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.

Anthony Bennett – The Gift and The Curse of the #1 Pick

anthony-bennett-560x363

News broke today that former #1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and the Minnesota Timberwolves have reached a buyout agreement, sending the star-crossed forward to waivers.

Bennett has been good for big headlines if not stat lines in his young career. The basketball world was shocked when Cleveland and Dan Gilbert made him the first pick in the 2013 draft. The Cavs reached for the relative unknown Canadian, as he may not have been selected by any of the other lottery teams in a weak draft. A year later, Bennett was thrown in to sweeten the Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love deal, probably at the behest of LeBron. Wiggins shined in Minny, Bennett did not.

Quick aside: We’ll see how Love ends up meshing with the Cavs in Year 2, but if I were a Cavs fan I’d be upset with the Wiggins trade. He’s a budding star who made an instant impact for Minnesota and would have been fascinating to watch next to James and Kyrie Irving. But that’s a topic for another day.

Bennett may carve out a niche for himself as a rotation forward for his next team. But it’s clear he’s joined the ranks of the most disappointing No. 1 picks of the past quarter century. Unlike any other major sport, the top pick in the NBA tends to either be a transformational boom or a tragic bust. There is very little in between. Consider the Olympians, Champions, Hall of Famers and All Stars since 1990 that make up the first group:

’92 – Shaquille O’Neal

’93 – Chris Webber

’94 – Glenn Robinson

’96 – Allen Iverson

’97 – Tim Duncan

’02 – Yao Ming

’03 – LeBron James

’04 – Dwight Howard

’08 – Derrick Rose

’09 – Blake Griffin

’10 – John Wall

’11 – Kyrie Irving

’12 – Anthony Davis

’14 – Andrew Wiggins

That’s 14 of the past 25 #1 picks that have made their respective GMs look like geniuses. Now check the flipside, a group of abysmal picks that slipped into obscurity fast, due to injury or just generally being terrible at basketball:

’95 – Joe Smith (taken over Kevin Garnett)

’98 – Michael Olowokandi (Clips passed on Dirk, Paul Pierce and Vinsanity)

’01 – Kwame Brown (an aging MJ could’ve used Joe Johnson, Pau Gasol or Tyson Chandler, huh?)

’06 – Andrea Bargnani (LaMarcus Aldridge went #2…to my Bulls…who immediately traded him for Tyrus Thomas, as Jeff Van Gundy famously pointed out during an on-air ethering of John Paxson last year. It hurts still.)

’07 – Greg Oden (Kevin Durant of course went #2)

’13 – Bennett (really crappy draft, but the Cavs could’ve done better with Victor Oladipo or Nerlens Noel, among others)

The remainder since 1990 are players that had nice careers but didn’t quite live up to #1 billing: Derrick Coleman (’90), Larry Johnson (’91), Elton Brand (’99), Kenyon Martin (’00), Andrew Bogut (’05).

It’s obviously too early to tell with 2015’s Karl Anthony-Towns, but if the last 25 years are any indication, he has about a 50% chance of being a superstar, and a 25% chance of being a laughingstock of epic proportions. I have high hopes for the big man from Kentucky, but those odds are scary for the guys making the draft day decisions.

And that’s the really difficult part about the Draft. If you’re the GM of a team that’s tanking for the chance at that top spot, it can be a gift and a curse when your ping pong ball comes up last. The Draft is the best vehicle for building a team. If you roll straight 7’s like OKC (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka), that is. But the other edge of that sword can stab you in the soul. If you wind up with the #1 pick in a down year, like 2000 or 2013, chances are you’ve won the lottery but lost the war.

And there’s so much symbolic importance with that #1 pick. Consider 1997, when Duncan went #1, the rest of the draft was mostly brutal. Except for Tracy McGrady at #9 and Chauncey Billups at #3. Think the seven teams that passed on T-Mac were kicking themselves? Of course, but no one remembers the Celtics taking Ron Mercer to fill their small forward hole at #6, passing over the prototypical superstar SF McGrady. Everyone remembers Kwame Brown at #1. And we will always remember Anthony Bennett going first, regardless of the weakness of the 2013 draft.

It can be lonely at the top.

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.