I’ve Moved My Blog

To ensure I get even less readership than I already get, I’m making it harder for people to find me as I’m now a shifting target. I moved my blog to blogspot.com:

http://ascreamingcomesacrossthecourt.blogspot.com

All my old stuff is there. I also have a couple new articles up, and this long piece that took a lot of effort into compiling:

http://ascreamingcomesacrossthecourt.blogspot.com/2012/01/best-shooter-of-past-five-years.html

See you on the other side.

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How Wins Produced Fails in Being the Magical Assessor of Player Value

As my next Sunday article (once again late) I thought I’d go over what I find is a frustrating statistic for rating players mostly because of how the authors arrogantly discuss it like it’s bullet-proof.

In the advanced statistical realm of the NBA there are two main flavors of analysis: a microscopic view using every box score number available to estimate the value of each player, and a macroscopic one that uses the result  (i.e. the score of the game) to back calculate the value of each player or line-up. The mainstream media incorrectly assumes “statheads” only care about what’s in the box score and thus miss all that doesn’t show up as a stat like setting a pick, fouling at just the right time to stop a lay-up, or most of the defensive end of the court like being able to guard Dwight Howard one-on-one and denying him deep post position. This is completely off base, although some people, like David Berri of Wins Produced fame, are guilty of this offense.

Macroscopic models, mainly adjusted +/- types that use the score of the game and combinations of players to attach an effect in points in the game to each player, unfortunately are limited in their precision.  Even with an 82 game schedule and 48 minutes a game, there is not enough information to diminish the margin of error from roughly five points. For reference, these five points are over the course of a typical game, and it would separate the previous champions the Dallas Mavericks from teams that couldn’t even get into the playoffs. Microscopic models, however, have no problem with precision and with certainty can tell the reader exactly what the result is virtually every time. These models are shortsighted, obviously, by only reading the box score; their knowledge of defense is stealing the ball, blocking it, fouling, or rebounding. What they lack is accuracy. The macroscopic model can show you the entire galaxy but blurred and hazy; the microscopic will focus on a few spiral arms of the galaxy with great detail and clarity. You can’t assume you know exactly what the rest of the galaxy looks like from only a small section.

Wins Produced, an invention from economics professor David Berri, is the kind that focuses on only a few points in space: it uses traditional box score stats to estimate how many wins each player contributes to the team. Unfortunately, the proponents of the stat are so arrogant in the discussion and validation of their findings that they bring down the entire advanced statistical basketball community with them. Others like John Hollinger, of PER fame, will discuss the limitations of his model and admit its flaws. He doesn’t rate players solely by the stat, and with defense ignores it almost entirely. Wins Produced are discussed like it’s the only statistic a person needs when evaluating the league, except for something like age.

Despite the confidence of the authors, Wins Produced isn’t a super advanced metric; it’s really quite simple. The basis to the entire model is the possession. If offensive and defensive efficiency directly relate to wins, a reasonable assumption and one tested statistically, then one then be able to find a proxy for wins based on a model that calculates the aforementioned efficiencies. Rebounds add possessions, and thus add to wins, while turnovers are lost possessions, and thus you lose wins. This is entirely fine on a team level, but there are huge assumptions glossed over when pinning them on individual players.

Although most stats are directly tied to wins through the possessions, some like blocks and assists had their values found through analysis. However, the average value to applied to each player; this means something like a block Is the same value for someone like Dwight Howard, who swats a shot out of bounds and lets the other team have the possession, and Tim Duncan, who tries to tip the ball to his teammate to gain one. Assists have the same problem – an Andre Miller assist is typically more valuable than a Lebron James one because of how often Miller feeds a teammate for a dunk and how often James gets an assist for a long-jumper. Nonetheless, there are even more problems with the statistics directly tied to a possession.

Take, for example, the rebound. Think of the retired Bruce Bowen, a respected defender, guarding an offensively potent wing player during a possession. If he does everything correctly – denying good position after running up the court, move his feet to prevent a drive to the lane, stay grounded during shot fakes, force him into a tough long-jumper – then he still will not receive any credit according to Wins Produced; instead someone like Rasho Nesterovic would grab the rebound and be rewarded with an uptick in his statistics. There is obviously something very wrong with that model.

For defense, there is another factor in Wins Produced that I have not yet discussed. It’s the team defense factor. To incorporate the difficult task of assessing defense beyond a surface level they simply add an almost negligible number based solely on the team of the player; it’s essentially a team defensive efficiency statistic. That’s it. Carlos Boozer got the same benefit as Luol Deng, and Jason Richardson the same as Dwight Howard. There are also positional adjustments to mask the poor numbers for guards versus centers and power forwards, but that’s not egregious compared to the next topic.

For a validation of their model, the authors behind the formula regularly illustrate a table showing Wins Produced for each team and their actual results during the season. The differences are typically one to four wins. However, using those team results to validate the model is very problematic. With how Wins Produced was built, they are essentially summing individual offensive and defensive efficiency statistics and comparing them to team wins, which are highly correlated to efficiency, but those statistics like rebounds are directly tied to the team and not the player.  This does not mean they found the magical formula to explain player value; all they did was say wins are explained by efficiency, which was divided to each player based on simple box score statistics. To put it in simple terms, they defined a word using the same word in a slightly different form – i.e. assuming, when one makes assumptions. That is not a useful definition.

Another large assumption David Berri and company make in defending Wins Produced is saying that since performance measured in box score stats or Wins Produced doesn’t change over time and teammates have little effect on how they affect other players’ stats, box score stats comprehensively reflect a player’s worth. The logic behind that argument is highly flawed. They essentially avoided the argument and instead discussed how player stats don’t change much with time. The consistency of box score statistics to each other has nothing to do with the power of those statistics. If players are consistent in the NBA, then it’s reasonable to assume box score stats won’t change much but it’s also reasonable to assume the stuff not found in the box score also won’t differ over time. I don’t know how that argument actually addresses the limitations of the box score, but that’s a real argument they use on their website.

As an illustration on the limitations of Wins Produced, I created a chart below showing players’ Wins Produced versus a regularized adjusted +/- score from stats-for-the-nba.com from the 2010-2011 season. The red line indicates a regression line, which from a linear regression shows the correlation between the two stats. Wins Produced explains only 19% of the variation in adjusted +/-, which means they greatly disagree on the value of players. This could be explained by the inherent limitations of +/-, which can’t give precise results; but I also think it shows they disagree fundamentally on most players in the league to some significant degree. If Wins Produced is a truly faultless method like the authors pretend in their articles (never mentioning that *gasp* the formula could have flaws), then it should more highly correlate to something as comprehensive as +/-.

I also included interesting outliers. Dirk Nowitzki, strangely enough, was the greatest outlier based on standardized residuals. I suspect Wins Produced didn’t like his low rebounding and shotblocking numbers, but Dallas didn’t seem to mind when they won the championship. Nick Collison is an intriguing outlier: either he’s an extremely underrated NBA player on par with the superstars in the league like Chris Paul or Wade, or +/- has a problem in determining his correct value. Above the red regression line you mainly have players known for fundamental defense like Jason Collins and Andrew Bogut or offensive synergy like Nash and Ginobili; below you guys known for putting up stats but forgoing man-to-man defense or other aspects of the game not tabulated in a simple stat like Kevin Love and Kevin Martin.

The main issue with Wins Produced is how the authors and supporters discuss the model like it’s flawless. It’s an interesting method that can compete with Win Shares or PER, but to claim that it can explain wins with a 95% accuracy is ridiculous. All they’re doing is dressing up a team’s efficiency numbers and allotting each piece to a player, and then summing those results to show how close they’re correlated to wins. Well, of course they are; everyone knows a team’s points scored and allowed per possession can explain wins. If you have the audacity to ask them how defense can be explained by steals, blocks and rebounds, you’ll get a response about how your little brain can’t comprehend a counterintuitive result. My advice is to view Wins Produced as an interesting summation of box score stats, and not to sway your complete view of a player.  Using Wins Produced as your only method in evaluation a player is like zooming in on one feature of an animal. Maybe that one part can lead you to a conclusion about the rest of the animal, but you could likely become the blind man holding the elephant’s trunk and believe it’s a snake instead of something much more powerful.

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How to Fix All-star Rosters

Positions for the All-star game are very strict in the worst possible ways, and randomly fluid in other respects. The three categories are guards, forwards, and centers for reasons that aren’t even explained. Centers are a notoriously hard position to employ for most teams, yet it’s the only one bound to a category by itself.

When one looks back on the worst all-star picks in the past few years, there are two main mechanisms: representatives from great teams who are only there because of the team record (Mo Williams) and solid starters, but nothing more, who are fortunate to benefit from a lack in quality at their position (Jamaal Magloire.) While the representatives are more about the philosophy of value in the NBA — the media like to reward winning teams and players with an all-star game, yet it’s a game for the fans, not the media, and players are already rewarded with the playoffs — the solid but lucky starters offer hope in how they can be eradicated. When someone like Magloire is picked for a team, everyone knows it’s a mistake, but their hands are tied, they say, because they have to pick a “true” center, and the rules are apparently passed down from God and immutable.

The problem is that not every modern NBA player is tied down to a single position. There are combo guards, and these types are usually too small for a shooting guard but can’t run the offense to be a point guard. What’s more common, however, is the switch between shooting guard and small forward. Danny Granger, a former all-star, is playing shooting guard for his team because of the emergence of small-forward Paul George. When they were younger, guys like Paul Pierce and McGrady could cover both spots easily. The power of this versatility is that it can eliminate an unworthy guard or forward if needed because there are a required number of slots for each position.

The most common position meld is power-forward and center. A majority of the top big men, in fact, cover both positions with regularity. Tim Duncan is the most well known example of one, although in recent years even he can’t deny he’s strictly a center. Present examples of guys include Pau Gasol, Al Jefferson, Chris Bosh, Elton Brand, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Nene, Al Horford, and Joakim Noah. Surprisingly,  Dwight Howard was one listed as a power forward, and right now DeMarcus Cousins, at 270 lbs and 6′ 11″, is called a power forward, but that won’t last very long. The point is that modern NBA teams don’t have an exclusive definition of a center, and instead use some players to cover multiple positions. If some people are so worried about Pau Gasol not being a “true” center because he players with finesse, why then do they not care that he’s obviously not a “true” power forward because he’s seven feet tall and covers center sometimes?

The solution, then, is to list some players with more than one position on ballot and to get rid of the oddly nebulous “guards” and “forwards”categories. For example, Pau Gasol would appear under both PF and C positions (people would be excluded from voting for him for both spots) and his votes would be combined to compete for either category. While it’s a huge advantage for some players, the point is to put the best players on the court, and loaded spots like power forward would be better represented. Also, when the coaches choose the bench players, they could use the more flexible positions to avoid a back-up center with dubious credentials, which could likely happen this year in the west.

Last year Tim Duncan made the reserves, and yes he’s still an effective player and a hall-of-famer, but he made it at the expense of a young player like Aldridge. Pau Gasol, despite playing large minutes as a center with Bynum out with injures, was listed as a forward, the same category of Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce. Yao Ming’s multiple starts would have been mitigated because Duncan had more votes than him in many years.

The all-star ballot makes an incorrect assumption about how guys are used — that guards and forwards are interchangeable, but centers and power forwards are not — and as such forces people to make awkward decisions about who plays where that should never be made.

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Phantom Centers

NBA coaches are stubborn in regards to line-ups. They like to establish a concrete rotation rather than a fluid one where the starters change in response to the opposing team. Part of this is because the team is composed of people with self-esteems that can influence their game, and an active flux of starting to not-starting can affect players. However, there is a tendency for coaches to cling to familiar models and safe choices.

One of the most apparent effects is the “phantom center.” To explain the term, think back to the seasons when Shaq was most dominant. Each team needed a behemoth center if it wanted to be competitive when playing the Lakers. There’s also a history of hall-of-fame big men of the past like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain destroying other teams. These men were responsible for the dread that kept coaches up at night, and consequently a coach’s attention was spent on defending them and management responded by locating other giants. If you’re in the wilderness and you’re afraid of being attacked by an animal, you want a gun that can protect you from the biggest beast in the forest just in case you encounter one.

Unfortunately, coaches carried their elephant gun into battle against fleet foxes and crafty wolves when they would be better served with a faster, lighter weapon against the agile creatures. Their inclination to have a static rotation didn’t allow for deploying the weapon when needed. It’s fine if your huge center can be productive no matter what kind of opposing center is featured. Maybe he’s a great rebounder like the 7’ 1” Chandler or a great outside shooter for his size like the 7’ 3” Ilgauskas, but not every center that size is productive in most aspects of the game. Guys like Nesterovic and Ostertag received numerous starts despite a lack of basketball skills. Their massive size was paradoxically a perfect camouflage to mask their deficiencies, as people would assume with that kind of height and stature they should be valuable on the court.

The Collins twins – Jason and Jarron – are perfect examples of phantom centers. No center could contain Shaq at the height of his dominance, but Jason in particular was relatively competent. However, when Jason wasn’t matched up against Shaq or someone similar like Dwight Howard, there is no reason to start him. No one expected him to lead the team in scoring, but he wasn’t good at the center things that need to be done like rebounding, blocking shots, and scoring in the paint. This is a center who for his career has averaged 6.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. He wasn’t much of a shot-blocker either and relied on taking charges to adjust for his lack of jumping ability. That does not sound like a player you want playing for large stretches of a time.

Today Joel Anthony is continuing the legacy of good defensive centers who are only useful in certain situations and have terrible offensive skills but start for competitive teams anyway. Anthony, like Collins, is one of the worst players in the league at the offensive end and a terrible rebounder. The Heat do have one of the worst set of centers in the league, but they don’t need to use them in most situations. Haslem, more of a power forward at least in size, can do all the dirty work of a center and reward you with an accurate jump shot to space the floor.

Darko Milicic is another example. Ever since Detroit took him for the second pick in a deep draft, teams have been disappointed with the seven-footer despite an intriguing combination of size, athleticism and skill. He’s big enough that the old school media can label him a “true” center, and he has a set of moves that mimic a real post game. However, on the court he’s an inaccurate shooter, lazy defensively, and a poor rebounder especially for his size. His one positive is shot-blocking. Regardless of what he produces, he’s an NBA starting center.

One of the most perplexing cases is Timofey Mozgov, a Russian center in his second year in the league. Sometimes identified as a promising young international player, he’s already 25 and has shown few signs of talent. While Collins can defend the post, Darko can protect the rim, and Anthony is a nimble defender, Mozgov has nothing except for some New York hype for his short stint there. He’s listed at 7’ 1” and 250 lbs, and that’s where his positives end. He’s an inefficient shooter even while camping out near the rim, he’s a below average rebounder ranked 40th out of 60 centers in rebound rate last year (using ESPN’s classification of center that includes some part-time PF’s), a subpar passer, a poor shot creator, foul prone, and a turnover machine. The frustrating part is that they just signed a highly coveted center to a long-term deal in Nene and don’t even need the Russian to round out a complete line-up with every position covered.

A counterargument is that they need a rim-protector next to Nene, but the Nuggets have Chris Anderson on bench, an excellent shotblocker who can also rebound, unlike the two frontcourt players starting. Like so many players his size, Mozgov is a decent post defender but nothing to warrant major minutes. He does have an okay jump shot, but there are plenty of other players who are better shooters who don’t start. Box score stats can be deceptive for certain players who do the unnoticed things off the ball, but Mozgov’s +/- statistics are all terrible, meaning there is no evidence for his worth as a basketball player. There is simply no rational explanation for starting him, and it’s bewildering this is happening to one of the deepest teams in the league, although I suspect if they had Kenyon Martin back Mozgov would go back to the bench.

The Charlotte Bobcats present the ultimate test of mettle for coaches keeping with their seven-footers. The starting center is Boris Diaw, a 6’ 8”, 215 lb Frenchman known for his passing more than his abilities to crash the glass or clog the lane defensively. Next to him is the 6’ 9” D.J. White, a jump shooting power forward without above the rim abilities. So far they’ve faced, savagely enough, the Orlando Magic and the Milwaukee Bucks, but they’ve also played Miami twice. Joel Anthony started both games, even with a healthy Udonis Haslem and LeBron James actually being larger than the Bobcats’ starting center. Diaw responded in the first game with a near triple double, undeterred by Anthony’s status as a true center with superior size. Interestingly, the Bobcats have a couple of phantom centers in Diop and BJ Mullens, but they chose not to start them against Dwight Howard or Andrew Bogut.

Throughout the rest of the season, look for how the starting line-ups for teams like Minnesota and Denver won’t change versus Charlotte. If the rosters stay the same, Milicic will start and fling awkward jump hooks off the front rim, unable to capitalize on his vaunted size. The effect of imposing centers like Shaq has left the league polluted with seven-foot men devoid of skill and incapable to even accomplish the things we assume someone of that size can do. They are phantom players, defending imaginary giants on the other team who do not exist.

As an epilogue, I would like to note that there’s hope. Collins found a niche in Atlanta playing fewer minutes and starting only part of the time, effectively a designated post defender only used when needed. The Hawks’ surprising win against the Magic was in large part due to his ability go guard Howard one-on-one. Brave coaches in search of an edge in a competitive league may experiment more with adaptable line-ups, which would eliminate the problem of the phantom center.

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The NBA and Ethnicity: the Race of Each Team

This gallery contains 34 photos.

Update: You can view the full article in the link below. I moved my blog so Swiss hitman would be further off the trail. You can find more content including graphs in the link. http://ascreamingcomesacrossthecourt.blogspot.com/2012/01/nba-and-ethnicity-race-of-each-team.html I’m starting a weekly article … Continue reading

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2011-2012 Eastern Conference Preview

ATLANTIC DIVISION

 

Boston Celtics

Although NBA veterans are respected by the media, veteran teams get little respect at the start of the season, when the flowering potential of youth is the most intoxicating. The season won’t be kind to an older team with little depth, but the Celtics wouldn’t have cared much about the regular season either way. Ray Allen is a long-range shooter in great shape, Pierce relies on a mid-range shot and his size and strength, and Kevin Garnett is a highly skilled seven-footer – these are not the type to fall off a cliff suddenly.

Expect their veteran trio to be rested early and often until the playoffs, while Rondo could use the trade rumors as motivation to post a career season. Their holes are not as bad as one would think since they signed Pietrus, who will hopefully take minutes away from the awful Pavlovic. Bass will provide scoring off the bench for a surprisingly bad offensive team; he and Garnett will combine to form probably the best midrange jump shooting power forward tandem in the league. There is a hole at center, but if Jermaine O’Neal is halfway healthy he can at least provide them with defense, and Boston will try to use Garnett more at center this year. Keyon Dooling was an underrated pick-up as multiple metrics had him as one of the best guard defenders in the league, but his offense is poor and Rondo is one of the few guards who’s a worse shooter.

Unlike many older teams, they have a favorable cap situation with only Paul Pierce and Rondo, who’s making $10 million with $1 million annual increases, and a couple of draft picks under contract beyond this year. I’ve heard no news about major free agents being targeted by Boston, and with the amnesty clause there will be many teams trying to court Dwight Howard or others. It will be interesting to see if Ray Allen leaves and what kind of money Garnett can receive after making over $21 million this season. This could very well be the last year with this incarnation of the Boston Celtics, and with a title and a few high win seasons already under their belts they have fewer reasons to stay together.

With the Bull’s ascension and the south beach ball club in year two of Lebron, Wade and Bosh, Boston is relegated to a rare underdog status. There will be a lot of stories about the compressed schedule, the reduced minutes, and worries about health, but Boston knows it won’t be able to take a higher seed than Miami or Chicago and will concentrate on keeping their team healthy and sharp before a playoff run. They still have one of the best defenses in the league led by Kevin Garnett, at 35 years-old still a defensive force that changes the game. They could sink down in the standings, but they won’t care about home-court advantage versus teams like Indiana or Orlando.

Prediction: 44-22

Random prediction: The New York-Boston first round match-up ends up being an all-time class, as the relatively disappointing season from the Knicks from their lack of depth is not a problem in the playoffs as they can play Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler huge minutes, and Rondo and Spike Lee become enemies.

New Jersey Nets

There are many rebuilding teams in the NBA, but no one else is actually physically rebuilding – the New Jersey Nets will become the Brooklyn Nets. In the meantime, they’re actively lobbying for Dwight Howard, their own young center broke his foot, they have one of the best point guards in the game in his prime and essentially on a rental contract, and their Russian owner is running for president. It’s a weird season in New Jersey, and it would be a miracle if they made the playoffs. Their New Jersey diehard fans will have an awkward goodbye.

Brook Lopez has never missed an NBA game, and unfortunately he’ll be out 4-6 weeks recovering from the aforementioned broken foot. Last season he was one of the worst rebounders for a center, but some reports said he was suffering through an injury all season that limited his rebounding. In the preseason his rebounding did improve, but we’ll have to wait a couple months. On the bright side, their first round pick will likely improve, which will help in the rebuilding effort and for trade value. They have a couple of solid role players with an excellent sniper in Anthony Morrow, the rebounding/energy guy Kris Humphries, and the three point shooting Turkish center Okur, but beyond that it’s the dregs of the league – Johan Petro, Damion James, and insignificant rookies.

The injury to Brook Lopez knocked down the chance of Dwight Howard being traded, which means their season is less volatile. They’ll likely finish the season without any major changes save for maybe Russian Andrei Kirilenko joining the team. The last season for the Nets will be fairly unremarkable, other than watching the deft playmaking skills of Deron Williams, but it will be followed by earth-moving reforms in the free agency/trade market and the relocation to Brooklyn.

Prediction: 21-45

Random prediction: Kirilenko and Williams rejoin forces, and the Kirilenko-Humphries line-up provides a rare bit of entertainment for the Nets as the AK-47 finally lives out his destiny as a small-ball four.

New York Knicks

New York made a free agent signing that perfectly addressed a need – a defensive minded center who could protect the rim, collect rebounds, and stay out of the way on offense. They predictably overreacted, fans claiming they had their own big three and thinking they could now contend with the Bulls and Heat. However, their stars are far from Miami’s – the difference between Lebron and Amare, for example, is one between a durable forward who can score at will and defend nearly as well as any forward, and an injury-prone forward/center who can score at will but is a terrible defender, the overall effect being a few wins in the standings. Tyson will help immensely, but he’s lost major time to injuries and their first big man off the bench is Jared Jeffries. This is one of the teams for whom a compressed schedule will be a significant negative.

Another major change is swapping Billups out for Baron Davis, who may or may not use the limelight of Madison Square Garden for motivation to actually play hard this season. Outside of inexplicably shooting threes even though he’s 32 percent for his career, his remarkable passing skills will be put to use on the D’Antoni offense. He’s 32 years old and perpetually out of shape, though; any good production they get out of him this season is gravy. Beyond Davis at the guard spot, they have Landry Fields, the Stanford shooting guard as the role player who can do a little bit of everything; Toney Douglas, an athletic combo guard who like most of his type isn’t ideal running the offense but is an impressive scorer and defender at either spot; and Mike Bibby, a veteran whose shooting and passing skills are voided by his horrible defense.

As for competing this season, the Knicks will be limited by defense and the patchwork roster filler. Amare and Carmelo’s defense is so poor that they will sometimes entirely negate their offensive value by giving it up on the other end. Given that they’re both forwards, it’s harder to find the right match-up defensively. After Carmelo’s trade last season, the Knicks didn’t play like true contenders; they were 14-14 after gaining the small forward. The Nuggets took off after losing their all-star, indicating that he’s not the superstar that can single-handedly keep a team competitive like Lebron. It would take a surprise season from one of their young players or the Baron Davis of old to move this team to the top three in the east, and it’s obvious from that sentence how unlikely that is.

Instead Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire will score a lot, keep the team over 0.500 but not by much, and will feature in a number of big games on TV. For the economy of the NBA, it’s great to have an exciting Knicks team, but I hope the NYC-area doesn’t count on a deep playoff run. Their best hope is a late pick-up from a player like Kenyon Martin fleeing China; he can give them more of the defense that they need and prevent some terrible frontcourt players from getting time. It won’t be a perfect season, but it’s better than about everything that happened last decade.

Prediction: 36-30

Random prediction: Baron Davis will have a run where he’ll average over 10 assists a game with impressive dishes right to the basket, but an injury will derail his campaign and after he comes back he’s limited and jacks up unwarranted threes.

Philadelphia 76ers

With a shallow field of contenders in the east and the turmoil in Orlando, Philadelphia hopes to improve on their 0.500 basketball least season and secure a better seed. They’ll be one of a few teams gunning for a sixth seed or higher in the conference, hoping to avoid Chicago or Miami, or preferably Boston too, in the first round. Tied to two large contracts for three years in Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, the rest of the squad is young, fast, and loaded with potential.

The strength of the 76ers lies with athletic players like Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young. They’re a deadly team in transition, and have some of the best finishers in the game. As has been the problem in recent years, they are still a terrible three-point shooting team, and their only long-range shooter, fringe rotation player Jodie Meeks, capitalized on their need with 152 makes. Their inability to space the floor has stunted the growth of their offense, however potent it still is.

No major roster moves helps them with continuity important with a short training camp and preseason, and they’ve retained a mostly young crew of talented players. Their disappointment from last season, a number 2 overall pick in the draft, Evan Turner, has good size for a shooting guard, rebounded extremely well, and showed his passing skills. However, he could not score at all – his outside shooting was abysmal, created few shots with 7 points in 23 minutes, and his lone positive, a free-throw percentage of 81%, was offset by his inability to draw fouls. He’s likely to improve because it’s difficult to imagine how much worse he could have shot. Another player, 21 year-old point guard Jrue Holiday, should also dramatically improve as young point’s often do.

Unlike the west, there is a clear separation between the top teams and the lower bound playoff teams. Other than outside shooting, their weakness is the lack of a center and rim protector. Over the course of a clustered season with young legs the problem won’t surface too often, as one of their best lineups is Brand at center and Thaddeus Young at power forward, but in a playoff series against certain teams like Orlando they’ll be exposed. In fact, they’d rather face Boston, who also has a hole at the 5 spot, than Orlando if they still have Howard. It’s unclear how far this group can go with their nucleus, and it’s likely they’ll mirror the Atlanta Hawks – steady improvement with a couple highlights of reaching the second round, but nothing more without a major overhaul.

Prediction: 35-31

Random prediction: Iguodala finally gets the defensive credit he deserves after impressive games against the top scorers like Lebron on TV games and makes the first team all-defense as a small forward alongside Tony Allen.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto is one of the most pathetic team in the league, diving into the recesses of the league with Charlotte, because of a roster with little potential star power. Their first overall pick a few years ago, Andrea Bargnani, has been disappointing and is probably the worst defensive player who gets major playing time in the NBA, and they rewarded him with a long contract with one million dollar increases each year until 2015, where he’ll make $12 million. He’s a center with tantalizing offensive skills with good long-range shooting numbers, which is how you can forgive people fawning over his potential, but he’s 26 now and was out rebounded last season by Shane Battier, Chase Budinger, and Evan Turner.

Outside of that most well-known player, the Raptors do have some interesting players in their early 20’s. DeMar DeRozan is the typical athletic wing who can barely harness his talent and is one of the best dunkers in the game; he could be the next Rudy Gay. Ed Davis is a long power forward who can hit varying shots at a high-percentage. The long contract to Amir Johnson was a bit odd, but at least they invested in a young player rather than one entering his thirties like other teams have; he’s also an excellent rebounder and shot blocker who’s reduced his turnovers and is a surprisingly good free-throw shooter, nearly hitting 80 percent. Beyond that, they have a young shoot first point guard in Bayless and a few interesting players who are unfortunately a bit older and mostly from foreign lands.

Their young players still have a tenuous grasp on NBA-level defense, and as a result they’ll be contending for the worst record in the league for the strong upcoming draft. In the meanwhile, the only Canadian city with an NBA team can greet fellow Canadian Jamaal Magloire, and cheer on a ragtag assortment of players such as Jose Calderon, who shook off a disappointing 2009-10 and regained his record breaking free-throw stroke and some of his defense, and the Brazilian Blur Barbosa, coming off an uncharacteristically poor shooting year. They are another team who’s playing for future seasons, and will provide fodder for the rest of the league, but with some young talent, an upcoming likely high pick in the draft, and a good international player, Jonas Valanciunas, overseas for the season they are building toward a brighter tomorrow.

Prediction: 18-48

Random prediction: Recovered from his hamstring injury a couple years ago, Jose Calderon posts a 50-40-90 season with 9 assists a game.

 

CENTRAL DIVISION

 

Chicago Bulls

Chicago broke through last season on one of the best defenses in the league, where Rose carried their mediocre offense and won an MVP for doing so. They return intact with Richard Hamilton their new shooting guard, hoping to boost their anemic scoring. In fact, if they want to win a championship, their offense is where they need to improve, and Rose’s continued improvement along with a decent Boozer season could make the difference they require.

Unlike every team but a small handful, the Bulls have a deep frontcourt where the production barely changes when the subs come into the game. If they do rest their starters more, expect their drop-off to be less than other teams like the Celtics. They will contend with the Heat for the top playoff seed, which is an important advantage to hold if the playoff series is close. The way to beat the Bulls is to have someone who can relatively contain Derrick Rose, likely a long-armed but quick defender similar to Lebron, and to attack their defense at the guard spots, where they have Rose, athletic but not a good defender, and the majority of the time either Hamilton or Kyle Korver at the 2. Wearing Rose down with a speedy point guard may also work well.

Although they’re perceived as one of the up and coming young teams in the league, in reality they’re around the average mark for age. Boozer and Hamilton are in their early 30’s, and even some of their young guys are older than they seem – Omer Asik is 25 and Taj Gibson and Noah are 26. Regardless, with their core group they should be competitive for a while, and they have enough assets to pull off a major trade, i.e. Dwight Howard. Their youth is mostly represented by the MVP Derrick Rose, and paradoxically after winning the top individual award he still has a lot of room to improve his game.

This year will be one of the best chances to win a title, as their best players are either entering their prime or just leaving it. With how good they already are, they really only have one team to worry about – the Heat. Rose will need to find a way to score against Miami, and the Bulls have to find a way to defend both Lebron and Wade at the same time. If they make it to the finals, they should be the favorites against anyone in the west.

Prediction: 49-17

Random prediction: With Lebron and Wade on the same team, Howard stuck in purgatory wondering where he’ll go, and Durant one of the few competitors, Rose nearly wins the MVP again after he improves his outside shooting, but before mirroring Nash’s back-to-back awards he loses in a close vote as the NBA sabermetric community finally has enough sway.

Cleveland Cavaliers

After losing former number one overall draft pick Lebron James, the Cavaliers were terrible enough to win the number one pick again, selecting point guard Kyrie Irving in a weak rookie class. He won’t be the savior King James was, and I don’t think management realizes that Lebron left because of their deficiencies in surrounding him with talent. Owner Dan Gilbert didn’t take any of the blame, as executives normally behave, and instead fired off an insane rant that sounded like something from a heartbroken fan. Rebuilding teams have to understand that not only do they have to redo the roster when they run into trouble; they need to remake the entire organization. However, the guys in charge are unlikely to fire themselves for performing terribly, and Cleveland fans will pray that after a gluttony of prospects they’ll have to start winning games again.

The season is basically one long set of tryouts for Kyrie Irving, who unlike recent point guard prospects is not a fast twitch hyper-athlete like John Wall or Rose but is an efficient guard who can shoot from outside and facilitate an offense. They also have Tristan Thompson as a parting gift from Lebron for the fourth pick; he’s an energy player who won’t give anything offensively but can rebound and block shots at an NBA level. Other than that, they have a veteran scorer trapped on a lottery team in Antawn Jamison, using his poor defense to ensure a higher pick; the valuable Anderson Varejao who could be had by a contender for an expiring contract and a draft pick; and an odd assortment of young misfit toys without much potential. Omri Casspi is the first Israeli player in the league, and is a good three-point shooter for his size at 6’ 9”. Ramon Sessions is a pick and roll master who can’t defend at this level. Christian Eyenga is a high-flying Congolese dunker and shot-blocker, but he’s still working on the very basic facets of the game. Likewise, Ryan Hollins is also an impressive dunker, but he’s outrebounded by a great many small forwards. They also have a three-point sniper in Daniel Gibson; that’s about all he can accomplish, though.

Moving forward, Cleveland can look forward to another high draft pick, and this time it’s a strong draft. If they’re lucky they can move Varejao for some rebuilding pieces. They’ll race to the bottom against Toronto and other terrible teams in full knowledge that they squandered one of the best number one picks in league history and that there’s little chance they’ll acquire another player of equal talent.

Prediction: Eyenga jumps over a small point guard for a dunk and earns a trip to the dunk contest, where he has one amazing dunk and another that kicks him out of contention.

Random prediction: 18-48

Detroit Pistons

A couple years too late, the Pistons finally jettisoned Richard Hamilton, although they still have Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace came back. After the Pistons surprised the NBA with a championship, Joe Dumars was hailed as one of the best architects in the league, but after a few failed experiments their no-stars Cinderella run is looking more inexplicable every month. Decent enough to beat cellar-dwellers but nowhere near a playoff seed, Detroit is neither truly rebuilding nor playing for the present. Before their championship banner fades in Midwest memories, they need clean the roster and plan for the future responsibly.

Most of their roster is seemingly two types of players: combo guards and ultra-thin and long forwards. Between Will Bynum, Ben Gordon, and Rodney Stuckey, they have three guys who love to shoot and hesitate to pass. They’re also old enough that any chance of one of them magically turning into a well-rounded point guard is effectively gone. They also decided to draft another combo guard with Brandon Knight. For the next subset of players, they have the league’s only Swedish player Jonas Jerebko, athletic 6’ 10” forward coming off a torn Achilles. They also have Villanueva, a player known for having no hair on his body (alopecia) – meaning, his game isn’t good enough to warrant much else in attention. There’s the promising Austin Daye listed at 6’ 11” at the impossible weight of 200 lbs; he’s a good outside shooter and a decent rebounder and shot-blocker. Lastly, there’s the patriarch of the group, Tayshaun Prince, who signed a long-term deal to stay with the Pistons for whatever reason.

The Pistons’ most important player, however, is Greg Monroe, a sweet passing big man with enough size for the center position who even as a young rookie scored at a high percentage and frequency. His ceiling is limited by his lack of athleticism, where he’s more likely to get blocked than to block others. He’s a good rebounder, but he’s an under the rim type. He’s playing next to the horizontally expanding Jason Maxiell and the 37 year-old Ben Wallace; the Pistons have to hope he takes major strides forward.

Detroit would be lucky to make the playoffs this year, and if they did it would stall their development as it would put them out of the running for another high draft pick and enable their wayward strategy to play guys like Ben Gordon huge minutes. Thankfully, they’ve changed course and hired defensive guru Lawrence Frank and put in new management, getting a “stats guy” for the first time. It could be a long rebuild. The Pistons were once so loaded they wasted a number two pick on Darko Milicic in one of the deepest drafts ever and still won a championship that year. Now they’re a shell of their former selves, mirroring the desolation in the economic ruin of modern day Detroit.

Prediction: 26-46

Random prediction: Unable to run an offense effectively through their guards, the Pistons often play through Greg Monroe, who nearly posts an impressive 3 assists a game for most of the season and conjures comparisons to Brad Miller.

Indiana Pacers

Most teams would claim a densely packed schedule work hurt them, but Indiana is one of a very few that definitely benefit. They let Josh McRoberts go, as having two white power forwards plus white center Jeff Foster was confusing enough. Thankfully, they found Louis Amundson, but they also signed all-star power forward David West, giving them another credible offensive threat to go along with Danny Granger. Also receiving George Hill, they’re two deep with quality at every position except shooting guard, where they’ll deploy the 6’ 8” Danny Granger at times with 6’ 10” Paul George at the 3 for one of the biggest line-ups in the league. While other teams carefully rest their best players during back-to-back-to-back’s, Indiana won’t miss a beat with one of the best benches in the NBA.

Like the Nuggets in the west, the Pacers have plenty of quality players but only fringe all-star’s. West is a two-time all-star but at 31 is unlikely to repeat, while Granger has only been there once. However, if the Pacers jump out to a stellar record, expect one of those two to make it, although both listed as forwards could be split some votes. Outside of those two, there’s plenty to like about the team. Point guard Darren Collison is one of the fastest players in the league and has added the three-pointer to his repertoire, but at only six feet tall he’s lucky to be backed up by the bigger George Hill, a solid defensive player who can also hit three’s. They have a decent big man rotation with one of the biggest players in the league, the 7’ 2” Roy Hibbert, the scoring pick and pop David West, energy guys in both Tyler Hansbrough and Amundson, the veteran defender Jeff Foster, and they can go small with Paul George or Granger at the 4.

The key to beating the Pacers is to vary your approach based on who’s in the game. You can post up Darren Collison, but not against the bigger George Hill. A pick and roll can leave Hibbert exposed, but it’s difficult against one of the best pick and roll defenders in the league with Jeff Foster. Their weakness is the shooting guard, but Dahntay Jones is a good defender; he can also draw fouls and hit his long jumpers at a good rate. However, depth does not always equal quality, and as nice as their players are the top teams in the east all have at least one player who’s better than anyone on the Pacers. Through a bumpy season it will prove useful, but no one in Indiana has realistic championship aspirations.

Last season they sneaked into the playoffs with a dreadful 37-45 record. I’d expect this year they should break 0.500, but it’ll only set them up for a series against a team like the Celtics or the Bulls, who despite any heroics from the underdog Pacers should beat them easily. Their current roster doesn’t have the talent of a future contender, unless the 21 year-old Paul George delivers on his promise and his weird growth spurt in the offseason; but the Pacers have sizable cap space next summer. Players don’t flock to the land of corn like they do to warm beaches, but they’ve shown with David West and the talent surrounding they can build a good team. Orlando is receding, Boston is aging, and Atlanta is stalled. Indiana can capitalize on their descents and move up in the east either this year or the next.

Prediction: 36-30

Random prediction: With a good crop of forwards in the east, some of the media throw a fit when no Pacer is selected to the all-star game, as David West and Granger are edged by guys like Bosh and Stoudemire.

Milwaukee Bucks

While other middle class teams New York (middle class in terms of wins: 42-40 last year) and Indiana added marquee free agents, the Bucks were relegated to the likes of Mike Dunleavy and Beno Udrih. They thrive with one of the best defenses in the league at the same level as Chicago, Boston and Orlando, but without a quality scorer they’re pressed to beat opponents with scores in the 80’s. Nothing has changed last season, trading out Dunleavy from Maggette, but a full season with a healthy Bogut could prove the difference between a playoff berth and the lottery.

Defensive master Scott Skiles and center Andrew Bogut form the basis for any good team on that end of the floor, but they also possess other quality defenders. For example, Mbah a Moute is one of the most overlooked and versatile defenders in the game, but his lack of an offensive game limits his minutes. Bogut, however, is good enough to deserve consideration for defensive player of the year. He’s an excellent shot-blocker and takes a load of charges, two skills that rarely overlap. His advanced defensive numbers have also been exceptional, and he’s also a great rebounder. His problem is that his team is so offensively starved they look to him as a first option even after the bad elbow injury affected his shot. He has a decent post game, but nothing to form an offense around. It appeared he came back too early from the previously mentioned elbow injury, but with a long offseason he should as healthy as he’s been in years.

As good as their defense was last season, their opponents limited them to even worse numbers. I doubt their new small forward will help in this regard, as Milwaukee is the place where small forwards go to decay. Stephen Jackson, who plays a lot of the small forward spot now that his quickness is leaving him, is coming off a year where he shot 41 percent. Corey Maggette last year had his worst season in a decade. His previous skills at drawing fouls at an elite rate were diminished immensely. The year before John Salmons reminded the Bucks about his age and was a disappointment after a trade, losing several points off his field-goal percentage. The year before that they acquired Richard Jefferson, who started a steady decline where he’s now an amnesty candidate in San Antonio. This year the 31 year-old Mike Dunleavy regress after a bounce back year and begin to form his retirement plans, likely away from the frigid winters of Wisconsin.

If there were ever a team for a high volume masterful scorer like Carmelo Anthony, this would be it. Alas, they’re doomed to repeat 0.500 basketball with one of the best defenses in the league while being led offensively by Brandon Jennings, Udrih, Dunleavy, and Stephen Jackson. Their greatest hope, Brandon Jennings, followed a shaky rookie season with a shaky sophomore year, scoring a ton but only because someone had to shoot before the 24 second shot clock expired. His career field-goal percentage is 38, and even after adjusting for threes and free throws his true-shooting percentage is a ghastly 48, destroyed by the worst shooting at the rim out of any player in the league. He’s still young enough to improve, but the Bucks could be first round material for the Heat and Bulls for at least a couple more years.

Prediction: 34-32

Random prediction: With the theatrics in Orlando and voter fatigue in awarding Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut wins the defensive player of the year after his healthiest season yet nearly leading the league in both charges and blocks per game with 11 rebounds.

 

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

 

Atlanta Hawks

Once an up and coming team, the Hawks may have reached their ceiling, cap space absorbed by their trio of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford while the rest of the team declines. Sixth man Jamaal Crawford is gone, replaced by the ghosts of Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse, who once scored 20 points a game when likely starter Jeff Teague was only 8. The Hawks could be the odd man out after Indiana and New York improved, while the Bucks will have a fully healthy Bogut, and the wild card Nets if they get Dwight Howard. After returning to the second round of the playoffs, they’ll expect more. However, it was more of a fluke – they only finished with 44 wins and were outscored on average each game, meaning they should have won less than 41 games, and beat Orlando because they had Howard’s kryptonite in Jason Collins.

With Hinrich out for the first part of the season, the Hawks have to use Johnson and McGrady as point guards, indicating their depth will be a problem. Johnson is heading into his 30’s and has shown signs of declining. His stupidly large contract is already a problem because they didn’t have any money to sign free agents. He’s set to make about $25 million in five years. Even in his best season he didn’t deserve anywhere near that kind of money, but in the weird financial world of the NBA veteran players who everyone knows will diminish in value still get raises each year. They could be saving their amnesty weapon for him, but they also have the albatross contract of Marvin Williams, a fringe starter who’s set to make $8 million next year with a player option he’ll be sure to use for $7.5. Luckily, they have smart contracts for Josh Smith at $12 to $13 million the next two years, and their 25 year-old all-star center an even $12 every year for the next five.

Atlanta is once again without a point guard, while Chris Paul enjoys a loaded Clippers team the second pick in that draft Marvin Williams has stalled as a combo forward who can’t hit threes but will hit a few open jumpers without much else. The Hawks are a warning against rebuilding gone wrong: they stocked up on young players through the draft not with scouting talent but repeated trips to the lottery; they got a big free agent to sign with them but ended up overpaying him and destroying their cap space for years; and now that their young studs have grown up with bigger salaries they have no room or the smarts to fill out a bench or the hole at point guard. At least Atlanta fans can watch one of the most interesting frontcourts in the league with the high-flying Josh Smith, who recently lost 20 lbs and could win his first all-star trip, and well-rounded Horford.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Atlanta made the playoffs, but the middle class of the east with Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, and Indiana is playing musical chairs and one team has to sit out the playoffs. It could be Orlando if they trade Dwight Howard, but that’s looking unlikely right now. They don’t have any room next year to sign Deron Williams or someone of his caliber, and the Johnson contract will be eating up nearly a third of their salary space for five years. Without any rookies and the only young player of note Jeff Teague, the Hawks are hoping for things like Tracy McGrady regaining his game. In other words, they’ll be disappointed.

Prediction: 33-33

Random prediction: Despite a career year, Smith once again misses a trip to the all-star game and watches Horford return again because of the lack of centers and Joe Johnson just missing out because the back-up guard slots go to point guards and their disappointing record precludes anyone from taking two Hawks.

Charlotte Bobcats

It’s the awkward stage in an NBA franchise where people have waited patiently for the expansion team to develop, and instead the highlight of seven years is 2010 where they went to the first round of the playoffs and had Gerald Wallace represent them in an all-star team. Soon after they traded him and finished tenth in the east. Luckily, they could be bad enough this year they could snag one of the top picks in a loaded draft. Boris Diaw is their starting center, the offensively stunted Bucks cast aside Maggette as their scorer but on the Bobcats he’ll be their best weapon, Tyrus Thomas is their most talented player, and the rest of their rotation – Diop is their back-up center, Matt Carroll their bench shooter, etc. — is mainly players who wouldn’t be employed in the NBA if it weren’t for the Bobcats.

Last season they were surprisingly decent, and that’s the only compliment you could give their organization. They’ve been unable to find star power; Okafor and Gerald Wallace were the best players they ever had. Bismack Biyombo doesn’t look like an all-star, but his defensive ability could be significant in a couple years, similar to Ibaka’s rise in Oklahoma City. Kemba Walker is the other player to watch. He’s a scorer trapped in a point guard’s body, but on the Bobcats they won’t mind if he can be productive. Another bright spot is ace defender Gerald Henderson, who also has a decent midrange game. Next year they’ll be awarded another lottery treasure, but unfortunately owner Michael Jordan, the biggest name on the team, is the same guy who took Kwame Brown with the first pick. They’re also one of the worst free agent destinations in the league. If your only good offer is from Charlotte, you have to reconsider your basketball skills.

I can’t imagine what Dwight Howard or big teams like the Grizzlies will do against the Bobcats, whose best countermove is giving Diop and Byron Mullens huge minutes. Causal fans still know little about the team, and most are faintly aware of even their existence. They’ve wasted years in the league to build to very little, and it’s disappointing Charlotte will have to suffer through at least two more years of major rebuilding.

Prediction: 20-46

Random prediction: Diaw ties Lebron for the lead in triple doubles with four on the season largely because the Bobcats have no choice but to run a good portion of the offense through him with major minutes.

Miami Heat

The most important fact about this year’s incarnation of the Miami Heat isn’t the addition of aging perimeter stopper Shane Battier or even a healthy year from Haslem; it’s that they’re going for a full force transition led offense fed by an energetic defense. Any basketball fan should be excited just for that. They’re also the favorites to win the title, a year after they reached the finals and were shocked by the Mavericks. The partnership of Lebron, Wade and Bosh was enough of a talent surge that a near 60 win season and a finals trip were a disappointment, but they weren’t far from a title and will have another shot at it, the elusive ring for King James as he looks to redeem himself.

The supporting cast of their top three players is a testament to how great those three are. Last season they tried out a center rotation of Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony, Juwan Howard, and Jamaal Magloire with Eddy Curry added this year because apparently they have no idea what a good center looks like. At the point guard spot, they pressed the young Mario Chalmers into a starting job he somehow lost despite having no competition. Norris Cole, a nice late-round pick, could very well steal his job this year by only playing marginally better than people expect despite being picked nearly in the second round. Their center spot didn’t improve either. Dalembert decided playing for the country’s largest contingent of fellow Hatians and a good chance at a ring wasn’t enough for the allure of 0.500 basketball in Houston. Joel Anthony will start, but thankfully the coach has hinted Chris Bosh will spend a huge portion of his time at the 5 to press the other team in a fast, skilled line-up. Anthony is definitely a good defender, but he’s one of the worst offensive players in the league and a terrible rebounder; they’re better off without him in most circumstances, the exception being Dexter Pittman and Eddy Curry would be the back-ups.

While the support cast is indeed weak, Miami’s a top team because of the basically unprecedented duo of Wade and Lebron, and they also have an all-star power forward if they run out of options. Wade and Lebron have overlapping skill-sets, and that can translate into lost production, but they can also terrorize teams because they’re both supremely athletic, nimble exploding through defenders to the rim, excellent finishers, and wreak havoc defensively. Few teams have someone to defend either superstar; no one has two. They are both also great passers, making a fast break with those two nigh unstoppable. When Miami goes small with Bosh or Haslem at the 5 spot, their ability to rebound at a high level can make up for any loss, and both have the strength and athleticism to guard players larger. Miami’s two superstar wings give them the versatility they need to cover their weaknesses.

Perhaps their fourth best player, Haslem will back-up Bosh and fill in at center, hopefully stopping Eddy Curry from receiving major playing time. Haslem is a tough big man who plays defense well and can hit a midrange jumper, essentially staying out of the way on offense but enough of a threat to keep some attention on him. The Heat’s major free agent signing was Shane Battier, formerly one of the best defenders in the game but still good enough to impact the game. Like Haslem, he’ll stay out of the way on offense, but can set up at the three point line to spread the floor; he also has a decent post game he can use against smaller wings. James Jones is their last capable rotation player: he’s a good defender with lots of length, and at the other end of the court will literally only take outside shots. Some of their best line-ups usually included Jones because he’s a plus defender and drives from James or Wade could often end in a kick-out to Jones.

Even with a weak bench, the Miami Heat are the favorites to win the title, and short of anything out of left field like Dwight Howard going to Chicago they should be able to claim the championship. The only games that matter are the playoffs, but the big three will use the criticism thrown at the team after losing to the Mavericks to storm the regular season and contend for a top seed. The only teams who match up well are the Grizzlies because they have Tony Allen to guard Wade and Rudy Gay for James with enough size inside to exploit their lack of a good center, and possibly the Lakers if Bynum is playing well. However, both teams lost frontcourt depth and may take a backseat this season to the Thunder. With Bosh adding a three point shot and vowing to rebound more after his worst season in seven years, and James finally adding a post-game, the Heat are set to bring the championship back to the south beach in Florida.

Prediction: 50-16

Random prediction: James will post a field-goal percentage of 53 and one of his best years while Wade loses a few games due to injury; Lebron uses the NBA’s best record to claim another MVP.

Orlando Magic

The Magic are the latest team to be overshadowed by the potential move of a star player. The Hornets waited until the Clippers included both a draft pick and Eric Gordon, the Nuggets unloaded Anthony onto the Knicks, and the Jazz sent out Deron Williams before anyone had any clue it was going to happen. Orlando meanwhile is following a disappointing playoff berth when Howard was made mortal against the Hawks. However, his team had no one else to bail him out because after a flurry of trades the past couple seasons the talent surrounding him is still subpar. If he stays they’ll be good again this season because Howard single-handedly makes them a great defensive team and distorts defensive attention like a black hole to a gravitation field.

The latest reports indicate that Orlando is specifically looking for not a better young package of players but one with veteran talent because the ownership doesn’t want to suffer through a rebuilding process. The management behind Orlando makes one consider how the people in charge ever rose to a position of power because they clearly have no idea what they’re doing. Even with Howard the team is still not a true contender, and if they were to ship him out in a trade there’s no possible way they can better themselves. Who’s going to send out equal present value for Howard? The only team with that remote possibility is the Bulls, who can offer a combination of Boozer, Noah, Gibson or Asik, all superb big men. When losing a star, however, the best course of action is to reload with young guys laden with potential and draft picks, bottoming out for a couple seasons, and waiting for the talent to blossom. Owners and managers who think otherwise don’t understand the NBA and should give the responsibility to an adult.

If the Magic keep Howard, they will be a very good team with a respectable seed in the playoffs. However, I can’t see keeping him past the trade deadline because they could lose him for absolutely nothing and management apparently wants to keep contending after he leaves. There’s no way they’ll get back the same value in return, and as such they should see a decline in winning percentage compared to last season. They also traded Brandon Bass for Glen Davis, an overrated player they’ll trot out at center despite his inability to cover the position.

The Magic have been one of the better teams in the east for a while principally because of their defense. Last year they were third in defensive efficiency, and with an average offense this led them to a four seed in the playoffs. It’s surprising they were a better defensive team than Miami, Milwaukee, LA Lakers, and the champions Dallas especially when you consider outside of Dwight Howard they have no plus defenders. On the wings they used six foot Jameer Nelson, aging dunk-smith Jason Richardson who was never known for his defense, plodding Turkoglu, JJ Redick, Gilbert freakin’ Arenas, and a bit of Vince Carter. Out of that group it’s arguable JJ Redick is the best defender or maybe Nelson. Howard’s ability to cover the ground quickly and contest any shot in the area protects the basket and bails out his “help” in the backcourt. He also controls the boards as well as anyone and rarely misses a game. Some of the defensive credit should go to Van Gundy, but coaching only goes so far.

Outside of Dwight Howard, the Magic do have a couple of interesting pieces. Ryan Anderson is a young phenom scorer, combining excellent three point shooting with a knack inside for rebounding and finishing. It goes without saying he’s a poor defender, but with more playing time he could average something like 18 points and 9 boards. Turkoglu is a point forward who uses his size to get off his shot against anyone, and although he’s disappointing for his contract his ability to pass and connect from distance should hold up well enough before his mobility declines enough with age he’s forced off the court. Redick had a good year shooting where he makes up for his small stature with effort, and Jason Richardson adds yet another three point threat with over two makes a game for a team that led the league last season in field point field goals and holds the record for a single season from two years ago. However, outside of Turkoglu they have no creators and depend on Howard drawing attention to free them up.

Even though talks have stalled, I expect Howard to leave Orlando, where the legacy of the organization is to squander the talent of the big center of his respective generation. Since they won’t rebuild, they’ll face one of the largest drop-offs in defense with a cast of three point snipers and veterans, talented enough to compete for the playoffs but nothing more. Some will blame Howard’s unrefined post-game, but few players in the last ten years have done more for a team than the center. The Magic will only realize what they had when he’s gone.

Prediction: 37-29

Random prediction: Ryan Anderson has a breakout season with over 200 three pointers made, contending for the league lead.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards will be content to watch their young talent grow and a win a few games to ride into the lottery. They feature one of the best point guards in the game, John Wall, a hyper athletic player with enough size for the 2 spot. They also have one of the most intriguing players in the game with JaVale McGee, who combines circus-freak long arms on a seven foot frame with great athleticism. Washington will win a few more games because their young kids are learning each day how to play NBA level basketball, but they’re still a year away from slipping into the eight seed. However, they have one of the best rebuilding projects in the league and fans will be patient because they get to watch John Wall.

Washington is largely the same team except for their draft pick, dunking Euro wizard Jan Vesely, who has the size at 6’ 11” and 240 lbs to play but still needs more development to be a rotation piece. He’s normally described as a small forward, but without an outside shot and with his size it won’t last long. Nick Young turned into a good jump shooter, but like most of his team has a lot to go on the defensive end.  Andray Blatche is a decent midrange power forward; however, if the offense is relying on him too heavily the team is probably in trouble. Outside of their core group of young players, they have mostly journey-men and veterans like Rashard Lewis, who escaped the amnesty axe because the team wanted to get some production for their $21 million, although I would argue they’re playing for the lottery anyway and they could save money when teams bid on him since the new contract is subtracted from what the Wizards would pay.

The surrounding talent is decent for a lottery team, but the future is John Wall. Not only is he as athletic as any other guard in the league, but he picked up over eight assists a game with a meager cast. He had too many turnovers and his shooting percentages were too low, but most superstar wings had the same problem their rookie years. A combination of size, speed, finishing ability, and passing makes him a lock for an all-star game soon; he’s like Baron Davis but already looks like a better decision maker when running the offense. The Wizards are lucky to have potential studs at point guard and center, the two hardest positions to pin down, because McGee has such a high reach with his wingspan and seven foot frame that he doesn’t have to jump much to contest shots; with his jumping ability he can do things like dunk two balls at baskets far apart. If he ever figures out how to play he could lead the league in blocks with over three a game and use his length to put up decent scoring numbers assisted with numerous John Wall-thrown alley-oops.

Maybe in the future games like Wizards-Bulls will be must-see TV – Wall versus Rose is already a treat – but it’s another year in the lottery for the young team. Both Wall and McGee are breakout candidates, however, and in transition the team could be as fun to watch as anyone. Next summer they’re positioned to have one of the largest troves of cap space since their young guys are still on rookie contracts and Rashard Lewis’s nearly $24 can be written off to cut the salary hold in half (seriously, more than half) from where it stands now. They’ll be sitting at around $22.5 million, but Nick Young is not included and they’d still need a qualifying offer for McGee. Quietly building a nice roster, Washington will use this season as practice and eye the next one for the major improvements.

Prediction: 24-42

Random prediction: McGee will attempt to dunk from the three-point line. Or he may try to dunk from the foul line again in a game and make it this time.

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2011-2012 Western Conference Preview

PACIFIC DIVISION

Golden State Warriors

I would argue that a compressed schedule will help an up-tempo team, but the new coach Mark Jackson has vowed to remake them into a defensive team. I’m not sure how he can do that, short of trading Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis and David Lee for Dwight Howard and a good wing defender. Like their neighbors in Sacramento, the roster is a mess of weird players. Curry is arguably the best young shooter in the league and led all pros in free-throw percentage at 93%. Dorell Wright turned out to be the kind of wing player Miami wanted and led the league in three point makes; he’s also one of the few Warriors competent at defense. Biedrins was a promising center who is more a joke now, but reports indicate his dedication is back. Udoh could end up averaging two blocks a game off the bench in 24 minutes.

Unfortunately, the organization is known for letting its talent either escape or wither. They have a knack for finding D-league players, but Reggie Williams left for the Bobcats and Brandon “Second All-time in Three-Point Percentage” Morrow went to the Nets.  The new owners don’t appear to be the saviors of the Bay Area, and they are doomed to another season of pain.

I don’t have much to write about the Warriors, which is really quite sad. Their acquisition of Kwame Brown and signing him for seven million dollars is all you need to say. Thankfully, it’s for only one year, but coach Mark Jackson will play him huge minutes because his large body incorrectly implies great defense. The best move forward for the team is to trade Ellis for a delusional GM in exchange for first round picks and young player(s). The odds of that happening are low, despite how obviously horrible a backcourt of Curry and Ellis is.

Prediction: 29-37
Random prediction: Biedrins will average double digits in rebounding for the second time in his career but will fail to eclipse the same mark in points.

LA Lakers

The salary dump: the NBA’s karma cuts both ways. The Lakers were lucky to steal Pau Gasol when Memphis decided he was too expensive (or at least that’s what they claim; I think someone was drunk and made the wrong phone call.) Then LA dumped Odom when the luxury tax became too punitive. It has to be one of the strangest and most lopsided moves, however. One, the Lakers make a ton of money from huge TV deals and a national brand; was he really too expensive? Two, did they have to trade him to a contender, especially in the west? I’m sure there are many teams who would want Odom. Three, they didn’t even get anything back from the trade – a draft pick that’s effectively nothing. They couldn’t get a one-year rental on someone? A real draft pick? The rights to a good international player? And lastly, they took themselves out from serious championship contention at a time when their window with Kobe Bryant as a star is likely closing. They don’t have any frontcourt depth and had to sign Josh McBobs to avoid playing Luke Walton serious minutes.

The Lakers suddenly have a gloomy future, as least for them. They could be bailed out by a big free agent signing, but Kobe’s stupidly large contract will make that more difficult. He will be paid 27 million next year and 30 million in two years. Depending on how revenues change in the future, that could be nearly half the way to the luxury tax. I don’t think even the most strident Laker fan can argue he will be worth that much money in 2014 and -15; the only practical defense is from a marketing perspective. I’m especially skeptical because I think he’s one of the league’s most overrated players in recent history. Yes, he’s good, but he’s been a consistent all-star instead of being absolutely dominant like O’Neal, Jordan or even LeBron James. That’s another argument for another day, but basically his albatross of a contract and their newfound reluctance to pay heavy tolls in luxury tax will be their undoing.

The lone bright spot for the Lakers is Bynum, and any basketball fan knows why that’s a terrible kind of hope. It’s like they’re waiting for Godot: the Bynum that reigns on high over all western centers has not arrived; instead they have an injury prone big man. I’ll agree that his potential is as high as any big man – he’s a legitimate seven feet tall, and maybe taller, he rebounds and picks up blocks better than most, he has flashes of brilliance where he completely owns the paint, he’s a competent free-throw shooter for his size, and he just has that feel for that game that so many centers lack, like his knack for passing that’s been underutilized as soon as he realized he was unlikely to get the ball back from Kobe. For the sake of the game, I hope he has a full season and makes the all-star team, but the chances are as small as space on the LA freeways at rush hour.

The Lakers were slipping last season, and without their sixth man their fall will accelerate. As the most entitled team in the league, they have less to worry about than most because they can be bailed out as they have in the past like getting Shaq. The grind of the densely packed season will knock a few wins off their mark, as they have the greatest drop-off of talent from their top guys to the rest of the cast this side of the Celtics. As a Blazers fan, I will enjoy this season.

Prediction: 37-29

Random prediction: Josh McRoberts will become an instant Laker fan favorite with his powerful dunks.

LA Clippers

Fan reaction to the rejected LA-Houston-New Orleans trade was apoplectic. It’s fun to hate the man in charge, David Stern, but the trade only made basketball sense to the Rockets. Chris Paul would have been wasted on the Lakers, watching Kobe Bryant play one-on-one and take fade-away jumper after fade-away jumper. The Hornets would be stupid to rebuild post-Chris Paul with two power forwards in their early 30’s and the defensively flammable Kevin Martin, who’s not too young himself. Instead we have Chris Paul on a Clippers team with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who surprisingly led the league in dunks last year on a per possession basis. (Howard led in total dunks with the Clippers tandem following in alphabetical order.) That is a gift for every basketball fan.  I’m not sure what the record is for alley-oops thrown in a single season, but Chris Paul will probably break it even in a short season given he stays healthy. Andre Miller may have that record from last year when he connected with Aldridge so many times that it became a boring but effective play.

I’m not sure why they didn’t include Eric Bledsoe in the trade given that the Hornets would be lacking at that position and the Clippers already had Mo Williams and Billups to go along with Chris Paul. Hopefully Mo Williams will be moved for a shooting guard so Bledsoe doesn’t get buried on the bench. Billups has always been a combo guard and never put up impressive assist numbers, and his outside shooting will be the perfect complement to the Chris Paul and Blake show. I derided the Butler signing in another post, but his spot-up shooting will be put to use. I would have been relatively okay with his signing if it had come after the trade because the Clippers weren’t going to compete before the trade and the veteran would have simply taken time away from their developing youngsters.

In the playoffs, the Clippers will face problems when other teams exploit their weaknesses. One right now is perimeter defense, where Butler is coming off a major knee injury and Billups and Williams are combustible. Chris Paul can defend well in most situations and will probably lead everyone in steals again, but they’ll need to be able to stop bigger wings too. Eric Bledsoe may actually be pressed into that role against shooting guards; they obviously need more help. Someone like Ginobili could destroy the team. Their lack of frontcourt depth is another problem. Behind Blake and Jordan they have basically nothing but marginal players. Memphis, in particular, would plow through them. If they were a smarter team, they’d sign someone like Fes, Utah’s foreign exchange student who specializes in owning the paint defensively and collecting rebounds, and use him when needed. They don’t need to hit a home run; they just need to find a quality bench player who preferably has room to improve. Think of the opposite strategy Miami has with its centers.

Although I attempted, the Clippers’ season is hard to predict. They don’t feel like a complete team and will likely add a couple new players. Depending on who they get and who they lose, they can either be a merely exciting playoff team or a contender. Their success also depends on how Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan develop defensively, as both were disappointing given their athleticism and size. However, the main reason I’m lukewarm on them this season is that they hired Vinny Del Negro as their head coach and Donald Sterling still owns the organization. Those are not the two guys you want leading your team.

Prediction: 43-23

Random prediction: Chris Paul will break the single season alley-oop record, which someone like the Elias Sports Bureau will uncover after many Griffin-Jordan dunks.

Phoenix Suns

This team needs to be blown up with some nitroglycerin. They will not compete with this version of the Nash Suns. Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Barbosa, Jason Richardson, Boris Diaw, and Shawn Marion are gone. It’s time to move on. I’m sorry, but it is. Nash, Grant Hill and Gortat can’t beat the Bulls, Heat, or the Clippers. They have a few good young players, but now it’s their opportunity to get back as much value as they can for their productive veterans before they retire.

I’m afraid the season will pass, they’ll make no major trades, and miss the playoffs with a record that ensures a middling draft pick. They made no moves to visibly improve, and Aaron Brooks will be trapped in China for a while. As Gortat and other young players will improve, Nash and the other veterans will likely decline. They need a miracle to be one of the top-four teams in the western conference this year or next, and with a ton of cap space next year they could make a run into free agency. I’m not sure if Dwight Howard or Deron Williams want to play in Arizona, and I believe they used their miracle already when they signed Steve Nash after his exit from Dallas and he decided to improve his game after he turned 30.

I understand that it’s hard to let go. Nash and Phoenix fans have a lot of good memories. They took the league by storm and helped usher in a faster pace and more scoring. They had heartbreaking playoff defeats, but they would return the next year and threaten the history books with a run at the greatest offensive team of all time title. Sure, they had missteps, like the Big Cactus Shaq experiment, but many teams would trade for their success in the last decade. Phoenix and Nash are at different paths in their lives right now, and it would be best for both parties if he left before he hits free agency next year.

Prediction: 30-36

Random prediction: Steve Nash will be contacted by Michelle Obama to help her campaign of healthy eating in the US.

Sacramento Kings

The Kings definitely have talent, but it’s unclear if that talent can be harnessed into real basketball games. Tyreke Evans is the type of slashing shooting guard, strangely pressed into the role of point guard despite a 6’ 6” solid frame with passing skills lacking, who could one day make an all-star team with his high scoring average and decent peripherals like rebounds. He also has a lot of potential defensively, but it will be hard to cultivate those skills on a team like Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins is in the mold of Rasheed Wallace or Zach Randolph: precociously talented low-post scorers with a wide array of skills unfortunately coupled with what coaches call attitude problems. The highly touted centers who have failed their potential have done so either because they actually possessed no talent besides height (Darko, Kwame Brown) or injuries destroyed their physical gifts (Greg Oden, with Andrew Bynum on the cusp.) It’s hard to imagine someone with his skill and size not making at least one all-star team.

While the west coast has seen a lot of player movement, the Kings have made a series of small moves that have been terrible to middling except for attempting to sign defensive ace Chuck Hayes, who as it turns out to recent reports will sign with the team after another NBA cardiac scare. Aldridge has been out of commission a while after another problem with his Wolff-Parkinson-White disorder and Jeff Green is gone for the season after heart surgery for an aortic aneurysm. The fans will likely latch onto Jimmer and his potential as the Mormon Ben Gordon. He has the size of a point guard but is at least a combo guard, and may actually be the best backcourt mate for Evans as they complement each other well: Evans can handle the bigger guards and the tougher match-ups, and Jimmer can spread the floor for Evans’ drives to the basket.

The roster is a reasonably interesting mishmash of players, but none are imposing. They have Marcus Thornton, a bench scorer who could be usurped by Jimmer. John “No, Not Pronounced as that Fish” Salmons is an over-the-hill wing player who relies on his athleticism. Travis Outlaw wasn’t good enough for the New Jersey Nets, and plays better as a 4 but will get few opportunities there. JJ Hickson had his field-goal percentage plunge roughly ten percent last season. The team also has no real point guard, mostly because they are insistent that Tyreke Evans is a point.  I’m not sure when management will finally realize this, but until they do the Kings will remain the worst passing team in the league. The rookie Isaiah Thomas is a letter and a couple inches in height away from helping in this regard.

As a last note, a team still in rebuilding mode suffers through a paradox: to become good you need star players, preferably young, but when your upside bubbles to the surface as real NBA skill you lose better chances to draft those young stars. The Kings will continue to improve, but they have to consider how far their rising ship will ascend. Will the Evans-Cousins team become first round fodder that eventually fades back into the lottery, or can they at least have the success of the Webber-Stojakovic Kings?

Prediction: 22-44

Random prediction: Cousins will have a game with six turnovers, six missed shots, and six fouls.

 

NORTHWEST DIVISION

 

Denver Nuggets

Before Carmelo Anthony left for New York, I commented on how Denver was an amazing offensive team despite Carmelo’s mediocre efficiency. They traded him for a handful of players, one of them Gallinari who’s an Italian small forward who’s a great three point shooter and surprisingly shot six free throws for every ten field goals, leading all small forwards including Anthony. Defensively he’s in some ways an upgrade because Anthony was too much of a star to exert much effort there. What happened after the trade is that Denver improved, and this season even with a couple players trapped behind enemy lines in China their depth will serve them well among all the back-to-back-to-back’s. I don’t think they could beat Chicago or Miami in the finals, but they are a dark horse candidate this year despite not having a recognizable star.

The Mavericks made the mistake of giving up Rudy Fernandez for nothing so they could play a decrepit Vince Carter more minutes, and as a Portland fan I can’t wait to see how they use him in Denver, where they hope to push the tempo and fire away. He could be used alongside Andre Miller, as Rudy is strangely great at defending point guards. It’s probably because of his weight, and Rudy and Corey Brewer are possibly the lightest shooting guard duo per vertical inch in NBA history at 185 and 188 lbs, respectively, with listed heights of 6’ 6” and 6’ 9”. They also have Afflalo, who they decided to sign for 8.6 million a year. I guess Bill Simmons was his agent this year, because I have no clue why people think he’s so good. There is no evidence he’s a defensive ace (his defensive plus/minus numbers are disappointing, and few serious scouts see him as one.) It would be best for the team if they flipped him for a frontcourt player, as Nene will have a lonely season in the paint with the Birdman Chris Anderson and Timofey Mozgoz the other notable big guys.

If this is the Nuggets’ year to shine, then draft pick Kenneth Faried will be less Reggie Evans and more Jeff Foster, an underrated frontcourt player who can control the glass and protect the rim. He will without a doubt rebound, but it remains to be seen if the rest of his game is polished enough to be a helpful rotation player. The Nene contract was too large, but it was likely either overpay him or get nothing in return, the Sophie’s choice every team has to make with their stars. He’s a great scorer, but his rebounding moves him a notch below the elite frontcourt players of the NBA.

The point guard position will be fun to watch with the speedy Ty Lawson likely starting; hopefully he can shoot more will maintaining his stellar percentages. Andre Miller will have another strangely healthy season where he shakes off his bad conditioning habits to pass four players to the tenth position on the all-time assists leaderboard. Some people are surprised he hasn’t fallen off a cliff yet productivity wise given that he’s a point guard who lacks a good jump shot, but that’s mistaking the most common strategy for the mechanism: what helps players age gracefully is a low-impactful playing style, and for guards the most common one is a shooting touch, but Andre has a crafty post game where he abuses smaller guards and is one of the best passers in the game, skills that don’t erode with time like speed. He can’t jump, but that’s maybe way his knees have held up so well because he can’t even leap high enough to put significant stress in his legs.

The Nuggets will be one of my favorite teams to watch, and they have a chance to post the top record in the west despite not having any players who were all-stars previously. If they are at the top or near, I imagine Nene or maybe Gallinari will make the all-star team because the media will be retroactively explaining how the no-stars Nuggets became one of the best in the west. With only one hole where Kenyon Martin played, Denver will use its depth to storm the lockout shortened season.

Prediction: 45-21

Random prediction: Nene will be an all-star because the coaches and the media will need to justify Denver’s record.

Minnesota Timberwolves

I’m not sure what to make of this team. Will they ascend, finally buoyant enough after years in the lottery with a full cache of young talent? Kevin Love had a break-through season, but that wasn’t enough to win more than 17 games. His teammates were terrible, but most of them are still there and I know they’ll find a way to play Darko 25 minutes a game despite his poor skills in the game of basketball. They have who could be the best player of his draft class in Derrick Williams, but it’s crowded at the forward positions. They’re adding Rubio, but his shooting prowess is Rondo-eque, and they decided to pay an extremely short shooting guard nearly 20 million dollars. The silver lining – Rubio is almost a Rondo clone because of his defense and passing skills, which are superior, and Rondo is an all-star who has a championship; Barea and Rubio can play together in the second unit where the Spanish phenom is big enough to check 2’s.

In a crowded west with dying giants like the Lakers and Spurs, Minnesota could be posed to compete at the right time. The emphasis is on “could,” because for all we know Kahn will trade Love and Anthony Randolph for a rental of Deron Williams. I don’t think this will be the season where they approach 0.500 basketball when so many of their young players are still learning how to play and Kevin Love’s unusual combination of 15 rebounds and 40% three-point shooting wasn’t enough to pull them out of the cellar. I’m not even sure how he could improve, but apparently he’s in the best shape of his life. Hopefully that will translate into better pick and roll defense and more blocked shots. He could be devastating as a center because of his three-point range, making opposing big guys leave the paint. If Anthony Randolph turns out to be the next coming of Marcus Camby with his rebounding, shot-blocking and surprising ball skills, those two would end up being one of the top frontcourts in the league.

With Rubio’s lack of shooting touch and Love’s defensive deficiencies, it’s a team that needs careful roster management with the right personnel to complement the best players. Kidd and Terry work well together because Terry can check opposing point guards while Kidd is big and smart enough to defend 2’s well. Minnesota will need the same strategy for Rubio. I don’t think the team will make the correct choices and could waste a few talented players like they did with Kevin Garnett. It’s unfortunate because Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Anthony Randolph, and Michael Beasley have a lot of potential, and the team has a history of sticking with bad management (the Kevin McHale era.) It’s a loaded draft next year, and if they’re lucky they’ll be bad enough this year to land their missing piece.

Prediction: 25-41

Random prediction: Rubio will have a game with ten rebounds, ten assists, and zero made field goals.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder were the youngest team last year weighted by each player’s minutes. The majority of the team is under 25 years old, and a calendar year can make a world of difference to their abilities. Last year Westbrook took the leap, although not in an optimal way: he ended up shooting more than Durant per possession, even though the latter was a more effective scorer. The last point is related to Durant’s problem of freeing himself up for a shot, but part of the blame rests on Westbrook’s itchy trigger finger and mediocre skills at setting guys up. Durant expanding his game would certainly help his team, but he’s already doing more than enough and the other players need to improve. They’re one of the youngest contenders in league history, and during a weird season they could reach the finals.

As far as the future is concerned, Oklahoma City is set up as well as any other team with Durant and Westbrook signed to long-term deals along with the “elder” sage Nick Collison (only 31) and Thabo Sefolosha. Their two most important role players, however, are Ibaka, who could use his athleticism and length to become one of the best defenders in the league (he’s not there yet despite his impressive block totals,) and Harden, already a sharp-shooting guard who can complement the duo of Durant and Westbrook. They don’t have depth like the Pacers or Nuggets do, but they have enough different weapons after pilfering the Celtics in a trade to get Perkins that they can match up well with nearly any team. The only piece they’re arguably lacking is a major perimeter stopper; Sefolosha is great but not first-team great and his offense is terrible, which stops him from racking up major minutes. Their new post defender Perkins will be interesting to watch this year, as he lost over 30 lbs and some worry that he won’t be able to defend Howard anymore, but basketball players rarely lose anything from dropping weight unless they’re rail thin.

With the Lakers faltering, the Spurs still quietly good but likely to rest their veterans, and the Mavericks as old any team, the Thunder are poised to take the western title crown. Some pundits hesitate to give them credit because of their age, but basketball is about simply outscoring the opponent. In actuality, their age is what will help them this year as they will improve while the older teams get worse, especially with the compacted schedule. I’m not guaranteeing that Oklahoma will finish with the best record in the west because of how closely competitive the top teams are, but I think they have the best chance.

Prediction: 46-20

Random prediction: Ibaka will lead the league in blocks per game with close to 3.5 and will receive heavy consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, even if he isn’t deserving.

Portland Trailblazers

(Important note: I’m a Blazers fan, and may believe in them too strongly but will try to remain objective.)

The Blazers were very good even with little production from Roy and Oden, so it shouldn’t be a surprise this year if they’re very good again. Roy played 1310 minutes of subpar basketball while Oden didn’t even get a single minute. Oden, in particular, was the dark horse for the Blazers. If he were to put together a relatively healthy season at the quality of basketball he’s shown, Portland could contend with any western team. He’s shown that he’s an elite rebounder with a rebound percentage above 20, which is impressive for even bench guys who only concentrate on that. He blocked 2.3 shots a game two years ago in only 24 minutes. His offensive game, while rough, was still very effective in a Dwight Howard bulldozing through the opposite sort of way. However, the difference with Oden is that he’s a great free-throw shooter clearing 70%, and consequently his true-shooting percentage was 65 in limited minutes last year and the season before 60. That’s enough lamenting about what could have been; this Blazer team still has a lot of talent.

The Blazers have a varied and multi-faceted attack. Andre Miller is gone, and in his place is Felton, a capable ball-handler, a decent outside shooter (Miller was a terrible long-range shooter and left the paint clogged too often,) and a good defender who’s a few years younger. Wesley Matthews is a good defender, though not great, but he’s at 40% for his career beyond the three-point line and can bully his way into the lane and draw fouls. Gerald “Crash” Wallace is still a nightmare on weak-side defense, and finishes at the rim enough to justify his weak outside shooting. Batum slumped on his percentages after a stellar rookie year, and strangely has terrible +/- defensive numbers, but he’s young with arms like Inspector Gadget and can team with Wallace in a small-ball forward line-up that can destroy others in transition. Aldridge is a big man with a soft touch from outside, and is underrated on the defensive end. His ability to play huge minutes at power forward and center will help the Blazers, who are lacking in frontcourt depth. They also added sixth man Crawford, who will replace a lot of the scoring that Roy left behind. It’s a versatile team that, like many NBA franchises, are only missing a decent center, as Camby closer to 40 than 30 years old.

I would be more confident with the rotation if they had added more than Craig Smith and Kurt Thomas to the frontcourt. Smith, “The Rhino,” will be fun to watch, but his use should not be extended to heavy minutes. At this point in his career, Kurt Thomas is a third-string center, but I imagine he’ll be the first big off the bench most nights and even start, because coaches have a soft spot for veterans. If Portland had a good GM, like they did recently with Kevin Pritchard or Rich Cho, they could have found a bigger steal than Craig Smith, but they’re operating with an interim general manager and I can’t imagine they’ll get healthy interest for the job after coldly dumping Pritchard but making him run their draft after he was fired, or axing Cho even if he was the most qualified for the job because Paul Allen didn’t get along with him (I can’t think of anyone who would, honestly.)

I imagine this year will be a pleasant surprise for Blazers fans, because their varied depth at least in positions 1 through 4 will do well in a compressed schedule, and the lack of a dominating western team at the top two or three seeds could lead to an upset and a second round visit for Portland — yes, the Thunder, Mavericks, etc. are still good, but not overwhelmingly so. Next year Camby and Felton come off their contracts, and Roy’s huge deal is voided. The only long-term contracts are for Aldridge and Matthews, and they should have a huge amount of cap space even without Gerald Wallace opting out of his last year ($11.4 million.) I don’t think Howard will come to Portland, but if he did the Aldridge-Howard-Wallace/Batum frontcourt would immediately become one of the most imposing in the league. I can dream, but the Blazers will probably get a couple decent free agents if Paul Allen doesn’t find a way to destroy the management even further.

Prediction: 38-28

Random prediction: Crawford for sixth man of the year.

Utah Jazz

Utah post-Jerry Sloan has been largely forgettable. They are without their all-stars Deron Williams and Boozer, and Malone and Stockton are only memories. They have a frontcourt that’s impressive on the surface, but in reality it’s too cluttered and using both Jefferson and Millsap in heavy minutes is defensively irresponsible. They have intriguing young players who have yet to realize their potential. In other words, they’re a mediocre team in the middle of a rebuilding project.

Replacing Deron Williams is next to impossible. Devis Harris used to be an exciting young point guard who was quietly a defensive ace, but after some time in the backwoods of the New Jersey Nets he forgot how to defend and concentrated on scoring. As for other star power, Al Jefferson is supposed to be their superstar, but after years and various injuries it’s more likely he’s something the Jazz don’t want to admit – a high volume, middling efficiency scorer who destroys any value he has with poor defense.  However, their next generation is promising. Derrick Favors has the athleticism that sends Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett to the top of the draft, but also the kind reminiscent of disappointing studs like Tyrus Thomas and Shawn Kemp. Their future largely depends on him.

For this season, I’d recommend shipping out some of their aging assets before they lose more value, and at least one of the Millsap and Jefferson pair. It’s nearly impossible to get matching value back in a deal, but right now those players are taking playing time away from their younger guys who are arguably more effective and at their best keeping the Jazz from better lottery picks. They’re not going to contend with this crew, and they could bottom out this year depending on who they move and how guys like Hayward and Kanter progress.

Prediction: 26-40

Random prediction: Enes Kanter will be a bust.

 

SOUTHWEST DIVISION

 

Dallas Mavericks

After winning a title and essentially trading Chandler for Odom, the Mavericks are once again neglected in the media. They’ll miss having a good defensive center, but an Odom-Nowitzki frontcourt will be devastating offensively and they will have cap room next year. This season won’t be a terrible title defense like Miami’s last one, but they’re not out for blood like Boston was. They have enough depth to weather the weird schedule, and will likely play small line-ups whenever the match-ups allow them to unless they pick up a decent center. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they force a center into their starting line-up because they’ll worry not having one will drag them down, but in fact playing a subpar player of any position will have the effect they’re trying to avoid.

The success of Dallas is hinged on the amazing offensive play of Dirk Nowitzki, a consistently efficient scorer who’s a match-up nightmare as a seven-foot jump shooter who can take fellow seven-footers off the dribble. He sets up in the middle of the floor, making double teams dangerous as the floor opens up, and Dallas has always surrounded him with shooters. This year is no exception – Kidd, Terry, Carter, Roddy, even Odom, and new arrival Delonte West are great from long-range. Dirk shouldn’t slip too much due to age; his playing style is built for low impact on the body and his shooting skills and huge frame won’t deteriorate as he goes further into his 30’s. The problem with the Carter signing, however, is that Dallas traded a first round pick for Rudy Fernandez, and then traded Rudy to clear space for Carter. Right now, Vince Carter is not significantly better than Rudy, who’s eight years younger. Rudy’s even a better dunker presently.

Dirk has been great for over a decade with alarming consistency, meaning his supporting cast will make or break this season, as it’s been for every season. Roddy Beaubois is their x-factor, but one should also watch Brandon Wright, who has shown huge potential but never stuck the landing while playing in Golden State and New Jersey. With Kidd’s ability to guard shooting guards, Roddy can forget about feigning interest as a point guard and attack the basket.  Vince Carter will probably end up being a mistake because he’s a guard who’s relied on his athleticism all his life and is in his mid-thirties. If you lower your expectations and think of him only as a spot-up shooter from deep, then he should attain success. Aging shooting guards like Michael Finley and Jerry Stackhouse had to make similar sacrifices to keep playing in the NBA.

I’m not down on Dallas’ chances, but the west is loaded with teams who are “weak” contenders, and both the Heat and Bulls should be better. I’m afraid Dallas won’t be able to find another decent center, and will by habit start the next best center they have, Brendan Haywood, even when going up against opponents who don’t have a big center worth guarding. They’ll drop a spot in the standings because of this, but when they play without a useless big man like Haywood or Mahinmi they’ll be as good as last year.

Prediction: 42-24

Random prediction: Mark Cuban will make negative public comments about Kim Kardashian, and it will be funny.

Houston Rockets

Houston could have had a Nene-Gasol frontcourt with a bevy of nice role players surrounding them. Instead they’re a near 0.500 team too good for a high lottery pick and too bad for a playoff run. The organization’s skill at finding bargains and talent has put them in this precarious position. Attempting to move Kevin Martin and Luis Scola was the right thing to do, as Kevin is terrible defensively and Scola is a smallish power forward in his early 30’s.

This is a hard team to predict because they could make a major trade during the season. I think they’ll be patient, however, and could do something smart like play Kevin Martin heavy minutes to showcase his scoring and increase his trade value. They have plenty of assets, and it’s only a matter of time before the shrewd organization lands a superstar. It’s not like Houston is in the far-flung backwoods in Montana. In terms of their wealth on the wings, they have the underrated Lowry, a bulldog point guard, and the former volleyball player Chase Budinger who will start at SF while making under $900,000 this year. Courtney Lee is the exact kind of role player so many great teams covet – a defensive plus shooting guard who shoots around 40% from three’s.

The Samuel Dalembert signing, however, is vexing in terms of a long-term strategy, but is logical when looking at the short view. He’s a center who will control the boards and rack up blocked shots and was one of the most coveted free agents. I’m not sure why he didn’t sign with Miami – well, not exactly, because it was about money – as he would have been a Haitian hero and might have won a championship. Rounding out their frontcourt rotation, Patrick Patterson had a solid rookie season, and he’ll platoon with Jordan Hill as two young power forwards who appear to be good rotation players. They have tallest player in the league still with Hasheem Thabeet, but he appears to be a bust. Lastly, Scola’s post game is always a pure basketball joy to watch, and the Argentine be following his best pro season yet.

The media are not thinking highly of Houston right now since they’re in basketball purgatory relegated to first round exits or barely missing the playoffs, but I’d rather have an organization that can find and manage talent than one that’s so horribly run they eventually pick up a mass of talented young players, like Minnesota. I wish a major free agent expressed interest in playing in Houston, because they have the tradition of Olajuwon and smart management who won’t make mistakes like signing Glen Davis for $20 million or trading Gortat for Turkoglu. They won’t make the playoffs, but they’ll be one of the most active teams in the trade market.

Prediction: 31-35

Random prediction: They’ll wait until the summer of 2012 to make a big splash in the trade and free agent market

Memphis Grizzlies

After a surprising run in the playoffs, the Grizzlies still have a lot to prove. They remain intact, yet they’re in a competitive conference where only a few games will separate first from eighth. The least “western” team in the conference, they’ve been largely forgotten the franchise’s entire life, and even after a Cinderella run beating some of the best teams in the west they’re not receiving much ink. Also, at what point can Utah and Memphis trade names? Does a second-round pick have to be included?

Thankfully, they’ll have Rudy Gay back, who made a stronger commitment to defense and less of one to bad shots. Zach Randolph is in the best shape of his life working out with a new trainer. Tony Allen will get a full season to show how he’s the best perimeter defender in the game. They have one of the best starting five’s in the game with the weak link being Mike Conley, a speedy young point guard who’s accurate from long-distance. Their depth, especially after losing Darrell Arthur to injury, will push them out of a comfortable playoff seed. Hamed Haddadi was fun to watch in garbage minutes, but the Iranian giant should be used sparingly, not as one of the first big men off the bench.

Unfortunately, depth and a stacked western conference will keep them from the top spot, but in the playoffs they could again plow through opponents with a frontcourt of Randolph and Gasol. There may actually be a lot of upsets in the playoffs because this regular season more than most aids deep teams, but in the playoffs you can run your best guys huge minutes. They’ll have a quiet season, and could knock off someone like Denver or even Oklahoma City in the first round.

Prediction: 36-30

Random prediction: Rudy Gay will make his first all-star team and could cement his status as one of the go-to forwards for the game now that Carmelo is in New York.

New Orleans Hornets

I don’t want to talk anymore about the trade that almost was, but getting Gordon and Minnesota’s pick is a much better deal. Some media argue that just letting a guy go is the better strategy (i.e. getting nothing) so you can bottom out and get one of the top picks, but this way they have two nice picks in the next draft and a guy who’s already a great young player. The Chris Paul era is official over, and it’s not because they’re a small market; it’s because they made bad decisions in surrounding the point guard with a cast devoid of talent

Even David West left, and the remainder of the team is assorted flotsam and jetsam. Trevor Ariza likes to pretend he’s an outside shooter even with some of the worst percentages in the game. Jarrett Jack is now their starting point guard, but he can barely play the position and would be a shooting guard if he was a couple inches taller. Carl Landry is still an effective player, but as a small power forward he’s going to use the rest of his prime on a lottery team in rebuilding mode. The most interesting part of the team is that they have one of the best center tandems in the game. Both 29 years old, Okafor and Kaman are both great defenders and excellent rebounders with rudimentary post skills. I would expect Kaman and his expiring contract will be traded to a contender, or maybe a playoff bound team looking for a one-year rental so they can stay active in next season’s free agent market.

As with too many teams, this season the Hornets are playing for the ping-pongs balls of the NBA draft. It’s an unfortunate time to try to sell the team, and if they get the number one or two spot in the draft David Stern will come under even more fire. Their bright spot this year is that Eric Gordon has a chance to make the all-star team if he continues to improve and uses the freedom from his subpar cast to raise his scoring average.

Prediction: 18-48

Random Prediction:  Eric Gordon sneaks onto the all-star team despite paltry team record since Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony defected to the eastern seaboard. David West also left, eliminating another competitor for the 12th man.

San Antonio Spurs

Last season is like a distant memory after the lock-out, but the Spurs finished with the best record in the west and were only one game behind the leaders in the east, the Bulls. I don’t expect them to repeat their success when the compressed schedule will cause Popovich to rest his aging veterans to even more extreme lengths. I think they’ll be content to cruise to a four-seed and unleash hell in the playoffs.

The Spurs have made no major moves, and when one considers their record last season it’s hard to fault them. Every year people expect them to finally slip, but they have yet to do so. In fact, they won the championship the year of the last lockout, and Duncan has stayed with the team since them and the team has been a contender virtually every year since then. The biggest change this year will be a heavier use of Tiago Splitter, the coveted Brazilian big man who finally played last year in limited minutes. His problem is a lack of a midrange jump shot that most Spurs big men must possess if they want to share time with Tim Duncan. With McDyess gone and DeJuan Blair still missing his ACLs, Tiago “Log” Splitter will probably average 20 to 25 minutes. The Spurs may improve if he takes some minutes from Blair, who has conditioning problems and plays terrible defense. James Anderson, who missed most of last year with a foot injury as a rookie, will also contribute, and has shown he has NBA range. Additionally, with the keen eye for talent the Spurs have they may have found a diamond in the rough with Kawhi Leonard, a Shawn Marion type who can rebound like a power forward and finishes at the rim well.

Tony Parker is still in his 20’s and Ginobili is aging well, while Duncan is gracefully reducing his role, and as a result the Spurs are still one of the top teams in the NBA. Tim Duncan’s large contract ends this season, and with the power of the amnesty — Richard Jefferson next year, most likely — they could retool with a big free agent signing. Marquee guys have shown an inclination to flock to big, warm cities, which is unfortunate because few are well run. Guys spend most of the season travelling to other cities, and they can live where they want in the off-season, so I don’t see the need to live on a warm beach. I thought they would value good basketball, but maybe I’m naïve. Whatever happens, don’t bet against the Spurs, an organization that deserves its championships. From one lock-out to another 12 years later, they have sustained excellence like no other team. Their last season below a 50 win pace in 82 games was in 1996-97. If you adjust the shortened lockout season of ‘99 to 82 games Tim Duncan has never known a season worse than 50 wins, and this year will be one more.

Prediction: 42-24

Random prediction: The Spurs will have another rookie or related player from out of nowhere who will be a steal, most likely Kawhi Leonard.

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