2014-15 Season Preview Part II
Tim Duncan, right, and the San Antonio Spurs are still the team to beat.
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
On Tuesday, I documented the 14 teams destined to miss the postseason (Season Preview Part 1), although I believe three teams - Pelicans, Nuggets and Rockets - are better than some Eastern Conference playoff-bound squads.
Part II - it'll be as good as "Back to the Future II," but not quite "The Godfather: Part II."
16. BROOKLYN NETS
One season ago, I bought big time on the Nets. My bad.
The team actually advanced to the second round of the playoffs as Jason Kidd improved as a coach. Then, he lost his mind, tried to outflank general manager Billy King, ended up as head man of the Milwaukee Bucks. That move, like his failed coup de tat in Brooklyn, was shady and duplicitous because Larry Drew was already the coach.
The Nets shed themselves of a potential headache in the form of Kidd. However, Paul Pierce also bolted Brooklyn for a better deal with the Washington Wizards.
That doesn't leave the cupboard bare for the Nets. Brook Lopez is back after his second major foot surgery in a few years, but, stop traffic, he already sprained his foot in the preseason. Lopez was playing at an All-Star level until the injury and he'll be needed.
Speaking of lower appendages, Deron Williams' ankles are apparently in working shape. Joe Johnson is still wildly overpaid, but still contributes. It's very hard for shooting guards to stop someone as strong as Johnson.
Then there's Kevin Garnett. Most (me, actually) assumed he'd retire when Pierce left town, but he's still around. There's actually a strong group of veterans in Brooklyn.
And I like Lionel Hollins a lot. He left Memphis after guiding the Grizz to the Western Conference Finals mostly because of his dispute with management over analytics. He's a strong coach with great defensive principles.
Problem in Brooklyn is this group hasn't fit well in one season. Lopez should be the man here, but Williams and Johnson make obscene money and have the ball in their hands. It should be better with a second camp under their collective belt and a better leader in Hollins, but this group makes the postseason because a.) eight do in the East, and b.) there's enough offensive talent.
15. ATLANTA HAWKS
If people forgot about Lopez, Al Horford is like that wonderful '80s song you hear during a random trip to the grocery store.
Horford missed 53 games last season and 55 three seasons ago, both because of torn pectoral muscles. What you forgot is that a healthy Horford is a wonderful two-way big man. He can score inside, has a decent mid-range game, plus he's a strong interior defender and decent rim protector. Getting him back is a gigantic improvement.
And Atlanta could use some good news. The Hawks' summer was dominated by racism from the owner ("too many blacks on the kiss cam") and general manager Danny Ferry, who inexplicably read a scouting report of Luol Deng which claimed he had some "African in him." Ferry is still away from the team, so there's disarray.
On the court, the Hawks have been mired in the eternal purgatory known as a subpar, but good enough to make the playoffs, Eastern Conference team. That's never good.
The Hawks have Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll in the starting lineup. There bench consists of solid pieces like Thabo Sefalosha, Elton Brand, Pero Antic and Mike Scott, a personal favorite of mine. I loved Adreian Payne, their first-round pick.
Horford will help, but the Hawks are still stuck in no man's land out East. They are postseason-worthy, but have little chance of advancement unless they get a fifth or sixth seed, which seems high.
14. PHOENIX SUNS
Last season, I ranked them 29th, ahead of only the 76ers. What a doofus.
The Suns narrowly missed a playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference, but they will get over that hump this season. Isaiah Thomas was their big free- agent move, which made sense to hedge their bet if Eric Bledsoe didn't return. He did, so Phoenix has the best backcourt depth in the league.
They also ooze athleticism, but in a good way. They ranked in the top 10 in scoring, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Offensively, the Suns are very good.
Defensively, Phoenix was 21st in opponents' scoring, but 14th in opponents' field-goal percentage and second in opponents' 3-point percentage. That's sort of a weird balance.
So, the Suns can play defense. What makes them different than say a Mike D'Antoni team that would run up and down the floor is, this Suns squad does it because no one can match up with their athletes.
Thomas, Goran Dragic, Bledsoe, the Morris twins, P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green, Zoran Dragic, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis, even Miles Plumlee is a decent enough athlete. This team is put together to compete and run and defend.
Their style will win some ball games, but isn't built to compete in the postseason. Jeff Hornacek was great last season at maximizing his roster's talents and it should be more of the same. They have some interesting pieces to possibly move if a star became available because that's the only thing separating Phoenix from being a fringe contender.
This team may not lead the league in opponents' scoring, but they'll lead in the league in most times getting an opponent to vomit on the bench due to sheer exhaustion.
13. CHARLOTTE HORNETS
They have a gritty defensive team, anchored offensively by a great low-post scorer, a throwback in a sense, named Al Jefferson. They feature a woefully underrated point guard in Kemba Walker, then some other pieces.
Until Lance Stephenson came to town.
Stephenson is a stat sheet marvel, who is also a defensive presence and a big- game performer. He played on winning teams with the Indiana Pacers and can teach these Hornets how to take a step forward.
Also, worth mentioning, he is, as Liz Lemon from "30 Rock" once said, "staunchly in favor of Coco-Puffs."
That on-going internal battle for Stephenson's mind and soul determines the Hornets' fate this season. Good crazy is fine. That's intensity and passion. Bad crazy is not. Stephenson has been bad crazy at times, including last season's East Finals against the Miami Heat. Remember when he blew on LeBron's face? You do. But you don't remember his pressure defense that turned games in Indiana's favor.
Stephenson can be the next piece in the Hornets' puzzle. A nucleus of Jefferson/Stephenson/Walker/Gerald Henderson/Noah Vonleh/Cody Zeller/Michael Kidd-Gilchrist/Marvin Williams/Gary Neal/P.J. Hairston is very good. It's not a championship contender, but it's good enough to contend for a home playoff series.
There are a few things that need to happen for Charlotte.
Stephenson has to be smart about his craziness. Kidd-Gilchrist needs to develop a jump shot, or possibly lose rotation minutes. Jefferson needs to stay healthy. Same for Walker. The bench needs to produce. Zeller and Vonleh, who will miss time at the start of the season and could be in danger of never getting his spot back, need to help out.
Enough should happen to make Charlotte a tough team every night.
12. MIAMI HEAT
Losing LeBron James is like getting punched in the solar plexus by an elephant. Then it's like getting stomped in the nether region by same elephant.
But Pat Riley did a nice job in rebuilding the roster with James gone.
Luol Deng is LeBron-lite. He scores in a variety of ways, rebounds and defends. He just doesn't do them at the same level James does, nor is a quarter of the playmaker James is.
Josh McRoberts has a niche and can shoot.
After that, Riley brought most of the same players back.
Chris Bosh is overpaid. We can all agree on that, although I defend him more than most because I think he completely changed his game to benefit the Heat. Do I think Bosh wants to bang on the blocks with bigger guys every night? Heck no. Do I think he can still be a No. 1 scorer on a good team? Yes, a good team, not a great one.
And that's what Miami is now in the absence of LeBron. They'll be good. They'll make the playoffs and I see a little of the Boston Celtics when the Big Three was dying in this Heat incarnation. They'll be the team no one really wants to face in the postseason with their experience and pedigree.
It all hinges on Dwyane Wade.
He missed 28 games during the regular season in 2013-14 and still didn't look great in the postseason with all of that down time. Wade can't miss that kind of time this go-around or Miami will sink. James isn't there to bail the franchise out and, without any knowledge, I believe that wore on James. If I could inject James with truth serum, or Jagermeister, I think he'd say that not only playing every game, but having to carry the entire load, was enough.
Wade won't play a full season, so if he misses 12-15 games, the Heat should be fine.
11. TORONTO RAPTORS
The Toronto Raptors are a very good team. They play defense, score in various ways and have a top three backcourt in the league with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They have underrated parts like Amir Johnson and Lou Williams.
They are good and could advance in the postseason. Also, they have a lot of expiring contracts at their disposal, so they could be players at the deadline.
It's a star league. DeRozan was an All-Star last season and is blossoming into a bona fide leader and star. Lowry should've made the All-Star team, but didn't. He stayed on a reasonable contract, however, the old Lowry could have reverted back into a mild headache once he became happy.
Jonas Valanciunas is the biggest key to Toronto's improvement. He can score on the low post and is a very underrated athlete and strong man. His defense will need to improve, but his career arc is trending upward. Valanciunas will become the third star and that's a necessary component for serious success.
The Atlantic Division is the weakest in basketball. Toronto should cruise to a second consecutive title, but the Raptors need to guard against that feeling that the division will be their's no matter what. They aren't quite that good.
10. WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Bradley Beal's wrist injury hurts this team early. When healthy and complete, the Wizards could be really strong.
Beal made the claim he and Wall are the best backcourt in the league. It's debatable and I for one don't agree. Golden State and Toronto have a better claim, but this pair of guards are dynamic. Wall is the fastest player in the league and Beal might become the best shooter in the NBA.
The rest of the roster is built for the long haul.
Paul Pierce was a magnificent signing. He can still score, especially in crunch time and he can teach this group a thing or 12 about winning. That's his main role.
Nene and Marcin Gortat are fantastic big men with swagger and skill. The bench has been bolstered with the signing of Kris Humphries (who is hurt) and the acquisition of DeJuan Blair. Couple those two with Martell Webster and Andre Miller and that's a very solid bench.
Washington is going to have a very good season. Randy Wittman isn't exactly John Wooden, but this roster is built for a season-long trek. It's a very good team, but not one that's better than the Cleveland Cavaliers or Chicago Bulls.
9. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
I admit, I can't be objective about the Grizzlies. I love them.
I love Marc Gasol. He changes games defensively, is one of the two best passing big men in the sport and his basketball IQ is astronomical. To me, Gasol is the best center in the league when healthy. His game is complete.
I love Zach Randolph. He can score inside and out, rebounds ferociously and has come to grips, to an extent, with things he can't control.
I love Mike Conley. He's a top defensive point guard, good facilitator, improved long-range shooter, a wonderful gamer and emerging big-stage performer.
I love Vince Carter. He's been robbed in NBA Sixth Man Award voting in recent seasons as a member of the Dallas Mavericks, but he can still score and shoot from deep.
I love Tony Allen. Who couldn't love the best defensive wing player in the league?
I love Quincy Pondexter. He got hurt early last season right when he was on the precipice of breaking out a bit. He's a shooter. Memphis needs them.
I semi-love Dave Joerger. His public dustup with the organization, then public flirting with the Minnesota Timberwolves job, was unnecessary, but he stayed. He won 50 games his first season with the Grizz and that came with Gasol missing a huge chunk of the schedule. In the Western Conference, that's impressive.
It's not all glorious in Memphis. Courtney Lee needs to prove he's a starting shooting guard in the league and Tayshaun Prince is done. All in all, this is once again a strong group built on reliable means to win games.
8. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
This was a last-second audible. Originally, my crush, the Grizzlies were ahead of the Warriors. Talent is key and Golden State is loaded with talent.
Steph Curry is elite. He's the league's best shooter and his assist number rocketed up to 8.5 per game last season, a full 1.5 per game higher than his previous best season.
Klay Thompson is the key. The Warriors wouldn't part with him in a prospective deal for Kevin Love. That's high praise and it may bit them in the fanny. Love and Curry running pick and pops would be diabolical.
But Thompson, along with Denver's Kenneth Faried, really emerged as pleasant surprises on the grand scale of this summer's World Cup. Thompson was largely regarded as a shooter with decent playmaking skills. His defense is top-notch and that should be used by new head coach Steve Kerr.
He, too, is something of a wild card. Kerr has no previous head coaching experience. He did play significant periods of his career under Phil Jackson, who he jilted very publicly when he turned down his offer to coach the New York Knicks, and Gregg Popovich, who he probably didn't jilt at all.
Kerr inherited a strong, but incomplete roster. The first five - Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and David Lee - is talented. Thompson, Iguodala and Bogut are great defenders and the Warriors were one of the league's best defensive squads. Lee and Curry can score easily.
Depth is a little bit of an issue, but the Shaun Livingston signing was smart. He can provide much-needed relief at either backcourt spot. Livingston is tough and with Draymond Green (a top-five agitator in the league), Marreese Speights (a top-five chucker in the league) and Festus Ezeli, the group is not horrid.
The other big bench piece is Harrison Barnes. Former coach Mark Jackson dropped him from the starting lineup when the team signed Iguodala before last season. Kerr needs to keep Barnes engaged.
If Kerr is great immediately, the Warriors will be tough. They still seem to miss something come playoff time. It might be intensity or toughness, but Golden State is still loaded and its sneaky-good defense, assuming Kerr emphasizes it, should be enough to flirt with a top-four seed out west.
7. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
The Blazers seemingly came out of nowhere last season. They advanced to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs and have two big-time studs, a great start for any team.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are both All-Stars. They're also not afraid of the stage. A contending team can be built around this pair.
Wesley Matthews is very good. Niclas Batum might be better than very good and Robin Lopez is a serviceable big.
Problem for Portland is, this starting unit is excellent, but the bench stinks. Aldridge, Lillard and Batum finished in the top 20 in minutes played last season. The Blazers' bench finished dead last in points per game and minutes per game.
Add here's why Portland can't be ranked any higher - the Blazers didn't significantly improve the unit. Chris Kaman and Steve Blake are pros, but not enough of an upgrade to matter.
At some point, the Blazers' second unit is going to kill them, or one of the starting five will collapse from exhaustion.
6. DALLAS MAVERICKS
This team had the best offseason short of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Acquiring Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons will help this team tremendously in different ways.
Chandler will be the defensive anchor, like he was on the Dallas title team of 2011. He still can protect the rim and run the defense from inside the lane.
Parsons will get a lot of looks from the perimeter. He was a underrated playmaker in Houston and he'll get a chance to be great under a great coach like Rick Carlisle.
Dirk Nowitzki is still a stud. Last season, he averaged 21.7 points per game, and he's indicated he was working on quickening his release, which is terrifying considering he's a 7-footer who shoots the ball from so high up already.
Carlisle is a genius. He got so much more out of Monta Ellis last season than other coaches ever did. Can Carlisle get as much out of Jameer Nelson, who looked decent last season in Orlando? Tough call, but Raymond Felton is also with the Mavericks and Devin Harris can still play some point. He might be the one who's out there in the fourth quarter.
Depth might be an issue for Dallas. Harris, Brandan Wright, Felton, Jae Crowder and Al-Farouq Aminu is not exactly the best second unit in the sport, but in Dirk and Rick we trust.
5. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Kevin Durant's injury is potentially crippling in several ways as I wrote earlier. (Are OKC's title hopes dashed forever?)
Long story short, if the Thunder struggle badly in Durant's absence, they could slip to sixth or seventh in the Western Conference. Yeah, the conference is that good.
That's not to say OKC can't win in that slot in the postseason, but it'll be much harder.
I'm firmly in the camp that believes Oklahoma City will be in trouble without Durant. If you can get past the obvious nature of that statement, I'll elaborate.
Russell Westbrook will be the primary scorer, a role he'll have no qualms about embracing. He's going to shoot the ball a lot. A whole lot. That's going to be tough to get out of his system once Durant returns.
Once Durant does come back, OKC should be just fine. The Thunder will win a lot of games because Durant is just that good. He's not as complete as James, but he's the league's best scorer and his overall game improved during his MVP campaign of last season.
The real problem for the Thunder this season might be that they didn't improve much from last season. Oklahoma City lost out on the Pau Gasol sweepstakes and their big move in the offseason was the signing of Anthony Morrow. He's most likely the starting shooting guard because Sefolosha left for Atlanta.
Reggie Jackson is still going to be the primary two when a game matters, but Kendrick Perkins is on the decline. He's still the starting center. Andre Roberson, Perry Jones or Lance Thomas will replace Durant in the starting lineup.
The Thunder weren't good enough last season and didn't improve. Durant's injury makes them slightly worse this season.
4. CHICAGO BULLS
A healthy Derrick Rose makes the Bulls a title contender. The Derrick Rose of the last two seasons makes the Bulls the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
He looks good on the court. If that is the case, the Bulls are going to be tough every night. Head coach Tom Thibodeau is the best defensive mind in the sport, so you're always going to get a tough draw against Chicago.
There's a reason why I like the Bulls more this season, again, assuming Rose is healthy. They improved.
The Bulls were a mess offensively, especially late in games. Rose will help that, but Chicago also desperately needed more skill on that side of the court and, if a shooter came along, that would be great.
Enter Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic.
Gasol will replace Carlos Boozer and that's a win for the Bulls. Gasol may be oldish, but he put up some decent numbers last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Plus, he's probably over the moon to not have to deal with D'Antoni's system which did not maximize his talents a little bit.
McDermott was acquired in a draft-night trade. He has incredible range. Will he play a lot in the rotation? That remains to be seen, but I hope he does. Great shooters should have a role no matter how bad he is defensively.
Mirotic came from overseas and is a highly skilled big man with handle. Again, does Thibs trust him out of the gate? Hopefully, because if both these men play, the Bulls are legit 10 deep.
Joakim Noah is one of the best defensive players in the league, an incredibly gifted passer and the possessor of the worst-looking jump shot outside my two- year-old.
The Bulls have the correct mix for a championship run. Again, if Rose stays healthy.
3. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers have to be excited about this upcoming season. Not only are they loaded, they don't have the burden of the Donald Sterling nonsense to deal with DURING THE PLAYOFFS, like last season.
Steve Ballmer is the owner and he'd get me excited to eat sushi. The team loves him and, most of all, the fan base is going to love him. They're also going to love this team, but the roster is packed to the gills with talent.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are MVP candidates in a LeBron-less world. They might cancel each other out in voting, but both are deserving.
Paul is the best point guard in the world, an underrated defensive force and angry about how the postseason ended (his mistake).
Griffin is a freak tornado that comes through town. He's improved his range, which was long my problem with his game, and vows to handle things better when other teams push him around to get a rise out of him.
The other biggest problem the Clippers faced last season was a lack of depth behind Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who is in a contract year. Spencer Hawes was signed and he's going to be really effective. He's a great passer and shooter for a big man and he'll back up both players and see a lot of playing time.
Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Glen Davis, Matt Barnes, Reggie Bullock and Jordan Farmar round out the roster. They're a little thin at small forward, but Crawford will play at the end of games.
Doc Rivers is a top-two coach in the league and now that everything is good in Clipper-ville, this team has a very real chance of winning the NBA title.
2. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
LeBron James decided to put the city of Cleveland on his shoulders. He indicated it would take longer than in Miami to win a title, but that was before Kevin Love came to town.
James, Love and Kyrie Irving make the best trio in the league. Defending this team will be a nightmare. Any combination of the three in a pick-and-pop scenario will be impossible to stop.
Imagine Love throwing those amazing outlet passes to a streaking LeBron. Oof.
The Cavs aren't perfect. Love and Irving have never been in the spotlight, nor have they ever been in the playoffs. Those are both reasonable concerns. Thank goodness LeBron is there to lead them.
Also, depth is an issue in Cleveland. Anderson Varejao is the starting center, but hasn't played near a full season since 2009-10. Dion Waiters has been a combustible element for his whole career. Mike Miller is so-so.
I loved the Shawn Marion signing and maybe he could play in a small lineup with Love and James.
There's also the fact that David Blatt has never been a head coach in the NBA. His first gig is with the traveling circus and expectations are staggering in Cleveland.
But the Cavs have earned the preseason adulation. They are extremely potent on offense. They will have issues on defense because James, Marion and maybe Tristan Thompson are good defensively.
It all won't matter since James is so clearly at the top of his game. No matter what team he signed with would have become a contender, except for Philadelphia. The team bolstered the roster with the Love trade and should be the best team in the East.
For a team with so many mild question marks, having James as the leader means the world. He makes everything better. He's handled everything in his career, from mild adversity, inexperienced head coach and suffocating expectations.
1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Take the defending champions, who embarrassed the Big Three in stunning fashion, add very little, take away nothing, and you have the best team in the sport.
The Spurs' biggest summer move was Tim Duncan staying active. Tony Parker signed a contract extension. Manu Ginobili skipped the World Cup to heal a stress fracture in his leg.
Kawhi Leonard is fresh off a Finals MVP and ready for a max deal. Boris Diaw, the revelation of the Finals with his passing skills, re-upped.
The only bad thing is that Patty Mills, the electrifying guard off the bench, will miss a few months with a shoulder injury. Other than that, nothing hideous happened to the defending champs.
Admittedly, motivation might be hard for a group that won five titles in 16 years. The spark for last season's title came from the heart-wrenching loss in the previous Finals.
The motivation comes from Gregg Popovich - the master and commander.
Pop is the best in the world. He's the best professional coach in sports. He tweaked the starting lineup in the Finals and pummeled the Heat. He gave Leonard a pep talk and he won MVP. If motivating this self-starting group was ever to be an issue, Pop would make sure it wasn't.
When you don't mess with greatness, you stay great. The Spurs are greatness.