Reviewing the Wreckage: Updated NBA Playoffs Power Rankings

Boy, it was such a simpler time back on April 16, when I posted my original Playoffs Power Rankings. Steph Curry had two healthy feet and a non-sprained right knee, coming off a historic regular season and ready to become immortal. Chris Paul’s traffic finger was whole. Russell Westbrook was an unquestioned superstar (good call, Mark Cuban!). The NBA’s finest hour was upon us. Now just a week and some change later, the Western Conference has been turned on its head as NBA fans have lost the two best point guards in our lives. A rematch of the horrible 2007 Finals seems unavoidable. If it happens, the Cavs are much more competitive now than the first time they faced the Spurs in the Finals; yet we will still likely feel cheated, even if it’s a seven-game classic. But, alas, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Behold, the second installment of our Playoffs Power Rankings…

  1. San Antonio Spurs (Beat Memphis 4-0) [Last Week: #2] – Quietly and swiftly took care of business versus the ghost of Memphis’ roster, winning four games by an average of 19.5 points and posting an obscene 117.1 OffRtg. San Antonio gets a much tougher test in OKC in Round 2, but they’ve suddenly become my de facto favorite to win it all now that Steph is a question mark.
  2. Cleveland Cavaliers (Beat Detroit 4-0) [LWk: #3] – Proved to be too much for the Pistons in a testy series that saw LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving average a combined 69.1 points per game. The rest of the league should take notice as the big three seem to have found a rhythm finally. Then again, Detroit doesn’t present the toughest defensive matchup. The Cavs, the second-biggest beneficiaries of the recent Warriors’ woes, actually bested the Spurs by three in OffRtg in Round 1 (120.4).
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder (Beat Dallas 4-1) [LWk: #4] – In another feisty series featuring shoves, errant elbows and innumerable stare-downs, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tried to get in Westbrook’s head, or something, by saying the Thunder only had one superstar in Kevin Durant. Russ went off a couple hours later for 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists as the Thunder punted Dallas out of the playoffs. Russ is one of the last people on Earth I would choose to anger. Maybe that’s why I’m not a billionaire.
  4. Golden State Warriors (Lead Houston 3-1) [LWk: #1] – Let’s just get through this one before we get emotional. The greatest show on hardwood got knocked down a few pegs with news of Curry’s low-grade MCL sprain, but it’s still a damn good basketball team. Tied at halftime on the road in Game 4 with Curry shelved, the Warriors’ other stars unleashed the fury on Houston, to the tune of eight 3-pointers in the third quarter en route to a 65-38 second half. As bad as the Curry news is, they should still be favored over Portland or a CP3-less Clippers team in Round 2.
  5. Atlanta Hawks (Tied with Boston 2-2) [LWk: #7] – Instant Gratification Overreaction (IGO) Exhibit A: To everyone on the Internet complaining about the lack of competitive playoff series after two games, just let it breathe. Amazing how a series can even up once both teams have played the same amount of home games. There’s nothing wrong with the seven game series format. Still, it feels like Atlanta should be up 3-1 at the least, but somehow Boston is staying alive without its best wing defender, Avery Bradley. The Hawks had a 16-point lead in Game 4 behind Paul Millsap’s monster effort, but the rest of the team couldn’t hit an open shot. If that inefficiency corrects itself, look for ATL to advance.
  6. Miami Heat (Tied with Charlotte 2-2) [LWk: #9] – IGO Exhibit B: “Miami is red-hot and Nic Batum is out, it’s going to be an easy sweep” or some variation of that line of thinking was all over the podcast and Twitter world after Game 2. Amazingly, Miami did not continue to score at an all time team playoff rate and Charlotte’s great home court advantage helped them even the series. Initially I took Charlotte in six, but gun to my head I’ll take the Heat in seven. That Batum injury will haunt the Hornets at some point. The Heat should take care of business at home.
  7. Toronto Raptors (Tied with Indiana 2-2) [LWk: #5] – Toronto is all over the place. Determined to put to rest all the demons of playoffs past, the Raptors fell flat in Game 1, losing at home. After two straight convincing wins it seemed things had course-corrected and the 56-win team would prevail easily. Then Indiana spanked them in Game 4. DeMar DeRozan (30%FG) can’t score efficiently on Paul George and it seems he’ll be the last one to admit it. It’s up to Kyle Lowry (32%FG), who’s having his own matchup difficulties, to take the reins and finally get this team to Round 2.
  8. Charlotte Hornets (Tied with Miami 2-2) [LWk: #8] – I love the fight they showed in their two home wins, without the aforementioned Batum. Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin are an unlikely pair of playoff heroes, but they played the role well in Games 3 and 4. They combined for 55 points in Game 4, hitting half their joint field goal attempts. Steve Clifford has largely stuck to his guns on defense and waited for the Heat to stop making everything. It will be interesting to see if Miami gets hot again back in their home building, what kind of counter punch Clifford has in store.
  9. Portland Trail Blazers (Tied with LAC 2-2) [LWk: #11] – IGO Exhibit C: The Blazers looked dead in the first two games, with Paul handcuffing Damian Lillard and the rest of the Blazers struggling to score. Though they still haven’t eclipsed 100 points in the series after averaging 105/game in the regular season, Dame, CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu got loose with some home cooking. Aminu in particular was amazing last night, scoring a career playoff-high 30 points with 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. The Clippers’ myriad injuries have opened the door for Portland, will they bust through it with two games remaining in LA?
  10. Boston Celtics (Tied with Atlanta 2-2) [LWk: #10] – I really struggled with this ranking. On the one hand they willed themselves to two straight victories to even the series. On the other hand, I just don’t feel like they’ve played all that well. Atlanta has just been missing open shots – can the Celts count on Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague going 14-60 again? I’ll go out on a crazy limb and say no.
  11. Los Angeles Clippers (Tied with Portland 2-2) [LWK: #6] – With Paul expected to miss the rest of the playoffs with a broken third metacarpal, that means Austin Rivers & Jamal Crawford will be running the point. Yikes. Also, Blake Griffin is gimpy on that bad quadriceps, J.J. Redick has a bruised heel and even DeAndre Jordan got nicked up last night. It’s entirely possible Donald Sterling has a collection of Clippers voodoo dolls and is somewhere laughing maniacally. What an asshole.
  12. Indiana Pacers (Tied with Toronto 2-2) [LWk: #12] – Paul George is the best player in the series with Toronto, and that alone gives the Pacers a fighting chance. In their two losses, the Pacers just couldn’t generate enough points on the offensive end, despite how well they’ve defended the Raptors’ stars. In Game 4, Ian Mahinmi and George Hill gave George much-needed support on the offensive end with 22 points apiece. Meanwhile George held DeRozan to single-digits scoring.
  13. Houston Rockets (Trailing GSW 3-1) [LWk: #15] – We are so close to being rid of this uninspiring team. Let’s hope the Warriors put them out of their misery Wednesday so Dwight Howard and Co. can finally start their vacations. https://vine.co/v/iFVpQMzWBhO
  14. Dallas Mavericks (Lost to OKC 4-1)
  15. Detroit Pistons (Lost to Cleveland 4-0)
  16. Memphis Grizzlies (Lost to San Antonio 4-0)

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

Rising(?) East – Examining the Central Division

Over a month into the NBA season, there are many early returns I didn’t see coming (hello Houston and NoLA), but I will take credit for predicting the rise of the Central Division. Since it’s only been a month I can’t say it’s eclipsed the Southwest Division as the class of the league, but it’s much closer than expected thanks to some stumbling teams (hello again, H-Town & N.O.).

Three of the four Central teams won again last night (Cleveland was off), leaving four teams in the division above .500 on the season. The only other division in the NBA with four teams over .500 is the surprising Southeast, where Charlotte and Orlando have overachieved to 10-8 records. Amazingly, the top eight teams in these two divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. This is where I remind you that the West has bested the East in regular season record 15 of the last 16 years. It’s only early December, but we can officially raise an eyebrow at the perpetual little brother, the East.

What’s most crazy about these early results is who is not doing well in these divisions. Unquestionably, the two worst teams in the Central/Southeast have been Milwaukee and Washington, two playoff teams that went all in to win this season. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s start with the good.

Central Division

  1. Cleveland (13-5)
  2. Indiana (12-5)
  3. Chicago (11-5)
  4. Detroit (10-9)

Cleveland came in as the clear favorite to win the East and that hasn’t changed. I’m loving the all-business version of LeBron we’re getting right now; he has his guys humming and their fast start will allow Kyrie Irving to ease back into the lineup when healthy. Get Kyrie back, get Iman Shumpert back, hit full stride going into the playoffs. That’s the script for Cleveland and nothing has diverted them from it so far.

Indiana is the true surprise of the division early on. Frank Vogel is a great coach because he has shown the ability to adapt. Much like Erik Spoelstra in Miami or Gregg Popovich in San Antonio have done, Vogel has changed to fit the personnel and whims of the front office. Roster turnover is a thing that happens quickly in the NBA, especially when you factor in injuries. Before Paul George went down prior to the 2014-15 season, Indiana was one of the top teams in the West, by playing a plodding, physical style anchored in defense and rebounding. Roy Hibbert and David West were great on the boards but not ideal for spacing on offense. So Vogel shaped a team that wasn’t all that fun to watch but they were damn successful, with those bigs clogging the middle and the versatile Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill wing combo slowing down shooters and creating turnovers. Losing George before the start of the season made last year a lost cause, but Indiana has quickly pivoted into a totally different attack. PG-13 is back playing at an All-NBA level on both sides of the court and the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating, 9th in pace and 2nd in three-point percentage. The truly amazing thing is that their defense hasn’t slipped a bit when they’ve gone small. I really don’t have a great explanation for that, outside of Vogel’s game planning and George’s all-around brilliance. They are blitzing teams with one lineup that’s featuring Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen as the only “bigs”to the tune of +55 points and +6 rebounds. Another lineup with Jordan Hill as the lone big is +40 in points. I have doubts on whether any of this is sustainable but the Pacers have proven me wrong thus far.

Chicago keeps winning yet I’m not quite sure how they’re doing it. As a Bulls fan I’m very happy with an 11-5 start, but I also worry about sustainability here. Let’s take a closer look. First off, who are the Bulls beating? All the good teams, seemingly. Chicago has knocked off Cleveland, OKC, San Antonio, Indiana, Charlotte and earned a nice road win in Phoenix. They played Golden State tough in Oracle before the Warriors’ practically unfair, Draymond at the 5 lineup torched them in the final two minutes. The Bulls have only scored over 100 points in five of their wins, while ranking 4th in defensive rating. So their well-renowned defense hasn’t been hurt, curiously, by Fred Hoiberg’s new system. Season-long, a Hoiberg team can’t compete with a Thibs scheme in defensive efficiency, right? (However, considering most of the roster has been around for a while, we do need to give them some credit for retaining Thibs’ principles and knowing how to play the game at a high level. They are NBA players, after all). Of their five losses, two have been in overtime and only one occurred at the United Center. So no worries right? All good, moving on…

…OK now taking my head out of the sand. There are a few concerns worth mentioning quickly. A) Derrick Rose is shooting 34% and 19%(!) from three; B) Nikola Mirotic may not actually be a good shooter (which they desperately need him to be), and his incessant pump-faking is ridiculous; C) Hoiberg has them playing 11th in pace yet 26th in offensive efficiency. So they are getting shots up quickly just not making them. If this doesn’t right itself, how can their defense possibly hold up?; D) four of the top five Bulls’ lineups in terms of +/- don’t include D-Rose, but four of the bottom five +/- lineups do include D-Rose. E) As a D-Rose fan, I’m sad.

Detroit raced out to a 5-1 start, lost four straight, then have played about even ball since. They are much improved, but still have glaring flaws, which show up in their multiple blowout losses. Six of their losses have been by nine points or more. It boils down to a serious lack of shooting. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond can be magic on the pick-and-roll, but when defenses clamp down and force Detroit to beat them from the outside, they simply don’t have the firepower. Marcus Morris is shooting just 28% from three, so not doing his part to stretch the defense, while Stanley Johnson has shown flashes and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been up and down. On nights when they can be close to league average in field goal / three point shooting they will be dangerous. Once they get Brandon Jennings back, they may get a much needed shot in the arm, at least for small stretches. But basketball is definitely back in the Motor City, and I can’t get enough of Mr. Drummond.

Southeast Division breakdown coming up next…

 

What We Might Know After a Week (Eastern 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. I posted the Western Conference breakdown earlier. Now moving on to the Eastern Conference.

Anyone who follows the NBA with any real enthusiasm knows one simple truth: the Eastern Conference is inferior to its Western counterpart. It’s been that way for most of the 21st century. Some day I will do an investigation into why this phenomenon exists. But for now, just take comfort in the fact that the status quo has not changed. There’s one constant in this ever-changing world.

While the West has three winless teams in Houston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles (Lakers), the first two still have very real playoff aspirations after their bad start. Middle of the pack teams such as Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento and Utah all pack a punch. And the top of the West is much stronger than the top of the East. So the top, middle and bottom of the West is looking to be superior. To further illustrate the point, in this admittedly early stage of the NBA season, there are six winless East teams – Milwaukee, Philly, Indiana, Charlotte, Orlando and Brooklyn.

Detroit is a pleasant surprise at 3-0, and the Raptors have also jumped out to an undefeated start. Chicago and Atlanta have each played four games and sit at 3-1, while Miami, Washington and Cleveland all look very good. Here’s a look at the standings early on:

  Team W L
1 Raptors 3 0
1 Pistons 3 0
3 Bulls 3 1
3 Hawks 3 1
5 Cavaliers 2 1
5 Knicks 2 1
5 Heat 2 1
8 Wizards 2 1
9 Celtics 1 2
10 76ers 0 2
10 Bucks 0 3
10 Pacers 0 3
10 Hornets 0 3
10 Magic 0 3
10 Nets 0 3

Here’s a look at where the East stood after three games last season, and the final conference standings:

14-’15 Team W L   Final Standings W L
1 Heat 3 0 1 Hawks 60 22
2 Bulls 2 1 2 Cavaliers 53 29
2 Wizards 2 1 3 Bulls 50 32
2 Raptors 2 1 4 Raptors 49 33
2 Knicks 2 1 5 Wizards 46 36
2 Nets 2 1 6 Bucks 41 41
7 Cavaliers 1 2 7 Celtics 40 42
7 Bucks 1 2 8 Nets 38 44
9 Celtics 1 2 8 Pacers 38 44
9 Pacers 1 2 10 Heat 37 45
9 Hawks 1 2 11 Hornets 33 49
9 Hornets 1 2 12 Pistons 32 50
13 Pistons 0 3 13 Magic 25 57
13 76ers 0 3 14 76ers 18 64
13 Magic 0 3 15 Knicks 17 65

The East was weird last year, as the Heat adjusted to life after LeBron and eventually were done in by health issues. The Knicks fell off a cliff, winning only 15 more games after their 2-1 start. The Cavs struggled near .500 before the LeBattical and Timofey Mozgov/J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert acquisitions, finishing the season 35-15 over the last four months. Meanwhile the Atlanta Hawks became nearly unbeatable for three months, going 38-6 from December through February.

Looking at the first week of this season, there are only two teams that really stand out as surprises – the Pistons and Bucks. These two Central division teams are headed in different directions through three games. Detroit has reshaped its roster and approach to the game. A question mark coming into the season was their defense, but they are winning with stellar performances on that side of the court, anchored by Andre Drummond blocking/changing shots in the paint. The Pistons are winning while shooting just 39 percent (28th in NBA) and ranking 21st in points per game. But they’re fourth in opponent’s points per game and are holding teams to just 28 percent from beyond the arc.

If the Pistons join the Heat in making the playoffs in the East this year, that means at least two teams that made it last year will fall to the Lottery. The Nets will be one of those teams. The other, it pains me to say, could be the Bucks. A chic pick to make a leap by people like me (I gushed about them in this NBA Risers column), the Bucks are struggling to find their way. They clearly miss cagey veterans like Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, while Giannis missed a game and Jabari Parker hasn’t played yet (he’s cleared to play as of this writing). Meanwhile the addition of Greg Monroe, while it has great potential, has disrupted the chemistry. The Bucks are also testing conventional wisdom by starting a point guard that can’t shoot, in Michael Carter-Williams. He’s shooting a gross 27 percent from three.

The good news for Milwaukee, besides Jabari returning to the lineup? There are 79 games left, and they play in the East. The Rockets and Pelicans are envious.

Malcolm’s 90’s Player of the Week – Rik Smits

Inspired by 2015’s dopest summer movie, “Dope”, Down on the Block will shout out a different player from the salad days of the 1990s each week.
Inspired by 2015’s dopest summer movie, “Dope”, Down on the Block will periodically shout out a different player from the salad days of the 1990s.

This week’s entry…Rik Smits

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The Dunking Dutchman

In the 1990s, the Indiana Pacers were a perennial Eastern Conference contender that was consistently overshadowed by the Bulls dynasty. They battled with the Knicks, Magic and Heat for the throne when Michael retired and finally broke through to the Finals in 2000 where they met another Phil Jackson-led dynasty in the Lakers. Through it all Rik Smits, the 7’4″ Dunking Dutchman, was the Pacers’ mainstay in the paint. Smits played his entire career for the Pacers, drafted in 1988 as the 2nd overall pick and culminating in the 4-2 Finals loss to the Lakers in 2000. Smits started out his career backing up the immortal Steve Stipanovich, who went down with an injury early in Smits’ rookie season. This was Smits’ Wally Pipp moment, as the Dutchman took over that starting center spot and held it down for over a decade.

Smits only made one All-Star game, in 1998, but was a model of consistency, protecting the rim, cleaning the boards and providing a fundamentally sound scoring option down low. He was always the second banana to Reggie Miller, together they gave the Pacers an identity both on the inside and outside, always keeping opposing defenses on their toes. Smits quickly became a fan favorite in Indy, where fundamentals are worshipped and white basketball players are heroes. His popularity reached its peak with the Hoosier State when he hit a game-winner at the buzzer in Game 4 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals. In your face Penny Hardaway.

Smits retired with the following career numbers: 14.8 points, 1.3 blocks, 6.1 rebounds, .507 FG %. His top season was ’95, where he scored 18.5 points per game. Smits never stood out at his position, where larger than life stars like Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing highlighted a renaissance period for NBA big men. However, Smits didn’t need to stand out…he quietly did the yeoman’s work while Reggie buried 3’s and the Davis’s (Dale and Antonio) played the enforcers. Smits was a key cog in one of the truly trademark ’90s teams.

And he dunked on friggin’ Manute Bol!

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.