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.

USA-Serbia Could Be a Classic

Team USA is a 15-point favorite in this afternoon’s Gold Medal game against Serbia, which seems high. The Americans eked out a 94-91 win over Serbia in the Group stage as Nikola Jokic carved up the USA for 25 points off the bench. Also consider that Team USA hasn’t won a game by more than 10 since a 113-69 dismantling of undermatched Venezuela.

Here are a few more reasons why Team USA can’t take Serbia lightly today:

  • Serbia is a complete team. As good as Spain has been for so long, they had glaring holes in this tournament. The USA took advantage of the weak Spanish post defense and were able to keep Spain’s guards in check. Serbia has depth, versatility, size, multiple scorers and showed surprising defense toughness against Australia.
  • Twin towers – the gargantuan Miroslav Raduljica, tattoos and all, reminds me of a Hell’s Angel. Or maybe two Hell’s Angel’s, one standing on the other’s shoulders. His massive presence impacts the game on both ends. But he possesses a surprising finesse game around the rim. It will be a much tougher matchup for DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. Meanwhile Jokic, though he hasn’t been in the starting lineup, can score inside and out and is one of the better passers in the tournament.
  • Six-foot-five point guard Milos Teodosic is an offensive wizard. His no-look over-the-head pass in the first game against the US was legendary.

Teodosic and Raduljica each scored 18 in that thee-point loss to the Americans. Both Kyle Lowry and Kyrie Irving have a tough assignment, trying to prevent “ANOTHER GAME FOR MILOS!”

  • Continuity counts. The group Team USA assembled is really just seven games and a couple exhibitions deep. Most of the Serbian team has played together for years, through Eurobasket and FIBA competitions. They know where their teammates are going to be on the court and their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Bojan Bogdanovic is another guy who can get buckets and plays with no fear. When these games get tight and constant whistles are killing the flow, it’s important to have multiple guys that can score in a pinch. Team USA obviously has that luxury. But in a low-key way so does Serbia, with Bogdanovic, Teodosic, Raduljica, Jokic and even Stefan Markovic. Bogdanovic came up huge in Serbia’s tight quarterfinal win against Serbia but was fairly quiet against Australia. Keep an eye on him.
  • Did you see how badly they waxed the Boomers, the former darlings of this tournament? Serbia blew the Aussies out from the word ‘go’, and played stifling defense to choke the scoring punch out of Delly, Patty and the boys. They’re hot, they’re fearless and have nothing to lose, already guaranteed their first Olympic basketball medal as an independent country.

I’m still going to take the USA in this one, but I do think it has a chance to be a classic. Serbia is a great story and their team is extremely likable and fun, and they won’t be scared. Team USA just better come ready to play from the opening tip.

Prediction – USA 94, Serbia 88

Rio Semis: Team USA Faces Biggest Challenge Yet

United States basketball enthusiasts took a collective deep breath after Team USA’s convincing win over Argentina in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. But the sense of relief was short-lived. Spain awaits, today at 1:30 pm (Central), a foe that suddenly looks tough as ever. Team USA is undefeated in the Rio Olympics but three straight close calls against Serbia, France and Australia brought about chatter that the Americans are beatable. We were seemingly in desperate need of stars like LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. A better defensive showing and standout scoring performances from Kevin Durant and Paul George quieted those concerns somewhat.

But Argentina is an aging team that lacked the depth to really pose a threat to Team USA. Spain might be different. Fresh off a 92-67 thrashing of France, Spain’s 0-2 Group stage start is a distant memory. The Spaniards lost by seven to Team USA in the 2012 Gold Medal game and much of that team is still here for the rematch this afternoon. Two notable exceptions are Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, leaving Spain measurably weaker in terms of post defense. The United States needs to be able to exploit that weakness. Centers DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan have had uneven performances in Rio, Cousins limited by foul trouble and weak pick-and-roll defense and Jordan by his one-dimensional attack down low. One of the two needs to show out today for the Americans. Cousins in particular should be able to get his against Pau Gasol and Willy Hernangomez.

Coach K’s team fixed many  of its defensive issues against Argentina, after allowing a 120 defensive rating in their three previous games. Nikola Mirotic has been red-hot, especially from three. Team USA needs to throw a relentless combination of George, Durant and Draymond Green at him. That is, if Green even gets meaningful playing time for once, one of the big head scratchers of these Olympics. We can expect Ricky Rubio to be glued to Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry, so the USA’s wing scorers will be key to the team’s scoring. Klay Thompson followed up his 30-point outburst against France with just four points in the Argentina game. He needs to be better today. Thompson, George and Jimmy Butler have an opportunity to go off, as Spain keys in on Durant and doubles in the post.

Much of the concern facing the USA in this game stems from Spain’s demolition of France. It’s important, however, to remember that France is not Team USA. Nicolas Batum no-showed, Tony Parker is on his last legs and Evan Fournier was left off the French roster. The Americans should absolutely win today’s game, if they simply play to their strengths and with the tenacity they showed against Argentina. Oh, and Coach K needs to continue to rely on his transcendent star (Durant), versatile wings (Butler, Thompson, George) and maybe give Draymond a chance.

Prediction: USA 96, Spain 82

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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Playoff Rankings: Round 2 Rout is On

The cream has officially risen to the top. Here I thought Round 2 was going to be all-out war but – though things could change as the four series shift to the lower seed’s building – the rout is on. Cleveland has gone to another level. If they can sustain 85% of this 3-point production, they have a shot against Golden State. The Spurs go to Oklahoma tied but look to be in a class above the Thunder. An MVP-less Warriors team is mostly rolling through Portland. We shouldn’t be surprised. This entire season there have been three teams at the top, and they’re still looking down on the rest of the league. Now, Steph Curry looks to be coming back sooner than expected (hooray for blood spinning!). Here’s where we currently stand.

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (Lead Atlanta 2-0) – Broke the record for made threes in a playoff game last night (25) in a 123-98 rout of the Hawks. After watching Atlanta throttle Boston in Game 5, I tweeted the following:

    Oops.

  2. San Antonio Spurs (Tied with OKC 1-1) – The messy ending to Game 2 was glorious and bottom line is the Spurs squandered a great chance to win that game with numbers in transition. Playing in OKC is no picnic. But now the Spurs are mad. You can rely on the following equation: Gregg Popovich>Billy Donovan. Spurs in 7 (if not 6).
  3. Golden State Warriors (Lead Portland 2-0) – An amazing fourth quarter brought them back after trailing by 17 points in Game 2. Draymond Green is vaulting to another level and Klay Thompson is staking his claim to the title of best two-way shooting guard in the league. Look for more Festus Ezeli going forward (finally). The Blazers should win one at home, but this series won’t make it past Game 5. Steph should be brought back with discretion, as the Warriors can clearly beat this team without him.
  4. Miami Heat (Lead Toronto 1-0) – Dwyane Wade’s renaissance has been a joy to watch. If Kyle Lowry can’t magically turn his shot back on, the Raptors are toast. Miami’s best player and coach know how to win this time of year. It’s worth keeping an eye on Wade’s and Hassan Whiteside’s knees going forward. Word is both are fine, but a setback could change the series.
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder (Tied with San Antonio 1-1) – To pull out this series over a 67-win Spurs juggernaut, Russell Westbrook will need to impose his will as he did early in Game 2. Tony Parker simply can’t keep up with him. The “let LaMarcus get his” strategy is interesting especially since it helps put a clamp on Playoffs Danny Green and Playoffs Patty Mills. Even though the series is tied 1-1, I get the feeling they need to win both these next two games at home. They stole one in San Antonio and I don’t think they’ll get another in the Alamo.
  6. Toronto Raptors (Trailing Miami 1-0) – Sad Kyle Lowry stayed in the empty arena after Game 1 working on his jumper. Let’s hope that helps him turn things around. Jonas Valanciunas was great in Game 1, but how much of that was due to Whiteside not being 100 percent? Norman Powell needs to make an impact in this series, but at the end of the day their fate will be tied to Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
  7. Atlanta Hawks (Trailing Cleveland 2-0) – I believed. Then Earl Smith III destroyed my faith. The Hawks can’t keep Thabo Sefolosha on the floor due to his poor shooting, and unfortunately he’s the only Hawk that can even pretend to guard LeBron. I expect Paul Millsap and Al Horford to perform better in Atlanta, but it won’t be enough. The Cavs death train rolls on.
  8. Portland Trail Blazers (Trailing GSW 2-0) – The Blazers have already overachieved. They may win a game at home with their great crowd, but Golden State is on a collision course with San Antonio. They always have been. Great job this season by Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard. They have good things ahead, but need to round out their roster in the offseason.
  9. Charlotte Hornets
  10. Indiana Pacers
  11. Boston Celtics
  12. Los Angeles Clippers
  13. Dallas Mavericks
  14. Detroit Pistons
  15. Houston Rockets
  16. Memphis Grizzlies

It’s All Star Time

Welcome to the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA season! We have two teams playing at historic levels in the Warriors and Spurs, an oddly desperate conference champion favorite in Cleveland and two surging teams in OKC and LAC. In other words, order has been somewhat restored on the West vs. East Conference front. There is still a giant middle class of good-not great teams out East but, as we will see with the All Star rosters and later with our Olympic picks, most of the top talent and thus upper crust dwells in the West.

The Fan Voting is in for All-Star, but this space will ignore that fact. These picks are based on who has played the best in the first half of the season, pretty novel idea, right? Like everything, we tend to overthink these rosters. Here is my effort to make sense of what I’ve watched this year. The starting lineups are based on two guards and three front court players, with the reserves sort of organized along positional lines. Without further ado:

DotB Eastern Conference All-Stars

Starters

G – Kyle Lowry, Raptors

G – Jimmy Butler, Bulls

FC – LeBron James, Cavaliers

FC – Paul George, Pacers

FC – Andre Drummond, Pistons

The only one here I needed to think twice about was Drummond, the other four were locks for me as starters. Hurting his case the most is his horrid free throw shooting, but I couldn’t ignore the massive rebounding numbers (15.5 per game, 5.5 offensive rebounds, whopping 33% defensive rebounding rate). Drummond has anchored Detroit’s resurgence, still getting better as a post scorer and can protect the rim when energized. Drummond gets extra love in this space as an old-school post force down on the block.

Skinny Kyle Lowry has been an offensive technician and leader for the Raptors, helping them stay in the upper half of the East playoff race much of the year. His weight loss hasn’t hurt his ability to compete on defense and if anything has given him more stamina on that end.

Butler is having a stunning season for the wildly inconsistent Bulls. He’s been their rock and one of their only constants. The 40-point second half against Toronto and the 50-point effort against Philly carved his spot in stone and made the league take notice. He’s jumped up a level this season and is earning his new contract in a big way.

LeBron and George are no-brainers, two of the top 10 players in the sport. A lot has been made of James’ supposed slippage this season and it’s sort of fair. Still 80 percent of LeBron is one of the best basketball players in the world. He’s carrying Cleveland to a runaway top seed even without Kyrie Irving for much of the season and an up and down Kevin Love performance. James is averaging 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists per 36 minutes – another master stroke in his 13th NBA season. George, meanwhile, has carried the surprising Pacers in a monster comeback season after a terrible leg injury. He’s tailed off a bit since his white-hot start but is still putting up 24, 7.5 and 4 per 36 minutes and a 20.8 PER.

Reserves

John Wall, Wizards

DeMar DeRozan, Raptors

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

Pau Gasol, Bulls

Chris Bosh, Heat

Reggie Jackson, Pistons

Paul Millsap, Hawks

The perennially underrated Bosh was a lock, as were Wall, DeRozan and Gasol. Wall is single-handedly keeping the Wizards afloat and has overcome a slowish start nicely. DeRozan is getting to the rim with abandon and gets to the line eight times a game. In an era of jump shooters, he’s playing like a Clyde Drexler throwback slasher and I love it. Gasol is the other constant on the Bulls, he gets in even though his defense drives me nuts. Sure he’s getting blocks but he turns his nose up at pick-and-roll defense and is allergic to rotating. However, his 19 and 12 per 36 is too hard to ignore.

Carmelo has exited his prime as a pure scorer but is transitioning nicely to more of a facilitator role and stepped up his defense this season. The Knicks are actually a feel-good story and it’s not all Porzingis…Melo is still the engine in New York. I had to get a Hawk on the team and Millsap edges out Al Horford just barely. Jackson edges out Isaiah Thomas because of the huge responsibility he has shouldered as the key-turner in Detroit’s pick-and-roll heavy attack. He has a 29.0 usage rate, and he and Drummond’s rapid chemistry is one of the stories of the season.

East Breakdown – I’ve got just one Cav (James), since Kyrie has been hurt; two Raptors, two Bulls, two Pistons, a Hawk, a Knick, a Pacer, a Wizard and a Heat. Only the Wizards and Knicks are outside the top-8 in the standings.

 

Western Conference

Starters

G – Stephen Curry, Warriors

G – Russell Westbrook, Thunder

FC – Kevin Durant, Thunder

FC – Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

FC – Draymond Green, Warriors

Notice a theme here? The top three teams in the West are so far above everyone else and it becomes self-evident in the All-Star Starters. This devastating small-ball lineup would wipe the floor with the East starting five. We won’t have this starting five in real life since Kobe was voted a starter by the fans, but here’s hoping this group gets some minutes together. Draymond and Kawhi will play lockdown, versatile defense, while the other three light up the scoreboard. I can’t wait.

Curry is proving he’s the greatest shooter of all time and figures to repeat as MVP. The fact Kawhi is in the conversation for MVP is remarkable, given how transcendent Curry has been. Kawhi is the best defender in the league and has been among the league percentage leaders in three point shooting, drives to the rim and midrange shooting. There’s nothing he can’t do at an expert level. Durant and Westbrook are generational talents that happen to play on the same team. Durant’s comeback from foot injury has been a blessing to basketball fans and a reminder of his brilliance. Westbrook is the human highlight reel. His shoes should be checked for bottle rocket implants. I’ve talked about Draymond a lot in this space before, but it bears repeating – the Warriors are not the Warriors without him. His ability to guard five positions, while running the “read option” off Curry pick-and-rolls and filling up the stat sheet (including three straight triple-doubles) makes him a new category of NBA player.

I love this starting five so much.

Reserves

Chris Paul, Clippers

Klay Thompson, Warriors

Blake Griffin, Clippers

LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

James Harden, Rockets

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

I tussled with the decision between Cousins and Dirk Nowitzki more than any other in this whole exercise. At first glance it seems like a classic stats vs. team success conflict. Cousins’ numbers are gaudy and much higher than Dirk’s (26 to 18 points per game; 11.4 to 6.1 rebounds; 23.8 to 19.9 PER). Yet Dirk’s Mavs have been a pleasant surprise this season, at 25-19 led by its German star, brilliant coach and smoke and mirrors. Meanwhile the Kings are under .500 and may earn the dubious prize of sneaking into the 8th seed in the West. But when Boogie hasn’t played, due to injury or suspension, his below-average team becomes horrid. The Kings are 18-16 with Boogie in the starting lineup, and just 1-7 without him, losing those seven games by an average of 12 points. They crater without their star big man. Hurting Boogie’s case is his 44% shooting from the floor and the fact that Dirk has slightly more win shares; again due to his team being higher in the standings. It hurts to leave Dirk out, especially the way he’s stepped up in clutch situations and led his team in his 18th season. But I can’t ignore Boogie’s production.

Similarly, cases can be made against Harden and Davis but come on, they’re All Stars. Both have led their teams to massively disappointing seasons, and Harden in particular has been frustrating with his regression on defense and overall lackadaisical approach. But he’s putting up 28, 6 and 7 and the Rockets have gotten mildly better since a disaster start. Davis hasn’t met the astronomical expectations this year but is still probably the first or second player I’d pick to start a franchise. He’s 22 years old and putting up 23 and 10, with 2. blocks and 1.3 steals a game. I can’t hold him out just because his team is poorly constructed and devastated by injury.

Thompson is the Warriors’ third All-Star – I have a rule that any 39-4 team gets at least three All-Stars. He’s been great. Paul and Griffin are locks. While Aldridge has adjusted seamlessly to his new team, giving the Spurs a devastating front court on both ends, leading to one of the best team defensive seasons of all time.

Last ones out – Damian Lillard, Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, CJ McCollum

West Breakdown – Three Warriors, two Spurs, two Thunder, two Clippers, a Pelican, a Rocket and a King.

I’ll be at the Mavericks-Thunder game tonight, where hopefully Dirk makes me look foolish for leaving him off my roster. Looking forward to seeing him do battle with Westbrook and Durant. Pics to follow!

 

2015 Media Day Winners & Losers

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

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

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

Media Day Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Day Losers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.