Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Random Opening Night Impressions

Despite watching real NBA basketball for the first time until June, I tried not to conclude too much from the 4 games that were on Opening Night. Many teams are still searching for their identity, and the bottom line is, what really matters is the form teams hit right around mid-April. However, here some things that I did find worth writing about from the two games I focused on (I got some action from the other two, but not enough to make extreme observations) - take them lightly, as it is still very, very early:

Boston 95, Cleveland 89

  • Cleveland: After a very strong 1st quarter, Cleveland's offense collapsed, regressing back to that dreadful Lebron-vs-5 stage that we know all too well. If Mike Brown can't figure out a way to get the rest of the team involved, the Cavs will be in trouble.
  • The Cavs really missed Delonte West last night. Daniel Gibson just isn't much more than a streaky spot-up shooter, leaving the Cavs with a very thing backcourt rotation, not to mention West being their best defensive guard. I don't know if and when West recovers from personal issues and comes back, and I truly hope that he does that only after regaining full mental health, but the Cavs probably need another guard even if he does return (Antonio Daniels has been mentioned).
  • Anthony Parker too way too many bad, forced shots. Though he is fully capable of scoring at a high clip, this isn't the role he should fill for the Cavs.
  • Shaquille O'neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can not play together under any circumstances. Each one of them is a defensive liability on their own, the two of them together is too much.
  • Speaking of Z, he seemed incredibly uncomfortable coming off the bench. I don't think Shaq will agree to playing as a 6th man, but after years of establishing Z early in the game, the Cavs need to find a new way of keeping him effective. Shaq, on the other hand, struggled offensively in the second half (1 of 5 from the field) after a decent first one - he still has plenty of time to find his rythem, but if he can't score consistently in the post against big teams, his acquasition is kind of moot.

  • Boston: Boston played great defense throughout the game, but I still have my concerns. The Celts couldn't do anything about Lebron, who torched them for 38 points on 22 shots. Admitedly, if Lebron wants to torch a team he will, but in my eyes Boston still lacks that Posey-type defensive presence at the wing positions that was so crucial for their 2008 title.
  • Free Agent signee Rasheed Wallace looke awfully trigger happy, attempting six 3 pointers. It's too late in his career to move Sheed back in the post, but against teams with better defenders at the 4 spot he can't shoot that much.
  • Kevin Garnett seemed healthy, but not spectacular, with 13 points (5 of 10 from the field), 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks. However, he did botch a wide open dunk. Lets not forget that the NBA season is very long, and it's KG's April form that will matter, eventually.
  • Ray Allen had a very good first half, and a very bad second one. Allen has always been a very productive player, but I just can't shake off the feeling that he is mostly just a shooter at this stage of his career (one of the reasons I have Boston pegged as #3 in the East).

Portland 96, Houston 87

  • Portland: Greg Oden was absolutely terrible offensivly, scoring only 2 points, and putting up 7 turnovers (many of them on offensive fouls - don't have the exact numbers with me). However, Oden produced a defensive display of the highest quality, grabbing 12 rebounds, blocking 5 shots, and altering many more. The Blazers are so stacked offensively, that they can afford to give Greg's offensive game time to evolve. If he continues defending like last night, it could be enough to make Portland an elite squad.
  • Martell Webster started in place of the injured Nicolas Batum, and had a very efficient 14 points on 7 shots. Webster missed last season due to injury, but is a gifted scorer, with great athleticism. If Webster can start fulfilling the promise he has shown at time, the Blazers will benifit greatly, whether via a strengthed rotation, or by adding yet another trade asset to a seemingly infinite collection.
  • Andre Miller showed no sign of his reported unhappiness after signing with the Blazers in the offseason, coming off the bench for 9 points and seven assists. I actually think Miller fits better with the Blazers second unit then the first, as starter Steve Blake's outside shooting better complements superstar Brandon Roy. It was nice to see Miller doing his best to fit in, since he has always been a player who has played well below his abilities due to a bad attitude.
  • Travis Outlaw led all scorers with 23 points. The Blazers have reportedly been very open to trading Outlaw and his expiring contract, but the guy can just plain shoot. I don't really like seeing him at the 4 - he is a small forward in every way - but he can contribute regardless of position.

  • Houston: David Andersen had 11 points and 5 rebounds in his NBA debut. I really like Andersen's offensive game - he was amongst the Euroleagues top big men for years - and he could prove to be a very valuable scorer for a Houston team that will struggle to put points up. Very underrated offseason pickup for the wonderful Daryl Morey.
  • Chase Budinger could be another potential scorer for this team. The second round draft pick was once considered a lottery lock, but fell due to concerns about him being one dimensional - a scorer and not much else. With a team desperate for scoring, however, he could be huge.
  • Aaron Brooks broke out last postseason when he carried the Rockets to a 7th game against the eventual champions, but I'm not sold. Brooks is way to small to guard shooting guards (he can barely guard point guards), but he plays like a 2. If Brooks doesn't develop a passing game, I don't think he can handle the ball. Brooks scored 19 last night, but he used the ball mainly for dribbling aimlessly in all directions. Not the guy you want distributing the ball to the rest of your team.
  • I love Trevor Ariza. The Lakers wouldn't have won the title without him last year. But he's a role player - a perfect role player, but a role player nontheless. If this Houston squad turns to him as a leading scorer, they're in trouble.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Portland Trailblazers

Coach: Nate McMillan
Last Season: 54-28, lost in 1st round
Key Additions: Andre Miller (Free Agent, Philadelphia 76ers), Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham, Patrick Mills (Draft), Jarron Collins (FA, Utah)
Key Losses: Sergio Rodriguez (Trade, Sacramento), Channing Frye (FA, Phoenix)

Offseason: The Blazers assembled one of the leagues youngest, most talented teams. Built around superstar Brandon Roy (mistakenly underrated as just a star), and power forward Lamarcus Aldridge, the team has steadily improved to the point of finishing 4th in the West last season. However, a lack of experience, and perimeter scoring other than Roy meant a 5 game knock out against the Houston Rockets.

Armed with ample cap space and a promising youngster, GM Kevin Pritchard sought out offensive help, specifically at the 3 and the 1. Pritchard’s top priority on the market was Hedo Turkoglu, hot off a great Finals run with the Magic, and fitting the bill perfectly with his clutch scoring and ball handling abilities in the problematic small forward spot. However, after agreeing to a 5 year, 50 million contract, Hedo U-turned and signed with the Toronto Raptors. However, it seems to me that the Blazers dodged a bullet here – Hedo is already 30 years old, meaning that he would have been way past his peak by the time this team reached theirs. He most definitely won’t be worth the money they were going to give him when he’s 35 and on the bench. After Turkoglu declined the Blazers’ offer, Portland turned to Utah’s restricted free agent, Paul Millsap. However, Utah matched Portland’s 4 year, 32 million offer, and the Blazers were again left without their man.

With the free agent market dwindling, the Blazers decided to address their weakness at point guard instead of their forwards, and signed Andre Miller to a three year, 21 million contract, with only the first two years guaranteed. Andre Miller should provide the Blazers with a veteran presence and some another ball-handler, though his style of play doesn’t mesh in very well with what the Blazers had last season. What the Blazers need from their point guard is a player who can knock down shots, and doesn’t really need the ball to be effective. Miller is a 21% career 3 point shooter, and is accustomed to dominating the ball on offense. In addition, the Blazers were the NBA’s second slowest offensive team last season (only Detroit had less possessions per game), and yet Miller, with his passing and his penetration, is much more suited to play a running style game. Despite these things, Miller is a good signing – he is a clear upgrade over Steve Blake, will provide a veteran presence and a tutor to Jerryd Bayless, and in case he doesn’t fit in, he will serve as a large expiring contract next season, but the Blazers have to feel disappointed that they couldn’t make more out of their favorable situation. Other offseason moves by the Blazers shouldn’t have much of an immediate effect on the team, as the three draftees won’t be asked to do much, and Jarron Collins is mainly a big-man insurance policy now that Channing Frye left.

Despite failing to sign their top-priority free agents, though, the Blazers should improve internally: Brandon Roy should cement his status as a superduperstar, not only with stat geeks and basketball maniacs, but with the mainstream media; Greg Oden is posed to have a monster season now that he’s 2 years away from microfracture surgery, already dominating preseason games and looking much nimbler; Lamarcus Aldridge will continue his ascension into the upper echelon of power forwards; and Spaniard sensation Rudy Fernandez, point guard Jerryd Bayless, and defensive ace Nicolas Batum will have their first NBA year under their belts. All in all, not a magnificent offseason for the Blazers, but they will be better next season.

- Greg Oden: After being drafted before Kevin Durant in the much hyped 2007 draft, Oden missed his entire rookie campaign due to microfracture surgery. Last year he was back on the court, but seemed very slow, fouled frequently, and didn’t dominate the paint like the Blazers hoped. In his defense, the center position has a difficult learning curve, microfracture typically takes two years to recover from, and Oden did show some skills while on the court; however, this season there will be no excuses. Oden has the potential to be an all-time great at center, or “the guy drafted before Durant”. If he wants to be the former, he needs to give a strong showing this season.

- Continued development: As mentioned, the Blazers are an incredibly young team. This featured greatly in the playoff loss to Houston, where the Blazers just seemed scared of the big stage. As this team matures, it will become better and better, with plenty of potential not even given rotation time last season (mainly Bayless, and injured swingman Martell Webster). The rate at which these youngsters improve could determine whether Portland joins the rest of the contenders, or are given that “one-year-away” label.

- Kevin Pritchard: After (deservedly) gaining a reputation as one of the best GMs in the league, Pritchard has shown some hesitance to pull the trigger, failing to move Raef LaFrentz’ expiring contract, and mainly holding on to assets instead of looking to improve via trade. Pritchard has received criticism of falling in love with his own team. The Blazers are already very good, but have the assets to pull off a major move. Another Pritchard stroke of genius could propel them into contention.

- Nate McMillan: McMillan has done a great job coaching this squad, getting the Blazers to defend, and mainly execute offensively (2nd in offensive efficiency) very well. However, one can’t shake the feeling that this team should be flying down the court, not walking the ball up. Roy, Rudy, Travis Outlaw, Aldridge – most of Portland’s rotation is ridiculously athletic, and newly acquired Andre Miller is perfect for running fast breaks. This team will probably be good no matter what style they play, but as a fan, you have to hope Nate will just let this team go loose.

Prediction: Greg Oden is posed to explode, and I believe he’ll make his all-star debut in the dilute talent pool that is Western Conference centers; Roy should garner a respectable amount of MVP votes; Aldridge should become a 20 point scorer; and the supporting cast should get better and better as they adjust to NBA level play. 56-26, 3rd in the East, and even more optimism in the Pacific Northwest.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Boston Celtics

Coach: Doc Rivers
Last Season: 62-20, lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals
Key Additions: Rasheed Wallace (Free Agent, Detroit Pistons), Marquis Daniels (FA, Indiana Pacers), Shelden Williams (FA, Minnesota Timberwolves)
Key Losses: Mikki Moore (FA, Golden State Warriors), Gabe Pruitt (FA)

Offseason: The Celtics' biggest offseason addition has to be a healthy Kevin Garnett. After KG's knees broke down last February, the Celtics, one year removed from the title, survived an epic 1st round playoff series against the Bulls, before bowing down to the Magic. However, the Celtics wanted to insure that whatever the case, Brian Scalabrine, Mikki Moore (who has since left), and their type won’t get major playoff minutes in the frontcourt this season. To address this, the Celtics signed former All-star Rasheed Wallace. Rasheed, coming off a terrible season in Detroit (despite putting up 12 and 7, he visibly quit on the team, highlighted by his 6 pts and 6 rebounds per game in the playoff sweep vs. Cleveland). The Celtics, however, seem confident that Rasheed’s decline was a result of the Pistons going nowhere, and that on a title contender, and more importantly, with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce as a positive influence, Rasheed will do just fine. The Celts then resigned restricted free agent Glen Davis, who had a very good postseason, specifically improving his mid-range shot (including a game winning jumper in game 4 against Orlando). With Wallace, Davis, Garnett, and the ever-improving Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics now have 4 strong big men, with Shelden Williams, the disappointing 5th pick of the 2006 draft, brought on as an insurance policy.

The Celtics’ other free agent signing was Marquis Daniels. Daniels played as a swingman his whole career, but due to his strong ball handling skills, is expected to play point guard for the Celtics. The Celtics hope that Daniels can fill the gaping hole the Celtics have at backup point guard, and plan to play him in together with Eddie House, enabling House to guard point guards, but relieving him of running the offense. However, this is a huge gamble, as adjusting to a new position is never easy, and Daniels is already 28. Daniels’ contract was signed at the value of the bi-annual exception (slightly under 2 million), meaning he is a bargain financially-wise no matter how this pans out, but he has only once topped 62 games in a season, and isn’t a strong defender. I see Daniels more as a last resort signing, due to the lack of decent point guards on the market, and the desperate need to upgrade the bench (Tony Allen, the Celtics’ back up shooting guard, just isn’t a very good player).

The surprise of the Celtics’ offseason, however, was the trade that didn’t happen. After being the Celtics’ best player last postseason, Rajon Rondo was openly shopped for a short period of time, raising questions regarding the Celtics’ willingness to offer him a contract extension (he is posed to become a restricted free agent next summer). The talk eventually dulled down, but it will be interesting to see if it affects Rondo’s play.

-Kevin Garnett’s knees: Basically, no matter what else happens, it all comes down to this. Garnett is the Celtics’ best player, best defender, emotional leader – you name it, he does it all. With him, they’re title contenders, without him, they’re not. It’s that simple. At the age of 33, after playing over 1100 games in full gear, and a very, very difficult procedure, medicine is not on his side, but Garnett has the heart of a lion, and all of the regular season to get into shape. Therefore, judging this team before the playoffs is ridiculously premature.

- James Posey: Posey left after the 2008 title to sign with New Orleans for more money, and the Celtics still haven’t found a replacement for his leadership, defense, and shooting of the bench. Who guards Lebron/Vince/Kobe/Manu/Wade? Daniels is not a good defender or a good shooter, and Paul Pierce can’t be asked to carry such a huge load both on offense and on defense. In my opinion, this was the fatal flaw in Boston’s offseason plan – not bringing in a player to fill a role that proved crucial for them in the past.

- Age: Garnett is 33, Allen 34, Pierce 32, and Rasheed 35. The Celtics were absolutely exhausted last postseason, and though it can be attributed to their short rotation, age must be a concern. Doc Rivers needs to get his team fresh to the playoffs, or they won’t have much of a chance to advance past Cleveland and Orlando.

- Chemistry: Rasheed Wallace has always had character questions; Marquis Daniels has similarly been somewhat problematic, although not as volatile; the reason to the Celtics shopping Rondo, reportedly, has to do with him not fitting in very well; and Ray Allen, despite being one of the leagues perennial “nice-guys”, is in a contract year, playing for what would probably be his last NBA contract. All of this adds up to some serious question marks. Seeing how this team’s togetherness was a huge factor in winning the title two years ago, if the players can’t get along it will be disastrous for their second bid.

Prediction: The difference between the 3rd place and the 4th place in the East is huge, so the Celts will finish 3rd at the very least. However, I don’t think they’re deep enough to be considered on par with the Magic and Cavs, especially considering their old age. Many questions are still up in the air – which Rasheed will the Celtics get, how much Pierce and Allen have in the tank, and can Rondo continue his meteoric rise. Even if Garnett is healthy, that’s just too many questions for me. 57-25, 3rd in East.

The San Antonio Spurs

Coach: Gregg Popovich
Last Season: 54-28, lost in 1st round
Key Additions: Richard Jefferson (Trade, Milwaukee Bucks), Antonio McDyess (Free Agent, Detroit Pistons), Dejuan Blair (Draft), Marcus Haislip (FA, Spain)
Key Losses: Kurt Thomas, Francisco Oberto, Bruce Bowen (Trade, Milwaukee)

Offseason: After getting knocked out in the 1st round of the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000, the Spurs had to options: accept the fact that the core of their former dynasty is aging, and rebuild, or spend money and try to win another ring or two before Tim Duncan’s window closes for good. Considering that this is a front office that has made great decision after great decision, it shouldn’t be surprising that they chose the latter.

Thus began a magical offseason for the 4 time NBA champions. To start it off, Richard Jefferson was shipped in from Milwaukee, for expiring contracts. The Spurs' usage of the Bucks’ financial trouble was marvelous – for the mere price of 3 role players (and two of them above the age of 35), the Spurs received a do-it-all-forward: Jefferson has scored over 20 ppg twice in his career, shot just slightly under 40% from 3 last year, and is a very good defender. Also, Jefferson fits in perfectly with the Spurs’ mentality – he won’t complain about minutes or touches, and will be perfectly happy and capable both as a spot up shooter on offense, or as a facilitator (whether he creates shots for others or for himself). Jefferson is also an indescribable upgrade over the aging Michael Finley/Bruce Bowen combo that manned the 3 for the Spurs last season, and will enable both Finley and Roger Mason Jr. to return to their ideal roles: shot making role players, and not offensive mainstays.

After taking care of their swingman position, the Spurs turned to their frontcourt. With all due respect to Matt Bonner, who emerged last season as a 44% 3pt shooter and a nice compliment to Duncan, he just isn’t a good enough rebounder or defender to count on as a starter. Enter Antonio Mcdyess. After struggling with injuries for the early part of his career, Mcdyess reinvented himself without his athleticism. The result is a very, very good rebounder (9.8 in 30 minutes per game last season), and a very good low post defender, who is capable of knocking down some mid-range shots when needed. Instead of a glaring hole down low, the Spurs now have a legitimate starting center, and yet another good-character veteran, who is committed only to winning.

And as if the Spurs’ front office weren’t annoying their peers enough, they then managed to steal DeJuan Blair with the 37th(!) pick of the draft. Blair was a monster in college, finishing his sophomore year with 15.7 points (on 59% shooting), 12.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and a block in 27.3 minutes per game, yet slipped in the draft due to injury concerns. After two reconstructive knee surgeries, which reportedly caused Blair to lose both his ACLs, made GMs stay away, assuming his knees won’t hold up long term. However, for a team looking to win now, Blair is a perfect fit, as he is NBA-ready and can contribute right away. Blair has had a monster preseason so far (14 and 8 in only 18 minutes), and will give the Spurs another strong defender and rebounder. With the signing of Hailsip, the resigning of Malik Hairston, and a year of experience for young point guard George Hill, the Spurs now possess an extremely strong, and deep rotation, that can definitely take them all the way.

- Health: The Spurs weren’t championship material last season to begin with, but they wouldn’t have gone out so early if they were at full strength. Tim Duncan played through knee troubles, Manu Ginobili didn’t play at all, and with Tony Parker the only healthy member of the big 3, the Spurs didn’t have a chance. This year, the Spurs’ magnificent offseason means that the Spurs have a real chance at winning a title – but even with the new acquisitions, it won’t be enough if Timmy and Manu aren’t healthy. Hopefully for the Spurs, a whole summer’s rest for the two will be enough to bring them up to speed, because there is no replacement for the two (specifically Manu, since even a half-strength Duncan is a monster).

- Defense: After dominating defensively for years, the Spurs lost a step last season, finishing only 9th in opposing field goal percentage, and 6th in defensive efficiency. Obviously, the Spurs were still near the top of the pack, but for a team whose defense made the difference for the past decade, this is a major fall. The Spurs need to regain their defensive identity to dominate. Of course, this relative letdown can be attributed to the decline of defensive ace Bruce Bowen, whom Richard Jefferson should do a decent job of replacing, and injuries, so it can’t be ruled out that this is a one year flop. Gregg Popovich’s mentality, a healthy Duncan, and a much stronger rotation should vault the Spurs back to elite-defensive status, however, if not, the Spurs in trouble.

Prediction: With perhaps the deepest team Duncan ever had, the Spurs are, yet again, posed for a whole lot of gut-wrenching, low scoring wins. They are currently the only team in the West that can, as currently constructed, dethrone the Lakers, and I really won’t be shocked if they do. However, it can’t be mentioned enough: the Spurs’ season will completely revolve around the health of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. 59-23, 2nd in West.

The Orlando Magic

Coach: Stan Van Gundy
Last Season: 59-23, Lost in NBA Finals
Key Additions: Vince Carter, Ryan Anderson (Trade, New Jersey Nets), Brandon Bass (Free Agent, Dallas), Matt Barnes (FA, Phoenix), Jason Williams (FA)
Key Losses: Hedo Turkoglu (Free Agent, sign-and-trade to Toronto), Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston, Tony Battie (Trade, Nets)

Offseason: I already covered the Magic’s offseason extensively over here, but to sum it up, this is a team coming off a surprising Finals defeat, looking to take it to the next level. They started off by smartly declining overpaying an aging, overrated Hedo Turkoglu. This isn’t to slight Hedo, who is a very good player, but the Magic were on national TV so much, that people were focusing on what he can do (pass, handle the ball, score in the clutch) on not on the fact that he isn’t a good defender, at that at age 30, he is what he is, and not for a very long time. Instead, the Magic swung a great deal with the Nets, bringing in a better player, defender, scorer in Vince Carter. Obviously, Vince is also no kid either (33 in January), but he is still an all-star caliber player (undeservedly excluded from last year’s squad due to Devin Harris’ emergence, and the coaches’ tendency not to award bad teams with two all-stars), and his contract (16 million this season, 17 million next) is much more manageable than the 5 years, 50 million Hedo got from Toronto. Specifically, Vince is a better shot creator than Hedo, a much better defender, and as good a passer, despite the rep Hedo has gained from last season’s playoffs. With first team NBA center Dwight Howard, together with Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson, the Magic can now trot up a lineup consisting almost only of all-stars. Not many teams can say that.

The incredible thing about the Carter deal was how little the Magic had to give up. Losing Courtney Lee hurts, after he gave the Magic quality minutes as a rookie, showing that he is fully capable of taking big shots and guarding top perimeter players in the playoffs. However, with the Magic in win-now mode, giving Lee up for all-star talent is more than a solid bargain. Tony Battie and Rafer Alston were included in the trade because of their expiring contracts – Battie won’t be much of a loss, giving only scarce minutes behind Dwight Howard, and Alston is expandable with Jameer Nelson returning from shoulder injury. And if that trade wasn’t great enough for Orlando, they also got Ryan Anderson from the Nets – a hustling, rebounding, 3 point shooting power forward that fits this team like a glove. Anderson showed a lot of potential with the Nets during his rookie campaign, and at the tender age of 21, was a huge long term pickup.

The Magic also struck gold with free agency. Matt Barnes is another player of the Rashard Lewis mold, that tall, athletic small forward that can play at the 4 and knock down shots. In addition, Barnes is a great defender, fitting in well with the Magic, who led the league in defensive efficiency last season. Brandon Bass is another underrated signing – he enables the Magic to play a more traditional line up with him at the 4, providing great defense, hustle, and a very underrated mid-range jumper. Resigning Marcin Gortat, coming off a breakthrough campaign, was probably done mainly to keep him as an asset for a future trade, since he costs a lot of money for a backup center (5 years, 34 million), but as long as he’s on the team, he’ll be one of the best backup centers in the league. Jason Williams was brought on to replace Alston as a backup point guard, though he might compete with Anthony Johnson for the job. All in all, a fantastic offseason – the Magic now go two deep at every position, have assembled plenty of talent that fits with their style of play, can go both small and big, and have the reigning Defensive Player Of The Year. Way to build on a successful playoff.

- Vince Carter: Vince has superstar ability, but throughout his career, has never really showed willingness to carry a team. Then again, he was never on a truly great team. Most of his teams were second round material at best, and they rarely underachieved. So which Vince is Orlando getting? The one who jacks up bad shots, disrupts his team, then fakes injury when things go south? Or the durable Vince from the past few seasons? Vinsanity, or Half Man, Half Ice Pack? If Vince fits in with this team, offensively and defensively, then watch out. If not, Dwight may get very jealous of Toronto’s Turkish community.

- Dwight Howards’s offense: Dwight took it up a notch defensively last season, upgrading from a top-notch rebounder and shot blocker, into a dominant, all around defender. However, he doesn’t really have a lot of offensive moves. Most of his points come of putbacks, offensive rebounds, dunks, and poorly shot free throws. If he can find a way to consistently score in the post and knock down free throws, Orlando’s offense will have so many weapons that it will be impossible to contain, and Dwight might get himself an MVP or two.

- Jameer Nelson’s shoulder: After years of solid, yet unspectacular play, Jameer Nelson finally fulfilled his potential, blowing up for almost 17 points on 50% shooting, 5.4 assists, and an all-star spot. However, in early February, he tore the labrum in his right shoulder, effectively ending his season. Jameer shockingly returned for the Finals, way ahead of schedule, but was clearly not fully healthy, and was ineffective. After trading Alston, who was brought at the last trading deadline as Nelson’s replacement, the Magic will have a huge hole at point guard if Jameer is not at full strength. And with the other title contenders stacking up as well during the offseason, the Magic just can’t afford that.

- Clutch: Last season Hedo was the Magic’s clutch player, whether he took the big shots, or created them for others. Now he’s north of the border, and that clutch player role is empty. Jameer Nelson filled it for the Magic in the past, but he is returning from injury. Vince and Rashard haven’t exactly failed in the clutch in their career, but haven’t given reasons to trust them in those situations either. And Dwight, as mentioned, still isn’t a trustworthy option when points are needed. In the playoffs, when games are tight, the Magic will need someone to step up, or they will lose – they have the whole regular season to find out who that person will be, but it has to happen.

Prediction: The Magic had a wonderful offseason, and the clearly improved their squad. They might start the season slowly, taking time to adjust to the new roster, and because of Rashard Lewis’ 10 game suspension after failing a drug test. Still, the Magic are a clear-cut top 3 in the East, and top 5 in the league. With the other contenders making significant offseason moves themselves, it will be tough to know which one is better until they actually meet in may, but in my eyes, what the Magic have now puts them at 59-23, 2nd in East, and a shade under Cleveland as far as their chances for a repeat Finals appearance.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Los Angeles Lakers

Coach: Phil Jackson
Last Season: 65-17, NBA Champions
Key Additions: Ron Artest (Free Agent, Houston)
Key Losses: Trevor Ariza (FA, Houston), Sun Yue (waived)

Offseason: After ending a 7 year championship drought, the Lakers’ main offseason goal was keeping the squad intact. However, when Trevor Ariza declined a 5 year, 33 million dollar offer following his breakout campaign, the Lakers instead used their mid-level exception to sign Houston’s free agent, Ron Artest, for that exact deal. Ariza then signed with the Rockets for, ironically, 5 years, 33 million.

Though the Lakers swapped Ariza for a much bigger name, they might have gotten the shorter end of the stick. With all due respect to Ron, he just doesn’t seem to be a good fit with this team, especially considering the player he’s replacing. Unlike Trevor Ariza, who was perfectly content with his role player status, Artest has been (or has viewed himself as) a star his entire career. However, he just isn’t that good. He doesn’t seem to care that he is an extremely inefficient offensive player - jacking up 15-20 bad shots a game. Where are those touches coming from? You know that Kobe won’t give them up. Pau already got way too little touches during last season's playoffs. If Artest doesn’t figure out his new role, he could turn the Lakers’ offense into chaos.

In addition, Artest just isn’t the defender he used to be. He can no longer guard elite swingmen. He is much slower and heavier than he used to be – he even had trouble staying in front of Corey Maggette during a preseason game. Artest may return to his top notch form and prove me wrong, but according to last season, the Lakers lost their best defender (Ariza) and replaced him with a far inferior one.

It seems to me that signing a player as volatile with Artest – probably the owner of the most infamous off-court track record of the past decade in the NBA – is enough of a gamble as is. But when pairing that with the fact that Artest might not even be an improvement over his predecessor, it’s a gamble that’s not only dangerous, but unnecessary. And even though Phil Jackson is probably the coach best equipped to deal with Ron – remember, he harnessed Dennis Rodman – the team would have been better off sticking to what they know.

Apart from the Ariza-Artest switch, the Lakers had a quiet offseason basketball wise, resigning their other two free agents – Shannon Brown and Lamar Odom. However, off the court, it was drama galore, with Odom’s extension taking several weeks to complete. However, despite the long saga, Odom seems very happy in LA, claiming from the get-go that he has no intention to move. Odom starred again later in the summer, with his much publicised marriage to Khloe Kardashian – I will not elaborate on that, as I find it boring and unrelated to basketball. My apologies to gossip-maniacs. I do, however, find it important to mention that the Lakers waived Sun Yue – probably the most universally loved athlete ever to roam the earth.

-Point Guard: Apart from Artest, who is clearly the biggest X-Factor this squad has, for all the reasons explained above, the Lakers’ most burning concern personnel wise is at the point guard position. Derek Fisher manned the position for the past 2 seasons, but at 35 has noticeably lost a step. Despite a strong showing in the Finals (11 ppg, 50% FG, 44% from 3, and two huge threes during a crucial game 4 overtime win), Fisher was bad throughout the regular season, and downright terrible in the Western Conference Playoffs (35% FG, 23% from three). Not only that, but Jordan Farmar, who had a very promising sophomore campaign in 2007-2008, hit a wall last season, shooting only 39% from the floor, putting up an absolutely atrocious 9.9 PER, and raising questions regarding his ability to inherit Fisher’s spot. The Lakers’ third Point man, Shannon Brown, showed some promise last season after arriving from Charlotte via trade, and was re-signed to a 2 year, 4.2 million deal. However, he has yet to prove that he can play at a high level throughout the season.

The Lakers had major trouble guarding opposing point guards, specifically small and quick ones. Their defense on this Point Guard prototype was so bad last postseason, that Houston’s Aaron Brooks torched them during their second round 7 game series, scoring 18 ppg, on 46% shooting. If the Lakers have trouble with Aaron Brooks, what are they going to do against world class, small, quick point guards such as Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Jameer Nelson? Their ability to guard this position will go a long way towards guaranteeing them a repeat, but if they can’t, I don’t see how they can get past the Spurs in the West.

-Motivation: The 2004 Lakers, probably one of the most talented squads of the last decayed, imploded with inner drama and stories. Last season’s squad managed to avoid the drama, but will they still be friends now that they have that title? After every single person on that team gave everything for that ring, and they got it, will they put aside squabbles for the second consecutive season or will egos explode? Will Pau Gasol complain about touches? Will Lamar Odom want to start or will he be willing to remain a 6th man? Will Phil Jackson still be motivated to lead this squad now that he passed Red Auerbach on the all-time title list? Is he even capable of motivating them? It has always been said that defending a title is harder than winning one. The Lakers need to prove that they still want it.

-Kobe: Last season, Kobe Bryant finally got rid of that monkey on his back, and won a title as the alpha dog of his team. Now that he has silenced the critics, will he still be fully committed to that goal? Will he still involve his teammates, or will he revert to get-my-own-stats-Kobe? Also, Kobe is 31, and has played over 200 games the past two seasons, including the Olympics with Team USA, all of this with an injured finger. Basketball players all reach a stage where their body breaks down; has Kobe reached this stage? Kobe is such a competitor, that he’ll probably stay focused on getting that 5th title all throughout, but it should still be pointed out that with Kobe's history, it isn’t a given.

-Andrew Bynum: The past two seasons, Bynum displayed borderline all-star form before succumbing to injury, returning far from full strength in the playoffs. If Bynum can play to his potential, the Lakers have the best frontcourt in the league. But if he’s injured, then Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are pretty much alone up front, unless you are a huge Josh Powell/DJ Mbenga fan. The Lakers were able to win without Bynum at his best last season – but with all other contenders stacking up during the offseason, they need the young big man in order to repeat.

Prediction: Despite my doubts about Artest’s effect on the team, the Lakers are still pretty much the same squad that won last year’s championship, and must be considered the favorite to repeat until we see evidence to the contrary. If drama/injuries don’t catch up with this team, they should finish atop their conference during the regular season, fully prepared to meet the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. It will be very hard to count them out. 61-21, 1st place in the West.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

NBA Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

I doubt that I'll be able to preview all 30 teams in the league, but I will make an honest to god attempt to preview as much as possible. With that in mind, here are your 2009/2010 Cleveland Cavaliers.

Coach: Mike Brown
Last Season: 66-16, lost in Eastern Conference Finals
Key Additions: Shaquille O’neal (trade, Phoenix), Anthony Parker (Free Agent, Toronto), Jamario Moon (FA, Miami), Leon Powe (FA, Boston Celtics), Danny Green (Draft).
Key Losses: Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovich (trade, Phoenix), Wally Szczerbiak (FA), Assistant Coach Jon Kuester (now head coach of the Detroit Pistons).

Offseason: Cleveland’s offseason mission of “getting Lebron a title so he won’t leave next summer” started off with the big Shaquasition: 4 time NBA champion and future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’neal joined the team in a full-fledged salary dump by the Phoenix Suns. Shaq was brought on to address two of the Cavs’ biggest weaknesses in last season’s crushing 6 game loss to the Orlando Magic – the lack a low post scorer, or really any scorer not named “Lebron”, and a big body capable of guarding Dwight Howard, who proved to quick for last year’s starting tandem of Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

However, due to Shaq’s migration north being analysed to a pulp by every basketball enthusiast on the planet, the rest of Cleveland’s offseason went by somewhat under-the-radar. Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, both brought as free agents, give the Cavs two long, defensive swingmen, meaning that Lebron is no longer the only player on board that is capable of guarding the Rashard Lewises of the world. Both players are also very capable of knocking down shots, particularly Parker, who has established himself as a clutch player who can create his own shot during his 6 year Euroleague tenure. Leon Powe, another offseason pickup who came cheap from the Celtics due to injury concerns (a torn ACL expected to keep him on the sidelines until January at the earliest), is fully capable of giving the team quality minutes at the 4 come playoff time. The Cavs also re-signed free agent Anderson Varejao to a 6 year, 42 million deal - probably too much for a role player like Varejao, but still important, as Varejao brings much to the table for the Cavs.

Clevelands strong offseason was marred only by the departure of Assistant coach John Kuester. Kuester, who became the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, functioned as the Cavs’ offensive coordinator last season, and was largely responsible for Cleveland's progression from the “give-Lebron-the-ball-and-hope-for-the-best” offense to an efficient offensive team (4th in offensive efficiency). However, during Cleveland’s 4-2 loss to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, the offense regressed back to 1-on-5, and the Cavs struggled to put points on the board. Mike Brown’s ability to run the offense without Kuester, and not only his regular stifling defense, will go a long way towards bringing Lebron that ring.

To summarize, Cleveland addressed all their weaknesses during the offseason: a big man capable of guarding Dwight Howard (Shaq has had some success with this in the past), a low post scorer (Shaq), another perimiter player capable of creating a shot (Parker), defensive swingmen (Parker and Moon), and frontcourt depth (Powe). A very strong summer indeed.

- Shaquille O’neal: Quite fittingly, the biggest player is the biggest question mark. The Artist Formally Known as the Most Dominant Player in the Game will be 38 years old come playoff time, but is coming off a very productive season in which he averaged 18 and 8 and returned to the All-Star game. However, his personal rebirth came at the expense of his team, as the Suns missed the playoffs for the first time since the arrival of Steve Nash.

- Delonte West: After losing some of last season’s training camp due to treatment for depression and a mood disorder, West emerged as a starting shooting guard, defensive ace, deadly shooter (40% from three point range), and general glue-guy. However, West continued to reveal his troubling personality this summer, being arrested for speeding on a motorcycle while carrying 3 weapons, and yet again missing the beginning of training camp due to personal issues. While the acquisitions of Parker and Moon mean the Cavs are much better equipped to replace West if necessary, he is still an important part of their team, and a very good basketball player. West’s ability to put a bumpy summer behind him for the second consecutive year and contribute at a high level will go a long way to bringing Cleveland to the promised land.

-Zydrunas Ilgauskas: The Lithuanian big man is an X-Factor for two reasons: first of all, after starting for the Cavs in the middle the past decade, Big Z is now a bench player. His ability to contribute in this new role could be crucial for the Cavs’, as very little teams in the league have such a strong 2nd string center. Secondly, Z’s 11 million dollar contract expires next summer, meaning that if the Cavs still feel they need to improve, they can send him (or Shaq’s 20 million expiring deal, or both) to a lottery team looking for cap relief, and strengthen their team. This could be huge – don’t forget that the Lakers weren’t anywhere near a title before Memphis gave them Pau Gasol for peanuts.

- J.J. Hickson/Leon Powe: This isn’t really that much of an X-Factor as a possible bonus. Last season, Hickson showed a lot of potential before being slowed down by injury. Reports out of Cleveland are that these injuries are behind him, and his preseason form has ranged from solid to surprisingly good. Similarly, Leon Powe provided the Boston Celtics with great hustle, defence and rebounding, when healthy. If Hickson can have a breakout sophomore campaign, and/or Powe can recover from his injuries, the Cavs could have a very good 4th, and even 5th big man, turning front court depth from a weakness to a strength.

Prediction: The Cavs were the best team in the league during the regular season, and I believe that they had a legitimate chance to win against the eventual champion Lakers. Sadly for them, they met a very good Orlando team, who, more importantly, matched up against them perfectly. Even though the Magic and the Celtics made very strong offseason moves, I think the Cavs had the strongest offseason in the East, and arguably in the league, not only strengthening the team, but addressing their matchup problems. The large number of X-Factors tell you that this is far from a done deal, but the sheer presence of Lebron James has been enough for the Cavs to overachieve for the past few seasons, and it should be again. 63-19, 1st in the East, and my favorites for the title.