Brooklyn Nets). Combined PER: 26.2. I don’t have anything to really say here except Jack and Ellington are both fine role players off the bench. But they should not be a starting backcourt in the NBA. Joe Johnson will get some time at the 2, which would push this pairing up further.

27. Jose Calderon & Aaron Afflalo (New York Knicks). Combined PER: 19.5. Knicks fans should probably just watch old tapes of Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe to stay sane this season. Calderon has been a solid pro, but will be 34 this season and doesn’t have much upside. Kendrick Lamar “used to be jealous of Aaron Afflalo”, but my guess is the script has flipped on that one.

26. Trey Burke & Alec Burks (Utah Jazz). Combined PER: 25.6. Great alliterative backcourt, but the greatness stops there. While my fellow Colorado alum Burks can score and is worthy of a starting 2 spot, his ceiling is low. It’s really a shame that Dante Exum went down with a knee injury, as this would have been a valuable growth year for him with a talented front court to play with. Burke just hasn’t shown the same magic he had as a Michigan Wolverine. He could get benched if he shoots them out of games.

Potential Disasters

25. Ricky Rubio & Kevin Martin (Minnesota Timberwolves). Combined PER: 31.9. All that Rubio hype never really panned out, did it? It turns out you need to be able to shoot and score in the lane nowadays as a PG. You can get by if you do one or the other really well. Rubio does neither. The journeyman Martin brings some stability to the position and should put up stats on a bad team. He won’t make them better, however.

24. Rajon Rondo & Ben McLemore (Sacramento Kings). Combined PER: 22.8. Everything with the Kings is a potential disaster, which is why it’s a precarious spot for Rondo to land. He has a chance to rebuild his reputation here and earn a big payday next summer when the cap jumps up, but his glory days are farther and farther behind him. Rondo plus Demarcus Cousins plus George Karl likely equals turmoil. It should be captivating to watch. McLemore may be a diamond in the rough – we’ll see how much better he gets with more playing time this year.

23. Jrue Holiday & Eric Gordon (New Orleans Pelicans). Combined PER: 31.5. I can’t overstate how much the Pels need Holiday healthy for a full season, to take some pressure off the Brow and prevent slipping into becoming the Tyreke Evans Show. His injury history doesn’t leave much room for optimism. Gordon’s own injury-plagued career can only be called a disappointment.

22. Reggie Jackson & Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Detroit Pistons). Combined PER:  31. When Jackson left OKC for Detroit last season he found more opportunity and his numbers jumped to 17.6 points and 9 assists per game. Though capable of scoring he’s wildly inconsistent and committed 3.5 turnovers per game for Detroit last year. KCP is a solid scorer who won’t keep opponents’ coaches up at night.

21. Damian Lillard & Gerald Henderson (Portland Trail Blazers). Combined PER: 33.9. What a bittersweet time for Dame. On one hand, the Blazers handed him the keys to the team’s future to tune of a 5 year, $120M extension. Yet, he’s the last man standing in the starting five from a team that won 51 games and looked superb at times last year. He’s got to make some kind of effort to improve defensively. Henderson is an efficient shooter, though his PPG dropped last season in Charlotte.

20. Deron Williams & Wesley Matthews (Dallas Mavericks). Combined PER: 31.8. On paper this looks great. Williams has looked good on paper for years, though, just not on the basketball court. He’s back in his hometown now and should be motivated to prove doubters wrong, but that ship may have sailed. Matthews is one of the top 2 guards in the league but the torn Achilles puts his ongoing value and effectiveness in question. Especially this season, I’m not expecting big things.

My Interest is Piqued

19. Kemba Walker & Nic Batum (Charlotte Hornets). Combined PER: 30.7. Batum is a good addition in Charlotte assuming he’s completely healthy after a frustrating down season for him last year. He’ll provide help on perimeter defense and is a great passer and rebounder at the 2 spot. Walker is the star of this team and is an exciting scorer. His ability to win as a team’s best player at the NBA level is questionable.

18. D’Angelo Russell & Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers). Combined PER: N/A. This pairing should make for good theater if not a lot of wins. I’m buying Russell stock and think he will win Rookie of the Year. He’s also already making waves by doing impressions of Kobe and sharing good-natured jabs with his backcourt mate on Twitter. Russell’s growth as a player could either be helped or hampered by Bryant, depending on what Mamba shows up this season.

17. Marcus Smart & Avery Bradley (Boston Celtics). Combined PER: 22.5. Opposing guards will dread playing the Celtics this year. The Smart-Bradley tandem is physical, hard-nosed and quick to pick pockets. They should get better as they play more together, but Smart needs to improve his efficiency while putting the ball in the basket more often.

16. Elfrid Payton & Victor Oladipo (Orlando Magic). Combined PER: 29.7. Perhaps the two most important cogs in the young Magic’s engine. Payton showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie and should be more consistent in Year 2. Oladipo is the one player on this team with star potential in 2015-16. These two are just getting started and hopefully will share a backcourt for many years.

15. Michael Carter-Williams & Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks). Combined PER: 31.1. Giannis is listed as either a 2 or a 3, but I think he will play more backcourt this season as the Bucks integrate Greg Monroe and Jabari Parker into the starting lineup, with Khris Middleton playing the 3. The Greek Freak has the potential to be great – like top 20 player in the league great – and should improve in all areas this year with more polish. MCW is a big PG who gives the Bucks a defensive answer for the Kyrie Irvings and Derrick Rose’s of the East. Both guys are pretty atrocious shooters, that must improve quickly.

Solid and Steady

14. Mike Conley & Courtney Lee (Memphis Grizzlies). Combined PER: 30.1. I love Mike Conley – his top priority is getting teammates involved in the offense and feeding his awesome big men. He’s as steady as they come, and he shoots lefty. A lot to like there. Lee is just sort of there…you can count on him for 10 points and 1-2 threes per game, which has not been enough for low scoring Memphis to get past the West powerhouses.

13. George Hill & Monta Ellis (Indiana Pacers). Combined PER: 38. Maybe it was just because I totally ignored the Pacers last season, but I was amazed when looking up Hill’s stats. He was excellent! He shot almost 48 percent while scoring 16 points a game with an out-of-nowhere 21.5 PER. Monta should help boost Hill’s pedestrian assist numbers. Last year’s Pacers were not so good at trivial things like scoring. Ellis had one of his best seasons last year as well, functioning as a point guard at times for Dallas. We’ll have to see how these two fit together. It could go bad real fast if Ellis reverts to being a chucker.

12. Jeff Teague & Kyle Korver (Atlanta Hawks). Combined PER: 35.4. These two had a great season in 2014-15 and the continuity will help the Hawks this year. If they want to even sniff 60 wins again, Teague’s passing and Korver’s shooting will be main factors.

Carried by a Superstar PG

11. Kyrie Irving & Iman Shumpert (Cleveland Cavaliers). Combined PER: 32.6. Kyrie may be out the first couple months recovering from surgery but he’s a top 5 point guard when healthy. Shumpert is a defensive role-player on this team, but they could really use better shooting from him.

10. Russell Westbrook & Dion Waiters (Oklahoma City Thunder). Combined PER: 39.2. Russ went HAM last year with Durant out of the lineup. Many can argue that he hurt the team with his ball-dominance, but I won’t complain because it produced Oscar Robertson-like stat lines and endless quality Vines. His PER was nearly 30 and if he was paired with even a league-average guard rather than Waiters, they’d be a few spots higher on this list.

Loaded with Talent

9. Kyle Lowry & DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors). Combined PER: 36.7. Both battled injuries last year at different times but when they shared the floor Toronto became a perimeter nightmare for opposing teams to guard. Both really fizzled in the playoffs, which will need to change if they want to stay in the top 10.

8. Chris Paul & JJ Redick (Los Angeles Clippers). Combined PER: 42.2. Paul is a generational point guard who will make all his teammates look better. Redick, however, is not just a normal player. His off-ball movement drives defenders crazy and he creates so much space for Paul and the bigs to work due to the threat of his 3-point shooting. The Clippers should be improved this year, and have a terrible taste in their mouths given their last two playoff flame outs. Expect big things.

7. Tony Parker & Danny Green (San Antonio Spurs). Combined PER: 32.4. This was a tough one to figure out, especially since Parker has noticeably declined with age. But these two are champions that have proven they can win playing together. Green’s 3-and-D is hugely important to new-look San Antonio’s title dreams.

Show and Prove

6. Eric Bledsoe & Brandon Knight (Phoenix Suns): Combined PER: 28.9. You may say this is a reach. But I have faith, even if these are basically two point guards sharing a backcourt. Knight played his best basketball last season in Milwaukee. Bledsoe is a cornerstone for Phoenix. Phoenix has a wide range of outcomes based on things like Markieff Morris’s sanity and Tyson Chandler’s age, but one thing that is not a question mark is the backcourt.

5. Goran Dragic & Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat). Combined PER: 40.2. Dragic and Wade actually shot better than any other backcourt last season, 48.5%, after the February trade that sent Dragic over from the Suns. The pairing never got a chance to play together with Chris Bosh, who thankfully is cleared to play this season. Dragic is good enough to shoulder the scoring load on those nights when D-Wade’s knees are barking. This should be a phenomenal partnership.

4. Ty Lawson & James Harden (Houston Rockets). Combined PER: 45.2. They haven’t played a game together yet, but the potential makes your mouth water. Harden had an MVP-like year handling a bulk of the Rockets’ scoring, but he also was asked to handle the ball pretty much all game. That’s not a sustainable strategy as the miles on Harden’s body add up. He also was tops in the league in turnovers, many times having to force plays late in the shot clock when the offense broke down. If they can figure it out, Lawson can be the primary ballhandler, always a threat to beat his man for an easy layup or pull from three, while Harden works the angles and gets more open shots. Lawson needs to figure out his alcohol issues first and foremost, but he’s found his way into a great situation.

Only Injuries Can Stop Them

3. John Wall & Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards) Combined PER: 33.9. This star pairing is entering its fourth year together and I’m betting the improvement over Year 3 will be vast. Beal in particular had a tough time finding his rhythm after an early injury. Yet Washington still swept Toronto and pushed top seed Atlanta to six games in the playoffs. Wall is a blur on the court with great court vision and a killer instinct to take and make the final shot. Beal is a pure shooting guard that can play some defense and make a defense pay for helping on Wall. With a clean bill of health, this is the year Wall and Beal put themselves on the map as a top-3 backcourt.

2. Derrick Rose & Jimmy Butler (Chicago Bulls). Combined PER: 37.2. Rose, in his first real meaningful regular season minutes in three years, showed hints of his old brilliance and some serious inefficiency. His PER last year was eight points lower than his career high of 23.5, he shot just 41 percent from the field and 28 percent from three. Rose will never be the player he was in 2010; that’s the bad news. The good news is now he doesn’t have to be. His backcourt mate Butler came into his own last year and will be the Bulls’ 2 guard for the foreseeable future. There have been questions, mostly baseless in my opinion, about friction between Butler and Rose. Only time will tell, but I believe they will be a force together under a Fred Hoiberg offense that will be more imaginative and fluid than past Thibodeaux attacks. I predict this year that Rose will have a career high in assists.

The Gold Standard

  1. Steph Curry & Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors). Combined PER: 48.8(!). Like it could be anyone else? One guy was the league MVP and the other scored 37 points in a single quarter against the Kings last year. Fresh off an NBA Finals championship, look for these two to continue their barrage of threes and highlight reel fast breaks. I can’t wait.