The Nowhere Plans Big Ass NBA Preview – Part 5

The fifth and final part of the Big Ass NBA Preview breaks down how our contributors see the postseason shaking out.
Part 4: East playoff teams
Part 3: East non-playoff teams
Part 2: West playoff teams
Part 1: West non-playoff teams

First round: Miami over Philadelphia, Chicago over Boston, New York over Atlanta, Indiana over Orlando; Oklahoma City over Portland, Dallas over Houston, LA Clippers over San Antonio, Memphis over LA Lakers
Second round: Miami over Indiana, Chicago over New York; Oklahoma City over Memphis, Dallas over LA Clippers
Conference finals: Miami over Chicago; Oklahoma City over Dallas
NBA Finals: Miami over Oklahoma City

First round: Chicago over Philadelphia, Miami over Atlanta, Indiana over New York, Orlando over Boston; Oklahoma City over Denver, Dallas over Memphis, LA Lakers over Portland, LA Clippers over San Antonio
Second round: Chicago over Indiana, Miami over Orlando; Oklahoma City over LA Clippers, Dallas over LA Lakers
Conference Finals: Chicago over Miami, Oklahoma City over Dallas
NBA Finals: Chicago over Oklahoma City

First round: Heat over Indiana, Bulls over Philly, Magic over Hawks, Knicks over Celtics; Thunder over Portland, Mavs over Rockets, Clippers over Lakers, Memphis over Spurs
Second round: Thunder over Memphis; Mavs over Clips; Heat over Knicks, Bulls over Magic
Conference Finals: Thunder over Mavs; Heat over Bulls
NBA Finals: Fuck it, Thunder over Heat

First round: Miami over Philadelphia, Chicago over Boston, New York over Atlanta, Orlando over Indiana; Dallas over Portland, Oklahoma City over Denver, LA Clippers over LA Lakers, Memphis over San Antonio
Second round: Miami over Orlando, New York over Chicago; Memphis over Dallas, Oklahoma City over LA Clippers
Conference Finals: Miami over New York; Oklahoma City over Memphis
NBA Finals: Oklahoma City over Miami

First round: Miami over Milwaukee, New York over Atlanta, Chicago over Indiana, Boston over Orlando; Oklahoma City over Denver, Dallas over Memphis, San Antonio over Portland, LA Clippers over LA Lakers
Second round: Miami over Boston, New York over Chicago; Oklahoma City over LA Clippers, Dallas over San Antonio
Conference Finals: Miami over New York; Oklahoma City over Dallas
NBA Finals: Miami over Oklahoma City

First round: Chicago over Philadelphia, Miami over Atlanta, Boston over New York, Indiana over Orlando; Oklahoma City over Phoenix, Dallas over Portland, LA Lakers over Memphis, San Antonio over LA Clippers
Second round: Chicago over Boston, Miami over Indiana; Oklahoma City over LA Lakers, Dallas over San Antonio
Conference Finals: Miami over Chicago; Oklahoma City over Dallas
NBA Finals: Miami over Oklahoma City

Photo Credit: LM Otero, Associated Press

The Nowhere Plans Big Ass NBA Preview – Part 4

Part 4 of the Big Ass NBA Preview continues with Eastern Conference squads we project to make the posteason.
Part 3: East non-playoff teams
Part 2: West playoff teams
Part 1: West non-playoff teams

Last season: 41-41 (3rd Atlantic, 7th East)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Miami in first round 4-1
Ferg says: The Sixers got into the playoffs last year, actually got people excited for basketball here in eastern Pennsylvania, then pulled off the unthinkable and won a game from the Heat in their playoff series. Mazel Tov. How they got there was their ability to play defense (97.5 points against, 12th in the League) and grind teams to a halt. Elton Brand led the team with 15 PPG and 8.3 boards per game, finally showing his worth for his ridiculous contract and staying healthy the entire season. Igoudala’s 14 PPG still left a lot to be desired, but he continued to be a threat if you left him alone on offense and a strong defensive player (1.5 steals per game). Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams were interchangeable at the point and Spencer Hawes tried to hold down that center spot. All nice players, all serviceable in what the Sixers needed them to do, but no explosiveness from this team, and that’s what really helped make the Sixers’ exit a quick one. Philadelphia does not “wow” you or make you sit down and watch their games with interest… they’re boring. They don’t have a lot of firepower on the offensive end, they were overwhelmed by teams with dominant scoring guards (Celtics, Heat, Bulls, etc.) and they struggled on the road (15-26).

The Sixers must have decided that they were cool with last year’s team, because absolutely nothing has changed. Only guy that left? Jason Kapono. New guys? Rookies Nikola Vucevic and local boy Lavoy Allen. So, the Sixers shored up their front court with the rookie additions of those two, but we’ll see what impact they can have. Allen was a great player for Temple, a strong offensive player down low who could also crash the boards. Vucevic is the first-round draft pick from Switzerland. Vucevic is the typical European center: Quick feet, finesse inside, good jump shot, etc. Where he lacks is “rebounding and defense” which, as I’m sure you’re aware, are relatively important to the development of a young frontcourt player. Spencer Hawes is still the starting center (but that can and will change any second) and Marreese Speights can back-up both Hawes and Brand. Iggy is obviously the starter at the 3 spot, with Thad Young (underrated bench player and one of the keys to the Sixers’ success) and Andres Nocioni as his backups. Evan Turner is the starting 2-guard for right now ahead of Jodie Meeks, but don’t be surprised to see him split time with Jrue Holiday or Lou Williams, depending on who the Sixers want to throw out at point guard and mix around with. The guards will be important for the Sixers moving forward this year.

Worth watching: For better or worse, Philly has the same team this year that they had last year. So, they didn’t get worse (you’d think) but everyone around them may have gotten better. Look at the playoff teams from last year: Chicago-Miami-Boston-Atlanta-Orlando-New York-Philadelphia-Indiana. Can you really tell me you like the Sixers over any of those teams this year, right off the bat? The Pacers added George Hill and David West; the Knicks added Mike Bibby and Tyson Chandler; hell, even the Bucks snagged Beno Udrih, Steven Jackson and Shaun Livingston. They all (you’d think) improved their positioning, while the Sixers just added two guys and kept the same team. What you need to watch for is whether Allen or Vucevic have any impact on Doug Collins’ team this year. If they can come off the bench strong, maybe supplant Spencer Hawes as the starting centers, this team can get better. The Sixers are in desperate need of someone (paging Andre Igoudala) to step up and be a superstar. Your top scorer averaging 15 points per game will not win you anything, regardless of how balanced you are. The Sixers have no pizzazz, no spice, no flavor. They’re as white and bland as mayonnaise right now. I mean, if you’re cool with the last playoff spot, that’s great, but the Sixers want more than that…right?
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-8, SF-8, DK-7, CL-8, TF-9, JB-8

Last Season: 44-38 (3rd Southeast, 5th East)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Orlando in first round 4-2, lost to Chicago in second round 4-2
Chris says: The Hawks were one of the surprises of last season’s playoffs. Most people expected them to get steamrolled by Orlando in the first round. Not only did Atlanta hang around, they won the series in six. After that, people said they stood no chance against the Bulls, but were even with them through four games before losing in six.

There aren’t many changes between last year’s Hawks team and this year’s squad, but one key departure could really hurt the Hawks. Jamal Crawford left Atlanta to sign a two-year deal with Portland. It’s not often you’d say this about one of the most prolific chuckers in the game, but the Hawks are going to miss him. He provided instant offense off the bench, and was essentially the sixth starter for Atlanta. Outside of Joe Johnson, he was really the only guy on the team capable of taking over the game offensively.

Looking to replace that production, Atlanta went out and signed Tracy McGrady. T-Mac is coming off a season where he played 72 games for Detroit.  It may not seem like much, but it’s the most since his 2004-05 campaign with Houston. As a former McGrady fan, I hope he can stay healthy, but even if he can, he’s over the hill and won’t have the same game-changing ability that Crawford had.

The rest of Atlanta’s improvements will have to come from within, but where exactly does that come from? Joe Johnson has peaked as a player. Maybe he can improve on his awful 30 percent three-point shooting from last year, but even if he does, a drastic improvement isn’t likely. Josh Smith is an exciting player, but like Johnson, it’s not like he’s going to turn into a superstar this season.

Worth Watching: The guys to watch are Al Horford and Jeff Teague. Horford scored a career best 15.3 PPG last season to go along with 9 rebounds. Nothing too exciting, but to his credit, Horford has improved every season and is still at the point in his career where he can get better. Teague will get some serious playing time at the point, which is something a lot of Atlanta fans are excited to see. Teague held his own against league MVP Derrick Rose in the Eastern Semis last year, highlighted by a 21-point, 7-assist, no-turnover performance in Game 5. If he can perform at a high level for the entire season, Atlanta could turn into another surprise in the playoffs.

Interestingly enough though, Atlanta’s fate is probably tied to that of Dwight Howard. If Orlando deals Howard before the season, then the Hawks have a good chance to finish second in the division. If the Magic decide to roll the dice and keep him in hopes they can put together a run this year, then Atlanta is bound for third. Either way, they’ll be a playoff team with enough talent to at least make some of the top teams in the conference pay attention.
NOWHERE PLANS Says: JD-6, SF-7, DK-6, CL-6, TF-7, JB-7

Last Season: 56-26 (1st Atlantic, 3rd East)
2011 Playoffs: Beat New York in first round 4-0, lost to Miami in second round 4-1
Ferg says: The Celtics, built on experience, tenacity and an ability to play with unbelievable consistency in the playoffs, finally slowed down and bowed out to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat last year. Throughout the regular season, Boston had uncharacteristic struggles on the road (Just 23-18) and suffered from inconsistent play the whole year. One night, you’d see Paul Pierce (19 PPG) and Ray Allen (44.4 percent from three) step it up to another level, and others you’d see the guys in green struggling to find their identity. The Shaquille O’Neal experiment failed miserably, and the Celtics inexplicably traded away one of their key cogs (Center/Forward/Big Man Kendrick Perkins) along with Nate Robinson to get back Jeff Green (3-guard with slash-ability), who’s a great player, but would not help the Celtics down low. Rajon Rondo averaged a STUPID 10.6 points and 11.2 assists per game, along with 2.25 steals per game to prove his worth on both sides of the ball. Rondo’s breakout season helped keep the shaky Celtics afloat, along with their obvious star power in Pierce, Allen and Garnett.

This year, the Celtics got an upgrade (in my humble opinion) with the swap of Glen Davis and Brandon Bass. “Big Baby” had run his course and had started to fade. Bass, who doesn’t necessarily have the finesse or athleticism of Davis, can still move without the ball, create space for himself and also provide a bit more of a reliable backup for when Garnett gets gassed. JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore add some much needed depth at the forward and guard positions, respectively. The Big 3 are another year older, and I would believe this might be their last run at a championship. Garnett’s legs don’t have much left, Allen is one bad ankle sprain from hobbling up and down, and I swear to God Paul Pierce looks drunk every time he dribbles/shoots/does a basketball-related move. That being said, when those three Hall of Famers are on (and more often than not, they’re on), you can never count the Celtics out, especially if Rondo has himself another ridiculous year dropping dimes. Celtics should be the third or fourth best team in the East once again, and a dark horse to get to the Finals.

Worth Watching: There’s a lot of things worth watching with this team, namely these big three questions: 1) Can Jermaine O’Neal stay healthy? 2) Can the rookies (Johnson and Moore) have an immediate impact? 3) How will this 66-game condensed season affect the Celtics? After the unfortunate loss of Jeff Green for the season (his unknown ailment required heart surgery; here’s hoping for a speedy recovery for the young player), health is going to be tantamount for the Celtics this year, and that third question becomes the most important, as a result. There’s a few instances with Boston playing three games in four days, six games in eight days, etc., and even a stretch in April where the Celts play five games in six days…that’s not good for the old legs that just got an extended break. What Boston needs is more depth, particularly at the center spot (O’Neal and Chris Wilcox are the only ones on the depth chart at the moment). Johnson may be able to fill that role, but relying on a rookie to be that sixth or seventh man off the bench at the center position (or maybe even start depending on what happens with O’Neal) is a tall order. With Green gone for the year, the Celtics need to find a good 2-/3-guard to help on the bench/score, because I’m not sure Sasha Pavlovic, Marquis Daniels and Keyon Dooling will do anything for this team as the season progresses.
NOWHERE PLANS Says: JD-7, SF-5, DK-5, CL-7, TF-4, JB-6

Last season: 37-45 (2nd Central, 8th East)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Chicago in first round 4-1
Josh says: It’s been a hard, long slog, but the Indiana Pacers are relevant again. Whether this team is of championship caliber is unimportant; the gates at Conseco Fieldhouse are rusting. The team Larry Bird has constructed will get bodies in the building and make life hell on its opposition. Hustle basketball without off-court incident is the sort of thing that Hoosiers love, and that’s what this deep, young team is set up to provide.

After Bird cleaned house by sending Metta World Peace nee Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson to the Warriors for Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy Jr. in 2008, the Pacers became known for their whiteness and little else. Drafting Tyler Hansbrough in 2009 before addressing the team’s pressing need for a point guard only added to the perception that the Hick from the Lick was sacrificing talent for “character.” Indiana had one championship-quality starter, in Danny Granger, and a whole bunch of bad contracts.

Now, the Pacers are shopping for luxury items–a shot creating 2-guard, a decent sixth big. Bad contracts were left to expire (Dunleavy) or turned into assets and picks (Murphy for Darren Collison, Jermaine O’Neal for Roy Hibbert). This offseason, Bird used his cap space to trade a middling pick in a bad draft for George Hill, a hometown boy and a rotation player on a good team, and acquired All-Star power forward David West on a relatively risk-free two-year deal. Last year’s first rounder, Paul George, is a 6-foot-10 talent who did a decent job on Derrick Rose in last year’s playoffs and has T-Mac upside. Hansbrough proved he could score and rebound (his own misses) last year, and will be that rarest of species, a scoring reserve big man. Jeff Foster returns to rebound at an absurd rate and get under opposing fans’ skin. Hibbert could take a leap into top-5 center territory, but even if the youth development goes nowhere, the Pacers will be in the playoffs under Frank Vogel.

Worth watching: Paul George is everywhere on defense, and if his potential is as advertised the Pacers could be looking at that elusive small-market, homegrown superstar. Darren Collison first showed his adeptness for the pick-and-roll/pop with West in New Orleans; reuniting them could provide a late game scoring option they lacked in the close playoff losses to the Bulls last year, while taking pressure off Granger. Most importantly, this team will hustle, refuting that ever-present criticism of NBA action–that no one tries.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-5, SF-6, DK-8, CL-5, TF-6, JB-5

Last season: 52-30 (2nd Southeast, 4th East)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Atlanta in first round 4-2
Chris says: Well, I could probably write a 25-page article on this team, but I’ll do my best to keep it as brief as possible. Orlando had a disappointing exit from the playoffs last season, getting upset by Atlanta in six games. Dwight Howard was phenomenal, but the rest of the team couldn’t hit a jump shot to save their lives. The series ended fittingly with J.J. Redick missing a wide open three in the closing seconds of the deciding game.

Unless you live under a rock (in which case, how are you reading this article on the internet?) you know this season is all about Dwight Howard. Howard could have been MVP last season, if everyone hadn’t decided in December that they were giving it to Derrick Rose. Howard is an elite rebounder and shot blocker, and last season he finally became a force on the offensive end. He averaged a career best 22.9 points, but it wasn’t how much he scored, but how he scored. Howard’s post moves were noticeably improved, making him an even tougher matchup for a league that’s lacking quality big men.

The problem with Orlando isn’t Howard, but his supporting cast. It’s the reason why Howard wants to get out of town. But the thing is, the rest of the team isn’t that bad. Inconsistent? Absolutely. Jameer Nelson is an accurate shooter and an underrated penetrator. He’s not a traditional point guard, but it’s not a traditional system, so Nelson is a decent fit. J.J. Redick has worked hard to dispel the myth that he was only a college star, as he scored a career best 10.1 points coming off the bench last season. Ryan Anderson might be the most exciting player on the team after Howard. The 7-footer is a lethal shooter and a better rebounder than you’d expect considering he’s a perimeter player on offense.

Not a lot of moves for Orlando this off-season. They re-signed Jason Richardson to a four-year deal. They waived Gilbert Arenas using the amnesty clause to get his contract off the books. They traded Brandon Bass for Big Baby Davis. This move is pretty much a wash, except for the fact that Howard and Davis are close friends, and Baby was on Howard’s wish list of players for Smith to go out and get.

Worth watching: This season could go one of two ways. If Howard stays this season and they run their offense they way it should be run, Orlando could still be a threat to win it all this season. Howard has grown to the point where it’s almost impossible for someone to shut him down for an entire game. A lot was made of how well Atlanta played defensively in that playoff series, but the reality is Orlando missed a ton of wide open shots. Shots they wanted to have. When they run the offense through Howard and create space for their shooters, they are almost impossible to beat. I honestly believe that if the Magic brings their A-game, they can beat any team in the NBA in a seven-game series.

While the boom potential is there, so is the bust potential. Howard could get traded mid-season. If he does, it’s lights out for the Magic. The system is built around Howard on offense and defense. The one-in, four-out offense doesn’t work with any other center in the league. Brook Lopez or Andrew Bynum wouldn’t demand the same defensive attention that Howard does. Defensively, it’s unbelievable what Howard does. Look at last year’s roster. Is there anyone other than Howard you would say is even above-average defensively? Absolutely not. Yet they are consistently one of the top defensive teams in the league solely because of Howard’s presence in the middle. So it will be interesting to watch to say the least. NBA champs, lottery team and everything in between are all possible for the Magic this season.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-4, SF-4, DK-3, CL-4, TF-5, JB-4

Last season: 42-40 (2nd Atlantic, 6th East)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Boston in first round 4-0
Ferg says: The Knicks made a big splash last year when they sold their house to Denver to grab Carmelo Anthony to try to pair him with Amaré Stoudemire. The hope was that those two, alongside “Mr. Big Shot” Chauncey Billups, would push the Knicks back into the playoffs and into darkhorse contention for the conference championship. Well, part of that came true. ‘Melo and company got back to the playoffs, but they were summarily dumped right back out in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Celtics. The Knicks had no problem scoring on teams last year (second in the league at 106.5 PPG) but had trouble playing defense (105.7 points against) and only grabbed 40 rebounds per game (20th in the league), which isn’t bad, but is a middling number. The Knicks had a lot of feel-good stories last year in their resurgence: The rookie Landry Fields, Danilo Gallinari becoming a legitimate three-point and scoring threat and Toney Douglas providing a lot of depth at the guard spot. Also gotta love the hidden gem, Wilson Chandler, who averaged over 15 PPG and became a great third scoring option for Billups to find throughout the year. Only two of those players return to this year’s edition. I think where the Knicks stuggled for consistency was the frontcourt, where Stoudemire and a cast of characters (Timofey Mosgov, Ronny Turiaf, Shelden Williams, Baloo from the Jungle Book, etc.) at the 5-spot tried to hold serve. That ended up being a big problem for the Knicks. Dominant centers/teams that could trot four athletic guards/forwards out there and create a mismatch at center (Boston) really took care of any issues the Knicks could present.

New York has made significant strides in trying to prevent that from happening again, and look to actually be a pretty impressive bunch. Take, for example, the addition of Tyson Chandler via free agency. The starting center from last year’s NBA champions? Sure…they’ll take that. Tyson’s presence immediately provides a strong rebounding presence down low, a great active defender and a pretty decent help defender to boot. Chandler’s athleticism can change the game on defense if someone breaks free to the basket: He can block shots pretty well. Chandler is also a center that can move without the basketball. He can’t shoot very well, but get him the ball down low and he’ll get to the basket. He’s an emotional guy and he’s got playoff experience.

Another big addition was Mike Bibby at the point guard spot to replace the loss of Chauncey Billups via the new amnesty clause. Another veteran player, Bibby, much like ‘Melo and STAT, is hungry for an elusive NBA title, and can there be anyone more motivated than the guy who was on the Kings during their epic early millennium battles with the Lakers? Bibby has struggled since then, playing well in Atlanta before falling off the horse and not showing much fight in Miami. Bibby still has the talent and is a great passing point guard.

Draft pick Iman Shumpert out of Georgia Tech will be a nice addition defensively and, if D’Antonio’s track record with rookies is any indication, he’ll get some significant playing time. Shumpert is the prototypical Yellow Jacket: Ridiculously athletic, strong and quick, but struggles with his shooting and plays somewhat out of control. Shumpert will not be relied upon to score, but he has to take care of the ball to make an impact.

Worth watching: It’s hard to say the Knicks aren’t in the top three of the East right now. ‘Melo and STAT Amaré are two of the premier forwards in the league. ‘Melo has proven time and time again that he can hit a shot from anywhere on the floor, and Stoudemire is once again looking like the young Amaré before microfracture surgery. Biggest thing to watch is the dynamic between Carmelo, Amaré and Chandler. Chandler plays with emotion and, as previously mentioned, has the championship pedigree now. On the outside, this is Carmelo and Amaré’s team, but who takes over and rallies the troops when the going gets tough? Also, can Landry Fields (the projected starting 2-guard right now) continue to play well, or is there a regression coming? Fields is a great slasher to get to the basket and a serviceable shooter, but getting a veteran to back him up (DeShawn Stevenson? Peja Stojakovic?) might be in the Knicks’ best interest. Depth will become a factor for the Knicks, but the starting five of Bibby-Fields-Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler with Shumpert-Jeffries-Douglas-Walker off the bench is a pretty good start for the Knicks. Playoffs are essentially a given. We’ll see what can be done from there.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-3, SF-3, DK-4, CL-3, TF-2, JB-3

Last season: 62-20 (1st Central, 1st East)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Indiana in first round 4-1, beat Atlanta in second round 4-2, lost to Miami in Conference Finals 4-1
Josh says: Barring the arrival of Dwight Howard, the best thing one can say about your 2012 Chicago Bulls is that they can’t be any worse. Winning at a .750 clip and a conference finals trip isn’t shabby, so that’s not any sort of insult. Yet with the Death Star Heat in place and the Knicks and Pacers improving, this is the ceiling.

The Bulls will play defense. Joakim Noah will smoke mad dope and put up 12/15’s on a regular basis. They will fill the United Center (even in the dark days when Eddy Curry was their best player, crowds filled the UC for the LuvaBulls–yes, that’s what they call the cheerleaders–and assorted stoppage-in-play entertainment) and crowds will ooh-and-aww over Derrick Rose. Carlos Boozer will score in double digits and play no defense. Rip Hamilton should provide a reason to not play Keith Bogans, while bringing along his stylish facewear.  Rip and Luol Deng will combine to shoot lots of inefficient 20-footers, the latter ruined from years of Skiles & Del Negro offenses.

Tom Thibodeau might milk a little more improvement out of this roster and a few more steps behind the arc. Omer Asik is an intriguing center prospect. But in 2012, it’s not going to be enough to get over the hump. Boozer isn’t a complete bum in the playoffs (see the first two rounds of 2007), but once matched against any sort of athletic, active front line he becomes a toadstool. He struggled against the Pacers last year, who weren’t exactly throwing prime Ben Wallace at him, and LeBron can defend him one-on-one.

Rose is a top-tier crunch time scorer, and so the Bulls will beat teams with inferior late game offense (see Pacers and Hawks in last year’s playoffs). But he doesn’t have any last-three-minutes help, and all the Joakim screaming and Kyle Korver three-pointers in the world don’t make up for the lack of another franchise-type guy running alongside. Rose needs at least his Pippen, if he can’t have a Superman, and until that addition happens the Bulls are not a championship squad.

Worth watching: Derrick Rose. This needs no elaboration. For the nerdier among you, Thibodeau earned his head coaching gig with his defensive coordination in Boston; the Bulls are the team to watch if you want to refute your college basketball supremacist friend’s arguments about rotations on D. Asik is the prospect to watch, and has been asked for in every major trade proposal, but as a tweener wing from Marquette, Jimmy Butler could be a sleeper rotation candidate (see Wesley Matthews).
NOWHERE PLANS Says: JD-2, SF-1, DK-2, CL-2, TF-3, JB-1

Last season: 58-24 (1st Southeast, 2nd East)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Philadelphia in first round 4-1, beat Boston in second round 4-1, beat Chicago in Conference Finals 4-1, lost to Dallas in NBA Finals 4-2
Chris says: All the Heat did last season was change the entire landscape of the NBA. Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all deciding they wanted to play together has started a domino effect of other superstars looking to join their own “Big 3’s”. New York got Carmelo and Amar’e, and were hoping to add Chris Paul as the third piece. Dwight Howard wants to team up with Deron Williams in New Jersey. The rich are getting richer in the NBA, which absolutely sucks if you are a fan of any of the 25 non-super teams.

On the court, the Heat got off to a very slow start, and there was talks about whether Pat Riley would take over for Erik Spoelstra. But the Heat got their acts together and were dominant for the second half of the season, ending up as the 2-seed in the playoffs. After dominating the Bulls in the Conference Finals, it looked a done deal that Miami would run the slow, old Mavericks right out of the arena in the NBA Finals. You know how things went from there. The Game 2 collapse. Lebron James doing his best Harry Houdini disappearing act in the fourth quarter. If you’re like me and couldn’t stand Lebron for taking the easy way out and coming to Miami, it was great to watch.

All choking aside, Miami is still a team that should scare everybody. The potential of this team is off the charts. Many teams have one shut-down defender that they can put on the opposing team’s best player. Not many have two, and that’s the big question with the Heat: Who do you try to stop? Either Wade of James is capable of shredding a team’s second best defender. And that’s not even taking Chris Bosh into account. He’s not a superstar like Wade or James, but he’s easily the best third-fiddle in the league.

Once you get past the Big 3 though, Miami is pretty thin. Joel Anthony is still the starting center, which should pretty much tell you everything you need to know about the Heat’s depth. Mike Miller didn’t make the impact the Heat hoped he would have, scoring just 5.6 PPG off the bench. Miami’s fifth and sixth leading scorers last year were Eddie House and Mike Bibby. Yikes. The addition of Shane Battier should help giving Miami a boost off the bench, and makes the Heat that much scarier on defense.

Worth watching: Ultimately, the regular season is pretty unimportant for Miami. They’re going to make the playoffs. They’re going to get a good seed. It’s what they do under the pressure of the postseason that will make or break their season. Can Lebron finally shake off the image of a choker? I almost feel a little bad for the guy. He’s one of the most unique talents ever to play in the NBA. He’s a great scorer, but an even better all-around player. Whether it’s rebounding, running the offense at the point or playing defense, Lebron can do anything you ask him to. But by choosing to come to Miami, he put even more pressure on himself to win a title and until he does, he’s going to have to deal with questions about his ability to come up in the clutch. As we found out in last year’s NBA Finals, the most talented team doesn’t always win. For James and the Heat, they’re hoping this year, the most talented team does.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-1, SF-2, DK-1, CL-1, TF-1, JB-2

Tomorrow: The Nowhere Plans NBA crew unveil their playoff predictions.

The Nowhere Plans Big Ass NBA Preview – Part 3

Part 3 of the Big Ass NBA Preview continues with the Least of the East, seeds 15 through 9.
Part 2: West playoff teams
Part 1: West non-playoff teams

Last season: 22-60 (5th Atlantic, 14th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Ferg says: Basketball in Canada has been pretty dismal the last few years. Three years and no playoff appearances, an abysmal campaign last year (second only to the Cavs in the East, third behind the Timberwolves in the League) and a fall from an okay team to basketball irrelevance. Last year’s team went a brutal 6-35 on the road, giving up nearly 106 points per game and only scoring about 99. Andrea Bargnani (now entering his fifth season) averaged a cool 21.5 PPG, with 5.1 boards a night as well. Bargnani is a center with impressive range on his jumper and great athleticism, but he needed help last year to even make the Raptors competitive. DerMar DeRozan averaged a little over 17 PPG last year and is a great slasher who can get to the basket. He’s been a nice little surprise for Toronto, and he can only improve. His distance shooting (less than 9 percent from three) left a lot to be desired last year. Leandro Barbosa is on the Raptors, I had no idea. Shows how far he’s fallen. The guy who was once the big X-factor for those Suns teams in ‘06, ‘07 and ‘08 is wasting away on a 22-win Raptors team. The rest of the squad from last year is a who’s who cadre of role players shoved into starting spots where they don’t belong: Linas Kleiza, Jose Calderon, James Johnson, Jerryd Bayless, etc. The Raps had trouble shooting from distance (31.6 percent as a team) and suffered from bad guard play and a lack of muscle inside. They won 22 games out of a possible 82, what more do you want me to say about last year?

The Raptors were very active in free agency, but the jury is still out on whether or not these moves will considerably improve the pride of Toronto. This year’s team returns the starting five of Calderon-DeRozan, James Johnson, Amir Johnson, Bargnani and the addition of Anthony Carter (PG), Rasual Butler (SG) and Aaron Gray (PF/C) should provide some depth to a thin Raptors team. Carter is a journeyman point that has been on a few teams in his time (the Raptors are team number six) and he has been the backup on some pretty good teams that went into the playoffs and made some moves (Denver Nuggets of 2008-2010), so it’s clear Carter has the experience that, quite frankly, the Raptors lack. I like the Gray pickup. He may not be the most skilled (career 3.6 points per game) at scoring, but he’s a different player from Bargnani and he’s still young and developing. Gray is a big presence and can be relied upon to spell Amir Johnson or Bargnani and grab rebounds. He’s physical, which the Raptors need. Along with Carter, Jerryd Bayless will be backing up Jose Calderon, and if his April was any indication as to what’s to come, Bayless may prove to be valuable to the Raptors down the road. Jerryd averaged 22.5 points last April, seeing his minutes per game double from 20 to almost 40. Bayless is a great young player with plenty of potential. With Barbosa coming off the bench/starting on back-to-backs on the road, I think the guard spots for Toronto has stabilized.

Worth watching: Let’s be honest right now, the Raptors will not be making the playoffs this year, or at least not without monumental collapses out in front of them. That being said, the Raptors are young in a lot of positions, so they should be fun to watch if they can start to gel. Something you need to look out for with this team is the development of Bayless as a scorer. As I’ve said, this team lacks a serious three-point threat outside of Bargnani, who can and will hit the three, but is much more effective for the team’s success if he’s around the rim. James Johnson and Amir Johnson (no relation) both need to continue to improve, particularly Johnson’s scoring ability. Expect Toronto to be frisky and streaky this season, but they’ll more often than not look like bottom-feeders in the Eastern Conference.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-15, SF-14, DK-14, CL-14, TF-13, JB-14

Last season: 34-48 (4th Southeast, 10th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Chris says: 2010-2011 was certainly a disappointing season for those following the Bobcats. After making it to the playoffs as a 7-seed the year before, Charlotte stumbled out of the gates to the tune of a 9-19 start. Out went head coach Larry Brown and in came interim Paul Silas. The team seemed to respond to Silas, which earned him the permanent coaching position.  Still, Charlotte finished the season well out of the playoffs with a 34-48 record.

This year might be another step back for the Bobcats. Their two leading scores from last year (Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace) are no longer with the team; same for the top two rebounders (Wallace and Kwame Brown). That in itself isn’t bad, but the problem is that Charlotte really didn’t acquire anybody to replace that production. Corey Magette was a part of the deal that sent Captain Jack to Milwaukee, but Magette is 32 and coming off one of his worst seasons in nearly a decade.

Worth watching: If there’s one thing to be excited about with Charlotte, it’s the young backcourt. Point guard D.J. Augustin is poised for a breakout season. The fourth-year player from Texas averaged a career best 14.4 points and 6 assists last season for the Bobcats, and that was with Jackson and Wallace ahead of him in the pecking order. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I think Augustin comes close to being a 20-point, 8-assist guy this season.

The other big storyline heading into the season revolves around Charlotte’s first round draft pick Kemba Walker. The 9th overall selection is coming off an iconic run to the NCAA Championship with UConn. Walker is a fearless shooter and, in addition to being a prolific scorer, he was a clutch one too. Much like Augustin, Walker won’t have too much competition for shots, and could very well be the second or third scoring option when he’s on the floor. Walker should be in the mix for Rookie of the Year this season.

Unfortunately for Charlotte, the individual prospects for some of its players seem to be more exciting than the team’s prospects. The East is getting stronger and Charlotte is getting weaker. The Bobcats should have their hands full with staving off an up-and-coming Washington team for the fourth spot in the division.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-13, SF-13, DK-15, CL-12, TF-15, JB-15

Last season: 19-63 (5th Central, 15th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Josh says: The Cavs have young talent and a proven coach. This is not enough to hope for much winning in the next year or three, but if owner Dan Gilbert can avoid getting his team contracted for overuse of Comic Sans in bitchy e-mails, the Cavs have a sort-of plan. Byron Scott  will get the opportunity to show if he can nurture a star point guard in Kyrie Irving, after having success with Chris Paul and Jason Kidd.  Scott will also get the opportunity to show if he’s a flexible sort of guy, after his last season with the Hornets was marred by accusations of crappy-veteran bias. After using their amnesty on Baron Davis, Cleveland only boasts one overpaid, yet competent veteran in Antawn Jamison and a maybe-tradeable big in Anderson Varejao. Scott will have to play the young guys, but it remains to be seen if he’ll let them run.

He should encourage a fast pace, because this team is born to run. Cleveland’s two top-5 draft picks, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, are good in the open floor. And they’re like 19, so let them get the chucking out of their system now.  With the competent if unimpressive BOOBIE Gibson and Ramon Sessions in the backcourt, ballhandling shouldn’t be awful. Jamison was at his best in the Golden State run and gun days, and the Cavs will be starting the NBA’s current pride of Israel, Omri Casspi, a wing with a European-flavored game. Byron Scott does not run (although he does appear to be a coach that gets offensive efficiency out of his teams). They might as well, though, because they’re gonna be real bad on defense.

Goofy and awkward Golden Domer Luke Harangody might get 15 minutes a game, still. They’re gonna be bad on defense.

Worth watching: Uhh, free throw rate? The Cavs are a pure upside watch, and Kyrie Irving, has plenty of it at the game’s current premier position. Second-year Michigan man Manny Harris, blessed with good size at  the 2 and a decent touch beyond the arc, seems like the quintessential candidate for a 12-team, 15-year career: The journey begins here. If Scott lets them run, Cleveland should be a sneaky good watch against other offense-heavy young units. Wiz-Cavs should be fun games.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-14, SF-15, DK-13, CL-15, TF-11, JB-13

Last season: 30-52 (4th Central, 11th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Josh says: Sometime after the Pistons’ 2004 Larry Brown Team Basketball championship, Joe Dumars hit his head on the GM competency ceiling. We should remember that this is the man who drafted Darko over Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, but his nightlight never burned brighter than in the afterglow from that feel-good title. It was the reinvention of Team, over the Me-Mes of Kobe & Shaq; even Sheed got his act together enough to participate. Give Dumars credit for putting together a title-winning core with no bona fide top-10 superstar, something that hadn’t happened since the original Bad Boys. Give him credit for milking the last half season of high-post brilliance out of Chris Webber in ’06-’07. Give LeBron credit for breaking the Pistons apart with 25 straight points in Game 5 of the 2007 Conference Finals.

But shame on Mr. Dumars for trying to rebuild a team “on the fly” without any sort of centerpiece to the operation. When you have a championship core sans-superstar(s), building another core of the same caliber takes some tough decisions. It doesn’t mean spending $80-odd million of cap space on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva’s blinding dome. It doesn’t mean signing your marginal All-Star point guard to a big deal and then trading him for a 30-something Allen Iverson. What a rebuild, on the fly or not, certainly does not mean is hiring your third head coach in four seasons after two straight years in the lottery, and THEN re-upping for four years with Tayshaun Prince with young depth at his position. As of this writing, it was unclear if the very definition of solid-combo-guard-with questions, Rodney Stuckey, was going to get overpaid by Dumars, or if Stuckey was overvaluing his services to such an extent that he’d end up signing a measly qualifying offer with intentions on hitting unrestricted free agency next summer.

Fortunately for Palace denizens, a couple years of mediocrity has yielded some talent, and if Lawrence Frank is smart he’ll get the kids minutes as much as possible. As an added bonus, Detroit has not yet used its Get Out of a Crappy Contract Free card yet, and so they can still jettison the last $20 million or so of Gordon or Villanueva for next summer’s strong free agent class.

Worth watching: The Greg MonroeBrandon Knight running combo is the Pistons’ future, with Austin Daye and Jonas Jerebko in supporting roles on the wing. If it’s more of the young guys and less of the old in Detroit this year, they should contribute to the Not-Good-But-Fun rotation of 7 p.m. contests in the East’s lower levels.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-12, SF-12, DK-12, CL-13, TF-14, JB-12

Last season: 23-59 (5th Southeast, 13th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Chris says: Despite finishing 14 games out of a playoff spot in the East, there was some reason for hope for Washington. The Wizards took John Wall with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, and he quickly became one of the top young point guards in the league. Wall averaged 16 points and 8 assists per night, as well as about 2 steals per game. His shooting (41 percent) left something to be desired, but the Wizards have their point guard of the future with Wall.

Washington has a good chance to improve on last year’s 23-59 record.  Four of their projected starters (Wall, Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee) are all 26 or younger. Young led the team with 17.4 PPG last year.  Blatche and McGee offer double-double potential on a nightly basis, plus McGee is one of the top shot-blockers in the game. Add to the mix explosive rookie Jan Vesely and at the very least the Wizards should be extremely fun to watch.

The Wizards haven’t added any major players via free agency, but did pick up a pair of bench players that could make a difference. Roger Mason Jr. is a career 38 percent three-point shooter and that’s an area where they Wizards sorely need help. The team was third-worst in the NBA, shooting 33.2 percent from three.  Washington also picks up some help on the interior, acquiring Ronny Turiaf as part of the three-team trade that landed the Knicks Tyson Chandler.

Worth watching:  Let’s be honest here, 2011-2012 is still going to be a tough season for the Wizards. This is the same team that went a league-worst 3-38 on the road last year. Best case scenario is they squeak into the playoffs as a below-.500 8-seed in the East before mercilessly getting swept by Miami. Realistically, the Wizards should be happy to get out of the cellar in the Southeast. They’ll have plenty of plays on the Sportscenter Top 10, and the three- to four-year prospects of this team is very intriguing, but a 30-35 win season and a fourth place finish in the division would be a big victory for Washington this season.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-11, SF-11 DK-11, CL-11, TF-10, JB-11

Last season: 24-58 (4th Atlantic, 12th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Ferg says: When Russian playboy and gazillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets last year, there was wild speculation he’d go one of two ways: Run the team like a European soccer club and start buying people left and right, or run it like an arm of the Russian mafia and we’d start finding an increasing number of bodies washing up in the Hudson. Neither of those scenarios played out, as Prokhorov kept relatively quiet…until, you know, he announced his candidacy in Mother Russia. The Nets last year instead operated like the dysfunctional bunch they are: Improving from their abysmal 2009-10 campaign (12-70) to double their win total (24) and prove somewhat frisky, if otherwise, bad. They managed only five wins on the road, three wins in division and 13 in conference, so moral victories came at a premium. Getting Deron Williams in a ridiculous move from the Jazz (those damn Mormons strike again), turned out to be a blessing for the Nets, who can now try to pair Williams (a top-3 point guard in the league and much, much better than Devin Harris) with Brook Lopez and, hopefully, one or two more big players to turn the Nets back into a contender. Lopez’s star continues to rise, as the former Stanford standout (ee what I did there?) averaged almost 21 PPG and turned into a decent center who isn’t afraid to step out and shoot, but who can still take it strong to the hole. Williams averaged 20 points and 10 assists per game. Jordan Farmar’s 9.6 points and 5 assists per game were great off the bench, and with the playoff experience and solid play he provides, he proved to be a decent pickup for the Nets last year.

The Nets signed Jordan Williams (a young rookie forward out of Maryland) and also signed the ugliest human being ever created, center Shelden Williams (so they can balance out Maryland with a Dukie, I guess) as two solid pickups. The Landlord is on his seventh team in six years, so someone out there still thinks he can dictate play like he used to. He and J-Will will be relied upon to spell Lopez and also might be starting centers with Lopez at the four. The Nets got rid of Travis Outlaw via the new amnesty clause, so the roles of Stephen Graham, Anthony Morrow and Damion James just increased with this team, for now. Morrow’s listed as the 2-guard, but has the size to be a 3 if duty calls. The Nets have Sundiata Gaines on the bench as well, who you may remember as the dude who played the game of his life on a ten-day contract, so the depth at point guard is good for the Nets. I’d like to see them grab a 3-guard/3-4 hybrid player to really move into contender status. Until that moment, the soon-to-be-Brooklyn Nets are improving, but are still a long way away from being legitimate contenders in the East. They might back their way into a playoff spot, but with the Knicks and Sixers out in front, not to mention the Celtics atop the division, the Nets will have a tough go in their own division, let alone the East.

Worth watching: The thing to watch for the Nets is whether or not they’ll make a move to grab a big name this year. There’s rumors that they’re trying to court Dwight Howard, but I’m really unsure as to whether or not he’s going to move this season. Deron Williams has opted out of his extension, partly because he wants a new contract. So, with the move to Brooklyn coming, the Nets have to pick up a piece that Deron will want to stick around for, and also for their fans to enjoy. Again, a good 3-4 hybrid forward would really push the Nets upwards in the East. Put someone like that on the floor, and suddenly the Nets have the option to play Lopez at the 5 (where he’s a nightmare matchup for most centers) or the 4 (where he’s still a tough matchup) with either J-Will or Shelden Williams at the 5. Another solid fit would be a scoring 2-guard who can shoot. Deron Williams can get to the rim when he needs to, but needs a player that he can rely on to hit jumpers when he penetrates. Look for crazy presidential-hopeful Prokhorov to make some moves this year to improve his team.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-9, SF-9, DK-10, CL-10, TF-12, JB-10

Last season: 35-47 (3rd Central, 9th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Josh says: Two years ago, around this time of year, a friend of mine convinced me to go in on a “mini-season” ticket package for one Milwaukee Bucks basketball club. It remains one of the best sports-related decisions of my life. For 2009-10 was the year of “Fear The Deer,” a surprising Bucks squad that ended up finishing sixth in the East with a streaky rookie point guard rocking a flat top (it’s coming back–be aware) and an Australian center having a career year. Until Amar’e ran under him as he finished a fast break in April.  From the upper deck, it was obviously a season-ending injury. Even without Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee took Atlanta to seven in the first round and showed admirable spunk as the Bradley Center crowd stayed hot, with Squad 6 leading the noise brigade.

Last year, Andrew Bogut didn’t have quite the same mojo, and Brandon Jennings suffered the dreaded sophomore slump. GM John Hammond inexplicably signed John Salmons, Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden to overpriced deals, and the Bucks finished out of the playoffs. How to recover from this downer?

First, it begins with “Fear The Deer,” which is an appropriate moniker for a Scott Skiles team. Deer, white-tailed or otherwise, are generally only fearsome when they are in your way. A Hoosier through and through, Skiles is the NBA’s all-time (single game) assists leader and a strong believer in defense. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gives him plenty of that, with no offense, at the wing. Stephen Jackson is still a solid defender with or without a firearm, and Bogut was a top-3 center in 2009-10 before The Fall. No kidding. If Bogut is at his ceiling, the Bucks will be in the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt that Hammond ate a big bowl of Colon Blow this past draft night,  expelling Maggette and Salmons and getting S-Jax for the price of taking on a bad contract/competent backup point in Beno Udrih and a few spots in a bad draft.

The Bucks could slip back into the morass of the East’s bottom feeders if only a few things go right, but they could also be a scary team every night, especially in a building that can rock even when half-empty.

Worth watching: Brandon Jennings has a loose game that features plenty of crossing-over and a beautiful floater. Here’s hoping he quits chucking threes (like last year) and gets to the driving and dishing that’s his bread-and-pickle. If Bogut and Jennings be there in full, 6’10” Turk Ersan Ilyasova will be the third offensive option on a playoff team. Since we’re all required to pick the “next Dirk,” I’m putting him up for nomination; he’s in his sixth year in the league, and he can score.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-10, SF-10, DK-9, CL-9, TF-8, JB-9

Tomorrow: A look at our projected playoff teams from the East.

Photo Credit: Stacy Bengs, Associated Press

The Nowhere Plans Big Ass NBA Preview – Part 2

Part 2 of the Big Ass NBA Preview takes a look at our projected Western Conference playoff teams. If you missed Part 1, click here for a preview of the rest of the West.

Last season: 50-32 (2nd Northwest, 5th West)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Oklahoma City in first round 4-1
Dan says: The Nuggets were a team that surprised a lot of people (myself included) last season, with a late surge after trading away their superstar Carmelo Anthony. For what it’s worth, I think that attitude and effort play a bigger role in basketball (and in particular, the NBA) than any other sport, and the Nuggets had plenty of attitude last year. Think about it: if you’re left on the Nuggets after the trade, then you’re part of a team that Melo didn’t think was good enough, and wanted away from. If you came over from the Knicks, then your previous team didn’t think very highly of you either. EVERYONE on that team had a lot to prove, and they went on a mini-rampage, and probably outperformed their true talent level. The problem is, there’s no way that all holds over for this season. However, I still think this is a talented team that can do some damage in the West.

The roster looks nice on paper. Re-signing Nene was big, although I’m still not sure exactly WHAT I think of Nene. My mind tells me that he’s a good player, and I’m pretty sure he’s a good player, but I never watch a game and think to myself “Wow. Nene is really taking over. What a stud.” Regardless, the Nuggets are better off with him on the roster right now, than without. Assuming that Arron Afflalo re-signs, the Nuggets have a nice little inside/outside game going with those two. The big question mark is what the Nuggets are going to get from Timofey Mozgov, the 7-foot-1, 250-pound Russian. George Karl has said he plans to start Mozgov at center, moving Nene to the 4. Mozgov was impressive, at times, as a rookie last year (mainly in New York), but if he can develop and provide a consistent force on the inside, especially on offense, it’ll give Denver a pretty dangerous inside game. Also, don’t you just kind of want a 7-foot-1 Russian dude named “Timofey” to succeed? I do. Aside from those three, as I said, the roster looks “nice on paper” with names like Cory Brewer, Rudy Fernandez and Danilo Gallinari on it, but none of those guys have really established themselves as consistent players in the league. They’ve all shown flashes, but I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable counting on any of them for production on a nightly basis. There’s also Chris Anderson, who is a nice player, but probably gets way more attention and notoriety than he should because, well…because he looks the way that he does.

All in all, the Nuggets have some nice pieces, but no true “star” and you need at least one star to win in the NBA. The Nuggets will be competitive and shouldn’t be overlooked, but their ceiling appears to be a visit to the second round of the playoffs. The losses of J.R. Smith and Keynon Martin to, um…China are really going to hurt this team on the defensive end.

Worth watching: Mozgov really intrigues me. It always seems to take international players a few years to truly adjust to the NBA game, but I liked what I saw from Mozgov last year. In a league devoid of many true centers, a 7-footer who can score is one of the most valuable commodities out there. Will Mozgov ever be a star? Probably not. But it should be fun to watch his development.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-10, SF-8, DK-9, CL-7, TF-8, JB-10


Last season: 48-34 (3rd Northwest, 6th West)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Dallas in first round 4-2
Dan says: The poor, poor Trailblazers. Rarely do I ever feel truly sorry for a professional athlete, no matter what he has to go through, because let’s be honest: These guys have lived incredibly privileged lives (for the most part) and rank pretty low on any sane person’s list of individuals who deserve sympathy. But man, did my heart break when I heard about Brandon Roy’s retirement, due to his knees. Roy seemed like one of the truly good guys in sports, a loyal player (remember, he stayed for four years at Washington, even though he easily could’ve come out early and been drafted) and was a great player, when healthy. It was just another shocking, but not so shocking, loss of a potential star due to injuries for the Blazers, who have been snake bitten in recent years. Besides Roy, Greg Oden is out for at least part of the season and, let’s be honest, who really expects to see him play in 2012? Not me, that’s for sure.

LaMarcus Aldrige broke out and looks to be on his way to superstar status. That being said, the man does need help. The somewhat surprising signing of Jamal Crawford gives the Blazers a solid, veteran presence that can be counted on to contribute on a regular basis, and helps solidify the backcourt that features Raymond Felton, and not much else. Gerald Wallace gives some nice support in the frontcourt and Marcus Camby is apparently just going to play forever and pretty much be the same player, but to me, this team is one superstar and a bunch of nice players who are going to be asked to do more than they probably should be doing. I’ve also made it this far without mentioning Aldridge’s heart condition (Will it be a problem? Who knows. It’s a scary thing to think about) and the fact that the Blazers don’t even have a GM right now. So…there’s that.

The Blazers won’t be terrible, because I think Aldridge is a true star and he has a solid supporting cast, but I can’t see Portland being better than a middle-of-the-pack team in the West with the current construction of the roster.

Worth watching: Raymond Felton has quietly progressed pretty nicely as a point guard, and has had his best two seasons as a pro in the past two years. I still contend that assists are a bit of an overrated stat, because it depends in part on the players around you, but after getting out of the black hole that is Charlotte, Felton averaged 9 assists per game with the Knicks (after a previous career high of 7.4). His numbers dropped after he was traded to the Nuggets, but he didn’t start a game there and played reduced minutes, so that’s to be expected. Felton is a guy that I’ve always liked, going back to his days at North Carolina, and I hope he can continue to progress and turn into a bona-fide NBA point guard, rather than just a popular trade chip.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-8, SF-6, DK-8, CL-8, TF-6, JB-7


Last season: 32-50 (4th Pacific, 13th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Sean says: I’m obligated by the American media to mention Chris Paul within 15 words of any sentence including the word “Los,” “Angeles” or “Clippers,” so with that and the obligatory glowing statement about Paul (considered the best point guard in the game, dragged a fairly mediocre Hornets team to the playoffs last year with only David West and a bunch of players best described as “supporting cast,” averaged just shy of 16 points and 10 rebounds, makes all his teammates better) out of the way, time for the bad news:

Acquiring Paul, and by association, legitimacy, did not come cheap. The price: Eric Gordon (22.3 PPG), Chris Kaman (12.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG while averaging only about half a game), Al-Farouq Aminu (last season’s 8th overall pick) and a first round pick from Minnesota, which figures to be a lottery pick.

Fortunately, the Clips restored some of that depth by winning an amnesty claim on Chauncey Billups, signing Caron Butler to play the 3 AND matching an offer sheet on DeAndre Jordan, keeping them from suiting up 2011 second round pick Trey Thompkins as the starting pivot. Randy Foye, Mo Williams the highly-touted-yet-unpolished Drew Eric Bledsoe are all available to come off the bench as well, so the Clips are well-equipped in the backcourt.

The frontcourt is thin though. Ryan Gomes failed as a starter at small forward but may improve in a diminished role; beyond that it’s Thompkins, Travis Leslie and Brian Cook. In other words, two rookies and a guy who’s made a career at the back end of the rotation. Blake Griffin is the most electrifying player in the game, but he’ll also have to be the most durable. He averaged 38 minutes a season ago, and it doesn’t figure to go down a whole lot this season unless GM Neil Olshey can deal for help in the post.

All of that means the Clippers don’t figure to be in the championship discussion unless they add some depth up front, but a return to the playoffs (their first trip since 2006) seems very likely. If Griffin’s highlight reel was impressive last season, teaming up with Paul could turn every game into a slam dunk contest. Remember all those Lakers-Clippers games that didn’t matter in years past? They’ll matter this year.

Worth watching: Besides Blake Griffin dunking 10 times every game and probably breaking at least one backboard, and the “Chris Paul in Hollywood” or “CP3 versus Kobe” storylines that we’re bound to hear about ad nauseum, another intriguing subplot to the Clippers’ season is how Billups adjusts to playing the 2-guard. Billups seems to think he and Paul will be co-point guards, but if he thinks he’s bringing the ball up court, he’s got another thing coming. Billups is 35 and, for the first time in his career, is going to be asked to play almost exclusively off the ball. How he responds to not running the offense (and how he plays in a new role) will have a huge effect on L.A.’s success this season.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-6, SF-5, DK-6, CL-6, TF-5, JB-4


Last season: 46-36 (4th Southwest, 8th West)
2011 Playoffs: Beat San Antonio in first round 4-2, lost to Oklahoma City in second round 4-3
jonnyd says: After that playoff run last season, how can the Grizzlies not be optimistic heading into this season? Shane Battier left via free agency and joined the Sithlords down in South Beach, and he will be dearly missed. Battier’s defense and to a lesser extent, shooting were key to the success of this team. On a brighter note, Marc Gasol decided to stay with Memphis and so the team’s frontcourt of Gasol and Zach “Zeebo” Randolph that led the team on its unexpected playoff run remains intact.

Oh, and the Memphis team that upset the Spurs and took the Thunder to seven games? They did that all without Rudy Gay, who separated his shoulder late in mid-February and required season-ending surgery. Losing Gay was a blessing and a curse. Missing one of their lead scorers, the team adopted a more balanced offense that translated into more wins. The Grizz will need to find a way to keep that balance while utilizing Gay’s talents if they truly want to improve this season.

Worth watching: This is a young team coming off an exciting playoff run last year and there’s a lot to look forward to, but there are also a lot of questions. Will this team be able to step up defensively in Battier’s absence? Will Rudy Gay be the focus of the offense again? If not, will he be able to deal with a lesser role in the offense? I have a feeling that Memphis will have games when they figure it out and some when they don’t. If they can put it all together, look for them to be the team that no one wants to face in the first round of the playoffs again.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-5, SF-7, DK-5, CL-5, TF-7, JB-3


Last season: 61-21 (1st Southwest, 1st West)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Memphis in first round 4-2
jonnyd says: The Spurs, everybody’s favorite group of old guys who play fundamental basketball, won a lot of games last year and then got Zeebo’d out of the first round of the playoffs by Memphis. Make no mistake though, this is a good team. They are also an old team. Key to their success will be the health of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. If those three can stay healthy and fresh enough through this hellish shortened season (which is doing older teams like the Spurs and the Celtics no favors) they will very likely secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. San Antonio could also make a run in the playoffs, but like last year, will have trouble with bigger teams.

The Spurs acquired forward Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State in a trade from Indiana in exchange for George Hill. Hill was not a minor part of the Spurs rotation, so that leads me to believe that they have faith that Leonard will be able to jump in and contribute right away. For the most part, I agree with their optimism. Leonard is an athletic guy who knows how to play defense (which Gregg Popovich will no doubt love) and most importantly, isn’t old. He could inject some much needed youth into this team.

Worth watching: Do the Spurs have one last run in them? As I just mentioned, how Leonard performs and is implemented into the Spurs rotation will be a factor to the Spurs success, but staying healthy and fresh is paramount. The core of this team doesn’t have many competitive years left, so it will be interesting to see if (and how) they respond to that urgency. Ginobili and Parker are hard to stop and fun to watch, especially the reckless abandon that Manu plays with.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-3, SF-4, DK-4, CL-4, TF-3, JB-5


Last season: 57-25 (1st Pacific, 2nd West)
2011 Playoffs: Beat New Orleans in first round 4-2, lost to Dallas in second round 4-0
Sean says: The Lakers managed to have a lot go wrong despite the limited window for transactions brought on by the extended NBA lockout. The fallout from David Stern’s indefensible rejection of the Lakers’ deal for Chris Paul included Mister Sensitive (Lamar Odom), who was included in the rejected deal, requesting and being granted a trade out of Hollywood. How that broken deal affects Pau Gasol, who was also thought to be on the move, remains to be seen. But count me among those who believe that deal being voided was actually good for the Lakers. Yes, they lost Odom—but losing Gasol and him would have been a huge blow to their depth. The Lakers were also rumored to be in the market for Dwight Howard, a deal which almost certainly would have involved Andrew Bynum and other players, but that too didn’t happen. Essentially, the Lakers may have avoided a Miami Heat depth chart nightmare when neither trade came to fruition.

Not that their depth doesn’t raise its own issues. For instance, do the Lakers look for another 2-guard with Sasha Vujacic gone to Europe and 2011 second-round pick Andrew Goudelock as Kobe Bryant’s backup? It’s not as if Kobe is getting any younger, after all. Will Bryant’s personal issues affect his play on the court? And will Ron Artest Metta World Peace fall victim to the amnesty clause? Matt Barnes and Luke Walton are other small forwards on the roster (as well as Jason Kapono when they absolutely need a three) but is any a better option than World Peace? Maybe; Don’t-Call-Me-Ron had career lows in points and rebounds last season, as well as his worst season shooting the rock since ’05-’06 and second worst of his career.

Still, the Lakers look very much like the team that suited up in the playoffs last season, and while that didn’t end particularly well, the Lakers aren’t in any danger of missing the postseason this season and still have the benefit of playing in the Pacific, where only one team showed much improvement this offseason (and even then, at the cost of some depth). The Clippers are getting plenty of love and are expected to compete. But somehow, I still see the Lakers coming out of the Pacific on top.

Worth watching: In Odom’s absence, Josh McRoberts will get the call and a chance to prove his play in Indiana (7.4 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game in just over 22 minutes per game) was more than just a flash in the pan—over the course of a full game, all of those numbers compare rather favorably with Odom. He’ll fit in nicely with head coach Mike Brown’s commitment to defense, and while he can’t make up for Odom’s scoring or versatility, at 6-10” he can at least make it tough on opponents at the other end.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-4, SF-3, DK-3, CL-3, TF-4, JB-6


Last season: 57-25 (2nd Southwest, 3rd West)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Portland in first round 4-2, beat L.A. Lakers in second round 4-0, beat Oklahoma City in Conference finals 4-1, beat Miami in NBA Finals 4-2
jonnyd says: Don’t be surprised if the Mavericks suffer from a small case of Championship Hangover to start the season. Notable players not returning this year are Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and Jose Barea. But don’t fret, Mavs fans, Dallas stole Lamar Odom from the Lakers and also signed Vince Carter and Delonte West! …Yeah, I’m not convinced either. Picking up just one of these players over the offseason is a bit risky, but all three? These three are among the more dramatic, touchy players in the NBA. There’s definitely potential for upside to these signings but I don’t think we are looking at a repeat this year.

That said, this is still a team whose roster looks more like a fantasy team than most others. It will be interesting to see how well the Mavs travel with the target on their back that comes with being the reigning champion. Sure, they’re a perennial 50-win team, but now when they come to town they’ll be introduced as the champs. They’ll be prepared against as the champs. Not everyone is built to deal with the amount of attention (and scrutiny) that comes with being number one. This is, however, a veteran team, so I don’t see there being too many complications.

Worth watching: I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it or not, but the Mavericks won the NBA championship last season. Expect them to get a lot of television time these next few months. As always, there are a lot of big names on this roster. Dirk Nowitzki in clutch time is about as automatic as it gets, and after 13 seasons, it still doesn’t get old to watch him just take over late in the game. Don’t expect to see Vince Carter hanging by his elbow on the rim, but instead sit back and enjoy a few faked injuries (holding one hand and grimacing, classic Vince) and whatever the opposite of hustle is.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-2, SF-2, DK-2, CL-1, TF-2, JB-2


Last season: 55-27 (1st Northwest, 4th West)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Denver in first round 4-1, beat Memphis in second round 4-3, lost to Dallas in Conference Finals 4-1
Dan says: To say that this is a “championship or bust” season for the Thunder is probably overstating it just a bit, but it’s hard to see anything less than an appearance in the Finals not ranking as a major disappointment for this team. The Thunder are THAT good. Kevin Durant, if not the best basketball player on the planet right now, isn’t outside of the Top 2 (for my money, it’s still LeBron). At the very least, he’s the best scorer in the game right now, and since, you know, you win basketball games primarily by scoring more points than the other team, it’s always a good thing to have “the best scorer in the league” on your team. I’d say the biggest question mark on the Thunder right now is Russell Westbrook. Some of his performances and the “attitude” he showed in the playoffs caused the talking heads to wonder if he can shelve his ego a bit and defer to Durant. Apparently, everyone asking those questions only watched like two games all of last season. Yes, he can. And he has. Russell Westbrook is a GREAT player. Not a good player. A GREAT player, right now. He and Durant combine to form arguably the best 1-2 punch, offensively, in the league. Just because Durant is the better player doesn’t mean that Westbrook isn’t right to try and take over games for stretches here and there, because he’s capable. Yeah, Westbrook has a little bit of an attitude problem, but I truly believe that Durant is one of those rare athletes that guys just gravitate to. Everyone loves and him and no one wants to let him down. So, when it comes down to it, Westbrook knows that Durant is “the man” and will act as such. Think about it: If Kevin Durant came up to you and punched you in the face, would you even be mad? No. You would think, “Well, damn. I must’ve deserved a punch to the face.” Because that’s just the type of guy that Durant is. No team with KD is ever going to have locker room issues or chemistry problems. Westbrook is fine. Just leave him alone.

Beyond Westbrook and Durant, James Harden seems poised for a truly breakout season. The funny thing is, he isn’t even a starter (yet) but he might be the key to the Thunder’s championship aspirations. They need a third consistent scorer, and they need it to be Harden. And he’s more than capable of being that guy. Granted, he has the worst beard ever (or best, I suppose, depending on how you look at it), but don’t be shocked if James Harden introduces himself to the NBA in a BIG way this year. Kendrick Perkins is another key for the Thunder, as they’re hoping he can recover his offensive game as his knee heals up. After being acquired from the Celtics last season, Perkins provided a solid defensive presence but never really got his offensive game going, which can be attributed to playing with a bum wheel. The Thunder can win without him giving them much on offense in the way of scoring, but if he can get going and put up points on a consistent basis, wow. Watch out. Speaking of defense, Serge Ibaka is awesome. That’s as far in depth as I’m going with this analysis of him. Just watch him. He’s awesome. A shot blocking stud. The Thunder aren’t the deepest team in the world (although Harden is coming off the bench, for now), but Eric Maynor, Nick Collison and most of the top reserves fill their roles nicely.

Worth watching: I was going to try and get cute here, and give you some “deep” insight of something to watch, but you know what? Screw it. Watch Kevin Durant. The man (he’s younger than me. Can I call him that? The kid?) is a transcendent talent and a scoring savant with one of the most unique skill sets we’ve ever seen for a guy his size. Far too often, we watch great players in their prime and don’t appreciate them until their careers are over. Don’t make that mistake. Watch Kevin Durant try to become, indisputably, the best player on the planet right now.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-1, SF-1, DK-1, CL-2, TF-1, JB-1

Tomorrow: The Eastern Conference preview kicks off with a look at the teams outside of the playoff picture.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

The Nowhere Plans Big Ass 2011-12 NBA Preview – Part 1

Nowhere Plans kicks off the NBA season with a five-part preview including a comprehensive breakdown of all 30 teams. Six NP writers (Jon Dimedio, Sean Frey, Dan Krupinsky, Chris Leone, Tom Ferguson and Josh Brokaw) offered their predictions for the upcoming season. Each provided a projected conference finish, the highest and lowest ranking were dropped, and the remaining average was used to seed the teams in the order of finish listed below. Today’s preview details Western Conference teams outside of the playoff picture.

Last season: 24-58 (5th Pacific, 14th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Sean says: Good things are happening in Sacramento, but the Kings are still a ways from being a serious contender. Between DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, J.J. Hickson and Jimmer Fredette off the bench, there’s a youth movement in NorCal and, assuming management keeps them together, Kings fans will soon reap the benefits. They’ll just have to wait for it, because the team showed its youth early and often last season and, while they should improve, are not likely to be in the playoff picture or really anywhere even close to it.

John Salmons and Travis Outlaw (the latter via the amnesty provision) were nice offseason additions and should provide a much-needed veteran presence for such a young team. Fredette is in range as soon as he enters the players’ parking lot at Power Balance Pavilion. Cousins is strong on the glass and Hickson perhaps even better, Evans a point guard with a lot of upside (despite the sophomore slump) and Thornton a pure scorer. Chuck Hayes off the bench will cost the Kings some size, but the team isn’t terribly big to begin with so the effect will likely be offset by the fundamentals he brings to the table. Francisco Garcia and Jason Thompson performed well off the bench last season but are difference makers by no means. Put it all together and it figures to be another season of growing pains in Sacramento, but assuming their young nucleus continues to make progress, they could get to around 30 wins this season and display a bit more consistency along the way.

Worth watching: Can Jimmer transition into an effective NBA player? And if so, how soon? J.J. Redick famously struggled after a college career of three-ball after three-ball. Jimmer is much the same, only with twice the range (which is only a minor exaggeration, but nevertheless hard to believe). As BYU’s best player, he had the free reign to pull up for jumpers well beyond 25 feet pretty much whenever he had the space to put one up; naturally that isn’t going to fly at the pro level, not with coach Paul Westphal and not with his teammates, who have plenty of raw talent of their own. At least at the start, he figures to come off the bench as a three-point specialist; whether his other skills translate to the NBA level is a question that will likely take more than just this season to answer.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-14, SF-14, DK-14, CL-14, TF-15, JB-15


Last season: 46-36 (3rd Southwest, 7th West)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to L.A. Lakers in first round 4-2
jonnyd says: Let’s get to the point. The Hornets’ two best players from last season, Chris Paul and David West, who were largely responsible in them making the playoffs and taking the Lakers to six games before eventually losing in the first round, are gone. I know that I have them ranked at 15 but I would actually be a bit surprised if they ended up being the worst team in the West. All in all, they did pretty well for themselves in the Paul trade with the Clippers. Paul was gone anyway, and New Orleans made the most out of it and flipped him for Eric Gordon (one of the better shooting guards in the league), Chris Kaman (a serviceable center), Al-Farouq Aminu (largely unimpressive his rookie year but saw limited minutes, has a lot of potential upside, and was the 8th overall pick in 2010 draft) and an unprotected first-round draft pick.

The good news is that the Hornets still have Emeka Okafor, who is good for 10 points and 10 rebounds a night, and ex-Laker Trevor Ariza, who has underperformed since leaving L.A. and is probably better suited as a role player on a championship-caliber team, which the Hornets are not. Paul’s replacement at point guard will be Jarrett Jack. Jack hasn’t really been given much of a chance to be a true starting point guard in the NBA so it’s hard to say how he’ll perform. About three years ago, Jack started 53 games for the Indiana Pacers and averaged 15.4 points and 4.6 assists. Not awful. No doubt it’s a huge drop-off, but we’re talking stepping in for Chris Paul here, there aren’t many other guys you can throw in there and not miss a beat.

Worth watching: Eric Gordon is the best player on the New Orleans Hornets. He’s a young, prolific scorer who was having a breakout year before injuring his wrist last season. He should be fully healed by now and will be the Hornets’ first option on offense. This team is so different from the one that has been on the court the past few years that it’s hard to know what to expect.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-15, SF-15, DK-13, CL-12, TF-14, JB-14


Last season: 17-65 (5th Northwest, 15th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Dan says: I’m apparently one of the very few people who is somewhat high on the Timberwolves. Minnesota’s unprotected first-round pick became part of the Chris Paul deal, and is now owned by New Orleans, and I’ve heard speculation that it might end up being the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft? Really? Minnesota is the worst team in the league? The Wolves trot out Kevin Love, Derrick Williams (who I thought was the best player in the 2011 draft), Michael Beasley and the enigma that is Ricky Rubio on a nightly basis, to go along with some nice supporting pieces like J.J. Barea, Wesley Johnson and (drum roll please)…DARKO!!!! Okay, so that last one is kind of a joke, but seriously, am I crazy or is that NOT an awful team? Certainly not No. 1 overall pick bad, by any means. Add into the mix that Rick Adelman is taking over at the helm, and I think the Wolves are going to surprise a lot of people.

Kevin Love is a bona-fide stud. He’s so much fun to watch play, and he grabs rebounds like it’s his job (oh, wait. It is his job. Whatever, you know what I meant) I’m not sure if he’s technically a “superstar” by NBA standards, but the man is a damn good player, and as long as he’s healthy and producing, the Wolves won’t be a pushover. Michael Beasley can really make or break this team, in my opinion. Beasley has a tremendous amount of talent (some scouts still say he’s the most naturally gifted pure scorer in the league. And remember, Kevin Durant plays in the same league) but he just hasn’t been able to put it all together on a consistent basis and be the type of player that his talent suggests he should be. If it finally “clicks” for Beasley this year, look out.

Worth watching: I LOVE Derrick Williams. One of my favorite things about the NBA (and really, sports in general) is falling in love with a guy in college, and then watching him at the next level and following his development as a pro. I think Williams has the potential to be a very special player in the NBA. His best bet is for Beasley to be the player that Michael Beasley is supposed to be, which will allow Williams to be brought along slowly and develop at a nice pace. If Williams pans out, Beasley plays up to his potential and Love continues to be Love, that is a DANGEROUS team in the future. But maybe I really am insane, because I think the Wolves are way better than just about everyone else, everywhere. We shall see.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-13, SF-13, DK-11, CL-15, TF-9, JB-11


Last season: 36-46 (3rd Pacific, 12th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Sean says: You have to give the Warriors credit, Larry Riley tried to make a splash this offseason. He tried to lure DeAndre Jordan away from the division rival Clippers. He tried to sign Tyson Chandler. He discussed dealing for Chris Paul. And after all that, all he ended up with was Kwame Brown.
If anything went right, it’s that their top four scorers from last season are all still on the roster. Modern Day Iverson Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, David Lee and Dorell Wright are all returning and all averaged double figures a season ago, with Lee adding almost 10 rebounds a game and both Ellis and Curry averaging near six assists per. They let veteran forward Vladimir Radmanovich walk along with Reggie Williams and generally don’t have a lot of proven depth on the bench…

…Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After Brown’s signing, Louis Amundson was expendable and flipped to Indiana for Brandon Rush, a young 2-guard who can shoot the three. Ishmael Smith was shown the door in Memphis and welcomed in by Golden State; the speedy point guard averaged just under two assists per game averaging less than a quarter. The Warriors are expecting great strides from Andris Biedens (specifically, not getting hurt) and Ekpe Oduh, AND they have 11th overall pick Klay Thompson on the roster, who can hit from anywhere inside the arena. If the right players make enough progress and the others live up to expectations, the Warriors will be a tough opponent night in and night out and will battle for one of the West’s final playoff spots. But a lot of things have to go right, and very few of them did one year ago. It doesn’t help that they didn’t play much defense last season, and the front office did very little to improve the team in that area.

Worth watching: Monta Ellis is fantastic to watch, but more intriguing is if fans will be watching him play for Golden State by season’s end. Mentioned in trade talks for much of last season, the Warriors decided to hang onto him and so, at least for the time being, Ellis will continue to shoot way, way, WAY more than anybody else on the roster. But if Thompson is able to have an impact off the bench, Ellis could be on the move. Klay has four inches, 20 pounds and five years on Monta; he also shoots the three better than The City’s current starter. If nothing else, it’s at least possible that Ellis will be headed east at some point this season; among the many teams he was linked to last season include Orlando and Philadelphia.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-11, SF-12, DK-10, CL-13, TF-11, JB-12


Last season: 40-42 (2nd Pacific, 10th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Sean says: The Suns missed out on the playoffs last year for the second time in three seasons. Steve Nash somehow is still with the team; Vince Carter, however, is not. This is a problem because that potentially puts Josh Childress in the starting lineup, and in limited minutes last season, he was pretty much useless. There’s some chance Jared Dudley is called on to play the 2-guard, although at least in the early going it seems likely they’ll both see minutes. This is an old team: Grant Hill is back for another year at age 39, Nash is 37, and the other three starters are in their late 20’s (Dudley is the youngest at 26). And while there are plenty of veteran leaders on this team, it appeared that age took its toll on this team last season and they haven’t done much to get younger.

On the bench, rookie Markieff Morris will play behind Channing Frye, Robin Lopez behind up-and-coming Marcin Gortat. Frye and Gortat provide good presence down low although both are rather undersized to be true pivots; there will be a noticeable difference when one or the other is out of the game, as Gortat is a significant improvement on the glass over Lopez (and, in fact, won the starting job largely for that reason) and Morris will suffer from inexperience. Shannon Brown was a nice pickup to spell Steve Nash, and Mickael Pietrus remains on the team, so the Suns do have depth at some positions. But facing an offseason where they needed to improve to stay viable in the West, Lance Blanks made no significant moves. One wonders if Alvin Gentry will find himself on the hot seat.

Worth watching: How long can Hill and Nash continue to play at their current levels? Nash’s playmaking ability and defense isn’t necessarily declining, but he attempted his fewest shots since 2000-01 and had his lowest shooting percentage since 2003-04 (which nevertheless is really high, but still). Hill actually saw an uptick in his production last season, but at 39, is it realistic for him to continue playing 30 minutes? One of these two is bound for a significant regression—the classic “hanging on too long”—but will it be this season? If it does, there won’t be much to cheer about in Phoenix.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-12, SF-11, DK-12, CL-11, TF-13, JB-8


Last season: 39-43 (4th Northwest, 11th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Dan says: I wonder if Jazz fans still hate Deron Williams. I’d like to think that they do. I mean, the guy basically got Jerry Sloan, a beloved legend, fired and then forced his way out of town anyway. “So, our star player didn’t like our coach, got him fired and then we traded the player away too. Wait, what!?” Yeah, it makes no sense, and the Jazz are still a mess because of it. And if you’re saying right now “Well, it’s not as bad as you make it out to be. They still have Devin Harris! He’s a star too!” No, he’s not. I mean, he is, in the sense that a lot of people THINK he is, but the guy averaged just over 15 PPG last season and right around 7 assists. Nice numbers. Not star numbers. I think Harris has more talent than that, but he’s been proving me wrong the past few seasons. The rest of the Jazz backcourt really doesn’t inspire you to say much more than: Eh. That’s pretty much the reaction it solicited from me. Sorry if I can’t get excited about a rotation that includes Raja Bell, Gordon Hayward (a guy that a lot of people think might make “The Jump” this season. I am not one of those people) and Earl Watson (although, in another walk of life, I am a HUGE fan of people with the name E. Watson. And yes, I literally only included Earl Watson in this so I could also include Emma Watson, simply because she makes me happy, and writing about the Jazz is making me sad). The wild card here is rookie Alec Burks, the 12th overall pick. His summer league performances have gotten Jazz fans excited for his future. We shall see.

The good news for the Jazz (there is good news!) is that the front court looks to be pretty solid. Al Jefferson, Paul Milsap, Derrick Favors (hey, thanks for him, Deron Williams!), Mehmet Okur and the Jazz’s OTHER first-round pick (No. 3 overall) Enes Kanter.  The veterans here not only provide a solid presence and a good amount of production, but, for the most part, they all have skill sets that complement each other. Jefferson is a beast defensively and can score inside, Okur can move outside a little bit and score, Millsap can score from 18 feet and Favors and Kanter give you a nice young foundation who can score and defend. Now, that’s the good news. The bad news is that everything I just wrote is BEST CASE SCENARIO. And how often does “best case scenario” ever actually work out? Yeah, not too often. While it’d be nice to get all these guys going at once, I don’t see it happening for any long stretches. Enjoy the lottery, Utah.

Worth watching: Without question, it’s Kanter and Burks. If the Jazz’s two lottery picks can develop quickly and provide some spark (especially Burks, since, as previous discussed, the Jazz kind of don’t really have a good backcourt), it will take the Jazz from “really bad” to “just below average.” But the Jazz probably want to start scouting lottery picks for 2012 now.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-9, SF-10, DK-15, CL-9, TF-12, JB-13


Last season: 43-39 (5th Southwest, 9th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
jonnyd says: The Rockets head into the 2011-12 season with a bad case of blue balls. If not for David Stern, Dan Gilbert and company blocking the Chris Paul deal, Houston would have an overhauled frontcourt featuring Pau Gasol. They would have given up a good amount (Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a first-round draft pick) but I think ultimately they would have made out pretty well in the trade. Now they have three players, two of which are starters, who know that they are considered non-essential. Part of me thinks that these three players don’t have egos as fragile as Lamar Odom’s, but still there may be some things that need to be smoothed over during the first few weeks of the season or the team’s chemistry will suffer. In Asian news, Yao Ming announced his retirement over the summer. Frankly, his presence will not be missed simply because he didn’t play a game in ’09-’10 and only played five games in ’10-’11.

The Rockets did their best to make moves this offseason. Between the vetoed trade and big name free agents deciding against joining them, this team is pretty much the same as the one they put out there last year. I have a feeling that another year of familiarity between starting guards Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin will do them well. This is a team that plays a very tough division in a conference that is stronger from top to bottom. Making the playoffs will be a tough feat for the Rockets, but I have a feeling they will be in the mix.

Worth watching: As I mentioned earlier, the backcourt is solid and young and one that flies under the radar compared to guard combos that may feature bigger names. Luis Scola is a banger down low and during spurts last season was putting up MVP numbers. The weird thing is, when he scored 25 points or more last season, the Rockets were 2-9. They will have to do a better job of finding a way to win and utilizing his talent this year.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-7, SF-9, DK-7, CL-10, TF-10, JB-9

Tomorrow: The NBA Preview continues with a look at Western Conference playoff teams.

The Promoter: The Hits Keep Coming, Man

The past weekend’s bouts delivered good action without much in the way of surprise.  Miguel Cotto abused Antonio Margarito’s robot eye and firmly placed himself back into the SuperFights conversation.  If Pacquiao and Mayweather don’t get together, Cotto is a guy who can sell out a building and do good pay-per-view numbers all on his lonesome; in short, don’t be surprised to see Pacquiao-Cotto II or Mayweather-Cotto coming your way this spring.

It was a shame that the largely Puerto Rican crowd filling the Garden last Saturday in support of Cotto wouldn’t get loud for the undercard.  In a high-paced fight, Delvin Rodriguez beat Pawel Wolak convincingly enough that the latter decided to retire, and Brandon Rios overcame weight issues to bloody (the) hell out of Brit John Murray until a merciful 11th round stoppage.  Some nights, you’ve got to settle for good fights, not All Time Greats.

Here at The Promoter we can dip into greatness anytime (thanks Internet!) and our excuse this week is boxing’s Hall of Fame inductions.   I am far from qualified to comment on all of the inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, located in lovely Canastota, NY.   The fight game doesn’t afford the would-be critic the easily wavable numbers that make it so easy to stomp feet about the neuroses keeping out a Blyleven or Santo for oh-so-many years.   I’m sure there’s plenty of worthwhile fighters uninducted (although even boxing can’t compete with the Aging Rock And Rollers for HOF as Money Grab).

We’re going to ignore all of these worthy concerns, and focus on the undisputed headliner of this year’s IBHOF class: Thomas “The Motor City Cobra”/”The Hitman” Hearns.

Tommy Hearns’ career was not over until 2006-he waited five years for enshrinement-but his glory days were the 1980s.  He was one of “The Four Kings” who ruled the sport, coming up from Detroit’s Kronk gym with ridiculous power, height and length for a welterweight.

Here’s Hearns winning his first title from Mexican Pipino Cuevas at the Joe Louis Arena in 1980.  The cartoonish knockout comes around 5:30. Note the complete lack of advertising in the ring.

Hearns’ greatest achievement might be knocking out Roberto Duran.  The Panamanian great had only been down twice in his career until this fight, having already fought professionally 70some times at the age of 32.  Sugar Ray Leonard made Duran quit on his stool in the “No Mas” fight, but “Hands of Stone” had never been out cold.  Until 1984:

There were lots more wins for Tommy Hearns, and a bunch of spectacular knockouts, but he’ll probably be remembered best for his three rounds in 1985 with “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. Disgustingly good stuff.

What 2 Watch 4

This coming weekend’s premiere fight matches England’s Amir Khan with DC’s Lamont Peterson, in a title bout at 140 pounds.  Khan has fast hands and good power, but his chin can be tested; Peterson’s a solid inside fighter who will have home ring advantage at Washington’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Keep it above the belt till we talk again.



The Promoter: The Barn’s Already Burning

“This is a PHONEBOOTH war,” blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley will say at some point during HBO’s pay-per-view broadcast this Saturday, and while the kids watching on their iLives won’t know what a phonebooth is, he will be correct.

There’s a whole slew of fights this weekend that promise Serious Action. Breadbaskets will be invaded, fighters will visit each other’s kitchens, chins will be tested, and yes, two sweaty shirtless men will attempt to occupy the same phonebooth.  There’s nowhere in those trunks to keep their cell phones, you see, and even if they did, they have no use of their digits to text away.  Please suggest some some new cliches.

Whatever you call fighting-in-close-proximity, this isn’t speculation: A lot of these guys have gone at it before, and produced some spectacular fights.

The headlining fight on the HBO show is a rematch between Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto and Mexican Antonio Margarito, and their first bout was a thriller. Margarito fights like the Terminator-not all that agile, but he keeps coming and absorbs blows, and he took plenty of them from the skilled Cotto through 11 rounds in 2008 before his pressure and left uppercut stopped the pound-for-pound top 10 boxer.

In an alternate universe, this is a good rematch that happened too late; Cotto and Margarito were both whipped by Manny Pacquiao.  Either or both of them could be shot, done, and Margarito has the very real concern of a right eye destroyed by Manny that gave the New York State Athletic Commission a long pause before it gave the go-ahead.

But this is a grudge match, full of Bad Blood: Six months after he stopped Cotto, Margarito was found with a sticky plaster of Paris-like substance in his hand wraps before he fought, and looked very unTerminator-like, against Shane Mosley.

No one’s sure if one or the other of these guys is done, but someone is getting bloody.  A sampling of quotes in the lead-up include Cotto calling Margarito a “criminal” and saying he’ll play with his health, as Antonio plays Super-Heel, in sunglasses and track suits and calling Cotto “little girl” and “crybaby.” The two episodes of HBO’s promotional series, 24/7, are well worth watching.

The undercard features three more fights with guaranteed action.  Brandon Rios is a mini-Margarito; the two Mexicans train together, and Rios is a similar sort of come-forward action fighter who can be an asshole, although he’s more skilled. His last fight he dispatched the solid Urbano Antillion in three. His opponent is John Murray, and while it’s unclear why he’s getting the title shot over countryman Kevin Mitchell, who stopped him in 8 in a UK Fight of the Year candidate, he’ll be throwing punches until he can’t anymore.

Philly welterweight Mike Jones has a near 80% KO rate and and has put on two straight hearty fights with Jesus Soto Karass.  He faces Argentine Sebastian Lujan, a thick welter who’s never been knocked out cold and is coming off a KO victory on Friday Night Fights in July.

Yet the most anticipated fight on the card among hardcore fans might be the opener, a rematch between Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez.  These are two good but unspectacular fighters who put on an absurdly good fight in July on ESPN.  In one of those odd occurrences where what should happen happens, they’re getting paid good money to do it again on a big stage.

Wolak had a hematoma over his right eye that looked like a ripe apple by the end, but ref Steve Smoger let them go, since the ring doctor said “let them roll.”  Smoger is famous for his laissez-faire approach to stopping fights, and he’ll be in the ring for the main event.  As if it needed anymore guaranteed excitement.

As an added bonus for those with premium cable but not looking to shell out PPV money (or with the broadband capability to find it on Google, WHICH IS HIGHLY ILLEGAL), Showtime’s got a two-fight bantamweight show with its own punchers and backstory.  Ghanian Joseph Agbeko and Mexican-American Abner Mares headline in a rematch of their August fight, where Agbeko got crotchshotted all night long, with ref Russell Mara doing jack about it.   Besides the empathetic pain experienced watching, it was otherwise a good fight.  The left-hand slinging Armenian-Australian Vic Darchinyan is in action with his great power and slowing reflexes against rangy Panamanian Anselmo Moreno, making his U.S. debut.

Hope Springs

Since there is a school of wisdom that says all you care about is Pacquiao-Mayweather, it’s my duty to tell you that those talks are looking better than they have in a long time.   But don’t get your hopes up!  However, neither guy really has any better options.  Plus, they’ll each make like $50 million for the fight, and that would be cool for them, I guess.

Further Reading

Eric Raskin has a pretty good contribution at Grantland to the ever-present for boxing writers genre of  “reconciling brute violence with my secular humanism.”

Till next weekish, stay in that kitchen boys and girls.