All Star Draft: Funhouse Mirror Edition

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

STARTERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESERVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funhouse Mirror/Weird/Twitter Explodes Teams:

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

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

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

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

Logical/More Likely Teams:

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

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

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

Olympic Roster Rapidly Dwindling

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

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

Continue reading

NBA Graveyard 2016: Two Abrupt Falls From Grace

It’s April and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. This entry will be unique, as we are mourning two teams simultaneously, as they are forever linked due to their collective disappointment. Everyone is to blame in the demise of these two.

We lay to rest the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards together, two teams that half-assed their way through disappointing seasons, and thus, don’t deserve separate graves.

bullswizgrave

Postmortem: In a deviation from our normal NBA Graveyard format, let’s take a quick look at the Bulls’ and Wizards’ failings at each level of the organizations. Everyone fell short of expectations, starting with the men upstairs: Continue reading

Revised Olympic Roster Predictions (UPDATE)

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

PG – Steph Curry

PG -€“ Chris Paul

PG/SG – Russell Westbrook

SG -€“ Jimmy Butler

G/F – Kawhi Leonard

F – LeBron James

F -€“ Carmelo Anthony

F – Paul George

F -€“ Kevin Durant

F – Draymond Green

F/C -€“ Anthony Davis

C – DeMarcus Cousins

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

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

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

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

Guards – Curry, Lillard, Westbrook, Butler, Leonard

Forwards – James, Anthony, George, Durant, Green

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

Alternates – Harden, Griffin, Thompson

I welcome your debate/scorn in the comments.

 

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!

 

Wizards and Bucks – What’s the Deal?

We’re far enough along in the NBA season to start figuring out some trends and deciding who’s actually good and who isn’t. Stubbornly, I still want to hold out hope for two Eastern Conference playoff representatives from a year ago that I expected big things out of, but who have not delivered at all. Of course I’m talking about the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards. Actually, the Wizards and Bucks are the only two teams in the East that you can call disappointing through 20 or so games. I mean, were Philly and Brooklyn fans really expecting much? I hope not. As I covered yesterday, teams like the Magic, Hornets, Pacers and Pistons have made the Central and Southeast Divisions suddenly deep. The Celtics are about what we expected, and the New York Knickerbockers are riding the giant Latvian rookie Kristaps Porzignis to a surprisingly positive start. All three divisions in the East are more competitive and overall better than expected.

But there’s always a flip side to that coin. If most of the East is coming up Heads, then the Wiz and Bucks are left chasing their Tails. Let’s try to figure out what’s wrong, and whether either situation is salvageable.

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What’s up with the Wiz?

Washington, fresh off an inspiring postseason run and sporting a shiny backcourt, has stumbled to a 7-9 start. Fans actually booed franchise point guard John Wall the other night after he missed free throws in a terrible loss to the Lakers. Shooting guard Bradley Beal has continued to struggle with minor injuries, Nene is banged up and now Marcin Gortat is away from the team for a personal matter. The frustration last season from NBA viewers was that coach Randy Wittman seemed unaware of the fact that his dynamic backcourt plays best when they are attacking on the fast break and pushing the pace. Wall, in particular, is a unique weapon that runs circles around opponents and creates opportunities on defense with his quick hands. Wittman did a 180 in the playoffs, finally playing a smaller lineup and revving up the engines on offense – the result was a first round spanking of Toronto in four games. They then took the 60-win Hawks to six games, losing the final two by a combined four points. It seemed Wittman had finally figured out what he had in his roster. And they have mostly continued the pace and space strategy in 2015-16 (they’re currently 3rd in pace), but the wins haven’t followed. So what’s wrong?

For one, Wall hasn’t been good. The fanciest Tesla that Elon Musk can build won’t work without a charge, and Wall is the battery that Washington runs on. He’s more than two assists per game below is career-high 10 per game last season, and his field goal percentage is slightly down. He’s shooting more threes and making them at an OK rate (33%) but teams will concede a long range shot to Wall all day long over a drive to the rack. In Washington’s 3-1 start, Wall was great (21 and 8 per game). They’ve been 4-8 since and maddeningly inconsistent, following their star’s lead. Wall had 35 and 10 in a fantastic 97-85 win over Cleveland on Dec. 1. The next night they lost to the Lakers at home. To be fair, Wall had great numbers against L.A. but he did miss the key free throws that led to the booing.

Second issue has been Bradley Beal, who was expected to make another leap in a contract year. He leads the team in scoring but remains in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries. In general his shooting numbers are good but I guess the leap hasn’t been as great as I expected, especially for  a guy who will be looking for a max contract after the season.

The third issue I see is a fundamental one that many teams are facing in the “We want to emulate the Warriors” era. I covered this before with the Bulls, and the Wizards are an even better example of this struggle. That being, if you’re going to play fast that equals more possessions, and more possessions equals more shots. YOU NEED TO HAVE GUYS THAT CAN MAKE SHOTS IN ORDER TO MAKE THIS A SUCCESSFUL PLAN. Sorry for yelling. But outside of Beal, who are the shotmakers on this team? Otto Porter has made 15 threes on 57 attempts. Jared Dudley is always solid and is shooting 50 percent from the field but he’s a bit player. Gary Neal can knock down shots but he’s not going to win you many games. In theory Kris Humphries stretches the floor and he’s done well this year at 36 percent from beyond the arc, but he’s basically a seventh man. They really need another guy or two on the wing that scares defenses – Porter was supposed to be that guy, but he hasn’t flourished in a bigger role.

Are the Wizards salvageable?

I really, really want to say yes, and I’m not going to count out Wall and Beal just yet, but let’s reexamine in a month. The Wizards are entering a murderous stretch in their schedule, as 15 of their next 20 opponents currently have winning records. They are dead last in the Southeast and every other team in their division has a winning record. The East is back from a 15 year hiatus (at least so far this season) and it won’t be easy to dig out of their current hole, God forbid they dig any deeper in the tough month ahead. It’s amazing to consider, but the Wizards could be a lottery team by mid-January, unless they quickly right the ship.

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What’s up with the Bucks?

Milwaukee was a great story last year, riding a bunch of fresh faces with long wingspans and bouncy legs to a surprise playoff spot. They punched the heavily-favored Bulls in the mouth in the first round before bowing out in six games. This created hope, that ever-fragile and sometimes dangerous thing that gets fanbases fired up and GMs occasionally fired. Why not be hopeful? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are two legitimate stars in the making, with fingers crossed for good health (Parker) and proper development (Giannis). Jason Kidd seems a natural at this NBA coaching thing and he’s a former point guard that fixed his broken shot, creating more hope still that he can fix the Bucks’ point guard Michael Carter-Williams’ broken shot. So the Bucks decided they were ready to go for it, signing big-time free agent Greg Monroe and extending promising wing Khris Middleton. In the meantime they let veterans like Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova walk. They unveiled shiny new uniforms (very nice actually) and a new court design and prepared to continue their ascendance up the Eastern Conference ladder.

So what’s happened? The shiny toys (Giannis!, Parker!, Middleton!, Monroe!, playoff excitement!, rebranding!) drove “hope” and “potential” but distracted them from some of the core reasons behind last year’s success. Less sexy things like veteran leadership and toughness were sacrificed to bring in Monroe. The former Pistons big man has not panned out thus far, to put it nicely. Not to say Monroe isn’t a good player, but it’s a square peg in a round hole situation. He doesn’t fit the rangy, bouncy, tenacious D profile that drove the Bucks last season. The team thought guys like Giannis and Jon Henson could make up for Monroe’s deficiencies on defense and the loss of Zaza, but the drop has been precipitous. Defense was key to this team’s identity last season, and they currently are the second-worst defense in the league. MCW is also not great on defense, and his shot is still broken. Methinks Milwaukee regrets jettisoning Brandon Knight to Phoenix last year. They just don’t have enough punch on offense to overcome bad defense. The Bucks should be grinding teams down and winning slugfests in the low 90s. Right now they allow 103 points per game.

That’s how a great deal of hope turns into a 7-12 start.

Are the Bucks salvageable?

In any other year, probably. But with the way the East is playing out this season, sadly the answer has to be no. That’s right, I’m writing off one of my NBA Risers from the preseason in December.

Long-term, yes, they are salvageable. But they currently sit last in the Central and 13th in the East. They are headed for the lottery. There will be some tough choices to make, but a core of Giannis, Parker and Middleton can still be special. I think MCW needs to go, more shooting will need to be acquired and somehow they need to fit Monroe into the mix or trade him if it really goes bad.

It’s sad because a season ago this team had a real identity – they thrived on creating chaos, forcing turnovers and brought attitude to the table, thanks mostly to Zaza. I’m always amazed when NBA teams add more talent and get worse on the court. Chemistry, identity, hope – it’s all very fragile in the NBA.

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.