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October 2013

A Hollywood Ending

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g26944-6For the most part, this game was much closer than you would expect for a matchup between one of the few title contenders in the East and a tanking team. That’s because Jacque Vaughn has a few very tantalizing prospects on his roster, and one of them really came to play in this one. Second year player Andrew Nicholson was feeling it offensively in this game, knocking down a pair of corner threes, pulling off a sweet spin move from the elbow to get himself a lay-up, nailed a jumper off a pick-and-pop and showed his underrated ability on the block. He’s an emerging player that can do a lot of things offensively and he really should be Orlando’s starting power forward going forward ahead of Jason Maxiell.

Rookie Victor Oladipo and second year player Maurice Harkless also looked nice in this game. I was a bit surprised that Oladipo didn’t get the start at point guard, but I guess I’m OK with him coming off the bench until the Magic find a suitor for Jameer Nelson. Oladipo appears to be a tireless attacker that will foray to the rim time after time off pick-and-rolls and other actions. Harkless is mostly viewed as a defensive prospect, but his offensive game needs to come along for him to develop into a solid rotation player. If this game was any indication, he’s on track to becoming a bit more of a diverse threat. He drilled a pair of threes and even had a nice attack of the rim on a pick-and-roll late in the game.

But let’s make no mistake about it, the Pacers are really good. Their offense is going to be sticky at times this season, particularly as they wait for the return of Danny Granger, but that defense is as good as ever. Given their exploits on that side of the floor, I think you can make a case for Paul George and Roy Hibbert as the best duo in the league. Hibbert controls the game so well on the interior, and he dominated this game to the tune of 16 rebounds and seven blocks. It’s a nightly joy to watch the Pacers’ defense work with Hibbert in the middle, as he does a tremendous job containing pick-and-rolls while still managing to protect the paint. George was tremendous as well, putting up 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting (3-of-6 from three), with six rebounds, five assists and three blocks.

g26410-9This one looked like it had the makings of a classic Bulls-Heat game in the early and the late goings, but Miami dominated the bulk of this game by completely destroying the Bulls defense by attacking them in semi-transition. I thought the Bulls did a pretty good job when their defense got set in this game, but the combination of foul trouble for Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler and Miami relentlessly pushing the pace and playing quite flawlessly on the break put Chicago in a bind they couldn’t escape. The Heat ramped up their defense as well in this contest, rotating like mad and taking away almost all of Chicago’s offensive opportunities that didn’t involve Carlos Boozer bullying somebody downlow. Derrick Rose had a forgettable return, shooting just 4-of-15 from the field with six missed threes and five turnovers. Miami really put the pressure on him and Chicago’s auxiliary options were unable to make the Heat pay for most of the night.

Aside from the lights out shooting from Shane Battier and Ray Allen, I came away from this one really impressed with Norris Cole. I thought he was everywhere in this game, making stellar plays in transition and when attacking the rim, snatching up seven rebounds, finding teammates and competing defensively. Mario Chalmers wasn’t bad himself – 13 points, five steals, four assists – but it appears as if Erick Spoelstra has reached the point where he is comfortable closing games with either on the floor. And in case you were wondering, plus/minus freak Chris Andersen had eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 17 minutes, during which the Heat outscored the Bulls by 14. I’m not a fan of individual plus/minus that isn’t adjusted for other factors, but Andersen has been a real difference maker for the Heat since they signed him last year.

lakersclipsIn what can easily be described as the biggest upset of the season, the Lakers – or, more specifically, the Lakers’ second unit – housed the Clippers, winning the fourth quarter 41-24 en route to a 13-point opening day victory. Throughout this entire game it was tough not to feel like the Lakers were showing a lot of heart to stay in the game, but that eventually the Clippers would exert their will and their large talent advantage would carry them to victory.

Instead, a mash unit made up of Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill vastly outplayed the Clippers down the stretch, using a spread pick-and-roll attack to cause the Clips’ D to fundamentally breakdown while they zoned off Chris Paul on pick-and-rolls and dared Blake Griffin to beat them (I’m not sure you can dare a star power forward to beat you anymore than by putting Wesley Johnson on him in the post). It was the first time since Mike D’Antoni was hired by the Lakers last season that it looked like the team was playing his style of basketball. Ironically, even with star talent like Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard on the floor last post-season, the offense never looked as good as it did with the second unit tonight (the Clippers’ horrendous defense played a large role in this, too).

Hats off to D’Antoni, too, for sticking to his word. In the pre-season he said that a lot of his line-up decisions would be made by the players and whoever was hot. He held true to that philosophy in this one, choosing not to disrupt the flow that Farmar and the second unit had, which meant keeping Nash, Blake and Gasol on the bench for the final 15 minutes of the game. Again, this is not a move I think D’Antoni would make last season, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the Lakers didn’t have the kind of athletes that they do now. They may be no names and reclamation projects at best, but they competed and with a legit NBA point guard in Farmar piloting the attack, the Lakers were able to find open looks.

Xavier Henry looks like the most promising youngster of the bunch, outside of Farmar, of course, but he’s proven to an extent and should be the sixth man for this team. Henry had a career high 22 points in his Lakers debut, the high mark of of the team’s 76 bench points, and showed an array of skills attacking the rim and shooting from the outside. He’s never really shown the ability to knockdown jumpers consistently, but he made all three of his three-pointers, and his athleticism has always been his calling card. He had a nifty dunk in transition and had a eurostep on a drive to the rim that the Lakers haven’t seen from someone not named Kobe in a long time.

Johnson, who shot 1-for-11 from the field, with that one make being a critical three in the fourth quarter, also played a big role defensively. He was asked to guard Blake Griffin the post initially, and then the Lakers would tilt their defense toward Blake, sending help at him and putting him in tough spots. When he did try and score, Griffin looked uncomfortable to say the least. I think the Lakers had a great gameplan for playing small and defending Blake at the same time, and they also did a great job against Chris Paul the scorer.

The Clippers have to be worried about how their defense performed. The offense had some great movement for most of the night, but their defense fell apart quickly in the second half. Darren Collison was letting whoever was in front of him get to the rim with ease and the backline of the Clippers defense couldn’t withstand Farmar’s dribble penetration in the fourth quarter, which freed up the Lakers’ shooters. Now, the Lakers may never shoot the ball as well as they did in that fourth quarter again this season, but the shots were there because of the Clips’ breakdowns. The fact that the Clippers don’t have a reliable, or even decent, third big man is a huge deal – Ryan Hollins played four minutes while Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens didn’t see the floor. Perhaps this is a positive in that it will get DeAndre Jordan more minutes, but the Clippers aren’t going to be an elite defensive team without a quality back-up big.

This game may end up meaning nothing more than that crazy things can happy in the NBA, but there were some encouraging signs from the Lakers in this one – not the least of which is that Pau Gasol looks like the prototypical D’Antoni big when he’s shifted to center – and some things to worry about for Doc Rivers and the Clippers.

Welcome Back, NBA

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With the 2013-14 NBA season kicking off tonight, it’s time to take a look at some of the major storylines heading into this season.

How much will tanking effect the overall quality of the league?

Over the past few years it has become increasingly obvious that if your franchise isn’t one of the six or seven teams in the league that has a legit shot at making the NBA Finals, then it’s best to be bottoming out and replenishing your team with high draft picks. Essentially, nobody wants to be the Milwaukee Bucks, who always seem to win 34-40 games, compete for the eighth seed in the East and get the pleasure of being obliterated by LeBron James in the first round. The issue this season is that a large number of teams have made this discovery, and we’re at the point where the bottom third of the league is going to get run over this season.

The 76ers, Magic, Celtics, Jazz and Suns have no shot of being competitive, and most of these teams acknowledged as much by trading proven players for future picks (like Phoenix’s Gortat deal or Boston’s KG/Pierce trade). On top of that, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Sacramento and even the Lakers if Kobe doesn’t return to form, are going to be so bad defensively that they will get embarrassed on many nights. Look, if the Suns or Celtics or Jazz had decided to keep their veterans and play out this season, they weren’t going to be very good anyway. But we all know that there is a difference between playing an aging Celtics squad or a mediocre Jazz team in Salt Lake and playing the glorified D-League rosters they’ve assembled this season. Perhaps it won’t have a major effect on the bottom line this season, but many fanbases are going to be putoff by this season despite the fact that their reward will be drafting someone like Marcus Smart.

The Clippers are going to takeover Los Angeles

This has been budding for a couple of years now, ever since David Stern stole Chris Paul from the Lakers and the Clippers swooped in and nabbed the game’s best point guard. The Clippers may have had the best off-season of anyone in the league outside of the Rockets. They didn’t add any superstar players, but they retained Chris Paul, largely because they acquired Doc Rivers to be their head coach, and traded for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, two very solid role players that fit perfectly within Doc’s system and next to CP3.

Offensively, there is no reason that the Clippers shouldn’t dominate this season. Paul and Griffin are two of the league’s best scorers and playmakers at their positions and work extremely well together through pick-and-rolls, and now the Clippers have added a ton of spacing to help their offense function when good looks are harder to come by in the post-season. With Redick and Dudley as the starting wings and Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes coming off the bench (rookie Reggie Bullock is also an intriguing shooter that could see some time), Rivers will have a ton of different combinations to work with throughout the season and with Paul running the show, they are going to light up scoreboards this season.

Whether or not they’ll be title contenders will depend on their improvement defensively. They were solid at ninth in the league last season, but unless they are able to keep up a bananas scoring efficiency in the post-season, they are going to need to defend at a high level to get past teams like Houston, San Antonio and Golden State. Personnel wise, the Clippers are essentially the same as they were last season at critical defensive spots, with the exception being the loss of defensive terror Eric Bledsoe, so the hope for an uptick in defensive efficiency relies heavily on Rivers. Doc had some tremendous schemes in Boston and his Celtic teams were always elite on that end of the floor (even last year with Garnett running on fumes), but you have to split up the credit for their defensive success equally with Garnett, who held it together so well. Doc is going to have to get a lot better work from Blake Griffin defensively, but mainly DeAndre Jordan. If the hyperathletic center that has, to this point, only been a solid shotblocker defensively can become more of fundamental anchor, then the Clippers will have a great shot at winning it all this season.

The return of Derrick Rose

If we can take away anything from the pre-season, it’s that Derrick Rose is back and he hasn’t lost anything, and that should strike fear in the rest of the league. Tom Thibodeau kept the Bulls competitive despite dealing with injuries at every position, and the Bulls managed to finish fifth in the league in defensive efficiency last season on top of upsetting Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs. There is no reason to expect that the defense will suffer a setback this season, so the return of Rose gives the Bulls an efficient compliment to the league’s hardest working defense. With the addition of Mike Dunleavy Jr. and the inevitable improvement from Jimmy Butler, Rose will have a bit more offensive help than he did the last time he was on the floor, and if he can pilot the Bulls back into the top five in offensive efficiency this season, there is no question that they’ll be the best team in basketball.

Who’s making the playoffs in the West?

The six locks for me are San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, Golden State, Memphis and the Clippers. That leaves two spots for four other teams that I think will be in the mix this season: Minnesota, New Orleans, Dallas and Portland. I am taking Dallas and New Orleans here. I think Minnesota may have the best starting five of the group (Rubio-Martin-Brewer-Love-Pekovic) and they might actually be healthy this season, but I’m not in love with their bench and I’m skeptical of how they’ll look defensively. Portland added some depth this summer and should score a ton this season, but I don’t think they’ll be elite offensively and once again I’m skeptical of their defense. As I discussed in my Mavs preview, they too will struggle defensively, but Rick Carlisle has shown before that he can minimize the damage done by poor defensive personnel somewhat, and if that teams stays healthy, I think they’ll be one of the best offensive teams in basketball. Pelicans head coach Monty Williams has said that he wants to have an aggressive team defensively that runs when they can offensively, and I think they have the personnel to be a top 10 defense this year if Anthony Davis can stay healthy.

Who’s making the playoffs in the East?

I have five locks in the East: Chicago, Miami, Brooklyn, Indiana and New York (although I really dislike the Bargnani trade). This next set of teams will likely be mediocre, but they’ve all got a shot to finish anywhere between 6th and 10th: Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland and Washington. Washington and Detroit are the two teams that have made the strongest push to make the playoffs this season – the former recently trading a protected first round pick for Marcin Gortat and the latter trading for Brandon Jennings and signing Josh Smith this off-season – although Cleveland also seems ready to make their move now. The Hawks are kind of in the middle. I think they have the talent to make the playoffs and, out of all the new head coaches in the league, I feel like Mike Budenholzer is the best of the bunch, but I could also see Danny Ferry trading a couple of their key pieces in the middle of the season.

I think Detroit, Cleveland and Atlanta will find their way into the post-season, with an eye on the potential for a VERY juicy first round series between the Heat and Cavs.

My Pre-Season Award Ballot

MVP: LeBron James, Miami Heat – His fifth in sixth season and third in a row. He’s building a pretty impressive resume.

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets – If Howard is healthy, he’s the best defensive player in the league.

Sixth Man of the Year: Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors – I wanted to go Tyreke Evans here, but with the Warriors shifting back to a traditional line-up with David Lee at power forward and with Andre Iguodala slotting in at small forward, Barnes is going to come off the bench this season, and I think he’ll perform well in that role.

Most Improved Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans – I think he is going to have a huge year, second team All-NBA type stuff. If he stays healthy, he can carry the Pelicans to the playoffs.

Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls – Thibs is the defensive version of Popovich when it comes to regular season coaching. No matter who he has available, he manages to have his team play elite level defense thanks to his scheme and incredible coaching. I think Chicago will have the best record in the league this season, and Thibs will get recognized again as the coach of the year.

Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic – He’ll have the most opportunities to put up numbers this season and he has a nice range of skills.

My Finals Prediction

I could see as many as seven different teams – San Antonio, Houston, Golden State, Los Angeles (Clippers) in the West and Chicago, Miami and Indiana in the East – making the Finals this season. While I could see Golden State going on a tear again this post-season and while the Heat are the back-to-back defending champs, I am picking the Chicago Bulls over the Los Angeles Clippers in six games.

Dallas Mavericks Preview

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Point Guards

Can someone check to see if the Mavericks hired David Kahn as a consultant this off-season? After letting Darren Collison, Rodrigue Beaubois and Mike James walk in free agency, the Mavericks replenished their point guard supply by signing a pair of free agents (Jose Calderon and Devin Harris), drafting Miami’s Shane Larkin with the 18th pick in the draft and signing international prospect Gal Mekel to a three-year deal.

Calderon is the closest thing to Nash that Nowitzki has seen since his buddy left town, and he should restore some order to Rick Carlisle’s offense. Jason Kidd ran things well during his late career stint in Dallas, but his inability or reluctance to ever go inside the three-point line caused some problems, and Darren Collison spent a lot of last season looking lost, his sense of direction so lacking that Carlisle turned to 37-year old journeyman Mike James several times last season.

Calderon provides extreme efficiency from all areas on the floor. According to research done by Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, Calderon is way above league average on above the break threes, mid-range shots at the elbows and even shot attempts at the rim. With his innate ability to pilot pick-and-rolls, Carlisle’s pick-and-roll heavy scheme and a team that thrives on spacing, Calderon should be a great fit in Dallas.

Harris had some good moments as a back-up point guard in Atlanta last season, even playing the two effectively for stretches, and he may get some burn at shooting guard with the Mavs depending on how involved Wayne Ellington is in the rotation. Gal Mekel impressed me with his selfless play in Summer League, and while the rest of his game still needs some refining, his playmaking ability makes him an ideal sub for this team.

Shooting Guard

Whatever brownie points Mark Cuban earned with Dirk when he signed Calderon, he almost certainly lost them when he made a large commitment to Monta Ellis. Folks like to say that Dirk can last a few more years because of how perpetual his game is, but Ellis may force him into early retirement.

All kidding aside, this is essentially a riskier version of the reclamation project that the Mavs took on last off-season with O.J. Mayo. Ellis comes to Dallas as a more accomplished player than Mayo, but a three-year deal for a shot-first shooting guard who often struggles shooting the ball is not exactly the grand finale that everyone has been expecting Cuban to come up with since he voluntarily broke up their title team.

I like Ellis more than most because I’ve seen how good of a playmaker he can be when he’s not shot hunting, which is something I’ve never really seen for Mayo, so there’s hope that Ellis could fit in with the Mavericks (although he is an absolute mess defensively). If Carlisle can curtail the amount of isolation possessions that Ellis gobbles up and instead works to get Ellis some mid-range looks within the offense (while inefficient in the macro, Ellis is the rare player you don’t want redistributing his shot attempts to beyond the arc because he simply can’t connect from deep). When on a leash, Ellis’ ability to create shots for himself and others can be a very valuable skill.

Perhaps it’s blind faith, but as he enters his prime, I think Ellis knows he’s got to change his ways a bit, and if given talent, I believe Carlisle can make things work.

Small Forward

The Mavericks are in a very interesting position. Their off-season moves clearly indicate that they are going to make a push for the post-season this year, so trading a veteran doesn’t exactly mesh with that plan. That said, it’s tough to argue against at least shopping Shawn Marion this season. Marion is 35 years old and in the final year of his deal worth a little over $9 million; with that kind of expiring contract and a functional game that any contender could use, he’s going to be a hot name around the trade deadline, and it might behoove the Mavericks to forfeit a piece of their present day puzzle in hopes of securing some kind of future asset.

If Dallas decides to deal Marion, veteran sub Vince Carter figures to take over the starting job. Carter is the sixth man for this team and has created a successful epilogue for his career with the Mavs. Again, depending on how much playing time Ellington gets, we’ll either see Carter get the majority of his minutes at the two or the three, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was starting by February because of a trade. Also waiting in the wings for some more playing time is second year player Jae Crowder. Crowder can play either forward spot and, given Dallas’ lack of depth in the front court, he could see a lot of time as a smallball four depending on how Carlisle wants this team to play.

Power Forward

After having a down season in 2012 in which he missed a large chunk of the regular season, Dirk’s full-time return to the court should do wonders for the Mavericks. His incredibly efficient offensive game is the motif that Carlisle’s flow offense is built around. Spread pick-and-rolls and elbow action doesn’t function as well without a big man that can hurt you from the outside (or a point guard that can’t shoot), so Nowitzki’s presence is going to return a sense of normalcy to the Big D.

I look forward to seeing how Dirk and Ellis cooperate on pick-and-rolls. We really haven’t seen Dirk working with a score first jitterbug like Ellis since that brief and electric stint when J.J. Barea helped sparked the Mavs to the Finals, so watching him work with Monta, and seeing how much Ellis benefits from playing alongside him, should be fun.

Dallas added former DeJuan Blair in the off-season which would seem like your standard roster filling move if he wasn’t let go by a division rival. Blair is a good rebounder and has occasionally flashed some offensive skill, but I don’t like him defensively and don’t think he fits all that well with this team. He’s a hustle player, though, and Carlisle has shown in the past that he’s willing to put limited players that are hard workers on the floor.


Samuel Dalembert was third on Dallas’ list of big men they wanted to sign this off-season, and after swinging and missing on Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, Dallas settled for the one-dimensional Dalembert. Dalembert comes on a inexpensive two-year deal and he’s a terrific shot blocker and rebounder, so this is a low-risk move, but in order for the Mavericks to operate as efficiently as possible on offense, Carlisle will need to work his magic in turning Dalembert into something like 50% of what Tyson Chandler was on offense. As long as Dalembert can catch the ball and finish on pick-and-rolls and learn when to cut when the backline of the defense shifts, he’ll operate as a serviceable two-year filler while Dallas waits to discover their next franchise big man.

One of the more subtle moves of the off-season for the Mavs was resigning center Brandan Wright to a cheap two-year, $10 million deal. I loved the move for the Mavs because I think Wright has developed into the ideal back-up center for this team. He’s very good at the rim and at finding his way into the paint off cuts and almost all of his offensive production comes two feet from the basket, which is exactly what the Mavs want. His rebounding issues continue to prevent him becoming a starting caliber player, but he’s a nice help defender that can hold down the paint as long as the wings crash the boards with him. No player on the team had a better net rating that Wright last season (+5.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor) and he’s clearly made a positive impact on both ends whenever he gets in the game.

Best-case scenario: With two accomplished one-on-one scorers in Dirk and Ellis, an altruistic point guard in Calderon, solid plug-and-play bench guys that fit into the offense, a minimalist big man that can clean up the glass and help anchor the defense and a head coach with a very fluid offensive system, the Mavs can pour in points at an efficient rate while playing league average defense.

Worst-case scenario: Ellis fails to fit in, Dirk shows signs of decline, Dalembert provides no value downlow outside of grabbing boards and the defense stays in the bottom 10 in efficiency.

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