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

Shifting Conference Tectonics as 2016 Begins

Welcome to 2016, loyal DotB readers!

The first two months of the season are in the books and I’m here to kick off 2016 with a deep dive into the two conferences, followed by a Power Rankings level-set. I will examine where I was right at the start of the season and eat a large plate of crow for all the teams I guessed wrong on. Each year teams surprise us with out of nowhere starts and unexpected falls from grace but this year is especially filled with upheaval. It’s part of what makes the league fun to follow and keeps us on our toes. To wit, I am in a four-man win total “fantasy” league and I thought I staged a coup with my draft picks in the preseason. Those picks were OKC, Houston, Washington, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver and Utah. Yikes. Thanks to the Rockets, Wiz, Bucks and Jazz I am in dead last as we start 2016.

Perhaps the biggest story of the first two months for me is the shifting balance of power in the conferences. For years I’ve been fascinated with the West’s consistent dominance and curious as to how one conference can stay in power for so long. However, though the top three teams in the NBA all reside out West, the bottom falls out quickly in that usually loaded conference. It’s likely that this season the West will have two playoff teams under .500, a dubious feat that the East had cornered the market on in recent years. You have to go back to 1996-97 for the last time the West fielded a below-.500 playoff participant (there were actually three that year!). Last season’s 8-seed (New Orleans) had 45 wins and the year before that Dallas finished eighth with 49.

So it begs the questions: is this just a down year that the West was long overdue for, a blip on the radar that will right itself quickly? Or is this a sign of a changing of the power structure in the NBA? I’ll look at it through a few prisms – Superstar Arms Race, Second-tier Stars and Randomness.

The easiest way – outside of win/loss records – to determine prowess in the NBA is star power. The way that teams acquire stars (mostly) is through the Draft. So I decided to look at recent Drafts to see if any patterns emerged that have hurt the West and empowered the East.

By and large, after the year LeBron, Bosh and Wade entered the league (2003-04) up until 2009, the West did a better job of getting superstars through the draft, which is a key reason behind its continued big brother status. Here are a few names you may be familiar with: Chris Paul (’05, New Orleans), Blake Griffin (’09, Clippers), Kevin Durant (’07, Sonics/OKC), Russell Westbrook (’08, Sonics/OKC), Steph Curry (’09, Warriors), James Harden (’09, OKC), Lamarcus Aldridge (’06, Blazers via trade).

Since the 2010 Draft, the West has continue to add bona fide and/or potential superstars like Demarcus Cousins (’10, Kings), Klay Thompson (’11, Warriors), Kawhi Leonard (’11 Spurs via trade), Damian Lillard (2012), Anthony Davis (2012), Draymond Green (2012), Andrew Wiggins (2014) and Karl Anthony-Towns (2015).

Here’s how the East has done since 2010:

’10 – John Wall, Paul George

’11 – Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler

’12 – Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond

’13 – Giannis Antetokounmpo

’14 – Jabari Parker

’15 – Kristaps Porzingis, Jahlil Okafor

I’d take Boogie, Klay, Kawhi, Dame and AD in a heartbeat over the East’s top five drafted stars since 2010 (with Draymond off the bench – wow). So even though the East done a better job in the last five years through the Draft, it still lost ground in the Superstar Arms Race with the West. This would seem to point to 2015-16 being an aberration, rather than the beginning of a decline for the West. It’s a superstar-driven league.

The East did, however, seem to add more Second-tier Stars (guys like Beal, Walker, Giannis) since 2010. That may be a function of continually bagging more high lottery picks. Each conference sends seven teams to the lottery each year, but the teams with the worst records have a better chance at picking high in the top 10. Since 2008, the East had 44 top 10 picks, to the West’s 36. That has to impact overall roster depth in due time. I combed through the players picked in those draft since ’08 and – admittedly somewhat subjectively – tallied up how many of those lottery picks are impactful NBA players in 2016. Thirty-six impact players from the last eight drafts reside in the East, while just 28 play in the West. This would tend to suggest that the East has gotten deeper if not necessarily more star-studded in recent years. This line of thinking seems to fit teams like Boston, Charlotte, Orlando, Atlanta, Detroit and Toronto – all playoff-contending, over-.500 East teams for much of this season that don’t boast many huge names on their rosters. Meanwhile, such star-led teams in the West like Houston (Harden, Dwight Howard), New Orleans (Davis), Sacramento (Cousins), L.A. Lakers (Kobe) and Portland (Dame) have struggled at least in part due to lack of quality depth. My verdict here – the Second-tier Stars factor is real, and could continue to tip the scales East-ward. The current 2-10 seeds in the East may not be title contenders but they are tough on a nightly basis thanks to deep rotations and can all finish with winning records.

The last, by definition impossible to quantify measure, is randomness. Here are some random, quirky things that have made the East better in 2015-16 and/or the West worse…

  • Conglomeration of talent at the top of the West. Aldridge went to San Antonio in the offseason, effectively creating a super team in the Spurs and turning a 50-win Blazers team into Lottery fodder. The Warriors kept their loaded roster intact after a historic season. The return of the KD-Russ-Ibaka trio at full health has made OKC a powerhouse again. The Clippers have struggled some but still have one of the top starting 5’s in the NBA talent-wise.
  • Houston forgetting that it was basketball season. They’ve gotten a coach fired, had many on-court bickering matches and sport some of the worst (laziest) transition defense in the league. After a conference finals appearance, the Rockets are the most disappointing team in the league, yet will make the playoffs by default. Slated for 55 or so wins, they will be lucky to finish .500. Can’t wait for them to sleep through a Round 1 loss.
  • The Plague hitting New Orleans. A supposed shoo-in to build upon last season’s 45-win playoff team, they barely have enough NBA players most nights thanks to a rash of injuries.
  • Memphis got old, Phoenix imploded and the Kings, Nuggets and Blazers aren’t ready for primetime.
  • Injuries have disproportionately hit the West. Eric Bledsoe is lost for the year, the Nuggets and Pelicans are decimated, Mike Conley and Lillard have missed time. Even the 32-2 Warriors have been hit by injuries, not that it’s hurt them much.
  • Unlike most recent years, the East only has two doormats in Philly and Brooklyn. The Magic, Hornets, Pistons, Knicks and Pacers have graduated up a level or two thanks to improved coaching (Magic, Hornets, Pistons), a healthy Paul George (Pacers) and an influx of respectable talent (Knicks). As bad as Washington and Milwaukee have been compared to expectations, they can be tough on any given night.
  • Coaching performances. Stan Van Gundy, Frank Vogel, Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer, David Blatt, Scott Skiles, Steve Clifford, Eric Spoelstra and Dwayne Casey have done great jobs this year. They all coach teams in the East.

After considering these factors – a combination of great coaching, an uptick in roster depth and random cataclysm striking the West – I tend to conclude that the shifting in conference tectonics this year has been more a blip than a new world order. When it comes to the NBA I will always side with the Superstars, and there are just more of them out West. Besides, Golden State and San Antonio are miles ahead of anyone else in the league and OKC edges out Cleveland for No. 3 in my Power Rankings. So chances are the West will still wear the crown that matters when the season ends. The regular season crown is a good start for the East though as it fights for respectability, and I’m excited to see a much more balanced NBA going forward.

Here’s to a great new year of pro basketball, and my inaugural 2016 Power Rankings will be right up!

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…

 

The NBA’s Growing Middle Class

Untitled

 

There’s something interesting going on in the National Basketball Association that would make Bernie Sanders proud. The middle-class is expanding rapidly. Expected top-tier teams are being taxed, so to speak, by injury, chemistry issues and the weight of high expectations. Meanwhile, projected bottom-feeders are rising above the poverty line in alarming numbers as talent has increased league-wide and rising teams are finding their identities.

I’ll caveat this all by pointing out that it’s still November. In two months the market may have corrected with the rich getting richer and teams showing unexpected promise may tumble. There’s plenty of time for last season’s cream of the crop to rise into the top conference seeds, aside from New Orleans and Brooklyn. But for the time being, class lines are blurry, traditional tiers are dissolving and ultimately it’s gotten really freaking hard to put together a Power Rankings.

The Warriors stand alone at the top. They are the Koch Brothers, Bill Gates and Trump sipping Brandy in the parlor room. The 76ers, Nets, Lakers and Pelicans occupy the bottom rung, foraging for moral victories. Just about everyone else falls somewhere in the widening middle class. There are 18 teams that are within two games of .500, either at, above or below the median win income.

This is a net positive for a league that has seen just 10 different champions in the past 35 years (Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Spurs, Heat, Mavericks, Warriors, 76ers). Of course, that number will remain the same if Golden State continues its torrent through the league en route to a repeat championship. But taking the long view here, the more average to potentially good teams there are, the less predictable the season becomes and the potential for haphazard playoff surprises increases. This equals more fun, more fanbase hope and more general interest in the outcomes. Just look at what parity has done for the NFL.

Will this be a blip on the radar, or a continued pattern? Time will tell, but it does seem teams are getting smarter about roster construction and the value of draft picks. Bottom feeders in small markets like Detroit and Minnesota suddenly have a jolt of energy and identity. Of course, the jump in cap space could bring us back to a world dominated by Los Angeles, Boston, Miami and other big markets. Or it could create more chaos, as smaller market teams suddenly wake up with deeper pockets.

For now, let’s embrace the unpredictable and take a stab at the Power Rankings, with each team’s record listed and some words about their identity.

The 1 Percent

  1. Golden State Warriors (12-0) – Our elitist overlords.

Crony Capitalists

2. San Antonio Spurs (9-2) – Old money mainstays.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (8-3) – Promising blue chip stock that has underperformed recently.

4. Atlanta Hawks (9-5) – New money, gets to sit at the table but no one considers them a threat to take over.

$30,000 Millionaires

5. Chicago Bulls (8-3) – Having an identity crisis. Are they a run and gun team? Well, they rank pretty low in points per 100 possessions. Do they lean on defensive principles from the Thibs era? Up and down on that side to say the least.

6. Dallas Mavericks (8-4) – The guru coach and grizzled veteran team led by an ageless German. I suspect the early success is superficial, and in a town where plastic people drive ’98 BMWs to give the impression that they’re wealthy, there’s solid team-city synergy here.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder (7-5) – Trying to stay afloat with KD injured and a horrible defense. Luckily they have Russ.

8. Los Angeles Clippers (6-4) – Chris Paul is banged up and maybe showing signs of serious decline? Classic case of nepotism over meritocracy in Paul’s absence.

Bernie Sanders’ Wet Dream aka The Massive Middle-Class

9. Phoenix Suns (6-5) – The frenetic pace, dual point guard threat team. Need more shot-making, though Devin Booker has been promising.

10. Toronto Raptors (7-6) – Fast starters that struggle to finish games. Defense is on the rise.

11. Miami Heat (6-4) – Another identity struggle. Dragic and Wade play drastically different styles, can Coach Spo figure out the right mix?

12. Boston Celtics (6-5) – The blue-collar everyman team that plays defense, runs and out-smarts opponents thanks to Brad Stevens.

13. Utah Jazz (6-5) – Defense, defense, defense. A team that dictates pace out of necessity and needs more consistent guard play.

14. Washington Wizards (5-4) – The small ball team that can’t figure out how to defend bigs.

15. Indiana Pacers (7-5) – The Superstar (Paul George) and role players team.

16. Detroit Pistons (6-5) – The Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick and roll death machine. Lack of shooting and bench hurts their ceiling.

17. Memphis Grizzlies (6-6) – Stagnation personified. The last days of grit n grind may be upon us.

18. New York Knicks (6-6) – All it takes is a healthy Carmelo and a freakish Latvian rookie to inject life back into the Big Apple.

19. Charlotte Hornets (6-6) – Raining threes, constant attacking and pace. The Hornets are playing the Rockets model better than the Rockets.

20. Orlando Magic (6-6) – The Young, Exciting Talent & Hustle Squad. Will lose more close games than they win due to inexperience but all their games seem to be watchable.

21. Denver Nuggets (6-6) – Another surprise riser. Michael Malone has them believing; love the play of Gallo and Mudiay.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-7) – Hard pressed to find a better pair of under-21 anchors on the same team in recent memory. Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns make this team must-see TV.

23. Houston Rockets (5-7) – 1-0 after Kevin McHale’s firing, but it took a miracle three to force overtime against Portland. Terrible body language, pathetic defense and the shots aren’t falling. C’mon Beard!

24. Milwaukee Bucks (5-6) – Their defense made them dangerous a year ago but it hasn’t showed up this season. Offensively they look good and Jabari Parker keeps getting better. Work cut out for them to make it back to the playoffs.

The Proletariat

25. Portland Trail Blazers (4-9) – You knew it’d be tough with all the personnel losses they endured, but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been electric on offense.

26. Sacramento Kings (4-8) – Their breadwinner, Demarcus Cousins, can’t be counted on due to injury and suspension. Pleasant surprise that Rajon Rondo has turned back into a triple-double machine.

The Untouchables

27. Los Angeles Lakers (2-9) – Old money denizens living in a once-beautiful castle with no heat or modern plumbing.

28. New Orleans Pelicans (1-11) – The M.A.S.H. unit that’s getting screwed out of their disability benefits.

29. Brooklyn Nets (2-10) – The Underwater Team, as they’ve mortgaged most of their future assets.

30. Philadelphia 76ers (0-12) – The saddest team.

 

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:

https://vine.co/v/el1e6aUO5Bz/embed/simplehttps://platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

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:

A November Must Watch

The Detroit Pistons seem to be for real. Andre Drummond is single-handedly bringing back the center position. This vine has me captivated:

Tonight the Pistons take on Golden State at Oracle Arena. It’s the second night of a back to back for Detroit so I will take the Warriors in this one. Out on a limb, I know. But Drummond just may have entered an echelon we haven’t seen since Dwight Howard’s prime, maybe even since prime Shaq, if he continues his run of dominance.

Whether the Fighting SVG’s win or lose tonight, must-see basketball in November means we’re all winners.

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.

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.

Here’s to a Happy, HEALTHY NBA Season

The NBA season kicks off in two nights. WOOOOOHOOOOOO!!

//giphy.com/embed/l41lVSySRf15JgBkA?html5=true

via GIPHY

Now, before we get too excited, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the horrible news that broke today that long time NBA head coach Flip Saunders passed away Sunday after a battle with cancer. This is devastating news, and my heart goes out to Saunders’ family, the Minnesota Timberwolves organization and the NBA at large. Saunders was a great ambassador for the NBA and one of its top coaches. By all accounts he was an even greater man. He will be missed dearly.

The NBA that Saunders leaves behind is in great shape. There are more superstars and top flight teams in the league than perhaps anytime in the last 30 years. There are storylines galore. How will first year college to pro coaches – Fred Hoiberg (Bulls) and Billy Donovan (Thunder) – fare after taking over contenders? Can Anthony Davis make the expected leap to league’s best player sooner than later? Can the champion Warriors prove last year wasn’t a fluke? Will the small-ball revolution continue and teams trend closer toward positionless basketball? How will Kevin Durant’s comeback-from-injury tour unfold? And for that matter, Paul George’s?

Speaking of injuries, the worst trend in recent NBA seasons has been the amount of time missed by hobbled star players. The following sample reads like a USA Basketball practice roster: Durant, George, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire. All of these guys have missed significant game time or whole seasons since 2012. Last season could have been an all-timer in terms of basketball greatness, yet by the end of the playoffs we were so marred by injury that teams were a shell of themselves. Look, injuries are always going to factor into an 82-game season with two months of postseason play; and the team with the most injury luck is normally the last team standing in June. But last season got ridiculous.

It’s why the Warriors are (unfairly in my opinion) having to defend their title verbally before the season even starts. Golden State won a historic 67 games, had the League MVP and more or less rolled through the playoffs, but teams and pundits are still chirping that their championship win was due more to other contenders in their path being decimated by injury. In the Finals, the Cavs were without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. The Rockets lost Pat Beverley and had a hobbled Howard in the Western Conference Finals. After going up 2-1 on the Warriors in the second round, the Grizzlies’ backcourt became dinged up.

I’m not taking anything away from the Warriors. That’s nonsense. But I can’t deny that the level of play goes down considerably with all this attrition. And the basketball watching public suffers. This year, the Pelicans are already a basketball MASH unit, which will put considerable strain on Davis. Please, Brow, please stay healthy.

I read a lot of NBA coverage and listen to a ton of podcasts – I love prognostication.  One thing you learn quickly is in any season previews or playoff predictions, the words “If they stay healthy” or “With all things being equal” has to be mentioned constantly. If Durant and Serge Ibaka stay healthy, OKC could win 65 games. If Rose stays healthy the Bulls could get the 1 seed. See what I mean?

Teams recognize this as a huge issue, as does the top NBA brass. You’re seeing teams invest in new wave training staffs and sending players to sports science organizations like P3 in Los Angeles during the offseason. Commissioner Adam Silver is working on ways to eliminate back to backs and four games in five nights, while someday we may see fewer games with more rest in between. Whatever it takes, I’m for it. Because only injuries and hack-a-thons can take away from what should be an awesome 2015-16 season. It’s time to get fired up.

The season starts Tuesday with three great matchups. Here’s a brief look:

Cleveland @ Chicago (TNT) – 7 p.m.

Oh yeah, baby. This is the stuff I’ve been waiting for since June. As a Bulls fan, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Fred Hoiberg era. Rose will be in the lineup after his broken orbital bone injury, and LeBron will also play after his preseason back injection. No Iman Shumpert or Kyrie though, already out with injuries. Sigh. At least the King and D-Rose will be out there. I like the Bulls to get Hoiberg a win in his first regular season game.

Detroit @ Atlanta – 7 p.m.

This may not intrigue casual fans, but I’m very interested. The only thing casual about me is my wardrobe, son… /adjusts basketball shorts. Stan Van Gundy is reshaping the Pistons with one big in the middle (Andre Drummond) and four shooters on the outside. They should play faster and be much harder to deal with defensively. Atlanta won 60 games last year and lost Demarre Carroll to free agency, but signed Tiago Splitter and return with a chip on their shoulder. Nobody thinks they can be as good this year, that last year was an aberration. Time to prove doubters wrong. I like them to start out 1-0.

New Orleans @ Golden State (TNT) – 9:30 p.m.

A rematch of last year’s first round playoff series, which the Warriors swept. This game looked a lot better when the schedule first came out. But as mentioned, New Orleans is banged up badly. They could be without Tyreke Evans, Norris Cole, Quincy Pondexter, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, and Jrue Holiday will be on a minutes limit. Meanwhile the Champs are healthy, playing at home and have haters to quiet. I like the Warriors big.

Here we go. Let’s be careful out there NBA teams. May your injury reports be short and your medical staff be bored.