NBA Playoffs Power Rankings

Plus Round 1 Picks!

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

Round 1 Predictions:

East

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

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

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

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

West

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

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

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

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

 

 

Who Among Us Hasn’t Tanked?

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

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

A History of Tanking Continue reading

Around the (NBA) World – Feb. 10, 2016

Named after a time-honored driveway shooting game, Around the World takes a look at notable items going on in and around the NBA universe.

A Classic in Dallas

Last night’s best game was Dallas-Utah, showcasing two teams struggling for position in the bottom half of the West playoff race. Utah won thanks to Gordon Hayward’s buzzer beater in OT, and his hair stayed perfect:

What got us to that seminal moment was a typical Dallas thriller. The Mavs tend to play exciting games at the American Airlines Center, with threes flying from all over the place. Dallas is 4th in the NBA in three point attempts per game at 27.7, and made 11-29 last night. Chandler Parsons led the way with 24 points which is encouraging even in a loss. There were many questions about Dallas post-DeAndre and the biggest one was around key players coming off injury. Would Parsons and Wes Matthews get back to form after major lower body injuries? Their play, mixed with Rick Carlisle’s motion and shooting offense, and Dirk being Dirk, is why the Mavs have remained in the playoff mix all season.

The hard-charging Jazz have won seven straight and taken advantage of the Kings’ freefall to finally take hold of a playoff spot. All season I’ve waited for Utah to round into form, but injuries to Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert lowered their ceiling, and the lack of a replacement level point guard is still an issue. Favors and Gobert are back and Hayward has made a leap this season, averaging a career-high 20 points per game and coming through in the clutch like last night. The Jazz have to decide if any of the available point guards on the trade market fit their timeline and budget. But a Jeff Teague or Jrue Holiday could really bolster this team’s competitiveness in the first round. They have to push for the sixth seed to avoid the Warriors and Spurs in Round 1. It’s doable.

Another Curry-gasm, Briefly Interrupted

Anytime the Warriors are on the national TV schedule I know it’s going to be a late night for me, and last night was no different. With the Rockets coming to Oakland you knew the potential was there for anything: a 50-point GSW win, a 60-point Steph Curry game, the single game three point record going down in flames, a 160-150 type barnburner. The first quarter did little to dissuade that thinking, with Curry scoring 19 on 5-6 from three and the Warriors jumping out to a 42-27 lead. But then something interesting happened. For the next two quarters the Rockets found their long-hibernating pride. Rather than succumbing to Curry’s wrath, they decided to make life difficult. Suddenly Steph couldn’t get an open look at a three, and Trevor Ariza, Marcus Thornton, and even Ty Lawson did a great job of ball denial, forcing the rest of the Warriors to beat them. In typical Rockets fashion, they also slowed the game down with some Hack-A-Bogut, and the Warriors’ lead slowly dwindled. James Harden caught fire, scoring 18 points in the last eight minutes of the second quarter.

In the third, Harden continued to score and the Rockets D kept frustrating Curry and Klay Thompson. The Rockets took the lead for a couple stretches and the game was tied at 93 entering the fourth. You knew Curry would start the 4th on the bench, which meant the time was ripe for Houston to make their move. But then the Rockets rockets’d. With Curry draped in a towel on the bench, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Shaun Livingston led the Dubs on an 8-0 run, Barnes scored 17 in the quarter and the Warriors never looked back. They’re too deep, too good at home and the Rockets don’t have four quarter discipline this season. It was fun to see Houston play to their potential if only for a couple quarters. It was scary to see how unbeatable the Warriors can be even on nights when Steph and Klay go ice cold for long stretches.

Also, this sequence was just beautiful basketball –

There Are No Winners in Sacramento

It seems like a long time ago now, but in mid-January the Kings were making headlines for jumping into the 8-seed. But the Kings can’t have nice things. They’ve subsequently dropped eight of nine, gave up 128 to Brooklyn, gave up 128 more to Boston in a laughably bad effort amidst George Karl firing speculation, and completed the 120-point trifecta after losing 120-100 to the Cavs. It seemed for the second straight year the Kings were firing a coach publicly before making it official. Karl was dead man walking, the team stopped even trying to guard anyone, and Boogie Cousins was sulking. Then yesterday news broke that the Kings would retain Karl as coach. What could go wrong there?

The Kings are led by a clueless owner, Vivek Ranadive, who fires coaches and makes strategic changes based on nothing rational; and his minority owners want an uprising.

Cousins has eventually undermined every coach but Michael Malone and Vivek has enabled him.

Rajon Rondo has had a resurgent season but called a gay ref a gay slur, so he’s definitely not a winner.

And Karl, as great of a career as he’s had, has failed this team. He’s tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. He wants to force whatever personnel he’s given to play his style – up-tempo, fast breaking, free wheeling defense. The Kings are playing with the league’s fastest pace even though they have Cousins, who plays best in a half court set, Rudy Gay, a traditional ball stopper and no true shooters other than Omri Casspi. This is not the Warriors. But Karl, who once said he’d have to think about whether he’d rather win playing someone else’s style or lose playing his style, is the latest example of coaching hubris getting in the way of team success. Gregg Popovich coaches to his players’ strengths. If the Spurs have two giants in the post, they’ll play slow and deliberate. If they’re undersized but filled with unselfish shooters, they’ll run and gun. Pop has been pretty successful over the years. Karl is the NBA’s Chip Kelly. Grab your popcorn for the rest of this shitshow of a Kings season.

All-Star Weekend Picks

NBA All-Star Toronto is almost upon us, and the contests are set. Here are my picks for the Slam Dunk, Three Point and Skills Contests:

Slam Dunk Participants – Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, Andre Drummond. This contest has taken its lumps over the years, as format changes and contrivances on the Blake Griffin Kia commercial have undermined the entertainment value. This year, LaVine is the odds-on favorite, and it seems like there should be more contestants. I don’t see Drummond doing much to dazzle the crowd, but Gordon is Plastic Man, so that could be exciting. Barton is the wild card. I’ll take LaVine to repeat as champion.

Three Point Participants – Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Chris Bosh, Devin Booker, JJ Redick, Khris Middleton. This event should be awesome. Curry looks to defend his crown but will face stiff competition from Redick, Thompson and keep an eye out for rookie Booker. I don’t see Harden, Bosh or Lowry making it very far but it will be cool to see them give it a try. At the end of the day it’s 2016 and we’re talking about 3-point shooting, so I’ll take Curry, thank you.

Skills Challenge Participants – Patrick Beverley, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, Isaiah Thomas, Jordan Clarkson, CJ McCollum, Karl Anthony-Towns. A new wrinkle this year, as big men will compete in the challenge. It’s unclear whether there will be a big man winner and a small man winner, but I’ll make two picks here. I’ll go with Thomas and Draymond.

Injury Bummers

The Grizzlies were dealt a big blow yesterday with news that Marc Gasol will be out indefinitely with a broken foot. Currently the Grizz sit 5th in the West at 30-22, but Dallas, Houston and Utah could leap frog them with their best player sidelined. The Grizzlies weren’t going to go very far in the postseason, yet I have a soft spot for the grit n grind bunch, and it’s a treat to watch Gasol operate in the post. This is a shame.

Speaking of bummers, Jimmy Butler may have dodged a bullet by not doing any serious structural damage to his knee in a nasty fall at the hands of a Joffrey Lauvergne hack job. But he will miss 3-4 weeks as the Bulls are in the midst of a freefall in the East standings. Timing couldn’t be much worse, and Chicago is in danger of missing the playoffs in Fred Hoiberg’s first season. This team can’t escape the injury bug year after year. Derrick Rose is in and out of the lineup, Mike Dunleavy is finally returning after back surgery forced him out all season, and Joakim Noah is out for the year. Yikes.

Playoff Picture Coming into Focus

After this weekend’s All-Star break, there will be about 30 games left for each team in the regular season. The stretch run will determine who makes it in and who falls out of the bottom seeds of the playoff picture, but the top seeds are already solidified. In the West, Golden State, San Antonio, OKC and the Clippers seem locked in at 1-4. In the East Cleveland and Toronto have distinguished themselves as the top two seeds. It looks like Boston, Indiana and Atlanta will earn a spot. The Heat have a tough schedule but I’m betting they’ll hang on as well. That leaves two more spots, with Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit and maybe Washington vying for position. With the injury and chemistry issues in Chicago I will take Charlotte and Detroit at this point. A lottery pick may be the best thing for the Bulls at this point, anyway.

The 5-8 seeds in the West come down to the following teams: Memphis (30-22), Dallas (29-26), Utah (26-25), Houston (27-27), Portland (26-27) and Sacramento (21-31). I think Dallas grabs the five seed after the Gasol injury, Utah takes the six seed, Memphis hangs on for the seventh and Portland/Houston is a toss up for the 8. I want to take Portland since they’re such a more uplifting story than Houston this year, but the Rockets still have Harden and Dwight Howard, and may have a small run left in them.

Trade Deadline

I encourage readers to listen to Nate Duncan’s Dunk’d On Podcast for some great insights into what each team needs and may be willing to do going into the deadline. I will have more thoughts as we inch closer to the deadline. I’d like to wait until after the All-Star break to see where the standings are, and what injury situations look like, before diving deeper on potential trades. More coming soon.

Confounding Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are 17-12, stuck in the mud with about eight other teams in the Eastern middle class. New coach Fred Hoiberg has been shaky at best, leading star guard Jimmy Butler to call him out publicly last week. We can debate whether or not Jimmy should’ve kept those thoughts behind closed doors, but you can feel his frustration. Looking at the Bulls roster, they should not be sixth in the East and fighting for position with the likes of Orlando, Boston and Charlotte.

Since Butler’s outburst, the Bulls have shown signs of life offensively against quality opponents. Interestingly, the offensive outbursts have come from players other than Butler, who has struggled to score at his normal rate lately. Hoiberg responded to the “need to be coached harder” comments by calling three practices Christmas week prior to the OKC game on Christmas day. Be careful what you wish for Jimmy. The Bulls came out firing against the Thunder, winning on the road against one of the top teams in the league. A season ago Chicago was one of only three teams to beat every other team in the league, and they’re on a similar track this year with wins over San Antonio, Cleveland and two over OKC. However, they then tend to lose games to inferior opponents like the Knicks, Nets, even the Sixers last year.

The Bulls followed up the big win in Oklahoma with a tough loss on the road against the Mavs, a game I happened to have good seats for. Which means I witnessed many Nikola Mirotic head fakes like this…Jealous?

Version 2

Against Dallas, the Bulls’ offense was humming. Derrick Rose was slashing to the rim and finishing, while pushing the pace often. Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson couldn’t miss from mid-range and Mirotic found his three point stroke in the first half. All five starters scored in double-figures, in a high scoring game. But this time the Bulls’ defense betrayed them. You’ve got to hand it to Rick Carlisle, who always plays to his personnel’s strengths. Without Deron Williams, the Mavs relied on high pick and rolls, secondary pick and rolls and the ball moved like a hot potato until a three point shooter was open. At halftime, half of the Mavs’ made baskets came from three. The Bulls and Hoiberg played right into Carlisle’s hands here unfortunately. Gasol and Mirotic refuse to step up to stop the ball handler on the pick and roll, while Gibson flat out didn’t switch onto JJ Barea, leaving him wide open for one of his seven threes just before the half. Barea killed the Bulls from the outside and by the time Hoiberg decided to stick Butler on him, the damage had already been done. The Bulls got crushed in the last two minutes of each and every quarter. Hoiberg was playing checkers on Carlisle’s chessboard.

My dad and I were discussing the merits of putting your wing stopper (Butler) on the tiny guard with the hot hand (Barea) as early as the second quarter. The Bulls didn’t make this adjustment until late in the fourth, and it worked to perfection. Butler’s great defense on Barea helped get the Bulls a desperately needed stop down three with less than a minute left. But now it was the offense’s turn to sabotage the Bulls. For some reason, Hoiberg had Rose throwing the ball in with no timeouts left, when Rose is the one guy you can count on to get open if an inbounds play turns desperate. The play that was drawn up got sniffed out by the Mavs, as Doug McDermott ran into a defender, and with no safety valve the Bulls got whistled for a five second violation. Game over. In confounding fashion.

The rollercoaster Bulls then went home for a Monday night tilt with the Toronto Raptors, the “second best team in the East” du jour, who were getting DeMarre Carroll back from injury. After a back and forth first half, the Bulls dominated the last 20 minutes, mostly on the backs of the bench. Gasol and Rose got to sit most of the fourth quarter as Bobby Portis, Aaron Brooks, Tony Snell and Gibson put the hammer down on Toronto. The bench-heavy lineup, with Butler in the game, played lockdown defense as well. Without Mirotic and Gasol in the game, suddenly teams can’t pick and roll to the Bulls’ D to death.

On a side note, Joakim Noah’s shoulder injury is a blessing in disguise. With Noah out the rotation is less cluttered, the floor spacing has improved and most importantly, Portis has gotten a chance to play. Outside of the Dallas game where he looked a bit hesitant and the refs did the rookie no favors, Portis has been a revelation. He hustles, mixes it up for rebounds in traffic and has shown outside range. His continued development may lead to a “big man for a wing” trade sooner than later, and gives the Bulls offense a dimension it’s sorely lacked. The foundations of a real contender are starting to take shape here, as Chicago’s talent is showing signs of jelling. If the supporting cast plays to its potential, with Rose improving and Gasol and Butler providing consistent offense, this team should claw out of the East muck and challenge Cleveland.

A lack of consistent effort and shooting, mixed with more curious coaching is what can hold them back. For now, they’re a confounding 17-12. To be continued.

Dispatches From DeAndre’s Dallas Experience

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

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

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

Eric Freeman (@freemaneric)

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

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

Around the (NBA) World – Tuesday, Nov 10

Named after a time-honored driveway shooting game, Around the World takes a look at notable items going on in and around the NBA universe.

Humbled By the Champs – The Pistons stormed into Oracle Arena as the talk of the league after an amazing comeback win in Portland in which they outscored the Blazers 41-11 in the fourth quarter. Andre Drummond put up an insane 29 points and 27 rebounds in that game, while Reggie Jackson scored 26 of his career-high 40 in the fourth quarter. The Pistons’ outburst to start the season can be explained  by simple addition and subtraction. Gone is Greg Monroe, whose presence clogged the paint, hampering Drummond’s growth and the team’s overall spacing. Also by subtracting Josh Smith and replacing him with a big who can actually knock down threes consistently (Ersan Ilyasova), defenders can’t collapse as much on Drummond. When they do decide to double the big man, that leaves wide open layups for Jackson out of the pick-and-roll. The addition has been Drummond emerging as perhaps the best two-way big in the game. It’s early to say that, but the 22-year old is on the right track. Jackson blossoming into a star point guard who can knock down shots and make the right PnR decisions is another welcome addition, and one that I have to admit I was wrong about. I thought he was overvalued by Detroit this offseason.

However, the red-hot Pistons cooled down once they got to Oakland. As detailed in my column last week, the Warriors’ true source of brilliance is their defensive prowess. The undersized Draymond Green can somehow guard Drummond, at least enough to get in his head. The Warriors maintain integrity guarding the pick-and-roll by switching nearly everything and getting away with it due to their versatility. And on the other end Steph Curry is unstoppable. The Pistons may very well bully their way into the playoffs this season and demolish weak defenses like Portland’s as they go, but they were humbled in the Bay last night. Most teams are.

Young Wolves are Teething – The NBA is really in a great place right now, and it’s only getting better with up and coming stars like Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns of the T-Wolves. Towns has played like a veteran through the first six games of his career, averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the floor. With Towns, Drummond, Jahlil Okafor and Demarcus Cousins coming up, there’s hope for us big men! Meanwhile, Wiggins continues to bloom into a superstar. The pair gives me flashbacks to those awesome Kevin Garnett-Stephon Marbury teams that fell apart too soon. Here’s hoping this ends better. Wiggins took over last night with 33 points and some vicious drives to the rim. Observe:

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The Wolves have a lot of growing up to do and the roster has holes, evident in nearly blowing a 34-point lead Monday against the Hawks. But it’s finally an exciting time for Wolves fans again.

Speaking of Rookies – The 2015-16 rookie class looks amazing already. On Monday, Emmanuel Mudiay posted 18 points, 5 dimes, 6 rebounds and 2 nasty blocks. Remember when rookie point guards had a steep learning curve? Okafor is scoring in bunches – totaling 21 points and 15 boards in a loss to Chicago Monday – and is cause for hope in Philly. Kristaps Porzingis is bringing life to the Knicks as well. This was really tough, but here are my early season top 10 rookie rankings:

Rank Player Draft Position Points Rebs Asts
1 Okafor 3 19.9 6.9 1.3
2 Towns 1 15.5 10 1.2
3 Mudiay 7 12.7 4.3 5.6
4 Porzingis 4 12.3 8.6 0.7
5 D’Angelo Russell 2 9.3 3.2 2.3
6 Justise Winslow 10 7.1 4.9 1.3
7 Stanley Johnson 8 7.6 4 1.1
8 Willie Cauley-Stein 6 6.6 5.9 0.5
9 Mario Hezonja 5 4.5 1.3 0.8
10 Jerian Grant 19 7.1 2.7 4

Kings in Turmoil – We knew coming into the season, the potential for disaster was everywhere. Boogie Cousins paired with Rajon Rondo, with George Karl at the helm? Big, difficult personalities abound in Sacramento. The Kings have stumbled to a 1-7 start, getting outscored by nearly eight points a game, and predictably the royal castle is crumbling from within. This team was sloppily put together and the dysfunction flows from ownership on down to the players on the court. Big change could be coming soon, once again, for this team that’s consistently been in the lottery while failing to get better with all their draft picks.

Awesome DeAndre Game Promo – More to come on this game – I will actually be in attendance tomorrow night – but ESPN got us primed for it with a great promo featuring Phil Collins, DeAndre screaming, Dirk shoving and Mark Cuban looking sad:

What We Might Know After a Week (Western Conference)

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

Each team in the West except for Minnesota has played three games through Sunday. Golden State, Oklahoma City, LAC and as we all expected, Minnesota, are your undefeated teams out West. Very surprisingly, Houston and New Orleans are winless. Quite unsurprisingly, so are the Lakers. Here are your very early Western Conference standings

Team W L
1 Warriors 3 0
1 Thunder 3 0
1 Clippers 3 0
4 T-Wolves 2 0
5 Grizzlies 2 1
5 Spurs 2 1
5 Mavericks 2 1
5 Suns 2 1
5 Jazz 2 1
10 Blazers 1 2
10 Nuggets 1 2
10 Kings 1 2
13 Lakers 0 3
13 Pelicans 0 3
13 Rockets 0 3

Through three games last season here were the West standings, compared with how the teams ranked at the end of the season.

14-’15 Team W L   Final Standings W L
1 Warriors 3 0 1 Warriors 67 15
1 Rockets 3 0 2 Rockets 56 26
1 Grizzlies 3 0 2 Clippers 56 26
4 Spurs 2 1 4 Spurs 55 27
4 Mavericks 2 1 4 Grizzlies 55 27
4 Clippers 2 1 6 Blazers 51 31
4 Kings 2 1 7 Mavericks 50 32
4 Suns 2 1 8 Pelicans 45 37
9 Thunder 1 2 8 Thunder 45 37
9 Pelicans 1 2 10 Suns 39 43
9 Nuggets 1 2 11 Jazz 38 44
9 Blazers 1 2 12 Nuggets 30 52
9 Jazz 1 2 13 Kings 29 53
9 T-Wolves 1 2 14 Lakers 21 61
15 Lakers 0 3 15 T-Wolves 16 66

At first glance, the first three games of 2014-15 were actually a great representation of the conference power rankings. The Kings’ early start last year was fool’s gold, at least once Vivek Ranadive ran amok and fired Michael Malone. The Mavericks ended up slipping a little in the standings but still winning 50 games and the Suns fell out of the playoff race, while the Pelicans rose into the playoff picture. So let’s take a look at this year. Do I really think Minnesota is a playoff team? Of course not. But the rest of the top eight in the current standings all have a legitimate chance. The Warriors are monsters, on a tier of their own. The Thunder, Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies are shoe-ins. The Suns have bounced back from that atrocious first loss to the Mavs at home and the Jazz have shown that the hype may be real.

The real question marks here are the Rockets and Pelicans. At least the Pels have an excuse in injuries, and should get better as they get healthier. But the Rockets are truly confounding, and this hole they’re digging for themselves is concerning. Not only are they 0-3, but they’ve made history by becoming the first NBA team to lose its first three games by 20 points. Yikes. They also play in the toughest division in basketball, while teams like Portland, Minny, Sacramento and even Denver aren’t playing like the pushovers we once assumed. So while it’s very early, climbing out of that hole won’t be easy. Things are fundamentally wrong with this team, which is predicated on three point shooting, getting to the line and running teams out of the gym. Right now James Harden is in a terrible slump, shooting just 3-32 from three.

The team is following its struggling star’s lead, clocking in at third-worst in the league in three-point percentage, at just 25%. Last season they were second in the NBA in free throw attempts, but this season they rank 12th through three games. Most surprisingly, the Rockets are scoring only 88.7 points per game, tied with Brooklyn for second-lowest in the league.

They are due for some positive regression. But it’s a major red flag that after making the Conference Finals, adding depth across the board and bringing in the speedy Ty Lawson, the Rockets are playing slower, less efficiently and with the intensity of an Oregon drum circle. Last season I had doubts about a team led by Harden and Dwight Howard, who are not the most rah-rah locker room guys. But those doubts were erased after the incredible playoff run that included one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen against the Clippers in Game 6. Now I’m just confused.

Who knows, maybe Josh Smith was the glue holding Clutch City together. Could we have been wrong about Josh all these years?

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

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

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

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

Who’s Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Down?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warriors – Just watchin’ the throne…

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

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

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

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

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

A July Snapshot of the Association

The draft, free agency and Summer League have come and gone, and we are now entering the dog days of the NBA calendar. It’s this time of year that I love to speculate on where teams sit and critique roster-building plans. Below I’ve separated teams by rough groupings, to organize my thoughts about each squad’s place in the pecking order. I will be delving deeper into each of these categories in the days to come.

Contenders – teams that will be in the hunt in late May

Warriors – The Champs bring back just about everybody, while finding relief from David Lee’s monster cap hit. The talent, depth and versatility they bring to the table makes them favorites for a title defense, barring injury.

Spurs – A ridiculous offseason has the Spurs back in the championship race. It will be interesting to see how the new pieces fit and how LMA adapts to the Spurs’ pace. They could be devastating.

Rockets – I love what they did this offseason. Assuming Ty Lawson gets himself together, these guys are fast, deep and versatile in the mold of the Warriors. I like every player on their roster.

Thunder – With their stars back healthy the Thunder still have the best top three in the league. Can Enes Kanter contribute without killing an already suspect defense? Will Billy Donovan’s coaching provide a bump after the Scott Brooks era was finally put out of its misery? Most important will KD, Russ and Serge stay on the court?

Grizzlies – While the rest of the NBA zigs, they zag. Focus on controlling a slower pace and letting their bigs dominate has been fruitful for the Grizzlies and the addition of Brandan Wright is huge behind Marc Gasol. Can they solve the outside shooting issues that have prevented them from getting over the hump?

Cavaliers – They likely will breeze through the East with Dan Gilbert writing all those checks and LeBron in Year 2 of the Cavs reboot. David Blatt or Coach LeBron need to show Kevin some more love.

Bulls – The Mayor Freddie Hoiberg looks to change the culture, hopefully improving a stagnant offense and playing his guys sane minutes. Bulls are a fringe contender, I fully admit my homerism factored into putting them up in this tier.

Quasi-contenders – Teams that may have an inflated belief in their chances

Clippers – Doc GM has made some curious moves, but when all was said and done I actually like what they pulled off this summer. Lance Stephenson is better off the bench than in a star role, and the DeAndre coup was very necessary. Not to mention the Paul Pierce reunion.

Hawks – Setting out to prove it wasn’t a fluke last year. They won’t win 60+ games, but bring back a lot of talent. Can they replace DeMarre Carroll’s versatility?

Heat – One of the best starting 5’s in the NBA. Hoping for a Chris Bosh comeback tour after the scary blood clot and Hassan Whiteside to build on his breakout campaign. They will go as far as D-Wade’s knees take them.

Wizards – Very quiet offseason and the loss of Pierce hurts. But this is a solid team that needs a full year of John Wall and Bradley Beal holding down the backcourt together.

First round fodder – Should make the playoffs but don’t have enough to make noise

Mavericks – Did an OK job recovering from the DeAndre fiasco, but they’re old, lack depth and will be desperate for a Deron Williams renaissance that I’m not sure is possible.

Raptors – The Carroll addition was nice but they overpaid for Cory Joseph and lost Amir Johnson. I still have a  bad taste in my mouth over how they shriveled in the playoffs; Kyle Lowry needs to bounce back in a big way.

Hornets – MJ’s team seems perpetually fated to live in the middle. The Frank Kaminsky pick won’t make enough of an impact.

Celtics – A great coach and a roster full of solid role players is enough to make the playoffs in the East. Probably not enough to beat one of the top four in the first round.

Up-and-comers – My favorite group, teams that are building upon a talented foundation. May not make the playoffs but will be exciting to watch develop. Next post will be about this group, so will save my thoughts for that.

Pelicans

Bucks

Jazz

Suns

Magic

Timberwolves

Pistons

Going nowhere fast – Uggh

Kings – This team is what Judd Apatow’s ‘Trainwreck’ should have been about.

Nets – Just a depressing team trying to get out of bad salary hell.

Lakers – Waiting out Kobe’s contract while trying to develop D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and other young pieces.

Knicks – Carmelo’s career trajectory makes me sad. I loved watching him play for the Nuggets during my career at University of Colorado.

Nuggets – Speaking of, the Nuggets embody the fact that NBA teams can fall apart quickly. Doesn’t seem that long ago I was wearing my Anthony, Billups, Martin, Smith & Nene shirt.

Trail Blazers – Another sad NBA tale. This was a fun team last year that won 50 games and immediately lost 80% of their starting lineup to free agency.

Pacers – Have Paul George back at full strength will help, but their big man talent is nonexistent and I have visions of Monta Ellis jacking 30 shots in January while George and Frank Vogel shake their heads.

76ers – Please.