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!

 

 

NBA Graveyard 2016: A Jazz Funeral (For Now)

It’s April and the season is over for 14 NBA teams. We have one last team to examine – the Utah Jazz, who were eliminated on the final day of the regular season. For a breakdown of the other 13 teams click on the “NBA Graveyard 2016” section.

The Utah Jazz, man, somehow, managed to die at the impotent hands of the 2016 Rockets and 2016 Kobe Bryant

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Postmortem: The Jazz were straight-up abused this year. Many jokes have been made about their role as the Washington Generals in Kobe’s 60-point explosion in the final day of the regular season. But the Jazz – who found out just before the Kobe game that they were eliminated from the playoffs – were victims of oppositional brilliance all season. In NBA Countdown’s video of the top 10 plays of the 2015-16 regular season, four of those plays came at the expense of the Jazz. In a 30-team league what are the odds that 40 percent of the best plays (admittedly subjective, but still) of a season would occur against one team?

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Projecting the 2016 Olympic Roster

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

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

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

Guards

Bradley Beal, Wizards

Jimmy Butler, Bulls

Mike Conley, Grizzlies

Stephen Curry, Warriors

DeMar DeRozan, Raptors

James Harden, Rockets

Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers

Chris Paul, Clippers

Klay Thompson, Warriors

John Wall, Wizards

Russell Westbrook, Thunder

Forwards

LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Harrison Barnes, Warriors

Kevin Durant, Thunder

Kenneth Faried, Nuggets

Rudy Gay, Kings

Paul George, Pacers

Draymond Green, Warriors

Blake Griffin, Clippers

Gordon Hayward, Jazz

Andre Iguodala, Warriors

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

Kevin Love, Cavaliers

LeBron James, Cavaliers

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

Centers

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Andre Drummond, Pistons

Dwight Howard, Rockets

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers

 

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

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

First Cut – 10 players

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

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

Second Cut – 5 players

Aldridge; DeRozan; Jordan; Thompson; Irving.

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

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

Final Cut – 3 players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PG – Steph Curry

PG – Chris Paul

PG/SG – Russell Westbrook

SG – Jimmy Butler

G/F – Kawhi Leonard

F – LeBron James

F – Carmelo Anthony

F – Paul George

F – Kevin Durant

F – Draymond Green

F/C – Anthony Davis

C – DeMarcus Cousins

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

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

 

 

NBA Risers – Utah Jazz

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

Who are they? A somewhat anonymous defensive-minded group, but that’s about to change. The Jazz led the league last year in opponent’s points per game (94.9), which is pretty amazing for a team that missed the playoffs. Of course on the other side of that coin is their lackluster offense, 26th in the league at 95.1. In order to jump into the postseason in the Brutal Westthe offense needs to make drastic strides. The good news is I believe they are poised to do that, with young guards who should improve, forwards making the leap and a certain Frenchman on a path of destruction.

How have they been built? The Jazz have been savvy in the trade market, important for a team based in Salt Lake City – not exactly an NBA destination. Rudy Gobert was acquired in a draft day trade with Denver in 2013, in exchange for an obscure pick and cash. Derrick Favors came over in the Deron Williams trade with New Jersey and the Jazz’s patience in developing him has paid off and will continue to do so. Alec Burks, Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward and Dante Exum were Jazz draft picks, and Trevor Booker is their most noteworthy free agent acquisition (again, not an NBA destination, beautiful country though).

Core group – Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward. Gobert is a monster. A 7’1” 23 year old that protects the rim, runs the floor, dunks on everyone and has great vision as a passer. I look for him to score more this season, perhaps stepping out his range a bit. His stoicism even after vicious blocks and his fantastic nickname – The Stifle Tower – bodes well for his rising star factor. To compete in the West with the Marc Gasols, Dwight Howards, LaMarcus Aldridges, and others, a guy like Gobert is almost a prerequisite. Combine Gobert with his frontcourt mate Derrick Favors, and the Jazz have two key legs to stand on out West. Favors averaged 16 and 8 last year, his best season, and the arrow continues to point up. He’s becoming one of the top traditional power forwards in the league, providing physicality and an efficient post game. Hayward continues to quietly produce, steadily increasing his PPG each of his NBA seasons and enjoying a bounce back campaign from behind the arc last year. A healthy Burks can be a key cog in an improving offense.

Role guys – Rodney Hood, Trevor Booker, Joe Ingles. Booker provides toughness and can break out on the offensive end occasionally. Hood can score off the bench, much needed in Utah.

Boom or bust potential – Dante Exum, Trey Burke, Trey Lyles, Raul Neto. Utah has the frontcourt problem solved, now to it’s biggest remaining challenge – developing a star point ballhandler. The Jazz need Burke or Exum to be that guy in order to truly make noise in the West. Not only are teams expected to produce points at the PG position these days, but need backcourt defense to be strong to compete with the likes of Steph Curry, Chris Paul, James Harden, even Mike Conley. Exum would seem to be the best bet, given the hype and raw ability. Burke may be destined to be at best a Jamal Crawford/sixth man scorer. Exum has already shown flashes of brilliance on defense, showcasing his length and quickness. His offense was putrid in his rookie season, so all eyes will be on the youngster’s development on that end. He is in my view the most important piece when looking at the Jazz’s 2015-16 prospects.

Optimist view – The Jazz are poised to get back into the West playoffs just two years after completely bottoming out under Tyrone Corbin and a thin roster, which speaks to the success the front office has had in quickly rebuilding. Coach Quin Snyder seems to be the perfect man for the job of developing raw talent and drawing up schemes for that talent to be successful on the court (the Anti-Ty Corbin). With a boost in Exum’s understanding of an NBA offense, the Jazz stand to benefit from more of a scoring punch, with more easy buckets for Hayward, Gobert and Favors. If the Jazz can elevate their points per game closer to 100 while maintaining their stifling defense and a real home court advantage, 50 wins is very attainable. Look for the Jazz to push for the 7th seed and even threaten to jump into the top six with a couple breaks. A truly exciting team that makes the West even more fearsome.