Wednesday, September 16, 2009

09-10 Season Preview: Hornets

New Orleans Hornets

This team, out of any of the other playoff-hopeful teams, has the least margin for error. I’m talking microscopic. Could the 09-10 Bugs compete for a championship this year? While anything can and does happen in the NBA, the Bugs have a realistic shot at a championship if three main things come to pass.

The first is what avoided them last season…health. Everyone needs to stay healthy this year. Last season, Tyson Chandler missed 37 games, Morris Peterson missed 39 and Peja Stojakovic missed 21. Add to that Julian Wright only playing in 54 contests due to falling in and out of favor with Byron Scott, and it’s amazing that last year’s team won 46 games.

Peja, in particular, is key to the Hornets’ chances of making a championship run. When Peja is healthy and shooting like he has proven he can over the course of his career, the Bugs are formidable. This is a dude who is only 31-years-old. Last season, back spasms not only caused him to miss games, it also hampered him into missing plenty of shots. His field goal percentage fell below 40 percent for the first time since his rookie campaign.

But remember, this is a guy who was the best shooter in the league for six or seven years running (no offense Ray Ray). He posted back-to-back-to-back seasons of 48 percent shooting, and then averaged 24 a game for second best in the league on his way to carrying the Kings to a 55-27 record while finishing fourth in the MVP voting. (I don’t want to throw salt on an open, festering wound, but CP3 finished fifth last season).

Point is, dude was and has the potential to be wicked good. Injuries have pretty much derailed his career up to this point, but it should be no surprise then, that when he was healthy two seasons ago, and played in 77 games and shot 44 percent, that the Hornets won 56 games, took the Spurs to seven in the second round, and had CP3, this close, to an MVP. With Paul and David West on board, the Bugs don’t need Peja to be an MVP, just a lethal and efficient and healthy third scoring option.

Finally, the Bugs will need huge contributions from all of their young players. Before we get into this point, I’d like to point out the major weakness of this team and why it will be hard for them to break the top five in the west let alone contend for a championship even if everything breaks in their favor.

Similar to the plight of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Bugs just don’t have enough big bodies. Sure, they have four power-forwards in David West, Sean Marks, Ike Diogu, and the recently acquired Darius Songalia, but West and Diogu are undersized, Songalia fits in, but is not a difference maker, and Marks is 34, thin and not athletic. As for center, the Hornets have Okafor and the thus far hugely disappointing Hilton Armstrong.

Fun fact. There’s nobody over 7-feet on the roster. And in a conference that boasts Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Amare Stoudemire, Al Jefferson, Andres Biedrins, Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby, etc. etc. not having 7-footers who are at least decent is a huge problem.

Armstrong has proven to be one of the most turnover-prone players in the NBA. To make matters worse, statistically, his rebound rate last year was only slightly better than the 6-foot Chris Paul. Chandler blossomed when he turned 24, so there remains a sliver of hope for Hilton, but unlike Hilton, Chandler showed signs of being good before hooking up with CP3, while Hilton’s been pretty god-awful even playing with him.

The addition of Okafor, at the very least, is an upgrade over Chandler in that he’s more likely to play 75 plus games. He’s also more well-rounded bringing a much better offensive game. But there’s plenty of downside to his acquisition as well. Okafor is undersized, can’t jump or finish like Chandler, and doesn’t play bigger than he is (a la Chuck Hayes, Charles Barkley, etc.). He’s also not as mobile as Chandler, thus creating a major dilemma for the team’s stated desire to run more this season.

Of course, Okafor’s never had the opportunity to play with anyone even remotely close to the caliber of Paul, and seeing as how CP3 is widely considered to be the best point guard in the league, I’m sure Okafor’s game will improve through osmosis. Chandler’s game exploded when he hooked up with Paul and I suspect Okafor’s game will have a similar up-tick. He could very well shoot over 60 percent this year. Okafor's offensive presence will also ease the burden on David West. West has been a solid second option for three years running now, but despite playing back-to-back seasons of 76 games, over his career, he hasn't been the most durable.

But even if Okafor posts better numbers than last season and West plays another 76 games, the Bugs will still struggle to match up with the bigger teams. I mean, West had a career year in rebounding averaging 8.9 two seasons ago, so Okafor has got his work cut out for him. Signing James Posey (whose "intangibles" and defense were perfect for the Celtics at the money he used to make, but remain the bare minimum for a team who needs much more from a player making $6.5 million) two offseasons ago instead of a big body continues to haunt New Orleans.

Okay, back to the youngins. The Hornets, as commissioned by owner George Shinn, will be looking to develop and play their young guys, which should spell out good things for both the team as a whole and those stated young guys.

Julian Wright, Marcus Thornton, Diogu, Armstrong and Darren Collison should therefore get every opportunity to develop and succeed.

Backup point guard, a huge positional weakness last year, suddenly has become a strength with the drafting of Darren Collison. After trying to fill the position with journeymen Devin Brown, Antonio Daniels and Mike James to varying degrees of unsuccess last season, the Bugs now finally have a player who can orchestrate a successful team while Paul rides pine.

My affection for and excitement over UCLA alum Collison is well documented in this blog. But his play during summer league (18.5 points, 4 assists on 45 percent shooting) and his history at UCLA that includes one trip to the championship game and two other final four appearances, should give Hornets fans comfort that when Paul comes out of the game, the ball will be in very capable hands.

What will be interesting to see is how much Collison and Okafor play together. Collison played four years under Ben Howland who ran half-court, slowed-down, methodical offensive sets. As mentioned above, this is ideal for Okafor’s offensive game. Either way, Collison’s presence will lessen Paul’s minutes and provide a confidence in the bench that wasn’t there last season.

While there are those who think the Hornets reached for Collison at 21, I’m of the opinion that any big man they took at that position had too many question marks to make a true difference this year. San Antonio taking DeJuan Blair was lower risk because of the lower draft choice and because he won’t be crucial to their rotation. Anything he gives the Spurs will be a major bonus. But Blair on the Hornets? That would be like a much shorter Chandler saga all over again. No thanks.

Another boon to the bench will be Marcus Thornton who was one of the top scorers in the Summer League and has a varied offensive arsenal and good range that should help out a second unit in dire need of scoring.

And whether or not he starts or comes off the bench, the wildly inconsistent Wright must take a huge step forward in his game this year for any talk of a deep playoff run. While a superb defender, Wright settles for too many jump shots and has no post game whatsoever. Consistency on offense will go a long way for him to get minutes.

Diogu, is entering his fifth year, but has only played in 187 total games, at about 12 minutes per contest. With a career 16.1 PER, he is the prototypical John Hollinger player in that he puts up efficient and eye-opening per-minute stats, but has never actually gotten the minutes. Case in point, his ten game stint with Sacramento last year resulted in a 24.9 PER which would make him better than Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Al Jefferson and Amare Stoudemire. Hornets success this year hinges on if Diogu can come in with the Bugs second unit and be the offensive force his numbers suggest he is.

All in all, if healthy, and if the young players progress as planned, and if the Bugs can get 07-08 Peja back, then it's within the very realistic realm of possibility that this team will be a 50 to 55 win squad and could finish as high as the 2nd or 3rd seed. If any or all of those things go awry, the Hornets will struggle to a bottom seed or might fall out of the playoffs all together.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Admiral Better than Superman?

Everybody knows that Michael Jordan is being inducted into the Hall of Fame today. He's entering with John Stockton, Jerry Sloan and David Robinson.

After reading an insightful post on the Painted Area, I began to reflect on just how much, in my mind at least, David Robinson’s overall value had fallen. My lingering memories of him were of his cheesy McDonald’s commercials, his devout love for Jesus and his complete dismantling at the hands of the Dream.

It got me thinking about the greatest centers of all time and where Robinson fits in. I’d always rated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as the top three centers, followed closely by Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. Going over numbers and awards and quality of play, I’m leaning to exclude Mr. O’Neal from the top five and slip the Admiral right on in there.

First off, I understand that Shaq has four rings to Robinson’s two, and while they both have one MVP, Shaq has what many consider to be the more valuable finals MVPs (three of them). But I don’t think Russell was better than Kareem because he has 11 rings to Mr. Skyhook’s six. And O’Neal’s four rings have become Jordanesque in that many people believe he won them on his own. But that’s a discussion for a different blog.

O’Neal has eight all NBA First Team selections to Robinson’s four, but it must be noted the difference in eras. Robinson played and succeeded during an age of centers. Two years ago, ESPN ranked the top 10 centers of all time, and while I don’t agree with the order of the people on it, it will be noted here that five of those players played during Robinson’s career.

Robinson caught the tail end of Moses Malone’s career. He was subject to the Dream Shake of Hakeem. He tussled with Patrick Ewing and then he banged with Shaq (Robinson, was, of course, the fifth).

In addition, while not all-world, Robinson also faced off against Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo, and Arvydas Sabonis, three centers, that in their prime, would have been the best center in the league (outside of Shaq) during Shaq’s prime reign.

Entering his prime at the age of 26, the Big Diesel spent the majority of his time playing against one of three kinds of centers. The past-their-prime rapidly aging group including: Olajuwon, Robinson, Ewing, Sabonis, Mourning and Mutumbo. The bad-to-the-pretty-good group that included: Kurt Thomas, Shawn Bradley, Vlade Divac, Greg Ostertag, Jermaine O’Neal, Erick Dampier, Zydrunas Ilgauskus and Marcus Camby. And the just-getting-their-feet-wet group including: Dwight Howard, Yao Ming and Pau Gasol.

While Howard will most likely grow into a HOF caliber player, with Yao Ming's career in question, the rest will have a hard time making anyone’s top 20 centers of all time list, let alone a top 10. So, looking at the centers and the conditions of the centers Shaq played against while he dominated the league, it’s no wonder about his dominance.

To put an exclamation on this point, the centers Shaq has faced in the finals on his way to three Finals MVPs include: Dale Davis/Sam Perkins; a 34-year-old Mutumbo and Todd MacCulloch; the fearsome combo of MacCulloch/Jason Collins; and the combo of Erick Dampier/DeSagana Diop. And while the Lakers did beat Duncan/Robinson, go back and check the history books on who really won those series for the Lakers (hint, hint, Kobe/Shaw).

When facing a legit center in the finals (Olajuwon and Ben Wallace), Shaq has gone 1-8.

As for Robinson, the Admiral beat Ewing for his first ring and the combo of Mutumbo/Collins for his second. He also ousted Shaq/Kobe in 02-03.

As for how well Robinson matched up against Shaq, the Diesel overall wins the battle in terms of production, but lost in the overall wins column 12-11. The stats follow:

Shaq: 26.1 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 2 apg, .5 spg, 2.7 bpg on 53.6 percent shooting
Rob: 18.6 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.1 spg, 1.6 bpg on 47 percent shooting

Looking at the numbers more closely, however, we see that Robinson played half of these games well into his 30s. If we compare the games from 2000 back, we see that it’s a lot closer.

O’Neal: 26 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 1.88 apg, .5 spg, 2.4 bpg on 55.6 percent
Robins: 21.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.11 apg, 2.35 spg, 1.7 bpg on 47.3 percent

Since we’re on numbers, let’s take a look at their careers.

O’Neal: 26.9 PER, 24.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 0.6 spg, 2.4 bpg, 58 percent
Robins: 26.2 PER, 21.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.4 spg, 3.0 bpg, 52 percent

The numbers are very close. Of course, Shaq has played three more seasons, going on four, but Robinson’s career numbers look mighty good next to Shaq’s, especially with that 1.4 career steals and three blocks(a feat only Olajuwon and Robinson share). Looking further at PER, here’s a list of their prime career numbers.

Shaq: 28.5, 28.6, 26.4, 27.1, 28.8, 30.5, 30.6, 30.2, 29.7, 29.5
Drob: 26.3, 27.4, 27.5, 24.2, 30.7, 29.1, 29.4, 27.8, 24.9, 24.6

O’Neal is clearly better over a sustained period of time, but I bet Robinson’s numbers surprise you. Not only that, but his best year, a year he averaged 30 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.7 spg, and 3.3 bpg on 50.7 percent shooting, tops O’Neal’s 30 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, .5 spg, 3 bpg on 57.6 percent shooting by the slimmest of margins.

Offensively, PER does an adequate job of interpreting their relative offensive games and comes to the conclusion that O’Neal’s was better.

But basketball is played on two sides of the court, and here is where Robinson separates himself from O’Neal and where PER no longer helps us. While there is no perfect way of measuring defensive presence, even when Shaq was at his penultimate self, he still never showed on the pick and roll.

David Robinson led the league in rebounding on two separate occasions, was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team four times, the second team four times and also won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 91-92. In comparison, Shaq has never led the league in rebounding (was runner up on four separate occasions), has made the All Defensive Second Team three times, and has never come close to a DPY award.

Going further, only three of Robinson’s 14 seasons saw the Admiral with Defensive Win Shares below five and one of those seasons was the year he missed all but six games. For seven consecutive years, he had DWS over six—quite a bit better than known defensive stalwarts like Dikembe Mutumbo and Alonzo Mourning.

Robinson’s DFWs were also very comparable to Patrick Ewing and Ben Wallace during their prime stretches of defensive dominance. For reference:

P Ewing: 5.4, 6.7, 7.9, 7.8, 6.4, 6.1, and 6.9
Big Ben: 6.2, 7.2, 7.5, 8.9, 6.4, 6.6 and 6.7
D Robin: 7.2, 7.7, 6.8, 6.3, 6.3, 6.9, and 7.3

As for O’Neal, his DWS are quite a bit less impressive. He managed seven in his dominant 99-2000 MVP season, but only had one other season over five (his rookie year at 5.9). He’s played in a 130 more games, yet still trails Robinson in career DWS by 16.2.

To further exemplify this point, the Spurs, with David Robinson as an active member of the roster, never finished outside of the top ten in defensive rating. During Robinson’s career, the Spurs led the league in defensive rating four times, were second three times and third three times.

Obviously adding Duncan in 97 helped tremendously as Robinson aged, but Robinson-led teams still managed to lead the league twice and come in third two other times. Furthermore, Robinson’s team went from third in defensive rating with him, to last in the season he missed, back up to second when he and a rookie Duncan joined forces.

As for Shaq, his Orlando-led squads never finished higher than 11th and his Miami-led squads never finished higher than sixth. He’s also been a part of some of the worst defensive teams, including last year’s 26th ranked Suns, and while it certainly wasn’t all his fault, he did play 33 games for the 24th ranked Heat in 06-07.

In 1999-00, that one shining year, Shaq’s MVP season, he dominated the league as did the Lakers who led the league in defensive rating. However, the year before Shaq’s MVP, the Lakers were 23rd in defensive rating and the year after? They reverted back to 21st.

And here’s why I believe that in spite of O’Neal’s offensive brilliance, Robinson should be ranked ahead of him. O’Neal had all the tools to be the best center of all time, but he chose to coast on his athleticism and dominating size rather than hone his game.

Shaq’s career is continuing to be more and more the question of what could have been. What could have been if he could hit 60-65 percent of his freethrows? What could have been if he and Kobe stayed together? What could have been if he developed a couple of post moves or truly took to making Amare a better player? What could have been if he had simply worked as hard as Jordan or Bryant?

In fact, Robinson should be celebrated over Shaq because he was everything Shaq was and is not. He worked tirelessly to keep his body in peak physical condition. He didn’t chase money and fame in a bigger city but stayed true to the Spurs, a small market team, his entire career. He never needed to be the center of attention. He made 74 percent of his freethrows throughout his career. And while Shaq and the Admiral were and are both well-liked by many, Robinson never bad-mouthed anyone.

When Duncan joined the team, Robinson not only mentored and helped develop the blossoming star, but he stepped aside, adjusted his game and took a complimentary role. He amped up his already impressive defense and worked hard at rebounding and defending while letting Duncan shoulder more and more of the offensive load.

We all know Shaq’s story. A man who jumped the Orlando ship as soon as the glitz of Hollywood became available. A man who despite what he says, has always made it all about himself. A man who, after winning his first MVP, decided to take more and more time off during the offseason and come into camp in worse and worse shape. A man who, in spite of his lazy offseasons, demanded a raise while he was in the middle of a contract paying him $26 million. A man who spent most of his time off the court at other ventures besides basketball, including movies and music, but never improved any aspect of his game (save for that one season where he shot over 60 percent on freethrows). A man who has bounced from team to team and bad-mouthed everyone on his way out the door.

For a 7-foot-1, 350-pound man with nimble feet, crazy agility and uncanny speed to call himself the Most Dominant Ever and never lead the league in rebounding, pretty much sums up all the above points.

And while he did, in some ways, step down and let Dwyane Wade take center stage when the Heat won in 06-07, he was ultimately selfish with the Penny and Kobe situations and despite all his lip service, stunted Amare Stoudemire’s growth last year.

Maybe you disagree, maybe you think I’m just a Shaq hater, but due to Robinson’s defensive presence and his underrated offensive game that was both prolific and efficient, not to mention his leadership and ability to be a better teammate I’d say Robinson was a better overall player than O’Neal.

Congrats Admiral on the Hall of Fame. You clearly deserve it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Season Previews 09-10 Edition "Thunder"

Oklahoma City Thunder

The franchise formerly known as the Seattle Supersonics has turned into everyone’s favorite offseason darkhorse/cinderalla team. Yeah, I think they’ll improve a great deal from last year’s 23-win effort, first and foremost because there’s no way (save a Kevin Durant injury) that the team gets off to another horrific 3-29 start. I mean, after that terrible beginning, aided by the midseason acquisition of Nenad Krstic, the team went 19-30 to begin 2009.

But I’m not drinking the Koolaid to the point where I believe they can make the playoffs…not just yet. My concerns do not lie with the core group. Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and now James Harden make, perhaps, the most promising 1-4 in the whole league. It’s that fifth position, normally considered along with the one as the most important position in basketball, that has me worried.

Of course Krstic’s presence was not the only reason for the success enjoyed by the team to begin the new year, but he was certainly an upgrade over the undersized body of Nick Collison (who is a solid player as a power forward, but definitely not a center), or the rawness of Johan Petro or the one-way play of Chris Wilcox (also undersized) or the plodding, unrefined game of Robert Swift. (Just for the record, B.J. Mullens doesn’t look like the answer.)

And the Thunder need a true center, a Tyson Chandler-like presence—a rebounding, defensive-minded five who eats space in the middle. And yet, I not only understand, but I completely agree with why Sam Presti opted to move away from Chandler.

But that’s neither here nor there.

The addition of Etan Thomas, while certainly not the answer, is a good start…if he can stay healthy. When given minutes and when he’s been able to keep himself on the court (has averaged only 53 games over seven seasons and missed one season entirely), Thomas has been a pretty effective center. While he’ll most likely be the backup, Thomas, though a bit undersized, brings energy, rebounding and some shot blocking to the table. He’s not known as the best clubhouse guy (just ask Brendan Haywood), but perhaps, coming to a team of youngsters as an elder statesmen will be just what he needs to keep his attitude in check (a la Stephen Jackson).

As for Krstic, who I expect will start, the dude can shoot, has an offensive game plan that he executes well and has enough length to make the opposition think about coming into the paint. In the season of his knee injury, Krstic was averaging 16.4 points, seven rebounds and two assists on 52.6 percent shooting with the Nets and many thought he would be the center of the future. But the injury limited him the next year and following his disappointing 07-08 season, he moved to the Russian Super League for a brief stint to regain his old form. As he proved last season with the Thunder, the 25-year-old is a quality player to be sure, but despite being 7-0 feet tall, his game is more power forward than center. He's been playing really well in the Eurobasket Championships the past couple of weeks and was the best player on the floor against Spain which included both Gasol brothers. Krstic led the Serbian team to victory as well.

So, with the team the Thunder will have going into the 09-10 season, a great deal of its success will ride on the thin (though reportedly 10-lbs more muscular) shoulders of one man. Since being chosen second overall in 2007, Durant has increased every aspect of his game by leaps and bounds. From 20 points per game as a rookie, to 25 as a soph, he also improved his shooting percentage (43 to 47), his three point percentage (28 to 42), his rebounding (4.4 to 6.5), his assists (2.4 to 2.8) and his minutes played (34.6 to 39) while maintaining his turnover rate. That’s remarkable improvement in only a single season. While I believe he will make progress this year as well, I wouldn’t expect his numbers to jump quite as much as they did last year. He could very well push for 30 points per game, but I am of the impression that that would be to the detriment of the team as a whole.

Watching Durant come out to Summer League in Las Vegas and sit on the bench, bond, and offer advice to teammates James Harden, Sean Livingston, Mullens, D.J. White, Serge Ibaka and Kyle Weaver, not to mention the half dozen other guys he won’t even be playing with this year, solidified in my mind that he is all about the team and is serious about his role as a leader. It also won him the respect of everyone on the team from the last man on the bench to Scott Brooks.

While I didn’t catch all of Summer League, I caught enough and read about enough to know that no other star player on any of the other 29 teams came out to Vegas and sat on the bench for nearly every game like Durant did. I saw Baron Davis out there, but he was dressed up all snazzy and sat in the bleachers. Durant was on the bench, well, except when he got on his feet to cheer his squad on.

The Thunder have had one more year to mature. I caught Russell Westbrook working out over at HAX in L.A. a month ago and he’s looking to have a big season. While his scoring will most likely remain around the 12 to 15 point mark, look for his assists to go up and his shooting percentage to be better by a few percentage points. He’ll need to be a better distributor with this team who are growing up together and will feature a lot of weapons. In addition to the obvious primary importance of KD and the refined, Euro-game of Krstic, Westbrook will have Harden/Thabo Sefolosha and Green as starters.

Green, like KD, has matured rapidly over the past two years. His production jumped across the board in his sophomore year as well—10.5 to 16.5 points, 1.5 to 2 assists, 4.8 to 6.6 rebounds, .6 to 1 steals, 27.6 to 38.9 in three-point percentage and 42.7 to 44.6 overall field goal percentage. Being that he’s playing a bit out of position as an undersized power forward, he’ll need to boost that rebounding even more to help offset the lack of a true interior presence, but if his overall post game (both offensively and defensively) has developed and if he’s learned a few new things in guarding bigger, stronger players in the post, those improvements will be just as vital to the Thunder’s success as anything from Durant or Westbrook.

I got to watch Harden play in Summer League and, like many other pundits and scouts out there, I was impressed with his ability to make the right play. Don’t get me wrong, he’ll go through growing pains in his rookie campaign, but seeing the pieces he has around him already, his skill set is perfect.

The big thing I harped on last year for team success was the importance of depth. I chose the Lakers, Jazz, Rockets and Portland to finish in the top four in the west last year based on this theory. While the Rockets and Jazz finished in the bottom half of the West’s playoff teams, depth helped soften the blow of Tracy McGrady’s season-ending surgery and it also helped keep the Jazz afloat while they suffered a myriad of injuries to all of their key players.

Depth on the Thunder is looking like a strength. Livingston has a lot of potential and has been slowly making his way back from his devastating knee injury two seasons ago. If he can regain anything close to the form he showed in his last year with the Clips, he’ll lead a bench that will include Sefolosha, Collison, Thomas and Weaver all of whom were capable starters at various points of last year. Of course, Sefolosha and/or Thomas could win the starters roles, which would send Harden and Krstic to the bench. If this happens, the bench will be more dynamic, though not as good defensively, while the starters will be better defensively, though not the offensive force. Either way, the bench will be at the very worst, solid.

If every "if" is answered, this team could potentially push for the playoffs. But without a true center, I find it very difficult to see how they can consistently win against those squads with a big front court. Playoffs or not, this will be the year that everybody outside of Oklahoma City proclaims Durant's name in the same breath as Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Dwyane Wade.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Season Previews 09-10 Edition "Nuggets"

Denver Nuggets

I’m not going to outright say that Denver is going to take a step back, I’m just leery of hyping up last year's success. While they’ll be good, contender is a bit of a stretch for my vocabulary. I honestly think they’re not going to be any better, and more likely than not, slightly worse than last year.

For as dominant of a finish as this team had to the regular season, it only improved by four games over the previous season. So I get that Chauncey Billups brought with him stability and consistency at the point guard position, but adding a healthy Nene and the energy and shot-blocking/altering ability of Chris Andersen off the bench was just as big for the team. All this “most lopsided trade in the history of the sport” is so far overblown, it’s become tiresome. AI wasn’t the anti-Christ and Billups wasn’t the Savior.

Look, I’m not trying to diminish the impact that Billups had on the overall culture of the squad, his leadership and ability to effectively run an offense are clearly better than Allen Iverson’s, who is a natural-born shooting guard.

But to give all the credit to Billups is like giving all the credit to Kobe Bryant or to Lebron James or Dwight Howard—it’s just so, unbasketball-like. A variety of different things, including the Billups acquisition, allowed the Nugs to make their run.

For starters, Nene had a terrific season two years ago, before injury put him down. At 26, he has clearly been a player on the rise, so his career 08-09 season had more to do with his maturing and remaining healthy than Billups’ influence. Mr. Big Shot really didn’t have all that much influence on Birdman’s game, outside of the occasional lob and all the missed shots that made for offensive rebounding opportunities.

True, culture change can be a huge difference. Billups initiating the offense, actually looking for Nene as a first option or swinging the ball over to Smith for the three, those little things help make a basketball team flow. But, looking back, not sure the culture changed all that much. I mean, J.R. Smith was and continues to be a knucklehead. Kenyon Martin continued to lose his cool, pick up Ts, etc., and ultimately, the Nugs choked and slunk away when the pressure was on just like they had when AI was on board.

Furthermore, when one really sits down and evaluates the Nuggets playoff run, they’ll see that they faced a severely crippled Hornets team and a Mavs squad playing over its head with arguably its second best player (Josh Howard) gamely playing on one leg. Even still, in game three, if Dirk Nowitzki or Howard or Jason Terry hit a couple of free throws, or Melo doesn’t hit that three, the series could have been easily 2-1 instead of 3-0, and then, who knows how it would have ended up?

Just like the Lakers didn’t dominate the Magic who were equal in talent (if only Jameer had been healthy…), the Nugs didn’t dominate the Mavs, a significantly worse team (last year) in terms of talent and health. To me, that speaks a lot more about how Denver measures up then the pyrite shine of a western conference finals showing and a two seed in the injury-depleted west.

With that long-winded intro, we get into this year’s squad. As with all teams, health will play a major factor in the success or failure of the 2009-10 Nuggets. While some teams, like the Mavs, Lakers and Blazers can ably withstand injuries, the Nuggets do not have that luxury. In addition, many of the players that are being counted on to remain healthy have a history of injury and/or suspension. Case in point, Smith will already miss seven games to start the season because of suspension and had some questionable Twitter posts this summer that caught the ire of the public.

As for injuries, in the four prior to last season, Nene had missed nearly two complete seasons and in the other two averaged less than 60 games. Kenyon Martin, who has survived micro-fracture knee surgery on both knees has averaged about 68 games per year, excluding the year he played in only two contests. Backing up Nene and Martin is Chris Andersen, who was kicked out of the league for testing positive for a “drug of abuse” which defined by the NBA includes cocaine, PCP, meth and acid. All of these drugs take money to support and the Birdman just signed a new five-year deal worth nearly $26 million. While all indications point towards him remaining clean, it only takes one slip-up to be right back nose deep in drug addiction.

The only other bigs on the roster are Johan Petro and Malik Allen and if Petro is the first big off your bench, you aren’t a contender, at least not this season.

As for the backcourt, Billups is one year older, and he seemed to tire in the playoffs. The drafting of Ty Lawson and the retaining of Anthony Carter is just what the doctor ordered. Lawson tore up summer league. Take that for what it’s worth, but he does have a track record as a winner with UNC. He also has the perfect point guard to learn from in Billups and to a certain extent Anthony Carter, both who have maintained a workmanlike attitude and use veteran smarts to level the playing field in their favor. Lawson excels when he has weapons around him, and, well, the Nugs supply is not as abundant as last year. In fact, with Smith most likely moving into the starting lineup, Lawson might have to emulate his Summer League run where he averaged 17 points a game.

When Smith returns from suspension and gets inserted into the starting shooting guard spot, projected starter Arron Afflalo will be the two for the second team. While he was a good get and can emulate a lot of the things that Jones brought to the table at a younger and cheaper price, he can't do what Smith does. What could happen, and might be good (if Smith remains content with a sixth man role) is if Afflalo can win that starter's gig during Smith's suspension. We'll see how Afflalo plays and what George Karl wants to do.

Speaking of the bench, or lack there of, one thing to watch out for is who backs up Carmelo Anthony. Linas Kleiza’s burn was spotty in the playoffs, but during the regular season, dude played in all 82 and averaged 22 minutes a game. The only other small-forward type left on the team is Renaldo Balkman, and while his hustle and athleticism will work well in transition, unless he suddenly learned how to shoot outside of five feet at even a decent clip this summer, Kleiza’s overall game and outside shooting are going to be sorely missed.

If the team ends up signing Desmond Mason, who still has some of that dunk-contest winning leaping ability, his lack of any semblance of an outside shot (that goes in) will not be the answer either. In fact, the team would be better off just playing the 25-year-old Balkman for all the little things he contributes that Mason doesn’t.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Melo will be primed and ready to bounce back from a down year. He absolutely murdered in the playoffs, averaging 27, 6 and 4 while shooting 45 percent (would have been even better but he faltered against the Lakers) and if that is any indication of where he’ll be next season, the Nugs could push the 55-win plateau. Of course, when he does average 27 a game, Billups supporters will point to it and say how much Chauncey has helped Melo mature and completely neglect to acknowledge that Melo averaged 29 points playing with Iverson. But, whatever.

If Nene stays on the court for 75 plus games and Martin plays 70 and Birdman and Smith don’t get suspended (anymore), and Melo rises back up to a top ten NBA player, the Nuggets will have a championship caliber starting five. But their almost inevitable fall from last year's heights will be because of the salary cap and Stan Kroenke's reluctance to pay it. A weakened, inexperienced bench pushes the Nugs back to the middle of the pack.

Of course, if the bench somehow develops, like Petro suddenly blossoms, Lawson makes a run for rookie of the year and Afflalo comes up huge, a championship could be in sight.

But in reality, I just don’t think this team has the depth to make a legit run because the bench has been significantly downgraded while a lot of other Western powers have upgraded. Plus, that’s a lot of “ifs” to be counting on. And iffy ifs at that.

Any extended injury to Nene, Melo, Billups, Martin, and/or Smith, and the Nuggets will struggle to win 45 games in the uber-competitive Western Conference.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Season Previews 09-10 Edition "Kings"

We are back from a month and a half long hiatus.

With less then a month until training camp breaks, thought it would be a good time to start our annual season preview. There are quite a few “ifs” that could make or break any of the 30 teams this upcoming 09-10 season. Getting away from the formula of those websites that break down teams and rank them in some order that they then try to justify (like we admittedly tried to do last year), we thought it would be nice to try something outside of what has become commonplace in the sports writing/blogosphere.

Here at Westcoast Slant, we’ll simply be breaking down each team and giving realistic outcomes without any sort of finishing order or power ranking, etc. While it may not be as controversial as a ranking system, it will undoubtedly be more insightful for those who are interested in the game of basketball and not the dark art of fortune telling. So, of course we’ll begin out west with teams that are pretty much set with their rosters going into training camp.

Sacramento Kings

Let’s be honest, expectations for this team are not high and many pundits believe that they will be the worst team in the entire Association next season. While it’s easy to label a team that only won 17 games last year as next year’s winners of the worst team award, give me any season and we’ll see teams projected to do poorly, actually do okay. I’m not saying the Kings will make the playoffs, but recent history teaches us not to bet against promising youth. Many thought the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to be historically bad, especially after their putrid start, but their young players developed as the season went along and the team went 10-16 after the All-Star break after having gone 13-43 before it. Check out this blog for another example of a young team defying expectations and the ensuing enjoyment that fans got out of it.

With that in mind, these “ifs” if answered positively, could mean 25-30 wins for the Kings, doubling last season’s effort.

The first if is obviously true for every team we’ll be covering over the next couple of weeks. If the Kings stay healthy, they could make a run at 30 wins. This is no easy feat considering the Kings franchise player, Kevin Martin, has only averaged 61 games over his five seasons. Last year he played in 51. The year before? 61. So, it’s not like his injury last season was the exception to the rule. Kid misses games plain and simple. If Martin can stay healthy, he could average 25 points a game and do so in the K-Mart way, which is super-duper efficiently.

Along those lines, there’s the whole if Tyreke Evans and K-Mart can coexist question. For what it’s worth, I like the pairing. Yes, Evans is untested as a point guard, but if nothing else, the Kings will be shooting a lot of free throws next year since Evans and Martin prolifically get to the charity stripe. Also, Martin averaged 20 a game playing with gunners Mike Bibby and Ron Artest (on less shots) which only proves that he finds ways to score no matter how many shots he gets. It’s not like Evans will be jacking up 30 shots a game (at least, I hope not). There’s plenty of shots to go around on this squad. Evans and Martin, if healthy, will make a dynamic backcourt that has the ability to average 45 points a game.

And don’t count out a small ball lineup that will feature Martin at the three, Evans at the two and newly acquired Sergio Rodriguez leading the break.

While this offseason depressingly saw the Maloofs cutting payroll like a paper shredder, there are two things that Kings fans should be excited about for the 09-10 season. First, the roster is filled with talented youth. Outside of the expiring contract known as Kenny Thomas (K-9), the Kings do not feature anyone over the age of 30. Their current star player (Martin) is 26 and their star of the future (Evans) is 19. Jason Thompson is 23 and Spencer Hawes is 21. And as far as K-9 is concerned, there’s a slim possibility he nets some moderate talent being that he’s one of the bigger expirings this year.

The second thing to be excited about is Paul Westphal. For all the haters out there (Tom Ziller), Westphal has a 267-159 coaching record, for a .626 win percentage. A number that is only bettered by four other current coaches with more than a season under their belts (Rambo doesn’t even have half a season so he doesn’t count). The coaches are Phil Jackson, Greg Popovich, Mike Brown, and Stan Van Gundy.

While I’m not trying to put Westphal in their company, though, I guess that’s exactly what I’ve done, I am saying that he’s had success as a coach. Big time success in fact, success that included a trip to the finals, something Mike D has only dreamed about.

And Westphal knows how to run an offense. He was like the OG D’Antoni back in the 90s. During his three full seasons guiding the Suns, Phoenix led the league in offensive rating the first two seasons, and finished third in his last. They also averaged 59 wins during that span.

Evans could grow into a Kevin Johnson type player. Martin is already a superior offensive player to my all-time favorite Sun, Thunder Dan Majerle (though, nowhere close defensively) but I won’t even try to say that Thompson is a poor man’s Barkley because, well, that would be a stretch even my imagination can’t justify. But there are some similarities. Andres Nocioni can shoot. Spencer Hawes can shoot. Francisco Garcia can shoot. Omri Casspi could shoot in Europe. There’s no reason outside of bad chemistry or disgruntled players that this squad won’t be effective in a Westphal-run system.

Looking at that lineup, the Kings have some intriguing pieces that just need time to grow up together. However, there is the potential problem of lack of playing time, even on this, a most likely lottery-bound team, due to the redundancy in the current makeup of the roster.

Evans is slotted to be a one, but the Kings committed big money and years to Beno Udrih last summer—$32 million over five years to be exact. They also acquired Rodriguez this offseason and neither Rodriguez nor Udrih can legitimately play the two. Where and if Udrih plays will be a big question especially considering his latest injury that is estimated to put him out until right before training camp. He’s not really a point guard/point guard, though he did average six assists the last 16 games of the season. His high-end midrange game is not as effective or as valuable with Evans on board, and if the Kings decide to run next year, Sergio’s game is tailor-made for that style.

Further complicating matters is the logjam at small forward where Francisco Garcia, Andres Nocioni, recently drafted Omri Casspi and the as-of-yet disappointing Donte Green all look to play. Garcia can and will play some shooting guard, and Casspi is supposedly versatile enough to play three or four different positions, but he’s never played in the NBA, so I won’t jump to any conclusions. He’ll get some burn because of his scrappiness and work ethic and overall energy, but it’s unlikely he’ll be a major contributor this year due to the plethora of small forward options.

Assuming Evans is able to quickly adapt to NBA-life, the next biggest improvement to the team will most likely come from the bigs. Thompson must build on his solid rookie campaign. People made a fuss about his advanced age coming out of college, but he’s still only 23. There’s plenty of room for growth—polishing up that raw offensive game and learning the nuances of defense being most important. Hawes is another who will need to continue to develop.

Surprisingly, the man who could have the biggest impact (no pun intended) on the team is the injury-prone Sean May who could be pushing both Thompson and Hawes for minutes by midseason. May could be the poster child for John Hollinger’s PER system and why I use it as one of several tools for evaluation, but refuse to place too much importance on its findings. For me, it’s more like a guidebook. Two years ago, May’s per-40 minute numbers looked very impressive, 20, 11 and three assists with a 19.22 PER. But injuries, weight issues and reality have proven May to thus far be considered a bust. He’s played all of 82 games in four seasons. Seeing that he’s only 25, there’s every possibility that he could have another stellar year playing as Thompson and Hawes’ backup without the pressure of a starting role. Of course, there’s also the likelihood that he’ll miss 60 games.

Overall, Kings fans shouldn’t be too depressed. Come the trade deadline, the Kings will be a major player with K-9, even if they prove to be just window shopping. Furthermore, the additions of Westphal, running point guards Rodriguez and Evans and the potential of May combined with the continued development of Hawes, Thompson and Martin mean that the Kings will be fun to watch and will be a lot tougher than a year ago.

If things fall the right way (which would pretty much be the opposite of last year), the Kings will be quite a bit better than people think, though, playoffs are a pipedream at best.