Friday, October 31, 2008

Dr. Slantedstein's Monster

We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up.”
-Mary Shelley

Happy Halloween my dear readers. In my Timberwolves predictions, I suggested the fantasy of melding Rashad McCants with Corey Brewer to come up with Corey McCants—the ace super-small forward who could both score like Johnny Depp and defend like Johnny Cochran.

So, being that it is Halloween, I thought it would be fun to go through each team and find two players that apart, find themselves very much useful but ultimately flawed.

However, if somehow, whether through magic, sorcery and/or mad science, they were to be combined together, they could rise up and become a terrifying, unstoppable, basketball monster.

It's Alive!!!!

Golden State Warriors: Andris Turiaf
First and foremost, that name just sounds wickedly tough and brutal. Like some sort of Soviet Super Soldier in the Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV type way. Andris Turiaf would have an incredible feel for rebounding and finding himself around the basket for easy buckets, but would also have a nice 15 to 17 foot jump shot, and the wherewithal and tenacity to block shots and make solid passes. He’d be a super-duper awesome energy man and would win the best hair award with a slick flattop and crazy goatee. Think, 15 ppg, 13 rpg, 2.5 bpg, 2.5 apg, while shooting 60 percent from the field and 75 percent from the line. Scary.

Los Angeles Clippers: Ricky Mobley
I was thinking about doing Al Davis, but since that name’s got a scary enough dude attached to it, I went with the more fan friendly Ricky Mobley. I can just see him sitting back thinking, “Well, I’m the best there is. Plain and simple, when I wake up in the morning I piss excellence.” And Ricky Mobley would. He would have range and a be a great passer. He’d also have Cat’s post-up game, but Buckets’ shooting prowess. He’d be able to spark any offense, while also playing lockdown D. Basically, you’d give him Cat’s brain and veteran savvy with Ricky’s skills and athleticism. Nice. Think 22 ppg, 6 apg, 6 rpg, 2 spg, shooting 45 percent and 85 percent from the line. He’d also be able to get a triple double without cheesing it.

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Diop
Double D would, simply put, make a boob out of anyone foolish enough trying to handle him. He’d have the shooting touch of the greatest bigman shooter of all time, the ability to snag a gang of boards and even have the wherewithal to dish out some dimes. Add to that his innate ability to give defensive support like a Wonder bra, holding up sagging defenses while rejecting shots like Berkeley rejects applicants. There would be no holes in his game. The ultimate baller. Think 29 ppg, 10 rpg, 3 apg, 3 bpg and a 49 percent field goal percentage and a 38 percent 3-point percentage. He’d make you gawk at his offense, while his D would stop you dead.

Los Angeles Lakers: Vladimir Odom
While the Lakers don’t need any additional help, because they look damn scary enough, imagine Vladom and tell me that THAT guy wouldn’t scare the beejesus outta you and even win a couple of MVPs over Kobe. Vladom would be 6-10, have the skills to reign threes from anywhere, handle the ball and pass like a point guard, be an ace rebounder and play solid to excellent defense. Plus, you know he would never hesitate to take an open shot. He’d average 25 ppg, 10 rpg, 6 apg, 1.5 bpg, 1.5 spg and throw in 2.5 3s per game while shooting 40 percent from downtown and 50 percent overall. He’d win you fantasy every year. But fans of the real game be forewarned—Vladom would also disappear for long stretches and/or make incredibly stupid plays at incredibly crucial moments.

Phoenix Suns: Amare Amundson
Gotta love that name. Plus, you add the specs to that pony tail? Forget it. Gotta love Double A. He would be a terrifying behemoth on offense with bone-crushing and neck-breaking dunks mixed with a pretty stroke out to 17 feet—just a beast of unstoppable offensiveness. AA would also be a mad, freakish board crasher who’d relentlessly hit the backboards while rejecting shots like a Christian with an extreme case of angioedema witnessing at a UCSB frat party. He’d average 29 ppg, 12 rpg, 2 apg, 3.5 bpg while shooting 58 percent. He’d be explosive and a tidal wave of pure energy and his nickname would be the Battery Ram and he would be awfully awesome.

Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Lowry
This dude would be a crazy combo of refined skill and sheer energy. Pitbull-like strength, toughness and tenacity with the penchant for creating chaos, while also being a pinpoint precision passer, who knows how to run an offense. Still can’t shoot all that well, but he’d be an elite defender and playmaker. Not much else you can ask from your point guard. That three will come with practice. He’d only be 21.5 years-old. So there’s plenty of room for growth. Think 16 ppg, 10 apg, 5.5 rpg, 2.8 spg, 1.5 bpg. Better yet, he’s a bad, bad boy.

Houston Rockets: Rafer Barry
Just what the doctor ordered, a lockdown defender at the one, who can skip-to-his-lou, create offense for others with superb passing AND shoot the rock lights out. I mean, put the intangibles of Alston, with the true shooting percentage and passing abilities of the youngest Barry bro and, well, that's a monster worth every bolt. Nuff said. Think 16 ppg, 8 apg, 1.5 spg, 48 percent from beyond the arc and 13.5 lpg (laughers per game).

Utah Jazz: Ronnie Korver
This one’s easy, but deadly effective. Ronnie K would make the Jazz the best team in the league. A lockdown defender, who could pick anyone’s pocket faster than the Artful Dodger, Ronnie Korver, with his elite athleticism, could also finish any fastbreak. The danger with him, however, is that he could drop threes from all over. In fact, with his dunking ability and exceptional skills dropping numbers on your head, his nickname would be the Rain Man. He’s a sure bet for 19 ppg, 7 rpg, 3 spg, and a 53 percent field goal percentage with 43 from downtown. This is definitely not one to mess with. Definitely not.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Joe Collicox
The Thunder are so bad, that the mad scientist in me had to go sniffing for body parts from not two, but three players in my quest to create the perfect power forward. The result, however, is beautiful. Joe Collicox would be a monster around the basket, using his athleticism to dunk and score at will. If the opposing teams decide to clog the paint with a zone, Collicox could take that game out to the 15-17 foot range to score from time to time there as well. He’d be a solid, wily post defender and gobble up boards like NFL fans tear into turkey on Thanksgiving. Energy, veteran smarts, and athleticism. Think 21 ppg, 12 rpg, 1 bpg, with 57 percent shooting. He’s a stud forward, with a stud pornstar name.

Yeah, there's some teams missing. But some of the monsters just weren't that fun and some of the teams, well, just didn't have players that made any sense. Others were stretches, but I’ll throw out the names and see if you can guess the teams and players. Francisco Salmons, Fabricio Bonner, Hakim Walker, Al Collins, Peja Wright and Kenyon Hilario.

Monday, October 27, 2008

How the West Was Won

It’s BAAAaaaCK! The National Basketball Association throws up its first jump balls tomorrow night. Basketball racks are filled with new leather. Sneakers are ready to squeak across the floor. Headbands and wristbands and rubberbands are being snapped on. Manana, opening tip of the new 08-09 season will feature last year’s Western Conference champs (Lakeshow) verses this year’s up-and-comers (Blazers). And since we’re WestCoast Slant, who gives a crap about what’s going on out east (just kidding: Lebron/KG, Redd/Rose).

This past week I did my “Only Upside” predictions. And, well, I don’t think that’s how it’s all going to shake out. So, here, in the following post, I will give you my own personal, humble thoughts on this year’s Western Conference. Because the NBA, especially the WC, is so deep where even the bottom-feeding teams have talent and could upset on any given night, I have come up with a new theory. It follows the line of thinking that a team must not only have a great set of starters, but must also field (or is that court?) an elite bench. A deep squad with a great bench sets the bar of a championship contending team. Last year’s Celtics ended up being deep, as did the Lakers. In order to climb the mountain (The mighty Sierras, not the wussy Appalachians) out here on the left coast, the elite teams are going to need to run at least 9 deep. So, with that in mind, here are my 2008-09 standings/predictions.

(Ed. Note…Word of the day: notwithstanding; phrase of the day: Defense wins championships)

1.) L.A. Lakers
This team will be much improved defensively, not only for the additions of Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza, but also when you figure that Kobe will be able to focus even less on offense, and dedicate his energies towards defense thanks greatly in part to the team’s depth. Even if you factor injuries (a real possibility with Bynum’s knee, Kobe’s hurt pinkie, Lamar Odom’s body and Pau Gasol’s back), the Lakers are deep enough to withstand any injury to any player, Kobe Bean Bryant included. They’ve got Chris Mihm as their 4th big off the bench. While Chris Mihm ain’t a starting center by any long stretch of the imagination, he masqueraded as one for two seasons, and put up respectable numbers. And he’s their 4th big. Josh Powell also got run with the Clips last season and averaged a double-double per 40 minutes. So, it’s okay if AB or Pau misses some time. Then there’s the glut of small forwards, Luke Walton (the team’s 10th player), Trevor Ariza, Vladimir Radmanovic and Odom and the glut of wings, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, and even Sun Yue (who happened to play pretty well in the Olympics). Let’s get two things straight, Jordan Farmar has shown the ability to be a feature player, even on this stacked Lakers squad, and Ariza is looking more and more like superman every single game he plays. Sure, they can’t win the whole thing without 24, but they can certainly survive him going out for 12 weeks to get his pinkie repaired. There’s even upside to that scenario. Much like the Manu Ginobili situation, if Kobe has to take 12 weeks off to get his pinkie fixed, he’ll have the most vacation he’s had in three years. A well-rested Kobe for the playoffs? Raise that 15th banner Dr. Buss.

2.) Utah
Sure they’ve got 8 potential free agents going into next off-season. Sure, their best player is starting the season with an injured ankle. Sure Jerry Sloan has never won a championship before. Despite all of these well-known facts, this Jazz team is loaded and full of talent. First and foremost, they have the best point guard in the league. People will argue that Chris Paul is better, some say way better. They mainly point towards his phenomenal stats that outshine Williams: 17.3 to 11.4 win shares; 52.2 to 43.6 assist percentage; 28 to 20 PER. Paul averaged more points, more assists, more steals and more rebounds. Yadda yadda yadda. To me, it’s like comparing Shane Battier with Josh Howard. They both are the same size, play the same position, they even played the same amount of minutes and around the same amount of games last season. Josh Howard scored more points, averaged more rebounds and had a way higher PER. But, would anybody argue Shane Battier’s importance to his team as being less than Josh Howard’s? There would be a great deal of people who would argue the complete opposite. In my opinion, Williams is every bit as good as Paul despite what statistics might tell you. Deron’s a legitimate MVP candidate. As for the rest of the team, Mehmet Okur had a horrible year battling injuries last season, though he came around after the all-star break. He’s fully healthy and looking to regain his, cough, all-star form. Carlos Boozer is fresh off a gold medal stint with Team U.S.A. and though he didn’t get much burn, the opportunity to play and learn with the elite of the NBA, as well as his impending free agency, should light a fire under him. He’s a 20 and 11 guy. Then there’s Ronnie Brewer, who is one of the most underrated players in the league. He’s a terrifying finisher at the rim, a master pickpocket, and a solid and still improving defender who has Michael Jordan athleticism. And he’s 23. Add to that mix the shooting prowess of Kyle Korver and Deron is surrounded by a perfect supporting cast—much like Chris Paul. As awesome as Andrei Kirilenko can be, he is not a good fit at small forward with that starting lineup. He can’t space the floor and he’s away from the basket too much. With him coming off the bench, he’ll be leading a squad where he'll get to play some powerforward and his shot blocking and ability to create will be a huge boost. Three seasons ago, Kirilenko was putting up PERs in the 20s and was anchoring the Jazz. This season, he'll be able to do that with the bench team. And that second unit is stellar. Paul Milsap would be starting for half of the other teams in the league. Jason Collins, who is a horrific offensive player, is a Chandler-like defender in that he uses body positioning to frustrate opponents. Matt Harpring is a consummate professional and middle-class man’s version of James Posey. He’s got a nasty bite to him too. Not to mention upside guys in Kosta Koufos, Kyrylo Fesenko and Miles. The Jazz have the better, deeper team and a coach who has done it all save win the big one. They are young (no starter over 29) and they are hungry and supremely talented and deep. That’s why they will win their division and why they will contend for a title.

3.) Houston
A lot has to go right for this team, and for some reason, I feel like this is their year for things to go right. Yao had a long summer, but, like the two teams above, the Rockets, more than ever before in the Ming Era, are more than capable of withstanding his absence. In fact, dare I say it, they might even be better without him—especially if Mount Mutumbo joins the squad mid-season. Luis Scola has proven that he’s a stud. He’s coming off the bench right now. Carl Landry is a stud in training. He’s coming off the bench right now too. Chuck Hayes, hard working, physical, defensive ace—yup, coming off the bench. Rookie Joey Dorsey? Athletic defender in college. Bench guy. Sure, they’re all short for their position, but they all excel regardless (Daryl Morey’s stat-oriented GMing going on). Then there’s the addition of Mr. Crazy-in-the-head, who will be joining, by far, the most talented team he has ever played on. Even if T-Mac or Yao go down, this squad would still be as talented as those Pacers teams that Artest was a part of. Those teams, of course, were very, very good defensive teams (thanks to Artest and Jermaine O’Neal). Defense is what wins championships, and there isn’t a single weak defender on the team outside of Brent Barry (though he’s a smart team defender) and Yao Ming (and he’s really, really tall if you haven’t heard). Artest is an all-NBA talent when properly motivated and he’s in the perfect situation to succeed. He’s joining a world-class defense (22 game winning streak), a ready-made championship contender and while a new, extended contract would be the absolute worst idea, in this one season, where he is a free-agent-to-be, playing with his favorite coach, he’s almost as sure of a bet as any to perform at a premium level. Again, defense wins championships, and this team has the best in the business.

4.) Portland
Okay. Maybe this is kind of high. Maybe I’m trying to drink the Cool-Aid before the powder’s had any time to suffuse the water. Maybe I’m not giving proper due to an up-and-coming team like New Orleans or a veteran squad like San Antonio. Even still, if you have not noticed up to this point, I tend to favor teams with depth, and this team’s got depth in bunches. Not only did the Blazers almost make the playoffs last year, despite not having Greg Oden and losing Brandon Roy for several stretches of the season, the team added four rotational players this off-season: Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless, Oden, and Rudy Fernandez. All of these guys are super talents. Bayless carried Arizona last year and torched summer league. Batum has impressed coaches so much, that the 19-year-old is being talked about starting in place of the injured Martell Webster. Oden is a beast, though he’s had an up-and-down preseason. And Rudy, quite simply put, is going to be awesome. He’s looked stellar in preseason, and he lit it up in the Olympics and he was one of Europe’s best players last season. Let the good news keep coming…he’s only 23. With Bayless and Fernandez on board, the seasonal Brandon Roy injury will not hamper the team too much and when on the court, Roy should continue to solidify himself as one of the best wings in the game. Not only that, they have the best backup center in the league in Joel Przybilla, who could be an excellent starter and was starting last year. Travis Outlaw’s a starter masquerading as a sixth man. Ike Diogu’s per 40-minute numbers suggest all he needs is time to play to be really good. With Channing Frye being out for a while, he’ll get that opportunity. Frye and Webster will both return mid-season to help fortify the team. They’ve got a great coach in Nate McMillan who always makes more out of less. With Nate the coach, it’s always been, “imagine what he could do with more.” This year? He’s got more. No one will be surprised if this team is a top-four team. I’m just one of the few who is putting it in writing that they will be.

5.) Phoenix
Amare’s penchant for freak injuries has me a bit worried. Because the whole season basically revolves around him, and because he’s already suffered the eye injury, adding pinkie woes does not bode well. Even still, the injury is apparently not serious, and STAT should remind everyone why he has that nickname. Plus the new specs give him free reign to attack the basket mercilessly (even more so if that’s possible). I’m thinking plenty of MVP votes and his rise to top power forward in the league—with all due respect to Tim Duncan. The Suns are right in the middle of the pack as depth is concerned. If things go well, Shaq plays 68 plus games and Grant Hill and Steve Nash remain healthy, this team looks very deep. Robin Lopez, Matt Barnes, Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw are all solid to very good with upside. Besides injury potential, the most troubling thing about the Suns is backup point. Goran Dragic has shown some things so far, but only a few things. Sean Singletary too, but, he’s small and presents all of the same defensive struggles that Steve Nash has, just without the tremendous offensive upside. The potential for Shaq or Nash or Hill to go down at any point makes this team one of the biggest wild cards. They can be great, or they can fall out of the playoffs entirely. My guess is somewhere in between. They’re built for the playoffs anyway (Hack-a-Shaq notwithstanding).

6.) San Antonio
The Spurs are, well, the Spurs, and what spot they finish in during the regular season won’t matter at all unless they face the Lakers in the first round. And even with that match-up, Lakers fan would all be sitting in puddles of their own, well, you get the point. Over their near decade of dominance, nobody never, ever wants to see the Spurs in the playoffs. That being said, this is not a very deep team. Their bench is Kevin Martin on heroin thin. They are, however, a very old team (average age of 29.5 by far and away the eldest squad in the entire association), and a team whose best offensive playmaker, Manu Ginobili, is out for at least the first month of the season. San Antonio’s defense should maintain a high level, but as was seen last season, the offense, on too many occasions, sputtered and died. Losing your most dynamic offensive player (Manu), while also letting your best outside shooter walk (Brent Barry), is not a great way to rectify that problem. George Hill and Roger Mason will help, a little bit. But I still fail to see how this team scores enough on a consistent basis to warrant anything higher than a 6th seed. At the same time, I can’t drop this team any lower than a 6th seed seeing as they still have the best coach and best bigman of this decade. If any more injuries strike, however, especially to Tony Parker or Duncan, this team could swiftly fall out of the playoffs due to the West’s incredible depth. Then again, Manu taking off the first month and half or more, means he’ll be coming back fully healthy for the playoffs. And that’s Darkwing Duck Dangerous.

7.) New Orleans
Seventh!?! Yes. Seventh. I love Chris Paul. World class, MVP-caliber player. Love Byron Scott. Coach of the Year. Love Cajun food. Shrimp and gumbo! And New Orleans has been my number one travel destination in the United States for the past 15 years (Katrina notwithstanding). But none of that changes my feelings that this is a team just waiting to fall flat on its face. The Hornets main weakness is its thin bench. So, here we have the ultimate loser in my theory that a deep bench is what puts teams over-the-top in today’s NBA—especially the West (You can check trader Jays for a possible solution to this problem). The NO has NO bench. They’re bench would get murdered by any of the benches of the top 5, and San Antonio, while actually having a thinner bench, gets the nod because, well, they’ve been beating the odds for 9 straight years now. New Orleans did it once. Also, it will be hard for any of the starting five to play better than they did last year. David West, Tyson Chandler, and Chris Paul all had career seasons. And while Chandler and Paul are young and still improving, an early ankle injury to Tyson and Paul’s extended summer, seem to point towards dips in productivity. Also, everybody is assuming Paul is going to improve on last year’s performance, but, seeing as how he had the greatest statistical season by a point guard, um, ever, that’s probably not the case. Add to this the fact that West has been an every-other-year player, and the Hornets seem to me to be a classic case of a team getting hyped too much and then falling prey to over-expectations or injuries, or both (see 05-06 Clips). Sure they’ve added James Posey, and he’ll definitely help them both with his leadership and enthusiasm, but he effectively knocks out the Hornets best bench player in Julian Wright. He also makes Rasual Butler completely irrelevant. There's Devin Brown, but he plays a similar position. What's worse, signing Posey for their midlevel meant that they didn't address their biggest need. They don’t have a single serviceable backup big—and no, Hilton Armstrong doesn’t meet those requirements. I’d go out on a limb and say that Josh Powell, the Lakers fifth bigman, is better than Armstrong right now. Behind him they have Melvin Ely and, uh, Sean Marks. No joke. So, while the starting five is legit and championship caliber, even if they stay healthy the whole season, the weak as Napoleon Dynamite’s brother of a bench is what is going to do this team in. Oh yes, I forgot, the Hornets also play in the league’s toughest division and, in order to have what has become a must have for most teams—home court advantage—they’ll have to stay ahead of San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. That’s why they drop to seventh. If an injury to Paul, Chandler or West occurs, I could see this team dropping out of the playoffs all together. New Orleans, you see, they mirror their own favorite son, Lil Wayne. Hot as all hell right now with exceptional skills, perhaps best in the business skills, perhaps take-home-a-championship skills, but sorely lacking in any sort of depth.

8.) L.A. Clippers
Okay, if you thought my Portland prediction was wacky, here’s one that might surprise you even more. I really like this team. Sure, injuries to either Baron Davis or Marcus Camby (both of whom, I might add, are currently mildly injured) would derail this scenario faster than Jennifer Aniston pulling off Clive Owens pants, but I can’t help but love their potential. Sure, there’s a lot not to like. Injury-prone players is the main thing (BD, Camby, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman). A star who doesn’t mesh well with his coach is another (BD in Dunleavy’s structured offense, ugh). The influence of Ricky Davis on his teammates when they go out…yeah, absolutely terrifying. That being said, Camby plus Kaman plus Baron makes a formidable defense. I’ve said it before, but Camby was the defensive player of the year two seasons ago, and adding him to one of the best defensive point guards (when motivated) along with a hulking caveman blocking and rebounding monster, should have the other teams in the league fearing coming to Los Angeles regardless of who’s lacing them up in Staples that night. In fact, the Clips could easily move up the ladder (or down of course) if their defense gels as fluidly as my vision foresees it. Add to this defense the best draft class (Gordon, DeAndre Jordan and Mike Taylor) outside of Portland, and there’s a nice blend of veterans and rookies with potential and a surprisingly deep bench (Cuttino Mobley, by season’s end, could find himself as the 9th rotation guy. And if Cat is your 9th guy, that’s pretty good). Finally, despite Dunleavy’s penchant for being a controlling, micro-managing coach, he has double the incentive to do whatever it takes (including letting Baron take free reign of the offense) in order to make this team work. He is after all, the new GM who handpicked this roster while simultaneously running Elgin Baylor shamefully out the door. If the Clips ascend to a top-five defense, there’s no telling how high they can climb because defense wi…yeah, yeah, like Larry H. Parker, you know the story.

9.) Dallas
I don't think J-Kidd is done, but I don’t think this team has the right pieces to make project Jason work. If Kidd were to be traded for, oh, I don’t know AI, then Dallas and Denver would automatically move up a couple of spots and into the playoffs with the potential to be even better than that. AI is just what this team needs—a tough-as-thugs, stud offensive player who can create for himself and carry the team when Dirk is off. Kidd is the opposite of that. But he’s perfect for the shoot-first mentality of every single Nugget. In Denver, Kidd wouldn’t need to play any defense, and his offensive skills would enhance every single player on that roster including Renaldo Balkman. Unfortunately, as of right now, that scenario has not happened. Therefore, I don’t see how this team scores enough points even if Kidd does his best Nash impersonation and makes Dirk more efficient. In the end, Kidd can’t shoot, so the offense won’t be as good. And he’s too old to guard even mediocre points in the West at this stage of his career, so the defense struggles as well. And the staple of the Mavericks serious title runs under Avery Johnson was their defense. And, about that bench. Well, they’ve got one for sure. And it’s deep. It just doesn’t make too much sense. Devean George (ugh), Antoine Wright, James Singleton, Shawne Williams, you can even throw in Jerry Stackhouse and Gerald Green (who is a potential stud breakout player this year mind you), all seem very, very much superfluously redundant. Meanwhile, outside of DeSagana Diop and Erick Dampier, Brandon Bass at 6-8 is the only other big and he sort of fits into that repetitious group previously stated before. All in all, this team still has enough talent and veteran moxie to earn a playoff birth, I just think too highly of the Clippers.

This NBA commercial would feature the Nuggets all standing around together (sans Nene) and it would be awesome: “The NBA, where body art happens.” The artistic Nugs look to be an even more explosive offensive team than a year ago. J.R. Smith, Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony will hover near or above an average of 70 points per game. Nene’s going to show people that you don’t need both your nuts to be an absolute stud—on offense anyway. George Karl is going to prove my cousin right that he is one of the most overrated coaches of all time (that one Sonics final notwithstanding). Hmm…I think I see a SmushPot article coming up. Denver will either become the new SSOL Suns and shoot their way into a low playoff seed by averaging 115 points per game, or they’ll descend into fits of anger and frustration and completely fall apart. Either way, look for explosions.

11.) Minnesota
How many things have to go both wrong and right for this team to make the playoffs? My count? 7. And those are broad-all-encompassing factors. 1.) Denver needs to implode. (See above why that is a very realistic possibility). 2.) The Clips need to…again…get decimated by a bunch of injuries (see Clippers comments). 3.) Al Jefferson needs to, A.) play both ends of the court and B.) continue to dominate the post on offense and average 23 and 11 (part A, eh…part B, almost for certain). 4.) Kevin Love needs to be a legit NBA player (We’ll see. He’s lead-footed in the slow way, like if dropped into a river he’d sleep with the fishes). 5.) Randy Foye needs to be a legit NBA player and build off a pretty impressive pre-season (reasonable). 6.) Dallas needs to fall off a cliff caused by: Kidd living up to all the rumors of his demise; Josh Howard folding under the added pressures of negative media spotlight; Dirk, for an entire regular season, playing like 06-07 playoff Dirk. The bench playing exactly like each other and adding nothing differently then the next guy. And Mark Cuban hitting the panic trade button and swapping Josh Howard and Desagana Diop for Zach Randolph (Hey, no one thought Shaq for Marion either). And finally, 7.) Corey Brewer and Rashad McCants need to somehow fuse together and become one whole complete player. He’ll be called Corey McCants and he’ll dominate at shooting guard averaging a tidy 21 points and 6 assists while simultaneously locking down the opposing teams best perimeter player. I’m thinking at most, 6 out of the 7 will happen. Sorry Minny.

12.) Golden State
It’s too bad, because, like Marlon B, they “could’ve been a contenda.” Well, in contention for a playoff berth anyways. But Monta Ellis had to go cruising with his MoPed and derail those hopes. However, a youth movement is in full effect. Andris Beidrins (stud), Anthony Randolph (stud 2 be), Brandan Wright (questionable stud 2 be), Kelenna Azubuike (nice), Marco Bellinelli (?) and C.J. Watson (looking nice), oh yeah, and Marcus Williams (exactly like Marbury and in Nellie’s doghouse), are all 24 years old or younger. Stephen Jackson believes in his heart that this team is still a playoff team. Can’t say I agree with him, but Nellie Ball has been known to upset. Plus, even though he’s already hurt…(toldja) Corey Maggette will put up ginormous numbers and should warrant a spot on the all-star team. Unfortunately, because there are over a billion people in China, he’ll probably miss out as three Rockets (two small forward/shooting guard types) are likely to be voted as starters meaning that the other deserving guy(s), just ahead of Maggette (Melo and maybe Rudy Gay if another SF is taken) are voted in by the coaches.

13.) Sacramento
Sorry Kings fans, not much to like here other than Mr. New School Reggie Miller (a.k.a. Kevin Martin). K-Mart will challenge for the scoring title and if justice exists, will make his first all-star team (another reason why Maggette won’t make his first all-star team). Beno Udrih will prove ESPN’s John Hollinger wrong and live up to his new contract. There’s a lot to look forward to down the road with rookies Donte Greene and Jason Thompson, but at this current juncture, don’t expect too much. The rest of the team is made up of solid, but hardly spectacular players. Most everyone but the hardest of hardcore Kings fans can all agree that Sacto is in full rebuilding mode. Even still, Reggie Theus (Hang Time!) knows how to extricate water from rocks and he’ll have this team overachieve.

14.) Memphis
I’m not going to lie. This is my favorite lottery team (although Minny’s intriguing and I like Kevin Martin). But being my favorite and being good are two completely different things. Case in point, I’ve loved the Clippers for my entire adult life. Rudy Gay is very good. Marc Gasol is good. Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Hakim Warrick and Kyle Lowry all have the tools to be good. But alas, the Grizz won’t be very good…Yet. Of course, on any given night, they will be exciting and an absolute blast to watch (check for more than a few 120-plus-point games), but their interior defense is suspect, to say the least, and they have a glut, a big fat glut, of guards that can’t all find playing time. Their bench has youth and talent (Darrell Arthur, Javaris Crittendon, Lowry, Hamed Haddaddi) and some useful though flawed veterans (Marko Jaric, Quinton Ross, Greg Buckner) but is further than the moon away from elite. The Grizz will lose close to 60 games being that they reside in the league’s toughest division, but they’ll at least be fun to watch. Trust me, I’ll be watching them.

15.) Oklahoma City
Too much youth. Too much inexperience. Not enough NBA-savvy players—Joe Smith notwithstanding. Kevin Durant will wow at times and he’ll put up a great sophomore season, but one guy can’t carry a team even if he is a 6’9 Michael Jordan reincarnated (not sure about all that) and while Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green are the future, they aren’t the present. Plus, this team has no legit center right now. They’ve got thirty bigman projects, any of which might break out given consistent playing time, but this team will struggle to win every single night KD doesn’t drop 40 plus (while shooting the lights out) because they can't play any defense (though Westbrook should help that out a bit). And, because defense wins championships, this team won't be winning any until they get a post player or two or three who can defend. And as for their bench, let’s just put it this way, the Lakers bench could beat this team’s starters 7 times out of 10. Nuff said. With Durant, Westbrook and Green, OKC’s future looks bright, but as for this season, the Thunder will make about as much noise as their lame, pathetic logo…

So, that wraps up the 15 teams. Let’s have a great season people. The NBA is on the right track to overtaking baseball (yawn…) and challenging king Football (pride always comes before a fall). Here’s to a great 08-09!

Only Upside (Part 2)

If everything goes well, here's who's going to be playing in May. Rounding out the only upside column, the top 8 teams.

8. Dallas Mavericks:

Kidd is being hated on by many people due to his pathetic showing in the Olympics. He looked very, very old. And, in truth, he is very, very old. But he’s still Jason Kidd, still one of the best point guards of all time (top 10) and still a triple double threat each and every night. He’s the prototypical point who makes everyone around him better. No matter what the Dallas organization is thinking with adding and signing all of these tweener guard/forward types, the fact remains that George, Wright, Bass, Stackhouse, Singleton, Howard and Green can all run and for the most part finish. That’s all Kidd needs really. Horses to run with. Howard should rebound from a ho-hum showing when Kidd initially came to the team last year. He’ll regain his near all-star form. His offseason antics aside, he’ll learn how to play off Kidd and realize how much easier he makes everything. Terry and Stackhouse supposedly have shown up to camp in great shape as opposed to other years (I’m talking to you Stack) and people forget how effective both of them can be when they are healthy. Gerald Green is one to keep an eye on. He’s a great catch and shoot guy and who can forget him blowing out that candle in the dunk contest? He’s got crazy athleticism, a pure shooting stroke and vast upside. His head and his work ethic are all that keeps him from blossoming into something special. Kidd and Rick Carlisle will hopefully be able to get through to him. Plus, Green’s never played with a point guard the caliber of Kidd. Telfair doesn’t quite live up to that billing. Of course Dirk is still the best finesse big in the league. He’ll put up great overall numbers again, something like 24 and 9 with great percentages. Despite what many believe, this team is still dangerous, just not elite. Kidd, if he plays like the Kidd of old and not an old Kidd, could push this team back into the elite discussion. Adding Diop, despite the huge price tag as well as the coaching of Carlisle (Detroit and Indiana both had stout defenses without super talent) will put this team back into the upper echelon of good defenses. They should make the playoffs off of talent and veteran savvy alone.

7. San Antonio Spurs:

The Spurs have the best coach in the league and the proven nature of a stable, well-built organization, so, despite missing Ginobili to injury for the first quarter or more of the season, the Spurs won’t drop too far down in the standings. Even still, it might be surprising to see them in the 7th slot in the “upside” column, but there is no way around losing one of your key players for that long and not dropping, and as we’ve already relayed, upside does not include miraculous comebacks. Nor does it include finding the fountain of youth. Thomas, Bowen, Duncan and Finley are all super old. They are also crusty veterans who are smart and know their limitations as well as their strengths. There is some hopeful youth, however. Ime Udoka and Roger Mason will get a chance now to show what they can do in extended minutes. Ditto for Ian Mahimi and Salim Stoudamire. Mason is Barry’s replacement. He’s younger and a better athlete and defender though not as deadeye from beyond the arc. Enter Stoudamire who can really shoot the rock. Mahimi will work for minutes as the backup big. He faired well in the D-League and he’ll be learning from the hard-nosed, gritty, veteran in Thomas, the best power foward of all time in Duncan, and the guile-filled, flop-master Oberto. Couldn’t ask for a better set of teachers. And let’s not forget Pop. The Spurs will continue to have one of the best defenses in the league as long as Bowen and Duncan are healthy and playing together. Parker will take a mighty leap forward and put himself above Steve Nash as the third best point guard in the West. He’ll average around 24 points this year with 7 or 8 dimes. Top 5 defense, top coach, top organization = not falling out of the playoffs despite losing the team’s most dynamic player. This team’s got a boatload of veteran experience and savvy, but not a lot of youth and upside.

6. Portland Trailblazers:

Oden will be a huge beast of a presence in the middle on defense and completely transform the team. Pryzbilla, who was a wiz on the boards and did a great job filling in for Greg, will be his backup. Scary. Aldridge will put up some big numbers with Oden taking up space down low. He’ll get easier rebounds and block opportunities as well thanks to Oden. Think 21 and 8 with over 2 blocks. Roy’s going to have another all-around great year. His knee will round into shape by the time the season starts, and with a bruiser in the middle, he’ll take less punishment as well, preserving his body for a hard playoff push. Blake, with Oden and Aldridge, is the perfect point guard for the team due to his ability to stretch defenses and his penchant for rarely ever turning the ball over. Outlaw is freaky athletic and Webster is a middle-class man’s version of Outlaw, but with a better shooting touch. Those two will both improve this year. The Portland bench will include rookies Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez who both have the capability of being game changing talents (check summer league for Bayless and the Olympics for Fernandez). Roy’s a great defender. Oden will dominate the middle. Outlaw and Aldridge will be able to use their length and athleticism to get blocks and steals. Coach McMillan is a master zone defensive strategist and an underappreciated coach. Thanks to Oden’s massive presence, this team will be tough to score on and with Roy’s ability to take over games, this team will be able to find ways to score on the opposite end. The Blazers basically has two starting quality units and will use both to keep injury-prone guys like Oden and Roy fresh for their playoff run. They are the anti-Spurs—a team full of youthful upside, but not a lot of experience.

5. New Orleans:

CP3 will have another incredible year and be in the running for the MVP once again. Think 20 and 12 with 2.5 steals. His ability to be, well, unstoppable, puts him in the conversation for best player in the NBA—right there with Kobe and Lebron. Peja should have another stellar season, playing about 70-75 games, thanks to the addition of James Posey who will help give the oft-injured SF a breather as well as add championship cred to a team sorely lacking in veteran leadership. He makes the bench deeper capable of playing the 2, 3 or 4. He’s also a great rebounder. Julian Wright is going to have a breakout sophomore year, despite only a modest bump in minutes (he’ll probably see some time at the 4). He’s turnover prone, but his defense, ballhandling, length as well as another year in the league will help offset that problem. Devin Brown, though not as prolific a scorer as Jannero Pargo was last year, is a much better all-around talent and will contribute in a lot more areas than just instant offense (like JP every couple of games). He’s a good rebounder as well for his position adding to the boarding wizardry of Tyson Chandler and to a lesser extent, David West who will slightly improve their games. West will score a few more points and Chandler will lead the West in rebounding. Think 22 and 9 for West and 12 and 13 for Chandler. Ely is back at full strength, Armstrong has another year of maturity and Sean Marks is a solid clubhouse guy looking for playing time. Throw in a bounce back year from my boy, Mike James, and the Hornets suddenly have a pretty formidable bench this season. They slide to fifth because even with that bench producing at full bore, it still isn’t as good as the four teams above, even with one of the best coaches in the league running the team.

4. Utah Jazz:

Deron Williams is going to solidify his status as the league’s 1A point guard to Chris Paul. He’ll average 21 and 12 with great percentages and be the engine for a very dangerous, young and talented squad. He should get some MVP votes this year. Carlos Boozer is primed to have a good season due to his impending free agent status (he’s planning on opting out of his deal) and if that weren’t motivation enough, his almost non-existent playing time during the Olympics should also add fuel to his fire. Think another 20 and 10 campaign. Even if he doesn’t match or exceed last year’s stats, Kirilenko and Milsap will more than make up for any drop-off. Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Miles and Ronnie Price will all be another year older and better. Brewer especially is going to have a big season. He should average around 2 steals and his jump shot will be markedly improved forcing teams to play him honestly. This will open the lanes for Deron and Boozer and to a lesser extent, Andrei Kirilenko to go to work. After a season full of ups and downs, Kirilenko saw he couldn't do it alone with the Russian national squad during the Olympics, Holden aside and will finally embrace his third/fourth option status. He’ll get back to averaging nearly 2 steals and 2 blocks and will be a stat sheet stuffer on a nightly basis. Just call him the White Matrix (he doesn’t have Marion’s hops). He’s a great passer and can score some too and will put up a league leading five 5X5s this year. And if he continues to come off the bench like he has been during the pre-season, look for him to have an even bigger season. Also, Memo Okur will bounce back after foregoing his duties to the Turkish national team this summer. He’s completely healthy from the injuries that plagued him last year (back and Achilles). He’ll also help spread the floor with his shooting. Think 17 and 8. Okur has a penchant for hitting big shots, and now that he’s fully healthy, he’s going to be one of the main reasons the Jazz contend for a title this year. Kyle Korver will be dangerous as well. With a full offseason and training camp with the Jazz, his 3-point shooting will rise once again back to above 40 percent thus proving even more of a dangerous threat. With a healthy powerful starting lineup, another tough playoff run under their belts, and one more year of maturity for a starting squad whose best player is 24 and whose eldest is 29, this team has all the ingredients to run the gamut of the West. The Jazz is balanced, very young, athletic and led by one of the best, most consistent coaches in the NBA. They get bumped by the Suns because they don’t have the championship cred of O’Neal or the sheer dominating force of Amare, though, D Will is hands down better than Nashty.

3. Phoenix Suns:

Been down about this squad since they tore down the SSOL squad (the most fun team to watch since the Showtime Lakers) and made it into a halfcourt nightmare with Shaq O’Neal. That being said, they are my favorite darkhorse team. Fully, 100 percent healthy, the Suns automatically shoot to the top of the west. Amare Stoudemire has been working all summer on his D, having found a new passion for the less “sexy” aspect of bball. He should be the anchor to the Suns newly improved, Terry Porter inspired defense. His explosiveness is back to where it was pre-surgery. He’s going to average 29 and 10 with 2.5 blocks and challenge for both the scoring title and the MVP. Shaq, fiercely motivated by his offseason from hell and talk of his demise, will play 68 games. Grant Hill and Steve Nash, 75-78. Rookie Robin Lopez, with his non-need for the ball and penchant for rebounds and energy, will be the perfect compliment to Amare. Dragic, while not offensively gifted (can’t shoot or pass really, but damn he can handle the rock), will emerge as a useful defender against CP3, TP and Deron out West while Singletary will fill in the offensive backup point guard duties (the duo will split about 18 minutes). Porter will light a fire under Barbosa and Diaw and get them to play more aggressively on both sides of the court. Diaw will do his 10, 6, 6 thing while Barbosa will push his scoring near the 20 point threshold. Nash’s shooting numbers will remain at a high level, with the potential to be even higher due to defenses packing it in to guard the Amare/Shaq tandem. Matt Barnes covers any holes created by a Hill injury or a Diaw no-show. He adds toughness and veteran savvy. Hill, with reduced minutes, will put up another solid season and be ready for the playoffs. Basically, Amare is going to play out of his mind this year. He’s going to emerge as the best power forward in the league…period. His MVP-caliber year, added depth (that will actually be used and developed by Porter) and a healthy season from everybody else puts the Suns in the top 3. Their starting five puts them above the Jazz despite the Jazz being deeper.

2. Houston Rockets

Despite Tracy McGrady’s early injury woes (arthritic shoulder, slow recovery from knee surgery) the Rockets are poised to be the second best team in the league. There is that rock solid, scarily suffocating (say that three times fast) defense, made even tougher, and a hell of a lot crazier, with the addition of Ron Artest. Due to his impending free agency, the fact he’s playing for his favorite coach, and the knowledge that this is a championship caliber team, Artest should finally “get it” and manifest his top-ten ability. With less pressure to do everything, T-Mac will remind the league about the days when people were saying he was the best player and not Kobe Bryant. Yao Ming (also recovering from surgery) should be able to rest more this season due to the 12-man depth this team has. Because of this, the Rockets are also, largely, injury-proof. Artest can easily compensate for any time T-Mac misses (imagine the defense with Artest and Battier playing the SG and SF spots) and we’ve all seen how well this team can play without Yao. Besides, the Rockets have one of the deepest benches in the league (Francis, Hayes, Landry, Head, Barry, Battier/Scola and possibly Mutumbo). Plus, don’t sleep on the defensive contribution potential of DJ Strawberry (if he makes the team) or rookie Joey Dorsey. The Rockets partially addressed their outside shooting concerns with the sharp-shooting and veteran savvy of Brent Barry. Then there’s Rafer Alston, who, rightfully or not, has so much negativity surrounding him. I don’t understand why. He’s very good at managing games, he had a better assist/turnover ratio than starting point guards Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, T.J. Ford, Derek Fisher and Mo Williams, and he can flat out defend. Sure, he shot under 40 percent the last couple of seasons, but with Artest taking away a lot of those extra shots, Alston will be more of a setup man. Besides, Aaron Brooks is coming along better than nicely and there’s also the wild card “addition” of Steve Francis (injured all of last season) who is only 31 and two seasons ago was averaging 16 and 6. If Alston struggles, Brooks, or perhaps even Francis can act as a backup plan—both with quite a deal of upside. The Rockets get ahead of the Jazz because of their defense and the Jazz’s penchant to foul almost every time down the court (plus, Deron’s ankle injury could get them off to another slow start). The world saw how much better a dominating defense is over a brilliant offense in last season’s finals and nobody can mess with the Rockets D. That includes the Celtics. With the toughest pair of wing defensive specialists in the league, 12-man rotational depth, an excellent coach, and three bona fide superstars the Rockets have the most upside out of any team in the West, save…

Los Angeles Lakers

Okay, I flip-flopped on this decision for a while, even had Houston at the top before I decided to redo all the projections. But, in the end, I can’t keep them from this top spot. Jinxes be damned. This team has too much talent and too much upside to place any lower than number one. First and foremost, they have the best player in the league on their team. Okay, if you don’t think Kobe is the best in the entire league (that mantle has finally and rightfully been placed on Lebron), he’s most certainly the best in the west. Chris Paul is right there, but when it comes down to it, Kobe is the ultimate on offense and defense when he needs to be. CP3, while an elite pick-pocket, can’t play the necessary lockdown defense to qualify him for “best player” status. Besides, Kobe’s going to have a breakout year in terms of efficiency. His overall numbers will go down (26 ppg, 4 rpg, 7 apg) but his shooting percentages will be better than 50 percent for the first time in his career. Upside? I’m thinking 55 percent. He’ll also average over 3 steals a game and could challenge for defensive player of the year if he decides to be that lockdown wing defender L.A. sorely needs. He’s got plenty of offensive firepower In addition to #24, the Lakers have the winningest coach in NBA history (tied with Red Auerbach) who is hungry to pass the Celtics legend—famished in fact.. The Lakers get to mess around with their version of the twin towers in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol who have looked good playing together in the preseason. Bynum’s sheer length and size and Pau’s skills, as predicted by Tex Winters, have been and will continue to work out perfectly. Add to this bunch Vladimir Radmanovic who has suddenly found his head and Derek Fisher who has always had his on straight (save for that one miserable season in Utah). The rest of the roster is the deepest in the league and that is saying quite a bit looking at some of the other teams in the Western conference like Utah, Houston and Portland (there’s also the Celtics and Pistons in the East). If Lamar Odom does indeed come off the bench, the second unit would consist of him, Trevor Ariza (looks downright awesome so far), Sasha Vujacic, and Jordan Farmar, who, is already better than Fisher and has run the second unit to perfection. The second unit brings speed and can full court press. It’s a deadly combination of length and skill in the starting five and youth, speed and hustle from the second unit. Your team isn’t that good if Luke is your starting small forward (see 2005-06 season), but it becomes the best in the league when he’s the ninth or tenth guy off the bench. Speaking of bench guys, Chris Mihm, yes, that Chris Mihm, looks like his old starter self. That certainly doesn't mean he should be starting on any team, but he’s playing like he did when he was a starter. And he’ll be the fourth or fifth big off the bench. Josh Powell is filling Ronny Turiaf’s shoes and his jersey as well. He brings energy and hustle off the bench and though not as good of a shot blocker or as charismatic, he’s a much, much better rebounder, especially on the offensive glass. The Lakers depth also makes them extremely versatile able to go big, small, quick, defensive-minded, pure athleticism, etc. etc. In the end, depth, length, the Triangle, skilled players, Gasol + Bynum + Phil + best closer = title favorites and best in the west. Anything less than a championship for this team will be an utter disappoint.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On the Upside...

The season has yet to start, and during this time, even the worst projected teams come out of training camp eager to get the season going. Everybody's thinking positively (well, almost everyone) because everyone's starting with a fresh slate. There's still an air of "anything is possible" that vanishes once a team falls 15 games under .500.

This post and the following will introduce the Western Conference teams with nothing but optimism ranking them in the order of how they would line up if everything went perfectly. We start with teams 15 through 9 and will end with the top 8 in two days.

15. Oklahoma City Thunder:

Bringing up the rear is the newly moved, newly named ex-Seattle Supersonics. I still can’t get myself to call them the…Th…Th…Nevermind. This team, even through a crystal clear, optimism-filled lens, still projects to be the bottom feeder of the West. Of course, the shining ray of hope for this club is the talented youth littering their roster, headed by last years Rookie of the Year, Kevin Durant. He started to figure the NBA out in a really emphatic way in the second half of last season and if that continues as rapidly as it did (his post all-star break shooting was 47 percent, as opposed to his pre-41 percent) he could push for an all-star birth—especially with Monta Ellis and Manu Ginobili starting the season injured, and T-Mac and Brandon Roy perennial IR visitors. Durant should improve in every statistical category this season and should average around 24-25 points a game. Jeff Green should also get better, though his statistics might not take as noticeable of an increase. He’s a jack-of-all-trades type who will increase production across the board. Russell Westbrook will eventually wrest the starting point guard position from Earl Watson (who will continue his strong play from last season) if he doesn’t begin the season as the starting 1 and will post moderately good numbers for a rook and be a dark horse candidate for rookie of the year. Think 12 and 6 with 1.5 steals. Nick Collison, with his workman-like attitude and surprising athleticism should average a double-double. One, if not two, project centers (Swift, Petro, Sene, Hardin, Ibaka) will emerge with a solid season. If Robert Swift can just stay healthy (already hurt again, however) he’s got super size and a great feel for the game. Joe Smith will help guide a very young team and help the development of D.J. White who has a very similar game. Chris Wilcox needs to learn defense and at 26, could still be in the team’s future, though that seems unlikely right now. He’s got the athleticism and leaping ability to be an enforcer type, so the best might still be hidden in there somewhere. The Soni…er, the Thunder has youth and energy and a skies-the-limits-mentality along with a new city. Still, their upside doesn’t seem as bright as the Grizzlies this season. Plus, their new name sucks balls.

14. Memphis Grizzlies:

Next up, in the back, is the Grizz. I love this team despite never having seen them play together as currently constructed. Rudy Gay should have a monster year. As the unquestioned star of this squad, he’s looking at averaging 23-25 points per game with 7-8 boards and a steal and a block. O.J. Mayo will win the rookie of the year averaging 18, 5, 5. He’s not as quick as other guards, but he’s a great competitor and has already begun to take a leadership role on the team. He’s got great defensive awareness and could become the go-to scorer in crunch time, despite Gay’s tremendous talent (remember, Rudy’s only two years older than Mayo). Conley should improve on his so-so rookie campaign. He’s added muscle but retained all of his quickness. Rookie points usually struggle, but the talented ones make big strides in year two. Conley is definitely talented. He put up decent numbers while playing injured as a rookie and his shot looks a lot better this season. So, look for a much-improved year from him, like 11 and 8. The Grizz will look to run a lot, so Conley’s assist numbers will benefit from the “Steve Nash” boost. He and Lowry will form a lethal duo at the point guard spot and stability at the point will help get this team rolling in the right direction. J Critt will back up Mayo and get spot opportunities manning the point. He’ll show more flashes of brilliance and average around 8 to 10 points if given enough time. The Grizzlies bigs Darko Milicic, Marc Gasol and Hamed Hadaddi are all 23, young, and largely unproven in the NBA. Haddaddi’s got upside skill and Milicic will finally turn the corner this year and be the basket protector the Grizz sorely lack. He’s worked on his game, and has two bigs to bang with during practice. He won’t play like the number 2 pick overall, but he’ll certainly quiet the “bust labelers.” Gasol is going to surprise people. He was the MVP of the ACB (the best league outside the NBA), can pass, has a nice shooting touch, is enormous and he laid Chris Bosh out in the Olympics. He’s skilled and tough and could potentially be a dark horse candidate for the ROY. Don’t rule out him averaging something like 12, 9 and 3. Darrell Arthur and Hakim Warrick, though both rail thin, should flourish playing with Conley and Lowry in an up-tempo offense. With championship credentials, Antoine Walker will embrace his diminished playing time and act as a guide and mentor to this young team. Marko Jaric will showcase his soon-to-be blushing bride as inspiration. The Grizz will act as spoilers on many nights, catching some really good teams by surprise. They’ll also have nights where they score in the 120s. They don’t have a shot at the playoffs, but they will most certainly give Memphis something to get excited about.

13. Sacramento Kings:

Kevin Martin should ascend the shooting guard ladder and finally make the all-star team, showing that guys can succeed through hard work and discipline even if they lack raw athleticism. He’ll now get to shoot upwards of 20 times a game and thus up his scoring totals to around 27-28. The rest of his game will have to flesh out if the Kings are going to have any success, so expect him to start averaging around 4 assists per game. Because his greatest skill is efficiency (he’s a new school player) and he is now the main offensive weapon, his game will have a trickle effect and influence the rest of the team who, in turn, will become more efficient. The team will run much more smoothly than it did last year with Artest’s slowed down, one-man post show. Rookie Donte Green will get open looks and with his shooting ability, should be able to convert in an offense that should be much more free-flowing. He’ll have a great rookie campaign and though he’ll get very few looks for ROY, his game will show that he deserves a lot more. Critics are down on Beno Udrih (John Hollinger from ESPN), but the dude can shoot and create his own shots. He’ll up his scoring and assists totals by default. Think 16 and 7. Spencer Hawes and Brad Miller will form a nice duo of centers. Hawes will display why he is the center of the future. He’ll put up 12 and 8. Miller might take a little step backwards, but otherwise he will continue his strong, solid play contributing in points, rebounds and assists. Think 12, 8 and 5. 24, 16 and 5 from the center spot is elite. John Salmons and Francisco Garcia, two wing players in their late 20s, will get the opportunity to live up to what are right now, bloated contracts with Artest out of the picture. Both showed flashes last year when Artest was injured, and now will get to split up his minutes. Don't be surprised to see Salmons split time at all three perimeter positions. He’s a good ballhandler and passer. Likewise, Garcia can handle the rock and really shoot. This team is filled with aging, quality, though not special veterans, some solid young players, and one all-star level talent. The only reason they rank ahead of the other two, young, talent-filled teams, is due to their coach, Reggie Theus, who proved last year that he can make a glass of tasty lemonade from a rotten lemon (Artest), a broken blender (pick an injured player, Bibby, Artest, Martin, Abdur-Rahim) and a packet of pure, unadulterated sugar (K-Mart). Let’s see what kind of lemonade he can make with apples and oranges.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves:

Al Jefferson will take another step forward. He’ll get better at reading double teams and as a result his assists will go up thanks to all the readily available shooters around him. He put up the 12th best PER in the whole league at 22.80 last year and amassed averages of 21, 11 and 1.5 blocks on 50 percent shooting. Those numbers should all rise due to another year of maturity but also the additions of Mike Miller and Kevin Love. Those two, plus the duo of Rashad McCants and Randy Foye, give the Wolves a starting lineup with four legit long ball threats. Think of the Wolves as a blossoming version of the Orlando Magic and you start to see why this team could surprise. On a personal level, with Amare Stoudemire moving back to the power forward position, Chris Kaman pairing with Marcus Camby, Tim Duncan a potential candidate to sit out, and Yao Ming a perennial IR member, Jefferson should make the all-star team this year. Mike Miller, who was once a ROY, has plenty of game and could work as the point-forward at times (a la Hedo Turkoglu). And, for everyone who thinks Kevin Love won’t make it because of his size and lack of athleticism, just remember that the third greatest power forward of all time, was only 6-4. Love might not have Barkley’s athleticism, but he ain’t 6-4 (though he ain’t 6-10 either) and is a better passer and shooter from distance. Now, don't go getting all riled up saying I think Love is going to be Sir Charles-esque, I’m just saying that talent overcomes size. Rany Foye is also going to have a breakout season. He’s picked up the nuances of playing the point guard position as his court vision and decision-making have looked stellar in pre-season play. His shooting will nicely compliment this newfound skill. The bench is a little thin, but don’t sleep on Corey Brewer, Sebastian Telfair and Rodney Carney. Carney and Telfair, and to a lesser extent, Corey Brewer should all see their production go up as bench players as opposed to not-ready-yet starters. Carney, before being traded, started to blossom with the 76ers, playing like he had figured things out and looks like he could solidify himself as the first wing off the bench. He’s super athletic and has range. The other two who should both see a spike in their production are Craig Smith and Ryan Gomes who bring energy and grit off the pine. This team will definitely win some tough games against tough opponents. What they give up for in size in the middle, they surely make up for with a long ball attack. They’ll shoot a lot of threes, and Jefferson will average 25 and 12 and Minnesota fans will completely forget about Kevin Garnett (okay, maybe that’s too much optimism).

11. Golden State Warriors:

I think this team has an outside possibility of making the playoffs, but two things have to happen for that to be true. The first is that everything in this column has to come to fruition. The other is the couple of teams ahead of them need to have things go badly for them. If everything goes perfectly (as we know will not be the case), this team is on the outside looking in. Losing Monta Ellis is obviously the major reason. Upside, by the way, doesn't perform Jesus-like miraculous healings. It does mean, however, that when Monta comes back, he’ll be at full strength. That being said, until Ellis returns, this team will be run through Marcus Williams or C.J. Watson. Now, Williams has got talent, some people compare him to Stephon Marbury, but whether you think that’s a compliment or a diss is beside the point (Marbury’s looked good in preseason). He could be putting up 12 to 15 and 8 to 10 assists. C.J. Watson, whom Nelly recently said is his starter, is rocking preseason. He’s looked confident and has run the offense nicely. Regardless, who starts (though that is a huge factor) the focal points of the offense will be Jackson and Maggette. Nelly Ball will be very good to Maggette who could average 25 plus points per game and shoot near 50 percent. His three point shot markedly improved last season, and he’ll get plenty of chances to jack up a bunch this year. BWhile he’ll still get to the basket, the idea is that he’ll be given easier opportunities with solid passers like Williams and/or Watson and Jackson feeding him the ball. Maggette, a prolific foul shooter and expert at getting to the line, helps this team because he stops the games when he gets there. Freethrows give a running team time to rest. S Jack will have to have a big year as the veteran presence and leader of the team. He’s confident that the Warriors will make the postseason, but the question marks come from the young kids. Biedrins, if given the playing time (not a guarantee with Turiaf now on board) will be an easy double-double machine. I’m envisioning 12 and 12 with a high shooting percentage and a much improved freethrow percentage. He’s only 22 and he’s steadily gotten better every season. He could challenge Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard for the rebounding crown this year. Brandon Wright will also get burn and could literally blow up. Anthony Randolph, a near clone of Wright, could see some minutes if injuries sprout up. Both Wright and Randolph have shown flashes this preseason, but both also look lost at times (Randolph might spend his time in the D League). The other issue, if both remain on the roster, is their playing time and how it will be divvied up between them. Then there’s the group of intriguing young guards, any of whom could step up if given the minutes. Watson, Azubuike and Bellinelli all bring different aspects to the game, though Azbuike is hands down the most intriguing. This team will once again be a high octane, run-n-gun squad. They’ll score a lot of points, and based on that fact alone, they will be in most games. If the team can hang in the playoff hunt by the time that Ellis comes back, this team has a real shot to make the playoffs with all the upside, youth, talent on the roster and the crafty leadership of Don Nelson.

10. Denver Nuggets:

The Nugs will score a lot of points. A lot a lot. That’s for sure. Subtracting from the starting lineup Marcus Camby and Anthony Carter (who’s a stellar bench guy) and infusing J.R. Smith and a healthy Nene will make last year’s supercharged offense look like the Pistons. In fact, Iverson/Anthony/Smith will literally shoot for the NBA’s highest scoring trio next year, easily pushing 70 plus combined points. Iverson will be playing for a contract so look for him to be a consummate team player. As a point guard, his assists will hover near the double-digit mark. Melo had an up-and-down Olympics, but his gold medal and the experience he had in China and over the past few years has shed a huge ray of positive light on him. Look for him to regain his superstar form and really work on both ends of the floor. He should even get a couple of fringe MVP votes. I’m thinking 27, 8, and 3. J.R. Smith is the guy to look out for though. Being the third option is a blessing for him because he can benefit from all the kickouts he’ll receive. Did I mention he’s deadly from beyond the arc? He’s going to average at least 18 points if he comes anywhere close to what he did last season. Nene is no Camby, but that can be taken both ways. Nene’s a terrific offensive force, capable of an array of moves around the basket and surprisingly, subtle athleticism. He should score in the mid-teens and pull down 8 or 9 boards per contest. He can’t play defense like Cambyman, but then, not too many people can. His offensive contributions, however, if not completely lost on his perimeter trio, will give the offense a legit low post scoring threat. The team will be more athletic and probably play even faster than last year. Chucky Atkins also returns from injury, and while not sexy by basketball standards, the dude brings scoring and stability to the point guard position. Hunter, Anderson and Balkman will bring energy and some form of defense off the bench, despite being limited offensively. The Nugs should have five players averaging over fifteen points a game because Linas Kleiza will continue his steady improvement. Lots and lots of points will win more games than it loses, but that’s about the best outlook I can give this team that has no capable defender outside of Kenyon Martin. And K Mart is more of an excellent one-on-one defender as opposed to a “presence.”

9. Los Angeles Clippers:

Baron Davis is back home and ready to put up a big year. Baron’s a game changer who’ll average 20 and 9. He can do everything when he wants to or is properly motivated. Upside dictates that he will be both and that Dunleavy will loosen the reigns on the offense, while tightening them on the defensive side. With the duo of Camby and Kaman, the Clippers will ascend to the top of the league in rebounding and defense. They will have the ability to suffocate teams in a slow-down, grind-em-out style and then pummel them with fast-breaking. But the whole Clippers season will be represented by Al Thornton. Thornton is a bit old for a second year player, but he’s still got crazy upside. He should continue to improve like he has every year, and average around 18 points per game. He’s got great athleticism, and though overmatched as a 4 last year, he’ll be better suited at the 3 even if he won’t be quick enough for a lot of guys he’ll be guarding. That’s what’s so wonderful about the safety net of Camby and Kaman. Add to that Thornton’s crazy athleticism that should result in defensive statistics this year as he will be free to roam and he’s definitely the difference between solid and great for the Clips. Ricky Buckets is looking for redemption and has been productive everywhere he’s been, save last year in Miami. He’s only 28, is very athletic, has improved his 3-point shot (40 plus percent) and contributes in assists as well. He and Baron had a couple of productive years together way back when the Hornets were still in Charlotte. The Clips also have two rookies with a lot of upside. Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan bring the crazy range and the crazy big man athleticism. Sure, the loss of J-Will hurts, but in the long run, it will give Gordon more of an opportunity to play. Gordon’s gritty defender as well and Jordan can bring the blocks. Let’s not sleep on Mike Taylor who looks like the steal of the draft (at 55) up to this point. If he can carry that solid play into the regular season games, then J-Will won’t be missed at all. Jason Hart is a good third-string point guard. He’s a good defender, and obviously, this season will be all about the defense. Ridiculous upside (no relation to that blog) would see the Clippers as a premiere defense. I mean, look what Camby did for the Nuggets last year (he kept them in the middle of the pack despite playing with AI, Melo and J.R. Smith who are all deathly allergic to defense). Now, he’s being joined by Kaman and BD. That trio alone makes this defense really good. Add to that veteran Cuttino Mobley, Gordon and Jordan’s potential, a locked in Tim Thomas, Thornton and Ricky and a motivated coach Dunleavy the Clips could be very, very dangerous.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lakers Blog update

Notes from Sunday's preseason game against Toronto.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More trade stuff

A couple of quick trade scenarios so check Trader Jays.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

New Stuff

Check the Smush Pot for a send off party for Corey Maggette and check the newly crafted Trader Jays for a trade that makes too much sense. I'll be starting the "Downside" posts later this week.