The NBA season is upon us and with that, its time to preview the season. You can find part one here. For this preview I decided rather than write some long winded thing about how Kobe Bryant is ruining the Lakers franchise (more on that later), I would rather structure it in a crowd pleasing way: go reverse order in rank of all 30 NBA franchises heading into the season and list one player to watch and one subplot over the course of the season. Hope you enjoy it and hope you learn and hope you care enough to curse me out over the internet and tell me I don’t know crap. Here is part I:
Player to Watch- Nerlens Noel (C)- Noel is in his second year out of the NBA training academy in Kentucky known as the Wildcat collegiate program. He’s a long armed, afro-d rim protector sent to the Sixers to play with the emotions of players hoping to score in the paint. Obviously this season is lost in the midst of the biggest, most open tanking party known to sports (as the NBA Twitteratzi will have you believe), so the most important story on the court will be Noel’s development along with MCW’s development playing with Noel and then maybe if we’re lucky we may even see a Joel Embiid sighting!
Major Subplot of the Season- Tankapalooza- Technically the Sixers won their first game of the season when major lottery reform was shot down by a vote of 17-13. Zach Lowe of Grantland expertly outlined what was at stake for this vote. The NBA and its righteous police will surely devote thousands of words and twitter memes to symbolize what a horrible thing this is, but I’m all for any careful, thought out process of becoming good again. Fans will come back once the team starts winning. Suffer for a few years, but beware when the tag of losers are ripped off. That’s when the fun starts.
Player to Watch- Dante Exum (PG?)- I put a question mark because the Jazz and rookie coach Quinn Snyder will likely use him in a variety of roster spots. But he’s a natural point guard. Exum is the baby of a youtube highlight clip, reared by Twitter GIF’s and raised by the blessing of the NBA Twitterverse. Which is to say he’s a completely digital creation. Now comes the human element: actual games. I like what i’ve heard, and I’m more intrigued by the few highlights I’ve seen from Jazz preseason games. I’m not going to venture a guess on his ceiling because nobody knows, but a point guard that can fly and has court vision? Should be fun.
Major Subplot of the Season-
How Toure Murray and Steve Novak will save the Jazz! Young and the Restless- The Utah Jazz have the youngest roster in the NBA. Twelve of the 15 players that will suit up for the Jazz are 25 and younger. Talent wise, they have three Top 5 Picks (Exum, Kanter, and Favors), six lottery picks (+ Hayward, Burks and Burke), and nine first rounders (+Booker, Hood, Govert), pedigree which suggests they should be good. They are like Philly three years into their tanking program, but the feeling is that there will be more losses piling on for the Jazz. They play in the ultra-competitive West where there are legitimately 10 teams vying for the 8 playoff spots. So it gives Utah liberty to continue piling on assets before they have to make their first big move, which likely will mean either Kanter or Favors is on their way out. Bet on Kanter, but definitely lay money on the fact that the Jazz will look very Spurs-ian on offense (don’t we all aspire to) while running exciting rotations which should keep hoop nerds in the East up long hours watching this young 20 something line up explore themselves like a young teenager watching porn for the first time.
Player to Watch- Kobe Bryant (SG)- C’mon, as if there was anyone else. I honestly don’t know how Kobe’s season will play out but after this article by Henry Abbot (a journalist of the highest order) where he lists anonymous sources within the Lakers organization who believe that Kobe is the reason they are bad and will continue to be bad. Not helping matters was Jeannie Buss going all Steinbrenner-ish by publicly criticizing these anonymous sources and calling any player who doesn’t want to play with Kobe a loser anyway, I can’t help but feel uneasy about predicting anything but a ton of back and forth between Kobe’s fan base (long one of the most fierce in NBA history) over Twitter that could get nasty.
Major Subplot of the Season- Byron Scott and the National Advanced Stats legion- Not only are advanced stats here to stay, but they have crept into every crevice of NBA operation and major NBA writing which will likely skew your thoughts on the matter. Fact is, Byron Scott is wrong based on all the statistical evidence we’ve seen (see! its happening to me!). To be fair, Scott came to Cleveland on July 2nd, 2010. We all know what happened on July 8th when Lebron tap danced on Cleveland fans hearts and went to Miami. Well, he comes to Los Angeles, the place of his greatest trumps RIGHT as Kobe is entering a “prove you’re still great” season where he’ll launch a ton of shots while playing a bunch of one on two or threes and giving below average defense and demanding minutes. Also, the best free agents the Lakers got were Jeremy Lin, who will now be pushed into more minutes with Steve Nash being done for the season, and Carlos Boozer who’s biggest contribution the last few seasons was this. Things could get bad in Tinseltown fast. But hey, at least they will sell out!
Player to Watch- Jabari Parker (SF)- Carmelo Anthony clone. Number two draft pick in a loaded draft. Thought to be a franchise player. There’s tons of things here to like, but let’s call it what it is. Here is the season for the Bucks right here:
Major Subplot of the Season- Jason Kidd dealing with a young roster- In Brooklyn he was a rookie coach trying to get the most out of a veteran roster. He flipped the script, jumped ship (there’s really no other way of saying it) and went to a team with a bunch of young pieces. Kidd had plenty of lows in Brooklyn but the fact is, he did it his way which is how you can accurately describe his NBA career. He’s a natural leader and he will be the voice the players turn to when they are down in a crunch time situation and youth and inexperience will drive them to the Fountain of Kidd. This may not be a good team, butut expect them to be hungry and give teams a good scare down the stretch. Expect them also to be very busy come trade deadline. Shoutout to John Henson who I saw give everyone elbows because he still hasn’t figured out how freakishly long his limbs are. You can’t teach that.
Player to Watch- Elfrid Payton (PG)- Many expect Payton to challenge Jabari Parker for the Rookie of the Year. Payton is that mix of rangy athleticism with a good body that compares well to Exum, only he played in the States. While he did play in the Sun Belt Conference, the experience of playing States-side players is very critical when seeing how he projects and he’s proven in both Vegas (7.2 APG) and in 27 MPG in the preseason (5 APG) that he’s up for the challenge. It also helps that everyone has been glowing about how mature and wise beyond his years he is.
Major Subplot of the Season- They can play but can they shoot though?- The stats suggest not. Jacque Vaughn is in a weird spot. They already have lost Victor Oladipo for an extended stretch when he broke his orbital bone. They brought in Channing Frye to help spacing but you can almost make the case that 60% of their starting lineup not only can’t shoot, but are historically bad. Aaron Gordon doesn’t project well as a shooter, and neither does Tobias Harris who the Magic have to make a decision on whether to extend. How can you create space for Payton to drive, or Oladipo to drive or Gordon to roll to the basket if NOBODY is afraid of them from 10 feet and beyond? That’s the question for them to ponder.
Player to Watch- Rajon Rondo (PG)- In my 10 bold predictions for the upcoming season, I wrote that Rondo would not be traded and that Jeff Green would be. Most may think I dislike Rondo which is far from the truth. I love Rondo. I think having a competitor like him can only help your team and he has the playoff chops to take your team over the top. Even if he isn’t a fit in the triangle, I would welcome him to my Knicks. But this season the Celtics, who drafted Marcus Smart specifically to take over the mercurial yet talented point guard of the Celtics mantle that Rondo held firm for so many years, are continuing their rebuilding and transition. They have quality pieces to give away in trades and Rondo being the big chip. I just don’t see it happening, unless the Celtics find a very anxious bidder who’s willing to overpay which is exactly how Danny Ainge wants to play it. But Rondo isn’t the cookie cutter and he comes with hard edges that will make him a very tough add to any team hoping to add Rondo to their team easily.
Major Subplot of the Season- Can Danny find a home for Rondo?- I realize I’m doubling up on this but let’s face it, the Celtics will try like heck to trade him. Getting back value will be completely up to Danny Ainge. Will he hold on to Rondo even though he knows retaining him will take repairing their relationship? We still have yet to see Rondo and Brad Stevens collaborate in an 82 game season which is something that could be fascinating. But Ainge’s responsibility first and foremost will be to trade Rondo and get back draft picks, salary relief, and young players. I don’t know that he will accomplish that goal but the season will likely be in limbo until Ainge either trades him or pays him. You know who’s the x-factor on how this plays out? Rajon Rondo. Who knows if he wants to stick it to Celtic management? Who knows if there’s resentment or bitterness on how the Celtic saga ended with the smearing campaign when Ray Allen left? Coming to NY won’t help that but you can see how a change of scenario will help. If Ainge has Rondo after the trade deadline, all the leverage will return to Rondo and that’s the scenario that Ainge does NOT want to see played out.
Player to Watch- Andrew Wiggins (SF)- He said all the right things about how he was looking forward to the challenge. How he’s motivated. How he wants to play for a team that wants him. Those are all fine and well. He and Anthony Bennett will be compared in the impossible microscope of the Kevin Love trade. That’s tough for any rookie, no matter how heralded. Now comes the proving ground. There’s no question about the defensive ability already. His offensive game still needs a lot more work and he will get plenty of minutes to develop it. Now’s the time rook. Now.
Major Subplot of the Season- How does Flip Saunders deal with making a good deal?- Look, when you’re losing the quality of big man in Kevin Love, the fact is, there is no such thing as equal value. So reality has to set in and accept the best deal possible. Saunders did as decent a job as he could given the position the team was in. They got a guy in Wiggins who could wind up being a generational talent, another number one pick who could be who knows what, and wound up with a quality NBA big man in Thaddeus Young. Its not perfect, but its something. They drafted Zach Lavine. The Love departure will open up minutes for Gorgei Dieng who in limited minutes and then in international competition opened eyes. There’s plenty to like about what the Love trade did for the franchise, but really it opened things up for a young group. Now, Flip has to make sure Flip can coach them up. This is the roster Flip gave Flip. This is the roster that Flip will die with even if Flip doesn’t like it.
Player to Watch- Boogie Cousins (PF/C)- Count me in on the Boogie bandwagon. The question becomes: is he a franchise player? The Kings extended him, but that’s a referendum on a small market team desperately holding on to its best talent by offering him the most any team can offer, rather than the seal of approval by a brand new ownership/front office. Talent has never been the question. Its his inability to keep his emotions in check or be a leader that folks can draw from. Well, I’m all in on the Boogie breakout season, which is saying something because he’s one of 5 players to average 20 and 10. I’m all in on the goal of ONLY drawing 5 technicals. Let’s go Boogie.
Major Subplot of the Season- Does Mike Malone have the pieces and/or time to make this work? Malone was a highly regarded assistant and son of Brendan Malone who served as a Knicks assistant in the Warriors when Vivek Ranadive, majority owner of the Kings, was a minority owner in Golden State. So, it seems curious when the Kings head honcho came out and said now its about wins and losses. Regardless, the Kings will struggle by sheer virtue of geography (maybe they should’ve moved huh?). They won 28 games and while improvement would be winning 30, that’s not the kind of improvement this Kings team wants. Their cap is pretty clean and they have all their draft picks which is the good news. The bad news is again, they play in the Western conference. Dave D’Alessandro, the Kings GM, has turned this roster over aside from two players, and sees the turnover as a way to get better. Losing Isaiah Washington was tough but I understand them not wanting to devote too much cap room for too many years to him. Rudy Gay posted some of his best numbers playing alongside Boogie and they didn’t want to kill each other which is a major plus. The Kings are a match for the Celtics if they are looking for draft picks and salaries to throw in a trade without too much of a long term commitment. Add in the fact that Rudy Gay and Rondo are buddies, there’s definitely smoke there to start a full on fire. But adding Rondo without the assurance of a contract being signed would be silly. But with an edict like the one given to the Kings from ownership- do they have a choice if Ainge comes calling?
Player to Watch- Al Horford (PF/C)- He’s quietly been one of the best PF/C’s. People forget that he came from back to back national titles in Florida playing alongside Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah on those great Gator teams. But he’s playing on a team that has been playing for the 6th-8th spot in the league since the days of Iso Joe offense. Horford is due $12M this year and the next. It will be interesting to see how both the Hawks and Horford play contract negotiations after a terrible winter.
Major Subplot of the Season- Change is coming- The Hawks under Danny Ferry have done a good job in retaining flexibility while signing solid veterans to decent deals. How Danny Ferry’s racist rants and owner Bruce Levenson’s racist email plays into the Hawks future is clear: change is coming and its going to come quick. Once Levenson’s email was leaked, and audio of Ferry making racist remarks were made, the clock officially began on their collective tenure expiring in Atlanta. But this is a particularly interesting case. Atlanta is a semi-big market that players love coming to because of its, umm, night life, and when the salary cap explodes in two years, this will be a team with almost 3 max salary slots available- one of them that will likely be filled by Horford unless something funky happens during negotiations. There will be plenty of offers from more rich white guys (including a group headlined by Chris Webber) and a presence by Dominique, the former Hawk great, which is all but a certainty given how much positive press that would generate for any incoming group. Until there is a new owner, plenty is up in the air about this franchise.
Player to Watch- Josh Smith (PF)- With Stan Van Gundy as the head coach and GM, its likely that Josh Smith will really have to mind his P’s and Q’s. But here’s where Stan Van has the edge. He’s already dealt with Josh Smith’s old pal Dwight Howard and knows how to get the most out of a talented big man who may just need direction. Smith signed a 4 year contract worth $54 million last year when Detroit threw money around like a 24 year old with daddy’s new Black card. Smith will be asked to play closer to the basket which goes against Josh Smith’s version of events that sees him as a stretch 4. Of course real world statistics don’t bare that out, and that’s Stan Van’s mission: to convince Smith of who he is. There are talks about putting Smith as a sixth man In the end, this is more about developing Smith so that Stan Van can develop Andre Drummond into Dwight 2.0, only one that’s nicer to Nickelodeon stars they have relations with.
Major Subplot of the Season- Can Stan Van the exec agree with Stan Van the coach? SVG has long been regarded as one of the brightest minds in coaching. His looks and personal style have left much to be desired but we haven’t minded. He singlehandedly outed Dwight Howard as the biggest D-bag on the planet after we were duped with all the stories of farting and those big smiles that made us all think he was a swell guy. So he has a history in player management. But a coach can convince himself that he can right a player. This is Stan’s first go-round as the top of the food chain. No longer will he be told from execs within the organization about a player’s dislike of him, the information will have to be funneled through him. Don’t think that teams won’t reach out to pull a fast one on him either. Greg Monroe signed a qualifying offer but only because nobody else came calling with a max offer which shouldn’t shock him. Nothing about Monroe’s game screams max-contract guy. His skill set takes a backseat to the stylings of Andre Drummond and Monroe may seek greener pastures elsewhere where teams don’t have an Andre Drummond to shine light on his physical failings. Bringing him in as a sixth man to help spacing, which was discussed as well with Josh Smith, could be the final nail unscrewed to make Monroe walk through the door, but there’s reason to believe he was headed out anyway. Plenty of decisions for Stan Van the coach and Stan Van the GM, but can they both agree to help the team?
Player to Watch-
Paul George (SF) Roy Hibbert (C)- Last season’s fun ride and good times stopped because Roy Hibbert forgot how to be Roy Hibbert from the Knicks series. The Great Wall of Roy who swatted everything with ferocity the likes of which had not been seen since Patrick Ewing roamed the center position for the Georgetown Hoyas. So it goes without saying that this season will be extremely important to his development. This season will likely feature Hibbert a whole lot (possibly in hopes that they can deal Hibbert for some financial freedom). Frank Vogel may even run the offense through him. If he wants to procure a big contract during the suddenly scorching Summer of 2016- he had better develop this year into the guy he showed in the Knicks series in 2012.
Major Subplot of the Season- Will the band be broken up? My guess is that they will trade pieces, go for the lottery and then try their luck with a young piece next to a recovering Paul George. George is their everything. So if they go this route, it will allow Indiana to bring George back slowly rather than rushing him back. They have seen in their division how a roster full of complementary pieces without a bona fide superstar and a very good coach can only achieve so much in the Chicago Bulls. It remains to be seen what it would do to a fan base that was only beginning to fill up the stands again, but its understandable and in my opinion the right move. My guess is that David West gets moved and they shop Hibbert as well, dangling George Hill with both players to net the best possible return.
Player to Watch- Iman Shumpert (SF)- Phil likes him. We know this because he told Charley Rosen as much. Shumpert’s athleticism helps him play on both ends. His defense is at times overrated and his offense is nowhere near where it is. Last season his minutes began to get slashed because of some reported rift between he and Coach Woodson so its important that he get off on the right foot with rookie head coach Derek Fisher. Entering Restricted Free Agency, Iman could play himself into bigger bucks, a trade that could bring back a huge package or an enigma that has the tools to be great but none of the actual stats to back that up.
Major Subplot of the Season- Will the Triangle be a success in NY?- There are enough questions about Derek Fisher being able to handle the media spotlight of New York, and handle a star laden lineup that features several players that think they should have the ball a lot, but implementing a system that has been a failure everywhere else but when the current GM was the coach? I worry for Fisher. He played in Los Angeles which is a different type of pressure than the one that New York presents. But if Fisher is going to be successful, and believes 100% in the triangle, and I believe he does, he will have to be patient. Yes, players are who they are and many won’t change, some like JR Smith may even find the transition a lot more difficult than they ever thought, and there are others in the basketball community who believe that it isn’t about system that its about the players at the end of the day. All are true and a reality of the Knick season. How quickly they adapt to the system will be the true test.
Player to Watch- Jusuf Nurcic (C)- He’s 20 years old, from Boznia and he’s got the Nuggets fan base buzzing along with several personnel folk. Zack Lowe gave a shoutout during the Grantland NBA hour. He’s intriguing enough but this speaks more to the rest of the roster more than Nurcic’s potential. There’s so many B+ guy with one A- in Ty Lawson that its tough to pinpoint one player, so we go with the unknown here in the spot. At some point these Eastern European giants will put together a season right?
Major Subplot of the Season- Is now the time to break up the roster or do we keep playing this game that the Nuggets can be a contender in the West?- Judging by the level of snark in that sentence you get the sense of where I’m going with this. I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, I think that the Nuggets with all of their traceable pieces could go so many different directions. They could make a trade, and still be a mid-tier contender status. They could trade a Gallinari and Foye for a pick that could eventually be a lottery pick if things end up right. There’s so many different ways this could play out for the Nuggets a.k.a. the Knicks of the West, but the truth here is that in a stacked Western Conference, it will be very difficult for THIS version of the Nuggets to make noise. Just so its clear, I tried really hard NOT to put Wilson Chandler and Danilo Galinari in the players to watch section.
Player to Watch- Brook Lopez (C)- No team’s destiny is tied to one player’s health like Nets to Lopez. If he’s healthy, and the rest of the roster, this is a playoff team that can give a top 4 seed a scare in the East. They have a solid front line in Garnett, Lopez and Plumlee that can cause problems. But if Lopez doesn’t play, this is a lottery team. Again, the Eastern Conference is chock full of mediocre to below average teams that could eventually make this a moot conversation. But Lopez’s health will ultimately decide the fate of the Brooklyn Nets.
Major Subplot of the Season- Are there bigger shakeups in store?- They don’t have the assets to get a big superstar so they may have to stand pat. But there are enough signs that point to a major shake up of the entire organization including rumors popping up that Mikhail Prokhorov has begun gauging interest in selling the team in the wake of Steve Ballmer paying $2 Billion for the Clippers. I don’t blame him. He has political aspirations for 2016 and sees the NBA’s latest TV deal as a sign that he could fetch a very healthy sum for his team. Add that to reports that the Nets lost $144 million due to operating costs and there’s motive. Prokho has been silent for some time which leads people to believe that he’s already planning his exit. If so, it could potentially lead to large scale changes. Billy King might be asked to sell off assets to make the books look a lot cleaner than it is and who knows what could be had and for what. King has never struck me as an awesome deal maker, save for the Deron Williams trade which was an all time hammer move. Either way, Brooklyn’s activity come deadline time could be a sign of potential ownership changes to come.
Player to Watch- Eric Bledsoe (PG)- All that needs to be said. And to think, they were playing a staring contest over a contract extension:
Major Subplot of the Season- Can a two point guard system work full-time? The Suns are betting on it. Big time. They re-signed Eric Bledsoe. They signed Isaiah Washington, and drafted Tyler Ennis. Initially you could’ve said that the last two moves were in case Bledsoe left, but when the restricted market was a dry patch of pavement, Bledsoe came back to the Suns at a reasonable price for both sides. Looking at that contract from the perch of a huge TV deal that could make the salary cap explode to close to $100M that means the Suns could be major players for free agents with all the assets they have and the cap space. Consider they still have Minnesota’s 1st rounder protected 1-12 in 2015 or 2016 and the Lakers 1st round pick protected 1-5 in 2015 and 1-3 in 2016. Add to that the miracle workers that is their training staff, and a young smart head coach its easy to see why this can be a destination for would be free agents or a good trade partner for teams trying to get young guys and unload veterans. The Suns who streaked their way 48 wins running a fast paced offense surrounded by shooting might want to look at the advanced stats that show that when Bledsoe or Dragic played with Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye, PJ Tucker, and Gerald Green, their offense flew. Maybe they see another market inefficiency that they can exploit and try and go two point guards and pick up the pace. Either way, Hornacek’s rotations, coaching and outright defiance against tanking have led me to lay upon them the unenviable title of my favorite Western Conference team. Let’s see how this plays out!
Part II coming soon.