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We are mere hours from Opening Night of the fastest growing major pro sport in America....
Most have to admit, the NBA seems to be getting more intriguing every year. With an incredibly eclectic mix of fans spanning groups as seemingly different as inner-city residents, white collar professionals, hipsters, and Europeans*, plus an equally ludicrous cast of characters playing in the games; the NBA has a unique blend of prime entertainment. The players become more human to us because we see their rawness/craziness/Tony Allen on television, Twitter, and the YouTubes. That's not always the case with a football player shrouded in his helmet or a baseball player with his head covered. It's the NBA's strongest marketing tool and it works. Eleven of the Top 50 highest paid athletes according to Forbes were NBA players, including 3 of the top 10. There were no NFL or MLB players in the top 10.
*Okay, hipsters and Europeans may not be that different
This season will be no different than years past with the stars grabbing the headlines and the teams battling for the rings. What follows is a brief overview of each team and some story lines to pay attention to for the coming year. The NBA season, like any other league's, is extremely hard to predict but that's never stopped a fool like me. I'll leave some perilous prognostications at the end.
But first I do want to take a moment - like many NBA fans and members have already done - and mention the passing of Minnesota Timberwolves President and Coach, Flip Saunders, who passed away at the age of 60 after a battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Saunders was born and raised in Cleveland and attended the University of Minnesota, where he was teammates with Mychal Thompson and Kevin McHale. His roommate his freshman year was Tony Dungy. This was a guy that Stephon Marbury looked up to. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said.
The Eastern Conference of Dunces
Yeah, I'm sorry, there's just not much to say. Everyone knows Philly's plan is to literally suck for a couple years until something happens apparently. They are stocking up on young talent but how long before they develop actual stars so they can rise in the East? It won't be this year. They do have some interesting pieces in Tony Wroten, Nerlens Noel, and Kendall Marshall. Also of note, how will Noels and #3 pick Jahlil Okafor play together?
The Detroit Pistons are in the middle of Stan Van Gundy's rebuild. They have Andre Drummond, an exciting young player, but Brandon Jennings is coming off a torn Achille's tendon. 1st round pick Stanley Johnson is said to have NBA ready athleticism and it will be interesting to see what moves Detroit makes.
New York Knickerbockers
It is just too difficult to place the Knicks much higher. They had the worst record in the East last year and frankly I think they could surprise many. If they get more of a semblance of an offense, I think the Knicks made the offseason pickups to really improve from last year's disaster. Arron Afflalo and Jose Calderon are proven commodities on offense. Sideshow Robin is underrated. If Jerian Grant and former 2nd round pick out of Wichita State, Cleanthony Early develop, the Knicks are well on their way to having some solid pieces. Can Kristaps Cornrows contribute this early? Perhaps the bigger question: Can Derek Fisher really coach?
They welcome in new coach and Big Ten legend (on and off the court) Scott Skiles and European legend in the making, Mario Hezonja. Many pundit that Skiles hard-nosed (no pun intended) demanding ways will conflict with Hezonja's hard-nosed arrogance. All we can do is sit back and enjoy. Orlando is still a couple years away but they are getting some nice pieces in place especially if Hezonja is the real deal.
The Charlotte Hornets are supposedly in Playoffs or Bust mode. But with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist out with injury, it's going to take a lot of things going right for Charlotte to advance. The East is getting better. It will be interesting to see if Frank the Tank can produce in today's NBA with his Old School game. Yes, I did that.
I would be very surprised if Brooklyn replicates last year's trip to the playoffs. They have the much better Lopez brother, the most boring max player ever in Joe Johnson, and a couple intriguing European prospects in Bojan Bogdanovic and Sergey Karasev. Lionel Hollins is a damn good coach but this is asking a lot, even in the East.
Those pesky Celtics are being pulled in different directions. For the last few years, Danny Ainge has been stockpiling potential lottery picks in shrewd trades to build up for a run at one of the big free agency prizes becoming available the next couple summers. But Brad Stevens has been coaching his ass off and taking a fairly overachieving talent base to the playoffs. Perhaps they'll continue to improve but my feeling is the Celtics miss out on the playoffs this year. Also, there are rumors they might trade former Ohio State star, Sully Sullinger, this year.
This is all about the return of Paul George after a devastating injury suffered during Team USA play. What's more, team president Larry Bird is moving George to Power Forward or the #4 spot. George has voiced his displeasure so this will be interesting to see how it transpires. Before his injury, George seemed capable of putting a team on his back, becoming one of the budding superstars in the league. The Pacers almost defeated LeBron's Heat. The Pacers are going smaller and have an excellent coach in Frank Vogel. They could surprise.
The Bucks were a surprising 6th seed in the playoffs last year. All that after losing the Number 2 overall pick in the draft early in the season in Jabari Parker. With Parker back, a new psychotic deer logo, and the development of potential superstar, the only 20! Greek Freak, Milwaukee is well on its way to contending...in the future. The Bucks are very young. It will be interesting to see how Greg Monroe fits and how much of a force John Henson can become on both ends of the court.
The Hawks are gonna be good, sure. But I don't see the top seed in the East for them. The East is improving and they're getting better, faster than the Hawks are. It's great that they play basketball the right way but there's a few other teams that do as well.
This almost seems a little too high for Toronto. Winter is coming, tis true, but will the Raptors have what it takes in the Spring to get to the conference finals? Kyle Lowry has been straight owning preseason. He has lost a lot of weight and is vowing to take the next step. The Raptors go as far as he does. If Jonas Valanciunas takes a big step, watch out.
Washington Basketball Team
The Wizards are just not good enough to truly contend. John Wall is great and getting better. Bradley Beal can become a big time star in the next couple years and Otto Porter Jr started finding a positive role. Washington didn't really seem to do too much to get over the next step to really battle with the teams ahead of them. Once Kevin Durant comes to town though, everything changes.
This is nothing really more than I believe in Pat Riley. I'm convinced he wants the dramatic ending to his brilliant career that will finally cause Hollywood to cast Al Pacino in a biopic as it was always meant to be. If Pat Riley wasn't playing the role of Coach Tony D'Amato from Any Given Sunday in LA, he was running New York and Miami like Michael Corleone. To Cleveland fans, I'm sure he'd be John Milton from The Devil's Advocate (Spoiler Alert: He was the Devil). The Heat will have a healthy superstar in Chris Bosh, a top 8 point guard in Goran Dragic, and Dwyane Wade with something to prove. With Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow, the Heat can gain some defensive swagger.
Just like last year, the Bulls are the Cavs' biggest competition. In fact, they open against each other on Opening Night. Chicago has a new coach in Fred "The Mayor" Hoiberg, a former NBA player. He's already made a controversial decision by deciding to start Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol together, meaning Joakim Noah will be coming off the bench. Noah seems like a team player and will accept his role but who's gonna play defense? Can Derrick Rose come back yet again from injury? His is a tragedy so far but perhaps he can still re-write the ending.
LeBron has all the power and he is all in. The Cavs will have an estimated luxury tax of 65-70 million dollars this year, the 2nd highest total ever. Everyone is hoping it is all worth it*. Barring injury (a very real concern), it should be. At least to get back to the Finals. Kevin Love is returning from injury, Iman Shumpert should be out until January, and Kyrie maybe longer than that. The Cavs switched out LeBron's older friends for a couple slightly younger ones in the offseason, but the main thing is the Cavs kept all the important pieces from last year, overpaying Tristan Thompson in the process (LeBron - 1, Gilbert - 0). With the energy and goofy moxie that Andy Varejao will bring back this year, this Cavs team will be a lot better than last year (when they ended the season 32-3 when their Big 3 played together).
* I'm also sure there are some schadenfreudenthusiasts who are hoping LeBron is just petty enough that this is some drawn out revenge play on Dan Gilbert. That would be rich.
Nothing is Quiet on The Western Front
The Nuggets are going to have to build through the draft. I don't see this rag tag group doing too much in this year's Western Conference. They are in good hands with new coach Mike Malone but it will take some time to build around rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay.
Portland Trail Blazers
LaMarcus Aldridge left via free agency and that pretty much ends any hopes Rose City had. Dame Lillard is still out of this world but he'll find more solace in the rap songs he's putting out to good reviews than the passes he'll be trying to make to Mason Plumlee and Chris Kaman.
The Suns made a run at the playoffs last year but fell well short. They seemed like a team that gave up on the original plan when they got rid of point guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. The Suns are going to need some young players like T.J. Warren to step up if they want to improve this year. I don't think they have the talent to really make waves.
Dallas has a good head coach and a quandary. They have a top 7 protected 1st round pick they owe to Boston as part of the Rajon Rondo trade that was pretty much a disaster for them They have the talent, especially if Wesley Matthews can return from his Achilles rupture in great shape, to contend for the 8th spot. I'm not holding my breath for a strong season from Dallas. Not the greatest way for Dirk to go out especially after losing out so dramatically on DeAndre Jordan.
Los Angeles Lakers
This should be the final swan song for probably one of the 5 best basketball players of all time and I'm pretty sure this isn't how he envisioned it. It was an absolute joy to watch Kobe to play over the years but all signs point to him being a shadow of his former self. The struggle will be watching him try to prove night in and night out that he's still better than LeBron. The Lakers have some enticing pieces for future free agents in All-Rookie 1st Team Jordan Clarkson, #2 pick in the draft D'Angelo Russell, and the #7 pick from last year's draft Julius Randle who's had a strong preseason. It will only be a matter of time before L.A. is relevant again.
This could be the biggest dumpster fire in NBA history or George Karl might somehow have this team contending for the 8th spot. Couple infamous head cases Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins, the latter of which already has beef with the coach (and the former of which has joked about having problems with the coach) and no one really knows how dysfunctional Sacramento may be. They have some good players coming up and a coach that can work wonders.
Minnesota was just struck with the death of their head coach and team president, Flip Saunders. It remains to be seen how the team will respond to this horrible news. Some teams unite and play better, others wallow in the mire. I'm betting on the former although it may take some time. Kevin Garnett could be the veteran influence Saunders envisioned when he traded for him but a healthy Ricky Rubio, in one of his last years to display if he is a bust or not, coupled with the excellent Andrew Wiggins and some strong pieces can have Minny surprising some teams this year.
The Jazz have had a buzz about them this year. The worst team name in professional sports have a lot of interesting young pieces. Rudy Gobert blocks or alters almost as many shots per game as he has nicknames (The Stifle Tower, The French Rejection, The Gobert Report). Former lottery pick Dante Exum, he of the young Kobe comparisons, tore his ACL in August leaving added pressure on the shoulders of Columbus' own Trey Burke. Quin Sndyer might have these guys humming by mid season.
New Orleans Pelicans
This may be a bit high for them but we are entering the Reign of the Brow. Anthony Davis will be a favorite to win the MVP award and the Pels should be in the middle of the playoff race as long as their talented guards can play together. Alvin Gentry should be able to get them ready.
The Rockets lost the wildly inconsistent Josh Smith but added the speedy but suspect Ty Lawson. I say suspect because of Lawson's many recent run-ins with off the field issues. This should put Patrick Beverly in a better position for his skill set but the Rockets just seem like they'll not make a trip back to the Conference Finals.
Memphis is a better version of Washington in the West. They seem like they are just out of contention but the heart and hustle is the grit and the grind of these Grizzlies. An easy team to root for if not watch. Michael Conley Jr just gets better and the addition of Matt Barnes will just make them a stronger defensive team. This seems like an important year for Memphis' future in that they have to prove how far they can really go. This could be Vinsanity's last year in the NBA.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The only thing anyone wants to know is will this be Kevin Durant's last year in Oklahoma City? Second to that is, will Russell Westbrook leave in 2 years? The answer to both questions is yes, of course (unless they don't). Billy Donovan, formerly of Providence, Florida, and The Brothers McMullen is taking over for Scott Brooks and this should be an upgrade. Russell Westbrook almost willed this team to the playoffs last year without the 2nd best player in the game. Russ and KD can carry Oklahoma City anywhere they really want. They haven't gotten very far without James Harden though so the jury is still out on this team.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers bench improved greatly. They have the talent to surpass both San Antonio and Golden State in wins but the Clippers always seem to struggle at inopportune times. Adding Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson, and Josh Smith could blow up in their face but it probably won't. Pierce can anchor the bench and hold Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith and their ten personalities in check. Keeping DeAndre Jordan was huge but the pressure will be massive to win this year.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs went and did it. They may have solidified their franchise for the next decade by signing Kawhi Leonard to an extension and bringing LaMarcus Aldridge on board from free agency. If there's a real Iron Throne in the NBA, Gregg Popovich has been Tywin Lannistering on it for quite some time. We say this each year and believe it each year but this should be the final hurrah for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Shouldn't it? The Spurs are going to be really good this year and will have learned from last year's missteps. I don't know if there's a better team than them this year.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors put together one of the best statistical seasons of all time last year. I don't think it's likely they'll surpass that this year but I think the culture of the organization that Steve Kerr is trying to instill will call for them to do their damnedest to try.That's why I think Golden State will have the best record in the West coupled with San Antonio's real need to rest some of their players and maybe give up some games in the process. Everyone's seen what Golden State is and sure, they'll need luck to do it, but they should have a good chance of repeating.
Months and months away so these are hasty predictions but here goes.
Eastern Conference: I think Cleveland beats Chicago with an outside chance that Miami falls to Cleveland instead in the Conference Finals.
Western Conference: The Spurs are very much like the Patriots in that over time, you've learned to just bow to their dark side. I see San Antonio beating Golden State or possibly the Clippers to advance to the Finals.
Finals: Cleveland-San Antonio - This is just very difficult to call. The Cavs have more stars in their prime but the Spurs have the system that reigns supreme. The Cavs are younger with the Spurs more prone to injuries and old age but Cleveland is Cleveland and has pretty rotten luck. I think Duncan, Ginobili, and Pops go out in a blaze of glory to end their careers. Next year's always Cleveland's time. As I see it today, I can't pick anyone against the Spurs but Cleveland would be very close. Spurs in 7. Sorry, Bron.